2,745 miles of dreaming: Tour Divide proves an ultimate mountain bike challenge

Joel Reichenberger
Mike Schlichtman rests on his bike after pulling into Orange Peel Bike Service in Steamboat Springs. Schlichtman is riding the Tour Divide
Joel Reichenberger

— It takes a dreamer to tackle the 2,745 Tour Divide, and two years ago, Mike Schlichtman moved to Steamboat Springs with little idea he had that particular dream in him.

Still, when he coasted into Steamboat on Wednesday to a crowd of cheering friends and family — more than halfway through the intense, continent-straddling mountain bike race — he said it was everything he never knew he wanted.

Schlichtman moved to Steamboat in July 2013, a triathlete who “didn’t know what a mountain bike was.”

OK, he admitted, he knew what a mountain bike was, but he was anything but a mountain biker.

Steamboat has a funny way of changing such things.

“I’d never done any mountain biking whatsoever,” he said. “Everyone here in Steamboat was doing it, though. If you’re going to Steamboat you have to mountain bike.”

The Tour Divide is a race not yet 10 years old, yet it has seen tremendous growth, from a few dozen brave souls six and seven years ago to nearly 150 annually now. It’s an unsupported ride that starts in Banff, Alberta, crosses into the United States in Montana and winds its way along singletrack, forest service roads, dirt roads and, only occasionally, pavement.

Riders are expected to fend for themselves, packing along what they need in terms of a tent, sleeping bag, food, spare parts, clothing and other supplies.

It’s an epic challenge for someone who’s spent years attacking remote mountain bike trails and loads of vacation days riding to far off camping spots with their supplies on their back.

That’s not Schlichtman, however. At least it wasn’t Schlichtman.

The dream to ride the Tour Divide started with a chance encounter with John Fairbairn, a 2014 finisher, on a local mountain bike trail.

“I went home and Googled it, read about it and was instantly hooked,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘I can do this.’”

Schlichtman picked up a used Moots mountain bike from Orange Peel last fall, trained hard through the winter and when June came, headed north, his son driving the car, to start a great adventure.

Attacking the challenge

Tour Divide riders have been streaming through Steamboat Springs for a week. They stand out thanks to the bedrolls under their handlebars and the weary looks cast out from dirt-covered faces.

Clark rider Robert Orr made it to Steamboat on Monday night and left early Tuesday morning. He was still pedaling near Salida as of Wednesday evening.

This year’s race leaders include Neil Beltchenko, a rookie rider out of Crested Butte; Jay Petervary, a pioneer of the event and the course record holder; and Josh Kato, a Washington cyclist. They’ve already come and gone through Colorado and are working their way through New Mexico, knocking off 150 miles a day on the way to the finish line at a rarely used desert border crossing station on the U.S.-Mexico boarder.

That’s where Schlichtman is headed, too, to the dusty wide spot that’s not on the way to anywhere.

The journey has been everything he hoped, even if he didn’t initially know what to hope for.

On one of the longest, most difficult stretches — across the great basin in Montana — he encountered a pronghorn herd. One animal broke off from the pack and offered him a race.

A bear ran right in front of his bike in another section, and he soaked up 10 miles of downhill during one particularly sweet — and hard-earned — stretch of trail in southern Canada.

He’s not entirely sure how he’s going to get back home after he makes it to the finiah line. He has one ride arranged away from Antelope Wells, but isn’t sure how he’ll get all the way to El Paso, where he hopes to rent a car.

He’s not too worried about it, though.

Riding the Tour Divide is everything he’d dreamed, and he’s enjoyed every mile.

“I’m looking for something, and I don’t really know what it is,” he said. “It’s the solace, the challenge. As long as my body held together, I knew I could do it physically. It was the mental aspect of the challenge I questioned. I wanted to challenge my mental capacity to overcome — to overcome the heat, the lack of water and the pain of 15 hours of pedaling.”

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email or follow him on Twitter @JReich9

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