A couple of months ago I started reading a book about a guy who traveled from Britian to race the TourDivide. The book by Paul Howard is called Eat, Sleep, Ride and should not be confused with another book about eating, sleeping and praying (or fifty shades of grey, or sparkly vampires, games about being hungry, the list goes on). While I’ve not finished it, it’s a fantastic read and have enjoyed the adventures.
About a month ago I helped on designing the cover for The Cordillera which is a collection of literature from TourDivide riders. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Paul was the editor for the book and knew I had to get an interview with him. He was nice enough to give me some answers to some questions from the book and his ride across the Continental Divide.
1. Paul in your book you mentioned you were sitting in a cubicle and read up on the Tour Divide and were seduced by it. Did you realize at the time what you were getting yourself into?
No, I certainly didn’t. Well, I suppose that’s not quite right. I had a vast array of pictures in my mind about what it might be like. I suppose, with hindsight, I was visualising all the things that might happen. To help, I spent hours poring over the pictures on the website. The problem was that none of it was borne out by experience. I’d been to the US only once before – to Las Vegas of all places – so that wasn’t much use.
Bears in Canada, deserts, the Wilds West – that was all new. And I’d never owned and scarcely ridden a mountain bike before, although I’d done lots of road cycling and spent lots of time walking and camping in the hills. So I just put those experiences together to imagine what the Tour Divide would be like. And I had an overwhelming feeling that the Tour Divide was what I’d been waiting to do without knowing it.
2. Before the Divide, what type of fitness and training had you done?
Well, I suppose the most important aspect of my preparations was that I’ve been doing endurance events of one sort or another on and off since I was growing up. Whether that was long road-bike rides and tours, or long-distance off-road running events (we call it fell running in the UK), or walking and mountaineering holidays, I had considerable experience of spending long days outside in remote places in all weathers.
I suppose that gave me a pretty good level of basic fitness as well but, looking back, my actual training for the Tour Divide was pretty limited. I probably rode around 4,000 miles in the five months before the race. Work and family commitments meant I couldn’t do any more, so I just did what I could. I concentrated on dealing with what might generally be called adversity, by which I mean going for a ride late on a Friday evening after a week at work, when you’re tired and grumpy and just want to sit down in front of the TV. Or going out in the cold and rain and then – get this – hoping for a puncture so that I could test myself at having the willpower to repair it when I really just wanted to ride to the nearest pub, have a pint of beer and call home for a lift.
Later on I also concentrated on getting used to having stuff on the bike, and what I would wear, and where I would carry it etc… All in all I probably managed maybe two 100 mile rides and two over-nighters, and worked on the basis that if I didn’t set off to quickly I’d end up getting stronger throughout the race, which fortunately turned out to be the case.
3. You wrote an entire book about your travels on the Divide – how did you record your thoughts?
First of all I took a lot of photos. It’s amazing how they can trigger a vibrant memory, from which you can remember a whole day or whole little story. I made a few short videos as well. I also made notes pretty much every night. Sometimes just facts and figures, sometimes how I felt or particular incidents. I’ve worked as journalist for quite some time so, like most people who do similar things, you develop a knack for writing down small things that will trigger a wider memory. And I had a cheap mobile phone that didn’t work in the US but that I could use as digital voice recorder for when I was too tired to write anything down (and an alarm clock). The other things that was useful was the call-ins to MTBcast and calls home, and I always find maps are a brilliant aide memoire, so being able to trace y route back afterwards really brought things to life.
4. You were fearful of bears, mountain lines, snakes and spiders. Was there ever a time that your heart was beating in your throat because you knew something was lurking around the corner?
Probably just once, to be honest, though I was definitely a bit nervous on a couple of occasions, like pushing through the adolescent Christmas Trees on the way up to Richmond Peak where, in my mind at least, there was a bear around every tree. There was also an almost overwhelming sense of claustrophobia while riding alone the day before that, down the Swan Valley, I think, when the never-ending wall of trees made me almost have a panic attack. And riding into the Plains of San Agustin in near 100 degree heat was like all the worst fears I’d developed from watching westerns in which you end up seeing a pile of beached bones… But the only moment that made my heart really jump was in Canada, when I’d been whistling down a hill and then stopped making any noise on a short rise. I un-clipped my shoes to take a picture, and the click of the show disturbed something clearly very big in the undergrowth in front of me. I waited an age as the rustling carried on, imagining a very angry mummy Grizzly, before a cow moose came out and wondered off.
5. Upon arriving into the States, what was the biggest culture shock while mountain biking? Or is it similar to that of what you guys have over the pond?
There wasn’t an awful lot to be honest. People were kind and friendly, and almost invariably helpful. They all spoke the same language and, being a the back of the field, I often wasn’t the first rider they’d seen. The biggest differences were the smallest things, like finding out what snacks were available, and where things were in stores, and the fact that garages and supermarkets sometimes served hot food ready meals but that I didn’t know whether you should help yourself, or wait to be served. It’s that silly sort of thing that can just gnaw away at you if you’re already a bit on edge. Generally, though, there were no major problems and, like I say, the people I met were great.
