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The Fastest Bikes of the Tour Divide Ultra Race (4,400KM Non-Stop)

The Tour Divide is an annual off-road ride traversing the length of the Rocky Mountains, from Canada all the way to the Mexican border. The course is over 4,418km long (2745mi), and along the way, riders will gain over 60,000 metres in elevation (200,000ft).

The clock begins at the grand depart and doesn’t stop until riders cross the finish line. And by the way, the ride is strictly self-supported. The fastest riders will complete the course in around two weeks, covering approximately 280 kilometres per day (174mi).

It’s safe to say that the Tour Divide is an extreme test of both the body and mind.

It’s also very interesting from a gear optimisation perspective, as a few small differences in bike setup will allow riders to make their lives a bit easier. In this video, we will be analysing 121 different bike setups from this year’s Tour Divide to find out what makes the best possible setup.

The statistics I will be drawing upon have been wonderfully collected by BIKEPACKING.com in the form of two articles (HERE and HERE), where riders from all around the world discuss their bike, bag and gear highlights.

As these articles separate bikes based on whether they use a drop bar or flat bar, this seems like a great place for us to start.

Handlebars

Christopher uses drop bars on his Tour Divide bike. Image: Christopher Schmidt

A bit over half of the riders interviewed this year are using drop bar bikes (55%).

When people think ‘drop bars’, they think ‘speed’. But speed alone is not how most will pick a handlebar for the Tour Divide. This is a very long event, so comfort is the likely reason that riders choose one handlebar design over another. Contrary to popular belief, the widespread use of the different bar types demonstrates that many bar designs can be ergonomic and comfortable – it’s really just a case of personal preference.

But comfort aside, there is likely an aerodynamic advantage to using drop bars.

When it comes to the aerodynamics of cycling, you ideally want to make your body shape more aerodynamic (Cd), your frontal area smaller (A) – or both. By using drop bars, your hands and elbows do not sit as wide, allowing you to reduce your frontal area and optimise your body shape.

A bit of napkin maths suggests that drop bars could save two or three hours over the full Tour Divide course (75kg/165lb rider, 15kg/33lb bike, 140 watts power output).

You can learn more about the aerodynamics of touring and bikepacking HERE.

Aero Bars

Bart chooses to use aero bars on his Tour Divide rig along with 77% of other riders. Image: Bart Muylle

While we’re still on the topic of handlebars, one of the best possible ways to improve both your speed and comfort is to fit aero bars to your bike. Most Tour Divide riders seem to agree, as 77% of them are using aero bars this year.

This is partly because you can make your body shape more aerodynamic with an aero bar, allowing you to ride faster with the same effort. But arguably, it’s the additional comfort that’s the most appealing feature.

Consider this, Tour Divide riders at the pointy end of the race spend upwards of 20 hours per day riding their bikes. This results in a lot of localised body fatigue. Aero bars offer your body a break by providing a different riding position that reduces strain on your arms, wrists, hands and bum, and will allow you to stretch out your back and use different muscles.

If you want to go further down this rabbit hole, I have a detailed article about aero bars HERE.

Saddles

Nick is using a Brooks saddle along with 20% of other Tour Divide riders. Image: Nick Marzano

The saddle you choose is going to be the difference between completing the Tour Divide and having to scratch.

It’s hard to make saddle recommendations to a broad audience – you really have to try them first. But there are some trends here.

Brooks is the most popular saddle brand for the Tour Divide with 20% of riders using one, so they must be doing something right. Ergon saddles have really taken off recently and now more than 17% of riders have one fitted. And WTB has consistently been a popular brand, featuring on 15% of the bikes.

You can learn more about saddle comfort for touring HERE.

Seatposts

Nick is using a Cane Creek eeSilk+ suspension post on his Tour Divide bike. Image: Nick Patrick

Only 13% of riders are using a suspension seatpost (including the carbon leaf-sprung Ergon CF3).

After extensively testing suspension seatposts, I think that many riders could improve their TD experience with one of these. Short travel posts are 100 or maybe 200 grams heavier (3-6oz) than a rigid post. That’s it.

