The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route calls.
With summer fast approaching, I see a steady stream of new views of my blog posts about riding the Great Divide. It looks like many bikepackers are out there preparing for their own adventure.
There are many ways to answer this call.
In 2022 alone, three cyclists I know rode the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in three very different ways. Local fast guy Colin Schindler raced the Tour Divide from the Grand Depart in Banff to Antelope Wells to finish in 19 days. Endurance athlete Kate Geisen rode North Bound with her adventure racing teammate Chuck Vohsen on a self-described "Choose-Your-Own Adventure" tour. Cycling buddy Paul Brasby rode the GDMBR route south bound from Rawlins to Abiquiu, as he continued his journey of riding sections as his time allows.
All three of them offered to share their experience. Here's Kate's perspective on her ride. Also, check out Kate's blog for more entertaining stories of a wide variety of her adventures. SuperKate.
1. The Decision
- Why the GDMBR? I think I'd barely heard of bikepacking, maybe only through Jill Homer's blog and books, when I happened upon "Ride The Divide" while scanning for something to keep me distracted during a metric century trainer challenge. By the end of the movie, I was determined to someday race the Tour Divide and by the end of the next week I'd settled on an 8 year timeline.
- Why self-supported/with another? My actual start came after 9 years, thanks to Covid and those closed Canadian borders, and by then my intentions had shifted from race to tour. Though my successful (if slow) solo run in the inaugural Arkansas High Country Race was amazing and empowering, it was also lonely and frustrating. I didn't want to spend my time on the Divide riding past all the incredible places the route took me. I didn't want to cry every day or sleep in a ditch. Early on, my friend and teammate Chuck signed on for the adventure, as well. My 8 year plan aligned nicely with his retirement schedule and, since the part of my long term plan that included developing some basic bike maintenance skills never actually happened, Chuck's proficiency here was another huge plus. He wasn't just my traveling mechanic, though. Having another person to share the adventure with made it that much more special, and having someone there to share the tough times made them so much more bearable. We have a long history of racing and training together, so by the time we left for New Mexico, we knew what to expect from each other and felt confident that we're compatible travel companions.
|Kate Geisen and Chuck Vohsen at Antelope Wells, the start of their Great Divide ride.
- Why not a guided tour or Grand Depart? A group of two minimizes the number of potential problems and differing opinions to be mediated. While being a part of the Grand Depart would have been super cool, neither the location nor the date fit into our ideal travel plan. We had enough gear, ability, and experience to support ourselves on the trip, and we like being able to make and adjust our own plans, rather than be subject to the cost and schedule of a tour group. As for a support vehicle, my husband's attitude towards my bike adventures falls more in the realm of tolerance than participation, and he still works full time anyway. My teacher schedule allows me far more free time than his limited vacation.
- Why north bound? North bound was Chuck's idea, and it was a good one. While we would miss all the excitement of the Grand Depart, graphics we'd seen showed what looked like a more favorable weather window riding north in early June. Transportation factored in as well. New Mexico was a shorter drive than Canada (we paid my nephew to drive us to the start, saving us the hassle and expense of plane tickets, shuttles, and rebuilding bikes). More importantly, both of our families were coming to pick us up at the end and Banff seemed like a far better vacation locale than Antelope Wells.
- How did your family and friends react? I spent 9 years speaking this trip into being. I'm sure my husband was incredibly skeptical when I first told him of my intentions back in 2013, but after years of hearing about it, by the time it actually happened, it was old news. My friends are a mix of adventure friends and regular life friends, so their reactions ranged from "that's awesome" to "you're crazy," but after they'd witnessed two trips on the Arkansas High Country Route and the 1,200 mile jaunt based on Matt Acker's Michigan Off Road Expedition route, the Divide just seemed like typical Kate behavior.
|To beat the New Mexico heat, Kate often started in the dark and enjoyed many sunrises on the road.
