In 2015, I received the opportunity of a lifetime: I was invited by First Tracks Productions, an adventure film company, and Fatback Bikes, one of my sponsors, to travel to Iceland to ride for the film "Off The Beaten Path." This is a film that features athletes around the world using fat bikes to take them to remote places where regular mountain bikes can't go. It is a combination of documentary and adventure film, and it is the coolest project I have ever been a part of.
I also got to ride and film with fellow Fatback athlete and pro trials rider Pat Smage, who is an ultra-talented, smart, super nice, and humble guy. Check out his stuff if you get a chance, it's ridiculous.
But Iceland and the film trip was more than just a cool project: It changed my life as I knew it and catapulted me into the incredible life I live now. If you're interested, read on. There are photos at the bottom. :)
So, many people ask, how did I get invited to Iceland? It all happened because one day I got bored of riding a stationary bike trainer. I was living in Crested Butte, CO, where it is winter 7 months of the year. When you're a bike racer 6 months of the year, that means a lot of trainer time. After getting to the point where I would rather stab myself in the neck with a pencil than get on the trainer again, I started to train by backcountry skiing and skinning uphill as fast as I could. I did my bike intervals on skis.
Backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering had been my main sport since I was 18, before bike racing took over and I didn't ski for nearly 4 years. Living in Crested Butte where it was in my backyard, it was an easy way to train and reignited my love affair with the snow. But approaches in Crested Butte are flat and long before you actually get to climb any mountains, and I didn't have a snowmobile. I had seen many people zipping around snowmobile tracks on fat-tired bicycles, and I wondered, probably aloud...
"Hey, I wonder if I could ride a fat bike out to the mountains with all my ski gear, stash the bike somewhere, transition to skins, and climb and ski the ridges and peaks I want to access?"
On a whim, I pitched my idea to Fatback Bikes, and they liked it. Soon I had a shiny new full carbon 22 lb Fatback Corvus at my doorstep, and it was game on. I was riding my fat bike to access the skiing on awesome terrain, all under the power of my own two legs. I loved it. It was a completely new way to explore. After only a couple months of doing the bike-to-ski thing, I received a Facebook message from a random guy named Anthony.
"What's this bike-to-ski thing you're doing? Looks pretty cool."
"I have to ride the trainer all winter to prep for bike racing season and I've been doing it for seven years and I'm bored. This seemed like a more fun way to train." I was used to random messages like these.
"Do you realize pretty much no one else is doing this?"
"Yep," I said. "I know because I can't find any partners."
"I'm a filmmaker, and I'm shooting some footage for this fat bike adventure film I'm going to make. Would you be interested in taking part in it?"
Wait, what? "Ummmmm sure?" I stammered. A film? Huh. Pretty cool.
Months went by, and I didn't hear anything more. Oh well, I thought. Whatever. I went about doing my thing and started my race season. I went to Guatemala in March to race, fell in love with the country, and planned to move there in the fall when the season was over to spend some time training.
Then one day in May out of the blue, I got a phone call from Fuzzy, the brand manager at Fatback. The call that changed my life.
"Do you have a passport?" Yep.
"Want to go on a trip in a month to an undisclosed location to ride for a film? We'll be gone for two to three weeks. I can't tell you where it is yet but I promise it'll be awesome."
"YEAH!! Umm... I mean, I need to see if I can get the time off of work. I'm sure they'll be cool. But I need to make sure." I was still working as a physical therapist, limited part-time in the racing season and nearly full-time in the winter.
I had made it very clear when I was hired there over two years before that my athletic endeavors were an incredibly high priority to me, and that I would be gone a lot during the summer. I didn't think there would be a problem. I lined up another therapist to take my place and approached my boss with the opportunity. They waited two weeks to give me an answer, and unfortunately, their answer was no. Apparently I had far overreached my unpaid time off quota. Damn.
The next day I left for a mountain bike coaching clinic in Whistler and I spent 5 days thinking about it. It was only two weeks now until we would leave for the trip. The feeling inside when I thought about the opportunity was a full-body, resounding HELL YES. I would be crazy to turn this down. I had spent the past 8 years of my life working my ass off as an athlete to be handed opportunities like this one. I would regret it forever if I said no.
On my way back, I called Fuzzy and told him I was 100% in and to go ahead and buy my ticket. He told me we were going to Iceland and I was psyched. I went back to Crested Butte and gave my notice at work, shocking everyone in my life from my boss to my family and friends and then-boyfriend who I was in the middle of a breakup with. They all thought I had gone off the deep end from the breakup and lost my mind. I was quitting my job and going to Iceland to be in a movie. I had a modest amount of savings, a small income from my side-business of coaching, and no backup plan. It was a risk, for sure. To most people I was nuts. But to me it was the clearest decision I had ever made in my life. There was no other way. Two weeks later I was on a plane.
