Editors Note: Josh is someone we heard about in the rumblings of the outdoor community awhile back, a local nurse who completed the Tour Divide by mountain bike in record time. We were fortunate enough to track him down recently and interview him for this Athletic Life series.
Question: Josh, please tell us a bit about yourself. Your hobbies, interests, etc. we heard you work as a nurse and are a crazy awesome bikepacking competitor as well?
Answer: I am indeed a nurse. Have been for over 20 years. I’ve been a life-long cyclist. In my youth I would race more traditional single day races. I got away from competitive cycling during my college years to focus on my studies and other hobbies. My other hobbies include fly fishing, backcountry skiing, backpacking and photography. Cycling has always been a definitive passion. Mostly I’m an outdoor addict. I spend very little time indoors except when I’m at work. I definitely feel more comfortable outside for days on end than inside the walls of a building.
Question: What do you love about bikepacking and how did you get started with it? How many years have you been bikepacking?
Answer: Bikepacking is amazing! You just load up your bike with what you need to go as far or as short as you wish. Head out the door to some beautiful places, sleep under the stars and just ride. It’s the simple joy of getting out and turning the pedals while leaving everything else behind.
About 10 years ago my wife and I got into bikepacking. It was a natural combination of our love of mountain biking and backpacking. Loading up the off-road bikes with camping gear and heading as far away from civilization as we could was super fun for us. You can travel so much farther by bicycle than by foot. Especially in our area where there is a seemingly endless network of logging roads, trails and old abandoned double-tracks. A person can get happily lost in the solitude of the outdoors.
Shortly after getting into bikepacking we learned of a race from Banff Alberta, Canada to the Mexico border. The race is called the Tour Divide. It is a bit of an underground race with no official website, director and no official sign-up or prize. It is a self-supported race where competitors can acquire goods and services along the route at public establishments. No outside support is allowed. Spectators are discouraged. No support vehicles or other pre-arranged help is allowed. The race roughly follows the Continental Divide, 90% of the route is off pavement. It is over 2,700 miles from start to finish. The race clock starts when you leave Banff Alberta and stops when you hit the Mexico boarder in Southern New Mexico at a tiny boarder crossing called Antelope Wells. Navigation is via GPS devices and/or maps along a pre-determined route. The conditions encountered during the race are rather character building. Snow, endless days of rain, mud, over 200,000 feet of climbing, elevations up to 11,000 feet, wildlife, and lack of contact with people for much of the route. My wife completed the race in 2014, she was the third place female racer that year. I ended up having to drop out that year after fracturing my leg and tearing some muscles during a crash on some ice on a remote Montana backroad in a snowstorm. I came back in 2015 to win the race and set a speed record on the route at a time of about 14 and a half days. About 198 miles per day average, mostly off road, while carrying all my own gear to survive, ride and sleep in any number of conditions.
Question: How do you train for bikepacking races? Are you still competing in bikepacking adventures? Do you compete in mountain bike day long races as well?
Answer: Ha! You just ride your bike a lot. Bikepacking races have become progressively more competitive over the last several years. Most of the off-road racers are doing an average of somewhere between 150-200 miles per day in the events. The on-road racers are hitting about 200-300 miles per day on average. Mind you, this is done while carrying your own survival gear, food and water. We sleep anywhere we can and the winners typically are minimizing the amount of sleep to ridiculously short periods of time. In the shorter events, those under 700 miles total, some racers are going completely sleepless for 2-4 days. How do you train for this? Mostly you just get out on your bike a lot in all conditions and learn to endure. Those who do well learn to love it all. The mental aspects of these long races can not be ignored. Not everyone does well in solitude for the majority of every day for weeks on end.
I do not compete in single day events anymore. I much prefer the long trail, multi-day events. I specialize in the really long races. Those over 1,000 miles. You reach some pretty enlightening moments in the long races. Spending 20 hours a day on a bike, day after day mostly alone really allows a person to look deeply into themselves.
