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The Birth of blackriver

Words by Jeffrey Stern. Photos via blackriver. 

On a brisk spring morning we navigated our rental van from Chicago to Madison in search of the best charcuterie we could find, rolling country farm roads and more information on the mythical blackriver—the ultimate place to create, find and share cycling experiences, or so we’d heard. We pointed our GPS to a local bike shop that was once a train stop and headed to the basement to share a beer and learn the basics of the blackriver idea with Tobie DePauw and Eric Lynn. That first meeting last May sparked my interest in what these two were cooking up and I’ve wanted to learn more since. After gaining traction over the last few months with retailers and partners around the country, I sat down again with Tobie to learn a little more about his journey in the bike world, his love for adventure and how connecting with Eric led to this story-forward route sharing interface for cyclists less concerned with competition and more interested in sharing their journeys with others.

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Can you tell me about your history with the bicycle, from a kid, to where you are now?

My experience with bikes as a kid was pretty typical; plywood jumps and trips to the pool. My strongest memories associated with bikes are memories of places they took me.

A defining experience was the first time I rode my bike to high school as a freshman. We lived in the next town over so I always had to take the bus. I decided to try riding my bike instead. To avoid riding on busy roads, I rode a few miles through private property on hobo singletrack. There was this delicious element of danger to it. I distinctly remember putting my foot down when I arrived and feeling a rush of liberation. The school was maybe nine miles away, but as a kid it felt like crossing a continent. I couldn’t believe that I had translocated myself that whole way. After that year, bikes faded into the periphery until I started riding in college, mostly as transportation. At the time I also started riding some trails, too.

How did blackriver come to fruition?

Eric and I met in Madison a few years ago when blackriver was just beginning to take shape outside of his head. He knew there was going to be a component involving bike shops and brands, so he was looking for retailers who might be interested in the concept. At the time, I had been running a bike shop in rural Illinois for over a decade. We had built a strong community there and the shop had become a destination for a number of unique brands. I was also hosting a number of gravel events through a non-profit I co-founded called Axletree. Eric had heard about me from a friend so we met for coffee and spent the better part of an afternoon talking about blackriver.

Eric had resigned from his role as Senior Creative Director after 20 years at Trek to start something of his own. He decided to create a digital platform where people could easily share routes with pictures and stories, and build community around riding experiences.

The potential of the platform was clear to me right away. As a retailer, I was constantly juggling social media, blogs, email, route sites and other platforms in order to get information out. It was exhausting, but I knew that I had to offer my customers more than just products to stay relevant. blackriver was as a route library, event calendar and social network rolled into one. It would be a one-stop-shop for people looking to get involved.

Just over a year later, I had resigned from the shop and moved my family to Madison to help Eric launch blackriver. I saw the opportunity as a continuation of the arc I was already on, gathering people together around bikes and working with independent retailers.

Eric and I work well together because we have fairly different professional backgrounds but we overlap on the right things. He worked from the bottom to the top in a big corporation as a designer and I worked as a retailer and a promoter on the front lines. We both believe bikes have an incredible ability to improve personal well-being and bring people together.

The first time you told me about blackriver you called the platform “story-forward route sharing.” What does that really mean to you as a rider?

When I’m looking for a good place to ride, I want to see photos and read about it, not just see how fast people are riding. By putting the story forward, people get a much better idea what the experience will be like on that route. blackriver is a paradigm shift away from metric-focused riding platforms and towards sharing experiences. It’s about sharing more than just numbers and lines. blackriver is a canvas, not a calculator. If you find a calculator, you’re going to punch numbers into it. A canvas is a place to create and communicate. We make it easy for people to track their rides, add images and anecdotes and share their riding experiences.

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What about Blackriver will help set it apart from other sports driven social networks?

blackriver is differentiated by our emphasis on story over speed and a unique relationship with retailers and brands. It’s a resource for riders, regardless of category or skill level, who want to find a good place to ride their bikes. Everyone knows bike shops are a great source for local route knowledge, so we’re offering shops and brands a simple and effective way to tout that knowledge and encourage people to ride. One of the best things a bike shop can do to encourage new riders is suggest safe routes.

