The beauty of bikes is in the people who ride them—and how they all have a story. I have little doubt that everyone—serious riders, aeroed and grimaced, and carefree cruisers alike—have experienced that epiphanous fresh-air feeling of freedom that accompanies spinning your legs astride two wheels. Sometimes we just enjoy it at the moment—letting the short-lived wave of release and clarity wash over us during a weeknight burrito run, or a trip to the coffee shop. Other times we chase that feeling down with the hope that, somehow, it might change our life.
What first intrigued me about Josh Uhl was, however, not his history with bikes but his podcast Here For Now, which he started in February of 2021. Josh uses this platform to have intentional and intimate conversations with his guests about motivation, struggle, and the big whys of life. Listening to an early episode with Peter Hogan, where the recovering addict asserts that “Bikes aren’t God,” and to a later episode where the writer Zoe Röm reflects on the delusion of “authenticity” on social media, I found myself frequently nodding along. Yes, exactly.
Later I learned that, in addition to creating a space where athletically-inclined creators could share their stories, Josh had quite the story of his own, one that involved jumping just about as deep as you can into bikes during (what I think he would agree) was the most challenging period of his life. This is his story.
Josh Uhl is a 29yr old Wisconsiner living in Boulder, CO. He’s a photographer and the host of the aforementioned Here For Now podcast. He’s divorced. He’s a musician. And, he’s a cyclist.
“I wanted one with lots of gears,” says Josh, recounting the time he visited a mountain bike expo in the early 2000s (abounding with triple chainrings) near his hometown of Brookfield, WI. “I was like 10,” he adds laughing, “but later that year I think I did get some triple chainring bike that had 32 speeds on it. I remember being like “‘I have all the gears now.’” He is quick to point out that, as a kid, he didn’t have the classic got-a-bike-and-then-I-found-freedom story, “I remember ripping around in the woods every once in a while but I never really connected with bikes until I was an adult.”
Ironically when Josh did get hooked on bikes over a decade later, his Craigslist-found steed would likely have been a disappointment to his ten-year-old self. When he bought a sight-unseen Surly Karate Monkey he didn’t know it was set up as a rigid single speed, “I didn’t know what I was getting but I learned how to mountain bike on that. It was too big for me (like all Surlys) and I think it had a 36-16, a really hard gear for mountain biking but I didn’t know so I just started riding it on trails and would try harder on climbs.” That learning curve would come to define Josh’s riding style—mash hard or get off.
One day in the summer of 2017, Josh was decidedly not mashing hard up any climbs, though not for lack of availability. It was day one of the Colorado Trail Race (CTR) and he had left from Durango that morning with a crowd of others, all hoping to complete the 530-mile high alpine route that links Durango and Denver.
It was raining and he was bonked and “sitting underneath a tree getting soaking wet, just feeling sorry for myself. I’m sitting there—by a creek—and I needed to get water, I needed to lube my chain, I needed to be doing all these things but I couldn’t do any of them, I was just so exhausted.”
All of a sudden, an unlikely savior appeared and offered an unlikely lift; “this guy comes around the corner wearing this yellow sailor’s Frogg Toggs thing, and kitchen gloves on a rigid single speed and he had this huge smile on his face. I’m like ‘Who on Earth is this guy? He’s having the time of his life and it’s horrible out.’ He comes up to me and he’s like, ‘You look like you could use a Cheeto waterfall.’ Then he pulls out a bag of Cheetos and just starts pouring Cheetos on me. In the next five minutes, he’d lubed his chain, fixed his brakes, gotten water, had a snack, talked to me and left.” This person was Brett Stepanik and he was on his CT victory lap. He had already raced the Arizona Trail (AZT) and the Tour Divide (TD) that year and was en route to finishing his Triple Crown Challenge, and setting the men’s single speed record to boot (Brett completed his run in a total of 39 days 13 hours and 4 minutes. Alice Drobna holds the overall single speed record at 36:06:56.)
There are few moments in our lives that we can point to as explicit turning points—moment X changed me in Y ways—but Josh points to his first meeting with Brett as one of these concrete, transformative experiences. It was the whole package: the rigid single-speed setup (like his own), taking on the Triple Crown Challenge, remaining completely unphased in the face of shit weather, and doling out aptly-timed Cheeto waterfalls. And, as fate would have it, Josh would later discover that the two share Wisconsin as their home state.
Two years later (spring ‘19) would bring Josh to the starting line of his own Triple Crown Challenge attempt. While his encounter with Brett had been his original inspiration, ultimately it was life circumstances that pushed him to go for it. In 2018, the previous year, Josh and his (then) wife had gotten divorced—they split up that March, the day after his birthday which also became the day he moved into their van. But the van, which Josh had built out for their adventures together, was too painful a reminder of trips not taken so he sold that van, bought another one, and built out the second van for himself (which he continued to live in until December of 2020). During that four-month stretch from March to June ‘18, he also sold their house and finalized the divorce.
That same year, Josh attempted the CT for a second time but got shut down again. It was during this attempt that he first rode over 100mi in a day, and despite leaving the CT unfinished he continued training in earnest, resolved to go for a Triple Crown run the next year. In addition to spending more time on the CT and the northern Colorado sections of the TD course, Josh was able to get advice from Brett leading into his single speed attempt, “That experience meeting Brett really stuck with me and I ended up having him as a mentor when I decided to go in 2019. I spent like three hours with him on the phone one night.” Fortunately for Josh, we live in an era when our bikepacking heroes are never more than an Instagram DM away.
Objectively speaking, Josh made the ultimate stylistic choice in taking on his Triple Crown Challenge: he would ride the same bike for all three events. Although he would alter the gearing to suit the specific needs of each course, Josh’s fully rigid Chumba Stella Ti would accompany him at all three races.
2019 AZTR 750
The day finally came to line up for the first event of the Triple Crown, the AZTR 750. Recalling the moment, with his divorce still fresh and dissatisfaction with his work life mounting, Josh says, “I was attached to nothing at that point. The whole goal was to just gift me the opportunity to actually try and not put limitations on what I was doing. That was the most freeing thing. My first day out on the AZT I was saying it’s okay to go do this thing that I want to do.”
Even after lining up at the CTR and the TD, Josh still says there’s nothing quite like the AZTR. The starting line experience was unpretentious and grassroots. Riders start at the border of Mexico, and as there is basically nothing in terms of lodging, everyone just camps out the night before. Neil Beltchenko kicked off the race that year, and Josh guessed there were maybe 50 riders at the start; “Neil said, ‘Alright, we’re gonna go. Make sure your back tire is touching the border gate and we’re gonna go in five minutes.’ And then five minutes later, we all just left.”
Despite his training, day one of the AZTR was still an eye-opener—getting superly dehydrated under the desert sun found Josh dry-heaving in a garden at one point, but he reset and recommitted to riding his own race. Five days in, he was putting in big miles, in the groove, and starting to catch more people. The nights were the highlights (“the desert just comes alive,”) and felt like the embodiment of the counterculture nature of bikepacking. Josh described the surreal beauty of riding your bike under the desert moon—and then seeing other riders engaging in the same glorious absurdity. One such night Josh caught up to Brett who “will sleep in the middle of the trail so he’ll wake up if someone catches him,” and the two charged together all night long.
The lowest moment in the race came at the end when Josh found himself standing “on time” at the edge of the Grand Canyon, ”I was pacing around at the top of the South Rim even though I could practically see Utah.” Having started his day in Flagstaff that morning, Josh already had 100 miles of riding in his legs and 21 miles of hiking with his bike ahead. He had planned on crossing the canyon at night so that he wouldn’t have to carry as much water but the moment found him overcome with “an innate sense of wrongness” at the idea of descending into the bowels of the canyon under a setting sun.
