It was just over 2 years ago the first time I ever heard of the Tour Divide. I didn’t even know what bikepacking was or that bikepacking racing was a thing.
By then, I had become a time trialist specialist on the road. I had become obsessed with mastering my mind, mastering the art of executing a perfect time trial. I love it so much. I know very well this feeling, my sight on the road ahead, my head tucked in, my lungs expanding to their max, my legs flowing over the pedals. That feeling when I get in the zone, when I’m able to fully surrender and let no amount of pain bother me. It’s pretty amazing. And quite freeing.
A few years ago when I was reading this passionating book “How Bad Do You Want It”, the author spoke of how references are limiters to the mind and the body. If you can remove the information that you know as your references, you could push your body much further. I decided to test the concept and did a 20-minutes blind test – no numbers, no references. Increasing my best 20-min power by 18% was a shocking, yet insightful experience. “You are stronger than you think.” Simply remove the thinking.
I was on the stationary bike trainer when a youtube video came up about the Tour Divide (the documentary was I Just Want to Ride featuring Lael Wilcox – record-holder of the fastest female time on the Tour Divide). A 4,300 km time trial. WOAH! Now everything I know as references are quite irrelevant. How the hell is this humanely possible? Then… What if I remove what I know as possible. What if this was just another example of the amazing things a body can do when you remove references. I was immediately filled with curiosity.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I had to find out: where is the limit of what I can do. Am I able to apply what I came to master in road cycling time trial to a 4,300km bikepacking time trial?
Covering a distance of 4,300km, the Tour Divide is one of the longest and arguably the hardest ultra-endurance bike race on the planet. From Banff (Alberta) in Canada, to Antelope Wells (NM) at the border of Mexico, the course takes the riders along breathtaking scenic landscapes of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (designed by the Adventure Cycling Association back in the 1990s), one of the most well-known off-road touring route that attracts bikepackers and bike tourists from all over the world.
The race has been going on for many years, starting on the 2nd Friday of June of each year, but only started to gain popularity lately with the rise of bikepacking and bikepacking events. The 2023 edition has currently over 250 participants registered to this day (one month before the start). 26 of them are female or non-binary, the highest non-male participation rate ever!
The Tour Divide is more than a cycling race, it is the definition of an endurance and resilience test. The race is self-supported, which means you are not allowed to receive any help. You can use public services such as hotels and restaurants, but you must carry everything you need (clothes, food, camp & sleep, tools). The route goes through many remote areas where a satellite device is the only way of communication. High-altitude mountain passes, changing weather, and wildlife encounters are all part of the race.
Getting ready – my journey to the start line
There is the physical journey, then it’s freacking scary! 2 years ago I had never camped before, never packed gear on a bike, never ridden in the dark or encountered a bear.
Before I could attempt this, I had a few classes to take on. So, 3 weeks after watching the youtube video about the Tour Divide, I departed for my first bikepacking trip. An improvised, but oh so life-changing, one-month bikepacking trip in Utah and Arizona hooked me up. From there, I would use bikepacking for training when I’m not racing.
Last year (2022), I was still racing as a pro road cyclist when a series of events occurred, one of them being the cancellation of BC Superweek, my beloved crit series in July. I was going to fly to western Canada (near Banff) for Road Nationals, but then I had an opening in my calendar. “What a great opportunity to check out the course of the Tour Divide!” I thought.
I flew with all the gear I had and set to ride as much as I can of the route after racing Nationals. I had a wonderful ride in the time trial at Nationals, I rode the absolute best I could. Another 2nd place, but I felt satisfied. I love when I leave it all on the course. I was not going to be National Champion but that’s how it is. I don’t have less joy riding my bike fullgas. It was time to swap bikes.
So, a week later on July 4th, 2022, I departed from Banff and headed south on my pretty beat-up Cannondale FSi mountain bike hardtail, to see if I was capable of riding the terrain, to overcome my fear of bears (oh, I did come face-to-face with a grizzly! But that’s for another storytelling time), to overcome my fear of riding in the dark and confronting the weather of the high-altitude mountain passes.
The course was absolutely mind-blowing!!! Every day, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscapes surrounding me. The “non-technical” terrain was very much challenging for my roadie skillset. I was very unprepared for the hike-a-bike and the rain, but it was so empowering to come out of these challenges stronger.
I completed the route in 28 days (about twice as long as the race-winning time), averaging over 10 hours of riding to cover 150km each day -it was the hardest thing I had ever done !!
This course recon was the first step to getting prepared to race. It also made obvious that I needed to improve my MTB skills, to strengthen my upper body for the hike”push”-a-bike, to fasten my camp-to-bike transition, a warmer and more reliable sleep system, and better overall gear and bike.
