Oliver “Ollie” Whalley is back home in Christchurch, New Zealand, following his record-smashing victory in the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile (4,418 km) self-supported race down the spine of the Rocky Mountains. The 26-year-old Kiwi shattered the old Tour Divide record, completing the epic journey from Canada to the Mexican border in 16 days, two hours and 46 minutes—a pace that had him covering an unthinkable 160-plus miles per day over some of the roughest terrain in North America. Whalley attributes his victory in part to his novel bike: a Ventana 29er with Gates Carbon Drive and an internally geared 14-speed Rohloff hub.
We reached Whalley via Skype and chatted about his Tour Divide strategy, his love of endurance races in New Zealand known as “brevets,” the belt drive technology on his bike, his plans to take up cyclocross racing, his love of the American West, the earthquakes that rocked Christchurch, and his future race plans. Will Ollie return to defend his Tour Divide title in 2013? Read on to find out.
Gates: Tell us about yourself.
Ollie: I’m 26, quite young for a Tour Divide rider. I work as a civil engineer in Christchurch. You’re probably aware of the earthquake that damaged the city. My job involves doing a lot of the redesign of the city’s infrastructure that was destroyed. At times it was frustrating, and with ongoing aftershocks I was keen to get away to America to escape for a few weeks.
Ollie at finish in Antelope Wells, NM, wearing his headlamp for night riding
What was the impetus for racing the Tour Divide?
In 2008 a Kiwi named Simon Kennett, a pioneer of New Zealand mountain biking, raced the Great Divide, a precursor to the Tour Divide. I remember reading about it and thinking, “Wow, I can’t even imagine riding that far.” Then last year I watched the DVD movie Ride the Divide and I was really inspired by the adventure of it. That’s when I said, “I’m going to do that.”
What’s your racing background?
We have some endurance races in New Zealand called brevets, which can be 1,000 to 1,200 kilometers long. The first time I entered one I had no idea what I was doing. Somehow I ended up finishing first. I seem to be good at riding for long distances. I also did two brevets earlier this year as preparation for Tour Divide, including the Great Southern Brevet, which I won.
What’s your relationship with Ventana?
I’m the New Zealand distributor. They are a boutique brand with a following in New Zealand. It’s a side job for me. They have a really good belt drive compatible frame called the El Comandante.
Describe your bike.
It’s an El Comandate Ultimate 29er with Gates Carbon Drive’s CenterTrack system and a 14-speed Rohloff SpeedHub. The belt drive system is obviously lighter and stronger than a chain drive, which is a big advantage, but there is a bit of a weight penalty with the Rohloff, which is heavier than a derailleur. The extra weight of the Rohloff is really not a problem if you appreciate the ability to be able to avoid all that chain and derailleur maintenance. Neil Flock at Cycle Monkey (the US distributor for Rohloff) was really helpful in getting my drivetrain set up.
I have run the Gates Carbon Drive on my singlespeed since 2009, even managing a top 10 at Singlespeed World Championships in 2010. I was really impressed with the system. It was a natural progression from there to longer and harder races. I love the Gates system and it has really worked well for me. The CenterTrack developments have made it even better.
Ollie riding his Tour Divide rig in a recent CX race in NZ
What was your Tour Divide strategy?
I knew from past races that it would be important to hammer right from the start and open up a gap. I started out with a group of four to five riders in Canada and we had good group form. The pace was pretty fast though, and I was thinking, “Oh my gosh, we’re not going to be able to hold this.” From then on it was a strategy of keeping the days as long as possible, trying to maintain the gap.
There are two strategies that riders use in Tour Divide. One is to do the sleep deprivation thing, sometimes not even sleeping at all. I knew that wasn’t going to work for me, so I tried to get five hours of sleep per night, ride harder on the hills and keep the pace up during the day. Craig Stapler and I separated from the other leaders and we rode together a lot of the way. Craig is a totally awesome guy, and it was great to have a rider so similar in pace for moral support. He’s a great friend now and I learned a lot from him.
Weight is a big issue; how much gear did you carry?
I knew that getting a good sleep every night would be really important, so I carried a bit more gear than Craig, who had just a bivy sack. I went for a super light Z packs tent, a Western Mountaineering sleeping bag and a Therma Rest sleeping pad. The tent was easy to set up and I could get it up in a few minutes and fall asleep, whereas Craig was always trying to find the smoothest plot of ground to sleep on. Bugs freak me out so the tent was great for keeping out the scorpions in New Mexico.
Total, I had about four kilos of gear, plus the 12 kilo bike. Sixteen kilos (35 pounds) is heavy, but that includes aero bars, which are a big advantage on the flat road stretches.
It came really early in the race. Craig and I opened up a 20 minute gap on the downhill when we crossed into the US at Eureka, Montana. It was a long snowy push followed by a super sketchy descent. Some of the guys walked the descent, but Craig and I rode it with plenty of running cyclocross remounts to get rolling in the snow. It was really bad weather, raining and snowing and sleeting. During the climb we post-holed up to our knees in some places. Craig and I swapped duties breaking trail.
