Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Divide stories: Bike evolution.

My interest in the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route started back in '99, when John Stamstad did the original ITT on the route.  My head was still way-too-deep down the 24-hour and 100-miler rabbit hole, thus I didn't yet appreciate what John was doing.  I was a part of a few conversations between he and Pat Norwil re: rules to govern the ITT, but it took two more years of racing the Iditarod before I could really wrap my head around an ITT of my own.

And, when that day finally came, I was both too broke and too tired (from a season of the aforementioned lap races) to do the whole shebang.  I decided, with inspiration from Pat Irwin, to attempt a single-state ITT, from the Wyoming border to the New Mexico border, traversing my home state of Colorado.

The more I looked into the route the more it seemed that any bike I owned at the time was really unsuited to the endeavor.  Thus I borrowed a bike from Wes Williams -- his own personal touring machine.  He had it built with huge gearing, tiny tires, and drop bars, and although I rode it for a few days that way, I knew that it wasn't going to fly for an all-out TT effort.

Pictured below, I installed some ubiquitous Nanoraptors, flat (and narrow!) bars, bar ends, lots of grip padding, friendlier gearing, and aero bars.  Notably absent was any sort of reasonable frame bag: Back then almost no one had a frame bag, and the days of oversized seat bags had not yet arrived either.  Moots used to make a product called the Tailgator, with two oddly shaped bags slung off of a gossamer light titanium frame.    When I look back at this setup I remember how impossibly smooth the chassis was ("noodly" or "whippy" would be apt descriptors), how poor my lighting was (two OG Petzl Tikka lights zip-tied under the aero-bars, and that was *it!*), and how much wasted real estate there was in that main triangle.

For all of my divide attempts I used a "navigation system" similar to the one below, with paper maps and cue sheets inside of a BarMap OTG, at my fingertips on the bars.  Spare rubber bands in there, too...

Note state-of-the-art lighting under the aero bars.

This setup saw me through CO in what felt like a blazing fast time back then.  I liked it but I didn't love it, and knowing that I was going to attempt the whole GDMBR ASAP I asked Willits to create something similar but -- at least for this event -- better.

And man did he!  Below is my Willits B2, with the oh-so-supple Action Tec fork, a Moxey suspension post, Zipp 404's, 3 x 9 gearing, and a whole lotta manipulated tubing intended to give me a comfy ride.  This bike was amazing, but a drought that year meant uber sandy trails as well as searing heat and massive forest fires across the west.  Thus I (barely) finished an ITT of the Kokopelli on this bike, then DNF'ed the Grand Loop and DNS the GDMBR ITT.  Just too hot/smoky/sandy.

Pat Irwin and I teamed up with Airborne the next year, collaborating with that company to produce an affordable, comfortable, and durable chassis with next-gen (keeping in mind that it was '03, and 29" wheels were still seen as a redheaded stepchild) geometry.  Big changes from the Willits were disc brakes, slacker HTA, more upright position, a resurrection of Zoom Brahma bars in a massive ~610mm width, and, for the first and last time, cranks that rotated on an ISIS bottom bracket.  This bike was good -- especially given the price.  But it didn't really improve on the Willits.  That, and on my '03 ITT of the entire GDMBR, I found cracks in the seatstay bridge before I'd made it 1000 miles into the route.  Catastrophic failure seemed unlikely so I just kept going, but then my seatpost rack failed coming into Steamboat, and my achilles tendons and psyche cratered not long after.  I'd been pushing everything a bit too hard, and paid the price with a DNF at ~halfway.

Cockpit view of the Airborne during that '03 ITT.  Zoom Brahma's wrapped with 3 layers of cork tape were comfy, but still not quite enough padding.  Also note the 90* off orientation of my cue sheets.  I think I was already unraveling if I couldn't be bothered to stick 'em in there straight.

Airborne the company cratered in '03, leaving lots of dealers high and dry.  I liked that chassis but with no support behind it I moved on -- to Moots.  Kent Eriksen was still there and was interested in working with me to build a ne plus ultra bike for my return to the GDR.  Pictured below with YBB suspension, Zipp 404's, a not-nearly-big-enough frame bag, a custom rear rack, and my Kenda Klaw training tires.  I remember being super excited about these tires when they came out -- thought they were way too big (they were 1.9"...) but loved having that confidence when riding local trails.

