Connecting the dots: Rawlins, Steamboat, Kremmling

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Divide-style riding– the open dirt roads that are influencing a new generation of cyclecampers– has provided me with a home for the summer.  Daily challenges and joys come from climbing and descending the skeleton of the American west, while every evening is topped with delightful campsites, for free.  The Great Divide Route is the Trans-Am Route of the modern day, as Fargos and Trolls are the equivalents of old Trek and Fuji touring frames.  The Divide is the fusion of our American cycletouring heritage and several decades of mountain biking– it’s a way of connecting the dots and getting away from it all.

Most road maps facilitate travel along the paths of least resistance, though river valleys and along interstate highways.  Lesser known routes encounter greater resistance– in route planning and topography– but uncover the uncommon character that is hidden in the folds of the land.  The Great Divide Route is changing the way American cyclists look at cycletouring and is both ready-made and quite rideable, lessening the resistance to “getting away”.  While a single day’s ride on the Divide might be challenging, the open road ahead is an inviting yellow brick road of logistic simplicity.  Turn-by-turn directions and comprehensive resources for cyclists (groceries, water, lodging, camping, police, etc.) are listed on the maps, in addition to elevation profiles.  Concerns that the Divide reaches deep into the wilderness, days away from food and resources are unnecessary.  Every few days the rider encounters a proper grocery, and water is not an issue in most places; when it is less plentiful one simply carries a little more for the duration described in the maps.  If the Divide calls to you, I’m telling you that you can!  You still have to ride your bike up and over mountains, but it couldn’t be any easier.

The Great Divide Route is the realization of an idea with roots in the original Bikecentennial route (renamed Trans-Am), which was meant to uncover America’s backroads.  As originally designed, the cross-country route included miles of gravel farm roads inspired by terrain encountered on the Siples’ Hemistour ride.   Overwhelmingly, the first wave of Bikecentennial riders complained about the hardship of riding dirt on the typical 27×1 1/4 (630 x 32mm) tires of the time.  The Siples had ridden handbuilt 650b wheels laced to Campagnolo hubs, with an approximate 40mm tire.  Edit: I’m currently researching the tires used on Hemistour, as they are simultaneously and incongruously referred to as 650B (584mm) and 26 x 1 3/8 (590mm).  June Siple has a record of equipment used, and may soon shed some light.  Ten years later as ATBs exploded onto the market. riders finally had the appropriate equipment to explore these dirt routes, especially the more challenging rides into the mountains.  Meeting over margaritas and Mexican food in 1994, as legend has it, Michael McCoy conspired with ACA staff to design a dirt route along the spine of the country. Within the year the Great Divide Route was born, and the rest is (recent) history.

Today, more people are touring on mountain bike tires and mountain bikes, in the mountains.  Riders are discovering the value of lightweight packing as backpackers have known for years.  The combination opens up the opportunity to ride high mountain roads and singletrack for multiple days at a time.  My own evolution as a rider mirrors the history of American cycletouring, and after a few long years the final and most contemporary piece to the puzzle will fall into place on the Colorado Trail, and beyond.  They call it mountain biking or bikepacking, but it’s still just a bike ride.

Connecting the dots from Rawlins, WY to Steamboat Springs, CO:

