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Winners Never Finish

Christopher Smith

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.

"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.

Still, as word of the event spread, more and more serious riders started showing up. Soon they were getting close to finishing the five loops originally laid out by Ilves and friends. So more were added, an infinitely receding horizon. After all, everyone agreed, having someone finish an unfinishable race would definitely deflate the spirit of the thing. Ilves, wherever he was, would disapprove.

As participants told their stories -- "Remember getting caught in that lightning storm? How about getting lost someplace near Loveland Pass in that downpour?" -- still more people heard about the race, which was being described in alluring terms like "excruciating," and "nine loops to hell," and "The Worst Race in the World." Unable to ignore the good reviews, others began checking it out themselves. Sponsors started signing on.

Seven years ago, a local television producer and former extreme-ski bum named John Santucci, who chronicles peculiar sports and endurance events, decided to cover the small race in Montezuma. Fox bought the film first; now the Outdoor Life Network counts on showing it every fall. The TV exposure, in turn, brought more top racers. "Otherwise," Santucci points out, "it would be just another local event happening on some weekend in the mountains."

Today, Montezuma's Revenge is still populated by fewer than four dozen marginally sane riders annually. It boasts thirteen loops, which cover more than 200 miles and crisscross the Continental Divide ten times. Should anyone ever finish, which he won't (the last loop alone would take a full 24 hours, says Bielecki), he would climb a total of 37,000 feet -- or about eight thousand feet beyond biking from sea level to the top of Mt. Everest. Keeping with Ilves's vision, most of the course is not marked; getting lost and then found again is an important part of the race. And while racers can collect plenty of schwag and a $500 check is written to the winner, the entry fee is $350. Money is not a lure.

The event attracts people who tend to have a particular interest in mountain biking and extreme discomfort. People like Denver's Michelle Grainger, who fell off her bike and broke her elbow, nose, cheek and foot last year during a race in Italy -- and kept going. "I wanted that last loop so bad," she explains.

During the 2002 odyssey, she finished fourth in the women's division of the race out of Montezuma. "I got hypothermia on top of Loveland Pass," she remembers, "and I just could not come back from it."

"I realize," she adds, "that most people might have stopped at that point."

Rishi Grewal understands the strange draw of such masochism. "It's impossible to do the race without pain," he says gleefully. Or without some hair-raising incident or other. Because a bike race without the prospect of peril is just a ride, not an odyssey.

"There was this time when I was really lost," Grewal remembers. "The batteries in my headlamp must have been burned, and so I had no light. Then, on this one steep area -- it must have been 35-degree terrain -- my bike got away from me and started tumbling down. Now, this is the kind of steep where if you fell you'd just keep rolling. But there was a bit of moon, and I've got pretty good night vision. Still, I'm searching in the six-foot brush at the edge of where I knew there was a cliff, and I keep falling into four-foot-deep drainage ditches and having to climb out.

"It was at this point that I was questioning if I'd ever get out, much less keep my lead."

But he did: Grewal, a three-time winner, currently holds the record achievement of Ilves's vision of a race that can be won but not completed: eleven loops. This year, the seventeenth annual Montezuma's Revenge mountain-bike odyssey will take place August 15 and 16.


"Mountains, huh? I'm looking out my window at a beautiful beach." Today Rob Ilves lives in a shrimp-fishing town of seventy on the coast of Florida, having left the race in the mid-1990s. His house, he explains, is a quarter-acre deck twenty feet above the water. On top of that, he's positioned three old grain silos and made them into a house. "I like unusual places," he comments.

He says he's happy to hear of the success of his nearly two-decades-old odyssey idea, which he is relatively certain did not begin with drugs. "I don't think so," he remembers, sort of.

For a time, while living in Hong Kong and other out-of-the-way places, Ilves says he lost interest in arranging races that combined athletic ability with odd terrain and a temporary suspension of smarts. Recently, however, some ideas have begun percolating again.

A few years back, for instance, he started to put together a race called the Tiny Little Town Race. The goal: To travel across land to one pre-determined small town on each of the seven continents. You had ten years to finish. It's hard to know how many people signed up. "There was one German guy who was in the lead for about five years," Ilves recalls. "But he got old, I guess." The race petered out.

Now, however, on the edge of the ocean, Ilves is getting intrigued by the possibilities of water -- underwater, in particular. "I'm thinking about a race that involves biking, kayaking and underwater," he says. The details have yet to be worked out, but the theory is simple.

"You just have to get from one place to another and stay underwater," he explains. "If you come up, you lose. Unless you drown, of course." But even then, he adds, "I suppose you could place."


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