This year’s Tour Divide Race was one for the books, with all the controversy surrounding documentation, but as well with many record hopeful attempts being foiled. It was an amazing and exciting feat to behold on many levels. At the end of all of it, I posed three questions to our team in hopes of giving an idea of what such a project entails. If you have any other questions please ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them. -Spencer
Question one: What gear did you bring to document the race?
Canon 5D Mark IV
Wireless Lav Microphones
Rue’s usual quiver (Spencer Harding)
Nikon D600 w/ Outershell camera strap
Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8
Nikon 70-200mm f/4
Nikon 50mm f/1.8
Nikon 85mm f/1.8
Nikon 2X teleconverter
Evoc CP 26l camera backpack
Porcelain Rocket DSLR Slinger
Roadrunner Bags Auto-Pilot handlebar bag
Spencer trying to get better Trackleades signal (Rugile Kaladyte)
Since I was doing exclusively video content I used a Panasonic GH5 with a could of zoom lenses. I also has a few prime lenses for low light shooting and also a Rode mic for audio. I used a one handed gimbal while on the e-bikes to get some riding/tracing shots and a Mavic Pro 2 drone for the helicopter shots.
Jay making his own shade to fly the drone (Spencer Harding)
Question 2: What challenges were unique to covering an event of this scope and scale?
First, the most unique challenge was the criticism we faced for documenting the Tour Divide. There was an incredible amount of positive feedback and support, but sometimes the negativity appears the loudest, especially when it starts to influence the way you work.
I had pitched covering the Tour Divide to Lael’s sponsors — in order to undertake a project of this size and length, a budget and extensive plan would be needed. How do you tell the story of a 2,700 mile race that starts in Canada, covers five states and ends at the border of Mexico? The goal would be a final film. Live updates would be great. Maybe even some photo galleries. I’d never seen this race covered extensively, not since “Ride the Divide,” and that film is almost a decade old. It would be a long undertaking, at least 14 days. I imagined driving, navigating, tracking riders, shooting photos, shooting video, backing up files and posting live updates. To do it solo would be impossible. I would need a team and I had always wanted to work with Spencer Harding and Jay Ritchey. Spencer would help supplement my work with stills and take on a larger role of assistant. Jay Ritchey would focus on shooting from the bike and drone footage. I really like what he had done with his film “El Silencio.”
Rue and some golden light waiting for racers (Spencer Harding)
And then that plan went out the window and it was replaced with compromises. I couldn’t shoot Lael because of the possibility of an emotional boost. My credentials as a professional photojournalist were overshadowed by the fact that I’m Lael’s girlfriend. Spencer was now the key photographer in capturing Lael. Jay Ritchey would now be responsible for shooting video of Lael. I would capture the other racers. I was willing to make this compromise out of fear that Lael would be relegated if I didn’t. Once the race started, I realized I couldn’t document any of the riders that were in proximity to Lael. Spencer, Jay and I were all wearing SPOT Trackers that were being monitored by Matthew Lee, the unofficial race director, and I wanted to make sure there was never any question as to whether or not I had interacted with Lael. It became a ridiculous sight when I would position myself blocks away, behind trees or an empty field out of sight. I still didn’t know if the tracker would pick up my movements in time with its interval tracking and I would document every time Lael would pass by or when Spencer and Jay were documenting her. If there was any doubt, I would have proof in the form of video clips, photos and GPS coordinates. It was ridiculous, but all in hope of assuring Lael would not be relegated because of me. I had wanted to document Lael’s story of racing the Tour Divide. I had worked months to organize and produce the project, but found myself in the role of director instead of creator. Personally, that was a challenge for me. Projects change all the time, but this had been something I had really been looking forward to.
Always getting the shot (Spencer Harding)
This year, there were 156 riders in the Grand Depart. 17 of those riders are women. Lael, the top female racer this year, was being criticized for having documentation of her ride. Some individuals started to discredit other events she had done because there was documentation of it. I found this more challenging to accept when there was another film crew documenting a top male racer and no one was criticizing them. They hadn’t asked for permission from the race organizer and weren’t wearing SPOT Trackers. It like felt that this story needed to be shared more than ever. The unique challenges we faced covering this event are now part of the story. They’ll be part of the final film. I’ll provide the facts and leave my thoughts and opinions out of it.
Another unique challenge was the intensity of the documentation. During the two weeks, it’s all you think about (or try to when blocking out negativity) and those weeks feel like months. Each day is packed with so many experiences. I can only begin to comprehend how the racers feel with the combination of physical endurance and sleep deprivation. Even when the race is over, it’s hard to tell your brain it is. Lael’s told me that in the past, she’s had dreams that she’s still racing the Tour Divide. Weeks after the race, I’m having dreams that I’m still covering the Tour Divide. I’ve had three in a row and they’re all about trying to get to Antelope Wells in time for the finishers. In one dream I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to miss a racer at the finish because we need to take a four hour detour to reach them. They only have 40 miles left and will surely be done by the time we arrive. In another, I realize I’m going to miss Lael at the finish. Then I feel a sense of relief because I have a faint memory of already capturing her finish. We can just use that footage, right? I’m thinking of the footage that we actually captured in real life, it should be good enough for this project in my dream. I was having dreams about coverage during the actual race. Jay Ritchey said he heard me talking in my sleep one night. I was talking about the riders, we have to find the riders.
Rue filming Josh Kato at a resupply (Spencer Harding)
Then there’s “hurry up and wait.” Driving around passes to get access to the route. Taking screenshots of Trackleaders because you’re about to lose service. You’re firing on all cylinders getting to that stop, finding your shot and then… Waiting. Waiting for the riders. Sometimes they’ll fly by in a matter of minutes and you’re catching your breath, thrilled you made it in time. Other times you’re waiting over an hour. The light changes and you set up a different shot. More time creeps by and doubt starts to surface. Maybe we already missed the racer, we haven’t had service for miles and they could have passed just before we got here. You’re studying tire tracks in the mud. You start memorizing tire tracks. Sometimes the tracks don’t make sense and you remind yourself that there are also riders going northbound. The sun is now behind the mountains and the shot you had envisioned doesn’t look the same. Time to find another spot and while you’re looking, the rider passes. Maybe you get the shot or maybe you just miss them. It’s a race, they’re not stopping. There are no do overs. You’ve been at this spot for a couple hours and maybe there’s another rider coming up? You’re not sure. Then you’re reading comments on the internet that you’re not covering everyone. How about this rider? That rider is still in Wyoming, we’re in New Mexico. You can spend an entire day tracking down riders and only see them once. It’s actually really exciting but it wears you down. Walkie talkies have really come in handy. The three of us can spread out along a stretch of the route, out of each other’s shots. We don’t have to yell that there’s a rider, ruining video audio. But of course, sometimes in the excitement of seeing a rider, you forget to let the others know they’re coming and they may miss the shot. Sometimes even with the warning you miss a shot because they’re hauling around a corner and your limited line of sight doesn’t give you any error time. With all the suspense, you regroup with your team and share your footage and shots. “Oh man, that’s so good!” “Just missed him.” “He said something when he passed but I didn’t hear. Wait, can you hear it on your video?” And then you make a plan for where to go next. Your last Trackleaders screenshot was 2 hours ago and you don’t have service. You look at the elevation profile and make some guesses of where the riders could be. There’s no wonder there’s so many resupply shots in “Ride the Divide.” Everyone has to stop for food.
Our spot trackers and radios on our nightstand for the evening (Rugile Kaladyte)
Covering a large field of riders over such a long distance is very challenging logistically. Even though we spent 14-18hrs a day driving around trying to intercept riders for shots, we still only covered a small portion of the riders.
