There I said it…I’ve had the pleasure of riding some of the most amazing bikes in the industry: carbon, ti, steel, full squish, rigid, you name it. Despite all the amazing technology out there, it never ceases to amazing me that the piece of the bike that helps move it forward is the one that is most exposed to the elements: dirt, water, grit, and grime. This would be the drivetrain of course. I’ve always thought it would be cool to have a totally enclosed drivetrain, i.e. – a driveshaft like on some motorcycles, but alas, we’re still here with chains.
When they work right, chain drive systems are amazing. Electronic shifting was a huge leap forward. Single chain ring drivetrains revolutionized the MTB world.
At the end of the day though, they all seem to be working with an inherently flawed system. Enter Gates carbon belt drives. With a nearly maintenance free system, that is almost totally silent, it offered some promise to help break the chains (man, that was a stupid pun!) of the chain drive world.
So why hasn’t the belt drive system gotten more traction? The challenge is that to run a belt drive system, you must have a compatible frame – meaning there has to be some sort of apparatus that can allow the one-piece belt to slide through the frame and into place. Luckily for us, our good friends over at Bronto Bikes got us dialed on some belt drive splitters when they were making our frames.
The first up on the belt-drive extreme makeover was the Bronto Willy singlespeed. After years of talking 32×18, 33×20, etc., it was a change to no longer talking gear ratios. Belt drives operate with a different set of gear ratios.
This is easily done, however, with a handy calculator located on Gates’ website. In the initial set-up, belt tension is a critical item. This can be measured in a couple ways, from an iPhone tension app to a specifically designed tensionmeter to squeeze testing it. The latter is least advisable, though often used.
Our initial test rides on the singlespeed revealed, well, not much. I say not much in a good way – silence. It just plain worked, no metal on metal grinding, no squeaks, just pure simplicity.
Though it was silent at first, I was advised to pick up a can of silicone lube at the hardware store to keep any dust and grit from leading to a noisier ride later.
Of course, the belt is a frequent talking point on the trail. From “How do you like that thing?”, to “Man, that is cool”, to “Stupid singlespeeder” are all phrases that are often heard…so get used to hearing some comments!
Though I spend most of my time on a singlespeed, we really wanted to dial in some killer, low-maintenance, geared bikepacking rigs. We don’t really like getting bitten by the upgrade bug later, so we went all in. S&S couplers, titanium, Thomson, Rohloff…and Gates Belt Drive of course!
Winter hit the mountain so we haven’t had much of a chance to pedal the Rohloff rigs yet…but there is no doubt they’ll prove to be just a reliable as the singlespeed version. The one challenge is that the sliding dropout on the Rohloff bikes does not have a tensioning bolt, which makes setting the proper belt tension almost impossible. Hopefully that won’t negatively affect the longevity of the belt.
We’ve definitely got some testing in mind for the belt set-ups coming up in 2015. Some desert training rides, 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, Leadville 100, and some to-be-decided bike packing destinations all should put the belts to the test. Looking forward to putting some more time on the belts and to minimal maintenance in the process.
In the meantime, there is some snow in the hills, and some skin track to put down.
Copyright 2014 Roam Life, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
My name is J. I am a trail builder and bike shop owner. I have been immersed from head to toe in the bicycle world for 30 years. This is a story about how I fell in love with a different kind of bike, an orange bike from Austria with a 400cc motor.
I knew about moto guys and their amazing skills on mountain bikes. I saw the ease at which these guys controlled their bicycles in the woods. Something was quite different about these guys. They were comfortable at very high speeds and they could handle obstacles and terrain changes easier than most of my mtbing friends. They made “Brraaappp” noises while we pedaled through the woods and most typically they seemed to be having the most fun of all of us.
I had a Honda 3-wheeler when I was a kid for a short while. It was an x-mas gift that my Dad and Step-mom bought me. My mother was not happy about this purchase. I loved the power, and the thrill of this little machine. Unfortunately, one of our neighbors broke his leg on the 3-wheeler and it was sold without my consent.
I took some serious lumps on this bike as I learned quickly that there is no such thing as a good dual sport bike.
I had no intention to be hooked on moto riding, it just sort of happened. At first I started with a Suzuki DRZ 400. This bike is claimed to be a great dual-sport bike. It was claimed to be good, both on and off road. It was neither. I took some serious lumps on this bike as I learned quickly that there is no such thing as a good dual sport bike. It was piss poor on the road and maybe worse in the woods. It felt fast to me, but in hindsight it was mostly top heavy and slow through the woods.
In about 3 turns I realized that these guys had been riding longer than I had been alive and that I had no chance in hell to keep up with their “easy” pace.
Not long after I got this bike, I was invited out in the pine barrens of New Jersey with a bunch of guys on an “easy” Sunday ride. Most of these guys were 20-30 years older than me. They walked slow and they basically had none of the marks of the fast guys I knew from mountain biking.
In about three turns I realized that these guys had been riding longer than I had been alive and that I had no chance in hell to keep up with their “easy” pace. It was disheartening to get dropped so badly but I figured I had to learn the hard way. On that particular ride, I managed to drive a sharp stick through the radiator, and after a long push of the bike back to the road, I swore I would not ride this bike in the woods again.
I soon bought a KTM EXC. All the fast guys rode these orange beasts and I knew that I would figure it out sooner or later. It was a mean bike, maybe more than I could handle but I was determined. I quickly learned about suspension tuning, various costly repairs and basic bike setup. There was so much to learn and I was so excited at each new element I dug into.
So little of what makes sense on bicycles carries over to motorcycles.
I competed in a few harescrable races and quickly determined that I cared for my life more than my competition. I got knocked off the bike and I had enough. I was in the top ten but the racing really turned me off. It seemed like a competition to see who might out red-neck their buddies. I remember sitting at the start line with 40 guys all revving the hell out of their bikes for no apparent reason. It was fast and I learned a lot in a hurry, but in the end I was happy to go ride with a few racer types on my own terms. I quickly found a few guys who rode a lot and they taught me countless things that I would have taken much longer to figure out on my own. So little of what makes sense on bicycles carries over to motorcycles.
Fast forward to the present day…I now do a handful of dual sport rides a season and mostly trail ride on trails that are a bit tougher than what we mountain bike. These dual sport rides are usually 80-100 miles a day. They are mostly on private land. You pay a fee for access to trails that are otherwise off limits most of the year. It is a great way to ride some amazing single track with good friends and have a blast.
