Josh Uhl on his Arizona Trail Race 750 Experience >> Guest Post

1. You recently won the AZTR 750 what was your inspiration to race AZTR and attempt the Triple Crown this year?

I got into Bikepacking in 2016 when I learned about the Colorado Trail Race. I was just getting into mountain biking and the idea of being self sufficient, pushing personal limits and traveling great distances really sparked my interest. In 2017 I started the CTR only to scratch in Buena Vista, It was an eye opening experience. While on the trail I learned about the AZTR and the Bikepacking Triple Crown. I even had a chance to ride with Brett Stepanik for a bit who was finishing his Single Speed Triple Crown Challenge that year. I was inspired by the idea of doing three big races in the same year. Even though I haven't had success on the CTR, the idea of committing myself to the triple just kept making sense in my head.  I knew of the Great Divide and had a little experience on the Colorado Trail but the Arizona Trail scared me. I had almost no experience in the desert, and all I could imagine is that everything is poky, poisonous or both. In May of 2018 I decided I would go for the Triple Crown Challenge run in 2019. My one requirement for actually going for it was to not let anything get in the way of my goal to finish all three races, no excuses, no time limits, just try as hard as you can. So I blocked off basically the entire Spring and summer of 2019 and started training. The AZTR, in my mind, was going to be the hardest (ill have the verdict that after the GDMBR and CTR though). Its the most unfamiliar environment to me and the desert just kinda scares me, its so unforgiving. But when I rolled to the start all of that fear faded away and excitement to ride me bike all day every day took over. My plan was to listen to my body, ride hard when I felt good, take it easy when I didn't and sleep when I got tired. I was also given the advice to not race until after the 300, I took that advice and it really paid off. I didn't expect to do as well as I did but overall I attribute much of my success to racing my own race and not getting too caught up in the competition of the thing. After all this stuff is so much fun, don't loose sight of that. In the words of Brett Stepanik "Put a fucking smile on your face and charge forward!"

Josh’s Arizona Trail Race ready Stella Titanium 27plus custom build.

Josh’s Arizona Trail Race ready Stella Titanium 27plus custom build.

2. Tell us a bit about your setup, you raced single speed on your Chumba Stella Titanium. Why did you choose SS (awesome btw), and how did you narrow down to the right parts kit for your goal of all three races? 

When I started to think about the bike I wanted to ride for all three races the Stella TI seemed like the ultimate machine for the job. It has done really well in races like these (in the hands of much better riders than myself) In the past. Also I had been drooling over the bike for a couple of years. When I called Chumba, I had a great talk Vince Colvan about what I wanted to do and he helped my pick out a build that would last and get me start to finish on all three races. I think I said "I want the lightest, strongest single speed you can build", and that's exactly what I got. I'm running a Small Stella TI frame, with a Niner Carbon Fork (yes I'm ruining rigid for all three races). Rolling on Velocity Blunt 35s and Maxxis Ikon+ 2.8's, with an i9 Torch ss rear hub and a Son Dynamo in the front. TRP Spyke Mechanical disc breaks with 180mm rotors front and back. Shimano m8000 crank and a Wheels mfg BB. Thomson seat post and stem with a Paul seat post clamp for on the fly saddle height changes. One of my favorite components on the whole bike is my Moonmen Moonriser TI handlebar. Its wide, its light, it has just the right amount of flex to keep my hands happy all day. A work of art in my eyes. It has 3" of rise and a 24 degree sweep, the fattest grips I could find (Wolftooth) and some Cane Creek ergo's on the ends.  

Why Single Speed? Why Rigid? It's how I learned to mountain bike. My first real mountain bike was a Surly Karate monkey SS. I would take that on all the trails I could and I developed most of my skills riding that bike. Since then I've owned bikes with eagle drivetrains and lots of suspension and enjoyed riding them. But at the end of the day I would always look back on my days riding a single speed rigid bike. For me that style is just hard wired into my brain. I also love the weight savings and simplicity of a single speed bike. So when I decided to attempt the Triple Crown, for me, it was a no brainier to do it on a rigid single speed. I often refer to my affinity for rigid single speed mountain bikes as an illness I have no intention of curing.

Josh’s Triple Crown attempt includes AZTR, Tour Divide and CTR. “For me running close to the same set up for all three races is really appealing.”

Josh’s Triple Crown attempt includes AZTR, Tour Divide and CTR. “For me running close to the same set up for all three races is really appealing.”

3. Did anything on the Stella's design stand out to you during the trip? Any specific qualities or features that made the ride better for you?

