1/4 Mile of the Great Divide

image001About a year ago, Alex Wolz and I embarked on the 2,750 mile long Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, from the Mexican border, through the Rockies to Banff, Canada. People have asked us “so, what was it like?!” Well, here’s a taste — some GoPro video of about 1/4 mile of the route to give you an idea of this fantastic trip. It was a challenging, but wonderful, experience over the 50 day of riding, as a father & son team.

Video: https://youtu.be/zRng6bneALs

We did the ride as a fundraiser for earthquake relief in Nepal, which is where Alex’s Mom (that would be Eugenie Ballering!) and I met, way back whenever. Alex and I completed the ride, against the (54 year old) odds. I know – pretty amazing! You can, in your amazement, still donate to Nepal earthquake relief, where funds for rebuilding are needed, through Global Giving at:

Thanks for the picture of us two riding to http://www.denniscoello.com/



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What would it take to race the Great Divide


I have been thinking a lot about Racing the Great Divide recently. My dad and I met a lot of women and men this summer who were racing the Great Divide route, doing 100 to 150 miles per day through the mountains, deserts, plains, on mountain bikes loaded with gear and food. Whenever I met these people I was so impressed and equally astounded by how they could do the seemingly impossible day after day for a few weeks straight.


And the other surprising thing was that many were not toned racers as you would expect. We met men in their late 60s, and even an 18 year old who couldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds. But they all could keep pedaling hour after hour after hour. Muscles did not power the Divide Racers; it was really mental fortitude. By the end of our Divide journey, I was captivated with the idea of racing the Great Divide. What other thing could I do that would test my limits to the extreme? Now that I’ve had a few months to reflect, what would it really take to race the Great Divide?

“Muscles did not power the Divide Racers; it was really mental fortitude.”


The winner of the race in 2015 was a nurse from Washington named Josh Kato. Josh broke the previous record of racing the divide, completing the entire route in 14 days. Here’s a direct comparison just to show how impressive his efforts were.


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Now Josh is easily one of the best ultraendurance cyclists in the world, but the comparison is still remarkable. 190 miles per day, for 2 weeks straight. And if you read his blog, the other shocking thing is how much enjoyment he gets out of putting himself through hell. It probably is necessary to enjoy the suffering, otherwise who would put themselves through that!


My Test Ride

Several weeks after returning from the Divide, I decided to test my limits a bit a la Josh Kato, and set out to ride my bike from Alexandria to Davis, WVA, where we go as a family for weekend trips. Total distance: 190 miles. Several key differences between my excursion and the divide racers: I was on a road bike, but it was in the hot Virginia summer, and I had more access to services. Considering all factors, my per mile effort was probably less than the racers. So it should be easy to do 190 miles!


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Long story short, I didn’t finish 190 miles that day. I rode for 8 hours and did 132 miles, at which point I arrived at a McDonalds in West Virginia, where I stopped just to get some water and take a break. Well, that break turned into me stopping for the day. The second I sat down, I realized I was bonking (zero energy) harder than I ever had before. My vision was blurry, and I struggled to keep my eyes open. Finally, after lots of sweet tea and an hour of sitting, I mustered the strength to find a campsite in that town and call it a night.


The moral of this anecdote is obvious; what Josh Kato, and the other racers, did is incredibly difficult.


“As a relatively fit cyclist, I struggled to do what the racers do every day while on the Divide.”



Since racing the Divide is so difficult, you might be wondering, how do people train for it? Based on having asked racers about their training, and my own personal experiences, I think ultraendurance training is pretty simple: ride, ride, ride. Ride in the rain, ride through the night, ride in the snow, log hours on the bike whenever and wherever possible. How else can you simulate the long hours in the saddle? No virtual reality, game, or interval training can prepare you mentally and physically for the type of riding my Dad and I saw on the Divide.


Despite all the excellent reasons not to race the Divide, I still have a lingering desire to just try it. And by just try it, I mean actually train and compete. This summer I will be in Brazil, so the Divide is a no-go for 2016. But I know I will be thinking about racing the divide the whole time it is happening. And although it is a daunting challenge, the Divide just keeps calling my name.


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Jul 22 – We Finished the “Great Divide”!

