From BANFF – Canmore to STEAMBOAT SPRINGS
From August 14 till September 11, 2019
In 1998, the American Adventure Cycling Association developed and published the world’s longest off pavement cycling route and called it “The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route”. The original route starts in Banff, Canada, zigzags along the Continental Divide, climbs over isolated passes and finishes in Antelope Wells at the border of Mexico, having traversed the province of Alberta and the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
Introductory Text according to the Adventure Cycling Association’s website:
Note: 1 mile is about 1.6 km; 1 meter is 3.3 feet
“The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) is Adventure Cycling’s premier off-pavement cycling route, crisscrossing the Continental Divide in southern Canada and the U.S. This route is defined by the word “remote.” Its remoteness equates with spectacular terrain and scenery. The entire route is basically dirt-road and mountain-pass riding every day. In total, it has over 200,000 feet of elevation gain. Nearly 2,100 miles of the route is composed of county, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and Canadian provincial unpaved roads. The remainder is 60 miles of single track trails and 950 miles of paved roads including close to 50 miles of paved bike paths.
The route is geographically divided into five regions. The diverse nature of the regions makes for an incredible visual, sometimes spiritual experience. The route offers something different every day — whether it be riding conditions, scenery, points of interest, or folks along the way. It is a route to be enjoyed for its diversity.
Introduction according to the-Great-Divide Company: (which is a co-operation between Bike Adventures LLC based in Aspen, Colorado and the organised bike tour company Bike-Dreams based in The Netherlands):
“The American cycling Dream: crossing the United States by bicycle. Many riders have cycled the United States from East to West or the other way around. Of course, a great achievement.
It is probably a bigger challenge to traverse the United States from North to South over the dirt roads of the Rocky Mountains, following the Continental Divide. The divide of roughly 2,800 miles between Canada and Mexico splits the North American Continent in two. Drops of rain that fall on your left side flow into the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. Drops on your right side will find their way to the Pacific. The drops of sweat from your brow will evaporate in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains or fall to the trail and eventually make their way to one of the two great Oceans. This is the trail of “The Great Divide”!!!
The Great Divide takes you through a wide variety of terrain and geographic features. You cycle through isolated river valleys, mountain forests, wide open grasslands, high desert, alpine wilderness, and, at the end of the ride, a section of the Chihuahuan Desert. Along the way you can expect to meet cowboys who drive their cattle across the prairie. You will cycle through pristine woods full of deer and elk, and of course there is always some trepidation that you may stand face-to-face with a grizzly bear. Colorado’s Indiana Pass is the highest point on the route at 11,910 ft.
It’s not without reason that National Geographic listed the ride as one of the 100 best American adventures. The magazine qualified The Great Divide as “solitude that frays the edges of your brain, and a sense of what the country would look like if wilderness were the rule, not the exception”.et.
We organize “The Great Divide” as a fully supported tour which means that your luggage is carried in one of the support vehicles; accommodation is arranged; breakfast, lunch and dinner are prepared; and one of our team is a bike mechanic to keep your bike in good condition.
The entire route is basically dirt/forest road and you can expect to cross one or more mountain passes each day. Unpredictable mountain and desert weather conditions can bring rain, snow, high winds, and temperature extremes. So you must be prepared and bring your mountain bike, rain gear and don’t forget your bear-spray.
We have cyclists from all over the world on the “The Great Divide” which creates an exceptional atmosphere and camaraderie during as well as after the bike ride.”
Read further on: https://www.the-great-divide.com/Pages/Home.php
(Click on underneath link to see the itinerary as planned by the Great Divide Company, providing a good idea of what you need to train for and what accommodation to expect )
1. So, we decided to book the organised tour by The Great Divide (Company) (“TGDC”) to bike the Continental Divide. We were (and still are) just not courageous enough to carry our own tent, changes of clothes and food over and over again- and over again – the Rockies. And we were very much ignorant on how to deal with bears, on the trails and on camping grounds. And ignorance breeds fear…
2. As TGDC requires you to book in multiples of whole weeks – the full tour taking seven – we booked four: from Canmore to Steamboat Springs, about 2,400 km and 26,000 m elevation gain.
