Sometimes we don’t understand our reasons for doing something until we’ve fully emerged. That was my lesson learned from waffling around the start and finish lines of The Big Lonely with a camera and disconcerted heart. What is this big and lonely thing that I speak of? Described in one word by the riders themselves: it’s “relentless”, “jarring”, “cold”, “delightful” – “resilience.” It’s “incomplete” and it’s “grueling”. It’s “epic”, “stoke” and “go.” For one rider it was “mom.” Most commonly though, it was described as “community” and I found this to be a curious notion. The dichotomous idea that a 350-mile self-supported ultra-endurance bikepacking race called The Big Lonely cultivated the word “community” more than any other is sort of like a metaphor for life and all the funny ways our experiences are everything at once.
The Big Lonely is a grand-depart-style event that begins and ends in Bend, Oregon and the 2021 volume conjured up the full gamut of human emotion. The race went off on October 8th at 6:00 am from Phil’s Trailhead in the High Desert of Central Oregon. A product of Northwest Competitive Adventure, the race benefits the Adventure Access Fund and is organized by Jesse Blough, an endurance athlete with an impressive list of accolades. With temps dipping below freezing, 39 cold-toed humans lined up and rolled out on the second-ever Big Lonely ultra-endurance adventure bike race. The start list included 7 Female Solo Geared riders, 1 Female Solo Singlespeed rider, 2 Non-Binary Solo Geared riders, 18 Male Solo Geared riders, and 5 Teams of Geared riders. I could smell this batch of The Big Lonely simmering in my hometown and couldn’t resist my urge to savor some part of the berserk endeavor.
I neglected previously-committed-to responsibilities to get in on some last-minute, ill-planned race coverage. I was overwhelmed with confusion about why I showed up, unclear about why this felt more important than what I “should have” been doing. I have so many words about my experience of the event, how it begged me to boil down my whys and to weigh out the cost-to-value ratios of my pursuits, but that isn’t why I was summoned by the universe to grab a slice of The Big Lonely. Life gifted me this confusing call to show up and document because the collective experience – weaved of the nuances of individual wisdom, both contrasting and connecting – is what creates value in the experience. My human form has spent a fair amount of time on a touring bike with nothing to do other than pedal over this mountain, then that mountain, while keeping alive. I understand how we are drawn to such ventures as moths are to light, but I can only speculate on the requisite discomfort of riding this route in winter weather.
Shooting photos was the initial motivation for hurling my unprepared, time-deficient self frantically at the event, but personal circumstances (read: “Willy-Nilly Decisions”) didn’t offer much success in documenting on-course with my lens. I felt heavy with disappointment knowing how gorgeous the route is and that I was missing those idyllic riding shots, I relegated to the fact that there were a few photographers out there getting the goods and that maybe I was there for something else. Maybe to see through another lens, the proverbial lens of the little wizard in my soul that knows of the deep nature of life and bears witness to emotion and the stuff beyond the tangible. Or maybe I felt like I’d missed out on too much of that community thing by nurturing self, maybe both. As I shot a few frames of Ben Handrich completing the race, it hit me that there was a wildly varying range of experiences of the same thing happening all at once, right then. Ben was finished, feeling all the ways one does when they win an ultra-endurance bikepacking race, while others who had scratched gathered on top of Pilot Butte in support, feeling all their own feels of incompleteness, of not finishing something.
Simultaneously there were tracker dots, all having their own very different experiences in that moment, scattered over hundreds of miles of racecourse with a storm looming over Paulina Peak. The beauty in all that overlapping contrast is that the warmth of community overtook the disparities. Seeing a bunch of folks who could have been home bummed out on not finishing instead show up on Pilot Butte to offer community to their community defined my own incentive for weaving into The Big Lonely. Well, I’ll be damned, that’s more gorgeous than any photo I could have captured. And that’s why I showed up. I interviewed a bunch of riders after the event and their responses were so in-depth, so gritty, so raw, so fun, so lonely, and so chock-full of that dang ole word “community”.
What was your favorite section of the route?
“… riding through the Ochocos. The larches were just starting to turn …” – Melissa Byrd
“The summit of the Paulina Peak, and the Crater Rim Trail and walking in the morning on the snow with our bikes … witnessing all the animal tracks on the snow.” – Pia Alliende
“We bivyed a couple miles past the top of the first big Ochocos climb … The following morning, I watched the sunrise while riding along the glowing larches … It felt pretty special and reassured the decision to camp where we did. I love the Ochocos and didn’t want to miss them by riding there in the dark.” – Hannah Somhegyi
“Unexpectedly, the many miles of snowy trail on Swamp Wells come to mind! Though this was also one of the hardest sections – I was cold, tired, and almost out of food – it was beautiful, peaceful, and unique.” – Alissa Bell
“… descending and climbing out of Lake Billy Chinook.” – Henry Mosier
“It was all so pretty!! … the first day into/past Sisters was so dreamy–all the singletrack and popping out to amazing views of the peaks …” – Hannah Dhonau
“I love the section of riding from Madras to Prineville. It’s 100 miles of incredibly diverse gravel, with substantial climbing and quiet groads that undulate through the Ochocos.” – Ben Handrich
“The first extended section of pavement on the route that took us down and around Billy Chinook Lake.” – Jon Meyer
“Riding into the Ochocos and seeing the sun reflect off all the colors of the hills.” – Seth Von Gretlein
“I would have loved the last descent on single track but I had to descend that in the dark and through snow. Then I lost all my lights at 4am and walked my bike through Swamp Wells Trail by moonlight.” – Eleanor Moseman
“All the singletrack leaving Bend and getting into Sisters was the most giggle-inducing joyful dirt I have had the pleasure of setting my skinny little tires on. In signing up for the race, I was intimidated by the amount of singletrack that was promised. Well, that first section was epic and my bike handled it so well.” – Lauren Brownlee
“The start. Seeing that weaving carnival of lights wind through singletrack in the dark … someone called out that we were being too quiet, and the train of riders all hooting/howling/yelling together.” – Rob Knoth
“The snowy singletrack was downright ethereal, the trees covered in the bright green moss and fresh layer of snow *chef’s kiss*.” – Mati McCann
Least favorite section?
“LOL. Fricken Swamp Wells–the top of it …” – Hannah Dhonau
“After leaving Prineville, you slowly climb your way up the Crooked River Scenic byway – that part is awesome. As soon as you turn off the pavement, you are treated to 70-ish miles of washboard gravel. While that may be a slightly exaggerated number (in which case I blame the lack of sleep!), it sure felt like 70 straight miles of washboard and was a journey in mental fortitude and patience.” – Ben Handrich
“Freezing.” – Seth Von Gretlein
“The highway sections. Especially into Prineville. I had pulled an all nighter and I was still hallucinating from the lack of sleep and my butt felt like it had been through a cheese grater.” – Eleanor Moseman
“I remember at the starting line, people murmuring … “at least the last 40 miles are downhill” and that stuck with me. I got to the end of the last climb sometime into night 2. And what came next was a strange mix of my personal hell on top of a simple state of flow … it was a gnarly singletrack descent with a tired body, an injured body, limited visibility, inaccessible water, and very very wrong expectations. The flow state I achieved was a limp in the forward direction …” – Lauren Brownlee
“Oh golly the washboard before Paulina maybe?” – Hannah Somhegyi
“Riding Billy Chinook. While I was lucky not to have any, it was the area I was most cognizant of traffic and the danger from cars. The scenery was epic, and I recognize the need for that to create a loop, but it definitely had my spider sense up.” – Rob Knoth
“The roads leading to the Ochocos seemed to drag on forever.” – Mati McCann
“There was a lot of flatish washboarded gravel between Prineville and Paulina Lake. I was feeling tired and sore through that stretch and it was definitely a long grind.” – Alissa Bell
“Descending into Sisters, granted it was my first time on a gravel drop bar bike … Did I scream and curse at the road for being so bumpy? I don’t know. Does a falling tree make a sound when nobody is around to hear it?” – Henry Mosier
“Since I was riding a single speed, the flat pavement going in and out of Prineville was my least favorite.” – Melissa Byrd
Why did you register for this event?
“I met Jesse soon after relocating to Bend. I started riding with him and his friends early mornings. He mentioned this race during a ride and I thought wow that sounds painful and wonderful.” – Hannah Somhegyi
“Having a goal like this event would, and did, project me further into my capacity for endurance. Plus it’s fun as fuck.” – Henry Mosier
“I got into cycling through bikepacking. From there I started racing cyclocross and then endurance gravel events so a bikepacking race felt like a natural next step.” – Charley Erickson
“Because I love bikepacking, especially if it’s with my daughter that can save me. She inspired me to be brave.” – Pia Alliende
“I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to do a second bikepacking race with my Mom.” – Mati McCann
“I’d never been to/ridden in Oregon, I’d never done a race of this particular length before, and with all the who-knows-what-is-going-on of the last couple years, it felt like I could count on this race happening due to its self-supported nature.” – Hannah Dhonau
“My teammate convinced me it would be a “fun” challenge.” – Delaney Burkett
“I love being alone in the wilderness, testing my body’s limits, and competing with other ultra-endurance athletes. Also, the bikepacking community is full of incredible humans and I always come away from these events with a new riding partner. Jason I’m looking at you, buddy.” – Ben Handrich
“I watched “Beyond the Ochocos” and just got really excited and signed up.” – Melissa Byrd
“My friends and I are avid bike packers and figured this event would be a nice way to take part in an ultra event that wasn’t so serious (or at least we weren’t going to take it too serious).” – Jon Meyer
“Colton, one of the Northwest Competitive team members is a good friend of Brian’s (my teammate for this race) and mine. He convinced Brian to sign up and in turn, Brian convinced me.” – Seth Von Gretlein
“… I’m a former long distance tourer and I photographed the Silk Road Mountain Race Inaugural. It was my first exposure to ultra endurance and racing, but my second time to Kyrgyzstan, as I had cycled it solo in 2012. It grabbed my interest, the athleticism of it but also the community of racing … I decided that the Big Lonely would be a good steppingstone into the world of racing. I lived in China from 2007 to 2020, and all my trips and adventures were solo . . . I wanted to meet other people like me and maybe find a community here since there seems to be no light on the horizon of returning to my former life and other home.” – Eleanor Moseman
“Curiosity about myself and wanting to connect more with the cycling community … Things don’t happen unless you show up. I wanted to show up …” – Rob Knoth
“I had seen some coverage of the race last year which was incredibly intriguing then Jesse, the race director, posted on IG that there were only a few spots left at a time right when I was feeling recovered from my jaunt on the Great Divide and simultaneously I was contemplating what my next challenge should be. Scarcity principle, I panic-signed-up immediately.” – Lauren Brownlee
How did you prepare?
“I try not to get too caught up in training. I don’t train a lot. I just like riding and ride as long as it’s fun. So I have been riding all summer but nothing serious. Some ultra-endurance friends have hammered into my head that the race is the training. It’s impossible to drive yourself into those dark places that you need to be okay with before your race. So being prepared is mostly mental and being okay with yourself and your bike and your gear.” – Lauren Brownlee
“Brian and I put in nearly 900 miles through September.” – Seth Von Gretlein
“I’m a pretty structured athlete … I train twice a day (before/after work), 6 days a week, with one active recovery day, usually Friday, and minor tweaks when life gets in the way. Within those 6 days, my training includes two weightlifting days (high rep, low weight one hour morning sessions), at least one run, Zwift races, and outdoor hill repeats/interval training sprinkled throughout, with long, mid-intensity rides on the weekends. I usually end up with about 300 miles a week of riding alongside the cross-training I do. It’s all on Strava, for you KOM seeking data nerds out there.” – Ben Handrich
“Not enough …” – Rob Knoth
“Some classic Big Dumb Rides from home with my dear pal Jackie, including one three-day adventure last month with a whole lot of walking.” – Hannah Dhonau
“Moderate training of consistent 30-60 mile rides with the occasional “hill” day to build the legs. My final training ride I actually fully loaded my bike so things weren’t a total shock upon first pedal push. Training guides I found suggested spending at least 5 hours in the saddle at least 4 times before your event, and I think this was sound advice as I’ve found saddle strength/tolerance to be harder to come by than muscles/cardio.” – Jon Meyer
“What helped me a lot was going by myself to a Bikepacking Roots workshop and ride in the Tetons with Kait Boyle and Kurt Refsnider this summer.” – Pia Alliende
“This was my first year doing any sort of official race, and the High Cascades 100 in July was the main event I was training for. A rode a ton to prepare for that, and once that passed (and the smoke came) my riding slowed down quite a bit. I started the race with what I like to call well-tapered legs and a heck of a lot of mental toughness.” – Hannah Sonhegyi
“Thanks to a leisurely tour on the Great Divide and a hard push at Smoke ‘n Fire 400, I had spent the better part of my summer on a bike.” – Alissa Bell
“Lots of long rides, and I invested in an indoor trainer for when my schedule or the weather didn’t allow for long outdoor rides.” – Henry Mosier
“I typically do a lot of bikepacking over the summers. This summer I mixed in a challenging 300 mile route over the course of three days to test out both my set-up and my endurance before the Big Lonely.” – Charley Erickson
What advice would you give someone thinking of racing The Big Lonely in 2022?
“To be prepared for cold weather . . . Central Oregon weather can change from very hot to very cold in two seconds . . . unless you are the winner and very fast. We took 109.5 hours so we saw it all.” – Pia Alliende
“Prepare for cold, wet, and/or snowy weather! If in doubt, bring that extra layer.” – Alissa Bell
“If you can work up to riding a mixed terrain century in a day, you can definitely attempt this race. Expect to be cold and or wet, so bring gear accordingly.” – Henry Mosier
“Do it. Be kind to yourself while doing it, but do it.” – Rob Knoth
“… You know how to ride your bike so just do that. I got really worked up beforehand because I was worried about all these things like, what about my bike, is this the right bike, what if something breaks, will I run out of water or food? Nothing strange happened to me out there and if it did, I would just have to deal with it. Keep up that positive outlook and enjoy the ride!” – Melissa Byrd
“… go learn about yourself, your limits, your strengths, your resilience.” – Ben Handrich
“Be prepared for the cold and don’t give up, no matter what.” – Eleanor Moseman
“You’re stronger than you think, and there’s so much beauty and light in the struggle.” – Hannah Somhegyi
A take-away or something you learned through this experience?
