The Tour Divide is one of North America’s most iconic bike events. Take Race Across America, and make it a self-supported, north-to-south route—on dirt roads. Send it through the high chaparral to the low desert, going from Canada (Banff, Alberta, to be precise) to the border fence with Mexico (in Antelope Wells, New Mexico). Add one or two gas station stops for food and some interesting sleeping arrangements, and there you have it: The Tour Divide.
This past June, Litespeed ambassador (and Chattanooga, Tenn. native) Matt Schweiker added the Divide to his already impressive bikepack racing resume and made the jaunt, finishing 22nd overall in a wildly impressive 18 days, 12 hours, and 23 minutes.
For Schweiker (piloting his Litespeed Pinhoti III) the race started June 9th and finished a week and a half later. With the race still fresh in his mind, we grabbed Schweiker for a full download on his half-month ride across the country.
First: Are you still tired and sore?
It’s 10 days out, so I feel normal now. I don’t have any soreness, don’t have any lingering issues like my hands. So, I’m pretty lucky.
You’ve already taken on a few bikepacking races (as well as just big bikepacking rides) in the past few years, both locally in the Tennessee/Georgia area and around the world. What drew you to the Tour Divide?
To be honest, I wasn’t super interested in Tour Divide initially. It’s the Super Bowl of bikepacking, but it hadn’t piqued my interest. It was the ultimate test for guys on the pointy end, but this one requires so much time. And really, it seemed that traveling someplace like I did for the Silk Road was a bigger adventure.
But I always viewed the Tour incorrectly. You see people that haven’t bikepacked before. You see people that may not even be cyclists, biting off Tour Divide as their first challenge. It seems insane to me now, having done it, that those people chose to do this route. It’s so much more burly and remote and physically demanding than I ever imagined. Logistically too—to resupply, it’s hard. You’re really out there.
But looking back, it exceeded my expectations. The scenery was stunning. I knew it would be hard, but it was hard in a way I just didn’t expect.
Talk about the start in Banff, Alberta… and the procession south.
I stayed in Canmore, to stay away from town and pre-race jitters that comes with all that. It was a great decision, for that reason and there were just more [cell] service and good trails there. I had a good week there getting my head in the game.
Just starting was such a relief. There was so much scrambling for setup changes, to make those first miles and be on route was such a relief.
The first day was just beautiful and was one of the most challenging days. Koko Claims is this wall of boulders, lots of hike-a-bike right off the bat, combined with rain and elevation. I made it to Fernie B.C. on the first day. I was scrambling to get to a hotel that was going to close, and crashed twice because it was getting so muddy,….I was summoning all my singletrack skills in this death mud.
I showed up at this motel and the lady was like “We’ll rent you a room, but my husband is gonna take you out back and spray you down.”
I’d never paced an effort this length but ended up with 155 miles the first day—kept it conservative. The first night I slept five and a half hours. Showered and resupplied at 7-11. Resupplying at convenience stores is not my favorite part of these big events, but it’s a reality. So that next day I crossed the border into Montana—into one of the most remote sections of the ride. That flathead section of Montana is just out there. But man, one of the most beautiful areas, just east of Yellowstone, was the Grand Tetons.
As it went, I got out of Colorado. And really, Colorado is one of the easier states, even though there was so much climbing. At least the roads were graded.
I didn’t do a ton of research on the route, and I thought once I hit New Mexico I was gonna be off the hook. But New Mexico was the hardest state—by far. There was lots of punchy climbing, there was a heat wave with a 116°F heat index. Dry sections with long resupply sections had me worrying about water, and oh, the headwinds. I came to despise the headwinds. Going downhill with 20-mile-per-hour headwinds felt like climbing. I tried going to sleep earlier to get more riding done at night when the wind and temps were down. I had hopes of making it to my hotel reservation in Cuba, NM, but that didn't happen. It’s brutal sometimes.
The second-to-last day of the race was really hard. Terrain was tough. I hit singletrack on the Continental Divide which got me in a hole. I rolled into Silver City, and it was a goal—you find these goals to latch onto. The one was I targeting once I reached Silver City was that wanted to finish with a “17.” I didn’t care if it was 17 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, but I wanted it to have a “17-whatever”
But when I rolled into Silver City at 9 p.m., it was a total low point—that day kicked my ass. To get that 17 would have meant forgoing any rest in Silver City and pushing through the final 130 miles. I talked to my family, and honestly, the goal seemed arbitrary at that point. At that moment it made sense to get a hotel for four hours, shower, and sleep—then finish strong. I wanted that final paved stretch to unwind and process everything… to enjoy it.
