Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Women of the Tour Divide

Group shot in Idyllwild before this year's Stagecoach 400. The were several past and future Tour Divide women in this race: Me, Eszter Horanyi, Tracey Petervary, Mary Collier, and Katherine Wallace. Photo by Craig Lassen. 
I've been what you might call a Divide racing superfan ever since I stumbled across online chatter about the Great Divide Race in late 2005. For me, the 2,500-mile GDR was a dream race: A cross-country bicycle tour, pedaling across the stunning landscapes of the Rocky Mountains, pushing personal boundaries, and living at the sharp edge of the human condition. I devoured every update from the 2006 event: That year, only six or seven people started in Roosville, Montana. Fixie Dave had his bike stolen, most quit in Montana, John Nobile had to drop out with injuries in Colorado, and Matt Lee was out front by himself for more than 1,000 miles before he became the sole finisher. It was a decidedly anticlimactic year in Divide racing — and I was hooked.

Later that summer, I laid out a loose three-year plan that ended in me lining up for the GDR in 2009. My then-boyfriend, Geoff Roes, shook his head at this grand delusion, but he got sucked into the dream himself. He ended up starting the 2008 Great Divide Race, and pedaled with the frontrunners until he dropped out in Colorado with extreme fatigue. John Nobile went on to win and set the record on the border-to-border route, which still stands. I was there when Geoff returned to Alaska completely shattered, and watched as it took him weeks to even get excited about running again, let alone biking. By then I already understood that Geoff was a much, much stronger athlete than me, and the Divide was too intense for him. That should have been enough to scare me away — and yet, the dream persisted.

I pursued that dream with single-minded focus even though it began to disrupt my career in journalism, and continued even as my relationship with Geoff broke apart and I woke up every morning of my training weeks with a strong desire to give up and go home. But I stuck with it, and the 2009 Tour Divide was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. From the fun touring in Montana with John Nobile, to setting out on my own in the desolation of Wyoming, to the intense emotional shifts of Colorado, to the soul-crushing mud and storms of New Mexico, I still feel like I experienced a second lifetime in those few short weeks. I wrote a book about it, and even still I continue to discover new insights and inner strength that I derived from that experience.

Every year, friends ask me if I'm going to return to the Tour Divide. The answer is: I want to, and I think about it often, but I want my head to be in the right place before I make a commitment of that magnitude. I'm not really interested in riding the Great Divide at a relaxed touring pace. Although I love bike touring, I'd rather use that amount of time to explore somewhere new, or try something new, like backcountry trekking in the Brooks Range. However, I remained intrigued about returning to the Divide to live on the sharp edge of the human condition — by moving as fast as I can. In 2009, I finished in 24 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes. Even under similar (muddy) conditions and with similar fitness, I already see how better decisions could slice full days off of my time here and there. Everyone knows your first time down the Divide is a trial run, and after that you have a strong advantage with everything you've learned. Most racers also realize that the Divide is largely a contest of luck. But the Divide is one venue that plays to nearly all of my meager athletic strengths, and there's a fair chance I'll go back someday if the stars align. I get the sense that after this year, any record attempt is going to be a true test — if not impossible — for someone like me.

Right now, the 2012 roster features eleven women — eleven! It's going to be a exciting year to follow the race, which begins in Banff on Friday morning. I compiled a little bit of background for the awesome women of the 2012 Tour Divide:

Eszter Horanyi, 30, from Crested Butte, Colorado: I think Eszter is the woman to beat in this year's Tour Divide — and not just among women; all the boys will have to watch over their shoulders as well. She's a strong cyclist with an enviable combination of talent, experience, mental strength, and stamina. In 2009 she won the 24-Hour Solo Nationals and in 2011 she set the women's record in the 500-mile Colorado Trail Race. Her training rides for this year's Tour Divide included strong wins in the Arrowhead 135 and Stagecoach 400. Unless something goes wrong for Eszter, a sub-21-day finish is likely, and those who know her better would probably place that time around 18 or 19 days. My prediction: She's going to scorch it.

Tracey Petervary, 39, from Victor, Idaho: Another strong contender for the win. When it comes to adventure bikepacking, Tracey's resume is tough to beat. She's the only Tour Divide veteran among the women competing solo this year; she completed the 2009 race in 18 days and change as the stoker on a tandem with her husband, current men's record holder Jay Petervary. She's ridden a fat bike 1,000 miles on the Iditarod Trail from Knik to Nome, Alaska — twice! — and holds the women's record on both the Northern and Southern routes. Tracey said this year's Stagecoach 400 was her first truly solo multiday race, and that she learned a lot. She's a fierce competitor and I expect she'll be gunning for the front of the pack as long as she can.

Katherine Wallace, 40, from Phoenix, Arizona: I was fortunate to spend a little bit of time with Katherine after this year's Stagecoach 400. Katherine is a good-natured Kiwi with strong legs and humorously large water bottle cages on the fork of her Salsa Fargo (I'm fairly certain I saw 1.5-liter bottles stuffed in there.) I got the impression that she was going to take a conservative approach in this year's race with the goal of finishing, but she definitely has the motor to finish fast.

Tracy Burge, 51, from Clarksville Ohio: Tracy appeared in an article in the Dayton Daily News about being the "oldest" woman to race the Tour Divide, which she is riding in part to celebrate her 50th birthday. But Tracy actually won't be the oldest woman on the course this year; Jo Ann Burtard is 56. Tracy got her start in endurance sports in 1994, racing a marathon with her sisters. In 2008, she rode across Japan and Thailand, and from Greece to Spain during a round-the-world trek.

Sara Dallman, 43, from Wilmington, Ohio: I couldn't find much about Sara online. She seems to be a friend and training partner of Tracy's and is a bit of a runner herself. It's possible Tracy and Sara plan to ride together, although in an interview Tracy talked about riding alone.

Sarah Caylor, 42, from Caledon, Ontario: Sarah, a chef from Canada, is an endurance mountain bike racer who plans to put a couple of gears on her singlespeed for the Tour Divide (1x9). In her blog, Sarah mentioned she plans to ride about 140 miles a day, putting her on a 21-day pace. Sarah is a registered holistic nutritionist with a blog full of healthy energy food recipes. This makes me wonder if she has a specific plan for fueling on the Tour Divide. The GDMBR is the epitome of a food desert, illustrated well in the movie "Ride the Divide" when Adrian, a raw vegan, scours a gas station for food and leaves with a single jar of olives, reasoning that "they're pickled, which isn't the same as cooked." If your body isn't accustomed to processing nutrient-stripped junk and turning it into good energy, it can be difficult to function on the limited foods available on the Divide.

Michelle Dulieu, 41, from Rochester, New York: Michelle is an endurance road cyclist and randonneur who has finished the Cascade 1200. In 2007, Michelle set a women's record at Quadzilla, a 400-mile circumnavigation of New York's Finger Lakes. She's obviously strong at long distances, but it's unclear how much mountain biking experience she has. Although the Tour Divide is not a technical course, there are definitely some stretches where a little experience with rocks and mud can be an advantage. Still, randonneuring is just about the perfect background for an event like the Tour Divide.

Melissa Liebling, 33, from Tucson, Arizona: Melissa won the solo singlespeed division at this year's 24 Hours of Old Pueblo in Tucson, riding 241 miles in 24 hours and 28 minutes. Melissa is obviously a talented endurance rider, but it's not clear if she has any multiday experience.

Elena Massarenti, 37, from Valsesia, Italy: Elena is an adventure athlete who with a companion once paddled a canoe 1,600 kilometers along the Yukon River and trekked 1,000 kilometers across Patagonia. It appears Elena is planning to ride the Tour Divide with Marco Costa, a Tour Divide veteran who finished the 2011 event in 19 days.

Jo Ann Burtard, 56, from Santa Fe, New Mexico: Jo Ann has competed in the New Mexico Criterium Championships as well as a few mountain running races near Santa Fe. There are several road racing results online, but I couldn't find much else about Jo Ann.

Caroline Soong, 30, from Prescott, Arizona: Caroline won last year's Tour Divide, and this year will be racing it on a tandem with her boyfriend, Kurt Refsnider, the other winner of the 2011 race. Tracey and Jay Petervary currently hold the tandem record, and I'm among those who assumed it would stand forever — because honestly, who would want to challenge that? But Caroline and Kurt have a definite shot at the record if they can conquer the divorce-cycle stereotype.

There are 95 people total listed as starters for the 2012 Tour Divide. You can follow this year's race beginning Friday at trackleaders. com.


  1. Nice writeup. I cannot imagine riding a tandem at all, much less for a month or more.

  2. Oh man, so exciting! I'm going to have Divide on the Mind for a few weeks.

  3. I love seeing mature riders compete in these events, destroying the notion that with age one becomes relegated to the position of armchair spectator.

    I've also wondered for a while why they don't post the 2011 results on the tour divide website.

  4. Sarah Caylor has also won Xterra events (9th at 2010 Xterra world's) and lots of 24 hour solos up in Canada. She's a beast! (And very modest.)

  5. Thanks so much for posting this! I just started biking four months ago, and discovered the Tour Divide a couple of months after that. I think I'm becoming a bit obsessed with it... haha. I'm thinking about racing it in 2013, but I'm not exactly a great rider yet, so we'll see. I'm so looking forward to tracking this year's race!

  6. I live right on the route, outside of Wise River, MT. Looking forward to seeing the riders trickle by soon.

  7. And to think not more than a generation ago women were banned from engaging in sporting events longer than 800m for fear their constitution would not bear such abuse.

    Thank the Almighty for these women who do these events.

    You rock! Keep up the good work.

  8. We saw all the riders off on a beautiful morning here in Banff. It was awesome to host Eszter, she's going to be The One to watch this year. She's tough and she's prepared and she's good at it. FYI-the weather started off nice, before raining sideways later in the day, followed by some snow.:) What's the Tour Divide without some adversity to start?
    P.S - it feels like yesterday that you were here prepping for your big adventure.

  9. Thanks for the write-up. I find it more interesting to follow some of the women then the men, so your descriptions was useful. As was your description of the SC400 my eyes are now searching for a MB, much to my wife's chagrin.

  10. Thanks Jill. The women's race is so compelling this year! I was trying to learn more about the riders and google landed me here. Beat got something to do with that?

  11. Thanks Jill - I've been following Joe Polk's occasional recaps, but just saw your write up. Enjoying Eszter Horanyi's call-ins in particular - pretty funny, starting with her pre-race Drunk Cyclist interview where she talks about turning her bike into a "fun hater".

  12. Any follow up after the event?

  13. Hey Jill, I'm reading your book right now on Kindle. I love it! I am also a TD superfan. I'm hoping to complete it one day as well.
    Anthony B.


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