I had the privilege of riding with David Blumenthal during the 2010 Tour Divide Race. Tragically, 10 days into the race, he collided with a car and, later, died from his injuries. I attended Dave’s memorial in Vermont and met his wife, four-year-old daughter, and family. I was blown away by the hundreds of people who attended his memorial, many sharing stories of how Dave had touched their lives.
Dave’s wife asked me to write a letter to their daughter. She wanted me to share stories about my time with Dave. When their daughter turns 16, she will receive my letter along with letters from other friends and family. The goal is to help her understand who her father was.
Dave’s death shocked the Tour Divide community. I know that others would be interested in hearing stories about Dave, so I’ve posted my letter below. It was also included in latest edition of The Cordillera V3.
See you down the road Dave…
I first met your father via his blog. I, like Dave, was going to participate in the 2010 Tour Divide Race (TDR) and I came across his blog because he graciously shared information on the equipment that he planned to use in the race. The TDR required a lot of equipment and careful planning. Many participants preferred not to share their packing list, hoping that it would give them an advantage. Dave, however, happily shared his, including instructions on how to create his homemade bike bags and tent.
Just from reading his blog posts, it was apparent that his interest in the TDR was not really about beating others riders to Mexico. No, for him, it was more about the challenge and the adventure that it offered. You could tell that he really enjoyed thinking about and strategizing his approach to the race.
I met Dave for the first time in person in a small park in Banff. One of the local bike shops threw a BBQ for the 48 racers. I showed up a little late to the gathering and there were lots of people chatting away under a large gazebo. I had brought some beers to share, but I didn’t have a bottle opener. When I asked a man if he had an opener, he said that he did not, but then said: “I’m pretty sure that tall guy with the beard would have one. He has some cool little tool thingy.”
I looked over and saw Dave, whose height was impressive, talking to three people who where all arranged in a semi circle, oriented directly towards him. It was obvious that Dave was the one carrying the conversation and the way that he smiled and laughed conveyed warmth and approachableness.
I also noticed that he was wearing shorts. It was particularly cold that day in June, maybe in the mid 40’s, but it didn’t seem to bother him.
Dave did have a nifty little multi-tool that could open bottles. Of course he did, he explained. He planned on enjoying some beers during the race and looked forward to stopping at some breweries that he had researched and knew were near the route. We seemed to have similar dispositions and our conversation flowed easily from one topic to the next, so we ended up splitting my six-pack between us.
The gathering started to breakup because a documentary film about the TDR was going to be shown at a local theater. There were about six of us left when I asked Dave if he wanted a ride to the theater. He shook his head saying “No”, as if he couldn’t believe that I actually assumed that he wanted to go.
He went on to explain that he didn’t want to see a movie about the race before he was about to go off and actually do it. He didn’t want it to spoil the adventure of it all. Seeing the landscape, scenery, and challenges of the route beforehand would partly rob him of the whole reason for doing the trip. He wanted to have his own adventure and did not want to constantly feel like he had to compare what he was experiencing with what others had done before him.
The rest of us went to watch the movie. Dave did not. I was impressed by his strong sense of self-direction and control.
On the second day of the TDR, I woke up in a hotel with six other racers in the town of Sparwood. As I pedaled out of town, back to the route, I passed a huge mining truck that was parked in a small plot of grass and had a sign proclaiming it to be the largest truck on earth or something like that. And there, next to one of the large tires, was Dave – off of his bike and taking pictures. He turned and smiled at me and pointed to the truck.
As we both bought supplies from a gas station down the road, he explained that he had camped just outside of town the previous night (which was considered high-risk bear country) and was glad that he happened to see a sign for the big truck. Keep in mind that the truck was not on the route, so Dave willingly turned off the route to go find the truck. Again, it was apparent that Dave really was more interested in having an adventure and was willing to make side trips to see things that interested him.
Later that day, he broke away from me and all of the other riders who had slept in Sparwood. I could see from his defined quads and calves that he was in great shape. I’m 6’4” (only a couple of inches shorter than Dave was) and we were probably very close in body weight, but Dave was very strong and I couldn’t keep up with him on the long climbs over the mountains.
Over the next several days, he and I hopscotched each other. At times I was ahead of him, and, other times, I followed his tracks. When he was ahead, I would often stop at a store, gas station or restaurant that he had been to only a couple hours before me. Even though Dave was only in these places from 15 minutes to an hour, he left a strong impression with everyone.
I would walk in, buy something, and then ask if they had seen any other riders come through before me. Without failure, the person behind the counter (or the waitress) would get a grin on their face and say something like: “Oh yes! There was this really tall fellow who ate….”. They would go on to tell me a story about Dave devouring one or two entrees along with one or two milkshakes, pie and a beer (if it was available). And then they would finish with things like: “He was real nice” or “He was cool” or “He was funny”.
