Stuck and completely exposed on a mountain in Southeastern Idaho is the last place anyone wants to be during a thunderstorm, so when I found myself crouched down in a ball at 8,000 feet with rain, hail, and lightning coming down all around me, I thought to myself, How the hell did I end up here?
I’d been climbing in great weather for the last hour and had made it nearly to the top when the clear blue sky suddenly morphed into something out of Lord of the Rings. Swirling black clouds blew in out of nowhere, with lightning crackling all over the place. Glad I brought these rain pants, I thought.
Within minutes, the temperature dropped. Wind and sheets of rain slammed me. I was done trying to figure out how I’d gotten myself into this. At that point, it was all about how I was going to get out of it. The lightning was close. I’d see the flash and count, 1…2…3… BOOM! Then, I started to feel the static buildup. My rain gear was sticking to my arms and legs like a balloon to long hair. That’s when it hit me—not the lighting, but the fear. So, I jumped off my bike and crouched down into the lightning safety position, the way we’re all taught to do as kids, head tucked, hands over my ears.
Am I really safer like this? I wondered. Or should I just get the hell off this mountain?
There was a herd of cattle about a hundred feet from me, hanging out like none of this was a big deal. They ate their grass and watched me like, who’s this idiot, and why is he crouched like he wants to play leapfrog? But I wasn’t about to take safety advice from a bunch of cows.
Once the hail started, my decision was made. It came hard and fast, pelting me in the back. I watched the icy marbles bounce to the ground where the gushes of rain washed them down the mountain, the same direction I needed to be going.
I hopped back on my bike and started making my way down from this mountain of Mordor. The descent was treacherous: slippery, rocky, and very wet. I felt like I should’ve had a watercraft instead of a gravel bike. I was soaked to the bone, and cold. My hands were frozen and going numb, but then I remembered that this was what I came for! A huge smile lit up my face. Those moments are what it’s all about.
The Fitz-Joy 400 is a breathtaking 400+ mile tour of Southeastern Idaho with highlights that include the Pioneer Historic Byway, a wildlife refuge, and hot springs. It’s about 50/50 gravel and “Idaho roads” but don’t let that “gravel” name fool you. The gravel ranges from the best, tightest gravel you could imagine to the gnarliest washboard roads around. Rolling hills, big rivers flowing, rugged mountains, and fields of crops adorn this route. It’s both wild and beautiful, and on the stretches of roads, you’ll find cycle-friendly drivers. There is a significant amount of water and resupply points, including several opportunities to dip into some hot springs. You can even catch a view of the house from Napoleon Dynamite.
Over 40 cyclists lined up in Idaho Falls to take on this event, and we rolled out from the local bike shop, Fitzgerald’s Bicycles, one of the coolest shops around. This year, race organizer Kevin Emery, who also rode it on a single-speed, decided on a format of either clockwise or counter-clockwise direction. Many riders expressed their delight in this format. Third-place finisher, Greg Deemer, said, “Being able to stop and check-in with riders going the opposite direction was fantastic since I found myself riding alone after around mile 90.” I can attest that seeing and chatting with fellow riders moving in the other direction was such a cool feature of this ride. It turned what could’ve been a lonely ride into a social event.
I finished the ride in 41 hours and 45 minutes, right around 1:45 a.m., and was met with the warmest welcome of any bikepacking event I’ve done. Fitzgerald’s Bicycles was open for me to wash up, and several riders including Meg Knobel (who DNF’d due to biting through her lower lip in a bad crash) were there to meet me, cheer me on, and offer pizza and cookies. Meg said, “My lowest point was face-planting on the downhill cow trail. The highest was greeting all you wonderful people at the finish!”
Driving from breakfast the day after we finished the race, the new FKT holder and winner of the “race” Abdul Mustafa and I traded stories. “I think we must have something wrong with us,” he said. “What is it that makes us want to do these things?” All I could do was laugh in agreement. Abdul finished the Fitz-Joy 400 in an astonishing 38 hours and 25 minutes. No sleep, just pedaling. He said, “My highest moments were when I started to realize how beautiful the route was. The scenic, vast, and panoramic landscape was stunning.”
An amazing feature of these events is that there is a real sense of community. Whether you’re “racing” or just trying to finish, everyone is so cool! Some of the best parts were giving and receiving high fives from the riders passing in the opposite direction. Before the event, local Jonathan Black invited all of us to camp at his multi-acre property. We were able to meet, eat together, and scope out each other’s rigs. As Jonathan put it, “Riding with cool people, on cool bikes in beautiful places.” It doesn’t get much better than that.
2021 Fitz-Joy 400 Results
- 1st Overall: Abdullah Mustafa (1:14:25), counter-clockwise new fastest-known-time!
- 2nd Overall: Gregg Dunham (1:17:43), clockwise
- 3rd Overall: Greg Deemer (1:18:37), counter-clockwise
- 1st Women: Sarah Mulholland (5:06:11),
- 1st Singlespeed: Kevin Emery (2:14:29), counter-clockwise
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