By Dave Fotsch — I should’ve known better. It was day three of the Fitzgerald’s Joyride bike-packing race in southeast Idaho. I had just completed the second massive climb of the day and was starting down the other side when I encountered another rider. Brian Rinck stopped, and we chatted for a while, as you do when you finally see another rider. Then I said, “so you must be going clockwise.” He looked at me quizzically and said, “No, I’m going counterclockwise.” Though most go counterclockwise, the course allows riders to go in either direction.
“What? I’m going counterclockwise!”
“No, dude, if you continue down this trail, you’ll wind up back at the market.”
The market he was referring to was Bailey’s Market, a vital resupply point at the bottom of the biggest climb of the entire route, some 3,000 feet. I’d already done that climb and suddenly realized I’d done it twice.
“I’m so confused,” I said with genuine concern.
I had been having trouble with my navigation the entire trip. While I had loaded the route into my Garmin Etrex 30, I couldn’t get the display to work right. I tried to follow the line, but it wasn’t giving me mileage or other vital information. Plus, the route crisscrosses itself in the middle, and I had already spent extra time and mileage going the wrong way many times.
It was getting late. I followed Brian up the track back to the summit and down the other side. He dropped me because I descended like an old lady. I’m cautious descending after the sun goes down. Five broken collar bones and numerous other injuries over the years will do that to you.
Fortunately, I came upon a couple of other riders, Peter Yerger, and Al Meder, who had been behind me. With all my navigational errors, they could’ve passed me anywhere. One of them was having trouble with the electronic derailleur on his bike. Having resolved the problem, they led me into Soda Springs. I was exhausted. There was no way I was going to try and find a camp spot and sleep in the cold. Only one of the two motels in town had a room. It didn’t matter that it was $87. I was staying there. At the Maverik station, I bought two 32-ounce Budweisers and went to my room. After a shower, I sat on the bed and drank the beers contemplating whether I could go on. I was so tired I couldn’t figure out the TV remote. Then I passed out.
I had screwed up badly. After completing the big climb out of Bailey’s Market and going down the other side, I stopped for food at a trail intersection. The Garmin indicated I needed to go up a hill when I got back on my bike. Intuitively, I thought I should be dropping into Soda Springs. I had no cell service to check my intuition, but Garmin knows best, right? I didn’t realize that I was climbing the hill I had just come down.
I had come into the race about as unprepared as I had ever been. The original plan had been to do the Smoke ‘n Fire 400 that starts and ends in Boise. True to its name, the race was altered by the all-too-common summer wildfires. The fires and smoke closed the route north of Ketchum, forcing organizers to change the course, making it an out-and-back along the northern part of the route from Boise to Redfish Lake. The air quality was grim even on the altered path. The last time I’d done Smoke ‘n Fire was five years ago when wildfire had forced organizers to make it an out and back along the southern part of the route. I didn’t want to do that again. The attraction this year was the opportunity to make the entire loop.
Fitzgerald’s Joyride, which started three days after Smoke ‘n Fire, was in a part of the state essentially free from wildfire smoke. I had friends doing the race, so I changed my plans at the last minute and caught a ride to Idaho Falls with Louie Konkol. Louie shared some of his route beta. That’s all the research I did, outside of downloading the course into my Garmin.
With my Garmin failing to give me mileage without switching between screens, I wasn’t entirely sure where I was at any given time, even as I tracked my progress on my Apple Watch. I didn’t know where the big climbs were or how long they would be. I only knew where I could resupply and get water. If I could cover at least a hundred miles a day I’d still have a ride home.
At an informal racer gathering the night before the race started, I told Boisean Clint Boltz that he was my backup ride home. Louie, who had done the race the year before, was determined to finish in three days. I couldn’t do that. Louie would be on his way home while I was still churning out the miles.
The racers gathered in the chilly morning air in the parking lot of Fitzgerald’s bike shop in Idaho Falls. The Fitzgerald crew was kind enough to have some snacks and, most importantly, coffee waiting for us. Race organizer, Kevin Emery, called everyone around for a brief talk before the start at eight o’clock. As with most of these races, there are no entry fees or prizes, though Kevin offered the winner a bag of Idaho potatoes. Self-support means finding your own food and water, though Kevin said he might pop up from time to time with a little ‘trail magic.’ Otherwise, you’re on your own in bike-packing races.
