Warmlite Gear on the Tour Divide with Marie-Soleil Blais – a self-supported bikepacking race
My first try on the Tour Divide – not racing
It was day-14 on my ride on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, half-way through Wyoming. I was not racing, I was simply “riding the route as fast as I could”, to see if I could potentially race it. The Tour Divide is the race version : The longuest bikepacking race in the world, from Banff (AB) to Antelope Wells (NM). 2,700 miles of high altitude forest backroads and trails, following loosely the continental divide.
That day I felt like I had reached my limits on the bike. It was the first time I climbed past 9,500 ft and my body could feel it. I did one overpass then another. I pushed the pace as the sun went down because I wanted to be out of the more technical section before dark. I may have skipped adding electrolyte to my bottles.
I was going to make it until the next town. Until I couldn’t, 20 miles away I stopped. At midnight, after 11 hours of pedaling, I found a grassy spot on the side of this small dirt road and that’s where I was going to stop for the night.
I set up camp in my bivy as usual, this time I didn’t change base layer because I rode with my long sleeve shirt that afternoon which I usually keep for sleeping. (the bugs had been too annoying). It was 12 Celcius (53 F). Not particularly cold. But I was particularly fatigued.
If I fell asleep quickly, I woke up as quickly. 2 am I woke up in shivers and sweat. My clothes were wet yet again, but this time I felt extremely cold. Uncontrollably shaking I began fearing the worst. I recall a rider of the Tour Divide posting on Facebook how skipping hydration had contributed to get him into hypothermia and a forced rescue in emergency. I thought, I must drink my electrolytes or I will never get warmer.
I got outside my bag and began throwing up several times. I tried to drink but not much liquid would stay down. I returned to my bag with my satellite device in hand and somehow got back to sleep. My worst camp night ever. I eventually made it to town the next day and took the day off to recover.
I’m not too sure what happened that night, but I was not going to have that experience again. Something had to change. How do I keep dry, how do I keep warm at night?
I finished the course (in a total of 28 days) using a bit more hotels, drying my sleep system and sleep clothes very well every day. I was more careful of respecting my body’s limit, I would always change into a dry base layer at night. But still, nights were cold and the mornings were excruciating.
Learning a New System
Coming back home I did some research and then some more. I read countless articles and forums, trying to understand condensation and gear properties. Pertex, Gore-tex, non-breathable?! What I found out is that understanding humidity management and knowing what to use when, is crucial. It seems like there is no “one system” that always works. (A system that is ultralight, ultra-compact to fit on the bike, and ultra-fast to transition to and from in a multiple-days race situation).
That’s when I came across vapor barrier clothing, or non-breathable clothing. As much as I was convinced by what I read, I was wondering why it’s not more popular, why are we not seeing it more? Maybe because I’m new into bikepacking? I reached out to Warmlite Gear and told them about my dream race. I said “I want to race the hardest bike race in the world: the Tour Divide! And I need your help!”
The race is set to start on June 9th, each year a Grand Depart starts on the 2nd Friday of June. Over 250 participants have registered so far. The Tour Divide is one of the longest running, most renown bikepacking races in the world, with the female record of just 15 days. It’s a self-supported race with no check points. You must carry everything without help, you can use public services as you wish and are allowed to go off-route if you need, but must return to the point where you exited the course before continuing. The race is tracked using GPS satellite device and can be followed online through the Trackleadboard website.
This will be my first race of this kind. I raced professionally as a road cyclist, I raced in the US and in Europe, I raced World Championships with the Canadian National team, I checked (almost) all the boxes I wanted to check as a pro cyclist. What I love is to challenge myself, I love how it feels to overcome hardship and grow as a person through it. When the Olympics fell out of reach, I needed a new challenge.
When I first heard of the Tour Divide my mind was blown by the size of the challenge. I was very scared because I had never camped or slept outside. I had no outdoor experience. But I felt excitement at the idea of surmounting such a challenge. I wanted to learn.
So, in 2022, I rode the full-length of the 2700 mile course as a first test to see what it’s like before racing it. Despite having far from optimal gear, I completed the course in 28 days. Just under the limit of 30 days expected finish time that is required to be listed as a racer. I said, okay! I can race!
Learning from my first ride, I made several changes to my gear. I changed my bike, the
wheels, I now have a dynamo hub to generate electricity as I pedal. My clothes and sleep system were the last few things that I kept debating over and over again (like we all do haha!).
Testing the Vapor Barrier Gear
A recent gear test in Colorado confirmed it all. Before making final decisions, I wanted to try my setup in real conditions, in cold nights at high altitude after riding over 10 hours.
So I did. I went on a 3-day trip, I kept riding after sunset. My feet were cold, toes frozen from riding in the rain all evening. Even my neoprene “waterproof” socks failed to keep my feet warm, which is rare. Normally, I would change into dry socks for the night, but instead, I used the Warmlite vapor barrier socks over my cold feet. I got in my bivy and within 5 minutes I could feel my toes again!
I also used the Warmlite zipper jersey [shirt] over my base layer, underneath my down jacket. For bottoms, I kept my riding shorts (lycra type), under a thin polyester bike pant, with down pants over. I used an ultralight insulated airmat paired with a 0C rated down quilt in bivy. The temperature dipped to -2 Celcius (28F) and I felt no chill.
The morning was the most surprising. It was so easy to get out of my bag! I believe it is due to having a warmer clothes system – as opposed to relying on a warmer sleeping bag. If the warmth is inside your bag only, good luck getting out! I love that I can pack extremely quick and ride with my down pants and jacket until I feel warm again then peel layers off.
Some Tricks I’m Happy to Have Learned
One thing I love with these vapor barrier socks is the ease of getting out and back in for a pee at night. Keeping your unnecessary liquid makes it harder for your body to keep warm. But it can be a daunting task, right ladies?! Before, I would carefully get my feet out of the bag and leave them in the air, while putting plastic bags on, so as to not get my socks wet, then put on my cold wet shoes. Then repeat the process in reverse when I’m done. Gosh I hated this.
Now, I can just get out of the bivy, straight up and walk a few feet (without plastic bags, without putting on my shoes, thanks to the robustness of the socks), relieve myself and just get back in. (Ok it’s not super clean, but what matters is to stay warm!!)
So, after a few months of preparation and dialing down my gear, I’m officially ready to go! Thank you to Warmlite for your support in my endeavor. You can find my full gear list here.
How To Follow the 2023 Race
Stay tuned by following the race from June 9th on the Trackleadearboard!
And if you do, I will love to read your encouragement over on my insta!
*I will keep social media to a minimum “during” the race, but I’m self-documenting the race with a GoPro and will publish my race story in a short film form on my Youtube Channel later this year. Thank you for tuning in!
An interview with Marie before the race, how she has prepared, how she is feeling, and what she has left before the race begins.