6. I’m at the point in your book where it just sounds miserable. Several riders cramming bikes and bodies into a tiny bedroom and trying to sleep while the tv is on (I think you said that), what kept you going?
To be honest, I think you almost have to decide in advance that you’re just not going to think about whether or not you’re going to keep going, or how miserable things are. If you start thinking along those lines when things are miserable and you are feeling down, you’ll almost inevitably conclude that it’s not worth continuing. Your preparation and visualising of the race should have made it clear to you that these moments are bound to happen. That’s the time to decide whether you’re prepared to put up with them, and whether they’re worth it for the sake of the overall pleasures and satisfaction you’ll experience, not during the race.
7. When my friend Maaike came from the Netherlands to the States she had a new found love of Pop Tarts as her go-to meal while biking. Did you find any American foods that you latched onto?
I’ll stick with burgers. Ice creams were pretty good too. And I think nut rolls?
8. How many times did you consider giving up and what made you go on?
It’s a bit like the answer to question number 6, about what made you keep going. I had to decide beforehand that, unless I was physically unable to continue, I wouldn’t entertain the idea of giving up, of not going on. It was quite a relief, in many ways, to be freed from all those kind of questions. It meant life was simple – as Queen sang, just get on your bike and ride…
That said, there were a few times when I did doubt myself. I left Ovando before 6am and the cold, cold morning in contrast to the pleasantness and hospitality of the town the previous night just made me want to go back to bed and wake up to find my family had come over for a holiday and we could all just go for a walk to the river or something. I was still miserable when I got to Lincoln and phoned home. The first thing my wife said was ‘you’re doing well!’ and I thought ‘am I? I mean, I am!’ and then I was OK again. The other time was arriving in Salida. I don’t know why but I almost decided to stop at lunchtime.
It was almost as if I felt bored, which I’m ashamed to say – after all there I was, fulfilling what I thought was a lifelong dream, spending day after day riding my bike through spectacular scenery; what more could I have wanted? My conscious mind was telling me I’d just stop for the afternoon and press on the next day, but something in my sub-conscious started ringing alarm bells: ‘if you stop now, you’ll never make it’. That and the encouragement of the people I was riding with to keep going was enough.
9. I hear there is a 40 mile patch of road that’s washed out, windy and very unfun. How’d you get through it?
I’m not quite sure where you mean, but you might be referring to the infamous rail-trail in Idaho. It’s a soft-packed former rail-road that’s been rendered really lumpy by the suspensions of loads of quadbikes. It’s gruelling because you’re constantly battling against losing your front wheel, and the losing momentum on each up stroke. Not to mention the mosquitoes, which seemed to be among the worst on the whole ride. On the face of it, it sounds awful, but I seem to remember deriving a perverse sense of pleasure out of getting my head down and getting through it.
10. Most memorable experience while doing the TourDivide?
I don’t know. There are so many fantastic memories, and even the less pleasant ones form part of an overall picture that was life changing – I don’t think it’s an overstatement to put it like that. So that’s probably the biggest thing about it. The fact I managed to see it through and perhaps more importantly, the fact I’d had the courage to give it a go in the first place. That and the wonderful tapestry of small memories that come back unprompted every now and then – Montana flower meadows, Colorado views, friendly locals, friendships with racers, New Mexico sunsets…
11. In 2013 I’m going to embark on the race myself. I’ve got an endurance coach that is helping me with the ride and while I’m doing everything I can to prepare for it – there’s always the unexpected. What could you tell me, or anyone else considering it, the biggest thing to prepare for?
Probably just to get it into your mind that all you’re going to do is keep going, all day, every day, until you get to the end. It sounds a bit trite, but you’ve got to somehow stop perceiving obstacles as deterrents and start seeing them just as the next thing you have to get past. Whether you like them or not, or expected them or not, or they seem unfair or not is irrelevant. I started very slowly and everything went smoothly for me until the Flathead, when suddenly it was very hot (for me, anyway), I had to climb over a coal train that blocked a crossing, there was the infamous connector, and a route description that more or less ignored Galton Pass – it just said ‘gain Galton Pass’ rather than explaining it was 6-7-8 miles or so of gruelling uphill. Then there were piles of avalanche debris to negotiate – trying to lug a bike over 50-100 yards of snow and fallen trees isn’t easy – all of which meant it was almost dark by the time I reached the top. I was cursing and moaning and in danger of thinking ‘this isn’t fun’. Then somehow a voice in my head told me to get a grip, that this was what it was all about, that I couldn’t expect everything to be smooth, that there were bound to be problems in a million different disguises to overcome, and if I wasn’t ready for this, what was I doing there? After that I managed mostly to have a sort of quizzical detachment from each future obstacle – ‘ah, so this is the next challenge… how can I best get past?’ rather than ‘oh no, I wasn’t expecting that… now I’m stuck’.
PS: Being at the back and knowing everyone in front of me had already made it certainly helped.
I hope that helps. And good luck for 2013. And thanks again for you excellent cover for the Cordillera V3.