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Coast to Coast: Unveiling the GNBR with Matt Kadey

Discover the Great Northern Bikepacking Route—a 15000 km epic dirt trail that traverses Canada East to West with a small dip into the United States. We spoke with the route's creator, Matt Kadey about how he created the GNBR and what riders can expect.

Coast to Coast: Unveiling the GNBR with Matt Kadey

For the past year and a half, Matt Kadey, from Waterloo, Ontario, has been creating a monumental bikepacking route. Spanning 15,000 kilometers (approximately 9,300 miles), the Great Northern Bikepacking Route (GNBR) is a cross-continental odyssey that starts in Victoria, British Columbia. From the scenic vistas of the Pacific, riders embark on a rugged traverse across the Rocky Mountains before descending into the vast plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan. It then meanders across Manitoba, before dipping southward into the United States, weaving through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The route then re-enters Canada, continuing its eastward march across Ontario and through the diverse landscapes of Eastern Canada, finishing in St. John's, Newfoundland. With a staggering elevation gain of 120,000 meters, the GNBR is the epic adventure of a lifetime.

The first encounter I had with the Great Northern Bikepacking Route was through an email from its architect, Matt Kadey. On that particularly hectic day, I hastily acknowledged his message with a cursory "thanks for sending" and continued with my day, not realizing what had just landed in my inbox. It wasn't until a few weeks later, while walking my dog and letting my mind wander to fantasies of bikepacking across Canada, that Matt's email resurfaced in my brain. I dedicated that evening to delving into Matt's work on the GNBR. The scope and scale of the route astounded me, igniting a slew of questions.

Matt is not only a registered dietitian with a freelance career in nutrition and food writing, but he is also a prolific route creator. Known for his significant contributions to Eastern Canada's bikepacking scene, Matt's expertise in crafting engaging and challenging routes has made him a notable figure in the community. Could the GNBR be his opus? Let's find out how it all happened.

What inspired the creation of the GNBR?

To be honest, the GNBR was partially born out of a personal challenge. In recent years, I became increasingly curious to see if I could create a viable true bikepacking route that spans the country. A few things spurred on this festering desire to create this route. There had been an uptick in long-haul bikepacking routes coming online including the Eastern Divide and the European Divide which showed there was an appetite for these lengthy routes. I also believed it was time to revamp the typical cross-country bike route that involved a heavy reliance on highway riding. More bike touring enthusiasts are seeking out routes that take them off the pavement and onto dirt, so why can’t there be an option for crossing Canada in this style? To be honest, the standard cross-Canada bike route that most cycle tourists take has never been one that has interested me in the least. Now there is a route that certainly does.

Can you walk us through the process of designing such a long route?

It’s a big project, to say the least. For each region, I will start by pouring over maps, trail system listings such as Trailforks and heatmaps to determine what are some viable routing options. To say that I spend a lot of time in the route planner mode on Ride with GPS would be a significant understatement. I’ll then perform an initial plot and revise this several times to make necessary adjustments. My past experiences in developing routes have helped make this a more efficient process, but perhaps no less time-consuming.

I also make it a point to tap into local expertise. I’ve received an invaluable amount of great routing intel from local riders across the span of the route that has aided in making improvements to the GNBR. There can be a big difference between looking at a map on the computer compared to the reality on the ground.

too many long-distance bike routes bypass singletrack trails which I think is a mistake

The overall goal of the route is to include an engaging mix of riding surfaces including gravel roads and dirt singletrack and the design process I go through is to make sure I am meeting the need to have this variety in the route. From the onset, I wanted to highlight some of the better trail systems from coast to coast, which, admittingly, is a bit of a work in progress. But I also know that too many long-distance bike routes bypass singletrack trails which I think is a mistake. A ride on a flowy trail as a break from the gravel grind can do wonders to make a route more engaging, both physically and mentally. But, perhaps, that is just my love of mountain biking wedging its way into the route.

It was also a goal to take the route through some of the most interesting areas in each of the provinces. In New Brunswick, you’ll pass through some of its charming wooden bridges. In PEI, you’ll visit the red sands of Prince Edward National Park. In Alberta, it's possible to ride on the meandering canal roads which are more interesting than the gravel grid stuff. And in Quebec, the route takes riders to Quebec City which is arguably the most fetching metropolis in the nation.

I ultimately decided to take the route into the United States (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan) to avoid a very lengthy stretch of highway riding in northern Ontario. This has always been a problem area for riders moving across the country on two wheels. Overall this is a win as truck and RV-laden road riding is replaced with quiet forested backroads and some excellent trail riding in the US portion. The GNBR was never meant to be a pure coast-to-coast ride in a single country.

It should also be noted that the route is peppered with route alternatives that give a rider an option for what direction they would like to take at a particular time. Sometimes, this makes for easier riding and at other times the route alternative offers a more adventurous ride with a bigger time and effort commitment.

This is a serious undertaking. Do you have any advice for aspiring route designers?

Well, I would never advise someone to start with such a grandiose route. I’ve been building smaller routes for some time now which has allowed me to better understand what techniques work best and learn from mistakes such as sending a route through an overly taxing area without any real payoff. So, I would recommend building a route using these steps:

  • Use the best tools such as Ride with GPS to make the process easier and more enjoyable.
  • Study established routes to see how popular routes work.
  • Start with a more manageable smaller route that won’t seem so overwhelming and where it’s easier to learn from missteps.
  • Reach out to route developers for any necessary guidance on the process.
  • Try to include as much variety in riding terrain as possible. This will keep riders better engaged when riding the route.

