In the world's toughest bike race, Justin Simoni rode from disaster to triumph
In the stillness of a summer afternoon, the hours baking away in the clay-oven heat of southwestern New Mexico, Justin Simoni began to wonder if he was done.
Done, as in kaput. Finito. Beaten. Done.
This was around mile 2,600 of what was alleged to be a 2,745-mile bicycle race — but which, in Simoni's experience, had already proven to be somewhat longer. Three weeks earlier, he had set off on the Tour Divide, the most physically and mentally demanding of all bicycle races, a single-stage, strictly self-supported trek that stretches from Banff in Canada to the Mexican border, mostly on unpaved roads and jeep trails, crossing the Continental Divide 39 times. He'd dragged his bike over snowy passes, pushed through hail and rainstorms and speed-sapping headwinds, survived mechanical breakdowns, camped in desolate wilderness and on the edge of old mine sites, and logged close to 200,000 feet of elevation gain — about the same amount of vertical you'd pick up climbing Mount Everest from sea level seven times.
More than a hundred competitors had started the 2012 Tour Divide, but nearly half had dropped out somewhere along the way. Simoni, one of eleven entrants this year to attempt the route on a single-speed bike, wasn't particularly encouraged by the fact that he had only 150 miles to go to reach the terminus point in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. The 31-year-old Denver artist and web designer was beginning to doubt the existence of such a finish line. He was more worried about the next five miles, and the five miles after that.
He had started the day with a gallon and a half of water and the aim of reaching Silver City before the sun cooked him alive. Now, after sixty miles on graveled and corduroyed roads that roller-coastered through the Gila Wilderness, a path so bad that you just seemed to heave upward and wrestle for control of the handlebars on the way down, he was out of food, down to his last spit-warm bottle of water and close to collapse. Ahead was a section many riders considered the crux of the whole race: eight miles of high-exertion single-track that at times all but disappeared in a rocky landscape littered with yucca, cactus and weird, wild hoodoo plants straight out of Dr. Seuss.
Spent and overheated, Simoni was averaging less than two miles an hour through the single-track. Earlier that day, he'd seen a black bear that resembled a friend back home and a mountain lion that appeared almost human. If he didn't catch a break soon, he figured, he was done. But beyond the single-track was something he dreaded even more: a stretch of humped, crumbling and badly maintained road where he'd been flipped out of the saddle the year before, crashing his bike and injuring his shoulder and abruptly ending his first attempt to complete the Tour Divide, a day shy of that mythical finish line in Antelope Wells.
Now it was beginning to look like he wouldn't get that far this year. "I wasn't sure I was going to make it," he says now. "It sucks, being in the middle of nowhere at two in the afternoon with miles and miles to go. But then, just as I was halfway through dying on this thing, the New Mexico forest spirits came to my rescue."
As Simoni weighed the question of whether he could or should keep going, clouds began to converge overhead. In a few minutes the sun went away and the rain came down — just enough to drop the temperature twenty degrees but not turn the track to mud. Slowly but surely, Simoni began to make his way out of the funhouse. When he passed last year's crash site, he knew he wasn't done after all.
He rolled into a Mexican restaurant in Silver City that evening and ordered three meals. He camped outside of town, rose at three, and made it to Antelope Wells shortly after one o'clock in the afternoon on July 1, finishing with an official time of 23 days, five hours and 29 minutes — the nineteenth finisher overall and the first, by a wide margin, among single-speed riders. (His closest single-speed competitor took 29 days to reach the finish line; the single-speed record for the course, nineteen days, was set in 2009 by Westminster cyclist Chris Plesko.)
The whims of forest spirits aside, there's nothing haphazard about Simoni's achievement. He trained for months to prepare for this year's Tour Divide, a regimen of 100-mile-plus rides on obscure mountain routes combined with hikes up fourteeners, sometimes in the dead of winter, that even some of his hardiest cycling buddies regarded as batshit crazy. Yet as anyone who's followed his blog knows, Simoni's quest to push the limits of human endurance manages to be both disciplined and joyful.
"Everybody has their dreams of what they want to do," says Scott Taylor, owner of Salvagetti, the Denver bike shop that counts Simoni as one of its regulars — and now proudly displays the mud-caked Kona Big Kahuna he rode on the Tour Divide. "People come in and talk about doing all kinds of things. Justin is just one of those guys who actually does it."
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.
Simoni had grown up in Connecticut, the youngest of four children. His father was a self-employed social worker and '60s-era peacenik. He was an endurance runner, too, back when such races often involved running around a track and switching directions every six hours or so. One of Justin's sisters also set records at track meets, but Justin, considerably younger than his siblings, wasn't similarly inclined.
