ANTELOPE WELLS, N.M. — Since her days as a student-athlete in Batavia High School’s Class of 2015, Danielle Quinn has enjoyed plenty of memorable experiences while enjoying an outdoor lifestyle. None of those experiences have been more fulfilling than what she encountered this summer during a 2,700-mile cross-country bikepacking journey known as the Tour Divide.
Quinn’s immersion in the outdoors began as a college sophomore at SUNY Plattsburgh, where she joined the school’s Expeditionary Studies program, which focuses heavily on planning and leading expeditions in the backcountry setting. With three different focuses to choose from, Quinn selected rock climbing as her primary focus and chose a secondary focus on whitewater kayaking. Quinn quickly discovered she had developed a deep passion for rock climbing, which led her to ramp up her pursuit and become what she termed a ‘dirtbag climber,’ someone who puts all societal norms aside to fully pursue their love of the sport.
“That was a concept introduced to me when I was in school, “said Quinn. “You kind of forgo the classic commodities that everyone wants so you can dedicate your time to living outside and playing on rocks. I didn’t want an office job or a typical nine-to-five. I wanted to be able to play outside and sacrifice things for that. “
Her experiences living the ‘dirtbag’ lifestyle, which required her to sacrifice access to a comfortable living situation or a routine diet and other material aspects of a typical life for a 25-year-old, opened her eyes to other potential adventures, including the Tour Divide.
“Long story short, I found out about the Tour Divide by chance last spring,” recalled Quinn. “I had last minute agreed to join a friend on his capstone project to graduate college, which was essentially a bicycle-supported rock climbing expedition in the Utah desert. This was my first, and until the Divide, my only, biking expedition. And while I was gathering the appropriate gear needed at (REI Co-Op Cycles), I met an employee who was preparing to race the 2021 Tour Divide.”
As soon as she heard about the Tour Divide, Quinn knew she had to try it.
The Tour Divide requires riders to bikepack their way from Canada to Mexico with nothing more than a bike, the materials they can carry with them, and their wits. The activity of bikepacking is defined as the synthesis of all-terrain cycling and self-supported backpacking. For Quinn, who has spent her time since graduating high school working and living amongst the outdoors, the activity was right up her alley.
“Frankly, I thought that sounded really fun, and for a lack of better words, really really really cool,” said Quinn. “The idea of riding my bike from Canada to Mexico wouldn’t leave my mind. So this year, I did it.”
The Tour Divide takes place along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR), developed and mapped in 1997 by the Adventure Cycling Association. The GDMBR is a 2,700 miles-long route, extending from north to south, starting in Banff, Alberta, Canada and finishing at the US/Mexico border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. It consists of 90% off-pavement roads, including those composed of dirt and gravel, along with a bit of trail riding and a few abbreviated sections of unmaintained tracks.
Throughout their ride on the Tour Divide, bikers encounter wild river valleys, remote mountain wilderness, open grasslands, and high desert, and towards the southern end of the route, a lengthy span through the Chihuahuan Desert.
“There were some really, really long days on the saddle and even more heinous climbs and descents through mountain passes,” recalled Quinn. “It was very difficult to not anticipate how challenging a section or day of the ride would be. I found myself dreading the climbs that were coming up at times instead of enjoying the beauty of the ride around me. My friend that rode the Divide last year gave me the advice that ‘you don’t have to ride your bike every day, you get to ride your bike,’ which often helped put the ride into perspective.”
The primary challenge that the Tour Divide presents is the length of the journey, which requires intensive planning to ensure one is equipped with proper weather gear and resupply to help one continue along their journey. Another challenge for riders is the presence of wild animals throughout the route, including grizzly bears in Montana, which requires most riders to carry with them bear spray in hopes of eluding such beasts. Last year, a woman riding the Tour Divide was killed by a grizzly bear just outside Ovando, MT.
