A Minnesota Mountain
Biker Crushes The Competition With A Smile
Alexandera Houchin is describing the mountain bike trail ahead of
us in highly technical terms.
Houchin flashes her trademark smile. Photo by Deborah Rose,
"There's some uppy-downy, then some flat and straight, and then
some switchbacks as we climb," she says. "It's pretty rad up on
Houchin's attiredenim cutoffs, a loose-fitting plain white
T-shirt, and black Birkenstock sandalsdoesn't say mountain
biker, but once she takes off down the trail on her hardtail ride,
her smooth and nimble movements reveal a preternatural talent atop
two wheels. Her long dark hair flowing behind her, her bike an extension
of her body, she dances through the trees as she rides the uppies
and downies of the 2.3-mile Pine Valley Trail on the outskirts of
Cloquether "home trail" that she rides pretty much every day
when she's in town.
On top of the ridge, the rocky terrain is, as promised, pretty
rad. Houchin rips around banked turns and flies off wooden ramps
that dot the trails, effortlessly navigating airspace and sticking
every landing in her sandal-clad feet. "This is where you forget
that you're in Cloquet," she says as the singletrack takes on a
more mountainous feel.
She should know. Though her home is here, Houchin has in the past
two years pedaled thousands of miles in off-road bike races all
aroundand even acrossthe United States, winning many
of them. Just a few weeks before today's ride, she was the top female
finisher in the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile Canada-to-Mexico race
through the Rocky Mountains that's considered one of the toughest
contests in biking. This was her second year to win the raceand
just for good measure, she did it this time on a singlespeed, which
is akin to kickboxing without kicking. In a few weeks she will go
on to win the Colorado Trail Race, a 500-mile mountain contest,
also on her singlespeed.
Asked if she's in the best physical shape of her life, she doesn't
hesitate to answer. "Right now at this moment, yes. But I feel there's
always room to improve."
Houchin's relentless drive, exuberant personality, and down-to-earth
styleshe won her first Tour Divide in cutoffs, work boots,
and a trucker hathave endeared her to the endurance biking
community, and her string of wins has established her as one of
Minnesota's top adventure athletes.
Fellow athlete Elizabeth Sampey counts herself among those inspired
by Houchin after they met during the 2018 Colorado Trail Race.
"She was so friendly and positive while also being a total badass,"
says Sampey. "Alex is a fierce competitor when she's out there,
but she's also not too cool to stop and sign an autograph or give
a high-five and a big smile to someone who has come out to cheer
her on. She's authentically herself, and that's a huge inspiration
to people racing ultras and also to anyone watching her."
The Tour Divide is an ultra-distance, self-supported, off-pavement
bikepacking race. That means riders must carry all their own gear,
navigate obscure routes, and, since they can't possibly bring enough
food for their ravenous appetites, cobble together calories at convenience
stores and restaurants along the way. They ride mostly on gravel
or dirt roads, not the narrow, technical singletrack of mountain
bike racing. Many camp using ultralight gear; some get lodging along
the way. And all of them suffer. Fewer than half of the 160 or so
bikers who start the race in Banff, Alberta, finish it in Antelope
Wells, New Mexico.
"Ninety-nine percent of ultras is mental," says Houchin. "The Tour
Divide is lots of slogging."
In 2019 she biked the route in 18 days, setting a women's singlespeed
record and beating her previous win timeon a geared bikeby
more than four days. Which makes it sound like it was easy. She
assures that it was not.
Her biggest challenge, she says, was Indiana Pass in Colorado,
the highest point on the route. "You climb up to like 10,000 feet
or 11,000 feet, and then you're up on the top for about 10 miles
where you descend, climb, descend, climb," she says. "I walked most
of it this year. Even last year on my geared bike I walked most
The fortitude to keep going, even when reduced to hike-a-biking,
is a key reason why Houchin excels in these races. She has the mental
toughness to endure the harshest of physical challenges. And to
understand why this is, it helps to know her story.
Houchin bikes on the Pine Valley Trail in Cloquet. Photo by
Deborah Rose, DNR.