"I was the weird kid," he says. "I had big glasses and I was kind of runty, and I didn't understand how to interact with people all that well."
He liked skateboarding by himself more than school with other kids. Homework gave him anxiety attacks. His favorite class was art. The community near Hartford where he grew up was like a movie set of suburban placidity, complete with white-picket fence, but as he grew older, he began to feel its constraints. "It was like some strange young-adult novel from the 1950s," he recalls. "It felt safe, but there wasn't much going on. All the excitement was somewhere else, in Boston or New York."
He began to drift. His brother had a heart-to-heart with him about going to college — "or I'll kick your ass," he warned. He applied himself, made the honor roll his senior year and enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
After a few semesters, disappointed by the resources devoted to the art department and under some emotional strain — his parents had passed away within six months of each other — Simoni left CU. He soon found a more congenial program at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design, where he established himself as a rabble-rousing prankster who also happened to be serious, if somewhat unorthodox, about his work.
"You have good students sometimes who are okay artists," says Rebecca Vaughan, the chair of RMCAD's fine-arts department. "Justin is a lovable example of a poor student who's a great artist. He was always late to class and often absent. But he would ultimately show up, and he'd have amazing work."
Vaughan assigned one class the task of making or obtaining a hundred similar objects and installing them somewhere on campus. "Justin purchased a hundred one-cent postage stamps and stuck them all over," she remembers. "On signs. In the president's office. On my car! Then he took snapshots of all of them and showed us a PowerPoint of what he'd done. There were other students who spent hours making objects by hand, and he just spent a buck."
At one point Simoni disappeared from Vaughan's class for weeks. He returned with snapshots of "installations" he'd done on a road trip to the Northwest, pinning letters from a chopped-up copy of War and Peace along byways, on fences and near landmarks as tiny, fleeting sculptures. That led to conversations about how Simoni's proposed site for his art was the entire country — a portent, perhaps, of journeys to come. Another project involved a portrait of Jack Kerouac, assembled from text found on the first page of On the Road, accompanied by a time-lapse video documenting the creation process.
"When I was in school, my goal was to become an art star," Simoni says now. "I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond. But I didn't get a lot of support from galleries. They didn't seem interested, and I still had this do-it-yourself thing going. My first major solo show was all about exploring the most egocentric character I could create, as a total farce. And everybody liked it. They actually thought I was that guy."
Simoni graduated from RMCAD in 2004. During his CU days he'd picked up sufficient expertise as a programmer to now develop a far-flung stable of computer clients while living in a series of downtown studios, odd spaces and unfinished basements. But for months he poured much of his energy into The Next Big Thing, an art project that evolved into a satiric meditation on Warholian fame. He plastered the town with fliers featuring his face, constructed a costume made of such fliers, crashed art openings and staged other media spectacles.
Fine-arts photographer and gallery owner Mark Sink remembers attending one of Simoni's events, a party that paid homage to Warhol's Factory — complete with a band playing Velvet Underground songs and a Valerie Solanas look-alike wandering around with a gun. Sink, who interned for Warhol in the 1970s, was impressed with the detail and sophistication of Simoni's interpretation. "There's a whole community of interesting artists who have come out of RMCAD," Sink notes. "I was impressed by these semi-performance, art-and-commerce pieces Justin was putting on. I thought they were fantastic."
Another artist paid homage to Simoni's concept by billing himself as The Next Next Big Thing, prompting Simoni to respond with The Next Next Next Big Thing — until he couldn't stand the layers of irony anymore. "It got to the point where I started believing my own lie, and I had to stop the project," he says now.
Others followed, including a 2010 collaboration with sculptress Nicole Banowetz, titled A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle, that involved riding a bike in a custom-made fish costume across the metro area as a protest of the BP oil spill and a repudiation of dependence on fossil fuels. By that point, Simoni had become immersed in bicycle culture. His passion had begun innocently enough years earlier, when the Geo Metro he relied on for transportation broke down.
"I had to borrow my girlfriend's bike to get to the gallery where I was interning after school," he says. "It was, like, two miles. And it was so painful to do that ride. I was in such bad shape from being a student, totally focused on art and neglecting my health."
He bought a bike at a thrift store and rode it to Boulder, an experience that left him limping and humbled but undeterred. He spent more and more time riding, saving up cash for longer expeditions. He took a month off and rode the Pacific Coast Highway from Vancouver to Mexico. The following year, he went to France for two months of cycling and exploration. Six months after that, he headed to New Zealand for an extended hike-and-bike trip, making use of that country's extensive backcountry hut system.