“I came across a grizzly while I was traveling through Montana,” said Quinn. “It was within the first week of riding just outside of Ovando. I was like, I hope it’s not the same one (that killed the woman the year before). When I saw the bear, I backtracked a bit, chilled for a bit, and when I went back, it was off to the side of the road. It eyed me a bit but I was able to continue on.”
Riders race the Tour Divide every year, following the GDMBR with slight variations depending on the conditions of the existing route. For example, the traditional route that is followed in New Mexico was re-routed for this year’s Tour Divide due to wildfires that impacted the national forests along the existing route.
Those participating in the race must abide by a strict set of rules, including embarking on their ride completely unsupported, meaning one cannot receive aid from outside sources. For example, a racer must refrain from stashing food or gear along the route ahead of time nor solicit the help of others. But one can utilize all amenities available at any store or shop throughout their ride. The record for finishing the race through the Tour Divide was accomplished by Mike Hall in 2016, when he finished the trek in 13 days, 22 hours and 51 minutes.
While racers must begin their ride in Banff, Quinn elected to start her journey at the US/Canada border, where her father and brother were embarking on a motorcycle trip throughout parts of Montana, Wyoming and Colorado. Because she didn’t start in Banff and the fact she interacted with her father and brother throughout the early portion of her ride, Quinn does not claim to have raced the Tour Divide despite traveling completely self-supported.
“To many who take this ride seriously, there is a major difference between racing and touring the route. And I toured the route,” said Quinn. “I am still very proud of my accomplishment, and will probably return to the route one day to properly race it. But I feel the need to make this distinction out of respect for all who have attempted to race the route.”
Quinn’s journey spanned 39 days, beginning at the US/Canada border in Roosville, which is a small unincorporated community and United States Port of Entry from Canada, just north of Eureka, MT. After crossing the Continental Divide, Quinn pedaled south through Montana, across sections of Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and finally into New Mexico before completing her journey in Antelope Wells.
For Quinn, the most memorable moments throughout her journey were the ones that, at the time, proved to be the most challenging to endure.
On the second day of her journey, while traveling through Montana, she came across a massive snowstorm that required her to hop off her bike and push it through three feet of snow for about seven miles before a man in his truck provided her relief from a dangerous situation.
“If I didn’t find him (I may have been in trouble),” said Quinn. “I would’ve had 10 more miles of snow to push through. I had rain gear on and was pushing my bike through while wearing my little biking shoes.”
While crossing the Great Basin in Wyoming, a 100-mile stretch of desert without water or any type of establishment, Quinn and a few fellow riders found themselves amid a severe lightning and hail storm. Being in the middle of nowhere, the riders were the tallest features within the desert landscape, which increased the threat of being struck by lightning. The riders hunkered down in a ditch for over an hour until the storm passed in order to best protect themselves.
“It felt like forever, “recalled Quinn of her time spent waiting out the storm. “All day, we’re riding while being roasted by the sun and then suddenly, the weather flips to the point it’s hailing. The rain was coming down in buckets. The ditch filled with water, which made it extremely cold.”
Another memorable moment came as Quinn found herself reaching the apex of the Indiana Pass in Colorado, the longest and steepest climb of the entire Tour Divide, topping out at almost 12,000 feet of elevation. Going into her journey, Quinn had identified this section as one that would be the most difficult for her throughout her trek. But despite the challenge, the feeling of accomplishment she experienced upon completing the climb is one she’ll never forget.
“Leading up that section of the ride, I felt uneasy about it,” said Quinn. “I didn’t get off my bike once the entire climb. It was a feeling of pride and excitement to have conquered this thing that even the day before felt improbable. And it was hard to believe that it actually felt easy.”
Finally, nearing the end of her journey, Quinn and a few fellow riders endured a 125-mile stretch from Cuba to Grants, NM, allowing the light of the full moon overhead to guide them along their way. The group began the stretch at 2:30 a.m. and completed it at 2 p.m.
