The perpetual-envelope pushing, extreme sport icon Travis Pastrana has received his fair share of gold medals over his record-shattering career that’s most commonly noted for his single handedly raising the already insanely high bar for X Games athletes (and yeah, he’s reportedly garnered lots of commas on his checks, along with too many broken bones to count). He seems to be driven – even compelled – by the lowest common denominator that brings all athletes – amateur or professional – together: adrenaline.
But with the genuinely genuine Pastrana, looks aren’t just deceiving – they don’t matter. And adrenaline doesn’t quite seem to be his drug of choice. He’s propelled by more than achieving the unthinkable (like when he completed the first ever double backflip on a motorbike), the rush (of, say, jumping out of a plane without a parachute), or basically beating Evil Knievel at Knievel’s own game (though with more modern equipment).
Number 199’s not like you and me – or even most other top athletes. Pastrana’s need to win is grounded in a need to rewrite the history books and to do whatever it takes to destroy the competition. Conquering seems to be a part of his DNA.
Still, there remains at least one competition Pastrana’s only won once: his own private relay race that he calls “the world’s worst event.”
But this year feels like his year.
The PBR Challenge
Like the athlete himself, the Pastrana Bike Race Challenge (PBR) is intense. Last year, I was granted exclusive access to this event via my close college buddy Lowen Howard, Pastrana’s cousin, who pinged me to say Pastrana wanted me to cover a private race I’d never heard of (the pizza and brews I laid out for a random crew ahead of a Nick Cave show in Washington must have worked, or maybe it was my two massive book shelves that caused Travis to turn to Lowen at one point and say, “That’s a lot of books”). I wasn’t alone; no one’s really heard of this PBR.
The competition’s a boozy street bicycle relay that he’s irregularly hosted five times since 2012 at Pastranaland, his home, adult play land, and training facility just outside of his hometown of Annapolis, Maryland. The invite-only race isn’t just for some of the world’s top athletes; it’s for the world’s most insane athletes – pro, amateur, and formerly-pro alike.
Past races have included the likes of Ben Bostrom (who has won the Fixed Gear World Championships and even beat Lance Armstrong at the mountain bike race the former icon hosts annually) and Todd Jacobs (a 12 time Ironman World Championships top competitor), among others.
“None of these athletes have ever won a PBR,” Pastrana’s quick to point out when he mentions the storied list of past participants.
“Fuck you Travis Pastrana – this sucks!”
Tarah Gieger, X Games gold medalist
“Every single person was sick for the next week,” Pastrana says of the last PBR.
That year there were 15 teams. This time there are only six teams, because many past competitors were either in the midst of their respective seasons or just too scared to show up for another day of hell.
Still, many participants have intimidating resumes, including some of the world’s top athletes, like 52-year-old Cheryl Sornson – a veteran cross racer with 23 wins under her belt – and 27-year-old Amelia Capuano – winner of two major road races and a cross race. There’s also a handful of competitors who have never competed at that level, like Jerod Stoner – who’s got a cyclocross pro ranking but just races for fun – and even my buddy Lowen.
Pastrana’s race is explicitly crafted to both physically and mentally break top athletes from across the globe, demolishing anyone who dares compete.
The race has evolved over the years. It started out as a 200-mile solo ride. Pastrana changed it to a team event after that to give himself “a better chance of winning.” For the third race, he made it 24 hours “so it would give people who aren’t as strong at cycling but have high pain thresholds a better chance.” He and Jacobs, a professional triathlete, squeaked it out that year. They took second a year later, in 2016, after which Jacobs vowed to never return to the house and, as of this writing, still hasn’t.
This race, after a two-year hiatus, is 12 hours, which is still long enough to add a mental hurdle, forcing competitors to ride in the dark and making fatigue a central element of this game of three-dimensional chess. Eight laps around a 26-mile track on a country road that turns into a narrow and busy state highway is a part of the challenge, so is forcing teammates to follow their partners in a vehicle in the dead of night—after they’re already exhausted and on the verge of passing out.
