With the explosion of bikepacking, the market has become inundated with small bag makers, each with their own take on a relatively simple concept: holding stuff. It seems that each city has its own local bag maker and each maker has its own cult following.
Restrap is a small British bag and accessory company out of Yorkshire. Founder Nathan Hughes began making pedal straps out of upcycled seat belts in 2010 and from there expanded to making a variety of bags for commuting and urban riding. A few years later, the Restrap team began dabbling in off-road touring and naturally began making bags for that purpose as well.
The Restrap #CarryEverything bikepacking line launched in 2015 and includes a saddle bag holster, handlebar holster and frame bags of varying sizes.
Saddle Bag Holster – $132
The Restrap Saddle Bag Holster comes in two different sizes – one that holds up to 8 liters and one that holds 14. I tested the larger of the two, and had just enough clearance between my rear tire and the bottom of the bag. Dimensions can be found on the Restrap website, so be sure to check there and make sure you’ll have enough clearance before ordering a large.
The Saddle Bag Holster works like any other seat bag, attaching to the saddle rails and seatpost. All three attachment straps are made from a rubberized material that helps prevent slippage and holds the holster securely in place.
The holster itself is constructed from 1000D Cordura and is quite stiff, which keeps your load from bouncing around once tightened snugly against the saddle. The two pieces of the holster are held together on the seatpost end by paracord webbing that can be loosened or tightened depending on the size of the dry bag you put in it, and also can act as an extra storage spot provided you have enough tire clearance underneath the bag.
On the rear end of the holster, a piece of nylon webbing and a magnetic buckle keep your dry bag secure and cinch down to make your luggage as compact as possible. The buckle is extremely easy to use, even with heavy gloves on, and tightens and releases in seconds.
Overall, the Saddle Bag Holster worked extremely well. While I cannot compare it to other holster-style seat bags on the market because this is the first one I’ve tried, I liked it better than soft bags such as the Revelate Viscacha or Pika for two reasons: It stays put better on the rough stuff, and I appreciated the ability to remove the dry bag but keep the holster on the bike.
My testing period wasn’t quite long enough to truly attest to its durability over time, but the Restrap Saddle Bag Holster is holding up well so far and definitely feels very sturdy. And it’s one of the classier-looking bags out there to boot.
Bar Bag Holster – $73 without dry bag, $86 with dry bag
Also a stiff chassis for holding a dry bag up to 14 liters in volume, the Bar Bag Holster is made of the same durable Cordura as the Saddle Bag Holster and includes similar easy-to-use magnetic buckles.
It affixes to the bars via two nylon straps and buckles. Two rows of daisy chain on the backside of the holster allow for additional attachment to the bike if necessary, but BYOStrap, as one’s not included. I do like that the daisy chain allows for customization, as not all setups will need a third contact point, and when they do, there can be a lot of variation in fit and configuration.
The holster also includes a magnetic attachment system for an add-on food pouch, which Restrap sells separately for $27.
The holster itself and mechanism for holding dry bags and other luggage worked without any issues. The straps that hold the holster together and the dry bag in place didn’t come loose at all, and I liked that they have a strip of Velcro that wraps up the excess to avoid dangling.
However, the double straps that attach to the bars did begin to loosen from time to time on rougher terrain. Restrap recommends doubling the straps back, but I did this and they still found a way to work free a little more than I would have liked. I ended up alleviating the issue by just tying the ends off, which was a fine solution.
Frame Bag – $86 (size large)
Restrap’s frame bags come in three different sizes and three corresponding price points. A chart on the website will help you figure out which bag to choose, and I would advise that you use it. The size large bag was quite long and just barely fit on the large frames we tried it on (and was even too big for some others).
The frame bag is made with the same Cordura material as the holsters and includes a waterproof zipper in either side. The inside features a mesh divider pocket to help keep stuff organized, which I found to be helpful for finding small items when I needed them.
The bag affixes to the frame via similar rubberized straps as the ones on the saddle holster, which worked great for keeping the bag in place but were a bit rough on the frame paint. However, an update to the frame bags for Eurobike this year replaces the one heavy rubberized strap on the downtube with two smaller, thinner straps – still rubberized, but seem a bit more flexible and easier on your precious bike.
Dry Bags – $13.50 – $17.50
A dry bag is included when you purchase a saddle holster and is an optional addition with the purchase of the bar holster. You can also buy Restrap’s dry bags separately, which is a nice option in case one needs to be replaced.
Restrap offers dry bags in two sizes – 8 and 14 liters – both of which are fully waterproof and are sized perfectly to fit in the saddle and bar holsters. They feature a roll-and-buckle closure on one side, while the other is flat so that it fits better in the saddle holster. The 14 liter bag also comes with an option for a roll on both sides for easier access to the contents when used in conjunction with the bar holster.
