Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Brian Alder's Tour Divide 2016 debriefing

A few weeks back I talked to Brian Alder about his prep for the 2016 Tour Divide. He is back now so I asked him a few more questions. 

Well Brian. 16 days and 10 hours 36 mins, 5th place? That's a pretty sharp time for the Tour Divide route. Were the conditions mostly good for the duration?

Yes, we had fair run of conditions but not quite as good as 2015 apparently. We had a dump of rain a few hours after the start out of Banff which seems almost tradition. Cold sleety stuff that ended Seb Dunne's ride. I was riding with Rob Brown and got really cold so we called into Bolton Creek store to warm up and add layers which saved us. Many who didn't stop really suffered. On the whole we had a reasonable run, with no snow to deal with, some rain producing mud and a share of head winds. Mike Hall appeared to get through before the rain, I got caught out south of Polaris, through to Macks Inn around Red Rock Pass and on Brazos Ridge in  New Mexico. It appears later riders really got nailed by mud around Polaris, Brazos and through the Gila. The mud is unlike anything I've experienced before. One minute you're riding a perfectly good dirt road then next there's 5kgs of mud stuck to your bike and you can't even walk. Even walking beside the road is often just as bad. Generally it only lasts for a few hundred metres so if you just get past it often you can start riding again. Temperature-wise I was really lucky as we hit a cool spell through New Mexico, though that came with risks of thunderstorms and rain.

Was it as harder than you expected or about what you were expecting?

Definitely harder. Although the climbs aren't overly steep they are long and often the surfaces both up and down are fairly rough, so you end up working for your height. There's also very little truly flat terrain, there's a lot of rollers so it feels like you're constantly climbing, often even when you're on a descent. Mostly though I was surprised at how rough the riding was and apart from the paved sections and some beautiful smooth sections in Colorado, it was pretty lumpy. If I was to do it again I'd consider a suspension fork or a Lauf. 

What part did you struggle with more than any other?

I struggled through the middle of the Great Basin into Wamsutter. I was riding with Stefan Maertens and we were a bit late out of Atlantic City and got caught by the heat and headwinds. By the time I reached the truck stop on the interstate after 10 hours I was empty. We had caught Sofiane Sehili that morning and Sof tempted me with the oasis that is Brush Mountain Lodge 140 kms away, so we soft peddled across the desert and up to the lodge to arrive after midnight to a cheering crowd. Billy Rice and Juliana Buhring were there having bailed from the RAAM, so having celebs cheering you on in the middle of the night was very cool. Making Brush Mountain was a major turning point for me and although I struggled physically a couple more times (over Brazos in the mud and in the heat through the Gila), mentally it was never really an issue after the Great Basin. 

Did you have an actual goal time that you were shooting for?

I'd done a bit of digging and from what I could tell the fastest over 50 time was 18 days 8 hours, so I thought that was a realistic goal. Rob Davidson's time from 2015 of 18d 2h was also in my sights. I figured if I had a clean run 17.5 days was possible but I never considered going under 17 days, so to finish under 16.5 days was a huge surprise and something I'm really happy with. My main goal was to give it everything and have no regrets and I did that. 

How did your gearing stack up? We know people can ride it in 1x, single speed or 3x. Were there times when you could have pushed a taller gear?

My 2x10, 38/24 x 11-36 on 27.5 wheels was great. I never really wanted anything else at either end. If I'd had some big tail winds in the Basin or New Mexico I would have been under-geared, but it never happened. Interestingly I was riding at various times with guys running single speeds, 1 x, and 2 x drive trains. They clearly all have their pros and cons. I was super impressed by Kevin Jacobsen and the terrain and climbs he could manage on a singlespeed.

Did you have any interesting wild-life encounters?

The wild life is a real highlight. There are deer and antelope everywhere, every day. In fact on a shake down ride a few days before the start with Rob and Seb I nearly took out a big horn sheep. I think it would have been terminal as I was doing 50 kph at the time. Rob and I chased a couple of grizzly cubs up Red Meadow Pass on Day 2 which was quite exciting, I saw a few moose at close range, saw a black bear in New Mexico and plenty of other animals and some really cool birds. 

Who did you spend the most time riding with on the TD?

I started with Rob Brown, but he got bitten by a dog on Day 2 and succumbed to a fever a few days later. The next day I caught up with Kevin Jacobsen and rode near him for a day or so and then later caught Stefan then Sofiane in Wyoming. The four of us kept crossing over the rest of the ride until Kevin and Sof got away in New Mexico. I caught Gareth Pelas as his neck was giving him trouble and Andrew Kublanski when he got stuck in the mud on Brazos. A derailleur melt down forced Andrew out. The attrition rate was pretty high so I really tried to be consistent and not blow out which really paid dividends in terms of placing.

How did the accommodation pan out. What percentage of the time were you camping outdoors?

I camped out early on and as time went on I stayed in more accommodation, so around 50/50 overall. Partly that was just circumstances and partly I felt I wasn't getting the quality of sleep I needed, and I slept better indoors. I seemed to need time to unwind before sleeping and I found that harder camping. Also as a rookie I spent quite a bit of time looking at maps and route info trying to make a plan for the next day - targets, resupply, food and water needs and I generally did that before sleeping. All the guys around me had good route knowledge either from racing or touring the route which paid dividends for them at various times. 

Did your camping gear do the job adequately ?

Totally, I had a bivvy bag, sleeping mat and bag and synthetic puffer jacket. It was pretty cold at night through Montana and I had a wet night near Lakeview where I managed to get some shelter and stay dry. After that bivvies were warm and comfy. I sent my mat, some clothes and spare maps home from Silverthorne to make more room for food through the southern portion. 

