By Carolyn Szczepanski, League of American Bicyclists
As the summer riding season peaks, the League of American Bicyclists has released a first-of-its-kind report showcasing a trend seen on streets nationwide: Women are changing the face of bicycling, and bicycling is transforming the lives of women.Tweet Print
Editor’s note: We were tipped off to this story by Jeff Jones, creator and namesake of the Jones mountain bikes. Olsen rode his Jones 2,858.75 miles to finish fifth in the 2013 Tour Divide from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, N.M.
Words and photos by James Olsen.
Just over a week ago I arrived at Antelope Wells after 17 days and about 5 hours of the most intense riding experience of my life. I’m back at home now, I’ve been meaning to get something written down for a few days and it’s only now I’m starting to accept that it’s in the past, no longer waking in the night feeling that it’s time to get up and roll along the trail for a while, warming up before settling in for another long day in the saddle. The Tour Divide was everything I went out there for, it was beautiful, intense and at times almost crushingly hard and it got the best out of me.
Firstly, my bike and kit. I bought a Jones Titanium Spaceframe a couple of years ago and it changed my riding. Really, this wasn’t just new-bike love. Longer rides went by in comfort, the handling was addictive and motivated me to ride almost every day and the comfort meant my rides got longer and my fitness improved noticeably.
I bought a steel diamond frame with truss fork for holidays and bikepacking trips and found it was the perfect tool for the job. Comfy and efficient but also a huge amount of fun downhill—a bike-packer ride that wasn’t ever dull or a compromise when we found unexpected gems of trails. Not once did I think “If only I had my susser here…” on those trips. For the Divide there really isn’t a bike I’d have felt so confident in.
I used my steel diamond frame for the frame-bag space and the Ti truss fork for less weight–it all counted. The Velocity P35 rims let me use my tires at maybe 17-18 psi at times when the washboard roads were beating me up, or simply when I wanted to roll more easily along the rougher trails. Others were sticking to 40+ psi and thinner, lighter rims and I think I had an advantage there. I’m certain I was getting less beat up than other riders.
I used Geax Saguaro 2.2 tires that do roll very well and work well on both loose or hard ground but I think a bigger tyre would have been a wiser choice. Fast-rolling 2.4 tires aren’t so widely available but perhaps the tread is less important at lower pressures. On the roads an Ardent 2.4 at 40psi would’ve been slower than the Saguaro, but on balance it may have been faster or comfier over the rougher sections. I saw a couple of Surly 29×3.0 Knard-equipped bikes on the route and eyed up their tires enviously.
A Ti Loop H-bar was the perfect bar for this kind of ride, plenty of space for lights, computer, route maps etc as well as the grip options. A good number of racers were using them this year.
I used a single 34t oval chainring and a 12-28 six-speed modified cassette on a Hope singlespeed hub, using three single-speed cogs and three Shimano cassette cogs stacked up. This was a really hard-wearing combo in the gears I used 80 percent of the time (16, 19 and 22 rear) and I was confident 2,800 miles wouldn’t put too much wear on them. The shifting wasn’t as slick as a normal cassette but it was ok, like a singlespeed with a few options either side of my usual 34-19 ratio.
The straight chain line and front single ring would have been a benefit in the infamous Divide mud, but it was my downfall on a fast road section at the end. A triple may have been a wiser move, certainly if I’d known it was going to be generally so fast and dry I would have fitted one. Shifting was done by a bar-end shifter with a Paul Component mount and I used XTR v-brake levers on BB7 brakes with 160mm and 180mm rotors. Pre-greased cables were a little sticky at first but ran smooth the whole way and I only used one set of pads. My wheel set uses the same spokes throughout so I only carried 2 spare spokes. All my kit came to around 11 lbs., just under 2 lbs. for my sleeping kit on the bars, 3 to 4 lbs. of clothes and waterproofs in the seat pack, the rest was a camelback for food and water and in my frame bag that had extra space for a full 2-liter water bladder if needed.
As for the ride, the Tour Divide isn’t that well known outside mountain bike circles but the number of entrants has increased sharply the last few years and blue-dot watching (trackleaders.com) has added a new spectator dimension to races like this. This year there were 140 or more of us, mostly gathered at the YMCA Lodge in Banff on the morning of June 14, heading south.
I guess most of us had discovered bikepacking in recent years, seen “Ride the Divide” or read Jill Homer or Paul Howard’s books and been hooked on the idea. Some had been planning the race for a couple of years, others for less time. I fell into the “less time” group. At New Year’s I decided I wanted to do something committing on the bike and the Tour Divide was big and exciting enough to really motivate me (fear is a good motivator I found).
Multiple-race-winner Matthew Lee’s posts on Divide racing attitudes and ethics on a forum clinched it for me, it was a race that seemed to appeal when racing rarely does so. For five months my spare time was focussed on little else. There was no race experience in my past to base any confidence on but I had done plenty of reasonably long rides and bivi trips in the past. I feel at home when alone and outdoors and I love sleeping under the stars. I felt confident in my self-sufficiency and felt that I could answer a reasonably confident “yes” to the “Are you up to this?” check-list on the Tour Divide site. Or at least, ‘yes, after some preparation’.
I also had found the perfect bike for my long rides and overseas trips in my Jones bike. What I needed to do was get myself in shape for the demands of the race, finalize my kit and decide on some kind of strategy.
I wanted to race in a certain style, influenced by what I’d read about the original Great Divide race and Matthew Lee’s approach to Divide racing. I really wanted the Divide to be a tunnel that I entered into with the only way back to home comforts being the finish line, or retirement from the race. That meant (to me) racing without a phone or GPS, being 100 percent reliant on myself for bike servicing or repairs and I wanted to sleep out trail-side every night and find a rhythm that worked with daylight hours and my body clock to maximize rest or minimize physical and mental disruption.
The Divide route was to be an open-air experience and roofs were off-limits between start and finish. I think a few more storms would have tested that aim towards the end, but I’m happy that the stormy nights were times when I pushed on out of town in the evenings, set up camp in the dark downpour and lay safe under my small tarp as the lightning lit up the fabric every few moments. Other nights, the storm threatened, tested my resolve then backed down and let me rest with only a light drizzle that couldn’t disturb my coma-like sleep.
Before the race I said that these ideals or ethics may cost me a few places but racing style was important to me, I had some kind of “clean, onsight” kind of climbing ethics in mind that could only really be done once as a rookie on the route. Ask me about ethics after I mis-read my cues again or rode miles past a turn and spent a stressful time uncertain whether it was the right one and you’d have got a different angle on Divide racing! GPS is a good thing if you want to go fast and phones are a faster way to find out about fire diversions, but adventure and uncertainty is also part of the experience.
I think I had a couple of advantages in the race that made up for a lack of race experience and helped keep me in the top five most of the race. One was being happy to sleep trail-side anywhere and in almost any weather which saved me time, the other was having reliable equipment. I was confident in my bike and gear as I’d used it in roughly a Divide’s worth of distance of bikepacking and touring trips before without a single issue. Some of my kit was fairly new but simply a lighter or simpler version of what I’d used before. Some other things I’d do differently next time having completed the race, but that’s always the case with an experience of that magnitude.
The training went well and I enjoyed the long overnight and weekend rides I did in preparation. By the time the race came around I was nervous, scared almost, but raring to go. If you love long rides and existing with the minimum of possessions the Great Divide is a wonderful place to be. Remote in places but rarely dauntingly so, it’s a route where you’ll often feel very small under dramatic skies and expansive views. The feeling of open space is simply huge. If it wasn’t a race there would have been times when I would have got off my bike and just sat or stood in the middle of these great spaces, trying to take it all in. But it was a race and that added a pressure I never predicted.
