Tour Divide Day 9: What It Means to Win

I get a 5:30am start from Lava Mountain Lodge. I’m on a climb right away, the entre to the behemoth Union Pass.

I still have this faint gripping in my brain that I am racing – something holding on in my psyche, believing there might still be a mental shift to race-focus if I just stick with it. I am holding pretty tightly to this idea that I need a reason to stop, to slow down, to let go of my goals. Some sort of logical hat-rack to hang my quitting hat on.

But despite my ambivalence, I can’t find one that makes sense. I have no injuries, no illness, no irreparable mechanical, no lack of preparation. I have no excuse.

Finish what you start, finish what you start.

I climb the dirt road up to Union Pass. The weather is cool but sunny, and I wonder about Ryan, Beau and Robert who had gone over the pass the night before in the summer-winter storm. (If you’re curious, you can find out here.) Nate left the lodge just after me and joins me on the pass. He’s a better technical rider than I am, so he passes me on the steep ascents, but we rejoin in other places. Even in silence, I appreciate the company as we push our bikes through snow and frozen mud to the top of Union Pass.

Look closely and spot Nate.

The top of Union Pass must be the top of the world. We find ourselves in a wilderness at 10,000 feet: a rolling, treeless expanse that goes on for miles – with views across to the tops of all the mountains in the Wind River Range.

I stop to take in the view and my mind feels blank like the landscape, no emotion at all, just a sense of being a small speck of something in the vast universe.

The top of the descent is rough and slow, but I am cuing off of Nate and just holding on. Since my crash last year when I broke my shoulder I have been a more cautious descender. But the truth is that momentum is my friend – and hesitation the enemy – on rocky stretches like this. Plus, the repetition of rough riding over the last eight days has reinstated much of my confidence. I pick my lines well and find a flow through the ruts and rocks. I’m a better mountain biker than I was a week ago.

The descent of Union Pass is a bit false, as there are still about 15 miles of forest service roads to ride at 9,000 feet before we descend back into civilization. As soon as we’re off the technical bit that requires concentration, my mind reverts to race-mode, automatically starting the calculations: That was a pretty decent pace over the pass. At this rate, I can get to Pinedale around noon and get my derailleur serviced. Then I can push to Boulder and into the Great Basin by tonight. 150-ish miles should be do-able. I’ll camp there. Then tomorrow…

Suddenly, I hear a voice in my head. Its tenor is so loud that it drowns out those other thoughts:

I’m NOT doing it.     

The voice is as clear as day, and it is loud and demanding. It’s a kid’s voice, one that I hardly recognize but know somehow to be my own. Those same four words, again, louder this time.

I’m. NOT. Doing. It.

The voice is so loud that it shocks me, and I come to a complete stop to look around an make sure there’s no one there. We’ve reached the beginning of the forest service roads, and as I put my foot down, I watch Nate disappear into the woods.

It’s the last time I’ll see him.

I sit down on a rock. I feel helpless to go anywhere. That voice is all I hear. I eat a sandwich, and I still can’t make myself get back on my bike. I feel helpless against this tempest in my mind that’s being waged by a tiny child who isn’t even real but nonetheless has staked a brain claim and is not backing off.

I’m NOT doing it.

Now I see that this voice has a visage: small child, feet planted, hands on hips, eyes squinted in fierce determination. The adult in me feels absolutely powerless against it.

I sit on the rock for 15 minutes, wondering what to do.

Finally, I begin a discussion with it – maybe like a parent to a stubborn child who has launched a temper tantrum in a Walmart parking lot.

Okay, I say, you don’t have to do it. But you do have to get yourself off this mountain somehow. Just get on your bike and get down, and then we can talk more about it.

Please, I find myself begging. Please.

The tedious negotiations with my grumpier, smaller self are successful, if barely. Still feeling schizophrenic, I at least manage to climb back on my bicycle and start moving. Pedaling slowly on the way down, a strange mental détente descends. Things get quieter. I watch the scenery around me, and the emotional weight of the last week begins to lift a little. The cows seem not bothered in the least.

When I hit the pavement, the tailwind is so strong that I barely need to pedal for the 30 miles into the town of Pinedale. It’s probably the fastest 30 miles of my entire race.

I roll onto the main street in Pinedale and stop at the city park. Next to the park is a historical sign: “A Pause on a Journey” it says. I lay down in the grass by the river and stretch my arms over my head. I close my eyes and listen to the water. Something about it is perfect, and soulful.

The tiny audacious voice has subsided, but the point has been made. Letting go feels like the only path forward. Laying there in that park, I admit it to myself for the first time: I’m done racing.

I’m giving up. What I prepared for, what I thought I wanted: to compete, to ride as far and as hard as I could, to push myself beyond my physical limits, to prepare meticulously and test myself ruthlessly. I don’t want it anymore.

There’s a sadness, but also relief, in the surrender.

Eventually I get up and make my way to the Geared Up bike shop where I meet Andrew. Andrew works on my bike and we chat, and I meet his son Daxton. While there’s a part of me that wants to wallow in my complicated emotions, somehow it’s comforting to be in a bike shop, in a town, with people going about their daily business – working and picking up groceries and heading to the dentist and talking to their kids. A place where the Tour Divide bike race doesn’t consume the minds of everyone – or anyone. A place where someone might inadvertently right-size your distress by saying breezily, “Oh, right on. That’s a long bike ride. You’re lucky you get to do that, and to quit whenever you want. I’m jealous of your vacation.”

And they’re right. I am lucky, and it is a great vacation. I go down the road and rent a cabin for the night. The owner happens to have spare clothes for Continental Divide hikers and Great Divide Riders and, after one quick look at me, offers them up. I root around in his plastic bag and, lo and behold, there’s a pair of gold denim pants that fit me perfectly and a t-shirt that says “Pirates Booty.” I buy flip flops next door at the supermarket.

And walking down Main Street and opening the door to the brewery, suddenly I’m the luckiest quitter in the world. I’m wearing a pair of disco pants and flip-flops with beer cans on them. I’ve given up but I’m smiling. I’m exhausted but I’m free. I’m not trying hard, but I am drinking beer.

Maybe this time, and for me, this is what it means to win.