Jay in a field of Beargrass (Spencer Harding)
Firstly, I think navigating such a long and varied route was a huge challenge. I have previously ridden probably about a third of the route over many trips so I was pretty familiar with the section from Banff to Pinedale, Wyoming, but that still left a large gap in my/our knowledge of the route. We had a goal to stay off the route proper as much as possible avoid “dusting” or generally driving around the racers. We mapped out points on the route that had access to major roads so we could shortcut the route and access areas not just as road crossing or towns. While we couldn’t totally stay off the route, being able to drive to a crossing, park the car off the road and ride the e-bikes to strategic spots was really an advantage. Since the year was so heavy with snow there were more than a few pass that would not be accessible for us to drive over or near which presented us with the time constraint of driving a long way around. This was evident on our first day even, a seasonal pass closure forced us to make a 4.5 hour detour for what would have been less than an hour drive otherwise. Many times we would chase the racers up one side of the pass and then have to meet then significantly later on the other side.
Jay chasing a racer up Koko Claims (Spencer Harding)
Secondly, there was interacting with such a large field or racers in a self supported event where interaction can be construed as an unfair advantage. We did our best to broadcast our intentions to document the race beforehand, but with a field of 156 racers it was hard to predict who might be riding near or around Lael at any given time. As that field of people became smaller we attempted to get consent to document them at various times allowing them to decline if they so pleased. We had heard talk of racers even starting after the grand depart to avoid what was perceived to be a media onslaught, which put us on edge as we weren’t sure who might be opposed to our documentation. As the race wore on, some of the racers became comfortable with our presence after seeing how we operated. We kept our interactions minimal and never disclosed any information that would influence the race. We had multiple occasions due to racer injury or mechanical failure where we were unable to help as that would mean disqualification for the racers. As a bike mechanic and empathetic human this was a hard thing to turn away from.
Rue handing out Spot trackers (Spencer Harding)
Thirdly, it was difficult just keeping pace with the racers. Our days would typically involve waking up in the morning to check trackleaders and see that the racers have already been up for hours and are significantly ahead of us. Jay would go on a coffee run because he is the best. We would look at our maps and decided a point to intersect the route in hopes of catching the racers. Then we, would drive out to that point, check trackleaders again, not have service so we would start looking for mud or tire tracks to determine who had or hadn’t already passed. One of us might take an e-bike up the path with a walkie talkie to give the other two a warning about an upcoming rider. Many times we would wait for hours, constantly adjusting our shots to the shifting light only to have someone pass just as we were repositioning. After hopefully getting some kind of shot we would all leave our perches in the woods and reconvene at the car.
We would repeat this down the route throughout the day until the sun went down. We would find a hotel late in the evening, unload all our gear, plug all our batteries into every outlet in the hotel, download all our cards, and then hopefully get some sleep as the racers plugged on into the night.
Rue staying up late to edit (Spencer Harding)
Question 3: Is there any section of the Tour Divide route that you would personally like to revisit?
The section of route that I would like to revisit is one that we never got to see because we wanted to make sure we got the first finisher in Antelope Wells and had to skip over sections of New Mexico to do so. Lael said her favorite part was near Abiquiu. I would have loved to see that.
Getting some advice from the sweetest dot watcher we met (Spencer Harding)
I will definitely be back to bike tour the Northern section of the route. I’m already planning it :-)
Jay Ritchey (Spencer Harding)
I have been trying to find an excuse to return to the Wind River mountain range in Wyoming for years after visiting it on my first ride on the route. While the mountains are spectacular I was really intrigued by the great basin south of the range before Colorado. It seemed like such an eerie and spooky place to ride. I can’t imagine being strung out on sleep deprivation and riding through the night there. I think I’d like to try a longer fast ride through that section and do some hiking in the mountains afterward.
Spencer reading while waiting for racers (Rugile Kaladyte)
Thanks again for following along! Feel free to ask questions in the comments and Spencer will do his best to answer them.