CANMORE – The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) runs 4,339 kilometres from Banff to the U.S./Mexico border at Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
In just over 31 days this summer, Canmore couple Michelle Katchur Roberts, 34 and Mitch Roberts, 32, completed the route as one of the world’s classic long-distance off-road cycling adventures. Being a couple experiencing the adventure together, she said, added to the enjoyment – and teamwork – required to keep on pedalling for a straight month.
“It’s really nice to adventure together and do something where we both bring things to the table,” Katchur Roberts said. “I’m good at making delicious meals out of nothing at gas stations, and Mitch is really good mechanically.”
While her talents were put to use almost daily as they pedalled along remote backroads, trails, wilderness and small towns though Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, his talents – he’s a gondola mechanic at Sunshine Village – proved crucial the day her shifting cable broke.
“He was able to open up the housing and fix it right there on the trail. I would have been really stuck,” she said.
Aiming to complete the colossal distance in only a month was a deliberate attempt to accomplish their adventure in “semi-race” style, explained Katchur Roberts, an educator by profession and a member of Canada’s internationally competitive ski mountaineering team.
In all, 90 per cent of the route is off-pavement, linking a variety of gravel roads and dirt trails with 60,960 metres elevation gain and loss.
“We wanted that challenge of trying to finish it in 30 days,” she said.
Competitive racers on the Tour Divide, which follows the GDMBR, usually finish in about 20 days, with the current record being 13 days, 23 hours. To accomplish their goal, the couple averaged 130 to 160 kilometres daily. In specially designed bikepacking bags they carried a lightweight tent, small stove and pot, sleeping bags, small repair kit, maps and water filter that added up to 40-50 pounds for her; 60-70 pounds for him. They each travelled with only a single set of clothing. During desert stretches they carried extra water, which equalled extra weight.
“We were pretty light for tourers, but not race light,” Katchur Roberts said. “We did have a tent.”
They began their journey by cycling the Legacy Trail to Banff, and on to the official start at the Spray River/Goat Creek trailhead. From there they rode south to spend their first night at Tobemory, 126kms and 1,723 vertical metres later.
The entire Canadian leg proved the most demanding section, with their most difficult day coming near Fernie, where Koko Pass involved pushing their bikes up a 750-metre climb that was too rocky, loose and steep to ride.
“Our other hardest day was in New Mexico, riding on lava rock that went on forever,” she said. “It was really hot and a long arduous climb, super slow and technical and super bumpy. I bruised my butt.”
On another day they rode washboard for 65 kilometres.
Some days they skipped breakfast to be up and riding as early as possible to keep to their self-imposed 30-day limit, rising at 5 a.m. and riding until 9 p.m.
“In Canada it was 100 per cent backcountry, so we carried more food and the trail made it more difficult,” she said. “Plus, it rained every day; cold rain. Then, partway through Montana we were going to bed at nine instead of setting up the tent at nine. That felt great.”
At the Roosville border crossing they worried they might not be carrying sufficient documentation, but the guard – possibly because the official Tour Divide race began just two days before they started out – simply asked them, “Are you going all the way to New Mexico?”
When they replied “Yes,” he stamped their passports. “Good luck.”
On their last day, they enjoyed 45 miles of pavement on a small two-lane road with no other traffic, even riding in the centre of the road right through the dessert.
Overall, they returned home with more than sore bodies.
“I really learned to take one day at a time, to be in the moment and to just do what you can get done,” Katchur Roberts said.
“And I’m so grateful for how people were so incredibly generous. These days just about everything we hear about the U.S. is so negative.
“We experienced great hospitality. We’d roll into town and people would want to feed us. They took us into their home when we had a flat. It was a really good reminder that people are different from politics.”