Faces Behind the Dots – Gunny Loopy Loop 2022

Billed as harder mile for mile than the Colorado Trail Race, the Gunny Loopy Loop is the brainchild of Jefe Branham, legend in the bikepacking world and also the current event disorganizer of the CTR and the Fossil Ridge Ultimate. If you know Jefe, you know he doesn’t shy away from difficult, and he created the ever-evolving Loopy Loop to showcase some of his favorite trails in the Gunnison, Colorado area. It’s often quipped that the Shortie Loop, at 207 miles and 30,000 feet of elevation change, is big, and the Biggie, at 304 miles and 44,000 feet of elevation change, is dumb (in the best way possible). In Jefe’s own words, “There is plenty of punishment, but always some rewards too.”

Alexis and Cat, the two women lining up for this year’s Shortie Loop, have fascinating stories to tell about their relationships with bikes and bikepacking. Their stories are amazing examples of the power of the bike, and how riding bicycles can change lives in so many ways. Interestingly enough, both women went to Wellesley College, majoring in political science.

Get to know these two amazing women and follow along at Trackleaders.com starting Saturday, September 3.

Alexis Ault

Hometown: North Logan, Utah

Bike: Pivot Mach 4 SL

Alexis Ault (on her way to work) and her Pivot Mach 4 SL

What’s your bikepacking background? 

I have been bikepacking since 2014. I have completed the AZT300 three times, the now-named Bristlecone 200, and the inaugural 2018 Shortie Gunny Loopy Loop. I have also spectacularly failed at the AZT multiple times and the CTR! I’ve toured various routes in Utah, Idaho, Colorado, and Arizona. 

Was there a specific thing that got you into riding bikes? 

I began riding bikes during my MSc at the University of New Mexico. I was a quasi-runner at the time, but my partner was a mountain biker and road racer, and he encouraged me to try it out. The amazing landscapes and trails around Albuquerque were a great place to learn how to mountain bike, but admittedly, I was quickly frustrated that I could not keep up with him. “I did not come out here to hike my bike!” I was too competitive for my own good, with a dash of bad attitude! And oh, the irony! During my PhD at the University of Colorado, I raced duathlons and triathlons in the Front Range. “Training” for these events helped me get stronger and more confident on the bike and I returned to mountain biking in 2010. 

What drew you to bikepacking? 

I first learned about bikepacking from a friend and fellow PhD student who had started bikepack racing during graduate school. Bikepacking seemed mentally and physically engaging and like an ultimate challenge, race or no race. I wanted to try it, but I lacked endurance and thought I was not strong enough. During my postdoc at the University of Arizona, I gained strength, endurance, technical skills, and confidence, chasing Eszter around the Tucson Mountains. It was a special time that I miss. My first overnighter was in the Gila Canyons with Eszter and Scott – what an eye-opening experience! In 2014, I started the AZT300 for the first time. I was a hot mess out there mentally and physically, but I finished. Each time I called my mom in tears, she said, “I’m proud of you, Alexis, it’s ok to stop,” I’d say “Ok, mom, I’ve got to go!” and push on. In 2015, I went back and took 15 hours off my first time. Easy to do when you aren’t melting down every six hours! 

Why is bikepacking awesome? What’s appealing about the Gunni Loopy Loop for you? 

Bikepacking allows you to access more remote places, landscapes, and geology. The natural high of completing a route – race or no-race – is unparalleled. Jefe’s Loopy Loops are challenging, fun, and the suffer quotient is quite high! This makes the experience intimidating, humbling, and exciting. The route continues to evolve and so I look forward to exploring new terrain and geology.  

What are you most looking forward to out on route? 

Fossil Ridge! It’s so hard, but last time I hike-a-biked it, I saw hematite along or near a contact between sedimentary rocks and crystalline (metamorphic) basement. I wondered if this was the “Great Unconformity,” a feature that is a significant gap in missing time in the geologic record (100 million to 1 billion years) found throughout the world. But available geologic maps show these contacts as faults. And so I look forward to making new field observations as I am hike-a-biking. Problem is I’ll be so shelled that, day or night, I’ll hallucinate the geology I want it to be! 

What’s your biggest fear? 

Implosion. Which is admittedly largely self-imposed, damn. 

Favorite bikepacking snack? Is there anything you won’t eat? 

I love weird bars! I am joking – for the record, I no longer like weird bars. No more! I like Happy Cola, Snickers, and Salt and Vinegar chips. I like any food that I am able to eat in a race. I used to loathe gels, owing to a spate of unfortunate gel experiences while racing triathlons. Puking up chocolate gels all over your face and skin suit isn’t the best vibe. But! I’ve rediscovered them, they’re remarkably effective, and I’m able to keep ‘em down. 

Why are bikes awesome?  

Bikes serve many purposes in my daily life. Riding my bike offers me mental clarity – I often have exciting science ideas or solutions to something I’m working on when riding. The problem is I commonly cannot remember them by the time the ride is over. So now I stop and text them to myself, Denny, or one of my graduate students. Riding my bike is something that I can do with others – so much laughter with friends out on the trails! Riding offers me balance, it helps me prioritize something other than work. Riding calms my mind and heart. I am a former ballet dancer and I stopped dancing because of a severe eating disorder. This is a problem I will have until the day I die – riding my bike is one of the best tools in my quiver to manage my head space around this illness and maintain a more positive body image. 

You both have cool grown-up professional jobs. How do your jobs directly or indirectly affect your experiences bikepacking, if at all? 

I am a geoscientist, researcher, and Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Utah State University. When bikepacking, the lens of my evolving knowledge and understanding (and confusion!) about how the Earth works and how landscapes are sculpted directly impacts my experience. I inevitably spend time taking in what I am seeing and the rocks I am pedaling over and I muse to myself about process, timing, and geologic significance. If I’m bikepacking with my partner Denny, also a geoscientist, we’ll argue discuss! what we’re seeing and how to interpret it. And so my work adds this unique layer to my experience, bringing both focus and welcome distraction. At the same time, my job is an important and huge part of my life, and this means that I do not ride my bike or bikepack as much as I would like. It’s hard – at least for me – to operate at the level that I aspire to in my work and also on the bike. I am trying to own my choices more. 

Catherine de Medici Jaffee

Hometown: Durango, Colorado

Bike: Chumba Stella Ti

Catherine de Medici Jaffee and her Chumba Stella Ti

What’s your bikepacking background?

In 2018, I built out a $400 Salsa El Mariachi to ride the Carretera Austral down in Chile for a month. I didn’t know much about bikepacking then and wore jean shorts and packed celery for electrolytes, under guidance from my mom. It was infinitely more fun and full of learnings than I ever could have imagined. When I returned, I wanted to keep doing this bikepacking thing, so I signed up for what I thought was an endurance bike race. It was called “an enduro series.” It was not what I expected. I raced enduro for a summer, signed up for five races, and really enjoyed sharpening my downhill skills. But I knew it wasn’t the same as what I had found so freeing about riding four weeks down the coast of Chile to the tip of South America. I wanted more of that. So I signed up for the Silk Road Mountain Race in November 2019, preparing to race in 2020.

Then, two big things happened. You can guess the first one, the COVID-19 pandemic. The second was that I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in February 2020 at age 33. Geeking out on bikes and preparing for the Silk Road Mountain Race (SRMR) became my coping mechanism. Before surgeries and egg freezing and chemo treatments, I would pour over gear lists and bike specs, trying to imagine a version of me who was not stuck in bed strapped to an infusion machine with a tube coming out of my chest. During treatment, Chumba Bikes rallied behind me to help me build my dream bike. By December 2020, I was riding the Arizona Trail and training for the Silk Road Mountain Race with a new bike and a good deal of anxiety that my cancer was going to return because I had a few small tumors on my one remaining ovary.

That’s when bikepacking transformed into something else. It became my place to heal, my excuse to totally unplug and disappear into mountains and rivers and deserts. To cry when I needed to cry, to feel what I wanted to feel, and to not be judged for it. Society is weirdly hard on cancer patients, to be positive, to be tough, to be inspirational, that it was a sign from the universe that you have to change your life, to be introspective about that, to take on a new diet, or fad…I could go on and on. It felt like most people I talked to wanted to tell me how to live now, that cancer had been evidence that I was doing something wrong. Bikepacking was this awesome out, my way of saying “see ya later, I’m gonna go do me.” It also felt like it was solitude on my own terms, that I could choose.

During the pandemic, I was isolated from my friends and family and community because I was immune compromised, there wasn’t a vaccine yet, and I was undergoing intensive treatment. But once my treatment was complete, I was able to have the extreme power and privilege to be independent, to experience things solo on my own terms, to be able to do things “unsupported.” Considering that there was a time where my mom had to push me around the block on my bike because I wasn’t able to stay upright, being able to do what I do now feels extraordinary. Folks complain about walking or going slowly. But even when I’m on the hardest terrain, I find myself smiling under my helmet, reveling in the fact that I’m here, I’m alive, I can move, and in my own way, I’m out doing it. Bikepacking reminds me of that. The Loopy Loops will be my second race. The Silk Road Mountain Race 2021 edition was my first. I made it seven days before scratching because I damaged my meniscus. I had knee surgery in April, and I have been back on my bike now for two months.

Was there a specific thing that got you into riding bikes? 

My dad died of cancer when I was 15 on April 22, 2003. A few months before he passed away, the last gift he gave to me was my first real bike. I’ve been riding bikes, crying on bikes, exploring on bikes, and loving bikes ever since.

What drew you to bikepacking? What’s appealing about the Gunni Loopy Loop for you?

