After fifteen years of downhill and enduro racing, I decided to branch out and try something new. I love riding bikes and thought, well, maybe the more you ride bikes, the more fun you have. So, after years of sprinting down rock gardens, I decided to check out the mountain biking endurance scene. There are a ton of events out there, each varying in length and conditions. Living in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, I decided to participate in a local race called Vapor Trail 125. Although it’s conveniently located 10 minutes from my house, it’s arguably—and inconveniently—one of the country's most challenging mountain bike races.
What makes Vapor Trail so hard? Well, there’s the 125-mile (~200 km) distance, the 17,000 ft (~5,200 m) of climbing through technical mountain passes, and the riding between 7,000 and 13,000 ft of elevation the entire time. Yet the real kicker is the fact that a lot of this takes place in the dark. Vapor Trail starts at 10:00 pm and racers ride through the night, many not finishing until late the next day—and some not finishing at all. Because of the mileage, pitch-black conditions, and the small group of riders that even dare to take on this beast of a race in the first place, you’re guaranteed to ride solo almost the entire time—talk about a real mind trip! Although this event seems impossible, the race supporters have your back with aid stations, cheer squads, and well-trained medical staff to help guide you along the way.
This year was particularly special because Vapor Trail established a duo category, designed to allow participants to split the distance with a partner. One person rides all night, covering 75 miles (120 km) and 12,000 ft (~3,700 m) of climbing; in the morning, the other rider takes over and finishes the race. My brother Ryan Gardner was visiting, and the duo category was our perfect introduction to this insane race. I decided to take the night portion because I had never done anything like this and wanted to get the authentic Vapor experience. Thinking back to my college days, I reminisced about staying up late and thought, if I can party all night, why shouldn't I ride my bike all night? Logical, right?
One major difficulty of the race is packing efficiently, both in terms of gear and food. The race is held at high elevation in the mountains in late August, which means it could snow while you’re out; even if it doesn't, all the riding above 10,000 ft (~3,000 m) may be near freezing. You need to fit a lot in your riding pack: warm clothes, rain gear, food, water, lights, tools, and anything else you might need on this massive wilderness adventure. However, the most challenging part of gear selection is choosing the right lights. Not many bike lights have the battery capacity to run straight from 10:00 pm to 6:00 am. Furthermore, due to the technical terrain, riders need both a headlamp and a bar light to see what obstacles lie ahead. If you run out of battery, you’re screwed.
So, what did I, a novice with no overnight experience, do? I called Lezyne and asked for the most powerful light they have: the Mega Drive 1800i with the Infinite Light Power Pack. I put this light on my bars and ran it all night alongside a secondary, smaller light I had mounted on my helmet for the trail riding portion of the race. I ran the 1800i on a medium-low setting for the gravel roads and a higher setting for trail riding, and it lasted me from 10:00 pm until the sun came up the next day. I highly recommend this light for any and all two-wheeled excursions. It’s both powerful and compact, so it doesn't weigh down your bike or pack, allowing you to bring as little as possible while having everything you need.
Besides lights, I also packed a Lezyne CO2 Blaster and cartridges, Super SV Multi-Tool, Patch Kit, Tubeless Plugs, Tubeless Power Lever XL, Flow Cage SL, Macro Easy GPS, and Classic Brass Bell to scare away all the unwanted forest friends. This gear proved essential to my success in the race.
The race went smoothly—I rode strong with no fatigue or mechanical issues and I cracked myself up most of the night as I delusionally ascended massive, rocky fire road climbs in the wee hours of the morning. Using multiple lights to brighten up the trail made the rugged terrain readable and rideable, and visiting the cheery aid station volunteers gave me an extra boost of energy throughout the race—that is, until around 5:30 am, when I stopped laughing, started to feel exhausted, and hit a pretty big wall. Luckily, a friend had recommended I pack a Red Bull for halfway through, so I sat atop the Canyon Creek descent at 12,600 feet (~3,800 m) high, drank my energy drink, and hustled down the hill for another 6 hours of riding.
So, what happens when a downhill/enduro girl goes rogue and does one of the most challenging endurance mountain bike races in the country? It turns out that with some serious training, smart packing, and the right tools, she can accomplish incredible things. I was the only woman to participate in the race this year, so my brother and I won the coed duo category by default. Regardless of placement, though, finishing this race was easily a highlight of my year, and I can't wait to come back and do it again.