A ride on the Great Divide, Montana Section.

 

The world’s longest off-road bicycle touring route: 2768.4 miles (4455.3 km) beginning in Banff, Canada and continuing across the spine of the continent all the way to the Mexican border.

Crossing the Continental Divide thirty times, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) is around 90% unpaved roads and trails.  Riders face over 200,000 feet (60,960 meters) of elevation gain and loss as they traverse largely undeveloped areas of the Rocky Mountain West.

Complex logistical issues add another layer of challenge to the GDMBR. In some spots, reliable food and water sources are over 100 miles (160 km) apart.  Riders also contend with unpredictable weather patterns and must be prepared for possible snowstorms, plus the inevitable rain, gusty winds, and temperature extremes.  Add to that the threat of grizzly bear encounters and you’ve got a recipe for adventure (or disaster depending on your level of preparedness).

We were in.  The Great Divide Mountain Biking Route had been banging around our bucket list for years.  Back in 2009, we’d knocked off the TransAmerica, the Pacific Coast and snatches of the Southern Tier.  A ride up to Alaska in 2009 had whetted our appetite for the Rockies.

map Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR)
The enitire GDMBR route from Banff to Antelope Wells. We Began our GDMBR ride in Southwestern Montana.

 

Picked up a length of extra sturdy rope on our way out of town. Bear boxes are great but we’re wild camping most of the time.

 

As is often the case with adventures big and small, our Ride the Divide got off to a rocky start.  Departure day saw us frantically dashing around Bruce’s bicycle retreat on Daly Street in Missoula. After a decade on the road you’d think packing would be so automatic you could do it with your eyes closed.  Normally I can. Great Divide departure day was different.

I’d tracked down new (to us) gear in Missoula’s many well-stocked thrift shops and a few companies (including Showers Pass—yeah…real rain gear that keeps you dry no matter what) had come on board as World Biking supporters.  All that new stuff meant we rolled out the door with our bikes looking even more cumbersome than usual (and they were already pretty unwieldy).  Although I hadn’t dared to peek into Eric’s panniers (for fear of discovering 6 spare chains and an old crank as I had once in China), he’d obviously held on to all his old gear on top of the new stuff.  I had not married a minimalist.

As he wobbled down Higgins Avenue like a novice rider on his first ever bike overnight, I wondered how we would we possibly tackle all those passes on the way to Mexico.

Before hitting the road we popped downtown to the Adventure Cycling headquarters for a portrait with photographer Greg Siple for his Open Road Gallery Series.  In addition to visually documenting the cyclists who pass through Adventure Cycling’s Missoula headquarters, Greg now conducts a bicycle weigh-in.  How humiliating.  Our fully-loaded machines tipped the scales at a whopping 180 pounds (Eric) and 140 pounds (me).  Greg cheekily suggested we split the difference and even out the loads at 160 each.  My refusal was adamant. Having just relinquished my much-loved yoga mat in a quest to lighten my load, no way was I going to enable hubby’s hoarding habits.

A few harsh words may have been exchanged on the way out of town, but by the time we hit our first big climb on the way to the ghost town of Garnet, all focus was on forward momentum.  Every pedal stroke was agony.  It was near sunset when we finally topped out and set up camp.  We were knackered and hadn’t even hit the 100 kilometer mark. This plummeting of fitness is nothing new–happens every time we take time off the bikes.  Within a few days we’d get our rhythm back.

First day on the road out of Missoula. The last tarmac we’d see in awhile. Note Eric’s extra carrying capacity backpack.

 

Camping at the Montana Ghost Town of Garnet. It was a long hard slog up and we were fortunate that the kind host allowed us to camp. Normally this is a day use only area. Good people everywhere.

 

At the tiny hamlet of Wise River, we slipped on to the actual GDMBR.  I was excited.  First off, because following somebody else’s route takes away all the stress of choosing a route.  The downside being that planning a route can also be the fun part.  I also thought it would be cool to hang out with some other cyclists.  In obscure cycle touring destinations like Bangladesh or Northeast India, we sometimes go months and months without encountering a fellow two-wheeled traveler.  Things can get lonely.

But most of all I was curious to find out if we had what it took to take on the mighty divide.  We do…most of the time.

Here are a few highlights from the Montana and Idaho sections of the GDMBR:

 

 

GDMBR surprise us with long stretches of nothingness.  We were expecting narrow forest tracks and epic mountain vistas. 

 

Some sections of the GDMBR (like Fleecer’s Ridge) are notoriously tough. We found this scenic alternative. Not bad, I’d say.

 

A touch of rural America on the way to the tiny town of Lima, Montana.

 

 

Cyclists on GDMBR
Most riders on the GDMBR go fairly light–our overloaded rigs are definitely the exception. Aaron (bottom left) was cycling the Continental Divide Trail (brutal–this is a HIKING trail) and the couple on the recumbent tandem were cycling the TransAmerica.

 

A friendly ranching family near Lima Reservoir.  Ranchers are usually very courteous and always ready to help with route info or tips on camping spots and where to find water.

 

Time to swap bike touring tales.

 

Sunrise at Red Rocks Wildlife Refuge, Southwestern Montana.

 

Just one of 30 Continental Divide Crossings on the GDMBR. With a gentle grade, this one was fairly easy.

 

 

Onwards to Wyoming!
Great Divide Mountain Bike Route: Montana Moments

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