Question: What is your favorite bikepacking event you have participated in and why?
Answer: Hands down, the Tour Divide. It is typically regarded as the most classic and original bikepacking race. Canada to Mexico, no outside assistance, beautiful and ever changing terrain, 5 US states, 1 Canadian Provence, countless mountain passes. While there are now about 150 competitors from around the world who compete in it every year almost everyone races in near solitude after the first few miles. We race with GPS trackers so that “spectators” can watch us online at all hours of the day and night. Racing it is like being a character in a book being written. Everyone racing has some crazy storyline unfolding that isn’t really revealed until we are all done and the tales can be told. Weather plays a huge part in the race. Being able to enjoy riding your bike through snowstorms and rainstorms for days on end can indeed be helpful. You can’t be in a bad mood out there and do well. You learn to laugh at the conditions and poke fun at yourself. The vast challenge of that race is part of my love affair with it. It is a beautifully simple concept. Ride your bike from Canada to Mexico as fast as possible with no outside assistance. Eat, sleep, ride and repeat.
Question: What is the most grueling day on the saddle that you can remember, please tell us about it.
Answer: There have been so many days over the years that I thought were the most grueling only to one-up them in my next race. One day that really stands out for me is a day I spent on the bike during the 2019 Tour Divide race. I was in second place at the time approaching the half way point of the race in Colorado. The first place competitor and I were both ahead of record pace up until a freak snowstorm dropped 36 inches of snow overnight in the mountains in June. The first place competitor lost the trail in the snow, became scared, near-hypothermic and ended up turning back to the closest mountain lodge which was several miles down off the mountain. The storm was quite surreal. Earlier in the day I passed through the Great Basin of Wyoming which is a place so desolate and dry that the little amount of water that does fall evaporates before it can flow to the ocean. From a vast dry basin to a blinding blizzard in the Rocky Mountains. Pushing a bike through the mountains of Colorado, in the dark, in a few feet of snow after having already ridden for around 200 miles earlier in the day became a survival game. The conditions were full white-out. Blowing and drifting snow with temperatures well below freezing at an elevation of around 10,000 feet. We travel as light as possible, everything has to fit on a race bike. This means we don’t have a huge amount of extra clothing or other comfort items with us. I had decided to find shelter in a grove of trees during the height of the storm and worked my way into a dense grove of trees only to come face to face with a cougar who wasn’t willing to share. I moved on and found another tree to sleep under for a few hours. However, in the walk to find another grove of trees I fell into a creek about chest deep. Being high in the Colorado mountains meant that all of the winter snow hadn’t melted yet so there was consolidated snow from the previous winter laying below the newly fallen snow of the storm. I fell into the creek while pushing my bike. Luckily my bike had become lodged in the snow above me as I dangled from it into the creek. I was able to lift myself out of the water by using my bike as a bit of a trapeze above me. I wrapped myself in a space blanket and awoke covered in snow. I pushed my bike about 27 miles through 3 feet of fresh snow over a mountain pass and then rode my bike another 170 miles that day in rain and sleet and into another snow storm the following night. That was a very long, trying and insanely memorable 24 hours.
Question: What kind of diet/nutrition do you keep while training? Do you have an off-season diet or regiment?
Answer: Training means you learn to endure these events. However, enduring isn’t enough. You really need to find a way to cherish the journey. During these races the typical food is procured at small gas stations as you criss-cross in and out of small towns. Sit down meals during the races take too much time to remain competitive so we grab and go. Eat while on the bike. Riding 200 miles day after day while subsisting off of Fritos and frozen burritos is definitely an art. Maybe bad art but definitely something you must learn to do. While I’m actively training for these races I try and simulate the diet I’ll encounter in order to learn how my body reacts to the steady stream of junk food. Most top competitors burn upwards of 10,000 calories a day during these races. It’s a fine balance learning what you can put in and keep in while pedaling at a very high level for most of the day. I’m not going to say it is healthy but it sure can be fun…The rest of the time I try to eat as healthy as possible.