I’d ended up in the top 10 on day two; when Billy Rice (a northbound rider nearing Banff, who would then turn around to ride south, completing the first TDR double last week) stopped to say hi and tell me there weren’t many ahead of me I realized I was making my way towards the front of the field. After that there was no letting up, I wanted to do well. If I was going to be happier at a slower speed I could tour the route another time.
Naturally I found myself close to other riders on different strategies and with different strengths but the Divide evens things out soon enough. Racing so closely with Alex Harris for over 2,000 miles taught me a lot as well as stretched my ability and my mental strength, I found I could pedal longer and harder than I expected but the lack of sleep and need to compete with a very experienced racer/adventurer was tough, it wore my nerves down at times but it also stopped me slipping into default tourer mode when I felt tired or close to being beaten by the scale of the route.
I don’t think we were ever more than a few hours apart and all I could go on were tire tracks. If there weren’t any signs of Alex’s tire tracks ahead of me, every time I stopped for any reason I was looking behind me and the pressure built. I learned soon after riding with Alex for the first time that he had experience and a source of strength that I would find it hard to compete with when things got difficult, and it was simply a case of when that happened, not if it would.
Things got difficult after La Manga pass, going into New Mexico. Alex and I were low on food but had eaten well in Platoro, 30 miles or so earlier. We were headed into the first of New Mexico’s wilderness stretches, the Cruces Basin, a very beautiful area that we first saw through rain and a fog of hypoglycaemia as we separately tried to make 800 or so calories each last well over a hundred miles of mixed ground. At times it was among the hardest terrain of the route and all of it was at high altitude.
We both knew it’d be hard as we went in, we’d briefly debated the wisdom of going off-route for 30 miles for food or the ethics of hitching off-route. I didn’t want to hitch or delay but I also wanted food. I remembered Aidan Harding’s comments about considering how a racer-to-be would feel when much-needed resupply points were closed, leaving another half-day’s ride to the next point. I thought it was something I could cope with.
Bravado was called out as Alex decided to head into the wilderness. I think the racer in him knew it could be a pivotal moment in our two-man race. Maybe he was just calling my bluff, I don’t know. But I had to follow. As I pushed uphill in the rain to save what little energy I had only ten miles in, he slowly rode away and I felt alone for the first time in the race. I’d enjoyed riding alone for so many miles before that and at times I wanted to break away from Alex simply to ride alone again, but after the first week’s fatigue I wasn’t up to putting more than relatively brief, almost futile gaps between us and I also enjoyed his company.
The Divide racers’ dilemma perhaps, you need a strong head to race the entire route solo, refusing any company. Further up the trail I found half of the small bag of trail mix that a couple on quad bikes had given us earlier. Alex had split it and left it clearly on the trail… “This really was half, honest! : ) ” it said on the bag. Riding alone was losing its appeal, tough times are better faced as a team but this was a solo race and more so now than before it really felt like a serious, solo race for me.
Dark, irrational thoughts closed in and I thought I may end up losing a few places as I walked, then stumbled, for miles and miles to the next potential food supply but my decision had been made and only I could affect the outcome or take the blame.
It turns out that years of long rides and often-poor pace management had taught me a lot about managing “the bonk” and by eating a tiny amount every twenty minutes I eventually stabilized and perhaps much of my lethargy was due to altitude, or caution-induced. I then had a reckless moment when I ate more than half of my only cliff bar in one go and as the sun went down my energy returned. I caught Alex shortly after turning my lights on and we rode together until we emerged onto a five-mile road climb between the wilderness/forest park areas at around 11 p.m.
It felt like a fairly lucky escape but there were still 50 or more miles to go before any hope of resupply. I was pretty sure that the first possible source of food would be shut anyway, as often had been the way. “Don’t get your hopes up”. I chose to bivi there and rest despite saying earlier that pushing on through the night was a good plan, since by then it was a clear night and getting colder and shivering costs calories. My thin but cosy down bag and cushy Neo-air mat was calling again. Alex had only a bivi bag and down jacket so he pushed on to the next shelter which turned out to be only six miles away. We remained within an hour or less of each other but all I knew the next morning was that I was following his tracks again.
The next day in the town of Abiqui I bought the Divider’s breakfast of two double cheeseburgers each with fries, a large milkshake and large Coke but only after being unable to get any cash at a post office and riding past two cash-only shops over the previous 30 miles. I was also caught at the post office by Liam Crowley who may not have got the friendly hello he deserved from this tired, run-down rider. Sorry Liam… He then gave me a spare bar in a generous offer that I won’t forget.
From that point on, I saw a lot more of Liam. He’d been behind us for almost a week but something had lit his fire and he was riding well, he’d closed a half-day or more gap with what must have been a tough all-nighter across the Cruces Basin from Platoro, a big effort that didn’t seem to cost him in the long term.
In the final miles of our Tour Divide we passed each other as we napped separately for an hour or so or paused at food or water points within 125 miles of the finish. I wanted to ride right through to the finish but sleep deprivation was building and mild, continual hallucinations affected me and falling asleep on the bike for brief moments happened too regularly. Waking and swerving across the road without crashing showed how in tune you can get with your bike after 17 days of almost continual riding but there was a real risk that I’d crash out of the race within sight of the finish.
I had an hour and a half’s sleep under a tree as light rain continued to fall and was back on the bike soon after 4:30 a.m. As dawn broke across the beautiful final desert stretch I was riding strongly but following in Alex and Liam’s tire tracks. Passed Separ, I saw no tracks and got my head down for the last 65 miles of road to Antelope Wells. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized I really was going to finish the Tour Divide, relief that it was almost over was mixed with sadness of a journey’s end, something magical grasped.
I thought I may be about to finish third, unthinkable to me really despite having spent a number of days between third and fourth position and as good as that thought felt, I tried not to dwell on it. It just didn’t seem possible. When I saw two dots behind me on the horizon I upped my pace to my limit, I felt good that morning and thought I could hold the pace for another 35 miles to the finish but whether I actually could, I’m not sure.
My 34×12 top gear was good for a speed that was about as high as a rider with 2,800 miles in their legs could maintain, but Alex slowly reeled me in. I sat up and we regrouped as Liam joined us. For a few miles the pace dwindled and we joked about all of us being caught again as we slowed up – half seriously, as we knew Brian Pal (top US rider that year) had been riding strongly and gaining ground in the last few days.
A truck drove past and pulled into the road side. A big guy in a checked shirt, Texan hat and suspenders got out and stood in the center of the road. His pose was pure wild-west, ready to draw. As we rolled up to him he smiled and held out cans of cold condensation-dripping Coke. Lloyd and Roger Payne, thank you for the best welcome committee possible. Racing was off the cards as we drank two cold Cokes each, then it went back on the agenda as a final sprint was mentioned.
From the one mile out roadside marker.
We were at mile three and I was itching to go. I did feel good, but I was tired enough not to realize that my 34×12 top gear wasn’t going to get me past either Liam or Alex on a flat road. But finishing as racers was the only fitting way to finish, there wasn’t to be any joint-placings among us.
By the time we wound up the sprint, I was back in 5th spot watching the others ride away over the last few hundred yards. It wasn’t a welcome sight yet somehow places mattered less to me then. In the early days I was elated to be top 10, as I moved up the field the only place that mattered was the one I held then and the racing had motivated the best riding I’d done. Ranking mattered less to me than how we’d ridden and coped with the challenges, racing all the way yet happy to ride together when our timing and pace matched.