I wanted to look back and be proud and remember what I experienced. I rode through midnight, which was a better idea. It was really hot and windy for the guys that did it during the day, and I did all that at night. Finally, I got to the border at sunrise.
Fueling for a big ride like Tour Divide—especially when it’s self-supported and subsisted by gas station food—must be interesting, if not a challenge. What did you eat, and how did you eat?
My appetite changed as the ride went on. In the beginning, I was going for candy and chips; sweet and salty things. But eventually, you get this thing—they call it sore mouth— where you eat so much of it feels like u get ulcers in your mouth.
It got to a point where eating was such a chore, but I went to as much real food as possible. Sandwiches, mostly. If sat down at a Subway, I’d order 4 subs to go; eat one, and pack the rest away for later in the day.
One day I went to McDonald's; I ordered 10 double cheeseburgers. 2 large fries, 1 Oreo McFlurry, a large Coke, and a 10-piece Chicken Nugget. I ate the nuggets and a couple of cheeseburgers, then packed the rest of ‘em on the bike to eat the rest of the day.
Otherwise, it was gas stations. I tried to have a mix of sweet and salty. I’d have a whole thing of Pringles in my jersey pocket. And one of those go-to frozen burritos they have at every gas station. They had never been on my radar, but I’d buy em frozen, they’d thaw through the day. As strange as it sounds, it felt like one of the healthier options. You become a connoisseur of gas station food. Paydays, too, they have nuts.
But yeah, the food was just gross, but it was calories in, calories out. There was this ice cream shop in New Mexico and I had to scramble to resupply, so I had to ask her to make me eight paninis.
I got home and was like ‘Man, all I want right now is a Garden Salad.’
My credit card bill was insane; I spent close to $2,000 on gas station food re-supplies. It worked out to about $100 a day.
My coach really dialed my nutrition I was trying to get about 350 calories and 90 grams of carbs per hour. And I learned that it was better to do a slow drip of calories. In the beginning, I made the mistake of getting behind my calories. I was in, gorging myself, then going into these wild energy swings. So I learned to try to stay consistent with my 350 calories goal, and it really lead to the most consistent blood sugar and energy.
As for hydration, I had a filter and pills but I was drinking straight out of streams at high elevation. Part of me doesn’t want to accept the fact that we can’t just drink out of a stream at 10,000 feet in the mountains. If I was high elevation and a small stream from snowmelt, I’d just dip the bottle. I didn’t drink much pure water. I’d add Nuun tablets, or at a gas station resupply do a 50/50 mix of Pedialyte or Gatorade Endurance with water.
One stretch, coming into Silver City, I was out of water. It was so dry, I had an adventure cycling app that lists points of interest, and some of those points are water. Every one of those water points was dry. I had tripled my water capacity from Canada into NM and was still rolling the dice on water, and not much I could do about it. The only water I could find was out of a cattle tank. It was gross and a low point for sure. Dipped bottles and filled them up thankfully but didn’t have to drink, and was able to get clean water at another spot.
What was the wildest stuff you learned along the way?
I learned that the Tour Divide is split into 2 sections: Grizzly Territory, and Not-Grizzly Territory. Everything north of Pinedale, Wyoming was Grizzly territory. From the start to there I carried bear spray and tried as hard as possible to get a hotel. Hotels are a time suck, but once every four or five days out there, I’d try for a hotel.
Up in bear country, I read about camping in forest service pit toilets in Montana. It seemed disgusting. The second night, I got to the campground after a planned 160 miles of riding and rode in the dark until midnight, got there—and immediately understood the advantage of them. First of all, they’re clean since the campgrounds are closed. And once you get you get in you can dry out gear, sit, eat, and not worry about bears. They’re awesome. There was almost a race to ‘em this year.
But once we were out of Pinedale, you could open up and sleep wherever you wanted. I’d eat about 10 minutes before I stopped. I’d find where I’d camp, take my bike with food and put it 500 or 1,000 yards away, and sleep with no toothpaste, no food, just my bivy with some bear spray just in case.
Did you find riders you’d end up grouping with along the way based on pace?
I tried to not ride in groups. It really didn’t benefit me. I could do three or four hours with someone, but I really didn’t want to pair up. But yeah, you end up getting guys and girls in your orbit that have the same range. We’d fight to get to the pit toilets (laughs).
Did you listen to music or podcasts and talk to friends and family along the way, to keep your head fresh, or just provide some inspiration?
