Ulrich "Uba" Bartholmoes: 2023 Tour Divide Winner

Mountain Biking

, by Greg Heil

Photo: @nils_laengner, courtesy of Uba

Bikepack racing is, without a doubt, the most grueling ultra-endurance cycling discipline in the world. There are no support vehicles, no teammates, no course markings, and no help if (when) racers get injured.

And the clock never stops.

The masochistic racers who consider bikepacking a good idea subject themselves to a constant onslaught of harsh elements on little sleep as they tirelessly pedal thousands of miles in the hopes of both beating their competitors—and maybe setting a course record along the way.

The Tour Divide is "the mother of all bikepacking races," according to Ulrich Bartholmoes, aka "Uba," winner of the 2023 Tour Divide. "It's the oldest one, it's one of the most prestigious [bikepacking] races."

In many ways, the inspirational Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) (known as the "Tour Divide" when raced every year beginning in June) spawned the groundswell of bikepacking that has turned an obscure niche activity into an international phenomenon. Covering about 2,745 miles / 4,417 km, the route runs from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico (on the US/Mexico border). Riders will climb over 200,000 grueling vertical feet (60,960m) along the way from Canada to Mexico. Roughly tracing the spine of the continent, the GDMBR traverses some of the most stunning landscapes on Planet Earth. The sub-ranges of the Rocky Mountains change dramatically as riders pedal from north to south. Other landscapes are mixed in, too, such as the wide-open wasteland of Wyoming's Great Basin and the arid desert of New Mexico.

There is no governing body overseeing races like the Tour Divide. There's no entry fee (or reward at the end) or registration required—and the competitors like it that way. However, each bikepacking race does have its own loose set of rules—usually published online. In the Tour Divide, SPOT GPS trackers are used to track racers' positions and record their time on the course. Most importantly, the Tour Divide is entirely self-supported. Racers can use whatever publicly-available services can be found along the course, such as bike shops, hotels, and restaurants. But they can't receive any private help from friends or family—doing so would be grounds for disqualification. Forget having a team car with spare bikes on the roof. When you race the Tour Divide, you're 100% on your own.

Uba and the 2023 Tour Divide

Uba is originally from Munich, Germany, but now calls Girona, Spain, home. Having turned 37 years old while on the course, Uba won the 2023 Tour Divide with a time of 14 days, 3 hours, and 23 minutes. That effort earned him the second-fastest course time ever recorded, about 4.5 hours shy of the venerable Mike Hall's 2016 course record of 13 days, 22 hours, and 51 minutes.

RELATED: How to plan your first bikepacking adventure

I hopped on a call with Uba to hear about his incredible effort on the Tour Divide. We spoke about the biggest challenges along the route, the most rewarding moments, whether or not his time can be compared to Mike Hall's, how he uses Strava to plan and navigate long-distance races, and much more. Read on for the full scoop:

Greg Heil, Strava: I read that since 2019 you've attempted 19 events and won 14 of them, including an impressive third-place finish in Unbound Gravel just a few weeks before the Tour Divide while dealing with some serious mechanicals. But before 2019, can you tell us a little bit about what you were up to and where you were at? Can you set the stage for people who are unfamiliar with your career up to this point?

Ulrich Bartholmoes — "Uba": I was riding a downhill bike in my youth when I was going to school. Then I had a little break for studies and [went] a bit more to the flatlands and [worked] a bit more. I always [say that] back then, I was only riding the office chair, so it was a bit different. I got on my first bike back in 2013. So something like 10 years ago.

I started cycling and competing a bit in these gran fondo-like races, which are well-known and a big thing in Europe, especially in Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and so on. So basically, one-day races with something like 160 kilometers, [about] 100 miles, going through the mountains. I did this quite a lot back then. I learned and experienced [that] the longer the races are, the more climbing they have, the more I enjoy them <laugh> and yeah, the better my results were.

I came to bikepacking racing and ultra long distance cycling actually by accident. I was traveling with my camper in Spain and Portugal back in 2019. I was researching for any competitive bike events in Spain, but actually, they don't have this kind of gran fondo-like races. They only have classic criterion stuff around the church, like literally really short ones and really competitive. And the only longer thing I found was a race called the Transpyrenees, which was from east to west across the Pyrenees, something like a thousand kilometers.