While both holsters that I tested had the ability to hold 14 liters, I ended up with one 14 liter double roll and one 8 liter dry bag. After some experimentation, I settled on using the larger of the two on the saddle, which easily held my sleeping bag and extra layers despite losing a small amount of room due to the double-sided closure. The 8 liter bag filled with miscellaneous items fit into the bar holster along with a separate roll containing my sleeping pad and tarp.
I have nothing but two thumbs up for the saddle holster, which held a decent-sized load securely and was extremely user friendly. While the bar bag holster and frame bag didn’t blow me away, they are still solid pieces of bike luggage that combine functionality, durability and aesthetics (for those who care about such things) into one package that is a choice worth considering for anyone who spends a good bit of time traveling or camping out by bike.Tweet Print
By Jeffrey Stern
All types of ultra-endurance events have caught fire recently, from cycling, to running, adventure racing and everything in between. Adrenaline junkies these days want to go further, faster, climb bigger mountains and head to some of the most remote places on the face of the earth.
Tucked in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, sits Oman, which contrary to popular belief is much more than just a large desert in the Middle east. In fact, Oman has quite the varied terrain from large riverbed oases, stunning coastlines along the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman, the Al Hajar Mountains and yes, a large region of dunes known as the Sharqiya Sands. The tallest point, Jabal Shams (meaning mountain of the sun in Arabic), reaches an astonishing 9,872 feet into the sky. Boasting a diverse mix of African, Arabic, Asian and Baloch cultures, the country is known for wonderful hospitality and is actually incredibly safe for visitors from all around the world.
In ancient times, Oman served as a bustling trade center for commercial activity, the aromatic biotic material known as incense as well as one of the main trade regions for the entire Persian Empire. The infamous sea-silk route even followed along Oman’s coast in the Arabian Sea.
A modern route of a different kind has been devised for 2018, in the form of the first ever self-supported, ultracycling adventure race slated to kick-off on February 28th, 2018 from Oman’s port capital, Muscat. The 621 mile (1,000km) race is the brainchild of BikingMan, a race promotion organization based in France headed by Axel Carion and his love for adventure by bicycle. In 2015, BikingMan founders, Axel and Leticia rode across South America in six months, following the majestic Andes Mountain Range. During their nearly 8,500-mile bike packing journey into some of the most remote regions of South American, they had the experience of a lifetime. Meeting and mingling with locals, befriending strangers on the road and getting lost in the moment. When they returned home, they knew they wanted to share their experience with others, so in 2016 they launched the Inca Divide race.
Wildly successful in the ultracycling scene, the duo wanted to create another event a little closer to home, so BikingMan Oman was born. Aimed at creating a similar experience to the Inca Divide, the Oman race features nearly 30,000 feet of climbing during the 621 miles and must be completed in five days (120 hours) or less. Although it’s called a race because of the time limit and prizes for the top finishers, it’s much more than a traditional race. The focus is instead on connecting cyclists with like minded desires for adventure and exploring new cultures in less-travelled places.
BikingMan Oman will take riders on an unforgettable loop around the country; into the daunting Al Hajar mountains, over the spectacular Jebel Shams Pass, across the Ash Sharqiyah Desert and along the coast finishing and starting Muscat.
For endurance addicts looking for a new challenge with a completely different backdrop, this inaugural ultracycling race in Oman could be the ticket unadulterated fun. At 499€ (approximately $580), your entry fee covers everything from pre-race accommodations, airport transfers, a GPS tracking device, two mid-race base camps, a local SIM card for your cell phone, baggage handling, the after party, race prizes and more. With only 50 spots available, this wild adventure is sure to sell out and shouldn’t be missed by anyone who wants to test their ultracycling fitness and adventure skills on a faraway continent.Tweet Print
Words and photos by Ben Brashear
“That machine there, it’s a bar-tacker and it’ll blast 42 stitches per second through anything,” says Andrew Wracher, co-owner and proprietor of Bedrock Bikepacking Bags. He takes a moment to pause and run his hand through his silver and black hair. “We’ve named it the Honey Badger.” He laughs and holds out a small piece of black webbing that has been tacked with red polyester thread. From the front of the room Joey Ernst, co-owner, says over the top of a walking-foot sewing machine and a pile of seat bags, “Because Honey Badger don’t care whether it’s stitching through webbing or your finger.”
