33 days, 14 hours and 4 minutes. Racing the Tour Divide…On a Fixed Gear Mountain Bike

The day after the faceplant near Helena, Montana. Photos: David Nice
The day after the faceplant near Helena, Montana. Photos: David Nice

By Lukas Brinkerhoff

An estimated 954,782 pedals strokes, 3 dead chipmunks, 3 sets of brake pads and 2 pairs of pedals is what it took for Fixie Dave Nice to pedal from Antelope Wells, New Mexico to Banff, Canada. Fixie, as he his known throughout the cycling universe, was the first rider to finish the Tour Divide on a fixed gear bicycle. Yup, you read that right. Fixie rode the entire 2745 mile route without coasting and only with a front brake.

South of Spray Lake, Alberta, Canada on the last day of the trip.
South of Spray Lake, Alberta, Canada on the last day of the trip.

According to the rules the Tour Divide “is based on one guiding principle: Cycle the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route end-to-end, as fast as possible in a solo, self-supported fashion.” This is not a weekend jaunt. Racers must carry their own gear, arrange their own resupply and maintain their bike over the course of the race. As if that weren't enough, the numbers of the Divide are overwhelming. With about 200,000 feet of climbing over the 2745 miles, racers will climb enough elevation to have summited Everest seven times from sea level.

In 1999, John Stamstad set the challenge by completing the route for the first Individual Time Trial in 18 days and 5 hours. Mike Curiak was the first to accept Stamstad's challenge and in 2003 attempted his own time trial. It wasn't until 2004 that Curiak was able to finish and beat Stamstad's time by two days.

Fixie credits Stamstad with inspiring him to attempt the route. He read the original interview with John in Outside Magazine and was intrigued by the idea. Once he started riding fixed in 2002 and racing, he found that the longer, endurance races suited him. The idea of the Divide became a bit of an obsession for Dave. He said, “I'm not sure why it grabbed a hold of me so hard. It's confusing to me.”

Over the course of the next decade, Fixie would attempt the Divide a total of six times.

Near Indiana Pass in Colorado, the highest point of the trip.
Near Indiana Pass in Colorado, the highest point of the trip.

With a 60% attrition rate, there are far more Divide starters than there are finishers. The documentary film, Ride the Divide documents the 2008 attempt of 17 riders. The film shows the struggles of the riders as they battle through the snow of the Northern Rockies whittling their numbers down to eight finishers for the year. It lets us look into the pain and trials racers encounter, such as trying to find enough calories to eat every day. Plus the never ending mental battle to simply keep on trucking.

The year of the film was Fixie's third attempt. He started in Banff with a head cold and weather that would make a Portlander depressed. By the time he reached Lake Sealy he was coughing up blood. After finding a clinic and getting an X-ray, it was confirmed that he had full blown pneumonia. He continued on to Missoula, Montana where he bailed. If you catch the documentary, Dave has a couple appearances at the start.

Ute Pass near Silverthorne, Colorado, looking at Eagle's Nest.
Ute Pass near Silverthorne, Colorado, looking at Eagle's Nest.

Dave's obsession grew as every attempt was ended by some odd event or another. In 2005, his first attempt came to a screeching halt when his bike was stolen outside of Big Fork, Montana. Fixie was stung by a bee while checking out one of the outdoor museums in Eureka, Montana and started the race doped up on Benedryl. Feeling a bit sleepy after a big breakfast, he took a nap at a pull out with a picnic bench. After sleeping for an hour and a half, he awoke and his bike was gone. After looking around to see if it had rolled away or fell over, he was forced to find a way home. Seeing that his wallet was on the bike with all his other gear except his sleeping bag and pad, he was left with $5 to get home. After hitchhiking to the nearest town, a friend wired him some cash for his return.

On the bus back to Utah after a successful adventure.
On the bus back to Utah after a successful adventure.

Dave's 2011 attempt was also ended by bike mishap. Fixie was attempting the Divide as a Northbounder starting in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. He took a Greyhound bus from Hurricane. His bike was in a box on the bus but during a transfer was diverted to Tucson, Arizona. After waiting for about a week for Greyhound to find his bike, he was forced to catch a bus home without ever pedaling a stroke on the Divide. His bike made it back home a couple days after he did.

Of course, bike mishaps weren't the only thing that have ended his rides. In 2009, his first year to attempt the course northbound, Fixie was making good time having covered 1200 miles in 14 days. Those days alone on the trail were a mental battle as his thoughts were turned to the year's tragedies. A good friend of Fixie's, Anthony Sloan had passed away that year. Dave was also involved in a rescue attempt on Little Creek Mesa just weeks before leaving for the Divide. A rider had become separated from the group, after hours of searching he was found and CPR was administered. Unfortunately, the rider did not survive. These two events were deep, mental demons for Dave that year. After 1200 miles of pedaling, he said, “The bike just steered its way to the hot tub and mom and grandma cooked meals.”

