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Jul. 25—The morning after spending 24 straight frigid, rainy hours hunkered down in his sleeping bag and tent under a covered shelter to stave off hypothermia, Gary Johnson found himself singing "Happy Birthday" to a sauntering grizzly bear not far south of the U.S.-Canada border.
The former two-term New Mexico governor said he hoped loud singing would encourage the grizzly to meander off the path and not elicit an attack. He needed to get past the bear and head toward Red Meadow Pass, where he would then have to hike-a-bike through deep snow for more than four hours while pushing for Whitefish, Mont.
His nearly 2,700-mile mountain bike ride from Banff, Alberta, to the Mexican border at Antelope Wells, N.M., was still in its early stages, and the Tour Divide was once again living up to its billing as one of the world's most extreme endurance races.
"One thought that crosses your mind all the time is, 'Nobody understands what this is — nobody — unless you've done it,' " Johnson said Thursday while still recovering almost two weeks after completing the race.
The self-supported bikepacking event necessitates overcoming obstacles that to many people may sound insane.
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route covers some of the most rugged terrain on the continent where the Rocky Mountains' weather can be fierce and unpredictable.
Cyclists climb nearly 200,000 vertical feet along the route, which is about the equivalent of scaling Mount Everest from sea level seven times.
Johnson, 69, relishes in recounting the maniacal and unforgettable stories from the trail that are the reward for finishing the punishing race that requires no entry fee and offers no physical or monetary prize.
"That's what attracted me to the Tour Divide in the beginning was, I mean, holy cow, on the surface it looks like a [expletive]," Johnson said. "And it is."
This year's race route was modified due to the closure of New Mexico's national forests in the spring and early summer because of raging wildfires and high fire danger. It resulted in a course with about 150,000 feet of vertical gain.
Johnson finished the route in 27 days, 18 hours, 59 minutes. He started on June 10 during the Grand Depart in Banff with about 200 other competitors from around the world.
During an event in which typically about half of the cyclists who start the race drop out, this is the fifth straight Tour Divide Johnson has both entered and completed (the 2020 race was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic).
Johnson is the second-oldest finisher in the 2022 Tour Divide, behind fellow New Mexican Nat Cobb, 71, of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, according to trackleaders.com. Cobb, who completed the Tour Divide in 2014 by following the route north to south like the vast majority of cyclists, rode this year's route going south to north. He finished in 27 days, 14 hours, 53 minutes.
Carl Gable, 63, of Santa Fe, was the fastest of the three New Mexican finishers. Taking part in his first Tour Divide, the recently retired geophysicist from Los Alamos National Laboratory completed the route on July 4 in 24 days, 11 hours, 9 minutes.
Sofiane Sehili, a 40-year-old Parisian bike courier, won the race by finishing in 14 days, 16 hours, 36 minutes. He rode his bike nearly 75 percent of that time, resting for just 3 days and 17 hours.
While the fastest competitors take a little over two weeks to complete the course, others can take well over a month. Some cyclists also run the route as an individual time trial instead of starting during the Grand Depart.
The first five days for those that left in the Grand Depart saw competitors get socked by cold, rain and snow in southern Canada and northern Montana. It was the same timeframe in mid-June that devastating flooding and runoff caused the closure of Yellowstone National Park.
Cyclists had to push their bikes for hours in the snow. In previous years, there hadn't been any snow on the route. The rains and runoff also turned trails and roads into streams.
"In New Mexico, Tesuque Creek on the Winsor [Trail] is a big creek," Gable said, "whereas up there things nearly as big as the Rio Grande were flowing across the trail and down the trail."
Competitors carry SPOT satellite trackers that map their progress along the route. The devices also have a button that can be pressed when riders feel they need to be rescued by emergency personnel.
Of the 200-some cyclists who started the race on June 10, 15 were airlifted from the course in the opening days, the New York Times reported. Eleven cyclists were treated for hypothermia and four for trauma.
"The first five days were kind of survival first and miles second," Gable said. "You really had to manage things so that you'd be ready to ride the next day."
An experienced ultra endurance athlete who has competed in multi-day Eco-Challenge adventure races around the globe, Gable made the decision to avoid some of the worst of the weather by taking a zero day and staying in a hotel in Whitefish, Mont., where he filled up with food and watched movies.
Johnson said he made the mistake of trying to push forward, leaving the town of Eureka, Mont., at 3 a.m. in the pouring rain to try to beat the worst conditions over upcoming Red Meadow Pass. About 3 1/2 hours later, he was shivering cold and had to warm up in his tent and sleeping bag under a U.S. Forest Service shelter, where he stayed for 24 hours.
Johnson has climbed the Seven Summits — the tallest mountain on each continent — so waiting out adverse conditions in a tent was nothing new. But between the weather and recurring derailleur issues with his bike, he was again unable to leverage his experience to attain his goal of finishing in 24 or 25 days.
"Why have I done [the Tour Divide] five times? Well, I've never felt like I've logged my best time, and it's always because of circumstances beyond my control," Johnson said. "This year, one was a bad decision of when I left Eureka.
"I don't want to come off as complaining because this is all just the reality of the race," he added.
On most days, Johnson said he started riding at 5:30 a.m. and would go 12 to 15 hours until dark. If he came upon a town right at nightfall, he'd stay in a hotel, but most nights he was in his tent.
His biggest day was his last day when he said he rode
22 hours and 230 miles to reach Antelope Wells.
New Mexico, Johnson said, can be the most challenging state for cyclists due to limited towns where a competitor can pick up food and water.
In Johnson's first Tour Divide, he said he ran out of fluids between Cuba and Grants and had to bang on the door of someone's house because he needed water to continue. Nobody answered, but he saw a case of bottled water in the garage. He said he ended up taking six bottles of water and leaving a $20 bill.
While hardships are plenty, Johnson said the rewards of following the route along the Continental Divide also are great.
"I hope the fact that having done it five times in a row speaks to the fact that I have personally gotten a lot out of it, and that includes the serenity and beauty of it all," Johnson said. "It's arguably the prettiest ride that a human being can possibly take."
Gable said one of his highlights was riding through Wyoming, catching a first glimpse of the Tetons, then riding toward them for five more hours and being right next to them.
"Seeing the world at the speed of a bicycle, I feel you can really appreciate the country you're going through," he said.
Gable said he lost 12 pounds during the race. Johnson said he lost at least that and maybe more.
Most riders have little left when they reach Antelope Wells and they don't want to think about doing the race ever again.
But time can change their tune.
"I'm always on the lookout for what's next and doing the same thing twice isn't always what's next," Gable said. "Right now I'd say no, but in two months I might say yes because I think I can do better knowing what I know now and figuring the weather would be better."
Five Tour Divides sounds like it might be enough for Johnson. He said he plans on continuing to enjoy rides around Taos with his partner, Kate Prusack, while he thinks up some new ultra endurance goals for himself as he approaches 70.
"Having done it five times, I guess I've been in search of enlightenment and I feel like I've found it," Johnson said. "And the enlightenment is that we as human beings take for granted the simplest things that are so joyous — those cups of coffee in the morning, being with friends, going skiing, the joy of cooking.
"With each year, I think those appreciations for me have grown significantly."