BILLINGS – Apparently 2,745 miles of driving rains, hail, snow, calf-deep mud, locked knees and searing Achilles pain, visions of grizzly bears and drug runners, and hallucinations resulting from days of sleep deprivation weren’t enough punishment for one month.
So barely a week after Billings’ Eijai Oxford finished his epic Tour Divide – considered the most difficult bicycle race in the world – he was back racing Saturday, competing in a 50-mile muscle-wrencher in Leadville, Colo., on a borrowed mountain bike because his own was still on its way home from New Mexico.
“I know physically it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Oxford said by phone Saturday some 15 minutes after crossing the finish line well behind the leaders. “But I got so into racing being the norm, I came home and felt a little lost.”
Small wonder. For 22 days, 21 hours and 34 minutes, Oxford was perpetual motion of singular focus during a two-wheeled trek on paved roads, gravel roads, two-track washboards and single-track trails from the high mountain wilds surrounding Banff, Alberta, to a dusty and remote border crossing at Antelope Wells, N.M.
Along the way, the sinewy 23-year-old Billings West graduate endured every imaginable obstacle to be expected from a route along the backbone of the Rockies. The literal and figurative ups and downs demanded a resilience and resourcefulness even Oxford didn’t know he owned.
“It was pretty incredible to push what I thought were my limits and redefine what I thought my limits day to day,” said Oxford, a wellness coach at the Billings Family YMCA. “It blew my mind.”
Anything less, though, might’ve resulted in failure – an unacceptable result for someone who signed up to honor a friend who lived to push physical and psychological limits as a cyclist. Todd Tallman was 46 when he died in April from Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Oxford, known for his uncommon toughness and indefatigable disposition, had Tallman’s memory for added fuel. And he needed all of it, even before the June 12 start.
The airline lost his bicycle, getting it to Banff a scant four hours before the 8 a.m. start, requiring Oxford to give up on an already-sleepless night to piece it together.
Already exhausted and frazzled, once on the route rain and snow soon drenched his body and caked his legs and bicycle with mud, eventually causing the pedal bearings to grind and freeze.
To make up for lost time, Oxford elected to skip the planned stop 110 miles in at Elkford and continue another 30 miles to tiny Sparwood. The maps told riders the trail was impassable when wet, and they were right. It took five hours to cover 30 miles, 10 of it walking and sliding the bike across the muck because it wouldn’t roll.
“The next day, I was just toast,” he said. “I ended up that night going until I couldn’t ride, and then until I couldn’t walk anymore, and when I got to the point where I couldn’t walk, I camped out by myself, completely exhausted.”
Oxford was working on two hours of sleep out of 48. And greeting him first thing after another three hours of sleep – made restless by news that a grizzly bear had twice charged a female cyclist – was The Wall. It’s a mile-long 20-percent grade that was little more than mud and a creek rushing with spring runoff.
“I’d lunge the bike forward, brake, step forward, lunge the bike forward, brake …,” he said. “It was mentally demoralizing. Physically I was pretty good, but mentally I was just completely beat down – an emotional trainwreck.”
Arriving in Montana the next morning seemed to reverse his fortunes briefly. He was home. And everything was going swimmingly as he began to push south along the west side of Glacier National Park, past Flathead Lake toward Helena and Butte, through the heart of the Pioneer Mountains and finally over Red Rocks Pass into Idaho.
It was in the 300-mile Montana section, though, that his bearings conked out and pedals wouldn’t spin, forcing him to use his heels to push down. The awkward motion first impacted his ankles and eventually his knees and then his Achilles. The knees ached so badly each morning that it took nearly 30 minutes to bend them.
“The first two hours,” he said, “were just brutal.”
Sleep breaks generally lasted no more than three hours. It showed in the selfie videos he’d post daily on Facebook when he could find sparse Internet service, looking increasingly in each as if he’d just stumbled home after a college all-nighter.
And so it went, through a slice of Idaho, into the high deserts of Wyoming, and eventually to Steamboat Springs, Colo., where he finally found a bicycle store with enough parts to repair his pedals. The knees healed, then the Achilles ached before they, too, improved only to itch maddeningly from swelling.
Oxford forged ahead.
“It was painful, but at the same time if you were going through the ride and weren’t feeling pain you weren’t doing it right,” he said. “I went in knowing it was going to happen. I’m riding the divide. What do you expect?”
After Steamboat, Oxford found a groove. One day he even hit 100 miles before noon and began fantasizing about 200, a feat he’d never achieved even on a road bike. Then, in what would become a daily 4 p.m. occurrence, a major storm hit, bringing lightning, thunder, a downpour and search for sanctuary.
One night in northern New Mexico, Oxford escaped a deluge by sleeping in an unlocked tractor cab.
It was pouring again late in the afternoon when Oxford arrived in Silver City, N.M., where he thought about holing up in a motel before the final push. But he feared falling asleep too long and losing ground.
So he pushed on in, vowing to stay on his bike until the border.
Riders are warned about the remote last 60 miles to Antelope Wells and the drug runners that frequent the area, especially at night.
Darkness fell and Oxford kept pedaling. He remembers passing an unmarked and battered truck off the road. A spotlight came on and he pedaled in its lights for five miles before the driver lost interest.
Reaching 24 hours with no sleep, Oxford said he dozed off countless times on the bike only to awake with a shudder. And then there were the hallucinations.
At one point, he saw lights crisscrossing in the distance and was sure he was about to pedal into a major drug deal.
“I was so dedicated to get to the finish that I didn’t want to stop,” he said. “I was completely ready to talk my way through a drug deal and just tell them, ‘I don’t care about your drugs, don’t care about what you’re doing, I just want to get to the finish line so please let me through!’ ”
The “massive drug deal” turned out to be traffic on Interstate 10.
The white line on the road became dangerous PVC pipe. During a rainstorm he convinced himself that he could stay dry by pedaling in the oncoming lane. He also saw tarantulas on the road, though he’s pretty sure they were real.
Finally, as the first fingers of dawn’s light appeared on July 5, Antelope Wells came into view. It was still too early for the border patrol, so he was the sole person there until a fellow cyclist’s girlfriend arrived 20 minutes later to share in a subdued celebration.
Oxford pedaled briefly into Mexico, returned, stopped, hoisted his bike overhead for the obligatory camera pose and absorbed the moment.
“It was a little unbelievable,” he said. “I don’t know how to describe it. To get that far … the reasons I did it were more emotional than for some others. And I accomplished what I set out to do. I felt super-accomplished and fulfilled.”
He also is inspired by humanity after meeting countless people who gave shelter or provided food, many of whom clearly hadn’t been on a bicycle in years. At one remote Colorado lodge, the owner greeted him with a hug, told him she’d been awaiting his arrival, and served two hot cheeseburgers – a ritual she performed for each cyclist.
“I don’t want to sound too cheesy,” he said, “but it somewhat freshened my outlook on what people can be. It was shocking to meet people and see how gracious they were toward total strangers. I was blown away.”
The end was nevertheless anticlimactic. He put his bike in his fellow traveler’s vehicle, returned to Silver City and flew back to Billings, where friends and family awaited.
He has been restless ever since.
“Mentally it was hard for me to come home because I’d gotten completely used to what I was doing and there was really no ending to it, so I feel a little lost,” he said. “And it’s not just me. Everybody I talked to when I got home was confused as to what they were doing and what they should be doing. I feel a little unfulfilled on a day-to-day basis.”
Which is why he found himself in Leadville barely a week later, chasing a snippet of both the punishment and ecstasy he’d known for 22 days, 21 hours and 34 minutes.