Stefan Griebel and the Origin of the Colorado Trail Race – CTR

When I first heard about the Colorado Trail Race I was in fact riding part of the route, albeit one of the least engaging stretches. It was just ten days after I’d raced my bike for 200mi in Kansas and I’d been overly optimistic about my recovery when I’d agreed to a four-day tour from my home in Boulder through the South Platte (and on through Summit County) with my partner Tony.

By early afternoon of the second day of the trip, we were in the heart of the Lost Creek Wilderness/Tarryall detour. A few miles earlier, the trees had disappeared and we found ourselves looking out at an expanse of exposed, rolling hills—a slice of desolation—as the sun weighed like a heat lamp overhead. The martian landscape was oppressive—the recovering remains of two large fires (one of which, the Hayman fire, started when a jilted forest service ranger decided to extinguish one flame with another, setting fire to a letter from her estranged husband) —and I felt like we were two little ants traveling along the surface of a ball that an unseen hand kept slowly rotating beneath our oblivious legs. Reaching the top of a roller, still, another would rise in the distance. And on and on.

The author on the CT during a fastpacking trip.

It was somewhere amidst our progress over the rolling miles of Matukat Road that Tony off-handedly mentioned this was part of the course for the Colorado Trail Race, a 500+ mile mountain bike route spanning from Denver to Durango, mostly alpine singletrack. Because bikes aren’t allowed in Wilderness areas, riders are required to take a few road detours around these protected zones—hence the stretch of wide gravel that we were currently traveling.

While I was still wrapping my head around the challenging nature of the route, Tony continued on saying that the race was founded by Boulderite Stefan Griebel. Climber Stefan? I responded. Yes, the one and the same. Hearing this, I was shocked, as I’d come to learn of Stefan through his notable climbing accomplishments, which, if you follow the sport, including previously holding the Naked Edge speed record, climbing El Capitan and Half Dome in a day, and holding the unsupported record for the Longs Peak Triathlon, to name a few. I also knew that Stefan worked as an engineer. Wondering how someone could excel at not one, but two highly demanding sports, knocking off what most would consider lifetime achievements in each, and work full time left me further agape. Who was this guy? When I learned that, as of 2019, after acting as race director of the CTR for 12 years Stefan would be passing the responsibilities onto Jefe Branham for future races, I decided it seemed like an appropriate time to share Stefan’s story.

Stefan grew up in Dolores, CO, a small town 50 miles northwest of Durango, and he seems to have made the connection between riding bikes and exercising independence at a young age. He recalls getting his first bike around 5th or 6th grade—a 1-speed BMX bike—and going on the kind of mission that a kid that age would scheme up, embarking on the 15mi journey from Dolores to the Cortez McDonald’s with a friend to buy Big Macs and sodas a few times over the course of summer break.

In 8th grade, after upgrading to a 10-speed road bike, Stefan found his first night out on the bike to be surprisingly underwhelming. As he tells it, “My first overnight was with my step-brother, Colin, to the McPhee Reservoir, maybe a 30-mile ride. All I remember was getting there too early, having way too much food, and being incredibly bored sitting in the tent all afternoon. It’s pretty hard to polish off a full pound of Red Vines in only one night, especially after eating a box of Wheat Thins and 8oz of hard salami.”

Perhaps looking for a little more excitement, the following year (1989) he sold his 80cc Honda XR dirt bike in order to buy a mountain bike—a fully rigid Scott decked out with the latest tech, bio-pace chainrings, and “self-energizing” rim brakes. A self-proclaimed fastidious caretaker of his gear, Stefan managed to maintain the Scott through high school, during which he and Colin had a few more interesting MTB overnighters, and through his college graduation in 2001. It wasn’t until he’d received his diploma that Stefan also graduated to a full suspension rig, which completely shifted his perspective on classic routes he’d frequented, “Wow what a game changer! Rides like White Ranch (near Golden, CO) and Porcupine Rim were suddenly so much less punishing.”

