This is the fourth and final part of an ongoing series:
Full Circle on the Grand Loop: Part III – A Cyclocross Specialist Turned Ultra Racer
Full Circle on the Grand Loop: Part II – The First Modern Bikepacking Race
Full Circle on the Grand Loop: Part I – Trail Visions Ahead of Their Time
2020, the year that virtually nothing has panned out as expected, delivered an unexpected opportunity for me to return to the Grand Loop. I flew home to Arizona in late March after an aborted tour across Alaska as the Covid-19 pandemic worsened. My body was exhausted from winning a 4-day-long Iditarod Trail Invitational – conditions were challenging enough that the race took twice as long as it does in “good” years. After the race, I continued touring farther along the trail for another 250 miles before Native villages began closing to visitors. When I returned home, my body was worn out. The next month was devoted to recovery as I watched in awe as the world as we knew it ground to a halt amid the worsening pandemic.
My Pivot Mach 4 SL ready to roll through fresh summer snow with 2.6” tires, a 28-tooth chainring, bar-ins, and 18,500 calories of snacks.
As my energy returned, it was prime riding season for the chunky, overgrown, and relentlessly challenging trails in my backyard mountains, the Bradshaws. So all I did for weeks was thrash myself and my bikes with my favorite kind of riding on all those steep moto trails. I wasn’t training, per se, but that style of riding (and hike-a-bike) might even be better than structured training – it makes you incredibly strong and it keeps a smile on your face, or at least my face. Also, other tough trails don’t feel nearly as difficult after spending so much time in the Bradshaws.
It wasn’t long before my attention returned to that SNOTEL meteorological station data again at Columbine Pass, the high point on the Grand Loop. The winter hadn’t been too harsh in western Colorado, and it looked like a mid- June Grand Loop ride could be possible. I felt strong, and the Bradshaw riding was notably more difficult than virtually everything on the Grand Loop. That offered a big confidence boost. But June arrived, and the communities in eastern Utah and western Colorado remained closed to tourism due to the pandemic. Disappointed, I resigned myself to waiting yet another year for a possible return to the Grand Loop.
But two weeks later, I found myself nervously bouncing around between county tourism websites and weather forecasts. With the pandemic easing, counties along the Grand Loop had just reopened and were promoting tourism already, and a remarkably cool 3-day-long weather window appeared in the forecast a week out. I grinned. Against all odds, a 2020 Grand Loop was going to happen after all.
The days leading up to my solo race were filled with eager and giddy anticipation. I had been looking forward to the impending adventure for years – the remoteness of the Grand Loop, the breathtaking and intimidating landscape, and the challenge of tackling all in one go. I was also so much stronger and wiser than I had been way back in 2008. My plan was to start at the high point on the route. Dave Harris had set a new standard on the loop way back in 2009, starting somewhere other than Grand Junction and including the formerly untimed prologue section in the total time, and I opted to follow suit. Starting at the high point above the town of Nucla meant that I’d be up high in cooler air on the Tabeguache Trail for the first day. Then I’d be on the lowest and hottest parts of Kokopelli Trail overnight, back up high in the La Sals the second day, and on the lower and hardest miles on the Paradox Trail the second night. Of course, that meant I had to stick to my rather ambitious 2-day target pace – half a day faster than Dave’s decade-old record.
I opted to start at the high point on the route atop the crest of the Uncompahgre Plateau.
I also chose to ride the new recreational paths between Grand Junction and Fruita to get off roadways, and I’d take the “true” Paradox Trail across the seldom-traveled Koski Traverse rather than the faster and substantially easier alternate through the tiny town of Bedrock. Stefan Griebel had been the only person to race the true Paradox, way back in 2007. And his feat that year had been incredibly impressive. There also were around 18 miles of new trail included on the Paradox near Nucla that got the route off some faster gravel roads and 2-tracks. And beyond those choices, I also decided to pack all the food I’d need to avoid going inside any stores in Grand Junction or Fruita during the pandemic. That meant I started with 13 pounds of food – 18,500 calories! Fortunately, I didn’t pack much besides all those calories, extra batteries for my lights, and a repair kit. There wasn’t going to be any time for sleeping on this mission.
Much to my dismay, I awoke to an inch of fresh snow on the ground the morning I planned to start – in mid-June! That sure hadn’t been mentioned in the weather forecasts. Knowing all too well the sticky mud that the snow would create as it melted, I drove a few miles west to start at a slightly lower elevation. The prospect of peanut butter muck had me nervous, but those nerves were overwhelmed by excitement.
“I’m finally back!” I spoke out loud through an emotional grin as I rolled onto the route. The wet aspen leaves glistened and the dusting of snow on the ground sparkled in the strong morning sun.
