Once More Unto the Breach
You never know what’s around the corner. It could be everything. Or it could be nothing. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back and you’ve climbed a mountain. ~ Tom Hiddleston
NOTE: The entire image gallery from this ride can be found here.
It was late June, 2019, and this was to be my third attempt at the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Commonly known as “GDMBR”, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route was designed by the Adventure Cycling Association and is promoted as “[…] the longest off-pavement route in the world”. It begins in Jasper, Alberta, Canada and closely tracks the Continental Divide Trail, tracing the spine of the Rocky Mountains for almost 5,000 kilometers and including over 60,000 meters of climbing to end at Antelope Wells, New Mexico, United States at the US-Mexico border.
My riding partner and I decided we would fly into Calgary, rent an SUV, and haul our bicycles to Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada to the official beginning of the route (moved there from Banff, AB in 2018 and extending the route by almost 650 kilometers in the process).
Landing in Calgary the weather went from bad to worse. A low pressure system was hanging over the Canadian Rockies and the forecast looked grim for the next ten days. Rain, flood warnings, snow advisories, and near-freezing high temperatures meant that pedaling out from Jasper would be reckless if not downright suicidal.
We detoured south to Missoula, Montana to the home of a famous Warm Showers host, Bruce Anderson, where we had ended our last attempt at the GDMBR in 2017 after pedaling there from Banff. Some days later we’d made our way out of Missoula, through Ovando and Lincoln, to the home of Barb and John.
Barbara Nye and her partner John are an example of those special kind of people you meet once you’ve built up enough courage to set out into the world on a grand adventure. On a four acre farm in the Montana hills they have built something of a bicyclists paradise. Complete with cabins and huts, free ranging llamas, horses, and a plethora of free drinks and snacks. They welcome all cyclists on the GDMBR to stay a night on their farm and steadfastly refuse a single penny of repayment. As John explained to me, “We only ask that you take this kindness we’ve done to you and pay it forward in the world to some other person.”
There is something so cozy, comfortable, and heart warming about stumbling upon these places in the mountains, meeting kind and generous people, and allowing yourself to settle in and relax for an evening. As I would write in my journal that night:
There is a fire burning in the wood stove. I’m enjoying a complementary bottle of red wine and the smell of wood smoke as our clothes dry in the warmth. Horses and llamas wander outside the window and I can hear nothing of civilization. This place is glorious. What a treat.
On a zero day in Helena, MT, David told me he had decided to go home. He simply “wasn’t feeling it”. He flew out that afternoon and I would continue on alone the next morning. I spent the rest of the evening planning for the next few days of the route.
The following days would be an exercise in extremes. Pedaling a fully loaded mountain bike 2000-3000 meters vertically every day was, if I’m being honest, almost more than my body was ready to handle at that point.
I passed through the towns of Basin and Butte. On the way into Wise River, weather forced me to bypass the famed Fleecer Ridge. Coming down from Humbug Mountain to the base of Fleecer Mountain I watched as it was enveloped in angry black clouds over and over again, which meant cold rain at least, and likely hail and mud at the top. Even at the base of the mountain there was rain and wind strong enough to pick up stones off the road and throw them into my face. I opted for the bypass and found a cheap camp site behind one of the two businesses in Wise River.
Days later, at the top of a pass that led down into Grasshopper Valley, I was intercepted by weather again. When you find yourself pushed off the road, hunched over in a ditch with a piece of plastic over your back, being pelted by grape sized hail and listening to thunder clapping about 100 meters above your head you definitely question the decisions that lead you to that time and place.
The following days would be filled with more brutal climbs and rocky, boulder strewn descents. At least one and sometimes two mountain passes every day. I would meet bicyclists from Sweden, Switzerland, and France. A motorcyclist from Australia. American bicyclists of every age and description heading both north and south. I would cross the fabled Great Basin in Wyoming, seeing only one RV and two pickup trucks over the course of about three days.
I would see only two CDT hikers during my ride. One was in a zipped up tent at the top of a mountain pass, just off the CDT hiking trail, whom I did not talk to. The other was 13 miles south of Rawlins, MT on his way to that town. Hiking alone, he looked absolutely exhausted when I stopped to chat. My most vivid memory was his insanely overdeveloped calf muscles as I told him about the road ahead and what services he could find in Rawlins. I gave him a bag of sweet black cherries that I was carrying, which seemed to brighten his mood.
Passing through the Grand Tetons I stayed at a camp site for hikers and bikers. A couple rolled in that evening, wearing all the tell tale signs of long distance cyclists. Do enough riding and you develop a sense for these things. I could tell by looking at them that they’d been on the road for at least three or four months. Probably more.
I walked over and offered them the last two beers from the six pack I’d bought, having given one more to another cyclist and drinking the other three myself. They had bicycled up from South America and had been on the road for five months. In one of the most unlikely coincidences of my cycle touring life we would discover that we had mutual friends and these two were attending their wedding coming up in another month or so. The chances that we would all happen to meet in that place, on that day, in that manner, and that we would have common personal connections are easily past one in a million.
About a month after starting out from Missoula, MT I had made it to Ladder Ranch on the northern border of Colorado. Another haven for cyclists with cabins for rent in a quiet valley in the mountains. I was physically exhausted and had lost 10 kg of body weight at that point. From my journal a couple days before:
The novelty of climbing over pass after pass for no reason other than to suffer has waned. I swore over and over on Day 23 that I was done with this stupid route. I need to now give that some serious thought. Yesterday was NOT fun… and if not, then why do it?
I had befriended a fisherman who was staying the weekend at one of the cabins and, upon telling him these thoughts, he told me that he lived in Denver and was returning there the next day. He said he would be happy to give me and my bicycle a ride if I wanted to take a flight home. After sleeping on it I decided to take him up on the offer.
I have been riding long distance bicycle tours for well over a decade. At my last accounting I calculated that it’s been at least 18,000 km in the last six or seven years alone. One of my rides spanned a full 160 days of mostly tent camping and bicycling. In all those rides I had never quit one early that I had any choice about. This time was different. I just didn’t want to pedal up mountains any more.
From my final journal entry of the ride, in a hotel room in Denver, Colorado, on July 25, 2019:
I just got bored, really. You can only climb so many mountain passes, day in, day out, over and over, before you just want something else. I ended up pedaling 1,800 kilometeres and climbed about 28,000 meters in total. That’s plenty.