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Tara Weir, overcoming fear and bikepacking the world

In the middle of the night, camping alone high in the Pinal Mountains of Arizona, Tara Weir was woken up by a strange noise outside her tent. There was reason to be afraid. She had seen a lot of bears next to the Wild West trail that she was riding down the Continental Divide, and she knew there were cougars in the area. “I heard this low growling, like a human imitating a wild cat, and got freaked out. I just shouted ‘heyo’ a couple of times and threw a rock in its direction,” says Weir, “then it went away. Sometimes when you’re alone, you hear a squirrel and think it’s a Yeti.”

On the Wild West Route. followmargopolo.com

Not suprisingly, one of Weir’s strengths is her capacity to handle dangers and threats and to enjoy situations which might make other solitary riders nervous. So far, her skill, determination and ability to rationalize risks has led her on her bike through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Australia, New Zealand, Mongolia, Pakistan, India, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Canada, USA, Chile, Argentina, Greece, Nepal.

Tara in a Ger in Mongolia Photo Tara Weir

Weir was born in Toronto and grew up in the Beaches neighbourhood. Her father was an avid rider and as a teenager, she joined him on rides that were sometimes as long as 300 km. At 22, she headed west to work as a tree planter and fell into the lifestyle of working part of the year and going on long bike adventures but kept up her riding habit. Then she read The Masked Rider: Cycling in West Africa by Neil Peart, the drummer from Rush.  “I was struck by the idea of travelling by bicycle. Ultimately, this merged my two biggest passions together: travel and cycling. Peart said that bicycle travel was ‘travel at people speed.’ I was fascinated by the encounters he had with local people in areas where the tourist buses wouldn’t normally stop.”

At 25, she went to China for her first big solo trip. From day one, she was nervous about the language barrier and mechanical breakdowns, but her Trek 520 was a tough machine and when she finally did have a breakdown, local people helped her out. Now she rides a British-built Thorn Nomad, a 26- inch expedition touring bike, with some hard-to get parts and so she carries spares with her to save the worry of having to fix it in an out-of-the way spot.

Tara in Tajikistan followmargopolo.com

For her next trip, which began in Mongolia, Weir was on the road for two years. The remote Mongolian backcountry took her touring and self-reliance to a new level. Her first and only negative encounter in her touring career happened there. “Alcoholism is a big problem in some of the towns,” says Weir, “and I generally wouldn’t hang around very long for this reason. I was groped by a drunk man on the outskirts of one town, but I pushed him away and this was luckily the only incident. The families living in gers [Mongolian yurts] were amazing and I always felt very safe with them.”

The Continental Divide

In the summer of 2019, Weir mounted her bike in Canmore, Alberta and rode the Wild West Route to Mexico.  The trail is 4,545 km long, mostly on 4×4 trails and dirt roads, with just 20 per cent of its total length on pavement. It traverses the mountains of the Continental Divide, the canyons of the Navajo Nation, and the deserts of Arizona. It has sections that are more than 250 km long with no services and several sections up to 155 km long without water. There is a total of 56,388 metres of climbing.

It took Weir three months to reach Mexico.  Although she had good weather for most of the trip, Weir also rode through hard hail and snow in Idaho and spent a couple of nights camping when she was cold in her lightweight gear, and then there were the bears to worry about, but it was worth it. “To be able to ride through a landscape by yourself,” she says, “past rock formations like those in Utah, is amazing, to pass through places unlike anywhere else you’ve seen. I was a hundred per cent self-contained, with three days between resupply. I carried 12 litres of water at most.”

Camping in the wilds of Mongolia followmargopolo.com

She also met all kinds of other people on her ride, including several European riders, a woman doing a solo tour on a unicycle and some friendly Americans who offered her a gun to defend herself in the backcountry. “I don’t go out with fear of people,” says Weir. “TI want to be valued for athletic achievement. Some people want to set the bar lower for a woman, but I don’t want a bias in my head.”  Although she notes that the bikepacking community is inclusive, she also says that “in reality, there are very few women bikepackers. I’ve met maybe five women for every hundred bikepackers I meet. There is a risk of sexual harassment, but the chance of that happening is low. There’s a bit of paranoia, would you ask a man to carry a gun? I want to encourage women to get out there, and it’s not as scary as some say. 99 per cent of the world is good.”

Tara making friends in Tajikistan. Photo Tara Weir

“Don’t have a pressing plan”

For now, Weir works five or six months a year in the forest industry, lives in Dawson Creek BC with her partner and spends most of the rest of her time on her bike. Her bucket list for future tours includes the Peru divide route, Georgia and Armenia, Iceland and Namibia, “(I like deserts,” says Weir).  Her advice to anyone thinking about trying similar trips?

The wide open gravel of western Australia followmargopolo.com

“The biggest thing is don’t over-plan, allow time for people, rest, sightseeing, don’t have a pressing plan. Weather and mechanical failure can affect your plans. Do it how you want. Get an idea and get out there, don’t be on social media, have it be your ride. It’s good to have all the spares you need.” Her favourite pieces of gear are a good water purifier and her MSR Hubba Hubba tent.

Weir admires ground-breaking female long-distance solo bikepacker, Canadian-born Loretta Henderson, who was often asked if she was crazy to do such long solitary rides. “Only on a good day’” she answered, “and every day is a good day on a bicycle tour.”  Weir carries that spirit forward in her passion for riding and exploring the world on her bike.