Riding through a landscape gives you a deeper appreciation for that place. It’s sensory. You breathe the air and you feel the sun and the wind and the weather. You muscle over the hills and your tires surf through the sand and over the rocks. You learn why roads exist and where they lead and who lives among them and what grows there. Sometimes you meet the people and the animals. Sometimes you share the space with fellow travelers and sometimes you ride alone. The farther you pedal, the more your mind becomes part of that space– the space between your body and your bike and the earth. Your mind is in the sky and the tall golden grass. When your body and mind relinquish control over expectations and judgments and find connection to your surroundings, you enter the spirit world, a place of truth and acceptance.
“It’s called the spirit world because from the moment we depart for our ride, we travel into a place in time where only great things exist. It is in this space that we learn vital things about ourselves, we meet lifelong friends and we’re given time to step away from the conformities and structure of reality. For many years, we’ve been referring to breaking through this barrier in the pursuit of endurance as ‘entering the spirit world.’ For so many, this experience is a shared place, a commonality. With this event, we wanted to focus on bringing it to the forefront of our minds and exist there for 3 days.”
–Heidi Rentz, cofounder of the Spirit World 100
The San Rafael Valley is the home of the Spirit World 100, a hundred-mile gravel race put on by Heidi Rentz and Zander Ault, the owners of The Cyclist’s Menu. Last week was the first edition of the race with 100 riders, 42 of them women. The weekend had the feeling of a wedding party from the happy hour greeting on Thursday to the recovery spin on Sunday. It was special. Both Heidi and Zander’s families and good friends came to help and be part of it. It was about getting people together to appreciate the land and each other, pedal our hearts out, eat good food and get excited about new ideas– how we can all challenge ourselves and appreciate our community.
“This is not the Olympics. Be good to each other out there.”
– Heidi Rentz from the Spirit World 100 pre-race talk
Heidi and Zander have been guiding since 2008 and began their own guiding business five years ago to bring a full circle awareness to the places we ride and how we spend our time together. If they have to wear hats, Heidi is the coach and Zander is the chef. They source all local food and put an emphasis on the time we spend together to eat and how the food is prepared with care.
This will be my third year working with Heidi and Zander. We guide five weeks of endurance gravel camps in Southern Arizona. The meat and potatoes of the camps are that guests come in for a week and we ride 50-100 dirt miles a day, coming and going from Patagonia, Arizona. The idea is to push yourself on the bike and take your time off it.
Ride Bikes Eat Food
Breakfast, the simplest and quickest meal of the day, is Time Market toast and Presta coffee and sometimes Forbes bacon from Tucson, Becks Best eggs from Willcox and citrus from Pivot Produce and nut butters and and granola and yogurt if that’s your preference. Don’t think about it if you don’t want to, but it’s all local when it can be. There are stories to be told. Where does our food come from? How does it get here? Who is responsible for that? Ultimately, food is fuel for the ride.
We pedal out at sunrise. Groups of 9-12 come in for the week. Sometimes we all know each other and sometimes we don’t, but I’ll guarantee a great week. The Cyclist’s Menu is a small team of five and we’re all guides. It’s H&Z and me plus Rue to take photos and a mechanic to fix bikes– last year it was Hubert d’Autrement. This year, Hubert might be too busy building steel frames in Tucson and I’ll definitely miss him. Four of us ride and one drives a sag truck in support (never me because I don’t know how to drive). These camps are intimate and personal. The goal is challenge yourself physically in a beautiful place with great, warm winter weather in great company.
The Spirit World 100 last weekend was like a Cyclist’s Menu mini gravel camp on steroids. With ten times the participants and an edge of competition, everything went off without a hitch. If you missed it this year, come back for the next. For the $222 entry fee, we went out for three rides and shared three meals. The course was signed, aid stations were stocked with cookies and donuts and burritos and loving volunteers that cheered for every rider. There was a Mexican Coke bar at mile 90 manned by a barkeep from the old west. There was a Mariachi band at the finish and pinatas and Pueblo Vida beer– all alcohol sales went to Borderlands Restoration Network. It was a weekend of perfect weather, full of heart and miles of gravel.
The San Rafael is an amazing place to ride a bike any day of the week. The Spirit World 100 is special. It draws attention and energy and excitement to the area. It supports the local community of Patagonia and the gravel community at large.
On the surface, the Spirit World 100 is a fun, challenging and delicious party. Deeper down, it’s about people who care about this land and each other and how we interact. The first step towards understanding is showing up and riding through it.
My race day
I wake up early Saturday a little stressed with sealant on my brain. My gravel bike, a Specialized Diverge, is set up tubeless and I haven’t ridden it since the spring or added any fresh sealant. It’s been in Tucson all summer and I’m sure the tires are all dried out. I’m in Patagonia, Arizona, a town of 900 with no bike shop. I have a 2 oz bottle of Stan’s as part of my repair kit and I decide I have to rely on that because I don’t know which tire could possibly flat.