And break them it does. Besides strength and natural ability, the key to endurance racing is staying hydrated and keeping one’s energy level up by consuming food. That’s hard to do when the race requires all contestants to chug lots of beer during even the most intense portions of the competition.
“Our crew was just trying to find ways to make things more interesting for people who used to be athletes [and] still want to be competitive, so that’s kind of where the drinking came in,” says Pastrana, whose bikes of choice have basically always had motors attached. “When you’re packing your body with that much fluid, that’s doing the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing. That’s bad, but that’s how we bring the good athletes down to our level.”
That’s just how Pastrana wants it: To keep the competition disoriented.
That’s why this morning Pastrana and his mini-posse of extreme sport brothers were scheming in the bar above his gear and trophy-laden garage that seems to have just one overarching rule greeting everyone: “If You Have Not Signed A Waiver YOU ARE TRESPASSING Please Leave Immediately.”
Pastrana’s plan is working already.
“We’ll see who’s alive after 12 hours“
“Do I drink?” a voice yells out just before 10 a.m. on this sunny Saturday morning.
The race hasn’t even begun, and there’s already confusion.
“You can do whatever you want but you can’t cut the course and you must pedal under your own power, but outside of that, if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” MC Trevor Piranha—a part of Pastrana’s Nitro Circus crew known for his ability to guzzle beers—coaches the participants. “Let’s make this a good race. Everyone get out there. Give it your best, and we’ll see who’s alive after 12 hours.”
Moments later many competitors are once again struggling with some new rules Pastrana just sprung on his guests.
The official “PBR Challenge Rules,” written with a Sharpie on a large white sheet of paper that Pastrana likely stole from his daughter’s playroom, are hanging in the workshop. Many contestants are surprised they now include 10 burpees upon arriving back at home base along with another 10 required of teammates before they start their next leg of the race (along with an option to do an additional 30 to get you back on the course 10 minutes early).
“I had no idea about burpees,” one competitor complains.
And no one knew about another curveball of a rule: “Teamates [sp.] must highfive [sp.] in traditional Eastern European format.”
No one knows what that even means, so participants end up pretending they get it as they do large high fives, almost as if their arms are half of a windmill.
Baffling the competition is Pastrana’s master plan.
“Does everybody have to drink a beer right now?” one person shouts, as another competitor asks, “Do we have to do burpees right now?”
They do. Both. And the high five. The mayhem causes a smirk to creep onto Pastrana’s face.
Then his two daughters and wife — Lyn-z Adams Hawkins Pastrana, an eight-time X Games medalist for her revolutionary skateboarding skills that’s enshrined her as a badass character in Tony Hawk’s iconic video game — come down the hill from their home clad in matching red, white, and blue outfits so Lyn-Z can join one of the teams on the first lap.
“I love you,” Pastrana shouts to his wife through a tenderly broad smile.
A moment later the smirk’s back on Pastrana’s face, as he readies to unleash 12-hours of hell on his guests – and himself.
At exactly half of a day, this is a tortoise-length race; not one for over-eager hares. But you wouldn’t know that as the more than a dozen competitors take their bellies full of beer and wind up Pastrana’s steep driveway to the street.
Climbing out of the property, the day’s peloton is already distinguishing itself as they start the first leg of the 26mi. lap. But even top athletes are already disoriented.
After chugging the three requisite beers the minute before hitting the pavement, contestants feel bloated on the first mile, then the second mile often brings a second wind. But after four miles, heart rates are pounding, as their bodies have just about burned up all the alcohol.
“You’re just like, ‘Fuck! Now I’m tired,’” Pastrana says. “Went through so many emotions in like four miles.”
And so many miles left to go.
The course has some long flat stretches, but it also winds a lot through portions that include some hills. It travels part of the way along the state’s longest highway, Maryland Route 2, which is busy with all sorts of traffic, including some work trucks that fill up most of the lane. It ends with the riders descending the blacktop at Pastranaland at a quick clip.