Route designers also need to decide how committed they are going to be to a route. Maintaining a route over the years can require a fair amount of effort and time. I’ve seen plenty of routes go fallow as it’s a one-and-done for the route developer who has now failed to keep it properly updated including making any necessary route changes. In the end, this might be my biggest challenge with the GNBR. Properly maintaining a 15,000km route is no small task.

What is the estimated timeline for the GNBR to be fully completed and open to riders?

Certainly, the GNBR is in beta mode, but for the most part, it is ready to go. The 2023 riding season had more people testing various sections than I anticipated which accelerated its completion. So I would say that it’s possible to get out there and ride the route. But, yes, there are likely a few alterations that still need to be made based on user experience. The route is over 15,000 kilometers in length so the chances that it will be a set route are slim as there are just too many nuances such as trail closures and new private property that consistently require some routing changes. The GNBR is an adventure route so you need to go into the ride with an adventurous spirit and ready to make some pivots on the fly. But going forward, I am committed to making the route as accurate and rideable as possible.

What have been the biggest challenges in creating the GNBR?

There are so many moving parts with this route making it a real challenge to keep on top of things. For instance, when new trails get built along the route it can be a struggle to stay updated on this especially when I live thousands of kilometers away. In Canada, land access is always going to be an issue when it comes to bikepacking. In some areas, it can be a struggle to know where public access is allowed and where it is not. Certainly, this would be an easier undertaking if we had the right to roam like they do in Scotland. Building the website to include the relevant route information for 10 provinces and 3 U.S. states has also been more of a time commitment than I had anticipated.

What should riders expect in terms of difficulty and terrain variation from the GNBR?

A rider needs to go into this route expecting everything. You’ve got demanding sections in terms of elevation and rougher riding conditions (hello, B.C.), you’ve got some more mellow areas where riders can eat up miles on flatter, smoother terrain, and you’ve got legit trail sections where it’s possible to scratch a MTB itch. Some segments, most notably through Quebec, involve big stretches of true wilderness riding which a rider needs to be prepared for. There won’t be a Tim Hortons around the corner anytime soon out there. Variety is the name of the game when it comes to the GNBR.

Of course, this is Canada so you have a legit weather factor. A flat ride in the prairies can turn into a physically and mentally big task when the wind is your enemy. Maritime storms can roll in and quickly turn a ride into a swimming event. And let's not forget bug season. In short, expect it all on the GNBR. Again, this was not designed to be your standard cross-country ride. I think it is much more interesting which requires some hardships along the way.

How can people contribute to the development and maintenance of the GNBR?

The more assistance the better to make the GNBR as good as it can be. Firstly, people can simply get out on sections of the route and test things out. The more ground truthing I can get, the better. And even better if a rider could provide some photography of the route. I’m also happy to hear from local riders who have routing suggestions. For instance, the British Columbia section has seen many routing changes in the past few months in response to input from riders who know the areas better than I do. And because of this, this segment of the GNBR is fantastic and better than it would be if it was just me plotting things.

What should riders do to prepare for tackling the GNBR both physically and mentally?

If someone wants to take on the full GNBR it’s best if this is not their first kick at the can. This is pretty massive. A smart move would be to take on a few shorter routes first to allow one to work a few things out. From this build-up, you can learn how better to prepare physically and mentally and also make better gear choices. If you are not ready to adequately deal with set-backs while on a shorter route then you are likely not ready for a long-haul route like the GNBR. I should note that I am also promoting the GNBR as a route that you can tackle in segments and not something you need to tick off all at once. This can be a more approachable way to complete the route and, to be honest, is the way that I am doing it. Not everyone is retired or quitting their job to spend 6 months on the road. I’ve even come up with a pledge of completion option where someone can commit to completing the route, even if it is done in dozens of smaller segments over decades.

I have also created a few GNBR micro rides which are loops within a certain section. At the moment, I have shorter routes in B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. These certainly offer the opportunity for a taste of the GNBR in a much shorter adventure.

How do you plan to incorporate rider feedback into ongoing adjustments and improvements of the route?

I’m always happy to consider input from users to make the route as good as it can be. A good route developer should not be too stubborn and scared of change. With that said, through my years of maintaining routes in Ontario that get heavy use, I’ve learned what input adds value and what input is quite frankly just complaining. For instance, I’ve had people say to me that the BT 700 route in Ontario has too much unnecessary hike-a-bike, but I’m confident that I have removed all of this from past forms of the route and it’s now likely more user error than a flaw of the route. There are always going to be sections of a backpacking route that some people enjoy and can ride well while these sections are a big challenge physically and mentally for other riders. A route can’t be everything to everyone. My job is to figure out what user input is something to take seriously.

Are there plans to expand the GNBR or connect it with other major bikepacking routes in the future?

I should mention that the GNBR makes use of some existing routes in Canada, which has been very helpful in making this project more feasible. To create a 15,000km route of this complexity from scratch would have been a nearly Sisyphean task. Already, it’s possible to link the GNBR with the Eastern Divide Route running down the eastern side of America. So you can start out in Victoria, ride the GNBR to New Brunswick and then hook into the Eastern Divide Trail which takes you all the way down to the Florida Keys. This would be a ride that is certainly worthy of being heralded as epic. It’s also possible to link the GNBR with the Great Divide Trail for another long-haul adventure. We are living in a great time to go on a very long dirt ride.

For more info and all the GPX files for the route, make sure to check out the GNBR site that is a treasure trove of information for anywhere seriously contemplating undertaking it. Also, don't miss some of Matt's other routes at Bikepacking Ontario and the BT700.

📸 : @abmtnguy, @thisisalibecker and @mariepierresavard.

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