Full Circle on the Grand Loop: Part II – The First Modern Bikepacking Race

Read part I here:  Full Circle on the Grand Loop: Part I – Trail Visions Ahead of Their Time

With the ambitious origins of the Grand Loop being shared in Part I of this series, let us now dive into the impact the route had on the evolution of bikepacking, and more specifically, bikepacking races. After all, the Grand Loop Race (GLR) was arguably the first of the modern bikepacking events and is responsible for creation and evolution of some of the most popular and longest-running mountain bike ultras in the United States – the Colorado Trail Race and the Arizona Trail 300. The Grand Loop was also the first long and particularly difficult off-road route to become a notable draw for bikepackers.

Chris Plesko takes in the view of Paradox Valley during the Grand Loop Race in 2007 (photo courtesy Dave Harris)

The earliest ride around the Grand Loop was done with vehicle support in 1994, organized by Bill Harris, in part to seek out a way to connect the Kokopelli and Tabeguache Trails via a new trail – the Paradox. Harris had long been involved with the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Association’s (COPMOBA) trail projects, and this trip followed the organization’s two longest trails and would result in a third. An article about the six-day trip appeared in Bicycling Magazine, and toward the end of the piece, the term “Grand Loop” was used by author Fred Matheny to describe the route. Who first coined the term has long been forgotten, but the name stuck.

Around that same time, a young skater-turned-mountain-biker named Gary Dye first heard about the Grand Loop from a friend at The Bike Pedaler. Dye was living in Grand Junction at the time, and he was no stranger to challenging rides. After at least 6 failed attempts in the mid-1990s, Gary became the first to ride the 140-mile-long Kokopelli Trail self-supported in one day. That first ride took him 23 hours, and soon after, he rode the trail in the opposite direction in just 17 hours. The allure of the bigger Grand Loop caught Dye’s intrigue.

“I went out and bought two copies of the gazetteer map books for the area,” he explains. “I tore the pages out of one, taped them all together, and figured out exactly where the route went.” There were no official trail maps, just vague written descriptions and scattered Carsonite posts on the ground. He and a friend tried to ride the loop with no vehicle support, burying a couple buckets of food along the route in advance. They didn’t make it around. But on a second attempt with Omiah Travis, they completed the full loop.

Stefan Griebel paused at the state line to celebrate during the 2006 Grand Loop Race  (photo courtesy Stefan Griebel)

“I forget if it was ‘98 or ’99. It was a huge challenge. We carried all our gear on our backs, trying to keep the bikes themselves light,” Gary remembers. “We definitely weren’t racing – it was touring for fun.”

Gary first met the fellow named Mike Curiak a few years prior in the mid-1990s. Mike had recently moved to town, and Gary’s friend introduced Mike as an endurance badass from Alaska.

“Shit, this guy’s coming to steal my cookie,” Gary recalls thinking. He had deservingly gained a reputation as the local endurance guru and didn’t want to lose that to Mike. But Gary eventually ended up spending a lot of time doing big high desert riding with Mike, and Mike introduced a racing mentality to those big rides.

It was during those same years that the Iditasport Extreme bike race was first run. It was the first of the modern long-distance off-road ultraendurance bike races in the United States, and amazingly, it took place in late winter in Alaska. The 300-mile-long race began in 1997 and followed the iconic Iditarod dogsled race route from Knik to McGrath, over the majestic Alaska Range. Mike participated in those early races, and it wasn’t long before he set his sights on similar self-supported endeavors in summer months, with the first being the Grand Loop in his own backyard. He recruited Gary to join, but there was no talk of touring.

“We’re going to race it,” Gary recalls Mike saying firmly. And in the late spring of 2001, three riders left Mike’s house in the first running of what would later become the GLR – Mike, Gary, and Cullen Barker. The first 20 miles of pavement to the start of the Kokopelli Trail were an untimed prologue of sorts. Once at the trailhead, the clock started; this became tradition for the next decade. In that first year of the race, Cullen bailed early on, understandably intimidated by the magnitude of the endeavor. Mike underestimated the navigational challenges of the remote route (these were the pre-GPS-on-the-handlebar days, after all), fell behind Gary, and eventually called it after cracking his frame. Gary, by then familiar with the entire route, cruised to a finish in an incredibly fast time of 3 days, 3 hours, and 3 minutes.