Without much fanfare, we rolled out on pavement heading south into farmlands and the nearby mountains. We shed layers as the day warmed up.
In races like this, you tend to find ‘your people,’ the ones who ride at your speed. After passing some and being passed by others, I was mostly on pace with Clint Boltz and Cody Heiner, both from Boise. I appreciate Clint correcting me as I got off course multiple times, a theme that resonated throughout the race. We decided to ride a few more miles together in the dark at a late-night dinner stop in Lava Hot Springs before collapsing exhausted into our sleeping bags. Our impromptu camp was a cow patty-splattered wide spot on the side of the road where someone had mowed down the tall thistle plants. We had covered 111 miles.
Cody was the first up the following day. The noise of him packing was my cue to get up and go, no matter how tired I was. It was about 6:00 a.m. Slowly we climbed the four miles to a summit that would’ve been a much better camp spot if only we had the energy to get there the night before. From there, it was a fun descent into the Gentile Valley, the nearly full moon and Jupiter still visible on the horizon.
I diverted off Cleveland Road unintentionally into the tiny town of Thatcher. I got a sighting of another rider going the other way. I think it was Jackson Long who ultimately won the race. I waved, but he didn’t. I sat on the Thatcher schoolhouse steps and had a snack. This town is one of the cross-over points on the route, where clockwise and counterclockwise paths converge. I had to backtrack less than a mile to get back on course.
One of the promises of this ride was the possibility of hot springs soaks at Lava Hot Springs and Maple Grove Hot Springs. Lava was out of the question because I got there so late. Maple Grove was hosting a special event and wasn’t open to the public. At this point, I had been leap-frogging with Brian Charette, who though faster than me, was on a more leisurely pace, stopping frequently to, uh, enjoy mother nature, shall we say? Regretfully, Brian and I filled our water bottles, gnawed on energy bars, and moved on. We had the big city of Preston to visit!
Preston, Idaho, is famous for being the setting of the cult favorite movie Napoleon Dynamite, and that is all. The route intentionally passed the iconic house featured in the movie, though I missed it because I was too concerned about missing turns on the way into town. I was focusing on my Garmin and not the scenery. I caught up with Clint and Cody again, though we were at different fast-food restaurants.
The southern part of the route is flat and largely paved. It makes for fast travel, even if it isn’t as interesting. All around us was farmland. It’s a wide-open valley ringed by distant mountains. By 4:30 Sunday afternoon, we were at the turnaround point in Logan, Utah, taking selfies in front of Joyride Cycles. Nearby was a Mexican restaurant. I have a philosophy about eating on these kinds of adventures. When you have the opportunity for a sit-down meal, take it. You can only eat so many Clif Bars before you’re sick of them.
La Tormenta translates to The Storm, but to us, the restaurant’s name was The Torment. It offers genuine Mexican cuisine prepared by Mexicans, who hardly spoke English. While well-meaning, the cute teenage girls taking orders behind the counter couldn’t understand what we wanted. We were each asking for a meal to eat in, and bean and cheese burritos to-go. When the first bean and cheese burrito came out on a plate, Cody, who had done his mission in Ecuador, stepped in with his limited Spanish to try and explain. Eventually, we all got what we had ordered, and after a bit of a wait, our burritos to-go.
We made good time on the paved roads as the sun dropped in the sky. I got lost in Smithfield. I didn’t hear Clint yelling at me, and then I couldn’t figure out where he and Cody had gone. I wasted precious time going back and forth over the same roads until I found my way back onto the route. Damn you, Garmin! This getting lost thing was getting old. If only that had been the end of it.
It was nearly 8:00 p.m. when we rolled into Richmond. Needing a boost, we drank cups of strong gas station coffee. There had been foolish talk of trying to push onto Soda Springs, still some 90 miles away. I don’t mind riding in the dark, especially now that I have good lights, but my lights would long outlast my legs. We had already covered about a hundred miles at that point, so we lowered our expectations and targeted the Albert Moser campground only about 20 miles off in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. We pulled into the campground late. It was nice to have a decent place to pitch a tent and a pit toilet! I had covered about 130 miles, more than my riding companions because of my wayward ways.
