I’m not much of a writer, I prefer to stay behind the camera and let the photos do the talking. But what if photos aren’t enough? I like facts and I can provide those. Facts that led up to Lael’s scratching from this year’s Tour Divide. I recently posted on Lael’s Instagram that she scratched from the race this year after running into shoe sucking mud and waiting it out with other top racers. While waiting, she saw her women’s record pass by and her pink LW record dot would be almost a day ahead by the time conditions were suitable for riding. Acknowledging this, she brought me breakfast and spent the day with me and others while waiting for the mud to dry. Visiting me, her girlfriend, disqualifies her from the race. She knows this. We both do. I want to share a little more backstory. To put it out there while it’s still fresh.
Lael is still riding 150-170 miles a day on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route without an active SPOT tracker on Trackleaders. Initially, I thought I could wait until the release of the film we’re working on about this year’s Tour Divide. I was going to have a behind-the-scenes video about how Spencer Harding, Jay Ritchey and I documented the race and the sensitivity of covering a self-supported bikepacking race and concerns that arose. I can’t wait until October. So here, I want to present you with facts and let you decide what you make of them. I’ll cover the Tour Divide media project, interactions with the race organizer, a Facebook group attempting to delegitimize Lael’s attempt before the race even started, how Lael had to race a race by a different set of rules, Jay Petervary’s communications with me and Lael, the circus around our “film crew” and the other film crew out on the course covering another top racer.
Lael loves the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. She first toured it with her boyfriend at the time, Nicholas Carman. She loves the climbing, it’s pass after pass. She loves the roads, they’re not too technical. She loves the landscapes, you travel from Canada to Mexico, all on your bike. The Tour Divide, it’s her kind of race and she’s done it twice before. Both of her individual time trials were in 2015. In her first attempt, she rode from her home in Anchorage to the start of the race in Banff. She beat the women’s record by two days, even after riding herself to the emergency room during it. Back in Alaska, her mind was still on the route. What if she hadn’t gotten sick, could she do better? She rode to the start once more, this time incorporating a ferry ride. In her second ITT, she beat her own record by two days. Years later, she’s ready to race again. When Lael races, she races the whole field. Perhaps she could go for the overall win. She could try to best her women’s record once more. But this time, let’s document the attempt and cover the story of the race. In collaboration with Lael’s sponsors, PEARL iZUMi, Revelate Designs and Wahoo Fitness, we created a budget that allowed for me to bring along two other photographers/videographers for over two weeks and cover our costs. Part of the package would be a preparation video, a gear video, a longer film of this year’s Tour Divide, live updates and race coverage on The Radavist.
Lael and I reached out to Matthew Lee, the race organizer of the Tour Divide, in January of this year to ask for permission to document the 2019 Tour Divide. Matthew says he isn’t the race organizer, the TD doesn’t have one. He just picks a start date, sets the track each year, organizes Trackleaders, receives letters of intent, is in communication with racers, makes detours on the route if needed and has the ability to relegate riders from the race. Matthew gives us the green light for the project and just asks if we’re aware of permits needed to shoot in National Parks. We get the necessary permits, book flights for Spencer and Jay and continue preparing for the most iconic bikepacking race.
A couple weeks before the Tour Divide, Lael raced the Dirty Kanza XL. She placed first in the women’s category and sixth overall. Soon after, a post in the Tour Divide Facebook group came to our attention. “Racing a self-supported endurance race with a film crew in tow is not self supported endurance racing. Discuss.” The post had over 100 comments by the time I saw it. Some responses provided humor like one joking that their nails need to be in tip top shape for the film crew. There was some excitement about coverage of the race. And then there was speculation about how it would be shot, about how there would be support. I responded to the post stating how we planned to shoot the race. We planned to do it with photojournalistic integrity, we would have e-bikes in an attempt to keep vehicles off the route, we’re not just documenting one racer but hoping to tell the story of the race and we will be careful not to interfere with any aspect of the race and be flies on the wall. In response, people said Lael can document her own race with a camera. Others went so far as to say that Lael’s attempt on the Tour Divide would not count because we will be there. From there they started to say that Lael has never done a self-supported race because there is some form of documentation of it. They brought up photos of Lael from the DKXL and a recent film about the Swiss race, the Navad 1000. The DKXL allows spectators and visitation and it is heavily documented. The race organizer in Switzerland worked alongside to have his race documented. He had even invited Lael to race in it. He just wanted more people to come ride bikes in Switzerland. The focus of this discussion should have been about the Tour Divide. There have already been films done about the Tour Divide, Mike Dion’s “Ride the Divide” being perhaps the most well known. People have said that they became aware of this race because of that film. The race has grown because of it.
There are only a few rules for the Tour Divide and they are pretty simple. The one that concerned people was visitation. Only route-town locals can visit the riders. There is nothing in the rules prohibiting media coverage. Photographers can be found all over the route. We were different in the sense that we would be following the race. The biggest concern would be that Lael would see me, her girlfriend, and get an “emotional boost” out of it.
Matthew Lee helped us with a solution to this. If Jay and Spencer could focus on Lael and I act as the director and not be in touch with Lael. We would all wear SPOT trackers and he could monitor our progress. He trusts that Lael and I would not interact during the race. But then he asked for something that was unique to only Lael. He asked if she would race without a phone. While any of the other racers could call their loved ones over the two weeks, Lael would be prohibited from doing so. She agreed to not call anyone but said she would keep her phone for emergencies, backup navigation and to record voice memos that we could use later for the film.
