Loneliness on a mountain bike

A bike at home, far from Ride The Divide.

If there is a lesson in the 2010 documentary, “Ride The Divide,” it is this.  Long-distance mountain-bike racers do not live on muscle and stamina alone.  They live almost as much on a roller-coaster of emotions with the powerful need of human companionship at the core.

The film covers a race over “the world’s longest mountain-bike route,” a gruelling up-and-down traverse of 2,711 miles along the Continental Divide, through five U.S. states — Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico — from Banff in Canada in the north to the border with Mexico on the south.

It’s agony.  Fifteen competitors start out, all in top physical condition.  Less than half finish the ride that takes more than three weeks for the winner passing through some of the most remote and beautiful landscapes in America.  Through mountain snow, thunderstorms and parched desert.  Through blisters, swollen joints, knee pain and in one case a torn Achilles tendon.  More than 100 miles a day at times, through equipment breakdowns, hunger and bear scares.

Sometimes, early in the race before they get strung out, a few of the riders meet up at a small motel, restaurant or a tavern to rest, shop for groceries but mostly to talk, to connect again with a human voice after hours pedaling solitaire.  Shadowing them everywhere is loneliness and, for one, near despair.

A small support crew with a camera and microphone trail along in a van.  The crew communicates via mobile phone with the riders, giving them updates on the race, who’s out, who’s hurting, who’s in anguish.  The focus here is not on technical matters facing the bikers or statistics.  The spotlight homes in on the human spirit.  We the viewers peer down into the soul, trying to grasp the racer’s essence.

The film quickly focuses on three riders.  Mike Dion of Denver, Matthew Lee of Chapel Hill, NC, and the only female, Mary Metcalf-Collier from Idyllwild, CA.

Mike proves to be the most susceptible to emotional wreckage.  Although he has issues like most with knee pain, he succumbs early on to his inner needs.  Near Dillon, MT, Mike breaks down, crying four times in one day.  Later we see him again break down during a brief telephone call to his young daughter.  He misses her, he misses his wife, he has “obligations” to them.  The excuses pile up.  He finally drops out on Day 11, having done roughly 1,330 miles, or about half the ride to Mexico.

Mary too is riven with emotion.  And pain.  Her legs from the knee down to the feet become horribly swollen.  She feels they are about to explode and gives in to lengthy stops at motels to elevate and rest her bedraggled legs.  But the worst part, she says, is the “boredom” of riding alone, particularly after her  racing companion, Mike, quits.  Mary too drops out.  Not once but at least twice.  Yet unlike Mike, she receives a boost from family members who come to meet her, to encourage her to finish.  And so, rejuvenated, Mary pushes on.

But it is Matthew, aka Matt, who is best able to maintain a proper emotional balance, to shunt aside thoughts of what he calls the “real world” back home in North Carolina.  He is a strong and experienced rider to boot.  This marks his sixth time traveling the Continental Divide.

One of the film’s most poignant moments comes when Matt’s sometimes riding partner Reuben Kline, of Gettysburg, PA, stops at a motel.  Reuben has led much of the race, but now he waits on Matt to catch up.  He misses the camaraderie.   Upon learning of Reuben’s purposeful delay, Matt is bewildered, or pretends to be.  “Why would he do that?” Matt tells the interviewer, then waving his hand to the great outdoors, “This is what it’s all about.”   A perfect example of how Matt compartmentalizes his need for human contact and the race.  He will not relent.  He is focused on the race alone.

When Reuben too eventually quits with ankle and knee injury, Matt barely blinks an eye.   “He was very entertaining,” he says of his former riding companion, showing little emotion.

Not only is Matt a championship rider, he lends an eloquent voice to the film.  As he approaches the finish line with a nine-day lead over second-place Mary,  a wistfulness overtakes him.  A decrease in his daily mileage sets him off on a monologue.

“I feel like in some way,” he says, “I might be passively mellowing here towards the end because of the fact I’m going back to the real world when I’m done.  Things are going to be very intense for me.  I’m having a baby in three weeks, and in some ways I’m not prepared for that.

“I’ve been over the Divide five times and I know what it’s like.  It’s almost easier than bringing a child into the world in some ways.  That will be the ultimate endurance test.  Maybe I’m dragging my heels a little bit, trying to savor the last leg of the race, I don’t know.  Certainly my life’s going to change in a way I can’t predict.”

Matt does not mention by name his family, so wrapped up in self, the wilderness and his racing.  It’s “I’m having a baby,” not “we are having a baby.”  As he approaches Antelope Wells, NM, the last stop before the border, Matt voices more uncertainty about the future.

“Although you might start out with a great deal of trepidation,” he says regarding the dangers that one might encounter during the race, “in the end it ends up being the safe place, and returning back to the rat race . . . seems like the scary thing to do.”

While the persevering Mary in many ways is the most admirable of the group, finishing second, it is later finishers that provide the telling moment about long-distance mountain bike racing.

Leighton White, a man named Adrian and two Europeans, Alan Goldsmith of the UK and Domnick Scherer of Germany ride to the finish line smiling, hand in hand, the foursome more than happy to share third place.

Ah, wilderness.  Ah, the spirit of competition.  But more accurately here:  Ah, togetherness.

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3 thoughts on “Loneliness on a mountain bike

  1. Nice writeup and analysis, Longrow. I’m glad you enjoyed the film. PS- There were several others who finished the race that year, but the film crew wasn’t able to follow us all since we get so spread out over a month of covering 2,745 miles!

  2. Thanks, Mary. It took a lot of courage for you and Mike, and even Matt, to open up to the camera, to bare a piece of your soul, to present yourself as the vulnerable human beings we all are. That’s what made the film so enjoyable to me.

  3. Mike Dion seems like a mentally weak person. I know it would be outrageously difficult to finish but the way he quits, the reason he quit etc. Disappointed me as someone that has had to dig so deep to complete an elite military school that I lost respect for him. He should have not started.

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