As a mountain biker I appreciate the fact that so many of the trails we ride on bicycles were first cut by motorcycles. I love the acceleration and the power to climb hills and mountains that are simply too much for a bike to climb. I am simply amazed by what is possible on a dirt bike. It has been an interesting journey to get to a point where I feel equally at home on a KTM as I am on my Cannondale.
It is interesting that my cycling friends look at me as a moto guys and my moto friends see me as a bicycle guy. Luckily I don’t need to choose just one. I think they compliment each other nicely.
Jason Fenton owns Halter’s Cycles in Monmouth Junction, New Jersey. When he isn’t slinging bikes out the shop door, Jason is trail building, riding bikes with the cutest daughter and raddest wife in the world, or hopping on his KTM to tear up some dirt.
Copyright 2014 Roam Life, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Geoff Harper is one of those adventurers that feeds off the challenge of the adventure itself. Traveling can be overwhelming for some people. Not for Geoff. In fact, he goes out of his way to find the more difficult ways to experience a new land. Like traversing Iceland’s South Coast the hard way, by beach, using roads only as a last resort. He embarked on his journey in August and toured the gorgeous country by cutting through 500 miles of Icelandic beachfront. After finishing over three weeks of fat bike cycling through severe wind, rain, and conditions that can make you question your own sanity, Geoff sat down and chatted with Roam Life about the experience.
One thing I noticed about you is that you are really good at bike porn.
That’s probably an extension of my design background. I used to design plastics packaging, which is basically cell phones – how they look. I have a fairly keen eye for linear design, keeping everything very symmetrical which is the same approach I used for engineering as when I look at or style a bike.
I was also big into motorcycles. Symmetry is something I look for and I think that’s something that actually lends into the way a bike rides. The balance that you perceive when you look at a bike is somehow aesthetically pleasing and somehow translates into the manner in which the bike handles and rides.
We read that you had done some mountaineering in Iceland.
Actually, my mountaineering experience has been in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. I had been to Iceland once before but not to hit the glaciers or to do any mountaineering. I would like to get back to do some mountaineering in Iceland now that I’ve seen it. My experience is climbing the Cascades and on Denali which I summited in 2009.
What made you decide to go to Iceland for a cycling trip?
Growing up in the UK, my best friend, Olaf, was from Reykjavík, Iceland. His mother lived in London and his father lived in Iceland. Every summer holiday he’d go back and spend time with his father. At the end of the summer holidays, we would regroup and he would talk about what he’d been doing all summer time. He would have gone glacier walking to geysers and in the middle of the summer time it stays light for 24 hours. This stuff that was completely off the wall for me as a kid. I think it went in at a very young age and I’ve always had this interest and fascination but never really had the opportunity to go and check it out. With the fat bike, and trying to come up with an adventure that was suitable it just seemed perfect.
Where did the idea to use a fat bike come from?
Iceland has always been somewhere I wanted to go and it came about that way. I was doing these big long rides in the Rockies throughout the winter. I would go out for a day on these solo rides through the passes and this is where I started to think, “Alright this is cool. I am getting strong on the bike. I can see what it can do. Where can I take it? Where can I go? What kind of adventure can I come up with?” And then somewhere along the line I connected the dots: Iceland, fat bike, and started to look at the beaches.
How much preparation did it take on your part to prepare for a trip like this in terms of logistics?
One of the first things I did was buy some books by different authors. One that stands out is Arctic Cycle by Andy Shackleton. It’s a really good read. He actually did the ring road going all the way around the outside of the country. He’s a British guy too. I contacted him and asked him what he thought of my idea and he said it would be tough but doable. Once I heard the word “doable” I decided this is what I am doing and it all started to solidify.
It’s a very strange dynamic of human experience to go from extremes within such a short period of time and to be dealing with that. It’s incredible.
I started research by contacting the Icelandic Search and Rescue to find out what maps they use because maps are very hard to get a hold of for Iceland. I guess population density doesn’t lend itself too much to the demand for maps, especially not for what I was doing. I talked to those guys and they told me of a cartographer based in Iceland called Ferdakört. They have incredible maps of everywhere I needed to go. Then I really started to go through what gear I would need.
A lot of the gear was borrowed from my mountaineering. I improvised. I was going to go with panniers at first but then I got to chatting with my good friend, Joe, at J Paks. I met him through the same bike shop I bought the bike at and he schooled me on this new style of bike packing. It was phenomenal. The packs were actually a huge part of the trip and made it easy to manage my gear and keep important parts of the gear dry.
I just messed around with setups. It took a couple of months of honing the gear and checking out ideas and looking at other peoples’ set ups and talking to different people.
I didn’t really allow myself to have that self-pity. If I did, I think it would have crumbled me. I would have just packed up shop and gotten on a bus and gone home.
I ran Vee Rubbers tires. They weigh 4.5 pounds each, which is horrific, but they were the best tires for the trip. If I had run my standard winter tires I think they would have just been trashed within the first week because the lava sand and rock can be extremely coarse and the gravel goes through rubber in no time. I shredded these Vee Rubbers and they are extremely tough. They lasted the whole trip but they look like slicks now and have all kinds of scarring on the tire wall, which would have trashed a regular snow tire. The guys at 9:zero:7 suggested to “just go with the safe option because if you are in the middle of nowhere and you don’t have spares the safe option is always going to be better even if they weigh a ton.” They were exactly right.
What things did you leave up in the air? You know, “Oh, I’ll figure it out…”
The main one was actually the route because I couldn’t plan the route due to the ever changing glacial run offs, the tides, and the weather. I couldn’t plan an exact route because I didn’t know what I would come across. That would keep me up at night because I would say to myself, “Well, I know this area and I know roughly how I am going to do this.” But on any given day, depending on the time of day I was riding or if I got delayed because the tides would change, the glaciers would melt and the run offs would be higher or lower, I didn’t know whether I could ride through them or couldn’t ride through them. There were quite a few things I couldn’t really predict, including camping locations, because of this.
How do you plan for meals on a trip like this?