Although he’d also become proficient at climbing after moving to Boulder in 1993 to attend CU, by 2003 climbing had taken a back seat as Stefan, fully hooked on mountain biking, began seeking out longer and more adventurous objectives. In 2005, in the days leading up to his wedding, he set out on “an odyssey of my own” and first attempt to ride the length of the Colorado Trail:

“I started out with a couple of friends, and we were supported by our significant others. We made it to Searle Pass before being thwarted by snow. My friends bailed, but I managed to ride another 200mi of singletrack between Leadville and Durango with the help of my fiancée and parents dropping me off for some super long days. I learned the importance of carrying some sort of light more than once on those rides! And also how impassable the trail can be when covered in snow, which is usually until mid-July.”

His attempt that summer had armed Stefan with the vision that a continuous push on the CT was possible. To gain more experience in multi-day efforts on the bike, Stefan raced the Kokopelli Trail Race and the Grand Loop Race in 2006, the following summer. Stefan sums up his effort on the KTR as “bonked hard” and recaps the GLR as “[a] disappointingly slow [effort] in more than four days.” Still, both events served their purpose and provided Stefan with additional preparation to go for the full CT push, which he completed that summer in 7d20h. Characteristically low-key, Stefan glosses over the fact that on his first full-length push down the CT, he and a friend rode the sections open to mountain bikes and, after handing off the bikes to their crew, moved by foot through the sections of protected wilderness. I’m not sure if anyone else has done that before, or since (although a few athletes, including Jefe Branham and Joe Grant, have traveled the length of the CT on bike and on foot, on different occasions). Experiencing the full CT uninterrupted was a multi-year goal, finally realized.

While his experience on the trail affirmed what Stefan already thought possible on the bike, it provided the impetus needed to shift his ethos, pushing him to approach such challenges in a more purist style; “That experience would have been impossible without the support provided by my parents, hauling my and a friend’s bike around the Wilderness areas while we hiked. Seeing how taxing and time-consuming it was for the support ‘crew,’ I became a huge proponent of the Do-It-Yourself ethos promoted by Mike Curiak on the KTR and GLR.” Mike (Curiak) and Scott Morris had also invested time in reconning the CT, in search of another route to add to the roster of solo, unsupported races like the KTR, GLR, and AZTR that were attracting more riders by the year.

The three were all enthusiastic about turning the CT into a “real race” with a Grand Depart, and after collaborating on the rules, Stefan took responsibility for creating the race website, finalizing the route, and announcing the start date for what would be the inaugural Colorado Trail Race in 2007. The rules listed on the “official” site are as follows:

-Race from Durango to Denver, self-supported, under only your own power, along the entire CTR route.
-No pre-arranged support, with the exception of mail-drops to a post office and only a post office.
-Don’t break the law.

“I was sure I could do it in under five days, but the lack of any previously known fast bike times (using Wilderness Detours) supported or not, made the adventure-into-the-unknown tone of that first year unmatched,” recalls Stefan. Ten people showed up for the first race. The group met at a Qdoba for lunch, and after reviewing last-minute course clarifications, set out at 4 pm from Denver. The late afternoon start time was originally a strategic move to provide riders the veil of night under which to hike through the Lost Creek Wilderness area, where it is technically illegal to “possess” a bicycle. The two alternatives, in Stefan’s view, would be “twenty-five miles of speeding RVs on 285 or 50+ miles of dusty gravel [on the Tarryall Detour]—both suck!” In trying to define a bicycle in existential terms, the organizers felt they had a good case for hiking the Lost Creek section (bike in tow); “One thing Mike, Scott and I went round and round on was, ‘What defines a bicycle?’ If it doesn’t currently have wheels attached, is it still a bicycle? What if you are holding one wheel while the frame and other wheel is strapped to your back—still a bicycle?” (Magritte would have approved of such rhetoric.)