“This community is the best thing ever. I got the thrill of riding with so many amazing inspiring people on day one. Then I also got to experience the loneliness that was promised in the name by pushing on into the night and never seeing a cyclist again — it forced me into riding my own ride. Embrace the community, embrace the lonely.” – Lauren Brownlee
“I’m a different type of human than the people who were out front, and I’m okay with that.” – Jon Meyer
“I realized, or was reminded, of just how great this community is–every racer I passed, rode with, spoke to, was so kind and warm … the generosity of spirit of everyone we met–from the trucker with his fries in Madras, to the bike shop folks in Prineville … to the folks biking the Deschutes sharing stories … I loved it.” – Hannah Dhonau
“My happiness does not have to rely on achievement, it can be measured by choosing the option that feels good for me.” – Delaney Burkett
“Being part of a team has advantages in races like this, we can draft, share supplies, etc… but there are also drawbacks.” – Seth Von Gretlein
“I’m not alone. There are so many others out there like me. Driven, tenacious, ambitious, funny, weird, quirky…and most of all, friendly and caring. I couldn’t be more thrilled to finally be involved in yet another part of the cycling world.” – Eleanor Moseman
“I think my big takeaway in all of these ultra-events I do is that I am completely content keeping myself company.” – Ben Handrich
“It was so wonderful to be part of the community, ride the miles, share in the experience … I learned that we are all learning … it is magic and contagious.” – Rob Knoth
“The bikepacking community is solid, caring, and selfless. They are strong people that I haven’t seen in other competitive sports. They care for their surroundings, they leave no trace … this community allows for normal people like me to do these crazy things, without judgement but support.” – Pia Alliende
“I loved that this event pushed me to ride further and longer than I probably otherwise would have. This is also a deeply personal event. Everyone has different reasons and goals for doing it and they are all valid … being out in the elements for 5 days takes another level of mental toughness than riding without sleeping does. Consider what’s important to you and celebrate that.” – Hannah Somhegyi
“It feels good to push hard and triumph over discomfort, but this event helped me realize that it also feels good to look after my own safety, and navigating this fine line takes practice.” – Alissa Bell
“Not a new revelation, but people are super rad. Especially endurance focused folk, so much kindness and comradery. This is my second endurance race this year and it’s a consistent experience. Can’t wait to make more connections and expand my community.” – Henry Mosier
“This experience showed me that I have learned how to be less stubborn. I didn’t feel any pressure to finish the 350 mile route. I gave myself permission to scratch with the only reason being that I didn’t want to continue.” – Charley Erickson
“Humans are so resilient … I was inspired by the other riders and got to ride with some of them – at least the first day. We were calling it The Big Social. I didn’t see anyone after that and I was ok with it. I was so in the moment while riding and I love that.” – Melissa Byrd
The full interviews offered an abundance of detail about the route itself, weird food people ingested, changes folks would make to their gear next time, hilarity, honesty, and feels about this event that make reading each in its entirety worthwhile. In fact, they were all so meaningful I had extreme difficulty in formatting this piece, because there was so much information, all of it super valid. Noticing how many rider’s low points were also their high points urged me to ponder this concept that we cannot separate our happy from our sad, the dark from the light. They are one in the same, two faces of the same experience. Another commonality throughout the answers was this idea that individual experience is a mixture of perceived and actual preparedness, mindset and attitude, ability to distract our brains from pain and discomfort, motivations or reasons why we start something, the weather and available light, the terrain, and our gear. And relationships. Relationships to ourselves, our teammates, to our gear, to the elements and earth. The Big Lonely forces the question of what is more important to us: self-preservation or accomplishment?
The Big Lonely asked me the same questions it begged of the riders. It showed me that sometimes I won’t know why I’m pulled to something until I experience it, and that often the thing we originally set out to achieve is just a path to a deeper understanding of ourselves as individuals, our whys and values, and our connection to others. And maybe that’s what The Big Lonely is actually about – that vague squiggle of a line between objective accomplishment and the extremely subjective personal experience. It’s about finding a limit, a boundary, a breaking point and deciding what is important to oneself.
You can find all the details of the route, registration, and race results over at NWCompetitive.com. Maybe you’ll find yourself, in the words of Ben Handrich, “Alone but not lonely” on The Big Lonely in 2022.