The caller was Lee. "Justin, you can do this," he said. "I know what the locals are saying, but they don't know who you are. Or what you've done, or what you're capable of doing. You do."

He decided to keep going. He had to retreat from his first sortie up Union Pass, having lost the trail entirely. After consulting additional topo maps in Dubois, he returned and found his way. It took him more than three days to get through Wyoming. But ahead was Colorado, his home ground, and then New Mexico, which just seemed like an overheated coda. He figured the worst was over.

Except it wasn't. Perhaps he was too tired or too confident, having come through places where even snowmobilers feared to tread, and wasn't sufficiently in the game. At any rate, on a snowless patch of humped dirt road in southern New Mexico, just hours from his goal, he found himself airborne, then sprawled in the road. It was as if he'd gone dirt-jumping without his bike, and then everything stopped.

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.

"There was just this huge wave in the road, and I took it way too fast," he says. "This was Day Thirty of not getting enough calories in my body, Day Thirty of sleeping on the side of the road. It was like any accident — a buildup of minor things into a major thing."

His front wheel was taco'd. His left shoulder was on fire. He probed under the torn jersey and found blood but no bones sticking out. A passing jeep handed him over to state fish-and-game officers, who took him to an emergency room. The shoulder was just sprained, he learned.

He took a bus back to Denver. The pieces of the shattered Big Kahuna were boxed up and shipped back. In the months that followed, he began to understand how Dave Nice felt after five years of thwarted, heartbreaking attempts to complete the Tour Divide.

"There was not a day I didn't think about the race," Simoni says. "It's like an opiate. You want to go faster. Do it better. Finish."

******

His busted-up bike stayed in its box well into 2012. Simoni rode other bikes. He took long backcountry rides in fair and mostly foul weather, taking shelter from the storms in a playhouse in a park in Hartsel or a bathroom in Rocky Mountain National Park, waiting for the snowplow to arrive. By late spring he'd saved enough money — doing computer work, living modestly and sleeping on the concrete floor of an art studio — to get the Kona fixed.

He had Salvagetti make several modifications, including stripping the bike down to a single speed. After troubles with the drivetrain and the pedals during the race last year, he was on a mission to simplify everything he could to avoid costly breakdowns and repairs. He got the rejuvenated bike back just days before the start of the 2012 Tour Divide, with a new saddle and other improvements.

He had no time to break it in. The first time he rode it off-pavement was the first day of the race. The first couple of days, he could barely climb hills. His ride had a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour on a flat straightaway, but on washboard and slippery gravel inclines he had to stand up to pump, and that took away needed weight on the back wheel. Sometimes he had to "paperboy" it, slaloming from one side of the road to the other.

"I had to slowly learn how to ride this bike," he says. "Going into a race like that, it's not something I would recommend."

But by the third day, he was in front of the single-speed riders. He knew the route, knew how to keep his body stoked with peanut butter and tortillas, muffins grabbed at gas stations and the occasional sit-down diner pig-out, all to keep up with the incredible calorie burn of riding fifteen hours or more a day. "I'm so glad there are miners and truckers," Simoni says. "You walk in this diner and you're smelly and dirty and disgusting, and nobody cares."

He breezed through the Canada and Montana segments with little drama. His trusted wrenches at Salvagetti had replaced everything that had a bearing in it, everything that could go wrong.

Except the back wheel.

Near Lima, Montana, shortly before the route drops into Idaho, Simoni discovered that the ratcheting system for his freehub was misbehaving. If he started coasting, it wasn't certain he could start pedaling again. He babied the bike across the high desert, calculating the closest resupply point. At Moran Junction, Wyoming, he decided to turn right, to Jackson — a 65-mile side trip that would get him to the bike shops he badly needed — rather than stay on course to Dubois. Now that he was off-route, he was allowed to hitchhike, but none of the tourists heading to the Grand Tetons in their stately RVs would pick up the bearded, road-stamped, wild-eyed traveler. He hadn't slept for more than 24 hours by the time he creaked into Jackson — and discovered that he'd lost his credit card somewhere in Montana.

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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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