I laid out spots on the map where I could get food and I memorized them and I would plan according to these. I would say, “Ok. There are two days I’ll be on the sand.” and I always tried to pack an extra day of food just in case. A couple of times this was the right thing to do because usually, in Iceland, a gas station means food but sometimes the information is wrong. Somebody who lived locally would own the gas station and they would have a café attached and they would have some basic supplies there for people that are traveling and one of these was actually shut down. It was a crucial one. I got there and there was no food. I had an extra day’s food but it took another day to get to another town and stock up. As much as I planned, it didn’t necessarily fall 100% the way I wanted it to.
This was not an easy travel plan. Did you have a “shit your pants” moment?
I had a lot actually. In the beginning of the trip, I had this feeling more. The first time I got on the beach, I was hit with this moment that this was it. I was good. Then it started to get a bit weird where I thought, “Hang on a minute. Where is this going? What is this?” The third day is when the big storms and the rough stuff hit me. That was really when I started to doubt what I was doing. I had to stop myself from having those thoughts. I had this whole moment of “No. Not going to go there. It’s going to be okay.” In the cliché sense, staying positive was really what I was doing in that moment. It paid off.
I had marched into the elements with groups or friends but I had never really done it on my own before.
Traveling solo can be isolating. Did you wish for a teddy bear or a friend along the way?
I got into this process of thinking about the difference between aloneness and loneliness. I felt quite alone but I didn’t necessarily feel very lonely. It’s hard to quantify the difference between those two but loneliness is a little bit of self-pity and aloneness is more of an acceptance of being alone. In the process of thinking about those two ideas, I was okay. I’m alone. But this is temporary. I am going to be here for 3 or 4 days. I just have to push through. This is what I signed up for. I am going to be okay. I didn’t really allow myself to have that self-pity. If I did, I think it would have crumbled me. I would have just packed up shop and gotten on a bus and gone home.
There was a point when you hit the most difficult part of your trip – the Sandur. Before you got there you had “daunting knowledge that I would be traversing the legendary Sandur often described as ‘soul destroying’.” Tell us how you had mentally prepared for this and whether or not that plan really worked out once you got there.
That was one of those moments that I couldn’t necessarily plan for mentally. I knew it was going to be rough. I used my mountaineering experience. I had some rough times mountaineering. I would tell myself it’s not that bad because I’m not at altitude or it’s not that bad because it’s not -40 degrees and it’s not that bad because worse case scenario there is a road 10 miles away. I used perspective mirrors to keep dimension on where I was and what I was going through. It was a tough process and it was testing. One of the big things was having the roads so close by. If that road had not been there and I would have been way, way out in the middle of nowhere, just the knowledge that I could get to that road, even if I had to dump my gear and walk there, I had that. It was nice to know, for sure.
I spent hours riding and I would look at the GPS and I had done a zigzag route and I hadn’t really gone anywhere.
You ended with “I battled the Sandur for 3 days in total, an experience I will never forget.” So, it was a piece of cake?
It was definitely up there with the experiences I’ve had on big mountains for sure. It was rough. There were definitely times on the Sandur that it would have been nice just to chat about the plan with someone. To say, “Well, what do you think? Maybe we can do this or maybe we can do that.” But of course, I didn’t have that option so it just forced me into that mindset, “Well, okay. You are going to just have to call it.”
I read about 60 mile per hour winds and torrential rain but I thought I would just put my raincoat on and ride my bike.
The weather and visibility were the most difficult. The riding on the sand was rough. I couldn’t always tell I was headed in the right direction and I was getting battered by the rain and wind. I couldn’t see farther than ten feet in front of me. I would run across a glacial run off I couldn’t ride through and then I would have to go inland. This meant backtracking away from the westerly direction I was headed. I would have to go northeasterly to get to the road and then I would have to climb back. It was frustrating to feel like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I spent hours riding and I would look at the GPS and I had done a zigzag route and I hadn’t really gone anywhere. I was soaking wet and cold and it seemed like a lot of pain for not a lot of gain. Mentally, after a few hours of that, it ganged up on me a few times. You get those thoughts, “Maybe I will just hang out for a little while and regroup.” And that’s what I did. I tried to control that sense of frustration.
You said that you had “Moments of glassy-eyed elation followed by moments of gut-wrenching hardship” – to a person who has never done a trip like this…bring us there with you.
It’s a very strange dynamic of human experience to go from extremes within such a short period of time and to be dealing with that. It’s incredible. It is life changing. For me, that’s what defines these trips. That juxtaposed experience that highlights both ends of the adventure. I was riding through the Sandur and I felt like it was Groundhog Day. It was never going to end. I was going to be riding this thing for the rest of my life. And then all of a sudden, the terrain started to change, the sand started to even out, the wind started to calm down and I started to see the shoreline that was running along toward Vik. Right there, I snapped back into being normal and not being in this heightened state. It was very uplifting and almost instantly I forgot about the hardship. The three days that I spent suffering just completely dissipated. I don’t know whether that’s a human defense mechanism that we just shut that stuff out and maybe we shut it out temporarily and deal with it later which plays into the idea of how hard it is to write about the trip afterwards. You don’t process that stuff for a while.
Experiencing something on your own is great but if you take it to the grave with you then what use is it to anybody else?
So, there I am in this completely changed position and I was so thankful for it and was immersed and I had forgotten about the Sandur, it felt like, instantly. It’s a huge sense of relief. There were times when I also went from riding on a beautiful beach into a mess and that was a whole fearful conversation. I was scared. It was completely counterintuitive, too. I was riding from these ideal conditions to hell. I would tell myself, “This is what I came here for. Let’s do this.” Those are the moments that once you get through them you feel good about them because you overcame those fears. Being alone and doing that is something I had never done before. I had marched into the elements with groups or friends but I had never really done it on my own before.
One of our big beliefs at Roam Life is the power of people connections. How did your interactions with locals and travelers influence your adventure?
There were different levels of interactions. If I met somebody at a campsite or a store people would look at the bike and would want to know what the hell I was doing. So I had interactions with people that weren’t bike riders and weren’t riding out there. They were in a car or a coach (bus) so those interactions were limited in a sense because I couldn’t really share what I was doing with those guys but then I would meet some guys who were riding the road and who were cyclists and I could share a lot of what I was doing with those guys in a much closer way.
I didn’t meet anyone who was riding the beaches so my experience was very much my own experience and it was interesting. It was nice to talk about it with the other bike riders; especially the ones that knew about fat biking, they “got it.” They understood what I was trying to do.