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I sleep atop mountains and passes whenever the weather is clear and calm, with only my sleeping pad and bag on a nylon groundcloth.  Since entering Montana, most nights have been spent en plain air.  I keep most of my gear packed away, but will remove my cookset for some dinner or tea in the evening.  Now out of grizzly country, I gave my bear deterrent spray to some CDT hikers and I can leave the stove set up for the morning.  When I’m feeling especially organized and indulgent, I’ll prepare the pot with clean water so that it can be heated as soon as I awake for coffee or tea, like the auto-brew setting on your home system.  The Penny Stove that I use was built almost a year ago while in Steamboat Springs, and has seen about 150 days of use.  The steel Klean Kanteen is versatile in that I can defrost frozen water from a cold night, or sterilize stream water right in the bottle.  An enameled steel camping mug isn’t much heavier than popular Lexan or plastic models, and can similarly be used for cooking or heating water.  While I technically only carry one 0.8L cookpot, these versatile vessels allow more creative meals and hot drinks.  A 1L plastic drink bottle contains fuel, of which I’ve mostly been sourcing the yellow bottles of Heet (automotive antifreeze, methanol).  In bigger cities I can buy a full liter of ethanol, or denatured alcohol at paint and hardware stores.  In France, corner stores sold a 95% concentration of ethanol as a household cleaner, always in an inspiring floral or citrus fragrance for two euro.  In Mexico, “alcohol industrial” can be had at some paint stores, which wasn’t an entirely reliable source.  I finally realized that the rubbing alcohol sold in Mexican pharmacies was a 70-90% concentration of ethanol, whereas rubbing alcohol in the US is almost exclusively isopropyl alcohol.   Isopropyl burns incompletely and leaves a sooty mess on your pots.  Inevitably, it makes a sooty mess on other things until you look like a coal miner on a bicycle.  For reference, higher concentrations of isopropyl alcohol burn just fine, if necessary.

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With tired legs from several weeks of riding without a rest, I find cover during the heat of the day along the Little Snake River.  Of course, this was a fine swimming spot, if a little shallow.  My transition into Colorado signals a more temperate climate– surface water and shade quickly reappear after a few scorching days in central and southern Wyoming.  Aspens provide wonderfully cool shade while climbing, and a stark contrast to western skies.

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Steamboat Springs is a tourist town, a ski town, and a little hard to crack at first.  Local businesses are busy crafting and creating, and a visit to the Moots factory is inspiring (10 AM on M-W-F).  Kent Erickson, who started Moots in the 80’s, now crafts fine titanium bikes in a space shared with Orange Peel Bikes, a must-see building and a fine shop.  Smartwool offices are in Steamboat as well, and my host for the night offered some socks and a lightweight merino sweater– he’s a quality control agent for the company, and is full of socks that didn’t make the cut.  Finally, I contacted Big Agnes in advance for some tent repairs after four years of hard use.  I’m constantly seeking better solutions to equipment, but my Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 is hard to beat and while I’ve looked for other options with curiosity, nothing improves upon the blend of durability and light weight.  It sleeps two, but is light enough to carry for solo adventures.  It is conveniently freestanding, which is great during the buggy season and the rainfly can be used without the mesh tent body for good ventilation during a summer rain shower.  In more extreme weather, a total of 13 guy lines ensure a solid stance against the wind and rain.  While in town last year they repaired a large tear in my rainfly due to a zipper mishap; this year, some sections of my tent poles needed replacement and a finicky zipper was repaired.  It’s nice to have contact with real people, with real skills and expertise to help sort out technical issues.  If I had gone to REI, they would have shrugged and replaced the entire product.  Repairs are a much better solution, and the cost to get me back under cover was only $10.

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The ride from Steamboat Springs to Kremmling is pleasant and familiar as I’ve now ridden the route over Lynx Pass three times.  It was part of my path from Boulder to Steamboat last fall to meet Cass and Nancy in early October for some Divide riding.  Check out Nancy’s first day of bicycle touring, climbing at 8000ft over Lynx Pass on dirt roads in the snow!  At the same time I ran into Greg Mu on the road, riding a look-alike Surly Troll to what Cass was riding.  Whose Troll was born first?  Greg insists it was his.  We all rode together for a period and had a great time, despite cold nights and some early season snow.

