Unlike most endurance athletes, though, Simoni isn't fixated on competition and personal bests. The Tour Divide, he insists, is an adventure, not a race. Last year, when heavy spring snowfall blanketed many areas of the northern Rockies, Tour Divide organizers scrambled to devise detours for the race. Simoni was the only one of 64 competitors who chose to follow the original route, snowshoeing over passes many locals considered impassable — even though he knew the effort would leave him weeks behind the rest of the pack.

In addition to his cycling exploits, Simoni is also a computer geek, an emerging provocateur in Denver's art scene, and a supporting but integral performer in the sonic assaults of the Itchy-O Marching Band, the ever-expanding, gate-crashing mob of masked and costumed musicians who seem to be covertly leading the city's avant-garde. It's all related, he suggests.

"I approach almost anything like it's an art project," Simoni says. "I didn't go to art school to be the next Damien Hirst. It's more about being excited about new ideas and trying something new. What happens if you do this or that?"

There are certainly elements of improvisation and experimentation in Simoni's story to date. And danger and near-death experiences, too; just because something begins as an experiment doesn't mean it can't turn into an obsession. When the adventure goes well, it can provide new layers of identity for the restless artist, as well as fresh insights into his own fractured past. When it doesn't — well, perhaps there's another way over the mountain.

"I'm not scared of doing things I'm bad at," he says. "The Tour Divide was a complete disaster last year, and this year I won. College was a complete disaster the first time around, then it was great. I'm all for failing miserably, figuring out what you did wrong and trying again."

******

In the 1990s, the American Cycling Association spent four years meticulously mapping a largely off-pavement route that zigzagged across the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. At a few points it shadowed the Continental Divide Trail, but it also wound into areas that even serious backpackers rarely visited. The original idea seemed to be that this route was something mountain bikers could tackle in stages, over months or years. But it didn't take long for someone to demonstrate that the route could be done all at once; in 1999, John Stamstad rode from Port Roosville, Montana, to Antelope Wells in eighteen days and five hours.

Five years later, Mike Curiac launched what became known as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Race. Seven riders started; four finished. The top two, Curiac and Peter Basinger, crossed the finish line sixteen days later, separated by only 24 minutes. By 2006, there were thirteen riders. The following year, ultra-legend Matthew Lee (now a six-time winner and the race director) started in Banff, extending the race by 250 miles. The expanded route was renamed the Tour Divide and became the subject of a documentary, Ride the Divide, which prompted even more riders to sign up.

The growing appeal of the event isn't hard to figure out. Quite apart from the studly challenge of riding the spine of the continent, encountering wilderness and summits well off the beaten path, Tour Divide has an informal, self-reliant spirit that's starkly different from that of other major bicycle races. Anyone can enter the fray, without qualifying heats, red tape or gilt invitations — unlike, say, the Tour de France. The sparse rules strictly forbid support teams, any assistance with meals ("No cookies from mom!" barks one provision), private lodging or even visitation mid-race by friends or family who don't happen to live along the route — unlike, say, the Race Across America, a 3,000-mile coast-to-coast competition among well-supplied cyclists on fairly good highways that seems downright cushy by comparison.

There are no checkpoints, no officials monitoring the course, no handy mechanics or pace cars; just the bike shops, diners and convenience stores that can be found in the occasional towns scattered across the route. The Tour Divide participants are on their own, with the exception of a GPS tracker and an optional cell phone (of limited use, since roughly 90 percent of the journey is outside any reliable service area).

Its asceticism is, of course, part of the draw. The race attracts serious athletes who embrace hardship and solitude, who love the outdoors and trying new things, who are seeking to discover their own limits and surpass them. Doubtless it also has its share of masochistic overachievers who, like Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, know that the trick to enduring pain is not minding that it hurts. Either way, the adventure seems tailor-made for the likes of Justin Simoni.

Yet when Simoni first heard about the race a few years ago, his reaction was less than enthusiastic. "It sounded absolutely insane," he says. "I remember saying, 'I would never in my life do anything like that.'"

At the time, Simoni was beginning to shift from a car-centric lifestyle to getting just about anywhere by bike. He wasn't daunted by the prospect of cycling down the Pacific coast or across France. The Tour Divide just struck him as...extreme. But then, his notion of what was extreme was quickly changing.

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6 comments
Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

Any chance of this guy catching passes over the middle ???

Betsy Holmes
Betsy Holmes

i LOVED this cover story. Thank you Westword for bringing Justin's story forward. Justin, you rock!

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

Alan, thanks again for taking us along w/ a TRUE athlete.

No millions, major enforcements, and of course no jerseys

adorning every thug in the region.

I'm crippled and people are always trying to pat me on the back,

but there's no way to realistically compare feats. Most major sports

figures couldn't hang w/ this guy.

Nothing short of amazing and a story well written.

willy
willy

I wish Justin would run for president - maybe he could channel some of that creativity and determination toward fixing the economy.

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

endorsements / not enforcements ......

 
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