I love bikepacking because I can do things on my own terms. Even though I’ll be trying to wrap up this ride before the afternoon on Tuesday, I love that I go at my own pace, that I don’t have to turn around, that I can block out time from work and responsibilities to be completely present in the elements. I love that I can strap snacks and napping gear to my bike and go for a long while, at my own pace, taking everything in. It’s spiritual and Zen, and a practice in centering that I don’t really get from shorter rides.

What are you most looking forward to out on route? Are you dreading anything?

I’m dreading the massive elevation profiles, keeping my GPS alive, and not making it back in time for work. I have to teach Wednesday morning September 7, and I have a bunch of deadlines next week for work. I probably shouldn’t be doing this race. Which is exactly why I need to do it. Work is work is work. I won’t be able to show up to it, nor myself if I don’t take time to get out, ride, and find my flow state.

What’s your biggest fear?

In the ride? Or life? I am always afraid that my intentions will be misrepresented, that people won’t understand just how much I love them and how grateful I am that they are here with me sharing this incredibly beautiful and hard ride on planet Earth. I am also afraid of inequity, and that we don’t treat each other with the respect and dignity that every living being deserves.

Favorite bikepacking snack? Is there anything you won’t eat?

I won’t eat hotdogs. It’s the only food I’ve ever thrown up. I will eat pizza, pickles, Coke, fig bars, chips, sardines, strawberry licorice, Amy’s Frozen burritos, and ramen. I basically live on ramen. Cold ramen in a water bottle. Hot ramen in my Jetboil. Ramen for breakfast. Ramen for dinner. My bike bags are basically all ramen.

What’s your first memory of riding a bike? When did you discover riding long distances? What’s the appeal of long back-to-back days in the saddle?

I don’t really remember my first memory. My dad wasn’t able to walk well or ride a bike. He was too proud for a wheelchair, but it meant that he didn’t move around very much; and he could not teach me how to ride a bike. I think my mom taught me the basics, and my uncle built on that and supported me in going for longer rides with my cousins. I started riding long distances in high school after my dad passed away and he gave me the bike. I didn’t have a GPS, or a plan, or a phone. I would just ride and ride for hours and hours until I could find a fire station. Then I would call my mom and ask her to pick me up. Fire stations always had maps, phones, and comfy couches, so I could hang out for a while and wait for her to get me. I think my favorite line to her would be “Guess where I am?!” and I would say a place she had never heard of. Then, later on, I would get in the car, and exasperated, she would ask me how the hell I ended up here. My mom is a really good person, and I was a punk.

Why are bikes awesome? Why is bikepacking awesome?

Oh man, I don’t have enough words. But not looking up anything to support this fact, I like to think it’s the most popular means of transportation in the world, that communities across the globe move with some kind of device with wheels and pedals. Bikes definitely don’t have to be fancy, or new, they just help you get a little closer to wherever it is you’re trying to go. Other creatures don’t really ride bikes. Just us. And when I move my pedals, I feel like I’m spinning cogs in my brain. It all feels like it’s part of me, part of what makes me human.

You both have cool grown-up professional jobs. How do your jobs directly or indirectly affect your experiences bikepacking, if at all?

I don’t really feel like I’m a grown-up, or that my job is that professional. (Editor’s note: Cat’s work focuses on making storytelling more accessible to under-represented communities, and she’s worked with organizations including National Geographic, Unreasonable Group, Narrative 4, 350.org, Ashoka, the Asian Rural Institute and the Aspen Institute. We at the Townie think this is very neat.) My mom is such a big part of my life, especially post-cancer, that I still very much feel like a kid getting a lot of help from the people I love as I find my way. That being said, I’m profoundly grateful that what I do for work is allowing me to build a life. I write most of my scripts and come up with my “breakthroughs” while I’m riding my bike, because I tell myself stories to pass the time. I think my day-to-day life is wonderful. But it’s full of a lot – from work, to emails, to dogs, to friends, to families, to phone calls, to obligations, and commitments. There is very little space and time to meditate as much as I need to think about systemic problems and get to the heart of a story, to zone out and breathe, and focus on doing very simple things. Like putting one foot in front of the other. If I want to look at something in my life or work with a wide lens, I need to step back, and bikepacking lets me do that. I wrote most of Guardians of the River, the podcast I’ve worked on that I am most proud of, somewhere between a chemo chair and my Chumba.

Have I missed anything that you’d want people to know about you?

I want to tell you why I signed up for the Gunny Loop! August 26th was my two-year anniversary of completing chemotherapy. They say it takes two years for chemo to run its course through your system. So as of just a few days ago, I think I am fully and completely chemo-free. I wanted to celebrate that, with all of my cells, and remind myself I can do hard things. I also just went through a weird and abrupt break-up and the timing of this challenge couldn’t be more perfect.

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