The madness of Bill Martin 

Missoula's endurance mountain biking champion finds solace with a two-wheeled mistress

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And that still beats the pain of actual life. Even in his Plattsburgh days, Martin pedaled to get over a bad break-up, as well as that failed marriage. "Oh shit, he brought his demons," rival racers would say.

"You're racing, and you're going hard, and you're like, well, this doesn't hurt as bad as getting your heart broken, so you go harder," Martin says. "The bike heals." For him that includes not just romantic heartbreaks, and the loss of Marcy, but the way he still senses his parents' guilt over the logging accident, his own guilt at the financial burden that it put on them, the absence of his birth father (whose new wife sends a Christmas card each year) and his own estrangement from his daughter.

"I know where she lives and I can see her Facebook page, but I have to wait for her to contact me," he says. "It's what my ex-wife suggests."

Martin's demons are both extraordinary and completely ordinary. Most great athletes (or artists) have them. There's always something just a little off from "normal" life in those who do great things, an unsettling intensity and ability to live with pain. They are inspiring, not just for their actual achievements, but because they're willing to take on the dark stuff many of us won't. Martin is unusually self-aware about this. It's certainly occurred to him that if he ever soothes his soul, it might affect his cycling. It's not just the racing, but also the training that gives him purpose, and a challenge, and control.

click to enlarge TOM ROBERTSON

"It gives you something to work on every day," says Adventure Cyclist deputy editor Jill Homer, another one of Martin's riding friends. "Whereas if you have a career or lose your job or a relationship fails, that really throws everything into flux."

"I don't have anything else," says Martin. "That's what I do. It's my mistress." But, he says, he's lonely, and could imagine slowing down for someone (though he'd rather it be someone who could actually keep up). "I don't need any more wins," he says. (With no sponsor and a day job, he couldn't give the World Championship another shot, since the 2010 race was in Australia). "And I've always failed at relationships. So that seems more challenging to me."

At his final race of 2010, 25 Hours in Frog Hollow (it's an extra hour because it takes place when clocks turn back to Standard Time), Martin made a truly shocking move: He sat down early.

The Utah race was not one that he'd planned to do, or at least not solo. It was supposed to be a team ride with a female friend from Washington, Martin doing two laps for her every one. But that didn't work out.

"So now I got demons," he says with a self-mocking Cheshire grin.

But Jill Homer and her boyfriend Beat Jegerlehner rode in Frog Hollow as a team, giving Martin pit help on a handful of his 20 laps. Some of their friends refer to Homer, a recent transplant from Alaska, as Martin's lost sister or doppelganger; her first book, Ghost Trails, is about snow-biking the multi-day Iditarod Trail Invitational.

For the better part of 14 hours, Martin dueled Ben Welnak, who is 16 years his junior, but eventually he took a one-lap lead. "I should have kept trying to push him during the early evening hours," Welnak says. "My inexperience made me nervous about continuing the fast pace, when, in reality, I probably could have. He's really strong and has a lot of experience. That was hard to match."

Then the sun began to rise. Needless to say, Martin's not a stop-and-smell-the-roses guy. "I don't really want to," he says. "There's a different journey going on. I think I interface differently with the wilderness than other people. I don't go out and hug the trees—because one of them fell on my head. Bastards!"

But when he came on Homer at an overlook amid the pink-lit desert landscape, something stirred. "The sun was coming up and I'm going over these rocks, one at a time, kind of suffering, and I look up, and Jill's just standing there, smiling," Martin says. "So I just stopped right there and watched the sun come up."

click to enlarge TOM ROBERTSON

"For him to make a 15-minute stop without having any purpose beyond watching the sunrise was sort of unique for him," says Homer.

They rode together for a final lap and Martin stopped an hour before he had to, settling for a win against the field (he bested Welnak by 68 minutes) instead of going to his utter outer limit. Of course, he still rode 256 miles, which is a pretty giant laurel to rest tired quads on.

"My big goal this year was to beat 200 miles," Martin says. "At 24 Hours of Rapelje I got 230-some and thought, 'Holy shit, that's amazing.' But I haven't even touched the surface of what I can do."

That morning in Frog Hollow, Homer asked him, "So, if somebody really supported you, how far do you think you could go?"

"Not too many people would ask me that," Martin says. "I said, 'I think I can get to 300.' And she said, 'Yeah. Let's go for 300 next year.'"

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