On the way to competing in the Tour Divide, adventure cyclist Sarah Swallow hit a devastating bump in the road. Facing the prospect of having to bow out of the race, Sarah wasn’t willing to go down without a fight.
It was four days before the scheduled start of what would be the most daunting ride of my life. I had dedicated all of my energy to prepare my mind, body, and equipment to test my stamina in what is considered the most challenging mountain bike race in the world, the Tour Divide.
With a 40-50% completion rate, finishing this ride is no small feat and not guaranteed. Due to border closures caused by Covid, the race would start at Roosville, Montana generating a total course length of 2,500 miles with over 150,000ft of climbing along the Continental Divide, terminating in Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
The route travels through five states; Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, primarily along dirt roads with a mix of pavement and single track thrown in. You’re tasked with completing the course completely self-supported in as short of time as possible, relying on services and resupplies found in the small towns along the route.
Packed up, I would be pedalling a 57-pound mountain bike with drop and aero bars laden with a bivy, sleeping bag and pad, layers of clothing, spare batteries and parts, tools, three litres of water and the capacity to carry up to two and a half days worth of food.
The journey began with a three-day drive from my home in Colorado to the start line in Montana. My partner Adam and I were wrapping up a long day of driving and looking for a place to camp south of Seeley Lake, Montana when we drove over a large bump in the tarmac at 60 mph. The entire truck bounced like a sea-saw, causing us both to cringe when we heard a snap and saw something in the rearview mirror.
"What was that!?" I yelled.
"It was a bike..." Adam answered.
"Was it your bike?" I asked desperately.
"I think it was your bike..." he responded.
We stopped the car, and I got out to confirm that my Tour Divide bike lay one hundred yards down the road. I ran toward it hysterically like it was a loved pet that had just been run over.
I picked up the mangled bike in disbelief. The handlebar tape, seat, derailleur, and pedals were shredded. The hoods were shifted and ripped. All the top straps of the frame bag had ripped off during impact. At first, it seemed that all the damage was superficial until I noticed what would be catastrophic for my ride: a fully cracked seat stay on my carbon frame.
I dropped the bike back on the ground in nauseous shock and walked back to the car without it. My race was over. Everything I had done to prepare was a waste of time, money, and energy. In a fit of rage, I kicked the car door.
Adam picked up the pieces of my bike and put them in the back of the truck. There was no point in continuing toward the border, so we turned the car around and headed back in the direction of home, stopping for the night in Missoula, Montana. I was completely numb and unable to accept how my reality had suddenly and drastically shifted. As Adam started YouTubing various ways to fix carbon bikes with supplies purchased from a hardware store, I realised I couldn’t give up on my dream of completing the Tour Divide so easily.
I texted the one person I knew in Missoula, Russ Roca of Path Less Pedaled, and first asked if he knew anyone who could help mend my frame bag. Russ put me in touch with the folks of Bedrock Sandals, who offered to meet me at 8am the following day. I then asked if Russ had any leads on anyone willing to fix a cracked carbon frame.
He did not know of anyone, but he generously offered his bike for me to ride, but I knew I was unwilling to ride someone else's bike on such a long journey. Russ texted back with: “You might want to try contacting Pursuit Cycles in Bozeman. They are a carbon manufacturer and don't do repairs, but you could at least ask.” I immediately sent an email to Pursuit Cycles, explaining my situation. It was 1am and I felt like I had done everything I could for the night, so I laid down and tried to get some sleep.
The next morning, I checked my phone to find an email from Pursuit Cycles saying they would do their best to help considering the monumental ride I was trying to take on. I would need to travel three and a half hours to have my bike stripped down to the frame, but they believed they could successfully repair my seat stay. Just like that, my reality shifted again. I now had hope, and my adrenaline started pumping again.
On the way, we stopped by the Bedrock Sandals office where they successfully repaired my frame bag in under ten minutes before we continued on to Bozeman. Once we arrived, my friend Adam Sklar of Sklar Bikes removed all the parts from my frame. I was able to drop my frame off at Pursuit Cycles by 2pm, and was promised it to be ready by 7am the following morning. With three days until the start of the race, it looked as though I would be able to do the Tour Divide after all. I waited for the repairs to be made, overwhelmed with gratitude.
The next day, I picked up my repaired frame and then took it to my friend Mason of Alter Cycles to build it back up before opening the shop that morning. A few hours later, I installed the bags back on my bike and securely placed the bike inside the truck for the final drive to the start line.
I ended up completing the Tour Divide in 21 days, 4 hours, and 10 minutes, four days earlier than my goal and eleven days earlier than my time limit. I exceeded my expectations for the ride in every way.
Within the first few days, I realised that I could ride so much further than I thought, which turned out to be between 100 and 150 miles per day depending on the elevation and the terrain. I learned that I do not enjoy riding in the dark, that I needed to sleep between six and eight hours a night and that I could tolerate wearing a dirty chamois for about four days.
Though I was tempted initially, I decided that I was unwilling to chase down first place because that was not what I was there to do. I'm a lifestyle athlete, not a racer. I was there to do the best ride I could do, challenge myself to meet my goals, stay healthy, happy, and have fun while doing so.
With rides like the Tour Divide, there is the perception that you have to suffer to be successful. I don’t agree with this, especially if your goal is to finish and not necessarily win. Of course, there are some moments of suffering, like being at an altitude of 10,000 ft in the pouring rain, cold and soaked with lightning bolts crashing down, or having your handlebars break 1,000 miles into the ride and needing to pedal 300 miles to the next town to replace them.
But these all were just moments in time that pass. My suffering on the Tour Divide was not any different from anyone else's doing the Tour Divide, in fact, it was probably a lot less. There is no doubt in my mind that I had my “crisis-of-the-ride” when I discovered my bike frame was cracked. The experience forced me to consider how much I wanted to do the ride and how far I was willing to go to make it happen.
I doubled my commitment to finish the Tour Divide instead of quitting. Every crisis affirmed that I was doing what I loved to do, and I did not want to stop doing it. I couldn’t have done it without the incredible support of my community. I am forever grateful, and I share my success with everyone who helped get me to the start and through to the finish.
A waterproof hooded rain jacket with a chest pocket for storage, designed for year-round adventure.
A durable t-shirt made with merino wool for comfort in a range of conditions.
A pair of bib shorts designed for multi-day rides, with cargo pockets.
The Rapha Merino socks use a new blend of yarns, including luxurious merino wool. This natural fibre keeps you cool and dry in the heat and warm in colder weather.
Three-times Canadian Cyclocross Champion. Three-times Pan American Cyclocross Champion. Cyclocross World Cup winner. It’s an enviable palmarès for any aspiring racer, but for 27-year-old Maghalie Rochette, this is just the beginning.