I’d stuck to my no outside-influence bike service and sleep-out-every-night plans and had nothing but pride and satisfaction for how the race had gone. I’d finished, after all. As much as I’d have turned myself inside out to have got third place, Alex truly deserved his podium spot and at the time I’d have traded that cliff bar with Liam for a place any day. The 17 days had gone by in a blur of huge vistas and wide-eyed discovery, tiredness and endorphins and massive appetites. I’d ridden in sublime places with great people and seen how welcoming small-town American people could be toward tired, smelly bike racers with accents they rarely could place. I’d met Kirsten at Brush Mountain Lodge and Megan and Clay at the Toaster house for not much more than an hour or two and it had felt like I’d known them for years. All the fatigue and pain that was to follow as my body went into a minor breakdown a few hours after finishing were worth it.
And I’m looking forward to tomorrow – unboxing my Jones, simply lubing the chain and riding my local trails again.
See more of James’ photos from his trip in his Flickr gallery.Tweet Print
By Jeremy Kershaw
The Trans Iowa is many different things. Speaking for myself, but I think many would agree, the race is a once-a-season phenomenon. It is a marker by which the rest of the year is gauged. You are either preparing for the T.I. or recovering from it… physically and emotionally. The high that I received from finishing last year endured many months afterward. This year, I will try to roll away optimistic, philosophical, but also more than a little disappointed. To me, that shows the gravity of this wild gravel race across Iowa farmland.
The wonder of the T.I. lies in the many different parts that build the whole of the event. There are the obvious: months and miles of base hopefully laid down beforehand. In the Northland, that means hours spent riding cold, wet and often snowy conditions in order to gain a little spring time endurance fitness, or worse, more-than-I-can-remember spins on the indoor trainer watching cartoons so that I could pretend I was kind of parenting and training at the same time.
Then there is the bike prep. This year, that meant endless emails to fellow singlespeed racers trying to guess as to what would be the best gear ratio for such a long race and exceptionally hilly one at that. Going singlespeed represented to me an analogy similar to mountain climbing high peaks without oxygen. Why not up it a notch, the already crazy challenge, into the just plain insane? I chose a 40×19 gear this year. It was probably as near to perfect as I could hope for.
There is the palpable sense of togetherness at the dinner the night before the race. So many genuinely good people about to share in an adventure that will test everyone of them to their limits.
Laying in the hotel bed the night before, watching the Weather Channel or The Simpsons, knowing full well that you have to be awake and ready to go by 2 a.m. That mix of fear and excitement makes for an extremely fitful few hours of rest.
Then, 90 riders, all with their white headlights and red flashing taillights on, huddle together at the start line in downtown Grinnell. Guitar Ted informs us of last minute changes. Confident handshakes and words of encouragement as brakes are tested, computers zeroed-out and tired eyes look blankly ahead into the darkness.
For about a mile, even the slowest rider can be up front, leading the pack through the first few turns out of town. You feel like a real bike racer. Hell, I can win this thing if I really had a good day!
The first crunch of limestone rock under the tires. A few unsecured water bottles already fly into the ditch. Many riders are very experienced with the jolt that riding "gravel" induces on the bike and the body. A few are already suffering the cruel facts of life on these rough farm roads. Too much air pressure in the tires equals exceptionally squirrely handling. Too little, and you risk suffering a pinch flat. Just right means a compromise between some form of air comfort and a rim dinged from tennis ball sized rock.
A quick look back and you realize that the race is on. A long string of lights rattling through the predawn darkness. In only minutes, though, I find myself in my own little pocket of speed. How is it possible that no one else is going the same pace as me? I know this will change as the day goes on. Alliances will be forged. New friendships made. But for now, quiet time, alone and many many miles to go.
Frogs. Lots and lots of frogs doing their spring chorus from the roadside ditches and marshes. If there is one thing I love about riding in the wee hours of the morning and night it is the sounds of birds and frogs. I never feel lonely when I hear them. I remember two years ago walking along a ditch of a "B" road ("unmaintained"), shoes filled with mud, grass and water, bike caked with ten pounds of Iowa’s finest black dirt, headlamps turned on trying to see through the foggy darkness of predawn. And the chorus of frogs was the only soundtrack supporting this scene of chaos. Millions of them. I wonder if anyone else noticed. How lucky we all were to be out there covered in shit, serenaded by amphibian music.
This year, we are graced by a nearly full moon preparing to set, sheets of early morning fog hanging over the low-lands, and a sun just dying to rise on a rare, clear Iowa countryside. I have my small camera along, tucked in my jersey pocket. I nearly die from the missed opportunities of images that I could have captured only if I had stopped and taken the time to shoot. It is a dream landscape. A scene where a thousand pictures could be made, ready for local bank calenders, chamber of commerce flyers, and stock photo galleries to showcase the pastoral beauty of rural Iowa. It was one of those mornings that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Huh…I’m still by myself. That’s OK. I don’t want to have to worry about going too fast right now anyway.
The first checkpoint. On these long races, you have to force yourself to ride checkpoint to checkpoint. It’s just too long otherwise. The T.I. racers are lucky to have some of the best volunteers in cycling. After my first 50 miles of alone time, it’s nice to see people again. Shed layers. Remove gravel from socks. Stretch. Swap out a fresh bag of cue cards. Clip in and go again.
Cue cards. An icon for these gravel races. Count them. Make sure they are all there. Without them, you are one turned around fool in farmland. I race to checkpoints, but I really race to the bottom of a cue card. A small victory every time you get to the last turn of the card and flip a new on top. A huge victory when you see you are on your last one.
Convenience stores. In this edition of the T.I., that meant Casey’s General Stores. Now, I love the science of sports nutrition and endurance physiology, and there have been tremendous strides taken in educating the average cyclist about what to eat and when, but I am seriously waiting for someone to write a manual on how real gravel endurance cyclists eat. It ain’t by the book.
Pizza slices? No problem. Coca Cola? Sure. Cinnamon rolls, Cheeze-it’s, Hot Tomales, chocolate milk, Peanut Nut Rolls…if you can keep it down then you win the game of ultra nutrition. A convenient store on course is like a little Christmas every 60 miles. A time to eat, socialize, stare blankly out into space while stuffing a bag of chips in your face. And lots of very friendly old farmers wondering where you are going and why you are going by gravel road instead of by Pontiac.
Back on the road, after a stop, there is a small period of re-acclimation. There is never the ability to replace what you are burning in calories. But for about 15 minutes, you have a vague feeling that you should not have eaten that last fruit pie.
Time to think. About important life decisions. Hours to re-plan your life and make mental check lists of things you are going to change when you get home. Actually, that’s kind of bullshit. Really, it’s some damn cartoon song that is stuck on repeat in your head. Dora the Explorer must DIE!
At mile 120 my butt begins to feel a bit chafed. Nothing serious. I wonder about about other rider’s butts. Does anyone really escape this thing without undercarriage damage? Does anyone really have the perfect saddle? Except for those fools riding their precious Brooks antiques. (I actually covet one and I think they may be the ONLY ones with intact butts at the end of the T.I.)
At mile 160 I feel the first and maybe the most ominous sign of bodily frailty. Rather out of nowhere, my left knee feels weak while standing on a climb. Then, a few miles down the road, both my knees feel weak while riding the flats. I think it will go away. But deep down I know this is not good—especially with no other lower gears to fall into.
Really? Still alone? I could have sworn there were other riders this year…
If I were a mathematician, I would probably win the Nobel Prize. Why? For naming the phenomenon that exists when you realize that your diminishing speed, coupled with a distance less than 10 miles, will always mean that it will take a half hour to reach the final checkpoint. I think there are probably still a few riders trapped out there in this black hole of time-space-cornfield.
