Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Over the Shoulder
Though I was "done," there was still one last day of riding to do - Canmore to Calgary. Calgary has an airport, you see. I suppose there are people that take a bus from Calgary to Banff, and also that find some way to get from El Paso to Antelope Wells, which isn't even a town, but only a border station. Since both of those are about a day's ride, it made more sense to me to simply ride there. While we're at it, wouldn't it make more sense if El Paso and Calgary were the termini in the first place? The race could keep Antelope Wells and Banff, but the general public's route doesn't have to.
The ride to Calgary was a perfect day. First one of those I've seen in a while.
I had the good fortune to have an excellent host in Calgary, an Australian couple named Andre and Stacy, along with their son Baden. He was well-behaved most of the time, with a few exceptions, and had a propensity for showing things. Show-and-tell will always be his favorite day once he's in school. Do they still do show-and-tell? I don't remember doing it much in elementary school, and somehow I can see it getting discontinued. Maybe I should bring it back in my calculus and precal classes for no particular reason.
Andre drove me to a bike shop where I could pick up a box, so I could pack up Jackie pre-flight. I made the decision to put all the heaviest things in one pannier, which I used as a carry-on. Everything else went in the bike box with Jackie. As a result, the box weighed 50.8 pounds at check-in. 50 pounds is often the cutoff for "overweight" designation. I was crushed to know that moving one more item from the box to my carry-on could've potentially saved me $100. However, I didn't get charged anything, having already paid $25 when I pre-checked online. Did I just check a bike for $25? WestJet is awesome!!! Some airlines charge as much as $150, even if it's not oversized or overweight, simply because it's a bike.
Arriving in Texas at the hottest time of year felt...good! I hate the cold. By comparison, 37 C was a welcome change. Two bike rides later, including one that went into the afternoon, and I'm still happy about being hot instead of cold. On a related note, it's nice to ride a bike with no load on it.
After drinking a float in every state and province, here's how I'd rank them:
- Root Beer
- Orange Soda
- Cherry Soda
- Cherry Dr. Pepper
- Red Cream Soda (like Big Red)
- Cream Soda
- Ginger Ale
That said, they were all good. I used vanilla ice cream for all floats, except cream soda, which got cookies 'n cream. I correctly guessed that the cream soda and vanilla ice cream would be too much of one flavor. If another flavor of ice cream were used, like strawberry or chocolate (or neapolitan?), cream soda could move a few spots up the list.
Upon arrival in Texas, I had my first-ever beer float to celebrate. Not bad! I'd probably put it about 5th or 6th on the list. Vanilla porter was a good choice. I'm curious what happens with a chocolate oatmeal stout. More research needs to be done...
If chocolate soda exists, that would be an awesome float.
Since this was my first unpaved tour, there are a few things worth saying in retrospect. First and foremost, this tour was, mile-for-mile, the most difficult tour I've done. The Pan-American tour was probably more difficult overall, but for other reasons. The Great Divide leaves almost no opportunity to leave the bike in a reasonable gear and zone out for a few hours while the distance melts away. The unpaved surface forces you to pay attention, and the constant hills mean constant shifting and changing your cadence. And a lot of effort.
More than road touring, off-road touring forces you to pack light. The extra bumps mean your equipment has to hold the weight of your gear while being repeatedly stressed. It's like the difference between holding a heavy weight while walking and holding a heavy weight while skipping. Furthermore, the more weight is on your bike, the harder you hit the bumps, and the more momentum you have in the wrong direction if you ever get knocked off-balance.
If I were to do it all over again, the primary changes I'd make would be a lower gear range, fatter tires, and more emphasis on frame bags and a light bikepacking setup. I might even go with a rigid frame. Ideally, I'd ditch racks and panniers altogether. I learned a few tricks from seeing how others packed, and I think I'll put some of these into practice on road tours as well. Valeria could possibly be an excellent bike for the Great Divide if she could hold 2.5" tires, which she can't.
If it were possible, I'd go the more typical direction, with a more typical starting date - southbound, starting in Alberta in July and finishing in New Mexico in September. The time and direction I picked were northbound June-July, was nearly perfect. Only two afternoons reached 33 C, only a few nights below freezing, and mostly sunny weather, except for the last two weeks. I was told that was an anomaly for July, so I was simply unlucky; it's still a good plan. Except for one thing: wind.
Adventure Cycling never acknowledges wind when they encourage a direction to do one of their tours, which leads me to believe that no one at their company has ever done a bike tour. Headwind all day is a bad day, no matter what else happens. Tailwind all day is a good day, no matter what else happens. On the Great Divide, going northbound like I did means you'll have headwind in Colorado, extreme headwind in Wyoming, strong headwind in Montana. In Canada the wind is a wash, and in New Mexico, it'll be crosswind, possibly tailwind once or twice.
Going southbound means the opposite: tailwind for almost the entire ride, including all the places it's especially strong, and only a week or so of mixed crosswind and headwind in New Mexico. That alone is good enough reason to go southbound, but again, only if you can get July-September off. I get June-July off.
Adventure Cycling also encourages going east-to-west for all of their coast-to-coast rides. I can't speak for the east coast, but in the western states, planning a tour that goes west all day every day in the summer is about the dumbest thing I've ever heard. The only thing worse would be riding Highway 1 northbound up the west coast. Which I've done, of course.
Adventure Cycling's office is located in Montana, where it's too cold to go riding more than a few months a year. From my experience, I wouldn't even go for a ride more than every other day in the summer. I doubt there are many cyclists working there. I'll mop floors in a warm state before I take any job somewhere cold.
The best benefit of the Great Divide is the tranquility. There were days when the amount of cars I saw was in the single digits. That's less than one car per hour. That makes the ride quiet and adds to the feeling of independence and solidarity, among the biggest reasons I like to ride bikes. On the rare occasion that the route was on a paved road, I was constantly annoyed at the sound of all the big loud metal scary things going by. And they weren't even busy roads!
In short, I'd do it again. At first, I figured this was a one-time thing and I wasn't cut out for off-road touring. As I went, I began to appreciate the benefits more and more, and the downsides didn't seem so bad as I adjusted to them. I'd rather not do the exact same route - it's a big world out there! But something just like it, yes.
from Great Divide