By Dave Ongie
For Jeff Rowland, a dream was born about a decade ago when he happened to watch a documentary called “Riding the Divide.”
The film chronicled a few brave cyclists who dared to compete in a 2,700-mile bicycle race through the Rocky Mountains from Banff, Canada clear down to New Mexico. The course, known as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, crisscrosses the Continental Divide, winding its way through some of the most remote wilderness on the continent.
Last month, Rowland, a Johnson City resident and an avid cyclist, finally got his shot to follow in the tire tracks of Mike Dion, Michael “Mac” McCoy and Steve King, the riders who were featured in the documentary.
“I was waiting for my kids to get a little bit older so I could do it,” said Rowland. “I’ve been wanting to do it for about 10 years.”
With the blessing of his wife Julianne and his children – Samuel and Sara – Rowland flew out to Calgary to start his adventure along with James and John Baker of Johnson City. When the trio arrived in Banff – the start of the trail – they were blown away by the scenery.
“My friend John says that Banff is like Gatlinburg on steroids,” Rowland said. “I believe it is the biggest tourist spot in all of Canada. The views were the best of the entire route.
“The pictures don’t do it justice. I’ve been to Europe. I’ve been to South America. I’ve been all over North America, but I’ve never seen mountains like I saw in Banff.”
At 48 years old, Rowland is an experienced mountain biker, but the trip out west provided its share of challenges. A sleeping bag, tent, food and water nearly doubled the weight of Rowland’s state-of-the-art mountain bike from its usual 21 pounds to approximately 40. That took its toll on the steep slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Rowland and the Bakers started their ride on July 11 expecting to see some unique wildlife along with the jaw-dropping scenery. They didn’t have to wait long. As they made their way up a remote gravel road on Day 3, they found themselves face to face with a mountain lion.
“He was camped out right on the left side of the road,” Rowland said. “We spooked him. He stood up and it looked like a housecat the size of a human. We all grabbed our bear spray, but by that time, he hopped three or four times and he was gone.”
Needless to say, Rowland did not want to ride alone. So when the Bakers departed shortly after crossing the border into Montana, Rowland was in search of someone else to ride with. He was able to ride along with a retired couple from Texas for three days from Eureka, Montana to Whitefish, Montana before they decided to take a few days off.
With his vacation time running out, Rowland chose to press on and found a group of three riders he stuck with until reaching Butte, Montana. Out of vacation time, Rowland left the trail after 14 days and 791 miles to make the trip home. But that wasn’t the end of his journey – Rowland plans to return in the future and pick up where he left off.
After taking a leap of faith into the unknown, he will return armed with the knowledge that he has what it takes to finish what he started.
“Everything is psychological,” Rowland said. “Your body can go a lot further than you think it can go. The scenery kept you peddling because you had no idea what was around that next corner.”