On one rainy day, I caught up to Dave in Butte, Montana. The weather had been pretty nasty over the previous 24 hours and when I walked into a bike shop, I found Dave sitting on the floor, between racks of bike clothes. He had a large pizza in front of him, sitting in an open pizza box. He had taken off all of his wet clothes and hung them on some chairs and wooden display cases.
I bent down and slapped him on his back and asked how he was doing. He first offered me pizza and then shook his head and said: “I was in really bad shape. I was so wiped out when I got here. The people in the shop said I looked really pale. Man, I was in bad shape. I need to just rest for awhile and recuperate.”
Dave was very strong and had an amazing amount of stamina, but he was not invincible. He felt pain and exhaustion like the rest of us and he had his limits too. Seeing this gave me a deeper respect for his fast pace and the fact that it was difficult to keep up with him. He was quick and covered great distances every day, not because it was easy for him, but because he really pushed himself and his body.
When I left Dave in the bike shop, I wasn’t sure if I would see him again. He really did look exhausted. However, about four hours later, he came up behind me as we crested the top of Fleecer Ridge. Even though it was wet and cold out, he was humming right along again with a smile on his face.
As we pedaled together towards a small town, Wise River, we talked about some large, deer-like animals we had seen near the ridge. Dave joked that your mom would be disappointed, but not surprised, by his inability to identify what kind of animal it was that we saw. He had already told me about your mom’s education and about a number of outdoor adventures that they had completed together. It was obvious that Dave was proud of your mom’s academic accomplishments and that he cherished the outdoor adventures they had had together.
He fondly told me about a hiking trip they had done with you in a backpack in Europe too.
Wise River was a very small town and seemed to have entirely closed down for the night, but there was light coming from a bar that was attached to a motel. We headed into the bar to get some food and some rooms to sleep in.
Picture two, extremely tall men, wearing black tights, colorful rain jackets, and shoes that make tap-dance-like noises as they cross the floor, bursting into a rather quiet bar that had about a dozen flannel-wearing locals and a few tourists. Yes, we really stood out. And, based on the cold, confused stares we were getting, I didn’t feel very relaxed and welcomed.
But this really didn’t seem to faze Dave. He looked around, saw a fire crackling in a stone fireplace and wide variety of micro-beers in a long glass refrigerator behind the bar, and started grinning. The first thing he did was walk up to the bar and order some beer called “Moose drool” or something like it. (Apparently, it was some beer that he used to really enjoy when he lived in Oregon or Washington, but it was not widely available in other parts of the country.) Then, he started peeling off all of his soaking wet clothes and draping them on several chairs and a table that was near the fire.
When he was done, he was literally down to his bare-feet, bike shorts and jersey. Then, with beer in hand, he returned to the bar, and struck up conversations with the manager, waitress, and people sitting near him at the bar. He clearly had the Gift of Gab, genuinely liked connecting with people, and, that night in the bar, I could see that the locals and tourists were fascinated with him. It was hard not to be.
Two days later, I became sick with Giardia and dropped behind Dave. Following his tracks again, I continued to run into store owners and waitresses who, in their brief meetings with him, were beguiled by his physical size, ability to eat, and affable nature.
I finally caught up to Dave again in a bar in a small town in Wyoming. He and another racer, Aidan, were eating lunch when I walked in. Dave, of course, had copious amounts of food in front of him and had no problem finishing it.
After lunch, we were about to ride into a very remote section of the route known as “The Basin”. We would have to ride for 160 miles before we would reach the next place to get food. And there was very little, if any, water available along this stretch.
While Aidan and I were feeling a little apprehensive, Dave was excited. He talked about a hiking trip that he had done in some desert that required him to carry some ungodly amount of water. He figured that The Basin would be easier. He also said that he hoped to see trail markers for old wagon routes used by settlers making their way to the west.
Having Dave’s camaraderie during that stretch made the miles fly by. We finished that whole section in one day.
Aidan was a very strong rider, faster than both of us. At one point, while Dave and I sat on the side of the road eating a snack, I turned to Dave and said: “Man! Aidan is really strong. You know, once he decides to really go, we’ll never see him again.”
Your dad, with chip crumbs in his beard and on his jersey, shook his head. It was the same mannerism he used in the park in Banff as if to say: “Man…you don’t get it, do you?”
“I’m not worried about that”, he said. “I just do what I can do and I’m OK with that. I know my body can only go so many miles in a day. If I can’t do as many as him, that’s fine. I just do what I can.”
We sat there and watched as Aidan made his way up the hill towards us. I then joked: “Let’s say we just take care of this right now. When he gets here, you offer him some tea and crumpets (Aidan was from England) and then I’ll surprise him and take out one of his knees with my bicycle pump – Tanya Harding style.”
