On May 31, Alexandera Houchin will line up with 66 men and 15 women for the start of the second annual Dirty Kanza Extra Large. The 350-mile, invitation-only, ultra-endurance gravel-cycling challenge may sound benign enough—it’s in Kansas, after all—but this year’s race climbs more than 15,433 feet through the state’s often wind-whipped, mud-soaked Flint Hills. It’s masochistic by any cyclist’s standards, but Houchin isn’t fazed.
“I pretty much only eat Snickers and drink Powerade because these shorter races are a solid push-through,” she says. “I don’t bring sleeping gear, and I never wear padded shorts. I’ll just wear my cutoffs and my boots. I always ride with flat pedals.”
Last July, Houchin, who is a member of the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northeastern Minnesota, was the first woman to finish that year’s Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile race that started in Banff, Alberta, and ended in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, an effort that took her 23 days 3 hours. It’s a big win, but it’s unlikely that anyone who doesn’t closely follow endurance cycling has seen or heard of Houchin. She’s vehemently opposed to social media and can’t post selfies because, as she says, she still rocks a flip phone. To see her speak in person, however, as I did one frigid night last winter at a Duluth Explorers Club meeting, is to know that she’s unlike anyone the cycling world has ever seen.
“Alexandera is a positive force of nature that people gravitate toward,” says George Kapitz, the owner of Broken Spoke Bike Studio in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and one of Houchin’s two sponsors. (The other is the Austin, Texas, custom-bike manufacturer Chumba.) “No challenge is too much. In fact, the harder the better. She has determination and the ability to persevere.”
Houchin’s training, racing, and school schedule is packed. Over the winter she set the women’s course record on Wisconsin’s 80-mile Tuscobia Winter Ultra despite having eight flats; scratched out of the 300-mile Arizona Trail Race in April after a series of logistical snafus; and, two weeks before the Dirty Kanza, crushed the 390-mile course at the under-the-radar Almanzo event in southern Minnesota on her fat bike. All this while finishing a full semester of classes in quantitative analysis, physics, organic chemistry, and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She hopes to graduate next year.
Despite her frenetic life, the 29-year-old agrees to meet me for coffee on a blustery spring day before she commutes—often by bike—35 miles back to the reservation, where she lives with her mom after having reestablished a relationship with her mother and Ojibwe roots as an adult, to talk about last summer’s win and the upcoming DKXL.
“I can just go, go, go,” laughs Houchin, who is wearing a choker necklace, a nose ring, and a Broken Spoke Bike Studio sweatshirt. “I might not be the fastest person, but I can definitely go longer than you. Doing these races, it’s just you against the elements and the wild. I have this great relationship with the earth and the weather.”
Houchin didn’t always have that bond with nature. She grew up in a trailer park with her divorced single father in Janesville, Wisconsin, and weighed more than 300 pounds when she graduated from high school. Her first experience riding a bike was commuting on a heavy old Schwinn she spray-painted purple and rode 20 miles round-trip to her job at the University Hospital in Madison.
“I was 20 years old and 70 pounds overweight,” she says. “It would take two hours to ride ten miles.”
When her bike was stolen, Houchin searched Craigslist, bought a fixed gear, and rode it home.
“That’s when I realized there were no brakes on my new bike, but I kept riding it because it was the only bike I had,” she says. Her prowess with the fixie impressed a cyclist friend, which led her to getting a bike-delivery job for Jimmy John’s, which led her to lose more weight, which led her to dream up a bike tour from Tucson to Canada with a bike-messenger friend. Her plan was to pedal to Canada, then race the Tour Divide back to Tucson. Instead, Houchin fell in love with her friend, ran out of money by the time she reached Whitefish, Montana, and lost her race mojo.
“It felt so bad to quit because in everything I do I try to live and breathe what I say, and I didn’t, so I had to make a comeback for myself,” Houchin says. She made a pact with herself to compete in eight races in her 28th year, including the Smoke and Fire Ultra, a 400-mile race through Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and made another attempt at the Tour Divide, this time with success.
“I had a really big realization this year,” Houchin tells me. “I won the Tour Divide and a bunch of opportunities presented themselves, but I was torn. I could be a better bike racer if I could spend more time on my bike, but it’s pretty important that I make an impact in Indian country by giving back to my community.”
After college, Houchin plans to go to dental school and become the first registered member of the Fond du Lac band to be a practicing dentist on the reservation. According to the Society of American Indian Dentists, there are fewer than 200 enrolled tribal members who are dentists, yet there’s a need for 3,000 nationwide.
“I don’t like the spin that reservations are poor, impoverished places, but I do see people really struggling here,” says Houchin of her own home. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to college without my tribe’s support. We’re still a nation within this big mechanism of the United States after all these years. When I ride my bike, I think about that. We still exist because we never give up.”