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The Great Divide Ride - Part 1, Canada

07 February 2019

Words and Images Sasha Smith

It was the end of March, about a month after Ben and I had returned from our Tour Aotearoa adventure. The post-TA buzz had died down and I had informed the bosses that I would be leaving at the end of March for a longer mission. This date had been my focus for a couple of years – I was “going overseas for another solo cycle tour”, yet still didn’t know where on earth it would be.

I’d had a few ideas, and committed to none. Canada – remote and full of wildlife, but too vast for interesting cycle touring? Scotland – heard lots of great things about bikepacking in the national parks, but the cold and the sandflies! One of the central-Asian ‘Stans? The big mountains of South America?

Then fate joined the party. Some pics of the Tour Divide race popped up during my interweb browsing, sparking some more digging. I discovered that the Divide was more than just the race that I had vaguely heard of. The “Great Divide MTB Route” that the race follows is in fact a long-established touring route, following the Continental Divide (the hydrological divide marking where water flows either to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans) as closely as possible. An off-road and remote route from one end of the States to the other? And I can go to Canada while I’m there? Sounds good. Flights were quickly booked before I could change my mind again, and the details of “what” could fall into place later. My vague plan was to ride east from Vancouver to Fernie, then south along the GD to Durango, Colorado, where I would stay with my good friend Sarah for some proper mountain biking. I had 8 weeks to pedal to Durango.

What is the Great Divide?

The Great Divide MTB Route (GDMBR) is a 5000km mostly off-road bike touring route that runs from Banff (BC, Canada) in the north, to Antelope Wells in New Mexico at the USA/Canada border in the south. It was established by the American Cycling Association in the late 90’s as its flagship off-road touring route. The ACA produces detailed maps with valuable information, such as elevation, food supplies and camping spots. I ordered these soon after I bought my flights (approx. NZ$120 for the full set including postage to Aotearoa, but money well spent). I didn’t plan an itinerary before I left, as this was going to be a fluid 10-week adventure, and I knew my pace would be dictated by unknown factors. Being a map-geek it was nice to have some bits of paper to dream over. Along the ride I met people with different approaches to planning: one meticulous Euro had planned each day but his plans soon evolved. There is no right or wrong to planning, it depends on personality. The detailed maps make it easy to plan on the fly if that is more your style.

The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (source: Adventurecycling.org).

My gear and set-up

I went for the same bike set-up as my TA ride, a steel Breezer Radar. Not much to it – it was comfy, simple and reliable, and could take 29 x 2.1 tyres. Most bikes would be suitable for the GD but I would recommend knobbly tyres for comfort.

I did deliberate a bit more over my luggage set-up. Should I go with bikepacking kit, allowing for better handling and lightness? Or a pannier set-up that would be much comfier for long-distance, leisurely touring? I went with a front handlebar roll (by Stealth in Wellington) custom made with a front pouch that turns into a fanny pack (for carrying valuables when away from the bike), a small top tube bag (which I dubbed the “snek pek”) that was a kind leaving-gift from work, and waterproof Ortlieb backroller classic panniers on a Freeload/Thule rack. I appreciated easy access to the pannier bags with capacity for extra food so I wouldn’t need to fight bears for huckleberries if I were to get stuck in the middle of nowhere. This benefit far outweighed any desire for a better handling bike, as it turned out the GD wasn’t very technical at all.

The set-up.

Canada – the prologue (June 18 – July 3, approx. 1500km)

I flew into Vancouver and I had to get to the Fernie BC, just south of Banff AB, where I would start my Great Divide ride. I chose to follow the Trans Canada Trail (now called The Great Trail) from Vancouver, avoiding the big-truck highways. The TCT is a continuous network of horse trails, gravel roads, rail trails and singletrack that crosses Canada and has been dubbed the “longest recreational trail” in the world. I had a line on a (electronic) map and started following without doing much research.

On Day 2 out of Vancouver over Paleface Pass, I encountered what I would later reflect on as the scariest part of the whole trip. It took nearly 4 hours to push my bike 10km up the steepest part of the climb. Bear scat was littered all over the rutted and overgrown double-track. I assumed this poo-per-m2 density was normal, I was in Canada after all. When I got to the downhill side of the pass, expecting a nice descent to make up time, I instead encountered an unrideable overgrown trail. Fear started to creep into the brain – here I was alone in Canada, in the mountains, on a trail that hardly existed. After bashing my way downhill for what seemed like an eternity (and loud swearing which made for good bear protection), I emerged from the growth to the sight of angels – a trail maintenance crew and a clear path ahead! They asked if I had seen any bears as the area was a known bear hotspot – oops! Sometimes ignorance is bliss…

Evidence of friendly wildlife.

Going over the top of Paleface Pass.

And the fabulous descent down the other side.

Such a relief to emerge from the overgrowth! Photo: Trails BC

The remainder of my ride across to Fernie on the TCT mostly followed the Kettle Valley Rail trail (KVR). There were some amazing parts to the KVR but I was also a little disappointed. Large sections were not maintained or not very well marked. Sometimes it was just more pleasant to stay on the road and to avoid battles with potholes and soul-destroying, tyre-sucking gravel.

Coalmont – one of the small ex-mining towns with evidence of a livelier past.

The Myra Canyon, a highlight of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail.

Rail trail with a view, Penticton, BC

I was lucky enough to stay in a small ex-mining town called Greenwood with a Warmshowers host whose day job is to promote and develop the KVR/BC trails in the area. Ciel and Mark sadly spoke of the difficulty in getting local and state support to develop the KVR into a recreational tourism asset. They described how they tried to use the success story of the NZ Cycle Trails to demonstrate the potential of the project and what it could offer the small struggling ex-mining communities. I was astounded by the enormous potential of the KVR (over 500km of continuous rail trail through beautiful terrain). It just hadn’t attained the right support. Canada also has an ATV culture with a strong lobby group which makes establishing a non-motorized trail super difficult. I left BC with more appreciation for the fine off-road cycle trail options we have back home.

As a last resort…

As much as long-distance overseas touring is my buzz, I get quite homesick until I settle into the tour rhythm. And while I enjoy a bit of solitude, it does take me time to find peace with the alone-ness and the emotional highs and lows associated with it. Canada was incredibly lonely. I only met a handful of cyclists going the opposite direction every few days, and I didn’t find anyone to ride with in those 3 weeks. So it was a bit of a tough start to my adventure. Luckily by the time I joined the Great Divide Route at Fernie and rode South into Montana I was into the swing of it. Canada was a good warm-up, but the Great Divide in the States was easily the highlight. The real fun began in the States… which I will share next!

Grey Creek Pass – a tough and rewarding day over a steep 1500m climb with gradients often between 10-16%.

First day on the Great Divide and crossing into Montana, USA.

Welcome to the USA!

To read The Great Divide Ride - Part 2, Montana, click here