How did your luggage system hold up?

It was great, no issues and worked as I'd hoped. As mentioned I sent some gear home around half way as I wanted the extra capacity for some of the long sections between resupply in southern Colorado and New Mexico, and that worked well.  

Any mechanicals or preventative maintenance  that you did on-route?

After the Day 1 mud my rear shifter was a bit out and I stuck with it until Steamboat where I had a new cable fitted. I got a new chain after 800 miles in Butte, Montana, another new chain in Steamboat, new shifter cable, new brake pads and one of my aero bars retaped. The guys at Orange Peel serviced my bike on just over an hour while I went shopping and had a huge meal. Fantastic service but not cheap! 

Were there any challenges in the food department?

Yeah, food is challenging. I realised after a couple of days that I wasn't eating enough, so I made an effort to have a sit down meal every day or at least a few big take out burritos. I struggled to find the food I wanted in gas stations at times and grocery stores take too long to shop. I mostly ate energy bars, jerky or salami, mini cheese packets, salted peanuts and frozen burritos on the road. Subway, pizza and sandwiches for stops. I think I had five proper restaurant style meals which were awesome and really gave me a huge lift. 

Did you have any health issues? Numbness, "butt trauma" ?

I stayed on top of most things really well. I had a twinge on my Achilles on Day 3 so dropped my saddle a few mm and it went away. Minimal hand numbness which I put down to very cushy bar set up/ high volume tyres and consciously getting on the aero bars whenever I could. My feet are ok, a bit numb but weren't painful during the ride. I wore a size up in shoes, had them loose most of the time and dunked my feet in creeks and lakes if I got the chance. My butt lasted a week and after that it was bloody sore but manageable. In the morning it could take 15 mins before I could get comfy on the saddle again. I was pretty diligent with my nightly hygiene routine so it never got out of hand. Later in Colorado I developed a cough which started to keep me awake at night and by the end slowed me down a bit, as I just couldn't get good sleep. It was one of the reasons I stayed more in accomodation later in the ride as I felt I was on the edge of going under the last few days. I subsequently discovered it was likely a low-level allergic reaction to dust and pollen, and a few days on antihistamine after the race I finally got on top of it. 

Are there any particular parts of the course that just blew you away, for what ever reason?

I loved the huge open  spaces like the Great Basin, South Park and the New Mexico desert. Conditions could be harsh and unpredictable but the I found the light and landscape stunning. Riding in those places at sunrise and sunset was very special, as were the thunderstorms that inevitably occurred. Riding through South Park from Hartsel to Salida on sunset being chased by thunderstorms was a little too exciting. I also had a magic morning over Union Pass in Wyoming, with amazing views into the Wind River Range. I thought the whole route was scenically outstanding and found the landscapes very motivating. The route is quite varied and it was probably only central Colorado and the more populated areas that were a bit of a drag. 

Were you surprised to see some  of the favourites drop out early on?

Totally. Josh Kato was very unlucky to get run off the road, but clearly a bunch of others went too hard and blew up. There was a big bunch that rode hard to make Butts Cabin the first day and only half of them survived, so I was really pleased Rob and I backed off the first day after the bad weather. I got a huge shock when I arrived into Helena to bump into Kevin Jacobsen to find I was in the top 10 and running at 16 day pace. I made a big effort for the next 4-5 days to get to Brush Mountain Lodge and stay in touch with the second bunch. It was interesting that Mike Hall put a day on us in the first 5 days and then only another day in the next 10, give or take. He really goes out hard and a number of guys got caught out by that. 

Kiwis seem to do quite well at the Tour Divide. The older riders seem to punch above their weight even more so. Does it come down to NZ being such a small place, you meet Simon Kennett, Oli Whalley or Geoff Blanc, and say, they are only human, I reckon I could have a crack at this? Is it a matter of, if you are going to go all that way, you are going to see it through to the better end?

Once you are in Banff you realise that most riders have very little bikepack "racing" experience. Sofiane was immensely strong and talented but spent the first week doing some pretty crazy things, as did a few others. He was lucky to survive and did an amazing job to finish in 16 days even with his huge experience touring. Racing is a very different thing to touring. We are very fortunate in NZ to have events like the Kiwi and Great Southern Brevets, the Tour Aotearoa and the weekend riders that Shailer Hart organises. Having that experience is a huge factor I believe. As much as I'm not really a fan of the mandatory 4-6 hour stops we have, they do teach you some good lessons and I think keep riders from hurting themselves too much. A 90% finish rate in the TA is testament to that and I'm more supportive of that now. 

Has your appetite returned to normal yet or do you still have that subconcious "scanning for food" thing happening?

My appetite settled down after a few days. My cravings have been for fresh food and good coffee. The coffee one has been hard to rectify in the US.... On the recovery front, it's been a week since I got off the bike and I'm very tired. There's a fair bit of sleeping to do to catch up I reckon. I start a cycle tour in Kyrgyzstan next week so I'm trying to get on top of that with plenty of naps. 

Now you've ticked off the big one, is there anything else you have lined up in the bucket-list?

The Tour Divide is the BIG one in every sense, so it's very cool to have done it. There are so many more bikepack events appearing that I'm sure I'll have some in the pipeline soon. I think next on the horizon is the 2018 TA as I missed this year. Until then I'm thinking I'll be riding my full suspension bike a bit more and getting more involved in the enduro scene, which is heap of fun.