At first it was easy to dismiss some of the comments in the Facebook group. But we found it more difficult once Jay Petervary got involved. We respect Jay and all that he has done for the community and wanted to have a conversation with him. In an email he wrote to Matthew, Lael and me, he said: “Do this. It’s going to be awesome and even interesting to say the least. Take all precautions. I’m good. But please understand what you are doing sets an example. And above all I really hope you understand the meaning of TD, its couple of rules, ethics and spirit. Do you? And do you understand this goes against the grain of it?” We replied that we think with all the precautions we were taking we were following the ethics, spirit and rules of the Tour Divide. He responded with “I now understand. You actually don’t understand. That is OK.”
Jay Petervary had his 2012 ITT documented and there is even a short film about it. But what we were doing was different according to Jay P. We later had an interview with him for the behind-the-scenes film and he said there should be no documentation of the Tour Divide at all. Someone taking a photo will impact the race and it’s not pure.
Days leading up to the race, I received personal messages. “As you may see you have stepped into the TD ethos, and not in a good way…” What was my slant? Every film has a slant. Was I going to do a hit piece on male racers? I chose not to respond to such messages and keep focused on the task at hand, tell the story of the race. All of the comments had started to affect Lael. No other racer had been targeted online and asked to not use a cell phone. We tried to stay positive and I disengaged from the Facebook group. It had become too much.
Midnight before the 8 a.m. start of the race, I get a call from Matthew Lee. He says he just wants to discuss the SPOT trackers for a few minutes. Then he asks if I’m aware of the protests that are going to happen at the start of the race. He said that he has been made aware of people choosing to wait 30 minutes after the grand depart to protest Lael’s media team. I wasn’t aware of this. He thinks it’s ridiculous but wants me to be aware of it. He asks if I’ve resolved everything on Facebook. I tell him that I stated my intentions for the project and the precautions we’re planning to take. I can’t resolve everything on Facebook and I’ve stayed away from that preparing for the weeks ahead. We talk about the trackers. In an initial email I said that I have a Garmin InReach and he would provide the other two trackers for the team. He asks if there’s a way to make my texts public. Make my texts public? Yeah, in case I text Lael with the InReach. I tell him that I don’t plan to interact with Lael and he just has to trust me on this. He asks for the tracking intervals for my tracker. 10 minutes? His tracker has 5 minute intervals. Could I wear both trackers for more accuracy? I tell him that I’ll use his if it’s more accurate, I’m not wearing two trackers. It’s early in the morning and Lael wakes up, she’s wondering who I’m on the phone with so late. The race starts in this morning and I’m talking with the race organizer at midnight.
From the start of the race, Lael has no interaction with me. We follow her on Trackleaders and whenever she’s close, Jay and Spencer take photos and videos of her. I’m in the distance and she doesn’t even know I’m there. All of this talk has me paranoid and I start documenting where I am every time Lael comes close. In case the trackers aren’t fast enough to catch me in the middle of a field or behind trees, I have gps coordinates and footage that show only Spencer and Jay are near her.
This was fine, we had an agreement. I did start to feel creatively comprised when I realized that while I was allowed to document other racers, I couldn’t if Lael was close by. I was taking myself out of the race at points, standing blocks away while a group of riders and Lael were resupplying at McDonald’s. Spencer and I even had a discussion of how to make sure that my tracker reflected that I was nowhere nearby. Would I have to get miles off the course? I can’t do that for two weeks… That’s when I started documented them photographing Lael.
We got into a pattern of this and we made the best of it. Then it got pretty surreal. We were following the middle of the pack at one point and planned to stay in Butte, Montana to wait for more riders. When I went to check us into the motel, the receptionist asked if we were just passing through. I said we were documenting a bike race. “Oh, you’re the film crew.” In a city of over 34,000 people, the receptionist knew who we were. This followed us. Further along the route, “You’re Lael’s support crew?” No. We’re not supporting anyone, we’re documenting Lael and the other racers. We received positive feedback like from Kathy in Ovando, Montana that posted on the Facebook group that we were very professional and I was never close to Lael while she was in town. The Facebook group is a community of 7,600 members and it seemed as though everyone we encountered knew who we were. We tried to make the best of it.
While we were out there, we encountered another film crew following the race in a sprinter van. They were not wearing SPOT trackers. They were posting photos onto the Facebook group and Instagram.
Then the scene at Brush Mountain Lodge happened. Riders stuck until mud dried. They were reading messages criticizing them not attempting to push through the weather. A photo of one of our e-bikes covered in mud was posted to the Facebook group. We were accused of scouting the course for the riders and it only proved that a personal film crew was an advantage. Jay and Spencer had taken those e-bikes to photograph Evan and Kai attempting to ride. Evan and Kai had only gotten half a mile down the road before their bikes became heavy and inoperable with the mud.
Even as Lael continues riding, Jay Petervary comments “Poor form” on her decision. He applauds a rider who received clothes and shoes from his film crew at the lodge and continues in the race, unaware that this gesture disqualifies him from the race. Petevary comments on a photo taken from the sprinter van of this rider, “Thank you. We need more younger generation folks to set good examples.”
Lael watched the lead riders get further and further ahead. She watched her record dot fly by and get almost a day ahead. She had been sick with everything leading up to this race and knew that I had been keeping to myself in a separate cabin at the lodge. The riders were going to be there for another day, she wanted me to join the group. So she brought me breakfast and scratched from the race. She’s still riding 150-170 miles a day. For her, it’s all about riding her bike. And now, it’s her ride. She’s given me creative freedom to document her again. And she’s having fun. She loves this route.
We’re continuing our coverage of the Tour Divide and are looking to catch up with the winner and other riders soon. We also plan on interviewing Mike Dion for the behind-the-scenes and discuss his experiences with documenting this race. The full film and supporting BTS film will be available for all in October on PEARL iZUMi’s YouTube channel. We first plan on premiering it at the Bikepacking Summit in Ellijay, Georgia, early October. Now we are heading out to catch the front of the pack again for the final stretch of the race.