Houchin grew up in a trailer park in Janesville, Wisconsin, where
she lived with her father and her grandmother after her parents
divorced, though she saw her mom on weekends. Her grandmother was
a formative influence.
"She taught me how to love and be open hearted and treat people
well," she says.
Houchin was overweight and out of shape when she graduated from
high school, but she learned to ride a bicycle to get to a job 10
miles away in Madison. She started riding a fixed-gear bike and
took jobs as a bike mechanic and messenger in Madison, shedding
pounds and honing her city-riding skills. "That's where I got my
bad-weather training," she says.
In 2015 she got a taste of bikepacking by journeying out West and
riding most of the Tour Divide route with a friend. Back in Madison,
she tried more technical mountain biking with friends on singletrack
trails but was discouraged when she couldn't keep up. "I sucked,"
she says. "I thought, well, I'm probably not a mountain biker."
A member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Houchin
moved to Tucson in 2016 to pursue American Indian Studies at the
University of Arizona. There, she tried mountain biking again and
got hooked. She also got healthier, cutting down on junk food and
going vegetarian and vegan for a time. And although her studies
grabbed her intellect and imagination, the program naturally focused
on tribes of the Southwest rather than the Great Lakes.
"I realized, 'Uh, I gotta go home and learn about my Indians,'"
she says with a laugh.
Moving to the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, she reconnected
with her mother and dug deeper into her Ojibwe roots, enrolling
in American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth
and making plans to become a dentist serving native people. She
made big plans for bicycle racing, too, vowing in her 28th year2018to
ride in eight races. She kept the vow, and the Tour Divide win was
her crowning achievement.
navigates a ramp on the Pine Valley Trail. Photo by Deborah
Houchin had been struggling to find friends willing to take long
bike trips. But on the endurance biking circuit she found a new
community. People were noticing this muscular, bespectacled, and
gregarious young woman who had seemingly come out of nowhere, crushing
it in races and inspiring other riders. She became a minor celebrity,
charming competitors and race watchers alike with her feisty warmth.
Podcasters, videographers, and journalists wanted to interview her.
She was named "Bikepacker of the Year" by Bikepacking.com and dubbed
"The People's Champion of Bikepacking" on REI's blog. Still a poor
college student, she landed sponsorships from mountain bike maker
Chumba and Green Bay bike shop the Broken Spoke Bike Studio. She
also started accepting invitations to speak to outdoors and community
groups about her life of adventure and accomplishment.
It's all been quite a rise for a young native woman from modest
"I dreamed of doing this," she says. "Now a lot of people believe
Joseph Bauerkemper is an associate professor of American Indian
Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth who has taught Houchin
in several classes and is advising her on her capstone project.
He describes her as an exceptional student.
"She's incredibly gifted, but she's also very humble. And she works
really hard," he says. Also, "She makes connections. These things
may seem divergenther bike racing and her dental health pathway
and her American Indian Studies immersion. But what they share is
that they have had a significantly positive impact on her life.
And she is using them to have a significantly positive impact on
other people's lives.
"She also happens to be a little bit older than your typical undergraduate
student, so she brings a really diverse set of life experiences
to reflect on."
During the toughest parts of a race, Houchin draws on the sum of
her experiences to power through.
"I think about where I started, growing up in a trailer park, and
where I hope to be as a practicing dentist sometime. It's kind of
like having the cards stacked against me. I didn't have the most,
I wasn't necessarily set up bestbut I'm damn persistent, and
I don't care how long it takes, I just believe that I will get there.
"And that translates so much into bikepacking where I line up at
the start of these races, and there are a lot of people that are
faster and stronger and better athletes and have better race résumés.
But I just see myself finishing. There really is no other option."
Houchin isn't making much money off her bike racing. Unlike more
mainstream road and mountain bike races, which support a class of
professionals, the gritty off-road competitions she enters are grassroots,
for-the-glory events with bragging rights but no prize purses. Her
sponsorships give her gear and support that help cut race expenses,
but that's about it.
once overweight and unhealthy, said after winning the 2019
Tour Divide that she was in the best shape of her life. Photo
by Deborah Rose, DNR.
Here in Cloquet, Houchin enjoys zero star status as she lives in
a modest reservation rambler with her mom, bicycles around town,
and studies at Gordy's Warming House cafe. The low-key vibe is why
she likes it here. It keeps her grounded and in tune with her place
and her people.
"I don't want to leave the Great Lakes again," she says. In fact,
after becoming a dentist, she wants to make her home here, providing
much-needed dental care to reservation members.
At home, her creatively driven DIY lifestyle is on full display.
Her tiny bedroom is crammed with three bikesone fat-tired,
one skinny, one in betweenalongside bike gear and printed
ephemera: poems, photos, drawings, letters from friends, a "Disobey"
poster from the hacktivist group Anonymous, a map of forest cover
in the United States. The tail of a turkey her friend shot is in
one corner, cross-country skis in another. Her bed is a cot. "This
is everything that I own," she says.
Large canvas paintings of two 1990s riot grrrl music heroesKathleen
Hanna of Bikini Kill and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinneyhang
on her bedroom and living room walls. Once an aspiring artist, she
painted them. Punk rock, she says, was and is a driving force in
her life, infusing her with a sense of agency and possibility. "I
really connected with that," she says. "I felt like an outcast in
society but at least at the end of the day, I'd have my Sleater-Kinney
own paintings, photos, and goal-setting notes adorn Houchin's
bedroom walls at home. Photo by Deborah Rose, DNR.
Houchin thrives on her own punk version of motivational posters,
hand-lettering goals and sayings on notes to keep her focused. On
one wall of her bedroom is the placard that spells out her 2019
race goalsmost of them achieved.
Long-distance bikepacking is far and away Houchin's favorite thing
"It feels alive," she says. "We go through our day to day in these
boxes. We put ourselves in our vehicle boxes, and we put ourselves
in our house boxes and our building boxes, and we are separated
from the rest of the world. But once you're outside all the time
you start to understand the world.
"The way you perceive the world is so different because you're
looking for a natural place of shelter. And those aren't boxes.
Those are different. And you listen for streams where you can get
your water so you don't have to filter it from a lake. You use your
senses a lot more."
She's seen her share of vivid mountain sunrises and sunsets and
has spotted wildlife including elk, moose, "a lot of bears," and
even a badger. "You're up at 4 a.m. when these animals are drinking
water and doing their things," she says.
She vividly recalls noticing the Big Dipper above her at 12,500
feet of elevation in Colorado's Tenmile mountain range. "It was
huge," she says. "I had never seen the Big Dipper that big in my
life. I felt like I could touch it and grab it and pull it out of
the sky. It was the coolest, most humbling experience."
She still takes some bikepacking trips just for fun in between
"Ultimately," she says of bikepacking, "it's connecting with the
wild outside and the wild within myself. It's the perfect combination
of exercise and adventure and freedom."
Houchin concedes that 2020 might be her last Tour Divide contest
for a while if she is accepted to dental school as she hopes. But
even her academic adviser isn't sure she should count herself out
from bike racing.
"I try to remind her that all of these things are avenues for pursuing
her mission, for pursuing her purpose," says Bauerkemper.
On this day, Houchin wants to show her visitors one of her favorite
places to connect with the wild in this region known to her people
as Nahgahchiwanong, "the far end of the Great Lake." So the group
heads to nearby Jay Cooke State Park, where the rapids of the St.
Louis River famously roil.
At the park, she crosses the swinging bridge, slips down a riverside
trail, and scrambles surefootedly out onto the jagged slabs of bedrock
that surround the river. Sitting and watching the river flow, with
sunlight glinting off the rapids and the dull roar of whitewater
filling the air, she seems fully at home, geographically and psychologically.
And she is.
"I imagine my ancestors coming here and seeing this," she says,
"and deciding to stay."
takes inspiration from visiting the banks of the St. Louis
River at Jay Cooke State Park in Carlton. Photo by Deborah