Your father, who had a great sense of humor, blew out more chips on to himself as he laughed.
As an aside, Aidan went on to be the first-place rookie finisher (third place overall). I’m sure your father would have finished close behind him.
As the sun set, Dave peeled off to look for a place to camp that night and I continued into the town of Rawlings. I had crashed earlier and had bleeding wounds that I wanted to clean out in a hotel.
The next day, your father caught up to me and Aidan at the Brush Mountain Lodge in Colorado. The manager, Kirsten, was an avid TDR fan and welcomed all of the racers into her lodge, showering us heaps of food and drink. Aidan and I had been there for about an hour when Dave showed up. He knew about the lodge from doing research on the route and was excited about stopping there and meeting Kirsten.
Kirsten immediately began putting fruit and chips in front of Dave and he took her up on her offer of a beer. He looked extremely happy. It had been very hot and we had faced very strong headwinds all day.
When Kirsten went off to get a burger from the grill for Dave, I turned to him and asked: “Wait, I thought you were a vegetarian. Are you going to eat the burger?”
Dave leaned towards me and, lowering his voice, said: “I’m also a polite-etarian.” The nod that he then gave me made it clear that he didn’t want Kirsten to feel that she wasn’t being a great host.
We spent the next twenty minutes talking to Kirsten about the lodge and living in the mountains of Colorado. Somehow we got onto the subject of the radio show “This American Life” and Dave, along with the rest of us shared our favorite stories from that show.
As Aidan and I started to get ready to leave, Dave announced to us: “I think I’m ready to up the fun quotient a bit. I think I’m ready to back off my pace just a little. I want to stop at some great breweries that I know are close to the route. I’m having a great time, but I’m ready focus on having a little more fun and not pushing so hard everyday.”
Coming from Dave, this made perfect sense. Aidan and I, however, were still in race mode.
I asked if he wanted to finish-up eating soon and join us when we rolled out.
He shook his head. “Naaww”, he said with his mouth full of food. “Like I said, I’m ready to up the fun quotient. I think there is even a hot tub here….”
I couldn’t help but smile as I looked down at him. He sat slouched in his chair, with one foot propped up on another chair. Dave was in his element. He had just pushed his body hard all day and now he was eating lots of food and drinking beer in a place, high in the Rockies, that he had never been to. And better still, he had Kirsten to talk, share stories, and laugh with. Dave was happy.
I reached down and patted his shoulder and said: “Alright man. Sounds good. I’ll see you down the road.”
I later found out that your father eventually left the lodge later that evening. He biked up to the pass and camped out under the stars. It was a gorgeous night that night. We didn’t know it at the time, but Aidan and I were camped just below him, probably 30 minutes of riding ahead of him.
The next morning, Aidan and I continued the descent down from the pass towards the town of Steamboat Springs. Dave must have gotten up and started riding soon after we did, but he never caught us.
The dirt road coming down from the pass was steep and, at times, had a number of blind, hairpin turns. I remember being surprised when Aidan and I came across a truck that was coming up the road. The road was in a remote area and we hadn’t seen any cars on the road before then. I’m sure Dave also didn’t expect there to be much, if any, traffic.
I was not with Dave when his accident occurred. Aidan and I were already at the bottom of the mountain. What I know is based only on my memory of my descent down that road, newspaper reports, and information that your mother had been told.
Ultimately, in my mind, Dave experienced a very improbable event. He happened to be going around a steep, hairpin turn at the same time as a truck was also coming up through the turn. I had ridden with Dave a lot during the race and, in my opinion, he had very good bike handling skills and good decision-making in how he cycled. The road was full of loose gravel, so it would have been impossible for him to stop in time after he saw the truck. I really believe that it was just a very unlikely situation that any of us could have run into during the race. And I am so sorry that this happened to Dave.
After I finished the race, I flew across the country to attend your father’s memorial service in Vermont. It was held on the lawn of the Green Mountain Club and there must of have been close to two-hundred people there, sitting in chairs, on picnic tables or simply on the grass. So many people shared happy stories and memories about Dave and so many people grieved. I was astonished at how Dave had so deeply woven himself into the hearts of so many people.
I only knew Dave for 10 days in my life, but it was during very intense circumstances, so I learned a lot about him in that short period of time. I can tell you that he was a very good man with many characteristics that I greatly admired. He made a strong impression on me and he will forever be in my heart.
Your mother asked me, along with other people, to write about our experiences with your father. She wanted you to be able to read stories about him, so that you would be able to have some sense of who he was. I hope the stories I’ve shared give you a sense of this. If, for any reason, at any time in the future, you ever feel the desire to contact me, please do not hesitate.