When I pulled into a campsite toward the end of the trip, I bumped into an adventure scout group. At that moment I was kind of disillusioned because the trip was coming to an end and I didn’t want it to. I was ten miles from Reykjavík. I gave a little impromptu presentation. Luckily, there was a big map on the wall and I was able to point out where I started and where I would finish. They were all taken by the bike. That was one of the most powerful moments because in that moment I was sharing the trip and I was handing over elements of the trip. I could see in their faces, not just the younger scouts but the group leaders as well, I could see they were very much interested in what I was talking about that gave me value and perspective.
Experiencing something on your own is great but if you take it to the grave with you then what use is it to anybody else?
Had you considered doing this ride with a partner or group or was it always intended to be a solo trip?
With mountaineering, I had always wanted to do a solo trip but it’s such a high-risk game. I don’t think I have the skills for putting up a new route as a mountaineer. I don’t think I have the willingness to risk that much just to put up a new route. So this trip was the “putting up a new route.” It just happened to be on a bike. No, I didn’t want to do this with anybody. In fact, I had a couple of people say they wanted to do it with me but that wasn’t what the trip was about. I wanted to go and do this on my own.
Looking back, did you have any silly misperceptions or naïve understandings of what you were about to experience?
I had read about the weather but I hadn’t fully absorbed what it was. I read about 60 mile per hour winds and torrential rain but I thought I would just put my raincoat on and ride my bike. That doesn’t do it justice. When you actually get into that stuff it is pretty hard going.
I don’t know why but I thought I would see more people. Even when I went to the towns, they were very quiet; the weather pushes people inside. It’s a little eerie. I don’t think I fully appreciated that.
I tried not to go in with too many ideas of what to expect. It is what it is. I actually read some fairly conflicting stories and got conflicting opinions along the way so I decided to just go and see.
Are you dealing with post-adventure, reality bites depression?
I wouldn’t call it depression but there is a void since I got back. Dealing with the intensity of the experience and being alone while seeing amazing and different things on an every day and every minute basis then getting back to your normal life takes a little bit of work. It’s difficult to try and do the trip report while dealing with that. I train a bunch of bike guys as a strength conditioning coach. They want to talk about the trip, which is nice, and they are enthusiastic about the trip and that’s been helpful. It’s been a month long process of coming back down to Earth.
What’s your next adventure?
I came up with this idea of “The Unchained Cyclist.” I am hoping to get another belt driven bike and go off on another adventure. I have got my eyes loosely on the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. I used to live there in a place called Andora. It is one of my favorite regions in Europe. I would like to ride from the town of San Sebastian all the way through the mountains through Girona down to Barcelona. Extremely ambitious! I might have to make it a little more doable. [Planning a new adventure] gets you enthusiastic and pumped. I am a big map geek. I love maps. In my place I’ve got a big map up and I look at it for hours on end just thinking about what the next adventure will be.
When I was packing up and getting read to go home from Iceland, I wanted to lighten my load. There was no way I was going to get rid of the maps. They are my most favorite mementos of the trip because they were my guide the whole way. In the absence of having someone to talk to the maps were as much of a conversation as I could have. Between me, the maps, and the bike it was a team effort.
Did adventure for you start from the get go or was it developed over time? What was Geoff the 7 year old like?
My mom has a story that she likes to tell. When I was 5 or 6 years old, she says that if she left the gate open or let me out, I would just take off on my bike. I would just go. She would find me in random places and I would just be sat there staring at something. I didn’t know anything about road safety, I would get on my little tricycle and ride it a half a mile down the road in any direction and sometimes a bit further and she would come and find me. I wasn’t in danger and I wasn’t doing anything, I would have just stopped at a freeway or a field. She likes to tell that story. It’s possibly indicative.
Geoff today is a strength and conditioning coach. What kinds of advice/support do you give your clients?
Ever since I have been in the US I have been a trainer of some sort. I gravitate towards performance based training which is to oversee the strength and conditioning type stuff. I am a big proponent of developing strength. Even in endurance athletes because I think it’s what keeps us strong throughout big adventures. I have never had an injury. As endurance athletes, we tend to wear ourselves into the ground and don’t take care of the mechanics of the body in the manner that we should. I follow the primal blueprint methodology and did the trip in a fat oxidizing mode and stayed away from red lining. I trained specifically to become very strong and efficient at using my fat supplies for energy. Hopefully I am pushing out decent wattage for minimal expenditure. I maintained this oxidization mode throughout where I wasn’t pushing too hard and I wasn’t dealing with any of the fall out that happens when you burn a lot of carbs and sugars. This way I finished strong and finished healthy.
Finish this sentence: “When the going gets tough…”
…don’t think. Just do.
Stop thinking, in that moment when you start thinking, you have diverted your mind. If you are thinking, “Oh my God, this hurts,” just stop thinking. Your instincts will take over once you stop thinking.
A little Roam Life psychoanalysis question: When doing business in the bathroom, do you crumple or fold?
[laughing] I’d have to be a crumpler. Definitely a crumpler.
Geoff Harper is an adventure seeker and strength/conditioning coach living in Colorado. An avid mountaineer, Geoff summited Denali in 2009. Geoff will continue his adventures throughout the winter on his fat bike as the “Unchained Cyclist.”
As I travel across the United States on my bicycle, I am finding the trendy Liv/giant cycling shorts are a perfect match for my female curves.
Super light and thin, they brought me great relief while cycling through sun-scorched Eastern Washington in seething hot July weather. Since I had had bad experiences with skin reactions to silicone in the past, I was at first reluctant to wear the shorts but was positively surprised.
The tiny but very grippy silicone strips hold the shorts perfectly in place but haven´t caused me any rashes, not even in 100 degree weather! The leg beads have the exact right amount of tightness. Another greatly appreciated feature was the very comfortable rear-end padding. The short’s breathability shows the difference between high-end and cheap products. Liv/giant Team Shorts are a sure recommendation from me!
Isabel Suppé is no dweller. She doesn’t dwell on the negative. She doesn’t dwell on the past. And she sure doesn’t dwell in one place too long. Optimistic, reflective, and full of hilarious stories, it’s no wonder Isabel has picked up motivational speaking. She can turn the most terrifying, difficult, and impossible situations into a comical and refreshing opportunity. If you don’t feel like getting off your ass and doing something amazing after hearing even one of Isabel’s “Oh, this is my average day” stories, I don’t know what else will.
