How three friends conquered the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

Taking a break from their Great Divide trip, the trio stopped at the railroad station in Pike National Forest, at the top of Boreas Pass. From left: Taylor Kuyk-White, Meghan Dinneen and Carolyne Whelan. Courtesy of Carolyne Whelan

My friend Meghan and I came up with the idea to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route two years ago, after she had knee surgery and couldn't ride during our annual mountain bike vacation at Raystown Lake, Pennsylvania. The Great Divide trip was something for us to look forward to, but few people believed we'd actually follow through with such nonsense.

It's 2,700 miles of mostly backcountry, single-track dirt roads, from Banff, Alberta to the Mexican border station in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. We are strong, wild spirits, but we are also dreamers, not planners, and we agreed to do the trip at a time when were both feeling trapped -- in our mid-30s and feeling for the first time the constraints of adulthood we'd avoided for so long. The adventure would be the key to our mental cuffs.

Six months before leaving on our trip, we welcomed Taylor, a woman on Meghan's cycling team who's in her late 20s, to our crew. She's a strong cyclist and an ambitious, organized person -- a good counterpoint to Meghan and me. Having a third cyclist added a level of safety I've been trying on lately like a wig, feeling fancy and not quite like myself.

By the time we invited Taylor, my husband and I had left Pittsburgh to live in a travel trailer, picking up odd jobs around the country, riding every mountain bike trail, and soaking our tired muscles in hot springs. I felt free, but wanted to keep the promise I'd made to Meghan. Still, I wondered how our group would mesh. Meghan and I have known each other for six years; Taylor and I had only talked on the phone in preparation of the trip. We were all about to spend 45 grueling days together -- enough to test the strongest bond, not to mention one that was newly formed.

People often attest that mutual struggle brings people together, and we certainly had a lot of that. We had complications before we even left home, from flight cancellations and denied access to Canada because of a scratched-up passport and cranky airport employee, to nine days of hard rain and the consequential mud that weighed down our bikes like cement.

I panicked on a mountain in British Columbia when my knee gave out and I didn't think I would make it to civilization, never mind survive the next 2,500 miles.

But we kept moving, through injury and mechanical problems (Taylor ingeniously rigged a severed shift cable with a zip tie to get moving again until the bike shop 200 miles away). We all got food poisoning in the brush behind a train station in Chama, New Mexico. We had to reroute several times around wildfires. We ran out of water in Wyoming's Great Basin when all the rivers and reservoirs were barren.

Amid all the chaos, we always chose kindness. We worked hard to talk to each other, to understand each other and what the group needed. We respected each other and what each person brought to the group.

In the ideal story of three women traveling together, we meet and bond like sisters, sync our cycles and have a great vacation with great hair and limited turmoil. But in the real world of real adventure with real women, there is a lot of strife and legitimate danger. We encountered bears, wolves and Canadian lynx on our ride. There were steep cliffs and food shortages during 500-mile stretches between towns. There was the risk of serious injury from crashing or overuse.

We bonded over all of that. We also bonded over splitting our last packet of oatmeal, laughing over the shared, miserable encounter with the only other humans we saw in the Great Divide Basin: two creepy through-hiker men who took off all their clothes near the river where we stopped for lunch, then swung their genitals at us and asked if we wanted to catch their river snakes.

My friends and I bonded, especially, over the real decisions that had to be made collectively to ensure our safety and psychological well-being: how to navigate around wildfires, when to hitchhike or sleep indoors, how to support each other when our bodies broke down.

Meghan told me, once we finished, that there were times early on when she wanted to quit. There were times I wanted to bail, too, when we were soaked through with rain and mud and it just wasn't fun anymore. The difference between who we feared we were and who we rose to become, however, is that we all stayed. For ourselves, for each other. We kept riding, and stayed together as a group. There were times when I sprinted up a mountain just to give myself some space, but I was always there, waiting at the top for my friends.

We weren't always in sync, but we were always a collective. It's OK that we don't all communicate in the same way, because three of any one of us might cause the world to explode. In the end, we each brought something important to the journey. Taylor brought structure and organization, Meghan brought compassion and levity, and I brought nonchalance which, admittedly, might have been infuriating at times but helpful at others when it was so easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of planning and change and forget that we were on a really epic bike ride.

I was humbled in the presence of these monumentally strong and incredible women, who made me thankful for a world filled with cool, strong, smart, inventive and adventurous women. I'm especially grateful that two of them chose to spend their summer riding bikes with me.