Pedal until it hurts

Exploring the toughest mountain bike trails on the planet

Robb Report (6/12/2002)

Brion's comments:
'This assignment was an armchair traveler's dream - find the toughest mountain bike trails anywhere. My only regret was that I couldn't sample each one personally.'

Feature article:

Mountain bikes, by nature, are an invitation to adventure. Those fat knobby tires have fired the imagination of many two-wheeled explorers, young and old. Sadly, many use these burly rigs only to zip across town. Not you. You pedal for miles into the backcountry, with the satisfaction that it's the strength of your will, your lungs and your legs, not some internal combustion engine, that gets you out there.

Mountain bikers from around the globe have built wild stretches of trail – from dirt roads to narrow ribbons of singletrack -- to match their ideals of the ultimate ride. Yes, the term "mecca" is a cliché, though many areas tagged with the label deserve attention. And while it's all but impossible to pick the "best" of the bunch, we're fairly certain you won't find many trails tougher than these:

Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

Stretching 2,465 miles from northern Montana at the Canadian border to Mexico, Adventure Cycling's Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is the longest off-road trail in the world, the Holy Grail of off-road endurance cycling. Never mind the forest fires that blocked portions of the route last summer -- this ride will have your legs burning on the climbs, and your forearms fried on the downhills.

The painful truth is, outside of the Great Basin in Wyoming, you'll either be climbing or descending while paralleling the Continental Divide, with most of the 225,000 feet of elevation gain found in the Colorado Rockies.

"I guarantee that for any cyclist who's crazy about wild country and stunning scenery, riding the Great Divide will bring on a case of kid-in-the-candy-store syndrome like you've never known," says Michael "Mac" McCoy, ACA's national coordinator for the Great Divide.

Take McCoy at his word. Winding through the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico -- the Great Divide Route offers a dizzying array of sights and terrain. McCoy, who took three years to map the trail, says the highlights are overwhelming -- the wild Whitefish Divide above Tuchuck Campground, the deadfall-littered trail wrapping around Richmond Peak outside Seeley Lake, Montana, and the Big Sheep Creek Back Country Byway, "penetrating what appears to be a piece of Alaska deposited in southwest Montana."

According to McCoy, there's also Union Pass, Wyoming ("high, lonesome, and gorgeous"), the Great Divide Basin ("where horses grow up wild and trees don't grow at all"), the descent to the Colorado River at Radium ("where a freefall from subalpine chill to baked desert takes what seems like seconds,") and Indiana Pass, the Great Divide's apex ("where a descent through a bombed-out EPA Superfund mining site is followed by some of the most sublime alpine country imaginable").

Endurance cycling legend John Stamstad set the standard for this route with a mind-boggling record of 18 days and 5 hours -- you'll want to block off at least six weeks on your calendar if you plan to pedal border to border.

For more information: For the 6-map set of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, contact Adventure Cycling Association,; 1.800.755.2453.

Iditasport Impossible

If Jack London lived to see mountain bikes, this is the course he'd envision. The Iditasport Impossible traces the entire 1,086-mile route of Alaska's fabled Iditarod Sled Dog Race from Knik to Nome. It is a brutal mid-winter test of stamina, courage, character, and resourcefulness over remote terrain that is as barren as it is beautiful, through the Kuskokwim Mountains, the foothills of the Alaska Range and the Yukon River.

There are actually three races within this race -- the Iditasport 130 covers the first 130 miles of the course (originally run in 1987, this is the granddaddy of all mountain bike endurance events), while the Iditasport Extreme runs 350 miles.

"I honestly can't imagine anything more difficult in the world of sport," says 30-year-old Mike Curiak of Colorado, who won the inaugural Impossible race last winter. Will Curiak defend his title? No chance, says the champ.