It was actually a bit longer than what I meant with long races. Long races back then, I was thinking about 250, 300 kilometers, so something that still fits into a day. The thousand-kilometer race was quite a bit longer. It sounded appealing, it sounded interesting. So I signed up for it, and it was my very first race. Absolutely had no [idea] what to expect, but in the end, I won it. And the organizers were also a bit surprised. They then invited me to another event that they were running a couple of weeks later called Transibérica, which was basically three and a half thousand kilometers, the same format, but not across the Pyrenees but around the whole Spanish and Portuguese peninsula. It took me a few days, and I decided to get on this as well. I won the second one as well, and the rest is kind of history.

I got a bit into it, and it got worse and worse. And yeah, now I'm here having the Tour Divide as my race number 19 and doing quite well with all the other results in between.

Strava: You said the race organizers invited you to the Transibérica. How many weeks later was that?

Uba: It was [about] five weeks later.

Strava: So you just decided you're gonna race 3,500 kilometers (2,174 miles) five weeks later?

Uba: <laugh> Yeah. It took me two days, [to decide] I guess. <laugh>

Strava: I just wanted to clarify that 'cause that's fantastic. So, why the Tour Divide? What's so special about this race, and how long have you been planning this race attempt?

Uba: I decided [around the] end of last year. I have a long list of events and routes that I want to do. I thought it could be just the right year to tackle the Tour Divide because I was also asked if I wanted to join Unbound together with my partner BMC. For me, it [didn't] make sense to travel to the US just for Unbound. I wanted to see a bit more, and as it was that close together, it was a nice combination.

I mean, the Tour Divide had a big fascination [for] me because it's kind of the mother of all bikepacking races. It's the oldest one, it's one of the most prestigious ones.

I mean, it's amazing to see this red line across the whole US afterwards on the Strava map. It's just amazing to see what you have done on the map. And it's fascinating to see all the landscapes, all the variety, and just to take part in it. I think if you are into bikepack racing, there are quite a few events that, at some point, you have to do them. It's just a mandatory thing, a mandatory box that you have to tick. And this year was time for Tour Divide.

Strava: What was your goal going into the race? Were you just planning to win, or were you trying to set a new course record?

Uba: Both actually. I came with the clear and express goal to take the win and also to attack the route record. But I also stated at the same time I was well aware that like 20% of this goal is under my own control. This is a thing that I can influence, where I can prepare for, where I can train for, and where I can act on it. And the other 80% [depends on] what the trail allows me to do and what the outside conditions are.

That's very important for such a long race because so much can happen within two weeks. And we saw it, I mean, halfway we got stuck in the Great Basin in Wyoming, something like literally totally out of your control, you cannot do anything. You cannot even hike. We tried to hike, and we made a progress of one mile an hour, and if you are stuck in the middle and you have like 40 miles in each direction, you can calculate how long it will take you if you're making progress of one mile an hour. You simply have to be patient, and you simply have to deal with your goals, and you have to know that it's not just because you want to do it.

Strava: So speaking of the Great Basin, we have a few numbers: 12 hours, 3 fully grown men, and 1 porta potty. Can you tell that story for our audience?

Uba: Yeah. So Jens (Van Roost) and me we went together into the Great Basin. Justinas (Leveika), the third one, we were basically the front group of three. Justinas was two and a half hours back then, and Jens and me, we entered the Great Basin together. At some point, we got split up, and it started raining, and I saw on the ground his tire lines, and I saw he was still riding, and I was already pushing the bike. Between us, there was a difference of like five minutes or something. 

Later on, I caught up with him again, and we kind of carried on together. You can imagine you push your bike, someone gets totally stuck because the tires and everything is full of mud, you need to clean it. And the other one gets an advantage of like 200 meters and gets stuck again. And so you leapfrog each other for ages. You can imagine making a progress of one mile an hour. 

At some point in the evening, the third guy [caught up] to us. So he closed the gap of two and a half hours. Obviously, he was a bit back behind us. [Obviously] it dried up a bit, so he was able to ride a bit more of the route while we were crawling like [at] one mile an hour. I mean, even if you go [at] five miles an hour, you close the gap of two hours pretty soon. So he was a bit lucky on this one. So he closed the gap to us, and we were the three of us again. 

