The Adventurers: Ride the Divide


Scott Thigpen traversed the continent on his bicycle.

by Lindsey Lowe            

Photo by Edward Badham

 

“Let’s get one thing straight,” says Scott Thigpen. “I am not a badass.”

That’s debatable. On June 14, 2013, Thigpen set off on the Tour Divide, a cycling race that follows the Great Divide Trail. The trail—the world’s longest off-pavement cycling route—spans 2,745 miles, from Banff, Alberta, in Canada, to Antelope Wells, N.M. Twenty-three days later, Thigpen crossed the finish line, placing 40th overall (and fourth in single speed) out of 167 (70 of those finished the race.) It was, in a word, badass.

Relatively speaking, Thigpen, an illustrator and a digital media specialist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, hasn’t been riding all that long. In fact, in 2009, when he attempted to ride his bike up his driveway, he found himself out of breath. “I had gone up to Connecticut with my wife’s family, and we had eaten really badly,” he explains. “When I got back, I thought, ‘Man, I’ve really put on the weight. I need to bike or something.’ I had biked as a kid, of course. I couldn’t even get up the hill of the driveway, and I thought, ‘This is bad.’ So once every two or three days, I’d bike around my neighborhood.” His were humble beginnings, to be sure, but slowly, he got better. From there, he began to dabble in mountain and trail biking at Oak Mountain State Park, where he met other cyclists (specifically BUMP, the Birmingham Urban Mountain Peddlers). Around the same time, he read a book called Getting Things Done, which inspired him to set some new goals to work toward. He also saw a movie, Ride the Divide, that told the story of bikers on the trail. The experiences collided, and he decided he had to do it. That decision was the beginning of a long road to the starting line of the Divide. And then, of course, there was the race itself.

After deciding to pursue the race, Thigpen began training. The average marathon training plan is 16 weeks long; Ironman plans are usually around 20 weeks. Thigpen’s plan was two years long. He was sponsored through his blog, driven2divide.com, and by Cahaba Cycles. During training, he lost 55 pounds and sometimes spent 30 hours a week on his bike. One week, he biked 700 miles; it was, he says, a part-time job. And then, after the motivation had come and gone countless times, after hours and hours on trails and on a trainer in his living room, and after his wife had given him her blessing, he flew to Canada, got on his bike, and began to ride. “I was scared shitless at first,” he says. “The day before, I almost threw up three times. The day of the race, there were all these other bikers, and some of them had done it before, but a lot of us hadn’t. You could tell who hadn’t, because their eyes were wide as plates. We were all lined up at the tip of the woods, and when [the race director] said, ‘Go,’ I stayed in the back.  I just watched this sea of bikers going, and it looked like a bunch of knights on horses.”

Thigpen says he “just started peddling,” and at first, it seemed—dare he say it—easy. But within a couple of hours, he’d been caught in a torrential downpour in the freezing Canadian temperatures. “At our first stop, at a little gas station, several of us bikers were huddled together, shivering to death,” he says. “And my thought was, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” Thigpen explains that over the course of the 23 days, he set benchmarks that helped keep him aligned mentally (crossing into the United States was a big push forward.) He usually rode his bike for some 16 hours a day along the unmarked trail—bikers must use their own resources to find their ways—and camped where he could. Now, when he talks about it, he closes his eyes and goes state by state. “Montana started out pretty easy. It was pretty flat, a big sky scape,” he says. “There, I saw a lot of bear tracks.” He holds his hands up to indicate the tracks were dinner-plate sized. “And there, it turned into, ‘I quit, I quit, I quit.’ Rain, sleet, snow. That happened every day in Montana for five days. I got on the phone with my wife and started crying, and I couldn’t stop. I never said I wanted to quit, because I wanted her to say, ‘Come on home.’ She never said it. She said, ‘Just peddle and see what you can do.’”

In Idaho, he was surprised by the lack of potatoes and the gravel road. In Wyoming, he rode through the desert, where he ran out of water 75 miles in and panicked. Thigpen was worried that he was dehydrated, and there was no sign of anything but a ghost town for miles. He happened upon one house with one person in it—a sheepherder—who let him fill up his water bottles. In Colorado, his energy was renewed; he says it was as beautiful as one would think. The most beautiful thing about the Divide, though, is that there was almost always someone who was willing to help you out. “All along the way, you’d meet people who would give you stuff,” Thigpen says. “I’d fall into tears every time. In fact, one night, I was missing Kate [his wife] really bad. I whipped around a corner and almost took out a lady and her kids. I said, “I’m so sorry,’ and I was trying not to cry, and she asked, ‘What’s wrong? Oh! You’re doing that stupid race. Why are you crying?’ I started boohooing and told her I missed my wife really bad, and she said, ‘Well, I’m going to pretend to be your wife and say get your ass on that bike and keep going.’” The people stories go on and on. In a small town bar in Colorado, Thigpen ran into an elderly man who turned out to be an engineer. “He was, I don’t know, a thousand years old,” Thigpen says. “He was smoking cigarettes and drinking vodka…He asked me where I was from, and I told him Alabama. He said, ‘I used to live in Huntsville.’ It turns out he was an electrical engineer for Von Braun.”

The route was tough in many ways, of course; in addition to the physical demand, there were the things one meets in the woods. One night, Thigpen unrolled his sleeping bag on a bed of scorpions and almost climbed in. Another time, he climbed up a mountain toward the headlamps of his fellow bikers, which actually turned out to be trees that were on fire. And then there was the last leg of the trip: Thigpen misjudged his mileage, ran out of water, and ended up drinking half a Slurpee someone on the road gave him. What the scorpions and the fire and the dehydration taught Thigpen, the only Alabamian to ever finish the race, was that fearlessness is not everything it’s cracked up to be, but deciding to keep going—despite being afraid—is.

Thigpen had been warned that this race was about the journey, not the finish line, which he confirms is rather lackluster (he was just ready for it to be over.) And he says the whole thing was worth it, though he never wants to do it again. “A long time before the race, when I was looking for direction in my life, a friend had told me to go to a nursing home and talk to the people,” Thigpen says. “Ask them what they wish they had done. None of them will say they wanted to work harder or work more hours. It’s about substance. I had just done nothing of substance, and I did not want to go to my grave saying I didn’t do anything big. Some people’s big thing is to raise children or buy art. I just wanted to say I was able to traverse across the country and start from humble beginnings. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it, and what I’m usually thinking about is satisfaction that I did something.”

2 Responses to “The Adventurers: Ride the Divide”

  1. Tyler says:

    That sounds fulfilling. I love that his wife did not appease him by telling him to come home. He toughed it out, and it makes a great story!

    • Kate says:

      Thanks Tyler. It was tough. His coach did a good job of telling me that his brain would be trying every trick in the book to convince him to come home, and one of the brain’s best tricks would be to use me to make him think I wanted and/or needed him to. I had to really put on my game face when I talked to him, and it wasn’t easy. Definitely tough love.

Leave a Reply