A few years ago, I made the peculiar and unexpected transition from being a roadie and diehard cyclocross specialist to ultra-endurance mountain bike racer. Instead of battling for position from the gun and ending up cross-eyed after racing as hard as possible for a scant hour, I now usually find myself alone with my thoughts, being pushed by nothing other than whatever unseen force compels me to continue down an unknown route as quickly as I can for the better part of a day or more.
This past weekend, I headed out on a training ride in the foothills above Boulder with a motley group, some on road bikes, some on mountain bikes, and all looking for a serious climbing workout. I had not ridden with a few of the guys since I quit racing ‘cross, and like many others, they were curious about how I suddenly ended up contesting the longest mountain bike races around.
My answer usually involves something along the lines of, “I guess I got tired of riding around in circles,” but in reality, it’s much deeper than that. Most of the races I had been doing were on the same courses every year, looked frustratingly similar to one another, and ended up feeling like cookbook racing. Physically, I was obviously still being challenged, but my subconscious was longing for more unpredictability, greater mental involvement, and a change of scenery. Beyond that, I simply wanted to ride my bike into unknown territory and explore.
As I began to do more of this in the off-season, my rides got longer, and these desires grew stronger. I read about races like the Grand Loop and the Great Divide Race, and well, a new passion developed.
A few years later, I find myself more excited to train, race, and enjoy the ride than ever before. My competitive drive remains, always goading me on to chase course records and push my limits even farther than I have previously, and my desire to strike out early in the morning with my wheels pointed toward an area I’ve never explored and not return until after dark has never been stronger. I just returned from a month-long trip to the desert, which only reinforced these emotions. I’d like to share a few experiences from that trip that are particularly memorable.
The first destination was the small town of Oracle, Arizona, which is known to many as the [approximate] site of 24 Hours of Old Pueblo. Oracle is also an important spot to refuel along the Arizona Trail 300 racecourse, and in late February, the Antelope Peak Challenge also utilizes this section of the AZT. With a 115-mile option and a less-than-friendly 3:00 am start time, I figured it would be a great test of how my winter training was progressing. It also would be a great test of my new Spearfish frame, which was desperately longing for a good day of singletrack.
Sunrise at the Antelope Peak Challenge
The first hours of the race were rather comical, as the small field of riders struggled to follow the winding, rocky, somewhat overgrown trail through the early-morning darkness that shrouded the seemingly never-ending series of drainages we crossed. Cattle trails tried to lead you astray as catclaw and cholla ripped at your arms and legs. I maintained a very comfortable pace and enjoyed the pre-dawn stillness. As the first hints of the orange glow of dawn appeared over the mountains to the west, Max Morris and I were complaining about how tough it was to pedal with cold bricks for feet. But the coming dawn brought a feeling of warmth, and the tall, stately saguaro cacti towering above carried my thoughts elsewhere as I finally began to settle into a rhythm.
Four hours later, the sun was high in the sky, and Max, Neil Stitzer, and I were all blasting down the north side of the new Ripsey singletrack, simultaneously trying to survive the tight switchbacks and take in the amazing view out across the Gila River and over the cliffs of the Superstition Mountains. This was the farthest point on the course from the start/finish, and my plan was to kick up the pace on the climb out of the canyon below and try to hold it for the 50 miles to the end.
Sedona meet Spearfish, Spearfish meet Sedona
My poorly chosen tires slid through the loose turns while my eyes scanned the slippery bench for the line with the best traction. Despite my hands and calves threatening to cramp up from hard braking and bracing, I pushed to open up a gap. By the bottom, I couldn’t see anyone behind me, and I turned my attention to settling into a far less comfortable pace. My legs felt better than they ever had at this point in a race, and they seemed to accept the increased effort.
The next few hours are a bit fuzzy as I was intensely focused on driving the pace through swoopy desert singletrack. Eventually I rejoined the 65-mile course and began passing some of its racers. Arms draped over the bars, mouth hanging wide open, legs pounding away, I had a hard time believing how effective my winter training had been. After 12.5 hours, I made it back to the start/finish area, winning by more than sixty minutes. I spent the next few hours lounging with other finishers, exchanging stories of the day and other adventures, and enjoying the camaraderie of like-minded riders.
The next week consisted of long days on the bike exploring the trails Sedona has to offer before heading north to St. George, Utah. I had only previously spent a few days riding in the St. George area, and on this trip, I had two weeks to spend there. The riding is nearly endless in every direction from town, ranging from well-constructed singletrack and old wagon routes, to dirt roads and ATV trails. And the landscape ranges from low-elevation desert to lava-capped mesas to high plateaus forming islands in the sky.
Another sampling from the Sedona trails variety pack
After a recovery week, my training plan (usually created on the fly) called for a binge week of 5-6 days of steady riding all day long. Binge weeks when surrounded by unexplored terrain is paradise for me. Fellow ultra-endurance junkie Dave Harris, my gracious host and route consultant, sent me off on some rides during which I was particularly struck by the remoteness of the region.
A whole lot of St George nothingness
It’s one thing when you’re 40 miles from anything when bikepacking and have food and gear to easily sustain a forced bivy for a day or two, but in desolate country on a one-day ride with no such equipment, 40 miles of two-track of unknown quality feels a whole long longer. You don’t know if it will take three hours or 6, and if you are unfortunate enough to have a mechanical, you better have the supplies to fix it, because otherwise you’ll be walking out.
How thirsty are you really?
One such ride was a loop of around the Beaver Dam Mountains, and the combination of remoteness and threatening weather made me feel more insignificant than I ever had while on a bike.
I set out in the morning under threatening skies, but as I climbed west toward the Nevada border, the clouds began to break apart and holes of blue opened up. I had contemplated remaining closer to town, but the lure of circling a mountain range was too great. The farther west I got the stronger the wind became, and by the time I began heading north, gusts were easily topping 40 mph.
Great day for flying kites
This wind pushed me along through the dusty air, but it also created a dread deep in my stomach as it carried in darker clouds. I don’t normally mind riding in rain, but when the soil turns to sticky clay if it’s even a bit wet, you’re shut down where you are unless you carry your bike on your back.
Please don't rain any harder, please don't rain any harder, please don't rain any harder...
The next few hours became a race against the weather, and I dug deep to ride faster and faster as I became more and more nervous. I cursed at myself for failing to bring an emergency bivy or anything more than a single extra shirt as I thought about the what I’d be up against if conditions deteriorated. Shafts of rain briefly appeared and disappeared all around me, but I only felt a few drops before I finally turned onto a paved road near the end of the loop.
Within a few minutes, the sky opened up, but by then, it no longer mattered. I spun back to town, able to fully enjoy the smell of the desert soil soaking up the raindrops as enthusiastically as I had soaked up the miles.