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Lessons Learned From Getting Sandbagged on the Whole Enchilada

Spirit Animal

Story by Katie Lozancich

There’s a bike tumbling down the rocky hillside ahead of me. Squinting I watch it tomahawk out of view and suddenly think, wait is that Brian’s bike? No. That can’t be what’s happening, shaking off the thought as I attempt to get back on my bike. I’m on my saddle for a few more seconds, before having to dismount and down climb what feels like a rock-strewn trail that is generously labeled as singletrack. After one petrified scramble to the bottom of the trail, I find my friends Max and Brian patiently waiting for me in the brush. They’re quick to inform me that my observation was half correct. Brian’s bike did a somersault off the trail. What I didn’t see is that he went with it. Brian’s arm is bleeding from the ordeal, but he nonchalantly shrugs it off. Max is mildly concerned but follows him without saying anything. Horrified, I get back on the saddle and try to push away the question that was bouncing around in my brain when I first got here: Am I going to survive this trip?

The Invite

This whole adventure was prompted by an unassuming google chat message. My work desktop chimed at me, and when I opened the chat with my co-worker Max it said six fateful words: Wanna bike in Moab with us? Bewildered, I stared at the proposition unsure of what to say. At this point, I had been working at Teton Gravity Research for about three months and quickly bonded with the other writer Max and our developer Brian because we loved talking about all things mountain biking. It was the only thing we ever talked about. It probably annoyed the heck out of everyone. But the thing is I didn’t feel like a “real” mountain biker, at least not one worthy of going to Moab, one of the most iconic places to ride in the U.S.

I had just learned how to ride the year prior when I was living in Seattle. During my senior year of college, I mustered $500 to buy my first bike, a 2009 Specialized Safire. It was a clunker with climbing bar ends straight from the early 2000s, but I felt like a dentist who’d bought a brand new Yeti. That bike was my ticket to adventure. A few hours of zooming through forests of neon green ferns was all I needed to fall in love with the sport. The bike went everywhere with me until I blew out the shock. Even then I kept riding it because I didn’t know better. When I was hired with TGR, I decided to retire the Safire and buy a newer bike when I was settled in my new home.

Photography by Katie Lozancich

Still contemplating the chat message, I wasn’t sure what to write back. At first, I toyed with writing “No, but thanks for the invite,” because I was certain I wouldn’t keep up and would likely perish from tumbling off a cliff. Feeling intimidated, I started to type this out, and before I could hit send I mash the delete key. Life is too short to not go on random adventures with new friends, I thought to myself. I should be writing a resounding “absolutely”.

Instead, I did neither. “Oh man that sounds so fun, but I don’t have a bike at the moment,” I type, relieved that I didn’t actually have to make a hard decision. “But, I’m definitely down to join in the future.” Cue the big exhale of relief. I focused my attention back on work, which was only disrupted by a subsequent chat notification.

Ding. Max’s response was simply “we can find you a bike.”

Guess I’m going to Moab.

Riding the Rollercoaster

The shuttle bumps and jostles its way up the dusty road as the sun rises, painting the landscape in a golden glow. Peering out the window I try to make sense of what the day will hold, but find no clues. Yesterday was an emotional rollercoaster. Our first ride of the trip was an easygoing pedal around Klondike Bluffs, a relaxing network of singletrack. The pit of worry in my stomach that had formed on the drive from Jackson to Moab began to loosen up and I felt myself relaxing. “I’m going to be fine,” I told myself as I pedaled behind Max and Brian. We zoomed around on rolling waves of slick rock, and I couldn’t stop cheesing like a little kid. After a solid few hours of pedaling, we reconvened back at the car with beers and lounged in the sun like lizards soaking up the heat.

Then we drove to Captain Ahab. Imagine getting your bearings on the green and blue ski runs at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and then hopping on the tram to go casually drop into Corbet’s Couloir. That’s what happened on our next ride. The forgiving, confidence-inspiring slickrock was replaced with climbing trails more complicated than a Rubik’s Cube. It was more of a hike than a mountain bike ride. And just when I thought the ascent was the hardest part of the ride, Brian insisted that we’d descend on one of his favorite trails, Jackson’s trail. It’s rated as a “proline” on Trailforks. Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I was descending into it but quickly found myself way in over my head. I picked my way through the rocks and held my breath during the moments of sheer exposure, but finally threw in the towel when I watched a lone mountain bike tumble down the hillside in front of me. As we all now know, that was Brian’s bike joined by him.

But today was a new day. Who knew what was waiting for us at the end of this shuttle? From what I gathered, the enchiladas Brian and Max kept excitedly talking about weren’t for dinner, but the trail we were planning to ride. The Whole Enchilada to be exact. The bus came to a halt three-fourths of the way up the road at the Hazard Country junction. With a loud click and woosh, the driver slid open the passenger door and we spilled out into a grove of aspens. He handed us our bikes and drove away in a cloud of dust. “So, how long is it back to town,” I ask sheepishly.

20 miles.

“Oh, great,” I say through a forced smile. The boys take off into the woods and I follow, determined to stay on their tails. It was going well until we passed through a cattle gate, and the wonderful singletrack transformed into one rock garden after another. The bike I was borrowing was a 2010 Specialized Epic with 100mm of travel—shout out to Lily (Max’s girlfriend) for the bike. I exhaust the suspension within seconds and begin to flail around as my arms and legs try to make up for the extra squish I desperately needed. Holding for as long as I can, I finally squeeze my brakes to rest in one of the flat sections and take a couple of deep breaths. 19.5 more miles to go.