“A lot of the Divide was mental, looking ahead while seeing nothing or seeing a massive climb in front of you. It’s hard to not get in your head,” said Quinn. “On the full moon ride, the first half was absolutely amazing. I couldn’t see where I was going, and it finally felt like I was just pedaling and just riding my bike. Without the stresses of what lies in front of me.”
While her original goal was to finish the trek in under a month, which would have required her to average about 100 miles per day on the bike, instead, Quinn traveled about 70 miles per day. That put her trip beyond her original goal, but still at an impressive rate of travel. She stopped for just four full days of rest throughout her journey, finding a few inexpensive motels along the way to help recharge her batteries.
“One hotel I stayed in, in Lincoln, MT, it was one of the only hotels in town, and people there are used to seeing riders who race the Tour Divide each year,” said Quinn. “The people there were very accommodating. The kitchen was closed when I got there, but the cook went in the back, cooked me up some delicious food and gave me free drinks. The hospitality was so nice. That was the same day I came across a grizzly. So to come in and to be treated like royalty was great. My room was entirely cowboy-themed. Cowboy boots, saddles, hats and lassos on the walls. If I ever wanted to ride a horse, I had everything I needed right there.”
Aside from the four nights spent in a motel, Quinn spent the other 35 nights sleeping on a three-by-five-foot section of a tarp, which protected her from the elements as she wrapped herself in a bivouac, which is defined as a temporary camp without tents or cover. In other words, a light sleeping bag. In order to travel as light as possible, Quinn chose not to bring a tent, instead taking the phrase ‘living off the land’ a bit literally. To help lighten her load, Quinn wore the same shirt each day of her ride, a yellow button-up “party shirt,” and alternated between just two pairs of biking shorts throughout her trip, which led to some interesting smells.
“I opted to go as light as possible on this trip for both speed and efficiency purposes,” she said. “I smelled terrible. I went on a ride the other day and noticed my shirt had retained the smell. I decided to wear that shirt because so many people took the ride so seriously. So I wanted to keep it light. I wanted it to be fun and not appear as serious. So I made a point to wear my shirt every day and also wore the same socks and same gloves. We all smelled really bad, but that’s part of it. It was hard to transition back to normal life after the ride. It was like, ‘oh my gosh, I have all these things.’”
Unlike some riders who embark on the Tour Divide, Quinn did not equip herself with a camping stove, instead mainly eating packaged food, relying heavily upon a diet of candy bars, protein bars, and the magic elixir, gummy worms.
“The best part of such a long ride is the ability to eat anything and everything that you want. Because you’re burning so many calories,” she said. “Often, I was riding for 10-to-13 hours per day. Anything that was super sugary was key for that energy boost. I just anything calorie-dense, and then, at the end of the day, hammered a juicy burger and dumped salt on everything. Again, it was a hard habit to get out of when I was done. “
Never carrying more than two days’ worth of food at a time, Quinn also filled her diet, which consisted of about 4,000 calories per day, with plenty of dried fruit and nuts, and she also enjoyed full meals upon passing through various towns throughout her journey. Various forms of caffeine were also critical elements in her daily diet.
“I started drinking Mountain Dew this summer,” she said, laughing. “I don’t typically, but I needed the caffeine. “
Quinn financed her trip using funds she collected while working seasonally as a server at a ski lodge in Colorado.
“Last year, I didn’t do anything that required money except buy beer,” she said. “My ski pass was paid for, so for like four months, all I did was work and ski for free. So I saved a lot of money during that time.”
A large portion of the cost of her journey was spent acquiring a suitable bike and bikepacking gear. This being her first true bikepacking voyage, Quinn didn’t have any of the necessary gear to travel cross-country. Finding appropriate gear proved challenging, as Quinn’s (five-two) frame made it difficult to find a bike that was her size.
“Since COVID, the outdoor industry has been hit hard with more people immersing themselves in an outdoor lifestyle, “said Quinn. “Last year, when I had a bike I wanted in my mind, it was hard to find it. Every bike shop I called didn’t have it. So I had to expand my search and even then it was a challenge. After months of searching, I finally found a bike my size, and it wasn’t what I was looking for, but I love it now. I guess it was fate.”