There is a phenomena happening in the current bike market. It is nothing new, but it is the notable resurgence of the cottage industry. It could be said that much of the innovation and even the foundation of the bike market rests upon the heritage of independent builders. Now more than ever it is the independent builder that shapes much of the current industry. And Bedrock Bikepacking Bags is just one of the innovators shaping the current face of the bikepacking world.
Located in Durango, Colorado, Bedrock has been in operation since 2010 and has been helping more and more cyclists approach multi-day rides, tours and endurance races such as the Colorado Trail Race, Arizona Trail Race or the Continental Divide Race. Wracher originally set out to design a frame bag for his personal touring bike and found that there was very little “how-to” information available. He took it upon himself to design his own frame bag and after having good results he chose to share his experience on YouTube.
“The video had a huge number of hits and I realized then that there was potential here. That a lot of people were looking for frame bags and that really was the start of Bedrock Bags,” he said.
From its humble beginnings of YouTube notoriety however, it was the merger between business partners and self-proclaimed “dirtbags,” Ernst and Wracher in 2015 that Bedrock has come into its fullest recognition. The pair also gained exposure when Ernst’s made-to-order 27.5+ built by well-known builder, Todd Ingermanson of Black Cat Cycles, won “Best in Show” at the 2016 National Handmade Bicycle Show.
“It was the perfect partnership. I was designing bags and Joey could go out and be the guinea pig and test each prototype in the field,” Wracher says. “He could give me feedback and suggestions. And, though we don’t use 3D CAD to design our patterns, he is someone whose brain can visualize in 3D like I can.”
In an industry where everything looks basically the same, it really comes down to the minutia, the gritty details, and the “why?” behind any product that distinguishes one company from the next. For Wracher it’s individuation that drives his product design. He says much of which comes down to addressing inherent problems in the current market of bikepacking bags— wagging, sagging, high wear zones, and mounting brackets that are often prone to failure in a crash. He argues that this often requires taking the basic idea of any product into oncoming traffic and turning 180 degrees.
“There is a lot of copying in the industry right now. Take for example the little round stem bags. There are literally, without exaggeration, 25 companies making the exact same thing. Using that as a specific example, we set out to design a bag that would do everything that those bags weren’t or couldn’t do and we came up with a bag that looks nothing like the competition,” Wracher says. “Sometimes I think that we haven’t been copied because people don’t know what to make of what we put out. In a way we have escaped replication by heading in the complete opposite direction.”
It’s not easy driving into oncoming traffic. Take their seat bag for example. According to Ernst it was nine months in the making from its first stages as a working prototype to a finished product. “We started out like a lot of other companies and were utilizing a seat post bracket to stabilize our seat bags but then we realized that if that thing were to break, you’d be toast,” Ernst says, leaning far back into his chair spinning one of the large black plugs in his ear. “So we partnered with Ska Fabrication here in town and came up with an aluminum seatrail bracket that is virtually indestructible.”
It seems theirs is a silent revolution and largely unnoticed by their customers. And frankly, that’s what Wracher and Ernst are shooting for. “We were joking the other day, we like it when customers don’t notice our bags. That means the product works and they don’t have to worry about it,” Wracher says.
Wracher continues the tour of the 200-square-foot production room. With three people it’s crowded if you’re not seated at one of the several workstations and so we side-step one after the other down the length of the shop. There are a variety of Juki sewing machines, a large cutting table, endless custom patterns, and rolls of fabric that line the walls—everything that it takes to produce a host of custom bags. “I think we even have a pattern for a 1987 Specialized Rockhopper over here somewhere,” he says over his shoulder to Ernst.
“Yeah, I’ve been collecting frame patterns since the beginning. There are thousands of ’em upstairs,” Ernst says from underneath his flat brimmed ball cap.
Everything appears to have its place— scissors, rotary cutting wheels, logos waiting to be applied. Even the cuttings of red and black X-Pac ripstop sitting next to a finished frame bag for a Cannondale seem to have been deliberately placed. Ostensibly this is the work of the patient and organized geologist and teacher that Wracher once was. “I’m like any Durangoan really. You know, work 57 careers until you find what’s right,” he says.
Ernst on the other hand has, arguably, lived a lifetime in the cycling industry, with more than 20 years of experience having grown up racing cross country and working in bike shops. One day though, he decided that he had finally had enough of all the travel and hustle. “I wanted to settle down. Racing wasn’t doing it anymore for me and my rides kept getting longer,” he said. “I wanted to be out on the trail more and more and it turned from big day rides to racing multi-day rides and that’s when I decided I needed to open Veloution Cycles.”
Ernst is handing over the reigns of his bike shop in order to pour his full attention into growing Bedrock with a new marketing plan and several new partnerships with hand-selected cycling shops around the country. “We used to be six months out for product and we’d run a waiting list and that grew into hundreds of people waiting for our product. We’d finally catch up and have enough product for them and then we’d go live for sales and within hours we’d be sold out again,” Ernst says. “Maybe this year we can have something to sell year-round.”
