My 2022 Bikepacking Triple Crown Challenge cumulative stats: (TD, CTR, AZTR)
- 34 days and 7 hours (16d19h + 6d12h + 10d23h)
- 4000 miles (2700 + 500 + 800)
- 345,000 ft elevation gain (170k + 75k + 100k)
“The triple crown challenge was dreamed up by bikepacker David Goldberg in 2012. It is to complete the three classic dirt bikepacking events in one calendar year: The Arizona Trail 750, Tour Divide and The Colorado Trail Race. This is a huge undertaking, both in terms of total time spent pedaling and especially managing the short recovery time between the events. Kurt Sandiforth was the first to complete the challenge in 2012 and set the benchmark for the fastest time. It is understood that all efforts should be undertaken as a part of the Grand Depart of each event. ITTs of all three are respectable (and still happily documented here), but not considered a full triple crown challenge completion.” http://www.bikepacking.net/triple-crown-of-bikepacking/
The bikepacking triple crown challenge is a simple concept but a serious commitment that is more intensive than it seems at first glance, or at least how it initially seemed to me. I had received caution from experienced bikepacking friends about the magnitude of the challenge, but once I had it in my head I really wanted to see it through.
I felt confident about the Tour Divide (TD) and Colorado Trail Race (CTR) as I’d toured the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route before and I’d completed CTR a few times. I felt less confident about the Arizona Trail Race (AZTR) because I’d attempted the full 800 mile distance in the fall of 2021, but scratched from the race 300 miles in. I expected the AZTR to be the most difficult of the three races and it was in the back of my mind all year.
I think the timing of races with new dates makes recovery between races a little easier than it was in 2012. Prior to 2021, the AZTR started in April, the TD in early June, and the CTR in late July. Now the TD starts in early June, CTR in mid August, and AZTR in mid/late October, leaving over a month between each race. However the fall AZT is measurably slower and arguably more difficult than the same route in the spring.
Each race has its own set of rules, but they are largely the same. Solo, self-supported, no caches, no drafting, no shortcuts. Only use resources on the route that are available to the public (bike shop or motel – okay, staying with a friend – not okay).
There were a few extra constraints I set up for myself: Same bike for all three races, singlespeed for all three races, and no mail caches or public AZT water caches. I wanted to carry everything necessary to complete the route under my own power. (I did mail a few unneeded layers home halfway through the TD).
A constraint I considered but decided against: same gear ratio for all three races. Definitely silly, but I couldn’t help but give it a thought. Racing Tour Divide would be painfully spinny on a gear that I’d consider for the other two races.
Since completing the triple crown challenge was my main goal, crossing the finish line was my primary objective for each race. While this may sound obvious, minimizing risk while still moving quickly is a balance, and I tried to make decisions that would keep me upright and moving consistently rather than taking chances to go faster. For example, I’ve learned that with a few hours of sleep I’ll cover more ground than pushing through with sleep deprivation. Trudging along while deprived of sleep is one of my least favorite feelings, not to mention it’s bad for the brain. So I told myself I’d stick to a consistent sleep routine, even if it was tempting to make a move and catch someone.
Tour Divide – 2700 miles
I set my bike up rigid for weight savings and pedaling efficiency. The route is mostly gravel/dirt roads and the need for a suspension fork is debatable. This is a stark contrast to the terrain on both the CT and AZT which are singletrack-heavy routes.
In my opinion, the Divide is not exactly a singlespeed-friendly route. There are long climbs and a lot of pedaly miles. This makes selecting a gear ratio tricky, because you don’t want to be spun out on the flat sections with an easy gear, but you also don’t want to have to walk too much on big climbs if your gear is too hard. I researched the setups and gear ratios of past successful singlespeed racers and settled on 32×16 for a nice even 2:1 ratio. After focusing on mostly singletrack riding for the last couple years using 32×20 or 22, this gearing was intimidating, especially on long climbs with a bikepacking load. But after a few weeks of training with that gear, I started to get used to it. As a wise bike mechanic once told me, “whatever gear you have, you just kinda ride it.”
Katie and I toured the route together in 2018 and now we were ready to give it another go individually at race pace. Training for the Divide featured longer rides on dirt with a heavy load, lots of climbing, and aerobars. I basically never run aerobars, but I wouldn’t race Tour Divide without them. The relief of taking the weight off of your hands is invaluable for a route of that length.
Notable training rides in the spring include: a hot lap on the Monumental Loop in March with 32×17 and aerobars. Then lots of rides around Moab in April including the White Rim, some bikerafting loops, and the Peaks and Plateaus route. In May I raced Pinyons and Pines in Flagstaff on 32×20. After that it was time to get serious and commit to that 16 tooth cog.
Packing gear for the Divide wasn’t too difficult after a spring of bikepacking and getting a gear list dialed (full gear list here). We exploded everything out of our van and packed up our bike boxes in the dirt at a campsite and then drove to Denver to fly to Calgary. Traveling to the Tour Divide was our first time flying with bikes, which was a bit nerve wracking.
The Race – June 10th, 2022
I’d received advice about not going out too fast on Tour Divide, which makes sense as a 2+ week long race. I tried to find that balance in the first few days, although it was tempting to push late into the night with how slow the miles went by in Canada and northern Montana due to the significant snow levels that season. Several passes required hiking for miles over deep snowpack. At one point when I found myself walking in deep post-holes that racers in front of me had created, I referenced my Garmin to figure out how many miles remained until the top of the pass. Wow, still three miles to walk to the top before I can ride again, I thought to myself. However I failed to consider the equally deep snow on the other side of the pass that would require three more miles of walking downhill before I could continue riding!
Eventually the passes were rideable, although the weather never really settled down. In 2018 on our tour of the route, we had consistent rain for the first week or so, but after that, not a drop. I told myself that by the time I got to the basin in Wyoming, it would be dry and warm. This was not the case in 2022. I experienced rain on all but one day of my race.
The route felt familiar after touring in 2018, although there were many miles I’d glanced over in my mind, so reaching a few different towns took longer than I expected. I settled into a routine for sleeping each night and tried to move efficiently. I slept indoors 3 nights, the rest I spent under the stars or under my tarp depending on the weather. I survived mostly off gas station food, I don’t recall sitting down for a meal aside from breakfast at Brush Mtn Lodge.
After almost 17 days, I arrived in Antelope Wells, NM (in a thunderstorm, which was fitting). Katie’s parents scooped me up and it felt like I slept for days following my finish. After Katie finished we headed up to Brush Mtn Lodge for some quality porch time.
After the Tour Divide my relationship with bikes started to feel unusual. Not only was I saying no to big summer rides my friends suggested, I hardly rode my bike before CTR. I wanted to recover as much as possible so I erred on the side of not riding enough rather than risking overtraining. Jumping back in too early can prolong the heavy fatigue, at least it has for me in the past. In hindsight I should’ve been moving more, even if it was just easy mountain bike rides.
Colorado Trail Race – 500 miles
Lack of riding was compounded by getting Covid in late July and the stress of our van engine failing on a drive back to Kansas. Instead of high elevation training in the San Juans like I’d hoped, we spent three weeks sick on the couch and waiting on a new van engine in Kansas during the heat of the summer. While I dealt with illness, I swapped the 16t cog for a 22t, replaced the rigid fork with a 130mm suspension fork, and got rid of those unsightly aerobars.
Our van was finally ready to go on Friday August 12th, so we picked it up from the shop and drove straight out to Denver. I spent Saturday shopping for food and packing my bike, then started the race at 4am Sunday morning. Any other year, I probably wouldn’t have lined up to race after having Covid a couple weeks earlier. But pushing back my start date would not be within the rules of the challenge, so I went for it. I’d completed the Colorado Trail before, so it’s safe to say I was a little over confident about the race and how fast I could go under the circumstances.
The Race – August 14th, 2022
My race started off well, I made it over Georgia Pass the first day and slept for a few hours on the descent. That was much further than I’d gone on day one in the past. Fairly early in the evening on day two I set up my tarp near treeline as I watched lightning flash on Searle Pass above me. I decided to try to sleep for an hour or two while I waited out the storm and spent the evening watching the clouds and listening for thunder, eventually forcing myself to keep moving over the pass. Weather like that makes it feel like much less of a race to me. Very quickly my priorities shift from moving fast to self-preservation.
After the adrenaline of the start of the race wore off, I felt a noticeable lack of confidence on exposed trail. Taking weeks off from riding bikes in the mountains had taken its toll on my comfort level on technical trails and I found myself walking sections that I’d ridden in the past. By the end of day two, I’d say I was pretty mentally checked out from the race. I recall getting caught by other racers and feeling no drive to try to keep up with them as they rode away. I almost felt like I was participating in a different event, finishing the route and staying on track for the Triple Crown was all I could muster.
The storms continued as usual during late summer in the Rockies, but I ended up catching some nice weather windows almost every day. I slept under the stars (or my tarp) every night of the race. I did my best to enjoy being out there and keep moving regardless of how slow I felt. The Colorado Trail is difficult, but so immensely beautiful. It’s definitely my favorite route of the Triple Crown.
After the race I was happy to have another event completed, but disappointed that I didn’t meet my time goal of under six days. I quickly forgot how lousy I felt out there and was hard on myself for not pushing harder. It’s easy to critique yourself after a week-long race, but I think this can turn into self-deprecation when you are more fatigued and not thinking clearly. I tried not to dwell on this for too long, after all I was still on track for my primary goal, and instead tried to focus on how I could recover and prepare for the AZTR differently. I’d learned that while the rest after a long race was important, keeping somewhat active was also a crucial component of being prepared for the next event. I still took 3-4 weeks off or very easy after CTR. But then ramped up hikes and bike rides 2-3 weeks out from the AZT.
Arizona Trail Race – 800 miles
I decided I needed to prepare for the AZT differently and try to focus on staying competitive even when large gaps form between me and other racers. It’s easy for me to lose focus out there and start to dawdle when no one is in sight and I’m moving slowly through the terrain. I’d raced the AZT300 in spring of 2021 (under a potato name alias, ha) and moved through the course relatively quickly with just a couple short naps. Overgrowth, trail washouts, and high temps in the fall of 2021 had me moving much slower and those time splits from the spring haunted me. Because the 800 course is so new, there were only a handful of previous times to reference for splits. For 2022, I mentally prepared myself for slower conditions and tried to keep the perspective of riding the full 800 miles (including getting a few hours of sleep every night), knowing that I couldn’t match my time for the 300 when I was moving fast and light.
I attributed my scratch on the AZTR in 2021 to overheating, running out of water, and lack of concrete goals. I spent the weeks leading up to that race foolishly chasing elevation acclimation in Flagstaff, when I really should have been heat acclimating. This year we spent most of September in Moab so Katie could prepare for and race the Utah Mixed Epic. Then we hung around Moab in October to bike, hike, and paddle before traveling down to Picketpost trailhead outside of Phoenix. There I was able to spend several days living in the heat and riding chunky AZT goodness.
The AZT features a good amount of hike-a-bike for me, along with the mandatory 21-mile hike across the Grand Canyon. As someone who doesn’t hike much, this was something I knew I needed to work on. I strapped my bike to my backpack a few times to get a feel for how I wanted things to be situated. I did more hiking than I normally would, including an overnight backpacking trip and some kettlebell weighted day hikes. The Grand Canyon hike was still one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.
During the year, there was discussion among my friends about avoiding the highway up Mt Lemmon and riding a dirt alternate instead. This was not a new idea, I’d seen Scott Morris write about completing this feat in 2008. http://topofusion.com/diary/2008/07/05/climb-or-die-complete/ The AZTR race route follows the Arizona Trail to Molino Basin, up to Prison Camp, then diverts onto the paved highway to avoid a wilderness area where bikes aren’t allowed. According to the Arizona Trail Association website (which is a separate entity from the bikepacking race), there is an AZT wilderness alternate route up Mt Lemmon which mostly follows the Lemmon Drop singletrack trails, just in reverse. (The “Lemmon Drop” is a classic all-day shuttle ride from the top of Mt Lemmon down to Tucson. It’s a 29 mile ride with 9000’ descending and 3000’ climbing.)
When prompted about this alternate route, race organizer John Schilling was amused but didn’t think it was a smart addition to the race course. According to various people in the community, this was a silly idea and way too hard. “We’ve always done it this way” seemed to be a common response. But unrest grew as my friends and I sat in our little echo chamber discussing how crazy it was that it was required to strap a bike to your back and hike across the Grand Canyon, but climbing Mt Lemmon on singletrack was a step too far. Thus, a lighthearted mutiny was formed and we decided to take the dirt route up Lemmon.
I talked with John a few times prior to the race about this topic. He assured me that if I took the alternate, he’d recognize my ride as a completion of the race (it’s much slower and more difficult than taking the pavement and it’s signed AZT singletrack), but he wasn’t ready to force everyone onto the dirt. I spent some time prior to the race preparing myself mentally for this addition, knowing that if I would fall behind any racers that stuck to the official race route up the highway.
