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Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Great Divide - A Hard Start

It's been a hard day's night
And I've been working like a dog
It's been a hard day's night
I should be sleeping like a log

Hard Day's Night, John Lennon & Paul McCartney (1964)

Crawling up the final pitch of Fleecer Ridge on Day 11, I gather myself in a lonely spot of shade.
I'd like to say this picture was staged. (photo by Paul Brasby)

Our first 11 days on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route fly by in a blur of cool back roads, stunning scenery, and interesting people. So many stories. So many memories. And so hard.

We ride over 560 miles and climb almost 44,000 feet of elevation, which averages about 50 miles and 4,000 feet of gain per day. But that's just the start of the story. The varying road surfaces affect our effort as much as the distance, steepness of the grade, or length of the climb. And, of course, there's always the weather and the Montana forest fires. One day may sound harder on paper than it was, while another may have been much harder than it sounds.

The result? From our first pedal stroke in the morning to our dismount for the night, we work hard over 10 hours every day to cover those miles up and down the Montana mountains. There are no easy days on the Great Divide.
Climbing the Whitefish Divide in the haze of Montana forest fires.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Dropping down the Whitefish Divide toward Glacier National Park.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

It's almost always up or down. We climb many passes and cross the Continental Divide many times. Nothing comes easy. Sometimes, the downhill is actually more challenging than the climb.

Here's a tough one. Not feeling great on the morning of Day 9, I try to eat a solid breakfast, but lose everything by throwing up twice at the restaurant. So, I start with an empty tank and eat what I can on the fly while climbing most all day in the heat. This works ok until the final 4 miles up Lava Mountain, which are sprinkled with steep, loose pitches littered with rocks. We ride some, but much is heft-a-bike. That is, I bench press my bike, take a step or two, and repeat. Then the first 2 miles down are worse, actually requiring some hike-a-bike downhill. In all, we expend almost 3 hours of hard work on those 6 miles atop Lava Mountain. 

For what it's worth, that infamous Lava Mountain stretch has degraded so much over time that the Adventure Cycling Association recently removed it from the route. So, we are among the last Great Divide riders to actually complete it.

Paul picks his way up a pitch on Lava Mountain.

Hacking our way down Fleecer Ridge.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

But Lava Mountain is not the most infamous descent on the Great Divide. That would be Fleecer Ridge, which reportedly drops 38% for a mile. As if that's not enough, it's a bit of a haul to even get there. We climb well over 5,000 feet just to reach it in the heat of mid-afternoon.

Like the Ovando Jail and Lost Llama Ranch for me, Fleecer Ridge is a must-experience for Paul, who is jazzed at the top as he peers over the edge. It looks like nothing but trouble to me. All I know is that I work a full hour to walk/stumble/slide down that mile, fighting to keep my bike from tumbling down over top of me and stopping as often as I can to keep my knees from exploding. I am relieved to reach the bottom with both bike and body still functioning.

Two track climb to a distant pass.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

More nice two track.

Those 11 days extract a high cost in tired legs, aching knees, and sore bottoms as we adapt to the daily demands of pedaling a 70+ pound bike up and down these rough roads. Every day presents difficult challenges, some lasting a few minutes, while others go on for hours. And for the last 2 hours or more, of every single day, I just want to stop and get off the bike.

The 11th day ends with the descent off Fleecer Ridge and then down tight Jerry Creek Road to the town of Wise River. Thanks to good intel from some young North Bound riders Paul names Boyz-To-Men, we learn to ask to stay in the Big Hole Community Church. We're grateful for the shower, kitchen, and indoor sleeping quarters while traveling through grizzly country with active forest fires.

Eyes up for obstacles on the narrow road.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Now that's a steep pitch, if Paul's pushing.

On the morning of Day 12, I wake up dog tired, more so than any other. On this morning, I have little more to give, physically, mentally, or emotionally. I need a break and should call for a Zero Day. Instead, I suit up to let the ride decide.

From the start, my legs feel dead. My journal says it directly, "Tired when woke up. With first pedal, my legs felt like I'd been pedaling 4-5 hours already." That's not good. Today we start with a steady 30 mile climb of over 2,500 feet up the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. No, that's not steep, but it's a long climb on dead legs on Day 12.

There's always another climb around another turn for another view.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

In a recurring scene, Paul looks back for me from atop a climb.

Slugging my way up that long climb, I stop numerous times. This is not working. Hours pass. Finally, I pull out a map to formulate an end game to this day. I'm not going to continue all afternoon thinking only about how I just want to be off the bike. I'm not going to ride this way any more.

There it is. Just four miles ahead lies Elk Horn Hot Springs Lodge. Even though it's early afternoon and that puts us only 34 miles into the day, that's it. I'll ride to that hot springs. That's it.

Another day, another climb, another view.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

This is after a shower, hot springs soak, pizza, huckleberry shake, and 11+ hours of sleep.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

The Elk Horn Hot Springs Lodge has no vacancies, but the manager allows us to pitch our tents by a dilapidated picnic table, take a shower, lounge in the natural hot springs, and eat at the lodge restaurant. Clean and relaxed, I snarf an enormous pizza and a huckleberry shake. At 7 pm, I hit the sack.

I'm out for over 11 hours. Just out. When I finally awaken, I'm recharged. Fully.

More recovery time at night means more energy by day.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Over the course of Day 13, I reach the obvious conclusion that I simply need more sleep than normal to recover from more work than normal. Like a lot more. So, I sleep another 11+ hours that night at the cyclist only camping at the Hanson Livestock Ranch. Again I wake up fully recharged.

The next 5 days we ride over 300 miles to reach Grand Teton National Park. Every day I do what it takes to get 10+ hours of sleep at night. And every morning I feel better than the day before.

I commit to adding a new element to my ride. Sleep at least 10+ hours every night. No matter what.

I stick to that for the rest of my Great Divide ride, all the way to Antelope Wells. It makes for a few late morning starts, but never again do I wake up tired like I did on Day 12. In fact, as the weeks roll by, I gain strength, physically and mentally, and my daily mileage, elevation gain, and riding time continue to increase, even while the roads and conditions deteriorate significantly in New Mexico.

I didn't need to cut back my daily riding time. I only needed to sleep more.

Addendum.  This approach worked well for me, a 63 year old back-of-the-pack recreational cyclist who managed to ride the entire length of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route self-supported. Many others ride the Great Divide much faster and farther each day, with less recovery time, and almost certainly with better hair. You do you.

Hard Day's Night, The Beatles (1964)


  1. Wow!! Thanks for sharing your experience. Great solution.

  2. Thanks for your account. Good read. Let your body dictate its needs. It will be honest. Traveling with company makes the strategy you used more pallitable. As a solo rider, I find I can satisfy my old body with 5-7 hrs of sleep. If I stop early in the evening, I am usually lost as to how to fill the time alone. I'd rather keep riding until my body insists on rest.

  3. What an amazing adventure. You describe so well the struggles and pain. I could not do this myself but you make me feel like I was along on the trip through your detailed writing. I can imagine your sense of accomplishment after such an undertaking. I am in awe!

  4. Really enjoyed this piece and your honesty. Great work!

  5. Like you, I didn't find Lava Mountain very fun at the time, but in hindsight, I'm glad I did it. It was at the end of a long, hot day starting from the Llama Ranch (bypassed Helena, which made the climbing worse). Fleecer, on the other hand, didn't bother me a bit. I think it's because I had a slightly shorter day before into Butte, and knew what to expect. I also stayed in the church at Wind River. I'm glad they stepped up and opened it since everything else there was housing firefighters at the time.