Desert apparitions dance across big-screen epics. An oasis over there and a fan wielding goddess beckoning you closer. These fantasies cloud the judgement of even seasoned desert travelers. Until mile 5 of Sunday’s race I’d assumed these imaginations rooted in fiction alone. And yet. His long hair flapped past, cementing its taunting imagery in my mind, and stoking the dormant gremlins asleep in my subconscious. Was he real? Or was this my first desert hallucination? Are there more to come?
On the Road
#vanlife jealousies ran deep over the past few race seasons. The further I chased start lines, the more I interacted with those adventure-seeking, untethered, perpetual motion athletes who bound from race to race with their sometimes overbuilt and often times spartan home-on-wheels. Part bike shop, part 1-room IKEA wunderland, and part spaceship. I knew better. I knew, much like my IG feed in annual review, the highlights are fewer than I supposed. But yet. I craved that seemingly final step to full-commit.
So I committed.
My 2021 Dodge Ram ProMaster 1500 turned South. En route to AZ for 2 months of riding, writing, and writhing in the desert with a stopover in El Paso, TX for a 50-mile race. Towing the newly created Dawn to Dusk MTB Adventure trailer, full of fitness equipment and topped with 4 beautiful steeds (um, those are bikes), I cruised through the New Mexican landscape stopping only for fuel and railway-side morning shits.
El Paso mountain biking held no status in my mind. I know one thing, I’m from Colorado. Colorado. COLORADO! Home to big alpine ascents, ripping MTB trails, challenging terrain, and high-mountain-air strength. Within the state towns like Gunnison and Durango jump off the starting list, highlighting athletes who must be observed. Nationally the home state tag of Colorado does the same thing. We are hardcore mountain bikers. Watch out.
Oh the foolish, megalomaniacal, silly man I am.
Rock. Chunky, never-ending, loose, and tormenting rock. That’s what El Paso mountain biking is all about. You want smooth trail? Ride the sidewalk. Not long into my first pre-ride at Franklin State Park I knew that thicker grips and a fully open fork would be necessary at this race. 13 miles on the singlespeed and I scurried back to my beetle-kill pine walled spaceship. “Colorado-boy you got something to learn here on the Borderlands.”
On the recommendation from a fellow MTBer, who just retired after 4 decades as a pilot and stopped by my spaceship Thursday evening to say hello, I chose to tackle the major climb of the racecourse: Mundy’s. Conserving grip strength would be critical come race day so I grabbed the full suspension XC rig and set out to explore. The climb, challenging but manageable, sent me over the ridge into a wild, trust-your-bike, say-a-prayer descent down a scree field comically called a trail. Eyeing a Sunday’s best effort I opted to bail out of the park and ride smooth pavement back to my start. Not without its own effort, the climb crested that same ridge and the road descent brought my top speed to 53.8 mph. Do. Not. Crash.
The race vibes gathered steam Friday night as fellow racer, and ultra-endurance hero, Josh rolled into camp. Joined by Curt, Denver-based mtb coach, and Devon, adventure writer doing a story on the area. Van by van by van we settled into the pre-event vibes that make mountain biking the sport more appropriately labeled a lifestyle.
Saturday’s short ride introduced me to more rock. Go figure. We previewed a 10-mile section we’d be racing on the second/final loop of the race. The “Puzzler” nom de guerre made sense as I picked my path up, over, though never around, the chunky singletrack. Briefly stopping to gather our group of 5 we ended with the only smooth trail of the racecourse. The final 3 miles. Ha. I get you Puzzler. You cheeky bastard.
Per usual I tore off from the start line. Hole shots being my M.O. ever since Sven Nys spoke of them in his cyclocross tutorials. Get out front, control the race, and never look back. Check, check and check. We are under way!
Then he passed me. I couldn’t tell if he was real. I swore there was only a single gear on his bike and yet I knew it was full-suspension. The pieces didn’t add up. Mo Frias raced singlespeed. He’s won here many times. These are his local trails. He was my chief competition. But a full suspension singlespeed? And passing me at that speed? Confusion added fuel to the gremlin’s fire as they started whispering. “He’s faster than you.” “He passed you on a descent.” “Good luck…second place.”
Those first 6 miles, meant to stretch out the field, placed in my mind's foreground my greatest race strategy: never stop pushing pedals. In a sport of countless variables the one constant, pedaling, tends to fix the mistakes. Pedaling makes the lines smoother. Pedaling quiets the gremlin’s voices. So I pedaled, in second place, in pursuit of that creature who I wasn’t sure was real. And the pedaling paid dividends.
Each time the course flattened, or rose, I closed ground on Mo. Now verified as a real person, on a real full suspension singlespeed, in a real race. I passed by him as the course turned up a, yes, rocky, wash bed toward Mundy’s. Understanding my greatest advantage would be climbs I ignored the challenge in my lungs and legs. Building momentum up each loose pitch and quickly dismounting into a trail run whenever my rear tire slipped, I pushed Mo into the rearview until he was far out of sight. Once over the ridge, and with beta from my pre ride, I slipped and hopped down through rocks salivating for tires, wheels, and teeth. Safely through the descent I eyed the aid station for a bottle grab. No sooner had I unraveled the drawstring when, again like a desert wind, Mo flew past. Unimaginable!
The game had been set. I’d pull away on the climbs. He’d catch and pass me on the descents. We’d leapfrog for the next 2 hours. The gremlins convinced me that a third singlespeed mountain bike is a necessary purchase. “Gotta have full suspension, Mr. Second Place.”
As race strategies go, I was on the losing end. It took tremendous effort to attack on the flats and climbs to regain the lead and Mo got to bridge and pass on gravity-fueled descents. His energy stores untapped. Familiar enough with the gremlin whispers at this point I just kept pedaling. Up and over Northern Pass we were approaching the final section of the 35-mile loop and up ahead I saw Mo walking a rising wash bed. Upon passing he confessed, “my legs are feeling it.” Wherein I casually replied, “yeah, you’ve been crushing it.”
The window opened.
Much like my Mundy’s ascent, I blocked out the internal chatter and drove my pedals. Knowing he was winning the descents I kept my fingers tucked away from the brake levers. I trusted the bike, my skills, and my vision. Into the 35 mile loop’s end, and turning onto the trail I investigated the day before, I kept driving. I figured my lead over Mo would be safe but to be sure I began racing the geared bikes ahead of me. Picking them off on each rise in the trail. Passing them with a friendly greeting and an internal gloat. Push. The. Pedals.
The El Paso Puzzler offers a 35-mile and a 50-mile option. To this point I couldn’t understand why. If you’re out for 35, what’s an additional 15 miles?
Stupid Colorado, spaceship boy.
The next 15 miles punished every racer ambitious enough to press on. Twisting back on itself in nonsensical loops of rocky, rowdy trail I could hear the restored grumbling from the gremlins. Resisting the urge to toggle my computer’s data to showing miles remaining, I kept pedaling and knew when the trail smoothed, I’d be close. Drawn out like an ambitious National Anthem singer those smooth miles took a while to appear but when they did the first smile began to crack my steely resolve.
Twisting through the Mesquite and Prickly Pear I saw the tips of white tents. I heard the backbeat of an energized stereo. The finish. Sweeping that final right turn and crossing the chalked line I left 5 hours and 2 minutes earlier I had solved the El Paso Puzzler.
1st Place Singlespeed
This is a mountain bike race. A tipped hat to the race director and volunteers for creating a challenging course for an early season effort. If you plan to solve The Puzzler for yourself, do not be fooled. You're in for a mountain bike effort. With no easy miles, a finish is worth celebrating. Coming back? Damn right I am.