In New Zealand, Simoni discovered just how quickly even a modest venture into the wilderness can become a struggle for survival. Setting out early one morning on what was supposed to be a three-day tramp, he took a wrong turn, forded a fast-moving river in the wrong place, and ended up on what he soon discovered was an island, with rising water on all sides and the first snow of autumn softly falling. Within hours, he was trapped in his sleeping bag on a rapidly diminishing patch of high ground, clutching a log and trying to keep his feet out of the icy water.
"The road was a mile away," he says. "I could see cars, but nobody could see me. I boiled water over a rock and put it in a bottle and put it at my feet."
Shivering and struggling to keep dry, he had plenty of time over the next two days to reflect on the absurdity of his situation: "I had never been so hypothermic in my life, so unprepared. I didn't even tell anyone I was going to New Zealand. How lame would it be to die at 27? What was the legacy I was leaving?"
Then the river receded, just enough for him to retrace his crossing to the other side. After a soggy walk to the ranger station, he rode sixty miles back to civilization and bonked. The next day a doctor told him he had some infected scrapes and a case of "Saturday night palsy" in one hand, the result of compressing the nerves in the arm pinned under him as he tried to keep warm. Nothing that wouldn't heal.
He had another opportunity to reconsider his approach to backcountry recreation a few months later, huddled in a sleet-pounded tent near the 13,587-foot summit of Mount McClellan. Simoni was now taking long bike rides from his house to mountain trailheads, then hiking or biking his way up lesser-known trails. His method saved gas but sometimes put him in high-altitude places at times nobody should be in such places. He was riding up a huge switchback, with stunning views of the peaks of Grays and Torreys, when the weather abruptly turned ugly. He hastily put up his tent on a narrow ridge, weighed it down with rocks and stuff sacks loaded with sand, and settled in to wait out the wind and fury. He spent the night wondering if a microburst would blow him into the abyss.
Such experiences, as well as his reading of Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales, and other studies of wilderness disasters, forced Simoni to rethink what he was doing and why. Most catastrophes in the backcountry, he decided, were the snowballing result of minor problems and mistakes — and, in many instances, a fatal dose of hubris. He decided he would not compound his risk by taking more chances than the adventure required.
"I don't go now without telling people exactly what I'm doing," he says. "I've gotten over the I'm-alone-in-the-wilderness thing. When I go to the mountains, I'm not starting eight miles up the trail in my Cherokee, where I have a phone and a GPS. I'm starting on my doorstep on my bicycle, with limited equipment and time. The number of small infractions I can afford to make is much reduced."
His growing respect for the thrills and hazards of long-range, high-country biking also had him thinking more seriously about the Tour Divide. He'd first heard about the race while haunting Salvagetti, trying to find out more about the growing hipster phenomenon of fixed-gear bicycles. ("They looked cool and dangerous, and girls liked them," he explains.) There he'd met large, friendly Dave Nice, known in bike circles as Fixie Dave, a man in the middle of what was turning into a multi-year quest to ride the entire TD route on a fixed-gear machine.
Simoni thought that sounded unhinged. Only a handful of people, including well-known bike blogger and advocate Kent Peterson, had managed to complete the race on a single-speed. A fixie would be even more difficult, since you couldn't even coast on the way down the passes. Nice was an accomplished cyclist, but his quest seemed cursed. One year, someone stole his bike while he was napping by the side of the road in the middle of Nowhere, Montana. Another year, the bike got lost on a Greyhound bus before it even reached the starting line. Another year, he injured his foot during the ride and had to bow out in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. And another year, he was forced out by a cold that turned to pneumonia by the time he reached Missoula.
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."
"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?"
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.
"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.
It took hours to sort out the repairs and the payment. Simoni grabbed food and a Red Bull, rode back to the junction and collapsed under a bridge, lulled to sleep by the roar of trucks overhead. Another single-speeder had moved ahead of him now, but he was determined to make up the lost time.
Outside Pinedale, he met up with Dave Nice, now attempting the Tour Divide on his fixie for the sixth time. Nice had elected to start in New Mexico and head north. He'd already endured some fire detours across New Mexico, as well as Wyoming headwinds that had dropped his average speed to under four miles an hour. They paused long enough to hug and snap pictures, two pilgrims in search of their own private redemption.
"It was good to see him back on course," says Nice. "I knew he'd had some struggles with his freehub. But he was smiling. I think he was in a better frame of mind than I was at the time."
And why shouldn't he be smiling? Soon Simoni was out of Wyoming and nearing Steamboat Springs. "I was on my field; I was in my back yard," he says. "Those were the roads I'd been practicing on. I could do them blindfolded."
The leaderboard indicated one single-speeder still ahead of him. The way Simoni saw it, the race wasn't about beating anybody but yourself, but the situation presented a useful spur. "All of a sudden I had this extra motivation to get moving," he explains. "I was hoping we could go tête-à-tête for a while."
He went from a spot west of Kremmling to Breckenridge, Fairplay and almost to Salida, a 22-hour, 180-mile run. But he never saw the cyclist he was trying to catch; as it turned out, his elusive rival was resting sore legs back in Steamboat Springs. After three hours of sleep by the side of the road, Simoni was back on the bike.
Salida, Del Norte, Abiqui. He decided to take his first motel room of the trip in Cuba, New Mexico — and his first shower. "I couldn't get the dirt off," he recalls. "The water was hard, the soap wouldn't lather, and the sunscreen I was using was a spray-on. I had these tacky layers of sunscreen and sweat that had attracted all this fine grit and sand, and then more layers on top of that."
Pie Town, the Gila, the intervention of the forest spirits, and then a sober moment of reflection at the stretch of dirt road where he'd come to ruin the year before: "I got to where I fell, and I realized why I fell. The hump was a lot bigger than I remembered it."
In the last hours of the race he encountered another Tour Divide cyclist, who offered him a ride home — or at least as far as Salida. This sounded far, far better than Simoni's original plan, which was to bike back from the border to Silver City, pick up a replacement for his credit card that was supposed to be sent to general delivery there, figure out how to get to Las Cruces and grab a Greyhound from there to Denver. So he hustled to the tiny border crossing of Antelope Wells, fearful of missing his ride. He made the finish and the rendezvous, snapped some pictures, and was offered the bounty of a miraculous cooler filled with chicken and beer.
When news that Simoni had been the first single-speeder to finish reached Denver, the gang at Salvagetti was elated but not exactly surprised. "It's not really a technical race; it's staying on your bike and pedaling," Taylor notes. "Justin did a better job at that because he's a little crazier than anyone else."
Five days later, Dave Nice rolled into Banff at 11:30 p.m., becoming the first person to officially complete the Tour Divide on a fixie. (Deanna Adams rode a fixie in 2009, but the Tour Divide website lists her as having deviated from the official course.) His time: 33 days, 14 hours, four minutes. To his surprise, some characters from a local bike shop were waiting for him with cold beer and takeout food and fries smothered in gravy and cheese.
"It felt good to finally slay my dragon," he says.
There's no cash prize for winning your division of the Tour Divide. But sometimes there's beer. And other, less tangible swag.
"You get bragging rights," Simoni says. "It means everyone who works in my bike shop likes me a little bit more. I'll get a drunken makeout or two. But I'm hoping cycling companies will take notice, and maybe next time they'll be able to support my crazy idea."
As a performer and artist, Simoni can now be seen in a number of surprising venues. That's him as the kooky hermit-scientist in a YouTube video promoting the benefits of Cubelets, a robot construction kit for kids made up of snap-together, self-propelled cubes; the company marketing them was launched by some friends who went to Carnegie Mellon University.
That's him, too, dancing in the vortex of percussion and smoke as the Itchy-O Marching Band performs at 3 Kings Tavern. A friend invited Simoni to help out with Itchy-O a few years ago, when the group was still small and mainly known for crashing art openings and other events. Simoni was put on tricycle duty, maneuvering the vehicle that carried speakers and a soundboard. He showed up dancing on a video of the performance — and soon discovered it's not about the trike.
"I moved up from tricycle to dancing to playing cymbals," he says. "That's kind of where I stayed."
Itchy-O has tripled in size since then. The group has issued an album, acquired a rabid following and now performs actual concerts. Like its other unsung volunteers, Simoni is preparing for Itchy-O's upcoming tour of Las Vegas, Reno and the West Coast. "Part of the reason I'm in the band is that it forces me to do something with other people," he says. "It's like the island of misfit toys. It's great to simply be a part of something, to be just a minor character in a major project — that's different for me."
Being on tour with a 26-member marching band promises to be a different kind of road trip than Simoni is used to. But there's still time for solitary adventures, too. Time to explore far horizons and what lies beyond them, even though his siblings occasionally bug him about settling down, about his current life being — well, a work in progress.
"I don't know what I'm doing next year," he says simply. "I don't have a car. I don't have a significant other. I don't even have a dog — which is sad, because dogs are awesome. These are life choices I've made. This is my path right now."
He grins. "But it might not be that way next year."
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