How the Tour Divide was won

Rookies ruled the top three spots overall, but weather and other challenges stymied attempts at course records.

Ulrich Bartholmoes closes in on the finish in Antelope Wells after 14 days on the route. Photo © Patrick Farnsworth / Bikes or Death

A first-time Tour Divide participant narrowly missed setting the race’s course record last week, while the final spot on the women’s podium came down to an almost-sprint after more than 18 days of racing. Those were just two of the highlights from bikepacking’s signature event.

Measuring 2,685 miles/ 4,321 km long while crisscrossing the Continental Divide 30 times between Banff, Alberta, and Antelope Wells, New Mexico, the Tour Divide is notoriously hard. Preparing for the event can take years; however, chasing Tour Divide records isn’t just about preparation. 

“I stated it clearly beforehand,” said men’s winner Ulrich Bartholmoes, “that I came here to take the win and the record. But I was also realistic. I was well aware that 20% of this was in my control and 80% depended on external conditions or what the trail wanted to allow me to do.”

And when things kicked off in Banff, on June 9, 2023, conditions felt prime for a fast edition. The start list included notable course veterans and recordholders like Lael Wilcox and Alexandera Houchin alongside Tour Divide rookies Bartholmoes, Justinas Leveika, Jens Van Roost, and WorldTour pros turned gravel privateers Ted King and Alex Howes.

As the race crossed Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, it looked like new records were inevitable. Bartholmoes, Van Roost, and Leveika outpaced Mike Hall’s course record, set in 2016, significantly. But the traverse across the Great Divide Basin between Atlantic City and Wamsutter quickly upended any expectations. Wet conditions ground the three leaders to a standstill, peanut butter mud clogging their drivetrains and impeding progress. It took the trio nearly 24 hours to complete that 100-mile section and they fell hours behind Hall’s pace. Just 24 hours later, eventual fourth-place finisher Steven Le Hyaric would cross the same ground in just nine hours as it dried out.

The three race leaders played leapfrog throughout Colorado. While they rarely rode together, they watched each other closely while riding their own paces.

“It was surprising to me that we stuck together for such a long time,” said Bartholmoes. “I’ve never had this and it affected the race. At some points, it felt like a group ride.”

By Salida, Colorado, Van Roost had fallen behind the pace and he scratched before Del Norte with intolerable and soon-to-be unsafe nerve damage to his hands because he could barely grip his handlebars. He wasn’t alone; 69 riders have scratched, including King, who suffered rhabdomyolysis, Sarah Swallow, and John and Mira, the human-canine pair we highlighted in The Tour Divide is Bikepacking at its Best.

Bartholmoes and Leveika continued to battle for the win, but by Cuba, New Mexico, Bartholmoes put in a big push to temporarily catch Hall’s record dot on Trackleaders and held the lead through to the finish. His overall time, 14 days, 3 hours, 23 minutes, is the second-fastest Tour Divide time, trailing just 4.5 hours behind Hall. Leveika finished second, thirteen hours later and Joe Nation completed the men’s podium early the following day.

So much more than just a fence; Bartholmoes has a moment at the finish. Photo © Patrick Farnsworth / Bikes or Death

“I’m just happy with my time and my entire ride,” said Bartholmoes. “I never met Mike, but people that I talked to say he loved competition and I love competition. Just trying to chase his dot throughout this race makes me proud that I could keep up with him. That’s enough for me.”

The women’s podium race played out similarly. Wilcox started strongly, outpacing her 2015 dot before slowly falling off record pace. She cited both route conditions and physical setbacks, and the race clearly took its toll. Illness and dehydration forced her to visit a health clinic in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where she received an IV to replenish lost fluids. She continued and held on for her first official Tour Divide victory. Although she finished first in 2015, she was credited with the record rather than the win because of a course deviation. She set the current course record that same year, during an individual time trial.

Wilcox suffered through severe dehydration, but persevered for her first official Tour Divide title. Photo © Rugile Kaladyte

Katya Rakhmatulina completed a strong ride to finish second. The closest battle proved to be for third place in the women’s field. Sasha Dowell and Hannah Simon left Silver City together with Gail Brown trailing by just a few miles. Simon and Dowell rode the final miles side by side and decided to finish together, tied for third, rather than sprint it out. Brown finished just 15 minutes later. Houchin finished later the same evening, lowering her own singlespeed record by two hours.

Although the race leaders have finished and traveled home, the Tour Divide isn’t over. More than 100 competitors continue their race and the broom wagons – set at 95 miles per day for men and 85 miles per day for women on Trackleaders – are still in Colorado, nearly 1,000 miles from the finish line. For the next week, official finishers will trickle into Antelope Wells. Their experiences will be unique, but they’ll share similarities. 

“It felt surreal,” said Nation, reflecting on his third-place finish. “Riding south from Hachita is so different from the rest of the route. It was just a slow, slightly uphill grind. It gave me lots of opportunities to think.”

For the past fifteen days, he shared a few moments with fellow competitors, like Chris Burkard and Ezra Ward-Packard, but estimates he rode solo 90% of the time. From surprise grizzly bear encounters to bike-stopping mud, the ride felt like a series of highs and lows. He’d forced himself to avoid getting caught up in the race and stuck to his plan to average 300 km and 4-5 hours sleep per day through the first week. By the second week, he started sacrificing sleep and shortening his resupply points. 

“I would try once a day to get a 1500-calorie meal in,” he said. “I was loving the American-style burgers and chips. The rest of the time, I was thinking about resupply, the bike, and logistics.”

On the final stretch of pavement, there was nothing left to worry about.

“All of that was suddenly gone,” he said, “ and I could just tap myself on the back. There were a few emotions, for sure, and the fence couldn’t come fast enough.”

Course Records (days:hours:minutes):

2023 Results:

Men’s Overall

  1. Ulrich Bartholmoes 14:03:23
  2. Justinas Leveika 14:16:57
  3. Joe Nation 15:02:50

Women’s Overall

  1. Lael Wilcox 16:20:00
  2. Katya Rakhmatulina 17:08:48
  3. (tie) Hannah Simon and Sacha Dowell 18:11:13

Men’s Singlespeed

  1. Kyle Peterson 16:22:28
  2. Jake Colantonio 17:22:58

Women’s Singlespeed

  1. Alexandera Houchin: 18:18:26

What did you think of this story?