One man who will return is Stamstad, who has won the 350-mile Extreme four years in a row. "It is the ultimate race. It's not simply who can push the pedals the hardest for a given amount of time. The race one year can be completely different from what's going to be the next year, based on trail conditions and weather. Temperatures have ranged from 40 above and drizzling to 40-something below.

Brian Fiske, senior editor for Mountain Bike magazine, tried his hand at the Iditasport last winter. "The course is sporadically marked at best, support is minimal to non-existent, and the weather is unpredictable," says Fiske. "In fact, the weather is your biggest enemy -- it can rain, snow, or hail, be sunny or cloudy, and the snow can be as hard as pavement or so soft that you sink in up to your waist."

Says Stamstad, "You're in uncharted land, and that is the biggest draw -- it is truly a wilderness race. There are a couple of cabins along the way, and that's it as far as civilization. You're out in the wild alone. This race has incredibly little race support for it, so you're really, for better or worse, on your own."

Amazingly, says Fiske, no competitor has ever died. "If you want to truly alter your life over the course of a few days, this is one to try," he says. "All other endurance competitions pale in comparison."

For more information: Iditasport,, 907.345.4505

The Kokopelli Trail (and White Rim Trail/Moab)

Built by the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, the Kokopelli Trail is named after the mythic humped-back flute player of Native American lore.

Legend holds that this Hopi god of fertility could drive away winter with his melodies. His trail, a 145-mile ribbon of dirt and sand, connects two remarkable mountain bike playgrounds -- Moab, Utah, and Fruita, Colo. Heading northeast from Moab, the Kokopelli climbs out of Sand Flats to the 8,500-foot pass at Fisher Mesa in the foothills of the La Sal Mountains. This lung-burner is fairly strenuous, but finishes with a 6-mile howling downhill along Thompson Canyon into Fisher Valley.

From the valley, the trail rises to Entrada Bluffs Road, winds down a 13-mile descent to Dewey, before rolling up to Squaw Flats. The dividend for your uphill endeavors? Spectacular views, preserved dinosaur tracks, a myriad of slickrock detours and an adrenaline-pumping 3-mile ridgeline freefall heading for the Cisco Desert.

Just south of the ghost town of Cisco, Utah, the Kokopelli winds along the Colorado River through lush terrain dotted with pinons and huge cottonwoods. For the next 25 miles, the trail is a cruiser's delight. High speed and high miles are your only thoughts.

Cross the border into Colorado, and the Kokopelli takes on a different, more playful look. The closer you get to Fruita, the better the singletrack. For buff, fast ribbons with bookends of rocky, technical terrain, sample Troy's Loop and Mary's Loop. Don't think of leaving Fruita without riding The Edge. This 28.5-mile tester is half singletrack, half doubletrack, features an elevation gain of 4,000 feet, and a waterfall rappel.

To add a few extra days on the front end, pedal the White Rim Trail outside Moab. This 102-mile stretch of teeth-chattering dirt road circumnavigates the Island in the Sky District of the 257,000-acre Canyonlands National Park. The trail is not the most technical ride, though sections can test your willpower and fray your nerves. For a chance to immerse yourself in a high-desert wilderness and its logic-defying landscapes, there are few better choices.

For more information: Kokopelli Trail, Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association,

White Rim Trail, Canyonlands National Park,, 435.719.2313.

For a free booklet on cycling adventures throughout Utah, contact Bicycle Utah, 801.649.5806.

The Dolomites, Italy

Want to get a nice little Pavlovian reaction from a mountain biker? Suggest a trip to the rugged and awe-inspiring Dolomites of north central Italy, hard by the Swiss and Austrian borders. In a land where cycling heroes are mentioned in the same breath as saints, this jagged countryside offers some of the most dramatic off-road riding found anywhere. The sheer slopes of this range, 50-miles wide by 60-miles long, are steeped in mountaineering tradition, with an intricate network of trails and rudimentary back roads open to hikers and bikers alike.

Most trails are as rough-hewn as the landscape, a collection of rock, gravel, and shale running alongside eye-popping ridges that plunge to distant valleys below. Throughout the region, cozy mountain inns, or rifugio, dot the trails, allowing bikers to piece together a hut-to-hut adventure similar to that of the 10th Mountain Division system behind Vail, Colo., but with European flare.

Rob Story, author of Finding the Planet's Best Mountain Biking, is partial to the eastern portion of the range, near Cortina, the best-known resort town in the Dolomites. There, he suggests pedaling Val di Gotres, "a nice 20-mile loop that combines all the Dolomite hallmarks: a substantial climb on World War I roads, alpine meadows, a charming rifugio (Ra Stua), a rocky downhill to the quaint village of San Uberto, and, finally, a singletrack through a gorge back to Cortina."

Adventurer and writer Steve Casimiro, however, has a preference for the western side of the Dolomites, Val Gardena, which he describes as an "undulating mountain-bike Eden, with tracks lacing every which way through wildflowers, patches of mushrooms, and broad stretches of green."

Among Casimiro's favorite play areas are Alpe di Siusi, on the south flank of the valley, which has the largest selection of trails, and Alpe di Resciesa, on the north side, which displays magnificent views of the Dolomites' highest peak, the north face of Marmolada.

For more information: Finding the Planet's Best Mountain Biking, Rob Story, W.W. Norton.

Topographical maps are indispensable in the Dolomite region; among the best are Omni Resources,, 1.800.742.2677.

Italian Government Tourism Board, 212.245.5618.

LaPaz, Bolivia

All you need to know about La Paz, near the western edge of Bolivia and built on the precipitous slopes of the Andes, is that at 11,800 feet above sea level, it is the world's highest capital city. It is an unequaled perch to launch a mountain biking adventure.

The downside, of course, is that there's precious little oxygen at these elevations, so the grunt work of climbing can be devastating. Travel guides warn that cold, thin air of this high country is an obstacle to efficient fuel combustion -- and that holds true for the human engine. And the scarcity of good maps can make trail exploration a pending disaster.

Instead, call on New Zealand expatriate Alistair Matthew, who founded the Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking tour company in La Paz . Matthew will not only put you on the right trail, but will also provide the motor to get you to the high spots above the clouds, such as the 18,000-foot Mount Chacaltaya. From there, let gravity be your guide.

With roughly 1,000 peaks piercing the 16,000-foot mark, Bolivia is particularly well-suited to put the "mountain" back in mountain biking. La Paz makes for an excellent base camp. The surrounding countryside, with its harsh, perpetually snow-capped topography, is contrasted by open and friendly people, ancient villages and a rich, Incan history, and makes for fascinating exploration.

The crown jewel in the La Paz mountain biking constellation is the Takesi Trail, which traverses a 15,000-foot pass before falling more than 9,000 nerve-jangling feet in a scant 17 miles. Don't forget to pack the body armor.

"Take the steepest, rockiest trail you've ever ridden; combine it with the tightest, most exposed trail you've ever ridden. Throw in the ghosts of an ancient civilization and the most savagely beautiful landscape imaginable. Shake, stir and descend for 12 straight hours. That's the Takesi," says writer and adventurer Aaron Teasdale.

For more information: Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking,, 591.2.374.204 Address/ La Paz, Bolivia

Explore Bolivia,, 303.545.5728.

Boston-based writer Brion O'Connor, when not chained to his desk, can usually be found atop one of his three mountain bikes, riding the finest singletrack trails of New England and beyond. He is a contributing editor for Bike magazine, and writes for Men's Journal, ESPN the Magazine, Outdoor Explorer and Outside.


The bikes we ride

If you're going to spend long days in the saddle, you want the best bike possible underneath you. Mountain biking technology has changed dramatically in the last decade, mostly for the better. Bikes are lighter, more comfortable, more reliable and more affordable than ever before.

But the best ones still aren't cheap. If you plan to ride often, don't sell yourself short with a mediocre rig. Look for a durable bike that features a 27-speed Shimano XT or XTR component group, and at least a quality front suspension fork.

Full suspension (front and rear shocks) is recommended for really rugged terrain, while the new breed of "soft tails" with minimal rear travel, really shine if your riding into the hills for long climbs.

Our five dream bikes:

· Cannondale Raven 4000 SL -- One of the most innovative full-suspension bikes by one of the world's most innovation bike makers. The frame of the Raven 4000 SL ($4,000) features a magnesium spine wrapped in a thermoplastic carbon skin and a lightweight aluminum rear swingarm, married to responsive Fatty Ultra DL shock in front and a plush Fox Air Vanilla shock in back.; 1.800.BIKEUSA

· Intense Uzzi SL -- You want bomb-proof? The stout aluminum Uzzi SL ($4,500) boasts a Fox Vanilla RC shock in back and a Marzocchi Z1QR20 shock up front to soften the worst drop-offs, and disc brakes to stop you from any unwanted cliff-diving.; 909.678.4576

· Moots YBB -- Titanium simplicity and performance, with flawless welds and craftsmanship. The YBB ($5,000) introduced the "soft tail" category, a pivotless rear shock with an inch of rear travel to take the edge off long days in the saddle without sacrificing weight.; 970.879.1676.

· Litespeed Tsali -- Another minimalist design, the Tsali ($4,900) also incorporates a pivotless rear shock, which uses a coiled spring and the inherent flex of titanium, welded to a massive ovalized frame that improves lateral rigidity and pedaling efficiency; 423.238.5530

· Trek STP 4000 -- The STP 4000 ($4,200) takes the soft tail design to the next level, coupling a RockShox rear shock with the exotic OCLV carbon fiber frame to allow more adjustability in back, while the RockShox SID Race shock fork up front handles the washboard; 1.800.688.4324

Additional gear

These treks require substantial planning and above-average backcountry skills. Riders are often exposed to the elements and should be comfortable in dealing with them. Top-notch camping gear, from tent to rain parka to water purification system, is a must. Don't skimp.

To haul everything, the innovative YAK Trailer by B.O.B. ($260) is especially handy. This nifty single-wheel trailer is surprisingly agile, tracking your bike like it had a mind of its own, and allows multi-day bikers to carry a huge amount of gear (the YAK SAK Dry Bag is completely waterproof, giving an extra measure of security). Even better, you can use it to haul stuff from one base camp to the next, then simply unhitch it and explore nearby singletrack -- just you and your trusty BIKE.


Mountain-biking events

If you don't have a few weeks to immerse yourself in a mountain biking fantasy, but you still want to test your pedal perseverance, consider one of the following events:

· 24-hour racing

These all-day parties run from noon-to-noon around a closed-loop off-road course, and typically feature teams consisting of four or five racers alternating turns like a relay race. Riding around the clock, with as little as two hours of shut-eye between laps, is tough enough. However, the solo category has been gaining popularity over the past few years. Recommended only for the perpetually sleep-deprived.

The best of the bunch are Granny Gear Productions' 24 Hours of Snowshoe, Tahoe and Moab (, 304.259.5533) and the TriLife Sports 24 Hours of Adrenalin series (, 905.944.9436).

· Endurance events

Among the best are the Leadville 100 in Colorado (, 719.486.3502), the Shenandoah Mountain 100 in Virginia (540/434.2087), the 70-mile Flinthills Death Ride in eastern Kansas (, 1.800.792.2453), and the Vermont 50-Miler (, 802/484-7362). The Mount Washington Auto Road Hillclimb in New Hampshire pits cyclists against the Northeast's tallest peak (6,288 feet) and is widely considered one of the toughest in the world, gaining nearly 5,000 vertical feet in 7.6 miles and the final, above-tree-line switchback features a 22-degree grade (603.447.6991.)

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