We’re also redefining the concept of challenges. blackriver’s patent-pending technology allows local retailers and brands to host route-specific challenges and offer rewards to riders who complete them. When a rider completes a challenge, they receive a notification to visit the retailer or notify the brand to redeem their reward.

You’ve ridden your bike in a lot of spectacular places. Do you see blackriver as providing the opportunity to share those experiences and inspire others to pursue their own?

That is the exact reason blackriver exists. A friend of mine called it an “Inspiration Engine,” which is a term I like quite a bit. If I see a route I like on the platform, I can save it to my Planned Rides and navigate from it when I want to. Or I can jump it to a GPS device. I can follow people and see where they ride, along with their stories.

It’s also great for traveling. If I’m planning a trip to Portland, I can search the Classic Routes there and decide where I’m going to ride based on what the locals say are the best routes. And if I’m inspired by a route, I’m going to share my own ride story when I ride it and potentially inspire other riders.

Tell me about your trip up the west coast last year. What did you learn? Who did you meet? What was the perception like on the ground, in the shops?

That was a great trip. We met with a number of incredible shops and brands along the way; Golden Saddle, Omata, Topanga Creek, Huckleberry Bicycles, River City Bicycles, Benedicto, Path Less Pedaled, and more. We were able to share our vision and hear what features people wanted. The reception was really encouraging. The general consensus was that the time was right for a platform that was open and encouraging to riders of all styles.

Where do we draw that line of quantifying everything we do and just enjoy the ride or experience for what it is?

On a ride, technology should enhance, not inhibit, the experience. Rhys Newman told me that when they were designing the Omata One, they wanted to create a device that didn’t compete with the “primary experience” of riding. I really appreciate that philosophy.

Headspace is valuable realty. If I’m worried about my speed or a segment, with my eyes anchored to a computer, I’m distracted. I’m not enjoying my ride. The metrics can be consuming, especially when the id is pricked and pride is at stake.

But if I’m riding along with my head up, thinking about what I might want to share about the ride, or thinking of other people who might enjoy the route, my head is in a different place. That internal experience is very different from racing ghosts.

What is it that you enjoy most about the ride?

I do my best daydreaming on the bike. I can point to multiple creative and cognitive breakthroughs I’ve had while riding. It’s really good for my head.

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Where do you see blackriver in 5 years?

Our mission is to share every great cycling route in the world, so we’re going to continue to build the best platform for riders, retailers and brands to share routes and build community. In five years, blackriver will be the premier digital cycling platform at the nexus of creativity, community, and commerce.

In an era where retailers are feeling the struggle of continued economic woes across the country fed by stiff online competition, having the ability to offer a platform for customers to share bike experiences and engage each other brings increased value to the sales cycle—ultimately and hopefully leading to lasting relationships.

The growth of blackriver is still on the upward trajectory. They are currently rolling out improvements to their patent-pending Challenge technology, so we’ll see partners across the states hosting custom, route specific challenges in their geographic areas to help drive cycling interest. Among this and a feature called RideCards, the blackriver platform is changing and evolving nearly everyday. With so many features to cover, one interview isn’t enough to cover the breadth of all this cycling, social network hybrid platform has to offer. We expect big things from this ambitious duo and look forward to telling more of their story in the near future.

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Wyoming bikepacking: Medicine Bow National Forest

Wyo Bikepacking August-9

Sometimes, you need a full year to plan an overnight.

Last fall, my uncle William and I had succeeded in talking each other into an off-road bikepacking trip (and acquiring a bunch of cool new gear), so he went out into Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest to find a route and a camping spot. I eventually had to cancel and the trip—which would be a first for each of us—was shelved.

At the end of July, we finally made it happen. We started with a shakedown ride, a bowl of my aunt’s delicious homemade chili and a sendoff from my 16-year-old cousin that consisted of an eye roll. Our two-day ride began above 10,000 feet and took us even higher over steep, chunky Jeep roads and along barely-visible singletrack before reaching Heart Lake. We pitched our tents in a field of wildflowers and proceeded to catch up on about 10 years of not seeing each other very much.

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Just one night? One has to start somewhere and one night is absolutely worthwhile. Philosopher Alain de Botton explained in his book “The Art of Travel” that appreciating and holding onto small experiences with nature was an ideal of poet William Wordsworth. Even though two or three days vacation can’t solve all of your problems, they can reside in your mind as a comfort.

The poet celebrated what he called “spots of time.” Those are, essentially, scenes that may have seemed minor in the moment but that nonetheless stick with us, and that we return to in our memories for contentment when everyday life feels crushing. Daffodils moving in the wind; the smell of a stand of pine trees—anything is up for grabs.

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue…
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

— William Wordsworth, re-printed in de Botton’s “The Art of Travel”

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That, to me, is the value of these experiences. Sure, they are fun to share on Instagram, but in thinking back to my first backpacking trip 20 years ago as a comparison, I realize how many times I have called upon that memory and savored it fondly. That is what I know I will do with this trip, and likely every one after, even those that inevitably don’t go well.

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That is the excellence of bicycles: they give us spots of time. Even if you simply ride a couple of miles to work and back every day, it’s a unique moment in your 9-to-5 or equivalent. Even if it’s just a one-night bikepacking outing, it’s a unique break in the regular routine of life.

I read recently (in relation cycling) that, essentially, the only rides worth remembering are the really difficult ones. Nah. Suffering certainly tightens memory’s grip, but so do beauty, camaraderie, relaxation, novelty. And fun. If you spend two days riding a bike with a giant grin plastered irremovably on your face, that ride is probably going to get filed away in a safe, accessible place.

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I may not precisely recall every stream crossing, or how beautiful our tents looked set up in a field of flowers as the light of the sinking sun illuminated them in pinks and oranges, or how silly giddy my uncle and I both were when I busted out a SPAM single in the morning to fry up and share and we launched into a 30-minute conversation about different types of camp stoves and their merits, or how that kid backpacking with his mom brought a soccer ball and we could hear him kicking it in the distance as we rode away from camp.

I may not remember each of those things individually but, collectively, they will engrain themselves as a new spot of time in my memory, hopefully one that I get to hold onto. And, nothing could have motivated me more to go bikepacking than actually going bikepacking. When is my next trip? When and where can I go for two or three nights? How quickly can I start working my way up to an adventure that is classically “epic?” I knew from the first few pedal strokes that this Wyoming trip was just a beginning.

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The outing had the enhanced glow of nostalgia because it took me back to the same mountain range where, at age 10, I followed the same Uncle William and my parents into the woods for my first backpacking trip. Twenty years on, it seems that neither one of us has fundamentally changed all that much, which was somewhat of an unexpected relief. There’s an indescribable comfort at being able to slip into familiarity with a kindred spirit, especially in the process of exploring a shared passion.

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This isn’t where I tell you that you need to go out and do something like I did or that it was a big deal or that it wasn’t a big deal. There’s more than enough finger-wagging in the outdoor media about how you’re not doing it right but someone else is. We meticulously planned a one-night trip and only rode a handful of miles each way. Our way is certainly one way to do it. There are many others.

Define your love of cycling and the outdoors in whatever way you damn well please. That’s something I learned from Uncle William and have always admired. I appreciate that he doesn’t chase trends or exclusive toys. Besides, as he puts it, “if you want only expensive bikes, then you can’t have very many of them.”

So, I suppose I am going to tell you what to do, and that is this: Do what you want.

The Bike

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You can’t talk about bikepacking without talking about the bike. My Surly Pugsley has been a faithful friend now for the last three years and has broadened its usefulness from winter snow machine to adept touring rig.

Following my shakedown trip in Moab, I shod its stock 50-mm rims with 26×2.75 Surly Dirt Wizard tires, swapped in a Jones H-Bar up front and a Brooks Cambium saddle out back and called it good. I don’t yet know how the 100 mm bottom bracket width will affect my knees on longer journeys, but that width offers the benefit of preventing my legs from rubbing a stuffed frame bag.

I was extremely grateful for the stability, cushion and grip of extra-knobby, plus-ish tires paired to the great ride of a steel frame. The new crop of up-and-coming bikes designed around plus tires might seem like just a fad or a phase, but I don’t think I’ll ever do loaded, off-road touring on anything else. I’m sold. Now that some bike companies are turning to 26plus tires for smaller-frame and women’s-specific mountain bikes, I might have more tire options in the future.