The Race – October 20th, 2022
On the first couple days of the race this year, it was warm but I never got as overheated as I did in 2021 and I think heat acclimation played an important role. I also had a better mindset about my pace and I allowed myself to take breaks in the shade. I made sure I carried enough water (8L at times!) to avoid running out.
The Lemmon Pusch, as it has since been dubbed, was everything I’d hoped it would be. I dropped into Molino Basin with Johnny Price after dark and as we crossed the highway to start up Bug Springs trail, I noted the significance of our push into the unknown. “You know, there are probably several people excitedly watching our dots who know what we’re about to do.” We laughed and he set off at a faster pace into the night. Unfortunately a few minutes earlier I had looked down to see that one of my pedal spindles was missing a pedal. Backtracked on the trail and found the missing pieces, but I was not optimistic about a trailside fix. I spent a few minutes feeling sorry for myself and frustrated because I knew it was my own fault that this had happened. I’d pulled my pedals apart a few days before the race to put fresh grease inside and obviously I hadn’t properly torqued them when reassembling.
After I finished my pity party, I started to think through my options. It was 9pm and I was just a few miles outside of Tucson, I could coast down the highway and find a bike shop the next morning, but it would likely cost me 12+ hours to make that detour. Then I remembered a post on the AZTR facebook page about a new bike shop opening in Summerhaven, on top of Mt Lemmon. I decided to press on, assuming that shop would have some kind of pedal. I took some pictures of my predicament, but decided to wait to post them until I’d worked out a solution myself.
Missing a pedal for the Lemmon Pusch wasn’t much of a disadvantage, it’s a lot of hike-a-bike up Bug Springs, Green Mountain, Incinerator Ridge, Butterfly, and Crystal Spring trails. When the bike shop opened in the morning I called to inquire about pedals. They didn’t have anything, but the owner was making a trip into Tucson that morning and would return with pedals for me to purchase that afternoon. Woohoo! I yelled into the foggy morning. I wouldn’t have to pedal on a bare spindle all the way to Phoenix like my friend Bodhi did last year.
I spent about 14 hours getting up to Summerhaven along the 20.5 mile alternate, in addition to 4 hours stopped for sleep somewhere along Green Mountain trail. I rolled up to the tiny bike shop in the afternoon and bought my brand new XT pedals. They felt amazing after propping my foot on my spindle for the last several hours. I bought a pile of food at the Summerhaven store and waited in line surrounded by tourists who had no idea why I looked so dirty and exhausted. I was a bit delirious and definitely tired, but I was also stoked that I’d made it up on dirt. Johnny got to the top first and was already headed down Oracle Ridge, so I set off to chase him down.
I decided to avoid the public water caches on the AZT all together during my race, which wasn’t difficult with a little research on other water sources. The use of water caches is discouraged by the AZTR organizer, as it potentially leaves hikers without water they need. Here’s a great resource on alternate sources that pulls hiker updates from the hiker app FarOut (Guthook): https://aztwaterreport.org/ Hot days on the southern end were punctuated with sub-freezing temps up north. The extra bulk from warm layers that I’d hauled up all the climbs finally became useful once I climbed onto the Mogollon Rim and things cooled down quickly. I spent a few nights curled up in my 35 degree bag with 20 degree lows, and rode many hours in every layer I had. I picked up some thick leather work gloves in Flagstaff which were a big improvement from my wool liners with waterproof shells for those last few cold days.
I was definitely more focused for the duration of the race than I have been in the past. I had a good race with Johnny that kept me motivated. But by the time I got to the Grand Canyon I think there was a 12+ hour gap between me and anyone else so the motivation to “race” through the canyon dwindled and I was mostly checked out as I hiked. Being on the clock for over 10 days can really wear on you, especially at the end of the season with short days and long, cold nights. On the last night of my race, I felt like I’d ridden the trail before, it was strangely familiar like I knew what was coming. This was the closest I came to any sort of hallucination. That happened after pushing through the night to hike through the canyon and then sleeping only one hour the final night in a push to get a 10 day finish, even if it was 10 days and 23 hours. I finished just before sunrise, descending the final switchbacks in the early morning light.
