Pedaling over mountains is a part of many Adventure Cycling routes but it is the heart and soul of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Ride (GDMBR.)

Spanning the United States, north to south plus a Canadian addendum, it follows the Continental Divide down the Rocky Mountain chain. It is a rare day when a Great Divide rider does not conquer at least one major climb.  Since hills are many bicyclists’ least favorite parts of a ride, it is perfectly natural to wonder “Who would want to tackle a 2600-mile ride that seeks out hills (or rather, mountains) to climb?”

Well, for starters, my wife, Mary and I. Last summer we rode the Divide from the Canadian border at Roosville, Montana to the Mexican border at Columbus, New Mexico. At 65 and 66, respectively, we’re not exactly broken-down geezers (yet) but neither has anyone ever called us athletes.

Lief & Mary near Salida, Colorado

Several near misses with speeding vehicles along paved highways was the reason we first considered the ultra-low traffic GDMBR.  Cars are few and far between along the mostly dirt and gravel roads the trail follows.  Gorgeous scenery and moderate August/September temperatures further enticed us.
Already feeling nostalgic for last summer’s ride (but not nostalgic enough to redo the ride on bicycles) we cruised a section of the trail this summer on a motorcycle.  Because of our increased mobility on the motorcycle, we encountered a considerable number of bicycle riders – many more than we did last summer because then we were moving at roughly the same speed as everyone else .  Here’s what we learned about who rides the GDMBR:

More Europeans than Americans.  Of the roughly thirty riders we encountered between the Canadian border and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, about two thirds were Europeans.  In addition to Americans, we met riders from Netherlands, Norway, England, France, Belgium, Italy and Canada – all of whom, by the way, spoke English well (even the Canadians!)

As you might expect, the most common subgroup was young men.  But approximately one out of five were female and about the same fraction were old enough to be retired.  Most of them started at the Canadian terminus of Banff and were riding the trail north to south.  While we started our ride last year on August 18, most of the riders we met this year had started in late July which seems to be a more popular starting date than our later one.  Our recommendation to prospective riders is to pass through Colorado in September like we did, however, because the Aspen trees were brilliant that time of year.

We were surprised at the percentage of riders who were traveling alone both years – roughly thirty percent.  Because many of the stretches of the GDMBR are far from human habitation (especially the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming), I imagine a rider would have to be extremely comfortable with keeping his own company on those lonely stretches.  Nevertheless, some of the most buoyant personalities we met were riding alone.  Tim from Dallas was bubbling with enthusiasm when we stopped to talk to him sixty miles from the nearest habitation in the Great Divide Basin.

Tim in the Great Divide Basin

Semi-retired and in no discernible  hurry, Tim had been meandering down the GDMBR from Banff since June 28 when we met him on August 9.  Although quite sociable, he seemed to revel in the Basin’s solitude.   “I’m lovin’ this!” he exclaimed when we asked how he was doing.   He told us that the most gratifying aspect of his ride had been the warm reception he received from people along the way – how differently people respond to a man on a bicycle than to people in cars.  “Would we even be talking” he pointed out “if we were in cars?”

Although we consider ourselves accomplished bike trekkers, having completed four Adventure Cycling trans-continental rides, we were humbled by several of the riders we met, including Jan Petter from Norway, who had ridden through Europe and was on his way to Banff from the southern tip of Argentina when we met in Grand Teton National Park.  From Banff, he plans to continue riding through Asia.

But even Jan Petter failed to impress us as much as a seventeen-year-old boy from Austin, Texas named Sam who we met near Lima, Montana.  Riding alone, he hoped to make it to Banff in time to return to Austin for his senior year of high school!

We also learned that few riders strictly adhere to the GDMBR as laid out in Adventure Cycling’s detailed maps.  Side trips to visit friends or places of interest, jumps to avoid unpleasant stretches, and curtailments to meet deadlines are commonplace.

There is also the issue of burn-out.  Once the initial euphoria of a new adventure has passed, no one should be surprised that some riders get discouraged.  We saw it in the faces and speech of several riders.  Anyone setting out on the GDMBR thinking the entire ride is going to be one extended lark would be well advised to think again.  Completing the ride needs to be a goal in itself because inclement weather and fatigue are certain to make portions of the ride more chore than thrill.

Mayumi, Sue, and Erika outside of Rawlins, Wyoming

Take the trio of Mayumi, Sue, and Erika that we met climbing a hill south of Rawlins, Wyoming.  They were all that was left of fifteen women who had responded to an ad in Adventure Cyclist’s “Companions Wanted.”  Even Sue planned to leave the group at Frisco, Colorado.  Erika, a genetic scientist and Mayumi, a retired information technologist, still seemed gung ho.

So who rides the GDMBR?   All kinds of people.  You certainly don’t have to be an athletic young man.  More than a few riders concurred with me when I observed that a successful completion is more of a mental feat than a physical one. If you want to meet interesting people, exercise your thighs, gawk at great scenery, and pack your memory with unforgettable experiences, perhaps you, too, should consider riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Ride.