Though the demand for product is outpacing production capacity and the team is still discerning their plan to keep up, Wracher and Ernst are proud of the high-end product that they are offering and that they can play a role in bolstering, albeit a small portion, the economy. They have employed two military veterans, which Wracher says has been a godsend since sewing and inspection demand so much attention and discipline. “It takes a special type of person to take on that kind of pressure and our two sewers are those type of people. I don’t even have to crack the whip,” Wracher laughs, “they do it themselves.”
It’s hard to foresee the fate of bikepacking beyond the trending upswing that has the market booming but, Ernst and Wracher are not worried. They have a solid understanding that trends will come and go dependent upon how much money the “giants” are willing to spend on advertising dollars. They are confident that there will always be a dedicated niche of distance and touring riders.
“We were here before the sport blew up and with any luck, we’ll be here after the boom dies off. I can see the big corporations being in this for a couple of years and then moving on to the next big thing,” Ernst says. “It’s a basic product and frame designs will always be changing. What will really drive innovation for us is trying to adapt to advancing bike technology.”
That’s the future. Wracher and Ernst say that the immediate goal is to hide out in the dark of the production room with noses to the sewing table this winter and with any luck will be able to emerge into the light. “We’ve sponsored record-setting riders on the CT [Colorado Trail] and tours of New Zealand, Iceland and Alaska,” Ernst says. “And it’ll be nice once we get out for a big ride ourselves.”
By Jeffrey Stern
It’s been coming for a long time. Actually, it’s been happening for a long time, the industry is just finally taking notice and giving it the attention it deserves. Found on the seldom used, often abandoned trails and backcountry roads littered across the globe, where more and more hearts seem to be drifting towards — it’s the convergence of two unique, but similar passions.
Imagine wilderness overnight adventures off remote logging roads in the Pacific Northwest to multi-day epics like the nearly week long Cohutta Cat trip cutting across the state of Georgia, all aboard a bicycle. Be it a fat bike, traditional mountain bike, gravel bike or beefy tire off-road more traditional biking touring setup. It really doesn’t matter. They all help you disconnect and when lying under the stars after each day’s ride, define the one true thing we all want to have in our precious free time. Fun.
Look no further than this year’s Outdoor Retailer in Salt Lake City as a sign of the upward trend of combining these two pursuits. Albeit an odd final show in Utah’s capital with a few bigger brands like Patagonia pulling out, the biking buzz was surprisingly alive. From fat bikes geared toward hunters looking to get more remote in their big game pursuit to bike bag manufacturing companies like Ortlieb displaying new bikepacking bags on gravel grinders, bikes were an evident theme around the showroom floor.
Earlier this month, we even spotted some cool new gear on display for the bikepacking crowd at Interbike. It’s more than evident that both sides are taking notice.
By opening up their marketing minds, outdoor companies like Sierra Designs are realizing there’s an untapped market that can use their sleeping bags and tents. The shift in event expo displays to include bikes in order to appeal to this new customer was evident and real.
And it all makes sense because the natural synergy between both cycling and outdoor activities is the essence of the relationship. A relationship built on experiencing the world, being out in the wild. It’s oftentimes the same person that falls in love with the fresh pine scent smells of an early morning ride through the forest that enjoys waking up with a cold nose and fresh dew collecting on their tent poles after an evening spent in the woods. Logically, the market opens up to wider audience and taking advantage of the mixing of these categories creates an opportunity for many manufacturers on boths sides to consider new partnerships, products and ideas to feed a market that’s been underserved for years.
Since bikepacking requires a smattering of gear from the essentials like kitchen/food, sleeping and shelter to the bike necessities for fixing probable issues miles away from help, bags, packs, odds and ends the sheer number of outdoor and cycling companies that can have a piece of the proverbial (and growing) pie is extensive.
For this fledgling convergence of two industries many of us already adore so much, how can we possibly make our adventures even more enjoyable than a set of affordable and durable set of panniers? Let’s try adding in some timely brewery and beer tasting stops on our next multi-day and the let the good times roll on. Afterall, there aren’t many limitations to the fun we can have on our bikes no matter what gear we may be using.Tweet Print
Everyday Adventure is a monthly column penned by Bicycle Times web editor Helena Kotala about the amazing experiences that can be found close to home.
Devoting several weeks, several days or even an entire weekend to a bikepacking trip can seem like a daunting endeavor at the least and many times nearly impossible, as life responsibilities like jobs, kids, pets and other commitments tend to prevent us from us taking off for days at a time on a regular basis.
