“I think the big highlight for me was just the energy—the energy shared any time I passed someone, or they passed me—I’d stop and think I was alone, and all of a sudden, I’d turn a corner and see someone I knew. The energy we left echoed through those mountains.”
This past April, in the quiet Spanish town of Teruel, a few hours east of Madrid, 56 riders set out by bike to take on the Komoot Women’s Montañas Vacías Bikepacking Challenge, an eight-day exploration of one of the least-populated regions in Europe. The 57th rider, Josie Fouts, followed along in the media van and recaps the challenge below.
Note: This article is part of a sponsored partnership with Komoot. We’ll always disclose when content is sponsored to ensure our journalistic integrity.
“When I first started traveling to Spain, I had a 24-hour delay in Salt Lake City, and I only buffered one jet-lag day, which I realized wasn’t enough…so I used that up. And then I almost didn’t make my connecting flight from Paris to Valencia. I was like, ‘Oh, I have fifteen minutes to get from one end of this airport to the other.’ And I made it, but thought, ‘I wonder how efficient bag transfers are.’”
Turns out, while Josie was fast, the bag handlers weren’t—speed being a common theme in the life of the 31-year-old former lab manager turned full-time cyclist. Another recurring theme? Josie’s positive approach towards life’s many challenges, her deferred grand depárt included.
“Barrier number one was the delay, barrier number two was the missing bags, barrier number three was not having a day to adjust to the time change. So I missed the first day of the rally, which ended up being good because that became my chance to just nap in the media van—and everyone else went pretty much all uphill on a hot day. I was like, ‘This is the best worst-case scenario.’”
Originally from Seoul, South Korea, Josie grew up in Toledo, Ohio following adoption at six months old. As a transradial congenital amputee, Fouts was born without a left hand, a reality that has helped shaped Josie’s life trajectory but has done little to slow her down, instilling instead a sense of resolve and a penchant for turning obstacle into opportunity. Or as Josie puts it, stubbornness.
“I am definitely a stubborn person. It’s just natural. If I try a task and it requires two hands, my mind starts to go into overdrive because it knows that we’re shorthanded, literally. Pun intended. It’s overworking so I can overcome. That’s really why I am the way I am. I see my stubbornness as my religion.”
Josie’s determination has carried her far in her time as a cyclist, transitioning in just a few short years from daily commuter to Paracycling National Champion and record holder—and that was just in her first race. Diving headfirst, and headstrong, into Paralympic track and road racing with Team USA, Josie’s speed on the saddle has opened competitive doors around the world. However earlier this year, Josie made the decision to take some time away from the road and track, instead pursuing and promoting a growing passion for Mountain Paracycling.
“Being outside on my bicycle in nature, on a heavy bike that’s teaching me balance, that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
It’s a joy she hopes to spread to paracyclists around the nation, and one that, like road and track, has presented Josie with unique opportunities, including an invitation to join the Komoot women’s rally in Spain—an opportunity, like many in Josie’s life, that didn’t come without its own obstacles.
“One barrier in the very beginning was, I don’t have fast internet, so I missed the sign up. The rally filled up in thirty seconds. So I messaged Gaby at Komoot like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. Can I get on a wait list?’ And it turned out that I got a spot.”
Another obstacle was overcoming apprehension about the social dynamic of joining so many unknown riders on such a challenging journey, a decision made easier with the encouragement of a friend.
“The way that I found out about the rally was through (international ultra-endurance racing champion) Lael Wilcox, who led the ride. She believed in me more than me, which was super cool. I would have never done it without Lael’s support and because she believed in me. I have some emotional trauma of being burned by women in the past, and this was overriding that trauma with such a powerful and positive experience; it made that trauma feel so tiny.”
Of course, making the decision to take part was just the first in a series of hurdles for Fouts. This was, after all, only her third bikepacking experience, and by far the longest and furthest from home.
“I knew that at any point on my previous bikepacking rides, I could call my partner and he could pick us up. But in Spain, you don’t have that. It’s like either, ‘Ok, let me find WIFI in the middle of the empty mountains or wait and hope somebody shows up.’ Not to mention, I’ve never done a bikepacking trip of this caliber. I don’t usually ride 50-plus miles in a day, eight days in a row.”