(photo by Kate Geisen)
- What did you do to plan? Ummm, we figured out a start time, dialed in our gear, and arranged our transportation to the start. I'd spent the previous 9 years obsessively reading books and blog posts about the Tour Divide, but while I'd owned the Micheal McCoy GDMBR guide book as well as the full set of maps from Adventure Cycling, the route was so big that I couldn't really wrap my brain around planning. We had the route on Garmin Etrex computers, as well as Sarah Swallow's RWPGS POI map and the routes downloaded on the ACA Bicycle Navigator app. Additionally, as we entered each state, I'd download an offline map for the state on Google maps.
- What was your overall approach to the ride? We had a general plan for the first few days, which immediately went to hell. After Day 1, we planned a day or two ahead. As long as I knew where I would be sleeping the next night and knew I had enough food to get me to the next re-supply, I was happy. Your "live to ride another day" post was always in the front of our minds, and that's how we lived our lives over the trip. This was a tour, not a race. We camped a majority of the time (I think 31 nights out of 42), we took paved alternatives when they served us, and we felt free to make our own route when we wanted to. We decided early on that our primary goal (well, after not being eaten by a bear) was to ride our bikes from Antelope Wells to Banff. Being 100% true to the route wasn't as high on the priority list.
- What were your biggest concerns? Our ride started directly on the heels of a case of Covid for me. We left town just after my quarantine ended, and I had no idea how my body would recover. As it turned out, I was lucky to have no lingering effects, but the heat in New Mexico crushed me at the beginning. Never having ridden in the desert, I had a difficult time combating dehydration despite drinking so much water. Living at a lofty 466 feet above sea level, I'm sure the elevation (4,665 feet at Antelope Wells) was a factor as well. We actually had to take a Zero Day on our third day of the trip, after which we started getting up at 3:30 am to ride. Avoiding the hottest part of the day made a huge difference. The amount of climbing on the route was another concern, but we surprised ourselves at times, walked when we had to (I'm looking a you, Indiana Pass), and skipped some of it. I'm sure my TD/GDMBR veteran friends were disappointed that I passed on hiking my bike up Fleecer Ridge, but I can't muster much regret. Riding our bike across the country is still riding your bike across the country, even if you take an easier way out at times.
- What was the best training to prepare? Dialing in gear and set-ups was key, as was having a firm grip on logistics. This was my fourth week-plus bike tour and I've developed a lot of confidence in my planning and strategizing. You can be the fittest person in the world, but if you can't figure out where to go and aren't able to manage re-supply when needed, you aren't going to get far.
- What training would you do differently? That said, we definitely weren't the fittest people in the world. Life got busy this year, and knowing we were going to be gone for a big chunk of time over the summer make it hard to also spend too much weekend time away as well. That meant we drove to New Mexico on a 2022 training diet of weekly long rides of mostly 70-80 miles, one century ride, and one 3 day bikepack. It was not ideal training, but luckily we also have the experience to know our bodies will do what we ask them to do (eventually). We joked in all seriousness that we hoped to be in shape for the trip by the time that we finished it. In an ideal world, I'd go back with more miles and more climbing on my legs.
- Favorite gear/What gear would you do differently next time? Almost every day I mentioned how happy I was to have the cheap knock-off Tevas that I'd picked up at Wal-Mart the day before we started the route. My ti Fargo was amazing, and I was really pleased with the Anything Cradle/dry bag system on my bars and the Rockgeist Mr. Fusion seat pack system. I also loved my K-lite dynamo light, which got heavy use in New Mexico thanks to our pre-dawn starts. What we took was perfect for our experience. Had we encountered the weather the South Bound racers did, I may have thought differently.
- Any bike modifications for the GDBMR? I put gears back onto it about a month before we left. I love riding single speed, but never once regretted bringing gears to the Divide.
- Anything different for the bike next time? Nope!
|Disperse camping in the Great Basin. (photo by Kate Geisen)
4. The Experience
- Favorite people story? We rolled into Steamboat Lake State Park well after dark and freezing. We immediately (and nosily) threw on all of our extra layers and started setting up our tents. A campground neighbor yelled that she was impressed that we'd ridden our bikes there, and then was astonished to hear we'd ridden our bikes from New Mexico. The family across the way overheard the conversation and came over to hear all about it. We spent the evening telling stories around their campfire. The next morning, the first neighbor dropped off breakfast for us . . . orange juice, muffins, tea, fresh berries, cereal, and milk. After dining on Pop-Tarts most mornings, this was heaven! Then the family brought us fresh brewed coffee. So much happiness.
- From friends? A local friend mailed us two massive care packages. We were hosted by friends in Salida and Breckenridge, helped by a local friend who just happened to be in New Mexico for work, had dinner with my grade school best friend and her husband, and got to meet up with a former work friend of Chuck's. We also had a complete stranger offer us a place to stay in Montana on a stormy night and a lodge owner (who we were not staying with) in New Mexico give us access to his pool on a hot afternoon.
- Cool experiences? So many! Two that stick out are a pre-dawn ride through a herd of elk one morning in New Mexico, and then ending up in the middle of a cattle drive while leaving Del Norte. Another cool experience was that on our first night in Idaho we stayed at the same place as Shawn Cheshire, a blind cyclist riding the Divide with her team. It was fun to get to know them a little, see how they worked together, and hear their stories.
- Favorite camp spot? We camped 31 out of our 42 nights on the road. Rio Chama RV park/campground was right along the river and we luxuriated in the cool running water after so many parched days. Steamboat Lake State Park was an oasis of friendliness. We had beautiful dispersed sites in the Great Basin and Bridger-Teton National Forest and a great site at a Forest Service campground in Wyoming (Kozy Kampground). While we both love camping for free or low cost, we developed a real appreciation for RV parks and their many facilities. Showers! Laundry! WiFi!
- Worst camp spot? 1) On our first night, having passed Hachita much earlier in the day and then melted in the New Mexico heat, we limped to the Separ store after waiting for sunset and stealth camped next to it. The noisy trio of interstate traffic, railroad tracks, and 18 wheelers pulling in and out all night combined to allow us about an hour of sleep. 2) The city of Del Norte, CO allows cyclists to camp for free in their city park and will tell you to set up your tent on the stage because your tent will be safe from the sprinklers there. You'll learn at 1 a.m. that the sprinklers most definitely hit the stage with all the force of an overexcited fire hose. You may even get to sleep in a bathroom for the first time wrapped in your now damp gear.
- Note on another camp spot. Another free cyclist-only campsite is behind the bar in Hartsell, CO. The people running the cafe/bar are wonderful and the food was good. The "campsite" is a small lot with old picnic tables, trash the birds have strewn from the dumpsters, and a couple of portajohns last maintained when my adult children were in diapers. Also, while we had no problems, we heard from a couple of different sources that the bars in Hartsel are legendary for their fights that spill out into the streets. None of this is a complaint. Again, the people were wonderful . . . it's just good to know what you're in for.
|Kate Geisen lounges in a natural hot springs in Wyoming. (photo by Chuck Vohsen)
- Best food? We had a fantastic breakfast at the Buffalo Cafe in Whitefish, MT and great Thai in Rawlins, WY, of all places. Our best Mexican of the trip was in Columbia Falls, MT.
- Worst food? We never bought a bad meal, but I can tell you I got real tired of Pop-Tarts. We had to filter water out of an algae-filled cattle tank with a dead javelina in a lower tank. We then ate cold refried bean burritos next to the javelina tomb because it was the only shade. The meal was actually pretty good, but the atmosphere left something to be desired.
- Most relaxing day? We took two Zero Days. The first on Day 3 (yeah, I know) in Silver City, NM was less relaxation than recovery. The second on Day 22 in Rawlins, WY was full of sleeping late, naps, leisurely walks to get supplies and meals, laundry, and more naps. It was exactly what we needed after three weeks on the road.
- Toughest day? One of the toughest days was Day 12 from Chama, NM to Platoro, CO. Though we had some early tailwind, it turned around on us at Horca and we spent the rest of the day riding into a headwind with gusts up to 45 mph. Day 18 between Kremmling, CO and Stagecoach Lake State Park just outside of Steamboat Springs was another hard one. It was the biggest day of climbing we did on the trip and the wind as we climbed out of Radium was brutal. At one point it almost knocked us off our bikes. It did push me hard enough that I had to put a foot down so as not to crash, and then the wind grabbed by bike so hard I had to hold on with both hands to keep it from being blown off the road.
- Hardest climb? We followed our windy trek into Platoro with an immediate climb up Stunner Pass. This went well, but the subsequent push to summit Indiana Pass seemed to take FOREVER and involved lots of bike pushing. *Because we rode the route largely as a Choose-Your-Own Adventure, we missed quite a few of the significant climbs on it.
- Favorite part of the route? This is like asking me to pick a favorite child. New Mexico had the friendliest people and most careful drivers Colorado and Wyoming were so beautiful. Montana wasn't Idaho and it was also beautiful. The Canadian section was incredible.
|Kate Geisen climbing yet another pass in Montana. (photo by Chuck Vohsen)
- Favorite road? Boreas Pass Road sticks out as a really beautiful ride, and the cruise down into Breckenridge was phenomenal. Another incredible stretch was between Elkhorn BC and Peter Loughborough Provincial park.
- Least favorite road? Our least favorite road wasn't even on the route. We skipped the much reviled, sandy ATV trail in Idaho in favor of a highway detour. Riding Highway 20 north from Ashton on a holiday weekend would have been bad enough, but when you pair countless frustrated vacationers towing massive campers through an insanely long construction zone where traffic was held up FOREVER with shoulders that appear decently wide but are actually cut at a steep angle . . . this stretch was by far the most terrifying of the entire trip.
- Best weather/Worst weather? Overall, the weather was very kind to us. Our ride was bookended by heat in New Mexico and Canada, but the middle states were in general very comfortable temperatures and low precipitation. We somehow managed to be staying inside on every rainy night through Idaho, and we didn't stay inside all that many nights! Montana was a bit of a different story; it rained on us every day, save maybe one. Even there, however, we were pretty lucky. While the sky often looked apocalyptic, we never rode in rain there for more than an hour or so, and while a couple of big storms complete with hail and high winds blew though, all of those were on inside nights. Compared to the weather the southbound riders faced, we totally lucked out.
- Best decision? Hands down, our best decisions were to take that Day 3 Zero Day and to begin our New Mexico days at 3:30 a.m. to avoid the heat. I'm also happy with our decision to tackle the Divide "Choose-Your-Own Adventure" style, instead of worrying about staying true to the race route.
- Worst decision? Calling anything a worst decision is hard to do, because all of our choices worked out and we had a great experience. That Highway 20 detour was pretty terrible, but the ATV trails may have been equally bad, if not quite as death defying.
- Posting on social media. Pro/con? So many pros. I would have done it solely for myself, and it came in handy even two weeks into the trip when we'd had so many experiences that it was hard to keep the days straight. It was also a great way for my close friends and family to understand a bit of what I was experiencing, but it was really cool to see how engaged and interested so many of our friends and even people we didn't know became. It was alike an old time serial. I love adventuring and sharing the experience with others, and I'll be happy every year as those memories roll back up again in my FaceBook feed. Cons . . . um, it was a little time consuming, but it never felt like work or an unwanted obligation. I did fall asleep a few times while typing up a narrative on my phone.
- Overall thoughts? It was a fantastic adventure! For me, touring with a friend was exactly the way to approach the route. There are certainly parts we skipped that I'd love to go back and ride, but I'm also thrilled with the experience I had.
- Would you do anything differently? I'm completely happy with the way we planned and executed our ride. Getting to share the adventure with a friend made it so much more fun than a solo trip. We endured some really hot days in New Mexico, but missed the snow storm that scrambled so many 2022 racers' plans in the first week, and overall the weather was pretty kind to us. The desert in the southern end of the route is lovely, but the views riding into Banff are astonishing, and finishing a long trip with day after day of jaw dropping beauty was really special, like ending a concert with a thunderous crescendo.
- What next? I've got a list going of places I want to ride. I'm eyeing Ireland, I want to ride around Lake Superior, and we definitely want to hit the Eastern Divide at some point, though I think that one will be a multi-year project that we ride in sections. Six weeks was a long time to be away from home, and it'll be awhile before I feel OK about leaving for that long again.
|Kate Geisen and Chuck Vohsen celebrate the completion of their adventure.