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Josh Tostado is standing in the dirt next to his van, dissecting the inadequacies of a friend’s 12-volt refrigerator. It’s 9:30 p.m. on a chilly January night in El Paso, Texas. Tostado is here to race the Puzzler, a 50-mile gut punch that takes riders over and around the 7,000-foot peaks of Franklin Mountains State Park. He’s wearing a Santa Cruz hoodie, Infinit Nutrition beanie, and jeans in below-freezing temps—all after inhaling a giant plate of curry that he made with spices from the rack he keeps in his van.
“When you told me you got that thing for $375,” he says to fellow racer Justin Holle, gesturing toward the appliance in Holle’s van, “I knew it was a piece of shit. A good one costs $500 to $600.” Holle grins and agrees. His fridge sucks. Tomorrow morning he’ll order a new one, recommended by Tostado, who’s been chasing races for two decades and perfected the art of mobile efficiency.
Tonight is Tostado’s 46th birthday; he drove down from his winter hub of Tucson, Arizona, earlier this afternoon. Known for his domination of long-distance races, everything from 100 miles to 24 hours, he hasn’t entered a 50-miler in seven years. This time around he’s paid for his own registration, and has little shot at winning. “I’m going to try,” he says, “but I’m doing this because the course is pure mountain biking—it’s the real deal. So I want to be part of that, even if it’s not my distance.”
I’ve known Tostado for 15 years and am here to watch one of the last vagabond pro endurance racers—some say the last—at the start of what’s likely his final season: an underdog who rose to the top of his sport while shunning convention; a champion who drinks beer with mid-pack finishers around the post-race fire.
Tostado has won four 24-hour national titles, but never a world title. In some ways he’s the Dan Marino of endurance racing. He’s also, as of a year-and-a-half ago, a father. I have a hard time believing he’s about to give up the only thing he’s wanted to do for most of his adult life, and that skepticism inspired my trip.
Beats from the reggae band Stick Figure pulse from Tostado’s speaker. He keeps talking about mini refrigerators. In two days he will be one race closer to the end. He savors the moonlit moment and, simultaneously, a dying version of the sport.
A Reputation For Revenge
“Look at that masterpiece,” Tostado quips about his cracked windshield, cruising through El Paso’s sprawl the next day in his van. The 2005 Sprinter has 235,000 miles on it and a host of homespun improvements that he completed with the help of YouTube. We’re driving 20 minutes across town to find a gas station that Tostado’s app claims sells diesel for 15 cents cheaper. “This is my world here,” he sighs when we arrive to find the price is actually more expensive.
Tostado has always lived frugally. He grew up in Waterboro, Maine, the son of lower-middle-class parents. He got his clothing at thrift stores and read mountain bike magazines but didn’t have a mountain bike. After moving to Breckenridge, Colorado, in 1996, he pur- sued a professional freeskiing career for five years, training in duct-taped pants. But the terrain-park pounding took its toll, and by age 25 he was icing his knees every night. He realized he needed a new sport.
A harrowing ice-climbing accident played a fortuitous role in that shift. While ascending a frozen pillar in 2001, Tostado freefell 30 feet, bounced off an ice bulge, plunged another 20 feet, then cartwheeled 500 feet down a rocky face. He broke his L1 vertebra and gouged a hole in his back, spending nine hours strapped to a backboard during the rescue. Still recovering that summer, he watched a friend race Colorado’s famed Montezuma’s Revenge—a 24-hour “mountain bike odyssey” on the Continental Divide that ran from 1986 to 2006, and whose winners included the likes of John Stamstad and Rishi Grewal. He was enthralled. In 2002, he entered and placed fourth.
“He’s definitely built up an aura of mystery around him. But he’s just a normal dude who will tear your legs up and eat you mentally. I think it’s grit, really…”
At the time, Tostado was living in his van in downtown Breckenridge, cooking at the local brewery, getting by on $10,000 a year. He skipped racing to surf in Costa Rica the next year, but came back to win the Revenge in 2004, setting course records for mileage and vertical gain. He broke those marks in 2005, climbing an almost unbelievable 32,350 feet over 157 miles, all at elevations between 10,000 and 14,200 feet (racers carried their bikes up a 14,000-foot mountain at night).
Tostado’s success at the Revenge launched his career. The style in which he achieved it launched his reputation. He used V-brakes instead of disc brakes and became known for only training on trails—usually steep and brutal ones. If he had to ride road, he did it on his mountain bike. In 2005, he branched out to win a Kona 24 Hour Global Series race as well as the Breckenridge 100, the first of six straight wins there. It didn’t take long for his mystique to grow.
“It was like, ‘Toast is here, we really have to get our shit together,’” says three-time 24-hour national champion Nat Ross, who met Tostado working at the Breckenridge Brewery. “Everybody on the start line thought that way. He was the force. All of us had an immense amount of respect for him.”
The king of the sport back then was six-time 24-hour world champion Chris Eatough. In 2008, Tostado, with a one-person support crew against Eatough’s full team, led Eatough by 11 minutes at 24-hour nationals in Wisconsin, be- fore his lights failed at 3:30 a.m. He had to ride the wheels of three other racers back to the pits, where Eatough caught him and eventually went on to win. That fall, though, Tostado earned redemption and beat Eatough at 24 Hours of Moab, after Eatough dropped out.
“He said, ‘Your pace was super hard,’” Tostado recalls. “He made it sound like I made him drop out. I think he was just being nice.”
Tostado won four of the next six 24-hour national titles and got picked up by Santa Cruz Bicycles in 2010 (Shimano and Infinit Nutrition remain his other primary sponsors). He stopped partying, adhered to a strict diet, and weighed himself daily. Still, certain lines he did not cross. He’s never had his VO2 max tested, refuses to shave his legs, and doesn’t know what his resting heart rate is. He’s never trained on a power meter or hired a coach. He rides about 20 hours a week, all on his mountain bike, and has succeeded in spite of chronic insomnia.