We arrived about noon Wednesday, July 22, in the town of Banff, Alberta, from El Paso, Texas, after…. 50 days, 2750 (official) trail miles, 2881 miles by my odometer (from El Paso, TX), some 190,000 feet of climbing (7 x Mt Everest?!), 14 jars of peanut butter, 32 nights camping, 12 nights with “Warmshower” hosts or other friends, six nights in motels, the same 4 tires we had in El Paso still on our bikes, and…. a deep sense of satisfaction.

We started the trip somewhat intimidated by the “Great Divide Mountain Bike Route”, and have finished it with a sense of awe of the landscape we’ve come through and the warmth of people along the way. And appreciation for the many who have supported our fundraising for Nepal earthquake relief and rebuilding through GlobalGiving.

We’ve been off our bikes for a full day now in Banff, being lazy, eating well, and reflecting on the trip. Here are some reflections and our favorite pictures:

Yesterday, on arriving we did the obligatory bikes-overhead-joyful-pump, at the trail end at the Banff Springs Hotel. The hotel guest services woman who took the picture was so excited to hear about our trip, and tried to score us a complimentary drink in the main bar (no luck 😉 )

We left El Paso, June 3, at the Mexican border, a town with great Mexican food and an awesome bike shop. We were clean, eager to get going, and not a little apprehensive about what lay ahead. 2,750 freaking miles of dirt/gravel, mountains and wilderness. We’d done long ~road~ bike touring, a lot of mountain bike riding in WV, and just a little bit of mountain bike touring – but nothing at this scale. About 11am we headed out, after getting bikes and teeth and other gear fixed and packed up, and passed out of El Paso quickly into New Mexico. Day 1!

We were pleasantly surprised by our two weeks of riding north through New Mexico. Wide open and hot desert – yes – but also surprising alpine oases with trees, grasses, bursting wildflowers, and babbling mountain brooks. Red rock canyons with innumerable caves and hideouts for desperadoes. 1,000 year old Chaco settlement with amazing architecture and mysteries not yet unraveled. Beautiful landscapes, ramshackle cottages, and scruffy, resourceful and friendly people. We rode for three days through the daunting Gila National Forest, getting through the rough roads, lack of water, and first week apprehensions. Chris saw our first big wildlife – a black bear, and a dozen elk who thundered across the road 100 yards in front of him. At the famous Toaster House in Pie Town we met Ben Schoenberg, a NM native, who joined us for about two weeks of riding, providing good company, rich information about the state and its people, and introducing us to his wonderful, adventurous family. We also had warm hospitality from Patty and Eliot in Lac Cruces and the Frisch’s in Silver City!  An amazing place, New Mexico.

 Huge breakfast and warm send off from Our Lord of Mercy in Hatch, after we surprised Father Alejandro the night before. The guy on the far right asked Alex, in Spanish “What will you eat along the way to keep up your strength?” Alex replied “Horchata and gorditas!”                         

We expected Colorado to be refreshing, gorgeous, and challenging – and it was all that and more. We drank in the green hills, acres of wildflowers, streams and lush flooded grasslands, and cool towns like Del Norte, Salida, Fairplay, and others. We also felt like we’d finally hit the Rockies. As in, run headlong into them. We did most of the largest and highest climbs on the trip in Colorado — it seemed like we did a 9,000 – 10,000′ pass every day or two, sometimes with a “low” 8,000 footer thrown in as a warm up. The rough road surfaces, the grades (often stretches 10% +), and the altitude add up to a challenge for anyone not in their 20s 😉 There were climbs that tested our hearts and lungs, and our character – like racing ahead of a thunder/hail storm to get through sticky mud and over 11,000′ Indiana Pass before dark, and a soul-searching three-hour climb out of the Colorado River Valley on a very warm day leaving Radium. But we kept at it and hit our stride, making 40-50 miles on our toughest climbing days, and 70 miles on easier ones. Gorgeous ride.      Only dandelions – but – wow.               Abel, a Peruvian shepherd, watching a flock of sheep at 9,000′ all summer.    

We left the alpine mountains and wildflowers of Colorado one morning, and – wham – we were in Wyoming and a lot changed. Wide open rolling scrub hills, pronghorn antelope chasing across the road in front of us, a few herds of wild horses that eyed us carefully, scattered oil wells and associated truck traffic that raised clouds of dust. We had some bike problems and had the Rogers family and Nolde family stop and pick us up and help us out on two successive days (when’s the last time you stopped for a hitchhiker, and went out of your way to help them?) We got out of the daunting “Great Divide Basin” before we baked, and made it to the dramatic Tetons Park, and then Yellowstone. First time visitors, both of us, amazed and delighted by those wondrous parks. Wyoming impresses us as wild, wide open, and with tough and friendly people.

Riding the popcorn gravel. 

Being together all day every day, we inevitably had times when we irritated each other. Maybe even more than when we rode together a similar two months in 2013? The reasons are hard to remember now, just a day after the end of the trip. Might have had something to do with the long riding each day, with legs tired, seats aching, arms numb, bodies sweaty and dusty. Maybe too much Spam? But we both knew it when we were in it. And we generally knew to act our better selves, and so took on the cooking when the other was beat, or packed up the tent when the other was dragging, or carried the extra gear when a bike had trouble.  And we fell into a sweet nightly tradition of reading out loud a chapter from Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small – the travails of the country vet charming us each day after riding the Rockies – something resonating with us in his growing appreciation for the countryside in which he worked and the wonderful people who lived there.             

Future Hamburgers of America, courtesy of the US Forest Service and the BLM. We don’t have a problem with that. We ate a lot of burgers on this trip – excellent ones, pretty consistently.  

Sometimes when you stop a car to ask for water, you get lucky. Here in the blistering hot and far-from-anywhere middle of Wyoming. A little Fiji water. What a world. 

No matter how far off the grid we were – we were able to send location updates *and* send and receive texts/emails to our family at home via two-way GPS communication, using CerberLink. Thanks to Chuck and friends at Alexandria’s own BriarTek. 

Into Montana, big sky country, dramatic landscapes, a place that attracts people – and holds onto a few of them. And watch out for bears – the grizzly variety – of which we had little experience from Wisconsin or Virginia to drawn upon.

After New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and a touch of Idaho, it felt like we earned, or were ready for, Montana. Sort of a treat, and next level of challenge on our trip!  The landscape is less severe than Colorado, but wild — long distances between towns, thick forests, and cold and rainy weather. The few residents of the state charmed us – from friendly Seeley Lake, to almost hip Helena, to small and welcoming Eureka (thanks Greg and Michelle!).

We also made a detour to Glacier National Park, which thrilled us. A day of hiking in those mountains in our Tevas also left our calves sore for a week.

We met a pair of Dutch cyclists – Rene and Victor – doing the same Great Divide Route as us. We’re amazed at anyone doing this trip – but especially a pair from a very flat country (which we love dearly!). They were making it through the Rockies without trouble – and we ended up cycling with them / camping / eating with them for about four days. We also taught them how to play horseshoes. We look forward to biking around Amersfoort with them.

      Oh, Montana.       

The high mountain clouds and cool weather reminded me of hiking during the monsoon in higher elevation areas of Nepal. And then soon after this picture, Alex nearly bumped into a yearling grizzly. They do not have those in Nepal.                  At mile 2,500, we crossed into Canada, and it got even wilder, colder, more remote than northern Montana. It felt like a capstone to the trip – a final 250 miles – not the highest or hottest – but challenging miles, long stretches between “services”, wildlife (and bears) aplenty, and the growing and spectacular Canadian Rockies.  And the realization that the trip was coming to a close – we would, in fact, make it the whole way!


(We saw blue Bud Light cans along the roadside in every state.)            

We arrived in Banff on day 50, Wednesday July 22. On the last few days of threading our way through dramatic spiky mountains, we both started to put into perspective the past 40-something days – and that we do not have another state ahead, another pass to tackle, another basin to cross, another ACA map to read (backwards!) We’ll stop riding and return home – back to family and friends, soft beds, meals with vegetables, and then back to work and the end of summer break. And that this crazy and daunting adventure we set out on – we’d thrown ourselves into the middle of it, and come out smiling. And with firsthand memories of amazing places we’d long heard about, and warm experiences in places we’d never heard about. We also can now picture the smiles of the people we’ve met who live in these places – Eureka, Fairplay, Wise River, Las Cruces, Whitefish, Abiquiu, Lander, PieTown, SilverCity, Sparwood, Rawlins, Hatch, and many others.

