“It’s like beating your head against a really sharp wall”
It wasn’t Team Griggs Orthopedics rider Jefe Branham’s first Tour Divide race but it may be his last. Might as well finish on a high note too, as Branham rode for 16 days, two hours and 39 minutes to take the 2014 Tour Divide title.
The Tour Divide is the mother of all multi-day self-supported bike races. The race starts in Banff, Alberta and follows a series of dirt roads and jeep roads with some single track along the Continental Divide south to Antelope Wells, N.M. The course is 2,745 miles long and includes 200,000 vertical feet of climbing. Divide race organizers compare the vertical relief to summiting Mt. Everest seven times from sea level.
Branham is no stranger to sleep deprivation on his bike. He’s racked up three Colorado Trail Race titles, sleeping a total of four hours over four days the time he won in 2013.
He placed second in his first attempt at the Tour Divide in 2011, riding a single speed. This time around he opted for some gears riding a 29-inch Ibis.
“I learned from the first time that I definitely wasn’t going to do it on a single speed,” says Branham.
Also, while the first Tour Divide was more about finishing, this year’s race was more about racing.
“This one I went into it wanting to win, set a new course record and do the best that I could,” says Branham.
With that in mind, Branham’s initial plan was to regulate his sleeping. While sleep deprivation is a bit more manageable in a shorter race like the Colorado Trail Race, sleep is a necessity when heading out for as many as 16 consecutive days on the bike. Although, Branham admits, a mix of weather and drive had him abandon his sleep strategy immediately.
“The plan was to sleep three hours a night but I dropped that plan the first night,” says Branham.
As the riders headed out of Banff, they encountered rain immediately, with reports of snow possible on the higher passes.
“The start was really, really hard with the weather,” says Branham. “It was socked in and I rode without wearing rain gear maybe five hours total the first five days. No matter how wired you were for weather, it was still pissing you off.”
Furthermore, with reports of snow on the higher passes moving in, Branham decided to make a break for it rather than hesitate.
“People were talking about possible snow moving in up high so I went over the passes early and that helped create a gap,” says Branham. “If you don’t sleep for three days, you can put some miles in.”
All of the initial effort did wreak havoc on him, though.
“Five days into the race I was falling asleep on my bike in the middle of the day,” says Branham. “I call it the fog and the fog would roll in. It definitely kicked my ass.”
Amidst all of the miles and riding a bike weighed down with gear, Branham and the other riders had a section that ended one rider’s race for good and almost finished it for many others. In an area known as Richmond Ridge in the middle of nowhere in Montana, Tour Divide riders had to negotiate across snowy side hill sections with slide-for-life conditions.
“It really changed the character of the race,” says Branham. “The sketchiest thing is trying to keep your bike in line while kicking steps in with your feet. It just wants to dive down the fall line.”
As for food, the race is self-supported and riders are allowed to either send food caches to post offices along the way or live off of what is offered along the course and pack what they can on their bike for extended stretches away from humanity.
Branham opted for gas station food, fueling up on everything he could from gummy worms to salami.
“For the most part I was hitting up gas stations and packing my bags with as much food as possible,” says Branham. “I’d say 70 to 80-percent of my food was from gas stations.”
Aside from the daily peaks and valleys, with mornings the worst and afternoons the best, Branham also suffered psychologically as he let go of his bigger goals as he rode.
“Every day had a pretty good low point that I had to suffer through,” says Branham. “My pace was starting to slip away and that was crushing. I had to let go of doing it in 14 days and that was hard and then I had to let go of setting a new course record and that was hard.”
But there were some high points for Branham as well. Top of the list were sunsets, specifically one while riding through Great Divide, Wyo., that raised Branham’s spirits.
“There were a couple sunsets that were frickin’ amazing—I dig on sunsets,” says Branham.
Then there was the time Branham set his sights for the infamous Brush Mountain Lodge just inside the Colorado border, a respite from the Tour Divide race.
“I hammered from Rollins to get there on time,” says Branham. “I rolled in around 11 p.m. and thought I was too late but they were having a Solstice party and everyone was yelling my name and that was great. You do have those moments, too.”
Once in Colorado, Branham tapered his pace back, relegating himself to five hours of sleep per day, only to ramp up for one last push to the finish line.
“When I hit Silver City it was late at night and the stretch between there and the finish line is low and pretty flat and can get hot during the day,” explains Branham.
As a result, he rode through the night and into the next day and night, putting in 30 straight hours on his bike to reach the finish line in Antelope Hills, N.M. on Sunday, June 29 at 10:39 a.m.
“This was, by far, the hardest race I’d ever done, way harder than 2011,” says Branham. “I wanted those lofty goals but they weighed on me.”
Two days after finishing, he’s unsure he wants to do the Tour Divide ever again, though he knows well enough to never say never.
“In these races I feel compelled to go as hard as I can. It’s like beating your head against a really sharp wall,” says Branham. “Right now, I have no desire to do it again but things change over time.”
As for the rest of the riding season, Branham has no plans for any races, at least no multi-day races, on his calendar.
“I’m just going to hang out, play with my dogs, drink beer and go camping,” says Branham.