Back to Basics on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
Just weeks after first hearing of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, Rajiv Dhaliwal purchased a $250 mountain bike, cobbled together a basic set of bikepacking bags, and headed to Banff to begin riding south. Here’s his story of not letting a lack of gear or experience hold you back from taking the leap and attempting something remarkable…
Words and photos by Rajiv Dhaliwal
I’m a firm believer that the best adventures are had when you dive head first into the deep end—when you’re left to sink or swim. So, this past summer I cycled the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) on a $250 mountain bike. I had almost no cycling experience, even less outdoor experience, and absolutely no training. Essentially, I did it on a whim. Well, I shouldn’t say no training—I went for three short (and by short, I mean 2-3 hour) rides in the week prior to my departure, two of which were on a road bike that didn’t even belong to me. A lot of people would say (in fact, many did) that what I was doing was completely ridiculous. Truth be told, there was a voice in the back of my head that wanted to believe them. I knew that this voice, however, was fear manifesting itself in the form of resistance.
I’m no stranger to failure, or to quitting, so I reached out to my two closest friends and told them what I was about to do. I didn’t tell them because I wanted their approval, or because I wanted to hear their opinions. I told them because if I didn’t show up at the start line in Banff, I had to be held accountable for quitting. In this case, quitting before I even started. And if we’re not as good as our word, then what are we?
And so, just a few weeks after learning about the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, I found myself being driven from my home in Vancouver, BC, to the unofficial start in Banff, AB. I wasn’t entirely sure of how I got there, what I was getting myself into, or how far I would make it. Frankly, even the word “bikepacking” was new to me. Of course, I knew of bike touring, and how people would load up big, heavy panniers, and ride hundreds or thousands of kilometres on pavement, but the idea of having a lightweight, minimalist setup that could handle all kinds of terrain) was new to me. What frustrated me the most was that this sport had such a high cost of entry—or so I was led to believe.
A quick Google search for “best bikes for bikepacking” or “bikepacking bags,” or any combination involving the two, you’ll be led to believe that you need bike X or bag Y (X and Y representing whatever the most popular brands are) to go bikepacking. For the sake of brevity: I think that’s all bullshit, and anyone who tells you otherwise is simply lying to you or has never been bikepacking. The best bike for you is the one sitting in your garage. If you want to go on an overnighter or weekend trip, or if you’re like me and you want to ride for months on end across the country, you don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars on a bike. And once you add in the cost of high-end saddle bags, frame bags, handlebar bags, etc… you’re looking at hundreds of dollars just on bags to hold your gear.
Now, I’m not trying to bash the many bike companies who’ve made a name for themselves catering to bikepackers—nor am I in a position to tell you how to spend your money. I’m simply reminding you that it’s all completely unnecessary. I used a few cheap dry bags, a $40 seat post rack and frame bag, and a number of straps to secure everything to my bike. It may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing setup, but it was a functional and cost-effective way to haul my gear.
You’re probably thinking to yourself, “No shit, kid. We don’t care about the money, we just want a reliable bike and products for the peace of mind that we won’t be stranded deep in grizzly country in the middle of nowhere, Alberta.” These are perfectly reasonably worries, but coming from someone who hadn’t ever changed a flat tire until he was 1,500 kilometers (930 miles for you American folk) into the Divide, I reckon that as long as you have a spare tube, a master link, chain tool, pump, and a set of allen keys, you could probably ride the GDMBR on a Walmart bike (assuming it wasn’t assembled by the people at Walmart).
And if you happen to be shit out of luck, like the time it was nearing dark and I ran out of water three days into my ride because my water bottles fell off and broke, remember that the point of bikepacking isn’t to stay in your comfort zone. At least not for me. And every time something didn’t go as planned on my ride, it either directly or indirectly led to a positive experience. Am I saying you should go in unprepared, wing it, and just hope for the best? No. But you also don’t need to let the fear of not knowing how to fix a bike or not being an experienced bike mechanic stop you from doing something. I watched a few of Park Tool’s videos on YouTube to get familiar with how to fix common problems, and that was the extent of my knowledge of bikes. I managed to do okay. I would recommend, however, having a personal locator beacon, so that if you do find yourself in over your head, you’ll have something to fall back on in the form of an SOS button.