You can read my detailed suspension seatpost article HERE and carbon flex seatpost article HERE.

Tyres

Steven is using Vittoria Mezcal tyres along with 36% of other riders. Image: Steven Sloss

If you are racing the clock, your tyres are probably the most important component you can optimise over a 4,400km ride.

Some tyres that I’m seeing fitted to TD bikes have been tested on smooth surfaces to roll with 20-watts extra resistance over other tyre sets. A bit of napkin maths suggests that slow tyres could add more than 20 hours of pedalling to a TD run!

But that said, it’s hard to come up with an accurate time figure due to the mix of road surfaces, varying rider weights, tyre pressures and more.

The most popular tyre is the Vittoria Mezcal and you will find it on more than 1/3 of all bikes.

The Mezcal has become the go-to tyre for the TD as it does an incredible job of balancing rolling resistance, puncture resistance, durability and grip. When you move to faster-rolling options like the Schwalbe Thunder Burt, you end up with significantly less grip and a touch less puncture resistance too – which might not keep your mind at ease.

Essentially, there’s a trade-off on all tyres, and it seems that the Mezcal is where most people end up.

Jason uses the tough and reliable Maxxis Ikon tyres on his Tour Divide rig. Image: Jason Reamy

The second most popular tyre is the Maxxis Ikon. These are tested to be slower rolling but are known for their reliability – I know ultra racers who have been using them for years and have literally never had a puncture.

I’m not sure why the Continental Race King Protection tyres (7% of bikes) are less popular than in years past. These tyres are what the late Mike Hall used to set the current 13-day, 22-hour course record. They’ve been tested to be ultra-fast rolling, they’re protective of punctures, and some riders have even raced the TD twice on the same set (8,800km).

If you know why these tyres are less preferred nowadays – let me know.

Wheel Size

The three different wheel diameters used in the Tour Divide, along with their ‘angle of attack’.

In terms of wheel diameter, there are three common sizes on bikes tackling the TD: 26-inch, 27.5-inch and 29-inch.

As the largest diameter wheel offers the smallest ‘angle of attack’ over bumps and depressions in the road, it can maintain the highest speed. 88% of riders are now picking the big 29″ wheels, and it drops off to just 7% of riders using the smaller 27.5″ wheels.

The average tyre width that’s used is 2.2″/55mm. This is likely the sweet spot where riders have the lowest rolling resistance and the most ride comfort on the long dirt roads.

Frame Material

Carbon fibre is the frame material of choice for about half of all Tour Divide rigs including Adrian’s bike. Image: Adrian Barniak

Almost half of all TD riders (49%) opted for a carbon fibre bike frame. This is the obvious choice for an event with over 60,000 vertical metres (200,000ft) climbing, as a kilogram can make a measurable difference here.

A Salsa Cutthroat carbon frame weighs a touch under 1.5 kilograms (3.3lb). In comparison, a similarly tough titanium frame is often about 2.2kg/4.9lb, and steel is closer to 3.0kg/6.6lb.

Again, the napkin comes out and I’ve calculated an extra kilogram for the average rider to be about 1.5 hours over 4,400km. That’s not huge, but it could be the difference between first and second place.

Drivetrains

Jocelyn’s bike uses a SRAM AXS wireless 1X drivetrain. Image: Jocelyn de la Rosa

1X drivetrains now make up 82% of all bike setups using derailleurs. This should be unsurprising, as the Tour Divide is an off-road route that demands wide tyres and low gear ratios, and almost all bikes that accommodate these features now come with 1X drivetrains.

You’ll notice that there aren’t too many gearbox drivetrains at the Tour Divide this year (4%). But this event has previously been won on a Rohloff 14-speed bike (Ollie Whalley, 2012) – so these drivetrains can be a good idea.

That said, gearbox drivetrains are heavier and less efficient than derailleurs so I suspect that’s why they aren’t popular.

Again, my napkin is out, and I’d estimate the Rohloff would add 3-4 hours in good conditions as a result of its lower drive efficiency, plus you could add another hour or two due to the heavier weight. And the Pinion gearbox could add a total of 10 hours when we factor everything in.