I had to hold back against my eagerness and my fresh legs – it’s so easy to go too hard in the first hours of any ultra and pay for it later. I have learned that lesson time and time again. My goal for the first day was to get to Grand Junction and the Colorado River around dark. That would be a fast pace, but not too fast I hoped. My memory of the Tabeguache Trail from a dozen years prior was vague. I remembered the Roubidoux Mesa section as being one of the most challenging parts of the entire route. But with fresh legs and a far different mental perspective on just what “difficult” is, Roubidoux and all its canyon-hopping delight passed in less than two hours, and I enjoyed its technical climbs and skittery descents. The afternoon was pleasantly cool as I followed 2-tracks from the pines into sage-covered drainages and then down into low sandstone canyons. The badlands above Grand Valley glowed richly in the late-afternoon sun, and by dusk, I was pedaling on a bike path along the Colorado River, right on pace and feeling good.
After that strong first day, I found myself on the now-familiar Kokopelli Trail, but I lost my momentum quickly. My legs were feeling the effort expended in those first 120 miles, and I was having a bit of trouble staying focused on pedaling steadily. Deep ruts and mud from a recent rain storm also slowed down my progress on a few sections. Over the course of the night, I fell a couple hours behind my goal splits, and it felt like I was absolutely crawling. My previous ride on the Kokopelli Trail had been a record-setting effort, a far cry from how I felt like I was riding in that moment. But I looked forward to dawn over the La Sal Mountains and climbing away from the Colorado River among the slickrock domes of Entrada Bluffs. But when I reached that climb, the day was already warming up, and I struggled to stay cool and to stay awake!
Sunrise after a tough first night on the Kokopelli Trail.
After 26 hours of continuous pedaling, I decided to pause for a nap half way up that climb. Ducking off the steep, sandy road and into the shade of a pinion, I curled up and was instantly asleep. And 10 minutes later, my alarm rang out – time to roll! Throwing a handful of trail mix into my mouth, I got back on the loose road and felt remarkably refreshed. Into the mountains I climbed, making good time.
The energizing cool air in the meadows below the rounded peaks of the La Sals helped propel me toward Carpenter Ridge. There I would skip the descent into Paradox Valley toward the little Bedrock Store and instead drop off the other side of the ridge, down a ridiculously treacherous uranium mine road to the Dolores River. Then would be the Koski Traverse and the most demanding miles of the Paradox Trail. But in the moment, I wasn’t thinking ahead to any of that. I was on the gas and scanning the horizon, linking together the surrounding topography in my mind, marveling at the magnificence of the Colorado Plateau. It’s such a powerful landscape, and when I’m able to be present and immersed in it, that translates to power in the mind and legs alike.
The abusive descent down Red Canyon and into the surprisingly warm evening heat in the Dolores River Canyon had me hurting in multiple ways, but everything was bathed in a warm, golden, and relaxing glow. Hitting a very short stretch of pavement, I munched on cookies, guzzled a liter of water, and then hopped back on the gas. My legs were resistant after such a long descent, but as darkness fell, they came back to life. Climbing a county road up the lower slopes of the Uncompahgre Plateau signaled that the Koski Traverse was near. This county road was the type that quickly deteriorated from two lanes of gravel to one two a rocky 4×4 track over the span of just a couple miles.
My energy quickly plummeted as the grade increased. It wasn’t even 10 pm, but I opted to proactively stop for a nap before I felt myself wading into the metaphorical molasses. I hopped off my bike, threw on a long-sleeve jersey, stretched out upon a patch of sandy ground, and switched off my lights. I was out immediately. 15 minutes later, my alarm beeped me awake, and I was straight back on the bike for night two. The tough miles to come and the damp nighttime air filled with radiant smells had me excited.
The Koski Traverse burned a few years ago, so the obscenely steep climbs and descents were littered with loose, sharp cobbles and riddled with deep scars from flash flooding. I stubbornly turned my 28-tooth chainring instead of getting off to hike the climbs, but the challenging descents were engaging and had me smiling and laughing as I shot past silent blackened snags. The burned zone had an eerie atmosphere under the moonless sky.
By the wee hours of the morning, I was well past the Koski Traverse and on a recent addition to the Paradox Trail. An 800-foot stretch of trail had crossed private land, and the only option for a reroute required 18 miles of new “trail.” Paul Koski, the local trail advocate responsible for the Paradox Trail, linked a series of very faint old tracks together with approval from the Bureau of Land Management. Many of those 18 miles were tedious as the route negotiated a series of shallow canyons, sandy washes, and more chunky terrain. It was very much my favorite style of riding, but it was a bit more demanding than I had hoped for after nearly 48 hours of steady pedaling. I had to pause frequently to locate the trail, shove food in my mouth, and take a few deep breaths. My focus was waning, but I was reinvigorated as soon as I hit the more well-traveled singletrack just above the community of Nucla around dawn. At the bottom of the long descent, I rolled into the trailhead parking lot and saw one lone car.
“We’ve never met, but I’m Paul Koski!” The only person I would talk to on my entire ride was none other than the fellow responsible for the creation of the Paradox Trail!
