By Bob Marr
It sounded like a good idea at first — a nice long ride through the woods and across the mountains. Now, as I stand here in a cold rain on a gravel road 20 miles from civilization, I’m not so sure. It’s late afternoon, and I haven’t seen another human being all day. Actually, I haven’t seen another creature all day since the animals and birds apparently have more sense than to be out in this weather. I started the day by going up and over a snowy mountain pass, doing more bike pushing than bike riding, and now, I’m looking forward to a nice dinner and a warm motel room. Those amenities are, however, a chilly and damp couple of hours away.
I’m riding in a bicycle race of sorts called the Tour Divide. I say “of sorts” because it is a totally unofficial, unorganized event that has no entry fee and no prizes. Well, no cash prizes, anyway; it’s hard to place a value on three to four weeks of cycling through some of the most remote, untraveled and breathtakingly beautiful areas in the western United States. It’s also unique among races in the sense that, although there is intense competition amongst the leaders to see who will finish first, most participants are more concerned with completing the whole route than with keeping track of who has finished ahead of or behind them. The challenge for all riders is to complete, as quickly as possible, the entire 2,800 miles of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR), designed by the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) to stay within 50 miles of the Continental Divide. It’s more the type of thing a bunch of friends might plan while having a few beers at a picnic than a regular race: “Hey, who wants to get together and see how fast we can cycle from Canada to Mexico?”
But the internet makes the picnic global, with riders coming from Australia, England, New Zealand, France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Germany, Canada and the U.S., to name a few. More than 100 people rolled south on the second Friday in June 2012, most starting in Banff, Alberta, although some opted to ride the route from south to north instead, starting at Antelope Wells, N.M., on the Mexican border. Heading northbound means less chance of snow by the time the riders get to Montana and Canada, but since the cues and maps are written for a traditional southbound journey, navigation is more of a challenge.
The Tour Divide has two overarching agreed-upon rules: A cyclist must ride the published route, and they must be self-sufficient. This means no help from friends and family and no support vehicles — everything a rider needs must be carried on the bike or purchased along the way. Gear is kept to a minimum: My bivy sack, sleeping bag and air mattress together weighed a total of 3.5 pounds. There’s also an expectation that even the slowest riders will average around 100 miles per day. The current records for the route are 15 days, 16 hours, four minutes for men, and 19 days, three hours, 35 minutes for women. That’s an average of about 177 miles per day for men and 146 miles per day for women.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
A typical day for a GDMBR rider is to get up early — 5 a.m. is not uncommon — pack, have a bite of something and get on the bike. With luck, there will be some sort of civilization within the next 30 miles or so where a breakfast stop can be made. Then, it’s back on the bike for more hours of riding. Much of the day is taken up with planning; if you miscalculate, you will go hungry and thirsty, so it pays to know how far the next store, lake or stream is and whether or not it’s on the other side of a mountain pass.
Other than that, it’s just a matter of pedaling and sightseeing all day long. Once you get the legs going around, it can be fun to watch the scenery go past, from alpine vistas through dense forest to hot, dry deserts. Wildlife abounds along the route, from the grizzlies up north to the pronghorns of Wyoming and all the other small critters — not to mention the trees and wildflowers. Interesting cultural artifacts are scattered along the route as well. There are mining ruins across Montana, traces of the settlers who passed through Wyoming, old railway grades and buildings in Colorado and ancient missions and sleepy settlements in New Mexico. One sight you don’t see too often is humans. Although the route follows public roads, jeep trails and such — with only a scant few miles of single-track bike trail — it’s rare to see many people outside of the towns. Many of the U.S. Forest Service roads only see significant traffic during hunting season.
As a day winds down, it’s time to start thinking about bed. I’ve heard it said that there is always a good camping spot within five miles of wherever you are; most national forest land allows undesignated camping anywhere, and there are formal campgrounds as well. If you end up at a town, a motel might be an option. After a bit of personal and bike maintenance, it’s off to sleep for another early start the next day. A lot of mental fortitude is needed to keep this schedule up for three weeks or more.
Not everyone can muster the fortitude to complete the race, though, and I would ultimately find myself among the nearly 50 percent who leave the race as the pace and conditions take their toll. Some riders drop for medical reasons ranging from torn Achilles tendons to giardia. Others drop due to catastrophic mechanical failures like broken bike frames, and still others drop for emotional or mental health reasons. It is very hard to stay focused on a goal that is so far off and requires so much effort day after day. Some people ride for a cause like MS or diabetes research as a way to keep going through the rough patches, but most just try to tough it out and keep moving. On the other hand, there have been riders who have kept going after contracting pneumonia or having a frame broken. One particularly tenacious rider, Eric Foster, dislocated his knee in a fall in 2012 and used the bike as a fulcrum to pop the knee back in place. He kept going for a few hundred more miles on painkillers before deciding that the route would still be there the following year.
For now, I manage to cycle those last 20 soggy miles into the town of Elkford, British Columbia, and the meal and warm bed are every bit as satisfying as I anticipated. One hundred and ten miles down, less than 2,700 to go! As it turns out, I actually had it easier than some of the other riders because the rain I had ridden through had fallen as an additional six inches of snow on the pass behind me. The following day, I tackle another pass with five miles of sloppy leftover winter snow, but I am getting used to it. It wouldn’t really be an adventure without a challenge or two!
BORDER TO BORDER
The Canadian section has some of the most spectacular scenery and remote riding of the entire route. After the towns of Elkford and Sparwood, the route goes through the remote Flathead River Valley, an area that has been dubbed the “Serengeti of the North” due to its diverse wildlife population; it has the highest density of grizzly bears anywhere in the interior of Canada. Other than a few other Tour Divide riders, I saw no humans for the entire 90 miles and no actual bears either, although there were plenty of scat, tracks and one enormous skeleton. What I did see were miles of forest and some truly breathtaking views from mountain passes and across pristine valleys. Although logging and other activities are nibbling at the edges of this area, it remains largely untouched except for a few lonely gravel roads.
