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The Great Divide Mountain-Bike Route - A Review

Without a doubt my trip through the Rockies from Banff to Steamboat Springs was the best riding of my round-the-world trip. While I had no preconceptions about riding the Divide it was always this leg of the trip that had the most appeal. I do not know why this is as I knew nothing about it when I decided to ride it. All the world sections promised to be pretty amazing and they all delivered in their own ways. America is very familiar to most Irish people but to ride down its spine on backcountry roads felt like biking through uncharted territory to some extent. Certainly, it felt a million miles from the vibe of the east or west coast, which we all know a lot about. I enjoyed the unaffected nature of the mountain-folk immensely and it was the people as much as the nature and challenge that will stick with me.

I covered about 2800kms of the 4400km route. Would I like to complete the rest of the route? Absolutely. The route specific maps from Adventure Cycling take a lot of the guess-work out of the trip even if you need to follow your nose in parts. While the lack of guess-work was lamentable at first it would have proven difficult to cover such remote terrain without the information that the maps provide. The extremes of mountain weather simply make an uncharted trip through the wild risky. The best bit about the Great Divide route is that it is pretty much traffic free. America is not a fun place to ride on the road so using a map that is specific to cyclists while not omitting the main points of interest along the way is fantastic.

I rode the route solo. This is not recommended practice as limited cell-phone coverage would necessitate another person to go for help should anything happen. Three is the perfect number but the guys who race the Divide effectively ride solo as after a day or two of the race they have all split up (although they have to carry satellite trackers in case of emergency). While I did carry a water filter I did not make use of it preferring to cart water from mains as opposed to collecting and treating water from the wild. It is a surprise that I never exhausted supplies such that I had to use my filter. A racer would want to filter as it saves a great deal on weight.

Somebody contemplating racing the Divide would approach it very differently to me. By stripping down the weight very close to the bone and by riding on 29” wheels as opposed to 26” ones, they are dramatically increasing their range. This allows them to pass through towns daily and keep on top of supplies better than somebody who is carting a heavier load to accommodate a greater deal of comfort. Of course, they will still shed a lot of weight from the effort but the choice is plain. If you want to go fast there is one approach and if you want to savour the trip there is a different one. Having gone with a touring set-up (due to the nature of my world tour) it took me 31 days of riding to cover two-thirds of the route not including rest days. The winner of the Tour Divide completes the whole course on his 18th day without any days off.

The hardest part of the Great Divide route is the desolation and the unpredictability of the weather. While the number of climbs involved make for a hard ride, the biking is the least challenging part of it for someone who loves mountains. Any sense of isolation would be reduced for the racers as they are on the route for far fewer days than someone touring although naturally, low blood sugars would cause them to have bad moments. Regardless, they still have to stare at the same barren scenery as I did and that in itself is no easy task. It is interesting that there is a desire to make the race even more remote. The winner of the past three editions (Matthew Lee) is one of the people who is pushing for this. Clearly the course suits him but I can't see why one would make it more desolate unless it added something for the people who tour the route. It is already a marathon so creating a course that is overly challenging lessens the appeal for most tourers who are simply looking to explore the terrain. Touring the route comes with a different set of challenges as heavier loads make for a longer trip, greater isolation and mean that any technical section for the racer becomes doubly challenging for the Tourer. Some parts of the route have alternative sections but tourers like to stay true to the race course if they can.

Ultimately the Great Divide Mountain-bike route should have limited appeal to cyclists. Roadies will hate it for its lack of asphalt sections (only 10%), Mountain-bikers will hate it for its lack of technical sections (10%) and Tourers will hate it as a lot of it is overly difficult for what is already a challenging tour. My guess is that even the Tour Dividers love to hate this course. Thus, the only people who could possibly enjoy this route are total nut-jobs or someone bereft of anything better to do. Regardless, the work Adventure Cycling has done in plotting and keeping tabs of the route is wonderful. While they are promoting a difficult course the bike-friendly maps reduce the overall challenge of it immensely.

Would I be tempted to race it? For sure. Part of the appeal is that I believe the course suits me. Even though the course is off-road, I believe a roadie who enjoys stage-racing would out-perform a mountain-biker. The route does not require the technical skills that a mountain-biker would have over a roadie. It does need tons of endurance and the ability to recover. Roadies tend to have the upper-hand in this respect. However, it is not something I need to do (yet). My guess is that most people who race it have either no clue what they are letting themselves in for or if they do, they likely only do it to get it out of their system so they can get on with a normal life. The fastest finisher took 17.5 days and the last of the finishers (half didn't complete) took 28 days. That means being able to push a mountain-bike with five kilos of kit between 160 and 250kms each day on consecutive days. No easy feat considering the terrain. On top of this they race the route in the middle of June. Some of the snow has yet to clear by then and it is not uncommon to experience stormy weather at that time of year. The rationale is that it provides the most day-light for the racers but if the route started in August it would not compromise the amount of day-light hours and there would be a greater liklihood of settled, albeit hotter weather.

While racing the route has appeal to somebody competitive most people tour it. Even then, most tourers don't finish it. Some find the going too tough but most are like me and simply never planned to finish it in the first place due to other interests or commitments. However, having being charmed by the route I would certainly like to complete it at some point. Likely the best way to do this is with a merry band of crazies where one can share the experience and enjoy the company as much as the nature. The alternative would be to do it with a group but to have a sag-wagon carry any kit and set-up camp and organise supplies such that a lot of the chores and safety aspects are eliminated from the challenge. This would certainly be the least desolate and the most stress-free way to enjoy what is a wonderful route through four incredible US states and a pretty part of Canada too. This route is arguably the best bike-touring experience in the anglophile world if not the free world.

Three cheers for the Great Divide Mountain-bike route, I'll never forget it.


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