Steve Fassbinder Can Take the Pain
The 45-year-old likes to undergo days-long adventures that combine mountain biking, rafting, and climbing
One of the toughest nights of Steve Fassbinder’s life was spent stuck in an emergency bivy on the 19,000-foot Sim La pass in northern Pakistan, waiting out a midnight storm while his fat bike hung from an ice screw two pitches below his tent. Fassbinder and his expedition partner, Andrew Burr, had traveled there in 2017 to ride fat bikes around the Latok mountains. But at that point in their trip, they hadn’t pedaled a single stroke. After spending a week acclimatizing and getting sick at a 15,000-foot base camp, he and Burr spent a full day pushing their bikes through an ice field booby-trapped with deadly crevasses. Then it got too steep to push, so they pulled out their axes and crampons and climbed ten pitches to reach the pass, tugging their bikes on ropes behind them. At midnight, they set up camp and passed out, exhausted. The following morning, they pushed on for four miles, over glaciers topped with a thick layer of slush, a safety rope connecting them in case one of them fell into a crevasse. “It clearly wasn’t a bike loop,” Fassbinder says. He and Burr completed the 110-mile expedition in five grueling days, most of that spent walking instead of pedaling.
Locals tried to tell him that they’d never seen a bicycle in those mountains. But Fassbinder has pulled off the impossible before, earning himself the nickname Doom. The 45-year-old is a former professional mountain biker who dominated 24-hour solo races in the early 2000s, racing his singlespeed through the night on technical looped courses. He won three 24-hour solo world championships during his racing career and was eventually inducted into the 24-Hour Solo Mountain Bike Racer Hall of Fame. And he did this all while holding down a full-time job, working either as a bike messenger or in construction during the years he raced professionally.
After leaving the racing scene behind in 2009, Fassbinder carved out a niche for himself as an adventurer, with a talent for multisport expeditions that combine mountain biking with pack rafting and climbing. On one trip, he took a small plane deep into Utah’s desert to bike through slot canyons, nab the first ascent of a steep crack called the Pinnacle, then pack raft down the Dirty Devil River. In 2018, he biked and rafted a collective 1,000 miles across Tajikistan. Most recently, he and a few friends traversed the San Juan Mountains by bike, llama, and raft, covering 300 miles in nine days, including 65 miles of floating the Rio Grande.
From his racing days to his latest expedition, one thing remains constant with Fassbinder: the man knows how to suffer. Which explains how he was able to push through the absolute crap conditions in Pakistan. It explains why he and Burr continued, trudging through misery and uncertainty, until the morning of day three, when they woke up to bluebird skies and a landscape that had refrozen overnight to reveal endless miles of grippy ice, frozen in waves and berms, now spread out before their fat tires. “It was like the biggest skate park you could imagine,” Fassbinder says. “We hauled ass, pedaling our bikes and descending from 17,000 feet in elevation to 13,000 feet.” After crawling over 12 miles in the first two days, the duo covered 60 miles in a day and proved one of Fassbinder’s guiding principles in life: if you’re willing to put up with some pain, you’ll probably get rewarded.
“That trip was horrible, with some of the lowest points I’ve ever had on any adventure, but the highs were super high,” he says from his home in Durango, Colorado. “I know that there’s always going to be a bad spot on my trips. That bad spot might last for an hour or it might last for three days. But I also know there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe it’s a good piece of trail or a remote lake. There’s always that carrot that keeps me moving.”
One thing remains constant with Fassbinder: the man knows how to suffer.
Fassbinder typically knocks out one large international expedition a year; he’s currently planning a big trip to Canada’s Baffin Island, which will include bikepacking, pack rafting, and—a twist—conducting some climate research. But he spends most of his time exploring the American West, where the terrain is particularly well suited to his skills in biking, rafting, and climbing. The development of pack rafts over the past decade has opened up landscapes that were previously off-limits to Fassbinder by bike. “A pack raft is like a giant key that gets you into places,” he says. “When the road ends, you blow up your boat and continue down that river or lake, seeing things you’d never see if you only stuck to the trails and roads.”
Unlike most professional expeditioners, Fassbinder completes his adventures “off the couch,” without any focused training. It’s a mentality he’s had since his earliest days of racing mountain bikes. “I was never a training guy,” he says. “I never tracked mileage, never had a peaking calendar. When I worked as a bike messenger, I just rode my bike all the time. If I was working construction, I’d ride my bike to the job site every day.”
Although Fassbinder doesn’t ride as much these days, he still takes an off-the-cuff approach to his adventures, focusing more on learning the destination’s terrain or culture than increasing mileage in the saddle. He insists that anybody who’s reasonably fit can take a similar approach to big, multi-day trips—the key is to change your expectations. “You just won’t be fast,” he says. “But it doesn’t matter. You’re not racing. For these expeditions, you don’t have to have this go-to-the-gym kind of attitude.”
The right mindset helps, too. Fassbinder thinks that being able to power through adversity is a skill anyone can learn, the same as pedaling a bike or paddling a raft. In fact, he’s banking on it and has started a new guide business with his girlfriend, Lizzy Scully, that will take clients on multi-day day trips biking, canyoneering, and pack rafting through central Utah. “I won’t make my clients suffer the way I like to suffer, but it’ll be super exciting stuff,” Fassbinder says.
His goal, both for his clients and anyone watching, is to show that his favorite kind of adventures—riveting, lengthy, and sometimes grueling—are attainable for almost anyone. “It’s a mental thing,” he says. “True, people have different abilities to ignore pain, but if you set your mind to something, you can do it.”