By now I'd learned that I didn't have the motor to go mano a mano with the fast guys, thus I needed to outsmart 'em to have a chance.  To that end I had no choice but to shave every last gram from my kit, not waste any time in transitions, and cut sleep.  Among the many ways I shaved weight was to use a car sunshade sleep pad (~5oz, warm, not comfy enough to oversleep...) -- note below how I trimmed it to keep my calves from brushing it on every pedal stroke.  The lower parts of the rack's forward stays were originally round tubing, but my calves made contact with those, too, so Brad Bingham @ Moots cut the tubing and fabricated the plate variation -- literally while I waited.

I always opted for a rear rack for the GDR and other bikepack races -- even if we didn't call 'em that yet.  Proponents of the uber-sized seatbags tout their lower system weight and lower likelihood of failure.  And they're right on both.  What they don't factor in is the time spent stuffing/unstuffing them.  I liked the rack/bag system because it was so easy to get everything in/out, easy to keep things organized, easy to strap stuff to the top of it (like a rain shell, when I was overheating but could already see the next storm bearing down on me) for quick access or to dry it out.

This setup was incredible.  Were I to head back to race the GDR today (Ha!  Not in a million years...) I'd use something very, very similar.  I'll give detail on that below.  I kept a tube and spare parts (chain links, spare cable, spare cleats/bolts) in a small pack in the seat tube bottle cage.  Always had Gatorade or similar in the downtube bottle.  The bottle under the downtube had a simple charcoal filter in it -- which I used every few days to purify stream water on long stretches between towns.  Inside that tiny frame bag I always had what you see pictured below: A Crank Brothers multi-tool, a pile of jerky, a pile of Twizzlers (usually Pull and Peel...), a few Salted Nut Rolls, and sometimes I'd even cram in some gummy something or other.  Pure nutritional bliss...

Part of my disdain for the GDMBR stems from how much time you spend not just on pavement but in the aerobars.  It is emphatically a quality touring route but calling it mountain biking just doesn't fly with me.  The shot below was maybe 6 miles from the finish of the '04 race.  You can see Pete Basinger just coming into the picture behind me.  Stories about Pete and the GDR are coming, including the situation pictured below -- trust me...

I rode fairly fast in that '04 race but I had so many mishaps -- like melting my sodden gloves when trying to dry them over a campfire, or breaking a pedal spindle and having to ride 30 miles on just one, then having to detour off route and then wait overnight to buy a replacement, or killing two cyclometers just in Montana, plus having a spate of flat tires on that same day, or having my bottom bracket unthread itself, then having to backtrack *downhill* 15 miles to the nearest town, so that I could buy a monkey wrench and some superglue to mickeymouse it back in place, only to turn around and re-climb that 15 miles in a monsoonal downpour -- that I could only look back and think "what if?"  As in, what if I took all that I'd learned, all the fitness I possessed, and somehow strung together a mistake-free ride?  I figured I could knock at least 36 hours off, and maybe over 40.  With more favorable weather I thought I could knock more than 2 days off, but then I started to see the flaws -- or misplaced optimism -- in that sort of thinking.  How can you ever plan for ~2 weeks of ideal weather in the mountains?  You might just get it, but you certainly can't schedule it.

It was that line of thinking that had me asking Moots to better my current steed.  I even succumbed to the trend of using drop bars for a bit -- as pictured below -- but no amount of padding or positional tweaks could keep me comfortable on them for long.  Too much nerve damage had already been done in training for and racing the GDR in '03 and '04.  Ultimately I came to just accept that I'd done the best I could with what I had, and pretty much let go of the idea of going back.  Zero regrets there.  This bike is currently on long-term loan to my friend Brian.  Keep it clean, B...

I build wheels full-time, and get asked about once a week to suggest not just a wheelset but a whole bike build for some aspiring GDMBR racer.  Not everyone has the same goal of just scorching the course, thus not every suggestion adheres to a wrote formula.  For those that want the end-all-be-all no-compromise get-me-there-as-fast-as-you-can-with-nothing-left-in-the-tank setup, I tell them to put together a frame that fits them perfectly, preferably made from titanium or light gauge steel.  I would personally not use carbon for the frame -- largely because there are so few custom builders using it.  I recommend custom because fit is everything when overusing your body in this way -- any tiny blip in the fit and you have an overuse injury.  You're courting overuse even with a *perfect* fit.

