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"I had to borrow my girlfriend's bike to get to the gallery where I was interning after school," he says. "It was, like, two miles. And it was so painful to do that ride. I was in such bad shape from being a student, totally focused on art and neglecting my health."

He bought a bike at a thrift store and rode it to Boulder, an experience that left him limping and humbled but undeterred. He spent more and more time riding, saving up cash for longer expeditions. He took a month off and rode the Pacific Coast Highway from Vancouver to Mexico. The following year, he went to France for two months of cycling and exploration. Six months after that, he headed to New Zealand for an extended hike-and-bike trip, making use of that country's extensive backcountry hut system.

In New Zealand, Simoni discovered just how quickly even a modest venture into the wilderness can become a struggle for survival. Setting out early one morning on what was supposed to be a three-day tramp, he took a wrong turn, forded a fast-moving river in the wrong place, and ended up on what he soon discovered was an island, with rising water on all sides and the first snow of autumn softly falling. Within hours, he was trapped in his sleeping bag on a rapidly diminishing patch of high ground, clutching a log and trying to keep his feet out of the icy water.

Justin Simoni and the single-speed bicycle he rode on the Tour Divide, now on display at Salvagetti Bicycle Workshop.
Justin Simoni and the single-speed bicycle he rode on the Tour Divide, now on display at Salvagetti Bicycle Workshop.
Spanning 2,745 miles of backcountry mountain biking, the Tour Divide is the longest off-pavement cycling route on earth.
Spanning 2,745 miles of backcountry mountain biking, the Tour Divide is the longest off-pavement cycling route on earth.

"The road was a mile away," he says. "I could see cars, but nobody could see me. I boiled water over a rock and put it in a bottle and put it at my feet."

Shivering and struggling to keep dry, he had plenty of time over the next two days to reflect on the absurdity of his situation: "I had never been so hypothermic in my life, so unprepared. I didn't even tell anyone I was going to New Zealand. How lame would it be to die at 27? What was the legacy I was leaving?"

Then the river receded, just enough for him to retrace his crossing to the other side. After a soggy walk to the ranger station, he rode sixty miles back to civilization and bonked. The next day a doctor told him he had some infected scrapes and a case of "Saturday night palsy" in one hand, the result of compressing the nerves in the arm pinned under him as he tried to keep warm. Nothing that wouldn't heal.

He had another opportunity to reconsider his approach to backcountry recreation a few months later, huddled in a sleet-pounded tent near the 13,587-foot summit of Mount McClellan. Simoni was now taking long bike rides from his house to mountain trailheads, then hiking or biking his way up lesser-known trails. His method saved gas but sometimes put him in high-altitude places at times nobody should be in such places. He was riding up a huge switchback, with stunning views of the peaks of Grays and Torreys, when the weather abruptly turned ugly. He hastily put up his tent on a narrow ridge, weighed it down with rocks and stuff sacks loaded with sand, and settled in to wait out the wind and fury. He spent the night wondering if a microburst would blow him into the abyss.

Such experiences, as well as his reading of Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales, and other studies of wilderness disasters, forced Simoni to rethink what he was doing and why. Most catastrophes in the backcountry, he decided, were the snowballing result of minor problems and mistakes — and, in many instances, a fatal dose of hubris. He decided he would not compound his risk by taking more chances than the adventure required.

"I don't go now without telling people exactly what I'm doing," he says. "I've gotten over the I'm-alone-in-the-wilderness thing. When I go to the mountains, I'm not starting eight miles up the trail in my Cherokee, where I have a phone and a GPS. I'm starting on my doorstep on my bicycle, with limited equipment and time. The number of small infractions I can afford to make is much reduced."

His growing respect for the thrills and hazards of long-range, high-country biking also had him thinking more seriously about the Tour Divide. He'd first heard about the race while haunting Salvagetti, trying to find out more about the growing hipster phenomenon of fixed-gear bicycles. ("They looked cool and dangerous, and girls liked them," he explains.) There he'd met large, friendly Dave Nice, known in bike circles as Fixie Dave, a man in the middle of what was turning into a multi-year quest to ride the entire TD route on a fixed-gear machine.

Simoni thought that sounded unhinged. Only a handful of people, including well-known bike blogger and advocate Kent Peterson, had managed to complete the race on a single-speed. A fixie would be even more difficult, since you couldn't even coast on the way down the passes. Nice was an accomplished cyclist, but his quest seemed cursed. One year, someone stole his bike while he was napping by the side of the road in the middle of Nowhere, Montana. Another year, the bike got lost on a Greyhound bus before it even reached the starting line. Another year, he injured his foot during the ride and had to bow out in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. And another year, he was forced out by a cold that turned to pneumonia by the time he reached Missoula.

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6 comments
Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

Any chance of this guy catching passes over the middle ???

Betsy Holmes
Betsy Holmes

i LOVED this cover story. Thank you Westword for bringing Justin's story forward. Justin, you rock!

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

Alan, thanks again for taking us along w/ a TRUE athlete.

No millions, major enforcements, and of course no jerseys

adorning every thug in the region.

I'm crippled and people are always trying to pat me on the back,

but there's no way to realistically compare feats. Most major sports

figures couldn't hang w/ this guy.

Nothing short of amazing and a story well written.

willy
willy

I wish Justin would run for president - maybe he could channel some of that creativity and determination toward fixing the economy.

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

endorsements / not enforcements ......

 
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