Full Circle on the Grand Loop: Part III – A Cyclocross Specialist Turned Ultra Racer

This is the third part of an ongoing series:
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

Back in the late 2000s, I was a geology Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado and a devoted cyclocross racer. I got up early and did intervals in the dark before class and I raced around in little circles every weekend from September to December, chasing other skinsuit-clad guys hopping on and off their bikes for rather contrived reasons. I flew around the country to some of the biggest race weekends, chasing UCI points and top-20 finishes. I was infatuated with the sport until I rather abruptly became bored of those little circles.

My pre-ultraendurance years – all out for an hour, and the sloppier the conditions, the better.

My decade-old mountain bike, a 1998 Marin Mount Vision Pro, began to see more use, more big days in the mountains, and before long, I heard rumor of a really big loop that a few folks raced every year out in western Colorado – the Grand Loop. 360 rough off-road miles. No support allowed. One resupply option along the way. It was remote to say the least – the polar opposite of having someone standing in the pit with a spare bike or water bottle that you could potentially grab amid any 8-minute-long lap. Before I really understood what racing 360 miles self-supported even entailed, I was mentally committed. That was December of 2007, so I had six months to prepare and figure out the bikepacking thing.

I recall sprawling on my bedroom floor with a couple of state gazetteers and a set of maps I had ordered from the Bureau of Land Management, much as Gary Dye likely had a decade earlier before his first trip on the Grand Loop. With those maps for reference, I puzzled over three tri-fold brochures that contained vague descriptions and tiny hand-sketched maps just a few inches across. These were the official navigation aids for the Kokopelli, Paradox, and Tabeguache Trails produced by the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Association. I highlighted the trails, two-tracks, ATV routes, and abandoned uranium mining roads that I thought these routes followed. Then I spent several late nights staring at my computer screen, creating a track for the route in TopoFusion, a new and exciting piece of software that today remains arguably the best of its kind for creating GPS tracks to follow, for it was developed by none other than Scott Morris. Coincidentally, he was also the winner of the 2007 Grand Loop Race (GLR).

I flipped back and forth between topographic map and aerial photo views in TopoFusion, verifying that what I thought was the correct route actually showed some semblance of a trail on the ground – a 4×4 route, an old uranium mining road, an ATV track, or something. Never did I anticipate how many hundreds of hours I’d spend doing that same sort of thing creating other bikepacking routes in the subsequent decade. Eventually, I had a little red line to follow on my brand new GPS unit that was, as best as I could figure, the official GLR route. To that, I added waypoints for where I thought I’d be able to find water in the widely scattered creeks and springs along the way.

The era of GPS units on bike handlebars was in its infancy, so digital data for routes were still hard to find. The GLR also apparently had an unwritten rule that riders wouldn’t share their GPS data – it was up to each person to go through the process of researching the route and figuring out navigation on their own. It wasn’t any sort of rite of passage, but rather that homework and research were considered to be an integral part of a successful race experience.

I spent those 6 months leading up to the 2008 GLR pedaling as much as I could, spending ample time in the Front Range foothills on chunky mine roads, and I loved the process. I loaded up a backpack with gear for an overnighter and quickly realized that I should probably get a rack for my bike instead of carrying a big backpack. I upgraded my front brake to a disc brake, and I managed to get a laughably minuscule 20T chainring onto my triple crankset. 45,000’ of climbing had me intimidated, so I hoped the tiny ring would help.

The GLR weekend finally arrived at the end of May. I was quite apprehensive. A crew of around a dozen riders rolled out from Grand Junction at 4 pm for the 20-mile untimed “prologue” over to the start of the Kokopelli Trail. I could sense everyone else was nervous, too – there weren’t many veterans of the GLR in the group. On the pavement west of Junction, I pedaled next to Mike Curiak, the organizer. He wasn’t racing, but he joined us for the prologue.

Before the advent of modern bikepacking bags, it was a game of strap gear wherever it can be strapped.

“Wow. I haven’t seen that bike in ages,” he said with a laugh, looking at my old Marin. “I used to be sponsored by them when I was doing 24s. That bike was such a noodle!”

I replied with something along the lines of, “Uh, well, it’s the only mountain bike I’ve got. And I’m pretty skinny, so it doesn’t seem that flexy to me.”

That wasn’t the best way to give a rookie ultra racer any extra confidence, but I quickly forgot about Mike’s comment since I was so intimidated by the terrain in front of us. The high Uncompahgre Plateau rose to the south, and somehow, it’d probably take me three days to get around that, through all the canyons along the way, and back to Grand Valley. Three days. I was accustomed to racing for more like three hours at most.

My 1998 Marin Mount Vision Pro during the 2008 Grand Loop Race. It survived!