To that frame I'd add a Bodyfloat post, a Lauf fork, 29 x 2.2 (or so) low-tread tubeless-ready tires, quality carbon rims laced to DT 240s hubs, and a cockpit that fits you and spreads out the weight on your contact points.  Some swear by drop bars but they didn't work -- at all -- for me.  Aerobars for sure.

Some these days swear by dynamo hubs to power their lights and GPS and smartphone and other non-essential devices.  I believe in all of that technology but I'm not sure I'd want or need it for a stripped-down race on the divide.  

I'd use a 1x drivetrain for sure -- ditching the front derailleur would be a no-brainer.  Precise gearing would have to be figured out by riding the thousands of miles you need in the bank to arrive at the start line ready.

Plus tires?  Comfy as all get out but slower than regular 29".  I wouldn't go bigger than 2.2", and would insist on no smaller than 1.9".  That air volume matters.

Ful suspension?  Well, I kind of already suggested that with the Lauf and Bodyfloat.  Think critically about how those two units work and you might come to understand that the high-frequency/low-amplitude bumps (read: washboard and small chatter) that you'd most want to filter out aren't really removed that well by modern bicycle suspension.  Thus, rather than take a complicated bike that weighs more than it has to and doesn't function as well as it should, I'd opt for a supple (key word) hardtail with non-traditional suspension.  Light and durable, with comfort as king.

And yeah, I'd probably still take a rear rack.  But maybe not.  I'd carry all of my water in an easy-access dromedary in my frame pack, with a hose routed up to the bars.  I'd keep all of my tubes/tools/pump/spares in there too.  I'd keep my sleep kit behind the saddle.  Since it'd only be needed once a day, and stashed the rest of the time, maybe one of Eric's smaller seat bags would work.  I'd have food close at hand in twin top tube bags -- one against the head tube and one tucked up to the seat tube.  No feed bags hanging off the stem -- don't need 'em (too much crap!  simplify!!) and they rub my knees when standing.  Rain gear would be easy access in an under-bar bag.  I wouldn't wear a pack.  I would emphatically not have bags on my fork legs: In addition to being the opposite of aerodynamic, they represent added mass that you just don't need to go fast.

I'd skip the filter and carry a bit of Aquamira.  I'd eat more fat and less sugar.  I'd still minimize sleep to 4 hours or less, and I'd still be uncomfortably sprawled on a foil sunshade when doing it.

So there you have it -- my slightly out-of-touch but utterly authentic and rooted in experience take on what works best for divide racing.

Don't hesitate with questions.


  1. Enjoyed this post immensely. Gearhead to the max even when it is gear I would never use.

  2. Excellent piece, thanks for this.

    Agree with many parts of it, especially the reality that the TDR is not a MTB race.

  3. Geeked out out on this! Thank you!

  4. Sweet Baby Sunlit BBQ Flaying Wasp Jesus.
    To know well the many bikes you've gone through, then see these beasts...
    Well, SBSBBQFWJesus. That looks like it would all take a shovel full of suffering groveling that I probably won't ever dip into.

    But I have to say- it was probably the gu flask on the back of the seat tube on Wes' rig that really tied the room together.


    Always fun to read. Thank you for posting.

    Why not drag that sling shot out for something fun soon?

  5. Awesome post! The history of bike parts is so fun to think about, what was a big tire and "wide" for bars back then...
    That Willits B-2 is to die for. I say to myself i'd love to have all my old bikes right now, or my old guitars, but i think i'd rather have all YOUR old bikes :)

  6. Those uber fast shaved legs....

  7. That was a great look into all the racing secrets of your past, Mike! Thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I still thoroughly enjoy my MootoX which I bought after riding yours. That frame is flexy in all the right places, and so durable my grandkids will inherit it... :-)

  8. Thanks for that fascinating look at your bicycle progressions. That first Willits is really my favorite of the bunch.

  9. Front fork brace/handlebar bag support on the borrowed Willits is most intriguing.

  10. Thank you for sharing this Mike. Super look back and good things for others to think about.

  11. It's a pity you don't have a donate button! I'd definitely donate to this superb
    blog! I guess for now i'll settle for bookmarking and adding your
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    Talk soon!

  12. Really good and informative read Mike. Amazing to see the iterations of youe setup. Thanks for posting. The new Tailfin Aeropak pretty much follows the idea of your Moots custom rack for the same reasons.