The team was six of us: myself, athlete Pat Smage, Greg Matyas the owner of Fatback, Fuzzy John Mylne the brand manager of Fatback, First Tracks Productions owner/videographer Anthony Cupaiuolo, and photographer David Braun. We traveled all over the southern part of Iceland for nearly three weeks, riding and filming all day and all night. We were there in the last few weeks of June, so it literally did not get dark. It was the craziest experience to be riding bikes at 3 am with no lights, finishing the ride at 5, drinking a beer, eating dinner, crashing for a couple hours before waking up to gobble down breakfast and do it all again.
Iceland is a beautiful, stark, desolate, remote, and rugged place. You'd have to see it for yourself to really believe it. It's got the gnarliest weather of any place I've ever been in the world. It was so windy that Pat and I literally blew off our bikes multiple times. We had to yell to hear what anyone was saying when we were three feet away from each other. It never really got above 50 deg F.
The kindness and friendliness of our Icelandic hosts, the guys Bergur, Johann, Gudberg, and Benedikt from the company Lauf Cycling, was a highlight of our trip. I was the first of the team to arrive, and Bergur picked me up from the airport, frazzled and jetlagged. He whisked me off to a beautiful apartment who belonged to Benedikt, the owner of Lauf. He told me to get some sleep and he would be back at 10 pm to take me for a bike ride. Ummm... okay?!
When I woke up, there was a message telling me that my Land Cruiser (Icelandic-style and HUGE) was outside, keys were waiting for me, and so was a bike that I could ride until my Fatback Corvus arrived with the rest of the team. Wow. Soon, Bergur showed up and we were off to ride through some of the most beautiful terrain I'd ever seen -- singletrack running through thick fields of lupine flowers that smacked my hands as I rode past, leaving their sweet scent in the air.
The next day the rest of the team arrived. A quick nap and we were off for our first day of filming. Except for one small problem -- it was PISSING down rain and the wind was nearly whipping our Land Cruiser off the road. It was so foggy that Bergur driving could not find the trailhead that he had been to a million times before. I sat in the back seat, wide-eyed. Surely we were not going out in this?!
Well, we finally found the trailhead, and the Icelanders jumped out, cheerful as always like it was a bright sunny day, and started readying their bikes and gear. Gulp. We ARE going out in this. I zipped up my jacket, took the biggest bite of harden the fuck up I could muster, and jumped out into the driving rain and near-freezing temperatures.
The ride turned out to be one of the most memorable of my life. Making our way through the fog past eerie hulking mountains and bubbling sulfur steam vents, riding over slick rocks and shouldering our bikes up sharp cliff faces, and in the middle of the ride coming to a legit thermal spring where we all stripped down and soaked before riding off into the rain again.
We finished that ride at 5 am and stopped into a gas station to get some food, the American team all dazed and awed at what we had just been through and the Icelanders with the same huge grins and endless energy they started with. It was definitely the most unique ride I've ever had and I got a new appreciation for what HTFU really means. ("Bad weather" anywhere else in the world no longer fazes me.)
Riding for Off The Beaten Path opened my eyes to the world of expedition cycling. The dictionary defines an expedition as "a journey undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration, research, or war." In those three weeks, I felt like we had just been through all three of those things. I was beaten up, exhausted, wide-eyed, and I was hooked. I also had no job, no home and no boyfriend to come back to when it was all over. All my experiences behind me, the unknown in front of me, and the present nothingness. Endless possibilities.
I had been hyper-focused on racing my bike since 2008, putting racing and training above everything else in life in order to compete in ultra-endurance mountain bike racing at a high level around the USA and the world. It was awesome and I loved it. But with that trip to Iceland my world exploded and expanded.
I was made aware of what is possible when you use creativity, resourcefulness, persistence, a heap of grit, and a bit of stupidity and luck and get some great people on your side. I realized that racing, while it had given me so much over the years and had certainly made me a stronger athlete and a better human, had become a limitation to where my legs, wheels, and mind could take me. I realized that the time had come to evolve.
I knew that I no longer had to give up my passions of alpine running, fat biking, backcountry skiing, and ski mountaineering to just focus on riding my mountain bike. -- I could combine them by designing my own creative projects anywhere in the world, and bring others along for the ride. I could tell stories and take photos and inspire people to get out there and choose their own adventure, in sport and in life. I could make my athletic life, hell, my ENTIRE life, whatever I wanted it to be -- I was limited only by my own creativity.
In July of 2015 I returned from Iceland, said goodbye to my life in Colorado, moved into my van, and canceled all but a select handful of my races for that next season. I cranked into overdrive my side-business of movement coaching, speaking, my freelance writing projects, and my athlete sponsorships. I fell headfirst into the world of multisport expedition and full-time travel and haven't looked back since.
Here are some photos from my experience in Iceland while filming for Off The Beaten Path. I hope you enjoy them, and maybe they'll inspire you to get off the fence and plan your own adventure. After a year of touring film festivals in 2016, Anthony released Off The Beaten Path free for everyone to enjoy on Vimeo. Give it a watch. It's fun. :)