I arrive at the start line ten minutes before race time. Vans and campers are just behind and I see Chris Reichel sitting in a camping chair in front of an open van door.
“Is this your van?”
“Do you, by chance, have any sealant?”
“Yeah! Actually I do. I rode a race last week and as part of the swag they gave us a bottle of sealant.”
He digs through a plastic tub and pulls out a 3 oz bottle of Orange Seal and hands it to me.
“I just don’t have an injector.”
“That’s okay. I can just use the bottle of Stan’s and refill it with the Orange Seal.”
“Sounds great. As long as I don’t have to actually do anything, this is perfect.”
“Do you have a floor pump?”
He pulls it out of the van and sets it next to me.
I hear Zander’s voice on the speaker, “Five minutes until race time! Does everyone have enough water?”
I turn to Chris, “Do you think I have enough time?”
“Go for it!”
I pull out my little repair kit, take out my valve core remover, shake up the little bottle of Stan’s and deflate my front tire. It makes that horrible popping noise that always makes me anxious that I lost my tubeless. I unthread the valve core and take it out. I shoot two ounces of Stan’s into the front tire, thread the valve core back in and pump up the tire.
“There’s one! So far so good.”
I fill the Stan’s bottle with Orange Seal and repeat the process for the second tire.
“Two minutes until race time.” It’s Zander again. Then, over the intercom, I hear, “Where is Lael Wilcox? Has anyone seen Lael Wilcox? She should be sporting the number 1 race plate. She’s probably fashionably late.”
I raise my arm in the air and holler I’m here, but I’m hidden by the vans and I’m hustling. I fill the second tire with air. It seems to hold. I stuff my tools back into my little Topo Designs tool bag and put it in my seat pack. I fill the Stan’s bottle with the rest of the Orange Seal and stash it with my spare tube.
“One minute to go!”
I hop on my bike and pedal to the start line. The field of 100 is all lined up. Woohoo! It’s party time. Zander’s parents and Heidi’s parents and other family and friends and Patagonia locals are in the grass field cheering us off. It’s a neutral start for the first three miles. I ride up next to Josh Berry and Yuri and we roll out.
I ask Josh if he’s going to win. He smiles and says he’s not racing.
“But you have to win anyway, right?”
He grins and shakes his head.
“That’s what I was saying.” Says Yuri.
We’re all smiling big. It’s sunrise and in the mid-50s and it feels like the start of a perfect day.
On our way out of town, up Harshaw Road, a guy on a full-suspension Specialized Epic pulls up next to me. It’s Gus Morton beaming ear to ear. He just got back in the US this week. He says the rear shock on his bike is blown out. In a t-shirt with a backpack, he looks like a kid going to camp. We talk about our summers and his upcoming adventure in Siberia to ride a frozen river. It’s really great to see him.
We hit the dirt on Harshaw Creek, the road turns up and the race begins in earnest. Josh and Yuri push the pace. There’s a pack of a dozen or so of us. Riding bikes is so much fun! Over the next five miles on a rolling climb, the pack splits. I find myself riding mostly with Hannah Bingham and Bobby Weinhold for the rest of the day. I hop on Jay Curry’s wheel for a brief moment and that’s a huge lift. I’ve been riding gravel camps with Jay for the past two years and he’s one of my favorite people in the world to pedal alongside. It’s amazing to share this space and this valley with other people. Jay is the kind of guy you can pedal next to in silence for hours in comfort. His Spirit World 100 is haunted by flats and mechanicals and I don’t get to see him until the end of the day. He never stops smiling, but I wish we could’ve ridden together longer– I know we will soon.
Hannah and Bobby are both on titanium– Hannah’s on a BUILT and Bobby’s on a Moots. Hannah came to gravel camp last spring and I know she can tear my legs off in the most nonchalant and friendly way. She picks up speed like a train car pulling away and it’s hard to hang on. Bobby is on a hardtail with drop bars, 2.25” tires, and a suspension fork. Both Hannah and I have similar drop-bar hardtail Tour Divide rigs and we agree that’s probably the best bike for today. The roads are in rougher shape then I’ve ever seen them– plenty of washboard and stretches with big stones and sand. Bobby has this crazy riding style where, even on climbs, he puts his body into an aero position and rests his forearms on the bars. In my frantic rush to get to the start line, I forgot to put my sunglasses on and I’m getting hit in the face and the eyes with little pieces of gravel.
Josh Berry catches up to me just before the first aid station after Lochiel, Arizona on the Mexican border. You’d never know you were on the border if you didn’t look at a map. I’m not really sure you’d call it a town, more of a conglomeration of four houses and church. You can actually walk up to the border fence and there’s a hole underneath that you could slip right through to the other side. Both sides look the same– tall yellow grasslands as far as you can see. I stop at the aid station to put my sunglasses on and then take off. Hannah catches up quickly, then Bobby, then a guy on a Specialized with pink tires and cantilever brakes and a guy on an orange Giant. He’s riding without a GPS and accidentally turned the wrong way towards the 50-mile course after the aid station. The next thing I really remember is descending loose rock with the group. I watch my Wahoo mount shake up and down and then snap off. I hit the brakes.
Hannah calls out, “everything okay?”
“Yep! Just gotta find my Wahoo.”
I set my bike down and walk up the hill, find the ROAM, slip it in my gas tank and get back on my bike. At the bottom of the hill, the guy on the Specialized with pink tires is pulled over.
“Everything all right? You have everything you need?”
“Yeah.” He shrugs. He’s got a wheel out of the frame, fixing a flat.
I catch the rest of the crew at the next aid station. Greg is manning the table and he reminds us that we’ll see him on the way back. Hannah remarks she’ll grab a cookie then. I fill up my bottles with Skratch.
“Montezuma here we come!”
We start pedaling up Montezuma Pass. It’s an out and back on the course. The road leads up to a National Memorial where you get a view of the Mexican border for hundreds of miles to the east. The Spirit World 100 turns around about halfway up to avoid weekend traffic. We pass a couple of groups of hunters on the way up. There’s a week-long tag for deer and they’re inhabiting most of the free National Forest campsites.
About a quarter of the way up, we see a rider barreling down. His arms are wide and his position is so low that his biceps look fully flexed and parallel to the tops of his bars.
“Is that Brad?” I ask.
“I think so.” Hannah responds.
Brad shoots down the other side and we cheer for him.
Brad is Hannah’s husband. Together they own and run Bingham BUILT, a custom titanium bike brand. Multiple times, Hubert has told me that Brad is the best welder in the US.
“I had no idea he was so fast.”
“Brad is lucky. He doesn’t have to train much and he’s always fast.”
“Yeah, but you still beat him at Dirty Kanza a couple of years ago!”
“Yeah, I always remind him. I think he’s better at middle distance and I’m better at long distance.”
I have never talked so much during a bike race. It’s just fun to be riding with Hannah and we rarely get to ride together. I would absolutely love to see her race the Tour Divide or another bikepacking race. She’s a ripper.
Toiling up, we see another rider descend, then Yuri. I cheer for both and Yuri lights up, twisting his wrist in a hang loose and cheering back. He looks fantastic, totally in his element.
We hit the turn around sooner than I think. We circle around a traffic cone, call out our numbers to the volunteer, Rob, and then head back down. It’s a rough descent on a gravel bike. I hold onto the bars tight and my vision is bouncy and I can’t help but cheer for every rider I see coming up. And mostly they cheer back. The most remarkable I see is a woman on a fully loaded mountain bike making her way up. Later, Bobby tells me that her name is Dani and he ran into her on his way down and she’s just finishing up the entire Arizona Trail, a 750-mile hiking trail. He’s thinking about trying to catch up with her later.
Back down at Greg’s checkpoint, Heidi is there.
“I’ve never seen you in a jersey!”
“This is only the second time I’ve worn one ever!”
I put an almond chocolate cookie in my gas tank and stuff a chocolate chip one in my jersey pocket– that turns out to be a mistake as it breaks apart into little pieces and the chocolate chips melt in the hot sun.
“I’ve gotta go catch them!” And I take off.
“Do you have enough water?” Heidi calls out.
“I think I have a bottle.”
I chase down Hannah and Bobby and holler when I catch them.
“I could feel you coming.” Hannah smiles.
I grab a handful of jersey cookie and eat it.
The next challenge is Lake Road, five miles of rough double track, definitely not my jam on a gravel bike. During a camp last year, one of the riders saw a Mexican border crosser hiding on this stretch. It’s the only immigrant any of us have seen in two years of camps. Later, Matt the rider reflected that he should’ve “accidentally” dropped a water bottle and a snack. Conditions are tough and remote out here. The desert, in all its beauty, is a largely inhospitable place. I can’t imagine trying to cross this land unnoticed. On Lake Road, Bobby on his big tires drops us. Hannah is ahead and I’m following with bouncy vision. I’m just happy when it’s over.
Near the next turn, Hannah is pedaling back towards me.
“Yeah, I was just making sure I was still on the route.”
I pull my Wahoo out of my gas tank.
“Yep! We’re on it.”
She turns around and we ride together, picking up the pace and pedaling hard side by side.
“It’s really incredible to ride with you, Hannah. I just wish we lived closer to each other, so we could ride together more.”
“I know! Somehow, we’re always riding the exact same pace. I almost never ride with anyone during races.”
“Me neither. Check it out.” I point at the fence paralleling the route in the distance.
