Climbers Try Biking—Wipeout Ensues

For renowned climbers Cedar Wright and Alex Honnold, attempting to climb 45 desert rock towers in three weeks wasn’t enough of a challenge, so they decided to bike the more than 800 miles between the towers—despite being complete novices to long-distance biking.

The seeming implausibility of their mission did not escape the adventurers, as Wright, a National Geographic grantee and expedition member, explains: “It’s all about coming up with a crazy challenge, ideally a challenge where you’re really not sure if you can pull it off but somehow, someway you do. But to have that, you have to have a challenge where you might fail.”

Biking 800 miles through the desert of the United States Southwest on the National Geographic-supported expedition, dubbed Sufferfest 2 (Wright and Honnold completed Sufferfest 1 a year earlier), wasn’t merely an exercise in self-imposed punishment, though. “We’re both environmentalists and we had talked about a way to have a lower-impact adventure closer to home and we thought bike-touring would be a good way to do it,” Wright says. “Also, even though it’s excruciatingly painful at times, bike-touring has this really beautiful, peaceful element to it. You immerse yourself in the environment and can really take it in.”

“Before this trip I had rode to the grocery store on my cruiser quite a bit, I’d done a few mountain-bike trails in Moab,” Wright jokes with a false tone of accomplishment. “I had never road-biked and I definitely had never rode more than about 15 miles on a bicycle. I did some training where basically for a couple weekends I rode like ten miles on a stationary bicycle. And then on day one of the expedition we rode over 80 miles and I was like, ‘What was I thinking? I should have trained.'”

But the sheer distance wasn’t the only challenge the explorers faced, as the weather unleashed its own wrath. “Biking into a 50-mile-an-hour sandstorm is basically a lot like riding a stationary bicycle in the sense that you’re not moving. You’re in your lowest gear giving it everything and you’re going like five miles an hour downhill,” Wright recalls, laughing. “These were conditions where your average biker would be like, ‘Screw that, I’m not going out there’ and here we are trying to bang out 40 miles on a dirt road in 60-mile-an-hour headwinds.”

Cedar Wright and Alex Honnold get caught in a wind storm while putting air in their bike tires.
Cedar Wright and Alex Honnold get caught in a wind storm while breaking to put air in their tires.

The explorers didn’t do themselves any favors by choosing routes that weren’t ideal for their bikes, but naturally they couldn’t help themselves. “We knew there was going to be over 150 miles on dirt roads, on jeep trails, on stuff that people would normally ride on a mountain bike and we had these hybrid bicycles, so we knew that it was going to be pretty punishing and rugged. And that was part of the appeal to me, that a lot of this biking was going to be off-road so we could explore some of the more remote desert towers that can only be accessed by jeep trail.”

With such unrelenting obstacles, Wright and Honnold found themselves behind schedule more than once, forcing themselves to bike through the night to make up for lost time. “One night in particular we had just endured this heinous sandstorm, we were biking through the icy mud in the middle of the night,” Wright remembers. “And Alex might be a better athlete than me, but technically on a bicycle he is definitely worse. I was like, ‘This man is in great danger of careening off in front of a semi or just wrecking at any moment.’ Especially if he was going down a steep dirt trail I was like, ‘Oh no, he’s going to die for certain.’”

Unsurprisingly, Between Wright and Honnold’s novice biking skills and the unforgiving conditions of a dark desert landscape, the adventurers narrowly averted disaster that particular evening. Check out the video to see how the explorers came out alive, but certainly not unscathed.

More amazing moments from Sufferfest 2 include Wright and Honnold rescuing an abandoned puppy and getting blasted by a sandstorm while climbing rock towers 1,000 feet up. See other exciting excursions from explorers in the field by checking out the rest of the Expedition Raw series. And you can watch the Sufferfest I and Sufferfest 2 films too.


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Nora Rappaport is a producer and editor on National Geographic's Science and Exploration Media team. She produces content that highlights the awe-inspiring work of National Geographic explorers around the globe. When not working with her colleagues to inspire people to care about the planet, Nora can be found hanging out with any number of dogs.