Post Triple Crown recovery
I’ve heard different formulas thrown around for recovery time after a multi-day effort like these races. Whether it’s one week per day of racing or one day per hour of sleep lost, it works out to be longer than you’d expect to fully recover and feel like you can go 100% on the bike.
There is a wide variety of approaches to recovery after multi-day efforts, some people start doing easy spins within days of finishing, some seem to hop right back into training for the next event. I tend to embrace the opportunity to be lazy and I’ll spend a couple weeks off the bike not doing much besides eating and resting. It’s also difficult for me to focus on anything mentally.
In 2019 I had my first experience with this level of fatigue. I finished CTR on August 2nd, then returned to work for less than a week before traveling back to Colorado to race the Leadville 100 on August 10th (couldn’t say no to participating in this race for free through an opportunity at Garmin). About a week after Leadville I attempted to return to my normal routine of bike commuting to work, lunch rides, and some longer weekend rides. Towards the end of August I felt like I could not focus, I struggled to get through the day without a nap, and I wondered what was wrong with me. I eventually realized that recovery from CTR could take over a month, rather than just a few days as I was used to with single-day events. A proper dose of food and long sleeps got me back on track, it just took some intention to focus on recovery when I realized that this deep fatigue was still there weeks later.
There is a sort of depression that always hits me after a significant effort. I remember reading about a big high and a deep low on the everesting website back in 2016 when I was preparing for that challenge. I remember being grateful that I’d read that bit of advice because when the endorphins wear off and the fatigue sets in, the mind easily slips into a dark place. “Why did you spend your time doing that? Nobody cares. Someone else did it faster. You look ridiculous doing that many laps on a 200ft hill in Kansas.” Okay maybe that last one is justified, but seriously, the self-doubt and negative thoughts can be overwhelming in the days after these efforts. Having another event on the calendar to look forward to can help, but it can also be stress inducing if you feel like you need to be training when it’s all you can do to get out of bed. Having fun activities planned that aren’t physically demanding can help provide motivation for getting off the couch and reminding yourself that there is more to life than ultra-endurance. In the case of the Triple Crown Challenge, you’re committed to those next two races on the calendar after the first one is complete.
When I finished the Triple Crown, I had an immediate feeling of accomplishment and relief. This was shortly replaced by feelings of how I could have improved my times. My time is a week (!) slower than Jay Petervary’s cumulative time for the challenge. Comparison is the thief of joy. Here I was having just successfully achieved my year long goal despite some setbacks, and I wasn’t satisfied. I then spent a good portion of the winter feeling uninspired and a bit depressed. I avoided Strava because it just made me feel lazy or like I was falling behind. Looking back now, I can see how I was in a low mental state. I’ve since had a chance to process this and I feel good about what I accomplished last year.
About 4 months after AZTR, I finally felt like doing more than just casual rides again. This meant that for me, the triple crown was a year long ordeal with training starting in earnest last spring to recovery until this spring. Now I’m motivated to ride and regain fitness to have fun riding and racing. I have a noticeable mental clarity and perspective compared to the last several months.
Three years ago we left our normal jobs and sold our house to live in a van. This has allowed us to spend more time doing what we love. I had 34 days on the race clock for the triple crown last year, but that doesn’t include the days on either end that are spent traveling to, preparing for, and recovering from these efforts. This isn’t something most people can attempt with a traditional job. A few years ago it was a pipedream for me to participate in more than one of these races that involved weeks away from work. Now as I’m making a fraction of my old paycheck and living in a van, it is a reality. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I can’t gloss over the fact that the triple crown and bikepack racing in general is a huge time commitment and I’m very privileged to have the time and means to do it.
I try to set goals that aren’t dependent on others. In bikepack racing this is easier for me, it often feels more like me vs the route rather than me vs the person next to me. Partly because things usually get spread out enough that you’re not chasing someone up every climb, but also because just reaching the finish line for these events is an endeavor. The goal of completing the challenge fueled me during low points in each race, I never considered quitting a race this year.
If I could go back in time, would I do it again? Yes, it was a valuable experience and a true challenge. I enjoyed the planning and execution of those plans. I knew I could complete each of the races individually, but I wasn’t sure if I could string them together, and that made it intriguing.
Will I do it again? No, once was enough.
Biggest takeaway from the experience? The fatigue from these races is no joke and finding a balance between recovery and training isn’t easy.
I think the bikepacking triple crown challenge is worth pursuing, if one is aware of the side effects.