But you can get a much-needed escape and have a little adventure in under 24-hours. This concept is now widely known as the Sub-24-hour-Overnight (abbreviated to S24O) thanks to Rivendell founder Grant Petersen and his book “Just Ride.”
The idea? Ride somewhere (as far as you’d like) in the evening, camp out, ride home in the morning in time for work or school or whatever other commitments you have for the day.
The advantages are plenty. You get to pack in an adventure – camping AND two bike rides – into a short period of time. It’s a great way to introduce yourself or a friend to bikepacking and to practice dialing in your setup, packing efficiently, setting up camp and making coffee outside. If you forget a piece of gear or something goes wrong, it’s only one night and you’re a relatively short bike ride away from home or civilization. And you can do it all on a “school night” and not even use precious weekend or vacation time.
Despite all the advantages and the hypothetical ease of execution of the S24O, there are a lot of hangups and roadblocks that get in the way of many people, myself included.
One of the most common is that not everyone lives in an area that is a short bike ride from somewhere to camp. That being said, if you think outside the box, get a little creative and do some research, it might not be as hard as you think to find a spot. Maybe it’s just a friend’s backyard across town or an unassuming county park that allows camping.
Another common hangup is a lack of gear. That was my go-to excuse for a while. Having a full set of bags and packable and lightweight camp gear goes a long way towards making the bikepacking experience easier and more enjoyable. But there are a lot of ways to head out and have fun without all those things, especially for a short trip. Ask around and borrow from a friend. Some bike shops might also offer demo bags and gear. And if all else fails, “run what you brung” and make do (also check out this DIY handlebar roll that’s pretty crafty).
I think the biggest roadblock of all is the mental one. Packing, loading up all your overnight gear on your bike, finding somewhere to camp, pedaling yourself and your gear there and then doing it again in the morning can see like a daunting task. I won’t argue with the fact that it’s easier to just go for a bike ride and then come home, make dinner in a kitchen and sleep in a comfy bed. But the extra effort to try something new and spend an evening outside is something I’ve found to never, ever regret, as has been reinforced by some of my recent experiences.
One of my best friends is fairly new to cycling and only recently started riding more than once every few weeks. She’d never been bikepacking, but was more than game to give it a try. So we turned our planned Labor Day weekend backpacking trip into an overnight adventure on two wheels.
We picked a night that looked rain-free and fairly warm based on the weather forecast, and I went and scouted potential campsites ahead of time. The last thing I wanted to do to a first-timer was make her wander around in the dark trying to find a decent place to sleep. I lent her some bags – she didn’t have enough tire clearance for my extra saddle bag so we went with a rack and panniers instead since we’d be sticking to gravel and dirt roads – and gave her some packing tips. And then we were off.
We rode for a few hours to reach our campsite, winding from my house through farmlands and eventually into the State Forest where we set up camp, made a fire and ate dinner while enjoying the sounds of late summer insects and the occasional owl.
Morning brought an eerie but beautiful mist hanging in the forest as I made camp coffee before packing up and rolling out. The sun was shining, the temperature rose quickly and we enjoyed another few hours of riding, taking a meandering route home. We arrived back at my house 21 hours after we’d left, an entire adventure packed into that time.
My first bikepacking trip of the year was in early spring and on a weeknight, an evening a little colder than I would have liked for sleeping outside. But I have a winter bag so I figured I might as well put it to use. My husband and I pedaled 30 miles or so in a horseshoe shape to our campsite, arriving after dark and after witnessing a breathtaking sunset. We spent the night, woke up early, decided to forego coffee and hustled the 10 miles home in less than an hour, arriving in time to start work at 9. That trip is burned into my brain as one of my favorite memories of the past year, and it took place in about 16 hours.
So give it a try. Identify the problems that are keeping you from going on an overnighter and think of creative ways to address them. Chances are, your excuses will begin to dwindle and you’ll soon be headed out for an S24O of your own.
Want to tell us about your experiences with bikepacking, micro-adventures and sub-24-hour overnights? We’d love to hear from you! Post in the comments or share your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.Tweet Print
Here are a few random tidbits we found on our second day of roaming the floor at the last Interbike in Vegas:
Pearl Izumi says that the Versa line is “bike clothing specifically made for nothing specific,” meaning that it was designed for riding but bridges the gap between road, mountain and urban styles and is casual enough to wear around town and not look like you just rode your bike. The lineup includes short and long sleeve shirts, quilted hoodies, jackets, baggy shorts, long sleeve pants, a tank top and liner shorts in both men’s and women’s styles. The fall pieces are available now, while the other items will be rolling out in the spring.
