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Three cyclists descended Thursday from the rolling mountains above Steamboat Springs. The course they took wasn't unique, as they pedaled along the same highway into town as dozens of other riders.
Everything else about them was, however.
Mud coated the trio's wheels, reaching up onto their shoes and giving way to a fine layer of dust that blanketed nearly everything they carried. It covered their well-worn mountain bikes. It covered the water bottles creatively hung all over the bike frames. It covered the packs hanging taut from their shoulders, the bedrolls tied beneath the handlebars and the plastic-coated maps anchored above.
The dust covered all three men, clinging to their uncared-for stubble and helping hide deep sunburns that were signs of just how far each had come.
The three riders - two coasting into town late in the morning and the third, Steamboat resident Leighton White, slipping in under hot afternoon sun - weren't coming from a nice, recreational ride. They were coming from Canada. Their destination of Mexico still sat more than 1,000 miles away. Steamboat was just another stop on their quest to finish one of the most difficult mountain bike races ever conceived.
Minutes after arriving in town, and a merciful 14 hours before he set out again, White sat on the warm asphalt of the Ski Haus parking lot. His legs were splayed out in front of him and his arms propped his weary body up as his face split into a wide grin, his brilliant white teeth contrasting harshly against a sun-dried face that hadn't been washed in days.
"Welcome to the Tour Divide," he said in as bright a tone as he could muster.
Trail takes a toll
White made it to Steamboat about four hours after Alan Goldsmith and Dominik Scherer left, but he wasn't in any mood to track down his competition. Instead, he took delight in the prospect of a night on the clean sheets of the Holiday Inn and a fat, warm cheeseburger from Rex's American Grill & Bar.
The Steamboat Springs firefighter is one of 35 riders split between two races challenging a course that mirrors the Continental Divide for thousands of miles. His journey started June 13 in Banff, Alberta, along with 16 other competitors as a part of the inaugural Tour Divide. The Great Divide race and its 18 riders started one week later. Now in its fifth year, the Great Divide follows the same trail but kicks off in Roosville, Mont.
All 35 riders - or at least those who manage to brave the rain, snow, heat and injuries on the seemingly never-ending trail - are heading for the same finish line, a remote crossing on the United States-Mexico border.
A continuous mountain bike trail connecting the Canadian and Mexican borders was first mapped out by the Adventure Cycling Association in 1998. The 221-mile Canadian portion of the route recently was added, bumping the total distance to 2,711 miles.
The years haven't made the course any easier. Since organized racing started in 2004, only 20 have completed the trek. Twenty-eight have given up.
Of the 17 riders who left Banff as a part of the Tour Divide, only nine remained in the race Saturday, 15 days later.
The group of survivors was diverse in desire and location. Race organizer and leader Matthew Lee slept Saturday night for the first time in New Mexico, while Steve Gleasner lagged hundreds of miles behind in Wyoming.
"What else is there?" Goldsmith asked. "Really, what else could I do? This is the ultimate race."
Steamboat equals relief
For Goldsmith and Scherer, Steamboat Springs represented the best and worst parts of the expedition. The pair of Europeans had never met before Banff, but became fast friends on the road and decided to stick together as long as they could. To them, Steamboat was a welcome slice of civilization, a town offering much-needed bike repairs, women to chat with, veggie burgers to devour and a cool spot under an umbrella to relax, if only for a few moments.
Goldsmith said the hardest part was leaving - not just rolling out of Steamboat, but leaving every small town and group of people they'd met along the way.
"Americans don't have the best reputation overseas, but everyone we've met has been fantastic," said Goldsmith, a desk worker in Great Britain when he's not biking across North America. "It all goes by too quick.
"I'm not that happy where I'm at, sitting in an office working in front of a computer. I thought this might bring it home for me, show me I'm wasting my time. It has."
Scherer saw Steamboat like a cold glass of water, and once he hit Lincoln Avenue, his focus became singular.
He needed a pair of shoes. He is an expert biker, working for a cycling shop and guiding bike tours in his hometown in southern Germany. The shoes he brought with him across the Atlantic Ocean and nearly 1,500 miles down the Great Divide trail were a size too small. His bloodied feet nearly caused him to drop out several days before crossing into Colorado, but after a stop at Steamboat Ski & Bike Kare, his ambition had returned. It got another boost 30 minutes later as he joined Goldsmith for a snack at Bamboo Market.
'It's not crazy'
White, meanwhile, is after the challenge and wasn't about to be swayed by the comfort of his own bed, just blocks away from the Holiday Inn. Staying at, or even stopping by, his house is strictly against the honor code rules for the divide races. Riders are to do everything themselves and can't accept any help.
It's not craziness, White implored, proudly showing off the more than 300 stunning pictures he's taken during the race's first half. He had shots of expansive meadows of wildflowers leading up to white-capped peaks, shots capturing the beauty of the northern mountain forests and even a few pictures of his bike buried in 3 feet of snow waiting to be pushed along the trail.
It's dust-choking roads, miserable nights under the stars and sweltering rides under the sun. At the same time, it's priceless views, life-changing experiences and a dream come true.
It's 2,711 miles, and it's a lot of things, White said, but it's not crazy.
"Maybe we're the normal ones," he said. "This is what we're supposed to be doing. We're supposed to be out seeing things and enjoying life.
"The feeling you get when you finish something like this - it's awesome."