The GLR became an informal annual event, with Mike doing the loose organizing that was needed for an underground endurance event. He set the date and established some very loose self-support rules that essentially consisted of the mantra “Do. It. Yourself.” And he offered ice cream to finishers if they wanted to swing by his house afterward and share stories. Mike also organized the Kokopelli Trail Race and the Great Divide Race (the original Canada-to-Mexico race on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route), and he deserves credit for establishing bikepacking racing in the Lower 48.

Those early days on the Grand Loop were challenging for a plethora of reasons. “What stands out in my mind still to this day,” explains Mike, “is that there was no beta to make it easy. No map, no Trackleaders, no GPX files, no water information, no snow information, and no photos. Online mapping was — at least to me — nonexistent still.”

On his first ride of the Grand Loop, Mike distinctly remembers arming himself “with the COPMOBA three-fold mimeographed brochure and a few 1:100,000 scale maps, ultimately deciding hours before leaving that the maps weighed too much and took up too much space, and thus the brochure was enough. What a dolt!” Two years later, Mike bested Gary’s record on the route by 26 minutes.

Colorful badlands along Onion Creek near the Kokopelli Trail.

Grand Loop racers were always responsible for their own navigation accuracy, and with no publicly shared GPS data available, there was quite a bit of map homework to do ahead of time for a well-executed ride. In 2007, rookie Scott Morris drove up from Tucson, Arizona for the GLR. Scott was a GPS enthusiast and computer science guru. He created the TopoFusion mapping software and would later also co-found Trackleaders. Scott was the first to use a GPS on the Grand Loop, following an apparently flawless track of the route he created ahead of time. Painfully, he missed Mike’s record by a mere 8 minutes. But Mike and Gary scoffed at Scott’s approach, thinking he cheated by using a GPS. According to Gary, he and Mike eventually recognized their iconoclastic ways and relented, recognizing Scott’s time.

The Grand Loop was far tougher than Scott had anticipated despite the lack of singletrack along the way. And his experience there resulted in the creation of the Arizona Trail 300 race.

“Knowing that a few people had raced on difficult (non-gravel) conditions for roughly the same distance gave confidence that the AZT300 wasn’t a completely silly idea. Mike and the Grand Loop were definitely an inspiration and the root of it all,” says Scott.

By 2007, the GLR was gaining a following (nearly a dozen racers showed up in 2008!), and finishing times began to come down quickly despite a very high attrition rate. In the 2007 GLR, Dave Harris of St. George, Utah blasted around the loop in just under 2 days and 20 hours, taking 6+ hours off the previous record in his first-ever bikepacking race. Then in 2009, Dave and ultraendurance stalwart Jefe Branham of Gunnison, Colorado both went even faster, with Dave clocking just over 2.5 days on a singlespeed! Dave also went back just a few years ago for another lap of the Grand Loop, unable to shake the route from his mind.

Gary Dye (left), along with Stefan Griebel, during the 2006 Grand Loop Race (photo courtesy Stefan Griebel)

“The Colorado Plateau has always had a strong draw for me, initially as a river guide, and then as a rabid reader of anything and everything written by Ed Abbey,” says Dave. “That motivated several long backpacking trips in the area, and multiple Grand Canyon and Cataract Canyon river trips. Essentially the stage was set, I just needed a match.”

Dave was a well-established 24-hour and endurance racer at the time having repeatedly battled it out with Tinker Juarez in big events. And Mike Curiak’s GLR was that match. “I had not actually done a bikepack event yet – the GLR 2007 was my first. I was obsessed, even made my own LED lighting system as there were no good bike lights yet! That first race was such a success – and was everything I had hoped. There were no SPOT trackers yet, and I didn’t even carry a phone. It seems foreign now, but it was a pure experience.”

Stefan Griebel of Boulder, Colorado heard about the GLR in 2006 as he was planning a through-ride of the Colorado Trail, a year after he had ridden and hiked the entirety of the trail with his parents shuttling his bike around the Wilderness areas. Stefan admittedly prefers hike-a-bike to sharing the road with cars, and the challenge of the ruggedness of the Grand Loop called strongly to him. He raced it in 2006, finished it, and then came back for more in 2007.

The starting field at the first two editions of the Grand Loop Race – Cullen Barker, Mike Curiak, and Gary Dye (left) and Gary Dye, Mike Curiak, and Pat Irwin (right; photos courtesy Gary Dye)

But that second time in the GLR, Stefan opted to follow the “true” Paradox Trail, bypassing the Bedrock Alternate and sticking to rougher, steeper terrain on seldom-traveled tracks, including the infamously difficult “Koski Traverse” of the lower slopes and drainages of the Uncompahgre Plateau. The far easier Bedrock Alternate passed the tiny Bedrock Store, the only resupply option on the Grand Loop. Without that resupply, Stefan packed 3 days’ worth of calories, and he still managed to clock a sub-3-day time that blew other racers’ minds. He took an incredibly tough race route, made it even tougher, and still went hours faster than the old record! Stefan was hooked on the self-supported ethos, the challenging backcountry route experience, and in his words, “the lack of a Colorado challenge on the scale of the GLR necessitated the invention of the Colorado Trail Race.”

Lynda Wallenfels and Cat Morrison were the first women known to complete the Grand Loop – their time of 3.5 days on their 2012 still stands as the record today. Lynda says that the most memorable part of that ride was spending the entire time riding with Cat.

Many miles on the Tabeguache and Paradox Trails follow seldom-traveled tracks.

“All other bikepacking events I have done have been solo. We did remain self-supported from a fuel and bike maintenance perspective, but the camaraderie and perceived safety of riding with someone else on a route that remote was significant.”

The final “official” edition of the Grand Loop Race took place in 2009. Since then individual riders have sporadically done individual time trials on the route. One of those was Dave Harris, who in that same year, set a new record at 2.5 days on a full-suspension singlespeed. Occasionally the loop sees a bikepackers or two, but few stray off the ever-popular Kokopelli Trail. Sadly, the Grand Loop fell out of favor to other bikepacking routes. Despite a rapid growth in the number of folks out bikepacking, those riders seemed to gravitate toward either singletrack or gravel routes. The Grand Loop occupies that awkward in-between on the spectrum – minimal singletrack, just a bit of gravel, and an awful lot of chunky, technical, classic Colorado Plateau 4×4 roads.

Dave Harris poised to begin his first record-breaking ride on the route in 2007 (photo courtesy Dave Harris)

In Gary’s opinion, the Grand Loop lost popularity due to the explosion of full suspension bike popularity. He’d rather be out having fun on technical trail – not rough 4×4 roads or smooth gravel. Dave attributed the lack of interest to the advent of other “shiny new” routes and races. And in Mike’s opinion, the Grand Loop never fell out of favor because it never had more than a small cult following.

“The GL has always got a bad rap in terms of uphill and downhill chundery hike-a-bike with little singletrack,” explains Dave. “How attractive is that? More than you might imagine but you’ll have to ride it to find out.” And in Gary Dye’s opinion, “you can’t have everything be easy or else it’s going to be Disneyland. There need to be places like this that are quiet and remote and a bit tougher to get to.”

Riding along the crest of the Uncompahgre Plateau offers respite from the desert heat.

I’ve been one of the fortunate ones who rode the Grand Loop and can attest to just how tough and beautiful of a ride it is. My first-ever bikepacking race was the GLR back in 2008, and I honestly have not been able to shake the Grand Loop experience from my mind ever since. Part three of this series will share the story of a cyclocrosser who got bored with racing around tiny loops and decided to give a far grander loop a try.

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).