At 6 pm, the small group aimed west and pedaled onto the Kokopelli Trail and toward the setting sun. Just a few miles onto the trail, I was alone at the front, riding into the darkness in unfamiliar country. That night, the nearly full moon was incredible. I crashed hard. I didn’t eat nearly enough. The cliffs were stunning even in the dark. I rationed my water too carefully and dehydrated myself. By morning, my legs were hurting. I melted in the heat climbing over the La Sal Mountains and then had to dig deep to get to the tiny store in Bedrock before it closed. I managed to get there with minutes to spare, grabbed what I hoped would be enough food for the last 180 miles, and then I stopped in a canyon just a few miles later. It wasn’t even dark, but I was done for the day. I slept the entire night despite only intending to stop for 4 hours. Disappointingly, I didn’t even have the energy to ponder the peculiar geology of Paradox Valley. I was also shocked that aside from around the tiny community of Bedrock, I hadn’t seen a single building along the trail or more than a few other people. It was lonely out there.

The second full day was spent mostly negotiating the Paradox trail and the countless drainages along the base of the Uncompahgre Plateau. My legs had little energy. My feet ached. My butt ached. My rear rack had broken in a crash, so I spent a while repairing it with a few spare spokes. The landscape was beautiful, but for much of the time, I was focused inwardly, willing myself forward. At nightfall, I hit deep snow at the chilly high point on the route around 10,000 feet near Columbine Pass. The announcement from Mike Curiak at the start was that if the road at the top was buried in deep snow, riders could skip a short section and proceed down. I did just that, got to lower elevation, and slept for a few hours. After my nap, I promptly threw up all the food I had eaten the evening before.

Kokopelli Trail’s infamous Rose Garden Hill was just a prelude for the challenging climbs of Paradox Trail.

The final day was a continued struggle. All I had left to eat was a big pile of Clif Bars, but I couldn’t stomach them any longer. The seemingly endless drainages the trail crossed on Rubidoux Mesa took hours, sometimes on trail so faint it was difficult to follow. Every bump sent shocks of pain through my hands and feet, and it seemed like absolutely none of the Tabeguache Trail was even remotely smooth. The loose, rocky 4×4 road climbs challenged my climbing skills and fatigued muscles, and the sandy descents were nearly more than my exhausted arms could manage. I felt empty, but I kept digging to simply move forward to get back to my car.

At midnight, I finally reached the end and collapsed in the back of my Subaru with a bag of chips. There was no one there to welcome me back or offer congratulations. But it didn’t matter – the entire ride had been a solitary affair, so the silent, anticlimactic ending felt appropriate. I couldn’t believe what I had just done, and I was certain that I would never do anything like that again. But I was proud to have finished and to have won, although the victory was taken away when Dave Kirk finished day and a half later. Mike declared Dave the winner after he heard that Dave followed a snow plow clearing the road near Columbine Pass and then hiked the short singletrack section I had skipped. Thus, Dave followed the entirety of the “proper” loop and became the only official finisher that year.

It wasn’t more than two weeks later that I wanted to ride the Grand Loop again. I had learned so much from so many things that went both well and poorly. The next year I won the Arizona Trail 300 and took second in Tour Divide. And I’ve been hooked on ultras ever since. I rode the Kokopelli Trail a few times and even most of the Paradox once on a month-long solo tour across the Colorado Plateau in 2013. I went on to race in and eventually win all the other big mountain bike ultras in the country. Expeditionary bikepacking trips took me to big mountains on every continent outside of Antarctica. I took college geology students out bikepacking, started coaching other ultra racers, and eventually co-founded the Bikepacking Roots non-profit. None of that would have happened were it not for the existence of the Grand Loop and the GLR.

Rack repairs following a damaging crash.

Despite all that, I’ve always wanted to return to the Grand Loop. 

Every single spring since 2008, I’d watch the Columbine Pass SNOTEL meteorological station snow depth chart online. Two weeks after the snow depth line bottoms out at zero, snow should be melted off the highest parts of the Grand Loop, right around the time that the desert far below begins to hit oppressive summer temperatures. In some years, I had done other long races in the spring and my fitness wasn’t where I wanted it for the Grand Loop. In other years, the ideal weather window never opened with the snow not melting up high before the desert was ablaze down low. In many of those years, I also had other racing and expedition goals, so the Grand Loop remained a dream, one I thought of surprisingly frequently. And every time I had the good fortune to ride or travel through those Utah-Colorado borderlands, I felt a strong pull to revisit the Grand Loop. After 12 years of those memories gnawing at my me, I finally got back for another ride this past June. The route was even more incredible than I had remembered, and another 6 hours came off the record in what ended up being my longest continuous ride to date – 53 straight hours. I’ll share about that powerful experience in the upcoming final installment of this series.

The iconic Bedrock Store.

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