It was the light that first caught his attention. 5 of them, in fact: three on top and two on the bottom. Pedaling through the surreal silence that accompanies midnight in mid-winter Montana, these approaching beacons were the only sign of life in an otherwise frozen alien landscape.
Gus watched as the snowplow passed, its mechanical movements only adding to the Kubrick-esque scene now playing out before him. He was alone, marooned in a dreamlike mise-en-scène where even this sole human connection could not be bothered to spare him a moment’s glance.
As the Cat squeaked and sputtered into the opaque beyond, silence rushing back in to fill the void left by its departure, the 37 year old Brazilian cyclist paused to soak in the sublimity of what he was experiencing. His reprieve was only momentary, however, as necessity would soon force him to continue his two-wheeled ascent up the mountain.
It was January, after all, and hypothermia makes no exceptions for the philosophically inclined.
For the bulk of those unacquainted with Jay P’s Backyard Fat Pursuit, the thought of a 124-mile fat tire mountain biking competition through West Yellowstone in sub-freezing temperatures may seem a bit…extreme. For Gus Albuquerque, it was an opportunity. Yes part of that opportunity had to do with the fact that the race is a prerequisite for anyone looking to compete in the even more challenging Iditarod Invitational, but there was something infinitely more visceral about it than that.
Whether or not he knew it at the time, this was about the challenge of survival in its most raw and human form.
That part of that challenge was self-imposed is a fact Gus will laughingly admit to. For starters, his REI gear still had all its tags intact when he touched down in Idaho Falls; a byproduct of his European New Year’s vacation just days earlier. On top of that, he had been unable to purchase the correct GPS model due to his late entrance into the race, leaving his geographical whereabouts at the whims of a trail map marked in, of all colors, green highlighter. His obligatory melting pot was purchased last minute at a gas station en route to Yellowstone, and his only fat biking experience to date was the 10 minutes he’d spent pedaling his Spinlister bike rental over inch-deep snow drifts on the road to the competitors’ lodge.
Not exactly Olympic-caliber preparation.
Still, here he was at the starting line, mouth full of breakfast burrito and mind full of racing strategy he’d gleaned from years of cycling races and triathlons. Stick with the lead pack, he told himself. You’ve just gotta stick with the lead pack.
As anyone who’s biked competitively in snow will tell you, there are two rules all newcomers to the sport will have to pick up in a hurry. The first is that you ride in someone else’s tire rut to avoid overheating. The second is that you steer with your knees to avoid wiping out.
By the time Gus arrived at the first mandatory water-boiling check point, clothing drenched in sweat after struggling to catch up from five powdery falls, it’s safe to say those lessons had been learned the hard way. He would spend the next several hours on the verge of dehydration, more pushing than pedaling his bike uphill through snow too soft for even 5 psi of tire pressure.
How slowly 60 miles can pass beneath you. Like all of us left in the confines of our own thoughts for too long, a song began to play on repeat in Gus’ subconscious.
I’m on a highway to hell.
It wasn’t until the chill of night had fallen that what had started out as a Sisyphean struggle began its transition into something much more profound. At the first aid station 4 climbs below he had contemplated quitting the race entirely, only to be greeted by a warm bed and even warmer volunteers.
An hour nap and several peanut butter sandwiches later he had emerged into the Yellowstone winter a new man, now standing in front of this last grueling ascent with near-frostbitten hands and the memory of that indifferent mountaintop snowplow permanently etched into his cerebrum.
And then it happened. Far from the placidity of a snowy New England commons, high above the timberline where the wind howled and monolithic figures of rock and snow dotted his blurred vision, Gus Albuquerque glimpsed the transcendental.
To hear him describe what followed, one can’t help but be awed by the near superhuman efforts required by such a competition. In an attempt to combat the plummeting core temperatures that accompany a lack of physical exertion, he had opted to plow break-neck down the mountainside, rear tire locked to anchor his descent. Once there, the coldest part of his adventure awaited him – a fervent 30 mile search for that elusive second aid station just as the sun was beginning to illuminate the clouds above the American West.
At one point, he would even be forced to strip to his bare skin in order to change a sweat-drenched layer of clothing.
When all was said and done, Gus would cross the finish line 26 hours after setting off, greeted by hearty embraces, a newfound camaraderie, and a few well deserved beers. He was well behind the lead pack, of course, but that was of no consequence in the wake of an experience like this. After all, he had tested some of the most extreme limits of human endurance, biking himself to near delirium and emerging triumphantly on the other side.
For just about any true adventurer, that’s a prize far more valuable than the simplicity of a mere victory ever could be.