We just carried on, and we decided we [had] to carry on all night because we had only minimal sleeping kit, like an emergency bivy with us. Out there in the Basin, there is literally nothing, just like the low bushes. There [are] no trees, there is no house, there is no shelter, there is no civilization, there is absolutely nothing. And so it became a bit serious and also a bit dangerous because if you stop moving, you soon end up in hypothermia. It was seven, eight degrees Celsius out there during the night. It was constantly raining, so we were already soaked, and you can imagine it’s not a cozy feeling. So we carried on and just tried to make the best out of it and hope for the rain to stop at some point, which actually didn’t happen. 

At some point, I was a bit back, but I heard Jens screaming a bit far away, and I was wondering what happened, but well, it takes time to get there. And when I came there, I figured out he found this porta potty, and this was literally a miracle because it was in the middle of the Basin, and there was absolutely no reason for this thing to be there. There was nothing <laugh>. We don’t know why it is there. But it was the right thing at the right point. It was kind of a shelter, and there was no question if we were going to use it.

We took the essentials from our bikes which was basically the emergency bivies, some additional clothing, and some food. And then we went into this porta potty, and basically we were all three sitting on the toilet bench, which is one meter [wide]. It's one meter, and I mean, three guys don't really fit on one meter, but we [somehow] squeezed in there.

We made some funny agreements this evening and this night—for example, we said if someone needs to go to the toilet, he needs to go outside <laugh>. This is kind of the living room. I mean, it sounds disgusting and awkward, but we were sitting there on the toilet, and we were eating chocolate bars and chips and stuff because, if you are riding all day, you have to eat all day, and then you sit in this porta potty and eat stuff. It's a bit weird, but in this moment, it didn't feel to be a toilet. It felt just to be any kind of shelter. You forget [that] it's a toilet.

We were sitting in there from 11:00 PM to 9:00 AM because it was not only to wait out the night, but it was really to wait for the rain to stop. It was 6:00 AM when I went out for the first time just to [see] if things have become rideable again. I went out and just went with the bike for 20 meters and realized nothing [had] changed. It didn't make any sense because it was still cold out there, and it was still windy, so it didn't make any sense to continue. So we decided to stay for another hour, and we basically did the same test [to see] if the mud has somehow improved.

We tested it every hour, and at nine, it was the first time when we realized it's actually getting better. It stopped raining at seven, and sun came not directly up—it was still cloudy, but still, it was drying a bit. So at least we had the chance to push our bikes again and to move somehow, so we [began] at nine. But until then, we were just stuck within this toilet.

When I started at the beginning of the Basin in Atlantic City, I had planned something like worst case nine hours that it would take me to pass the Basin. In the end, it took 26. It was just insane.

Strava: <laugh> Wow, that's a hell of a story.

Uba: The toilet has actually become famous because all the people northbound and southbound that pass on the Tour Divide, they stop there, and they take selfies, and they put them into the Facebook group, and you literally see every day some selfies from people with sunshine and the best weather out there, and they're sitting in the porta potty and taking selfies with each other, and that's super funny. It's now probably the most famous toilet on the whole route.

Strava: <laugh> That's fantastic! So that sounds like it was a hard moment. Any other really difficult moments from the race that you want to share?

Uba: Well, I mean, it's a long ride. This one definitely was one of the biggest moments and one of the hardest things. But besides that, the first week was pretty rough because it was basically raining every day. With the rain, you get additional problems with the bike. I had to deal with some mechanicals. On day nine, I had kind of a serious breakdown and was sitting in the morning in my hotel room crying for 45 minutes because I thought everything was just against me: the bad weather, the mechanicals, the Basin. It's quite some drain on the mental strength there. It's part of this kind of racing and part of this kind of sport to get over it and to get control back. So yeah, there were some more hard moments, but I guess this one was the biggest ones.

Strava: That sounds brutal. But what about highlights? What were your favorite highlights from the course or your experience out there?

Uba: What's absolutely special: there were so many dot watchers out there. You meet them on the route, people that follow your dot on this map on the internet, and they come out to the route, they just cheer you on. That's absolutely fantastic.

