Some thoughts on the GDMBR

Topics include riding the GDMBR backwards, singletrack percentages, bike-packing thoughts, riding in the evening, asking for help and ranching.


An overwhelming observation during our ride was, simply, good luck--unbelievably good luck. Of course we were lucky just to be alive, to be out on the GDMBR in the first place (as opposed to say, working), and to have strong bodies to carry us along the backbone of the continent.

1 flat tire in 2500 miles (zero on Scott's bike) is incredible given that I usually can't go 50 without one. The fact that nothing major failed on either of our bikes is amazing as well.

The weather was absolutely superb. We got one major storm in the Jemez mountains of New Mexico, but otherwise the handful of storms we fought through made us feel better or just got us wet. We rode on solid dirt roads that other GDMBR riders had found impassable just the day before. Things might have been a bit hot at times, but I suppose living in Tucson trained us for that.

We were also fortunate to remain healthy throughout the ride. There were inklings of injuries for the first half of the ride, but nothing major cropped up. We continously added to our debt of exhaustion, but that debt remained unpaid until the end of the trip.

I'm not sure that luck exists, but we seem to have had it on our side.

North to South or South to North?

This is an interesting question, and one I cannot fully answer since I have only ridden the GDMBR in one direction. However, there are a few key points to note. First, the route was designed for riding North to South. This means that the route designers did not consider how feasible it would be to ride in the opposite direction. But this isn't going to stop anyone from attempting it (certainly not us). Generally it is considered that riding it backwards is more difficult.

Looking at the total statistics (on the main page) you will notice that in the South to North direction we climbed for less mileage but at a steeper grade. Does this mean it is harder or easier? I think it depends on what kind of rider you are. Coming from a strong mountain biking background, I am a lover of steep, difficult climbs. I would much prefer to climb steeply and then watch miles disappear quickly on a gradual descent. But for the more normal rider (I have met few people who enjoy long climbs like I do), it may be easier to deal with gradual climbs and steep descents.

For route following it is definitely more challenging S to N. The narratives and maps were written for N to S, making it very hard to use a cyclometer to navigate, unless you reverse the mileages in advance by writing on the map. Then whenever the narratives say turn right, you turn left and visa versa. Road improves means it will go to crap, but you don't know for how long. You might think this is easy enough to reverse, but when you're rolling into your 10th hour on the bike for the day, you can be easily confused.

Then there is Fleecer ridge. Most people walk down this steep "trail" and I challenge anyone to ride up it (even without gear). I am always one for a climb challenge, but I stood no chance against Fleecer Ridge. We had to remove all of our gear then push our bikes and gear up separately (2 trips up and down), totaling around 2 grueling hours to travel one mile. Walking down it probably is not much fun either, but it doesn't tear your achilles tendons to shreds or drain your upper body.

However, S to N riders have the good direction on the only other very difficult section of the route: the Lava Mountain trail. We had a very short hill to hike-a-bike up, then we enjoyed a nice drop through roots, boulders and ruts. I was able to ride all of the downhill with my Bob. I would not have been riding quite as much in the other direction. Most people walk (and curse) on this section.

A minor disadvantage of going S to N is that you must pay $10 PER PERSON to enter Grand Teton National Park. The N to S riders pay nothing since they enter the park on a side road (by Flagg Ranch).

Another quirk of riding S to N is that it's a shuttle ride. Antelope Wells sits at 4600 feet above sea level while Roosville is at 2700 feet. That's 1900 feet of UNEARNED downhill! That's right folks, Scott Morris, Mr. Hyopcite himself, shuttled the Great Divide trail. Shock, horror! It sure didn't feel like a shuttle ride, but I can't argue with the numbers.

My personal opinion is the following. We loved going S to N. Starting in New Mexico in June was hot, but it is almost impossible to avoid. We sneaked through early enough that none of the forests were closed and hit Colorado late enough that the passes were clear. By the time we were in Montana (late July) it was warm enough and the weather was fairly consistent. We thoroughly enjoyed the finish in Montana. Instead of fighting headwinds and staring at our cyclometers towards Antelope Wells we were riding through the trees and crossing Whitefish divide. It was a wonderful way to finish the trip off. But keep in mind that the flat, straight and exposed sections of the route were the ones I enjoyed least, so some might really enjoy finishing in the South. Normally I would enjoy riding in that area (and I did enjoy our first day), but not after riding the preceding 2400 miles of the GDMBR.

We were getting stronger towards the end and the longer days of Montana allowed us to take advantage of our increasing strength. If you are shooting for a fairly aggressive pace (not "by the book") I think the weather window is more favorable for riding S to N. But weather is not anything you can plan on, you just head out when you can and deal with it when it happens.

Singletrack? Don't be fooled by the various claims of 10% "trail" on the GDMBR. Some people interpret this outright as 10% singletrack. Adventure Cycling is counting all of the following as "trail": 4x4 roads, paved bike paths, and overgrown 2wd roads. As far as I am concerned the singletrack percentage is ZERO. There are some nice sections of overgrown/reclaimed roads, many very fun and challenging 4x4 roads and some narrowish quad trails, but nothing that is a full-blown, constructed as such, singletrack. The route is still very high quality and definitely worth doing, but singletrack it is not.

Bike-packing This was our first long bike tour; we found it to be an amazing experience. We saw all sorts of country that few people have ever seen. Each day was something new, a new ride. Carrying all our gear and being ready for (hopefully) every eventuality was a very empowering feeling. It was awesome to go to so many amazing places while our car sat collecting dust at home. There really isn't anything like bike touring, and the GDMBR is a superb route for it.

One thing that was a bit disappointing was our ratio of camping to moteling. In short, we ran into too many towns on the route. Sure, it was our choice to stay in the towns and in a motel, but food is the biggest draw of any town, and its lure was too strong for us. We also didn't feel that camping in a town's RV park really constitutes "camping." This also has to do with our somewhat fast pace--we ran into towns more often and would plan our days trying to end a town where we knew we could get a full meal. There were only a couple of stretches (mostly in New Mexico), where we really needed to camp for multiple nights in a row. It's just an observation that bike-packing, even on the gdmbr, is not like a long backpacking trip, simply because there are still quite a few services available. Unfortunately, there really isn't anywhere in the United States that you could do a long bike-pack like this and run into less services. The GDMBR is about as remote as it gets.

Evening riding. One of my favorite aspects of riding the GDMBR was riding during the evening. We witnessed night after night of cloud pyrotechnics develop before our eyes. I absolutely love riding during the evening, and unfortunately is is often difficult (or risky) to plan regular mountain bike rides during the evening. Having our camping gear with us enabled us to ride as far into the evening/night as we wanted, and resulted in some beautiful evenings of cycling.

Asking for help. Simply stated: please do not ask people for help unless you really need it. I think too many cyclists rely on people on the route instead of themselves. Over time this results in people being less friendly to cyclists and less willing to help. If you do get help from people (and everyone does at some point, I think) thank people profusely or send them a card later. Just because you're riding a bike doesn't mean you are helpless.

Ranching. An overwhelming observation from riding the GDMBR is that the western United States is very heavily ranched. The barb wire ranch fences stretch endlessly throughout the route. Even on federal lands, whether Forest Service or BLM, the primary use of the land is clearly ranching. I was surprised to find cows in every national forest in New Mexico--even above 10,000 feet.

To this casual observer, it seemed more than a little bit excessive. I kept asking myself, "do we really need to ranch nearly every available acre?" The places where it is not allowed (the rare wilderness area or wildlife refuge) were few and far between. I personally found the presence of cows in many areas to be offensive--not just in odor, but also in terms of their impact on the land. They were also often in the way, and their presence lowers any chance of seeing actual wild life.

We found all of the ranchers we met to be decent, hard working folk and quite interesting to talk to. They are, however, generally very inconsiderate drivers. Our most feared enemy on the dirt roads of the GDMBR was without a doubt the huge pickup truck pulling a horse trailer. It was inconceivable how many of them refused to slow down, nearly hit us and blasted us with dust. I don't care if you are out "working the land", there is no excuse for endangering other people's lives.

What I saw is a great mismanagement of our public lands. Ranching, in any form whatsoever, should not be allowed in many of the areas along the GDMBR. Why is it still allowed? Unfortunately, the answer is usually simply "because it has been before." Tradition wins over common sense, yet again.

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