The flag's about to drop...
What a difference a year makes. This very day, in 2009, I was sitting in the Jump Start Café in Banff trying, but not succeeding, to a) digest my breakfast and b) not think too much about the folly of what lay ahead in my debut in the Tour Divide. Of course, the folly at the time was in part due to knowing next to nothing about what I was actually letting myself in for (the bare statistics of the Tour Divide are too overwhelming to create an accurate picture, and whatever picture you do create ends up bearing little resemblance to reality anyway). Now, a grizzled veteran of the madness and wonder that is the Tour Divide, I know that it’s still a folly even if you’re fully aware, like Matthew Lee and several others in this year’s race, of exactly what it is you’re likely to encounter and feel over the next 18-30 days.
But, it is a magnificent folly. Which makes the fact I am now sitting oh-so-comfortably in a café not dissimilar to the Jump Start but one that’s 8,000 miles away from the action something of a poisoned chalice. The dry mouth, the unsettled tummy, the unflinching anxiety and the sense of foreboding – all those are happily absent. Yet so is the sense of anticipation and wonder, the realisation of a dream (for it is a dream just to have the courage to start). And, in spite of the fact I am not now about to spend five weeks away from my family and all other domestic pleasures, exposed to rain and bears and my own mental and physical frailties, I feel slightly saddened for it.
So, to soften the blow of not saddling up once again, I shall be providing, in the loosest possible sense, a form of race commentary for as long as people are still gamely plugging their way to the unlikely Eden that is Antelope Wells (it is truly paradise, if we would only learn to recognise it). I say a form of commentary – it’s unlikely to be as polished as Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen on the Tour de France. But it is, at least, based on experience.
That’s not to say the riders this year will share the same experiences as I enjoyed. The route may remain constant, but each journey is unique. The tattooed mad-man encountered by Jeff Kerby in a rain storm last year will hopefully have moved on (if not, Jeff, you’ve clearly made a friend for life), as will the bear that Cricket Butler faced off in the dark… But there will be other bears and, possibly other mad men.
Of those sufficiently crazy to set out this year, the stand-out front runner is surely the record-breaking, Divide-racing obsessed Matthew Lee. The target is sub-17 days. It would be an enormous achievement, but it would also be a brave person to bet against him. Other potential front runners (and there may be many I’ve overlooked) include Eric Bruntjen, a veteran of last year’s race for whom a 21 day finish did not sate his desire for speed. Forest Baker, Reid Christiansen, Pete Faeth, Aidan Harding and Jim Helms have all confessed to aiming for around 20 days.
Then there’s the possibility of a new women’s record – Christina Domecq has said this is her goal as, peculiarly enough, has Simon Temple (either that or it’s a spreadsheet error…). It’s not much by way of insider information, but my Dad also reckons Heather Dawes, who is in the same running club, is not here to make up the numbers.
Elsewhere, will the rest of the Brits continue the proud tradition of all but one having finished? Will there be first French and German official finishers? Will Stephen Huddle’s ‘Henry the steam train’ mascot see him past Abiquiu this time? Will Cricket’s ‘mommy holiday’ have a happy ending? And who will win the coveted Lanterne Rouge?
The time for questions and predictions is nearly over. The time for racing is upon us. Good luck and God Speed.