While climbing in July 2010, Isabel fell 1,100 feet off Ala Izquierda del Condoriri´s southeast face in the Bolivian Andes. After spending the next two days crawling over the ice with a severely exposed fracture at 16,000 feet above sea level, Isabel was finally rescued. Soon after, she was told that she would never climb again. Three weeks later, she was climbing up a rock wall in a cast.
Isabel, when I first read your story, I thought, “Holy shit.” I was blown away by how resilient you are.
The fall while climbing was actually the easy part. Everyone hears the story and thinks, “Wow, so brave.” And, of course, I was really lucky because I could have just broken my neck and been done. I have to say, if you take such a fall and are lying on a glacier and you only have two options: either die or fight for your life, of course you do what you can to fight for your life. It starts getting hard when you are lying in a comfortable hospital bed. If you lay back and say, “Well, I’m not going to go to the gym because it’s hard to get there and I have to hold crutches and everyone stares at me;” that’s when it starts getting harder.
Why go back to climbing so quickly and against doctor’s orders?
In a way it was my anchor to life and to sanity. It was also a way of making the universe more graspable and understandable. I took such a fall and then was rescued and everything had suddenly changed. I was always used to having a tremendously healthy and well-trained body. To not be able to walk all of a sudden is a very severe change. If you can at least keep on doing things that are really important to you, for instance climbing, it helps you not to lose your mind.
How did you motivate yourself to begin again?
It wasn’t a choice. I have always felt that climbing is my identity. If I stopped climbing then I wouldn’t be myself anymore. If you lose your identity, then it’s almost as if you have died.
Your climbing partner’s injuries resulted in death. Just saying that is difficult.
There has always been a sense that the best tribute to a friend who didn’t make it off the mountain is to keep on climbing. I don’t want to dwell on his death. In the past, I lost a friend who took a 2,000-foot fall. That was very horrible and it was the first time I had any contact with anything serious happening on a mountain. I was very devastated. I started to get better when I went back to the mountain. I knew that I needed to do that this time, too. I had to spend several days and nights fighting for my life and I also had to deal with serious physical injury myself. Having to fight so much for your life, somehow you also start dealing with the other person’s death. Even today, it still does not seem real.
Back on rock, did you feel that you were risking it all to climb?
There is a story my first grade teacher told us. Two little worms were living under the earth and they knew that if they went outside to enjoy the sunshine it would be dangerous. One went and enjoyed the sun and got eaten by a bird and the other stayed underground. I always thought it would be better to go out and enjoy the sunshine than die underground.
Where does this spunk come from?
Spunk? What is spunk? I do not know this word. [insert short explanation]. Oh, I was just born that way. My grandfather taught me to climb but he was a different type of adventurer. My grandfather had two passionate loves. One was mountains and the other was my grandmother. When Germany was defeated, he was stationed near the Black Sea, near the front lines. He got the note that the German army was defeated. He thought, “Great! I can finally go home.” He left immediately and walked all the way from the Black Sea back to Germany [approximately 1,500 kilometres]. That was in 1945. No Gortex, no high end gear. He had to be careful so he was not caught. He had no food and had to hide in the woods so he would not become a Prisoner of War. I asked him, “How did you survive?” His response was, “Well, I wanted to see my rocks again!”
Over the years, he kept on climbing and was diagnosed with Parkinsons Disease. They gave him one year of life. He kept on climbing and stayed alive for more than 25 years. The day he couldn’t put on his harness anymore is when he shut down and just died.
I say the germ for climbing I got from him and grandmother but really my life changed after I moved to Argentina. I had never even conceived it would be possible to go to the mountains without my grandparents. Living in Buenos Aires, I had extra vacation time and I had been saving money to buy a fridge. I didn’t have one in my apartment. Fall was coming so I decided I could just put my food on my balcony and use my money to go on a trip. So I bought a flight to Patagonia. I didn’t even have proper gear.
I went trekking around El Chaltén. It was fall so I was the only person around. It was snowing and really cold. I had on corduroy pants and had nothing that would be used for mountaineering but I thought, “Hey, this is what I want to do.” And I just kept doing it. And this is how it all started.
Your grandfather, Walter Lenk, was famous in East Germany’s climbing world.
He was a locally famous climber. He definitely was not world-renowned. I was six years old when my grandparents took me rock climbing for the first time. I was going on easy treks ever since I was born. My parents and grandparents took me on picnics before I could walk. They took me to rocks in Southern Germany and then after the Berlin wall fell they took me to Eastern Germany. My grandparents are from Eastern Germany but they fled when the Russians built the Berlin Wall. When I was 11, they took me back there.
When I was 19, I graduated from high school in Germany and moved to New Jersey on a scholarship for my undergraduate studies and finished in two and a half years. When I was about to finish, Bush was elected president and I said, “Okay, that’s it! I am leaving this country!” I wanted to see more of the world. I had taught myself Spanish so I thought, “Where shall I go for graduate studies?” I had been to Spain so I wanted to see something else. I saw the name Argentina and all I knew was that the capital was named Buenos Aires, it was in South America and there were some writers I liked from there. That’s how I got to Buenos Aires. I started to do longer expeditions after I moved to Argentina.
Living in Buenos Aires, you are surrounded by millions of people and are not close to mountains. Are you a city person at heart?
Living in Mahwah, New Jersey, I was going into the city every Saturday and to the art museums all the time but the problem was there were no mountains. Mountains are perfect if you are only into outdoors stuff. The city is perfect if you are only into culture and having a cultural life. But if you need to have some of both worlds then your life is complicated. I was about to sign up to do a PhD in Argentina and in the end I wrote the research project and everything. To be honest, my life is not supposed to be trapped in the library. I need to learn and have contact to cultured people but I need the mountains. I knew I wouldn’t dedicate myself to research the way I would need to. I moved to Mendoza and survived by translating menus for restaurants and doing mountain guiding. Living in Mendoza, I always missed something. It was contact to culture and to people who can talk about artists like Van Gogh. I still haven’t found the perfect place but I do miss Argentina a lot.
Where do you consider home?
Nowadays, since I have had to be away from Argentina because of medical conditions, I have been traveling and living in my tent. Right now, I am visiting my dad in Munich (he doesn’t make me stay in a tent here!) but my permanent address is my tent.
