One man’s twisted love-hate relationship with Salida singletrack.

Trail of Tears? Nah, there's still room for a smile in 125 miles of pain.

Trail of Tears? Nah, there’s still room for a smile in 125 miles of pain.

I was barely a quarter of the way into the ordeal, and already I was praying for the misery to end. The cold snapped at my gloved fingers and made my pedaling feet throb with pain, and the alpine darkness smudged the blaze of my headlamps to a smolder. Half an hour earlier, I had zinged past a “Caution: Steep” sign and promptly lurched over my handlebars into a pile of bike components and crunching body parts, from which I watched the two riders I’d been trailing disappear into the night.

After a quick once-over, I took up the chase, but my neck was cricked, my bike had developed several pronounced clicks and a sporadic, but unnerving vrrrrt, and my GPS hung from the bars by a half-severed twist tie. Now, with the wind whistling through trees so black that I couldn’t see the night sky through them and no sign of riders ahead or behind me, I realized that in my rush to catch up I had lost my way.

The virtue of venturing into the wilderness, I told myself, is to experience its power and test oneself up against its raw immensity. It’s the surest way to put life’s daily minutiae and trivial frustrations in perspective. You can walk into the wilds distracted and stressed, have a grueling and even traumatic interaction with the natural world, and walk out humbled and renewed.

I told myself all of that—but it wasn’t sinking in.

The Pain PrincipleIT HAD STARTED UNEVENTFULLY. Fifty of us had spun out of Salida together at the stroke of 10 p.m. on what then felt like a warm autumn evening, cracking nervous jokes about the obstacles ahead and ramping up the speed as we gained altitude. When the escort car peeled off after 5 miles, the pace spiked and the pack thinned to a sinuous string of headlamps slipping higher into the pines—just another beautiful night ride through big mountains on pristine trail.

Now, alone, dwarfed by creaking conifers and imposing peaks, I tried to reignite that sensation. But it was 2 a.m, and I was slightly lost on singletrack 20-some miles into a 125-mile endurance mountain bike race. The temperature was hovering around 20 degrees, and my right thigh, bleeding through the tear I’d ripped in my tights when I crashed, was exposed to the night air.

The Pain PrincipleMy quandary was this: I had purposefully courted this moment. To ride in the Vapor Trail 125, an annual gathering of cycling diehards who want to push themselves on some of Colorado’s finest and most remote mountain bike tracks, you must be invited. The guys who organize the event, a rabid and inspired group of riders out of Salida’s inimitable Absolute Bikes, know just how punishing the course can be, so they screen participants’ racing résumés and only include those who they feel won’t imperil themselves. By accepting an invitation, I had tacitly acknowledged the difficulty. This was self-inflicted agony.

I’ve endured enough long mountain undertakings to know that the key isn’t exceptional technical prowess or extraordinary fitness. What you really need is the ability to empty your mind of everything—hope, distress, pain, thoughts of the course ahead or behind, images of a warm, fluffy, duvet-covered bed—and simply continue moving forward. As I blinked in the darkness and wondered where I was, I suddenly remembered this mindset. In an instant, I pulled the dangling GPS off my bars, tucked it in my pack, and set off into the shadowy evergreens, back the way I had come, pushing on each pedal with the precision of a metronome.

The Pain PrincipleTHIS WASN’T THE FIRST TIME SALIDA HAD TESTED ME. I’ve had a secret obsession with this little town ever since college, when my Uncle Tony, a Frisco bike mechanic and local Colorado racer, first visited and told me of it. Reputed as the best wrench in Summit County, Tony Neaves was a sparkplug of a man who, despite being 15 years my senior, still chewed me into a panting mess every time we rode together. I dreaded getting ridden off his wheel but still subjected myself to the indignity as often as I could, probably hoping to someday turn the tables. I never did. And for that I admired him. So when Tony came back from a trip south to ride the then-little-known Monarch Crest Trail and reported that it was the single best continuous stretch of trail he’d seen, Salida became hallowed ground in my mind.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I finally made the pilgrimage to the Monarch Crest Trail. On that sparkling June morning, my older brother, Jeremy, and my then future-wife, Jen Judge, shuttled up the hill from Salida and rode the standard 37-mile route over Marshall Pass and down Silver Creek and the Rainbow Trail back to town. Though the trail was as good as Tony had billed it, I remember the day less as a ride than as a series of scenic pit-stops to fix the breathtaking six flat tires we racked up (Jeremy, two; me, four).

With each subsequent mechanical, Jeremy and I grew ever-more infuriated. Three hours stretched to half a dozen, and upon hearing the hiss of flat No. 6, the day crescendoed with me jumping off my crippled bike and, in a fit of Laurent Fignon–inspired rage, lobbing it over a 20-foot embankment into the woods. I used to think it was slightly miraculous that I ever returned to ride in Salida. But I’ve come to realize that the real miracle is probably the fact that, in spite of clear evidence of my serious genetic complications, Jen eventually married me.

Vapor TrailThese days, cyclists pour into Salida expressly for the Monarch Crest Trail, which gets almost as many rides as Space Mountain over Labor Day weekend. But what the guys at Absolute Bikes will tell you—and what I’ve discovered in a decade of visits—is that the Crest might be the area’s top attraction, but it’s hardly the culmination of Salida riding. Isolated singletrack every bit as good as the Monarch Crest snakes across Chaffee County like a nerve network, endless fire and logging roads beckon to adventurous souls who care to poke around, and faint paths meander over 13,000-foot passes. In the years since that first trip down the Crest, I’ve returned to Salida annually, both to repeat that premiere descent in better form (and humor) and crash around on the seemingly infinite web of trails.

