A Community United Around the Tour Divide

Every summer, members of Whitefish’s cycling community rally around long distance cyclists covering a transcontinental route from Canada to Mexico

By Micah Drew
Two bike packers along the Tour Divide route

Around 8 p.m. on June 11, Pete Siudara hopped on his bike in Whitefish and cycled north along East Lakeshore Drive toward Les Mason State Park. 

All afternoon, the bike mechanic at Glacier Cyclery and Nordic had been watching a dot on a screen, tracking the tiny marker with the initials SS as it slowly traversed a digital map, inching closer to Whitefish. The marker indicated the precise location of Sofiane Sehili, a 40-year-old ultra-endurance cyclist from Paris who, in his third go at the 2,745-mile Tour Divide ride, was in the lead. 

Per local tradition, Siudara and other members of the local cycling contingent were on hand to give him a warm Whitefish welcome.

“I’ve probably been doing this for the last 10 years now,” Siudara said. “It’s kind of funny that we just watch dots on the map, anticipate when riders will pass through town and then we can ride out and meet them.”

When Siudara caught Sehili, the Frenchman was already accompanied by another local rider. Along the lake, a few more locals joined for the miles into town, and another four or five showed up outside Columbia Falls to spend a few hours with the leader of the Tour Divide Ride. 

“I always keep in mind that they might not be super chatty, but they usually don’t mind the company and Sofiane was actually fairly talkative,” Siudara said. “I mean, the leaders haven’t slept since starting out in Banff, and they usually won’t for the first 500-700 miles before taking their first nap around Helena.”

The Tour Divide ultra-endurance bikepacking ride is a time trial that takes place on the Great Divide Mountain Bike route, a transnational linkup of trails and roads between Banff, Alberta, and New Mexico. Like long-distance thru-hiking, cyclists can attempt the route as a self-supported adventure heading northbound or southbound anytime during the year. Every June, however, the Tour Divide offers a mass start for cyclists who want to add an element of camaraderie and competition to the task. 

That’s how Sehili, the eventual winner of this year’s Tour Divide, came on Siudara’s radar.

“It’s my favorite sporting event in the world now,” Siudara said. “There’s a bit of nostalgia in it. When I was a kid, I’d go out with the other neighborhood kids and we’d ride bikes chasing the ice cream trucks through the neighborhood. Now I’m 40 and instead of ice cream trucks we go and chase down the Divide leaders.”

From Banff, the Great Divide Route winds through the Canadian Rockies into the Kootenay Valley and crosses the international border outside Eureka before snaking through the Whitefish Range to the North Fork of the Flathead River outside Glacier Park. It crosses back across the mountains and sends riders through Whitefish, Columbia Falls and outside of Bigfork before following the Swan River Valley to Seeley Lake. 

A bikepacker shows off his set up for the self-supported Tour Divide Ride

Sehili covered the full course in just two weeks and a few hours, ending in Antelope Wells, New Mexico on June 24. 

He passed through the Flathead Valley just ahead of a winter storm that brought cold temperatures and record-level precipitation along the U.S.-Canada border, which led to numerous search-and-rescue responses for riders on the northern leg of the route, including one in Glacier National Park. 

“I get super pumped every time this race happens, but there’s also some worry for the riders, especially in a year like this,” Siudara said. 

 The camaraderie and aid furnished to cyclists passing through the Flathead is endemic within the local cycling community. Michael Meador, a co-owner of Glacier Cyclery who’s watched every edition of the Tour Divide pass through Whitefish, noted that the first Sunday after the Tour Divide officially begins is the only Sunday all year that the shop opens for business. 

“It’s still such an under-the-radar event, but people who know cycling will set up with hot cider to offer riders or go join them for a few miles and can direct riders to the bike shops or spots to camp,” Meador said. “It’s so cool seeing this race come through because it’s got an international field, and there’s such a range from the front of the pack to average people who just got the bug to do a long-distance event.”

Whitefish sits at, or near, the conjunction of multiple long-distance cycling routes including the Northern Tier (Washington to Maine) and the Great Parks Route (Jasper to Missoula) in addition to the Divide, meaning bikepackers can routinely be seen passing through town all summer. 

Last weekend, Max Theyskens and Adriaan Ghoos paused at Fleur Bakery after riding up from Bigfork on a northbound trek. The duo had quit their jobs in Belgium and were pursuing the athletic challenge as a grand reset in their lives.

“The Divide Route seemed perfect — a good length, and definitely not an easy task,” Theyskens said. “We decided to start in the south because the Canadian Rockies seems like a better place to end up than the desert near Mexico.”

The Belgians have been “taking it pretty easy” since setting out May 12, averaging around 90 miles a day. 

“I mean it’s three in the afternoon and we’re just sitting on a terrace having some coffee and a bite to eat,” Ghoos said. “It’s a pretty rough go of it.”

Theyskens said one of the best aspects of tackling a route that’s so well-established is the little bits of “trail magic” that locals offer to riders passing through. Just that morning in Bigfork, an elderly man met the two outside their campsite and offered them some coffee, energy bars and mandarin oranges. 

“It just brings you into contact with so many friendly and helpful people in these cool towns,” Theyskens said. “And overall it’s just a great opportunity to see wonderful places and step back and reflect on what you want to do with the rest of your life.”

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