When we got down to Eureka we stopped to get some food in town and Craig says, “Do you want to keep pushing on or stop and get a room and warm up?” It was late afternoon at that point. We ate some subs and then decided to keep going and climb another pass. It’s interesting that the race was decided so early. That was on the second day.
Craig seems to have inspired you. How did you work together?
We always rode side-by-side. He is a good guy to talk to, really knowledgeable. He’s about 40. I was always itchy to keep going, whereas he sometimes wanted to stop and chill out and enjoy the experience. Thanks to Craig I was able to get a richer experience, stopping in the small towns along the way, talking to the locals, seeing the life in small town America.
What are some of your most enjoyable memories?
Taking part in the Bigfoot Breakfast Challenge in Platoro, Colorado. The Skyline Lodge there serves you a stack of pancakes that’s as tall as your head, plus sausage and bacon. If you can eat it in 30 minutes, you get it for free, plus a T-shirt. Nobody had finished the challenge before. We had just come down off the tallest pass, Indiana Pass at 11,900 feet, and all we had to eat on the way up was a Pop Tart, so we were ravenous. I finished the pancakes with a few minutes to spare and I got a round of applause. That was pretty cool. They mailed the T-shirt home to me so I wouldn’t have to carry it. I have so many memories like that of the generosity of people in these small towns all down the Rockies.
What were some of the best parts of the ride?
The wee bits of singletrack. A lot of the Tour Divide is on fire roads and dirt roads. The Gold Dust trail outside of Breckenridge was amazing. To have an awesome singletrack descent was so fun, especially on a fully loaded bike. You really had to use some body English when ripping down the trail on a loaded bike.
Were there any low points when you thought, I can’t keep going?
Yeah. We did a big descent into Steamboat, Colorado, and I had a complete meltdown. It was a hot day, and we had been trying to cut down on our stops because we thought people were catching up. After a long lunch we were back on the road but I was exhausted. Craig said, “right, we’re going to stop.” We saw a lake and Craig was like, “Let’s jump in.” We got off our bikes and just chilled out in the cold water. It was really nice to get off the bike and cool off our bodies, get our core temperature down and just soak. I think it made a big difference because I felt refreshed when I got back on the bike, and we got in 170 tough miles that day.
The Northern Rockies are full of grizzlies. Did you see any?
Yeah we did, and we heard them at night, too. I was always sure to keep my food away from my tent. But honestly the most exciting thing for me was seeing a beaver. I had never seen a beaver before. They are really interesting animals and we don’t have them in New Zealand. Then we spotted one tending to its dam, just swimming across a pond. It flapped its tail in the water, either showing off or telling us to keep back. We just stopped and enjoyed the moment and took it all in. It was moments like that that made this such an amazing experience.
How did the Gates Carbon Drive perform?
Really well. I started with a new belt and changed it during the race. It was way faster than changing a chain, maybe three minutes total. I rode the rest of the way on that second belt. Gates showed some awesome support, sending me another spare that I picked up in Salida, Colorado, along with a big bag of banana chips. Those banana chips kept me going for a while.
Eds Note: Typically, a Gates Carbon Drive belt will last twice as long as a chain, which proved true through the Tour Divide as other competitors had to do multiple chain replacements.
Ollie can't get enough: racing his Tour Divide rig soon after returning home
Do you think your belt drive was a factor in your victory?
Definitely. The big time saving is the lack of lube. Craig would have to stop and lube his chain three or four times per day. Craig also changed his chain twice. It’s a psychological boost as well, knowing that you can keep riding without having to stop.
Big question: Will you return next year to defend your title?
That’s a good question. I will see how I recover. Breaking the record was completely unexpected and honestly quite unbelievable. I was just planning to finish. Honestly, it was a lot more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Whether I do it again, it will be a completely different experience. My focus would be to beat the record so that might make it less enjoyable. I would very much like to do it again but in a different way, maybe with my girlfriend, Heidi. We’ll have to see how I feel next year.
It’s difficult to come back from such a monumental adventure and return to your normal life. But I’m hoping to explore the options for adventure touring around Asia. There are a lot of other endurance races and rides I’d like to do. Maybe some stage racing. I’d really like to ride the Vapor Trail and the Colorado Trail, which are much more singletrack oriented. My idea of a good weekend is spending eight hours riding the hills of New Zealand.
It’s winter in New Zealand now, so I’ll be doing a bit of skiing. I like putting skins on my skis and touring up in the Southern Alps.
Thanks Ollie. Congratulations and keep in touch!
Eds Note: In light of Ollie’s victory, Gates has signed him on as an official member of Team Gates Carbon Drive and has shipped him a team cyclocross rig, a carbon Raleigh Hodala SS, to ride during the remainder of the New Zealand CX season, which is currently underway. Stay tuned for more news and updates from NZ.
Ollie has attracted a fair amount of media coverage in New Zealand, including this radio interview with Murray Deaker on New Zealand’s Radio Sport. It’s an in-depth conversation, with a bit of bloviating from Deaker, but provides some great detail of Ollie’s adventure in his own words.
Another big weekend for the Team Gates Carbon Drive mountain bike team, which took a series of wins across the state of Colorado. Mitch Westall won the Winter Park Epic XC#3, Jesse Swift and Derek Strong won the Breckenridge-68 Duo Race, and Tim Lucking finished in 2nd place at the Leadville 50 mile race!
Derek Strong rippin' the Breckenridge 68!
Garrett Davis, Mitch Westall and myself lined-up in Winter Park for the 3rd race in the series, a high-altitude point-to-point race finishing in Fraser. The race was fast right from the gun again, and this time, Mitch’s only race tactic was to hammer at the front until there was no one left! Garrett suffered a bit with an ambitious gearing choice, but came back in the end, as I was quickly losing my steam and going backwards. Up front, Mitch was caught by his main rival, about one-third of the way through the race. But another couple digs in the hard sections by Mitch got him a gap that he was able to maintain to the finish line for the win!
Meanwhile, over in Breckenridge, Jesse and Derek decided to “take it easy” and enter the two-man team event at the Rocky Mountain Endurance Series, Breckenridge 68. Derek rode a screamin’ first lap, and came in just as Jesse was working to resolve his “technical issue”… someone brought the wrong shoes! Luckily, he was able to make some adjustments and fire back out onto the course, missing the rain and being treated to some perfect dirt. Their finishing time of just over 6 hours was super-competitive considering they were on single speeds.
Tim Lucking of Gates Carbon Drive is somewhere in that throng of starters at the Leadville 50.
And still a little higher in elevation; Tim was lining up for the start at the Leadville 50. This event has grown massively over the past couple years, drawing nearly a thousand people, even with the events in Breckenridge and Winter Park. Tim made it through the Le Mans start, and kept the pace high on the immediate first climb of about 10 miles, passing lots of riders. Once he hit the turn-around at the half-way point of the race, he was able to see the other riders he was racing, and worked hard to keep a steady pace, continuing to reel-in his quary. After just under 5 hours of racing, Tim finished up in 2nd place for the single-speed category, and a strong 78th overall! Most importantly, his result was good enough to qualify for the Leadville 100. We can’t wait to get his race report from that race, coming up in a few weeks!
When the editors at Road Bike Action Magazine spotted the new BMC MC01 at the Sea Otter Classic earlier this year, they instantly recognized that it was a special bike. We got ’em one to test ride and the result is a story in the September issue, which features the Masschallenge as the magazine’s Bike of the Month. The Masschallenge, one of the new BMC urban bikes that features Gates Carbon Drive, is a “halo” bike intended for serious cyclists and roadies who want the fastest, coolest singlespeed for tooling around on city streets when not training on their BMC road bike.
The bike’s cockpit is all Easton–EC90SL stem, EC90XC flat bars, and EC90 Offset seatpost, along with feather-light EC90XC 29-inch wheels. Pictured below, the Masschallenge is part of Gates Corporation’s sponsorship of the BMC Racing Team. Cadel Evans, George Hincapie and other members of the team have this same bike for use at home. A limited quantity of these bikes is available for sale in North America. If you’re a serious BMC fan who wants the lightest, raciest city bike out there, you’ve got to get one. For cyclists who want a more affordable commuter option with gears, check out the Urbanchallenge UC01 Alfine 11, which Wired called “a bike for Ninjas.”
Pick up a copy of the new issue of Road Bike Action to learn more
Riding the marathon DH course of the Megavalanche on France’s Alpe D’Huez on a full suspension geared bike requires some serious guts and determination. Doing it on a singlespeed hardtail is absolutely insane. But that’s what former World Cup downhiller Frank Schneider did over the weekend, winning the Masters Challenger Class, and finishing second overall in the Mega Challenger Cup, on a Nicolai with Gates Carbon Drive. Schneider bested his geared competitors who were riding full-sus DH and enduro bikes. He’s one hard dude.
Starting in the third row with more than 40 riders in front of him, “”Schneidi” showed his skill and fitness by charging down the snow covered upper mountain and working his way into the top 10. Exiting the crash-filled glacier, Schneider passed his competitors one by one on the fast and technical singletrack of the lower mountain. Huge congratulations to Schneider, a Gates employee in Europe, for his daring victory–and for showing that Gates Carbon Drive can slay the roughest terrain in the mountain biking kingdom. Maybe next year we will see a singlespeed category! Just saying.
The Summer issue of Mountain magazine includes a review of the Reeb singlespeed 29er with Gates Carbon Drive, which it calls slick and quiet. “I’m not even a singlespeed rider, but I was blown away by the smooth feel of this bike,” writes the bike’s test rider. “You can just get in a zone and crank.” Click here to learn more about Reeb.
Check out Reeb, Oskar Blues and Gates Carbon Drive on Saturday, July 28 at the Laramie Enduro, where Reeb will have a tent and beer.