Down the Divide

Sep 19th, 2018

During their last bikepacking trip in Colombia, Kurt and Spencer got to talking about their next adventure and had a wild idea — invite a bunch of friends and strangers to mob the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and roll into Missoula en masse for Adventure Cycling’s 40th anniversary. The plan was simple: provide everyone with maps and dates, then see what happens. How did they plan on summoning this cadre of kooks from all corners of North America? Through Instagram, naturally. It is social media after all, so why not use it?

A matchstick forest of blow down along the Great Divide bike route
A matchstick forest of blowdown.
Spencer Harding

“Me and Rat are trying to plan a rad bikepacking party on the divide from Banff to Missoula, arriving on July 15 for Adventure Cycling’s 40th Anniversary. Trying to gather a wonderful group of folks to shred our way down to the festivities … ”

What began as a direct group message became one of the most uniquely bizarre and beautiful bike tours I’d ever experienced. On July 5, the group convened at the YWCA in Banff, Alberta, for a Grand Départ with little to no information about the trip other than “meet here at this time and don’t forget your passport.” The Missoula contingent arrived early to scope out the scene, but it didn’t take long to spot our cohort: the Sriracha bottles and peanut butter jars strapped to fully loaded fat bikes were a dead giveaway. As the group rode through the small-town streets of Banff thrifting and stocking up on supplies, we more closely resembled a parade of flannel-clad beardos in cutoffs than a group of bikepackers.

After a shakedown ride through the local bike park, we convened in the parking lot of the YWCA for our scheduled 6:00 pm departure. Many of us met for the first time that damp afternoon while others reunited from past trips in a collision of hugs and high fives. We snacked and played on bikes while waiting for the last folks to arrive. Three hours after our proposed start time, we finally headed out to catch the remaining hour or so of daylight on the trail.

The author navigates a stream along the Great Divide mountain bike route
The author navigates a stream.
Spencer Harding

The first several miles of trail were mellow and lush. Even with the late summer sun, we were soon breaking out our lights. The group made camp in the dark, and I awoke early the next morning to a view of mountains shrouded in mist above an opalescent alpine lake. The next several days were equally picturesque, and we found ourselves stopping every few miles to take photographs, as if it were even possible to document what we were seeing. The beauty of the landscape along the Canadian section of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is so unfathomably gorgeous that it borders on the grotesque. There are no bad views. It’s unreal.

As you might expect with a group this size, it took a few days to get into a rhythm. We all rode at our own pace with some folks leaving early and others not breaking camp until well after 10:00 am. It takes time to butter your toast and make a proper cup of coffee! On most days, we managed to meet for a rolling picnic around midday and then meet again at camp in the evening to swap stories, share trail tricks, and touch up our nail polish. Never underestimate the rejuvenating qualities of a fireside mani-pedi.

Lunch with a view on the Rocky Mountains
Lunch with a view.
Spencer Harding

We were lucky to be traveling in the company of experienced bikepackers. Each rider was prepared to go it alone if circumstances should shift or take a different direction — which they inevitably did. With one group several days ahead and another close behind, we had a pretty hearty game of leapfrog along the trail, especially when you account for a few satellite folks we’d intended to scoop up along the way.

Unsurprisingly, the horde fell behind schedule and splintered into smaller groups only to reconvene in Missoula to celebrate Bikecentennial’s 40th anniversary. The Montana Bicycle Celebration was an event that even a 10-day bikepacking prologue couldn’t have prepared me for. As people poured into town from all over the globe to ride bikes and share their adventures, I was flush with joy.

This story originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine. 

Related Reading