Two parents, one trail, one double bike.
Chris and Marni Plesko of Westminster, Colorado, have achieved an uber-impressive bikepacking feat. Last week, they became the first tandem cyclists to tour all 540 miles of the Colorado Trail. They completed the ultra-endurancey Colorado Trail Race (CTR) in just 10 days.
Recently, the athletic parents of two set their sights on a tandem send of Colorado’s longest backcountry bike trail, the Colorado Trail. In an interview with Bikepacking, Chris Plesko indicated that the goal was more or less born in quarantine:
“With us both having to parent and teach throughout the challenging pandemic, our short outside rides and runs were often the only alone time we had together. We began dreaming of an adventure together, and when we realized how much we loved riding tandem, we just decided to give the CTR a shot. We knew it would be incredibly challenging, but that was a big part of the draw.”
“… [Ignore] all the naysayers who call it a divorce bike,” Marni added. “It’s way more doable than it seems and so much fun to ride together.”
We caught up with Chris and Marni to hear how the ride went, and we took a deep dive into their record-setting gear!
Riding the Colorado Trail Tandem
To prepare for the 2021 Colorado Trail Race, the Pleskos trained multiple systems. They put hours into long tandem rides, sussed out their technique across all manner of terrain, and lifted weights regularly.
Registered under codename “The Parent Trap,” the couple set off atop their fresh MTB Tandems Fandango bike in the early hours of July 25. Along for the ride? A shared wealth of endurance experience, general familiarity with the route and the CTR, 37 pounds of pure bike, and another 40 pounds of bikepacking gear. (For the Pleskos’ full gear list, scroll down.)
Chris had attempted it four times prior, finishing it once in 2017; the 2021 attempt would be the couple’s first as a team. Over the next 10 days, the Pleskos would negotiate switchbacks, hoist their 75-pound “bear” of a setup over impassable terrain, weather downpours, and endure alpine temps. Reportedly, both riders relished every mile of the journey.
The Colorado Trail
The Colorado Trail is a highly technical bikepacking route that runs from Littleton to Durango and boasts a dizzying 75,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. Much of the journey soars 10,000 feet above sea level or more. The route is mostly unpaved singletrack, winding through a wide array of climes and ecosystems.
Bikepacking.com gives the Trail a difficulty rating of 9/10, putting the typical completion time at 13 days. Yup, you read that correctly: The tandem-bound Pleskos beat the average expected time for a solo rider by 2.5 days.
Interview With the Pleskos
GearJunkie Editor in Chief Adam Ruggiero caught up with the Pleskos after their return home from the Colorado Trail.
GearJunkie: The CO Trail is gnarly. When did things get especially hairy or difficult?
Chris & Marni Plesko: It got difficult on the tandem right away. The trail leading out of Durango pretty quickly has some tight switchbacks that the tandem can’t clear. We found ourselves walking nice and early on.
Other than “routine” trail obstacles like tight switchbacks or sketchy water crossings, the first major obstacle requiring an extensive hike-a-bike was on The Sliderock right before Kennebec Pass. From there, shoving the bike up and over the steep, big rocks of Indian Trail Ridge required some teamwork.
And that was just day one … it didn’t really get any easier from there. More than once we were committed to downhills where there was no stopping, and sending it was the only good option. Thankfully, we never crashed in those spots!
About how much hike-a-bike did this require?
C&M: A lot. We often joked that we weren’t really riding the trail on a tandem, but rather taking the tandem for a nice push on the trail. We only had our Apple watches on for 12 hours a day and they still recorded a total of 155 miles of walking over the 10½ days.
We estimate we spent about half of the total time hike-a-biking and probably ¼ of the total distance. Considering that the tandem weighed about 75 pounds loaded, pushing it that much was no minor feat. Our morning runs and hiking training definitely came in handy.
How did you train for this record?
C&M: Consistency was key for us. We are parents of two young boys, so getting out for lots of big days was out of the question. We maintained a consistent pre-work running routine, did some weight lifting in the garage (squats, deadlifts, etc.), and tried to get in 1-2-hour rides as often as possible. We managed a few longer days of training here and there, but mostly relied on the consistency of riding some each day.
A few weeks out from the race, we managed two “binge” weeks with lots of climbing while the kids were at summer camp, which was a nice final boost of our fitness. When we could get the boys to go with us, we also hiked Sanitas in Boulder to start the day, and we even managed a Mount Elbert summit as a family before the race. That one was big for the boys at 13+ miles and 5K feet of elevation gain.
We also camped in Leadville in our van as often as possible, and when we couldn’t get up high, we slept in a Mile High Training altitude tent.
Any mechanical issues along the way? Any wildlife encounters?
C&M: No major mechanical issues on our Fandango at all! It held up like a champ through the various weather and terrain conditions. We put in a new set of brakes in Buena Vista (the rears were basically gone), but otherwise, we escaped without anything breaking or flatting on us despite two crashes! Drew at the bike shop in Buena Vista was awesome in getting everything dialed back in after 300 miles on the trail and a crash.
As far as wildlife encounters, we saw lots of big, fat marmots, a couple of moose outside of Leadville that we slowly backed away from, lots of deer and elk, and lots of glowing eyes creepily watching us in the early morning hours (that we told ourselves were deer).
Can you give us a rundown of your day-to-day nutrition? What was the plan going in, and did you stick with it?
C&M: We brought a good supply of CarboRocket (333 Half Evil — black cherry- and lemon-flavored) because that’s what we typically use in training. We each had two soft flasks in our ultra running vests, and we each used one for CarboRocket and one for water. This really kept us going and consuming calories throughout the race.
Other than that we ate a lot of junk — candy (Snickers, KitKats, and Reese’s peanut butter cups were the winners), nuts, mini donuts, and little gas station pastries. We tried to eat a backpacking meal each night but on the really rainy nights we couldn’t quite pull that off and it definitely left us dragging the next day.
We both managed to eat pretty well after the first couple of days of the race, but Chris still lost almost 15 pounds. If anything, the weather near the end slowed us down and depleted our food reserves so we were rationing calories prior to our off-route detour into Jefferson to resupply.
Does having a partner on the bike ease frustration when things get tough, or can it be even more difficult?
Chris: Having done a bunch of ultras solo before, it was much easier to have someone there during the difficult moments. Sharing the experience with someone else was rewarding during the good parts and comforting during the difficult times.
It was stressful captaining the tandem in challenging terrain, knowing that I was responsible for the safety of us both, but I know Marni has total trust in my technical skills.
Marni: I’ve never had a strong desire to do this race solo. The idea of doing it with Chris was what pushed me to do it. I loved getting to have someone there (RIGHT there) to experience the highs and lows with.
I think we each came through for each other at various times throughout the 10 days, and we absolutely loved the opportunity to get to hang out together for such a long time — which hasn’t happened in the 11 years since our first son was born.
What records/challenges are you eyeing next?
C&M: We would love to tackle more big challenges on the tandem. While we wait for another opportunity to get away for a long expedition, we’d love to go back and do some rides that we’ve done on individual bikes (White Rim, Kokopelli, etc.) and lead up to another big ride like Tour Divide.
We need to balance our desire for adventure with our responsibility to our boys while they’re young, so we’ll see what the near and distant future holds!
Finally, if you had to sum up the whole ride in just a couple of words for someone else about to take it on, what would you say?
C&M: Keep moving forward … TOGETHER.
Gear List: Chris and Marni Plesko’s CTR Tandem Bike Tour
- Bike: Fandango Ultimate Race Edition from Alex at MTB Tandems
- Groupset: SRAM AXS Eagle
- Suspension: MRP Ribbon front suspension and a Thudbuster suspension seat post in the rear
- Hubs: SON28 dyno front hub and DT Swiss rear hub
- Rims: 29-inch NOX Farlow carbon rims
- Saddles: Sella Italia SLR saddle in front and Ergon saddle in rear
- Handlebar Grips: ESI Chunky grips in front, Ergon Grips in rear
- Bike-Mounted Packs: Custom frame bags and matching seat bag by Joe at JPaks Revelate Designs Pronghorn (sleep kit); 2 mountain feedbags
- Helmets: Smith (Chris notes they’re “probably too old and sun-faded but ya know …”)
- Eyewear: Rudy Project photochromic prescription sunglasses
- Shoes: Chris — Sidis; Marni — Pearl Izumi X-ALP Canyons
- Backpacks: Salomon Adv Skin 12 with 500mL soft flasks
- Electronics: Garmin inReach mini and Garmin eTrex 32x for navigation
- Lighting: K-Lite Bikepacker Ultra MTB with backup Fenix HM50R headlamps
- Repair Kit: A derailleur hanger, two tubes, extra Stans, zip ties, bolts, cleats, tire sewing kit, Kevlar spokes, Dynaplugs (regular and mega), some tapes, and glues
- Tent: Black Diamond Firstlight
- Sleeping Kit:
- Main Kits:
- Chris: “I wore a pretty standard bike kit with bibs and a jersey, crew-length wool socks, and my trusty, very old, and VERY worn white Patagonia Cap 1 long-sleeve shirt.”
- Marni: Two pairs of Specialized bibs, a Twin Six jersey, two long-sleeve Montbell shirts (synthetic and wool), and crew-length wool socks
- Rain Gear (both): Rain jackets, rain pants, gloves, and waterproof socks
- Chris: Old Bozeman Mountain Works puffy
- Marni: Montbell synthetic hooded puffy
Riding the Colorado Trail: Learn More
Or, get a tiny taste of the ultra-endurance bikepacking race with the 2016 documentary, The Colorado Trail Race: A Self-Powered Adventure by Aaron Johnson (and watch a clip below).