And then there was 2012.

Dave began to prepare for his next attempt in January. He simply rode whenever and with whomever he could. Other than the two weeks of rest before starting, there were only five days that he was not on his bike. Fixie doesn't own or drive a car. Living in Hurricane and commuting to work in St. George gave him good base miles. To add extra pedal strokes, Fixie could be seen in the early hours of the morn lengthening his ride to work by pedaling an extra 30 or 40 miles on the Turkey Farm Loop. This with a combination of some sprint training and intervals left him, as prepared as he could be while holding down a full time job.

Choosing to race northbound, Fixie started pedaling on June 2nd in Antelope Wells. His parents were kind enough to give him a ride down to the border. This eliminated the risk of losing his bike again. The high for that first day was 113 degrees. At this time the Gila Fire was raging. After 110 miles that day, Dave found an internet connection and learned that he would be detoured from the course to avoid the fire. This put him on the pavement for a bit.

The smoke was brutal for two days. He tried bandannas to keep the smoke from stinging his lungs. Just south of Pie Town, New Mexico, the smoke cleared and Dave was left to battle the high temperatures until he climbed the Abiquiu Range. He said he was very happy to finally see trees again.

Fixie continued to not coast as he made his way into Southern Colorado, his favorite terrain on the course. At Cleopatra Pass outside of Del Norte, he experienced his coldest night on the Divide awaking to 1/4” of frost on his bag. Pushing onward he passed through Salida where he replaced his chain and his first set of brake pads, taking care of his maintenance at Absolute Bikes.

In the 1999 interview with Outside, Stamstad was quoted saying that the biggest challenge on his time trial was the swarms of mosquitoes. He mentioned having to jog in circles while repairing flats to keep a step ahead of the hungry insects.

Fixie's bout with the bugs came just over the Idaho border. At about 10:30 pm, Dave was coming down “a ripper of a descent” when he noticed a large dark object in the trail in front of him. His first impression was that it was a cow, but as he came around the corner getting a closer look he realized it was a grizzly. At this point, he had only one option, keep pedaling fast. The bear saw him and bounded off in the opposite direction. Dave passed the bear within 10 feet as he tried to put as much distance between him and that black object as possible.

After the bear incident, the adrenaline was really pumping so Fixie continued to ride for another hour before he begun looking for a spot to bivouac. He came to a side road and there was a nice low spot to sleep in. Stopping and ripping gear off his bike, he got about half his stuff out when the swarm of ravenous mosquitoes hit him. Much in the same way Stamstad would run to keep them off, Dave was dancing as he got his gear and bivy set up as quickly as possible. He was forced to spend the night wrapped up in his sweltering bag.

The breaking of camp the next morning was done in much the same way, pack fast and keep moving. In the daylight, he could see that he had picked a spot right next to a large swamp. An ideal spot to get devoured by bugs.

Dave was fortunate on this last attempt as he did not have any bicycle mechanicals, not even a flat the entire way. His only equipment failure came in the way of his fork mounted rack where he carried his sleeping bag and pad. He was cruising down a descent at 17 mph when the rack failed putting his bag and pad in the front wheel. Before Fixie even knew anything had happened his face was hitting the ground in front of him.

At this time Dave was riding with a couple who were touring the route. One of them had been a paramedic and was able to check him out for serious injuries. They rigged his bike back up and Dave headed into Helena, Montana where he camped in the park. The next morning he began his search for an Instacare-type clinic and wandered into the coffee shop. Of course, everyone asked him if he was alright and a nurse, who came in for her morning coffee, offered to check him out. The verdict was a broken nose, a possible sprained thumb and some facial road rash. He was given the OK to ride if he could handle the pain.

Fixie pedaled on.

Dave's final obstacle was rain. His final night on the Divide he was hit with marble size hailstones that accumulated to 6”. Once the hail stopped the rain continued. Fixie knew of a hunting cabin a bit off route that he hoped to be able to reach to get out of the storm. After hours of riding he realized he still had 18 miles to go. At this point, continuing was his only option. He prayed that the cabin was empty or if anyone was there, they wouldn't mind sharing it with “a big wet Dave.” Luckily it was empty and he was able to get a fire going and dry his gear for the final push into Banff.

33 days, 14 hours and 4 minutes after leaving Antelope Wells, Fixie Dave pedaled into Banff.

When asked if he would do it again, Fixie replied that he felt the Divide was out of his system, but if he did do it again he would have a freewheel and possibly some gears.

In his words, “Even a few weeks after the fact it's hard to put into words how satisfied or content I am with getting it done, finally.”

 

 

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Comments

  1. Woodsman, Deanna did ride it on a fixie, and in 31 days if I recall correctly. She unfortunately missed ~40 miles of the route in MT, so her time wasn’t official. Dave had to detour around a big fire in NM this year, so his time isn’t really any more official than Deanna’s. Bummer! This route takes as much luck as it does everything else.