Joe Grant cycled away from his front door in Gold Hill, Colorado this July with everything needed for a month of mountain travel. He travelled in “self propelled” style by bicycle and foot, linking up and summiting all of Colorado’s 14,000′ peaks along the way. The bikepacking racer set a new record of 31 days for the exhaustive solo endurance challenge, but his real goal was to inspire others to set out on their own “self propelled” adventures. In this interview for BikeShopHub we talk big miles, summer thunderstorms and the experience of putting yourself in a “raw and vulnerable state.”
Where did the idea of cycling between and climbing all 57 of Colorado’s 14,000′ peaks come from?
I wanted to set myself an adventure that would be both challenging and allow me to explore my backyard. Well, all of Colorado… Let’s call it my extended backyard. Other people have done the “Tour de 14ers” challenge before in a different style, but the bike and running combination was the right style for me. (To climb the 57 peaks Joe cycled 1,100miles and ran 400miles). It meant I could move at a pace that was fast enough to not be gone for months, but slow enough to be able to immerse myself and appreciate the landscapes I was moving through. The whole point of any trip should be to get out there and see what unfolds. So a lot of it was driven by curiosity. I am definitely interested now in more “self propelled” adventures.
“The point of any trip is to get out there and see what unfolds. A lot of it is driven by curiosity.”
Sounds simple just riding away on your bike. Was there a lot of prep?
It was pretty frantic building up to the trip. I am a professional runner and less than two weeks before my start date I dropped out of the Hardrock 100mile mountain race with an acute head injury. It took me about two weeks to recover and there was a feeling of disappointment about not finishing that hung over the build up to the ride. That’s a difficult place to be when you’re about to push off from your doorstep on a massive adventure.
Ever since my grandfather passed away a few years ago, July 26th has been our “family sports day.” On this day in 1981 he ran a 105lap marathon on a cinder athletics track, and so now we all try and do something sporty on the same day to honour him. I set my departure date to match. The night before the trip there were lots of last minute details to sort out. I had a permit to climb 14,053′ Culebra Peak in five days time and there were 400miles and 8 peaks to tick off before I got there. My family were also here and so for a variety of reasons I felt much more emotional than I usually do when setting out on a big adventure.
Check out Joe’s route courtesy of Trackleaders. Press “play” and turn up the speed.
Tell us about the wild weather and the mountains!
After rushing down to Culebra and ticking off the peaks in the south of Colorado I had to spend two days in Alamosa getting a bust rim rebuilt. Next up were the 14peaks of the San Juan Range. That’s when the bad weather hit. I’m talking torrential rain, thunderstorms, hailstorms, lightening. The whole deal. It went from time stress to weather stress. It’s difficult on a trip like this to deal with external factors like terrible weather when in a bad head space. I found myself thinking “Please, just give me one good day!” Instead it just hammered. In the end I decided to surrender to the weather, to deal with what was in front of me and just do my best. “This is all I’m doing for the month” I would tell myself, “just riding my bike and going up peaks.” So if the weather meant a summit attempt at 2am, that’s when I’d get it done. Sometimes I would get up to tree-line in a thunderstorm, wait for an hour then reexamine the weather. Once it was safe I would rush up the peak and then back down again before the next weather system rolled it. There were lots of intense sessions like that.
“So if the weather meant going up a peak at 2am, that’s when I’d get it done.”
Tell us about the bike!
I’m fortunate to be sponsored by REEB Cycles. They make custom designed bikes and set me up with a sweet steel rig. I chose a MTB because it gave me more options with the route. (Check out the bag setup that Joe had on his bike here.) It allowed me to bike closer to the mountains and then sleep and leave the bike at some of the trailheads. Biking is much less abusive than running on your legs and this strategy helped me keep fresher for the running. I wanted the route to be aesthetic but not contrived. If there was a scenic route I would take it. However if the options were a crazy single-track vs a sensible dirt road, I wouldn’t try and make life more difficult for myself. Roughly speaking the biking sections were 1/3rd pavement, 1/3rd dirt road and 1/3rd jeep roads or gnarlier.
It sounds like you went through some emotional highs and lows. Can you tell us more?
A trip like this is a slice of life and you go through a real gamut of emotions. It requires some tough self love. There were moments where I was balling my eyes out and feeling very vulnerable and very weak and my body wouldn’t carry me any further. I felt I was at the bottom of the barrel and swore to myself I would never do anything like this ever again. Perhaps the toughest moment came half-way through the trip when Deanne my wife and some friends met me in Buenavista whilst on their way down to Oklahoma. I was really happy to see everybody. We had a nice meal, we drank some wine and everybody around me was clean and showered. It felt like a pleasant and leisurely afternoon. Then, very suddenly, I had to leave them behind and carry on. I remember feeling a bit emotional and upset as I cycled ten miles out of town to camp. My outlook the next day shifted and I then clicked into “just get it done.” I told myself, “Deanne is doing her thing in Oklahoma, you do yours.” Once you are finished you tend to forget these really hard bits.
During the best moments of the trip whilst on a mountain summit or laying exhausted in my sleeping under a tree I was often like, “Yeah, of course this is the only thing I should be doing right now!” On a big adventure there are always going to be moments that are going to be challenging, but there’s also going to be other times which are going to be great fun.
“The challenge of the ride was enough that it allowed me to grow, but not defeat me.”
So do you need to ride your bike for an entire month to have this kind of experience?
Getting out for a micro adventure and having a great bonding experience with a friend might be as equally rewarding. The first time I ran a marathon it blew my mind. It’s only a handful of hours of activity, but I had no other points of reference. These days I’m looking for something different, something that will help me grow and I’m planning trips that I wouldn’t have thought possible a few years ago. Adventures for me don’t always have to be longer, bigger or better. But they do have to be more interesting, The cumulative experience of what I have done before allowed me to contemplate a trip like this. (Joe came 2nd in the Arizona Trail bike race in 2016) Whilst the physical element is important, it doesn’t have to be the defining quality of the trip. The challenge of the ride was enough that it allowed me to grow, but not defeat me. If someone else goes out and breaks my record, good for them! I just hope they have a good time whilst doing it.
“Profound things sometime come from not creating a grand statement.”
And if someone is going to have a crack at your record, what do they need to know?
I completed the Tour de 14ers in self-sufficient style. This means using only the resources available to everybody. Sleeping in motels is okay and so are “trail fairies” (unplanned meetings where someone shows up randomly to cheer you up and share some food). But you can’t ring a friend and request an extra jacket or a meal. Often I felt the challenge was a little contrived, as so often I could have stayed with a friend in different towns rather than camping wild or paying for a motel. But that wouldn’t be fair on other people, and so I stuck to it.
Now time has passed, what are your final thoughts about the trip and “self propelled” adventures?
It’s still hard to put it into words, but my big takeaway is how normal we all are. It made me realize I’m just a human with all my imperfections as well as the good stuff too. There were days when I was inspired by what I was doing. But you can’t be arrogant. If you are it all comes down on you so hard and you bonk, trip and hurt yourself or break the bike. I had so many ups and down that, by the end of it, I just felt really normal. After 31 days I pedaled up to my front door and let myself in. Deanne was at work and the dog came out to greet me. My friend Fred came and shot some pictures and we had a beer. I felt neither amazing nor a failure. Just a sense of contentment. That was a nice conclusion. Profound things sometime come from not creating a grand statement.
Call for comment
- Been on any of your own self propelled journeys this month?
- Ever struggled to balance the call of the road with time spent away from your family?