Pinhead is an anti-theft system for the entire bike, including locks for your components as well as your frame. Options include quick release and thru axle wheel locks, seatpost collar locks and headset locks. When you buy a Pinhead lock, you’re given a special key code that can then be used to make duplicate or replacement keys, and one key can be used to unlock all the locks on your bike, even if you buy them all at different times. Locks can be bought separately or in the complete package for $160.
The iOmounts Nomad is a magnetic mount designed for bicycle handlebars to keep your smartphone handy if you’re using it for navigation or otherwise need it in a visible location while riding. Stick one side of the magnetic mounting system on the back of your phone case or whatever else you want to mount (GPS, bluetooth speaker, etc) and strap the other side to your bars. The strap mount fits anything a half inch to two inches in diameter and the magnets are definitely seem pretty strong (I tried to pull them apart on the showroom floor and barely could). The Nomad retails for $55.
Osprey really stepped up their duffel bag game this year with the addition of two different families of bags – the Transporter series and an organizational series that consists of the Trailkit, Snowkit and Bigkit. The Transporter bags are designed so that you can just throw everything inside and go, while the other three offer more organizational pockets. All these duffels can also be used as backpacks and at first glance seem to be very durable and water resistant.
Road Runner Bags are all handmade to order in Los Angeles and cater to messengers, commuters and bikepackers. The company creates a diverse line of products ranging from hip packs to backpacks to bags that can mount just about anywhere on your bike. Most of its bags are constructed from heavy duty cordura but it also uses X-Pac (same material as what is used on bags like Revelate Designs, for example) as well as other materials on occasion. Bag colors can be customizable when you order.
Arsenal Cycling launched recently with a set of synchronized lights that can be attached to multiple places on your bike or person to help motorists gauge distance and aid in visibility. The set of four lights (three red and one white) are connected via bluetooth-like technology and if you change the blink pattern or turn one light off, they all change with it. The full light set comes with several different mounting options and a charger that allows you to charge all four lights at once with one USB port and retails for $150.
Inspired by the 71% of the planet covered by water, Blackburn Design created Water Cycle, a new film project that explores the relationships that cyclists have with the world’s most abundant resource.
The first chapter, River, follows avid fisherman and hunter Brian Ohlen on a bicycle journey down the Pacific Coast from Canada to Mexico fishing for Steelhead. Brian combines his passions for cycling and fishing by loading his waders, tackle and rod and setting off down the coast in the dead of winter, the best time for Steelhead fishing. He faces nearly constant rain, snow and ice for the chance to spend but a moment with these elusive creatures. Along the way, he found some beautiful quiet moments and simple joys that life on a bike can bring.
“The goal of this project is to recognize how important water is in our lives, especially as recreationalists. Brian’s trip is only one example. Active stewardship is necessary to preserve water and our access to it,” says Robin Sansom, Blackburn Design’s Director.
Public access to rivers and streams is important. As Ohlen states in the film, “if we ever lost that access or lost our public lands, it would be the death of the West.” Blackburn has partnered with Backcountry Hunters & Anglers to help protect public river access. Visit the Stream Access Pledge for more information.
River was directed by Dominic Gill of Encompass Films while filmmaker and photographer Brian Vernor is providing artistic direction for the entire Water Cycle project.Tweet Print
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR), which currently runs 2,493 miles from Banff, Alberta, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, is the longest mountain bike route in the world and it’s about to get longer.
Four hundred new miles of mapped route will connect Jasper National Park to the north as well as the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) headquarters in Missoula, Montana (via a spur of the GDMBR). The ACA is also working on a new set of guidebooks and maps for the entire route that are more user-friendly and comprehensive.
While the GDMBR is well-known for the Tour Divide endurance race, it’s a route for all levels of cyclists, from pros to families on summer vacation.
You can help make the expanded route a reality by making a donation here.
Donations will not only help make the 400 new miles of GDMBR a reality, but they’ll also go towards a new 1,400-mile off-pavement cycling route in Arkansas.
Have you ridden the GDMBR? What are some other off-pavement cycling routes that you’ve ridden? Let us know in the comments!
Kona Gravity team rider Graham Agassiz and Kona Canada’s resident fishing enthusiast Matt Stevens head out to do some fly fishing in British Columbia on the new Kona Remote.
What do you think about e-bikes for applications like bikepacking? Let us know in the comments!Tweet Print
By Gabriel Amadeus Tiller
This is my first time in Mexico. We have no plan. No itinerary. No goals and no heart rate monitors. The only statistic we’re collecting on this trip is “number of tacos consumed.” (Final tally: 111.) To give you an idea of how prepared I am I didn’t bring a tent. Or pants. What we do have, though, is roughly a month before we need to be back through the Tecate border crossing into the U.S. and then on to our desk jobs.
