When people ask if I'm racing in the Grand Junction Off-Road—a grueling rocky sufferfest on Colorado's western slope offering 15, 30, and 40-mile routes—I answer them honestly.
"No, I'm 'racing' in it," I say, adding the rectifying air quotes.
Truth be told, when my editor proposed this idea six weeks ago, I'd put fewer miles on my mountain bike over five months than this race would throw in at me in a single day. Racing has never been my jam, and endurance comes to me about as naturally as flying.
This was obviously a terrible idea, so naturally I agreed. I may not be a racer, but I am a glutton for punishment.
With young kids and a metric crapload of responsibility, finishing the 30-mile course with 3,000 feet of climbing on seriously burly singletrack required me to shoehorn saddle time in between the realities of life.
That's how I found myself spending a fair number of evenings watching the clock approach midnight with my butt glued to a trainer while the kids slept in the next room over. Dirt rides came here and there, but the days approaching the race disappeared quicker than they added up.
Thankfully, this isn't the Epic Ride Off-Road series’ first rodeo, as their lineup includes three backcountry races across the southwest sandwiched between their 24 Hours of Old Pueblo in February and the Tour of the White Mountains in October. These events are what happen when endurance racing and a bike festival have a baby, and that baby's drunk uncle feeds it beer and dresses it in costumes. Looking over the event's schedule, my true calling rang out from a page filled with music and revelry:
Klunker Krit: 6pm. Downtown Grand Junction.
"Is this one of those 'not a race, just stupid people doing stupid things on bikes' type of things?" I asked Andy Suter, Epic Rides Sponsorship and Marketing Manager, to make sure I didn't accidentally enter another race-race.
"Yep, you've got the right impression about the Klunker Krit," Andy assured. With that, I packed roller skates and tube socks next to my race gear, which included a hydration pack, some Tabasco Slim Jims, and hot pink spandex—further proving I have no idea what I'm doing.
Minutes before the Klunker Krit, I laced up my roller skates and practiced riding a bike in them for the first time. "Are you nervous?" a friend asked in an oddly serious tone for someone wearing a cow costume with bourbon-dispensing teats.
"This is where I'm at home," I laughed. "But tomorrow's race makes me feel like I'm about to vomit."
"Well, I'm nervous," she admitted, proving that no one—not even boisterous bourbon bovines—are immune to the power of fear.
After a few stink-faced swigs and stinkfaces, we lined up next to dozens of like-minded misfits and tore around a downtown circuit paved with miles of smiles. As we jockeyed for position and wowed the crowd with the seriousness with which we took our silliness, it became clear that no matter what happened at the race, we all just won the hell out of the weekend.
With a few restless hours of sleep under my belt, I geared up for the race I'd been simultaneously awaiting and fearing. A last-minute decision led to me substituting any form of reasonable kit with a Johnny Cash tank top and denim shorts. It's hard to take a race, or anything, seriously while wearing jorts.
I finally slid into the crowd beneath a sign near the back that read, "Slow and steady still gets a glass of wine," just before the several-hundred strong gaggle of racers and "racers" took off. As it turned out, I wasn't the only one riding in denim.
The 30-mile route crawled into the mountains southwest of Grand Junction, and took riders along local favorites like Butterknife and Twist-N-Shout. This definitely isn't your typical XC racecourse that sends racers along endless loops of sanitized dirt roads. Instead, the entire course was filled with ledges, cactus, and sandstone slabs that dispensed equal measures of unrelenting traction and the blood-soaked sting of unforgiving rock.
Somewhere between the start of the race and the last aid station where the Hot Tomato pizzeria owners handed out calzones, inspired impromptu dance parties, and offered smile hand-ups to every rider, you realize this is so much more than a race.
It's that ride you and your friends spend weeks putting together just so you'll be able to talk about for years to come. From vein-popping pros down to jort-wearing amateurs struggling to finish, we basked in the beauty of communal suffering.
I rode alongside a 9-year-old girl who crushed the ride out of town, hike-a-biked up rock stairs with a rider celebrating her 50th birthday, and navigated Butterknife in front of a friendly pro out for his pre-ride (sans roller skates).
Crossing the finish line with a time best described as "leisurely to the point of coma," my trophy came in the form of a dirt-encrusted perma-grin I'd wear for days—a trophy handed out freely to every rider.
When the pros (whose racer designations don't need air quotes) set out on the 40-mile course, I joined the costumed calvary at the last aid station—the one 30 miles into the race just before the demoralizing climb out of the appropriately named Rough Canyon. To support the racers the best way I knew how, I helped fill water bottles and the Bourbon Bovine's whiskey bladder, drew phallic images in the dirt as directional markers, cobbled together a cowgirl costume, and discovered it takes less than three minutes to scare up a lasso in Grand Junction.
As the racers poured through, all but a few opted for water over beer. Dressed as pizza slices and cowgirls and whatever random stuff could be found on the floor, we cheered our hearts out for people who saw riding through a completely different lens than us. But that's this silly dirt passion of our—it can be anything to anyone.
Bonded only by our funny tan-lines and helmet hair, racers and "racers" alike basked in the aftermath of a ride to remember.