Tandem racing the continental divide to support at-risk youth

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

On June 13, Sam and Katie Newbury will climb astride their tandem mountain bike in Banff, Alberta and begin pedaling 2,745 miles along the continental divide to Antelope Wells, N.M., on the Mexican border.

And they’re not just riding – they’re racing.

Competitors in the Tour Divide Race, the couple hopes to complete the self-supported ride in three weeks. That means riding 17 hours a day on dirt roads and trails, and sleeping 4-5 hours a night.

But it’s not just about the bike. Long-time wilderness therapy instructors, the Newburys are using the race to raise money for Sky’s the Limit Fund. The nonprofit provides scholarships for at-risk youth to attend programs like Open Sky, where they work as field guides in Durango, Colo.

The mission of their ride, called Pedal 2 the Sky, is to “create awareness around the struggles of youth and families today, and create the opportunity for families to find help through wilderness therapy,” as stated on their website.

“We believe in the magic, healing and transformation that can take place in wilderness therapy,” Katie said.

Although based in Colorado since 2013, the Newburys are connected to Bozeman and southwest Montana. In 2007, Sam founded and began directing the Equinox Ski/Snow Challenge in West Yellowstone, a winter endurance event modeled after a 24-hour mountain bike race. For several years, both worked for the now closed Three Rivers Montana, a wilderness therapy program that operated out of Belgrade.

Experienced bicyclists, they began tandem riding in spring 2010 on the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park. On an older Trek tandem set up for road riding, they completed the 100-mile ATV/Jeep route in 15 hours.

The next year, they spent six weeks tandem touring in remote southern Chile and Argentina. On the rough dirt roads, they fantasized about a tandem with thicker tires, better clearance, more gears and a suspension fork.

And so was born their current bike, which they built with 29-inch wheels in summer of 2012.

Their resume also includes competing as the only tandem in a number of races including seven cyclocross events; the 100-mile Dirty Century in Durango, and the 24-hour Relentless in Fort William, Scotland.

“It’s kind of high profile when a tandem shows up [at a race],” Sam said. “People are psyched, they think we’re crazy. There are always comments – they think it’s cheating because there [are] two of us, they say it’s easier, it’s harder, or it’s a divorce bike.”

The Newburys report that riding a tandem is indeed harder, and it’s in fact just a relationship accelerator. “If your relationship is going downhill, it will accelerate the downhill,” Sam said, quoting someone they’d met recently. “If it’s improving, it’ll accelerate the improvement.”

Luckily, these two are on the up-and-up as they head into the Tour Divide Race.

Following a fixed course called the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, the Tour Divide is the world’s longest off-pavement cycling route, according to the Adventure Cycling Association. The route is 80 percent dirt/gravel, 10 percent singletrack and 10 percent pavement. Over its length, it climbs nearly 200,000 vertical feet – the equivalent of summiting Mount Everest from sea level seven times.

“We are riding this race because the entire experience provides an arena for us to show up – emotionally and physically … for ourselves and each other – even when it is really, really hard,” Katie said.

Potential challenges include the cumulative affects of very little sleep, the mental and emotional strain of being attached for so long and pushing for so long, and the possibility of overuse injuries.

To prepare, they’re doing strength training, intervals and plyometerics, as well as several weeks of “binge” training, where they link together multiple 10-plus-hour days in the saddle.

In April, Katie biked from Durango to Moab, Utah, then from Moab to Boulder, Utah, and from Boulder back to Durango, stopping along the way to teach two Wilderness First Responder courses. In April, Sam rode the 350-mile, self-supported, single-track Arizona Trail Race, and in May he’s leading a NOLS Mountaineering course in Alaska.

Together, they’re experimenting with techniques for efficiency. For example, the person in the back – called “the stoker” – can access items from a custom “feed station” bag and hand them forward to the captain, so activities like sunscreen application, tooth brushing and eating can happen while moving. They’ve even stretched, meditated and changed clothes on the bike, so they only really have to stop for the bathroom or mechanical adjustments.

They switch positions every couple days, and Sam says that while both have their own merits, he likes the front best. “It feels like I have a little turbo charger behind me. It’s like riding a regular bike, but then you press this button and go really fast.”

The tandem acts as a metaphor for their relationship, they say. On the bike they support one another, practicing communication and empathy.

“We learn to trust ourselves and each other,” Katie said. “We learn forgiveness, and we learn how to let go… When we’re struggling to be teammates off the bike, we hop on it and go back to the basics.”

Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

CANADA – Banff, AB to Roosville, MT (253.9 mi.)

Roosville, MT to Polaris, MT (531 mi.)

Polaris, MT to South Pass City, WY (508 mi.)
Silverthorne, CO to Platoro, CO (316.5 mi.)

Platoro, CO to Pie Town, NM (430.9 mi.)

Pie Town, NM to Antelope Wells, NM (307.8 mi.)

Why?

1.) We don’t know if we can do it.

2) It’s big. Everything we love about the tandem, all of the soft skills that are essential to successfully riding the tandem will get pushed during this race. The physical challenge is so great that our emotional experience will remain present, at the surface, demanding our love and attention at all times.

3.) Because of its duration, we will need to figure out a way to tend to our emotional and physical needs while under stress for several weeks. I imagine it will be quite different from simply “pushing through” a 24-hour race, or 100-mile race.

Sky’s the Limit Fund

To learn more and help support the cause visit pedal2thesky.com. Sky’s the Limit Fund works with eight different wilderness therapy programs across the country, and donors can specify a program or donate to the general fund. Wilderness partner programs will match all donations, with the goal of raising as much money as possible to help make wilderness therapy a viable option for any family in need.