Rain, heat waves and a portaloo in the middle of the desert

The good, bad and ugly of winning an ultra-cycling event in North America

There's nothing quite like participating in an ultra. When you cycle for an average of 300 km a day for a week, time and space dilute, and everything from your emotions to your exhaustion levels intensify like they're on steroids.

Still, by the time you've taken part in 19 such events, you might expect to have seen it all. But, says Ride Crew athlete Ulrich Bartholmoes (Uba), that would be premature.

He was 2,000 km into the Tour Divide, a 4,418 km self-supported event across the Great Divide Route (from Banff, Canada, to Antelope Wells in New Mexico).

"We were crossing the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming, and it started raining," he remembers.

He and the two other riders found themselves in the middle of the basin, surrounded by about 150 km of mud. Cycling became impossible. Even pushing their bikes was challenging, as a thick layer of mud piled up on their soles.

"It was insane. For a few hours, we made progress of something like one to one and a half kilometer per hour," Uba remembers. "And this makes it a little bit scary if you realize you have food for only 15 hours with you. If you then calculate that you still have 70 kilometers to go, and you do one kilometer an hour, you realize things can get quite serious."

The three decided to keep going because no villages or shelters were nearby. It was dark, around 7-8°C, windy, raining, and they were soaked. If they stopped, they could risk hypothermia.

Then, out of nowhere, within that desolation of mud and small bushes, a mirage appeared. A portaloo, or porta potty, materialized in front of their eyes.

"There was absolutely no reason for it to be there," said Uba. "There were no constructions nearby, no villages, absolutely nothing. But that toilet was there, in the middle of the basin. It was the only shelter for miles. So, we went in there, the three of us, and sat for the next 10 hours. That was quite an experience."

They unanimously agreed that the portaloo would serve only as a shelter or living room for the night. If someone had to do their business, he had to go outside.

"It sounds disgusting, but in these kinds of races, you need to feed your body constantly. Anytime you can. So, we're here, sitting in this toilet, eating chocolate bars and crisps. It was weird, but at that moment, when you're sitting there, wrapped in your emergency blanket, it doesn't feel like a toilet, and you forget about that."

The only thing they could do was to wait for the night to go by fast and for the ground to get dry. They tried to get going at 6 am, then again at 7 am, and every hour since then. But only at 9 am could they finally leave the toilet behind them.

"We had to push the bikes for another two hours. But at least we were making progress," he says.

The weather hadn't been nice for a whole week, and rain had started to pour down on day one after just 150 km of racing. And it rained on and off every day for at least half a day. The daily routines included zigzagging around puddles, removing rain gear when it stopped raining, and putting it back on when it started to rain again, with feet and shoes constantly wet.

In hindsight, Unbound XL, where Uba finished 3rd just nine days before setting off from Alberta, was good training for the harsh conditions of Tour Divide. Because although the weather improved during the second week, Uba still had to handle strong headwinds from Colorado and missed the worst part a heatwave that hit New Mexico with 45°C temperatures.

"But then, you need to focus on the reason why you're doing it, on your goals. For me giving up was not an option. I was not sick. I had no major injuries, and the bike was not broken. So, I was just in a bad mood."

And carry on, he did, finishing the Tour Divide in the first position in 14 days 3 hours and 23 minutes. Asked why he cycles ultras and what his goals are, he first jokes: "I don't know. I don't have anything better to do?" But then explains that, to him, these races are adventures "where you go out and collect memories that will last forever. And they make you proud you have overcome all those circumstances that made it hard."

Even when that means sharing a portaloo with two strangers for a whole night.

Photos: Nils Längner, Bikesordeath.com and Ulrich Bartholmoes

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