I have always had trouble finding a bike that really suits my riding style. For me the Stella Titanium fits all my needs, and it is my only bike. I have also owned it for over a year and I hove no desire to sell or upgrade the bike. Ive always believed in the one bike mentality. But before I got the Stella I always seamed to have more than one bike and I was always selling one to upgrade another. One of the things that really stood out to me about the bike on the AZTR, is the comfort, I averaged over 20 hours a day riding and pushing my bike on the AZTR and not once did I have any aches or pains from how the bike rode. Another thing is that its just plain fast! At home I routinely ride with folks on gravel bikes and road bikes, and on climbs it feels snappy and on the descents I'm just as fast as my skinny tire compatriots, on the gravel and the road. On the trail it carries momentum and floats through technical sections (correct line choice is required though). Fully loaded the bike is still fun to ride, so much so that on the AZTR I found myself doing whips and jumps when I really shouldn't have. Lastly, its durable and by that I mean indestructible! I'm not the best mountain bike rider out there and I think that a carbon bike, in my hands, wouldn't have made it to the end of the AZTR. I went over the bars one day and wedged my bike between two rocks, it took some effort to get unstuck, the bike was fine. I had numerous other crashes that the bike shrugged off along the way. 

4. Will you make any changes for the upcoming TD and if so care to share what they'll be?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the style in which I like to do things like this. For me running close to the same set up for all three races is really appealing. I was very pleased with my set up after the AZTR. the only thing that I will be changing/adding for the divide is a BarYak aero bar set up. On flats I tend to rest my forearms on my bars so having the aero bars for comfort on the TD should be clutch. I'll also be running a different gear ratio. For the AZTR I ran a 34x22, on the TD I'll be running 34x17 and for the CTR I'll be running 32x22. Outside of those changes pretty much everything else will be staying the same. 

The AZTR requires your bike to be portaged through the section of the Grand Canyon.

The AZTR requires your bike to be portaged through the section of the Grand Canyon.

5. What was the most rewarding part of the AZTR experience for you? Sometimes it could be the most positive moment or overcoming the most negative experience. Maybe give us both sides of the coin, the real and the sublime.

This was the first bikepacking race I've done where fully committed myself to it and the process. In the past I have always given myself outs and excuses. Wether that was a time constraint with work or the desire to be back in a more comfortable environment. I have always let some noise from my daily life sneak in my brain and take over. I did more mental prep for this race than I ever have for anything else. Day one of the race I felt it all kick in. I made no compromise to get to the start, I finally was giving myself permission to do my best, to try my hardest, uninhibited. All I had to do was ride my bike and move forward, nothing else. That mental clarity gave me so much joy, helped me to have fun, not take myself too seriously and focus on engaging with the experience fully, no matter how hard it got. Something I would remind myself when things started to get hard, is that in those moments, the darkest most difficult moments, is when it really counts, its when you grow and learn the most. Touching the essence of the experience itself is certainly profound in more ways than one. For me that moment was on my hike through the Grand Canyon. Here is some reflection on that experience:

I thought I was dialed for the canyon, I thought it suited my strengths. “It’s just a hike, you’ve done this before, you can do it again” I told myself. 

The Canyon had a different plan for me. I dropped into the Grand Canyon at sunset after riding all the way from Flagstaff starting at 3am. On the South rim I transitioned my bike to backpack mode. As I did so the magnitude of what I was about to attempt set in. I was scared. For the first time on this ride, I didn’t want to move forward. “You have to go, you’re here, you have to go” I repeat to myself out loud like a crazy person. I start the long walk down as the sun sprayed pink and orange across the sky. I recall my fondest memories of sunset in the canyon and use that to move me forward. It works for a while. Dulling the pain of my top tube jamming into my back, relieving the shoulder straps digging into my shoulders. Half way down, it’s dark, I’m hot, and I’m in so much pain. I’m stumbling, scared to slip off the edge. Positive thoughts have faded into desperate mind games to keep myself upright. Four hours in, I make it to Phantom ranch. My heart sinks as I read the sign that says all the water spigots are off north of Phantom. I fill up 2L of water and hope that will be enough. I can’t take any more weight. I read the sign that says 13.4 miles to north rim. I trudged forward. The river rages next to me, making me feel as though I’ve lost my ability to hear. “This will feel just like a dream in the morning” 

There are demons in the canyon. I let them in and periodically they take control and I lose myself. Darkness takes over, there’s nothing I can do. 

But somehow I come back, every time. I fight and I trudge. “Relentless forward motion works, it has to”. I reach the North rim 14.5 hours after leaving the south rim. I put my bike down and lean up against a tree and cry, I’m not the same person I was on the south rim. 

For me the reward is less in the physical accomplishment and more in the mental growth. I truly believe these experiences make us better people and it gives us tools to create positive change in the world. I think thats pretty damn awesome! 

6. Anything else you'd like to share??

I'm no expert on any of this stuff, these races and experiences scare the shit out of me. Choosing to go all in on something that is so big and so scary has been one of the most valuable things I've ever experienced in my life (and I'm only one race in so far). Cant wait for more! 

Josh Uhl_Chumba.jpg

Thanks to Josh Uhl for sharing his story with us and to Kody Kohlman for sharing some of his photos!

To learn more about the Chumba Stella visit here for the steel version and here for the titanium version.

To see more about Josh’s trip follow him here: @joshuauhl
To see more of Kody’s photography visit @kokody