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.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast