It was imperative that we stay vigilant against the danger. Our enemy would not discriminate. Young or old, strong or feeble, all were within its sights. It could sink its vicious teeth into our flesh and not release for days or weeks. Few would escape our journey without falling victim to its ruthless aggression.
Our expedition leader and Blackburn’s brand manager, Robin, tried in vain to prepare us for the threat. He gathered us up and spoke in hushed tones.
“It’s important to remember that if you’re not on the trail, you are almost certainly standing in poison oak.”
It was a valiant warning, especially since I’m still scratching two weeks later. I joined Blackburn and its 2016 class of Blackburn Rangers for an introductory ride through the mountains of coastal California. With a little help from Santa Cruz and Big Agnes we escaped from the arid asphalt plains of the San Jose airport parking lot and ascending through sun, wind, mist and fog to a quiet Boy Scout camp perched high in the hills above the city. Tucked beneath the massive evergreens we cooled our heels and warmed our hearts with a campfire and some of Kentucky’s finest.
Blackburn is the kind of brand that doesn’t just spit out products to make a buck. They’re out there using these things—both the employees and the brand’s annual group of Blackburn Rangers. The six Rangers chosen for 2016 will complete some of the most famous bike touring routes in North America. While off-road bikepacking is very on-trend right now, it’s really bike travel of all kinds that Blackburn is promoting, as many of the routes its Rangers travel are entirely paved.
Meet the Rangers
Brian Ohlen – Cody, Wyoming
Brian hails is an avid fisherman and cyclist. He intends to combine his passions and bike-fish his way from Canada to Mexico, in search of the elusive Steelhead Trout.
What is your goal for the route?
“I’d love to catch a steelhead in each of the three states I’ll travel through. Three fish doesn’t sound like much, but those buggers are hard to catch!”
Sorry Laura, this is the only photo of you I took.
Katie Hawkins and Laura Brigham – East Palo Alto, California
Katie, left, and Laura, right, are neighbors in East Palo Alto and decided to apply together to tackle the Great Divide this summer.
What do you hope to get out of this journey?
Laura: “I hope to share the enthusiasm that I have for biking and the outdoors with those on the Great Divide as well as those following from home. I hope at the end of this crazy ‘Canadian gone Mexican’ adventure, Katie and I will leave with unforgettable memories, strong legs, sweet tan lines, and a bunch of awesome new friends.”
Katie: “I see this as a soul-searching adventure for 2 months. I want to be able to get away from my normal 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. job and be on an adventure that separates me from life’s distractions. I want to share my experiences with various biking communities along the route and hope to learn from them, as well.”
Courtney Lewis – Brooklyn, New York
Courtney followed the Blackburn Ranger program for the last few years, and the variety of their backgrounds and approaches were immediate inspiration for her to tackle the same path in her own way. Courtney’s ‘own way’ includes stepping off the bike and hiking nearby summits along the route, and also bringing her dog along.
What do you hope to get out of this journey?
“I’m excited to shake up my routine, and the routines of my friends (and friends-to-be!) along the way. I want to push my limits to get the most out of the time I have, and to learn more about myself.”
Ivan Kilroe – Lancaster, Great Britain
Ivan has a great approach to cycling that is based on sharing beauty and joy with friends that we can appreciate.
Have you traveled by bike in the past?
“In the last year I’ve done a handful of short trips travelling by bicycle and really enjoyed the freedom you feel from carrying everything you need to survive. I’ve definitely got a bad case of ‘outdoorism’ – seeing the sun rise and set everyday, and waking up outside all becomes kind of addictive.”
Photo by John Watson
Christian Ayoob – Watkinsville, Georgia
Christian hails from the robust , but often overlooked, cycling community around Athens, Georgia, and is one of the first Southerners that has been selected as a Ranger.
What do you hope to get out of this journey?
“By the end of this journey, I hope to have collected stories, met as many people as possible, and all around have had fun. Along with doing this, I would love to have a very detailed journal and blog for others to follow and get inspired.”
While the Rangers plan to ride thousands of miles, you don’t need to quit your job and drop off the grid to have a great adventure on a bike. Most of Blackburn’s products are just as useful on a commute to school as they are on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
We also got a look at some of Blackburn’s newest products on the ride:
Blackburn’s unique frame bags ($60 or $65) come in two sizes and are expandable depending on your cargo needs. They’ve been updated with stronger zippers and will soon be available in a limited-edition camo print. The Seat Pack ($120) and Handlebar Roll ($100) will be available in camo as well. All the bags will continue to be available in black.
These little 2Fer lights were one of my favorites. These $25 USB-rechargeable lights have a clip on the back that holds them snug on a loop like you find on backpacks, or on the included stretchy strap. The name derives from their ability to run with white or red LEDs so they can go front or back.
The new Switch Mini multi-tool is a bit of a crossover between something that stays packed away with your bike stuff and your at-home tool kit. There are four pieces with a tool at each end that can be held either perpendicular or inline with the handle. The rounded ends make it useful when working in tight spaces where you can’t hold the tool perfectly inline with the bolt. It includes a 2.5 mm, 3 mm, 4 mm, 5 mm, 6 mm, T25 Torx, T30 Torx and a flat head screwdriver that all pack away in the included case, with room to spare for an ID and a couple bucks.
My favorite item introduced was the new Chamber HV floor pump ($80), the highlight of a whole new line of floor pumps. Designed for big tires, it has a high volume piston and a HUGE gauge that only goes to 50 psi. Some trick features include a bleed valve in the head for precise pressures, a bottle opener (natch) and a 31.8 mm clamp for the handle that lets you bolt on an old set of handlebars for some custom flair.
Photos by Sven Martin.
Santa Cruz is best known for its mountain bikes, including the legendary V-10 downhill bike, but it has dabbled in the road and cyclocross markets as well, most notably with the legendary Stigmata ‘cross bike. Last week Bicycle Times got a sneak peek at the return of that bike along with a few new mountain bike models.
The bikes were introduced on the South Island of New Zealand, perhaps the most picturesque place I’ve ever visited, and a warm respite from the bitter cold back at Bicycle Times HQ. Our guides for the week were Anka and Sven Martin, who get the eternal summer every year, splitting time between the race circuit in the Northern Hemisphere and the rest of the year down south. They also somehow find the time to run HouseMartin All Mountain Adventure guide service, and I’d be happy to recommend them.
On to the bikes….
About a decade ago Santa Cruz released the Stigmata and it became an instant favorite. Long after it ceased production Santa Cruz still received regular requests for frames and sponsored riders like Steve Peat were still riding their old Stigmatas for training.
The new Stigmata is full carbon fiber with all the modern standards, including a first for Santa Cruz, a press fit bottom bracket shell (we are as shocked as you are). All cables are routed internally and in true race bike style, there are no fender or rack mounts. Tire clearance is generous, with room for a 41 mm tire, so this could be a hell of a dirt road bomber as well.
After lunch in Nelson, we all headed about an hour out of town to stay at the Kimi Ora eco resort located inside the Kaiteriteri Mountain bike park. A small group of us took a quick rip on the Stigmata to get dialed in for the next day’s ride. Stateside, we know a bike park as ski resort/downhill trails, but this bike park is mostly purpose-built cross country tracks, with a few faster and more technical trails.
We took most of the next day to ride a abandoned mining rail line, ending up at the Rough and Tumble Bush Lodge in the early evening.
Our ride covered a ton of different terrain, from pavement to short bits of technical trail. The Stigmata handled it all in stride, feeling best when pushed hard, as a race bike should. I’m curious to try it with bigger tires, but I was impressed with the stock Maxxis Mud Wrestler 700×33 cross tires. These were set up tubeless on WTB i19 rims, and even at 60 psi they provided decent traction, and zero flats. Props to Santa Cruz for shipping these bikes (and most all of its bikes) set up tubeless.
I rode the CX1 model, and much like a 1×11 mountain bike drivetrain, I didn’t miss a second ring on my crank. I wouldn’t have minded a smaller chainring than the stock 42, but this is a race bike, and a 42×11-36 sounds like race gearing to me, so I should just HTFU.
Frame and fork will be $2,300, with complete bikes from $3,700 to $6,800. All bikes use SRAM drivetrains and hydraulic brakes.
Highball Carbon 29
We got to sample the mountain bikes on the almost complete Old Ghost Trail. When complete it will be New Zealand’s longest singletrack. More importantly than length, this is a stunning place to ride a bike. It is a 50-mile-long point to point trail that uses old mining trails and rail lines combined with some very modern trail building that snakes around, up and over some seriously amazing mountains.
The Highball Carbon 29 is now 10 mm shorter in the chainstays (430 mm) and longer in the top tube (24.6 in the large I was riding) with a steep 70.5 degree head angle with the stock 100 mm fork. This gives the bike a somewhat high-strung racy feel. Santa Cruz is aiming this bike at the cross country and endurance race crowd, and this geometry should appeal to that class of rider. I swapped out the stock 90 stem for a 70 mm and felt very at home after that.
We also sampled the Highball Carbon 27.5. For the first time ever, I actually preferred a 27.5 hardtail to a the 29er version. The slight differences in geometry ended up with wheelbases that are almost identical, but to me the day was won by the more reasonable headtube angle (69 degrees) of the 27.5. Or maybe it was the dropper post on the smaller wheeled bike? While these hardtails are aimed at the cross country race market, even that is seeing more riders on droppers.
Prices start at $2,800 for the base model to $8,800 for the full XTR/Enve bling bike. Bare frames only come in the CC level, for $1,900. Prices are the same for 27.5 or 29.
I shot a lot more photos than I usually do, but when I looked through my photos and what Sven Martin provided, I thought my readers would be better served with his work. Thanks Sven!
Even pro photographers can’t resist a helicopter selfie: