As riders prepare for the 2023 Tour Divide Grand Depart, Mitchell Connell reflects on his time riding a section of the Divide with Baker Donahue and Will Reynolds, who were headed north from Antelope Wells, NM to Banff, Alberta. In this clever piece, Mitchell intersperses his retelling of the trip with the riders’ “top five” responses to a variety of prompts and, in doing so, distills down the meaningful aspects of a lengthy bike tour. What top five questions would you ask?
Do you ever read Thrasher? Sometime last year, I was leafing through an issue from my friend’s coffee table when I came across an article on Breana Geering. The author asked her to list her top five answers to a variety of questions (top five things to worry about, pieces of advice you’d give to the 13-year-old you, etc.) and it stuck with me.
A year or so later, I was thinking about that article while riding along Grassy Lake Road on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. I was trying to keep up with Baker Donahue and Will Reynolds, who were both in better shape than I was. While that’s not unusual (both Will and Baker are typically super fit), it was particularly remarkable on this day because I’d started my ride in Jackson, Wyoming, some 40 miles earlier, and they both started in Antelope Wells, New Mexico and had covered about 1,700 miles before meeting up with me.
“Top five albums to descend to?”
- Sunami/Gulch Split, Sunami
- Come Away with ESG, ESG
- That new Maggie Rogers single on repeat
- Afrique Victime, Mdou Moctar
- IV, Led Zeppelin
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route probably needs no introduction, but for those who are unfamiliar, it’s a 2,700-mile mostly-dirt route that travels along the Continental Divide from Banff, Canada to the border between Mexico and the U.S. Traditionally, the route is ridden north to south, but for a variety of reasons Will and Baker decided to ride the route backward.
“Top five reasons to ride northbound?”
- You get to see all the racers heading south
- You get to finish in Banff
- The weather is better in New Mexico earlier in the season
- You can avoid most of the snow in the north
- The riding is less technical at the beginning, so you’re less likely to get worked early on
As we rode along Grassy Lake Road, a few racers gave us a wave as they passed by. There were dozens of down trees, so we tried to move a few off the road but gave up after the first two or three. We hauled our bikes over each one like everyone else.
We ended our first day riding together just west of the Snake River. We were excited to see some pelicans hanging out near our campsite, but we were less excited about the horrendous mosquitos. The bugs were bad enough that we all headed into our tents to read as we patiently waited for the sun to go down so that we could go to sleep.
“Top five towns you’ve visited so far along the divide?”
- Chama, New Mexico
- Steamboat Springs, Colorado
- Sargents, Colorado
- Reserve, New Mexico (reroute because of wildfires)
- Pinedale, Wyoming
In the morning, we made instant coffee, packed up camp, and got an early start. We headed north towards Big Springs and a mix of trees and vegetation gave us shelter from the heat. As we rode, the forest service road transitioned into a narrow snowmobile path. We passed an old train tunnel that confirmed my suspicion that the trail must have been a railroad line at some point.
“Top five things lost on trail?”
- All the feeling in my fingers, often
- Neck warmer to keep the chills off
- Titanium mug to keep the coffee warm
- Small mirror attached to Will’s handlebars
After I listened to The Two Towers audiobook for a few hours we decide to call it and look for camp. The only flat spot we could find involved a pretty full-on hike down a steep hill. A few racers passed by up on the trail as we set up camp, but we went to bed early.
“Top five things found on trail?”
- Taillight to replace the lost one
- Nice fork (food kind, not bike)
- Cool yellow purist bottle
- Flashlight (very bright)
- Miscellaneous cow bones
The weather began to turn on our third day together. For the first two days, it was toasty warm and dry, but even as we went to sleep on the second night we could see clouds rolling in. We woke up and put on our jackets for the first time since we’d met up in Jackson. The forested roads and railroad beds faded away as we gained elevation. The landscape transitioned into wide open basins with big fields of flowers and bigger fields of cattle.
“Top five reasons to stop riding for a minute?”
- Potential bike friends
- Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie Sandwiches
- Session-able feature (jump, skinny, etc)
- Good potential photo spot
- Any semblance of shade in New Mexico
We rolled into a small mountain town as the more severe weather began to hit. We decided to post up in the local dive bar to wait out the worst of the rain. The weather passed, we closed our tabs, and headed out to catch a few bonus miles in the evening. We found a group of campsites with plenty of availability, and we set up camp in the drizzling rain.
“Top five gas station foods?”
- Barbecue Frito Twists
- Peanut butter M&Ms
- Wasabi almonds
- Slushes/any frozen beverage
- Snickers (ice cream or traditional)
On our fourth day of riding, we all doubled up on our gloves. The weather along the continental divide is unpredictable, but to have the daily high temperature go from 91 to 45 overnight surprised me. The shelter of the trees in the morning quickly gave way to expansive basins and heavy headwinds. The rain began again and turned to hail.
The attitude of the racers changed noticeably as the weather worsened. During our first two days of warm weather, each racer would ride by with a smile and a wave, often tucked in an aero position. On our third and fourth days with chilly temperatures and a mix of rain and hail, nearly every racer stopped to chat for a bit. I think everyone was looking for an excuse to stop for a few minutes. Each time the conversation ended, we headed north with a little more knowledge of the route ahead.
“Top five things sent home?”
- Finished book (Dawn of Everything)
- Adjustable wrench
- Puffy jacket after Colorado
After half a day of riding on my last day, I started looking for cell phone service. I needed to coordinate with my friend, Jesse, about getting to the airport that evening. I ended up hitching a ride to Idaho Falls with a father and daughter who were headed home from an endurance dirt bike race. We hit it off and chatted for the hour-and-a-half drive back to Idaho Falls. They dropped me off at the edge of town.
Jesse brought me my bike box, and it was 2 am before I had my bike packed up for the flight home. I struggled to sleep for a few hours before I had to catch my red eye.
I wasn’t expecting the 200 miles of trail to feel so nostalgic. When I was in college, I rode the GDMBR with my brother, Spencer, and my friends, Robert and Lane. I still can’t believe how many little details I remembered. Although my trips are shorter these days, I’m still so thankful that I can get out there, especially with friends.
“Top five metrics to add to Wahoo Elemnt?”
- Snacks left in frame bag
- Times wrecked
- Longest wheelie
- Clothing saturation level (when riding through the rain)
- Distance between mechanicals
Do you have any Top 5’s you want to ask two folks touring The Divide? Drop your top five list in the comments, and I’ll try to convince Will and Baker to respond.