The day after the Great Basin, we stopped at Brush Mountain Lodge, which is a lodge that's run by a woman. Her name is Kirsten, and she acts like a trail angel. She helps and accommodates each and every rider who comes through there. We ended up there in the evening, and she said, "yeah come on in, have a glass of water. Get rid of your cycling kit. We will give you a full wash. We will put it in the washing machine into the dryer."

So getting a complete new kit, basically fully washed half into the race, was fantastic. She made us pizza, and she got up at 4:30 in the morning to make us breakfast and pancakes. It felt a bit like a trap. It was really hard to leave this place in the morning. This was just a fantastic experience. The hospitality was just great. And all the people along the route cheering you—that was just awesome.

Besides that, an absolute highlight was definitely the landscape. It was my first time in the US. Racing in the US [and] seeing the whole route from Canada to New Mexico, how it changes, it's mind-blowing.

Strava: Speaking of the route, we had talked a bit earlier about course records. Can you tell me a bit about Koko Claims, what this addition is to the Tour Divide course, and how it affects it?

Uba: Koko Claims is a climb... I don't know if you can call it a "climb." It's a climb in Canada starting, I guess, after 160 kilometers. It's basically a super steep thing with, let's say, 15 to 20% [grade] on average. It's actually not a path that is rideable. It's a path that is full of loose rocks the size of the heads of children, like literally massive, massive, massive rocks. It's not super long, but you have to push and carry your bike up there. I actually killed my right shoe on the first day directly there—the Boa strap snapped. Later on, I had to fix my shoe with a zip tie, which was a bit annoying because while hiking, it always got off on the heel, which wasn't that helpful.

It's super exhausting to push a fully loaded bike up this climb, especially if you cannot step securely. It's not like on a path where you have a secure step. You always have to watch out where you step. And then it started raining when we were there, so even the rocks were slippery. It took something like two hours, 15 minutes or so on the climb. If you are up there and you think, "nice one, that's it, I made it," you haven't made the downhill, and the downhill is—I mean it's more rideable, but it's also super steep. And because it was wet, it was super muddy, and it was super slippery. So the downhill wasn't that much faster than the uphill. It's just a super crazy thing.

Koko Claims is probably the most brutal one, but there are a few more of those sections later on in Colorado.

Strava: My understanding is that's a fairly new addition to the course, and it wasn't included in the course when Mike Hall set his record in 2016—is that right?

Uba: Yeah, that's right. There was a discussion in the Facebook group ongoing about the actual record if we were still comparing apples with apples or if we have a banana in the meanwhile. Jay Petervary—who has done the Tour Divide, I don't know, so often—said the detour, which was mainly tarmac back in 2016, is probably something like four hours faster than the actual route over Koko Claims. So yeah, that's why there was some discussion ongoing about the record time and how comparable it really is.

[Clarification: Based on Uba's account, Koko Claims was always part of the official course, but Mike Hall set the course record on a year when the course detoured around Koko Claims. Course detours are common from year to year due to extreme weather conditions, such as landslides or wildfires.]

Strava: You were only like four hours and change behind Mike Hall's incredible record. On a race that long, that's just incredible. So can you tell us a bit about your custom-built race rig? I was reading up on some of the race rigs, and yours is quite a bit different than the classic bike out there.

Uba: I decided to go with the BMC Twostroke, which is a hardtail mountain bike. That was the basis for my bike, and I started highly modifying it. For example, instead of the flat bar, I changed to a drop bar because I'm training mostly on the road bike and the gravel bike. With the flat bar, I just feel weird, and I know you have to feel really comfortable with your setup. So I changed the handlebar to a drop bar, which was much better for me to ride it. This was one major change, and then basically, I changed a lot of components, swapping them for more reliable, more durable, more lightweight components.

For example, instead of DT Swiss wheels, I added Beast Components wheels , which is a small manufacturer from Germany. The wheels are handcrafted, and they built me a set of wheels, including a Dynamo hub, which I used to run my front light and my battery charger.

I did quite some modifications on the setup to really find my perfect thing for the Tour Divide. Besides all the problems that occurred due to the weather, the mud, and, let's say, not so optimal conditions, I was pretty happy with everything I chose. It worked quite well over four and a half thousand kilometers. You definitely have some wear, and some stuff will break. It's a hard challenge not only for the human and for the body but also for the material. That's totally normal, but I was super happy with the setup.

