Winners Never Finish

In this race, the road goes on forever and ever.

It began, as so many historically significant ideas have, with a vision as grand as it was unique, a lot of sweat and hard work and, perhaps, plenty of hallucinogenic drugs. "Seventeen years ago," recalls Byron Swezy nostalgically. "Dropping acid and riding mountain bikes. It started as a drug-induced mountain-bike frenzy."

Drugs? "Oh, yes. Absolutely," adds Joey Klein, who was there in the early days. Not for the first time, the plan seemed to leap out of Rob Ilves. "He basically got out a topo map with a pen one night," explains Klein, "and he was probably on acid, and he said, 'Oh, this would be fun' -- just sketching it out. I mean, half the stuff had never been ridden before. Even when we started, it was never a 'mountain-bike race.' It was always a 'mountain-bike odyssey.'"

To hear it told, Ilves was the lunatic-savant of the hamlet of Montezuma, a man of inspired dementia -- a wondrous mixture of mountain jock, Barnum-esque promoter and Lewis Carroll, maybe as much myth as fact. Before the 24-hour mountain-bike odyssey, there was the legendary (if extremely parochial) Montezuma Mail Run, in which each three-person team was given a letter with a destination, and all had to get there -- even if "there" involved crossing a 14,000-foot mountain pass in winter -- within a night or two.

Christopher Smith

"I remember one year," says Klein, "we were skiing over Loveland Pass to Montezuma through some sick-ass avalanche chute, and we ran into a Forest Service ranger who told us, 'I do not condone this. This is dangerous behavior; you can't do it.' Of course, we all did anyway...."

Naturally, there were no prizes then; that went against the grain of the thing. But satisfaction? The race ended in an isolated mountain cabin, where Ilves had flown in fresh Maine lobsters for the participants. To many of those who took the challenge, the stories from those days remain clearer than what they did the day before yesterday.

Ilves had plenty more ideas, too. He proposed the world's first (to anyone's knowledge) subterranean run, in an abandoned mine shaft outside of Montezuma, although that never got off, or under, the ground. Neither did his vision of the world's first (ditto) underwater race, from San Diego to Catalina Island. But Montezuma Downs -- quarterhorses running down Main Street, flat out -- was a big hit.

Thinking big and weird was the spirit of Montezuma in those days; it's a place where the paved road ends as soon as you enter it. On a crowded day, maybe five dozen people lived there. Dynamite-loving ex-miners lived side by side with happy ski bums, who did what they had to do to support their habit at next-door Keystone.

Montezuma was of the modern world, but it could also be far apart from it. It was the kind of place that Keystone, only ten miles up the road, would send its inexperienced bus drivers into, because the town's roads were so empty they could practice their driving skills without fear of injury -- sort of. Because it was also the kind of place where that bus would get blasted by a shotgun of some local expressing his opinion of the encroaching resort.

In short, it was an awfully fun place to be. And Rob Ilves personified it. "Rob was just one of those guys who would do anything," Klein says. "A fucking nut. He was also a leader, though. He made it seem natural to want to go out and ride 200 miles on a bike over 24,000 feet of elevation. He made it acceptable to come out of the woods in some totally unfamiliar place from where you entered and be completely lost."

"It was designed as a race so hard that no one would ever finish it," recalls Klein.

"The general concept," adds Swezy, "is to see what's humanly possible."

"No one will ever finish," confirms Andrew Bielecki, who has done it plenty and now helps organize the event. "I think it's humanly impossible."

It started as five loops, all beginning in downtown Montezuma. For the first few years, the initial leg of Ilves's mountain bike odyssey was enough to discourage most riders, no matter how hardcore. It was nearly 170 miles long, leading "riders" (a lot of the time was spent carrying the bike) over the Continental Divide from Montezuma to Breckenridge, and from there over Boreas Pass to Como, and from there over Kenosha Pass and down U.S. 285 to Guanella Pass to Georgetown, and from there up over Loveland Pass and back to Montezuma.

And after that, it was time to climb up and over Gray's Peak, a 14,270-foot piece of mountain that's pleasant enough for a long day hike in the sun, but a real bear after 170 miles of riding, especially when it's pitch black out and there's no marked trail. Bielecki remembers one of the first years he did the race, a decade back, having a moment of -- very brief -- indecision. "I got to the foot of Gray's not knowing the route or anything, and it was getting dark..." So he stopped. He finished ninth, even after quitting a mere sixteen hours into the odyssey.

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