“Paul! It’s so good to meet you. That last descent was so much fun!” I said as I rolled to a stop. Having not spoken any words out loud in many hours, I was struck by how slowly they came out of my mouth. Apparently I was more tired than I realized.
“Isn’t it? It’s got an old school feel, eh? I’m really happy with how that little network came out,” he replied, grinning and taking a photo of me.
We chatted for a few minutes as I ate some snacks, and then I was off. I was on the home stretch at that point – just 32 more miles and just 6,000 feet of climbing to go. . . and then I would be done! I wasn’t quite on my ambitious sub-48-hour pace, but I was still 6+ hours ahead off record pace and the fire to move fast was still burning hot.
The morning sun, however, was also feeling quite hot as I negotiated a very soft climb through scrubby junipers — 135 °F warmer than the coldest I had experienced a few months before in Alaska! I’d be getting higher and into theoretically cooler air as the day heated up more, but I was already almost out of water. A cattle trough came just in time, and it was the last water source I’d have. I used my bottle to skim aside the dead flies and what appeared to be cow slobber. I filled up 3 liters and was off toward the meadows and pines of Glencoe Bench. The bench itself is a flat, lush terrace perched on the steep slopes above Tabeguache Creek. The area holds a series of ponds in spring, but those were all dried up. But I was just high enough up now that the air felt a bit cooler in the shade of the pines and oaks.
Keeping an eye out for wildlife, I surprisingly spotted three bears when I popped out into one of the meadows. They saw me immediately and scattered, one opting to lumber down the trail I was following. I followed its tracks tentatively as the trail entered yet another tunnel through an oak thicket. Bear alley.
“Hey, bear! Where’d you go?” I shouted. A raven called, but the bear was nowhere to be seen. Its tracks continued, so I pedaled on slowly, calling out as I went.
A few bumpy, cattle-trodden miles later, the trail ended at a dirt road, and I let out a few yips in celebration. It wouldn’t be more than an hour to my van at the top! I ate another few handfuls of trail mix, cookies, and dried mangoes on the smooth road, and then it was time to let my legs use whatever reserves they had left. Out of the saddle, I hammered away as the road got steeper. Views of Lone Cone and the western end of the mighty and still-snowy San Juan Mountains to the south were visible in between aspen stands.
Darkness in the eerie burn zone on the Koski Traverse
Still on the gas, my mind started trying to process the ride. Everything about it had felt so very different from my first time on the Grand Loop more than a decade ago. I was even more struck by the difficulty of the route, more inspired by the remoteness and raw beauty of the region, and more impressed with 2008 Kurt (whose time I was about to surpass by 25 hours) having actually completed the loop. I felt like I had mostly been in a powerful rhythm with the terrain, rather than struggling against it as I had in 2008. And I was about to take more than 7 hours off Dave Harris’ record on a notably more difficult version of the loop. Dave remains one of my ultra racing heroes, and his exploits on the bike had been a powerful inspiration for me. I also knew he must have been closely watching my dot on Trackleaders the prior two days, rooting me on.
Lost in thought, I unexpectedly found myself on the top of the Uncompahgre Plateau once again. With my focus returning to the present, I blasted into the final two miles of singletrack through the spruce forest, wincing as every root drop sent shockwaves through my exhausted body. I was relieved to be done eating – I was nearly out of the entire 18,000 calories I had packed! I was also out of water. And as I rolled into the meadow and saw my van, my legs made it abundantly clear that they were entirely out of energy.
I gingerly stepped off my bike, laid it down in the grassy meadow, and then sprawled out next to it. Done. I breathed a series of long, slow sighs of deep relief, of complete satisfaction, of accomplishment. No one was around to congratulate me, but it didn’t matter. Only a few other individuals, the stalwart Grand Loop cult of a decade earlier, could even come close to understanding how much this ride, this landscape, this Grand Loop could possibly mean to me. I’ve won a lot of events over the years, and I’ve set quite a few records. But this particular ride, on what feels like a largely forgotten route, was one of the most fulfilling race experiences I’ve ever had. I couldn’t have hoped for anything more.
Post-ride – just as excited as I was pre-ride, only exhausted and with 18,000 fewer calories on my bike.
Eventually, I climbed into my van and collapsed with a bag of chips. I ate a few and drank a couple swallows of a cold soda, but after 53.5 hours of continuous pedaling, I was suddenly powerless to resist sleep any longer. My eyes shut, and strangely, a dream took me back out on the trail. My mind was exhausted, but it sure wasn’t over its years-long preoccupation with the Grand Loop. Hopefully it’s not another 12 years before I have another opportunity to ride it again. But I predict that next time around, I’ll be moving at a more relaxed pace and seeking a very different experience.
To support the organizations that created and maintain the trails that comprise the Grand Loop visit websites of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Alliance and the West End Trails Alliance. Kurt Refsnider will be creating a short guide to riding the Grand Loop itself in the coming months, and some limited information for each of the three trails comprising the loop is available from various online resources (Paradox, Tabeguache, and Kokopelli).