A few years ago, the mountain biking haven of Prescott, Arizona, welcomed a new rider to the fold. Though no stranger to a bike, even Christopher Seistrup would admit he was a bikepacking greenhorn. But he learned quickly. In August, only a few seasons after dedicating himself to long-haul racing, Seistrup entered the record books as the winner of the 2019 Tour Divide. Arguably the toughest self-supported race in North America, he crushed the course in 15 days, besting some of the strongest riders in the sport.
More than just the first to reach the Mexican border, he generated $35,000 in donations for Save One Life, an organization dedicated to helping people with hemophilia. It’s a condition he has himself, not that he lets it slow him down.
AJ: The Tour Divide is billed as the most challenging self-supported bike race in North America, and yet several riders won on their first attempt. Does a rookie have an advantage? It surely can’t be beginner’s luck.
CS: Seeing so many rookies have successful first runs made me feel like I had a chance if I worked hard enough to prepare. In recent years, rookies have won other major ultra races. Believing it’s possible is one thing. Having no experience on the route meant I had no real knowledge of the terrain. Without experience, it was hard to make any concrete plans. With the right mentality, I think this could be a benefit. Maybe some racers do well when they are willing to let the adventure unfold in front of them. With fewer expectations, there are fewer disappointments. Keeping a positive attitude is huge in this race. All these things come together to be a benefit to the right rider.
You didn’t start bikepacking until a few years ago. When did you decide you wanted to tackle the Tour Divide? Better yet, when did you decide to make a bid for a top finish?
Just hearing about the tour Divide got me really excited. As a kid, I always wanted to see how far I could ride a bike. When I saw people riding far on mountain bikes, and camping for days on end, I became infatuated. Before moving to Arizona, I was already in love with the idea of bikepacking. After I moved there and realized the possibilities were endless, I felt the tour Divide would be a reality sooner than later. Since quitting my normal day job I realized I had the opportunity to train the way top riders train. About two years ago, I decided I would do whatever I needed to do to be one of “those guys.” The ones I saw in the movies pushing their limits.
Everyone makes sacrifices in the name of their passions. To place well in the Tour Divide, you had to make big life changes, but what was your most significant?
Moving my wife and kids away from our extended family in Illinois was the biggest sacrifice, but also a reward. It took becoming self-employed, selling my vehicle, and making cycling as serious as a normal job would be.
In 2017 Brian Lucido won the TD as a newly diagnosed type-1 diabetic. You won as a rider with hemophilia. You two are sending powerful messages about overcoming what some might perceive as medical limitations. Did you think your hemophilia might stymie your ambitions to place well?
Growing up with a bleeding disorder, you’re constantly told all the things you can’t do. I love cycling so much, I would have taken whatever steps necessary to see what I could do. Even growing up riding BMX and dirt jumping mountain bikes, I did it in a way that was so gradual, I was relatively safe. I have only had one cycling injury that required treatment. That was last spring. I had been training for the 2018 Grand Depart, but in March I fell on my hip in Sedona, leading to an enormous hematoma that left me bedridden for weeks. The cost of treatment was too much, and some time off work was the less expensive option. Unfortunately, that meant postponing my race until this year.
You can’t spend this amount of time on a bike, preparing and then completing the adventure, without a deep love of long rides, short naps, and a need to repeat them. What is it about bikepacking that spoke to you?
For as long as I can remember, I have just wanted to see how far I could ride. When I moved to Arizona, I bought a Jeep to explore the area, but soon realized that my bike would take me to places the Jeep couldn’t. As I continued to push my limits, I kept finding new places to try to get to. There are areas all over Arizona that aren’t designated wilderness, but still have only singletrack to reach them, or places where accessing them with a vehicle would require special permits. Making it into these areas, under my own power and carrying capacity, opened up a world of possibilities that just keeps expanding as my fitness and comfort levels allowed.
It’s getting a bit crazy what some consider “outside support.” Some even think having a cell phone is an advantage as riders can call home for inspiration. Do you think self-supported racing needs more defined rules?
There are different perceptions of how deep the self-supported ethos runs. Some people think hotels or lodging are support. When I’d call to check in with my wife, Sarah, I’d start off with, “Don’t tell me about anyone else. I’m only telling you what I’m going to do.” Having a bleeding disorder is stressful on loved ones as well. I think more defined rules could eliminate some gray areas, but there’s still no way to be sure they’re enforced. I didn’t even want to take food from dot-watchers [people who follow the race via GPS points] for fear someone might suspect I had prearranged something.
Did anything go wonky during the ride?
Riding into Ovando on fumes and trying to stretch the calories to the next town taught me an important lesson. I tried carrying enough food, but when timing runs long, you start to think, what if I run out, what if I have to wait for a store to open? Experience in creatively finding solutions was a big plus. Finding alternative uses for gear you bring is fun when they work. Losing a second pair of sunglasses in New Mexico and riding all day without them was tough. Every hour, I had to stop to eat with my eyes shut to give them a break from the sun. Saddle sores weren’t much of an issue until the last couple days. I was in such discomfort, I finally found the solution was to use a strip of duct tape to pull my rear cheek up, moving my saddle sore away from my sit bones.
Many people think events like the Tour Divide are more about racing than adventure. For most of the starters, these events are like mountains with summits they feel compelled to climb. Do you do it for the adventure or the competition? Is the competition with other riders, or mostly with yourself?
On the TD, the adventure definitely came first. The entire route was unknown to me. I had looked at maps, tried planning refill locations, found campsites, but really didn’t know how any of them would pan out. The competition part just felt a lot like being a fugitive on the run. I hoped to do well, I felt I had trained for a 15-day finish, and for the most part, I was just out to have a good time pushing myself. During the day, I was eating and riding my bike, at night was when the race moves presented themselves. Pushing myself to go just a bit farther. I was always out to see what I was capable of. I love riding as far as I can, and the TD gave me a ride without limits. I didn’t have to home by a certain time, I didn’t have work the next day, I had all the bases at home covered, I had the freedom to push my limits for more than two weeks. I was never trying to meet a mileage goal, I wanted to see if I could ride for almost twenty hours a day, with minimal stop time unless I was eating or sleeping. If that put me into a good race position, that was a bonus.
What’s it like spending all of those hours on the bike alone on forest roads and trails? You must feed off the solitude and interface with nature.
I don’t mind the solitude at all. Being able to ride my own pace, stop when I want to soak it in, ride when I’m in the groove, is my favorite way to go. Riding technical singletrack, one has to be very focused on the trail. Riding dirt roads, it is far easier to look around and enjoy the scenery. Spending two weeks rolling through the mountains, there was never a dull moment—except for the flat terrain. I think I’d much rather be going up and down. During the winter and spring, I put myself through every type of weather I could, snow, rain, heat, and wind. I made sure all of my gear would take care of me when needed. When I faced all of those challenges during the race, I was well prepared to take them on. I was in balance with nature, rather than hating it.
There are some amazing sections of the Tour Divide course. It traverses beautiful landscapes. What was your favorite section?
The Canadian Rockies were truly amazing to ride through. I had never been exposed to such steep mountains surrounding both sides of the roads. A close second would have been riding along Big Sheep Creek during sunset on my way to Lima, Montana. I love riding with cliff walls on both sides of me. It was a nice change of scenery after riding Old Bannack Road for what seemed like an eternity. It is really hard to pick, though, since wide-open spaces all have their own uniqueness to them. The constant change in scenery, viewed at a cyclist’s pace, is really amazing. You notice so many details [when you’re] faster than walking but slower than in a vehicle. I think it is the perfect pace to experience nature.
Bike setup is so essential to a good result in the Tour Divide. What was the main objective with your setup? Did it take long to land on your final rig and gear selection? Anything you would have changed?
I went through two drop-bar bikes looking for the right setup and finally decided that a flat bar MTB would be the best option as the route started to wear on me. I wanted to maintain the good braking of hydraulic brakes and the precision handling of a normal mountain bike, even though I would be dead tired. In the past, drop bars were fine, but when it came to trail riding, there were too many compromises.
I had been eying a titanium frame for a while and had a pretty good idea of what I was looking for. I have always been in between sizes, so when I reached out to Binary Bicycles, I was happy to learn that a custom geometry frame was a possibility. We measured my body and sorted out the handling characteristics I was looking for and they engineered the perfect machine. I put together the parts that had been reliable in the past and built a bike I could service easily, if needed. At the end of the ride, I had only replaced a derailleur hanger and the chain.
What would you like people to know about your fundraising efforts and about hemophilia? What special considerations do you have as a rider with that condition?
I worked with the charity, Save One Life, who help people with bleeding disorders in developing countries. I am fortunate enough to have only needed treatment for hemophilia a few times in my life, others need it three times a week. I have the ability to help them, and I feel obligated to do so. Together, we raised over $35,000 to help deliver medication, sponsor children and young adults to get to treatment centers, and to provide grants so that those affected by the disorders can start small businesses to provide a life for themselves. As someone with hemophilia, I have to be very cautious not to crash. I am very conservative on rough terrain and downhill sections. I have to make time up climbing and with efficient rest stops. I take fewer chances and don’t ride if I think I could fall asleep on the bike. Good, safe decision making is paramount to my health and success.
How many miles did you average per day? How many hours of sleep did you get during the ride? Any idea how many calories you crushed?
I averaged about 176 miles a day, slept maybe three to four hours a night. Toward the end, I took a few 15-minute power naps, and on one occasion I hit the snooze button because I was positive I was dreaming when I woke up. It was difficult to keep up, but I tried hard to eat 300 to 400 calories an hour, even if I had to stop to do so.
Knowing how hard you worked to not just ride the Tour Divide, but win it, the question now is, what next?
I’d love to try another huge adventure before taking a second shot at the TD. The Transcontinental Race across Europe is highly intriguing to me. During the first few days, I was trading position with Stefano Roumaldi from Italy. He spoke very little English. I wonder how I would deal with that riding across a slew of countries with different languages and cultures. It all seems very exciting and would make for a wonderful experience.
Top photo by Spenser Harding