I overheated and perspired through my first freezing night, even though I was sleeping without a tent  After buying and returning a half-dozen sleeping bags to REI over the last few years, I finally found my ideal bag at The Trailside in Missoula, MT last fall.  The Mont-Bell U.L. Super Spiral Down Hugger 3 is filled with high-quality down and is rated to 30, which is an accurate description of it’s warmth.  The bag is constructed in a spiral stitch pattern with elastic stitching which ensures that the down is close to the body while sleeping, but that nighttime movements are not constricted by a narrow bag.  The advertised weight of the bag is 1 lb. 6 oz., and compresses to the size of a cantaloupe or smaller.  An Etowah vapor barrier liner (VBL) from Rivendell keeps me warm down to 10 deg, with a lightweight down jacket and a blend of Ibex and Smartwool long underwear.  I have not been carrying the VBL or down jacket through the summer months.

Connecting the dots from Steamboat to Kremmling:

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My host in Kremmling is a recent Pugsley owner, with a glowing enthusiasm for fat tires.  Without saying, we got along just fine.  In a few weeks, he’ll set off for the Divide with my maps on his new fat tires.  There are great camping and riding opportunities north of town, most of which is BLM property.  Camping along Muddy Creek is recommended.

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19 thoughts on “Connecting the dots: Rawlins, Steamboat, Kremmling

    • What I’ve seen of the Northern TIer is great, although mostly I was riding through the plains states. Free camping in city parks is one of my favorite things. The Divide, of course, is unparalleled.

      • There are three aftermarket Pugsley forks: the offset 135mm, a symmetric 135mm like most other fatbikes use, and the symmetric 100mm fork that I have. As far as I know, this is the only way to do it. The additional benefit of replacing the fork was that I gained three holes per fork, in the style of the Salsa forks. To remove or install the wheel into the fork you must either deflate the tire or remove the brake caliper.

  1. Didn’t know how to get a message to you so i figured a comment would get the job done. Just wanted to let you know somebody posted a pic of your purple Pug sitting in front of an REI on the Revelate Designs Facebook page under posts by other people. Pedal on!

    • Good eye Eric. I had a hard time finding Revelate’s post by others. The photo must have been taken yesterday, as I borrowed some power and internet from the building for much of the afternoon. If the picture were taken this morning it would have included juxtaposition of 20″ wheels to my Pugsley– Lael is back in town and her Cannondale Hooligan was locked up with mine at the same location today, decorated with a dusty Revelate Vischasa, Gas Tank and Mountain Feed bag, as well as an Inertia Designs framepac.

  2. Alright, I’m going to nerd out for a sec.

    “The Siples had ridden handbuilt 650b wheels laced to Campagnolo hubs, with an approximate 40mm tire.”

    Now I may be wrong, but I recall reading that the custom wheels they had built were 650A, aka 26″ x 1 3/8″ (590 mm), the reason being the 650A/26″ x 1 3/8″ was much more common around the world at the time (1970s) than 27″ because the 650A was the most used size on British bikes. And they would be going into lots of territory where 27″ would be unheard of, much like today when expedition tourists opt for 26″ (559mm) wheels instead of 700C. If that’s the case the tire width would be around 35-37mm, still fatter and more cushiony than w the 27″ (630mm) tires.

    • I had thought the same thing about the tires. From a recent correspondence with June Siple:

      “As far as the rim/tire size, it’s what I said in the Rivendell Reader, as well as in my “Sweating the Yukon” piece. They were 650Bs. Lys and I were the most mechanically-minded of our core group of four. We packed all the bearings of all four bikes before departure, to the chagrin of Sam Braxton, who just couldn’t figure out why Greg and Dan were never in the shop helping out. Sam was quite the task master and made me adjust the cones on one wheel 6 or 7 times!”

      And from June’s article “Sweating the Yukon”:
      “…Hemistour’s 26 x 1 and 3/8 inch (650B) gravel-hardy wheels…”

      Of course, 26 x 1 3/8 is 590mm or 650A, while 650B is 584.

