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Amid hallucinations, Minnesota's Rob Milburn completes 2,754-mile bike race

The hallucinations were coming on again. They had become familiar to Duluth's Rob Milburn by now. They came when he was low on calories and sleep: A river that seemed to be flowing uphill. A phantom lodge. And the ultimate -- that this wasn't rea...

Duluth’s Rob Milburn makes the long descent into Salida, Colo., about two weeks into the 2,754-mile Tour Divide mountain-bike race. He completed the race in 23½ days. (Rob Milburn photo)

The hallucinations were coming on again.

 They had become familiar to Duluth’s Rob Milburn by now. They came when he was low on calories and sleep: A river that seemed to be flowing uphill. A phantom lodge. And the ultimate - that this wasn’t really a 2,754-mile bicycle race from Canada to New Mexico at all, but instead some freak psychological experiment in which he and the other riders were unwitting subjects. Milburn, 47, is believed to be the first Duluth rider to compete in the self-supported Tour Divide, considered one of the most challenging backcountry bicycle races in the world. He had done plenty of gravel-road “centuries” - 100-mile races - close to home. But nothing prepared him for what he encountered from June 12 to July 5 - 23½ days - riding his mountain bike from Banff, Alberta, to the Mexican border.

“I thought I had a good idea what it would be like,” Milburn said, still recovering at home in Duluth this past week. “I had no idea. The calorie deficit, the lack of sleep. The mental part is the real challenge.”

The race follows the spine of the Rocky Mountains on jeep trails, ATV trails and single-track trails. It gains 200,000 feet of elevation - nearly 40 vertical miles - and loses about the same in harrowing downhill runs.

Racers must be self-supported, with no pit crews, although they can accept favors from local residents along the way.


“That race is in a league of its own,” said Duluth’s Jeremy Kershaw, an ultra bike racer who puts on the Heck of the North 100-mile gravel bike race on the North Shore. “There’s not much like it in the world. It’s unsupported - no family or team. You resupply at convenience stores. You’re camping every night. It makes the Tour de France look like a sissy event.”

Josh Kato, a 40-year-old nurse from Washington, set a record in winning the 2015 Tour Divide in 14 days, 11 hours and 37 minutes, nipping previous record-holder Jay Petervary by 26 minutes.

“They’re a different species,” Milburn said.

No quit in him

Milburn, facilities manager for Duluth Edison Charter Schools, averaged 118 miles a day for his 23 days on the trail, sleeping an average of five hours per night. As a rookie, he was among the top 25 percent of finishers. A total of 158 riders started the race. In a typical year, 60 percent of riders do not finish, according to a race website. Some of this year’s starters are still riding.

“One of Rob’s best gifts is he’s mentally tough,” Kershaw said, “which seems to be the deciding factor in most people I run into in the endurance world.”

Scott “Chewy” Totten-Hall, a bicycle mechanic at Continental Ski and Bike, said he knew Milburn’s chances of finishing the grueling race were good.

“He’s just got an engine that doesn’t quit,” Totten-Hall said. “It’s the engine and the determination that he doesn’t accept ‘no.’ ”


Many days on the trail, Milburn said, he silently repeated the mantra, “I will not quit today. I will not quit today.”

He admits to being gritty.

“I don’t think I was wired with an ‘off’ button for most things,” he said.

Nice country

The physical and mental grind was offset by the spectacular landscape.

“It was amazing to see that amount of country in that way,” Milburn said. “And you’re working for it. Don’t get me wrong - there was plenty of suffering involved. That just made it sweeter.”

He rode alone most of the time, and slept out alone most nights in a sleeping bag and waterproof “bivy sack,” like a lone burrito lying along the trail high in the Rockies.

He started the race with an injured IT (iliotibial) band from hip to knee, which forced him to lower his seat post. That seat position aggravated both knees. He knew he couldn’t push the pace, instead settling for longer days in the saddle, pedaling more revolutions per minute in lower gears.


He suffered a serious crash in Idaho. He got lost for a time. Two or three of his toes remained numb 10 days after the race.

“My hands still don’t really work well,” he said.

Some climbs were so steep that Milburn had to walk his bike, pushing it ahead a few feet, squeezing the brakes, climbing up to the bike and repeating the process.

Surprise around the bend

On one gravel-road descent near Whitefish, Mont., he was making nearly 30 mph when he rounded a corner and encountered a grizzly in the middle of the road.

“I locked up my brakes,” he said. “The bear stood up on its hind legs.”

Milburn estimated he was 35-40 feet from the grizzly as it stared at him.

“My body just turned to Jell-O,” he said.


A woman rider came around the corner, saw the bear and blew her bear whistle. The bear trundled off the downhill side of the mountain, and Milburn rode on.

Milburn’s Salsa Fargo bike, loaded with sleeping bag, pad, tools, spare parts, water bottles, food and a few extra clothes, weighed close to 50 pounds. He had no mechanical problems along the way.

He and other riders would resupply with food at small stores not far off the trail, or at lodges along the way. Milburn said people along the trail - so-called “trail angels” - were supportive.

“We rolled into Salida (Colo.) at 11:30 at night, and it’s as simple as someone saying, ‘My yard’s a safe place. You can camp there.’ That’s awesome,” he said.

Universal energy

One of his most memorable nights on the trail was late in the race, when he found himself making a fast descent into Cuba, N.M., in an electrical storm.

“It was just sprinkling, but it was 20-25 minutes of ‘flash-boom!’ Just deafening,” Milburn said.

Oddly, he said, he was unafraid.


“I had this period of absolute clarity of the interconnectedness of all the energy in the universe,” he said. “It was all from the same source: I was part of the storm. The storm was part of me. I had this grin inside of my belly. It was by far the most spiritual part of the trip.”

Already, Milburn is thinking about another Tour Divide in a few years. His birthday is June 16, and the race always starts on the second Friday in June.

“I might shoot for having my 50th birthday on the trail,” he said.

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