The Baja Divide is a 1,700-mile dirt touring route that meanders the length of the Baja California Peninsula on Mexico’s Pacific coast. The route was conceived by Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox as a “gift to the bikepacking community.” Nick and Lael are a couple of snowbirds from Alaska who have been cycling the world for years. They’ve been spending the winter in Baja for the last few seasons now, riding up and down the peninsula exploring every unmarked rutted road they come across—and as far as I can tell, they’re all unmarked and rutted.
The amount of effort and detail they’ve put into developing the maps, the guide and other route resources has allowed me to have a cavalier attitude on this trip. I’m usually the one stressing about dead-end roads and resupply logistics, but instead I’m planning on fine-tuning my tan and following the 80 or so knobby tracks in front of me.
I’m no stranger to camping with my bicycle, but riding with a group of almost 100 new faces on this first running of the Baja Divide is refreshingly exciting. I enjoy solitude and solo discovery, but I’ve forgotten what a joy it is to see others experience and share new wonders for the first time. Nick and Lael have gone to great lengths to discourage competitive attitudes during the group start and even partnered with Advocate Cycles and Revelate Designs to give away a bikepacking “scholarship,” including a completely kitted out bikepacking rig, to one lucky female rider, Lavanya Pant.
The result of this intentional inclusivity shows. Nearly half the riders on this trip are women and experience levels vary widely throughout the group. We’re riding with people who have never bikepacked and some who are brand new to mountain biking. Ages range from 19 to 60. Some are riding fat bikes and some have full suspension bikes or BOB trailers. For some,this is the hardest trip they’ve ever done, while for others it’s just one of many this year. But the thing we all have in common is that everyone is having an excellent time. The moral support, the combined knowledge and the reality that we’ve all got each other’s backs makes pointing our tires down a steep rocky slope or along a 120-mile section without water much less intimidating.
We are all mesmerized by the landscape of Baja. Sitting around the campfire each evening we sip Tecate, grill tacos and excitedly recount the day’s curiosities. The geology is rugged and varied—at one point the San Pedro Martir mountains rise up to 10,000 feet above sea level. This uniquely long peninsula has many distinct climate pockets: The southern tip is obviously warmer and drier, but the Pacific coast also happens to be starkly cooler and damper than the Gulf of California just a short distance to the east. This geography lends itself to some fascinating botany. The north has high elevation pine forests, but as we move south the landscape is dominated by giant saguaro cacti, crooked ocotillos and the Martian cirio that is endemic to the Baja Peninsula.
Winter rains have briefly filled the dry arroyos and encouraged the desert to bloom. A thin layer of verdant green appears where there was only sand before. In a throe of life, the giant armored century plants shoot up towering stalks with pennants of golden fur only once before they collapse and perish. The ocotillos bleed red droplets randomly along their leafed stalks and the cirio trees spurt comical yellow tassels from their tips.
And then, too abruptly, our trip comes to an end. We realize it’s time to start making our way back north toward responsibility. We share slightly jealous goodbyes with our newfound friends who continue onward for who knows how much longer. Looking at the map, it becomes apparent we didn’t even make it half way. This is great news to us. It means we get to come back another year—or two if we’re lucky—and finish the job.
Words by Jeffrey Stern, photos by Dylan Jones
One of the best things about mountain biking is planning for the excitement and adventure of escape. Escape from the real world, into mountains and pastures unknown that can lead to any number of amazing experiences. Simply planning an overnight trip of any magnitude stirs the pot of thrill and prepares you mentally for exiting the confines of society: roads, cars, traffic and often times unnecessary business.
Heading off into the wilderness often requires a bit of planning and preparation, but you likely have most of what you need in the form of camping and biking gear ready and waiting for your use.
On a recent overnighter deep into the vast Los Padres National Forest and to the summit of Big Pine Mountain, we packed smart for what were fairly extreme conditions for an early summer trip. Highs jumping into the 90s during the heat of the day and lows with windchill dipping into the 30s at night required us to bring enough gear to be ready, while not overloading our mountain bikes. After a few dozen trips, we’ve whittled down the essentials to one list divided into three sub-groups.
Cooking/Food/Water – bring more than enough food
As a general rule of thumb, bring one extra meal and a couple extra snacks more than you think you might need. If you’re planning to spend 36 hours out in the wild (one night), bring another meal and a few extra energy bars of your choice just in case it turns into a two nighter. Same goes for water, especially in the hotter summer months. It’s easy to run through double the amount of liquids when carrying an extra heavy load. And always, always bring a water filter of some kind. For cooking, we like lightweight gas-fueled portable stoves similar to the Jetboil. A lighter, Swiss Army type multi-tool and double-sided utensil are must haves as well.
