Brett Simpson is done. With the Tour Divide that is. Not only has he completed one of the toughest bike races in history, he actually finished in the top 10%. Given that 4x’s as many racers never finish the race, he deserves some serious props. Here’s what he has to say about the race, his journey to complete it, and what he has his sights on next.
Congratulations on completing the race! What was your finishing time and how do you think you did overall?
Thanks! My final time was 20 days and 21 hours. I finished tied for 14th with three other guys. We’d been leapfrogging our positions for days and on the last day we decided the coolest thing would be to finish together. Overall I was really happy with how the race went. I had some logistical problems later in the race that cost me time, but I still finished ahead of my goal. One example was when I managed to arrive in the town of Sargents, Colorado where the only place to eat and re-supply closed at 8pm. It was only 8:20 but they didn’t re-open till 8am. With only a few energy bars left it was nowhere near enough fuel for the next 150 miles. My goal was 22 days with a secret goal of 19 days. Due to forest fires we were re-routed and added 115 miles to our route, almost an extra day of riding. So with all that factored in, things went really well for me.
About 40% percent of riders didn’t complete the race. What do you think you did differently to help you cross the finish line? What gave you an edge over other riders?
I think mental preparation was key for this race. I spent a lot of time during training thinking about scenarios and what it would take to complete it; that and my outdoor and wilderness medicine background. The biking was a small part of the challenge; much more was the weather, terrain, altitude, camping and wildlife issues. You can train your body to prepare for the biking but there is no substitute for experience in challenging outdoor environments. Sometimes it was also simple things. Watching another racer struggle with a very stuck zipper on his frame bag I was able to show him a simple solution, rub chapstick on it. He was surprised how well it worked and commented it was as good as new now. Another racer dealt with the same thing and eventually broke his zipper causing him to lose hundreds of dollars of gear.
How did the race meet or exceed your expectations? Or were some of your expectations not met?
The race was awesome and more than met my expectations. I was looking for a challenge that was big, tough and that I might fail on. I definitely found that. I think even by day ten it was the hardest thing I had ever done.
What were some of the more difficult things you encountered, endured, or weren’t prepared for?
I felt pretty prepared and there were not many unexpected things. I felt prepared for a wide range of scenarios but didn’t know what ones I would actually encounter. Overall I think I got off pretty easy. I did not know how my body would hold up to almost three weeks of riding straight but that was hard to know beforehand. My biggest fear going into the race was the intense heat and sun in the southern parts of the route. It was rough but I made some adjustments and got through it well. I was really concerned with heat exhaustion and heat stroke in New Mexico. I kept giving myself patient assessments as if I was an injured patient. I figured as long as I could keep giving that assessment then I was ok to keep going.
You obviously needed tons of calories and a lot of food to keep you going. How did you manage without consistent resupply and cooking along the way?
This got progressively more difficult as we went south, so luckily I was able to learn a lot in the north. I would go into gas stations to resupply and have no idea what I wanted or how much to buy. I thought I was buying a lot but quickly realized it wasn’t enough. For the most part I was able to make at least one re-supply stop a day and could generally find a restaurant and gas station for snacks there. As long as you kept your miles high enough you could get to the next place. I ended up averaging 137 miles a day, so I had some big pushes to get to the next stop.
From the beginning of training I knew I wouldn’t be cooking on this trip. That involved too much extra weight and space no matter how light you go. I used the next hot food stop as my motivation to keep pedaling and that worked great as a strategy. Three separate times I ate with a veteran and realized I needed to double my food intake to keep up. By the end I was shocked at how much I could eat in a day. The estimate was 10,000-15,000 calories a day just to keep up.
Eventually I got tired of trying to eat so much so I was searching for the highest calorie items in gas stations. Honey Buns were the ticket at 700 calories each. They came one of the secret power foods and something I would never touch if not on a race.
There must be a lot great memories made and amazing experiences along the way. What are some of your favorites?
As I was riding the last day I started thinking about what was “my story” from this race and I realized it was the people I met. I started out taking pictures of scenery but what I wish I had was more photos of other racers and people I met along the way. People were so generous and helpful to us everywhere we went- it was amazing. Bike touring is a way to restore your faith in humanity, even moving fast. Then there were the other racers. While you were competing against them it never felt that way. We’d see each other and high five and really truly wish each other good luck in the next section. Since it’s such a small group of people interested in challenges like this it was a good filter for new friends. I met many people that I’ll be in contact with for a long time and look forward to other adventures with them.
How did your Vargo products withstand the abuse of the race and how did they help you excel on the trail?
Since I was not cooking I only brought a few items on this race but more products will be put to the test soon. My Vargo Titanium Whistle was indispensable. Much of the first 12 days was in bear country and I was constantly blowing it to let any animals know I was coming. Riding down rough roads with a whistle in your mouth was a whole challenge I didn’t anticipate. My most important item though was my Vargo Titanium Tent Stakes. My recovery sleep was so critical each night, even though it was only about 4 hours, I didn’t want my tent blowing down. The stakes kept my tent up no matter the wind and rain. I lost two stakes along the way and that did not help for keeping my tent taut from rain. Finally I was able to buy more in Wyoming but each stake was the same weight as all eight of my original stakes. That was frustrating but made me laugh numerous times.
Knowing what you know now from the experience you’ve gained, what advice would you give someone who wanted to complete the Tour Divide? Would you do it again?
I think the most critical factor for this race and any ultra-endurance event is the role of a positive mental attitude. You will have tough days and challenges and you need to learn how to laugh no matter what and enjoy being in the moment. The race was so big it was easy to be overwhelmed; you just had to take it one moment at a time. The physical piece comes in time, so just don’t over train. There’s lots of gear that works out there. But the mind, that’s where to focus. The race record holder believes that the race is 25% preparation, 25% gear, and 50% mental. I read that before the race and really believe that after the race.
Spend as much time as you can on your bike but keep it fun. Find people to ride with, join club rides, commute to work, just keep it fun. Mix in cross training when you can. I found it really helpful to have a coach to work with on my training regimen.
I most likely won’t do this race again because I had such a positive experience. If I spent the time away I’d do something new. I really like the idea of new challenges and pushing myself in new ways.
What’s next for you?
In thinking about this on my bike I decided when I returned I wanted to do things that were new and intimidating to me. So on the short term I’ve been working on becoming a swimmer and recently completed my first sprint triathlon. Three weeks was not quite enough time but I was not last coming out of the pool and I made up a lot on the bike and run. I have some bikepacking adventures planned for this fall and maybe a couple 400 mile races but my big focus is for this winter. I’m hoping to qualify for some big snowbike races. This means doing a lot more camping out in negative temperatures on my bike. Even with my mountaineering background this is intimidating, so it’s perfect as part of the challenge.
Read more about Brett’s Tour Divide Journey by visiting his Tour Divide Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BrettsTDQuest2013.