It was ultimately the legal technicality of the Lost Creek Wilderness area that swayed the group to opt for the Tarryall detour whilst munching down chip crumbs at the Qdoba. “After all,” Stefan admits, “the third and final brief rule of the CTR is ‘Don’t break the law.’” While the route has evolved slightly over the last 13yrs, other deviations of that first year from the modern racecourse included avoiding the Ten Mile Range (now, a notorious hike-a-bike), and crossing Cinnamon Pass in lieu of Coney Summit and the old Pole Creek Trail (segments 22 and 23).

The first year of the race was “astoundingly wet” and Stefan remembers getting pummeled by rain for most of the first two days. “I rode the first 24+ hrs without stopping, and got my first sleep under the deck of Janet’s Cabin, above Copper Mountain, to get out of the rain. As I was getting up and moving under the stars about 4am, another light came up the trail. It was Jefe [Branham], and he and I rode more or less together until the Safeway in Leadville. That night was once again a downpour, and I didn’t see him again until somewhere along the Los Pinos detour.” The two paired up again, riding together the last 30hrs, through a lightning storm and 2” hail showers. Like many who have completed comparable feats of endurance, Stefan looks back on the experience with some amount of awe, saying that the race pushed him “far beyond what I thought my limits were.” Ultimately, after five days of almost non-stop riding though, Stefan’s hands were shot and he was barely able to hang onto the bars and brakes during the last 10mi descent into Junction Creek. He wasn’t far off his five-day mark–finishing in 5d05hr50min, while Jefe was able to open up a 20min gap to take first!

Characteristically uncompromising, shortly after finishing the race in 2007, Stefan was already planning on going back. “Unfortunately, I knew it would go sub-five, and I’d have to do it again,” which he did, in 2009 (Stefan missed the next year because, in an interesting twist of the universe, his son was born on the day the race started in 2008). The 2009 course saw a few variations from the first year, including a Waterton Canyon start, the 285 Detour (instead of Tarryall), and the Ten Mile Range-Coney-Cataract segments. Once again, Stefan and Jefe stayed close together, in fact tying for third place in 4d23h13m, just barely coming in under Stefan’s sub-five goal! (A bit of tangentially-related CTR lore: Incidentally, Owen Murphy got total redemption that year on his 2008 scratch, where he would have been first but his results were nullified after he inadvertently skipped segment 3 and shaved off 5mi/ 800’. Had his 2008 finish been legit, he would have won the race nearly a day ahead of second place. His 2009 finish in 4d03h020m set the at-the-time course record and Doug Johnson took second in 4d20h24m).

In total, Stefan has ridden the CT almost five times: the 2005 odyssey being a partial effort, 2006 included Wilderness hikes, 2007 and 2009 were complete races, and an attempt again in 2013 resulted in a DNF. Over that span, his set-up evolved marginally (swapping the full-suspension rig he rode in 2005 for a Moots Ti soft-tail in 2006) and largely centered around his tried-and-trusted sleeping kit, “a six-ounce Mont-Bell UL bivy sack, 16oz 32deg Mountain Hardware down bag, 10oz ¾ length UL Thermarest. Bulky, but proven and about two-pounds total..” For race nutrition, the CT vet opts for the ease afforded by three frame-mounted bottles over a hydration pack (“I can live on powdered Ensure and Perpetuem for a few days, especially when supplemented with a big fatty salami, fried chicken, and cokes in the towns.”). Since his early racing days, Stefan points out how far bikepacking bags have come, “In 2007, there was no such thing as a custom frame bag (unless you are Jefe Branham and sewed one yourself) but now you can get anything you want custom-made for your bike.”

The route itself has seen some changes over the years, perhaps most notably first starting at the southern terminus of Durango in 2013 (and alternating directions every year since). While Stefan acknowledges that, due to the Cataract Ridge segment, the course is more rideable from south-to-north, he sounds wistful when he describes the finish into Durango, “there is something about finishing with the Silverton to Durango segments that is just unmatched. The southern half of the CTR has a much wilder and less civilized feel to it.”

