LOCAL RIDER TAKES ON GRUELLING TOUR DIVIDE RACE AND CLOCKS UP TEN LONG DAYS ON THE ROAD
FORCED TO END HIS CHALLENGE EARLY AND NOW HOME IN BANFF, NEIL SHEPPARD ADMITS HE HAS ‘UNFINISHED BUSINESS’ WITH THE ROUTE
Tuesday June 27, 2017 (Banff, AB) – When Neil Sheppard, 35, set off from the Banff starting point of the Tour Divide’s ‘Grand Depart’ on June 9, 8:00am, he had a mammoth journey ahead of him: 4418 kilometres, two Canadian Provinces and five US States to cross; pushing through diverse terrain along the Continental Divide, from the Rockies to the badlands of the Mexican plateau.
Riding alone through the heart of grizzly and cougar country, unpredictable Rocky Mountain weather, a border crossing, and 100 mile plus intervals between services, are all factors to overcome in successfully completing the immense challenge of this annual, self-supported bike race along the Great Divide – from Banff, Alberta to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
Neil, a Project Coordinator within the property development team of Banff Lodging Co., had set a goal of reaching the finishing line within thirty days. Neil, supported by the company to take on this challenge, was granted an extended vacation period, and so, packed his supplies, trained hard on both his road and mountain bike, and prepared himself for what was going to be a challenge of both physical and mental strength.
The morning of the Grand Depart – the Spray Avenue starting point for the race’s 193 riders – Neil had waved goodbye to his wife, colleagues and supporters here in Banff and set off on his inaugural Tour Divide crossing.
“At that point, I suddenly felt underprepared,” Neil says.
“I had been very nervous leading up to the start line. I had trained, but riders will tell you that the Divide is 90% mental. The physical training is nothing without mental focus. But, we’d set off, and I was excited to get out on the road.”
The Great Divide is the world’s longest off-pavement cycling route, mapped over a period of four years and first published in 1998 by Adventure Cycling Association. Widely described as the antithesis of the Tour de France and Race Across America, riders are forced to endure weeks of relentless days of 16+ hours on the saddle, and face a total climb of almost 200,000 feet of vertical throughout the route – the equivalent of summiting Mt. Everest from sea-level seven times.
Neil had caught the bug for ‘riding the Divide’ back in the summer of 2015, when he attended the premiere of Mike Dion’s latest documentary film, ‘Inspired to Ride’, at Banff’s Lux Theatre. The film was the sequel to the 2010 ‘Ride the Divide’, featuring a group of riders taking on the infamous Great Divide route.
Coinciding with the Grand Depart of the 2015 Tour Divide race, Neil remembers the theatre packed with a close-knit community of enthusiastic, Lycra-clad riders, about to take on their own journey to Antelope Wells. From here, Neil was hooked. He’d caught a glimpse of the Tour Divide culture, and decided there and then, that he’d one day be doing the same as these riders.
This is when Neil turned serious about his mountain bike training, started testing gear, and began building stamina with longer, overnight rides.
Reflecting on his Tour Divide route, Neil recalls day five as being one of his most challenging, as it rained constantly. Feeling the effects of being in the saddle for five, full, consecutive days, Neil was feeling fatigued and had already opted to have a shorter ride day. Leaving Montana’s Columbia Falls that morning, Neil was quickly soaked from the rain, so decided to stop at an abandoned gas station to dry off and get changed, only to find himself just as soaked before arriving into the next town on the map.
“It was a pretty low point, I didn’t feel I was getting very far at all,” says Neil, “but then the next day was probably my best, because I felt I had to catch up on some miles.”
This day, in contrast, saw Neil on his bike for nineteen hours, grinding through a total of 227 kilometres. Neil admits that it was the sense of competition in seeing riders overtake his place that pushed him to ride hard on this part of his route [Neil had a GPS device with him to steer him along the route, but it also tracked his daily mileage and status on the leaderboard, alongside fellow riders.] Another route highlight for Neil was completing the climb of Richmond Peak, and then enjoying the rest bite of riding the downhill single track.
“That certainly raises the spirits, and then you have another 15 kilometres downhill on a gravel track ahead. You get a second wind and feel really great,” says Neil as he reflects on this particular part of the route.
On this day of the journey, it got to 9:30pm and Neil was heading into Seeley Lake, Montana. He’d planned to end his ride here for the day, but instead, decided to push on and keep going into Ovando.
Neil recalls: “I did have a small crash that day though; I hit a soft spot on a section of road that was being resurfaced and lost the front wheel, but nothing too serious. I dusted myself off, laid out the sleeping bag and went to sleep under the stars.”
A new addition to the route for 2017 also presented Neil with a solid challenge, a steep climb that forces riders to take on a three-four hour hike-a-bike. Neil’s plan to overcome this demanding section of the route, was to camp overnight at this spot so that the following day, he had plenty of energy to take on the vertical uphill. This was to become a memorable part of his trip.
“It’s very steep, lots of rocks, and there’s a section where you’re walking up a waterfall,” Neil explains.
Neil continued along his route until he hit his first major physical barrier. On day seven, after extensive climbing on the bike, Neil started to suffer with a severe pain in his knee.
It was the following day that Neil attempted to leave the town of Helena, where he’d slept the following night, but his knee was now in total agony. Forced to backtrack into his starting position, Neil knew he had to take his injury seriously, and so went to the Pharmacy to get some medication before resting for four-five hours off the bike.
It was then time for his second attempt up the steep climb out of Helena. Neil tracked 35 kilometres on his bike that day, but was still no further ahead. After more rest and a later start the following morning, Neil eventually got on the climb but walked his bike for four hours of this, to take the strain off the knee. Neil then made it to Basin and pushed on a little bit into the night, on route to Butte.
As he continued, Neil was tormented by the constant pain in his knee.
“It was slow-going at that point, and as soon as I hit a climb, I was jumping off the bike so as not to push it too much. My lowest point on the entire route came when I was walking my bike up a steep climb. It was getting dark, my gears were chewed up and grinding, my battery light was dying, and I had 30 kilometres to go to reach the next town. I was cranky, tired, and my knee was hurting.”
Neil camped out at the side of the road for the night, and it was here, with the rain hitting the roof of his tent, that Neil had the feeling it was coming to an end.
“I think this is where the mental side of it comes in,” explains Neil.
“I think in my mind; I already knew this was it. There had to be a significant improvement the following day for me to have been able to carry on. I also knew that if I made it to Butte, the route from there becomes even more remote with longer stretches in between towns, and would be me moving further away from home.”
It was at this point when Neil picked up a welcomed voicemail in a motel room, from friend and Banff Lodging Co. colleague, Jeff O’ Leary. Jeff had called to suggest that he drive from Banff to collect Neil from his current location, and that he did.
It’s really when Neil returned to Banff that it hit him that the race was over, and there was no going back, with Neil admitting he’s frequently checking the leaderboard to see the order of racers still on the route [as of today, five riders have now made it to the Antelope Wells finishing line].
“The Tour Divide is ups and downs in every sense,” Neil continues.
“You go through these cycles. You’ll hit a climb and take a downswing, and then you’ll reach a peak, and your mood just lifts and everything is good in the world – that’s when you feel you could go forever.
At the start, I enjoyed the solitude, but then some days I wouldn’t see another rider for twelve hours. You are dealing with the physical demands, but also feelings of loneliness, hunger, and extreme fatigue, but you’re also aware that you’re one rider of 190, and that everyone is working through their own individual challenges on the road, fighting our own battles, and mapping their own Divide ride.”
Neil is now looking ahead and admits that the Divide has well and truly got under his skin.
“It’s definitely a case of unfinished business,” he says.
“In my heart I wish I was still on the route riding. I’m reflecting, and taking out the positives of the experience. I’m seeing this first attempt at the Tour Divide as ten solid days of training for next time.”
So there will be a next time?
“Yes, I’m going back, hopefully in the next year or two. I’ll be back out there to give it another crack,” says Neil, with a wide grin.