By Andrew Schuhmann

The act of getting on a bicycle and pedaling for hundreds, if not thousands of miles, through every kind of wilderness in a solo, “self supported” fashion is a truly honorable, glorious, and self-fulfilling act. And due to recent forum discussions, it may be surprisingly more profound and insightful than even that! In short, how one races the Tour Divide (and now the TransAm) could be reflective of their moral views and political affiliations… Who knew that racing a bike could be so (gasp!) political?! Hear me out on this one…. Lately there has been a great deal of discussion on the forums regarding cheating in this year’s Tour Divide and TransAm races, and in bikepack races in general. What constitutes as cheating, and what does not? Where is the line drawn between moral diligence and moral turpitude, and who determines it?  There have been calls for more rules and more governance in order to quell the perceived flood of “immoral” racing, and counter arguments against such actions as being “un-policeable”. Overall, the question seems to be: is there a choice in how to “Ride the Divide”? The easy answer is sure, you can choose to race it or tour it. But 130+ riders aren’t lining up in June to tour the Tour Divide. They’re lining up to race it, (and for the exhilarating experience of riding 2,700 miles with other like minders riders.) And it’s becoming quite clear that that experience means different things to different people… Being a social studies teacher myself, I relish a good debate! But perhaps it was my history teacher prowess that got the best of me on this one… Forgive me, I could not resist… In one corner, are the Purists. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call this the “Communist Bloc.” (See, I warned you!) Pursuant to the goal of equality, they hold that there is but one class of racer, subject to the same stringent rules and standards from which there can be no disobedience. Necessary to instill this equality is a totalitarian command to control every aspect of the rider’s daily life while on two wheels, to ensure that each and every rule is followed to the utmost standard in order to attain the most pristine physical prowess and moral achievement. Purification purges to clean out the immoral or unfit must be carried out systematically and frequently; only then can the true standard of bikepack racing be brought to its purest, singular form. But we have learned this lesson in history before… No person, (or rider) is ever fully equal to another, and any attempts at regulation in order “equalize” them will often fall into resentment at best, or failure at worst (think the Great Divide Race)… So is it useless then to try to equalize? Useless to compete? Of course not. It’s an individual race. Let’s turn to the other corner, where we have the Opportunists; we’ll call them the “Capitalist Bloc.” They seize every little opportunity to capitalize their gains in order to achieve the maximum advantage over their opponents. Every possible loophole and shortcut is exploited, every handout accepted. They’ll beg, borrow, and bend the rules to make it to Antelope Wells (or Yorktown), and sometimes do. Rules and regulations are seen more as a guiding recommendation open to free interpretation, rather than a decree from high command, and any effort to regulate or instill order is an effort in futility. “We hold these rules to be semi-evident, that all riders are kinda equal?” But we have learned this lesson too… Wherever there are rules, there are rule breakers, and whenever there is competition, there are cheats. And whenever there is law, there is “open interpretation of the law.” So is it useless then to try to regulate? Useless to compete? Of course not. It’s an individual race. * * * Obviously, the two camps I have presented are extreme exaggerations of two labels, which rarely exist in reality. I describe them here in jest, not to offend or ostracize, but to bring home the point: Bikepack racing: To govern? Or not govern? If that’s the question, I think you’re missing the point… As Hamlet himself stated so eloquently, “Keep it simple, stupid!” …Or was that Calvin?… Nevermind… On my all too brief Tour Divide attempt this year, I can honestly say that I’ve seen both sides of this argument. In one case, a rider I was riding with (and truly came to like and respect) found their front derailleur to be shifting improperly. On the first night, he wandered around the hotel beseeching other riders, “Hey, are you a bike mechanic?”  No one seemed to be… The condition only deteriorated over the next pass, to the point that he had to pedal in the big ring over the next three passes. I knew how to fix his derailleur (I expect a simple tune up would have done the trick), but I didn’t. The purist came out in me, and it really annoyed me that he was relying on the knowledge of others to resolve his mechanical in the field. In my opinion, no one should be attempting this ride without simple bike maintenance skills. If they do, they’ll suffer the consequences of an inevitable bike failure, and rightly so. As a middle school teacher, this kind of thinking does not come easy to me. I considered for a moment teaching him how to do it, but knew that if the problem was more complicated than a simple tune up, it would then become my responsibility to fix because I had committed. And this was a RACE after all. So I simply sped ahead… (He’ll probably be reading this. I consider him a friend now, and I hope that he does not take offense. Which begs the question, in the end, was it worth it to me? Did I make the correct “moral” decision in not doing anything?) On the other end of the spectrum, I found myself in potential need of “outside support” when my frame bag failed, literally deteriorating in the constant, wet grime. Frame bags aren’t a dime a dozen, so the prospect of picking up another one in Whitefish seemed a stretch. And would I have the money to do so anyway? I had plenty of options back home: another frame bag, a backpack, etc. But my wife would have to mail them to me, what I believed to be a breach of the rules. What complicated things further was that she was the one that made the frame bag in the first place (though admittedly I chose the wrong material for