Each season more riders come out to race the CTR but it’s been a while since the course records have been touched, though a few have come close. The current male and female records were set from a Denver start and are held respectively by Neil Beltchenko (2016) 3:19:50 and Eszter Horanyi (2011) 5:05:27.

While course adjustments, times, and requisite gear continue to evolve, over his 13yr tenure as race director Stefan says he has strived to keep the soul of the CTR in tact; “I have tried my hardest to keep the original Do-It-Yourself ethos alive for the CTR, as well as keep it under the radar, unadvertised and uncommercial. And always free. I have never understood why someone would shell out hundreds of dollars for a race experience that is surpassed in personal challenge and satisfaction by the grassroots, self-supported race scene.”

In keeping with this value—striking out solo to pursue a transformative personal experience—that is at the heart of events like the CTR, Stefan admits to feeling disappointment over the growing number of dot watchers who stalk the trails and major junctions of the course. Still, he checks himself, “But who am I to legislate someone’s experience? The whole point of self-supported is to level the field of competition as much as possible by removing the money and support crew from the equation. Anyone with grit and determination has basically no disadvantage over a pro-level, sponsored athlete.” And that is the foundational principle of the CTR—when you attempt to strip away certain material advantages your hope is to provide riders an equal opportunity to expand their understanding of themselves, and there are many, including Stefan, who have found this to be true, “It was life-changing for me, and I hear life-changing stories from riders every single year. I feel like I’ve made a positive, albeit tiny, dent in the human experience.”

Understandably, after 13yrs of shouldering RD duties, and as a husband, and father to three children, Stefan decided to pass the baton onto Jefe Branham following the race in 2019. Jefe is deservedly well-known among followers of the CTR and ultra-distance bikepacking. He’s raced the CTR an astonishing eight times, was the first rider to go sub-four days (2012; 3d23h38m; north-to-south), has been top-three every year that he has raced, and at one time held the course record in both directions (setting the south-to-north record in 2013 in 4d07h017m). Early in Jefe’s racing career, Stefan says the two were evenly matched in fitness, “But then Jefe went and rode the Tour Divide. Every rider I was previously well-matched with who has done the TD seems to have transformed to a completely new level. After Jefe’s TD, he came back to the CTR in 2012 and put down the first sub-four day time!” (Branham first rode the TD in 2011, going back to win the race in 2014 in 16d02h39m.) For Stefan, his former competitor was a logical choice for RD predecessor, “He’s the strong, silent pillar of the bikepacking community, and with a lifetime of experience on the CT and an ingrained, natural, self-supported, hard-working ethic.”

The year that Stefan and Jefe finished the CTR side-by-side was the first year that the now-infamous crossing of the Ten Mile Range was introduced to the course. While I haven’t ridden this section, I have traveled it by foot via an overnight fast-packing trip this summer, from the Kenosha Pass TH to Copper. Running the 50mi segment with a friend over two days was fantastically eye-opening. I saw plenty of riders flowing through the open singletrack near Georgia Pass and plenty more slogging their way up the Ten Mile range, on foot. At the time, I felt pretty satisfied with my manageable eight-pound pack and poles (not envying those pushing their loaded bikes most of the way up to 12k’) but I also think it was the novelty of (for me) sustained foot travel that contributed to that feeling. By the end of the trip, running down the west side of the ridge into Copper, cursing blisters, and nursing an inflamed hip, I had come back around to the bike as the best mode of travel for this trail. While I have much respect for runners and thru-hikers who take on trails like the CT, I couldn’t help thinking how much farther along I’d have made it in those 24hr, and how much less my body would be protesting on a bike.

Not surprisingly, Stefan credits his creation of the CTR as his proudest cycling-related achievement. And with just a small glimpse into what riding the CT looks like, I was able to comprehend why. The highs and lows of such an experience must be nearly ineffable, although in attempting to convey the magnitude of the CTR, Stefan said it best, “It opens the door of unparalleled experiences to anyone willing to look!”