July 26, 2019
Somewhere deep in the Colorado Rockies is an unnamed gravel road that twists and turns on its way up past little-known Grayback Mountain. Indiana Pass crests at 11,910 feet right there on this road, and the occasional travelers in their SUVs or pickup trucks often find it difficult to breathe.
But the challenge of breathing at that altitude was made even more difficult for Cloquet-area resident and Fond du Lac Band-member Alexandera Houchin (pronounced How’-chin). She was on Indiana Pass in late June this year “just riding my bike.”
Well, not quite.
Houchin, 29, was riding in defense of her 2018 Tour Divide Championship. The annual 2,745 mile off-pavement “bikepacking” race weaves its way back and forth across the Continental Divide between Banff, Alberta, Canada and the U.S./Mexico border at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. With over 200,000 feet of net elevation gain and loss, the Tour Divide is not merely a test of physical endurance, it is a trial of mental fortitude of the highest order.
But the “defense of her title” was not uppermost in Houchin’s mind, nor could it fully explain her presence on the trail. She was on offense, riding hard simply to prove to herself that she could take the next big step as she tackled the latest, most difficult challenge she previously thought unachievable.
So here she was, nearing 12,000 feet, her bike loaded down with food, water, clothing and camping gear. And yes, her hand-built bike was set up just the way she wanted for this exact situation – and every other situation – with single-speed gearing.
Now, you or I may have ridden our bikes to Duluth and back on the Munger Trail. We may have muscled our way up the big hills of Highway 210 in Jay Cooke State Park on our 21-speed bikes, gasping for breath with every crank of the pedals. We may even have friends who have ridden their bikes around Lake Superior.
All very commendable and rewarding, but forget about those comparisons.
Sitting in the morning sunlight on the deck at the Warming House in Cloquet on a recent Monday, the athletic Houchin reflected on the long journey that she began years ago when she was living in Madison, Wisconsin.
Houchin recalled that “When I started out, I weighed over 300 pounds, and that defined my life for a really long time. The way people treated me in school, and the way I responded, was by being a bookworm, or resorting to drugs.”
“It was all just to cope with hating myself, being so disappointed that this is the way I let myself manifest in the world, when I felt like I was capable of so much more. But I was powerless to change it. It was so crippling, and it made me sad and angry with the world,” she said.
“It seems I don’t even know that girl anymore,” Houchin wondered aloud.
Things got worse for Houchin before they began to get better.
“Then I got into a <bad> relationship, and my partner was really controlling. The only way I could get away was to ride my bike,” she said.
“So, I started riding my bike the ten miles to work. I couldn’t bike up a lot of the hills and I would just walk, but I was thankful to have that time for myself. I wasn’t really that into biking,” she added.
But Houchin’s face lit up when describing the early morning quiet of the normally busy city: “I would bike home at five, six, seven in the morning and the city would just be dead, and the sun would be coming up. I would never be out biking around at this time if it wasn’t for forcing myself to commute.”
“And then I started losing weight and not being so afraid to eat. So much of it started out with food for me, and trying to heal myself of my eating disorder,” she said.
When her bicycle got stolen, she went online and found a bike she liked because it had fun colors. But it turned out to be a fixed-gear (called a “fixie”) bike. And, as is common with fixies, it had no brakes. The first time she rode it, she had a memorably embarrassing crash, getting her pants caught in the chain.
But she persisted.
One day she met a young man who was impressed that she would ride a fixie with no brakes. “You should hang out with us,” he said. He introduced Houchin to his friends, all of whom worked as bicycle delivery guys for a local Jimmy John’s sandwich shop. She applied for a job and became the only female bike delivery person there.
“I got paid to ride my bike, and in no time I got really good at bike handling skills,” she laughed.
On a lark, she tried a “century ride” (100 miles) from Madison to Milwaukee on her fixie. Not well-prepared, Houchin recalled that, “It hurt so bad, but it felt so cool!”
She was hooked.
“What started out as a reprieve from a terrible relationship, helped me fix my eating disorder a little, and then became the only thing that I have in the whole world that’s always there. Now my bicycle is like my best friend,” she said.
Indeed, Houchin’s right arm bears a large tattoo on one side depicting an “exploded diagram” of a bicycle crankset. On the other side of her arm is an exploded diagram of a bicycle hub.
Houchin described one part of long-distance bicycling that she especially enjoys, saying, “I love bike touring through small towns, and going to the gas stations are my favorite thing.”
She’ll stop for a cup of coffee and a candy bar, then sit down at a table full of local folks to join in the conversation. They’ll talk a bit, she’ll tell them about her riding, and before too long she’ll often get a marriage proposal from one of the older gents.
Houchin laughs mischievously at that, recalling “They’ll say, ‘Wow, you’re a serious force. If only I would have met you 45 years ago…’”
On finding strength from living in two very different worlds, Houchin said, “My Anishinaabe world is the fundamental world that shapes how I exist.”
“The understanding of how I came to be me is through the Anishinaabe — a lens that gives me perspective. It helps me understand my history, my childhood, my parents, my greater purpose in this life and world. But I have to give up one for the other for good chunks of time,” she said.
Houchin continued, “When I go out biking, I lose my connection to place. I don’t have my physical community out there, but I have my practices. I have my tobacco, and I know tons of people watch me and support me as I’m out there. I want to inspire people to dream.”
When asked what she thinks about being considered a role model by many, Houchin responded, “It’s a privilege!”
“I have always wanted to change the world. I want to be that person who is the change I want to see in the world,” she said.
Houchin elaborated, “I want to see more Anishinaabe people traveling and exploring and pushing themselves to physical limits. I want to see chubby people being athletes. I want to see people riding their bikes. I want to see people who grew up in trailer parks going to college. I want to see people chase their dreams and follow their heart.”
A double major at UMD in Chemistry and American Indian Studies, Houchin has just two more semesters of study before she receives her undergraduate degree. She plans to then continue her schooling for four more years to become a dentist.
Houchin went on to win the 2,745-mile Tour Divide for a second consecutive time this year, the only woman to ever successfully defend her title. She set a new women’s record for fastest time on a single-speed bike, while breaking the overall women’s record for “Grand Depart” (mass start) riders as well. Her time was 18 days, 20 hours, and 26 minutes, eclipsing her race winning time from 2018 by over four days.
Never one to shy away from a difficult personal challenge, Houchin tells this story: “A boy that I loved told me to be fearless, but I realized that I could never be fearless. All the things that scare me will make me stronger. So, it’s okay to be scared. You look at it, do something about it, and conquer it.”
Thinking back on what it has meant to her to be climbing and racing in the high mountains, Houchin said, “In the Tour Divide this year I would sometimes look at the elevation of where I was. I’d think about how far I’d come from not being able to ride up a 30-foot hill to riding a fully loaded single-speed bike up a 12,000-foot mountain. And I’d just start crying, because all those years I hated my body so much. But my body’s done everything I’ve ever asked it to. It’s just not fair to hate yourself so much when you’re capable of such extraordinary things.”
The Two-Time Defending Champion added with a sly smile, “And then sometimes I just think about how many more miles I have to go before I hit the next gas station.”