Clothing/First Aid – plans for the extremes
Conditions change quickly in the outback, so you need to plan accordingly. Beyond your standard riding gear, always bring an extra base layer and a lightweight, packable jacket for warmth and as well as a rain shell. A second pair of socks, long finger gloves and beanie to keep your head warm if the temperature really dips is a great idea too. Comfortable, warm pants and a compact set of shoes will protect your legs and feet in the evenings from unwanted bug bites or while walking around camp. A simple first aid kit with small bandages, tape, disinfectant, antibiotic ointment, needle/thread, bug spray and tweezers will cover most of your basic injuries. Don’t forget the ever important sunscreen either; a bad sunburn can dehydrate you and put you into a more serious conundrum than you might think.
Bicycle Maintenance/Bags – don’t forget the little things!
Included in your standard (pump, tube, multi-tool, chain link, patch kit, tire boots and irons) flat kit should be an extra tube, extra chain link, extra wheel spoke/nipple, an extra set of shoe cleats, electrical tape, a few random sized hex bolts, and zip ties – all good things to have incase you get in a pinch. On the bag front, we like to carry small backpacks because of their water carrying capacity, but these can be easily replaced with a frame bag if you’re not in too technical of terrain and running a hardtail. A larger seatpost bag should carry most of your bigger volume gear and a smaller handlebar bag can carry items you might want to get to quickly.
Falling outside these three sub-groups, but just as important are lights, a portable USB recharging stick and if you’re really going off the grid consider investing in a satellite GPS device. Don’t forget your lightweight tent (or hammock), sleeping bag and pad so you can enjoy your rest in comfort before heading home the next day!
By Adam Newman
Handlebar Pack -$130
In the name of simplicity and secure attachment, Ortlieb chose to design its handlebar bag to hang below the handlebars, where it stays put and doesn’t slip or bounce, rather than trying to cantilever it out in front. The laminated, ripstop nylon waterproof body has a roll-up closure at each end and Ortlieb lists its volume at 15 liters. I found it plenty large enough for a lightweight solo tent and sleeping bag. There are a myriad of ways to attach things on the outside too, beyond just the accessories pouch. The compression straps can hold extras like your tent poles or a second stuff sack, and there are some bungee cords on the exterior for a jacket. The attachment system is very secure, with a few foam spacers to make room for your brakes, shifters and cables. A super heavy-duty strap secures it in place and a secondary buckle strap cinches it up tight. The build quality is worth a shout-out, as I never once feared tearing a seam with repeated stretching, pulling, crashing, stuffing and smashing.
Accessories Pack -$75
If you go with the Ortlieb handlebar pack, you should really pick up the Accessories pack too. It attaches with the compression straps from the Handlebar pack and is big enough for several days worth of food. Having my snacks right on the handlebars made them easy to access, and when I needed to hang a bear bag at night I simply detached it and strung it up tire combo in here. It can also be attached to the handlebars on its own as a daypack, or worn around your waist or shoulder with the included waist strap.
Seat Pack -$160
Here Ortlieb chose to refine a common design rather than reinvent the wheel. The volume is adjustable from 8 liters to 16 liters, and it attaches to the seat rails with two quick release buckles and to the seatpost with heavy-duty Velcro straps. At the base of the bag, extending about a third of the way from the seatpost, is an internal cowling that gives it shape and keeps it from bulging. A really cool feature is the addition of a purge valve, which lets you squeeze all the air out of it after it’s been rolled. Getting the seatpack to work well comes down to proper packing. I found that one big item like a sleeping bag worked better than a collection of small items like clothing. Also you need to make sure the contents are stuffed firmly into the bottom of the pack, because otherwise you’re guaranteed to suffer from Droopy Butt Syndrome. After a few days of struggling with it sagging I took better care with packing and the results improved. I also started putting my tent poles in there for more support. One curious design quirk is that even with the bag nearly full I was maxing out the adjustment straps that secure the roll- top, seen here just above the Ortlieb logo. They’re also impossible to tighten while buckled, which makes adjusting them a chore.
Ortlieb has always built some insanely bomber gear, and after working these bags hard I have no doubt they’ll last a while. I would definitely recommend the handlebar pack and accessories pack for their simplicity and carrying capacity. The seat pack, on the other hand, faces much stiffer competition (intentional pun) from designs with rigid frames. It requires careful packing and its massive size is a blessing and a curse. It’s a solid choice but not a home run.
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’Brien
“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.