Redemption or Rediscovery? Reflections from the 2022 North South Colorado Bikepacking Race

North South Colorado is a bikepacking race that traverses the Front Range, stitching together mountainous passes, singletrack, and plenty of dirt. From the rolling, exposed hills on the Wyoming border, alpine aspen groves, to the high desert of Trinidad, the 600-mile route treats riders to the full breadth of the state’s varied biomes. After dropping from the race during the inaugural 2021 edition, Leonardo Brasil toes the line again in 2022 filled with uncertainty but arrives in Trinidad (spoiler alert) with a renewed sense for ultra-cycling ambitions.

To race or not to race. I couldn’t make up my mind until the day prior to the start of the North South Colorado Bikepacking race and—even after starting—I didn’t fully commit to finishing it until I arrived in Idaho Springs, some 240-miles later. My mental (and financial) state wasn’t in a great place to be riding bikes for four straight days, and I was worried that not completing the course yet again could potentially turn me away from ultra-distance cycling for good. And yet, there I was lining up for another tour down the length of the Front Range. An area I’ve been calling home for the past seven years.

Unbound 2022

About a month prior, I’d ridden my bike from my home base of Denver to Emporia, Kansas, where I’d planned to ride the Unbound XL (350 miles of self-supported Kansas gravel!). It took me six days to ride the 630-mile approach at a very chill pace, enjoying my surroundings and building up what turned out to be some incredible fitness to race the event. I got there the day before the start and not leaving a ton of time to rest. Still, the knowledge that I’d completed the XL in 2021 was confidence inspiring and I felt ready to tackle the demanding course through the notorious Flint Hills. But, as these things tend to go more often than not, my ride didn’t go as planned.

Mile 80: a broken shifter, cracked my helmet, and body in a mess. A crash. After converting my mangled bike to singlespeed, I pushed through the night and into the following morning hours with one gear for another 150 miles, spurred on by adrenaline. But once it wore off, I realized my hand was three times its normal size and my open wounds were in desperate need of attention. I bailed at mile 240 and was completely devastated. I felt totally emotionally numb for over a week after getting back home. The excitement of riding bikes gave way to resentment and disappointment, and I felt like I had failed myself. Slowly, with the help of my friends, I began to reconnect with my bike, and less than a month later, there I was lining up for North South once again.

A Front Range Bikepacking Race

North South Colorado is a 600-mile race with a bit over 45,000 feet of elevation gain, starting in Fort Collins and finishing in Trinidad. The course has zero overlap with the Great Divide route but is similarly fully self-supported. Carrying all your gear and solely relying on stores and hotels available to the public for supplies,food, water and lodging (if needed), forces riders to strategically plan stops and rest. Some choose to sleep in hotels, others bivy out in nature – or you can be like Andrew Onermaa and eliminate sleep altogether by only napping for a grand total of 2.5 hours, and win the race to boot…bonkers!

I blame my friend Dave for getting me there. Dave is a much stronger rider than I, but while our paces are totally opposite, we somehow ride quite a bit together. We both attempted the event last year for its inaugural addition and we both had to DNF mainly for the same reason: saddle sores. Dave dropped at mile 170 and I scratched at 385. He wanted to get redemption, but I had no idea what I was after. Deep down, maybe I was just looking to put my Kansas fiasco behind and enjoy cycling once again and while I didn’t feel any pressure to “perform” I certainly had a voice in my head questioning if I was good enough just to finish it after so many DNFs in my ultra-riding trajectory.

It’s important to clarify a few things about myself. Who am I as an athlete? Well, definitely not the racing kind. I see cycling as a means of adventure and transportation; it can be anything from a five-mile errand run around Denver to a 1,000-mile tour around the state. The goal is the same: I want to get from point A to point B under my own power, avoiding all kinds of motor vehicles. When I enter events such as North South, my motivation is to see portions of the country by bike, to document the experience in photographs, and to push my limits. Winning is never a priority. I will stop to take a photo if I see fit – I’m a professional photographer after all.

