Reports from the pack

Time for a look at the overall nature of the race, rather than just focussing on the leaders. Indeed, apologies for the almost exclusive focus on the front runners, in particular the front three southbound. Time constraints and the compelling nature of the racing are my excuses (and apologies for overlooking the sterling efforts of ITT-er Dave Bruno, who’s managed to more or less keep pace with the front runners for several days now – chapeau).

So, to everyone else. After all, the defining nature of TD, in my opinion, is that it manages to combine top end racing with an event that, for most of those participating, is as much a challenge to finish as it is to beat others. In this light, TD 11 is proving something of a revelation, with a fairly staggering 72 racers still active out of 89 who started (68 southbound in the grand depart, 15 northbound in the grand depart, and six ITT-ers who started at or around the same time). In previous editions of the event, no more than half the field has finished (even including those relegated).

The most likely reason for this is that the southbound route has had some of its teeth pulled through the re-routes brought about by the vast snow pack. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this doesn’t necessarily make riding the TD this year any less of an undertaking – it’s still an awfully long way – but riders have perhaps had a slightly gentler introduction. In fact, 59 out of 68 southbound racers are still active, with almost all now having made it out of Montana, which has traditionally been the first goal for many would be finishers – only after you’ve done with Big Sky Country can you begin to think of pushing yourself to the finish.

In contrast, the unadulterated New Mexico route this year seems to have taken its toll on those heading northbound: only seven of 15 from the grand depart are still active, a figure much more closely aligned with traditional attrition rates. This bears out the traditional perception of NM as being as tough as the conventional route through Montana – so a difficult place to start – and might be exacerbated by the more rapid ascent to altitude (up to 10,000 feet within a week or riding at most, compared to two weeks for most heading southbound). Then there’s the heat, which certainly for me would take some getting used to.

The greatest challenges for those still going are likely to be threefold. Some, unfortunately, will begin to succumb to physical wear and tear as the hours in the saddle continue to build. Others will find the mental challenge of keeping going gets harder and harder as the end still seems so far away, even after so much effort has been put in; this is a problem often made worse by accumulated sleep deprivation, at which point dangerous questions such as ‘why am I doing this if I’m no longer enjoying it?’ become harder to answer (or ignore).

Finally, the significant challenge of the tough final sections will come as an unwelcome sting in the tail to some. Assuming those northbound also use the snow re-routes, this is most likely to affect those heading into New Mexico. Hopefully, however, most have now settled into a routine where physical discomfort is minimised and recovery is maximised for this middle section, allowing them to confront the final stint in good shape and heart.

So, to the race. Women’s leader Caroline Soong is about to head into the basin, perhaps a day away from Rawlins. I know records will not be set this year due to the route changes, but she’s currently on target to beat Jill Homer’s 09 time by a couple of days – the challenges of NM notwithstanding. Behind her, Tori Fahey is a couple of days, maybe a bit more, further back in Ashton. Then there seems to be a mini peloton of the two Texan Sheilas (Torres-Blank and Ritter) alongside Marian Penso in Lima, with Jacqueline Bonn an unknown distance ahead (no SPT update for over 24 hours). Six female finishers would be another TD first.

For the southbound men, the adventurous Justin Simoni is currently lanterne rouge, due largely to having avoided all the snow re-routes so far. Will he also head over Togwotee and Union Passes? We must assume so, though Union Pass will be a real challenge as it’s more of a plateau than a pass, so could involve many long miles of high-altitude bike pushing.

Ahead, there are four or five riders with the Sheila peloton, then two more just into Idaho about to face up to the infamous rail trail section (yep, it really is quite unpleasant). Then there’s a group of at least seven maybe half a day ahead in Ashton, a couple of solo riders and then another small cluster in Jackson half way through the paved re-route to Pinedale, where two racers seem to have spent the night. A day further ahead, possibly with Jake Kirkpatrick on his own in between, another group of perhaps as many as ten racers has probably added 20% to the permanent population of Atlantic City.

Next up, after the lonesome Danny Hill, comes the Rawlins Euro posse, who are all within a day of latching on to the scrap for fourth place, currently lead by Aidan Harding and Josh Shifferly just south of Steamboat, with Parker Smith and Roberto Giannini having ceded some ground and still in town and erstwhile fourth-placed rider Mike Hall recently joined by Justin Voss at Brush Mountain Lodge.

A day – something between 130 and 150 miles at the pace these guys ride – might sound a lot to catch up, but the way some people – Aidan himself and Marshal Bird, for example, from last year – can up the ante at the end of the race needs to be seen to be believed. Certainly, while groups of riders racing at the same daily pace is not uncommon, even for sustained stretches, it’s likely that further splintering will occur as the finish line approaches.




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