West Grad Brett Stepanik Evolves into Record-Setting Ultracyclist

West Grad Brett Stepanik Evolves into Record-Setting Ultracyclist
Posted on 06/06/2018
This is the image for the news article titled West Grad Brett Stepanik Evolves into Record-Setting Ultracyclist

Tuesday, ​June​ 5, 2018

Epic endurance

​​Wausau West grad Brett Stepanik evolves into record-setting ultracyclist

Keith Uhlig Wausau Daily Herald USA TODAY NETWORK – WISCONSIN

MADISON – Brett Stepanik was 22 years old and searching for a place in the world when he took off from Rib Mountain on his first cross-country bike trip in the late summer of 2007.

The 2003 graduate of Wausau West High School had been a summer bike mechanic at Rib Mountain Cycles and a winter worker at California’s Mammoth Mountain ski resort. Brett was tall, lanky, tattooed and aimless, the kind of guy who spent his high school years bombing around on BMX bikes in the summer and on snowboards in the winter. He had planted the flag of his personal identity out there somewhere between extreme-sport athlete, punk rocker and hippie.

But Brett really didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, except "I wanted adventure. I wanted to see the world a little bit," he said.

Brett is 33 years old now, and living in Madison with his wife of six years, Dana Stepanik, and their 4-year-old son, Angus. He’s still got the thin, loose-limbed cowboy body, and still peppers his stories with words such as "rad," "epic" and "awesome." But gone is the restless quest for a place in

See STEPANIK, Page 6A

Stepanik

Continued from Page 1A

the world. It’s been replaced with a peculiar mix of laid-back zen attitude and unrelenting focus that’s taken him deep to the world of ultra-endurance cycling.

Through his years of searching, Brett has developed the tools to be very good at riding a bicycle for a long time over long distances. He’s become a recordsetting and top competitor in the world of bikepacking races, an upstart sport that compels cyclists to ride for days and weeks on end without any outside support. They carry everything they need with them, restocking with food and water in gas stations, grocery stores or wherever along the way.

In 2017, Brett earned the so-called Triple Crown of bike pack racing, completing the 750-mile Arizona Trail Race in April; the 2,732-mile Tour Divide Mountain Bike Race in June and the 580-mile Colorado Trail Race in July. He was the first man ever to complete the Triple Crown while riding on a single-speed bike.

As he was finding his niche in the sport of endurance cycling, he also was developing a family-guy devotion, working to become a better partner to Dana and dad to Angus.

There is tension to the duality of his passions. Bike packing takes him away from Dana and Angus for weeks at a time. But the two sides also bolster and augment each other. His family spurs him on when he’s racing, and his racing makes him a better father because it gives him purpose in ways that transcend the physical world.

Something happens to Brett when he’s competing in a long race, cycling late at night tired and hungry, grinding along at the edge of his physical limits.

"It’s a runner’s high mixed with sleep deprivation mixed with tunnel vision mixed with lucid dreams. It’s an absolutely euphoric experience," Brett said. "You have this sense of primordial self reliance. In a way, it’s a kind of nirvana for me."

It’s a kind of addiction, Brett said, and "it’s not for everyone. But it works for me." And he can’t let it go.

It all started with that first cross-country trip a decade ago. His boss at the time was Rib Mountain Cycles owner Randy Lackman. Lackman got him into mountain biking and single-speed bikes, and transfixed a teen-aged Brett with stories of long-distance bike touring.

"He basically pushed me out the door," Brett said. "He knew a long bike ride was what I needed. I’m so grateful to him for that. It changed everything."

On that first trip, Brett learned he could ride long distances day after day. He loved the adventure and thrill and outright freedom of it all. He got drunk with a one-armed farmer in Minnesota, spent a week at the Burning Man gathering in the desert of Nevada, and, most of all, learned what he was capable of doing.

He was dating Dana when they and another couple went in 2010 to a movie called "Ride the Divide", a documentary about the Tour Divide. He knew he had to do it. And in 2012, he did.

It was an overwhelming experience. During the race, Brett stayed overnight at a friend’s home in Whitefish, Montana. By doing so, he had technically broken an unwritten rule of bikepacking because he got help that was not available to the other competitors. He still finished, but that one slip up gnawed at him.

And when Angus was born, Brett decided he needed to do the tour again, this time doing it right, strictly adhering to the spirit of the sport. In 2015, he rode the Tour Divide "to reclaim my conscience. I knocked six days off of my time, finishing in 20 and half days," he said. "I was reclaiming my conscience and proving to myself and my son that I wasn’t a cheater."

He also met a Fort Collins, Colorado, attorney named Dave Goldberg. Goldberg was a pioneer of bikepacking competitions, the man who coined the term Triple Crown. Like Lackman, Goldberg tweaked Brett’s imagination and helped him appreciate what a grueling long distance race could do for one’s soul.

One example: The Arizona Trail Race involves a hike through Grand Canyon. Because cycling is not allowed in the park, cyclists have to carry their bikes. It’s the hardest thing Brett ever did, he said, and Goldberg’s advice was to "listen to the hole."

Brett said he didn’t exactly understand what Goldberg meant by that, until he did it.

"It was a war of attrition," Brett said. "I was crawling on my hands and knees at the bottom of the canyon. And I thought, now I know what Dave meant. ... It was like a vision quest."

Brett felt a spiritual connection deep in the Grand Canyon. "I just thought about how short our time is on earth, and about what we do with it (that time)," Brett said. "And I realized, this is me. This is what I need to do."

Goldberg died from cancer in the fall of 2017, but his influence on Brett lives.

It was there when Brett recently completed the Alexander 380 Gravel Bicycle Race, a three-state sufferfest that’s part of the Almanzo series of bike races that begin and end in Spring Valley, Minnesota. It wasn’t enough for Brett to just compete in the 380-mile event — he rode his bike more than 200 miles to just to get to the race.

He placed second out of three riders who completed that event.

Later this summer, Brett plans to complete an "Everest" on Rib Mountain. That means he’ll ride his bike up and down Rib Mountain’s Park Road to reach a cumulative 29,029 feet, the height of Mount Everest. He’s planning this "to complete a circle," he said. It’s been a decade since he first left Rib Mountain to start his first cycling adventure.

To Everest, he’ll have to ride up and down Park Road 39 times, or about 160 miles, he said. It’s a symbolic effort. There’s no race, no glory, no medals. Just a lot of physical suffering to get him to that place he craves so much.

He’ll be thinking of Goldberg as he rides up and through the cave of pain. "He taught me (that it’s) not a race, it’s a journey," Brett said. "I took that to heart, (and I need) to be out there and experiencing it as grass roots and organically as possible."

"It’s a runner’s high mixed with sleep deprivation mixed with tunnel vision mixed with lucid dreams. It’s an absolutely euphoric experience. You have this sense of primordial self-reliance. In a way, it’s a kind of nirvana for me."