Gear Ratios

James’ bike is using an appropriately low gear ratio to tackle the climbs of the Tour Divide. Image: James Bacon

If you want to get up the steep hills without going into the red, you’ll want appropriately low gear ratios on your bike. Tour Divide riders seem to know this well, as the average low climbing gear across all bikes is just 20 gear inches. This is about right for the course.

Achieving less than 20 gear inches is easy on flat bar bikes, but harder on drop bar bikes as there is limited compatibility between drop bar shifters and mountain bike derailleurs. I’m really impressed with the drivetrain workarounds on the drop bar bikes – about a quarter have been ‘hacked’ in some way to achieve 20 gear inches or less.

The most popular hack is the Wolftooth RoadLink. This extends the effective length of your derailleur, allowing you to accommodate a bigger cassette with lower gear ratios. Another nice hack is the fitment of the Ratio Technology upgrade kit that mates 11-speed SRAM road shifters to 12-speed mountain bike derailleurs.

If you have deep pockets, the SRAM AXS wireless road shifters pair with the wireless AXS mountain bike derailleurs to fit 10 to 52-tooth cassettes. It seems that few drop bars riders are on a small budget as one-in-three bikes are using this setup!

Pedals

Paul has one of only a few Tour Divide bikes with flat pedals. Image: Paul Kuzdas

Almost all riders are using clip-in pedals (86%).

Most of the performance advantages of clip-in pedals are found under acceleration, so there likely isn’t a big disadvantage to those who choose flats. I’d guess that clip-in pedals are simply what most people are used to when they ride their road or mountain bikes, and as a result, it’s just their preference.

Brakes

Hydraulic disc brakes are also preferred by the majority of riders (82%). They are very reliable these days and often require less grip strength to pull your bike to a stop. This is particularly important when your hands are fatigued after a couple of weeks of riding!

Suspension

Josh’s Tour Divide bike uses a suspension fork (and lots of prototype Tailfin bags). Image: Josh Ibbett

Only 30% of all TD bikes are using suspension forks.

Suspension will undoubtedly reduce rider fatigue on the rougher sections of the route. And given that you can lock out most suspension, the biggest disadvantage is simply that it adds weight to your bike – most suspension forks are approximately 1.5kg heavier than carbon forks.

My napkin says that’s a bit over two hours of ride time for the average rider. So, what do you think? Is it worth it?

Moez rode one of the 37 Salsa Cutthroat bikes in the Tour Divide this year. Image: Moez Bhatti

Incredibly, Salsa made up a whopping 39% of all Tour Divide bikes this year. In fact, there were 8X more Salsas than the second-most popular bike brand (Niner).

Salsa Cycles are the biggest adventure bike brand in the world right now, and the Cutthroat model, in particular, was designed specifically to excel at the Tour Divide. This model represents 52% of all drop bar bikes here, and it’s not hard to see why – when I take a look at my Bikepacking Bike Buyer’s Guide, the Cutthroat is the only carbon drop bar bike that can fit wide tyres.

And if you’ve ever wondered where the name Cutthroat comes from, the Cutthroat trout is the state fish for all US states that the Tour Divide passes through. You’re welcome.

Summary

Phil’s bike is almost the average bike setup of the Tour Divide. The only thing missing is a Brooks saddle. Image: Phil Jones

Through this analysis, I think the seatpost and tyres are the only areas where Tour Divide riders could squeeze out a bit more performance and comfort. But overall, these rigs are really well dialled in. Just lining up for this event requires a lot of research, so I’m not surprised that almost all bikes are perfectly ready for the course.

To finish up, here’s what the average Tour Divide bike is:

It’s a rigid carbon bike fitted with 29″ wheels and running Vittoria Mezcal tyres in the 2.2″ width. The bike has drop bars, clip-in pedals, hydraulic brakes, aero bars and a 1X drivetrain. The saddle is most likely made by Brooks.

There is a high chance that a SRAM wireless drivetrain is fitted, which allows for the pairing of drop bar shifters and a mountain bike drivetrain to give an appropriately low 20 gear inch climbing gear.

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