After about an hour, some of the racers are back.
“They’re coming in,” a voice at basecamp shouts out.
Pastrana is in the lead, and he’s energized – whooping and hollering as he comes in fast. He quickly whips out his requisite burpees — cleats scraping pavement and all — and then ducks into the garage. Guess he’s also a fashionista, cause he’s now in a wrestling outfit and gripping a beer bong befitting a frat boy.
Now the others are careening down the drive, focusing on their burpees or their cheap beers when a familiar voice barks orders.
“Hey, you’ve got to high five with all of your team before your time is stamped,” Pastrana says while focusing most of his attention on his signature beer bong. “It’s game time now.”
Then Pastrana finds his team has been slapped with a 5-minute delay by his own handpicked judge and jury, Steve StArnald (or Comb-over Steve, as he’s affectionately known in the group that he’s engineered insane ramps for over the years).
“That’s total bullshit,” Pastrana audibly mumbles, half to himself but for all to hear.
“Yeah, it’s bullshit, but he’s the officiator,” MC Piranha responds. “You can’t argue with him.”
“Who are you to add five?” Pastrana shouts to StArnald. “We were the first people to have done our burpees!”
“Something happened, and apparently he’s not happy about it,” Piranha cuts in.
“I forgot what happened,” StArnald says, standing by his ruling. “But, you know, stuff happens.”
The Cheats and a Tank
Cheating is almost mandatory at the PBR Challenge, at least for the most serious competitors, though that c-word is still technically frowned on at Pastranaland.
“It’s creatively winning,” Pastrana says.
That ‘creativity’ is evident as an intimidating Red Bull promotional van, outfitted with a black steel exterior that makes it look fit for a warzone, pulls up for Pastrana’s teammate Alan Starnes—who has won six out of the 39 cyclo-cross races he’s competed in over the years—to draft behind.
They downplay the advantage of drafting though, arguing the tank provides a target to chase more than anything else. Still, when Starnes returns, the non-advantage advantage is being passed on to another team, and they may need it.
The beer bong—Pastrana and his Nitro Circus’s favorite way to drink—is floating around. It’s now in the hands of last year’s U.S. Enduro National Champion, Porsha Murdock, who’s guzzling two beers at once and at a much faster pace than the other teams who are still chugging their beers the old fashioned way. But the quick flow induces some coughing and then a loud burp before she hits the pavement again.
“Is that a burpee, or are like you doing the worm?” Pastrana quips to Murdock.
When she’s back on her feet, Pastrana then tries to prepare Murdock for the adventure to come.
“You’ll see the Red Bull van – it’s going to go 25 miles an hour, so once you get behind it, good luck,” Pastrana says.
After leaving behind the shade of the massive trees at Pastranaland, the quiet open road turns from spacious suburbia to the relatively busy highway and then back to country pastureland.
The engine of the tank roars as Murdock struggles to keep up.
“She’s not trying to draft yet,” I say, breaking all journalistic decorum, as I can’t help but join in the cheating. “Here she comes to draft!”
“You want to keep her in that green zone there,” Dan Newhauser, a fellow reporter I invited along, tells the driver as he points to the screen on the dashboard helping us track our little cheat. “You’re good. You’re good. You’re good!”
But drafting someone in a road ready tank is hard.
“A little too fast there. There you go – perfect. Slow down a little,” Newhauser says. “Perfect. Perfect. Perfect. Slow down a little.”
Then an ambulance needs to get through the winding two-lane road. Soon after a tractor crosses the road and a car swerves, so we abruptly brake.
“She’s in back of us, and all I can see is her shadow,” I chime in.
Then we find her on the screen again as we’re barreling downhill.
“Just remember we’re not helping unless she’s like basically right there – okay go! Fast! Fast! Fast!” Newhauser yells. “Perfect speed right now. She’s pedaling as fast as she can, and you are exactly right where you need to be.”
For a minute.
“Oops – a little slower, a little slower,” Newhauser coaches. “You’re losing her.”