Sleep deprivation certainly wasn’t helping. In an effort to maintain a gap on the rider that was behind him, he had been pushing hard for a few days and was already experiencing mild hallucinations. When he noticed his mind playing tricks on him, he made the only appropriate conclusion, “I live in a different reality now. I’m just going to keep riding my bike.”
Four hours after harnessing a 40+lb bike to his back and rallying himself to take on the trek Josh reached Phantom Ranch, the halfway point that sits on the Colorado River at the canyon’s nadir. Everything about the hike up the North Rim was surreal and wrong-feeling. The lack of sleep had his nerves frayed and emotions on edge—the constant, disorienting din of falling rocks reverberating through the black, the instinct to sleep, and the pain in his body were all overwhelming his nervous system. In what was a nearly out-of-body state, Josh recalls how voices in his head kept telling him to walk off the side and be done with it. Shaken but still certain, Josh reaffirmed his purpose, “I don’t think I’m going to do that, I’m doing this thing called bikepacking, it’s fun.” But because taking his bike on and off was too arduous, whenever he couldn’t fight the need for sleep any longer he’d simply lay face down in the trail for a nap, setting a ten-minute timer on his phone, the bike still attached.
Finally, Josh did emerge from the canyon and the hardest physical experience he’s ever endured. “I sat against a tree and cried for a while. Then I was like, ‘I guess I’m going to Utah’ and I proceeded to have the best day!”
2019 Tour Divide
“It was so naive of me to think I would be bored.” Coming from a predominantly mountain biking background, Josh had been worried about how he would handle back-to-back (ad nearly Infinitum) 100+ mile days during his run down the 2500+ mile Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR).
At the Grand Depart in Banff, he told himself, “as long as I start I can keep going,” though he already felt unnerved by the apparent difference in the tone of this race as compared to the more subdued AZTR. Josh estimates that there were around 200 riders lined up that year and, of the scene at the start, commented, “There’s all this stuff that takes you out of that beginning experience, a lot of eyeing people’s bikes and eyeing people’s gear and oh look there’s so-and-so they’re gonna be fast.”
When asked about the growing popularity of bikepacking and the debate over bikepacking media —given that he works in media and his own introduction to the Divide was the film, Ride the Divide—Josh was quick to say, “I’m of the mindset that the outdoors are for anyone who wants to spend time out there. I don’t mind that bikepacking is growing because you still get to go and have your own experience.” That introspective experience might just set in a few days later on the Divide (when the field spreads out) than at a smaller race, like the AZTR, as more people come out to test themselves on, arguably, the most infamous ultra-distance bikepacking route.
And, competition—it’s a thing. “It just felt very competitive, even though I can be competitive in my own space. At the start, people are zooming by you and asking you to move over, which was just a very different experience than later in the race where people aren’t like ‘Excuse me I’m going to pass you. They’re like, Tell me about your day—talk to me!’'”
Competition is a complex phenomenon that, for better or worse, seems integral to the human condition. It may seem paradoxical that, while Josh admitted to actively trying to keep another rider behind him during the AZTR he was then turned off by more overt competition during the Tour Divide. But that AZT rider was well enough behind him that Josh couldn’t exactly see him over his shoulder, and perhaps it’s this difference—indirect over the direct competition—that successfully drives some riders during these multi-day/multi-week events to extract something unexpected from themselves. The specter of a rider as a motivating force versus the pressure of a real, breathing human on your wheel may push some riders to achieve their personal best, while the pressure of that in-the-flesh competition would feel overwhelming. Otherwise, why not just ride the route as a tour or ITT? Of course, (now) literally hundreds of individuals race the Divide for a multitude of reasons and this variance in experiences is surely what makes the Divide so unique. Every rider has a reason, every rider has a story.
Competition aside, the availability of in-real-time coverage (through Trackleaders and social media) also served as a source of distraction that, in Josh’s words, could take you out of your own experience. “You could basically be on your phone at any time” (referring to the availability of LTE bars on course, and the frequency of towns, as compared to the more remote nature of the AZT). And this availability of information did, at times, affect his racing. When news of the Brush Mountain armistice and Josh Kato dropping reached him and a few other riders, Josh says he nearly dropped even though the circumstances had no bearing on his current state.
