An inside look at ultra mountain bike racing

Mountain bike racing comes in many forms, downhill, cross country, ultra endurance and fat biking. The word “ultra” generally stands for anything 100 miles or longer.

Thirty-seven-year-old Kelly Magelky from Dickinson, North Dakota, (but a Denver, Colorado resident for the past 18 years) specializes in cross country and ultra-endurance races.

“I’ve done up to 250 miles in 24 hours. It all depends how much climbing there is and how smooth [the course] is,” Magelky tells GrindTV.

2016: Magelky at the Maah Daah Hey 100. Photo courtesy Pat Stockert
2016: Kelly Magelky at the Maah Daah Hey 100. Photo: Courtesy of Pat Stockert

“You start and you’re fresh and you have enough food in you. Then you realize that you have to do this for 22 more hours. You reach these dark places. That’s the biggest difference between cross-country and ultra racing – how you manage that roller coaster — you spend a lot of time managing your mind,” Magelky says.

Athletics and endurance sports weren’t a part of Magelky’s youth. As a teenager he was a machinist who built car engines.

However, soon after moving to Colorado 18 years ago to attend the University of Colorado at Denver, followed by Colorado Film School (today he’s the owner of Filament Productions), he discovered mountain biking and began riding passionately.

“My favorite thing was to climb up mountains. I loved that more than anything,” he tells GrindTV.

2013: Magelky racing the Battle at the Bear.  Photo Kelly Magelky collection
2013: Magelky racing the Battle at the Bear. Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Magelky collection

Magelky’s intro to endurance racing happened by accident. One day in 2002, while in a rush to beat then-stranger Wes Felteau from the parking lot to the trail, his urgency backfired.

A few minutes into the ride he hit an object and “supermanned” over his handlebars. Felteau saw the crash and came over to help. The two got to chatting and soon Felteau asked Magelky to partner up for an upcoming 24-hour-duo race. The two would alternate laps around the track until the clock ran out.

“He was semi-professional and I was a nobody,” recalls Magelky. “I felt lucky to have someone influence me. I don’t know why, but I just gravitated to it.”

A week after the race, once the pain from that event subsided, Magelky knew he needed to do it again. Several races later and after picking up his first sponsor in 2005, he decided to go for a solo 24-hour race.

“I didn’t know how to eat right, train right, but my ambition was way more in front. My mind wanted more than what my body could deliver. I think that happens a lot with endurance athletes. I just willed myself [through the races].”

He continued to perform well in the races, and in 2008 one of the biggest bike teams in the country, Trek VW, approached him with a contract. The sports nutrition company Honey Stinger picked him up as a title sponsor in 2011.

Over the years, Magelky has refined his training and diet, though he admits that bonking due to low caloric input remains his Achilles heel. “On a 24-hour race, you have to rely on your crew and they need to be a couple steps ahead of me in terms of food,” he says.

2015: Magelky racing the Lumberjack 100. Photo Kelly Magelky collection
2015: Magelky racing the Lumberjack 100. Photo: Courtesy of Kelly Magelky collection

Magelky’s most memorable race was in 2007 when he and David “Tinker” Juarez duked it out for first place at the 24 Hour World Championships in Monterey, California. Magelky ended up in second place. For comparison, 55-year-old Juarez has been racing since his youth, and in 2001 he was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.

“Two, three in the morning, no spectators are out there but you’re still out there battling against each other,” Magelky says. “We’ve gone into something together that you rarely experience with someone else. There’s a point where you’re just surviving.”

“Tinker congratulated me at the end of the race. He told me someday I would win a World Championship. I haven’t won one yet,” he continues.

2016: Magelky at the Maah Daah Hey 100. Photo courtesy Rachel Sturtz
2016: Magelky at the Maah Daah Hey 100. Photo: Courtesy of Rachel Sturtz
These days Magelky’s got a full plate — twin 8-month-old kids, a wife, and is busy working on a six-chapter film on outlaw country music — but he still makes it a point to train hard and take care of his body.

He’s planning to race the 24-hour Mountain Biking Championships in Italy in June.

“I think the only way you can be an ultra-endurance athlete, is that you have to know that things will hurt for awhile. And don’t stop. Not sure if that’s the best thing, but that’s what I do,” he says.