Gear for the Great Divide

by Aaron Teasdale

What follows is a discussion of gear for the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route that accompanies Aaron Teasdale's story of his ride on the route's Canadian section (see "The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Beautiful" in the July/August 2008 issue of Adventure Cyclist).

The Bike

There's one thing everyone can agree on: if you want to ride the Great Divide Route, you'll need a bicycle. After that, you've got a choice from a spectrum that starts with cyclocross bikes and ends with full-suspension mountain bikes. On our trip, I rode a Specialized M4 hardtail with an old Rock Shox suspension seatpost, which was plenty comfortable by my standards. (note: Rock Shox posts are no longer available. Cane Creek and U.S.E. currently manufacture highly regarded suspension seatposts). If I had a mountain bike with 29-inch wheels, I would have ridden it. They're a great option for the Great Divide.

Your bike choice boils down to a question of comfort and how committed you are to maintaining it. People do ride the route on fully rigid bikes, usually cyclocross or rugged touring bikes, so it's certainly possible and I wouldn't discourage anyone from trying it. 2,700 miles is a lot of dirt road, however, and the vast majority of riders will be more comfortable on a mountain bike with front suspension. Some sections of the route are quite rough and others feature extended washboard (the bane of dirt cyclists everywhere) — all doable without suspension, of course, but if you want to enjoy yourself, ride with a front shock. If comfort is your priority, a full-suspension bike is a good choice. The added complexity means one more thing to possibly break, but there are plenty of bike shops along the way and nothing makes washboard tolerable like a plush rear shock. I've had good luck touring over the years with a Santa Cruz Blur, both with a BOB trailer and Old Man Mountain racks. Though I prefer a hardtail with a cushy seatpost on dirt roads for its simplicity and efficiency, lots of people happily ride the route with full-suspension.

Carrying Your Gear

You have three choices for carrying your gear on the Great Divide: a trailer, panniers, or neither (i.e. ultralight). Trailers, specifically BOB trailers, are a good choice if you like to carry lots of stuff. Some people prefer panniers for various reasons (easier to transport, ford creeks, and keeps the bike in a "tighter" configuration), but you should look at beefing up your wheels if you plan to pack them with a lot weight. One advantage of trailers is that you can ride your normal mountain bike wheels, since they don't add any weight to the bike itself.

On our ride in Canada, my three companions used BOB trailers. They also, in my opinion, carried a lot more stuff than they needed. This is an ever-present danger with BOBs. They make it easy to carry everything you might possibly need, plus lots of other stuff you definitely don't need but might want anyway. If this is the way you like to tour, and lots of people do, a BOB is a great choice.

I always recommend going as light as you can — it makes the act of riding a lot more fun. One way to do this is to bring only what you can fit into two small-ish rear panniers (I'm quite fond of the Ortlieb Back Roller Plus. My favorite website for Great Divide gear advice — — gives a good explanation of how to do this.

For our ride, I went in what I call my "luxury light" style, meaning I carried some extras — a pair of hiking shoes, a book, an extra shirt — and strapped my gear in waterproof Granite Gear compression bags to front and rear Old Man Mountain racks. At my lightest (and most austere), I ditch the front rack and strap all of my gear to the rear. I'm also always carrying a truckload of camera gear in a backpack and can slip one or two additional items in there if needed (like extra food if I'm going a few days between resupply). The Jandd Mountain Handle Pack 1 makes a great mountain-bike touring handlebar bag for all of the little things you want handy — trail food, lip balm, small camera, binoculars, etc.

One last option, and probably the best option for those traveling light, is the new frame, seat, and handlebar bags made by Jeff Boatman at Carousel Design Works. Jeff makes each bag to fit your bike, so a perfect fit is assured. Riders in the Great Divide Race have been using his system with great success in the last few Great Divide races (

More Bike Stuff

Most cyclists will want to use tires on their bikes when they ride the Great Divide, and there are many excellent choices. The two favorite brands for Great Divide riders tend to be WTB and Schwalbe. I used the WTB Nanorapter and Exiwolf tires on my ride and highly recommend either; the Nanorapter for unbeatable rolling resistance in a knobby tire, and the Exiwolf for still above average rolling resistance with a bit more traction. The Schwalbe Marathon XR is a tire I've seen several people using on the Great Divide, particularly Europeans. It doesn't offer the same level of traction as the WTBs, and it's definitely not light, but the riders I've talked with say it provides enough traction for the route and that it's an incredibly durable, smooth rolling tire. If you plan to ride the entire Great Divide Route, durability should be your top priority for all of your gear.

