This is the story of my first bikepacking race. Days have passed, and I’m still in a fog of fatigue and a battered body. But there’s a first time for everything, yeah? As an ex-roadie, I’ve always kept a skeptical distance from bikepacking, and especially ultra races. But, for whatever reason, I got it in my head that I should give it a go.
Fast forward a week, and I was signed up for the nearby Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400, which comes through my home trails of Ketchum. Great! Living up to its name, it was re-routed to an out-and-back due to fires in the area. With a high AQI and an injured finger, I bailed. But, as my luck would have it, there was another race nearby a few days later that I could transfer to for free: the Fitzgerald’s Joyride. So, also last minute and without really thinking, I jumped on it and scrambled. I knew nothing about the course, next to nothing about bikepacking—let alone bikepack racing—but did as much research as I could before packing up and heading to Idaho Falls.
The race was off at 8 a.m. Saturday. I settled in, riding a steady pace along the beautifully rolling southern Idaho farm dirt roads and listening to some podcasts. As would become a theme, I encountered so many cows.
Around 90 miles in, I hit the first technical section of the course, a rough descent that I lovingly refer to as the City of Rocks ‘n’ Ruts. My first time riding a fully loaded gravel bike on this kind of terrain, I had a few close calls trying to hop from line to line, avoiding rocks and roots and death ruts. A welcome stretch of fast downhill pavement appeared, and the first resupply stop, Lava Hot Springs, glimmered in the distance. I stopped for some pita bread and hummus at a local food truck and got a water top off at the grocery store. At this point, I had a pretty healthy lead but knew things could change quickly. I hopped back on the bike for the next big section to the home of Napoleon Dynamite, Preston, moving through expansive backroads and a mix of pavement, dirt, two-track, hot springs, and a stunning reservoir at golden hour. I made it right before dark for a gas station stop.
My goal was to make it to Logan the first day, a lofty 190 miles. I’ve never really ridden at night and certainly never dabbled with sleep deprivation and exercise. But, for whatever reason, after nursing myself through a low point earlier in the day, something flipped. I was feeling euphoric as the sun went down, so I pushed on, turned on the lights, and motored my way into Logan. It was quite an exhilarating experience riding that much at night, my alertness enhanced by navigating into the unknown.
Still, I continued, probably digging myself a hole that would eventually come. Surprising myself, I made it to a campground at mile 230 around 1 a.m. and quickly changed into warm, dry clothes and set up my bivy for a few welcome hours of sleep. This was my favorite portion of the whole thing. I really felt the adventure as I crossed into totally uncharted territory. Ahh, now I get it. My 5 a.m. alarm went off and I put some instant coffee in my water bottle, shooed some raccoons out of my campsite, and continued on. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to get my ass kicked by the two biggest climbs of the race. The first one was at first light, and it was quite technical and rocky, making it tough to settle into a rhythm. The second one came just as the day started warming up. It was a truly heinous 3,000-foot beast to defeat. With still well over 100 miles left to ride, I was starting to come unraveled.
Afte the final resupply, a torturous odyssey was patiently awaiting my naive bikepacking rookie body. After some pavement, I entered what I would affectionately dub “Cow World,” a desolate and time-warped alternate universe of washboard, endless rolling climbs, little to no water, and more cows than I’ve ever seen. The last 70 miles felt longer than the entire ride up to that point, and I stopped a lot. I was beyond depleted and rationing water. I hoped that as night fell I’d get a boost in energy like I had the previous night. I didn’t.
At this point, I knew I was within FKT territory and had a pretty comfortable lead. I get motivated by stuff like that, but the most I could process was making it over the next steep roller. I turned on my lights with about 20 miles left, batteries running low. I plugged a rear puncture that kept losing air. My bike computer (and main navigation source) died, and I had to switch over to my phone. Right after it got dark, I finally crested the last dirt climb and proceeded to smash a huge rock with my front tire, puncturing. Another plug. The cows were certainly not impressed by my inefficiency, and I think I heard the race director, Kevin, laughing maniacally from nearby Idaho Falls. Maybe I was just hallucinating.
But I could taste the finish. I hit a long, exhilarating descent back into town. I was cold and delirious, and the moon hadn’t come out yet, so it was pitch dark. With my phone giving me directions, I rolled in back to Fitzgerald’s, where Kevin was waiting for me with a cooler of drinks and the winner’s loot: a 10-pound sack of Idaho potatoes. I was shattered. Call it beginner’s luck or blissful ignorance, but I managed to set a new fastest known time for my first bikepacking race in 1 day, 13 hours, and 13 minutes.
I learned a lot. About bikepacking and riding long and being efficient. About myself and capability and how stepping into that discomfort zone is where magic happens. And I made a lot of mistakes, too. Huge shoutout to everyone who completed this gruelingly diabolical “joyride” and to race director Kevin for organizing and driving me to Cafe Rio before they closed while I was barely alive. Can’t wait for the next one!
Words by Kyle Peterson (@the.dudeski)
It’s always harder than you think. The fatigue builds slowly. After the Four Hills of Hell, my legs had felt strong and I was happy with my choice to ride the gravel bike with 45mm WTB Riddlers. I had a quick chat with Kevin in Chesterfield while slamming down a cold Coke. “Jackson is in first and going hard! Kids these days…maybe he’ll blow up. Hard lessons to come.”
Oh, how the tables turn. Soon I would realize that I had my own hard lessons to tackle along the trail. In a burst of spontaneous commitment, I decided to sign up for the race less than 24 hours from the start. I figured I’d recovered enough from the CTR and it was time again for another big effort. Recovery can’t last forever. But, soon after leaving Kevin behind, I encountered the first technical climb and descent, eager to get to Lava Hot Springs for a hearty resupply of greasy food. Then my right calf got angry at me and I realized that running a brand-new pair of shoes with a guesstimated cleat placement may, perhaps, have been a rash choice. At least descending on loose baby heads distracted me from the pain. “That ain’t no mountain bike,” commented a local hunter as I gingerly rolled past. No sir. No it ain’t.
I love the problem-solving aspect of bikepacking. I deduced that my cleat, bolted further back on my shoe had essentially raised my seat height. In the midst of an early morning departure from the Preston Motel, I lowered my saddle. I again guesstimate measurements and effect. Bikepacking requires you leave certainty and comfort behind with the rest of society and its problems.
I was stoked to pass the half-way point in under 24 hours. The growing pain on top of my right knee had me concerned. It didn’t feel like the usual soreness from riding over 200 miles. As the miles rolled on, the pain grew, drawing my focus away from finishing. I stopped to chat and complain about my knee with every rider I passed. I would mention scratching. I thought about the relaxing day I could have at Maple Grove Hot Springs. I let my mind spiral down into the deteriorating thought pattern of “This hurts. You’re stupid. Why the hell am I doing this? You should scratch.” Every story, podcast, and Instagram post reminds us that bikepacking races are mostly about mental toughness. Physically, I knew I could finish, but my decision to go without a sleep kit and the constant pain had me contemplating if I wanted to finish.
I spent the daylight hours of day two deciding whether I should continue or to bail. I thought about quitting as I slow-pedaled over the glistening pavement to the Niter convenience store. The warm and welcoming store manager raised her eyebrows when she realized the route sent me over the neighboring mountains, taking the long way to Soda Springs. “That’s a big climb, and the road is really rough.” Yep, the experiences we seek as well as the gained perspectives (external and internal) require us to take the hard way. The benefit of these challenges, to me, are that they are objective and tangible. No one else’s opinion matters. The mountain won’t grow or shrink on us. The finish is definitive. I crawled past a couple riders up the route’s biggest climb, still whining about my knee. “The pain is temporary, the finish line is forever!” they yell at me. I love this bizarre masochistic community!
After a flying gravel descent into Soda Springs, I weighed my options while enjoying an A&W root beer float. I heard the cheap hotel rate calling my name. My body yelled at me, “STOP!” I replied, “Shut up legs!” After checking Trackleaders, I saw Jackson stopped 30 miles ahead. I thought maybe he’d blown up, maybe I could catch him. It was never going to happen. Turns out he was frantically repairing flats and still had all the energy of a strong-ass rider stoked on his first bikepacking race—congrats on the win and the FKT!
I didn’t quit. Resigning myself to continue on to the finish line, I rolled out of Soda Springs into the fading light. As cathartic as it is to yell, curse, and whine alone in the middle of the night out in the wild, it ain’t gonna help. There’s no use crying over spilled milk. I reached the finish line around 5 a.m., emotionally and physically demolished. I shed my filthy bibs and caught some much-needed sleep in the driver seat of my truck.
These hard lessons taught me a lot. First, last-minute decisions have consequences. Get your kit dialed before heading out on big efforts. Second, and most importantly, make the decision to finish before you start.
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