Of all the things I love most in this life, riding bikes, exploring the world, and writing about both of those things are very near the top of the list. So, you can understand my thrill when the state of North Dakota’s tourism board reached out, asking if I might be interested in riding one of the most difficult singletrack trails in America before coming home to write about it.
After a quick conversation with my wife—whose blessing was required to leave her alone with our kids (the three things steadfastly at the top of my list) for four days while I went off to the Badlands to fuck around on bikes—and a few pitches to some bike-friendly editors (at least one of which commissioned the piece you are, at this very moment, reading), it was confirmed; I would be heading out to southwestern North Dakota to ride a portion of the Maah Daah Hey Trail, which, at 144 miles, is America’s longest contiguous singletrack trail. Thanks to its steep grades, technical terrain full of all sizes of rocks and boulders, thousands of tight switchbacks, endless buttes, and rapid changes in elevation, it’s also widely regarded as one of the most challenging.
First, I needed to find someone to bring along on this adventure to snap the photos you’re looking at. Luckily, I know a great photographer who is also an expert outdoorsman and seasoned survivalist. This meant, should we get lost, I’d be in safe hands. Either that, or he’d kill me and eat my meat in order to stay alive in the high plains desert of the Badlands. But we’re pals, so I think the former would be a far more likely outcome.
And just as he did with our previous story for the site, Brian responded to my query almost immediately, affirming that a few days on bikes in North Dakota sounded like his idea of a good time.
But before we dive any deeper, let’s address one very basic truth: I am not a very good mountain biker.
Though I can climb quite well, I’m a timid descender and a person who prefers his wheels stay in contact with the ground as often as possible. And the older I get, the less and less I want to crash. While I enjoy the freedom mountain biking offers, I doubt it’s something I’m ever going to love as much as I do road or gravel riding.
Mountain biking is something I’ve come to lately, so I could spend more time riding with my son, whose skill on a bike far exceeds his four-and-a-half years. He and I take to the trails carved out of our town’s woods at least two or three times a week, me learning as much from watching him as he learns from me barking to keep his feet on his pedals, to stand up over roots or rock gardens, or to keep his elbows bent. If anything, riding with my son is easier than riding alone or with friends, as he gives me something else to focus on rather than my own tedium of being or becoming anything beyond a very mediocre (at best) mountain biker.
However, in this era of expertise and easy advice, there’s a lot to be said about doing something you suck at. There’s even more to doing something you suck at in an extremely difficult setting. So, fuck yeah, let’s go ride one of America’s toughest trails. It beats the hell out of staying home and not doing it.
After two flights and a ninety-minute drive, which, in true North Dakota fashion, was in one almost perfectly straight line, we arrived at the tiny outpost of Medora, population: 121. Ringed by high-rising walls of white canyon, Medora is an old west tourist town, one whose few buildings date back to the days of cowboys and rough riders, prospectors and manifest destiny. Mixed in with the weekenders, who, by the mélange of accents, must have come from all over the Midwest, Great Plains, and Pacific Northwest, were plenty of locals, contemporary rustlers and ranchers and farmhands bidding in an open-air cowboy auction (that is, the kind where they bid on the actual cowboys to ride their bulls and broncos in the weekend’s local rodeo). And as the annual Maah Daah Hey 100 bike race was the following morning, plenty of mountain bikers were milling around town.
Temperatures neared ninety when we arrived and a few puffy clouds dotted the otherwise perfectly blue sky, which stretched wider than this East Coast lifer could possibly fathom. The brutal heat and sun-bleached plains made the next morning’s weather that much more stunning.
It was raining when we woke up in our hotel, with temperatures in the mid-fifties; both elements that would make the annual Maah Daah Hey 100 even more of a challenge than it has traditionally been.
The Maah Daah Hey 100 was the brainchild of Nick Ybarra, who, alongside his wife Lindsey, has been hosting the race for the last eleven years. He has all the looks of an adventure athlete. Slim and well-built with a chiseled face and a mild temperament, it’s no surprise that his idea of a good time is trying to ride the entirety of the Maah Daah Hey in a single go. In fact, when we last spoke just a few days ago, he was about to shove off on the first documented attempt at a Maah Daah Hey out-and-back. Three-hundred-miles on the most challenging trail in America. Giddy-up!
Ybarra, 38, discovered the trail in summer of 2002 when he was in high school in Bismarck, two hours east (in a perfectly straight line) of the trail. Armed with a $150 knobby-tired Schwinn he had purchased from the local Walmart, Nick joined a group of buddies on a weekend trip out to the Maah Daah Hey. A decade later, after a stint in North Dakota’s Air National Guard and as many trips to ride the MDH as he could squeeze in, Ybarra unofficially launched the Badlands Race Series with Lindsey, challenging sixty of his friends and local riders to see who could ride the 100 miles of the original Maah Daah Hey fastest.