Strava: In an email, you mentioned that all of your "free route" races were planned with the help of the Strava Route Builder. Can you tell us a little bit about how you use the Strava Route Builder and why you like it?

Uba: I use it basically since ages, since ever. I never used something else. I remember the times, probably it was back in 2016, '17, when you planned a route for a road ride, and the possibility to end up on a gravel road was quite high. It was good to see the whole journey, how the route planner improved over time with more and more people using it, with more and more data coming in and coming available to Strava.

It's handy to plan all kinds of rides because of your own heatmaps and the global heatmaps. The global heatmaps are especially useful if you try to plan a route in a region you don't know, then you can see, "okay, this is a quite well-frequented road or trail," or whatever. So it obviously means it's kind of possible. If it's a road ride, then you know it's not a main road, it's not a highway or something, but it's used by cyclists. And this helps a lot.

For example, last year I did the Transcontinental Race, which was from west to east across Europe. If you cross foreign countries in Europe, you can't know them all, and you can't know which type of roads are forbidden for cyclists and which kinds of roads are allowed. Therefore, the heatmaps are [very] helpful.

Now all the route planning is super reliable. You don't end up on a mountain bike trail with a road bike anymore. So that's quite good. You see the difference of a road route and a gravel or a mountain bike route just by the pattern [of the] line. So you know, maybe you add some short gravel section just to take a shortcut or something, and then you can look it up with satellite images, which are also included in the planner. You can have an [idea] of how it is there, how rough it is, and if it's a well-maintained gravel road or if it's like just a little trail or whatever.

That's a big toolset that I use quite frequently to plan my races. Half of them are like Tour Divide, where you just get a route and you just follow it. But the other half of the races, you get just checkpoints, and you have to connect them by planning your route yourself.

Strava: So that trans-European race is one of those where you had to plan your route all the way across Europe. Wow, that's incredible!

Uba: You spend basically hundreds and hundreds of hours just sitting in front of the Strava map, planning a route, figuring out which is the best way. Also, the different settings give me the shortest route or give me the route with the least elevation—those are settings that are [very] helpful to figure out which is a good compromise.

Strava: You had said earlier, I think in jest, that you had only ridden the Tour Divide to see it as one big line on the Strava map and that all of your rides are posted on Strava, which we love. Can you tell me a little bit about you're so passionate about Strava? What do you enjoy the most about it?

Uba: Over the years, it has become a really lovely community. It's really cool, on the one hand, for route planning. But I also use it a lot because I have all my data there to compare races I did, for example, with power output.

I can also check [out] upcoming events. For example, if the race from the year before is on the same route, then I can prepare and analyze data—on the Tour Divide as well. I just marked the segments like Koko Claims, and it helps me a bit to understand how long it will actually take me. So is it one hour? Is it four hours? This helps a bit, especially in the beginning for planning. On route, I just marked the big lines on my Garmin. So whenever I entered a segment, I knew, "okay, you will be busy here for the next four hours on this climb." It's good for the mind to not only see the kilometers because the kilometers can sometimes [mean] nothing, especially on the mountain bike. If it's a 10-kilometer climb, it can be one hour or it can be four hours. So to see the segment time is quite a good thing. So I use segments a lot.

I use the map for planning a lot. And Strava has become a very cool toolset to plan rides and to go on rides, which is super helpful for me. Also, I mean, there is a lot of fun on the platform with all the community and competition thing on segments or on clubs where you just see who has done the most kilometers for preparing for the Tour Divide or whatever. That's just fun.

Strava: What challenge is next on your to-do list?

Uba: Spending time on my couch.

Strava: <laugh>. Right, fair enough.

Uba: No, seriously. I have planned until the Tour Divide, which was my big goal for this year. Now it gets a bit calm, and then I will start with the planning process again. There is so much on my wishlist [that] I want to ride and so many ideas that I just need to start filtering them and plan them a bit and see what's coming next. And who knows? [Maybe] I will not wait for too long to get on my next project, but it's also important to get some rest for the body and for the brain to cool down a bit. Then let's take it from there.

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