John Stamstad is one of those guys whom followers talk of in whispers of awe, and myth.
A living legend of the mountain bike scene, Stamstad, a three-time winner of Alaska’s 320-mile Iditasport Extreme race, and member of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, is famous for his borderline ridiculous feats of endurance and ability to make any route, no matter how long or wild, fair game by bike or foot. It is with guys like him in mind that mountain climbers say they bother to scale peaks “because they are there.”
So in 1999 when Stamstad rode the length of the United States unassisted, following the spine of the Rockies from Montana to New Mexico, the mountain biking world took notice.
“I remember reading about him in Outside Magazine, in 1999,” said Kent Peterson. “Stamstad was the first guy to have that idea, ‘how fast can I do this?'”
He covered the 2,465 miles of remote backcountry in 19 days, at almost 135 miles a day. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and it didn’t take long for the hardiest and most adventurous mountainbikers from around the world to get together for a crack at the Stamstad legend.
In 2003, seven brave souls took part in the first organized Great Divide Mountain Bike Race. Less than half of them finished.
More than just a crazy challenge for extreme sports junkies, the race had its roots in a little known part of American history.
“You see, the west was settled, by and large, in the late 1800s,” Peterson told The Reporter, sitting in his second home, The Bicycle Center, where he works in downtown Issaquah. “That time coincided with the advent of the bicycle. The US Cavalry had a bicycle division. You think of a bike versus a horse – the benefit of a bike is that it doesn’t need to eat.”
The olden day cyclists traveled primitive roads made for logging and mining activities, many of the same roads today’s competitors will cover.
As the race’s reputation grew, Peterson, an Issaquah resident and former IT professional turned self professed “full time bike geek,” saw a challenge in the race for himself.
“In 2005, I did the race on a single speed bike,” he said, meaning a bike without any of the different ratio gears which help the rider pedal up steep slopes, and build speed on downhills and flats. “People said to me, ‘wouldn’t it be easier to do it with gears?’ Of course, it would be easier still to not do the race at all, or to do it on a motorbike, but that isn’t the point. Everybody sets it up as their own challenge.”
That year Peterson set the race record for a single gear bike.
But as riders brought new challenges to the race, so too did the race itself evolve. In 2006, a rider by the name of Matthew Lee included an additional 270 mile prologue to the traditional Great Divide route, a leg from Banff, in Alberta, Canada.
A few years later, and the Tour Divide, as it is now known, regularly attracts upwards of 40 riders each year.
Peterson was content to look back on the race as a “been there, done that” moment. Until, that is, 2009, when Chris Plesko beat his long standing single speed record in a time of 19 days and 16 minutes. It was a new mark that Peterson felt was within reach. And besides, with races like this, set in some of the most stunning wilderness territory in the world, the journey was always as important as the destination, or the result.
“I wanted an excuse to go and see the Canadian stuff,” Peterson said.
And so this Thursday, he will pedal down Front Street in Issaquah and out of town on his way to Banff, to line up for the 2010 Tour Divide.
An idea of the kind of athletes we are talking about here – Peterson is looking forward to the 570 mile ride from Issaquah to Banff as a warmup, to get him in rhythm for the race itself.
He has spent the past year getting intimately acquainted with his new bike, a Redline Monocog Flight, given to him by one of him many supporters, Seattle Bike Supply. Ergon provided him with a specially designed backpack. The trails around Tiger Mountain and Rattlesnake Ledge have been his regular workout sites, plus the occasional leisurely ride into Seattle. On hot days, Peterson takes a cruise out to Roslyn and back.
But as much as he can prepare, he knows the greatest challenges of the race will present themselves only on the course – wildfires, bears, snowpacks, washed out roads, a lonely corner store sold out of snickers bars. He will ride 16 hours a day, and sustain himself on cashews, chocolate, and the occasional heat-lamp burrito, a treasured item when riders pull into anywhere with a convenience store.
“Some have said we should call it the ‘Tour de Junk Food,'” Peterson said, as riders look for whatever packs the most calories in the smallest parcel.
With hundreds of miles between towns, competitors must be as fastidious as they are fit. On his bike or person, Peterson has an inline water filter, two mini solar panels, high-tech ergonomic camping gear, and a GPS tracking device so race organizers can keep in touch with the leaders and plot them on the race web site. He will also be keeping in touch with race followers via Twitter and blog updates from the trail.
These modern-age postcards will be much appreciated by Peterson’s supportive wife, Christine.
“When I said I wanted to do the race in 2010, Christine kind of rolled her eyes at me and said, ‘I thought we were done with this,'” Peterson said. “She’s worried about me. She’s worried about the bears.”
But Christine is one of the many locals and well-wishers who have supported Peterson in his extraordinary adventure – from $20 bills for Snickers bars to return flights home from New Mexico.
Feats as extraordinary as this often inspire acts of great generosity in people. It is this generosity, and a remarkable sense of adventure, that will need to sustain Peterson on the long and lonely tracks this summer, deep in America’s wildest backcountry.