The following year, after entries doubled, Nick and Lindsey realized they might need to start charging a modest entry fee to help cover trail maintenance, and in 2013, the Badlands Race Series was officially born.
The Ybarras have become something of the Maah Daah Hey’s unofficial keepers. Through their nonprofit, Legendary Adventures New Discoveries or LAND for short, they’ve been able to acquire a stable of the machines needed for trail maintenance, with annual trail grooming and regular upkeep to ensure the Maah Daay Hey is as rider-friendly as possible.
Their dedication to take what was once threatened by overgrowth and turn it into something to be enjoyed by many for years to come is keeping the trail true to its name; in the language of the area’s Mandan tribe “Maah Daah Hey” means a “thing that will be around for a long time” or “grandfather.” The name is also a reminder that the land seemingly stretches to the horizon in every direction once belonged to a variety of tribes, not only Mandan but also Crow, Hidatsa, Blackfoot, Arikara, Chippewa, Assiniboine, and Oglala and Lakota Sioux tribes, long before those people were moved to reservations or wiped out by the introduction of smallpox by the American government. And lest riders along the trail forget, it is well-marked at every mile with stoic wood markers featuring the image of a turtle borrowed from the Lakota Sioux. According to the Maah Daah Hey Trail Association, the turtle symbolizes “patience, loyalty, determination, steadfastness, long life, and fortitude,” which are all attributes the trail demands of its visitors.
From its first iteration until last year, the Maah Daah Hey 100 (which also offers race distances of 13, 25, 50, and 75 miles) has been run every August with the biggest concern being the Badlands’ vicious summer heat. As there is little tree cover along most of the trail, the threat of the sun quickly becomes riders’ fiercest adversary. But this year, as the rain fell on the grassy plains and into the painted canyons, and the temperature dipped nearly thirty degrees below its August averages, Ybarra and his cohort were faced with the kind of forecast they’d yet to contest.
Racers were sliding into the trail’s various checkpoints and rest stations with cassettes so mud-caked that several were relegated to only a single gear—hardly ideal on a trail that averages over 100 feet of elevation per mile. Brake pads were prohibited from making contact with rims or rotors. Saturated clothes quickly became freezer boxes.
At one point, early in the day, Ybarra made the call to shorten the hundred miler by nearly sixty miles, ending it at the forty-five mile mark. Only a dozen of the eighty racers who started the hundred-mile race were even able to reach that mark. A few hours later, mountain biking legend Tinker Juarez rolled across the line first to win the men’s race while American powerhouse Candace Jenkins won the women’s slate.
And yet, despite the freezing rain, mud, crashes and unusable cassettes, most of the roughly 450 riders who braved the dismal weather wore mostly happy looks as they rolled across the final few hundred yards toward the finish line, perhaps the only flat segment of the race. They were happy to be done, no doubt, but certainly happy that they did too.
If our first day in town exhibited southwest North Dakota’s ability to be extremely hot, and our second showed us the area’s penchant for swift and unpredictable swings in weather, our third day landed somewhere in between. It was sunny but cooler, low-eighties, and the earth was dry. It was almost as if the previous day had never happened. Perfect for our day of riding.
We arrived early to Medora’s Dakota Cyclery to pick up our rental bikes, which, as both Brian and I require extra-large bikes, shop owner Jennifer Morlock had stashed away for us. Dakota Cyclery is the picture of a mountain bike shop; bikes, frames, and parts abound, a tiny kitten occasionally takes up residence on the shop couch (i.e., a bench seat from an old van or pickup), vintage bikes hang from the rafters and memorabilia from a life spent on and around bicycles decorate every inch of free space in the building, which began its life as a stable in the nineteenth century.
Morlock’s husband, Loren, opened Dakota Cyclery in Bismarck in 1980. In 1994, Jennifer joined him in business to open the Medora shop. They’ve since become the de facto outfitter for trail riders (after a series of broken bikes, they no longer rent bikes to be used for the races). Their white-and-yellow 1991 Chevrolet Beauville van acts as a talisman for the shop as it shuttles riders and their gear to and from various trailheads along the Maah Daah Hey.
Testing my bike around in the alleyway behind Dakota Cyclery, standing up and jamming all two-hundred-and-sixty pounds of my oversize frame into the bike before feeling it spring right back beneath me, letting me know in its own mechanical way that it had my back, my mind couldn’t help but wander to the earlier days of mountain biking, when front shocks weren’t even a thing, let alone full suspension. I thought of what an industry-wide miracle it must have felt like to suddenly have the bike move in concert with the Earth in ways it never before had. As both Brian and I are hardtail riders, the feel of full suspension beneath us was brand new and we wondered how we were going to break the news to our wives that we would both be needing to drop coin on full-squish whips as soon as we returned to North Carolina.
