"Those ideals are based in self support and self sufficiency as you traverse The Land in all its harsh ambivalence and majesty. If something goes awry (which it will) - well, you better start thinking about what the hell you're going to do."
- Matt Chester
The Adventure Cycling Association originally scouted and planned the GDMBR as a several month tour, perhaps something you'd ride in sections over several years - the "longest off-pavement bike route in the world" (it does include some pavement, but not much.) The original route stretched a little under 2,500 miles from border to border. The start point of Roosville, Montana is just west of Glacier National Park on the Canadian border. The route ends at Antelope Wells in New Mexico on the Mexican border, near Arizona. Eventually the northern end of the route was extended through Banff National Park into Banff!, Canada, to a total of 2,745 miles. By all accounts, this is one of the prettiest stretches of the entire route. So, of course, it's the source of later contention.
The Crazy Idea
The GDMBR is a challenging route. Even just covering that distance under your own power over a few months is a feat. Now, mix in over 200,000 feet of climbing, with more than 90% of the course off road, across land where you'll probably see moose and bear as often as you see people or buildings. Cell phone coverage and food availability is spotty. If you're lucky, no part of the course will be buried in snow, flooded, or on fire.
As far as anyone can tell, John Stamstad was the first person to think - and go through with - the inevitable thought: why not race it?
In August of 1999, Stamstad (an experienced endurance racer) completed the GDMBR in 18 days and 5 hours. That works out to a hair over 135 miles per day, and something close to 11,000 feet of climbing per day. The next recorded attempt at an ITT was Mike Curiak's in 2003; he was unable to finish the course.
The GDMBR became a (mostly) organized group race route in 2004. The rules, such as they were, emphasized self-reliance: every rider carried their own food, equipment, and tools. Sharing with fellow riders is not allowed. If your bike broke, you could either walk it to the next town, or if you hitched a ride, go backwards on the route only (no rides back to where you stopped, even.) If you needed something shipped to you, it had to be a commercial shipper to a commercial address. Ordering bike parts and having them sent to your motel was fine, having your buddy drop off the same parts was not. There was no significant support or organization other than a common set of rules, a route, and a map. The process for joining the race was to show up on starting day in Roosville, Montana at high noon. The date in early June was chosen carefully; there's a danger of impassable trails due to snowfall at the beginning of the race, and deadly heat waves at the end. Seven riders started the race. Four finished. As far as completion percentages go, that's above average. Mike Curiak set the new course record at 16 days and 57 minutes.
The second year of the race, 2005, was another interesting one. Matt Lee finished first, starting his ride a little early in Banff - we'll get back to that. Kent Peterson's ride is the most interesting one of the year, however. Kent was the first rider to complete the race on a single-speed bicycle. Notably, he rode a fairly inexpensive bicycle with branches lashed to the handlebars to provide another hand position instead of buying aero bars, and fenders made out of old election signs. As for the rest of the field - it's roughly a repeat of last year, with four finishes out of seven attempts.
In 2006, Matt Lee (again starting in Banff) is the only one out of eight riders to complete the race. There are several attempts this year on fixed gear bikes. If you're familiar with fixed gears, you may well have winced at that sentence. If you're not - ignoring rare exceptions, multispeed and single-speed bicycles contain a ratcheting mechanism which allows you to coast, for example if you're going downhill. Fixed gears do not. If the rear wheel is moving, the pedals are moving. So, you have to either continue to pedal downhill, or remove your feet from the pedals, which is risky at best. While a fixed gear tends to climb better, this is more than counteracted by the difficulty of descending and the lack of multiple gears. So, this is another layer of difficulty on a race which already had plenty, thanks. Few riders even attempt to ride the route fixed in later years, and as of the end of the 2009 season, no one has officially completed the race on a fixed gear.
The last year before the drama begins, 2007, has a much lower completion rate but a larger field. Ten riders complete the race out of 32, five of them starting in Banff. There's one incomplete attempt on a single speed, and Jay Petervary sets a new course record of just over 15 days, 4 hours. The real news this year is the larger participation, and the increased interest in the Banff to Montana section of the route, which sets the stage for the drama of the next few years.
