The Tour Divide: off-road cycling’s grand tour
“Anytime you take on something like this, it is good to have a healthy respect or fear for it.” -Lachlan Morton
On August 29th, Lachlan Morton will set out to ride the Tour Divide as fast as he can go.
It will be one of the hardest things the Aussie adventurer has ever done on his bike.
The Tour Divide is, in some ways, ultra-endurance cycling’s grand tour. The route travels from Banff in Canada’s Rockies, down the Continental Divide, the long ridge of mountains that splits North America’s western watershed from its east. Climbing remote snow-packed passes on logging roads, whirring under the boughs of old-growth trees on rocky singletrack, and traversing desertscapes on trails that are most often trodden by pronghorns and bighorn sheep, the course takes riders south to Antelope Wells, New Mexico on the US-Mexican border. All told, it’s 2,671 miles and 156,617 feet of elevation gain.
“It is a little bit scary,” Lachlan says. “Anytime you take on something like this, it is good to have a healthy respect or fear for it, because there are a lot of things that could go wrong and probably will go wrong. Being prepared with equipment, and also mentally, will hopefully help turn that fear into a bit more excitement. It is going to be a huge challenge, but it will be a pretty enjoyable one. The route travels through a lot of country that I haven’t seen, so I think it will be pretty special to explore all of that by bike.”
For Lachlan, this trip will be first and foremost a test of himself, a chance to explore the wilds of the North American West with respect for the lands that the continent’s native peoples have nurtured for eons, while relying on his wits and his strength. The mountain towns that he will find on the route are often days apart, so he will sometimes have to spend nights under the stars in the bivy sack that he will strap to his bike. He will filter water from alpine streams and carry what food he can scrounge from rural shops and gas stations, mindful that it doesn’t attract the attention of cougars or grizzly bears. Some riders take two months to ride the distance. Some do it in two weeks. The course record is held by ultracycling legend Mike Hall, who managed to complete the ride in 13 days, 22 hours, and 51 minutes.
Lachlan wants to see how fast he can do the ride, while making sure he gets enough rest at night, so it doesn’t become an exercise in sleep deprivation.
The Tour Divide
Banff, Alberta, Canada
Antelope Wells, New Mexico, United States of America
2,671 miles/ 4,298.5 km
156,617ft / 47,737m
Indiana Pass, Colorado, 11,913 feet (3,631 m)
Gravel, ATV track, single track
Mike Hall (2016): 13 days, 22 hours, 51 minutes
As soon as he started bikepacking, the Tour Divide captured Lachlan's imagination.
“It is probably the most famous off-road bike-packing route in the world, so once I started getting into doing some bike packing, it was straight on the bucket list of one that I wanted to do one day,” Lachlan says. “I have been trying to find the right moment to do it for the last few years and it has just never worked out timewise, but there is just a little window in the calendar this year that I think I can go and ride it. The basic reason is just that I want to experience the route.”
The route was first mapped by the Adventure Cycling Association. One of the men responsible was Mac McCoy, an American runner and cross-country skier from Montana who discovered mountain-biking in the mid 1980s. He and one of his college buddies would head out into the wilds for days at a time on the first fat-tire bikes that Cannondale built. Inspired by the likes of Mike and Dan Moe, who had first hike-a-biked the Continental Divide in 1984, and the Rough Stuff Fellowship, a British club devoted to off-road adventure cycling founded in the 1950s, McCoy decided to plot a dirt route from Canada to Mexico. He wrote about his plan in Adventure Cyclist magazine in 1994. Montana’s tourist board got wist of his idea and decided to back it. With their support, McCoy invited writers from some of the most prominent outdoor magazines of the era to help him on his scouting missions. Articles in Outside, Bicycling, BIKE, Men’sJournal, and Sports Illustrated got the word out. Mountain bikers from all over the US and further afield were intrigued. Through the Adventure Cycling Association, they started donating $100 per mile to help survey the route. These were the days before online maps showed every deer path through the woods. Riders had to get out into the bush themselves to find trails. When they hit on good ones, they told their friends. Riders from Canada to New Mexico helped McCoy plot the Tour Divide's route. By 1998, it was ready for riders to go explore.
"The basic reason is just that I want to experience the route."
From Banff, the course travels through the vast mountains, emerald lakes, and evergreen valleys of the Canadian Rockies to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and then crosses Elk Pass to the backcountry roads and singletrack that lead to the ski resort of Fernie. The route then follows the Flathead River down a wild valley roamed by grizzlies to Grasmere, just north of the US border. Then, it’s into Montana where the course skirts the woods and mountains of Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness and bears, elk, moose, and cougars outnumber people. After passing through the old mining town of Butte, it crosses into Wyoming, with its wide-open valleys, ranches, and high-alpine forests, passing back and forth over the Continental Divide on steep mountain roads. Next, it’s into Idaho, if only for 76 beautiful miles beside rushing brooks on an abandoned railroad bed to the west of Yellowstone National Park. The route then crosses into Wyoming past Grand Teton National Park, heading over the Divide again into the Wind River Range, where the mosquitoes are as fierce as the mountains are beautiful. Then, it plummets into the Great Basin, where wild horses and antelope wander across the great, arid plains. The journey from southern Wyoming to New Mexico crosses the Colorado Rockies on backroad cols, passing under the summits of enormous peaks, far above the clouds. The high point is Indiana Pass in southern Colorado, elevation 11,910 feet, or 3,631 m. From there, it’s downhill towards the deserts of New Mexico. Aspens recede. Cacti bloom. Mesas line the horizon and water becomes very scarce, although afternoon storms often turn the roads into a thick red paste. Finally, the route exits the Gila Wilderness and heads towards Silver City. It’s then just a short jaunt, after a very long one, to Antelope Wells on the US-Mexico border.
Lachlan is excited to get going. He is captivated by the stories of the first brave cyclists who rolled out from Banff, heading into the unknown on overloaded bikes, ready to deal with bears, mountain lions, altitude, alpine blizzards, and desert heat. He is looking forward to the long days of solitude in the remote bush, the constant problem solving: Where to get food? Where to get water? How to deal with mishaps and exhaustion and hunger? And he is inspired by his friends in the ultra community who have in more recent years turned the ride into a race.
August 29th, he’ll roll out from Banff and press hard on the pedals until the sun sets. He’ll push on, day in and day out, through rain, snow, or blazing sunshine. When night falls, he’ll prepare supper, fold out his bivy sack and sleep. At sunrise, he’ll get up and push on again.
This is how Lachlan wants to ride the Tour Divide, in tune with the natural cycles of the world and his own body. The best prize won’t be awarded in Antelope Wells, New Mexico after all. It will be experienced from sunrise to sunset, day in and day out, on the way, as he races off-road endurance cycling’s grandest tour against no one but himself.
We’ll document his journey. Lachlan is excited to share his adventure with you.