it, so the fault was mine, not hers). If it was a commercial entity, open to all riders, then I could simply call the manufacturer, complain, and be shipped a new one. But she was my wife, certainly not open to all riders. So could I call her for a new one? (Though I wouldn’t dare complain!) And what difference did it make anyway? In jest, I had called her my “sponsor,” but now that term was taking on a whole new meaning. And initiating some questions as the muddy miles accumulated… Is a race purely equal when some riders are sponsored and others are not? In the middle of the Canadian wilderness, I broached the topic with another rider. He told me I would be disqualified if my wife shipped a bag to me. For some reason, I had to spend money with a shop or retailor to legitimize my race, despite the fact that I already had what I needed at home. It didn’t make sense to me. So I protested. “Do I have access to your wife?” he quipped. “Do I have access to Matthew Lee’s sponsors?”  I retorted, getting more emotional than I had expected. “She’s my sponsor, she makes the bags. What’s the difference?” He paused, then responded, “Hey, it’s certainly a grey area. I’m not going to say anything…” It wasn’t a comfort. I spent some 120 miles stressing over the issue, a rule technicality. In the end, I called my wife and she packed a box, but I ended up purchasing two water bottles and cages and a cheap fanny pack to replace the failed frame bag instead. And I didn’t feel more pure for doing so… I felt disgruntled… And as it turned out, it wasn’t even against the rules in the first place:
  •  Rule 8a. Once a race clock begins, a rider may be assisted by a third party in receiving emergency repair/replacement items only.  Emergency items must be shipped using a commercial shipper such as USPS, UPS, etc
But two riders in the Canadian wilderness (one a veteran no less) without the ability to check seemed to think that it was a violation… So, based on this experience, it seems that Calvin was right… and even then it was still too complicated… *     *     * There are those that argue that there is no prize, no money at the end of any bikepack endurance race. But they would be wrong. Sure, there is personal pride. But there is also respect and prestige among friends and family, and the bikepack community as a whole (a small, but quickly growing, dedicated, almost cult-ish following). And yes, there can be money involved too, in the form of future deals and sponsorships. To add to this, the Tour Divide (and now the TransAm) grows more popular every year, and with sponsorship, publications, and documentary videos jumping on board en masse, racers are reaching an ever-wider audience for which “fame” to spread. So the stakes can be high, and only getting higher. And, as a result, it seems that some are no longer riding honorably for personal fulfillment, but instead are performing for the entertainment of outside spectators. And, sadly, performances are not always honest… And with growing popularity, too, comes the “Everest” effect, a line of amateurs being hauled up the mountain without any real skill or knowledge of mountaineering in general, and racers willing to stretch their morals for ultimate broadcasted glory. At best, this is dishonest and disrespectful to the mountain and to those who climb it on it’s own terms. At worst, it is deadly. As these races become more and more popular, I fear that they could share the same fate. And hence, stringent rules of “self reliance and self support” are wholly necessary. Indeed, it’s part of the game! But how can we keep the sport we love relevant and (dare I say it?) popular without jeopardizing the principles on which it began? *     *     * In my classroom, I teach my students that whenever they identify a problem, it is best to present a solution as well, even if you don’t necessarily believe in it. At the very least, it will begin a conversation in which a solution you do believe in may be forged. To this end, I have a proposition for the Purists and the Opportunists alike: a Tiered race system. Racers can place themselves into the necessary tiers as they see fit, based on their goals, “morals”, and competitive edge. (In my experience, many already do). If an “immoral” occurrence happens on the ride, racers can simply denigrate themselves down a Tier, instead of the harsh DQ. However, the DQ would still be the final hammer for major offenses, such as hitching a ride forward, shortcuts, sharing equipment etc.
  • TIER 1: For the purists, competitive at the highest level. No trail magic whatsoever, just self supported to the T, no if, ands, questions, or buts… Sub 20-25 day finish
  • TIER 2: More tolerant of “trail magic”, but still looking to follow the rules and push the limits of self supported riding, etc. 20-30 day finish
  • TIER 3: Simply along for the ride; pushing themselves for their own fastest time, but not looking to be competitive or turn down assistance if offered, etc. 25-30+ finish.
Obviously, this could complicate things even further, but it could also simplify the expectations for some riders and ease the aneurysms over cheating for others. Each Tier could even be given their own color scheme on Trackleaders, as well as a staggered start, to differentiate further. (As of the writing of this article, Matthew Lee, head custodian of the Tour Divide, has seemingly adopted a similar approach on Trackleaders.com, changing the colors of current racers that have “alternated from race route” to orange to distinguish them from those still racing the pre-determined route.) However, all that being said, in math, science, and (of course) in history, it is often noted that the simplest answer is the best. So, to that end, we could just “Keep it simple stupid.” *     *     * As a Middle School Social studies teacher, my students often beseech me after discussing a potentially controversial topic, “Mr. Schuhmann, what do you think?” I always answer them the same way, “It’s not important what I think,” I ploy, “You have access to the information.” (Here’s is a list of the Tour Divide Rules: http://tourdivide.org/the_rules). “What do you think?”   -For more two-wheeled perspectives, articles, thoughts, and stories, follow Andrew at www.singletrackstories.com

