Almost home after a week away. One more plane ride. One more sequence of filing in, sitting down, cramming myself into a seat and descending into a book or phone or conversation until we touch back down. The tires hitting the pavement triggers everyone to pull out their phones and reconnect with the world. Reflexively, knowing our travel day was nearing an end I did the same. When I did, whistles and bings greeted me but one stood far above the rest in the priorities of my mind. As everyone stood up around me I felt like I was sinking through the floor. I felt many of the stages of grief when you learn something tragic. Denial, confusion; a rapid succession of emotion in a context where we are encouraged to be as robotic as possible. My friend, my competition, was no longer.
AJ Linnell, this message from a mutual friend informed me, had been killed in a plane crash just the night before, and as details were coming available the news was spreading. The death of anyone can be tragic but is seems especially so when it happens to someone in the prime of life, or someone who genuinely cherished life itself. AJ and I were friends, but friends made unlikely circumstances. I spent 2013 and 2014 building up for and competing in the National Ultra Endurance mountain bike series, and because God blessed me with a few loose screws I had chosen to do so aboard a single speed MTB. I mean these hundred mile races aren’t hard enough right? The competition in the SS category is no joke. Singlespeed riders have been known to stick it in the top 5 pretty regularly in these races, occasionally even taking the overall win. These are hard hard men. AJ was one of the hardest.
Born in the high western mountains he was as rugged and tough as the West itself. Lean as a wild horse and strong as an ox, AJ was known to out climb the strongest riders in any race. His home in the Tetons gave him super at heal climbing lungs and adapted him to endurance riding like nothing else. When the trails were covered in snow AJ worked as a mountain ski guide; regularly climbing, skinning, and traversing above two miles high. Heck, even compared to my low mountain living AJ was training when he was sleeping! When I entered into the series as a relative newcomer AJ was one of the mighty competition who caused me to lose a little sleep. He was absolutely the most capable and in some ways intimidating competition an endurance MTB racer could face.
As the season progressed and my fitness showed itself, a serious throw-down was brewing in the NUE. I would win a race in the east, AJ would win out west. I would come home with a top 3 overall and SS win, AJ would do the same. Any plans to walk away with the title and a free lunch were long since dreams. As the season passed the halfway mark and results had begun to tighten up the scoreboards I was sitting in a precarious lead. With only three events left in the NUE series calendar make every start counted. Pierre’s Hole 100 outside of Jackson Hole WY, The Hampshire 100 in NH, the Shenandoah mountain 100 (my “home” race) and the season finale at Fools Gold in Dahlonega GA were all that remained. The series plays out with a best of 4 results format where Fools Gold is a tie breaker. I had planned to go to New Hampshire for the Hampshire 100 and let AJ take the win at Pierres Hole to then meet down at Fools Gold for a serious series showdown. If he won at Pierre’s hole he would carry three wins and a second, and if I won New Hampshire 100 I would be sitting on 4 wins with Shenandoah still in the tank to cover any drama that ruled out a win at Hampshire. Three wins could still give AJ the win if he won at Fools Gold, since that would give him a fourth win and the tie breaker. Not a comfortable position for either of us. But I was about to make a bit of a risky move, show a few cards, and possibly win the series in one big play.
My wife Emily and I stepped off a plane in Jackson Hole, Wyoming to crystal clear skies and dry thin mountain air. We had just gotten married on the coast of North Carolina and to say we had done anything resembling training in the last two weeks would have elicited a hearty laugh from both of us. Rental car keys in hand, we loaded the car and headed through the Teton Pass to Grand Targhee Resort and the Pierre’s Hole 100. If I could beat AJ here I would steal a win from him, eliminating his ability to gather enough wins to contend a series title at Fools Gold. If I lost I would still have Shenandoah to tune up my fitness and over a month to focus my training to take him down on more familiar territory in the wilds of North West Georgia.
Everything felt very alien out west; very brilliant, open, and clear. The short pre-ride of some of the lower singletrack revealed pretty good legs for wedding, airports, and long hours in the car the past few weeks. I was excited to toe the line the following day and a little pleased with the excitement and drama my unannounced arrival had caused. Normally this is AJ’s race. He lives in Victor ID, about 20 minutes by car from the start line of the Pierre’s Hole 100. His climbing lungs would be at home where mine would be drying up trying to exact what little air and moisture these mountains had to offer. A hard and fast start as I chased the skinny mountain goats up the first slopes of the fire road climb that served as a prologue to the three 33 mile loops we would complete through the Teton pass. I was climbing well, enthusiastic that I had dusted AJ so quickly on the climb, then like the Road Runner going into slow motion all of the sudden the wind left my sails. forward motion seemed to become backward as AJ caught me in his sights and rode up to my wheel. We chatted a bit as I let off the throttle in an immediate effort to control any damage I had done. Climbing steadily but suffering more than I wanted I eventually topped out at almost 11,000 feet before entering the “Thirty-Eight Special” trail descent. Early into the second of 38 switchbacks right smack in the Tetons I saw AJ’s green kit flashing off the the side of the trail. I saw him fighting a flat tire and said a small prayer of thanks that this lap at least I would be allowed to ride in the lead. I hammered the 38 special descent, throwing my Pivot LES SS into catalog cover worthy bermed corners. Almost at the finish of the first lap AJ finally bridged back up to me. I was riding well but knew that the second time up this climb I was going to be at a disadvantage.
