By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD — Some men were in tears. Some dropped out with torn Achilles tendons, blown out knees or just plain loneliness, riding alone day after day in the vast open spaces of North America.
But tiny Mary Metcalf-Collier of Idyllwild kept on pedaling through thunderstorms, desert heat, dust, snow, swollen legs and exhaustion, fulfilling her goal to become the first woman to successfully race the 2,711-mile Continental Divide.
That was in 2008.
Metcalf-Collier continues to ride competitively, while juggling two businesses and a part-time job, and raising two sons in Southern California’s San Jacinto Mountain Range.
Her mammoth effort in the Tour Divide race is memorialized in an award-winning documentary — “Ride the Divide” — which is gaining popularity worldwide through theater screenings and web sites such as Netflix.
The movie has inspired people around the globe to take up bicycling and other activities, lose weight and — for some of them — ride competitively, according to Executive Producer Mike Dion. He and Director Hunter Weeks funded the 80-minute feature, which won Best Adventure Film at the Vail Film Festival in Colorado in 2010.
The honor has launched more than 150 screenings throughout the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.
“That’s sweet success,” Dion said recently in a phone interview from his home in Colorado.
Tour Divide is known as the toughest and longest mountain bike race in the world. Elevation rises to more than 11,000 feet, over rutted dirt and gravel roads, solid rock, steep and curving asphalt highways and frozen Rocky Mountains. Sometimes riders have to carry their bikes over their heads while climbing over fallen trees in the snow — at night. Some fall asleep while eating, waking up hours later and crawling into a sleeping bag under the stars in the wilderness.
Metcalf-Collier saw bear tracks on her ride but was undeterred.
“I carried bear mace with me but I was more concerned about humans,” she said in a recent interview. “We carried transponders so people know your route. I considered taking a 22-caliber Derringer but I had to cross the border and I thought that in the long run a weapon might create more situations than it would solve.”
The annual race begins in Banff in Alberta, Canada, and travels through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado to Antelope Wells, New Mexico at the Mexican border. Bicyclists are greeted along the way by locals in tiny towns who offer big smiles and homemade pies.
Crossing the finish line in the dark after 29 days, 17 hours and 37 minutes Metcalf-Collier is shown in the movie hugging her husband wearily.
”There were so many days when I never thought I’d see this moment,” she said.
Several times she wanted to bail out of the race.
Instead she completed it and her story has inspired people around the world, according to Dion, who gets emails from viewers.
In the afterglow of the film’s release, Metcalf-Collier and husband Brendan Collier established Hub Cyclery, a bicycle sales and service business in Idyllwild, Calif.. They also founded an annual mountain bike race, Stagecoach 400, which begins in the same community and is considered to have put the mile-high town on the international bicyclists’ map.
In the self-supporting race, competitors descend from Idyllwild to Anza-Borrego Desert and then ride to San Diego before making their return, a route of about 400 miles.
The race is designed by the Colliers as a training course for the Tour Divide. In 2015, a portion of proceeds from Stagecoach 400 will go to an Idyllwild cause yet to be announced.
Eddie O’Dea won the Stagecoach 400 in 2013.
“I had heard the name Idyllwild, but didn’t really know anything about the town before learning about the Stagecoach 400,” he wrote in an email interview. “That race and route are amazing, with so much diversity in the terrain. The local riding was a real bonus for me. The trails are fun, challenging and provide some beautiful views.”
O’Dea is Director of Guest Experience and Head Bike Fitter at Endurance House Atlanta. He was impressed with Idyllwild’s hospitality.
“The town was great and really into Mary and Brendan’s events. I was taken aback when the clerk at the convenience store asked about the Stagecoach race. He had been following it and congratulated me. That doesn’t happen even at races with a big turn out.”
Hub Cyclery’s biggest customer is Carter Taylor, an accomplished 24-hour bike racer, according to Brendan.
“Brendan and Mary introduced self-supported racing to Southern California, first through the San Jacinto Enduro, an all-day race through the local mountains, to the gem of races, the Stagecoach 400,” Taylor said. “This type of racing is so unlike any type of racing I had ever been around. It’s definitely harder physically and mentally. There is a huge contingent of riders from all over the United States who ride these races, including many World Class riders such as Eddie O’Dea.”
Self-supported races are ones in which bicyclists have to provide all their own help, even if they have a sponsor, Mary said.
“For example, when I was on the Tour Divide, one of my shocks had a problem and I had to stuff a sock in it.”
Repairs aren’t a problem for Mary, who was a mechanic in the Air Force Reserve Command in New Mexico, her home state.
Carter said Mary’s celebrity after Tour Divide, the couple’s Siren Bikes manufacturing company and the fact that the Colliers are “genuinely nice people” put Idyllwild on the mountain bikers’ map.
“All the fast guys were riding Sirens,” he said.
Mary rode one along the Divide.
The Colliers sold Siren Bikes in 2013.
They continue to juggle managing their store with tag-team parenting of their boys, Alexander (“Zander”), 4 and Garner (8 months). Mary also has her own web design firm Oread Designs and she waitresses some evenings at Idyllwild’s Cafe Aroma, where she enjoys a break from being a mommy, she said.
In her blog, Siren Mary’s Musings, Mary writes about other “badasses” itching for adventurous weekend getaways. Stunning photos of women in bicycle gear in the backcountry punctuate her writing, interspersed with blissful accounts of gathering up Zander and taking him on a mountain ride, to the sound of “Go, Mommy, go!” from a wagon she pulls behind her.
She confesses that after “Ride the Divide” was released, life was all about her for a while until she and Brendan managed to get some balance back into their lives.
Though her life has become more domesticated, her eyes still light up when she talks about racing through the Rockies.
Mary has raced in the Stagecoach 400 and some 12-hour professional races since that big event. She still holds the women’s record for the Hurkey Creek 24-hour race, which she did before the Divide, she said.
She’s one of the many inspiring people who have entered the Tour Divide, as the movie illustrates.
The executive producer of “Ride the Divide” rode the race the same year as Mary. The feature film is one of several inspirational adventure documentaries Dion has produced.
“We’re intrigued by people out of their comfort zone and pushing themselves to do something,” he said.
Dion began his film career as an intern on “Far and Away,” the Ron Howard movie starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, plus helping with the electronic media kit for “A River Runs Through It,” the Robert Redford movie starring Brad Pitt. Before venturing into his own movies, he worked for Stars Entertainment, he said.
He explained what it took for Mary to complete the Tour Divide.
“Once you get to days 5 through 7 on the Divide, your body acclimates,” he said. “After day 7, it becomes the mental acclimation of ‘Why am I doing this?’”
“Matthew Lee (the 2008 winner) had done the Divide five times before that win. Mary had never done anything like that before. Yes, the support for her helped but tenacity helps too. If you get a good night’s sleep, you just sometimes say, ‘Hell, I’m gonna do this.’ Mary was able to do that.”
One scene shows Mary lying in a motel room with her legs on huge icepacks, after she’d complained of blood pooling in her feet.
Phone calls with family and a visit from her twin sister along the route helped her complete her dream.
But endurance is part of her personality.
Taylor recalls going with her and others on a tough ride in the Anza-Borrego Desert.
“The harder we were riding, the more she giggled and laughed. This is not normal for me or my friends because the harder we ride, the more we just suffer,” he said.
How did Mary’s success on the Great Divide feel?
”I couldn’t even think about getting on a bike for about a month after the race,” she said recently. “I couldn’t do it physically, mentally or emotionally.”
Her outlook on life also changed.
“When I got home, I looked inside my house at all these things and I thought, ‘I’ve done without them for a month. Do I really need them?’”
It has taken a few years for her to fully realize the impact of the event.
“You’re just out of your mind when you finish,” she said. “You can’t think properly about anything. I know I did the race for myself. I was turning 30 and I just wanted to do something. I knew that if I just rode it, there would be other women who would come along after me and do it. But if I was the first woman to race and complete it, that could never be taken from me. I’ll always be the first woman who did it.”
Other women have raced the Divide since then and some have beaten Mary’s time. Some have emailed her ahead of the race to tell her how she inspired them.
The excitement, angst, pain and beauty of the race are captured in “Ride the Divide” with warmth, compassion, honesty and humor. Breathtaking time-lapse photography of thunder clouds rolling in and orange sunsets against huge Southwestern skies are welcome interludes amid footage of the bicyclists’ daily dilemmas, as they slug it out against each other, the terrain and their own psyches. Human vulnerability amid the overwhelmingly huge force of nature is an obvious theme.
The film has a quiet humility to it, as does Mary.
“In long distance racing, you have to be someone who can go inside your head and be introspective,” Dion said.
Strength of mind is important as well as physical endurance.
Competing against guys wasn’t new to Mary. She grew up competing with her brothers on motorcycles and was already an accomplished motorbike racer, Brendan said. Then Brendan got her into bikes.
Mary and Brendan continue to compete in bike races throughout California. Parenting means she doesn’t have time to train for major races like the Divide, she said. But she dreams of one day doing Tour Aotearoa, a route that takes riders over the length of New Zealand.
Bicycling enthusiasts can keep up with Mary on her blog: Siren Mary’s Musings: “The musings of a proud mom, wife, cyclist, artist and adventurer.”
Sometimes she writes about how she loves to go on trips with just the girls, such as a weekend getaway to Anza-Borrrego, riding side by side with a friend.
“I won’t lie, we also get to gab about the guys when we have a girls’ ride, which is great fun!”
Brendan and Mary met at an art class in New Mexico. He was an Air Force helicopter mechanic there. He’s originally from Chicago, where he got his first job in a bike store at age 13. He has been hooked on bikes ever since.
The couple came on vacation to Idyllwild, where Brendan’s grandparents lived, and saw it as a possible emerging mountain bike destination. After he worked for a bike manufacturer in Temecula and established Siren Bikes, Brendan and Mary started Hub Cyclery with $345 in inventory, he said. They are now considering offering street bike rentals for tourists, possibly with electric assist and recorded guided tours.
Meanwhile, Dion — the film producer who has become a friend — has a new documentary under way called “Inspired to Ride.” It’s about a coast-to-coast journey across 10 states that began in Oregon in June.
Tying all these friends and fellow competitors together is the love of getting out of the rat race, the joy of adventure and pushing themselves to the limit.
When asked how Tour Divide changed his wife, Brendan beamed.
“It was transformative. She can be proud for the rest of her life and it shows.”
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