After a long and strange and fantastic and cold and wet trip, it was finally time for me and Brian to test our skills and our mettle along one of America’s most challenging singletrack trails.
After hanging our bikes off the Beauville’s bike rack, ensuring all of our water bottles were full and our nutrition stores were ready, we hopped in the van, piloted by Kim Callahan—a semi-retired doctor of audiology who is Dakota Cyclery’s only employee—and headed for the middle of nowhere. Of course, being a remote corner of North Dakota, the middle of nowhere was only a fifteen-minute drive from the center of Medora.
Arriving to one of the Maah Daah Hey’s myriad trailheads, Kim gave us a few instructions, wished us luck, and pulled off, a plume of dust and pebbles following behind the Beauville until it vanished over North Dakota’s eternal horizon.
At long last, the time had come for Brian and me to do what we came out here to do.
Which brings me back to my very first point: I’m not a very good mountain biker. My skills on a bicycle have been honed and fine-tuned over years of paved miles, crits and alleycats, velodromes and urban commutes. To me, mountain biking is a nearly brand-new endeavor.
Thanks to extensive road riding over the rolling hills of Orange County, NC, I can easily climb (a much-needed skill when traveling over the Maah Daah Hey’s many buttes). But it’s the descent where I flail and often fail. I know the tropes; elbows bent, weight back, look where you want to go. Still, I spend too much time clutching my rear brake, too much time trying to avoid wrecking rather than enjoying the thrill of the bomb. And I often find myself more breathless at the bottom of a descent than I do after conquering a climb.
Brian, on the other hand (and thanks in large part to his background as an experienced downhill skier) descends like someone who knows what he’s doing. Which is why we spent most of our ride leapfrogging one another, me dropping him on the climbs, him leaving me in a flash at the top of every descent. That is, of course, until we arrived at the descent after the trail’s 41st mile. It was the descent Kim warned us about as the Beauville pulled into the trailhead.
“Turn around before you hit that descent,” she said. “It’s one heck of a climb back up.”
But by the time we arrived to that segment, I had plenty of miles in me and was feeling more confident on singletrack than I ever had before. I dropped Brian a bit on the previous climb and dashed across a meadow that stretched across the top of the plateau before bombing (relatively speaking, of course) the steep descent, which was full of switchbacks and hemmed in by some of the largest boulders we’d seen all day.
The wind rushed past my ears and the white dirt crunched under my tires as I moved the bike beneath me, doing my best to keep my weight centered. For the first time, I felt at one with my bike, which was on rails as I picked up speed with each switchback.
I’m getting the hang of this, I thought, a wide smile stretching across my face.
“Dude!” Brian’s voice came through the staticky walkie-talkie I had mounted on the shoulder strap of my pack. Brian had brought the walkies with plans to direct me from afar as his piloted his drone around the area’s painted canyons and shear ledges.
The walkie crackled again.
He said something else but the wind and the static proved too much for me to discern and, in the midst of the descent, taking my hands off to respond was the last thing I was going to do. Whatever Brian was trying to tell me would have to wait. Anyway, I was having way too much fun.
At the bottom, I looked back to see Brian several switchbacks above me. I took a big swig of lukewarm electrolyte-enhanced water from my bottle and chased with some water from my CamelBak, which was still ice cold. After a few moments baking in the relentless sun, Brian arrived at the bottom.
“Dude,” he said, with a breathless laugh. “That was the one.”
“The one Kim said not to descend unless we wanted to get our asses completely kicked on the way back up.”
We craned our necks and looked back toward the butte, which suddenly seemed significantly larger than it did from the top. My eyes traced the line of the path, trying to count how many switchbacks I’d just descended. I gave up after eight or nine, realizing there was nothing to do but climb back up that butte.
Shit. I thought.
“Shit,” Brian said.
We sat in silence for a few moments, each of us catching our breath. Eventually, we took one last swig of water, one final gulp of fresh North Dakotan air, shifted into our biggest, granniest gears, and began the most difficult but most rewarding work of climbing just one of the Maah Daah Hey’s hundreds of craggy buttes, beyond which lay a sea of hills and stone, grass and dirt, all of it rolling over the land like a sleeping giant, waiting to be played upon.
Oh, and by the way, Nick Ybarra finished his three-hundred-mile Maah Daah Hey out-and-back. The trip took nearly five days.