As AJ and I rode together on the low singletrack slopes of the Tetons we chatted like a group ride. We talked about our families, our love of the outdoors. Two competitors doing our best to not show any cards we joked about wildlife and laughed at how we were “just riding along.” But as the altitude again started to take its toll on me AJ could see I was fighting to stay in front only to not cede the position. I was quietly hoping I could at least get into the singletrack again before him. As a rider not accustomed to being passed mid race I took it a little hard when AJ finally asked if he could come around. Like a gentleman after a short pause in our conversation he simply asked if it was “alright if (he) come around?” A question I had waited for but hoped not to hear I paused and finally said “yeah man, get it up here…” then did my best to pick up the pace and pray he backed off. But my petty attempt at acceleration probably did more harm than good. I can remember seeing AJ dance on the pedals as he pedaled away from me. Wondering how this altitude could have done me so wrong. AJ went on to finish so far ahead of me I was a little embarrassed. He beat me by almost 50 minutes that day. On his home course, in the mountains he loved so much, anybody could see he was the unquestionable champion. This was his race, his mountains, and he had put himself into a position to win the NUE series. I took the lesson to heart, trained my tail off, and won the finale at the Fools Gold 100 by half an hour but the whipping I got by AJ at Pierre’s Hole is one of my favorite stories to tell about AJ. While it hurts my pride it shows the quality of the competition in the NUE series, and the quality of the competitors themselves. His podium that day showed the biggest smile Ive seen in a long while, and he earned it. Later that day sitting over a cold beer in the warm sun of the high mountains AJ could only talk about how much fun that was, not rub the win in my face or talk about his huge margin of victory. Just positivity.
When Emily and I arrived in the Tetons, I received a message from AJ offering to provide any beta we needed for the race or for the area. He gave us a killer restaurant recommendation, chatted tire choice and gearing with me and offered to bring any spare gear we weren’t able to bring with us. AJ earned our friendship with that move. For the first time he and I had raced each other head to head I was floored. In the modern era of sport competitors are trained to “hate” the competition. How many football movies have we all seen where the “other” team is shown as the bad guy; morally inferior to the true champion Hollywood wants us to cheer for. As a racer sometimes its very easy to take this approach because it gives training and racing an extra focus and edge. You gotta want to beat that guy and sometimes positioning the competition as “the bad guy” in your mind is an effective way to do so. But no matter how I tried after this encounter I couldn’t make AJ into the bad guy I had to beat. I couldn’t make the good vs evil narrative stick in our competition.
Fast forward to 2015 and the early phases of the NUE series. Gerry Pflug, legend of the endurance racing scene and SS superstar had retired from racing. Gerry had won the last 5 NUE SS and AJ was experiencing the warmest and driest winter in a long time. AJ was going to get out on the bike earlier than ever. He was primed for a killer year. When we met at the first NUE race at True Grit in Utah AJ was sitting on great form. I came away from True Grit in 1st but with only a 15 minute or so gap on AJ. No one will ever know how AJ would have done the rest of the season but it gives me chills to think about the great competition we would have been able to have.
In the immediate days after AJ’s tragic accident there was an outpouring of support for him and his family. Donations topped 20k before his wife Erika finally asked for those donations to go to other causes. Stickers were made in the shape of an SS cog with AJ’s initials. Hats, t-shirts, wrist bands, you name it they were made to benefit some cause close to AJ’s heart. Several of the SS family donned specially made “Linnell 15” jerseys at the next round of the NUE at the Cohutta 100. That race goes down in my book as one of my all time favorites. Standing in the pouring rain at 7 A.M. in all black with AJ’s name on my back, I had no idea how the day would go, but the rain eventually stopped, the sun came out, and I worked hard to come across the line 1st overall—one of only 3 riders to ever do so. AJ’s name and memory fueled so many fires and still continues to motivate riders all over the country. His life was too short but it gives me goosebumps to think of the impact he clearly had on the world around him. AJ Linnell left the world a better place than he found it. And you don’t see that every day.
So where does this all fit in with me? I learned a lot from AJ, especially since his death. Take care of the people you love. Be good to those around you. In a world where we are all captive audiences to bad news, go out your door and be a force for change. Make the world you want to live in. AJ’s strength and physical toughness was only eclipsed by his kindness and the way he loved to share his passion with others. He loved the mountains, and loved sharing them with others. He was a city councilman, actively moving within his home in the Tetons to create the place he knew it could be. He was an amazing husband. Erika’s strength immediately after his passing is a testament to their love, which was deep and strong. The two of them connected and stood together in ways that speak volumes.
AJ’s kindnesses towards me on and off the race course is something I will never forget. Some single-speed rides lately I’m finding it really easy to channel the kind of stoke AJ lived. I’m seeing that smile a lot, feeling the love for those around me, and wishing more than anything that I can live the way AJ did and leave the world a better place than I found it. AJ wasn’t just another rider to leave in the dust. He was the kind of rider who teaches you lessons and makes you a better person just by being in the peloton. So here’s to toughening up a little, caring a little more, and living more like AJ.