Most Organized Chaos in Sport
It’s the afternoon now, and Pastrana’s coming into base camp energized, even over eager. He hops off his still moving bicycle frame prematurely. His cleats catch the pavement and slide out from under him, giving gravity the opportunity for payback after years of Pastrana defying it, and within seconds his ass abruptly meets his driveway.
“I’ve never in my entire life seen speeds like that,” a winded, but perpetually undeterred, Pastrana says, as he’s taking the spill, of the close to 40mph they were hitting at some points.
Other teams are coming in too, trying to figure out their ever evolving, or one might say devolving, strategies.
“Chris, what’s our game plan?” Jerod Stoner asks.
“Not die,” his amateur teammate Chris Haynes responds. “That’s my game plan.”
It’s windy on the open road, and the afternoon sun is now out in full force. The combo has most riders teetering on the verge of dehydration, in part because of all the beers.
Nerves are fraying.
“I need a high five,” officiant StArnald shouts to Murdock’s team that had just done one.
“What? You didn’t see it?” Murdock disdainfully yells back. “You didn’t see my high five? What!?! We just did it.”
StArnald is undeterred and forces a redo. He’s “the best ramp builder,” according to Pastrana who also affectionately calls him a “crazy SOB.” But, as StArnald works through his fair share of cheap beers, his antics are starting to grate on the competitors, especially when he randomly calls out times when they can or can’t get back on the pavement.
“I’d say he’s got about 30 seconds,” StArnald says as Pastrana gets ready for another leg.
“I don’t trust you at all,” Pastrana coolly, but calmly, replies.
The sun is now high, and some racers are starting to feel a rhythm.
“This is super fun,” Stoner says as his teammate Haynes is about to embark on another leg. “Dude – dude, all you got!”
“I’m just trying not to puke,” Haynes replies. “Fuck. I’m gonna fucking puke.”
But he powers through.
“No. I’m not,” Haynes says half to himself. “No. I’m not.”
“Go ride your bike,” Stoner coaches. “Just go as fast as you can!”
When Night Falls
After just over 8 hours of racing the sun finally meets the horizon, leaving a gentle orange glow hanging over the riders as a new rule kicks in.
“It’s 6:30 – just make sure there are cars with them on the road,” Pastrana – always the father figure to his daughters, crew and guests these days – shouts to his competitors.
Without the light of day, the course is now cut in half so riders can avoid the busiest stretches of the public roads they’ve been careening through all day. With nightfall comes the danger of motorists and even deer darting out in front of racers, so each team is forced to send a vehicle out with each rider driven by their exhausted teammates, which means even less rest for competitors – especially the many teams of just two people.
A day of beers, burpees and bicycles takes it all out of even the nation’s top athletes.
“How you feeling?” I ask Pastrana.
“Fucking miserable,” he replies without hesitation.
There’s now a garbage can outside the shop filled with a frat-like pile of discarded Coors Light cans and a Twisted Iced Tea that someone’s been sneaking in under the judge’s nose, along with an empty can of Vienna sausages, a red pepper rind, a pile of half eaten French fries and a banana peel.
There are now more encouraging cheers erupting around base camp as teams are trying to lift the spirits of their utterly depleted teammates who are heading out under the cloak of darkness. Every bit of encouragement might outweigh that last beer, as riders now have blinding headlights to contend with.
“Your brain starts going in like different directions,” Anneke Beerten — a former champion BMX-er who more recently has stood on the podium for racking up Downhill and 4-cross racing wins, upon finishing her night leg — tells The News Station.
That’s partly why Pastrana threw alcohol in the mix in the first place – top athletes rarely drink, and if they do, it’s never while on the job.
“We’re kinda sick – a little twisted”
“The last time I had alcohol was on the podium,” Beerten, who has now been drinking for about 10 hours straight, says. “It was two weeks ago, and I did not chug the whole thing.”
At this point in the race riders are having a hard time seeing straight because they’re tired, fatigued and aching.