When doctors told you that you would never climb again, did you think, “Heck yes, I will!”
I actually did not believe it for one second. I just couldn’t. When I was on the glacier, it took me more than 12 hours to realize I was losing a lot of blood. I kept thinking it looked like a lot but it couldn’t be that bad because I would be dead by now. I had to be careful and wanted to avoid frostbite so I didn’t take my shoe off. I accepted the loss of blood. I needed my foot. I didn’t get frostbite at all. Nowadays, I know even if I had lost my foot, I would still go climbing. I don’t know how the surgeries are going to turn out but I know that if I can’t climb the way I want, then amputating might be an option because it is true that sometimes you can be better off amputating a limb and using a prosthetic than keeping a limb. I have a friend who had to make this decision. He said, “Well, better to be an amputee than a cripple,” and chopped off his foot. He goes rock climbing and ice climbing. I am not saying that’s an easy decision. I’d much rather not have to make that decision but I know should I have to, I will take it.
How many surgeries have you had since your fall in 2010?
After the accident, I spent six months unable to walk. Then I learned how to walk. Then they had to operate again. That was a one-month recovery. Then I walked again. After that, I had three more surgeries in Spain. January 25th was surgery fourteen. This surgery will have a three month recovery and then I have to learn how to walk again. That also takes time.
As the first woman to solo climb Nevado the Cachi, you became one of the “firsts.” Is this important to you as a woman?
Actually, no. It was important to me not because I was the first woman. Not because it was solo. That climb wasn’t technically difficult. It was just high and isolated. Climbing Nevado the Cachi was important to me because I was standing up there on my two feet and on my crutches after the doctor told me I wasn’t going to be able to go back to the mountain, especially at high altitude. That was the important thing. If you look at the important climbs, this was a very easy mountain. It’s true that it is very isolated so if anything happens, forget about it. No one will find you for a long time after you are dead. It takes several days of walking to return to civilization. The wind is very, very extreme and temperatures are extreme but it is not a vertical climb. I guess no woman has ever done it on her own because of fear or the loneliness. It requires a lot of exposure.
One of your best known climbs is the new route you created on your birthday, after the accident.
I felt that it was much more important to open the new route in Bolivia with Robert on the anniversary of the accident. It was included in the American Alpine Journal as one of the world’s greatest climbs. That was one of my greatest accomplishments. After a year of hospital and rehab, I hadn’t meant to do anything that difficult. I wanted to do something but not the classic climbs because I had done almost all of them and they are too crowded. He said, “Oh yea! I know what we can do. I have not been to this climb. Let’s go there!” He is a really crazy guy. He knew what I was getting into. He had climbed on crutches before, too. I am sure he thought, “She climbs on crutches. I like that, so I will take her.” What I liked about him is that he is the only one mad enough to trust a climbing partner on crutches.
Do you see yourself as a “female climber” or a climber?
Just as a climber. I don’t think it’s necessary to separate that out. If you really want to change something or feel that more women should be represented, it’s better to set an example than it is to blame. In most athletic disciplines, women compete among women because, of course, there are biological differences. We have different bodies and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that but for everything else – there are parts of the world where it is still important for women to fight for their rights but in the United States or Europe it is less the case. I’m, of course, against patriarchy, but I don’t want a matriarchy either.
When I was about to get into my PhD program, my director wanted me to get into gender studies and I said no way. It’s not my cup of tea. Cycling across the US, I thought about this a lot. It’s really true that it’s all linked – human rights. It’s not women’s rights. It’s human rights. Mental issues, gay rights, environmental issues – those things are linked because whenever there are rights that are abused, everyone suffers.
What do you have to say to those people who are just dreamin’ to quit it all and go?
Dream. Ask yourself what do you want and how do you go about making that dream come true? What is really important? Sometimes, if you take a close look, it’s not really all that important to worry about a broken dishwasher. Sometimes, if you look at it closely, you can live pretty well without a dishwasher. You can say, “Screw the dishwasher! I can hand wash my plate for a while or buy a new one but this weekend I want to have a good time.” You can go anywhere.
Tell us about Rocinante.
Rocinante is the name I gave my bicycle. [Rocinante was Don Quijote’s horse] It is actually my German grandmother´s old bicycle. I was at the German-Swiss border to Spain. I needed to get to Spain and thought the air flight was expensive. The doctor said I should cycle a lot to help in rehabilitating so I thought I could just cycle there. It is just tremendously depressing after you have been through so many surgeries to be told that you have a non-reversible condition and it can only get worse. So, you need to do something positive. I thought, “Hey, I am going to cycle there and try a new method of treatment.”
After Spain, I needed to get to an airport with a really cheap flight back to Germany. On my way, I found a sign that said ferry to Africa. I thought that was really cool and thought it would be great to cycle there. I called my brother and they had cheap flights to the southern tip of Spain. I asked my brother if he would like cycling through Morocco together. We started in Morocco and then cycled from Marrakesh to the Sahara Desert. After I finished that, we returned to Germany and I went to Spain to present my book and then left for the US and finally cycled across the US. On September 29, 2012, I finished.
What was it like riding across the US and coming across other cyclists?
I really didn’t meet any cyclists. I met this one guy who had no weight on his bike and his wife was driving behind him handing him soft drinks and booking his hotels for him. I thought that was funny. I cycled across Nevada on a really lonely road. I went through Tonopah and took the Extraterrestrial (ET) Highway and ended up in St. George, Utah. Then, I did a presentation in Boulder, Colorado and went through Nebraska and traveled as far north as Niagara Falls and then headed towards New York City.
I was traveling and doing these presentations. In Nebraska, I found myself speaking to local farmers in a barn. I had to give the speech in my cycling outfit because my clothes had been shipped ahead and I was just passing through. I spent two hours answering questions. Along the way, I spent some nights camping in a ditch or a bathroom and other nights in a millionaire’s mansion. Everything is relative.
In Boulder, I had met a climbing partner and he said he would climb in Devil’s Lake but I would have to skip some of the Midwest because of climbing. I said, “Okay! Let’s go for climbing!” I crossed all of Michigan and Ontario and re-entered the US at Niagara Falls and then dropped into New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. I finished the ride in front of Van Gogh’s, Starry Night at the MoMa. [Starry Night is the name of Isabel’s book about her climbing accident and recovery]
Why travel around the world? Why visit all of those places?