“I’ve probably slept zero hours before 70 percent of my races,” he says. “I was just more stubborn than everybody else. That was my best attribute: taking the pain.”
Holding The Line
Ask Tostado if he has ever raced Leadville, and he laughs out loud. “He’s a mountain biker’s mountain biker,” says pro Nate Hills, 45, who has been friends with Tostado since their early 20s. “He’s definitely built up an aura of mystery around him. But he’s just a normal dude who will tear your legs up and eat you mentally. I think it’s grit, really. … Josh and I are similar in that way, we weren’t going to let the bike industry dictate what we did and how we did it.”
Indeed, Tostado’s success was fueled by an intensity that often made those around him uncomfortable. Not only did he intimidate other racers, but also his crew. If they weren’t ready when he reached the pits, he pelted the ground with water bottles to make a point. No one in the field knew what to expect from him, other than pain. He rejected Strava for years, and the only time he brings it up now is to mention that someone recently noticed he’d gone 63 miles-per-hour on his mountain bike. The less support a race allowed, and the harder the course, the better Tostado did.
During the heyday of 24 Hours of Moab, on a ledgy loop that rewarded elite bike-handling skills, he dominated—especially after the sun went down. “He would feed off the night,” says his former mechanic, Rich Banach. Tostado was notorious for turning out ridiculous lap times before dawn—a 1:05 after six straight 1:12s, just because he felt like it.
“That’s where you can really tell how tough someone is, when you get to the 4 o’clock witching hours,” says Ross. “He wasn’t just getting through the laps. He was making moves at night.”
“I want to win the right way, not sitting on someone’s wheel all day,” says Tostado.
In pursuit of that, he raced in the 24-hour world championships three times, but never in his prime. He finished second in California in 2015, third in Italy in 2017, and withdrew in Scotland in 2018 after hypothermia turned his arms numb 15 hours into the race. The near-misses still sting. But at least one rival dismisses their relevance. Kelly Magelky, who raced with Eatough on the Trek-Volkswagen team and has won 42 races as a pro, battled with Tostado for 16 years, including a pair of memorable duels in Moab in 2009 and 2010.
“Maybe it’s risky to say this, but I don’t care, because there’s no question. Josh is the best 24-hour racer I’ve ever seen, and the fastest in the world,” Magelky says. “Unfortunately he just never got to say that on the day of the world championships.”
Last Man Standing
The night before the Puzzler, Tostado makes another plate of curry and addresses the main reason he is eyeing retirement: his daughter Alivia, who was born in November 2020 (her mom is three-time Firecracker 50 champion Marlee Dixon).
“I never thought I was going to be a dad,” he says. “I just never had the desire. I was one of those people who always saw parents, like in a coffee shop, and they looked like they hadn’t slept in three days. I was like, ‘That looks like the dumbest thing ever.’ But then you’d ask people, well, ‘How is it having a kid?’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh, it’s the greatest.’ And I wouldn’t say it, but I’d always think, you are so full of shit. Now, being a father, I get it. Because it is. You love this human more than you love anything, have loved anything, or ever will love anything.”
All of which is to say, chasing races around the country in pursuit of dwindling cash prizes now has a more formidable opportunity cost. Tostado can still win, as evidenced by his per- formance at 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo two years ago, when he rode 320 miles and climbed 24,000 feet at age 44. But whereas it used to take him a month to recover from a 24-hour race, now it takes a month-and-a-half. Most of his contemporaries have created fallback plans. Magelky runs a video production company, Eatough holds degrees in civil and transportation engineering, three-time 24-hour world champion Cory Wallace recently set a fastest known time in Africa. Tostado thinks he might go back to cooking or work in a greenhouse, growing food. He plans to use this year to narrow down his ideas.
The next morning, I agree to hand Tostado a bottle six miles into the race. He comes in with the lead duo of Kyle Trudeau and Timon Fish, a promising and slightly unexpected start. But I set up in an awkward spot, and as he rides by my hand clips his bar, washing out his front wheel and sending him to the ground. He gets up in disbelief, gives me a look I will never forget, and pushes on after the leaders. I analyze my failure for three hours (Was my arm angle too low? My timing wrong? Who fucks up a bottle handoff?) until Tostado rides through the finish in third. He is 20 minutes behind Trudeau, who is 17 years younger, and five behind Fish, 35, who recently set the record on the Arizona Trail 300. Tostado buried himself to hold off fourth place and ensure he’d earn a podium incentive from Santa Cruz.
Waiting back at his van, I expect a tense reunion due to my snafu, but Tostado surprises me. “I was pissed for 15 minutes,” he admits, “then I just started laughing. All I could think about was how I was never going to let you live this down.” For the next few hours, he makes good on his promise, telling everyone who stops by what happened, giving an interview about it, replaying a slow-motion video of the botched exchange so that I can see exactly where I screwed him over. It is a softer, gentler version of the fiery competitor who intimidated the best in the sport, and showcases a matured outlook on his fleeting existence at the top.
“I’m not willing to just be a monk who eats, drinks, and sleeps racing like I did in my 30s,” he tells me. “It’s more like, I’m enjoying the ride, and I really just like being here and meeting people and hanging out.”
The most Tostado ever made from a race was $2,500, for one of his Moab wins. At his most recent victory, a 12-hour thrashing he endured last November, he took home a coffee mug.
“Mountain-bike racing, I don’t think I need it anymore,” he says. “Mountain biking I need. And that’s why I still do this, because I still want the mountain biking.”
Photos: Kevin Lange