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It was earlier this summer in Nebraska that a New York filmmaker brought up the Continental Divide, saying she didn’t know what or where it was until it came up that day in conversation.

When you’ve lived in the shadow of the Continental Divide all your life, the landmark becomes one of those things you take for granted, and, as a result, you suspect it’s the same for everyone.

To be fair, I know nothing of the Cumberland Gap, the Mason Dixon Line or, for that matter, the Eastern Continental Divide, which delineates water from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

But here in Helena, our Continental Divide reigns supreme. It’s always in view, it breaks up storms and delivers others, and it represents a rugged link to places held sacred by those familiar with its offerings.

It also has an alluring call, especially among adventure seekers drawn to the challenge of conquering the country’s geographic backbone.

While hiking the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico is a challenge in itself, riding it in a mountain-bike race always seemed to me out of the question. And doing it in less than 18 days seemed next to impossible.

But if you ask guys like Matthew Lee, who completed the 2,745-mile route last year in 17 days, 23 hours and 45 minutes, it’s perfectly possible. In fact, four riders completed the route in less than 20 days, while Tracey and Jay Petervary set a tandem course record of 18 days and 13 hours.

For some, the annual York 38 Special is grueling enough, winding through the Big Belt Mountains with more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain. A good rider can complete the course in less than 200 minutes (the Montana Velo gang included), though I’ve never been one of them.

Tour Divide, in contrast, includes 220,000 feet of elevation gain through some of the country’s most rugged environments and unforgiving climates, from the cold of the Northern Rockies to the heat of southern New Mexico.

While 47 riders have committed to this year’s race — none from Montana — several other competitors have submitted their letters of intent. They are letters mixed with the exuberance for adventure and trepidation from the inevitable pain that comes with it.

“Please allow me to ride, to suffer, and to achieve ecstasy?” wrote Christina Domecq. “Nothing in 2010 has so honest a reflection of the highs and lows life can have as the Great Divide. I can’t wait!”

Brett Foster of Kirkland, Wash., put it this way; “Too long have I followed and dreamed of this race not to give it a run, so this June it’s time. An adventure fueled by Pop Tarts & heat lamp burritos; can’t wait.”

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Their apprehension is understandable. Tour Divide is the longest off-pavement cycling route in the world. Riders travel through Alberta and British Columbia before dipping into Montana at the Roseville Port of Entry.

The course touches the towns of Whitefish, Ovando, Lincoln, Helena and Butte. Before it’s over, riders will pass through Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado before emerging in New Mexico and calling it good at the Mexican border.

There’s enough elevation gain that, if they were inclined, participants could summit Mount Everest from sea level seven times. That would make Sir Edmund Hillary proud, though I doubt he ever dreamt up anything as crazy as Tour Divide.

In fact, the race didn’t even begin until 2008, and Lee has won it both times. That first year, 16 bikers started the race and just eight of them finished. Last year, 42 riders started the race and 16 finished.

Now, with 47 riders slated to jump at the gun, there’s a good chance more will finish the course than ever before.

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