Epic ride: 7 Duluth-area mountain bikers aiming to complete 2,745-mile tour
DULUTH, Minn. — Jeremy Kershaw had his heart checked out to make sure he was fit enough for the grueling mountain bike race he plans to ride this month.
Kershaw, 46, is one of seven Duluth-area bikers who plan to tackle the 2,745-mile Tour Divide race from Banff, Alberta, to the Mexican border in New Mexico. The race begins on Friday, June 9.
"My heart's OK," Kershaw said. "The brain tests are still pending."
The long and arduous backcountry race follows gravel roads, four-wheel-drive roads and old railroad grades that criss-cross the Continental Divide. The race has no checkpoints, no aid stations, no entry fee, no cash prizes. Riders must be self-supported and may have no family or pit crew help. Most camp along the trail each night.
"I'll have bear stress for the first week," Kershaw said.
Outside Magazine ranks the race among the 13 toughest races in the world.
Duluth-area riders who plan to join Kershaw in the Tour Divide this summer are Duluth's Leah Gruhn, 38, and her husband, Jere Mohr, 39; Ron Williams, 45; Rob Milburn, 48; Jim Reed, 57; and Richie Mattson, 60, of Saginaw.
"Riding a bike and camping — what a wonderful thing," said Milburn, facilities manager for Duluth Edison Charter Schools.
Milburn is the only Duluth rider who has previously completed the race. In 2015, his rookie attempt, he averaged nearly 120 miles a day and finished in 23½ days. At one point in that race, he skidded to a stop just 35 to 40 feet from a grizzly, he said. After a short standoff, the bear lumbered off the road.
Williams, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, has twice attempted the Tour Divide and been turned back. Snow in the high country forced him to drop out after 700 miles in 2015. Last year, he dropped after 900 miles with a broken thumb.
This year's race starts with a "Grand Depart" in Banff. But riders may also ride from south to north, starting in the desert at Antelope Wells, N.M., where average daytime highs in June are 95 degrees. Milburn and Williams will start there, the others in Banff.
Ride, eat, sleep
The sheer challenge of the race is staggering. Riders typically must move 50 pounds of bike and gear along rough trails that climb a total of 200,000 feet over the race's distance. The route is nearly 1,000 miles longer than the drive from Duluth to Phoenix, nearly three times longer than Alaska's Iditarod. The trail climbs passes as high as 11,000 feet.
About 235 riders have registered to start this year's race. Each year, about 60 percent of those who start do not finish, according to a race website.
Racers are permitted to buy food and refill water reservoirs in trailside towns. They may stay in motels, but most opt for cocoon-like bivy sacks and lightweight down sleeping bags along the trail. Most riders have GPS units mounted on their bikes to navigate the designated trail.
Everyone in the Duluth-area contingent has plenty of bike-packing experience. Most have finished the grueling Arrowhead 135 ultramarathon, the 135-mile winter race from International Falls to Tower, or other long races. All of the riders talk about the appeal of just getting on a bike and riding all day through spectacular country.
"It's so addictive," Williams said. "You're riding your bike sunrise to sundown, 15 or 16 hours a day. It puts you in this whole different realm of being."
"It brings you down to basics — just bike, eat, sleep and brush your teeth," said Mattson, who, like Reed, is a retired Duluth firefighter.
"The scenery is fantastic," he said, "but your butt can get really sore."
Reed has completed the Arrowhead 135 many times and the 500-mile Colorado Trail mountain bike race in 11 days.
"But this is a whole other beast," he said. "It keeps you awake at night."
Seemed like fun
Gruhn, a veteran biker who has completed the 350-mile Iditarod Trail Invitational winter bike race in Alaska, said her husband, Jere, came up with the idea to do the Tour Divide together.
"It seemed like a fun thing to do, a good way to spend the summer," said Gruhn, who in her youth made 40-day canoe trips on far north rivers with Camp Widjiwagan near Ely.
The idea, they said, is to travel the Tour Divide as a couple.
"Riding together is Plan A," Gruhn said. "Plan B is do whatever we need to do. There's a good chance one of us will have an injury or a mechanical issue."
Both Gruhn and Mohr are geologists with Barr Engineering in Duluth.
While all of the riders acknowledge the physical challenges of the Tour Divide, they also talk about the psychological aspect of the race.
"People say it's about 75 percent mental and 10 percent physical," Williams said.
And the rest?
"It's a lot of luck," he said.
Some of a rider's stress is self-imposed.
""I think it's the commitment to finish," Gruhn said. "It's hard when you see people dropping out all around you. It's just having that commitment to finish no matter what — within reason."
Part of the emotional stress comes with being hungry for so many hours each day, riders say. They descend on convenience stores in small trailside towns looking for snacks with a high calorie-to-weight ratio.
"People say it's a 2,700-mile eating binge," Kershaw said.
Local races set stage
Kershaw may be partially to blame for Duluth's strong showing of entrants in this year's Tour Divide. He and his wife, Avesa Rockwell, put on the popular Heck of the North and the Le Grand du Nord gravel-bike races on the North Shore. Each is 100 miles long.
He takes some credit for spurring interest in these races but attributes most of it to the kind of people who call Duluth home.
"I truly believe people these days look for adventure — even if it's contrived — and ways to test themselves," he said. "It's a testament to our lifestyle here in Duluth."
He tried to explain his own attraction to doing such a long race.
"I think there's the idea of exploring, even though it's been done before," Kershaw said. "It hasn't been done by you."
For Milburn, it comes down to simplicity.
"I'm definitely looking forward to being in that place of being present all the time, not multi-tasking," Milburn said. "It's just here and now."
Riders in the Tour Divide carry locator beacons that track their progress. To follow a rider, go to trackleaders.com/tourdivide17.
For more information on the race route, go to the Adventure Cycling Association's website at adventurecycling.org and look for the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.