The Gear

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Backpack: Water bladder, sleeping bag, rain cover for pack, ultralight wind vest, arm and leg warmers (the only items I did not use), wallet, phone, keys to my truck

Apidura seat pack: alcohol fuel stove and small fuel bottle, small cook pot, collapsible bowl that doubles as a tiny cutting board, titanium fork and spoon, waterproof matches, insulated mug, insulated vest, insulated jacket, rain jacket, small pack towel, spare clothing (socks, underwear, wool hat, warm gloves, baselayer tights, long-sleeve shirt) and camp shoes attached to the outside (Crocs clogs)

  • TIP: Make sure you don’t strap so much on the top of the seat pack that you can’t get your rear back off the saddle on steep, loose descents.

Revelate Designs frame bag: toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, glasses, contact lens solution/case, wet wipes); breakfast (SPAM single, oatmeal, almond butter, instant coffee); dinner (freeze-dried backpacking meal); small bottle of cooking oil; bike-specific toolkit; spare tube; tire pump; ultralight one-person backpacking first aid kit; headlamp; camp knife; small roll of biodegradable toilet paper; pocket-sized sketchbook with pencil

Revelate Designs handlebar bag: one-person tent, ground cloth, tent poles/stakes, sleeping pad, camp pillow (the only thing I’d leave at home next time)

Fork-mounted dry bags (made by Salsa): Left: lunch/snacks (bagel, dried sausage, marinated green olives, dark chocolate-covered raisins, small container of peanut butter, Clif Bar energy food pouch-sweet potato flavor); Right: 1-liter water bottle, SteriPen for water purification

Revelate Designs stem bag: compact-ish camera (Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100), lip balm, DEET bug juice, sunscreen

Did I forget anything? Yep: a small flask of bourbon and an evening hot drink such as cocoa or decaf tea. Luckily for us both, my uncle brought fire starters (cotton balls rubbed with petroleum jelly) since everything around us was wet. A small folding saw would have been welcome for firewood gathering and trail clearing, but not necessary.

 

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Press Camp 2017 gear preview: bike bags, packs and hydration

The nice thing about Press Camp is that most of the companies attending are actually showcasing new product. A few things stood out to us on the pack, travel and hydration sides of things from Camelbak and Thule. Here are the highlights:

Camelbak Quick Stow Flask

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The thing that grabbed my attention from Camelbak was one of the simplest, least-expensive items displayed at Press Camp. The half-liter Quick Stow Flask is simply Camelbak’s bladder material with a lockable bite valve, an insulated option, a hole for hanging the flask to dry and packability. This little thing will fit in all kinds of bag corners. Take it on tour for extra water storage or stick it in a rear jersey pocket: it will be much more comfortable than a bottle as it will conform to your spine and can be more easily stowed when empty.

Available in October, the non-insulated version will sell for $20 while an insulated version (Quick Stow Chill) will sell for $28. Note that Camelbak said not to use the hole in the bottom for clipping the flask to a pack or otherwise; it’s strength was not tested for banging around on a carabiner while full of liquid.

Camelbak Reservoir Updates

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Camelbak’s reservoir line got an update that was about five years in the making. Flow rate was increased by 20 percent thanks to a larger tube and a 45-degree (not 90-degree) angle on the bite valve. The bite valve has a new on-off flow switch that’s self-explanatory. Also updated is the handle, which is easier to hold and slips into pockets on the updated packs for security and stability.

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The best update, in my opinion, is the cap. If you have ever had an entire water bladder leak out all over your car/back/wherever, you know how annoying some of them can be to properly and securely close. Camelbak came up with what they call a “pickle-jar” closure. Just put the cap on, turn and it’s sealed—no fiddling with alignment required. It really is that simple.

Camelbak MULE Lowrider

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Camelbak’s lowrider packs situate water in a squat, square-shaped bladder that keeps the weight lower on your back. Most commonly seen in mountain biking, they’re also comfortable for touring and road riders who like packs for lengthy excursions.

Previously, the lowrider packs were rather small. Camelbak previewed a new, 15-liter Mule LR with 3 liters of water capacity and 12 liters of gear capacity that will retail for $150. That added room means this bag could be a good choice for bikepackers—stick some clothing or a sleeping bag in with your water and free up more room for gear in your bike bags.

These bags have some serious engineering in them. The plethora of adjustment straps, widgets and pockets take some getting used to, so this bag won’t be for those who just want a cavernous, unfussy opening. But if you like to stay organized and keep the bag well-fit to your back, this will be one to check out. A rain cover, tool roll pouch and waist strap pockets are included.

Thule Bike Bags

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Thule is expanding its line of bike bags. In addition to its panniers, Thule is adding a waterproof, roll-top handlebar bag. This one has a clear plastic map pocket on top and a simplified mounting system for attaching the bag to the handlebars.

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The bag easily clips off if you need to take it with you. The mounting system also doubles as an adjustable cell phone holder. A roll-closure saddle bag made of the same waterproof material will also be offered.

 

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A novice goes bikepacking in Moab

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Two years is a long time to daydream about something before being able to make it happen, but I am infamously stubborn and will hold onto desires for unreasonable amounts of time. So it was with off-road bikepacking, which sparked something in me the moment I discovered it existed, but that I didn’t actually attempt until last weekend in Moab, Utah.

Several friends and I have a tradition of going mountain biking in Moab each May. This year, I found myself without a long-travel, full-suspension bike which, at my skill level, is necessary to keep up on technical trails. Instead, I decided to use the trip as my opportunity to bikepack for the first time. Moab is best known for OHV riding, Jeeping (yeah, it’s a thing) and mountain biking, but I found it to also be an enchanting place to pedal for several hours along a remote dirt road.

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The Route

I cheated a bit on this trip—it was more of a shakedown to figure out where and how to pack the bags and to begin to learn the nuances of fully loaded bike handling. I did not actually ride somewhere and camp alone. Instead, I loaded up everything I would have needed for an overnight, pedaled for six hours, then returned to the group site and re-established camp. After one night in a tent, I gave up in the face of rain and high winds and slept in the bed of my truck.

But, hey.

The route I chose was Kane Creek Road up and over Hurrah Pass, which snakes through BLM land southwest of Moab. From town, the road is mostly smooth dirt suitable for gravel bikes and two-wheel drive cars. The farther you push toward the pass, the rockier and narrower the road becomes. Beyond the pass, multiple river crossings and deep, sandy two-track make for slow and steady work. But the remote landscape is jaw-dropping gorgeous, and I couldn’t help but ride with a permanent, appreciative smile.

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Even when I slipped and went down in water up to my neck, even when dust devils swarmed and packed every orifice with orange dirt, even when my front brake gave out and my rear derailleur threw a temper tantrum, I was unfailingly giddy.

How far did I ride? That’s what everyone wanted to know when I rolled back into camp muddy, bruised and grinning. I honestly have no idea. I rode for a solid five hours during my six-hour trip, taking one rest break to enjoy a hearty lunch, another to dry out a bit after slipping into the river and a final stop to brew a cup of coffee (since I was carrying all of that crap I figured I might as well use it). Otherwise, I have no idea and I’m OK with that.

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The Bike

The steed I called up from my stable is the venerable Surly Pugsley which—to be clear—is a personal bike that I spent my own money on. As much as I appreciate a modern gravel grinder or finely tuned all-mountain bike, the Pugsley’s classic geometry and steel frame are my Goldilocks. It’s also unpretentious, easygoing, indestructible and versatile, which is how I happen to fancy myself.

We get along smashingly, the Pugsley and I, so much so that it’s my only named bike. It’s well-known to friends as “Bluecifer,” which is what we Coloradans call the creepy blue horse statue with glowing red eyes that rears over Denver International Airport. The understanding that Bluecifer and I have developed over our years together made it the obvious choice for my first bikepacking trip.

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Throwing a leg over the loaded bike for the first time wasn’t without trepidation. I didn’t bother to bring a scale to the desert, but my guess is that the setup weighed close to half of my body weight. And yet the first pedal stroke was unremarkable. Each one after that, along an increasingly technical stretch of two-track, was no less familiar. I found myself surprised that the ride wasn’t awkward or heavy-feeling, but rather normal. My only complaint was a wish for more hand positions, as I simply used a traditional mountain bike handlebar setup.

