Cycling wasn’t always Nate Cross’s passion. In some regards, it still isn’t. But when the 55-year-old Westlake resident isn’t working his 9-5 job fighting for those suffering from cystic fibrosis, he’s fighting mountains, harsh terrain and all the other elements nature can throw his way.
Those elements were on full display when Cross embarked June 14 on The Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile bike race that takes riders from Banff, Alberta, Canada, down to New Mexico. The route travels through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado before ending near the southern border. Race officials acknowledge that only about 40% of riders finish the race.
The race is free to compete in, has no prizes and is entirely amateur. It is also completely self-sustained, meaning outside of the gear and food riders bring with them at the start, they are responsible for finding/buying food along the path, finding hotel rooms for sleeping and/or showering and any other amenities needed during the race.
“You have to have everything you need on your bike,” Cross said. “When you go into towns, you’re basically eating gas station food.”
In total, Cross wanted to keep the weight of his bike and gear under 50 pounds. The bike itself weighed 25 pounds. This type of weight management Cross says is crucial to success in “bikepacking.”
“We’re going to camp out,” Cross said. “I’ve got my forks, my tent is on one side and on the other side is my sleeping bag and a jacket. I got my rain gear up front and all my clothes are in the back.”
Less than 10 days into the race on June 23, Cross announced on his Facebook page that he became a part of the 60% as he was forced to withdraw from the race after getting sick.
“I am disappointed to report that I had to drop-out of The Tour Divide yesterday due to worsening health,” Cross said in the post. “I got sick a few days into the race and it got worse daily – to the point where it was tough to swallow (making it hard to drink/hydrate). Combined with saddle sores, hip soreness; cold weather and other issues related to the wear and tear from nine-day 1,000 mile journey.”
Had it not been for his getting sick at the start of the race, Cross is confident he would have finished. His riding partner, Kent Murphy, dropped out only a day or two later after getting sick as well. To compound his sickness, Cross said the weather on the path was much harsher than he had anticipated.
“When you’d get up in the mountains, it would start snowing to the point where it was actually a whiteout,” he said. “A couple of the mountains, we would come flying down the mountain covered in snow. When you’re wet and cold and you’re sick, you don’t get better. You get worse.”
When he officially withdrew, Cross was near the border between Montana and Idaho. Getting home after that was as much of an excursion as the race.
Between two small towns near the Montana/Wyoming border and two to three days away from the nearest urgent care, a man in a pickup truck came along, picked Cross up and dropped him off close to the nearest town. From there, he hitched another ride with someone who lived close to the Idaho Falls airport and drove Cross an hour and a half to a hotel near the airport.
Then, after waiting for a day and a half, Cross got a flight back to Cleveland through Denver. The first thing Cross did when he got home? He went to the doctor and got antibiotics, something he said he would be sure to take with him were he ever to attempt The Tour Divide again.
“Right now I’m just kind of nursing my wounds, so to speak,” Cross said. “You just break yourself down. You get a virus, the altitude affects you — we definitely pushed ourselves. It was a great challenge. I was definitely defeated by The Tour Divide.”
Cross set out on this trip to test himself physically but also to do a measure of good for the foundation. Before he left, he wanted to raise $5,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. He and Murphy raised a combined total of over $4,000.
“While I’m disappointed, I’m glad that I was able to raise money for the CF Foundation (Cycle for Life program),” Cross said. “That, to me, is what puts meaning behind all this. So there was some good that came of it.”
As if viruses, extreme altitude and intense weather weren’t enough, Cross also encountered what he said was his biggest fear going into the race: a bear. Cross and Murphy had bear spray, but they resorted to another tactic to scare off their would-be predator.
“This was a brown bear,” Cross said. “It could have been a small grizzly, I don’t know, but this thing crossed our path about 50 yards in front of us as we’re biking. And we both screamed and it’s funny how those things just book it. They want nothing to do with you. They are afraid of human voices. The great bear attack was avoided.”
Throughout his 1,000-mile journey, Cross said he was able to see some of the most beautiful parts of North America.
“Probably my favorite part to see was Baniff, where the race started,” Cross said. “When people say it’s spectacular, it’s hard to describe it’s just so gorgeous up there. We got to ride through the most beautiful part. All through Montana, we were up in the mountains, it was just gorgeous.”
Despite not finishing the race, Cross has no intention of hanging up his bike. In fact, just days after returning home, he competed in a race in Cincinnati, had another a week later in Medina and still has upcoming races on his calendar as well.
He also hasn’t closed the book on attempting The Tour Divide again but admitted he might have to attempt the course, which is open to the public year-round, in a less competitive setting.
“I thought I’d get back from this thing and hate biking,” Cross said. “The bottom line is, my love for biking hasn’t been lost on this whole effort.”
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