“That’s where it gets fun for a lot of us,” Pastrana says. “We’re kinda sick – a little twisted, if you will.”
There’s a glow coming from Annapolis, which is the only light besides the garage’s fluorescent lights that don’t provide much help for competitors who are now using flashlights to find their ways about the staging area.
The Pastrana’s have laid out a BBQ spread in the bar above the garage, which some athletes are finding doesn’t actually mix too well with all the beers they’ve guzzled throughout the day.
“Did you throw up?” one female voice asks a teammate in the dark.
“I don’t know,” the other replies.
Still, the race continues.
“I’m still burning from the beers,” Tarah Gieger, winner of the first ever female supercross competition held at the X Games back in 2008, shouts. “Fuck you Travis Pastrana – this sucks!”
It’s just after 10 p.m. and there’s now a zombie walking about base camp: the winner.
Depending on the team size, most riders end up logging 50 to 100 miles in the PBR Challenge, but the captain of this year’s winning team, Stoner, logged an insane 191 miles on his own. Over 12 hours he only took a break for one out of the eight laps, allowing his teammate Chris Haynes to take that leg solo.
While Stoner isn’t a fulltime professional like most of the other competitors, he’s a beast. But even though he was just awarded the coveted ‘Champion’ hat, at this moment, he’s pale – almost ghostlike.
“How many calories you think you got to take in?” someone asks.
“I don’t know. I’m gonna eat,” Stoner says through his self-induced haze.
Unlike most endurance races, the PBR Challenge isn’t only about mental and physical strength it’s also intended to be about wits (i.e., cheating) and strategy (i.e., cheating). But as always seems to happen, this year’s race even crushed the host’s best intentions.
Throughout the day Stoner averaged speeds of 19.7 mph., and he did the maximum number of burpees on each leg. It was also his first time drinking a single beer all year.
“He was such an animal.
He was fucking delirious at the end.”
Travis Pastrana on Jerod Stoner’s win
“It’s not part of my routine,” Stoner, who didn’t take another sip of booze for months after the race ended, tells The News Station later.
Still, he says you don’t really get drunk while pedaling that much.
“If we were sitting around by a fire drinking that heavily it would have been a much different story,” Stoner adds.
The 31-year-old trains year-round on the hills and flatland where he lives just south of Harrisburg, Pa. And even though this was his first PBR, Stoner’s now earned an invite for life.
“He was such an animal,” Pastrana says. “He was fucking delirious at the end.”
Everywhere you look in Pastrana’s garage are his medals, trophies, and framed #199 jerseys that he donned during key wins over his accomplished career. But there’s one trophy he always longs to capture: The PBR Champion hat. And it eats him up.
“If you host an event you should fucking be able to win it,” Travis Pastrana says. “I mean, I change the rules every year in my favor. Someone always fucking snakes it out, and you’re like, ‘Fuck!’”
On one level Travis Pastrana, now 37-years-old, is fine with passing the torch, like when Josh Sheehan bested him and completed the world’s first ever triple backflip on a motocross at Pastranaland.
“I was relieved that someone else had done it before me, so that I didn’t have to do it. That was like a turning point in my life,” Pastrana says. “And don’t get me wrong – I’m competitive as fuck.”
These days, Pastrana’s older and, at least on paper, more mature than back when he was demolishing X Game and even Evil Knievel’s records. He’s got his accomplished wife, Lyn-Z, and their two young daughters Addy, 6, and Bristol, 5. Family has changed his life.
“I always think about how to win.”
“It’s a lot more difficult to be at a top, top level with a family,” he says. “You can be good at it, but to be the best in anything—I don’t care if it’s fucking badminton or foosball—like, you know, if you want to be the best…”
Still, that doesn’t mean he’s hanging up his cleats, especially when it comes to his own PBR Challenge. He’s already thinking about how to change the rules for the next time he brings some of the world’s top athletes out for a day of pure, debaucherous sport.
“Oh yeah, without a doubt,” Pastrana says. “I always think about how to win.”