The call of shame. It is both a curse and a blessing to have a Casey’s store only a couple of miles from the last checkpoint. For sure it represents an oasis in which to re-fuel and warm up. (This one looked like a cross between a bike swap and a homeless shelter. I think I watched a man fully change kits at the end of the candy aisle) It is also a spider web of defeat to those that get trapped within the sticky grasp of more pizza, bright lights and a place where your support crew might be able to find you.
I called Guitar Ted and informed him that I was done. I paced the sidewalk for a good 20 minutes before dialing the number. There followed an acute feeling of disappointment. Failure. A general sense of "what does it all mean". And a fleeting wave of relief.
This year I stopped riding at mile mark 180. I had ridden alone for nearly all of the 15 hours I was in the saddle. I chose to go singlespeed this year. The muscles surrounding both my knees, ten miles before the last checkpoint at mile 170, simply started to fatigue to the point that I couldn’t stand and pedal without a sense of impending buckling. I just couldn’t see making another 150 miles. So I called in and ended my bid for a second T.I. finish.
The importance of races of this grandeur can not be minimized. The Trans Iowa is a study in perseverance. Endurance. Cycling community. Hope. Breakdown. And a dusty stage to act out one’s own dreams of being a gravel god(ess).
Thank you, Guitar Ted, for creating and producing the Trans Iowa.Tweet Print
By Gary J. Boulanger.
The sky was blue, the sidewalks were bustling, and the IPA was flowing on a warm, 62-degree Sunday afternoon in Marin County as a gaggle of Mountain Bike Hall of Famers gathered in San Rafael, California on February 10 to raise a pint and funds for Marilyn Price’s Trips For Kids organization, which takes underprivileged youth out on the trails.
The 15th Annual ‘Brews, Bikes & Bucks’ attracted local riders, supporters, and bike industry personalities to the Broken Drum Brewery where the owner, Noah Berry, donates all proceeds of the day to Trips For Kids, based just down the street. The non-profit receives the bulk of its funding from the Re-Cyclery Thrift Shop at 610 4th Street, with inventory donated from local supporters and several bicycle companies.
The nice weather brought out several pioneers, many of whom rode in on bikes, including Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, Gary Fisher, Scot Nicol, Charlie Kelly, Chris Lang, Dave Garoutte, James McLean, Jacquie Phelan, Mert Lawwill, Bruce Gordon, Sky Yaeger, Dave Koski, and our own fearless publisher, Maurice Tierney.
From left: Chris Chance, Joe Breeze and Mert Lawwill. Chance and Breeze are legends with the torch, and Lawwill was the star of "On Any Sunday", plus a talented mountain bike suspension designer.
From left: Chris Chance, Scot Nicol and Otis Guy. Chance ran Fat Chance Cycles out of Boston, once called the Ibis of the East. Nicol founded Ibis Cycles, called the Fat Chance of the West? Either way, Guy is always smiling, and is fitter than you’ll ever be.
Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher started a little home-brewed company called "Mountainbikes" in Marin County back in 1979, and Charlie still flies the flag in Fairfax with this more modern machine.
Above left: Trips For Kids founder and director Marilyn Price enjoys gathering the tribe together every year, and Joe Breeze seems pleased as a schoolboy. Above right: Mert Lawwill raced motorcycles with Steve McQueen, designed full suspension bikes with Gary Fisher, and still cuts a mean figure in black leather. Son Joe handles marketing for Shimano America.
Maurice Tierney with Gary Fisher and his wife Alex.
Local gal Sky Yaeger designed many Bianchi, Swobo, and Spot bikes you see in your neighborhood. Now she’s whipping up something really special for Shinola, a new company based in Detroit.
Like several Marin County-based Mountain Bike Hall of Famers, Joe Breeze has his name on the down tube, and lives within riding distance of the Broken Drum Brewery in San Rafael.
Bruce Gordon was a key figure in the development of the 29er tire in the 1980s, and this 2013 model shows off his updated Rock N Road tires, featured in the latest issue of Bicycle Times.
After some socializing and bench racing with old pals, Gary Fisher and his wife rolled out to catch the Larkspur ferry back to their flat in San Francisco.
The 15th Annual Trips For Kids fundraiser, "Brews, Bikes & Bucks" gathered at the Broken Drum Brewery in San Rafael, California. Among the mountain bike pioneers were Chris Chance, Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Jacquie Phelan, Mert Lawwill, Otis Guy, Chris Lang, Dave Garoutte, Maurice Tierney, Sky Yaeger, James McLean, Dave Koski and Broken Drum owner Noah Berry. Not pictured: Charlie Kelly, Bruce Gordon, and Scot Nicol.Tweet Print
By Gary J. Boulanger,
Belgian road racer Eddy Merckx packed the athletic power of Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, and Walter Payton into his 6’1”, 180-pound frame, demolishing his rivals consistently between 1965 and 1978, where many raced for second against the one they called ‘The Cannibal’.
Merckx, who first tasted victory as an amateur on October 1, 1961, continued his victorious ways throughout his professional career, eventually tallying 525 wins, for which a new book has been named.
Merckx 525, published by VeloPress (222 pages, $60), is a hefty book, befitting the hefty career the now 67-year-old Belgian. After all, he won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia five times, the world road championships three times, Milan-San Remo seven times, and Paris-Roubaix three times, and set the hour record in 1972, which stood for 12 years. His first Tour victory in 1969 included winning the general classification (yellow jersey), points classification (green ‘sprinter’s’ jersey) and the mountains classification (now polka dot).
Despite Merckx’s vise-like grip on the podium, his adversaries were formidable; many, including Joop Zoetemelk, Felice Gimondi, Luis Ocana, Raymond Poulidor, and Roger De Vlaeminck, would’ve been ultra superstars if Merckx hadn’t lined up in their era. Many dared to go toe-to-toe with Merckx, and many beat him, but not regularly. Merckx 525 does an excellent job chronicling Merckx’s career in words and pictures, providing the wonderful minutiae and insight behind his greatest achievements.
Several books on Merckx have been published since his retirement, but Merckx 525 gives the reader an intimate view of the Belgian’s life on and off the bike during his prime years, sideburns and all. Vintage bicycle aficionados will appreciate the lugged steel bikes, leather saddles, wool shorts and jerseys, metal toe clips and leather shoes.
What I found most interesting was the quick metamorphosis of Merckx’s physical appearance on the bike as he won the Classics and Grand Tours; his round-cheeked face became more chiseled, as did his thighs and chest. He morphed into a machine of sorts, pounding out the RPMs like a metronome clarion as a reminder to his adversaries of who was in charge. The burden climaxed by March 19, 1978, Merckx’s final race. He came in 12th at the Tour of Waaland, which finished in Kemzeke, just 100km from his birthplace of Tielt-Winge, Belgium.
Merckx 525 captures the raw effort of bike racing, with the backdrop of Europe as Merckx’s canvas. His life, both private and professional, is laid out for the world to witness. I can picture a slight Flemish smirk creasing his face as he reads it, and a familiar frown of resignation on the faces of his adversaries, at least those who care to relive their glory years.
Editor’s note: We’re happy to share this great submission by reader Dave Hodgson about his first attempt at racing ‘cross. Have a story you’d like to share with readers? Send it to email@example.com.
By Dave Hodgson.
I have read some great race reports over the last year of heroic deeds by ‘cross riders. This, my friends, will not be one such report. This is on the other end of the racing spectrum.
After spending all year training to ride long road races, I thought I would try my hand at cross this fall. High intensity sprints in field— a natural choice for a roadie. I mean, it’s only 40 minutes long. How tough could it be? That idea would come back to haunt me.