The Great Divide... Divide
After a pretty steady showing the first three years, 2007 obviously saw a big jump in the number of riders. With increased exposure, the race as a free-form, show up and be decent, ride the race as it was meant to be event would inevitably change. More riders means more unprepared riders, and more riders who might, when things got really rough, be more interested in completing the race than in competing fairly. When you've been riding for a week or more, low on sleep, eating awful food, watching your body fall apart, and your bike breaks just as you're at your lowest - that ride into town, just a few miles, starts to look awfully appealing. The organizers started to discuss stricter rules - from a time cutoff in the early part of the race, to a disqualification for cell phone usage.
On top of the increased popularity, Matt Lee was continuing to lobby pretty strongly for the Banff section to be added to the official race. The GDR folks, and especially Mike Curiak, were very much set on keeping the race a pure border-to-border route. They welcomed and encouraged everyone to ride that part of the route anyway, but would not require it. As Matt Chester notes, there are a lot of good arguments on either side - the Banff section is gorgeous, and is part of the official ACA route. The extra length and border crossing, however, adds another layer of complexity and time to an already difficult and lengthy race, as well as making direct time comparisons to previous years difficult.
And so, in 2008, there were two races. The Great Divide Race (GDR), lead by Curiak, followed the border-to-border route. The Tour Divide (TD), lead by Matt Lee, started in Banff. Both races had more rules, and more enforcement, than the first few years. The bulk of the rules are very similar, and extensions of the early spirit of the race, especially self-sufficiency. The GDR has a slightly greater emphasis on racing the route, and disallowed cell phone usage. The TD allowed cell phone usage, and did not include the specific time and performance limits which the GDR adopted.
The GDR and TD had pretty even showings in 2008, with 6 completions for the GDR and 8 for the TD. John Nobile shaved Jay's GDR record down by just a few hours. The TD does record "US split" times for easier comparison, but with the TD starting exactly a week before the GDR, a direct comparison is still difficult, as weather and other conditions would vary accordingly. Either way, none of the TD riders approach John's time.
A Wrong Turn
In 2009, we're starting to see the TD generate a clear lead in participation, with 16 finishers out of 42 attempts. Tracey and Jay Petervary (Jay was the 2007 record holder) hold the top tandem finish time. Of course, they're also the only pair to ever attempt or complete the race on a tandem, but at 18 days and not quite 14 hours, it's an impressive time. There's a lot more information from the TD than the GDR this year. Particularly, most of the racers in the TD carry SPOT units, which upload their GPS data automatically to a leaderboard/map on the TD site. This provides for a much more interesting spectator experience in addition to the irregular, but often entertainingly loopy, phone messages. While the SPOT is optional, it was also used to disqualify riders who deviated from the course.
And, in 2009, one recent course change caused quite a few deviations. Apparently, this turn was somewhat confusing, and may have appeared to be a driveway. However, the only way to continue on the race after missing the turn was to also miss a great number of other turns on the cue sheet. Only a few of the competitors who missed the turn did not turn back and find the correct turn at this point. In many cases, the ones who continued called in to note their course deviation and officially disqualify themselves, but continued on to complete the course. Perhaps the most heartbreaking of those disqualified for course deviation was Deanna Adams, who does not remember having deviated, and went on to continue the race - on a fixed gear road bike! Regardless of the disqualification, her run of around 31 days, 7 hours, is the most impressive to me of all the 2009 TD/GDR attempts - and indeed, possibly of all the attempts since Stamstad's. Let's hope she's able to race the route again soon.
There's not a lot of information available about the 2009 TDR - it appears to be back under the radar, especially as compared to the TD. The GDR has 2 finishers out of an unclear number of attempts, apparently 20 or fewer. There's a little chatter in late 2008 about the GDR apparently changing to start in Banff for the 2009 ride - but a day off from the TDR. For 2010, though, it'll be back to border-to-border again. The interesting part about such low-organization, self-sufficient races is that there's no real minimum amount of participation required to make it reasonable. As long as one person is going to race the GDR again, it exists, even if it skips a year or a few.
Now, there's been plenty of friction between the people most involved in the changes to the race over the last few years. Sure, there's also been a great deal of ire on various forums, but let's face it, those people can (and do) get mad about anything and everything. Still, while the disagreements are quite strong, everything I've seen indicates a healthy level of mutual respect still exists. There's a general consensus that everyone involved is doing the same race in spirit, if a different race in the letter. So, while I'm sad to see how the race has had to change over the years in terms of more rules and enforcement, it is reassuring to see that the people involved can disagree strongly and still be decent.
At least until someone adds a section in Mexico...