Words and photos by Meg Knobel (@speedmeow)
With the obstacles this year has thrown at us, I wasn’t sure I could make it out to Pioneer 400, but I’m so glad I did. The route creator and director, Kevin Emery, was encouraging as always, so we caravanned up from San Diego to ride in beautiful southern Idaho.
Most of the riders camped at Jonathan Black’s beautiful ranch the night before the race, parked in a grassy tree-lined field next to gardens and goats. Spot trackers were sorted, beverages were had after a long day of travel, and friends were made fast.
The next morning, we roll out from Fitzgerald’s Bicycles, and meandering farm roads quickly turn to tiered gravel climbs. Wake up, legs! Into the aspens, over the hills, and out into a vast landscape that reminds me of remote New Mexico. You can see for miles in all directions. This summer, I mostly rode fun local singletrack rides, so I was cautious with my pacing and calories, but those steep climbs are really humbling for us sea-level riders. I was so looking forward to something fizzy and sugary at the Holbrook General Store, but it was a ghost town, completely shuttered since they aren’t running tours due to COVID-19. I awkwardly climb into a solitary apple tree and eat about half of three apples, avoiding bugs and bruises, while some quaint country people drive by slowly, staring at this tattooed lady in a tree. And yet still, I soon bonk so dang hard. My legs ache, I can’t think, I feel sick. I end up lying down in the dirt under a hay bale and eating one of my emergency cold soak meals (instant Idaho potatoes, heh). Pop a Midol. Reality check! As my brain regains function, I check Trackleaders: Jonathan should be rolling by soon. We keep each other company to Lava Hot Springs for the first resupply.
Is COVID not happening here? There are a million people in this tiny town, soaking, drinking, yelling. Then we see it. An old school bus converted into a burrito stand. It was beyond exciting after that tough first day. We each get the biggest thing on the menu, “El Super Macho Burrito.” I get a chance to say hi to my friend Angel from San Diego before I head out for some night miles.
The first night riding by yourself is an adjustment, and the isolation and cold come quickly. The dirt road parallels a creek, but soon climbs into the woods and the sound of water fades away. I cant see anything, no moon, just my headlamp glaring off the trees and gravel. Where the heck are my leg warmers? Lips very chapped. How did I let myself bonk so bad? Wow, there are a lot of critter eyes in the woods reflecting back into my headlamp! I think I’ll just pee in the middle of the road. The dense woods peer over me with deafening silence as I roll to a stop and step off my bike.
I set my bivy up at 2 a.m., making it past Maple Grove Hot Springs, my goal at that point, late but happy. I realize Kevin Emery is camped nearby when he wakes up to skunks in his camp! We have a few laughs and then a few hours of sleep.
Gorgeous dirt roads alongside the Bear River cheer me through the following morning. Getting to know a route is exciting. A bit daunting with logistics the first time around, but inspiring so many ideas for next time about how to enjoy the ride more, how to make better time by riding and stopping more smartly. I climb into the night once more, misreading my elevation chart, climbing for two hours longer than I anticipated, all while maintaining a gut feeling that I’m being stalked by a cat. I can’t see it, but I can feel it. Passing a huge dead bloated cow does not absolve me of my dread. I safely crest the climb and bomb down a steep, chunky forest road, toward minor civilization and familiarity. Later on, another rider shared that he saw a mountain lion cub on that climb!
Other riders shared their wildlife stories: crashing in front of moose in the dark, narrowly avoiding bears and cubs in the road, running into more moose in the woods. I saw a fox, some pronghorn, lots of deer, and about 20 skunks.
Leaving Soda Springs, I enter endless fields of golden wheat, glowing in the golden hour. In the distance, a plume of smoke grows rapidly from a hillside, soon followed by fire fighting aircraft. Thankfully, my path cuts east and I’m not heading into the wildfire, but the smoke fills the air once again, not unfamiliar during this fire season. I still have a cough from the poor air quality back home.
I was excited to be the first woman to officially finish, and I tried hard to wrap it up that night after the first few guys rolled in. I was undertrained for that goal and chose to sleep a bit more before finishing, and I’m very happy with that choice.
Thanks to Kevin for creating such a lovely event, to Jonathan for the hospitality, and to all the riders for their kindness and warm hearts.
Congrats to all the participants of this year’s event. Next year’s Pioneer 400 is already scheduled for September 11th, 2021. Learn more here.
Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.