Being chased by a bull moose is just one of the challenges a bike rider encounters when undergoing the epic Great Divide Race. Crossing paths with a grizzly bear is another. If the rattlesnakes don’t get you, the mosquitoes certainly will as you sleep on rocky ground in desolate forests on this solo cycle dash from the Canadian border to Mexico. Peddling against strong headwinds, struggling with a flat tire in the pouring rain, or advancing slowly up a mountain pass through biting snow is normal. Riders have been known to faint from heat exhaustion, lie 2 days in a tent with food poisoning, and shiver in pre-dawn bouts of hypothermia. Swollen feet, a blistered rear end, and chronic sunburn are the usual corporal complaints while that all essential bike may be grounded with broken chains, splintered spokes, and bent rims. All these adrenaline-inducing ingredients add to the recipe for the Great Divide Race.
Yet perhaps the hardest aspect of this heroic American ride is its utter loneliness. There is nobody around to help with that unreadable map or massage that chronic case of tendonitis. The basic ethos of this 2,500-mile (4,025km) gauntlet through the wilderness of five Midwestern states is you must do it on your own. There must be no pre-arranged help and the entire route must be completed within 25 days. If you break down, you must walk to the nearest town and resume the journey exactly where you stopped. There are no support vehicles, and though riders can join up along the way, they must not help each other in any way, including sharing the slipstream nor bicycle parts or tools. New equipment can be sent by courier and cyclists can pull into any town along the way and stock up on essentials, eat in a diner, even sleep in a motel if they have the time, which they usually do not. Normally sleep involves four uncomfortable hours by the side of a dirt track—night cycling is essential to keep on course and on time.
The first person to attempt this transcontinental cycle ride was a Scotsman in 1892 on a bike made of wood. A battalion of black buffalo soldiers distinguished themselves by breaking between both borders on two wheels 5 years later. It was not until the 1990s, however, that a formal time trial was set and the first race began in 2004 when four of seven riders finished the course. Now, two dozen riders roll unceremoniously out of Roosville Mountain in Montana at noon on the 19th of June every year. They must reach Colorado by Day 12 and the record for the entire route is a super-human 15 days. Many riders abandon the race exhausted and take a Greyhound home. Others limp past the finishing line in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, delirious with hunger, fatigue, and joy. Despite the hardship, they have experienced something more than a race. The Great Divide is a journey where cyclists wake up amidst herds of wild horses and free wheel down mountains during sunrise with eagles the only spectators. Every state line is a boost and to run a finger along a map of the route so far covered gives a sense of achievement more profound than 50 laps around a velodrome. The terrain is gorgeous with red isolated barns sitting on desolate plains, high alpine mountains, and old mining ghost towns all part of the itinerary. The Great Divide Basin and the Wyoming red desert unfold before each rider, and the sense of discovering new ground is enough to keep going. Curling up in that damp sleeping bag after a good day on the saddle covering 100 miles (161km) is an achievement not everybody can boast. The rider deserves his sleep. He just makes sure he has his can of bear mace within reach if needed. —CO’M
When to Go: June 6.
Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada.