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For anyone who doesn’t know, James Olsen went to the US earlier this summer. Armed with his steel Jones and not much else, he set off on what for many is and always will be the ultimate test … the Tour Divide. 

I pestered him into answering a few questions – enjoy!

1/ Was there a point racing the TD where you ‘knew’ you’d finish or where you honestly thought you wouldn’t? 

I’d felt fairly confident most of the second half but you never know really. I knew I’d finish about 65 miles from the end once I got onto that final desert road in New Mexico. Before that I’d wanted to ride through the night past Silver City without a stop but a couple of times I woke up swerving across the road after falling into a moment’s sleep on the bike, I thought I was going to crash out within 100 miles of the finish. The low point was mid-morning riding between Rawlins and Brush Mountain Lodge, the hills were getting steeper and more regular, I was really tired after 195 miles the day before then 3hrs sleep after a poor dinner, just too tired to get the right food when I’d stopped earlier. I’d run out of coffee too and was just a tired rider at the halfway point, felt like I was close to the end of what I could do and wasn’t finding it worthwhile or any fun at all. But Brush Mountain Lodge is an oasis and Kirsten is lovely, she deserves credit for saving a lot of riders from their low points. I think I almost wanted to get to that point anyway, otherwise it would have felt too easy? I did get very bored of hot, washboard-ridden fireroads in NM too but that should be expected.

2/ A lot of us dream about racing the TD … how long before this years TD did that dream start to become a realistic goal for you? 

Since Jan 1st, not sure about realistic but that’s when I decided I really did want to do it after it being in the back of my mind as a daydream for a while. Maybe I just thought that the rides I’d done over the last couple of years counted as good prep and 5 months specific training would be ok. I wrote something about it on the whiteboard in my garage where the turbo trainer now is (didn’t use one until then) and then ‘fessed up to Paul Errington (we used to sponsor him when I worked at Genesis – found his attitude to going places and getting stuff done pretty inspiring) that I was going for it, sometime in Feb I think. Paul said once that ‘if you call something you have to do it’, so I felt committed. Sending the letter of intent email in early March was a ‘finger hovering over the send button’ moment. If you tell Matt Lee you’ll be racing the TDR, you feel like you’re as good as there in Banff already. 

3/ Did you have a specific training plan to follow or was it more a matter of just riding lots? 

I did work out a plan of sorts, at least aims for my training. Looked up some training info online and got some advice and stuck to the plan. I wrote down my saddle-time and miles on a wall calendar and it was good to see the training volume build up, made me feel confident I was working hard enough to justify being there come the Grand Depart. I started to see some results which was good, but I’d never trained that much or over that kind of period before so I wasn’t sure what results to expect.

 4/ Obviously mental strength is just as important as physical strength when racing such a long event. Was there a defining moment when your body gave up and your mental strength became the driving force that allowed you to finish? 

There was a long bonked-out drag through the Cruces Basin area in New Mexico, 100 miles or so from bonk to proper food, with about 800 cals worth of food on me. That was tough but what can you do, you can’t sit down and stop or bail out to anywhere closer. I resorted to walking a few hills to save energy but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to get. Mentally you get pretty low when your energy’s gone but I still love being reliant on myself in places like that, I admit I’d rather have slogged through it with company but pacing is better done alone. It wasn’t ‘touching the void’, I did feel alone more than usual there but I was expecting a bit of bonked-out riding on the way. It’s just a ‘bigger’ place to be when you feel done-in than normal rides at home. The last 4 days were really tough too, it was hot and I felt out of reserves, I hadn’t eaten enough in total, not sure if you can actually. So I was going on momentum as much as anything, once I was at the border I realised how drained I was.

I imagine this is how you’d look if you were being chased by bears.

5/ You spent every night on the TD sleeping outside. Was that a cunning plan from the mind of a hardcore purist or an unfortunate accident? 

