The idea, as Mike McCoy readily admits, sounds preposterous: to create a 3,000-mile mountain-bike trail that runs from Canada to Mexico. But if anyone can pull it off, it is McCoy. As the former assistant director of Adventure Cycling, a not-for-profit bicycling association based in Missoula, Mont., that runs tours for its 40,000 members, publishes a magazine and maps bike trails for various states, McCoy has helped identify and map nearly 20,000 miles of road-biking routes, including three that cross the U.S. from coast to coast. Though mapping a 3,000-mile off-road bike trail has never been attempted before, McCoy says the entire project, which was begun early last year, should be completed by the fall of '97.
"It's like trying to solve a 3,000-mile-long puzzle," says McCoy, 43. "I'm attempting to string together a mishmash of different lands—Bureau of Land Management property, state land, national Forest Service land, Park Service land and private lands with public access. And then there is a wide variety of riding surfaces: dirt roads, ATV trails, fire-access channels and hiking paths." Nevertheless, the 800-mile Montana portion of the trail is virtually complete, and plans for the rest of the route have been drawn up.
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, as the trail is called, is the brainchild not only of McCoy, who was recently named the route's national coordinator, but also of Adventure Cycling's executive director, Gary MacFadden, 42. The two conceived the trail in 1989 when the sport of mountain biking was in its adolescence, but manpower and time constraints delayed the start of actual route-finding for five years. All along, however, McCoy and MacFadden have remained steadfast in their choice of terrain: They have insisted that the path follow the meandering Continental Divide.
A ride on the Great Divide route will be an epic journey. The trail begins at the Canadian border, where it runs adjacent to Glacier National Park. When completed, it will continue into the vast forests of eastern Idaho; venture among the desolate badlands of Wyoming; meander through Colorado resort towns such as Steamboat, Aspen and Crested Butte; and ramble through the uninhabited hills of New Mexico. "Biking the whole thing will be arduous," concedes McCoy. "There can be snow at one end, 100-degree heat at the other and knee-deep mud bogs in the middle." He estimates the trek will take more than 100 days to complete.
That is, if anyone attempts it. "Our biggest question once we started the project was, Is anybody going to ride this?" says MacFadden. The answer appears to be yes—but not too many people, at least not at first. While trips of several days—often undertaken with help from support vehicles—on road bicycles are fairly common, long-distance mountain-bike touring has only been for the hardy few. With the opening of the Great Divide route, McCoy and MacFadden expect such trips to become more common.
Though both men say they are "100-percent sure" that their plans will come to pass, they have encountered several stumbling blocks. Adventure Cycling's efforts have never been well-funded, and corporate sponsors for the Great Divide trail are being sought. Accessibility is another problem. Due to hiker-biker clashes, public lands are increasingly being closed to mountain bikers; McCoy hopes to avoid areas that may one day ban cyclists. There is also the challenge to Adventure Cycling's cartographers of mapping the complex trail so others can find it.
None of these difficulties have stopped McCoy from continuing to dream. "The east-west routes I've worked on end because they reach an ocean," he says. "With the Great Divide, there isn't an ocean. And the terrain in Canada and Mexico is fascinating. There's no reason to finish the trail simply because it hits an international border. As soon as I'm done with the U.S. portion, I plan to keep on going"