He was riding with two others and the trio had just reached Boulder, WY. They planned to get a hotel room that night and wake up early the next day to make a 200-mile push to Brush Mountain Lodge. At 3 am the next morning one of the guys, Alex said that he was worried about the conditions ahead and was dropping. This declaration had a snowball effect on the trio’s motivation and before long the other group member (who had suffered a bad crash earlier in the race) had dropped too, and Josh found himself riding with the two back to Pinedale and looking for a rental car. “There was all this stuff flying around and it was overwhelming. Josh Kato almost died, and I’m like ‘Josh Kato is the hardest dude out there.’ To hear about someone that experienced having that hard of a time was super scary.”
Josh was also personally concerned because he only had a 45-deg sleeping bag and a bivy that didn’t close so the possibility of wet conditions and snow was a real deterrent. But, as he pointed out, all of these looming threats were happening 200 miles away; “Kato almost died but meanwhile it was 90 degrees in Boulder, WY and beautiful sunny skies.” Of course, in a race as long and varied as the Tour Divide, where racers are riding hours, days, or even weeks apart, some people—regardless of experience—just get unlucky with the conditions they’re dealt. And in this case, Kato’s misfortune was potentially misleading those well behind him. Riding his own race had served Josh well on his AZT run, but he was finding it infinitely harder to do so on the Divide, “It’s really distracting. One of the reasons I go bikepacking is to get some of that technology out of my life.”
In the midst of trying to find a rental car in Pinedale Josh made the realization, “I’m not done with this. I can ride to Mexico right now if I want to.” He immediately went to the outdoor shop in town and bought a warmer sleeping bag. There was only one option—a Western Mountaineering zero-deg bag that cost $600. True to his “no limits philosophy” (defined only by the limit of his credit card) Josh bought the bag and some warmer clothes. After mailing some of his other gear home, he packed up his bike and left Pinedale again, this time on his own. With a renewed resolve to finish, he was rewarded with a tailwind through the Great Basin.
(Side note: It turned out that Josh never needed the extra warmth that a $600 bag affords, and he sent it home in NM where the nights were so warm that he slept in just his bivy. He then sold it immediately upon his return to Boulder, CO, “I can’t have that nice of a thing. A $600 sleeping bag is just unreasonable.”)
Breaking out of the collective move to drop in Pinedale was a turning point and personal win, as is every day on the Divide. But each new day brings another (or multiple) opportunities to throw in the towel. Once in Colorado, home was tantalizingly close. Josh had crashed pretty hard coming into Steamboat and was worried that he might have a concussion. The thought occurred that he could just ride home to Boulder, CO—objectively much closer than Antelope Wells.
He closed off the thought with a to-do list, “I’m going to get to Steamboat, get a new chain, get my hub serviced, and I’m going to leave.” He made it through Steamboat (“somehow”) but the familiar landscapes were calling to the surface things he’d have rather not thought about—his recent divorce and what the heck he was doing at his job. This existential turmoil, coupled with the fact that he wasn’t enjoying the riding as much, resulted in Josh texting friends to come to pick him up.
Fortunately, he’d had the foresight to warn them against indulging any such pleas and his friends did not yield. Throughout Colorado, Josh’s strategy became to keep looking forward, “I’d tell myself just see how you feel in an hour, or if that’s not working, four hours, or if that’s not working, the next town.” Extending that timeline with the hope that, eventually, given enough time or towns his mindset would turn around seemed to make a big difference.
In New Mexico, Josh was greeted by the (“unbelievably difficult”) Gila National Forest, where he ran out of food for the last eight hours into Silver City. It’s easy to absorb that experience as a written fact but it’s quite another thing to experience such a caloric blow in real-time when you’ve been riding your bike 130+ miles a day for nearly three weeks.
It’s here that riders encounter one of the only singletrack sections on the route and Josh found himself riding it—depleted—at night with his secondary front light broken. His dynamo light was mounted such that he couldn’t see any of the rocks he was trying to avoid. The singletrack felt interminable. Finally, Silver City came into view at nearly midnight on the 4th of July and Josh had a one-man celebration, “I could see all the fireworks lighting up the sky and I was like ‘it’s for me! I made it!’”
Given the late hour, the only place that was open for food was a Sonic. In complete seriousness, Josh says he developed a real appreciation for fast food on his Divide run because most places post the calories next to their menu items, “which in normal life is scary—okay that burger is 1400cal? But I got there and was like I’m going to order 5000cal worth of food. I got an XL soda, XL milkshake, and two double-bacon-monster truck cheeseburgers.”
Silver City is the last major checkpoint for Divide riders heading southbound, but despite being so close to the end, Josh opted for a hotel that night rather than pushing on. He wanted to experience and reflect and feel all of the final 125mi the next day.
The next morning Josh was the first customer at Don Juan Burritos, which amazingly opened at 6 am. Josh’s plan to have a great last day on the Divide played out seamlessly. He was treated to cloud cover and a tailwind “I think that day is still the fastest 100mi I’ve ever ridden,” which brought him to Antelope Wells about 3 pm. He celebrated with an apple empanada and a beer at the border.
He ended up waiting at the border for a couple of hours for the shuttle and for the rider behind him, Paul, to finish. Josh had lost his pump somewhere in NM and ridden the last 300mi without the ability to fix a flat and the fear of getting a puncture had motivated him to keep Paul at an emergency distance behind.
Upon completing the Divide Josh points to it as his most transformative experience on the bike, while his time on the AZT was his most profound. “The time spent out there, the distance you travel, how much you can see… I think about my trip down the Divide every single day. And it’s been two years. It’s a part of who I am now.”
In the two-week interim between racing the TD and lining up for the Colorado Trail Race, Josh spent his recovery period in a way that no other Triple Crown rider probably ever has (or should)—he went to Peru. Since he was taking so much time off to complete the Triple Crown he was taking a huge pay cut and decided to pick up a work project in the intervening weeks. On assignment at the production company where he was employed, he spent much of the short break before the CTR at 12,000 feet, thinking the time at altitude would set him up for success on the CTR, which passes many miles above 10,000’ (“what I really needed to be doing was sitting on a couch.”)
To say that Josh had fully committed to his “no compromises” approach to pursuing the Triple Crown challenge is an understatement. By the time he lined up in Durango for the late July start of the CTR, he had $300 in his checking account, a maxed-out credit card, and had no income coming in during his bikepacking sabbatical.
Josh planned to make it to Silverton the first night of the race, but compounded fatigue from the preceding two months and his jaunt to Peru were taking their toll, so he slept early. On the second day, his spirits were bolstered when he caught back up to Brett and Joe Tonsager (of Jpaks, who made all of Josh’s bike bags) on Stoney Pass. Riding with the person who had set this journey in motion made it feel like everything was coming full circle—until the three were cranking up a climb and Josh felt a concerning wobble in the back end of his bike. During a snack stop, Josh realized that his rear hub was shot.
The three took the hub apart only to discover that the rear hub was wrecked. The options were pretty devastating. The next town, Lake City, didn’t have a bike shop, and it was still over 150mi to Buena Vista (so walking seemed out of the question).
Josh decided to go back to Silverton to replace the bearings—to expedite the errand he removed his chain, lowered the saddle, and push-biked the 5-6 hours back to Silverton.
But even at the shop, Josh’s situation looked grim—the bearings of his i9 hub weren’t a standard size and the shop didn’t carry the specific bearings he’d need to get the hub operational again. Furthermore, Josh was running boost spacing on 27+ wheels (a pretty weird setup) and the shop owner didn’t have any wheels that would fit Josh’s Stella.
After staying the night at the hostel in Silverton, Josh started making calls the next morning. He called i9 with the bearing number, with the hope that they could overnight him some fresh bearings or hub—no dice. He called every bike shop in close proximity with the hope of finding a replacement wheel but nobody had a loaner wheel for him.
At this point, he was starting to feel like things weren’t going to turn around, “I battled with it a lot. The main thing was I could have just bought a new wheel. [Except] My credit card was maxed out and I only had $300, so I actually couldn’t. The only thing that was going to solve my problem was money, which I didn’t have and so I ended up saying that’s it.” Stuck with a broken bike in Silverton, Josh had found the uncomfortable ceiling of his “no limits” philosophy.
During this period of devastating deliberation one of Josh’s TD mates, Jason, texted him to ask what was going on, and why was he back in Silverton? When Josh explained the situation, Jason offered to come to give him a ride if he was sure that this was it. Jason, someone that Josh barely knew, ended up driving 12 hours round trip to get him and then took Josh back to his house where he put him up. Josh recalls how touched he was by the support of this near-stranger and that realizing this capacity for kindness in others wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t dropped.
At the time that Josh was making his attempt, the Triple Crown Challenge had seen more single-speed than geared attempts, “You could say that people who ride single-speed are a little more out of their mind, or it’s just the more practical way to do it.” Of course, Josh aligns with the latter argument. He also knew that the AZTR would move to the current 800-mile distance the next year, so this was the last opportunity to try to challenge Brett’s record on the exact same course.
He says he battles with the decision to drop every day, “As time has passed I feel good about stopping but you know there’s all this ego involved. At the time I wasn’t talking about it a lot but I wanted the men’s single speed record and I was a day ahead of it when my bike broke.”
On why this felt so important Josh says, “I had been going through a lot of challenges when I started the Triple Crown and I think I really wanted this badge to put on that time in my life so that I could say ‘Yeah I was going through this really hard time but I also did this really hard thing and accomplished something that so few people have ever done.’ I think I wanted that for myself, to justify that period of my life as successful. And in the end, it felt like such a huge failure.”
Shortly following his Triple Crown attempt, Josh quit his job and is now a full-time photographer and podcaster in the outdoor space. In episode two of his Here For Now podcast, he speaks with Peter Hogan (a recovering addict) about the role bikes play in his life as a way to cope with personal struggles. In response, Peter shares that bikes will never solve your problems (substance-based or otherwise), but they can be a vehicle for growth, “I learned to mountain bike from someone who ultimately died because they thought mountain biking would keep them sober and sane. It won’t. No activity, no drug, no person, dogma, anything will keep a person alive or sane. It might be able to clear your mind enough so that you can connect spiritually with something else, independent of the bike. My experience in trying to use Bike as God does not work. Because eventually I’ll look at Strava and I’ll be like, ‘Damn, somebody else is way better at connecting with God than me.’ I seek that feeling of trying really hard at something because I can always go further than I think I can.”
You might say that this question—Is riding bikes the solution or the distraction?—was underlying Josh’s Triple Crown attempt the whole time. In answer to that question, he’d say it’s both, “sometimes you have to ride your bike about something, and sometimes you ride your bike just because you love it.” At the same time, he wonders if the act of physical struggle isn’t necessary to reveal some of our most complicated emotions, “sometimes if I’m doing a race and a really difficult moment pops up and I’m like ‘why am I having such a difficult time right now?’ it’s like, “Oh because I’m running away from this thing and that’s what’s actually weighing me down right now, not that act of pushing this bike up this hill.’ But maybe that’s a good space to be in because you’re like ‘alright, I’ll deal with this now because it’s here.’”
Josh thinks about the Triple Crown every day—it’s part of his identity—and he says he knows it will be there, and he knows it’s awesome. He also firmly believes that he has learned much more through not completing the Triple Crown at that time than he would have if he had finished. And, he knows he’ll go back when he has less to “ride his bike about” and a more unfettered drive to do his best and see what he’s capable of.