We awoke early again on Monday. Cody and Clint were packed and ready to go before me. I wanted to use the pit toilet before I left the campground. “I’ll see you down the road,” I said as I grabbed my toilet paper and A&D ointment and headed to the loo. That was a fateful mistake.
It’s not unusual to be tired and not thinking clearly after pounding out hundreds of miles in a couple of days. Well, I sure could’ve used a cup of gas station coffee that morning. From the campground, I turned left when I should’ve turned right. I thought things were going well as I cruised downhill. The road changed from gravel to pavement. Then I saw two things that made me slam on the brakes. A dead raccoon and a flashing sign for a nearby cabin. “%$&*!” I screamed to myself. “I went the wrong way!”
Last night, I’d seen that sign and the dead raccoon as we climbed to the campground. The same road looks so different in the daylight.
There was only one thing to do – turn around. I’d only gone down the road about a mile and a half, but I had to reclaim the distance and elevation I’d lost before I could even start to catch up with my companions. I was hoping to join them on our second pass by Maple Grove Hot Springs, but sadly never saw them again.
I followed the Birch Creek drainage into Mink Creek and picked up Highway 36 for a few miles before the turn-off to Maple Grove Hot Springs. As I was dropping into the Bear Creek drainage, I encountered a father and son from Utah. They were only doing part of the route, having started in Logan. The father, who was closer to my age, told me they had stayed in one of the cabins at Maple Grove.
“I don’t know when they clean the rooms,” he said. “But the door is open, and there are wristbands for the hot springs.”
That’s all I needed to hear. I was planning on soaking anyway. I was filthy from two days of dust and sunscreen. I eagerly covered the few miles to the hot springs. Just as he said, the cabin was open. I leaned my bike against the picnic table outside and got ready to soak. Clint and Cody were nowhere around. They later told me the place was closed when they got there. First, I went into the changing room and showered the grime off my body before getting into the big pool behind the main building.
A young woman was soaking nearby. I asked her if this was as hot as the pools get. She said there’s an even hotter pool close to the river. I gathered up my dirty clothes and headed that way. There I found two lovely middle-aged women, Linda, and Sondra. We engaged in some pleasant conversation, playing a guessing game, trying to figure out where we were from. I let the hot water purge my aching body of all the abuse it had suffered over the past few days while Sondra performed provocative stretches on the side of the pool.
Sufficiently soaked, I bid farewell to my newfound friends and returned to the cabin where I changed into a clean kit for the first time since Saturday, ate, and packed up to leave. The proprietor came around the corner just as I was zipping closed the last bag.
“I thought you guys already left.” I guess all cyclists look alike. “Oh yeah, it’s a long story,” I lied. “But I’m out of here now. Thanks for your hospitality.” I smiled knowingly to myself and hit the road.
I passed through Thatcher again, this time going the right way, and pedaled to Bailey’s Market, where I feasted on Chili Cheese Fritos and Pepsi from the soda fountain. I topped off my water bottles and started what everyone said was the biggest climb of the route. It was as hot as it had been the entire weekend. It should be no surprise that there were a few wrong turns before the summit and lots of hike-a-bike sections. From the top, I dropped down to the other side. And then the stupidity happened.
I awoke at six Tuesday morning with a hangover. I was still out of sorts from being such an idiot the day before. There were roughly a hundred miles between me and the finish in Idaho Falls. The forecast called for overcast skies with a chance of rain. I texted my wife and told her I wasn’t sure I could go on. She offered to come and pick me up if I couldn’t go on. My friend Louie, who had finished the day before and spent the night in Idaho Falls, texted and offered to pick me up on his way home. I had options.
My ass hurt from the worsening saddle sores. Eventually, I resolved to give it a go. I made some really bad motel room coffee and started packing up. There was a lovely little café in town that opened at seven. I knew I’d feel better with a good meal in my belly.
Peter and Al were already there when I walked in. I ordered one of my favorite biking breakfasts, biscuits, and gravy with eggs over easy and lots of coffee. The three of us chatted about our adventures, past and present. I told the story of my stupidity the day before. They nodded, wondering what kind of joker was sitting across from them. They had ordered grilled cheese sandwiches to eat later. Brilliant, I thought, but I didn’t order one myself.
