Alexandera Houchin and her Custom Chumba Sendero
Alexandera Houchin was the first woman to cross the finish line of the 2021 Colorado Trail Race. She did so on a brand new, custom-built, titanium Chumba Sendero. We caught up with her at the finish line to ask some questions about the bike and her time on the trail. Find a gallery, the Sendero build kit, and our interview here…
Photos by Neil Beltchenko
In case you missed our Dispatch last Friday, Alexandera Houchin was the first woman to complete the 2021 Colorado Trail Race and the third rider to complete the route on a singlespeed this year. A lot of folks on Instagram and in the comments were asking about Alex’s titanium Chumba Sendero. As it happens, Neil Beltchenko was there to grab a few photos of it at the finish in Denver, so I reached out to Alex with some questions about the bike, her experience on the Colorado Trail, and more. Keep reading for a great interview with one of our favorite racers.
First things first: no leather boots this time!? The interwebs want to know why. Do tell. And how are your feet holding up after that ride?
I thought I would try Five-Ten shoes this year. They seemed lighter, I got them for a discount, and I see lots of dudes wearing them, so I thought something special might be there. But, I think they are cheaply made shoes that aren’t any more comfortable/appropriate for the bike than my other shoes. There is so much padding up top on those Five-Tens that they are always too hot and don’t dry once they get wet. In my opinion, leather is easily the best material for bike shoes.
This was the first time my feet hurt like this, ever. They were swollen, raw, and numb in all the places. I wore holes in the soles of these shoes after 100 miles. I will be buying new boots soon, despite the annoyance and process of breaking them in. The old boots I had for at least a year at work welding before I toured in them. They just ended up being bombproof. I think I did three Colorado Trail Races, three Tour Divides, most of an Arizona Trail Race 750, Arizona Trail Race 300, two Smoke ‘n’ Fires, and like three summers of full-on bike touring in them. I still have them at home. The only reason I can’t really wear them anymore is that the seams cracked in a few places and I can’t get them resoled any longer. Plus, I’ve peed on them 5,000 times. They fucking stink.
Tell us a bit about your new titanium Chumba Sendero and who built it for you.
Last year, Vince (CHUMBA dreamweaver) approached me about his and Mark’s (the master artist welding these bikes) idea to build an in-house Ti bike. Further, that we would design it specifically around my body and the type of riding I do. I spent a good year and a half riding my Stella, getting everything dialed in. I sent all my detailed specs to Vince. We had a bunch of phone calls talking about chainstays, yokes, slack, chainring capacity, and more. They sent a few blueprints and we finally agreed on the design we have now. We worked with Karl at Cedaero, a bag company from my neck of the woods (Two Harbors, Minnesota) to incorporate proper braze-ons for a bolt-on framebag.
I feel like it’s not real, you know. I found CHUMBA after browsing the internet for a company that saw bikes as functional art, not just machines or toys. Never did I imagine I would find so much support from them. I have this thing with metal that I know Mark totally understands. After I learned about their process for in-house building and how small the team was, I couldn’t help but want to support them. We’re totally family now.
How did it compare to the Stella, the bike you rode in the Colorado Trail Race three times, the Tour Divide twice, and the Arizona Trail Race, etc?
I got my Stella in the summer of 2019, actually. We built it up so that I could tour to the start of The Unbound bike race in Kansas and then onto the Tour Divide start in Banff, where that bike and myself set a new Tour Divide women’s single speed record. I fell in love with that bike that year. I went on to ride the Stella in a ton of local gravel races, a few bikepacking trips, and for the women’s single speed Colorado Trail Race record rides (east and westbound) and for the Arizona Trail Race 300 women’s single speed record ride. It is so strong, versatile, and beautiful.
This was my first race on my new Sendero. I had spent a hard week riding with my friends Rebecca and Sofia to break it in last month, but I rode with SRAM AXS for that ride. I had dialed in most of the tiny tweaks during that ride. I didn’t chop my bars because I kind of thought I wanted the 800s on there for help climbing with a single speed. I regret that now, as they were too wide and caused some hand numbness from hike-a-bike. What I noticed most with the Sendero was the ease of control in the front navigating obstacles while pedaling, both in and out of the saddle. It was most noticeable to me on sections with baby heads, actually. I rode a lot more on Sargent’s Mesa this year than I have in the past. Then, I loved its playfulness. I live for getting down; I would climb to the top of anywhere if it meant I got to get real shreddy down a mountain. As soon as I dropped my seat, I knew I was on a shred sled. To me, it feels like a perfect mix between my Rastro (which is CHUMBA’s retired trail bike) and my Stella. Plus, knowing that Mark built it for me, with me in his mind, makes me cry sometimes. I could never have believed that my dreams of having a handmade Ti bike would come true. It’s been a wild journey from racing in alley cats on a janky fixie to dropping off mountains on a handmade bike.
Readers of The Bikepacking Journal will know, but for those just tuning in, tell us about the head badge.
The head badge was actually a total surprise to me. Last year, I asked my friend Sarah Agaton-Howes, from my tribal community, if she had the time and capacity to design a T-shirt for the non-profit I am trying to get up and going on our reservation. CHUMBA offered to pay her commission and to print the shirts, donating the proceeds to our non-profit. She said yes (oh, and then I totally convinced her to start riding bikes with me and we now have a reservation kwe(lady)-bike gang).
The word Ditibise means “to roll” in our language, Ojibwemowin. It means a few different things to me, but ultimately I like to think about the word as the idea that once you have momentum, you keep on going, or just roll with it—things don’t always go as planned. I think this head badge is significant because it’s the first time I’ve seen a design by a native person as well as an Ojibwe word proper on a bike in a way that’s not extractive, dismissive, or appropriating. There are a few companies out there (bike racks, forks, bicycles) that still use native words or names for their profit. I talk with Vince a lot about language and how it shapes our perception and how important our language is to me. I think it’s beautiful that a brand (CHUMBA) is humble enough to take their head badge off of a bike, and step aside to let me hold space with some Ojibwemowin and florals!
You have a 34 x 24 gearing on this bike, and if I’m not mistaken 32 x 22 on your last setup. That’s a pretty big gear. I can’t imagine that on the Colorado Trail. How was it?
I have to say, it was stupid. First off, riding the Colorado Trail is really hard. Second, it’s really really hard on a single speed. Third, it’s really really really hard to breathe at 13,000 feet when you come into Colorado two days before a race. Because of all those factors, you should gear to spin! I am kind of a procrastinator when it comes to prepping for my bike races. I had forgotten to check with Vince to see if he had sent out my 32-tooth chainring. All I had was a 34. They put a White Industries crankset on my Sendero build and I have a stash of Absolute black chainrings I have been using for years, but they aren’t compatible. I had to browse the internet for anyone with a 24-tooth cog last minute and found one that I shipped general delivery to Durango.
I think I finally learned this year, after coming in third single speed behind Jefe (I’d wear a little necklace with Jefe’s spinning legs on it if someone made me one, I just have such mad respect/admiration for him. Someday I will have as many CT finishes as he does) and Justin (my best friend, big brother, hero, person I dream of someday catching in a race), that to spin, is to be a genius. 34×24 was too hard. I’ve been riding geared bikes a bunch this year, and had a moment of thinking that I could be faster on the Colorado Trail with a geared bike because I could pedal seated, but struggled when I was out of the saddle. Really, though, what that means is that my fitness was lacking. I choose single speed because I can’t fake being fit and I race because it’s the only place I truly see my body for what she really is. I can either pedal or I walk.
- Frame/Fork: Chumba Sendero Ti (size Medium)
- Fork: Fox Factory 34 120mm StepCast
- Wheelset: Industry Nine Enduro S Carbon
- Tires: Maxxis Rekon 29 x 2.6
- Handlebars: Thomson 15mm Riser 8-degree, sweep 4-degree, 800mm
- Grips: Ergon GP3 BioCork
- Headset: Wolf Tooth
- Crankset: White Industries M30
- Front Chainring: Wolf Tooth CAMO 34T
- Rear Cog: Endless Bike Co Kick Ass Cog 2a4T
- Pedals: One Up Alloy
- Cassette: Nop
- Derailleur: Nope
- Brakes: Shimano XT 4 Piston
- Shifter(s): Nope
- Saddle: Terry Butterfly Century
- Seatpost: Fox Transfer 150mm
- Stem: Industry Nine A31 50mm
- Front Bag: Voile Straps and Dry Bag
- Frame Bag(s): Cedaero custom frame bag
- Seat Bag: Cedaero custom seat bag
- Accessory Bag(s): Cedaero top tube bag, front and rear; Wanderlust Stem Bag
- GPS: Garmin 830
- Lights: Helmet: Vis 360 Pro, Bar: Vis Pro1000 Trail, Randomizes 500, and 2 back up battery powered Black Diamond Spot 325 helmet lights
- Other Accessories: JBL Speaker, 26,800 mAh Anker charger
Tell us about the component choices on the bike. Anything you’d change at this point? Anything you’re super impressed by?
I love the Fox 34 Stepcast. It’s been the best fork, despite my not doing 50-hours every 50-hours. I personally love my wheels and hubs. The folks at Industry Nine have been incredibly supportive of me and my community endeavors over the past couple of years. I love being able to switch my Freehub body in seconds, I love the engagement for technical climbing and I love how tough the rims are. This wheelset was the Enduro Carbon with a SON front and Hydra rear. I didn’t have my charging set up sent out in time, so I didn’t hook up my Dynamo for this race and totally ran out of charge for everything! I had Shimano 4-piston XTR brakes which are clutch for managing these reckless descents. I don’t know how I feel about my Fox Transfer though, it was kind of unruly this ride. I had to use my thighs to lift it up most of the time. It may have been the rain and muck, but I’m afraid it’s not going to last long.
I love the sticker on your seatstay. What’s the story behind it?
Oh! I just got that sticker last week. I serve on the Economic Development Committee on my reservation and attended the Reservation Economic Summit the week before the race. The summit was amazing. It was the first time I was surrounded by that many incredible, inspiring, motivating, baller Indians in my life. Anyway, one of the women, April Tinhorn, handed out a goodie bag following one of her presentations. I think this sticker was in the bag. The whole design of my Sendero is centered on the medicine wheel and the medicine wheel colors. I’m always trying to hold my Indigeneity in contemporary spaces. Industry 9 even built me medicine wheels! The spokes are red, yellow, white, and black on my training wheelset. I carry my relatives with me wherever I go and in all things that I do, and I believe they protect me knowing that I’m bringing them with me. Without everything my ancestors endured, I wouldn’t be able to do this, so it’s an homage to that idea. It’s the recognition that me being able to even show up at these starting lines today goes wayyyy back and it’s a privilege/miracle that I get this opportunity. I’m so not doing this alone.
Now that you’ve ridden it a handful of times, what’s your favorite section of the Colorado Trail?
This was my fourth race finish, and I toured three-fourths of it another year (I skipped the Sargents Mesa and Mt. Shavano sections the first time I attempted a yo-yo). Each direction has its perks. The first time I did Sargents Mesa, I had a breakdown and thought I would never bike race again. I walked my geared bike for hours and ate raspberries on the side of the trail in a sobbing mess. Every year after that race, Sargents grew on me. I started to excel at hike-a-bike and switched to single speed, which helped me embrace the suck. I kind of love Sargents now; it breaks everyone.
This year I had a few highlights. I enjoyed the ripping descent down Fooses Creek Trail. I also had a pretty emotional time up Tenmile and at the summit. I got to share the summit with a human and I didn’t really want to keep moving. There were lightning storms over every single range surrounding us, but you could see the constellations directly above us. I never felt so small and at the same time so significant in my life. Georgia Pass killed me this year, I had a meltdown on my way up to the top. I just wanted someone to talk to and I hadn’t seen a person for like eight hours. The Tarryall detour generally is one of my favorite sections, too. I love the long climbs and wicked descents. This year, I got nasty storms back there and it flooded at the bottom. I ended up walking for a long time because the conditions were so nasty. It took me 12 hours to get from the Stagestop to Segment 3, which usually takes me like seven or eight hours, I think.
Were there any other standout moments in this year’s race?
So many people stopped to say such kind things to me, I’m thankful to have space in all of those people’s lives. I get nervous talking to people I don’t know, so the fact that people say anything at all impresses me. It takes vulnerability to come up to someone. I think the highlight of the whole race this year was the moment I saw Justin walking toward me from the Waterton Canyon Parking lot. We’d met each other in 2018 in that parking lot, I’d met his partner, Karla, their pup, and Ben too. I didn’t know that I would become such close friends, family even, but they’ve all changed my life. Our lives have gotten complicated alongside each other, but we dream and hold each other accountable. We’ve seen so much defeat on this trail. It was the first time since becoming friends that Justin and I both finished a race we started together. It’s special to see how we grow and how we carry each other in these events, despite the fact he’s too fast for me to catch!
What are you up to these days when you’re not riding bikes?
I got too busy with work this year. I finished my undergrad. I postponed dental school to take a fellowship working in my tribal community during the pandemic. I no longer have any desire to become a dentist. I’ve been working in our food sovereignty efforts (we have a tribal farm) and feel super connected to that. I’d written my undergrad thesis on dental health inequities in Indian Country and through that I learned all about the shift in food systems and the cause of oral caries: sugar. Ultimately, I’ve asked myself if I want to treat symptoms of this fucked up system or if I want to be a body working at the root of it all.
I believe our food system is the center of life and health, so I want to keep working toward greater food sovereignty and health equity. I also work in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota in Duluth and at Continental Ski and Bike as a mechanic. I serve on a few boards (The Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships with the University and Maada’ooking, a grassroots grant program for native people in northern Minnesota led by native people in our region) and am trying to get a non-profit started. It’s called Ditibise, and it’s a non-profit rooted in experiential learning, increasing access to outdoor recreating equipment, education, etc., for my tribal community members.
It’s hard to make plans these days, but do you have any other big rides coming up?
I have a few gravel events I’m going to show up to. But I’m looking forward to the Arizona Trail Race 800 this year! I’ve been trying to get that ride done for like six years! I couldn’t ever do it in college because the grand depart was in April, during school, and finally last year, I was trying to race it then the pandemic happened. So, I am excited for October.
Is there anyone you’d like to thank?
So many people. My mom; she’s literally the strongest, most badass woman I know. She’s been through it all and is still slayin. I got her a bike for mother’s day and she’s lost like 40lbs. Arianna is my best kwe on the homefront and she is my balance (we share a 1/8th acre garden together). Paul takes care of my pup, Mook, when I leave for these races. My tribal community. Jason, my boss, is super supportive of all I do. My kweg, Sarah, Hannah, Adikoons, Kaitlyn, Alicia, for riding bikes with me at home. Justin and Karla for loving me as much as they do, Ben because I’ve waited my whole life to find someone as beautiful as him. Katie and Andrew for being some of the best friends this world can provide. Neil for taking photos at the finish and for being such a humble badass. Brad for sharing some of the best parts of the race with me! And Leigh for showing up and riding hard. Leigh and I met on this trail in 2018 and she would have beat me if it wasn’t for needing stitches after a crash up near the highpoint. She went on to finish that year with staples in her knee. She’s a legend, and I am so honored to ride bikes with her in these races.
And my sponsors deserve a huge thanks. It’s pretty special to be supported by brands who don’t ask you to be anyone you aren’t. I work more than full-time at home serving my community and these companies support that. I couldn’t afford to do this in the capacity that I do without their support.
CHUMBA USA provides me with bikes, components, advice, love, and so much more. They help me pretty much every time I ask for help and continue to support my efforts to get more people on bikes in Indian Country. Mark even offered to build me fat bikes, even though he swore he would never do that again. That’s true love. Broken Spoke Bike Studio, where George has everything I could ever need in his shop and in a pinch, he always helps me out. He provided me with my AXS groupset for my bike, helps me with race fees, hotels, and transportation, and is always there for me. Wolf Tooth Components provides me with cogs, clothes, chainrings, headsets, and really anything I ask for from their catalog. Industry Nine provides me with wheels, stems, and recently helped me with hubs for a bike fleet I am building, we’re also working together on a super-duper rad, meaningful project. Keep your eyes peeled. I can’t wait to see the end product. Cedaero Bags made me custom canvas bags for my Sendero. They’re local and the bags are bombproof. And Light in Motion provides me with lights for these races and they’ve been integral in providing lights for winter riding with my demo fleet for my community members.
To complement this post, Neil Beltchenko sits down with Alexandera in our latest YouTube video to chat about her experience on trail this year, what makes the Colorado Trail so special, how she lost her tracker, and more about that new titanium Chumba Sendero. Watch that conversation here. And if you haven’t done so yet, make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel so support content like this.
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