Five years ago, while contemplating this embarrassment of trails, Shawn Gillis, owner of Absolute, along with store mainstays Andrew Mesesan and Tom Purvis, hatched the plan for the Vapor Trail. “The course was the creation of Andrew, a sort of mad scientist of mountain biking,” recalls Purvis, the acting race director, explaining that the route has been refined over the years to accommodate the best stretches of trail. “He never felt that it was sacred or anything. It could be changed, as long as it was big.”

Vapor TrailMagnitude was no issue with the 2008 route, which Purvis says “was so good, we might just stick with it.” The course racked up 20,000 feet of elevation over 125 miles, including an hour-long hike-a-bike over the 12,400-foot shoulder of Granite Mountain, and took riders between 16 and almost 23 hours to complete. And the numbers barely hint at what is arguably the race’s most challenging aspect—tackling the first eight hours, including several of the most jagged, testing stretches, in the biting blackness of a Colorado night.

As soon as I heard about the Vapor Trail, I knew that given my ongoing narrative with Salida, I would eventually have to try it. But the decision wasn’t without trepidation. If I could flat four times in a gentle three-hour downhill coast, it was daunting to consider the havoc I could wreak in some 24 hours of endurance punishment.

Vapor TrailI AM A RELUCTANT AND TORTURED BIKE RACER. I feel more comfortable in the saddle than I do in a hot tub, and I blossom and brim in the heat of competition. But the day ahead of a race I turn edgy, temperamental, and phobic. That’s how it was in the final hours leading up to the Vapor Trail, sitting at the coffee shop adjoining Absolute Bikes with Jen and my training partner, Steve, trying to make an Americano last until the start gun. I had enumerated all the parts on my bike that could and would fail, and I contrived reasons why I shouldn’t race, from the gathering chill in the September air to the menacing buzz about the massive hike-a-bike section that had been added to the course. Steve and Jen had nodded philosophically. Then they escorted me to the start line.

Vapor TrailAfter the tumble around mile 20 and the ensuing wrong turn that had left me so exasperated, the anxieties had swelled again. But the fact is this: When the pedals begin to spin, the exertion siphons everything out of my head and I can finally relax and savor the sensations of riding. The whirr of gears; the idle murmurs of the rollout; the rising inner heat stoked by the effort. Once you’re moving, endurance racing becomes a mindset, and simple, physical toil can clear your head. So I pedaled on. Riding the draft of clear headspace, I regained my two erstwhile companions on the steady narrow-gauge rail route up the Chalk Creek drainage and left one of them spinning behind.

Several friends later told me how dull they found this section. For me, the constant grade and relatively smooth surface of the roads and trail allowed me to churn methodically through the night. At times, steep cliffs rose up on my left and a giant black chasm yawned away to the right. But in the fog of the darkest hours, I hardly even noticed. It’s a precious moment when life can be distilled to such simple, fundamental focus.

Vapor TrailMy reverie was shattered at the top of Tomichi Pass, which I reached by way of a rugged jeep road strewn with loose, skull-size boulders. This marked the start of the hike-a-bike, and when I looked upward I could just make out constellations high above. But the stars were faltering and stuttering; they were the headlamps of racers ahead of me. I groaned and set about clicking and stumbling upward. After an hour of dragging my bike like a carcass up the hillside, I reached the ridge and was greeted by darkness in every direction—that, and a stiff, cold wind. No need to look around; I rode off the other side.

NO MATTER HOW BRIGHT YOUR HEADLAMP, the longer you ride in the night, the more your eyes feel as if they’re filled with chalk. Dawn brought the relief of easier sight, as well as fresh energy. At Aid Station 2, a kind-faced man named Fixie Dave lavished riders with breakfast burritos at a pleasant camp cloaked in wood smoke. And though I knew I couldn’t stomach solid food, the backslapping reception and the celestial aroma of bacon—yes, it smelled that good—bolstered me.

And still the trails went up and down, grinding 9 miles over Old Monarch Pass to that fateful section of the Monarch Crest Trail. Had my history of flats haunted me here, atop the Continental Divide in blaring sunlight at mile 75, I might have given up the race and sat down and cried. Thankfully, my tires held.

I kept grinding on, feeling slower and number every mile, until I reached my crisis point.

Vapor TrailThere comes a decisive moment in every epic undertaking, when all the stress and exertion and fatigue boils over. It’s the point where I feel as if my body has finally crumbled. This time it hit just after I had shot down a leafy piece of singletrack along Starvation Creek, a descent I remember as a blur of yellowing foliage and creek water spuming under the knobs of my tires. It was mile 85, and a final 2,000-foot climb back up Poncha Creek Road to the Continental Divide awaited me, so I sat down to shed a few layers of clothing. And I didn’t get up.

After 15 minutes, one rider passed me; then a second. As I watched them go, I hazily realized I had a decision to make. Unlike all the day-to-day choices we face in life—Waffles or omelet? Spend or save? Hired or fired?—this choice was primal. Man versus nature. Mind versus body. It’s as close to the essence of life as you can get without jeopardizing it. And though I felt shattered, my head was intact. I climbed back on my bike and began slowly pistoning up the slope.

Forty hilly miles still remained, but I knew then I would pedal them all. Sixteen hours and 53 minutes after I set out, I coasted to a stop in approximately the same spot where I had started. Jen was waiting, and she dug her shoulder into me to keep me upright and help me off the bike. She poured me an ice-cold Diet Coke. Misery has never tasted so good. •