The race started at 6am with a casual roll out from a city park somewhere in Fort Collins. Fifty-plus excited riders, each with their own reasons to be there, lined up side by side in the middle of a basketball court for a group photo. I said “hi” to a few people I met during last year’s edition, and I heard Mark, the race director, say “Hey guys, it’s 6:00, I think you can all go!” You just gotta love grassroot events.

A lot happened in the next 3 days, 23 hours and 35 minutes. From high mountain passes to desert heat, and everything in between, this race truly provided the full spectrum of terrain and challenges. The first 40 miles were quite fast. Lots of pavement, lots of cars, lots of nerves. I briefly chatted with Anton Krupicka about bikes and gear and hung with Dave for as long as I could (or as long my bladder let me). I then rode solo for the next few miles until Ian and Zack caught me just in time for the long, rolling stretch that runs parallel with the Wyoming border. The three of us stuck together for a bit, then we began leapfrogging with each other over the two mountain passes along the way to Granby (~170mi).

Logistically, this was the hardest day of the event. In theory, there were 152 miles between the start and the next resupply point, Granby. Planning to be completely self-sufficient for over 12 hours can be a nightmare. I know my body quite well from all the long solo rides I do for “fun”, and also know that I usually bonk quite badly somewhere around mile 80. The only thing that brings me back to life is real food, so I packed two PB&J sandwiches, a bunch of bars, a total of six gels and a lot of gummy bears.

The day before the race, after packing up my gear, I decided to my research and made a solid reference sheet with resupply points and business hours, along with the mileages I wanted to meet each day. Even though I wasn’t sure about competing, I didn’t want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere without a plan. I wrote: “Gould – mi 107 – possibly?” Dave laughed when he saw my notes and didn’t even bother to check when he passed by the community. I was hungry, so I decided to give it a shot, and to my surprise, there was a convenience store and they were fully stocked. Chocolate milk, Gatorade, Red Bull, and chips. I felt like a brand new man!

In the previous edition of the event, I got to Granby at 10pm alongside Artec and Hailey, whom I met at the top of Willow Creek Pass getting ready for the frigid descent into town. I made a mental goal to shave off at least two hours compared to 2021 in order to push a bit longer after dinner, and I made it to McDonald’s at 8pm, in time for some food and a three hour sleep to wrap day one.

From my past experience on the route, I knew for a fact that day two was going to be a slow, relatively low mileage day, but would certainly be the hardest stretch of the race. The one-two punch of Rollins Pass and Mammoth Gulch on fully loaded bikes is super taxing. When riders asked what my plans were for the day, I said I planned to make it to Deckers, roughly 125 miles from where I camped, and I could clearly see their unimpressed faces, as if they were saying “Only 125 miles? Does he know this is a race?”

When I signed up for North South, I told some of my friends that Idaho Springs would be the crucial point where I was going to either fully commit to finishing it or I’d just scratch and ride home to Denver. Making it into town just a bit after 3pm gave me a huge mental boost. I wanted a double espresso and a real sandwich, and that’s exactly what I got. A much needed pit stop at the Frothy Cup brought me back to life, and I roared out of town yelling “Let’s finish this thing!”

The third day began at 6am after a much needed four hours of sleep. My progression was becoming evident, even down to my prep; I packed a bit differently this year than in 2021. Last year was my first year racing bikes. I knew nothing about it, and even though I was a somewhat experienced bikepacker, I had no idea what to pack for a bikepacking race. Should I bring a sleeping bag? Should I carry spare clothes? What about a sleeping pad? Initially I had packed the same way I would for a bike tour, but on the day before leaving I had some sort of weight-induced panic attack and chose to only pack an emergency bivy. What a huge mistake that was. Lesson learned: for 2022 I packed a sleeping bag in addition to the emergency bivy, an inflatable pillow, a closed cell foam pad cut just to fit my torso and sleeping clothes. I never regretted carrying those additional three pounds.

Back on course, Chris – a fellow racer who I became friends with at the end of the first day – and I slept at the base of a 4,000-foot sustained climb in the heart of the South Platte. This section was difficult, featuring long gravel stretches filled with washboard, sand, and burned trees from past years’ fires, but even though the riding was quite harsh, I can’t deny that it’s always a joy to pedal my bike in such a unique part of the state. Big rock formations perched along the road, stunning views all around, and not too much car traffic all combine to make this area a cycling hidden gem.