Somehow, a Pugsley rides the same loaded as it does unloaded. I mean that as a compliment: The handling and predictability were largely unchanged by heavy, amateurishly packed gear draped all over its bits. I didn’t have to re-learn how to maneuver nor did I feel I was losing any feedback from the machine. I’m sure I’d love any of Surly’s made-for-loaded-adventuring bikes, but Bluecifer got it done without complaint. While it remains to be seen how a Pugsley’s wide Q-factor will affect my knees on multi-day trips, I am so far well pleased.

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The Gear

As a longtime backpacker, I glibly assumed I had enough lightweight gear and a good understanding of packing to nail this adventure. Instead, I struggled to cram everything into the bike bags on my size small frame, despite regularly seeing people who travel with far less equipment. The biggest offender was my sleeping bag, which doesn’t compress well. Finding a place to stash it left me scratching my head, and I ended up carrying it in a backpack along with a water bladder and my rain gear. Since I almost always ride with a hydration pack, I barely noticed it.

Up front I hauled my tent, extra clothing and sleeping pad in the handlebar bag. The top tube bag carried a sack of dark chocolate almonds, a camera, lip balm and a knife that I purposefully clipped in a spot visible to anyone who stopped to talk to me. In the frame bag, I loaded heavier items such as bike tools, hand pump, spare tube, sunscreen and food. The saddle bag carried my cooking equipment, eating utensils, headlamp and toiletries. I forgot the first aid kit and camp shoes, which I probably would have put in dry bags attached to fork-mounted cages.

A note about tires: I chose four-inch Surly Nates for this trip, knowing I’d be riding over a combination of deep-ish sand and rocky terrain. A few people chastised me for such a large, heavy choice, but on a loaded fully rigid bike I appreciated how the plush tires tamed the ride, floated through the sand and gripped tenaciously on steep climbs. I’m glad that I didn’t focus too much on weight weeny-ism, but rather sought to be practical and realistic.

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Lessons Learned

  • Olives: I brought along a small packet of seasoned, pitted green olives and their briny tang was a delightful snack. In other words, treat yourself. Dry goods are nice because they’re lightweight, but too much of them can be demoralizing, especially in a desert landscape where you always feel parched.
  • Distribute soft things among metal and plastic things, or else the rattling of your cup against your fuel canister will drive you nuts. Also, think about what you might need to access during the ride and pack accordingly. Physically, it’s not a big deal to remove everything from one bag to get to your coffee canister but, mentally, it can be excruciating.
  • Be aware of your personal limits. Know your strength level, ability level and what you can expect from your body, which will determine how far you travel outbound, how fast you can ride and when you know you can push through something or should stop and rest. I ended up being under-ambitious on this first outing (I easily could have ridden farther and/or faster) but that’s not a bad thing in an area with zero cellphone reception.
  • Know some beyond-basic bike maintenance for peace of mind, rather than catching the “it won’t happen to me” disease. After an endless string of silty river crossings, I had to tinker with Bluecifer’s squealing, gunked-up mechanical disc brakes. I let the rear derailleur persist in its misery until I got back to camp but, had I been spending the night miles from my car, I would have needed to deal with it that evening.
  • Wave and smile at everyone. It immediately diffuses any potential annoyance that other users (especially those with engines and go-fast agendas) have to share the road/trail with you and your lumbering load. I quickly learned that moto riders raise a balled fist to one another in greeting, so I started doing it, too. I also pulled off to the side of the road for larger Jeeps and four-wheelers, allowing them to pass comfortably.

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Otherwise, I found bikepacking to be not a big deal. By that, I mean this: if you are a moderately-competent bike handler, are experienced with some form of camping, have at least half your wits about you, possess a respectable fitness level and can do some pre-planning, then you can bikepack with relative ease. Also, take the advice my winking friends left me with before I embarked: “Make good choices.”

The biggest revelation I came away with was that bikepacking is a damn good time. Sure, nothing went disastrously wrong and returning to a campsite packed with friends, cold beer and a roaring fire made the outing much easier than spending a night in the wilds alone, but every pedal stroke was full of stoke. Attaching a mission to cycling makes it an entirely new experience.

I had to wait two years because graduate school ate up all of my free time. If this is something you want to do, then just go do it.

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“Journeys are the midwives of thought … There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places. Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape.” — Alain de Botton in “The Art of Travel.”

 

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