Survival Tactics

The Whole Enchilada is aptly named. Like the scrumptious dish, there are many layers to this 26.5-mile-long trail. Starting at the top of Burro Pass—which is nestled in the La Sal mountain range—the trail winds itself down through lush forests, groves of aspen, open fields of prairie, miles upon miles of slick rock until you finally drop down to the Colorado River. When you’ve reached the terminus at the shuttle parking lot, you’ve descended nearly 8,000 vertical feet, and are on the brink of hallucination from the dehydration and far too many Shot Bloks consumed along the way.

At the Kokopelli junction, only three and a half miles in, I feel deflated, with tears starting to well up in my eyes. Frustrated at my lack of ability, and the fact that I’m likely holding the rest of the group up I begin debating my exit plan. There is a road, after all, maybe I should just tap out, I ponder as I punch my way up another ramp of slickrock. As I crest over the rock I can see Max and Brian standing next to their bikes patiently waiting for me. Pedaling over I can feel the dam that’s been holding back my swirl of emotion about to crack, ready to cry, scream, and throw my bike from the trail. Before I can do any of that they point towards the view. “Hey Spirit Animal,” Brian says with a big smile. We’re standing on the edge of a cliff, and below us is Castle Valley in its full splendor. Off in the distance are rock spires in shades that feel plucked right from my watercolor palette. I take in this mesmerizing world of dusty pinks and oranges and let the stress I've been carrying this whole time go.

You don’t see views like this when you bail to ride the road down.

After inhaling my bag of dinosaur gummies and a few gulps of water, I came to realize I have two ways to survive the rest of this ride. I can either continue to have emotional breakdowns that would make Katie Burrell proud, or I could try to piece my way through this one step at a time. I picked option two. Instead of focusing on the things I can’t do, I channel my energy into little victories. The beautiful thing about the Whole Enchilada, is you get plenty of repetition. It’s like taking laps at the bike park to session the same feature over and over, slowly improving as you become more comfortable with speed and technique. The next rock garden I roll up to, I play with little adjustments like centering my weight over my bottom bracket and letting go of the brakes. My bike responds happily and we mow through a stretch of rocks clustered like cobblestones with balance and poise I didn’t even know existed within me. If I have to walk, I walk. But I do it without dwelling on it, and continue.

I start to develop a rhythm and move faster down the trail. Max and Brian are now within eyesight ahead of me, and I make it my goal to not let them slip away. At this point, we’ve got about four miles left in our odyssey. We’re moving steadily until the two stop to survey a small drop. “Are you going to hit it,” I ask, rolling up next to them. They swivel around with a stupid grin on their faces and respond, “you’re going to hit.” Mortified, I start shaking my head. Absolutely not. Having never hit a drop before, I was terrified of exploding in the landing and somersaulting down the trail. The boys ignore my laundry list of excuses and insist that I’ll be fine. Max even offers to tow me in. Standing on the edge I look out at what I’m dealing with. It’s about a two to three-foot drop, with a straightforward landing. If I mess up, it will hurt, but I won’t die. With a loud sigh, I grab my bike and follow Max. He fists bumps me before taking the lead, and I follow closely to match his speed.

3, 2, 1. I’m flying through the air.

For a mere millisecond, I feel weightless. It’s a feeling that’s sweeter than fresh-picked strawberries and before I can really savor it, gravity snatches it from me and pushes me back down to Earth. My tires reconnect squarely with the dirt, and I feel a resounding pop from my suspension. Before I can fully process what just happened, I look back at the guys with wide eyes and shout, “let’s do that again!” We session the drop a few more times, and then continue with the rest of our journey. By the time we reach the bottom our legs are spent we’re ready for a full plate of nachos in town. It’s the only appropriate way to wrap up the day.

Why I’d Change Nothing

It’s been three years since that trip, and it still ranks as one of my favorites. Maybe it’s because it was the first real mountain bike adventure I went on. Or perhaps it’s because knowing what I know now as a more experienced biker, I can’t believe I had the guts to even go in the first place.

Biking the Whole Enchilada forced me out of my comfort zone, something we need to do involuntarily every once in and while. Living in autopilot doesn’t exactly push you to be better, nor does that singletrack that feels comfortable and familiar. And that feeling of doubt and anxiety that told me to not even go in the first place? I’ve felt it reappear on other adventures and even at work when I’m debating whether I’m good enough to photograph something as crazy as Red Bull Rampage. When my doubts and worries get the best of me, I like to remind myself that I rode down the Whole Enchilada with less than 120mm of travel. If I can do that, then I can take on the world.

Had I listened to that internal naysayer, I would have spared myself from some bruises, sore sit bones, and a pair of bike sock tan lines. Instead, what I gained from this trip was two indispensable friendships cultivated from miles of singletrack and double cheeseburgers from Milt’s. A few months later I raced my first enduro with Max. It helped to have a friend to stand in the start gate with, because I was so nervous I could pee my pants. I didn’t for the record. It also helped to have him there because 30 minutes later I broke my collarbone and needed a ride to the hospital. We even grabbed sandwiches on the way and laughed at my sad attempts at eating a BLT with one hand. Brian still sandbags me regularly, and I’ve grown to appreciate it. Mostly because I know that if I call him with a wacky idea—like skiing Teton Pass at night when there's a full moon—he’ll typically be game. 

Friends like these are harder to come by, and easier to make when you’re all on a type II slog together.

It's hard to say that none of this would have happened if I didn’t go to Moab and suffer through the Whole Enchilada with them, but the experience was worth it alone. It taught me that I was capable of much more than I thought. And, well, that and the importance of feathering your brakes. Don’t be death gripping those puppies.  

Return to TGR Journal Vol. 3