I tried to use music, podcasts, and audiobooks. I got through a lot of podcasts. Music too—it’s a mood influencer for me. I had headphones in a lot. The old-school guys didn’t have any, but I got some cell reception and was able to talk to my girlfriend, mom, and family. To me, it was nice to speak with them as much as I could. You get massive mood swings. On the highway, you want to take advantage of it. Like, I never stopped at night, because that’s when I’d get these energy surges. There was something about 5 p.m. to sundown where it was “my time.” I would never stop riding when I felt good. Mornings were always a low patch. Getting started, especially if you were wet, with your body stiff, it took hours to get the blood moving. So, to listen to music or talking to someone was nice.
From your bike computer and GPS tracker to your phone and bike lights, how did you keep all your gear charged?
A Dynamo hub with a pass-through power bank kept me charged up. The hub was always connected to light. And I could always keep a hefty battery bank on the unit to charge things. In fact, I think I could have done the entire ride without having to charge at a hotel. Some riders I saw had to sit there at a hotel for four hours to let things charge up.
I ran the new Garmin 1040 solar-charged which was really nice. The GPS and tracker need to be charged, and I bought a tracker that had text capability, in case I was out of cell service, but I really didn’t need it much.
How much bike service on your Pinhoti III did you need along the way?
I stopped to service my bike in Steamboat Springs and went to Orange Peel Bicycle Service town, and they were awesome. They had the whole thing dialed; I came in and they said it’s gonna be three hours; go here for food, go over here for a nap, and we’ll wake you up when it’s done. They were absolutely amazing.
As for service, I got really lucky; no flat tires, with the Maxxis Ikons with protection. The only maintenance was I re-greased and cleaned the bottom bracket, changed brake pads, changed my chain, and got a new rear derailleur (as the clutch broke and I was getting a lot of chain slap). Luckily that happened the day before rolling into Steamboat Springs.
I left Steamboat Springs with such peace of mind, knowing mechanics had completely looked over the bike. It’s a tradeoff; Spend the three hours to do it, or potentially have a mechanical along the route.
What were the logistical learnings?
This race is about minimizing, and really about self-care. That minimizing part was the strategy if you needed to carry 15 liters of water knowing you had a fuel stop coming up soon. And the self-care part, that was about things like not getting blisters. Maybe it makes you faster to stop 10 minutes to dry your feet, instead of riding along with wet feet.
Did you lose or gain weight over the course of the event?
I lost seven pounds, which is way different than when I did Silk Road when I was dealing with stomach issues and lost 15 pounds. I didn’t battle sickness and was eating. Seven pounds, that was no big deal—and I’ve already put a little back on.
Give us your thoughts on the moment you rolled up to that fence on the southern border, then began your journey back home to Tennessee.
You get there and you can’t comprehend that it’s over. There’s a strange mix of relief, happiness and thankfulness. To be able to do that and not have your bike or body shut down, all these factors have to come together, and you’re just grateful that it did.
But literally, you get there and there’s nothing. There’s nobody there. It ends and it’s just… over. Alexandra Houchins (single speed record holder), and her boyfriend were there and gave me a burrito and Lacroix, and I was a little emotional. You become so emotionally fragile, even the smallest kindness almost brings you to tears. I was so grateful to them.
Once I was done, a rancher at this place in Hachita has a cool gig going; for a fee, he picks you up, takes you to his range, gets you a shower, gives you fresh clothes he gets from Goodwill, lets you wash your bike clothes, and you get to sleep in a pole barn with cots and air conditioning. He’ll sell you a bike box and get you to the bus station the next day to El Paso, where I flew home.
How has recovery been?
I got back on my bike first time yesterday, pulled my dog to the Tennessee River, and went for a swim….that wore me out! (laughs)
Is the box ticked, or will you be back for another crack at Tour Divide?
I’m pulled two ways; now that I’ve done it, 18 days seemed like… I could knock two days off. I can see why some like Lael (Wilcox, the women’s winner) got into that mindset. She’s done it five times, and every time she does it, she learns a little more. I can see the draw of doing that. But, I also see a draw in doing it at a touring pace and stopping at a breakfast spot, having a beer, and just tour. I’d still do big days, but stop to enjoy it a bit more.
The next big race is a maybe; the Arizona Trail 800. If I get that one done, I’ll have completed the Triple Crown.
But the one I’m really looking forward to isn’t a race, it’s just a ride. I'm going to Scotland in August to bike the Cairngorms, doing 30 miles a day and ending at a pub every day. That, and my friend and I may try to squeeze in a trip to Nepal together to do the Annapurna Circuit. No race with either of those—just out there having fun.