On Friday, June 9, Andrews begins his 2,745 mile mountain biking journey from Banff, Canada, to Antelope, N.M., as a competitor in the Great Divide Race – an event that sort of resembles a mountain bike race.
The Great Divide Race is a mountain bike race in that there is a start, a finish, a clock, and a course. Other than that, it’s its own beast entirely.
The course follows the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route – a route established by the Adventure Cycling Association – that includes dirt roads, single track, old railroad beds and some pavement. According to the ACA, the route is best defined by the word “remote,” and consists mostly of climbs and descents. There are not a lot of flat sections. Over the entire route, cyclists will climb more than 200,000 vertical feet.
According to organizers of The Great Divide Race, the intent is to “establish a common date and set of rules so that those wishing to challenge the route or record may compete directly with other athletes under equal circumstances.” Other than that, they seem to be pretty hands off.
“Equal circumstances” means that all racers must be completely self-supported over the entire 2,745 miles. Racers can stop in towns to stock up on provisions and stay in hotels. as well as send boxes of food and supplies to themselves at post offices along the way. They cannot, however, utilize a private support wagon, stay at a friend’s house or have individuals bring them gear, support, food or water.
Competitors can bring a cell phone, but are automatically disqualified if they use it. They can catch a ride to the nearest town, if they have a major mechanical breakdown, but must rejoin the route exactly where they left it to resume the race.
Factoring in the difficulty and length of the course with the lack of support, two immediate and obvious questions pop into the mind: 1) How do you train for something like this? 2) Why would you ever want to do it?
Andrews has answers for both.
Andrews has a long history in endurance-based sports like swimming, cycling and running. He grew up in the Chicago area, and in 1974 went on to swim competitively for the University of Southern California – a school that won six national swimming championships between 1972 and 1978.
“I swam with all of these Olympic gold medalists and knew I wasn’t going to make it to the Olympics as a swimmer,” Andrews said. “I had some friends who were bike racers, so I thought, ‘I’m going to try to be a bike racer and make it to the Olympics.’”
Andrews specialized in track cycling on the velodrome (a steeply banked oval track), winning the 1978 National Championships in the 4000-meter team pursuit. In 1979 he qualified to compete in the Pan-American Games. Unfortunately for Andrews, and many American athletes, the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow were boycotted and his window to be an Olympian closed.
After his professional career, Andrews continued to compete in endurance sports – this time taking up triathlons, and again finding success. During his triathlon career he was consistently ranking among the top 20 in the world for his age group. Then, just last year, at a ridiculously fit 55, he decided to start racing his mountain bike and thinking about Race the Divide.
He points to one weekend, last fall, when he started seriously considering the race. He had ridden his mountain bike from Telluride to Moab to ride in a 100-mile leukemia fundraising event, and then rode home after the race. The next weekend he rode in an annual 133-mile fundraising ride from Telluride to Gateway, called The Mountains to Desert.
“I wanted to see if I could regularly do those distances,” Andrews said. So he started researching, and training for, the Great Divide Race.
Keeping his momentum, Andrews rode through December and January, making sure his “long rides” were at least 80 miles. In the last few months, he’s upped those rides to 120 and 135 miles. He has been training on the roads and trails locally, training with 60 percent of the gear he will be carrying in the race on his bike.
For the race, he plans to carry an ultra light tent and sleeping bag, a change of bike clothes, essential bike tools, and enough water and food for two days at a time. He figures he’ll need between 5,000 and 7,000 calories a day.
Chances are you’ve seen him on a local roads recently. He has pedaled 5,000 miles since December.
“The reason I’m doing this is I just love riding a bike,” Andrews said. “[It’ great] to be able to ride every day as long as you can for a month – if you love to do something, try to pack as much in as you can.”
Andrews hopes to average about 120 miles a day during the race and finish it in about 24 days. The course record was set in 2008, with a time of 15 days one hour and 26 minutes. After 15 days of riding well over 2,000 miles and crossing the Continental Divide 30 times, the winner gets…nothing.
Except of course, the pride.
“It’s going to be fun and exciting,” Andrews said. “You can’t take something like this too serious – I’m an old guy having his last hurrah.”
Somehow, I doubt that. I’ll put money on Scott Andrews finding another crazy race, or perhaps even a new sport after this one. Cyclocross?
In 2008, filmmaker and Great Divide Race competitor Mike Dion made a feature length documentary film about the race called Ride the Divide. Competitors also have GPS chips with them, so fans can follow racers and their progress on the Great Divide Race website: http://www.greatdividerace.com/pages/home.html.