My first cross race was at New Brighton Park in Vancouver, B.C. Along with the usual obstacles of barriers and small hillocks there was a 25 foot sand pit—not bad the first time you rode through, but decidedly dodgy after 30 people had been practicing on it for 45 minutes.
I thought I would go to the very back at the first race, so my inexperience would not cause any mayhem. There I meet a girl in a pink tutu, a fit looking 20-year-male and, I believe, a blind guy.
“I got the blind guy," I thought.
Well the race started, and someone promptly fell at the first corner in the leading group, leading to a bit of a pile-up.
“I could have done that!” I chuckled.
I was happily hanging on at the back until we reached the sand pit. I figured I would run the pit, as it might be quicker. What I didn’t figure on, was putting the bike on my shoulder, immediately falling over and having the big cog take out a chunk of my right ear. Picking myself up, and dripping blood, I thought “Great, a smaller ear will make me more aerodynamic for the second lap.”
Already the transformation to cross racer had started.
Passing the pits, some bloke yelled, "Pick it up, you’re getting beat by a girl in a tutu!” and you know, he had a point.
The second lap involved another fall against a tree stump, but at least I negotiated the sand pit without the need of a surgeon.
On passing the start/finish line, I must have looked a bit of a sight because a marshal asked me if I wanted some bacon. I grabbed it most heartily and shoved it in my throat. Unfortunately, in my throat it stayed, as I spent the rest of the lap choking and praying maybe someone might know the Heimlich maneuver.
By the 4th lap I was completely shagged and not very impressed with the lady who cheerily told me there were still 2 laps to go. By this stage I was looking for a friendly face, and I spotted one of my club riders on the sidelines. I was just about to acknowledge him, when he shouted “Come on Jason, don’t get stuck there," and with that, Jason promptly overtook me, although he at least had the decency to say sorry when he passed.
By now the finish line couldn’t come fast enough, but on the last lap I was able to get by the tutu girl in what I thought was sprint, but was more accurately a crawl.
As I was dry heaving at the finish, she came over to me and said “Nice stamina, how long have you been training?" That was when I realized that maybe a bit of training might not have been a bad idea.
She looked me in the eye and said, "There’s race a tomorrow at Vanier park, are you going?” And before I could help myself I said, "Hell yeah, that was fun!”
And really, that is what cross is all about—the winners and losers all suffer in their own way, but in the end, everyone has a bunch of fun. I would thoroughly recommend it to those of you thinking about giving it a try.
I think the only way I can accurately describe the new fever I have for ‘cross, is the look of total political incorrectness and horror on my wife and daughter’s face a few weeks later when the results were posted and I jumped on top of my chair and screamed out loud "Yeah baby! I beat the blind guy!"Tweet Print
A Ciclovia day in Bogota. Every Sunday and holiday, the city closes 75 miles of streets to car traffic from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. In all, 1.3 million people attend the weekly event.
By Klaus. Photos courtesy of Gil Peñalosa and the author.
By the mid-1990s, Bogotá, Colombia, was an incredibly difficult place in which to live. As the city’s population grew closer to the 10 million mark, its endless neighborhoods continued to spread into the Andean peaks that surround it and the quality of life in the city dropped precipitously. Crime was rampant, as an overall sense of disdain grew within Bogotá’s population.
It was around that time, however, that several key changes took place in Bogotá, changes that would positively alter the course of the city’s history in ways that no one imagined. In a matter of years, the city changed dramatically. Through the work of several visionary leaders, Bogotá lowered its crime rate significantly, delivered much-needed services to its poorest citizens, and improved congestion through an innovative mass-transit system. The bicycle also emerged as a centerpiece in the city’s renaissance. As this happened, Bogotá’s citizens began to take pride in a city they previously loathed.
A key visionary in Bogotá’s rebirth during that time was Gil Peñalosa, who worked as Commissioner of Parks, Sport and Recreation. Under Peñalosa’s leadership, the city designed and developed over 200 parks, as well as the “new Ciclovía,” in which 1.3 million people enjoy over 75 miles of car-free streets throughout the city every single Sunday and holiday. Additionally, it was during this time that Bogotá built over 185 miles of sheltered bikeways, and instituted a once-a-year event known as Car Free Day, in which no privately owned vehicles are allowed on city streets.
Gil Peñalosa, on the streets of Bogotá, Columbia.
Today, Gil Peñalosa is the executive director of the Canadian non-profit organization 8-80 Cities, which seeks to create vibrant and healthy communities by focusing on the needs of cyclists and pedestrians through the design of public spaces. In that role, Peñalosa has helped numerous cities around the world learn some very valuable lessons from a seemingly unlikely place: Bogotá, Colombia.
Klaus for Bicycle Times: Growing up in Bogotá during the 1980s, the city was a disorganized and often frightening place. Do you see the city’s willingness to accept the bike as a viable method of transportation—and in doing so respecting cyclists—as proof that there’s been a fundamental change in how the city operates, and how its citizens think about one another?
Gil Penñaloza: I do, without a doubt. I say that because the bicycle is a very egalitarian tool. Yes, one bike can cost fifty dollars while another can cost five thousand. But when you are riding through the city, and people are going places, that doesn’t really matter. Riding a bike becomes a common ground, and the person is very visible. The bike can become secondary. You engage with people face to face, you see their eyes, and the interaction becomes very real and very human. Things happen at a human scale.
Cars, on the other hand, are differentiators. They are large, and are not merely used as transportation. If people used cars to get from A to B, and had no other reason for owning one, they would all own Honda Civics. But that’s not the case. Cars are status symbols, and they are used to differentiate the owners from one another. By and large, that’s just not the case with a bike.
Another powerful aspect of riding a bike is that public spaces are safer the more they are used. Bikes play a big role in this, but cars don’t. This is certainly true for roads where bikes are ridden because they instantly become safer as more and more people use them. Parks become safer if people ride their bikes and walk in them, but not if cars go by them at forty miles an hour. Cars are unable to have that kind of positive effect on their environment because they remove humanity from the equation. Bikes put it back in.
BT: Would you say that applies to Bogotá? That more bike use, and thus more people at a human scale and at a slower pace, have made the city safer and thus better for its citizens?
GP: I would. Absolutely. It’s far from ideal, but more people walking and cycling and using public spaces have improved safety and quality of life.
BT: How did you first become aware of the value of the bicycle, not only as an ideal method of transportation, but also as one that could have a valuable democratizing effect upon cities?
GP: This is something I always thought about, because I’ve always seen bikes as part of a bigger suite of solutions, which includes the needs of pedestrians, as well as city parks and gathering places. As such, today I am clear about the fact that bikes are not the end, but rather a medium. Bikes are not the end result of any of these initiatives, but they are a way of making cities more equitable and livable. There’s some general confusion about bike initiatives, because people see them merely as transportation, something to take people from point A to point B. A goal is to make cities more human and more equitable, and the use of bicycles plays a role in the process.
BT: Large cities in wealthy, industrialized nations have had great difficulties in implementing initiatives that Bogotá has not only put in place, but also invented. Things like the Ciclovía, sheltered bikeways, and a car-free day are all impressive undertakings for any city, particularly one in a place that many see as undeveloped and potentially dangerous, like Colombia. How did Bogotá come to be a leader in these initiatives?
GP: My sentimental side would like to believe that things—changes that are worthwhile—must grow from the bottom up. But the reality is that cities are often transformed by leaders who are able to change things from the top down, simply because that’s where the power lies. That’s been the case in New York City, where they have a great commissioner who is willing to lead these changes.
BT: Within the context of a city like Bogotá, that mentality certainly makes sense. It takes a great deal of vision, and the power to implement it, when you’re talking about launching something like a car-free day.
