The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) is the longest off-pavement trail in the world. Stretching for 2,754 miles from Banff, Canada, to the Mexican border near Antelope, N.M., the GDMBR accumulates a total of over 200,000 feet of elevation gain. For even the most experienced of mountain bikers, the GDMBR’s unpredictable weather and rough terrain prove to put a fair amount of wear and tear on bike, body, and mind. Now imagine pedaling all of those 2,754 miles on a unicycle. Gen Shimizu from Charlottesville, Va., is one of the few to have done just that.
“A lot of people said, ‘that’s really cool,’ when I first told them what I was doing,” says Shimizu, “but I’m sure behind my back they were saying, ‘this guy is nuts.’”
Shimizu was by no means an avid unicycler when he first made the decision to ride the Divide. Having attended the University of Virginia to study mechanical engineering, Shimizu had lost touch with his childhood unicycling passion after high school. In fact, he hadn’t even touched the one-wheeled contraption in over a decade.
“I don’t remember when or how I discovered the Great Divide Route, but when I did, I knew immediately that I’d be riding it some day,” Shimizu says. “I made the decision to ride the route about nine months before starting, and when I decided to benefit a charity I realized that I needed a way to draw attention and distinguish the ride. Getting rid of a wheel was the first thing to pop into my head.”
Shimizu most certainly drew attention to his plans. During the months leading up to his trip, he attended outdoor events throughout the region and publicized his cause via social media. By the end, he had managed to raise $10,600 for the Polaris Project, an organization aimed at ending human trafficking. After donating the dough, Shimizu was ready to begin his self-supported (and self-funded) GDMBR ride.
“I left on June 23, 2012,” he says. “It took me 89 days to reach the Mexican border.”
The first few weeks in Canada proved to be challenging for Shimizu, especially given that he had done little to no training prior to departure.
“I’d only tried riding the unicycle with a full load once before the trip and had done minimal off-road riding,” he says. “I approached the trip with the mindset that it was another long-distance backpacking trip, except with a wheel.”
Despite Shimizu’s lack of mountain biking experience, he was well versed in the ways of the woods. Having thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004, traversed 1,200 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2006, and thru-hiked the Long Trail in 2011, Shimizu knew of the challenges he could encounter in the wilderness. The one challenge he had not prepared himself for were the long miles in the saddle.
“Every day was a challenge,” he says. “During the first part of the trip, I was often counting by tenths of a mile and had to stop every mile just to get off the seat.”
The discomfort did little to slow Shimizu down. Once he became accustomed to the routine, he was averaging 40 to 60 miles per day and resupplying every three to four days. Throughout the journey, Shimizu only suffered a sprained ankle; for him, it was more the mental challenges that were starting to take their toll.
“The loneliness hit me about halfway through the trip,” Shimizu says. “I had to deal with that for a few weeks before finally meeting up with a few other cyclists in southern Colorado.”
For the latter half of the ride, Shimizu seldom spent a night alone, which proved to be a comforting luxury given his fear of the dark. By the time the group reached New Mexico, Shimizu was able to keep up with his two-wheelin’ friends on steep climbs.
“For me, New Mexico combined my longest mileage days with the biggest climbs, most challenging terrain, least daylight, and heaviest pack weights,” he says. “I was sometimes loaded with 22 pounds of water in addition to food and gear and trying to ride 50 to 70 miles a day over 10,000-foot passes. I was really pushing my limits.”
Although Shimizu came across a few unicyclists who were riding the GDMBR, he was not exempt from the smiles and stares of disbelief whenever he cruised by a crowd. Once, Shimizu was coming upon an overlook in the Grand Teton National Park when he realized how truly spectacular a sight he was.
“There were several people lined up along the road, and I realized they weren’t facing the amazing lake and mountains but the road,” he says. “I started looking around for a grizzly or some other sort of wildlife that they were photographing, but it turned out that I was the attraction.”
Although Shimizu valued his time on the GDMBR, he says that he will probably forgo any future long-distance mountain unicycling trips in the future.
“Every so often I’ll catch myself thinking about possibly doing another unicycle trip, but then I have to slap myself,” he says. “One of the things I value most about doing these trips is that my memories are so much more vivid. I can recall events from every day of my ride, but I’d struggle to tell you what I did two days ago.”
See what it takes to ride a unicycle – and see if Jess can do it – on BRO-TV: Unicycling 101.