Question: What do you pack for your long bikepacking races? How light do you pack? Do you skip the tent and take a tarp, or do you skip the toothbrush?
Answer: To be ultra competitive in these events means traveling as light as possible. Most of these events involve vast amounts of climbing. More weight means slower speeds. Our “kits” (the supplies we carry on the bike) become highly specific and personalized. I do not carry a tent or even a sleeping bag. Basically I carry an ultra-light down jacket and pants, a space blanket, ultra-light bivy sack, rain jacket and pants, gloves, hat and as much gas station food as I can cram on the bike until I reach the next town. I don’t carry a sleeping pad. I’ve found that I sleep the best laying directly on the ground. If it rains, snows or is otherwise very cold I get in my bivy sack (it’s actually a sleeping bag cover not designed for shelter but it is quite weather resistant) with all of my clothes on then wrap up in the space blanket. The lack of tent and other supplies means I can quickly be back on the bike after sleeping for a few hours. I do take a toothbrush. I saw off the handle to save weight though.
Question: Favorite piece of biking gear. What is it?
Answer: My down pants. They are ultra-light and ultra-warm. When I put them on at night it’s a warm and cozy treat.
Question: Best type of bikepacking bike?
Answer: I’m more in the belief that a mountain bike is ideal. Wider tires provide more cushioning and when you end up at a trailhead you can just keep going with confidence and comfort. Personally, I ride a drop-bar mountain bike most of the time. It might look like a gravel bike but it can fit tires up to 3” wide, I usually have a suspension fork on it and the wider range of gearing available to most mountain bikes can be a real benefit with a loaded bike. The key to me is to just get out there. Most bikes these days are more than capable for getting out and finding adventure.
Question: What has been the most memorable thing you have seen or experienced while biking in the mountains?
Answer: The wildlife and endless views are always quite memorable. On one occasion in Montana, I was descending a rather rocky trail with extraordinary views. I was gazing into the distance bouncing down the trail while eating a cheese stick, as I rounded a corner a rather large grizzly bear was directly in the middle of the path. I skidded to a halt, cutting my rear tire on a rock in the process. I stood there, straddling my bike which now had a flat tire, with a cheese stick dangling from my mouth. I was about 15 feet from a large grizzly who had now stood up on hind legs. I don’t think there is such a thing as a small grizzly. I pulled my bear spray out and pointed it at the bear. It lowered itself to all fours, looked at me and slowly meandered off the trail. I had to sit there for a bit and fix my tire. Let’s just say it is the fastest I’ve ever repaired a flat tire.
Question: What is your favorite ride to do around the Cashmere area and why?
Answer: I really enjoy the Entiat Ridge. The ride up there offers a good challenge in the form of climbing and extraordinary views as you head along the high ridge near Sugarloaf. Plenty of options for routes from there too. You can head off to Ardenvoir, Chelan and beyond. You can head down towards great trails in the Mad River drainage, towards Lake Wenatchee, or Leavenworth or into Cashmere. Plenty of off pavement riding to be had and some great trails and routes you can tie into from there. The views though, that’s the real reward for me.
Question: Since you split your time between living in Cashmere and the Methow, what is your favorite ride in the Methow region as well and why?
Answer: The one ride I enjoy more than any other is the gravel climb up Harts Pass to Slate Peak. The highest road in Washington State, up to over 7,000 feet with views that go on forever. A great climb followed by a fast, fast ride back down to the valley floor. The single track ride on the Angel’s Staircase is another favorite for beautiful views.
Question: Favorite life quote.
Answer: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S. Eliot I truly believe we can do more than we think we can. We often limit ourselves based on the norms imposed by others. Only by breaking records or doing more than others think possible can we make the unachievable the new norm.
Question: Anything else you would like to tell our readers?
Answer: Go outside. Get out there. Get way out there. Live a story you would like to read.
Interview questions prepared by Sarah Shaffer.
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