GP: It does. When my brother Enrique Peñalosa [Mayor of Bogotá, 1998-2001] first introduced the idea of having a car-free day, no one was talking about the topic of cars, or alternatives in transportation. He introduced that theme by talking about having a car-free day. It got people talking about the problems that the city was facing.
Similarly, when I worked with Antanas Mockus [Mayor, 1995-1997], the topic of the Ciclovía was not discussed. We had about 10 kilometers, and only a few thousand people using the Ciclovía. I have to admit that I became obsessed with the subject, and within two years I had over 62 miles (121 kilometers) of Ciclovía in the city. We went from having a few thousand users, to having over a million users every Sunday, and every holiday. We built an infrastructure, and a reproducible model that can be used all over the world.
So this idea of a Ciclovía, of letting people use the street for fun and fitness, became something that cities all over the world took up, and it all came out of Bogotá. But it wasn’t anything that the city was talking about; it was introduced into the discourse.
I was speaking with some students from the Andes University in Bogotá not long ago. They asked me what the socio-political climate was that gave birth to the growth in the Ciclovía, and the growth in bike paths in Bogotá. I told them there wasn’t one. Really. I challenged them to look at the newspapers in Bogotá from the two years leading up to the growth in the Ciclovía. They can even make it three or four years. They won’t find a single article where anyone voiced an interest in increasing the program or even concern about this topic. So, I have to put modesty aside and tell you that this happened and came to the forefront because I became obsessed with the objective and surrounded myself with a great team of people. That’s why I believe that change can happen from the top down, because I’ve seen it happen.
BT: As part of the changes you put into place, the Ciclovía finally arrived to poor neighborhoods in Bogotá, which had never been the case before.
GP: Right. We not only grew the system of the Ciclovía, but we did so in a way that would integrate the city in a system. That’s what the Ciclovía does; it integrates and unites the city and its citizens. It takes you to vastly different neighborhoods; it brings the young and the old, the poor and the rich together. This is no small feat, when you consider how often we engage and spend time with those who are unlike us. In Bogotá, you will find the wealthiest owners and presidents of the most prestigious companies with their families, running into their workers who make minimum wage, who will also be with their families at the Ciclovía.
In Bogotá, the gap between these people is great, but that’s the case in other cities as well. But through the Ciclovía, they are in the same place, doing the same thing. These are people who don’t live in the same neighborhoods, their kids don’t attend the same schools, they don’t shop in the same stores, and they don’t eat in the same restaurants. But they are in the Ciclovía together. One can have an imported bike that is three thousand dollars, while the other has one that is 30 dollars…so be it. They are both having the same fun with their family, and they stop and chat. It’s a rare activity that can allow this integration to happen. The Ciclovía becomes an exercise in social integration; it is much more than cycling, walking and skating.
BT: When you talk about the social value of the Ciclovía, I can’t help but think about the bike trails that are common in North American cities. These are often in suburban neighborhoods. They go from nowhere to nowhere, and are not inclusive in any way, nor do they serve the purpose of potentially getting their users to any place in particular. Similarly, many cities seem selective about which neighborhoods get to have bike lanes or sheltered bike routes. The needs of poor, and often minority populations, are very seldom taken into account.
GP: This is certainly a problem. You’ll often find that the best places for recreation and the amenities that allow for best transportation are in the wealthiest neighborhoods, but not in the places where they are most needed—that usually means poorer neighborhoods. People start to make excuses, and I’ve encountered this. They may not want a route, for example, to be connected to an area because it’s poor, or because it’s a primarily Black neighborhood. The reality is that these bike routes, parks, and things like the Ciclovía should connect people, but also connect places that people want and need to go to.
So as much as I like small neighborhood parks, they are usually limited to people in that immediate area. But if you have a long bike path, it can start to cut through numerous neighborhoods, and all kinds of city areas. It can also get you to a destination. This is a big part of making something like this useful, and helping to bring people together. Connecting people and places.
BT: In Bogotá, the poorest neighborhoods are serviced by the bike routes that were put into place during your time working there. This is hugely important, since people in poor neighborhoods need bikes not only as a form of entertainment and fitness, but also as a way of getting around, while wealthier populations may have more options. Was this taken into consideration when planning out these routes?
GP: Certainly, but this is something that could be said of all cities in all countries. Similarly, keep in mind that it costs thousands of dollars to maintain a car, and it only costs more the longer you own a car. There are people in wealthy nations who barely have enough to feed a whole family, not enough to take a small vacation, but they have one or more cars. They end up working just to pay for their car. So these concerns are universal. BT: Sadly, many cities seem to be wasting time and effort into putting single bike lanes here and there, where there is room for it, rather than where they are needed.
GP: Right, and that’s because people talk about a bike lane, or a bikeway. No. They should speak about a network, a system of bikeways and bike lanes. Plural. You can’t have a bike lane that goes from nowhere to nowhere. It won’t be used. Imagine if the mayor of a city put up one goal post and one end zone, and then complained that it wasn’t being used by the football team. Two years later, they could put in the first few yards, and then some more yards. Of course it won’t work, and it won’t get used—it’s not complete or usable for the activity. So cities will put in two bike lanes, which are one mile each. Then they’ll stop putting more in, because they’ll simply say that they don’t have a “bike culture,” and that no one is using them. Well, you didn’t build a system that people could use—of course it wasn’t used. Connectivity is critical in order to have positive results.
In Bogotá, we created a network of bike routes. We were a city that lacked the “bike culture” that many talk about. But when we built a network that people could use, that connected them to the places they had to go to, we went from having 28,000 people using a bike as a way of getting around, to over 350,000. So today, for every four cars in Bogota, we have one riding a bike. That becomes a substantial and important part of the population that has to be accounted for, and cared for. This has happened in other cities as well. In Seville, Spain, four years ago almost no one used a bike as their method of transportation. It was 0.2%. They built 100 miles of bikeways, separate from car traffic and separate from pedestrians, in three years. As a result, they now have 6.6% of the people using bikes. Now they want to get to 15% by 2015. And a big part of this is connected points where people originate from, to places they are going to. It’s that simple.
BT: It’s worth mentioning that in many North American cities, “bike lanes” are nothing more than a white stripe of paint on the road. That’s vastly different from the fully sheltered bikeways that are the norm in Bogotá. Do you think that bike lanes as they are implemented in the United States are of some value as a first step, or should they be rejected in hopes that we’ll get proper solutions from the start?
GP: You have to get the real solution, and not settle for paint on the road. The reality is that if you paint a line on the road, you’ll only get a few more people using that route. So again, you’ll fall into the same problem that I mentioned before. Few people will use it, and the city will say that they don’t have a “bike culture,” that no one is using it, so they won’t invest in more bike lanes.
I saw this exact thing happen in Orlando, Florida. They put in a bike lane, which was nothing more than paint on the road, along a six-lane road. The cars there were going 45 to 50 miles an hour. Those who fought to have that line of paint put in told the city that the number of users would go from 100 to 1,000. The reality is that it went up to only 150, and the politicians said, “It didn’t work.” But of course it didn’t! All that was separating people on their bikes from cars going 50 miles per hour was a line on the ground. So better solutions are needed. And in residential neighborhoods, we need to lower the speed limits. All streets in neighborhoods should have a maximum speed of 20mph; 20 is plenty. This allows people to safely exit their cars when they park, people can cross the street with their babies and their dogs. But in larger routes, we need bike lanes that have a physical border separating cyclists from traffic and from pedestrians. These three modes of transportation differ in speed, and can’t be expected to work seamlessly together in the exact same environment. The idea of a bike lane that is nothing more than white paint on the road is disrespectful to cyclists and to all citizens.
