Local man completes second leg of Great Divide Mountain Bike Route
By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Editor’s note: Last summer, we chronicled the first leg of Jeff Rowland’s attempt to ride the entire 2,700-mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Rowland returned to the Montana this summer to complete the second leg of his journey. If you missed the first installment, you can find it at: www.jcnewsandneighbor.com/riding-the-great-divide/.
When Jeff Rowland arrived in Banff, Canada last summer to achieve a dream 10 years in the making, he was taking a leap into the unknown.
Rowland had done plenty of research prior to his departure, but nothing could completely prepare him for the experience of riding a mountain bike loaded down with gear through the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains. Still, he was able to make it 791 miles in 14 days before stopping in Butte, Montana. Out of vacation days and eager to see his wife Julianne and his children – Samuel and Sara – Rowland headed home.
After returning to Tennessee, Rowland began plotting his return to Butte where he planned to pick up where he left off. Armed with experience, the 49-year-old plotted his route from Butte down through Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado, painstakingly planning stops along the way.
“I wasn’t sure how far I was going to make it the first year, so I really had no idea what I was getting into,” Rowland said. “This year I really planned it out pretty well.”
Last year, Rowland was riding primarily through Canada, so he had to be prepared for it to snow at any time. Now that he was preparing to tackle the middle portion of the trail, Rowland said he was able to travel five to eight pounds lighter since he had the luxury of leaving his cold-weather gear at home.
But as Rowland climbed on his bike in Butte on July 9, he was already well aware life is full of tradeoffs. The threat of snow might have been off the table, but this year’s ride presented a whole new set of challenges.
The first came in the form of higher altitude, which taxes the lungs and muscles when you’re riding a bike loaded with gear over towering mountains. Rowland said the time he puts in at the gym throughout the year doing cardio work definitely paid off on his journey.
“It was a lot higher this year than it was last year,” Rowland said. “I guess maybe five or six times I was over 9,000 feet. There’s a few times, I’d take a drink of water and I would catch myself out of breath. You could feel the altitude.”
Another challenge this year came in the form of the unrelenting sun. While the haze of humidity can often keep UV rays down during summertime in Tennessee, Rowland said the UV levels are “off the charts” when the sun is shining out west.
Since he was traveling alone this year, Rowland was able to set his own schedule. That allowed him to get on his bike at daybreak and get in his mileage by early afternoon before the heat kicked into overdrive.
Rowland marveled at the elevation changes he experienced during this year’s trip. Many times Rowland peddled hard up toward the peak of a lush, green mountain. His reward was a spectacular panoramic view that came seconds before he pointed his bike down brown, dry terrain on the other side and let gravity carry him onward into air that seemed to heat up with each passing second.
“I can remember coming over one pass down to the Colorado River and I could see the temperature rising as I was going down the hill,” said Rowland, who estimated the temperature reading on the gauge mounted on his handlebars rose 20-25 degrees as he dropped 2,500 feet. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Much like last year, Rowland said the scenery stole the show. He traveled a wide variety of trails through some very scenic terrain that ranged from jagged mountains to placid lakes to stark plains that seemed to extend forever. He said Grand Teton National Park stood out as the most scenic part of his journey.
Even though Rowland traveled alone this year, he was hardly isolated. He ran across several colorful characters on his journey, and they often popped up in the oddest places.
One day while traversing a flat stretch of the trail, Rowland spotted an odd object in the distance teetering toward him on the trail. As he got closer, he was able to make out an older woman in a horse-drawn wagon.
“She really talkative lady,” Rowland recalled with a chuckle. “I met her absolute in the middle of nowhere.”
Rowland signed the woman’s book – adding his name to the names of the other riders the lady met on her journey – and wished her well as she continued on toward her destination – Banff, Canada – which was waiting for her 1,500 miles to the north.
Another surreal experience came about midway through Rowland’s journey when he finally caught up to a pair of cyclists he spent the whole day riding behind. Once he caught the two younger riders, they finished up in Atlantic City, Wyoming – a town of about 40 people.
One of the riders was from Australia and the other from Sweden, so three continents were represented when Rowland and his two new acquaintances sauntered into the only restaurant in Atlantic City to get a meal. The riders felt like they had wandered back into the Old West.
“It’s a different world out there,” Rowland said. “It was funny to see everybody who had a firearm on their hip. There is this lady making me a sandwich, and she’s got a .45 on her hip.”
After basking in abundant sunshine during his nearly two weeks of riding, rain finally ended Rowland’s journey in Silverthorne, Colorado. A gathering storm on the horizon brought his ride to an end for this year just short of his intended stopping point at his brother-in-law’s house on the outskirts of Denver.
Despite the abrupt end of this year’s excursion, it was a success by any measure. After riding 791 miles in 14 days last year, Rowland traversed 985 miles in 11 and a half days this time around.
Now that he’s back home, Rowland is back in planning mode, preparing for what he hopes will be the final leg of his journey. With just under 1,000 miles between him and the end of the trail in New Mexico, Rowland is back to plotting a course that includes peaks in Southern Colorado that soar higher than the ones he faced this year, and that is just a prelude for the heat that will await him when he arrives in New Mexico.
“The next third is going to be the hilliest, the highest peaks and the lowest valleys,” Rowland said. “And I’ve heard New Mexico can be pretty rough.”