My 2023 Tour Divide Gear List
By now I have gathered enough bikepacking experience to know better what I want and need for my ideal setup. So I have reached out to my favorite companies and I’m very fortunate that they embarked on my dream race project with me! Here is the best bikepacking setup I could build for racing the Tour Divide :
- Cannondale Scalpel HT, 100mm suspension fork
- Sram X01 mechanical 34T x 10-52 Eagle cassette
- SL4 Lucky Jack – Duke Racing Wheels (XC carbon wheels, 1200g a pair)
- Son 28 dynamo hub
- Ergo grips and aero bars
- Maxxis Ardent Race and Ikon 2,2 tires
Packs: Backcountry Series by Apidura
- Apidura 11L handlebar pack (clothes)
- Apidura 2x 1.2L feed pouches, 1L top-tube feed bag, 1L rear top-tube pack for accessories
- Apidura 4L frame pack with a hydration bladder (food & water)
- Apidura 1.8L down-tube pack (tools and pharmacy)
- Apidura 10L saddle pack (sleep system)
- possibly a hip pack or hydration vest… TBD
- 7mesh cargo bib (pad removed) paired with 7mesh Foundation Shorts
- 7mesh Hollyburn light thermal pants
- 7mesh Chico Anorak pull-over
- 7mesh merino buff
- 7mesh Skypilot Gore-tex rain jacket
- MEC 800-down jacket
- Mountain Hardwear 800-down pants
- MEC rain pants cover
- Showerpass waterproof gloves and socks (available at MEC)
- Defeet merino gloves
Sleep System :
- MEC Talon 0 degree C 800-down quilt
- MEC Vectair Ultralight insulated air mat
- Mountain Laurel Designs FKT bivy
- Warmlite Gear Vapor barrier long-sleeve jersey
- Warmlite Gear Vapor Barrier socks
- Garmin 540 Solar for navigation (MEC)
- Garmin inReach satellite tracking (MEC)
- GoPro Mini 11 for self-documenting the race
- iPhone and AirPods
- Sinewave Cycle Beacon2 headlight (dynamo powered)
- 1x 5,000 mpa power bank, 1x 10,000 mpa power bank, fast-charging wall charger, and cables
- Black Diamond headlight (MEC)
- Set of rear lights (MEC)
Tools, toiletry, and other items :
- Sunscreen (lots of sunscreens)
- Toothbrush, toothpaste
- Laundry handwash soap
- Eye mask, ear plugs
- ibuprofen, allergy med
- Caffeine, melatonin
- BeFree water filter and water purifying tablets
- Muc-Off Hydro chain lube with a rag
- Hand pump, tire plugs and sealant
- Multi-tools with chain breaker
- Spare derailer hanger, spare brake pads, chain links
- Patch repair kit
- Protein powder, BCAAs, Greens powder
Thank you to my sponsors for gearing me up with the best. Find this gear online: MEC outdoor gear, 7mesh cycling apparel, Apidura bikepacking bags, Duke Racing Wheels, Warmlite Gear vapor barrier gear.
Live-Tracking – From June 9th, 2023
We will depart from Banff (AB) on June 9th, 2023. You can follow the race live via satellite tracking here.
Even though I will try to film as much as possible, I will not be posting a lot on social media during the race (because it’s a race!) and there isn’t much service between towns. If you do follow my progress, I will love to read your messages of encouragement!
You can find me on instagram at @msoleilblais74 and you can subscribe to my Youtube Channel to be notified when my Tour Divide film is up!
But why in the hell would someone want to race this?
I have long asked myself this question. What is my motivation, why do I want to race the Tour Divide and put all of the efforts behind such a big commitment? Multiple answers come to my mind.
First, it’s the curiosity, the need to push the limits and see how far I can go. I see this as a continuation of my fascination for the power of the mind and playing with the concept of removing references. To see what I could do if I go into something where I have no references at all. Can I carry my time trial state of mind over 4,300km ? How resilient am I?
Second, it’s the transformation. Endurance has never been something I particularly excel at naturally. I had a strong anaerobic profile as a pro cyclist but that is quite useless over a long distance. I think you never become ready for the biggest race of your life, just like you don’t do a marathon before your first marathon. You “become” someone who is capable of doing it, by doing it. I want to become the person at the finish line who was able to race that distance and push her limits to a new level. No matter what happens, I will come out of this test stronger and more resilient.
Lastly, I want to live the experience. The experience of racing my bike all day, all night. Riding as far as I can, every day, with nothing else on my mind than going further. I quite enjoy the solitude of riding long distances in remote areas, and I look forward to re-discovering the magnificent, yet challenging course that is the Tour Divide.
Stay tuned, peace out
Full heart, fullgas