Daft ethics really, I just wanted to do the race in a certain style. You’re only a rookie on the TDR once and I wanted to try an ‘onsight’ kind of climbing style – not too much route planning (I wasn’t pre-aware of the cabins along the way, the best bivi sites or the ‘thank god’ supply points that pop up on route, just what was on the ACA notes and tbh I hadn’t read through them as much as I should have done). I was also lucky that it was a fairly dry race for the first 20 or so riders through Montana, the guys behind suffered from the mud and rain more than I did so the bivi was a more bearable option for me. I only slept out in one full-on storm and a couple of drizzly nights. Bivis are just nicer than dodgy B+Bs or motels with rubbish beds or noise. I looked forward to the perfect bivi site every night, flat with lush green grass, a stream, a dawn view from high up etc.. I never got it but it kept me going each day. The places I slept were all pretty good, good enough when you’re that tired anyway.

 6/ Your finish time was considerably faster than your estimated time. Were you surprised by how well you did? 

Yes, to be honest. I don’t race so I had no idea of how I’d compare to others. Maybe a bit of limiting expectations in that estimate but I honestly thought 24-25 days would be good going – 110 miles a day seemed like a good average as I was doing 120 miles around the Chilterns in training and finding 80-90 the next day felt like hard going. But the terrain is so different, the climbs on the Divide don’t beat you in the same way as repeated 15%+ short, sharp climbs do. Pacing is more manageable, I’m not good at pacing myself so that helped. And it was a dry, fast trails year for the front of the field, that probably made a day or 2’s difference.

7/ Did you know how well you were doing during the race? 

On the morning of day 2 Billy Rice came past going north and we stopped to chat. I think he was chatting to pretty much everyone as he went, really nice guy. He told me there were only 9 or 10 in front of me and that set me off – I thought I was in the front 1/2 but not that far up. But Mike and Craig were about 6-8hrs ahead, there was already a huge distance between the top 3 or 4 riders and the rest of the top 10. And I got an update at Brush Mountain, 3rd, but only since Craig Stappler had bailed and 2 others were close behind, within 3-4hrs of me. That was a shock-motivator!

8/ Were you unlucky enough to find yourself repeatedly singing the same line from the same song over and over? 

As always.. haha. Bob Seger classics this time. I doubt anyone could hear me though. 

Could you cope with miles and miles of this?

9/ Did you lose any weight throughout the course of the race? 

Felt pretty lean at the end. Nothing that 3 days in a Texas hotel with a buffet breakfast couldn’t solve .. maybe 7lbs over ‘race’ weight at the start, deliberately put that on 2 weeks beforehand, was down to maybe 4-5lbs under that weight at the end, so 10-12lbs in total? I didn’t weigh myself until over a week after getting back though. 

10/ Any thoughts as to why non-US racers tend to do quite well in the TD? 

The US riders do well too but none of the ‘known’ really fast guys entered this year, Brian Pal was top US rider and only a few hrs behind teh 3 of us finishing a close 3rd-4th-5th. If you’re traveling all the way from South Africa, Australia, UK, NZ etc I guess you’re pretty committed and will make a good effort of it.

11/ If times continue to get faster or the prestige of winning becomes greater, can you foresee a time where more ‘rules’ may need to be introduced to ultra-distance races? 

I hope not. The ‘gentlemen’s bet’ ethic is great, if it needs more than that it says the wrong attitudes are entering. 

12/ Tubes or tubeless? 

Tubeless. Only 2 flats in 2860 miles and I had 2 more than the guys I was racing closest to who were also on tubeless; both of the flats were fixed w/o a tube fairly fast. I’ve used a chain tool more than my spare inner tube in a fair amount of miles of bikepacking. 

Looks just like Wales!

13/ Is there anyone you’d like to thank?

It’s not an award speech : ) but yes, since you ask – Paul E for the remote-mentoring, passive pressure and bad influence. Kevin Blackhound for route info and general advice. And to Natchaya for putting up with my stressed-out moments after I’d said I was going to do something that felt beyond me. 


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