Josie’s fears were not unfounded—the area is truly remote. Created by local rider and adventure enthusiast Ernesto Pastor, the Montañas Vacías bikepacking route covers some 700-kilometers of mixed-terrain riding throughout Spain’s “Empty Mountains.” Nicknamed “Spanish Lapland” due to a similarity in population density with its Finnish counterpart, the region represents one of the least occupied areas in all of Europe, with an average of fewer than one person per square kilometer, meaning should a problem arise, riders are likely to be miles from the nearest town, let alone bike shop.
“All these excuses started popping up into my head. Even the prosthetic, the way it’s designed—in the middle of summer, when the weather starts getting warm, I can ride from like 20 minutes to two hours, that’s the range for my ride, so all day on a bike, that’s not what this is designed for. But I knew that if I could get through this bicycle adventure, then I could really do anything.”
Of course, Josie wouldn’t be going it alone. Finally reunited with her bike and fully rested, Josie was at last ready to roll out with her fellow trip participants—following an impromptu repair to a bent chainring, that is, damaged en route and fixed in typical Fouts style: smiling, determined, and unwilling to let obstacle become impasse. On the road, Josie had the chance to share her contagious can-do attitude with the other riders, most of whom were tired from a hot, tough first stage.
“I got to be everyone’s second wind on the second day. When I show up to anything—whether it’s a paracycling race, an able-bodied race, a group ride, whatever it is—if I don’t quit, nobody else has an excuse to quit. That’s the real storyline for para-athletes: if we don’t quit, and we have a great excuse to, then what is yours?”
The encouragement was mutual, with members taking turns lifting those who were feeling down, sometimes blocking the figurative wind, other times enjoying the slipstream.
“That was the best part about the rally. All the women were so supportive. We’re outside, we’re in this open air. I feel emotionally, physically, and mentally supported with whatever I’m doing on a particular day and wherever I’m at. It felt so amazing, like not just people saying, ‘We’re going to support you,’ but actually showing up, being there physically with a smile and open arms. That is what is missing in this world.”
This support proved increasingly crucial as the trip wore on and both weather and well-being for many riders took a turn for the worse.
“Some people got sick on the rally, but we helped them. Whatever they were doing was this epic adventure. I think Lael was the sickest. She was throwing up while there was golf-ball-sized hail during historic precipitation—it seemed everything was against us coming together—but in the end, we came out stronger because the elements pushed us, and we kept supporting one another.”
Unsurprisingly, the positive vibes reached well beyond the individual riders in the rally, extending to each town Josie and crew passed through.
“The person who started the route, Ernesto, had a friend who was riding the route after us, and this friend was messaging Ernesto saying, ‘What is happening? Who are the 50 chicas? All these mountain towns are buzzing!’ Because it was all these women coming in, supporting these local towns. And we were there to support, like, ‘How much coffee do you have? How many potatoes can you make?’ It was awesome being surrounded by all these people just like me. I learned more from being with these women than I felt like I’d learned in my entire life.”
Other highlights for Josie included the spectacular Spanish scenery and welcoming nature of locals willing to share their space with rally-goers.
“The best day for me was my second day. We rode past the origin point of the Rio Tajo, and it was so clear. It wasn’t even blue, it was clear. You could see straight through it. And it was so hot that day—I was taking lots of breaks—but I didn’t mind because it was this beautiful view. So I jumped in. For the locals, it was their Labor Day. There were people out camping, walking, hiking, running. It was amazing to see everyone out enjoying the place where they lived in a relaxed setting. And everybody was so stoked to see us.”
“Since our group was stopping a lot, every local had already talked to someone else from the rally. It was great to feel supported by these strangers who had no reason to give any support. But because we were in the same place at the same time in this beautiful environment, it changed that mindset.”
With such a large group, individual members teamed up and spread out, an intentional decision that allowed riders to find their own pace, following Ernesto’s route as strictly or loosely as desired. But despite not always being all together, the experience of shared challenged proved a great unifier for the group.
