What: bike tour of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR).
Where: Banff N.P. Canada to Antelope Wells on the Mexican border and then on to Tucson.
When: August 5 – October 2, 2007 (54 days GDMBR + 5 days to Tucson).
Distance: about 2865 miles on the GDMBR + about 280 miles to Tucson.
Highlights: Very diverse scenery, the rhythm of care-free riding day after day, kind people everywhere, 3000 miles of low-traffic roads.
The GDMBR was designed and documented by Adventure Cycling Association (ACA). They have forums and other resources on their website and publish a necessary and excellent map set.
Cycling the Great Divide: From Canada to Mexico on North America’s Premier Long-Distance Mountain Bike Route, by Michael McCoy and the ACA. This guide book is useful for giving general information about what to expect in each section. However, we consistently found that the campsites they recommended were not as nice as campsites we found on our own, and we did not attempt to follow the book’s daily itinerary.
We foolishly did not carry a camera on this trip and so have no photo gallery to share. A little searching on the internet will turn up many trip reports with photos. In addition, there’s great video of the scenery in Ride the Divide, a documentary film about the TourDivide race.
Why we went
We both use bicycles to ride around town, and have at times done a fair amount of recreational paved-road riding in the hills around our home on the San Francisco Peninsula. Amy had taken four self-supported bike tours as a teen-ager in the 1970’s, but James had never taken one. Amy had a hankering to take a long bike trip, but James had no interest in dealing with traffic. When Amy first learned about the GDMBR she knew immediately that it was perfect. James was not convinced until the maps appeared in our mailbox, and then he agreed. We had taken many dozens of backpacking trips together and we were eager to do something novel in a part of the country that was less familiar to both of us.
Neither of us had done any previous off-pavement bicycling, but the GDMBR was advertised as non-technical dirt riding, so we thought, correctly as it turned out, that we could figure it out as we rode.
I loved this trip and it is on my Top Ten list.
It is very satisfying to have a route mapped ahead of us, and all the freedom in the world to move forward along that path. Get up in the morning, ride through the landscape until we’re tired, find a place to set up camp, eat some dinner, and go to sleep. Over and over again. No schedule, no obligations, no decisions, no worries. This feeling doesn’t develop on a one or two week trip; I need enough time to establish the rhythm and sense of freedom.
The ACA has created a masterpiece – a 3000 mile scenic route through diverse landscapes with very little vehicular traffic, and no logistical hassles. There was nothing else like it in 2007. New Zealand’s new Tour Aotearoa looks like a route with similar qualities; it is on my list for a future outing.
As a whole package the ride through the GDMBR’s very diverse landscapes was a beautiful and wonderful experience, and traveling by bike was just the right pace to watch the scenery unfold. The locals we met along the way were universally upbeat, kind, generous, and encouraging.
It is very gratifying to cross the entire country on a bike and I felt a real sense of accomplishment.
Having never taken a dirt road bike trip before, I was quite intimidated by the prospect of riding the GDMBR. Amy had been interested in doing this route for some time and eventually I agreed to give it a try. I was really happy that I did so. Everything about this trip was fabulous. The actual riding started out being a bit challenging, but I very quickly learned to handle my bike competently enough that the riding became mostly fun. We had our share of what, to us, was challenging riding, but I never felt that I was in totally over my head.
After backpacking for so many years, I had become used to certain pace of moving through a piece of terrain. Biking more than doubled our daily mileage, meaning that changes in our environment came more quickly and this helped to keep things interesting. The American west is a big grand place and crossing at a biking pace was a great experience.
One thing we learned on this trip was that small town libraries are a great and unappreciated resource. The librarians were universally friendly and helpful to a couple of dirty cyclists who showed up at their counter asking for local information and internet access. These people knew everything about their towns and were always able to answer questions about the best place to eat and where we might find a good place to camp. We received warm welcomes from them and that really helped keep our spirits up.
The GDMBR is a terrific and vastly underappreciated resource for people who want to enjoy a great outdoor adventure. The ACA deserves a lot of credit for putting together such a well thought-out and documented route. Just buy the mapset and head out; you will quickly realize that essentially everything you need to successfully navigate and deal with logistics is succinctly and accurately detailed. We did not have a GPS with us, but never got lost. This is truly a “plug and play” type of experience.
I loved this trip and it still is one of the most interesting and rewarding things I have ever done. Anyone who can ride a bike and knows how to camp can do this. Give the GDMBR a try and you will not regret it.
Notes for Potential Cyclists
The GDMBR was the world’s first well documented long dirt-road bicycle route. We were attracted to it because we love riding bikes but dislike riding around motor vehicles. We have neither the technical skills nor interest in single-track cycling, so a dirt-road route perfectly met our needs. We do not have a particular preference for dirt versus paved roads, but in reality the dirt roads we rode had far less traffic than any of the paved roads in the western U.S.
In addition to route information, the ACA maps include all the information one needs about towns and services. The quality of the route and the detailed information on the maps make this a “plug-and-play” trip. It truly is possible to show up with a suitable bike and gear and just start riding.
For the past decade there has been a somewhat informal but increasingly popular race on the route. One variant of the race was called the Great Divide Race; the current iteration is called the TourDivide. If you poke around the internet you’ll find many reports from racers on the TourDivide. Don’t confuse the race with the route!
Roughly 80% of the GDMBR is on graded county, Forest Service (USFS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) dirt and gravel roads. The remainder is made up of four-wheel-drive tracks and singletrack trails (10%), and paved roads (10%). The ACA has an ongoing effort to improve the route, and there have been numerous minor and a few major changes since 2007 when we rode it. Therefore, the route shown on our CalTopo map is now obsolete. We have no navigational information about the route that is not thoroughly covered in the ACA data. The highest point of the route is Indiana Pass in Colorado: 11,910 feet (3630 meters).
The ACA maps are excellent, and we were easily able to navigate with those maps, an accurate odometer, and a compass. Supplemental USFS or BLM maps are not necessary. There are also gpx tracks available for use with a GPS device, but we did not have one on this trip.
We were somewhat nervous in advance of the trip because neither one of us had any experience riding mountain bikes and we were worried about whether we would have the technical skills to pull it off. We were fine. There are some rough stretches in Canada, a couple short rough stretches in Montana, and quite bit of rough riding in New Mexico. But those tough places early in the trip are short enough you can just walk your bike if need be. Starting on the south side of the summit of Indiana Pass in southern Colorado, the road quality was inconsistent, and sometimes included long stretches of poor road. But this didn’t start until we’d had a lot of miles to practice, and by the time we got there we were able to cope quite easily. Anybody who can ride a bike and sleep in a tent can succeed on this route.
USFS and BLM policy permits camping anywhere on their lands, and the vast majority of the route is on land managed by these two agencies. This makes it very easy to ride all day and set up camp wherever you happen to run out of steam or out of daylight. Our favorite mapping app Gaia GPS offers a Public Lands overlay, making it very easy to avoid camping on private property.
The ACA offers guided group trips on the GDMBR for those who prefer to travel that way.
Transit to and from
The ACA has current information about shuttle logistics.
To start our trip, we drove to Banff and met a friend who drove our car home for us.
The only significant logistical problem with the GDMBR is the southern terminus. Antelope Wells is an international border crossing that has very little traffic and no services whatsoever. The nearest place to buy anything is Lordsburg, NM, which is 95 miles away and in the middle of nowhere. There were no public transportation options available when we completed our ride. Some riders backtrack north and then ride east to El Paso to get transportation home. Others arrange to be met by friends or family at Antelope Wells.
We elected to continue our ride on to Tucson, Arizona on as many back roads as we could. In Tucson, it was easy to get a one-way car rental to drive home to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was less expensive to rent the car and pay for gas than to buy two airline tickets, and we did not have the hassle of boxing the bikes or run the risk of having the airline or a shipping company damage the bikes.
Our route to Tucson was quite scenic and went through habitat we had not visited while on the GDMBR. Overall, it was a bit over 280 miles from Antelope Wells to the Tucson airport. Most of the ride was on nice quiet roads. The final 10 miles into the Tucson airport was urban sprawl, but there was a good shoulder to ride on. Our route is included in the CalTopo files.
We crossed the Chiricahua Mountains on our way to Tucson, a major island mountain range in southeast Arizona where there is excellent birding. The Chiricahuas were Amy’s favorite place on the entire trip. We also visited Tombstone, Arizona, which is mostly a tourist trap, but we were able to have a fine celebratory meal at the Lamplight Room. Along the way, north of Greaterville, we crossed and actually camped on the Arizona Trail; 10 years later we would pass that campsite while doing a thru-hike of that trail. As on the GDMBR, finding places to camp was not a problem. There were enough towns that getting meals and groceries was easy as well.
We were quite pleased with our route and felt it was a fine way to finish off the GDMBR.
We started in Banff on August 5 and reached Antelope Wells on September 27. If we took this trip again we would likely start in Banff a little later, probably between August 10 and 15. Amy did a fair bit of research on historical rain patterns and decided that there wasn’t a reliable enough pattern to pick our dates in order to avoid rain.
It is not viable to start a southbound trip before mid to late June due to winter snowpack on the high passes; the actual date the passes open varies by year. It is also risky to plan to be north of Abiquiu NM after about October 1 due to the possibility of a storm that could drop more than a couple inches of snow.
Mosquitoes can be a serious problem; they are worst in June and July. We have very low tolerance for mosquitoes so we chose to go later in the year to try to avoid them. We were successful as we didn’t have any significant mosquito problems until we got into NM. A possible reason that the mosquitoes were gone is that night-time temperatures had dropped far enough below freezing to kill them. We didn’t keep notes on this, but we probably had eight to ten mornings with frost in our first 20 days of riding, with night-time low temps during those first few weeks generally between 25 and 30 degrees. We don’t mind cold mornings in exchange for avoiding mosquitoes.
It is particularly hot in NM during June, July, and August and we wanted to avoid this. NM gets most of its rain during the monsoon season in July and August and the rains turn many of the dirt roads into unrideable sticky mud. The wildflowers bloom after the rains and we had some fantastic displays. We had relatively pleasant weather in NM, about 85 degrees, but we do not know if that is typical for late September or if we were just lucky.
The last timing factor was estimating how long our trip would take. We guessed it would take 70 days based on data from the GDR guidebook, but it took only 54 days so we were in CO earlier than we expected and possibly why we missed the aspen colors. In autumn the Aspens turn golden, particularly in CO, and we considered this factor in choosing a start date. We were hoping to be there when the trees were in their glory, but we were too early. A slightly later start might have served us better.
Another factor to consider is whether you want to be out in the hunting season. The benefit is that you do not need to worry about being stranded on a remote road without access to help, the downside is that there may be more traffic than in the non-hunting season; we guess 40% to 70% of the traffic we saw on most USFS roads were hunters. We found that the hunters we talked to were kind and generous and typically were polite drivers, but it does reduce the sense that you are “out there” in a remote place.
We recommend having an open-ended finish date. The people we met on the trail who had to arrive at Antelope Wells by a particular date were driven by that and could not freely choose when to stop and when to have rest days. That may have added some stress to their experience that we never had.
Most people ride the GDMBR southbound, but it has been successfully done in the other direction many times. Timing issues are different if you ride northbound due to hot weather in New Mexico and the possibility of early snowfall in the northern mountains. We have no regrets about riding the way we did and arriving at a definitive border was a better finish psychologically than completing the route at the northern terminus, a random hotel in Banff.
Do not take this trip if you want to eat well; go for a ride in France instead. You can get the calories you need, but this trip is not about good food. This is not a complaint, it is just the nature of the route. Also, do not underestimate the amount of calories you will need. We ate constantly and both of us lost weight even though we are both light-weights to begin with.
Bigger towns (>1000 people) usually had a reasonable grocery store. Smaller towns have limited, sometimes very limited stores, often in the form of gas-station convenience shops selling mostly sugar, salt and trans fats. The most frustrating thing about the food selection was produce; frequently only carrots, apples and bananas were on offer in the small shops. We ate several memorably good restaurant meals, but most restaurant/cafe meals were of the steak or hamburger and fries variety.
We did not carry a stove, which served us very well. We ate a variation of our standard no-cook food plan. Our staples were as follows:
- breakfast: yogurt (available at 80% of stores), dry and fresh fruit, bars and/or muffins/donuts, sometimes juice.
- snacks: bars (Clif/Luna/Balance/Power/etc). We were nearly always able to get some brand of bars that had protein. On two or three occasions during the entire trip the only bars available were Quaker Granola bars, which have no protein and which we avoided when possible.
- lunch and dinner: crackers, cheese, beef jerky, canned tuna or chicken, fried chicken (available as take-out from mid-sized grocery stores and from cafes), carrots, nuts, dry and fresh fruit, chocolate, potato and corn chips, cookies, salsa, and hummus (available only in larger towns).
Some GDMBR riders mail themselves food parcels so they can eat what they want. We enjoyed the freedom of not worrying about what time and day we arrived at a particular town to get to an open post office. If you decide to mail yourself packages, then seriously consider arranging with RV parks or motels so that you can pick up your packages whenever you arrive. That requires more work up front to call in advance, but you can then have confidence in your ability to retrieve your package on, say, a Sunday. If you arrive at an RV park mid day and do not want to spend the night, you can still retrieve your package, do your laundry, and pay for a shower before moving on.
We built new bikes in early 2007 specifically for remote dirt road touring. We studied our options very carefully when we designed the bikes, however we are not experts on bikes and bike components and have not paid any attention to changes in hardware that has occurred since 2007.
All frame and component decisions were optimized for durability and field-serviceability:
- Frames: Custom made steel hard-tails by the Sycip brothers in Santa Rosa, CA.
- Forks: Magura Odur coil spring fork.
- Drive Train: Rohloff Speedhub internally geared hub on Paragon slider drop-outs.
- Brakes: Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes.
- Rims: Mavic XM 719.
- Tires: Schwalbe Marathon XR.
- Pedals: platform pedals with Power Grips.
- Saddles: Amy – Brooks B17S; James – Avocet 02 Air 40.
Our bikes were great, perfect. We had no mechanical problems and we did not regret optimizing for durability and reliability. Neither of us had any significant aches or pains in the hands, feet, neck, shoulders, or back, a tribute to the custom fitted frames that the Sycip brothers designed and built for us.
James had a Thudbuster seat post, Amy had a regular seat post with a nicely broken in Brooks B17 saddle. We were comfortable enough and we do not think a rear suspension is necessary on this route. On the other hand, especially given many miles of washboarded or rocky or rutted roads, we were glad we had suspension forks.
We both love the Power Grips and continue to use them. In addition to providing just the right amount of stability on the pedals, they allow us to wear normal shoes instead of dedicated cleated bike shoes. We did not carry “camp shoes”.
We had our chains pulled and cleaned at the bike shop in Helena, and we replaced them in Salida. Chain tension was adjusted using the sliding dropouts about once a week. Other than daily chain lubrication, occasional brake pad adjustment, and keeping proper air pressure in the tires, no other maintenance was ever required. We had a total of two flat tires.
The Rohloff hubs were wonderful. They required no maintenance and they shifted flawlessly. Obviously a traditionally geared system will work fine too and most people complete the trip with dérailleurs. We liked the reliability and simplicity of the Rohloffs, and we are happy that we built up our bikes using those hubs. Since our ride on the GDMBR, James has used his bike daily for his commute to work and the Rohloff continues to work flawlessly with essentially no maintenance.
The robustness of our bikes was tested when we became totally mudded up in New Mexico. The tires, rims, spokes, chains, and brakes became so clogged with mud that it became impossible to even push the bike. This type of mud can damage derailleurs, but our bikes suffered no damage and we were able to continue on riding by removing enough mud with sticks to allow the wheels to turn.
Our grand total weight, for everything except the food and water we carried, was 60-61 pounds per person. Per person, that’s roughly 33 pounds of bike, 5 pounds of clothing/shoes/helmet worn while riding, 7 pounds of racks and sacks, and 15 pounds of gear. That is heavy by TourDivide racer standards, but light compared to most people who tour the GDMBR. In addition to our normal backpacking kit, we carried bike tools and a few spare parts.
There is one big decision to make about how to carry your gear: whether to use a BOB trailer, front and/or rear panniers, or lightweight bags without racks from Revelate Designs.