Crossing over into Montana, the route passes through towns and a few cities as it winds its way through the state. Most of the route follows Forest Service roads through miles upon miles of national forest land. In his book “Two Wheels on My Wagon,” Tour Divide veteran Paul Howard describes quitting early one day after freaking himself out over the “vertiginous, crowding trees” that lined the route for 100 miles. “Rarely can agoraphobia and claustrophobia have been so closely intertwined,” was his assessment. For those of us who live and play daily in the woods, this verdant abundance is a much more appealing prospect than it was for a Yorkshire-man like Paul. Another highlight of the Montana section is Richmond Peak, which is immediately adjacent to Bob Marshall Wilderness and passes through an area called Grizzly Basin. “Bearanoia” is a term that gets used a lot by those who have described getting caught by darkness near Richmond Peak and seeing huge bear tracks — and little cub tracks — joining the tire tracks left by earlier riders. Most riders have bear bells on their bikes, bear whistles around their necks and quite a few carry bear-repelling pepper spray as well.
The route spends only a short time in Idaho — around 70 miles — so it’s an easy accomplishment to tick that state off the list. The defining feature of Idaho from a cyclist’s viewpoint is the rail trail that extends south from near Big Springs for about 30 miles. It also serves as an ATV trail, making it a soft, sandy, washboarded mess.
The route then enters Wyoming in Caribou-Targhee National Forest between Yellowstone National Park and the Tetons. Right about here is where rider Jim Stansbury was laid up with pneumonia in 2012. Amazingly, he continued on after a few days of antibiotics and rest. Northern Wyoming features some high and lonesome riding, followed by a couple hundred treeless miles through the Great Basin — a sort of no-man’s land for rain and home to wild horses, pronghorn antelope and a few cowboys. This area doesn’t drain to the Pacific or Atlantic — what scant precipitation falls there, stays there. This area is sometimes a vast desert, but if rainfall increases, it becomes a vast lake. Cyclists tend to either love this stretch or hate it for its exposed, wide-open spaces and wind.
Southern Wyoming brings the return of trees in Medicine Bow National Forest, followed by the crossing into Colorado, where the beauty continues and the passes get bigger. There’s also something about the Colorado state line that all riders look forward to: the Brush Mountain Ranch near Slater. The owner, Kristin — who has been referred to as an “angel” by more than one weary rider — offers food, drink, accommodations and encouragement. Colorado boasts several passes more than 10,000 feet in elevation, although most have reasonable grades due to the fact that they follow old rail lines.
New Mexico is the final state and perhaps the most challenging, as the roads are some of the most primitive and services like food and lodging are few and far apart. However, no one drops out willingly after crossing the New Mexico state line — it’s the final leg of the race. One of the highlights for riders is Pie Town, a little crossroads of a place whose claim to fame is the existence of two cafes that serve some of the best homemade pies in New Mexico. Timing is everything, though, as Kent Peterson found out in 2005, arriving late in the day when both cafes were closed. After a call home to share his dejection and an inventory of his supplies, he settled for a Pop-Tart instead, deciding that it was “more of a comedy than a tragedy.” South of Pie Town, participants encounter some of the toughest-going of the entire route as they pass through Gila National Forest with its sawtooth ridges and valleys. The route rather inconsiderately crosses these at right angles, resulting in a series of steep, energy-sapping climbs and descents. The scenery, however, is fantastic, as the route follows a narrow corridor between Gila Wilderness to the west and Aldo Leopold Wilderness to the east. The Beaverhead Work Center is located along the route here, and its Coke machine is eagerly anticipated while riding through the New Mexican heat. One rider ran out of food here and subsisted on four cans of soda until he could reach the next store.
My own southbound Tour Divide attempt didn’t get this far — it came to an end in the town of Eureka, Mont., just inside the U.S. border. I was not making the sort of time I thought I should so I threw in the towel. Many others did make it all the way to the Mexican border in 2012, though, including Jim Stansbury, who provided some of the pictures for this article. Over the years, people have made the trip not just on conventional geared mountain bikes, but also on singlespeeds, fixed-gear bikes, cross bikes and even tandems and unicycles. The husband and wife team of Jay and Tracey Petervary came in third overall on a tandem in 2009, finishing in 18 1/2 days. Unicyclists Gracie Sorbello and Matt Burney took a total of 76 days to complete the route, and Gracie’s Tour Divide unicycle now resides in the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in Davis, Calif.
Does this type of adventure sound interesting to you? In general, this sort of travel by bike is known as “bikepacking” and has a lot of similarities to traditional backpacking, except it’s possible to cover a lot more ground in a day. Like backpacking, there are also degrees of self-sufficiency. While the Tour Divide is great fun and provides a sense of camaraderie, those who want to undertake a less strenuous trip by bike might opt to skip such events and ride according to their own rules. Anyone may ride the GDMBR at any time and many do, taking two months or more to complete it. The ACA produces maps of the route that include information on services along the way, and Michael McCoy’s “Cycling the Great Divide,” a new revision of which is due to be released in October, breaks the route down into easily managed segments. It is also possible to complete the trip in the company of a non-biking friend or relative who could drive to the next stop and set up camp, lightening the bike load.
The trail — and the race — have attracted seasoned racers, novice mountain bikers, moms, dads, dreamers and an assortment of certified characters. Come on out and join them sometime; it’s a ride like no other!
Bob Marr writes from a hand-built log cabin in Michigan’s wild and beautiful Keweenaw Peninsula.