12 Comments

  1. Excellent and rational article Andrew! Unfortunately it is the prestige of events like this that ends up being their demise via sponsors, then getting bigger, then prize money(or future deals), then the disrespectful riders, then the U S Forest Service and local law enforcement saying enough. I do cringe seeing others camping where ever they like even if it’s private property without permission. The purist way may preserve events longer but it is really hard to not burn the fuse out when they are “races”.

    • Thanks Adam. I think that’s the question, how do these races grow but keep the same standards? I sure hope you’re wrong about the “demise”. Would really hate to see it go the way of the Great Divide race or Kokopelli.

  2. Nice article Andrew, from person who has never done the Tour Divide but avid bikepacker & TD fan I really like what you have to say. The rider who ran around the YMCA asking if anyone was a bicycle mechanic was unprepared to fix his own bicycle and lacking the basic knowledge to do so while everybody was busy. Everybody entering the Tour Divide should have the skills to fix their own bicycle , what happens if their bike breaks down in the middle of now where – do they wait for the next rider to come along and ask for help ? . All riders who attempt the Tour Divide race need a wide variety of skills and fixing your own bicycle is certainly one of them.

    • Agreed. And half the reason there is no “administration” is because the tour would then have to claim responsibility for these individual’s safety. I ran into a couple guys on Cabin pass, 100 miles from anything, who asked me repeatedly where the closest heat and shower was! “Dude, you’re in the middle of the Canadian wilderness! There is no heat! There is no shower!” We had been yo-yoing for awhile, so they weren’t hypothermic or anything. I think some Europeans come over not having done their homework and expect a Euro tour style. They clearly were clueless. I worried about them, but had my own issues at that time to deal with (which I’ll be writing up shortly). Unbelievable! (Saw them a day later at Whitefish, so apparently they dealt with it…)

  3. Sarah Searle

    Enjoyed the article; bikepacking seems to be similar in many ways to racing a one-design class dinghy such as the Laser – something I did for many years. Not too many rules as anything that wasn’t specifically allowed in the rules, wasn’t. That way you don’t have to legislate against all the things that people may think of doing, you just think of the few things that are allowed and everything else is not. Racers generally quite good at policing their own sport as no one wants to be beaten by someone not following the same set of rules. If the ethos of bikepacking is self-sufficiency until a commercially-available solution is found (if needed) then the sport will grow organically. No amount of sponsorship can buy the knowledge and cleverness to make do and mend what you set out with,
    Looking forward to taking part in the bikepack racing scene in the future, it is what I think my father did for fun when away from the 24hr time trial circuit in his younger days.

    • Thanks Sarah. An apt analogy, I don’t know anything about dinghy racing, but I guess in a dinghy race, there’s no opportunities for “trail magic”. People coming out to see riders, unbeknownst to them, and offering goodies and such. Do you accept their kindness out of politeness, or snuff their gesture?

      In terms of policing their own sport, many have begun to do so. But no one likes to “tattle,” and it becomes a game of “he said, she said.” It can make for some pretty awkward dealings in the future, and many would prefer just to avoid the drama.

      “No amount of sponsorship can buy the knowledge and cleverness to make do and mend what you set out with.” Absolutely true. I had to staple and stitch my frame bag with dental floss before I had an op to replace it! 😉

  4. Thanks for the article. This hits close to home for me, although Trans Iowa isn’t as “big” and “mythical” as the TD, it drew its inspiration from the TD’s predecessor, The Great Divide Race, and its developers.

    Having seen 10 years worth of Trans Iowas, and in a decade long effort to promote “self support” in that event, I feel that there are a few questions that ultimately should be answered not by the riders, but by the organizers.

    -Should the TD “grow” at all? (Rider limits?)
    -How do you qualify finishers? (Did they truly do it self-supported?)
    -Time Limitations- Should there be time limitations to certain pints on the trail, insuring that it stays a “race” and not “something else”?

    It’s a thorny issue for sure. I’ve done a lot of refining to Trans Iowa over the years, but again- That isn’t TD in scope. TD is a much bigger animal and harder to tame.

    Great conversation to have though. I know a few Trans Iowa vets that have or are going to attempt TD, so I am pretty curious about where this will go.

    • Good questions, but the TD has no “official” organizers, due to the sheer scope and nature of the race. Many have called for that, but “organization” would require fees, permits and insurance, responsibility and accountability, and most prefer the underground, individual nature of the race to all that. With as many riders taking it on every year, Forest Services are beginning to take notice, and without an organization to hold accountable, it’s just a bunch of individuals riding their bikes. (Which again brings up the importance of respectful riders, as Adam pointed out.) But many are calling for a more active administration, which would mean fees, as no one is willing/able to take on that responsibility and workload without compensation and protection.

      But this is out of my scope. How have you dealt with these issues with the Trans Iowa?

      The Great Divide race had time limitations, and much stricter rules (no cell phones, etc), and I think there’s a reason it has fallen to the wayside. In the past, under 30 days implied racing, anything over 30 implied “touring”. This year, with the weather being essentially winter at times, many riders will miss that 30 day mark. But they’re still chuggin on!

  5. Hmmm… I don’t like the tier system. If three tiers, then why not five? Or two? I think when you allow tiers, what you are really doing is adding a ‘touring’ class [or classes] to the ‘racing’ class. A race is a race and the rules should be black and white. A tour is whatever one decides to do and much more flexible. This year, a week before the start of the CTR, there was a person on the forum who asked if he could opt out of the Tarryall bypass route and do the old course version of riding 285. This would save 50 miles and 5K of climbing. A Capitalist Bloc member for sure…

    • Great article! I raced the divide this year and had my share of mechanicals. body breakdowns and re-fueling issues to work around. It was my first time on the divide but I have taken part in bikepacking events in New Zealand. The rules vary but the intentions remain the same – Self supported – Make your own way. I started the race with the aim of riding alone. Two friends also rode the divide this year. We spent the first 3 days riding together. We did not draft, share food or equipment or any of the other things that we would see as providing an advantage to one another. However, for me I realised that I always receive an advantage riding with these guys. They are smarter riders than me, they ride more consistently, they navigate better and when I ride with them I fall into line with their style. I benefited from riding with them through what may have been most of the toughest part of this years tour. At days end on the 3rd day in Columbia Falls I let them know that I needed to separate from them so I would ride my own race. That meant not staying at the motel but instead pressing on down the road. It was hard to do but it was right for me. The point I’m making is that there are advantages and disadvantages to be had with every decision made. There are some relatively obvious things we would hope people will not do but perhaps the greatest benefits come from those we share the experience with and I wouldn’t want to remove that!

  6. I’m in favor of keeping simple. The fact that the Tour Divide is 2700+ mies long and raced mostly in remote areas, the consistent enforcement of rules and regulations would be problematic any way. And at the end of the day, outside of the very few who actually have chance at winning, racers are competing to have their name added to list that very few even know about, let alone care about. Don’t inflate it to something it’s not.

    Race/ride for yourself. Anything else is just wasted energy IMO. And YOU will always no whether or not you raced with honor and integrity. And that’s all that really matters.

  7. Couldn’t have said it better Rick f. You read my mind.

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