Riding the Rockies: Fewer Than Ten Britons Have Completed the Tour Divide, the World's Longest Mountain-Bike Race. Paul Howard Is One of Them. Riding 4,418 Kilometres Self-Supported along the Rocky Mountains Requires Specialist Kit to Contend with Snow, Hail, Thunder and Lightning at Altitudes Up to 3,500 Metres, Not to Mention the Heat of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico

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It's 4.30pm. Although we've now had the benefit of hot food and somewhere warm and sheltered to dry out for two hours after nine hours of cycling through torrential, icy rain, the prospect of returning to the fray is an unpleasant one. It's decision time. Do we stick or twist?

In normal circumstances, sticking--staying in the comfort of the Wise River Club hotel and restaurant in a one-horse town in the middle of Montana--would seem eminently sensible. Ahead lie 48 kilometres of climbing up to nearly 2,500 metres, the high point of our ride down the spine of the Rockies so far. The country between us and our intended destination is very exposed; should we run out of energy or become benighted, we're unlikely to be able to find shelter.

These aren't normal circumstances, however. This is a race. My temporary companion Steve and I might not be at the sharp end of the competition--that's already nearly 1,000 kilometres and two states farther south--but we're intent on finishing as quickly as we can. A more powerful motive is the fear that if we succumb to temptation to stop now, we may never start out again.

This, it turns out, is the clincher. It's time to twist. We don our waterproofs and head out for another frigid soaking.

WEIGHT ON YOUR MIND

Every kit decision made before and during the Tour Divide is predicated on the assumption that the option that weighs least is the best one. After all, weight is a cyclist's greatest enemy, and this applies nowhere more powerfully than when racing.

Yet there are inevitably compromises that have to be made, and these compromises have to be decided on by each individual rider. This comes down, in part, to individual preference, but the requirement to think things through for yourself is mostly a result of the fact that point-to-point mountain-bike racing of such length is a relatively new phenomenon. The Tour Divide itself is only two years old; the Great Divide Race, which covers the US section of the same route, began life in 2004. Even the seed for both of these events -John Stamstad's individual time trial along the route--only took place in 1999. There is, therefore, only a limited amount of 'kit lore' for racing in such an exposed and sustained way.

Consider waterproofs, for example. The lightest, most state-of-the-art jacket and trousers weigh more than not taking either, or even dispensing with the trousers and making do with only a jacket. My trousers contributed another 440 grams to my already considerable burden (compared to some other competitors). But riding off-road through hundreds of kilometres of wilderness in a mountain range as imposing as the Rockies requires you to balance the need for speed with the need for self-preservation.

It soon became clear to me that the decision to carry an Altura waterproof jacket and waterproof trousers was the right one. Mine were compact and light and they offered sufficient protection--even in the foulest of weather--to make taking them worthwhile (my core was still warm and dry even after nine hours of rain).

This much was proven the very next morning, when Steve decided to call it a day. I was now back to being on my own--not a terribly appealing prospect, given that I had already been driven to the verge of insanity while cycling through Montana's endless forests for five days in complete solitude. But fortunately, the previous day's extra mileage meant that by lunchtime, I had caught up with a group of three other racers, with whom I would be able to share the adventure for most of the rest of the way to Mexico.

The potential reduction in speed brought about by the extra weight of my Altura kit had been more than offset by my ability to keep going when conditions had forced other cyclists to sit it out. The three riders I encountered hadn't ridden at all the previous afternoon for want of being able to stay dry enough and warm enough. …