BT: Then I must ask you, what is your opinion regarding the lack of sidewalks in so many American neighborhoods? Is this not a statement that the city is making about the value of certain citizens who can’t afford a car, those who take public transportation, or maybe even the elderly who can no longer drive?
GP: Absolutely. In the last ten years, 47,700 pedestrians have been killed in the United States by cars and 679,000 pedestrians have been injured. These are numbers from the Department of Transportation. So one has to ask, how is it possible that neighborhoods are still being planned out without sidewalks? BT: So the message to those who walk, be it for pleasure or need, is clear.
GP: It is. And at the same time, the United States has an obesity problem that is costing taxpayers billions and billions, along with environmental issues that are now becoming more known. But all this aside, how can cities not care for their citizens, and allow pedestrians to be killed and injured?
BT: Keeping in mind that change often comes from the top down, what can we as citizens do in order to bring solutions to those obstacles to the forefront?
GP: The biggest obstacle is a political matter. It’s not a financial problem. It’s also not a technical problem. The budgets that cities have for roadways, and to make things better for cars, are huge. It takes very little money to improve things for cyclists. If a city doesn’t know how to build appropriate bikeways, it’s very simple and easy to find someone who does. So, as a citizen, you have to speak about this subject if no one in your city has put this topic on the table. You have to write newspapers, you have to start blogs, you have to call in to radio stations, and you have to go to public meetings.
Politicians are sometimes afraid to lead, but if they see that the public wants and needs something, they’ll listen. Similarly, these things have now been tried out in numerous cities of all sizes around the world. So, politicians can be shown that these initiatives work, and that will help ease their fear about change.
But really, at the end of the day, citizens have to become involved. They have to understand that a spaceship from Mars won’t magically land in their city, and build this infrastructure overnight. It just won’t happen.Tweet Print
By Giles Snyder.
I had hoped that a nice, sunny day and cool spring temperatures would combine to help make my first-ever bike overnight memorable. While my companions and I did get a remarkable trip up the C&O Canal Towpath from Washington, D.C., the weather we got was far less than remarkable.
It started raining the moment we left our starting point in downtown D.C. It rained as we cycled through trendy Georgetown, got a little lost, and almost got mowed down by a big delivery truck in rush-hour traffic. And it rained long past the time we shivered ourselves to sleep. Sometimes it came down as a bearable drizzle. Other times, it splashed down on our heads in big pregnant drops. It rained despite assurances from one of my companions that the day we planned to go is always “a beautiful day.”
Except, apparently, when you plan to spend it on a bike. I often cycle portions of the C&O Canal Towpath. It’s easily accessed from where I live in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. But, like many who make their homes in this region, I work in D.C. From my driveway to where I park my car downtown, it’s about 90 miles. That’s a lot of ground to cover each workday. I wanted to slow down and see what I’d been missing.
The towpath snakes its way alongside the Potomac River for more than 184 miles from Washington, D.C. to Cumberland, Maryland. If you have time, you can go on for another 141 miles via The Great Alleghany Passage Rail-Trail all the way to Pittsburgh. (Read about our trip along the GAP and C&O. – Ed.)
The idea for the canal dates back to the earliest days of our nation. George Washington himself championed it as a way to connect the western frontier with the more populated east. Workers started building the C&O in the 1820s and canal boats used it to bring lumber and coal to market into the early 20th century. The canal was a lifeline for communities up and down the river, but it couldn’t compete with railroads. It would have fallen into obscurity if not for Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who led efforts to convince Congress to turn the canal into a National Park. Today it’s a haven, not only for cyclists, but for hikers and others who want to take in its natural beauty and gaze at history first-hand.
On our trip up the towpath, though, we had to work hard to find the bright future that Douglas saw. It was not only wet; all that rain made it seem much colder than it was. When we stopped from time to time my teeth started to chatter. One fellow who briefly rode along with us suggested he just might spend the night in one of the towpath’s port-a-johns. From then on, every time we passed a port-a-john, I seriously considered curling up in it, but I couldn’t get past the heat source. Besides, our goal was a lockhouse near Point of Rocks, Maryland.
According to the C&O Canal Trust’s website, there used to be 57 such houses. Lockmasters lived in them with their families, helping boats deal with the elevation change as the canal made its way into the Maryland mountains. Less than half remain, but the Trust has made a few available for overnight stays. They’ve been restored to reflect separate time periods in the life of the canal.
The lockhouses are rustic by modern standards. Ours had no heat, no electricity, and no running water. But it was well-appointed with period furniture, and a welcome sight after a full day of cycling in the rain. If you are looking to unplug from the hustle and bustle of city life, this is it. It’s also a great way to experience how life was lived along the canal in bygone days.
After spending the night snug in period beds, we got up the next day in relatively good humor. The morning sunshine renewed us and it wasn’t long before we were back on our bikes.
Two of my companions went back the way we’d come, leaving me and another to move on to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, where abolitionist John Brown staged his famous raid aimed at sparking a slave revolt. My remaining companion lives there, so that’s where we parted ways and I cycled the final dozen miles or so by myself, ending my trip at Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Confederate forces retreated through there after the nearby Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in American history.
While the second day’s sunshine was reinvigorating, the constant rain of the previous day should have made my first overnight cycling trip a miserable failure.
In fact, the adversity only whetted my appetite for more, if only to see what a cycling trip is like in a dry pair of shorts.
We left more than 100 miles of the towpath undone. I’m hoping to tackle the Shepherdstown to Cumberland stretch later this summer. Once our plans come together, it’s a good bet I’ll be keeping an eye on the weather. But since I’ve already cycled through one deluge, a little more rain won’t be enough to scare me off.
Check out Adventure Cycling Association’s new website, Bike Overnights, aimed at providing inspiration, resources, and tools for short bicycle tours (one to two nights). You’ll find stories, tips, and how-tos about embarking on short overnight cycling adventures, whether you’re traveling to a beautiful state park solo, lounging at a B&B with friends and family, taking your child on their first overnight bike adventure, or anything in between. Plus, you can submit your own trip report for possible publication; Adventure Cycling hopes to collect bike overnight tales from all 50 states!
Words and photos by Gary J. Boulanger
The fourth annual Levi’s King Ridge GranFondo attracted an estimated 7,500 riders and 20,000 festival attendees to Santa Rosa, the charming northern California town chosen by both Alfred Hitchcock and the Tour of California.
While Hitch had murder on his mind filming “Shadow Of A Doubt” in 1943, event organizers VeloStreet/Bike Monkey hoped to expose cyclists of all stripes and types to the unlimited riding opportunities on the roads streaming out of their town of 167,000. The economic impact of the King Ridge GranFondo has brought more than $6 million to the area since 3,500 riders first clipped on and rolled out of Finley Park in 2009.
The event, based on the popular gran fondos (big rides) of Italy and Spain, was hatched by professional road racer and multiple Tour of California winner Levi Leipheimer, who lives and trains in Santa Rosa most of the year. Instead of making it an event for advanced riders only, Leipheimer and VeloStreet decided to make it a family affair, with a huge festival coinciding with the ride options of 35 (piccolo), 65 (medio) or 103 (gran) miles. All three routes use the same roads raced by the pros during the Tour of California. This year, medio and gran riders could choose a dirt road alternative route up Willow Creek Road, off Highway 1 near the Russian River, bypassing the infamously steep Coleman Valley Road.
As with most gran fondos, a dose of celebrity participation is de rigueur in these parts. This year, Grey’s Anatomy star and avid cyclist Patrick Dempsey joined 2008/2012 Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, 2000 Olympic medalist Mari Holden, Garmin-Sharp pro Tom Danielson, multiple World Champion mountain biker Brian Lopes, Team Exergy pro Freddie Rodriquez, current world downhill champion Greg Minnaar, and former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, a recent convert to cycling who’s lost more than 20 pounds in two years.
