The Tour Divide has had a free-for-all nature since the Adventure Cycling Association first mapped the route in the 1990s. “The spirit of the event has always been anti-establishment,” said Lee, the race organizer. This approach has fostered a tight-knit community among the cyclists.
“I love that it belongs to us,” said Alexandera Houchin, who holds the women’s record on a single-speed bike: 18 days 20 hours 26 minutes. “The ultra-endurance community is like my family.”
“It’s become ceremony for me,” added Houchin, who is an Anishinaabe citizen of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “And I think that’s something a lot of my Indigenous brothers and sisters can relate to. I just want more Native people riding.”
The fastest riders finish the Tour Divide in just over two weeks. For others, the grueling trek can take two months. To save time, many sleep four to six hours a night in a sleeping bag shell called a bivouac sack.
Riders have always faced dangers on the Tour Divide, including bears, blisters, dehydration and smoke inhalation. A cyclist was killed in a collision with a truck during the race in 2010. Last July, a violent grizzly bear attack occurred in a Montana town where many bikepackers camp.
The effects of climate change have only increased the danger.
During last year’s race, flames lined the horizon as Sarah Swallow, a Tour Divide competitor, headed toward the Yampa River. It was the third day of Colorado’s Muddy Slide Fire, and smoke shrouded the sun in a pulsing fluorescent shade of orange. Swallow pushed up one last hill, needing to reach the river before local officials closed the crossing. Her only other option was to detour onto a long, busy highway, and that was time she couldn’t afford to lose.