In the end, Quinn settled on an All-City Cycles Gorilla Monsoon Apex bike, which she purchased for around $2,000 at a local bike shop. The rest of her gear, which included bike bags, different tires and brakes, aero bars and other miscellaneous equipment, tacked on another $800. Despite high start-up costs, once she began her journey, her expenses were relatively minimal.
“It is pretty feasible to spend very little when all you are doing is riding a bike all day,” said Quinn.
Once on the Divide, most of the money Quinn spent went toward food, which she purchased primarily from gas stations and chain grocery stores, and motels, which she split the cost of with other riders. Quinn brought with her $500 cash and used that money exclusively until it ran out about 30 days into her trip.
“All I carried with me was my identification, cash and my debit card, “said Quinn. “Once the cash ran out, I went to my debit card.”
One factor that allowed the trip to remain financially viable was the luck Quinn found with her equipment. Throughout her entire 39-day journey, she was fortunate not to have experienced a mechanical failure or a flat tire.
“Every other day, I would lube my chain and hose down my bike as often as possible to keep dirt and other grime out of the gears,” said Quinn on what allowed her bike to remain operational. “I replaced my chain once about 1,000 miles in.”
The most significant challenge for Quinn throughout her ride proved to be the mental hurdles she would have to cross.
“I just told myself, ‘just keep going,’” she said. “I am super fortunate that I had no injuries or even general pain whatsoever. Surprisingly, with each passing day on my bike, I felt physically stronger. Mentally, however, was a different story.”
Something that helped her remain clear mentally was the various groups she joined throughout her journey.
“I started my ride around the same time the race started. So I met a lot of really cool riders along the way,” she said. “After the first two weeks of riding solo, I ended up meeting up with a couple of people who were also touring the route. We ended up riding the rest of the Divide together and picked up two others for the end of the ride through Colorado and throughout New Mexico. I truly believe I would not have been able to finish the ride if it weren’t for the support and companionship of the other bikers.”
When the going got tough, Quinn fell back on her experience of living an outdoor lifestyle.
“The only reason I felt confident going in this blind on a bike is because of my years in the outdoors,” added Quinn. “I just viewed the bike as a different means of transportation versus hiking, paddling, climbing or living out of my car.”
Bikepacking evokes the freedom of multi-day backcountry hiking and travel off the beaten path, where Quinn has been most comfortable since leaving the nest and embarking on her own life’s journey.
“I think one element of it comes back to my simple mindset,” she said of her comfort living amongst the outdoors. “I was also comfortable diving into this because I’m confident in my systems in the outdoors. I have my college experience to thank for that, but I just know that I’m dialed into the ways that I need to in order to be sufficient outside. I have the most fun when I’m outside, which is the core of it. I feel the most fulfillment when I’m outdoors. I don’t think I have a day when I’m running around outside when it didn’t feel like a day of purpose.”
Quinn has always found herself the most comfortable while experiencing uncomfortable situations, and that’s what life is like in the outdoors.
“It’s not easy, but it’s doable, and when it’s doable, for me, it’s fun. And it makes me not take (normal amenities) for granted.”
Quinn has hung up her biking shoes, for a short time, as she recharges while planning her next adventure.
“The Tour Divide is one of the hardest gravel rides in the world, so it’s like, where do I go from here?” she said. “This winter, I’m going to be living and working in Silverton, CO, in ski country. I’m newer to the skiing world, but I’ve always had a desire to get into a more mountaineering conversation, and my biggest obstacle has been my skiing. So this winter, I am forcing myself to live in Silverton, where it’s all backcountry skiing. So that’s what I’m doing to learn something new and hopefully take the next step in my climbing career.”
While she may have completed the most difficult challenge she’s yet to face, Quinn is nowhere near finished testing her limits while continuing to live the life she’s always wanted.
They say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Quinn is the waking embodiment of those words. Something we can all aspire to achieve.