“My doctor told me to choose cycling and swimming after a series of surgeries two years ago,” the 48-year-old told me at lunch following the ride. “I bought a road bike and was passed by an old dude the first day. After several tries, I figured things out and now I’m hooked.” Bonds rode the 65-mile route with Holden and Specialized Bicycles owner Mike Sinyard.
With an average age of 45 and a healthy male/female ratio of 70/30, the King Ridge GranFondo caters to each rider as if they were the celebrity. Nearly 2,000 volunteers prepare, set up, and provide rest-stop nourishment with a smile, and dozens of course marshals are on the bike, clad in easily identifiable jerseys to lend a hand and keep it safe. Official number plates with timing chips, a Tyvek number for pinning on the back of one’s jersey, and a seatpost sticker number ups the pro look of everyone’s bike, whether it’s a sleek racer, hybrid, or in some cases, recumbent. Several young families enjoyed the ideal 80-degree weather.
I hopped on the NorCal bicycle builder train of Jeremy Sycip, Curtis Inglis, and Steve Rex where the medio and gran routes diverged. Our small peloton of 10 riders zipped along the Sonoma County roads two-by-two when possible, and we made sure to enjoy the rest stops, bumping into Dempsey, who posed with excitable middle-aged women and the local Girl Scout troop, enjoying the day like everyone else.
We opted to climb Willow Creek Road, an ideal mix of beat-up asphalt, gravel and sand, which rises to the top of Coleman Valley Road. After answering the call of nature, a member of our peloton thought he’d impress a recumbent rider by passing him riding a wheelie, losing his balance (and a bit of his pride) and falling over. Dusting himself off, he rejoined our laughing crew (the recumbent rider was good natured, thankfully, and a beast up the dirt climb), as we snaked our way to the top.
Despite the large volume of cyclists sharing the road, it never felt like 7,500 people were getting in anyone’s way the entire ride. There’s plenty to notice in 65 miles, and I was impressed by the number of people visiting from Vancouver, Colorado, Idaho, and other locales. Several riders told me they look forward to riding the King Ridge GranFondo every year because they never tire of the scenery.
Leipheimer and his wife Odessa Gunn are highly visible within the Santa Rosa and Sonoma County communities. In addition to supporting the regional Humane Society’s Forget Me Not Farm with proceeds from the King Ridge GranFondo each year, more than $400,000 has been raised for charities and cycling support programs.
As the 38-year-old Leipheimer enters the twilight of his racing career, it appears his commitment to the community and his passion for cycling has laid a strong foundation for generation of cyclists to come, whether they’re local or visiting from another part of the world, just like those I met in Santa Rosa on September 29.Tweet Print
By Sarah Raz, photos by Josh Tack.
Whenever I think of bike tours, I think of months on the road. I think of cross-country excursions and miles and miles of pedaling and so much time on the saddle that the days run into one another and time is measured in peanut butter sandwiches. I picture tents growing weathered, tires being swapped out, calf muscles becoming staggeringly large and powerful.
My boyfriend, Josh, and I are lucky enough to work at the Adventure Cycling Association, so we can usually swing one long-ish bike trip a year. We love to take trips abroad and spend weeks on end investigating a foreign countryside by bike. The rest of the year, however, we have this thing called work to consider, so long bike tours are out of the question. But since we still love to get out and explore, we’ll often spend a weekend on a mini-bike tour or a bike overnight.
We live in Missoula, Montana, a sweet, laid-back college town just a hop, skip and a jump from the border of Canada. It’s a wonderful place; it’s surrounded by snow-covered peaks and has a long growing season (for Montana) that earned it the nickname “The Garden City.” On the three-day weekend of July 4th, we decided to check out the Rattlesnake Recreation Area. We’d pedal up the 15-mile dirt road corridor to the wilderness boundary with our backpacks in tow. From there, we’d make yet a deeper hike to visit the still snowed-in lakes of the pristine backcountry.
We started out with a technical difficulty. We were using trailers to pull our backpacks and my trailer had been having problems ever since I’d had the bright idea to pull my 180lb. friend home from a party (the weight limit is 80lbs.). We’d made it home all right, but the left back wheel hadn’t been the same since. Before we hit the trail, we had to abandon my broken trailer at the Adventure Cycling office. “Don’t worry, Josh, you’re so strong!” I said. “You can just pull both of our backpacks!” Josh is a good sport, but he didn’t look too convinced. The corridor up the Rattlesnake gets extremely steep, and our packs, loaded with food and camping equipment, were heavy.
Finally, we were off. Montana summers can be hot, but it got nice and cool as we started to climb away from town and into the mountains. The creek was bubbling next to us, and the air smelled good and fresh. At first we saw some other cyclists and hikers, but as we headed up there was just Josh and me and the flutter of birds and insects in the air. The pathway opened before us and the landscape became more rugged and high alpine. I noticed a waterfall from snowmelt to our right. I thought about how easy the riding felt and then remembered that wasn’t carrying anything. I looked over at Josh and he just laughed. “Next time,” he said, “you’re carrying everything!”
Before I knew it, we’d reached the wilderness boundary. We stashed our bikes and trailer, strapped on our backpacks and hiked upwards a few more miles. I wished for boots instead of my light trail runners—although it was still warm, there was snow everywhere and within minutes my shoes were soaked through. Before dark, we found a place that met our three requirements to camp (flat, with a view, bear-hang tree readily available) and promptly conked out.
How much snow is there in the mountains in Montana in July? More than I’d ever imagined! The next morning after we packed up and started walking, it wasn’t long before we couldn’t locate the trail any longer due to heavy snowpack. “I think we go this way,” I said, pointing to the right. “I can just feel it!” Josh studied the map.
“Actually, I’m pretty sure we go in the other direction,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with feelings, but that’s what it looks like on the map.” We headed off with just the hush-hush of snow all around us.
Suddenly, I sensed a bit of movement in the woods and turned my head. An animal, smaller than a deer, was running along the ridgeline in near-silence and with incredible grace. Was it really a wolf? I almost couldn’t believe it. His silver-gray hair glistened and his legs seemed longer than I would have expected, almost gangly. He padded along, not really in a hurry, but not lingering either. Then he was gone. I realized I’d been holding my breath for a solid minute. I let out all the air in a giant rush.
There we were, not twenty miles from our back door, surrounded by snow and wilderness and a magnificent wild animal. I suddenly felt small and very humble. When we camped next to a frozen lake that night, I lay awake in my sleeping bag for a while, looking at the stars through the bug net. None of my worries seemed of consequence anymore, and I felt grateful for the shift in perspective.
The way home was all downhill. We crunched our way through the snow, then pulled our bikes out of their hiding spot and hooked up the trailer. “Hooray!” I said, piling my pack on Josh’s trailer, then zooming away, unencumbered. But I think it was more than the freedom from the packs that made us feel lighter. It hadn’t taken a grueling airplane ride and a month away from work to discover some remote backcountry. All we needed was a long weekend.
Check out Adventure Cycling’s new website: www.Bikeovernights.org, aimed at providing inspiration, resources, and tools for short bicycle tours (one to two nights). You’ll find stories, tips, and how-tos about embarking on short overnight cycling adventures, whether you’re traveling to a state park solo, lounging at a B&B, or taking your child on their first overnight bike adventure. Plus, you can submit your own trip report for possible publication; Adventure Cycling hopes to collect bike overnight tales from all 50 states!Tweet Print