I haven’t traveled around the world. I’ve just traveled a lot. To me, it is about living the way you want to live. It’s sometimes good that more people are not like me because no one would work in the office or …well you wouldn’t be able to visit your friends anymore. They would all be traveling and you would have nowhere to stay! I love that I’m a nomad and I always know where to find my friends. It’s so hard to get left behind.
TP: Crumple or Fold?
I have never stopped to think about it. It seems too trivial! I bet I am not an orderly person. I bet I would crumple it.
Isabel Suppé is a high-altitude climber, writer, and motivational speaker. Her book, Starry Night, is being released in English in April 2013. She is a true survivor and nomad who follows her love of climbing all over the world.
For more information on Isabel and her adventurous life, visit her website.
Isabel will begin her US TOUR in June, 2013. Stay tuned for notifications on events in your area.
To read the full story, order a copy of Isabel’s book, Starry Night. Click the Buy Now below.
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Meet Noel Knecht, a 10-year cancer survivor, fashion merchandiser, marathon runner, soon to be Half Ironman finisher, and the only woman and only cancer survivor to ride every year in Tour de Pink since it’s inception in 2004. Noel has cycled and explored destinations all over the world and is one of the most humble and understated people I have ever had the pleasure to encounter. The more Noel talks, the more you want to listen. And listen I did.
A woman who met you at Tour de Pink recommended you for our Amazing Women series because you are considered, well, amazing.
I never considered myself special. I consider myself ordinary but I’ll take it.
I was diagnosed [with cancer] on January 15th, ten years ago. Basically, I look back at that year and I have to laugh because it was just one of those pretty crazy years.
July of that year I broke up with my boyfriend of ten years. Then a couple weeks after that, I lost my job and then, I actually enjoyed my summer. It was a transition time and then September 11th happened and I lived right in New Jersey right across the river and experienced and lived that whole event.
After all that, I met someone who I really liked. At the same time, I started going through some tests. My gynecologist had found a lump. I always hated my OBGYN so I kept going to a different one and a different one. I always felt guilty talking to them – they were these old guys…and so I found a woman and she found a lump. I said, “Oh it’s just fibrous. I’m young and athletic.” She said, “No, I want you to go check it out.”
When I was diagnosed with cancer, my doctor said, “You are going to fight it, you are going to beat it, and you are going to live a long life.”
I had gone alone because I thought it was just a routine test. My breast surgeon sat me down and said, “Well, you have cancer.” I looked at her with disbelief. The first thought was, “I’m going to die.” I didn’t cry or anything but then she said, “You need to call someone. I am not letting you drive home.” I called my mom and I couldn’t even tell her. I started crying. It was a big change.
I remember going into surgery and all the nurses called me while I was on the table and said, “You know, we’re thinking about you.”
How has this experience changed you?
It’s amazing how many people you meet that have been touched by cancer. I think in my whole circle of friends everyone knows someone close to them that has been affected by it. You naturally find your support group. It just kind of happens. It’s the one lucky thing that happened.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, my doctor said, “You are going to fight it, you are going to beat it, and you are going to live a long life.”
I ended up having over two centimeters of tumor on the left side. On my right side, it was like a Christmas tree lit up. I was infested with calcifications. I had a double mastectomy and then had a positive result on a lymph node which led me to the oncologist who gave me the same diagnosis. She said that the best doctor to help was the one I had been seeing in Hackensack so I stayed with Dr. Capko. Dr. Capko and Dr. Alter, my oncologist, are both amazing people. I look forward to seeing Dr. Alter every year for my check ups.
I became friends with the nurses and I remember going into surgery and all the nurses called me while I was on the table and said, “You know, we’re thinking about you.” It was a great feeling. I was 32 and my diagnosis meant a more aggressive form of treatment for chemotherapy. I did chemotherapy for 6 months. At the same time I was going through expansions for breast reconstruction and getting those filled up. I think the hardest part was losing the hair. I didn’t care about my breasts; it was more about the hair. I don’t know why, I think it was just more visible.
I ended up having over two centimeters of tumor on the left side. On my right side, it was like a Christmas tree lit up.
Everything you read says that day 14 is when you lose your hair. I was on a date with a guy I had been seeing and he went over to kiss and caress me and he put his hand through my hair and a clump came out. I was horrified. He was great. He had dated someone before who had cancer. This was also why he ended up breaking up with me. He just couldn’t handle going through it again. It was good for me because it was almost a soul searching time for me. I was always with someone and I learned a lot about myself and gained a lot of independence through it.
When I die, I don’t want to be known for working 80 hours a week. I want to know that I lived my life to the fullest.
That’s where I started to thrive as a person. It changed my outlook a little bit. I think I ran every day up until my last two weeks of chemo. I was so tired. I stopped running. I stopped running for a couple of years. I just let it get away from me.
When you lost the ability to run, what did you find to replace it?
The new thing I did was started traveling alone. I always have to have something on the calendar. My life is empty without it! I can be very shy at times and I have a lot of friends that were shocked that I just would go and do it. It’s like my own little challenge to myself that I can do it. I can go to a foreign country where no one speaks English and survive and see new things and meet new people. That’s how I’m living life now. I live to travel. I don’t over work myself anymore. I think that’s the other thing I learned. I have my job and I like my job but it’s not my end all be all. When I die, I don’t want to be known for working 80 hours a week. I want to know that I lived my life to the fullest.
What made you move from trying to become healthy to wanting to complete a Half Ironman?
I’m training for my first half triathlon. I have a new found respect for people who are doing these things because it is HARD. It’s such a commitment. I hired a coach [shout out to Shawn and Aly!] and everything. It takes a lot of time and it’s exhausting. I just want to finish it and that’s it. I’m doing that on September 23rd in California. I figured if I am going to do a triathlon then I want to have a nice view and enjoy the scenery.
I also ran my first marathon in January. I am probably going to do another one – this is the corny piece of me. There was one here in Oklahoma [the Route 66 Marathon] and I really liked the medal they have so I really want to do it. It’s really corny but at least it motivates me.
You have a tremendous commitment to ride every year in the TdP. What makes you come back every year?