Brakes are another handy thing to have on your bike when riding the Great Divide Route. While traditional linear-pull brakes will work just fine most of the time, the best option for many riders will be mechanical disc brakes. The added pucker power of disc brakes is even more advantageous on a loaded bicycle, but, as reliable as many hydraulic disc brakes can be, most people want to keep their brakes (and bikes) as simple and durable as possible on a long trip. The Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes provide stopping power that nearly equals their hydraulic brethren but without the scary, fluid-filled cables and mechanical complexity. When you're descending a steep, wet slope and that feisty bull moose runs directly in front of you, you'll be glad you've got disc brakes.

Unless you feel like riding Cindy Whitehead-style, you'll also want a comfortable seat. You'll be spending a lot of hours riding over rough surfaces on it, so even if you've got glutes of steel it's smart to get one with some extra cushion. My personal favorite, and the favorite of many Great Divide riders, are the saddles from WTB. I've been using the Laser V on my Great Divide rides over the last few years and find it to be the perfect balance of comfort and weight.

Odds and Ends

Get at least one pair of really good riding shorts. You'll be spending a lot of hours in the saddle on the Great Divide, and you won't be standing as much as on a traditional mountain bike ride, so a good chamois is essential. The Pearl Izumi Microsensor shorts are the long-ride standard for comfort, but not everyone wants to wear crotch-wrap shorts. I've yet to find a current pair of baggy shorts that have as good a chamois as the ones in my Swobo shorts from the late 1990s (which I'm still riding). Plus, I love their side cargo pockets for holding little stuff. But since you can't buy those anymore, you could either run a pair of Microsensors under the shell short of your choice or try out one of the baggies from Pearl Izumi, Nema, or even the new generation Swobos. Another option is to run a pair of liner shorts -- thin, breathable shorts with a padded chamois designed to be worn under regular shorts -- under your baggy shorts with the inadequate chamois. Seems like you shouldn't have to do this, but until manufacturers start making baggy shorts with serious chamois it's a good option.

Consider a handlebar configuration that offers multiple hand positions. Bar ends are great for this, but have become passe for many mountain bikers. Both Cane Creek and Singletrack Solutions make small bar ends that don't look as goofy as traditional bar ends on riser bars. The Singletrack Solutions bar ends are particularly light and can be ordered directly from the website. A favorite of many endurance mountain bike racers, the Titec H-Bar is a funky alternative to standard handlebars that offers a dizzying variety of possible hand positions, including a forward-leaning aero position. It also leaves lots of bar-space for lights, computers, bells, platters of gourmet cheese, etc.

Don't forget warm clothes for cold nights in camp. Montbell's lightweight down offerings are a great choice -- lighter, warmer, and more compactible than fleece. A down vest and/or a jacket is great at camp. Lake makes a fine pair of wool-lycra-blend cycling gloves that are warm and dextrous. I'm also a big fan of the handsome and durable Filson Merino Wool Skull Cap in cold weather.

I won't get too much into camping gear, except to say that if you're going for a short ride, take a light tent. We used the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL tents on our Canadian ride, which set the gold standard for light, functional tents. If you're riding the entire route, you might consider getting a tent with extra space, since you'll be living in it for at least a few weeks and maybe a few months. Also, don't try to save money on your sleeping bag. A light, compactible down bag with a rating in the 30-degree range is ideal. Marmot and Western Mountaineering are two of the better choices. The value of a good sleeping pad cannot be overstated. I personally like thick, light pads like the kind offered by Big Agnes, Exped, and Pacific Outdoor.

For more information on minimizing your gear weight and riding as light as possible, check out our ultralight pages. And, most importantly, have a great ride.

Photo by Aaron Teasdale