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Ride the Divide: Cyclist races Tour Divide, relishes blistering pace

Nick Zylkowski, 31, pedaled the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route’s 2,750 miles in 19 days, 4 hours during the 2017 Tour Divide. That’s smokin,’ especially for an unsupported bikepacking ride.

He finished seventh out of some 200 riders who started the annual endurance test on June 9 in Banff, Alberta.

It was a bucket-list grunt the Seattle investment portfolio manager launched to test his grit. “I’ve never done anything parallel to this,” Zylkowski said. He’s been a competitive road cyclist for five years and has done some mountain bike races, but that foundation barely compares with pounding out long, relentless distances on single track and dirt roads and solo bivouacing on the ground.

“My closest bikepacking experience was some multi-day rides on the John Wayne Trail.”

While some riders were competing in Tour Divide for prizes and glory – riding two or three days straight without sleeping – Zylkowski was mostly racing against himself. “I averaged about 6 hours of sleep a night, which was enough to recover, barely,” he said.

He binged on food when passing by small town cafes or mini-marts along the way, but more often fed on Snickers bars and hand foods while riding to maintain his goal of 16 hours in the saddle a day.

As a climber and backpacker, he was no stranger to going light. “There’s certainly a gear and system component to the ride,” he said, noting that he didn’t carry a stove or tent. “It’s not just about being in shape to pedal.”

His bike plus gear, before adding food and water, weighed about 40 pounds. Food had to be managed to the tune of 6,000-to-8,000 calories a day in stretches of marginal services, and so did water.

“There’s a lot to knowing when to resupply or camp and when to push on. You factor that in to the long alpine climbs and descents and expanses of desert. A lot of skills are involved.”

Zylkowski was on an airliner when he saw the movie “Ride the Divide,” about the 2009 Tour Divide. “I was just fascinated that you could ride a mountain bike along the Rocky Mountains. I’d been thinking about doing it ever since. I love adventures and being in nature, pushing myself physically… I don’t mind the stressing over the details.”

Aside from the family and friends who sent him off in Banff and his father picking him up in “Nowhere’s Ville” in New Mexico near the international border, Zylkowski was on his own. About 50 percent of the starters in the Tour Divide completes the route that crosses the continental divide more than 30 times.

“After a day or two, there’s this simplicity that comes with doing a long multi-leg trip,” he said. “The thought process boils down to simple things like how far to ride a day, how to efficiently resupply, how much food and water to carry, when to stop and eat and when to eat on the fly, where to sleep…”

Lodging was convenient on three nights. On the other 15 nights, he would ride until dark and find a spot on the side of the trail to bivvy.

“I tried to get at least one real meal a day,” he said, noting that towns on the route tended to fall in the “population 1,000 and under” category and had limited options. In the best-case-scenarios, he would ride three to four hours in the morning and find a spot to re-fuel on perhaps a huge omelet AND tall-stack of pancakes. “I’d eat until I nearly exploded and then take off again.

“Getting real food was critical,” he said. “The rest of my calories were coming from gas station junk food. I ate way too many of those sweet pie pockets and gas station burritos.”

The pace wasn’t so fast that he couldn’t appreciate the country he was touring, he said, noting that one of his favorite parts of the ride was the Great Divide Basin.

“It’s a huge area in Wyoming where the continental divide splits. Water that falls in the basin doesn’t flow east or west. It just stays there and evaporates.”

With no potable water for about 120 miles and temperatures soaring into the 90s, Zylkowski loaded up with food and 7 liters of water to cross the basin. “The sunrise and sunset was worth the hardship,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that at sundown, with the light wrapping around the horizon and antelope out there feeding. It was really cool.”

While some riders saw grizzly bears on the route, cattle were the most intimidating critter that got into Zylkowski’s path – and fresh cow pies were often unavoidable. “I was blown away by how much cattle and ranch land there is,” he said. “Thousands of cows, maybe tens of thousands.

“About the fifth day, before I learned how to ride into a herd of cattle, I came into a couple hundred cows on and along the road. They came at me and I figured if I made a little noise they’d eventually move. They didn’t.”

Soon he was surrounded in what he imagined was going to be a bovine mosh pit. “I got a little freaked out,” he said. “I pulled out my bear spray just in case. But with some yelling and arm flailing I was able to wedge through the herd and get on my bike again.

“When I started riding, I really had to get the hell outta there. I looked back and 200-some cows were running behind me.”

Eventually he realized the cows were all bluff. “I’d usually ride full speed when they clogged the road and they’d usually run off the road at the last second. It became my little trust exercise.”

A marmot gave him his best laugh as it charged down a hillside so fast and dove into its burrow so hard that it back-flipped over and out of the hole before looking at the two-wheel intruder and scrambling into its den.

He rode 21-hour stretches on two different days. He plowed through snow crossing a few passes, even walking his bike 5 1/2 hours over and down Wyoming’s Union Pass.

One long ride was instigated by a huge storm that forced him to stop at 6 p.m. in Lincoln, Montana. “I slept from 7 to midnight and started riding again after the storm broke at 1 a.m.,” he said. “I climbed a couple of pretty big passes, went through Helena, ate at the Safeway in Butte and kept going until 10 p.m. I’d gained almost 20,000 feet of elevation in 160 miles – my longest day. I slept right on the continental divide that night.”

Sometimes Zylkowski would ride for hours without seeing a soul. But he said rural people he met on the backroads were friendly and seemed to enjoy the Tour Divide attracting a couple hundred riders from around the world into their realm.

Some people tracked the riders progress by the satellite beacons each racer was required to carry, he said: “I felt a little like a superstar when I’d go into a cafe and somebody would say, ‘You must be Nick. We’ve been expecting you. Need anything?’

“Mostly I just needed a lot of food and drink,” he said.

He minimized mechanical issues by gearing up for durability rather than rather than for weight-savings and speed. He chose a steel-frame bike and rode it judiciously.

“I’d have loved to smash and let it rip on some of the technical single-track stretches but I didn’t want to take a chance of falling or breaking a spoke. I walked some places.”

Zylkowski said the fond memories can’t match “the high of being out there traveling in a self-supported way” through mountains and over high plateaus. The scattered interactions with people were motivating, but he feasted on what he could accomplish under his own muscle power.

“I’m constantly amazed at what motivated people are able to do,” he said.

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