It’s funny how the nature of racing changes you once you’re in it. I never intended to properly race North South – I just wanted to ride and finish it. After day one there were roughly 10 people ahead of me and I was okay with being 11th, 15th or even the last to arrive in Trinidad, but somehow it all changed in Lake George when trackleaders showed only four people ahead – Andrew, Anton, Jacob and Cameron. To my surprise, all the other racers had dropped! Suddenly, I wanted to stay in the top five. No more fussing around.

Cañon City was another milestone I was looking forward to reaching. In 2021, I dropped from the race at mile 385, and this year, that mileage hit exactly on this town (even though the course was somewhat modified). Making it that far without any major discomfort was a huge personal victory. After a not-so-quick dinner stop, Chris and I began the 3,000-foot climb to Westcliffe via Oak Creek Grade. It was already 10pm when we left the restaurant, temperatures had cooled off a bit, and the skies were finally clearing up after some welcome rain. Around midnight my eyes and mind started to fade away into the darkness as my legs kept spinning. Getting to Westcliffe at 3am was not ideal – way too late for me. I quickly found a place to close my eyes for a couple of hours before facing the next, final stretch to Trinidad.

The final day was long. It was almost 5pm when we both arrived in La Veta, the last gas station before the finish line. We had only 85 miles to go and the last big climb of the race loomed ahead: Cordova Pass, an 11,260’ pass that climbs a bit over 4,000’ in 22 miles. The air was hot and the ground was dry, but the sky around the pass was nasty. We stopped at the gas station where I chugged two Red Bulls (and packed another one for the night), ate some food, and took a quick nap while sitting on the bench. Dark clouds were approaching and we could hear the sound of thunder as we gained elevation towards the pass. As temperatures dropped and lightning began striking closer and closer, I had one thought on my mind: find shelter and hope the storm blows through quickly.

In April of 2022, I attempted a race called Iowa Wind and Rock (IWAR), a 340-mile, self-navigated ride around Winterset that’s notorious for its high attrition rate due to the extreme conditions that seem to plague that region nearly every year. I pulled the plug again at mile 240 due to hypothermia caused by a severe storm at night that dropped the temperatures to low 30s. Being caught in similar conditions brought back some bad memories. As we made a turn, an empty cowshed appeared on the other side of the fence. I didn’t hesitate and jumped straight in as the storm grew heavier and the light faded. After almost an hour of waiting, the rain stopped, our green light to proceed.

Sleep deprivation caught up to me at around 1am. Hallucinations and failed attempts to keep my eyes open resulted in a lot of 30-second naps on my handlebars. The trick was to stop, put my head on the aerobars while standing, and as soon as I lost balance I’d hop back on the bike. And repeat. I have very little recollection from this section of the race – everything feels like a blur.

Iron Maiden, Dream Theater, and Riverside were playing loudly in my ears in an attempt to keep my brain active. At 3am, realizing I had not eaten since leaving the cowshed, I crammed an Oreo in my mouth and realized the true extent of my hunger. I chugged all the water I had and ate everything I could find on my bags; my bike was a few pounds lighter and I felt like a new person. I had 30 miles remaining, nothing left to eat and one goal: get to Trinidad before 6am.

The sub-four day target had crystallized in the middle of the climb to Cordova Pass. Maybe it came from the need to find motivation to keep pushing the pedals instead of pulling to the side of the road for naps. Descending the pass was the sketchiest ride I’ve ever done. My eyes were closing and I often saw myself crossing the road from side to side. I don’t even know how I got down in one piece.

Arriving in Trinidad at 5:30 am was special. The sun was just starting to rise, the air was brisk, and there was no one around. No one to cheer you on, no one to give you a hug. Only a few even knew what I had just accomplished, but I guess that’s what attracts me to these kinds of events. People are there to push their own limits without seeking glory or recognition. Trust me, you won’t get any, but fortunately the true reward is found in progress and growth. Chris had arrived just a few minutes before me and was still hanging by the town park as I rolled in. We chatted for a bit, and he asked me one question as exhaustion overtook me: “Now, what would you change for next year?”