We realize how fortunate we are to have the time and the means to take such a 50-day trip, away from family, work, and other obligations. Quite a blessing.

On completing this trip we’re also deeply appreciative of the warm wishes, encouragement, and prayers from so many people at home and along the route. And appreciative of the support for Nepal earthquake relief and rebuilding  — the campaign we have focused this trip upon. The donations through GlobalGiving are going to well established, and effective organizations who have successful records in Nepal. Nepal is off the front pages of US papers, but the rebuilding of homes. schools, roads, water systems, and also families, will take a long time. (And you can still contribute if you’d like!) Thank you!

“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” – H. G. Wells

Albert Einstein — ‘Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.’

(Quotes grabbed from Glacier Cyclery, Whitefish, MT.)


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Jul 22 – Arrived in Banff! And *Done*

After a beautiful, and remote, last five days riding through the Canadian Rockies, we arrived about noon in Banff.  These last days were like dessert after a meal – delicious high mountain views, cool weather, lots of wildlife – a wonderful end to the trip. 

After 2750 official miles (2881 by my odometer), and 50 days on the trail, we are very satisfied, pleased, and eager to get home on Monday!

We’re eating a celebratory meal – Alex ordered the braised duck with Gorgonzola and arugula – I had chicken with a mango sauce – foods we’ve not had much of lately!

More reflections later…



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CerberLink: Thanks BriarTek!


We had with us the whole trip a CerberLink device, which was great. It enabled us to send location updates *and* send and receive texts/emails to our family at home via two-way GPS communication. I sent a daily location update, and also other messages, to our family and home from wherever we were — which was often well out of range of any cell tower. CerberLink syncs with a smartphone using BlueTooth, allowing the sending and receiving of messages. Thanks to Chuck and friends at Alexandria’s own BriarTek!

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Into Canada

We recently entered Canada, British Columbia more specifically, and it is difficult not to compare this nation with the U.S., but I will anyway.


Typical Canadian Truck

One difference I was really hoping for was less trucks and gas-guzzlers in Canada. Call me naïve, but I thought Canadians would be more ‘green’ with their transportation. Obviously what vehicle you drive doesn’t dictate your concern, or lack thereof, for the environment, but since I am a cyclist spending much of the day on roads, what vehicles pass by is all we see, or hear. Thus, I have noticed that in BC, we have seen as many gas guzzling trucks as in Montana. That said, many of those trucks have had bike racks toting fancy mountain bikes.

On a happier note, Canadians know a thing or two about good cheese. For lunch today, we went a little crazy, buying a wheel of nice Camembert, and some decent Gouda cheese. This is a world removed from Montana, where we mostly found cheddar, some of it good. Cheese Whiz abounds in the lower 48.

Many Canadians we have met so far, like Americans are incredibly friendly; one man, Louie, somehow found us in the middle of the woods, and proceeded to sit down with us while we were eating lunch, shortly after having introduced himself. Very kind man, who seemingly found the only other people in the whole damn forest. That’s Canada for you I guess.

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Strong Wisconsin Women!

Those ladies from Wisconsin are impressive!

On our ride north from El Paso over the past 49 days, we’ve passed riders going the other way almost every day of the trip. And it’s always a lot of fun to stop and shares stories and tips on what we each have ahead of us.

Maybe 1/3 of the bikers we pass are women, and most of them traveling with someone else. But we’ve met about eight or so women biking alone — and three of them from Wisconsin: Suzanna (pictured) from Eau Claire, biking the 4,000 mile Southern-tier route 100+ miles a day; Jen, from Fond du Lac doing the Divide mountain bike ride 100 miles a day, and yesterday, Lindsey, also from Eau Claire, doing the Divide ride as an individual time trial, making 150+ miles a day and hoping to finish in less than 20 days, better than the 30 days it took her last year. Wow – some strong cyclists!


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