The system we used was the right set of trade-offs for us and we were happy with it. It was modest weight, waterproof, durable, reliable, with plenty of capacity:
- Tubus Cargo rear racks.
- 2 Ortlieb Backroller Plus rear panniers per person.
- James used an Ortlieb handlebar bag.
- Amy used a custom frame bag by Carousel Design Works. They are no longer making bags; Revelate Designs sells a similar product.
- We did not carry day packs on our backs as we find them rather uncomfortable while riding, particularly in hot weather. We are definitely outliers here as everybody else we saw was using daypacks. Amy strapped a minimalist day pack and our trash bag on top of the rear rack using a Basket Net. It was convenient to have the day pack along for use when off the bike. By carrying the trash on top we didn’t risk making a mess of the dry stuff in our panniers. The basket net provides an essentially unlimited ability to add gear of any shape and size. It was a much more flexible system than regular straps and it worked well when we had several bags of potato chips or a big awkward trash bag to haul.
- James strapped a short sil-nylon stuff sack with the tent and his rain gear onto the top of his rack with the tent poles and stakes carried in a longer sil-nylon bag attached directly to the rack using velcro.
We had an excess of cargo capacity with this configuration, even for the occasional stretches where we had to carry a lot of food or water. We understand that the BOB trailers handle relatively well, but do not believe that the extra weight is worth hauling (13.5-17 pounds for the trailer + ~2 pounds for the cargo drybag versus about 4.5 pounds per bike for the rear racks and panniers we used). No matter how well a trailer handles, it is much easier to ride when you have less weight to move. A trailer is also one more set of moving parts that can fail, it complicates transport to and from the route, and it is a pain in the neck when crossing the occasional tree that has fallen across the trail.
The Revelate Design bags are very fuctional. However, given the volume of the gear we take we would need to wear daypacks if we gave up our panniers in favor of the Revelate system, and we prefer the weight of panniers to the discomfort of wearing daypacks. If we were able to fit all of our gear into Revelate bags, we would select that option.
With the weight we carried, we both felt our bikes handled very well, even with the bulk of the load carried on rear instead of front panniers. Note that the fact that the bikes handled well may be due to the fact that the Sycip brothers designed the frame geometry for this carrying configuration, whereas an off-the-shelf frame may have a different fork angle and therefore different handling. For people hauling 30-50 pounds of stuff, the trailer may be the best option, but we STRONGLY encourage people to consider hauling 20 pounds of stuff and sticking with the simplicity of a pannier system. If you have a lot more gear than we had and don’t have a trailer, then you may need to add a front rack and set of panniers, which adds another ~four pounds to the load.
Tubus racks and Ortlieb panniers have reputations for being sturdy and reliable, and are the brands of choice (as far as we can tell) for people taking long tours in third world countries. Ours performed flawlessly. James’ Ortlieb handlebar bag was also waterproof and was very convenient for carrying an iPod, energy bars, bird book and other things requiring easy access. On the downside, it weighs about 1.5 pounds, and does not carry much weight.
Amy’s Carousel Frame bag was awesome. In it she carried a DromLite 6 liter bladder. When the bladder had more than four liters of water she could not zip the bag closed, but it still worked fine, even with a full six liters of water. It is a great way to carry a lot of water low and centered on the bike. On most days she carried one to three liters of water, binoculars, a windbreaker, sunglasses, a few bars, and sunscreen in the frame bag. It was very easy to access things in the bag while riding. The capacity of a frame bag will depend on the size of your bike’s triangle. The downside of the bag is that the paint under the velcro attachment tabs was slightly etched from the grit that got between the velcro and the frame and then was ground into the paint.
James carried a day pack and 6 liter DromLite in his pannier and never used either one. We had them along assuming we would need to carry water on our backs to give us enough capacity during long stretches without access to water and groceries. But we were always able to fit our stuff into the panniers. When we needed to carry extra fluid, James just put quart bottles of juice into his panniers.
Note that the ultra-lightweight GDMBR riders, particularly the TourDivide racers, do not use panniers; they use the Revelate Design bags and carry a day pack. We carried more stuff than the racers carry, because we like to be comfortable at all times, and because our daily mileage was much less than the racers, needed multi-day food carrying capacity.