Matthew Lee, five-time winner of the Tour Divide, sees the 2,745-mile bicycle race down the spine of the Continental Divide as a metaphor for life — full of peril, ups and downs, and calm flat and smooth patches all mixed together. More than half of the cyclists who start the race each year never complete it, due to injury, bike damage, or simple exhaustion.
Tony Cervati knows all about the downside. Last summer, his first attempt at the Tour Divide lasted less than a day. This year, he’ll try again, armed with a different perspective and, hopefully, better luck.
Cervati and Lee both live near Durham and Chapel Hill, NC, a landscape of gently rolling hills and broad expanses of virtually level ground that once grew tobacco and now accommodate the sprawl of the Research Triangle. It seems an unlikely place to train for the most physically and mentally challenging cycling event on earth more than 2000 miles to the west. But then, as Tony puts it, “There’s really no way to train for this, except to ride and ride and ride some more.”
Back in 2007, Lee told Cervati he should try the Tour Divide. A a senior database administrator for a cancer research project funded by the National Institute of Health, Cervati’s is also “Type 1 Rider,” a label he adopted in 2005 as a way to share his participation in dozens of competitive and charity cycling events — and also to post his training logs, complete with blood glucose results. Diagnosed at age eight and now 43, he played football and competed in track as a high school athlete and turned to cycling in college as a way to stay in shape and keep his competitive juices flowing. Although he’s dropped about 50 pounds from his football weight of 230, he says ruefully, “I don’t have a cyclist’s build.” Regarding training, he says, “Most people who try this ride 300 to 400 miles a week. I can’t tell you how much I’m NOT that person.”
Still, he is a professional rider in all but name, and his attempt to complete the Tour Divide is not a farfetched whim. The route covers 2,745 miles of Jeep trails, dirt paths, and a few stretches of paved roads. It runs the length of the Continental Divide, from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Matthew Lee’s world record time for the race is 17 days, 21 hours, and 10 minutes.
Many finish the race in 25 to 30 days. A cardinal rule of the event is that bikers must be self-supporting along the route and can only use services available to all. In other words, it’s OK to have FedEx deliver a package of insulin to a stop along the route, but you can’t sleep in a friend’s house overnight. For a person with Type 1 diabetes, this is obviously a test of endurance, meticulous planning, and luck. “Mentally,” says Cervati, “I break it down into stages from blood check to blood check, which I’ll do about every 90 minutes.” His Dexcom CGM will help, but that’s a still a lot of finger sticks. And stops along the way.
There are more grizzly bears and mountain lions than people along the trail. Trying to avoid a bear just a few hours into the trip last summer sent Cervati home with 3 broken ribs and his arm in a sling. He’d left North Carolina just a few days before with considerable fanfare, and a quick return home was not part of the plan.
“I came to realize, that the important thing was trying, and that I couldn’t always control the result.”
Recalling how disappointed he was, Cervati says,“I just dug myself a hole and crawled inside,” he remembers. “I was never going to ride again. I wanted to shut Type 1 Rider down. I felt like a failure.”
The website turned out to be his salvation, however. People who read about his attempt and the aborted result wrote to him by the hundreds, almost unanimously praising him and thanking him for taking on such a difficult challenge.
“I came to realize,” he says, “that the important thing was trying, and that I couldn’t always control the result.” In many ways his first attempt at the Tour Divide is a mirror image of his first 24-hour endurance event many years before. “Because I didn’t know how to control my diabetes during the event, I completely failed,” he recalls. “But I was determined to figure out what I could and couldn’t do, and I did, and have competed successfully in dozens of events since then. I may not be as well prepared physically for the Divide this year, but I’m much better prepared mentally. All of us with diabetes have to get up every morning and deal with it. We can’t quit, and I won’t either. The important thing is to make the effort.”
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