SHERIDAN — It’s billed as “a group of friends who show up to ride on a given day” — which might be a bit of an understatement.
For most people, a friendly group bike ride means tootling around town on cruisers or maybe a fast spin to Big Horn and back or some singletrack in the Bighorn Mountains.
But the friendly group ride that Big Horn resident Aaron Denberg has shown up for two years in a row has been a little more intense.
It’s called the Arizona Trail Race.
It’s 750 miles long, starting at the Mexican border, winding to heights of 9,000 feet, and ending — after hiking with a bike strapped on your back into the Grand Canyon and out — at the Utah border.
And it’s a bikepackers dream.
But there’s nothing official about it because then there would have to be fees, permits, liability and prizes, Denberg said. Each year, 50 to 100 bikepackers, people who essentially backpack on a bike, show up at the Mexican border on a certain day in early April and ride 750 miles of mountain bike trail as quickly as they can.
They sleep, a little. They eat, a lot.
“It’s important to be fit, but you really have to have the determination and the will power because so many things go wrong, so many obstacles you didn’t expect crop up in your path, and if you don’t have the will power to overcome them, it’s just too easy to stop because you’re cold, and tired, and hungry,” Denberg said. “If you do stop, you regret it for the whole year; you have to think about it all year long.”
Evolution to pushing the limits
This year, Denberg completed the Arizona Trail Race in a little more than eight days, the second fastest time in the group for the year and the third fastest time in the race’s five-year history.
He carried a gallon of water, 8,000 calories of food, a sleeping bag, a bivy bag, some tools and spare parts and a few pieces of extra clothing with a goal of 30 pounds or less packed into bike handlebar and frame bags and a small camelback. He rode a hard-tail bike that weighed 23 pounds.
Next year, he hopes to pack even less and go even faster, but, at the end of it all, the race is less about being a race and more about being a chance to get on a bike and get into stunning desert wilderness in a challenge against only one person: yourself.
“My own personal theory is we’ve had so many couple million years of evolution where we had to do long migrations and maybe chase after animals for food or maybe flee predators or flee the climate. So, I really think it’s in our genes to do these huge, multi-day things. I think it’s probably something we did a lot over the last couple million years just to survive, but that’s just my own theory,” Denberg said.
Actually, the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall supports the theory. It says humans have adapted to run long distances because of persistence hunting. McDougall points to several unique physical characteristics to support his thesis including sweat glands and a special muscle called the nuchal muscle that holds human necks stiff when they run and that is absent in other mammals.
Evolved or not, the fact remains that there are certain humans who like to push the limits and Denberg, a patent attorney by trade, is one of them.
Like going out to sea
Denberg discovered the Arizona Trail Race online when he was researching ultra running events. He had done some bike touring with 100-120 mile days, but the idea of a mountain bike race across an entire state with a stop to hike the bike into the Grand Canyon and out (since the Grand Canyon is a wildernesss area, mountain bike riding is not allowed to preserve its pristine wildernesss) spoke to his spirit of adventure.
His first year, he packed too much stuff and his bike irreparably broke down on the north rim of the Grand Canyon just 80 miles shy of the finish line. As he trained over this last winter, primarily with skate skiing at Sibley Lake, he thought about how he could pair down his gear and push himself just a little more.
This year, he started with the group at 7 a.m. on April 11, rode 80 miles, had some problems with the heat and decided to start over two days later. He rode through the night and slept two, three, maybe four hours at a time when the morning began to bring more warmth.
He rode and rode and rode, enjoying the sight of Common Poorwill (birds that sit on the trail at night jumping at bugs and not jumping out of the way of bikes until the last second), tiny spiders with glowing blue neon eyes (the reflection of bike and helmet lights), giant scorpions, and plenty of rattlesnakes, gila monsters, waterfowl, elk, deer and javelinas.
He ate and ate and ate, consuming 5,000 calories per day but burning 9,000.
“You just can’t replace them all until you’re done,” Denberg said. “Anytime anybody gets to a town, it’s just a gorge fest. You’re just so hungry, and your stomach can take in so much food, so for people who love to eat, this is a great sport.”
He had nightmares about taking off his front wheel to hike into the Grand Canyon with his bike strapped on his back and accidentally knocking the wheel over the edge and watching it bounce down, down, down — but thankfully that didn’t happen.
Ultimately, he finished. And he finished well.
Then he drove home — “It feels like such a miracle to be in a car going so fast in such comfort,” he said — with plans to maybe try to complete the bikepacking “Triple Crown” this year with the Continental Divide race in June and the Colorado Trail in August. But first, a good meal, a nice bed and a kiss from his wife, Sarah Wallick, who tracked his progress online and anxiously awaited the return of her adventurer.
“Everybody should try it. It’s an awesome adventure,” Denberg said. “I felt like I was going to sea in a small boat, just cause you’re so far out there.”