Ride the Divide: Mountain biker tours 2,750 miles at leisurely pace
Mark Finley has a working man’s plan for completing the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Alberta and British Columbia through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
“I’m taking my time,” said the 61-year-old staffer at the Spokane REI store.
Although his goal was inspired by a film about the Tour Divide race, thoughts of pedaling 150 miles a day along the continental divide and sleeping on dirt and snow ranks up there with waterboarding in Finley’s mind.
But riding a leisurely pace would require 50-60 days to cover the 2,750 miles, he said. “I am still employed; I don’t have that block of time.”
So he’s doing the route a stretch at a time over three years.
For the first segment – the 265-mile Canada stretch he rode in August – Finley talked his wife of 36 years into recruiting a friend to join her as a support team with an Airstream trailer well-stocked with food – and regional craft beers.
“Compared with the racers and thru-riders, I am a sissy,” he said. “I want to enjoy the scenery to the fullest and stop to rest or relax whenever I feel like it – or close to it.”
The north end of the GDMBR he rode starting in Banff, Alberta, was green and flush with creeks and rivers – a dramatic contrast to the next segment he chose to ride in October at the southern end of the route in central New Mexico.
“I called it quits in Silver City and didn’t ride the last 115 miles to the Mexico border,” he said. “It’s absolute desert and there’s no water in fall. I was on my own for that segment. I could have done it, but the fun factor was going to be near zero. I’ll finish that stretch another time.”
After knocking off those two segments, Finley’s pumped and scheduling to bag stretches of the route over a total of three years.
“I met so many great people – that was my biggest takeaway from what I’ve ridden so far,” he said, noting that a short pit stop extended to hours of enjoyable listening as a ranch owner told stories about being a medic during the war in Korea.
“I could go a long time without seeing people, but it seemed that if I needed something I would bump into somebody in a pickup stopping to say, ‘Hey, you need anything?’”
While his five-day ride in Canada was fully supported, Finley flew to New Mexico and rode on his own for six days, generally sleeping on the ground in a bivvy sack.
“I was amazed at how fast I’d go through my 180-ounce capacity for carrying water,” he said. “Twice I ended a day without enough water to cook a freeze-dried meal.
“One of the saving graces of riding in fall is that it’s elk hunting season. Hunters are well-equipped and very generous. They saved me a couple of times.”
The racers’ routine of 16 or more hours in the saddle a day is “beyond my wildest imagination,” he said. “After a week of riding and sleeping under the stars, I’m banged up. My wrists are fatigued from the washboard roads.
“I ride only in daylight. No matter how good a headlamp is, it’s not as good as the sun for reading technical terrain. I’m not out there to fall.”
Eating everything he could, he still lost weight. “It’s a rigorous route of ups and downs,” he said. “Or there might be a headwind on a stretch of nothing but heat and sky for 120 miles.”
He reveled in the food in Pie Town – a name originating from savvy town fathers looking for a way to lure business down off Interstate 40. It worked. Finley went to one of several thriving cafes that feature homemade pie, bought a whole one hot out of the oven – “they didn’t sell by the piece” – and devoured every bite.
That night he stayed in the Toaster House, a cabin provided to muscle-powered travelers by a family that appreciates them.
“The lady who owns and runs the place is legendary for helping hikers and bikers,” he said. “I got to chat with her for about 40 minutes. When she bought the place in 1982 she knew it was right on the trail and warned her kids that they were going to have lots of visitors.
“There happened to be a four-hour downpour the night I stayed there and I was snug in a loft, dry and happy as a clam.”
Certain spots along the route are targeted by racers, touring cyclists and long-distance hikers alike, such as the Beaverhead Work Center on the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. “It’s a guaranteed source of water from deep artisan wells and it’s free,” Finley said. “It even has wi-fi. Few riders pass that up with 180 miles of desert to go before reaching Mexico.”
He packed about 30 pounds of gear, which is 10-to-18 more than self-supported racers might carry. One day the gear bag mounted in the frame between his legs caught crosswinds like a sail. “At first I was getting blown sideway, skidding on the gravel,” he said. “But in some cases, I could tack into the wind and get a boost. It was cool.”
He rode at a pace that allowed him to be fascinated at the number of grasshoppers and scorpions smashed on one stretch of road.
By fall, some stretches also were littered with goat head, a nasty weed seed that punctures tires.
“I was thankful that I’d had our REI bike mechanics convert my wheels to a special tubeless tire and rim setup,” Finley said. “Instead of tubes, they pour in 4 ounces of liquid Latex. The first night I must have had 100 goat heads in my tire. It was completely flat. But I pumped it up to full pressure and started riding. As the wheel went around, the Latex filled and sealed the holes, just like that.”
He carried a small stove for preparing freeze-dried meals on two nights. The most memorable dinner, however, was lucking out one night at the Beaverhead Work Center. A man preparing a barbecue for 40 women in for firefighter training offered Finley a steak dinner if he would wash the potatoes. “Small chore for a grass-fed ribeye grilled to perfection,” he said.
Wyoming and Colorado are on his schedule for next summer after snow clears from the 11,000- and 12,000-foot passes. Montana will be last since it’s the closest to Spokane and doable at a spur of the moment.
“I’m able to cherry pick the best weather,” he said. “My admiration of what racers go through is so much higher as I experience the route. They’re hardcore. I’m not.”