Steamboat Springs The wind was ever-present, a constant force blowing north with such regularity that someone might as well have been driving in front of Steamboat Springs mountain biker Erik Lobeck with a fan.
“I think I only rode 30 miles not into a headwind,” he said Thursday.
That’s saying something, considering the Tour Divide, which Lobeck knocked off in grand fashion late last month, runs 2,745 miles along North America’s backbone, the Continental Divide.
“No matter where we were, we were getting blasted with a headwind,” Lobeck said. “Riding across South Park, I was pedaling downhill at about 3 miles per hour because a 50 mile per hour wind was blowing up.”
Lobeck, who tackled the challenge for a second time, said this was the “year of the weather.”
For Lobeck and his Tour Divide compatriots, it was the year of a lot of things, however, and conquering some of the worst that nature and fate had to offer led to one tremendous moment at the dusty finish line in New Mexico.
The year of the ride
It was the “year of the weather,” and for Lobeck, that happened to coincide with the “year of the ride.”
Last year was supposed to be that year.
The Steamboat Springs-based residential designer had trained up, riding twice a week during the winter to the top of the gondola at the Steamboat Ski Area to build his legs.
When the race started in early June, he said, he was prepared.
It all unraveled about three weeks later as he approached the finish line.
He withdrew from the race 300 miles short of his goal after being stricken by the giardia parasite. He figured he picked it up on the tour, maybe from a splash of water in a Montana cow pasture.
In any case, it landed him dehydrated and in a hospital.
With his wife pregnant during the 2009 ride, he initially dismissed the idea of racing again any time soon. The race drew closer, however, and he changed his mind.
“I saw Leighton White (a Steamboat rider who finished the race in 2008 and 2009) in the City Market parking lot, and he said, ‘You have unfinished business,’” Lobeck said. “I did a lot more training this time. I rode the mountain at least five times a week before work and rode all the way to the top of Storm Peak instead of just to the gondola.”
He studied up on nutrition in a way he hadn’t before and used his experience from the first trip to pack lighter and design a bike better.
“I was prepared,” he said.
The year of the weather
Prepared or not, Lobeck lost many battles to the weather.
He said early in the race, which started in Banff, Alberta, and traced trails and roads down into Montana, it was evident that his pre-race focus was paying off.
“On Day 1, I was on a climb with Matthew Lee,” said Lobeck, who was watching Lee not just because he’s a repeat winner of the race, but also because he holds the course record. “You watch everyone to see how your competition is, and I had my eye on him. I knew I could compete.”
And he did.
Lee pulled ahead in the first couple of days, but Lobeck caught him late in the first week as the event moved into the United States. He rode with Lee for a snowy, freezing day in the Montana mountains.
“It was the most miserable either of us had ever been on a bike,” Lobeck said.
The road turned to mud where it wasn’t frozen, and the pair slogged through 10 miles of the muck, pushing and carrying their bikes.
The mud wrecked Lobeck’s derailleur, and he wasted an entire day trying to fix the damage and get the parts he needed.
With that, he lost his chance at what would have been an upset in Tour Divide world.
That wasn’t the end of his mechanical problems. He rode into Steamboat late in the evening midway through the trip entirely without front brakes.
After another long fight through mud, this time in New Mexico, he had to hit a service shop to have his drive train rebuilt for the third time.
Every major component on his custom Moots 29er was in need of replacement when he finally hit the finish line.
The year of the accident
Lobeck’s frustrations suddenly seemed insignificant when he learned about the death of fellow racer David Blumenthal, who crashed into a pickup and suffered a massive brain injury while riding on Routt County Road 68 near Steamboat Lake.
He heard the news when he caught up to fellow rider Blaine Nester in Del Norte.
Blumenthal had a wife and young daughter, just like Lobeck, who left Jessica and 10-month-old Gigi at home in Steamboat.
“It was a shock to my system. I had been planning on pedaling on that night, but it didn’t feel right,” he said. “I thought about how selfish of an activity this was, and asked, ‘What the hell am I doing?’
“I thought about it quite a lot the next day, too, but eventually reconciled it with myself. Accidents happen on bikes quite often, and that’s one of the inherent risks of the sport.”
So Lobeck pushed on.
The year of the finish
The meeting with Nester turned into a rivalry as each surged to claim second place.
Nester rode more, but Lobeck rode faster. They pushed each other into the race’s final state, New Mexico, and toward the finish line at Antelope Wells.
They passed the town in which Lobeck had to withdraw the year before and pressed on through the desert.
“The whole way, I had para-giardia-noia,” Lobeck said. “I worried about it until I was an hour away. Then I knew I would crawl the rest of the way if I had to.”
The border finally came into focus, and Nester and Lobeck agreed to finish together, tied for second in 18 days, 11 hours and 38 minutes, a little more than a day behind Lee’s winning time of 17 days, 16 hours and 13 minutes.
Months of training and weeks of torturous riding through blizzards and thunderstorms, deserts and mountains, paid off in a sandwich and a cold beer provided by Jessica Lobeck, who had been waiting at the end of the line with Gigi.
“I had been dreaming of that beer for the last 10 miles, and we were just sitting there in dirt, Blaine and I, just happy to be done,” Lobeck said.
Lobeck said he’s finished with the race unless someone pays him to do it again.
Gigi learned to crawl while he was on the road, and he’s not keen on missing any more of those moments.
Still, as he considered the idea of another go at the race, he sounded less and less convincing.
“Right now, I can say there’s absolutely no way,” he said.
“The planets aligned themselves both in terms of child care and the job to give me a window of opportunity for this time.
“But I know I could have given the race leader, Matthew, a run for his money, and I did until I had my big breakdown.
“I came into this year with my eyes on the record, and I know it’s soft. It can be broken.”