Inside THE DIVIDE
If you love Michigan gravel and the physical and mental challenge of a sufferfest, you’ll love THE DIVIDE. I hated it . . . and I loved it. THE DIVIDE race was aptly named because it’s the dividing point between the spring and fall gravel races—in the middle between Barry-Roubaix and Iceman. Noted as featuring “only a little sand” the amount of sand on the course took this beginner by surprise, including a wicked two-track section called Gilbert Corners that seemed to go on forever. Experienced cyclists know that racing through sand requires some amount of skill, speed, confidence, and technique. Given this was my first try on a course with sections of sand and more than I had ever experienced before; I wished I had practiced beforehand. A gravel bike gives you freedom to tackle mixed terrain, but strength and endurance is required to get safely through it. Mental toughness is necessary as well, and while I trusted “my horse” and equipment, the rider could have used more nerve and practice time in similar conditions.
THE DIVIDE roads, true to Michigan gravel, also included some wall-style ascents and some scary-ass-fast-descents, along with one sharp left turn at the bottom of one particular hill. I’ve discovered that I’m pretty fearless racing downhill but need to work on tapping the breaks at the right time. On that downhill, while riding close to another racer on my left, I made a split second decision to go straight through the intersection on my trusty GIANT ToughRoad GX and backtrack rather than risk the turn and crash into the woods. I’m glad I did as the volunteer monitor said several folks had eaten some sand upon missing the turn that day.
What impressed me most about this well-organized and supported race was the local Manton community and the ice cold beverages handed out by cheering faces along the way. So, wanting to know more about the backstory of this race, I reached out to Jeff Harding, Founder of THE DIVIDE to get the scoop. Jeff explained that he first had the idea of holding a bike race after riding Barry Roubaix for the first time. At the BRX finish line, Jeff’s friends and teammates all wanted to know: “How’d you like those hills?” As a native of Northern Michigan, Jeff was a little confused because the BRX course seemed just fine—hard, fast, and hilly, but nothing insurmountable. Then, after having accomplished a few more MGRS races, Jeff realized how awesomely amazing Manton’s back roads really are.
As the Track & Field and Cross Country coach for Manton High School for the past 22 years, Jeff is lucky to partner up with another running coach, Rick Swanson. Rick was Manton’s track coach for the past 40 years and taught Jeff how to run a variety of large quality meets, including Michigan’s High School State Finals for Track & Field. Jeff explained, “As a high school running coach the most difficult challenge is getting the kids and their families to work out during the off season. Over the years I started taking my runners to area trails and anyplace I could find that provided exercise that the kids found to be fun. However paying for these trips has always been a problem. Eventually I got into holding running races to earn money to help pay for these costs and have held several different 5k races and even a team marathon—none of which ever took off. Then, over the years of coaching, I developed a friendship with Don Passenger from Michiana timing. At that time I was using his company to time my team marathon and was talking to him about giving up on the marathon. He then suggested that we put together a bike race.”
As good planning and good luck would have it, THE DIVIDE’S proceeds are now large enough that Jeff can take the cross country teams up to Traverse City for a four-day team camp at Timber Ridge. They have also added in weekly team trips. In exchange, the kids and their families help work the race!
Since THE DIVIDE was picked up by the MGRS in 2017, THE DIVIDE participants have increased too. Jeff is no longer worried about losing money and has started to think about including some cool race swag for the 2020 race edition. As for the one-of-a-kind awards, THE DIVIDE medals are made from cedar trees from property that lies along the course. The work of cutting, sanding, stamping and finishing the awards is done with loving care by the Manton cross country athletes, his kids, and Jeff himself.
So, after my most challenging 34 miles and 2,400ish feet of climbing sufferfest, I happily crossed the finish line to earn the podium for my age group (me, myself, and I) and a very unique Manton-created cedar award! I’ll be back to race THE DIVIDE and the next time I plan to grab one of those frozen juice pops along the way.
-Arlene “Lenie” Gavin