3. We bought a STEVENS Mountain bike each with 29” wheels, front suspension, about 40 mm mtb tyres with inner tube and 22 gears (2 x 11) for about 1300 and 1800 €. (It turned out that we had by far the cheapest bikes of all participants; this didn’t mean we were the slowest though…. The bikes were definitely good enough! The quality or rather cost of the bike is not the determining factor!). These bikes were recommended to us by the son of “fietsen JOWAN” in Kluisbergen who did the GDMBR before, on his own. (for which our eternal respect and admiration!).
4. We started “serious” training in Belgium and looked mainly for road biking routes with 3 to 4 outings per week but limited to a maximum of 2-3 hours or 60-70 km with as much climbing as possible. In the surroundings of Oudenaarde – “The Flemish Ardennes” – we ended up climbing the Kluisberg in Ronse over and over again from all possible directions to attain about 500 to 700 meter elevation gain. We also did a week of mountainbike training in the Dordogne with magnificent trails around Le Bugue and Les Eyzies but …… therefore you need tubeless tyres (thorn-resistant)! That week we became very proficient in changing tyres! But it is hard to get enough practice back home giving you enough fitness and a smooth transition onto the tracks of the GDMBR! You will anyhow get fit quickly on the route!
5. We booked flights from Amsterdam to Calgary on KLM and from Denver- Detroit back operated by Delta. We also booked in advance (important!) space for our bikes to make sure they could travel with us – on the same flight that is.
6. We bought Camelbak- Mules with a 3 litre drinking bag. This in addition to our 2 x 1 l bike drinking bottles.
7. We installed dual platform bike pedals allowing for more flexibility in being “cleated in“ and “free on the pedals” for more adventurous single track biking. (note that riding through the woods was quite a recent experience for us!)
8. We arrived in Canmore a couple of days before the actual start of the tour allowing us to practice a bit on the Canmore to Banff loop – which is very nice from Banff onwards and great to test your gear system on some interesting single track. We also did some sightseeing around Banff; lake Louise and Moraine Lake: worth a visit; Banff : pleasant but touristy, Canmore : a rather quiet and cute little town that grows on you!
Note that officially the GDMBR starts in Jasper now. But apparently the stretch between Jasper and Banff is not all that pleasant as too often on larger roads. And the part between Banff and Canmore is not allowed for groups as it runs through the Banff National Park and no permits are granted for it.
9. In the morning of the 14th of August, 25 jolly riders set out at Canmore.
Click underneath excel sheet for our main statistics of the route:
CONCLUSIONS and some RECOMMENDATIONS
1. What a ride!!! And this in just phenomenal surroundings with an endless variety of gorgeous scenery. What the intro promised in terms of beauty, remoteness and nothingness, all materialised!
2. But cycling the Great Divide is not for the faint hearted! We cycled in 25 days what we would normally do over quite a few months, probably even years! Back home when colder than 12 C we stay inside; when drizzling we have another cup of coffee; after lots of rain, we don’t go mountain biking as big mud pools spoil the fun… .
But the variety of beauty (and peer pressure) propelled us forward knowing that every day we had to do an average of 100 km and 1000 meter climbing. Every day a well-deserved lunch, dinner and lots of M&M’s!
3. The service of TGDC was fabulous! Well organised, well thought out, well prepared! Especially the cooking was out-standing! Kitchen magician Gerdie manages every day to come up with a different and wonderful dinner! And this on 4 gas burners in the truck! And provision of basics and goodies was plenty and varied! The lunch van was always a welcome sight; sometimes for some riders or when in bad weather conditions even a heaven to get in and to finish the ride.
4. A word of admiration for the participants as well: the average age must have been around 57 years. All young at heart! And looking much younger than actual! The consistently fastest were 62, 61 and 57 (joined by a youngster of 40 later in the tour)! And the ladies in the group were standing their ground, climbing better than most men!
5. Cycling the GDMBR is not a race though but you don’t want to arrive too late at base certainly when you still have to set up your tent and do some laundry and washing up. And you don’t want to miss Gerdie’s soup with goodies at 16.00! You actually find very quickly buddies that cycle at similar speeds helping you forward ; often longer road stretches are done in single lane with alternating pacesetters as in professional road races! Camaraderie is strong!
6. One common suggestion in the group was that we wouldn’t mind sleeping more often than in the proposed itinerary in motels or cabins of camping grounds and that we would pay gladly a bit more for it (now the fees are at around 1500 US $ per week per person all in except for meals when staying in towns) .
But sometimes alternatives to camping grounds are not available, often the “bush camps” are just stunningly beautiful and charming and actually a must to stay at: Wise river, Bannack, Henrys Lake and Warm river are just lovely…!!. Often though, we were still able to book a cabin or motel room (of course at extra cost).
7. For camping, we would advise participants to take certainly a large enough tent. If you are a couple (we were the only couple on the tour!) take either 2 tents (2 x 2 person tents) or a larger 3-person tent; if you are alone, take certainly a 2-person tent!
8. Bikes: our bikes were very good and appropriate for the route! But as the route is only about 3-5% max single track and the rest is either unsurfaced or surfaced country road allowing speed, I would probably opt for thinner and thus smaller tyres (30 mm) or for a gravel bike with front suspension and even drop handlebars. In other words, rather a fast and lighter bike than a technical mountain bike – rear suspension really not necessary and actually slowing you down! We very much enjoyed our 2 x 11 gears though allowing a wider range of gears: small in climbing and larger ones in grinding kilometres!
9. Taking our own bikes cost us an extra €1000 (250 € per bike return on the plane; 250 € per taxi to and from Schiphol). Buying your bike upon arrival is an option worth exploring but you would need some time to get it sold upon leaving or …. donating it to a good cause! Note that Canmore and each mountain resort or larger town along the road – Whitefish, Butte, Helena, Steamboat Springs, – has superb bike shops and service!
10. In this respect, it is worth mentioning that your bike when recently bought will probably not be up to the challenges of single track, certainly not those of the first week in Canadian forests – where most of the single track occurs! We practiced twice on the Banff- Canmore bit to find out that my chain was too lose for the quick and powerful changes required on the steep tracks and was getting jammed badly in the cassette. I had my bike serviced and derailleur changed in Canmore already, the day before the start!
In Whitefish, one week later, I needed already a new chain – they put on a stronger alloy one! Just to confirm again that what you usually demand from your bike at home (and what the bikes are designed for) is light work in comparison to what the GDMBR requires!
11. Garmin: every day there were at least a few Garmin GPS not working properly. Each device seems to have a life of its own. A general complaint is that Garmin has too many profiles (mountain bike – race bike – training) interfering with each other and making matters complicated. My Wahoo is simple (“just follow the line”), half price and almost idiot proof (you need wifi though to download tracks on your Wahoo from your smartphone as you need to enter the Wahoo cloud!) With Wahoo you seem to have climbed every day 15% more as well….
12. Oh yes, sore butt or butt pain! It does not get any better, it gets worse! Hard to prevent it if you don’t cycle enough beforehand, prevention being in trying a few different saddles… Apparently most important is that you find out exactly where and how your sit bones are positioned and the space between them. On irregular shorter outings of a few hours back home not easy to find out! If any solace: most cyclists in the group were suffering as well!
13. And bears: we saw one cute little one about 50 meters from us just before Bannock and a larger one on the double track before Lava Mountain. Others spotted some at Kananaskis (pictures on this website) and before Warm river.
We happily and joyfully always raced downhill with bear bells announcing our arrival and with the knowledge that bear spray was hanging on the steer. And at night when in the tent only coyotes and neighbouring cyclists ever woke us up…!
14. How can you distinguish grizzly pooh from black bear pooh? The grizzly pooh usually has a bear bell in it.
15. As a final conclusion, we will be planning to do the remaining 3 weeks of the route one of the coming years! Knowing that these 3 weeks are even tougher than the four we did, we will probably arrive a few days beforehand at Steamboat Springs and do some serious training there! And we will do some training with the Bikedreams Company in Europe as well!