NORTHVILLE - This ride was not for the frail or the faint of heart, but Michael Intrabartola is neither of those, so the 32-year-old Northville man hopped on his mountain bike and rode across "the rooftop of North America."
That's how organizers of the Tour Divide describe the 2,745-mile race that takes riders over snowy mountain passes and scorching deserts from Banff, Alberta, Canada, to Antelope Wells, N.M., on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Intrabartola's personal goal was to finish the race in 20 days, which would have required an average distance of about 137 miles per day. Leaving Banff on June 8 and reaching Antelope Wells on June 29, he completed the race in 22 days, two hours and 55 minutes, for a 15th-place finish among more than 100 competitors.
Michael Intrabartola is shown in Banff, Alberta, Canada, at the start of the Tour Divide.
Photos courtesy of Michele Drozd
Not too shabby, considering it was his first race. Even today, some of the slower riders are still making their way over terrain Intrabartola covered two weeks ago. About 40 riders who started the race have quit.
"I was always into mountain biking," Intrabartola said. "But I'd never participated in a race before this."
He and his wife, Michele Drozd, are the proprietors of the Orendaga and Bellwether Studio, a lakeside inn and ceramics studio. He said they often do cycling tours when they go on vacation, but never before had he attempted a trip as grueling as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
After learning about the race a few years ago, he initially planned to attempt it with a friend last year, but he had to postpone his adventure.
"This year, I had the time to do it and I had the reason to do it," he said.
That reason was Tom Dailey, a friend and fellow cyclist from Long Island who had to give up riding because of a fight with Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, a serious hereditary condition that can cause lung or liver disease.
"I decided I was going to ride The Tour Divide, raise money for The Alpha-1 Foundation, and make a donation in honor of Tom," Intrabartola wrote in a post on the blog he created to share his experience. "There is nothing more satisfying than helping a friend while also helping others who suffer from Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency."
Soliciting pledges from friends and family in support of his race and the cause, Intrabartola has been able to raise about $13,000 for Alpha-1 research. His website, www.bellwethercraftsmen.com, will continue to accept online donations through the end of August.
Physically intensive, long-haul cycling - sometimes called bikepacking or adventuring cycling - has grown in popularity in recent years.
"This was the biggest year for this race," Intrabartola said, noting the number of participants has doubled in just a few years. "It used to be an underground thing."
A 2010 documentary film, "Ride the Divide," helped draw attention to the race. There are others like it in the Rockies and in other parts of the country, though most others are merely 500 or 700 miles long, he said.
"People like to see how far they can push themselves," he said.
To prepare for this trek, he trained by riding six days a week for several months, sometimes covering 100 miles or more in a day's workout. To practice the bikepacking aspect of the tour, he took overnight trips to visit friends and family in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
"I could only ride so many loops around here," he said. "That made it a little more fun."
He estimated 90 percent of the Tour Divide route is off-road, carrying cyclists over trails, logging roads, fire roads and other less well-beaten paths.
The riders used GPS and maps to navigate. Intrabartola said he carried a tracking device that transmitted his location at regular intervals so supporters could watch his movement via the website trackleaders.com.
He traveled light, carrying food, water, and minimal camping gear - a sleeping bag and a bivouac sac - in bags strapped to the frame of his bike. His main bike pack was custom-made for his rig, and he was able to purchase much of his clothing and gear with discounts provided by sponsors such as Arizona Beverage Co., Ibex Outdoor Clothing, Industry Nine and Bike Werx.
Highs and lows
Intrabartola says the elevation didn't present a problem for him, even though some of the mountain passes he traversed in Colorado were 11,000 or 12,000 feet above sea level, where the air can be thin enough to have an effect on an athlete's endurance.
Greater challenges of the ride were weather-related, he said. It rained non-stop on his first two days of riding, and in the higher sections, it was so cold that he had to get off his bike and push it through miles of snow.
Later, toward the end of the race, daytime temperatures topped 100 degrees as he crossed hundreds of miles of desert.
"In New Mexico, I carried a lot of water - about six liters," he said. Without any streams, he had only the water he could carry on his bike and the nagging fear that it would run out.
"I was lucky, though," he said, "Every day I rode in New Mexico, I had some cloud cover."
Thousands of miles of hard pedaling put some serious wear-and-tear on his bike. In Steamboat Springs, Colo., Intrabartola replaced a tire and his brake lines and pads. Then, in Gila Springs, N.M., he had a really bad day. His bike's front tire went flat - twice -and the chain broke, damaging some spokes on his rear wheel. He was only another day's ride away from the finish line, but the bike wouldn't carry him.
"I pushed a lot that day," he said. "I only had 123 miles to go, but I was almost ready to quit."
But when he called his wife and hinted at giving up, she encouraged him to take a break for food and drink, get the bike back in working condition and complete the ride.
"It worked," he said. "When doubt set in, I found that stuffing food down my throat changed my perspective."