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Yet the more he learned about the Tour Divide, the more Simoni began to admire what Nice was trying to do. "Justin had a profound shift in how he approached riding over a two- or three-year period," Nice observes.

Simoni read Peterson's inspirational online account of his own 2005 conquest of the route on a single-speed. There were photos from the Colorado segment of the trip that Simoni recognized because he'd been on those roads himself. "It started to seem like a real race, something I could do someday," he says.

The day came in 2011. Shortly before the start of the race, Simoni e-mailed his letter of intent to the Tour Divide organizers. He began with a quote from Edward Abbey, asserting that a "venturesome minority" of participants should be allowed to risk their hides in the wilderness if they choose: "Let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned, eaten by bears, buried alive under avalanches — that is the right and privilege of any free American."

Justin Simoni and the single-speed bicycle he rode on the Tour Divide, now on display at Salvagetti Bicycle Workshop.
Justin Simoni and the single-speed bicycle he rode on the Tour Divide, now on display at Salvagetti Bicycle Workshop.
Spanning 2,745 miles of backcountry mountain biking, the Tour Divide is the longest off-pavement cycling route on earth.
Spanning 2,745 miles of backcountry mountain biking, the Tour Divide is the longest off-pavement cycling route on earth.

"My heart is strong," Simoni continued. "I would not take this challenge as a fool's romp. But I also wouldn't accept Adventure if there was none to be had! The world is a dangerous place...This will be a quest of the spirit, another small step toward my own enlightenment, a performance of art in the noblest sense: to draw one long, single, simple line through incredible terrain, with a simple bicycle."

******

To prepare for his first attempt at the Tour Divide, Simoni lived like an exercise-obsessed hermit for months. He rode thirty to forty hours a week, averaging 1,200 miles a month on a variety of surfaces. He consulted his friends at Salvagetti about the right bike for the race, settled on a thirty-speed Big Kahuna just weeks before the race began, and set about learning its tics and figuring out just how light he could travel.

Days before the event, the organizers announced a series of detours around the most snowpacked areas of the route. Having practiced snowshoeing with his bike over Boreas Pass, Simoni was reluctant to take the detours. On his website, he'd declared an artistic ethos of rebellion: "If I was told tomorrow [that] it would be law that I must wear a pair of pants, my reaction would most certainly be to wear a dress." To him, a closed pass was an invitation to go there.

"I had trained so hard for the race," he says now. "I broke off my relationship. I was barely keeping my business afloat. I was living in a basement. It seemed such a waste not to do the actual course. I thought somebody else would do it with me, but nobody else wanted to do it."

While the others took the detours, Simoni headed into the remote vastness of Canada's Flathead Valley. By the second day, he was in last place. Sixteen days later, around the time the first cyclist was reaching the finish line at the heel of New Mexico, Simoni was still wading through drifts in Montana. He averaged a mile an hour for days.

Matthew Lee had assured Simoni that there would be no bonus points for doing the original route, but Simoni consoled himself with the thought that since he was the only one tackling this particular course, he was actually in first place. There were other compensations, too. The Tour Divide has a call-in service available to participants, who can leave messages that other riders can hear. Simoni's calls sound both exhausted and enthusiastic, the dazed reports of an explorer struggling to find the words to describe the achingly beautiful sights and experiences of his journey.

"Hello, this is Justin 'Mountain Man' Simoni," begins one transmission from Eureka, Montana. "Very quickly — lots of snow on the Flathead Pass. Just — desolation! There's no one there because there's no way to get in it. Incredible night at the Butts Cabin. It was just me and Miss May on the girlie calendar. Another slog through Cabin Pass. Some beautiful, beautiful mountains on a perfect, perfect eggshell-blue day on the Inverted Ridge, and then a midnight traverse over the Galton Pass to Eureka."

And another, hours after using an ice ax to negotiate a 45-degree slope where the trail had been buried in a snow slide: "This is Justin 'Lone Wolf' Simoni.... Rain most of the night, found shelter underneath a large pine tree. Not the optimal time to find that my bivvy is not 100% impermeable to water. A touch hypothermic, but exhaustion made morning come quickly. Waterproof socks made out of plastic bags and packing tape my saving invention."

Wyoming proved an even greater challenge. The operator of an ATV rental outlet in Big Springs, Idaho, told him he was plumb nuts if he thought he was going to ride through three major snow-choked segments of the route ahead — especially Union Pass, a 47-mile plateau of well-submerged dirt roads he'd have to cross before hitting plowed pavement again. Simoni was inclined to defer to the local experts; if he plunged ahead and couldn't make it, he'd have to backtrack 150 miles just to get to the detour. But before abandoning his adventure, he fired off an e-mail to race director Lee, sharing his doubts. Within minutes, a woman from a sandwich shop next door came in with a phone. She said she had a caller who wanted to talk to "a really grungy, dirty, smelly bicyclist...that you?"

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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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