Every sports fan can give you a list of the heroes, icons and living legends of their favorite sport. I suppose most American cycling fans dream about going out for a long ride with great athletes like Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie or Levi Leipheimer. While I truly admire these men, if I had the chance to spend an afternoon cycling with anyone in America I would choose endurance cyclist Jill Homer. You will never see Jill Homer in the Tour de France, but her athletic ability makes those guys look like a bunch of wimps. I’ve read her blog, Jill Outside, for several years and a few months I reviewed Ghost Trails, a book about her 350 mile race along Alaska’s Iditarod Trail in 2008. I just finished reading her latest book, Be Brave, Be Strong, which tells the story of her record-breaking ride across the Great Divide.
The 2009 Tour Divide was a race that began in Alberta, Canada and ended on the border of Mexico at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. The 2,740 mile course went through some of the roughest paths, trails and logging roads in the United States. Homer finished this harsh course unassisted (but with a little “trail magic”) in twenty-four days, seven hours and twenty-four minutes (the female course record). During the race the riders crossed the Continental Divide of the Americas (the Great Divide) on numerous occasions and they seldom had a chance to ride on a decent road since the race organizers apparently take a great deal of pleasure in making race participants suffer. In just a little over three weeks Homer did over 200,000 feet of climbing through some of the most deserted tracks and trails in the United States. Along the way she often slept in a sleeping bag near the side of the road, but was also the recipient of random acts of kindness by total strangers.
The first third of Be Brave, Be Strong sets the stage by telling the story of Homer getting a serious case of frostbite on the Iditarod Trail and then dealing with her break-up with Geoff, her boyfriend of eight years, and the emotional turmoil that followed. Normally, this is the type of stuff I would totally ignore in book about a bike race. However, in this case the story is told in such a way that you can see how human emotions impact athletic ability—and as any cyclist knows, one of the best ways to solve a problem is out on a long ride.
The story of the Tour Divide race itself begins on page 111 when a group of forty-two riders leave Banff, Alberta, which is about 270 miles north of Canada’s border with the United States. I think most professional athletes would consider Homer’s training program and cycling style unorthodox, but it obviously works for her. Throughout the book she refers to Sour Patch Kids, one of her favorite sources of carbohydrates—I cringed every time she mentioned them. And as careful as she was about most things, she somehow manged to lose seven pair of sunglasses during the race!
Out of all the adventure cycling books I’ve ever read this one is the best—once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down! This book is a model of what adventure cycling books ought to be. The story is well written, the photos are crisp, and it has a good map so you can follow her progress. It also has one item that most cycling books forget about, i.e., a detailed gear checklist. I’m sure some people wouldn’t care, but I always like to know exactly what distance cyclists take with them on their journey (not just a general list, but brand names).
Be Brave, Be Strong is available in paperback from Amazon.com for around $15. It is also available in several other formats, including editions for the Apple iPad, Amazon Kindle, B & N Nook, Sony eReader and as a PDF download. I bought the paperback version because I can’t read a book like this without a yellow highlighter (old habits die hard).