I started the GDMBR because I wanted to test myself—both physically and mentally—but there was another equally important reason: I wanted to promote inclusivity in the bikepacking and larger outdoor communities. Last year, Mountain Equipment Coop (a company I rely on for a lot of my outdoor gear), in an open letter to the public, apologized for, and admitted to using ads that perpetuated the idea that the outdoors was a place for white people only. The decades of imagery, then CEO David Labistour said, “…has perpetuated the vastly incorrect notion that people of colour in Canada don’t ski, hike, or climb.” The outdoors is a place for everyone, and it’s a place where everyone should feel comfortable and accepted. And I’ll admit, I had some worries about being a visible minority in a foreign country such as the United States.
I was a history major in college who specialized in African-American history, and I think it would be foolish to ignore the tumultuous history of the United States. And, more importantly, the current American socio-political climate and its relation to people of colour. But I was determined to not let this get in the way of my ride. I was often asked by other riders if I had experienced any racism. Truth be told, I have never felt more accepted than when I was on the Divide. I was welcomed into strangers’ homes and met some of the most hospitable, kind, and generous people I’ve ever encountered in my life. This isn’t always the case, however. I heard a few stories of other bike tourers either having to cut their ride short due to overt racism, or skipping certain states altogether. It would be foolish to ignore the fact that racism is certainly alive and well, but what I’m trying to say is that the pros of doing something like this as a minority far outweigh the potential cons.
People think that the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is this super remote and grueling ride. Adventure Cycling Association (the folks who mapped this route) recommend that you should do it in a group of at least three, but I’m living proof that anyone can do it alone. In fact, I would go as far as to say it’s best done solo. With that being said, the GDMBR is certainly difficult at times. And it has its fair share of remote and challenging stretches. If I had to describe it, it’s not one big challenge; it’s hundreds or thousands of small challenges, each and every day, day after day. But you grow stronger with each day, and you learn your limits. More importantly, you learn how to push past them. The single most important thing I learned on the Divide was that your brain (or at least my brain) will underestimate your abilities by default. I would always tell myself that I couldn’t make it to X destination, or that I couldn’t do X amount of miles, but more often than not, these were just limitations I was unconsciously putting on myself—limitations that I was often able to break.
I would be remiss to not mention that I didn’t stay on the GDMBR every single day, and that I didn’t complete the entire route. Occasionally, there were days when I would take an alternate route; the most common reason for this was usually because I wanted to make it to a town more quickly. Secondly, I did not finish the whole thing. I rode from Banff, AB, to Salida, Colorado. From there, I took a train to the West Coast to ride the Pacific Coast Route from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo. But this was never about getting to some arbitrary finish line; it was never about making it from point A to point B. It was about what I did between those points—the people I met, the places I saw, and the things I learned about myself and those around me.
In a time when it feels as though our self-worth is defined by the amount of “likes” we get on a post, or the amount of shares and reposts we get, I think it’s important to remember that none of that shit matters. None of it makes us any happier. I’m not going to act like I’ve found the secret to happiness—and I’m certainly not going to pretend bikepacking will solve all of your problems—but there were days on the Great Divide when I knew I was exactly where I needed to be: on my bike, in the middle of nowhere, chasing freedom.
Bikepacking is truly beyond the written word. It’s something that needs to be experienced for oneself. And this experience shouldn’t be limited by the type of bike or gear you have, the amount of money you’re willing to spend, or the colour of your skin.
About Rajiv Dhaliwal
Rajiv Dhaliwal is a writer, cinephile, adrenaline junkie, and mountain sports lover based in British Columbia, Canada. If he’s not busy planning his next adventure or training in Muay Thai, you can probably find him trail running with his Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy named Shaq. Find Rajiv on Instagram @jeevsalive.
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