Peter, Al, and I rode out of town on a recreational trail that led to gravel roads on the relatively flat area south of the massive Blackfoot reservoir. We passed between a pair of cinder cones called China Cap and China Hat. From there, the route turned into the Caribou Mountains and more climbs.
For the first time in four days on the trail, my Garmin was giving me the information I needed all on one screen. I don’t know what I did to get it to display that way, but I sure wasn’t going to change anything. Peter and Al steadily pulled away from me until they stopped to eat their grilled cheese sandwiches. I was on a mission and told them I would keep going. I put earbuds in and cranked up the tunes. Head down; I pressed onward.
It was windy and cool, but the rain mostly held off until late in the day. With sporadic cell service, I got a message from Clint, who told me he wouldn’t be able to wait for me because he needed to get home. He had to work the following day at six in the morning. This news gave me something to think about as the miles added up. I had the rest of the week off, so I could probably take the Salt Lake Express shuttle back to Boise.
There are no resupply points on this final stretch. I still had plenty of nutrition onboard, so I wasn’t worried about that, but water became an issue late in the day. According to Louie’s beta, there were a couple of places where I could get water. I never saw the spring water pipe on Brockman Road (mile 366), but I stopped at Willow Creek, about 15 miles from the finish, and filtered enough water to fill two bottles. And then the rain started, light at first and heavier as I approached the finish.
The hills were unrelenting, and I cursed Kevin Emery. Wind turbines on surrounding hills spun in the increasing winds. I got to the top of the final climb and was relieved to see pavement leading into Idaho Falls. With less than ten miles to go, I tucked into my drops and flew toward Idaho Falls in light rain.
Once the road flattened out, I pedaled furiously to get to the finish. At a stop light, I turned around only to see Peter and Al. I had probably given them time to catch up with me at the water stop. Jokingly, I asked them, “Hey, are you guys following me?” We rode together to Fitzgerald’s, where I was surprised to find Clint. He had been texting Louie and decided to wait for me, which was a huge relief.
As with most of these events, the end was anticlimactic. We took some congratulatory photos and then bid each other farewell. Clint helped me load my bike onto the car, and we hit the road.
I’d done it. With minimal training and no clue about what the route would throw at me, I had completed Fitzgerald’s Joyride. I didn’t die. I was tired and sore but felt a sense of accomplishment.
Every ride provides me with lessons, and this was no different. There’s a saying Louie is fond of sharing with me. You pack your fears. I had many fears because my bike was heavy, tipping the scales at 50+ pounds. On top of that, I wore a Camelback with two liters of water. I carried too much nutrition because I came home with some of it. My gear isn’t the lightest available. I took an extra kit when the faster riders get by with what they’re wearing. There is room for improvement.
And honestly, now that I’ve done the Fitz-Joy, I realize it would be possible to do this ride without any camping gear if you don’t mind riding only about a hundred miles a day. You could easily stay in a motel room in Lava Hot Springs, Logan, UT, and Soda Springs. It is possible to do the race on a ‘credit card tour.’ Just add food and water along the way.
I was the oldest registered participant in the event at age 64, which took a toll on my body. For days after the ride, I suffered numbness in my hands and feet. I had open wounds on my butt from the saddle rubbing me raw, despite regular applications of A&D ointment. Weeks later, the skin on my hands peeled despite having worn gloves.
These races are hard, but that is why we do them. If you don’t do hard things, you’ll never know what you can do. I love seeing new landscapes, even through tired eyes. I love the idea of being self-supported and the challenge of finding food and water. Though I might complain about it at the time, I love climbing hills and the sense of accomplishment at reaching the top. And who doesn’t love the free ride down the other side?
Completing an endurance event puts you in an exclusive group even if you don’t win. It’s tangible, real, and hurts, but it gets better, especially once you’ve completed a race. Most folks have more sense than to push themselves to extremes. And when people ask me why I do these races, the only answer I can come up with is not unlike the answer mountain climbers give when presented with the same question. We do it because it’s there. I can think of very few experiences in life that provide you with the challenges of an endurance race.
Will I do another race? Probably, I don’t know. I’ll have to see what comes along. I’m not getting any younger, so there is a finite window for challenging myself this way. I might also refocus on the bike touring that first got me into this crazy sport, taking a slower pace and spending more time smelling the roses. The one thing I know is that I will continue exploring by bicycle. It is the most rewarding thing I do.