      She elaborates:
      “Lightweight road-bike wheels of that era (27 x 1.25 inches) were simply not up to the wear and tear of extended back-road travel. So we had wheels custom-built for Hemistour by the Braxton Bike Shop, specifically to avoid problems on gravel roads. Fred DeLong, our technical advisor in Pennsylvania, suggested using the same size rims as three-speed bicycle wheels. He pointed out that world-wide distribution of three-speed bikes exported for decades from England would ensure a supply of tires in any country. Sam Braxton added Campagnolo Nuovo Tipo high-flange hubs to reduce wheel flection, and with sons Bart and Dalt strung them with Robergel 280-millimeter spokes.”

      I still suspect they were 590s, but June insists they were 650B. I may inquire further, as she has been working on a detailed list of equipment for publication. The tire brand and model would quickly clear up any confusion.

      There are some other great articles by June Siple here: http://www.adventurecycling.org/library/index.cfm?StartRow=1

      • Yeah, I think I remember reading something like that in Adventure Cyclist. When she referred to 26″ x 1 3/8″ as 650B, I said, “Wait a minute…” People commonly confuse the 650 sizes so I thought it was a typo. Love to see the update on the equipment list, maybe that will clarify things. 650B didn’t seem like a common size in that era (not that it really is one now…yet), so I wouldn’t think it would be a viable choice for expedition touring in the early ’70’s, when remote was really remote, communications in the wild were mostly non-existent, and Fedex wasn’t really around.

        your 650A nerd,
        Shawn

  3. “Turn-by-turn directions and comprehensive resources for cyclists (groceries, water, lodging, camping, police, etc.) are listed on the maps,”

    Are these maps you’re referring to the maps from adventurecycling.org?

    My kids are almost old enough to start planning some great family adventures.

    Thanks…

    • Yes, these are the Great Divide (GDMTBR) maps from Adventure Cycling. The maps are great and worth the money, and you can share them with others after you ride. You can also find a free GPS file if you prefer.

      • Thanks for the update! The price of the maps isn’t extravagant. Do you rely on physical maps or GPS most? If you use one, what GPS unit would you recommend?

        I really enjoy hearing the tales of good people in other nations, unlike most of the propaganda spread here in the US.

        Thanks for sharing.

        • There is no reason that you need a GPS for this route. The maps are detailed and fun to read, and often you remain on one track for many miles at a time with obvious turns. There might be a few tricky spots, but all of that is noted on the maps. A GPS if fun and reassuring, but I found there is a significant learning curve to the software and interface. The actual GPS is fine, if a little like using an Atari– most devices are simple, battery sipping, yet ancient.

          I recommend the Garmin eTrex series for simplicity, price, and battery life. The 60-series Garmin devices are supposed to have much faster page loading, bigger screens and other advantages. Either would be fine. I have the eTrex 20, which cost about $180.

          Regarding basemaps, there are many sources for free downloads, or subscription services from Garmin and others. GPSFileDepot is a great resources for the free stuff in the USA, and OpenMTBmaps cover most of the rest of the world, in varying detail. The Great Divide GPS track should be available from Bikepacking.net, another great resource for routes, tech, and GPS help. Most of these resources are now linked at the far bottom of this page.

          • Thanks for the quick reply and the references to resources.

            Think I’ll lean towards maps until my kids can get the grasp. I have friends with GPS units, but haven’t jumped in yet.

            Hoping to get some gear together for ultralight camping this summer… leading into biking.

            Y’all have any recommendations for good children’s bikes; ages 8-13? I have an early 90’s DiamondBack Apex, a Cannondale F700, and a Trek Mountain Track.

            Thanks again.

          • Bob, If you have the patience to deal with a nice older bike like the ones you describe, those bikes may be as good as anything you can buy for $400+, depending upon the condition of the older bikes. I bought a Trek 820 Mountain Track back in about 1997 with lawnmowing money. The others are equally solid transport/touring/light off-pavement bikes. At that age, many riders are moving into full size 26″ wheels and even 29″ wheels for taller kids, which is nice as they can generally grow with the bike for some time.

          • Thanks again for the quick responses. Looking forward to having the time to research the possibilities!

            Be safe!

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