Alexandera Houchin is describing the mountain bike trail ahead of us in highly technical terms.
"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 the ridge."
Houchin's attire—denim cutoffs, a loose-fitting plain white T-shirt, and black Birkenstock sandals—doesn'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 Cloquet—her "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 around—and even across—the 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 race—and 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 style—she won her first Tour Divide in cutoffs, work boots, and a trucker hat—have 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 time—on a geared bike—by 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 of it."
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 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 year—2018—to ride in eight races. She kept the vow, and the Tour Divide win was her crowning achievement.
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 beginnings.
"I dreamed of doing this," she says. "Now a lot of people believe in me."
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 divergent—her 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 best—but 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.
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 bikes—one fat-tired, one skinny, one in between—alongside 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 heroes—Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney—hang 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 albums."
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 goals—most of them achieved.
Long-distance bikepacking is far and away Houchin's favorite thing to do.
"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 races.
"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."