“It felt like a race in that you’re in the same elements and going to the same destination. You may experience different emotions and bodily senses along the way, but you still feel that everyone is on the same page. What you’re going through, they’re going through. And if they can keep pedaling, then I can keep pedaling, too. It’s really nice; it’s a natural flow. Biking has taught me that if you just go at your own pace, then you will find people who are at the same speed as you.”
For Josie, that pace-mate was Johanna Jahnke, an endurance rider and racer from Hamburg, Germany.
“Johanna and I were buddied up, so we had the support of each other. She’s an ultra-distance superstar. I bunked with her every night, and it was great. One day in a hotel, we locked our bikes in the garage, but the people who ran the hotel were running late. We were trying to beat the weather that day, but our bikes were locked, and we had no control. And I knew that, so I was like, ‘Ok, I’m just going to use this moment to practice some breathing.’ It gave Johanna and I the opportunity to connect on a different level, without words, without the typical conversation. It was like, ‘Hey, I’m focusing on this for me right now because that’s all I can do.’ I just realized I’m not going to make things harder on myself. I’m just going to enjoy my time with Johanna while we have it and take as much as I can from this experience.”
One such takeaway for Josie:
“The rally was great because I had to slow down. I had to be honest with myself about my pace, my abilities, my limits—about the things that I can’t control. It’s really a test of yourself, for yourself, without an audience, which is the opposite of what I think racing is, where it’s all about competition, trying to be the fastest. At this point, for bikepacking, my mental state is that the slower you go, the longer you can go, and the more miles you can get done in a day, which I think is needed in the cycling world.”
But pace wasn’t the only thing the rally impacted for Josie; it shifted her whole outlook towards her future.
“It really changed my perspective on who I am and who I want to be. I went into this rally thinking I was taking a break from road and track for 2022 to avoid burning out. But in the middle of this rally, just sitting next to a fire that I was so appreciative of, after trying all day to get coffee and we hadn’t had a hot meal, I was just like, ‘I don’t have to only race, and I don’t want to.’ What I want is to create a space for people to explore the natural world around them and to give them the tools to do that, which could be a bike or a hand-cycle, a tricycle, a tandem—it could be a unicycle, a recumbent—it doesn’t matter who these people are or what kind of vehicle they need, I want to help them get there so that they can experience this type of freedom in their own way. I just want people to feel the way that I feel.”
Now back stateside in her San Diego home, with the Komoot Women’s Rally behind her but the excitement she found there still very much present, Josie is channeling her seemingly endless energy towards a goal that has been on her radar since well before the rally began—one blinking all the brighter in light of her incredible experience: spreading the joys of off-road riding with fellow paracyclists.
“For me, this women’s bikepacking rally was just a test of my own abilities. If I can survive this, I can literally do anything—no matter what the weatherman says, no matter what other people say. I know that I can get this done, and I can get Mountain Paracycling to be a national sport.”
In case you still doubt Josie’s determination, she’s already rolling down the path towards her ambitious goal. One notable milestone is her upcoming plan to set a first-of-its-kind fastest-known-attempt by a paracyclist, a ride in Moab, Utah which will be documented and shared to help further promote Mountain Paracycling. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this plan has found its first obstacle: the original production crew unexpectedly had to pull out, leaving Josie with no one to document her attempt. Even less surprisingly, Josie has already found a way to turn that obstacle into an opportunity—with the support of a few fellow Komoot rally riders, that is.
“Lael and Rue are going to ride with me in Moab!” (Rue being cycling visual journalist Rugile Kaladyte)
“It means the world to me that they are supporting my dreams! It’s easy for the average rider to point out every rock and imperfection in the road, but there are a few, like Lael and Rue, that lead by empowering others to overcome the rough road ahead. Alone, we can only get so far, but together we can roll over anything in our path!”
As for where she goes after Moab, only Josie knows. But you can bet that whatever barriers she may encounter along the way, be they challenging terrain, lost bikes, or broken chainrings, Fouts will find a way to keep moving forward—fully supported, forever smiling, and just a little bit stubborn.
You can enjoy highlights from Josie’s ride around Montañas Vacías now as part of her Komoot Collection below: