Words and photos by Cass Gilbert
“Que huevito!” they cried out as he passed. As I had suspected, Sage was proving a big hit in South America. His locks of curly blond hair, those big blue eyes and – at the tender age of 18 months – his endearingly wobbly gait, had all the women and schoolgirls swooning. They scooped him up in their arms and peppered him with kisses, the fortunate among them rewarded with a smile. And thus was born Sage’s travel persona: El Huevito, or ‘The Little Egg.’
To those in search of Latin American adventure, Chile makes a fine introduction. Few countries have it beat for sheer beauty and diversity. Long and skinny in proportion, Chile crams it in: a slender land of volcanoes, beaches, lakes, desert, vineyards, high plateaux and Patagonian steppe, corseted between Andean mountains to the east, and Pacific surf to the west. What’s more, its infrastructure is amongst the most developed in the region, making it particularly appealing for families cycling with a trailer in tow.
To the lake!
Given such a menu of natural beauty from which to gorge, my Nancy and I decided it best to hone in on three of its dominant themes for our visit: lakes, volcanoes and beaches. Thankfully, the country has a system of excellent, affordable long distance buses, and we were soon shuttled south of Santiago, all the way down to Villarica in the Lake District. A region renowned for the perfection of its bodies of water and the majesty of the volcanoes that preside over them, it made the ideal base from which to find our bearings and settle in to Chilean life.
As a seasoned solo bike tourer, I knew I was in for a radical change of pace, compared to any of my previous travels alone. Over the last few years, I’ve taken it upon myself to link the dirt roads that course through the Americas, riding from Alaska to Cuzco. I’ve pedaled my way through the crumpled ranges of Mexico’s Sierra Madre, the remote singletrack of Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast, the coffee plantations of backcountry Colombia, and the mining roads of Andean Peru.
Exploring South America has become a passion, and naturally I was excited to share my enthusiasm with my son and partner. But this would be something completely new. It would also be Sage’s first ever bike tour, let alone his first Latin American experience. Prior to the trip, we’d experimented with overnighters in New Mexico, introducing him to camping. Traveling around Santa Fe in the trailer was second nature to him too, generally having the pleasing effect of lulling him into a peaceful sleep. But Nancy and I both knew this trip promised a whole new universe of challenges—and hopefully rewards.
So instead of my usual quest to seek out the remotest of dirt roads, or clamber over mountains, or camp in abandoned houses, we kept our sights within reason, appreciating the importance of being off the bike as much as on it. Indeed, many would have ridden in a single stint what took us several days to cover. But Sage prefers to appreciate life at a more leisurely pace, stopping to smell the roses along the way. “What’s the rush, papa?” he might have been saying, as he ambled off to pet another feral dog, or inspect a rock of particular interest. And who were we to disagree? Rediscovering the world through Sage’s eyes proved to be a highlight of traveling together, as we marveled at his unconditional interest in everything that surrounded him.
Our first night camping was in a farmer’s field, pitched under the cosseting arms of a giant oak tree in full autumnal bloom. Sage observed us set up our brand new tent, as if appraising our efforts. He was eager to be part of the team, so I sent him off to deliver tent stakes to his mother, in what was to become our daily ceremony. “Shoes off in the tent, Sage,” we said, when the tent was up, laying down the camp craft ground rules. He’d duly oblige, before slipping into our portable cocoon and helping-in his eyes at least-to inflate his diminutive Therm-a-Rest.
As a family, we prepared dinner together that first night on the table of an uneven slab of wood, cooking up fresh produce we’d sourced in an outdoor market in Villarica. Then Sage indulged in a favorite pastime— expressive dancing, hands arcing through the air to the falling leaves that swirled in the wind. But his highlight that day was surely the enormous pig that snuffled over, inspecting him as it might a small piece of juicy cauliflower. Sage was positively delighted.
Over the next few days, we worked our way up and down the steep rolling, gravel roads of the region. And ridiculously steep they were. Sometimes, they spiraled so abruptly skyward that it required the two of us pushing my bike together, with all our might, feet scrabbling, to the brows of hills. As I quickly found out, a bike, trailer, growing baby, food, and all the paraphernalia of toys we carried amongst our entourage certainly makes for good strength training. By comparison, my fat-tired Surly Pugsley felt positively buoyant when unladen. In any case, our toils made for good excuses to pause regularly, when we saw horses and cows to show Sage, or a patch of grass to picnic on. Passing through small settlements, our preferred food stops involved piping hot empanadas, the Chilean speciality, which we’d all blow on then eat in harmonious, contended family silence. Sage would then retire to his chariot for an afternoon nap, and a couple of hours later we’d seek out a suitable spot to pitch the tent, whether it be an organized campsite, or an impromptu opportunity we chanced upon.
Journey to the Monkey Puzzle trees
Our first destination was Coliseum, a small hamlet nestled at the foot of the Conguillío National Park. But just as we arrived, heavy weather rolled in after days of warming sunshine, forcing us to forgo our portable home for the cheapest room we could find in a local hospedaje. It was bare bones: the door refused to close, creaking petulantly, and the lopsided bed threatened to swallow Sage whole. So began El Huevito’s initiation to dirt-bag touring. Soon, our combined belongings were strewn around our shoebox of a space, clothes of all shapes and sizes hanging from windows and door handles.
Porridge was cooked up on the floor of the bathroom and the bed quickly filled with bread crumbs. Of course, the matriarchal owners of the hospedaje were quickly won over by Sage’s blue- eyed charms, calling out his name and luring him into the kitchen, the social centre of the premises. To Nancy’s chagrin, he’d return from such forays laden with a soft drink and biscuits, when prior to the trip, his impeccable diet revolved around the finest home cooked, organic goodness the Santa Fean farmer’s market could offer.
There was nothing to do but wait out the storm for a couple of days, as Sage bounced around the walls in his sugary fix. When a break in the weather finally came, our patience was rewarded with cinematic views of the conical Llaima Volcano, towering overhead at 10,252 feet. Come morning, we made a dash for the park itself. Following soft and loamy dirt roads, we climbed ever upwards into this wild, beautiful and other-worldly place, striking out across its volcanic lunar landscape, where islands of fertile land lay stranded between lava flows frozen in time—or at least until the next eruption.
With a 1,500 foot climb to tackle that day, we made it, just, to the enchanting Araucaria araucana, standing nobly in tranquil groves around the park. Their nickname was as appealing as their appearance: Monkey Puzzle trees are so called as it’s considered that climbing them would flummox even a monkey. I could see why. These bizarre, bandy, Seussian-like creations reach up to 130 feet high, and their tentacle-like branches are clad in stiff, sharp edged leaves, surely protecting them from any primate intrusion.
To the beach!
Mission accomplished, it was time to gather our belongings, scour the room for toys, and move on once more. Appreciating the way rain douses family holiday-making with a perfunctory fizzle, we headed north, in search of beaches and sunshine. Our destination, Valparaíso, is well known in Chile as an artistic city rich in muralism, and perfectly located to spend our last few nights camping along the Pacific. So away from the damp and humid Lake District we fled, via a 12-hour bus ride that required both stubborn haggling to secure safe passage of our booty of bikes and trailer, and the challenge of coaxing Sage through the night without one of his famous meltdowns.
Thankfully, animals and objects all survived, largely unscathed, to be unceremoniously ejected into Valparaíso’s bus station in the early hours. It was our first experience of urban riding, South American-style. Where we’d meandered through a quiet, traffic-free Lake District, here we tussled with cars, dodged kami- kaze buses, and hopped jagged curbs, the trailer dancing graciously but unintentionally on one wheel at times.
The hostel we found in this ramshackle port’s bohemian district was perfect. Adorned with pictures of bicycles in every room, La Bicyclette was run by the ever-smiling Giles, a relocated Frenchman who bobbed around us enthusiastically and mollycoddled Sage. “No problem, no problem,” he soothed again and again, showing us to a bright and airy room, its windows opening out onto a colorful street scene below, as he advised on the best places to walk.
Giles was quite right. Family cycling isn’t much of an option in Valparaíso, given the crazy traffic that plies its streets, and the even crazier inclines etched into the hills of this lopsided city. So steep are the roads draped across the hillside that each year the city hosts an urban Red Bull challenge, in which downhill riders tear down its stairways and barrio backstreets, the angle of which puts San Francisco to shame.
Instead we took to the city by foot, investigating its fish market, exploring the preserved house of national poet and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Pablo Neruda, and appreciating the wonderful array of murals for which Valparaíso, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is known. Quite literally, the city is painted in color. Like a giant outdoor gallery, one piece of street art after another graces all but every wall, with barely a blank slab of dreary concrete to be seen.
Munching on our Chilean empanada staple, we ambled down its maze of precipitous passageways, and admired its mishmash of architectural styles, houses stacked up like Jenga. Sage seemed to enjoy himself too, running, wobbly-legged, down the steepest of its inclines. Emitting peels of baby laughter, he gathered a drunken-like momentum with each step, tottering ever so close to the tall curbs that match him for height, as we chased after him with nervous exhaustion.
When it was time to escape the city, there was no avoiding a herculean climb: a 1,300 feet elevation gain over just a few lung-busting, vein-popping, sweat-inducing miles. With just a few nights left in Chile, we made for a remote headland we’d been told promised peace and solitude. The ride there, rollercoasting up and down a network of dusty red dirt tracks, was bereft of traffic but exhausting. Again, the challenges proved worthwhile. The dilapidated campsite perched at the end of the headland may have been a babysitter’s nightmare, complete as it was with spools of discarded barbed wire and rickety walkways, but it boasted its own private cove of unimaginable beauty.
There, we dined at sunset, gazing out into the vastness of the Pacific and watching pelicans swoop overhead, which incited excited squeaks and finger jabbing from Sage. Come morning, we beachcombed to our hearts content, clambering over rocks, sifting through flotsam and creating collections of shells. Sage, Befriender of Feral Animals, even found himself a kitten as a playmate, before it was time to load up once more, return to Valparaíso and begin the process of retracing our steps home.
All in all, our first family cycling trip had been a definite success. Looking at the world through Sage’s eyes had proved to be, in itself, a journey of true wonder, equal to the best riding we’d enjoyed over our three weeks in Chile. Sometimes, it was as simple as noticing the way in which he watched birds fly by, or looked out to sea, or stared up at trees. There were so many moments to cherish: playing chase around the campsite table, reading bedtime stories together in the tent or introducing him to portly pigs. The family bond is strong in South America, and the manner in which everyone we met interacted with us, warming immediately to Sage, introduced a new richness to traveling.
I can’t claim it was the smoothest of rides, or that we slipped into family travel effortlessly and gracefully. It was hard, harder than I’d envisaged, despite all my studious planning and fretting. At times Sage struggled, and at times we all struggled. But even with hindsight, I’m not sure it could have been any other way. This was living, each and every moment of the day. It had brought us closer as a family. Together, we’d learnt and grown.
Words and photos by Colt Fetters
Am I allowed to travel to Cuba as a “tourist”?
Yes, as long as you self-qualify under one of the 12 specific categories for a general license. We traveled under the basis of education—we visited museums, monuments, historic sites and researched on spectacular roads for a bikepacking route. Another option is booking a trip with a structured tour, such as the People-to-People Tours.
What documents are needed?
Usually airlines will help tremendously with the documents needed for travel. Airlines handle travel to Cuba differently; however, so do your research. In general, every traveler will need the following:
• A tourist card
• A general license
• Travel insurance
Bring enough cash
You may read that U.S. cards are now accepted in Cuba; however, at the time of writing, U.S. financial institutions had not yet developed a meaningful presence in the country. The cash we brought was the only currency we had available.
Where do I stay?
The typical accommodation used by travelers is casas particulares. These are private Cuban homes that rent their extra rooms for about $20 to $30 per night. Although hotels are available throughout the country, casas particulares are arguably more accommodating and comfortable—and are ripe with potential for experiencing culture more intimately, as they give travelers a peek into Cubans’ private lives.
What bicycles are ideal?
This depends whether you are looking to tour dirt roads or paved roads. A typical touring bike outfitted with panniers and 40c tires would work well for paved roads. Dirt roads can be fairly chunky—we traveled on a rigid 29er mountain bike and an even bigger 29plus rigid bike complete with bikepacking bags.
What about food?
Typically on bikepacking trips I cook many of my own meals. However, it was difficult to find camp-stove fuel in Cuba. We mostly ate street food and purchased extras to eat while on the road. Grocery selections were pretty basic and not very exciting. Our favorite personal-size pizzas were available for less than $1(!) at small stands in most towns.
Learn some Spanish
The majority of Cubans do not speak English. It is essential that you know at least a few conversational phrases that will help you get around, buy food and find directions. Free apps such as Duolingo are very helpful for learning some Spanish.
Keep Reading: Check out Colt’s story about traveling through Cuba with his significant other here.Tweet Print
Words and photos by Colt Fetters
Staring into the dark, dense jungle ahead I struggled to make out the trail. I studied my GPS, then looked back up—yes, this indeed was the “trail.” Completely overgrown with tangled green branches, it didn’t appear that the trail had been used in the past year. This was new to me. Sure, I’ve hike-a-biked outrageous terrain in foreign countries plenty before, but never with Hannah.
I looked back at her. “I trust you,” she said. Honestly, that was the last thing I wanted to hear. What I was hoping to hear her say was: “Are you crazy? We’re lost in the middle of the jungle, in Cuba for God’s sake! Let’s get the hell out of here!” And instead of turning back, we continued pushing our bikes deeper into the unknown.
I’m ashamed to admit that this was a typical charade of mine: planning an international bike-touring trip with a half-baked route, limited knowledge of the local language and less plans than a college graduate with a fine arts degree. However this time I was responsible for someone besides myself. So there we were, in the middle of Cuba, hiking our bikes down a long-abandoned path, sure of the destination but not quite sure of the route to get there.
By now you can probably tell that this isn’t your typical feel-good travel story, complete with descriptions of luxurious landscapes, delectable cuisine and friendly locals. All of that was still present, but the story I’d like to tell is of sharing my passion for bikepacking with a loved one— and of wanting so damn much for her to be just as psyched to ride her bike as I was. I wasn’t off to a great start…
On the Road
Our plan was a 16-day bikepacking trip in northern Cuba, covering 450 miles from the tobacco farming valley of Viñales to the bustling colonial town of Trinidad, via dirt roads, horse paths and walking trails. Hannah’s resume of bicycle travel was short, consisting of just one prior overnight bike tour in the foothills of northern Georgia. Looking back, this trip was a bold endeavor for someone with her limited experience. I should have known better. However, my mind was clouded with one desire: To share my love of bicycle touring with the one I love.
Captivated by the images we had seen of colorful streets and colonial architecture, we thought to ourselves, what better place than Cuba for Hannah to experience her first bikepacking trip? A country romanticized for its vibrant salsa music, with locals dancing and puffing on smoky cigars in city squares while vintage American cars chug through narrow streets with their tops down.
Most of our route took the form of long, gravel farm roads, oddly resemblant of the American Midwest. But instead of corn, the roads were lined with towering stalks of green sugar cane. Farmers with brimmed cowboy hats and hearty mustaches would stop and stare in surprise as we bounced along the road before them. It wasn’t long before the Cuban countryside grew on us. Its long, flat roads lulled us into the bike-touring lifestyle.
In between the long stretches of gravel and sugar cane, we encountered small agricultural towns— simple and picturesque, with vibrantly colored homes and streets filled with horse carriages, street vendors and rusty single-speed bicycles. There were no hotels to be found in these quaint towns, so we bunked with the locals—who provided spectacular meals. Breakfasts were usually comprised of elaborate spreads of fruit, fresh squeezed juice, eggs and Cuban espresso. We would leave the casas with full bellies, ready to explore the roads ahead.
Though we brought more than enough cash to exchange for Cuban pesos, we unfortunately lost several hundred dollars due to a sticky-fingered currency-exchange attendant. After our loss, we had only the money in our wallets for the remainder of the trip. This forced us to impose a strict budget and thus, our standard of living sharply decreased. The food other tourists ranted and raved about was no longer an option. Instead we “enjoyed” a more authentic experience, relying on street vendors for our meals.
Typical meals included bologna and cheese on stale buns, makeshift pizzas and fried-fish sandwiches. The abrupt lack of funds would have had most newbie travelers down and discontent, yet Hannah embraced the challenge. Rising to the occasion, she didn’t complain. She even pretended to enjoy the bologna and fried fish (even though she just converted from her 13-year vegetarianism only a month prior to the trip). What better attitude could I have asked for in a travel partner?
There’s a funny thing about sharing the things you love with the people that you care most about: They don’t always feel the same way you do. I knew this was a possibility, yet I still wanted her to experience the solace of an open dirt road, the thrill of being left broke and stranded and the freedom of carrying everything you need on your bicycle.
Rolling with the Locals
I’m happy to say, Hannah did fall in love with bikepacking. But it was for entirely different reasons than my own. It’s not that she didn’t value the aspects of bicycle travel that I did, but the appeal for her was different. It was about the people. Connecting with the locals was a cinch for her, not that either of us are fluent in Spanish. Still, the language barrier didn’t stop her like it seemed to inhibit me. Everywhere we went, Cubans absolutely adored her. Maybe it was the blonde hair, the deep- blue eyes, or her big ole smile … Or maybe they just plain liked her better than they did me. Never have I been treated better in a foreign country, and I can assure you, the treatment was based on association, purely.
Apart from the cat calls and unwanted kissy faces that were thrown about unashamedly, the locals would go out of their way to ensure our comfort, whether that meant discounting our room for the night or walking us all the way across town just to find a place to eat. On one such occasion, we were walked to the local state cafeteria where, once we arrived, we were told we were not allowed in the establishment, per government policy. So instead, the manager ushered us into his home next door and set out a feast fit for Fidel Castro himself.
After our chicken bones were scoured and the rice was no more, the host’s father came out to introduce himself. He urged us to follow him, as he plodded outside to a small shed. After working the rusty lock free from its hinge, the door swung open to reveal a simple room with a small desk in the corner. As he sat, we gathered around and watched him pull a clump of aged tobacco leaves from a glass jar. His hands came to life, masterfully rolling the leaves back and forth like he had done thousands of times. Eighty cigars a day, he grumbled in Spanish. He rolled, pressed, then wrapped the bundle with a carefully selected leaf—the entire process took 10 minutes. As the tobacco transformed into a stubby cigar, he held his work to the light, as if to inspect it. And then, before the cigar had been in existence for even 10 seconds, he lopped off the end, held it to a flame and offered it to us with a smile.
It is such genuine experiences, no matter how small, that make a trip extraordinary. This being just one story of many that made a significant impact on us. Interactions as simple as the farmer who gave us a personal tour of his tobacco farm, the young boy that “helped” us plug a hole in our tire, the woman that wouldn’t stop washing our bicycles, or the process of exchanging a Polaroid photograph for a smile—all these events bestow a sense of fulfillment that is hard to describe. However, it’s not always the positive experiences that make for the best stories and longest-lasting memories.
Our New Friend
Our last night on the road was spent in what had originally been anticipated to be a marvelous campsite, located along a ridge in the Escambray Mountains. The view extended over the valley below, all the way to the coast where Trinidad sat off in the distance. Slowly, the light drained from the sky and we settled down for the night under the minimal protection of our tarp strung above our heads.
As night set in, the jungle started to stir. At first, the noises were present only in our imagination. Then they started to materialize into reality. Something scurried over the foot of our sleeping bags. I scrambled for a light. There sat a large rat in the bush above us. I turned off my light—rats, although not ideal, we could handle. Then came the footsteps. Surely I was imagining the sounds. A bright light landed upon our faces. I scrambled from my bed of dirt and grasped for my headlamp. When my eyes finally adjusted to the light, I stared into a grizzled face. His Spanish reached my frazzled ears, but I wasn’t able to make sense of it. Looking down I saw a machete on his waist and a blanket in his arms. Suddenly, it all made sense. We had stolen his campsite.
Frustrated, he stomped away, and just before I let out a sigh of relief, he threw down his blanket and laid down for bed—a mere 20 feet from our campsite! Surely, repacking our bikes and setting off at this hour was not an option. I racked my brain for the best course of action, but finding no obvious answer, I joined Hannah back under the “protection” of our tarp, attempting to reassure her that all was well. Through the night I laid wide-eyed, unable to sleep. My mind ran rampant with the wild imaginations that are typical when sleeping next to a machete-wielding neighbor.
When morning finally arrived, we rolled out of bed, red-eyed and tired from our sleepless night. It turned out the man had left in the night, and we were left dazed, wondering if it had all just been a dream—which it most certainly was not. It was going to take some heavy persuading to convince Hannah to camp out again anytime soon.
The last couple days of a tour are typically filled with exuberance and anticipation. This day was no different. I hate to admit that we were ready for the trip to end—but in all honesty, we were. Sure, we were coming away with incredible memories and a sense of empowerment at handling such unusual challenges together, but after a night like we’d just had, we were ready for our own bed.
The End in Sight
Cruising down the long, winding descents from the Escambray Mountains into the coastal town of Trinidad, we knew our first order of business: booking bus tickets back to the airport in Havana. We were no rookies. We le ourselves three days’ cushion to be back for our flight to the States. The bus station was bustling when we arrived. As I stood in line, waiting to purchase tickets, I studied my Spanish translation book, preparing to communicate our urgent need for tickets.
Once at the front of the line, I spoke clearly, absolutely nailing the Spanish phrase I had rehearsed, which was a rarity for me. My victory was short-lived when my request for tickets was met with a resounding, “No, todo reservado.”
“Wait, you’re booked?” I asked.
“Si, para ocho dias.” “For eight days?” I queried incredulously, holding up the alleged number in fingers, just to make entirely sure that I understood.
Bewildered, Hannah and I sat on the bench outside of the station, heads in our hands. Our flight was leaving in just three days and the bus was our only way of transportation. Hannah turned toward me, grabbed my hand and said: “Hey, we’ve dealt with this kind of shit before, we will figure it out. We have to.” She was right. We had to figure it out. Our wallets were dwindling and we didn’t have the budget to extend our stay.
As usual, she was right, we did figure it out. After many failed attempts of finding a taxi that could fit our bicycles, Hannah came across a local bus traveling to Havana. Somehow she was able to convince the driver to accommodate our bikes and our budget. We were off, headed to Havana, thanks to Hannah’s charm. Had the negotiating been left to me, we’d still be stranded on a street corner in Trinidad.
My hope for this trip was that Hannah would fall in love with touring—amazingly, I got much more than I bargained for. I got a travel partner—someone sharing in the experiences and challenges, and contributing enormously to a trip’s success. Never again will I leave for weeks at a time without her, only to spend my time on my bicycle halfway across the world, thinking about her. From now on, I prefer her right next to me. Experiencing everything with me—the ups and the downs.
I’m concluding this story with itchy palms. Not because of the exhilarating memories nor because of the anticipation of our next trip, but because of the deep-red rash covering my entire body, from head to toe. That’s right, Cuba gave me the Zika virus. But don’t worry, I’m choosing to count this as an experience I won’t soon forget.Tweet Print
The second annual Bikeout will take place September 9-10, 2017 in and around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This overnight cycling adventure aims to bring together riders, make bikepacking accessible and showcase the natural and civic resources surrounding Philadelphia.
The 38-mile ride starts near the Philadelphia Art Museum and utilizes the paved Schuylkill River Trail and as well as some back roads to get to Sankanac CSA, a 15-acre farm just outside of Phoenixville. Riders will camp at the farm and enjoy a farm-to-table meal, craft beer, live music and more. Morning will bring a farm-sourced breakfast, bike mechanic workshop, yoga, organized bike tour of the surrounding area and more before heading back to the city.
This ride is designed for anyone from experienced cyclists looking to meet people and enjoy a fun weekend to newbies looking for a challenging, yet attainable, experience. Organizers hope that this ride will introduce more of the local community to bike touring, which has been emerging in urban centers as more bicycle commuters search their region for new, farther places to go without a car.
Last year, this ride sold out in just under four hours and brought together 125 riders. This year, Bikeout organizers are doubling the cap due to the popularity of the event.
Tickets go on sale on July 12 at noon and are $100 for a standard ticket and $110 if you would like your camping gear transported to the farm for you. Head on over to bikeoutphl.com for more info.
Words and photos by Tom O’Brian
“I hate this hill,” Jake whined as he dismounted his bike and began pushing it toward the summit of the climb like Sisyphus with a boulder. “I can’t believe you thought I was serious about riding all the way to North Carolina. I MEANT IT AS A JOKE!”
It was no joke now. The two of us were all alone on day one of the first self-supported bike tour either of us had ever attempted, and nothing was going well. Not yet noon, the temperature on this late July day was well into the nineties, with 100% humidity, and we’d already repaired our first flat tire (only 13 miles from home). To make matters worse, I hadn’t yet figured out how to remove the panniers, nor had I bothered to make sure my brand new mini-pump was set up for Presta valves. Neither one of us had even ridden a featherweight road bike over the Taconic Mountains, much less a fully-loaded touring rig. It was going to be a long day.
What was looking more and more like a really bad idea got started back in February when, from out of the blue, my 14-year-old son said,“Hey Dad, why don’t we ride our bikes to the beach this year?” The “beach” he was referring to wasn’t one town over; it was in Corolla, North Carolina—600 miles away from our home in Connecticut—where his grandparents rent a vacation house every summer.
It was a ridiculous suggestion that should have gone in one ear and right out the other. Although I was a lifelong bike fanatic, I’d never done a multi-day tour. And Jake was a fair-weather cyclist who’d never ridden more than 30 miles in one day. But suddenly this surly teenager, who considers his middle-aged father a constant source of embarrassment, was talking about spending weeks on the road with me. I promised that if he was serious about taking this journey, I’d find a way to make it happen. Apparently, he didn’t have the guts to fold when his bluff was called.
So that’s how we found ourselves drenched in sweat, inching our way up a mountain in eastern New York, and rapidly running out of water. Just as we crossed the summit and began our descent toward Poughkeepsie, I took a sip from my Camelback and was rewarded with nothing but a blast of warm air. A moment later, Jake, red-faced and sweating, turned to me and said, “I’m dry.” Lucky for us, at the foot of the mountain we found a convenience store selling spring water in gallon jugs for 99 cents. We bought two.
Things got better from there. Our first night on the road was spent with friends on the outskirts of Poughkeepsie who treated us to a cookout and a refreshing dip in their swimming pool. Maybe it wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
We awoke the next morning in much better spirits and decided to give this mad adventure one more try. Both of us were looking forward to the opportunity to cross the big river using the famous Walkway Over the Hudson, a restored mile-long railroad trestle that soars two hundred feet above the surface of the water.
Like a first visit to the Grand Canyon, the word “breathtaking” does not begin to describe the panoramic view from the center point of that magnificent structure.
We could have lingered on the Walkway for hours—besides the view, there were ice cream vendors set up on both ends of the bridge–but we were hoping to cover another 50 miles before stopping for the night, so off we rode onto the rail trail that led to the college town of New Paltz, and our choice of 5 different pizzerias for lunch.
At this point, I should mention that my son considers himself a pizza connoisseur (even though the only kind he’ll eat is pepperoni). Before we left home he had started a travel blog and promised to post a review of all the pizza places we visited. Here’s his expert opinion on New Paltz’s My Hero Pizzeria and Submarine Shop: “Pizza was great, perfect amount of grease, plenty of pepperoni, and just great overall.” After a long morning in the saddle, that pizza tasted “great” to me too, but after two weeks, and 8 or 9 large pepperonis, I’d had enough.
Thunderstorms out to get us
Part of the reason that Day 1 was such an ordeal was that we had to figure out our own way to get to Poughkeepsie (hence the insanely steep mountain crossing), but from that point on we intended to follow Adventure Cycling’s well-traveled Atlantic Coast Route for the remainder of the journey. Assuming that the roads would be flatter and the traffic calmer from this point on gave us a bit more confidence that we might actually complete the journey. Too bad the weatherman didn’t get the memo.
Day 2 was even more oppressive than Day 1–extreme humidity, temperatures flirting with triple digits, and pop-up thunderstorms lining the horizon. On Day 3, an approaching cold front promised relief from the steam bath, but not until after a line of strong storms pushed through. The night before, we’d made plans to get an early start and make it to Port Jervis, NY well ahead of the front. But getting a teenager moving in the morning is like kick-starting an ancient Harley Davidson. We didn’t get on the road until 10 am, and within a few hours, the towering clouds and rumbles of thunder were bearing down on us.
If I was riding alone I would have pressed on. We’ve got good life insurance, and I’m sure that no reputable carrier would try to invoke a suicide clause just because some poor sap wasn’t smart enough to come in out of the storm. But when I’m traveling with my son, my maternal instincts take over.
We kept pedaling, but I made note of every covered porch, open barn, or unlocked garage that we passed, in case we needed to make a mad dash for shelter.
When a huge bolt of lightning struck way too close just as we were passing a wastewater treatment plant, it was time to cut and run. Lucky for us, the gates were unlocked and just inside the fence was an enormous pavilion with nothing but a plastic-lined dumpster underneath, plenty of room for two bike travelers to take shelter from the storm. I had a pretty good idea about what was inside the dumpster but decided to keep my suspicions to myself.
Eventually, the storm let up enough for us to pedal into Port Jervis, tired and soaking wet. Although we’d planned to camp, I was glad to find an inexpensive room in The Erie Hotel, a restored landmark from the golden age of the railroad, with a restaurant downstairs that served no pizza. The only downside was that the bike parking was two flights up.
We awoke to much cooler temperatures and a steady rain that was not expected to let up all day. We hadn’t thought to include fenders or serious rain gear in our trip preparations, but neither of us wanted to lose a day’s worth of travel so we decided to press on.
I was certain that Jake would be miserable, and that I’d have to spend the rest of the day listening to a whining teenager complaining about the rain, and the cold, and how he was going to get himself legally emancipated as soon as we got home. But he was loving it. About 20 miles down the road, when we were both thoroughly soaked, he turned to me and said, “This is the best day yet!” It was indeed a refreshing change to be drenched in rainwater rather than sweat. Later in the day when we took a break at an ice cream parlor, I felt so guilty about the enormous puddle we left under our table that I borrowed a mop to clean it up.
We were planning to camp out, but the rain never let up, so I was glad to find a room in a motel with a covered balcony that allowed us to dry off our bikes, remove the seat posts, and turn the bikes upside down to let the water drain out.
Looking back on it, every day of our journey was unique, but most days started and ended the same way: struggling to wake up a comatose teenager and finding another excuse to forgo camping.
A sunny weekend on the river
We spent the next few days following the Delaware River from the Water Gap to the outskirts of Philadelphia. It was the weekend, the weather, at last, was perfect (sunny, high seventies, low humidity), and the river was teaming with activity. Early on Saturday morning, we were joined briefly by a peloton of club riders out for their weekly 50-miler. They were excited to find out about our adventure and we rode together for a couple of flat miles, but when we hit the first climb, our heavily-loaded bikes were no match for their carbon fiber racing machines, so we waved our goodbyes.
Early that afternoon we started seeing school buses, dozens and dozens of them, passing us from both directions. At first I wondered what school could possibly be in session in late July? Then I noticed the hundreds of bright pink inner tubes floating down the river and realized what they were up to. Going tubing down the Delaware on a warm summer day looked like it might be almost as much fun as biking.
When it came time to stop for the night my luck ran out. There was no chance of rain, air conditioning was totally unnecessary, a private campground was a mile away and it was not filled up. We were going to camp.
Jake was delighted. By the time I emerged from the shower, he’d pitched the tent, inflated our sleeping pads, started a fire, and had marshmallows ready for roasting. We had a great time until it was time to try to get some sleep. Despite having sprung for the most expensive inflatable sleeping pad, I awoke the next morning with a stiff neck that would haunt me for the remainder of the journey.
Smells like teen spirit
Aside from my little aches and pains, Sunday was another delightful ride along the Delaware. Until about 4 pm when, just north of Lambertville, New Jersey, Jake began to complain that his front shock had gone squishy on him. It wasn’t the shock: He had a flat tire, his first of the trip, and he insisted on fixing it himself. Until he had trouble; then he wanted my help immediately. Until he didn’t need my help anymore; then he wanted me as far away from him as possible. Until he had trouble; then he wanted me back NOW!
I GOT THIS, NOW GO AWAY!
DAD I GOT IT!
Our little dance went on for about 45 minutes. But all was forgotten once he pumped up the tire and it held.
Every parent of a teenager has to figure out how to relate to a human being who ping-pongs between childhood and adulthood at random. Given the stress of taking on a journey that neither of us had properly prepared for, I was expecting much worse. Aside from his first few days on the road and the flat tire incident, Jake handled his frustrations well.
It was the other characteristic of being a teenager that I couldn’t stand: his strength. If I were to draw a graph that compared our pedaling power as the trip wore on, it would show me significantly stronger at the outset, holding my own for awhile, then gradually getting weaker. Jake, on the other hand, would struggle for the first few days, then get stronger every day afterward. While I had to help him get over the Taconics on the first day of the trip, by the time we reached the steep hills on the banks of the Susquehanna River a week and a half later he was pulling me along like a domestique in the Tour de France. Life is so unfair.
Car transfer to North Carolina border
Another critical detail I failed to plan for was how much further we’d have to travel in order to ride back roads to the Outer Banks of North Carolina rather than drive the interstate. I had been assuming that after two weeks of riding, we’d be deep into Virginia. But we were still in Pennsylvania, a day’s ride north of the Maryland Border. Fortunately, we had a backup plan.
One of the reasons that I went along with Jake’s nutty idea of bicycling all the way to the beach was that my wife Cece was planning to drive there two weeks later, so if we fell behind, we could always get a lift. I didn’t want Jake to miss out on precious time with his cousins at the beach, so we met up with Cece just across the border in Maryland and loaded our bikes and gear into her car.
Jake and I had no idea how much we’d grown accustomed to a slower pace of life over the past two weeks until my lead-footed wife drove onto I-95 and hit the gas. I was plastered to the back of my seat as if the Ford Escape was being launched into outer space. And all I heard from my traveling partner in the backseat was “WHOA!”
After spending the night in a motel in Richmond, Cece dropped us off on the North Carolina border, so we could bicycle the remaining 63 miles to the beach house in Corolla. Unfortunately for us (at first), it was a Saturday morning in August, and the four-lane road we had to follow for the first 20 miles of the day was packed with speeding vacationers anxious to get to the beach. Many were hauling boats and motor homes, and seemingly oblivious to the safety of two fragile bike-riders on the shoulder.
Both of us were delighted when the Atlantic Coast Route took us onto back roads for the next 10 miles of the trip, but we weren’t looking forward to rejoining the “highway” and then taking our chances on the 3-mile-long bridge (with narrow shoulders) that links the mainland with the islands.
I suppose you have to be a bicyclist to rejoice when you encounter a massive traffic jam. But during the brief time that we were away from it, US 158, the main road to the Outer Banks, had been transformed from a speedway to a parking lot. All of that beach traffic was at a standstill, but the shoulder was wide open. For the next half hour (at least), two bicycles traveling at 14 miles per hour were the speed demons on the Wright Memorial Bridge. Just as we neared the east end of the bridge, I heard this plaintive whine from a child in one of the trapped cars: “They’re going to make it to the beach before we will.”
Twenty years ago when I first visited the Outer Banks, it was not bike-friendly. SR 12, the main north-south road, had no shoulders and steep edges that dropped off into deep sand. Nowadays, there’s a generous shoulder along the full length of the road as well as numerous bike paths. We took our time negotiating the final 25-mile ride to the beach house—partly to savor the remainder of the journey, and partly because Cece called to tell us that some of our relatives were stuck in the bridge traffic and wanted to be there to greet our arrival. We were happy to slow down to allow the motorists to catch up.
Tom O’Brien is a carpenter, freelance writer, and bike advocate based in New Milford, Connecticut.Tweet Print
Words by Molly Brewer Hoeg, photos by Molly Brewer Hoeg and Rich Hoeg
It had been forty years since either of us stayed in a youth hostel. Back in our college days, we each independently did the backpacking through Europe thing. Staying at youth hostels was standard practice and the best way to stay within a tight budget. I remember too well the strict curfews, requirement to leave the hostel during the day and the restrictions against alcohol.
As my husband, Rich, and I began planning our first cycling tour abroad, we got our first inklings that much has changed in the hostelling scene. And it worked to great advantage for us.
This three-week trip through northern Scotland would follow our usual routine. We’d travel on our own with a general itinerary, making more specific route choices as we went. In the interest of simplicity, we decided against bringing our camping gear. It meant we would be paying significantly more for lodging each night, especially considering that cheap roadside motels – our staple in the U.S. – do not exist in Scotland. It appeared that B&Bs, guesthouses and inns would be our options – until we rediscovered hostels.
For starters, forget the “youth” part. Hostels are for everyone. Although they frequently cater to people inclined to outdoor adventures, they are not limited to such. And we soon learned that the range of accommodations, facilities and services ranges widely between hostels. Sampling four hostels, we found each one to be unique.
Our first hostel stay came about as a backup plan. We had been following the National Cycle Network Route #1 across northern Scotland, impressed with the dramatic coastal scenery. Reaching Cullen, we headed to the B&B we had selected. Rather surprised to find us on his doorstep, the owner informed us he was no longer in business and quickly directed us to the Cullen Harbour Hostel. We arrived at the eclectic collection of buildings right on the water to find the yard draped with surfing gear. A university group was there for the weekend seeking big waves. Unsure about sharing rooms with the young students, it was a pleasant surprise to find that they had a four-bed family room we could have to ourselves. Not only were blankets and linens provided but we had our own bathroom as well. Although we were uncertain whether we would have heat, which seemed important in that spring season, we returned from dinner to find the room plenty warm. The $67 we paid for the night was a far cry from our student days, but was still a big savings over a B&B.
That was our first introduction to independent hostels. Each is owner-operated and usually a member of either Scottish Independent Hostels or Scottish Hostels. Together they offer over 180 hostels. Most have dorm rooms as well as private rooms, are flexible in the length of stay and usually have a self-catering kitchen.
We might never have found the Gearrannan Hostel if it hadn’t been for a local cyclist’s recommendation. By this time we were on the rugged Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. She told us it was in a “blackhouse” but until we arrived we didn’t realize it was actually part of a museum. The Gearrannan Blackhouse Village featured restored and reconstructed stone buildings from the late 1800s, unique for their double stone wall construction and thatched roofs secured by stone weights. They originally served as living space for both people and farm animals, as well as barn storage. Historic on the outside but modern on the inside, the hostel accommodations were very comfortable. We found that sharing a bunk room and kitchen facilities with several other hostellers provided good company. Having arrived without food and too far to cycle to any shops, the museum staff arranged to bring us dinner and serve us breakfast in their small café. We felt well cared for.
Staying in the hostel gave us free access to the village where we could tour the buildings with historical displays and demonstrations of making the famous Harris Tweed fabric. But the real treat came after closing time. We had the freedom to roam the grounds which included hilly terrain and a rough coastline. It was hauntingly beautiful under the late setting sunlight. We easily voted this our most memorable lodgings of the whole trip.
Moving on through the Highlands, we made our way down to the Isle of Mull. Tobermory was reputed to be a picturesque town with colorful buildings lining the harbor. That lineup included the Tobermory Youth Hostel. As its name implies, this hostel is part of the Scottish Youth Hostel Association (SYHA Hostelling Scotland), which harks back to the International Youth Hostel organization we remember from our college days. However, today they welcome travelers of all ages in more than 70 hostels. We found the hostel to be simple but neat and clean, and again opted for a private room, this time with a shared bathroom down the hall. The trip up several flights of stairs to our room included a dash outside, but it seemed a small inconvenience. The kitchen was large and included cubby holes for individuals to store their food. We certainly couldn’t beat the location, and it had the added advantage of allowing a single night’s stay when most of the B&Bs had a two night minimum. It was an easy walk to restaurants as well as the sights of the town and harbor, which was especially welcome after a long day of cycling.
Traveling up the Great Glen, cycling along Loch Lochy and Loch Ness, we continued on to Inverness. Knowing that accommodations in the city were more pricey we sought out a hostel once again. From several options, we chose the SYHA Inverness Youth Hostel for its central location. The very large facility not only provided the usual hostel amenities but also included wifi, a guest lounge, coffee bar, café and served alcohol – quite a departure from yesteryear. Also, as in their other city hostels, the front desk was open 24 hours a day.
Most hostels now have websites and the hostel organizations provide locator maps. They all offer the convenience of advance reservations. Even though we were traveling early in the season in May, we took advantage of that in the two SYHA hostels, mainly to secure a private room. In the busier seasons it would be wise to book ahead. Where we stayed, dorm beds started around $20, private rooms ranged from $40 to $67 for starting prices. And vital for cyclists, each of the hostels provided secure storage overnight for our bikes. We had no need for the sleeping bags that we brought; linens and blankets were provided.
Yes, times have changed – for the better. Hostels were a big step up from camping and far more interesting than blasé motel rooms. We may no longer be youth, but next time we cycle abroad we will definitely be staying in hostels.
Molly Brewer Hoeg is a freelance writer living in Duluth, Minnesota. She is currently writing a book titled America at 12 Miles an Hour about her experiences bike touring with her husband. You can also read more of her work on her website, Superior Footprints. Her husband Rich is a photographer and birder. His work can be found here.Tweet Print
Words and photos by Ben Popper
Three miles from the end of the road, the rain cloud that we’d been skirting for the last 15 miles finally caught up with us. It opened up as we wove along Carbon River past the ranger station, blasting the sheet of water off the windshield with the wipers set to Mach 1. For the first time in the last 90 minutes, my son was silent in the back seat. At 5-and-a-half, I wondered if he had yet gained the emotional ability to be pensive. Truth be told, the confident front I was putting up to hide the butterflies in my stomach probably wasn’t fooling even him.
Mom is away and the boys are going to play. He and I were headed straight from school on a Friday afternoon to the northwest corner of Mount Rainier National Park for a quick overnight in the backcountry. Though Carbon River Road has been closed to vehicle traffic since it washed out in spots back in 2006, it’s still passable by four-wheel drive, or bike—its five-mile stretch leading to the marvelously appointed, and now remote, Ipsut Creek campground.
It seemed like an easy-enough introduction for him to the wonderful world of bikepacking, and we were both eagerly awaiting sleeping outside for the first time this season. The rain let up a little, and I turn back to him. “We should be there in a minute or two, are you ready?” To which I got an enthusiastic response: “Yeah Dad, I am ready to go bikepacking!”
When we first brought home an Adams Trail-A-Bike, I noticed almost immediately that the hand-me-down had enough random holes in the rear dropouts that I could probably get a rack onto it. A family bike-camping trip was being hatched right there and then. I found a rear rack for a 24-inch bike at our local bike co-op, and have been ready for the adventure ever since. All winter I had been eyeing the waiting rig in the corner of our basement, and when the day finally arrived, I attached my Rock Lobster gravel bike and loaded it down with two full panniers, a bear-proof barrel and a 45-pound kid.
The rain started letting up. Struggling around the gate like an 18-wheeler in a Walmart parking lot, we were on our way into the backcountry with, save for our car, an empty parking lot behind us. We were going to have it all to ourselves.
If there were any moments along the way when I began to get discouraged because I couldn’t ride a soft, rocky, uphill section, my spirit would instantly be lifted by the giggles of my boy. He thought it was hilarious that I was off the bike, grunting and pushing while he got to pedal. He would even clamber off and help push, because, apparently, pushing your bike is a necessary part of bikepacking, and I was giving him the full experience.
It only took about 100 feet for me to start sweating through my rain gear, and another mile to get a little tired. But as soon as I’d start wishing for the campground to be just around the next bend, I’d hear a yell from behind, letting me know that he was shifting into a better gear to help more as if he could tell I was feigning. A flurry of pedaling would ensue from behind, and—like a black-and-gold ’73 T-Top Firebird—my underweighted front tire would lift off the ground. We happily swerved, wheelied and bounced up the river valley, keeping a keen eye out for bears.
I had been watching the weather forecast for the weekend degrade for days, but we had been granted a window and made it to the campground without it raining. Even better, we were able to set up the tent and get most of dinner in before the next set of showers rolled through. We climbed into the tent, and I settled in for trying to contain a little boy after a long car ride and not a whole lot of rumpus time. Expecting this, I came prepared. I got him into dry, warm clothes, and surprised him with a little Lego set he didn’t see coming. It brightened his mood and gave us a light, compact and fun in-tent activity.
As the last blocks clicked together, the rhythmic patter of rain slowly fell silent, and we left the tent to make a short pajama-clad exploration of Carbon River. The sun slowly sank below the ceiling of clouds on some far, unseen horizon, bathing a perpendicular valley in a blaze-orange sunset. A bear could have appeared in the river bottom riding atop a moose juggling live salmon, and we would still have been more surprised by the sunset on this rainy evening deep in the mountains.
The rain really started in earnest at about 1 in the morning. After that, I didn’t sleep much, trying to plan our exit strategy the best I could. I knew the hardest part was going to be getting out of the tent to retrieve the bear barrel, but after that I could cook from the relative shelter of our vestibule.
I awoke the sleeping boy after his oatmeal and hot cocoa were already cooked and cooling. Keep him warm was my mantra. The hot chocolate, a two-prong approach, warmed the belly and put a little extra oomph in his step. After hours of restless worrying, the transition from bag to bike went swimmingly, and we were cruising downhill in no time. It would have been rad to stay and explore the river and trails some more, but it seemed foolish to tempt the rain any further, and we had a violin recital to get to.
Three miles into the five rainy miles back to the car, I was a little apprehensive on what his outlook would be. This could turn him off forever. I try not to push things on him, lest he never want to do them again. The proof was to be in the pudding.
I had taken my hood down so I could hear all the chatter from him as we rode. He had gotten silent again for a bit, and I called back to make sure I wasn’t spraying him. He replied, “No Dad, I just think we made the right decision by camping and not staying home.” An hour later in the car, when asked by his Mom on the phone what his favorite part of the trip was, he enthusiastically responded, “Riding through the rain this morning on the way back to the car!”
This had been an amazing time with my son in the backcountry, our first father-and-son-only camping trip. I will remember it fondly, forever.
Ortlieb has been a reliable pannier bag brand for cyclists for decades, so it wasn’t surprising to see them release a few bikepacking-specific products in 2016.
At the Sea Otter Classic this year, Ortlieb continued that progression by upgrading their Gravel-Pack panniers, seat pack and handlebar bag, and adding couple new items.
The big focus of these bags is reducing the overall size of the bag. This is based on consumer feedback that Ortlieb has conducted and the statistic that when given the option to use more space, most people will use it, but when space is not available, they make-do. When you are riding long distance, multi-day trips, less weight is a good thing.
The Ortlieb Gravel-Pack front panniers are a more compact version of their current Sport-Roller pannier. The Sport-Roller has 25 liters of storage space, while the new Gravel-Pack has 22 liter. The Gravel-Pack features Ortlieb’s signature 3M Scotchlite reflectors on the sides of the bag and double lower mounting hooks for V-shaped racks. The Gravel-Pack will be available this fall and will retail at $170.
And now a little sneak-peek at 2018 products:
The Ortlieb Seat-Pack M is a compact version the currently available Seat-Pack. Both bags offer Ortlieb’s 3M Scotchlite reflectors, honeycomb texture, waterproof with a roll closure, and the air release valve.
The original Seat-Pack is a substantial 16.5 liters while the M is a cozy 11 liters. Because the M is smaller, Ortlieb was able to make the seat post attachment a single velcro strap versus the original’s double. The benefits to a single seat post attachment are that it can now be used on a dropper post and it’s also more usable for petite cyclists who have limited space to attach a bag to the seat post. Price: $145
Another evolved product is the Handlebar-Pack S, again another shrunken version of the original. The S is 15.7 inches wide and 6.7 inches in diameter. Its short length makes it a good candidate for drop bars, with the capacity for up to 9 liters. The S has 3M Scotchlite reflectors, honeycomb texture, and is waterproof with roll closures. Price: $125
Ortlieb also has two brand new bags for 2018. One is the Frame-Pack Top Tube, a narrow frame bag that accommodates water bottle cages or rear shocks. The Frame-Pack is waterproof and offers 4 liters of volume. Price: $135
The second bag is the Cockpit-Pack, a waterproof bag positioned on the top tube to house a few small essentials in an easy-access location. It looks as though it could hold a cell phone, keys and a snack easily. Price: $55
All Ortlieb products come with a 5-year warranty.
Ortlieb also had their no-sew patches on-site. Patches are awesome, but holes in your waterproof gear are not. Thanks for the patch!
Keep Reading: Check out more coverage from the 2017 Sea Otter Classic here.
Looking for the perfect bike that provides the freedom to roam aimlessly regardless of the terrain ahead? Look no further, the Ritchey Break-Away Ascent may be your answer. It’s exactly what a bike should be, a do-all, go anywhere means for adventure. This steel-framed beauty relegates both one trick ponies and niche categories.
The heart and soul to the Break-Away Ascent is the custom, lightweight Ritchey Logic TIG-welded tubing paired with a relaxed geometry and ability to run up 700×40 mm or 27.5×2.1 inch tires.
Add the travel-friendly break-away compression system and you have yourself a versatile bike that’s capable of traveling the world with you as your checked luggage.
The Ritchey Break-Away Ascent is available to the masses only as a frameset, with an included soft-sided travel bag for $1,650. For testing purposes, ours arrived loaded with Ritchey WCS bits including the new VentureMax adventure drop bar, 27.5×2.1 Shield tires mounted on Vantage II wheels, a SRAM Force 2×11 drivetrain, and BB7 mechanical disc brakes.
The frame utilizes simple technology such as the highly-praised, threaded 68 mm bottom bracket, 27.2 mm seatpost and a post-mount disc brake mount. All of these should be easily sourced in any bike shop, letting you to get back on your journey quickly and with ease should any mechanicals derail you.
Sounds too good to be true, right? Check out our full review of this steel framed travel companion in the upcoming issue of Bicycle Times #46. Subscribe now so that you don’t miss out on an issue!Tweet Print
Words and photos by Matthew Salvadore
Where was it? It was the last item he needed. He had spent several days looking for a place that sold it. Now, as he shuffled through the local pharmacy convenient store in his pajama pants and Pink Floyd t shirt, he still couldn’t seem to find it. He made his way to the cashier and waited in line.
That’s my father-in-law. He spent a lot of his time this way. Not necessarily waiting in line at pharmacy convenient stores, but searching. Searching for that one last item he needs. He’s a buyer and a planner. It seems that planning for something and buying the gear for it is more exciting to him than actually doing what he is planning to do. I had forgotten that when I agreed
to take a bike packing trip with him.
He loves bicycles, but not riding them, necessarily. He’s a collector. At one point he owned ten new bikes, none of which he had ridden. Not even on a test ride at the bike shop before purchasing. It seems that the dream is always bigger than the
reality. If only riding the bikes could be as effortless as looking at the bikes. He’s not much different than the vast majority of people in our society. That’s why Disneyland is such a popular place. The dream is bigger than reality. People are drunk on the dreams.
He and I really couldn’t be any different. I hate buying things. I have always thought owning a lot of things is like being slowly choked to death. I also love to ride. I am drawn to the challenges and deprivation. The pain and difficulty. The struggle. For me the reality is always better than the dream. I hate dreaming and, yes, I hate Disneyland.
Bikepacking was something I had been wanting to do for awhile. One day, while talking about bikes (something that happened a lot with my father-in-law), I mentioned my bikepacking hopes. He wanted to go. So I said yes. That was the start of months of planning and to his enjoyment, purchasing.
Finally, the line moved and it was his turn. This was the big moment. He was about to find the last item he needed for the trip.
When the cashier invited him to step forward he asked, “Do you sell canned hams?” Aisle 4. Of course! Right next to the school supplies. How could he have missed them? This was the only store in a twenty mile radius of suburban America that carried canned hams. That’s because no one eats canned hams. However, thanks to a bikepacking tutorial on YouTube, he insisted that we needed canned hams for this trip.
After the purchase of two canned hams, the bikepacking list was complete. It was official. He finally had way too much stuff. For him, the adventure was over. It was only an overnighter, but it took months to plan. We decided on a state forest not too far away. It had a good system of gravel roads and trails. It was plenty of ground to cover, especially considering the fact that my father-in-law cannot ride much more than a mile or two without needing a break and he would be carrying enough gear to supply a small army. In the past few days, he had even joked about buying a bicycle trailer. At least I think it was a joke.
My wife and I live four hours away from her parents. So we took a few days off and went for a long weekend to their place. We got there late on Thursday night. The “Great Adventure” would begin on Friday.
I woke up early Friday morning. I didn’t really need to pack. I fit the few items I would need, including the infamous canned ham, into a backpack and handlebar bag. I went upstairs to see how my father-in-law was doing with packing everything. He was shuffling around the house in his boxers and a t-shirt from a local bikes shop’s racing team. There’s a level of irony in that.
“How’s it going?” I asked, almost knowing the answer. There was cycling gear spread out on every piece of furniture in the room.
“It’s supposed to rain,” he said. He almost said it with a sense of relief. The forecast had called for spotty showers. Nothing to worry about. “You know,” he said as if asking for permission,”We could just go for a ride and then come back here to camp
Over the past few months I had waited for this conversation to come along and now, here it was. I was surprised that we had actually come this far and gotten this close. He had walked right up to the edge of it. But when he looked over the edge into the great chasm of the unknown world of adventure, all he could see was effort and discomfort. He had already had his adventure in the months of planning and spending. He had ridden the endless waves of dreams. Reality now stared him in the face. And it looked mean. I felt bad for him.
So that’s how it went. We drove to the state forest. Rode for a couple of miles until he needed a break. Then picked up a pizza on the way home. That night, I camped in their backyard and he slept in his warm bed. We woke up in the morning and had canned ham and eggs for breakfast. It never did rain.
I’ve taken other trips since then. But that one was the best. Because caring about people is the greatest adventure.
We would love to hear your stories of bicycle adventure, no matter what they are. Send your submissions to [email protected]
Over the past several years, Salsa has defined itself has a bicycle brand dedicated to adventures that lie beyond the ordinary bike ride. Epic-distance riding, exploration and bona fide bikepacking have become the company’s hallmark. Thus it should come as no surprise that Salsa has doubled down on this vision by announcing a complete set of bikepacking bags and accessories. We first heard about the EXP Series back in July.
As Salsa states, the EXP Series Bikepacking gear is, “built with the adventure-ready intentionality, functionality, and get-after-it-ability that you’ve come to expect from Salsa. The EXP Series invites possibility and the potential to transform any ride into so much more.” The EXP moniker is derived from three words batted about when mentioning Salsa Cycles: explore; experience; and expedition.
The EXP series is comprised of seven distinct products. While these items are designed to fit Salsa bikes, they’re likely also to fit the bike you ride:
- Cutthroat Framepack
- Toptube Bag
- Anything Cradle
- Dry Bag
- Front Pouch
- Front Straps
Let’s take a quick look at each item.
Available in four sizes (3.5L; 4.5L; 5.2L; and 6.1L), this weather-resistant frame fastens to the inside of the main triangle and features 500D Nylon with TPU lamination and PU coating, 1000D Polyester with dual-sided TPU lamination, #10 weather-resistant YKK Zippers, and Duraflex Hardware. Internal hook/loop dividers help keep gear separate and balanced, and it has the capacity for a water bladder for your inevitable hydration needs during the long haul.
Handy for those small items you often reach for – like gel packs, lip balm and cigarettes…or chewing gum if you prefer…this 1.2L toptube bag can be attached to Salsa frames that feature bottle mounts on the toptube (we haven’t confirmed if it’ll mount to other bikes with similar mounts like the OPEN U.P.) Features include two internal mesh pockets and a closed-cell foam structure for increased stability.
“The Anything Cradle, much like our Anything Cage HD, is built to create carrying capacity where once there was none.” It doesn’t get much more succinct than that. This injection-molded composite cradle features 6061 forged aluminum arms, and will secure up to eight pounds of whatever gear you need to bring with you, or…anything. The Anything Cradle is designed to mount to the handlebars. While it features almost limitless points to which you can fasten straps, this cradle is part of the EXP’s modular concept, as the EXP Series dry bags are designed to neatly fit right in.
Conveniently, the Dry Bag attaches quite nicely to the aforementioned Anything Cradle. This 15l dry bag is made of 420D Nylon with TPU lamination and a PU coating for reliable waterproofness. Three slotted strap anchors adorn the front for attachment of other bags and packs, such as the…
Anything Cradle Front Pouch
While the Dry Bag is great for keeping lots of goods nice and dry during your rides, it’s usually filled with stuff you’re not really reaching for while you’re riding. That’s where a pouch comes in handy. Strapped to the dry bag, the 1.7L waterproof Anything Cradle Front Pouch allows easy access to what you find important, usually while you’re riding.
Anything Cradle Front Straps
These 25mm-wide nylon webbing straps are made to work neatly with the Anything Cradle. In the absence of the Dry Bag, you can mount…well…anything to the Cradle. They’re also good for strapping down anything else to other places on your bike.
Salsa is including its EXP Series Seatpack in this suite of bikepacking kit, but it’s still in production. Details…and some official photos…will be released soon.
No word yet on pricing, but you should start seeing these EXP Series products hitting the streets…err…roads and trails soon.Tweet Print
Courtesy of Kona. Words by Erkki Punttila. Photos by Teemu Lautamies.
I really love exploring new places with my bike, but I also constantly hear the call of the sea – why not combine the best of both worlds? First enjoy a nice evening cruise and then hit the trails with your lights on and find a peaceful spot to camp. My boat is an old fishing boat and has a 5.4 litre truck engine from 1972 that has proven to be quite “reliable”. They are somewhat simple machines after you get to know the basics of maintenance and repair. Just like bikes. Remember your first wheel build? Slightly scary at first, but very rewarding at the end.
Into the night
On longer bikepacking trips it would be ideal to find a camp site before the sun goes down. It just makes things easier. But sometimes it’s fun to ride in a pitch black forest with your lights blazing. Your focus shifts from the scenery to the trail and its obstacles. And what better way is there to scare yourself shitless than startling a sleeping moose just a few meters from you?
A few tips for night riding
- Set up your lights before it gets dark. Then you can just turn them on and keep going.
- Know your gear. How long does the battery run on low/medium/full power?
- Conserve power. On roads you can use the low setting on your lights and then turn it up when the trail gets nasty.
- Always have a backup light source so you can continue if one fails. Probably the best option is to have a hub dynamo powered light for riding and recharging your GPS/phone/headlamp during the day. And a good quality waterproof headlamp for camp activities.
- Know where your gear is. Try to memorize all of your stuff when packing and always pack things in the same place. You can then find spare batteries or your multitool even with your eyes closed.
- Pack wisely. Having your shelter in one place with easy access is nice. I keep my tent as the first thing in the handlebar bag along with a dry base layer. Dry clothes, shelter, food, sleep.
If you are planning to get big miles in for the day your only choice is to get up early and get going. There is no way around that. But sometimes it is utter bliss not to have a plan at all. Sleep as long as you feel like. Enjoy breakfast and coffee. Get going when you feel like it and do it for as long as it’s good. Have a break, take a nap. Eat warm food, look at birds – whatever makes you happy.
Steps to a quick getaway
Set up everything for a quick start before going to sleep. I fill my Jetboil with the right amount of water for porridge and coffee and keep it on standby in the tent’s vestibule. Have all the food you plan to eat ready (but don’t do this in bear country!). Then, this:
- Make sure your alarm goes off loud as [email protected] in the far end of the tent so you’re forced to get up to turn it off
- Open the valve of your air mattress
- Get up and light up Jetboil
- Shut off the alarm
- Put on riding clothes
- Stuff sleeping bag
- By now the water is boiling. Pour it into your favourite titanium cup and add porridge flakes. Eat and scrape the sides with your spork. Pour more hot water and add instant coffee.
- Since the coffee is likely too hot, pack your stuff and roll up your sleeping mattress while it cools.
- Enjoy your coffee. It also cleans your mug from the porridge. Kind of.
- Stuff your gear into your seat and frame bag, then take down the tent and pack it along with your dry base layer.
- Enjoy your 15 minutes of fame.
Tips for big days
- Eat light and fast in the morning. Ride for about 1-2 hours, take a dump and have a second breakfast
- Have food ready on your stem bags to eat on the go.
- Eat something once per hour even you don’t feel hungry. You don’t really need a big lunch break, just keep on going and remember to eat.
- Hydration is key. I always have one bottle with electrolytes and one with plain water. On longer legs I fill them from my bladder or other source and try to keep the balance.
- Your favourite candy and something salty like beef jerky is good motivational food.
- If you eat at a restaurant or gas station during the day, don’t eat in. Order 3 hamburgers and a coke, eat one standing and continue with the two burgers in your jersey pockets. The satisfaction of eating a cheeseburger while coasting along a gravel road at 25km/h is heaven.
Every trip comes to an end unfortunately. If you have a specific goal that you want to reach, why not celebrate a bit when you reach it? A mountain top, a tough hike-a-bike, a big climb, a 200km day, whatever – reward yourself and maybe take a picture of it. Later on you won’t remember all the details of the suffering, but you will feel the sense of accomplishment and have a great story to tell. Just go out there and do it your way.
For this adventure, Erkki rode our Swiss Army knife, the Unit, in completely stock form. With its Reynolds 520 steel frame and single speed drivetrain, the Unit has been a mainstay in the Kona line for years and for 2017 we’ve given it some updates that only expand its versatility. Five bottle cages and room for 27.5+ wheels – which now come stock on the bike – will enable you to get out there whether you’re looking for a singletrack ripper or the foundation of a solid bikepacking setup. The powder blue Unit in the video is available in Europe, while North America gets down with matte olive green. Get all the details on the Unit here.
We caught a glimpse of the new Advocate Sand County adventure machine at Interbike and finally have some details on this new bike to share with you.
The Sand County slots in alongside Advocate’s 700c Lorax, which we reviewed in our previous print issue and really loved for road and gravel grinding, but felt that it wasn’t quite set up for loaded touring. Now, that opening in Advocate’s lineup has been filled.
The frame features a proprietary triple-butted, heat treated tubeset, and full rust-proof coating inside and out. Highlights include attachments for every possible thing you could imagine, geometry suited for hauling a pannier-based load, and six sizes designed around 700c wheels and drop bars.
The excellent build kit features Shimano Tiagra (which the Lorax also sports and which we have found to be really darn good), a triple crankset and 11-32 cassette, Avid BB7 disc brakes, a WTB Rocket Comp saddle, Formula hubs, Alex Adventurer rims and 700×40 Terrene Honali tires.
The bike will sell complete for $1,600.
We caught a glimpse of the new Advocate Seldom Seen adventure machine at Interbike and finally have some details on this new bike to share with you.
The Seldom Seen, named for a character in Edward Abbey’s “Monkey Wrench Gang,” is purpose-built for bikepacking and off-road touring. It can take either 29er or 27plus wheels, and is built around the Boost chainline.
The stock build is excellent. The Seldom Seen comes with a Shimano SLX groupset (including SLX brakes), 11-42 cassette, Ergon grips and saddle (nice touch!), Stans NoTubes rims and 27.5×3.0 Terrene Chunk tires.
The Seldom Seen comes complete with rack and fender mounts, lots of bottle cage mounts and its own frame bag. It is the first Advocate Cycles bike to use the company’s proprietary quadruple-butted, heat treated, eccentric integrated gusset tubeset for an extremely strong frame. The green paint is perfect for blending on on backcountry adventures, and we can appreciate the understated graphics.
Five sizes will accomodate heights 4’11” to 6’1″. The complete bike (including frame bag) sells for $2,000.
Photos: Nicholas Carman
The Baja Divide is a 1,700 mile off-pavement bikepacking route down the length of the Baja peninsula, from San Diego, California, to San José del Cabo in Mexico. The route utilizes existing roads and tracks, 95 percent of which are unpaved, ranging from graded dirt roads to rough, sandy jeep tracks, for a total of 92,000 feet of climbing along the way.
The ride was developed by avid bicycle travelers Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox, who have been bike traveling for the past eight years. “We stumbled into a route project last winter when we rode across the border in Baja California and quickly realized that we needed to ride, document, and publish a route down the peninsula— the riding was that good,” wrote Carman. “What began as a quest for long nights of sleep and a mellow dirt tour turned into three months of route research, pushing our bikes, and riding some out-there roads.
The Baja Divide route connects the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, historic Spanish mission sites rich with shade and water, remote ranchos and fishing villages, bustling highway towns, and every major mountain range in Baja California on miles and miles of beautiful backcountry desert tracks.
Life on the Baja Divide is defined by a rhythm of riding, camping, and resupply. Baja California is a mountainous desert and resources are limited, although the route is designed to encounter resupply frequently enough to make a self-supported tour possible. Riders may need to carry up to 2-3 days of food and 10 liters of water. A warm, dry climate minimizes equipment needs. Pack light, and leave room for food and water.
Check out the Baja Divide website, which is loaded with route and equipment guides, section narratives and resources for download including GPX files, waypoint folder, resupply guide and distance chart. The route is provided as a gift to the bikepacking community with the support of Revelate Designs and Advocate Cycles and is open to ride at any time, self-supported. The best time to enjoy this route is November thru March. Previous backcountry touring experience is strongly recommended.
In addition to the published route, a scholarship to ride and document it is up for grabs. Named in honor of Wilcox’s adventurous spirit—and her recent successes winning the Tour Divide and Trans Am Bike Race—the “Lael’s Globe of Adventure” Women’s Scholarship is being offered to a woman of any age who plans to ride the Baja Divide during the 2016-2017 season. The winner will receive an Advocate Cycles Hayduke or Seldom Seen bicycle, a complete Revelate Designs luggage system, and a $1,000 community-supported travel grant. Applications must be submitted by November 11, 2016. For full scholarship details and requirements, visit the Baja Divide website.
Tester: Eric McKeegan
First aid kits are one of those things we all know we should carry, but rarely do. Even on backcountry trips, I almost never have anything besides a dirty bandana and some duct tape to patch myself up.
That has changed dramatically now that the Adventure Medical Kits Ultralight & Watertight .5 now resides in the bottom of my pack. Besides local day trips, I’ve made sure this was with me anytime I travelled anywhere, including a week-long trip to Chile. It is light enough to just leave in a hydration pack or frame bag, because really, who is going to notice another 100 grams?
My good luck held out, but had I needed it, there are some very worthwhile items inside besides the standard adhesive bandages, butterfly closures and antiseptic wipes. High-quality, stainless-steel tweezers can pick out tiny splinters or remove ticks. Three decent-sized safety pins can hold up your shorts or keep a dressing in place over a wound. A sheet of anti-blister material could save your feet on a long ride. A few packs each of antihistamine, aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen could come in handy for both accidents and hangovers.
All of that (and more) is crammed into resealable plastic bag, which is placed inside a treated and seam-sealed nylon pouch with a waterproof zipper. I’m betting I can stuff a set of nitrile gloves and a small pressure dressing (to replace that dirty bandana) in the bag as well, which would make me the best equipped rider on most any trail.
Probably time to take another wilderness first responder class as well.
Adventure Medical sells a huge range of first aid and survival supplies that range from tiny kits for short solo trips to huge packs for large groups.
Words: Amanda DelCore
Originally published in Issue #41
I was itching to ride alone. No offense to any of my trail pals that had accompanied me through Canada, Montana, and Wyoming on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, but I had a personal score to settle with Colorado.
In 2009 I had lived as a bat-shit-crazy Coloradan for a year—summitting 14,000-foot mountains at dawn, skiing powder for the first time and learning how to backpack. My inner explorer and adventurer woke up in those mountains.
I was lured away for graduate school and work but was never able to forget the thrill of the jagged peaks and the wide valleys. To compensate I toiled in the semi-secret woodsy trails hidden within the urban tangle of Philadelphia.
Then fast forward to the summer of 2015. I had already ridden about 1,700 miles along the Great Divide route with friends but I was about to finish the trail alone. I had returned to the Colorado Rockies and had them all to myself. Known for their fickle temperament, the mountains wasted little time putting me in my place. Almost immediately after leaving Steamboat Springs the cloud ceiling dropped and I encountered pockets of light rain. Intermittent showers turned to steady rain and thunder as I rode further into the mountains.
As my eyes darted from the sky to the dirt, I could feel myself cowering over my handlebars. It was either “ride” or “hide” from the storm, and I chose “ride.” The gnarled bows of scrubby juniper told me that these trees were not to be confused with shelter. I descended the switchbacks as quickly as I could on my top-heavy rig and swore under my breath. Lightning cracked and thunder boomed from one valley to another.
The confusing part was that I couldn’t see the storm. I felt like a blind horse running out of a burning barn. As I maneuvered down the mountain, the unincorporated community of Radium came into view. Relief and a sense of urgency hit me at the same time. I gritted my teeth and pedaled faster. A wide river snaked through the small, flat valley. Even better, I saw dots that resembled park shelters.
I managed to roll into the park just as the rain started falling in sheets. I splashed up to the sturdy outdoor latrine and perched atop the only logical hangout: a trash can tucked underneath the overhang. I didn’t know I could feel so much gratitude for such a simple thing. Cross-legged, I passed time doing the one thing that every long-distance bikepacker does when he or she gets off the bike: I put food in my mouth.
I had wanted to ride farther that day but the park rangers said the roads were so wet that I wouldn’t make much progress. I knew that the struggle for a few miles today would be quick work tomorrow, so I decided to sleep in the valley. The clouds broke, the sun came out, and I witnessed a full rainbow. As the sun went down I pitched my tent on a too-neat-for-nature gravel pad.
As I sipped some pasta-water tea, I reflected that it wasn’t such a bad end to a mostly annoying day of bike riding. This could be any day for a bikepacker. It certainly could be worse. There was the time I didn’t bring enough water to the high desert in New Mexico and was luckily replenished by bow-season hunters. Or the time I climbed a mountain pass only to lock eyes with a bull moose at the top. Or the day that I rode 120 miles from Cuba to Grants, New Mexico—60 percent of the way into brutal headwinds, 95 percent completely and utterly alone with the landscape and 100 percent responsible for my nutrition and hydration.
So how do people do it? How do they overcome the unique challenges of being alone, on a bike, especially in remote areas? The very nature of riding solo means that the physical and mental struggles are difficult to communicate to anyone who wasn’t there.
I had the chance to interview a handful of solo bike travelers who range from anxious to intrepid, but are nonetheless out there, alone. What resulted was a submersion into the human psyche, a place where the ever-determined ego confronts the stalking shadow of fear over and over and over again.
Being your only company, you witness the dark side of your mind. You learn to laugh at your own jokes. Personal growth isn’t just about VO2 max anymore. Music, podcasts and audiobooks can only mask solitude for a few hours. After that, you learn how to be alone.
Claire Porter, who solo toured the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Canada to Colorado as a Blackburn Ranger, recollects that “spending hours in the saddle alone, day after day, definitely put me deep in my head, and that didn’t end up being entirely good. But it forced me to ask the hard questions that had been looming before the trip like ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ and ‘How much eating is appropriate?’ All of which occupied my mind for hours on end.”
Lael Wilcox, a Tour Divide record setter, spun her way to a more meditative approach. “I’ll find myself thinking about things that have happened in the past, or I’ll think about future plans, but eventually I’ll get to a place where my mind is pretty quiet. After awhile, it’s going back into town that gets hard.”
Berly Brown, an artist inspired by her cycling adventures, thinks back to her first tour. “I often got lost in listening to my breathing as I felt my legs move—a mindfulness practice before I knew what that was. I just tried to stay engaged by noticing how my body felt or by watching the scenery. In the Pacific Northwest that was easy. I mostly felt incredible gratitude that I was doing it!”
Rebecca Rusch, a professional adventure racer and mountain biker, dishes an elegant but practical solution to staying mentally engaged during long solo adventures. “Choose a route that’s really inspiring. There are many classic routes I haven’t ridden simply because they just don’t excite me. Picking a place you’ve always wanted to go is an important first step.”
As a solo traveler, you are your own navigator. You pay attention. Not only do you plan, but you also plan for failure. Good planning sets you free to enjoy the ride once you’re rolling. One thing upon which all the veteran bikepackers agree is that good planning is crucial to a positive experience. And after you’ve controlled all you can control, you have to trust the universe.
Kim Murrell, who rode thousands of miles solo across Florida in the past year, admits that she’s probably a little fringe when it comes to planning her trips. She purposely doesn’t over-research to keep the adventure of the unknown intact. But even she admits, “you always have a plan B.” Rusch will tell you the same thing. “I like to always have a what-if-the-shit-hits-the-fan plan. Not that I plan on failure, but it’s reassuring to have an escape route. Know your escape routes.”
Good planning doesn’t just mean having maps and a GPS. It also means researching your gear, learning how to use it, and knowing how to exist wherever you are. Herein lies one of the greatest freedoms in bikepacking. If you don’t make it to your planned site for the night, all is not lost. In fact, all is very typical. As long as your have enough water and food, an impromptu campsite is a likely option.
I’ve never had a bikepacking trip that’s gone according to plan. Having a system to adapt to constantly changing plans is essential. In a way, it’s kind of like life.
Jocelyn Gaudi, founder of the Komorebi bikepacking team, uses routines as a means for on-the-trail organization and sanity. “It’s important to go through routines that make you feel in control. Knowing that when you arrive and you’re so desperately tired, you have a checklist and you just have to do it. It’s also a practical way to make sure you don’t leave things behind.”
Common sense and science both tell us that we feel safer in numbers. Studies have shown that people who are alone perceive threats as closer than when they are in a group. Anyone who has spent time in the backcountry knows this feeling: your perception of danger is somehow more acute. While some self-awareness is probably beneficial, fear of danger can be debilitating and, quite frankly, a huge downer on a solo trip.
“My biggest fear on the trail isn’t sleeping in a bivy in the wilderness or riding by the swamps,” said Murrell. “It’s when you’re on that old dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, and all of a sudden you see a car or truck. That’s the only fear I really have. That’s when I stop and process the situation. Do I stop? Do I keep going?”
“Usually if I am riding alone I worry about being run off the road or attacked or abducted,” said Brown. “I try to push past those thoughts by thinking of something else or coming up with plans or methods of how I might escape!”
Gaudi recounts the time she got stopped by a logging truck on the Cascade Skyline route in Oregon. “The driver wanted to let me know that, today, he saw bears and cougars, and he wanted to know if I had a gun with me.” She remembers that she started thinking very quickly. “Bears and cougars? Plural? I don’t know this person at all, I’m in the middle of nowhere, he has a truck, I have no escape route. How much information do I give him? But I think he might be giving me valuable information. So, I lied to him and told him that I had a gun. It was just my gut reaction. He seemed satisfied by this, and took off down the hill. So I turned on music really loudly and tried to make a joke about what type of music wild animals would be most turned off by.”
Whether or not Beyoncé repels bears remains to be confirmed, but there were no sightings that day.
On the contrary, both Wilcox and Rusch sounded miffed when I asked them about safety outside of sport-related injury. “Huh?” was their general reaction. (I personally think they’re going too fast to get stopped by anyone or anything, amirite?)
Wilcox has traveled by bike for about eight years and has ridden on the order of 100,000 miles around the world. Across time and space, she’s seen the face of humanity, and by her judgment, the stranger’s face is not very different from our own. “Put yourself in their shoes for a moment.You see a dirty, tired cyclist coming into town, what’s going through their head? Maybe they’re just as skeptical of you as you are of them.”
In 2015, Wilcox rode from her home in Alaska more than 2,000 miles to the starting line of the Tour Divide race. She then raced the 2,500 miles of the Tour Divide in 17 days and set a new women’s record. Unsatisfied with her performance, she retraced her tire tracks along the route a few months later and finished in less than 16 days. Here is a person who has taken fear out of the equation. Any kind of human limits seem to also be missing.
You might be thinking, “Why even bother doing a solo trip when going with others is just so much easier?” Believe it or not, bikepacking alone has its rewards. “I make it a point to do my trips as solo as possible,” Murrell said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love to ride with people, but I also enjoy just knowing I’m completely solo out there. When I go on a trip, I am only focused on the route and I really unplug. I can’t get that anywhere else.”
For Rusch, a long, solitary bikepacking trip was exactly what she needed after hosting the Rebecca’s Private Idaho race, a “gravel-strewn, grit-filled, pedal-cranking love letter” from Rusch and her Idaho home to the rest of the world. “After hosting a 500-plus person event with my name in the title I was just mentally and physically exhausted,” she said. “The Smoke ’n’ Fire 400 was actually the longest unsupported bikepacking trip I’ve done. I had so much fun on that ride. I was just on this amazing adventure, exploring places in my home state, seeing the animals at night, watching the sunrise. It was a beautiful experience.” She reflected that because her mental game was so positive, she ended up placing really well despite not training intentionally for the event.
Although Gaudi is typically preparing for group excursions with the Komorebi team, she took a time out to test herself on the Cascade Skyline route in Oregon over a long weekend. “I chose a challenging route for a reason. I’m typically the trip leader, but this time, for better or worse, I only had myself to think about … I wanted to see how far I could get, and see if I could leverage all the bikepacking skills I had gained in the summer. It turned out to be a much tougher ride than I anticipated. I was bushwhacking five miles into the route.”
Personally, I live for the sensory experience of bikepacking solo. My sense of smell is keener, my eyes are sharper, and I’m always aware of my environment. In some ways, it’s kind of like being an animal, and I love that. However, the emotional side of things also seem more intense. Fear strikes harder, persistence grows faster, happiness is easy, and subtle victories are satisfying.
Bikepacking the GDMBR alone through Colorado and New Mexico helped me realize that the sensory experiences and personal developments are worth every moment of fear. I’ll never forget my first day in New Mexico. It was littered with steep climbs, unfair terrain and pop-up squalls. But I daresay it was all worth it. That day, there was a moment where I could see sunshine on one end of the landscape and a storm on the other. That day, I experienced an overwhelming sense of satisfaction from just sitting on the ground to eat a snack. And at the end of the day, I was immensely thankful to fall asleep reading a book in my tent.
We all know that fear has many faces. The faster you characterize it the faster you can move past it to actually enjoy long, leisurely tours or race-pace adventures. This is a highly personal ordeal, and only you will be able recognize the face of your fear. Rusch sums it up perfectly: “Often times you can identify what you’re actually afraid of, and then get rational about it.”
Wilcox offered an expansive perspective. “In every country I visit, people ask me about my safety. People will warn me about neighboring countries and say, ‘You don’t want to cross that border, it’s bad over there.’ But I do cross that border, and the people there are just as hospitable, just as welcoming. And of course, the people in that country say the same thing. ‘Oh, don’t cross that border, it’s bad over there.’ But I’m going to cross that border too. Fear is so limiting.”
Sometimes, you need a full year to plan an overnight.
Last fall, my uncle William and I had succeeded in talking each other into an off-road bikepacking trip (and acquiring a bunch of cool new gear), so he went out into Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest to find a route and a camping spot. I eventually had to cancel and the trip—which would be a first for each of us—was shelved.
At the end of July, we finally made it happen. We started with a shakedown ride, a bowl of my aunt’s delicious homemade chili and a sendoff from my 16-year-old cousin that consisted of an eye roll. Our two-day ride began above 10,000 feet and took us even higher over steep, chunky Jeep roads and along barely-visible singletrack before reaching Heart Lake. We pitched our tents in a field of wildflowers and proceeded to catch up on about 10 years of not seeing each other very much.
Just one night? One has to start somewhere and one night is absolutely worthwhile. Philosopher Alain de Botton explained in his book “The Art of Travel” that appreciating and holding onto small experiences with nature was an ideal of poet William Wordsworth. Even though two or three days vacation can’t solve all of your problems, they can reside in your mind as a comfort.
The poet celebrated what he called “spots of time.” Those are, essentially, scenes that may have seemed minor in the moment but that nonetheless stick with us, and that we return to in our memories for contentment when everyday life feels crushing. Daffodils moving in the wind; the smell of a stand of pine trees—anything is up for grabs.
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue…
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
— William Wordsworth, re-printed in de Botton’s “The Art of Travel”
That, to me, is the value of these experiences. Sure, they are fun to share on Instagram, but in thinking back to my first backpacking trip 20 years ago as a comparison, I realize how many times I have called upon that memory and savored it fondly. That is what I know I will do with this trip, and likely every one after, even those that inevitably don’t go well.
That is the excellence of bicycles: they give us spots of time. Even if you simply ride a couple of miles to work and back every day, it’s a unique moment in your 9-to-5 or equivalent. Even if it’s just a one-night bikepacking outing, it’s a unique break in the regular routine of life.
I read recently (in relation cycling) that, essentially, the only rides worth remembering are the really difficult ones. Nah. Suffering certainly tightens memory’s grip, but so do beauty, camaraderie, relaxation, novelty. And fun. If you spend two days riding a bike with a giant grin plastered irremovably on your face, that ride is probably going to get filed away in a safe, accessible place.
I may not precisely recall every stream crossing, or how beautiful our tents looked set up in a field of flowers as the light of the sinking sun illuminated them in pinks and oranges, or how silly giddy my uncle and I both were when I busted out a SPAM single in the morning to fry up and share and we launched into a 30-minute conversation about different types of camp stoves and their merits, or how that kid backpacking with his mom brought a soccer ball and we could hear him kicking it in the distance as we rode away from camp.
I may not remember each of those things individually but, collectively, they will engrain themselves as a new spot of time in my memory, hopefully one that I get to hold onto. And, nothing could have motivated me more to go bikepacking than actually going bikepacking. When is my next trip? When and where can I go for two or three nights? How quickly can I start working my way up to an adventure that is classically “epic?” I knew from the first few pedal strokes that this Wyoming trip was just a beginning.
The outing had the enhanced glow of nostalgia because it took me back to the same mountain range where, at age 10, I followed the same Uncle William and my parents into the woods for my first backpacking trip. Twenty years on, it seems that neither one of us has fundamentally changed all that much, which was somewhat of an unexpected relief. There’s an indescribable comfort at being able to slip into familiarity with a kindred spirit, especially in the process of exploring a shared passion.
This isn’t where I tell you that you need to go out and do something like I did or that it was a big deal or that it wasn’t a big deal. There’s more than enough finger-wagging in the outdoor media about how you’re not doing it right but someone else is. We meticulously planned a one-night trip and only rode a handful of miles each way. Our way is certainly one way to do it. There are many others.
Define your love of cycling and the outdoors in whatever way you damn well please. That’s something I learned from Uncle William and have always admired. I appreciate that he doesn’t chase trends or exclusive toys. Besides, as he puts it, “if you want only expensive bikes, then you can’t have very many of them.”
So, I suppose I am going to tell you what to do, and that is this: Do what you want.
You can’t talk about bikepacking without talking about the bike. My Surly Pugsley has been a faithful friend now for the last three years and has broadened its usefulness from winter snow machine to adept touring rig.
Following my shakedown trip in Moab, I shod its stock 50-mm rims with 26×2.75 Surly Dirt Wizard tires, swapped in a Jones H-Bar up front and a Brooks Cambium saddle out back and called it good. I don’t yet know how the 100 mm bottom bracket width will affect my knees on longer journeys, but that width offers the benefit of preventing my legs from rubbing a stuffed frame bag.
I was extremely grateful for the stability, cushion and grip of extra-knobby, plus-ish tires paired to the great ride of a steel frame. The new crop of up-and-coming bikes designed around plus tires might seem like just a fad or a phase, but I don’t think I’ll ever do loaded, off-road touring on anything else. I’m sold. Now that some bike companies are turning to 26plus tires for smaller-frame and women’s-specific mountain bikes, I might have more tire options in the future.
Backpack: Water bladder, sleeping bag, rain cover for pack, ultralight wind vest, arm and leg warmers (the only items I did not use), wallet, phone, keys to my truck
Apidura seat pack: alcohol fuel stove and small fuel bottle, small cook pot, collapsible bowl that doubles as a tiny cutting board, titanium fork and spoon, waterproof matches, insulated mug, insulated vest, insulated jacket, rain jacket, small pack towel, spare clothing (socks, underwear, wool hat, warm gloves, baselayer tights, long-sleeve shirt) and camp shoes attached to the outside (Crocs clogs)
- TIP: Make sure you don’t strap so much on the top of the seat pack that you can’t get your rear back off the saddle on steep, loose descents.
Revelate Designs frame bag: toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, glasses, contact lens solution/case, wet wipes); breakfast (SPAM single, oatmeal, almond butter, instant coffee); dinner (freeze-dried backpacking meal); small bottle of cooking oil; bike-specific toolkit; spare tube; tire pump; ultralight one-person backpacking first aid kit; headlamp; camp knife; small roll of biodegradable toilet paper; pocket-sized sketchbook with pencil
Revelate Designs handlebar bag: one-person tent, ground cloth, tent poles/stakes, sleeping pad, camp pillow (the only thing I’d leave at home next time)
Fork-mounted dry bags (made by Salsa): Left: lunch/snacks (bagel, dried sausage, marinated green olives, dark chocolate-covered raisins, small container of peanut butter, Clif Bar energy food pouch-sweet potato flavor); Right: 1-liter water bottle, SteriPen for water purification
Revelate Designs stem bag: compact-ish camera (Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100), lip balm, DEET bug juice, sunscreen
Did I forget anything? Yep: a small flask of bourbon and an evening hot drink such as cocoa or decaf tea. Luckily for us both, my uncle brought fire starters (cotton balls rubbed with petroleum jelly) since everything around us was wet. A small folding saw would have been welcome for firewood gathering and trail clearing, but not necessary.
Continuing its march toward capturing every corner of the bike touring market, Salsa Cycles is now making its own bikepacking bags, just like Specialized started doing. Yes, there are a lot of bike bags out there and some hard feelings toward major companies taking on what once was strictly a mom-n-pop-shop type operation.
We love small companies, too, but it does make sense from a company’s sales point of view and a design control perspective. Not everyone knows about the small companies or is willing to hunt those products down. These bags are designed in-house and specifically tailored to Salsa’s bikes for the best fit possible. However you feel about it, here they are, and they look and feel pretty nice. Long-term construction quality will have to be tested, so we’ll see if we can get our hands on some.
The classy-looking grey bags are made of fully welded construction and PU-coated fabric that is “weatherproof” and uses welded zippers. The Cutthroat frame bag is specific to Salsa’s Cutthroat bike and offered in all sizes. The bag has a map pocket on one side and a large storage compartment with a Velcro divider and hydration bladder mount on the other. Retail is $120.
The top-tube bag will work on any bike but was designed to attach to the bottle bosses now appearing on the top tubes of many Salsa bikes. Retail is $50.
The large seat pack is PU-coated to keep your gear dry. A roll-top closure keeps the rain out with bungee cords on the top providing extra storage. A slick, 1000D material on the bottom and front sides keeps grime off your bag and easily wipes clean. Retail is $120.
Completely new is Salsa’s new Anything Cradle handlebar bag mount with aluminum arms and an injection-molded plastic cage. Designed to hold up to eight pounds and mount to even narrow drop bars, its long arms should clear most cable clusters. We’ll see if we can get our hands on one to check out its durability and stability. The cradle sells for $75.
Salsa also designed a super-lightweight dry bag and extra storage pouch to work with the cradle. The dry bag and front pouch aren’t sold separately, but as a package deal with the cradle. Pricing is $100 for the cradle and dry bag, and $150 for all three.
Diamondback has offered up some pretty impressive aluminum bikes over the last few years, but now it’s added lightness to the Haanjo line of adventure road bikes with three carbon fiber models.
In the beginning, road bikes had 700c wheels and other bikes had 26-inch wheels. But as the lines between bike categories have blurred, so too have the wheel size options. As such, the Haanjo can fit either a 700×45 wheel and tire or a 27.5×2.1 mountain bike setup for even more aggressive adventures.
One detail worth pointing out: the carbon fork uses a 12 mm thru-axle, the new road standard, so you can’t slap in any old mountain bike wheelset—unless you find one with replaceable and compatible end caps.
The Haanjo line also consists of five aluminum models that start at just $700, including two flat-bar versions.
Haanjo Trail Carbon
- Shimano Ultegra 2×11 drivetrain with SRAM Rival crankset(?!)
- Shimano RS685 shift levers
- Shimano hydraulic brakes
- Schwalbe G-One 700x40mm tires on HED Tomcat wheels
Haanjo Comp Carbon
- Shimano 2×11 105 drivetrain with FSA crankset
- TRP mechanical disc brakes
- Schwalbe G-One 700x40mm tires on HED Tomcat wheels
Haanjo EXP Carbon
- Shimano 3×9 drivetrain
- Bar-end shifters
- TRP mechanical disc brakes
- Schwalbe Smart Sprint tires on 27.5 HED wheels
Eric Porter and friends ride from Reno to Nevada City on the new Haanjo. Watch for more from this adventure in the next issue of Bicycle Times.
What’s your take?
What do you think? Do drop bars and “mountain bike” wheels + tires belong together? Let us know in the comments below.