“That’s the border.”
Tall golden grass grows on either side and we’re out in the wide-open San Rafael Valley. In a three-sixty view, we can’t see a soul.
We’re cooking along near mile 70 and I reach down for a sip of water. As I’m drinking it, I see my front tire rolling over a big rock. With only one hand on the bars, I lose control. I eject out of my seat, land mostly on my hip and yell out.
“Are you okay?”
It’s Hannah. She stopped for me.
From the ground, I do a quick body scan. I mostly feel it in my hip, but my right leg up to my shoulder is scraped up. Gravel rash.
“Yeah, I think I’m fine.”
I stand up and brush the dust off my side. The pain is burning, but not throbbing. I pick up my bike. The bars are rammed under the top tube. It takes some force to pull them out. The right hood is diving in. I whack it straight with the heel of my hand. Next, I check the brakes, then the shifting. The little Di2 derailleur robots are still working.
“It’s shifting! Let’s go!”
We’re back on our bikes pedaling away. My hip’s a little stiff and my scrapes are hot, but I’m moving.
“I just need to loosen it up. Thanks for stopping! I guess that was a wake-up call.”
We both laugh and we don’t slow down.
Five miles later, we’re at Heidi’s momma’s aid station and Heidi is there too and they’re cheering for us. Cynthia takes my water bottle.
“Let me help you out. I’ll fill this up for you. It’s covered in dirt!”
“Yeah, I went down.”
Heidi dusts the dirt off my shoulders.
“Are you okay?”
“Oh yeah! I’m having a great day. Hannah waited for me! Ready to go, Hannah?”
Josh Berry and Travis roll-up. We wave and cheer and roll out.
It’s the home stretch up the valley, then a left and a climb to the Boom Shakalaka where Tomàs is manning the Coke bar. We catch Bobby on the way up and the three of us ride side by side.
“Do you want to stop for a Coke?”
It’s a rolling-aerobic-ride your heart out party. We get a couple of Mexican glass bottle cokes from the cooler. Josh and Travis catch us.
“Step right up.” It’s Tomàs, dressed the part of the old west saloon keeper. He pours us half shots of Bacanora. We’re five at the bar and we clink shot glasses. Our faces are salty and dusty. We down the rest of the Coke bottles.
“Let’s get out of here!”
It’s a nine-mile dirt descent down Harshaw Creek Road past the Spirit Tree. Then, two and a half miles of pavement back to Patagonia. Hannah and Bobby drop me and I can’t say I’m sad to have a few minutes alone in the canyon down. The overhanging trees and the rock walls make it feel Mediterranean– like riding in Greece or Corsica. I will never get tired of this road. My forearms and triceps are tired from gripping the bars. I pass the sign for Rocking Chair Ranch, then I see the Spirit Tree, a 180-year-old Cottonwood. Its leaves are green and bright, it’s trunk broad and strong and fibrous like the feet of an elephant. Almost there.
I hit the pavement, cranking the pedals. I love riding hard at the finish. It’s pavement, past the Arizona Trail and the RV park and the miners’ trailers and into town, a double road strip of storefronts. I’m breathing like an engine, giving it all I’ve got. Marshall Joe Patterson is waiting at the crosswalk, holding traffic so I can rip through. We smile at each other. I can see the Spirit World 100 banner. Zander is on the speaker.
“From Anchorage, Alaska, it’s Lael Wilcox!”
A hearty cheer welcomes me in. I crank past the line and coast down the way. My stomach is churned up and I’m pink in the face and I’m happy about it. Rue comes up to give me a hug. I find Hannah and give her a hug. Brad is there too. Hubert surprised me and I’m so happy to see him. Then, I see Kellie Nelson in her banana suit and I hear the Mariachi band and I see Bobby and we hug.
The ride party becomes the after-party. We get to spend some time with Theresa Curry, who surprised herself ripping up the 50 miler and finishing second in the women’s field. Kristi Mohn gives me a pat on the back. I’m surrounded by friends.
Rue offers me a sip of her beer and I’m just happy she’s there. We head back to shower and come back for sunset and the final finishers. Four of them are rolling the main strip as we’re walking back and we cheer as loud as we can for them and they laugh and cheer back.
Walking up, I see Zander, tirelessly manning the microphone.
“Just six more finishers out there! It’s been a big day. Let’s welcome them in.”
“Hey Z! Let’s do the wave.”
His eyebrows raise.
“Okay, everybody. Lael Wilcox is back and she has an idea. She wants everyone to come out to the finish line to do the wave for the final riders.”
We line up on either side of the road. It probably takes us the final six finishers and a couple of false alarm riders to really get the wave, but by the time Anthony Cassarona, the final rider in 10 hours, 10 minutes comes in, we get it right.
Bright smiling teeth illuminate the night.