I think it’s the people. When I did the first year, it was more about the challenge and kicking cancer’s butt. Saying, you know, you aren’t going to stop me. The first year there were only five of us. We went from Boston to NY (Original YSC story). It was really grass roots because we stayed at peoples’ homes. I’d ridden a bike before but never really cycled seriously before. I don’t think I even really trained for it. I just did it.
There is a unique attitude for women that are going out and riding bikes for the first time. They are so proud to just be riding.
You know, each year it grows and grows but each year you meet these amazing people that have these amazing stories. I think when you are a survivor you can think you have it the worst and you meet others and you hear their stories and they handle them differently and they are all so important and amazing and inspiring. I think that’s the part that keeps you going.
There are a lot of cancer organizations and events. Why did you choose to bike?
There is a unique attitude for women that are going out and riding bikes for the first time. They are so proud to just be riding. Every year, it feels like a family reunion. You won’t talk to someone all year but then you see them for Tour de Pink and it’s like you saw them yesterday. They are family.
You are riding through these towns and people are asking you what you are doing and we tell them we are riding for the Young Survival Coalition focused on young women with breast cancer and they tell you their stories.
They ask for information and we pass it on; we get donations while we are on the bikes. It keeps me focused and healthy as a survivor. Meeting new survivors that come and do the ride I’m able to work with them and inspire them to keep moving on.
It’s incredible how many men do the ride. I think because it is a cycling event it attracts men and they have stories as well that their wives or sisters or someone they know has been affected. For them to hear each other or meet other women that are survivors gives them hope and an extra kick. It’s pretty amazing.
I feel like I owe the YSC a lot because it’s the first organization I found when I started looking for support when I was diagnosed. It’s difficult enough to go online and research cancer – you have to be careful what you find – it can be depressing. Besides the American Cancer Society, YSC is the only other organization I found. I partnered with them and I remember seeing the request for Tour de Pink and they were planning to do this whole ride. I thought, “Okay, let’s do it.” I made some really amazing friends and connected to really great resources through them. Now, I share it with everyone else. It can be scary when you are young.
Cancer can be the best thing that ever happened to me. If I never had cancer I never would have met all these people that are in my life. It sucks that we had cancer but we got to be in each others’ lives. My boyfriend, Dustin, I met at a Tour de Pink event. His ex-fiance (cyclist and friend to many in the industry, Michelle Weiser), passed from cancer. We talk a lot about her to keep her memory alive. It’s interesting how all these things interconnect.
As a traveling adventurer, do you have another trip ahead of you?
I’m planning to go away in December. It’s a trip that Dustin and I are looking at – Thailand. We just did a trip to the British Virgin Islands. We went to a different island every day and explored. For me, I have to see something new every day and explore. I can’t just sit in a hotel. We went to Virgin Gorda and there is this small café on top of this mountain. I swear, it was something out of a little post card. It was this little white shack.
A woman from the US opened it and she just makes sandwiches and serves the best piña colada ever. Some of the locals would go there with their dogs and hang out. Sitting and talking to this woman was amazing. She had just decided to come to the island with her husband and there she was. I was almost envious because she was so happy. I just remember the breeze and perfect blue sky and the sun and the view was stellar and amazing.
When I travel, I love architecture and buildings but really it’s just the people. The people are amazing.
What is a good morsel of travel advice?
People don’t travel enough. They need to get out and meet these people to get over these pre-dispositions for what these people are. Some of the best experiences I have had were in Muslim countries. You need to travel because it will totally change what you think. The people you meet are amazing and you’ll be surprised by how they open up their homes and meals to you.
I did a back roads trip in Morocco and Portugal on a bicycle and I got to see so much. I spent a couple of days in Marrakesh by myself. I had one issue with one gentleman not letting me in because I was a woman but everyone else was so friendly and wonderful.
People don’t travel enough. They need to get out and meet these people to get over these pre-dispositions for what these people are.
When I was in Turkey I got to celebrate Ramadan. These people I met said I needed to come and celebrate. I was nervous because I didn’t know what it meant but for them to open their homes and share this with me was so cool.
Your story is incredibly inspiring to people. Many people say, “I wish I could do what you are doing.” What advice would you give to those wanting to make their life more meaningful?
You can do it. It’s all about finding who you are and being brave. It might be starting small and doing small things every day first. If I think about how I formed and did a lot of these independent things it started small like, going to the movies alone. Or going to eat dinner alone. And going to a restaurant and sitting. I think it’s also starting to love yourself and really taking care of yourself. I was always putting everyone ahead of me and it probably hurt me. I think it’s going deep within and saying, “Yeah, I can do it.”
Talking to your friends about it and say, “Hey, I did this today.” That’s what kept me going. The first vacation I did by myself, I was nervous. The first Tour de Pink I did, I was nervous. When it came down to it, it didn’t matter. It was about going there and meeting people and having that support because you naturally find that support where you least expect it.
It’s amazing where and how people want to help other people and they are there and no one is judging you. I think people need that extra push and someone to say, “You know, you are going to be okay.” I was nervous and am still nervous but it’s not going to stop me. I think once you start telling people your stories they get it. I even think about this whole triathlon thing and the training. It was so hard to start and to find the time and someone else told me, “You’ll find the time.” I dedicated time to it and I get tired and would rather stay in bed sometimes but I have found the time.
A few on the road questions: What’s the best meal you’ve made on the road?
I make this crazy salad. I call it my “antioxidant omega three salad.” I love cherry tomatoes. I like to take those and cut them up and get English cucumbers and chop them up with avocado and dark meat tuna. Then I add anchovies. I like them, I don’t know why. And then I add some peppers, olive oil, and red wine vinegar with sunflower seeds. It’s easy, refreshing and super healthy with protein. It always makes me feel energized.
TP Question: Crumple or fold?
I’m a crumpler. I thought you were going to ask me if I was over or under. I am probably not very sustainable in my tp needs. I don’t know what a lot is when it comes to tp because to be sustainable does anyone really use one sheet? Honestly, but I live alone and I go through a lot of tp. Maybe I just don’t keep track. I might not be doing the environment very well.
Noel Knecht is an adventurer, cyclist, cancer-survivor, and amazing woman. She is currently training for her first half triathlon and the Route 66 Marathon. Preparing for the 2012 Tour de Pink (both East AND West), Noel continues to bring people together and awareness to cancer.
To follow Noel (or better yet hit the side lines and cheer her on), here are some upcoming events: