last August, I was bit really hard by this fringe but increasing popular cycling discipline referred to as bikepacking. For the uninitiated.....these races are typically 300+ miles in distance and 100% self-supported. No crew allowed, no aid stations, no marked course. You get cue sheets and a GPX file. The terrain typically calls for a mountain bike and you end up carrying a lot of stuff with you to be prepared for whatever the route or mother nature might throw at you.
For 2016 I stacked my season with a number of these bikepacking races as well as a few gravel events. My first race of the year was this past weekend in Southern California called
. It was created by a really cool dude named Brendan Collier of
in Idyllwild designed to showcase three distinct ecosystems: mountains, ocean and desert.
It's a bike in a box!
I flew into Irvine a few days before the race and made my way into the sleepy little mountain town of Idyllwild on Thursday morning. This gave me plenty of time to swing by the shop and hang out for a while getting the lay of the land. My bike had arrived there earlier in the week and I was excited to get it unboxed and put together. It was the first time I had shipped this frame and it was a bit of a squeeze getting it in there.....more disassembly that normal required. I found a nice little green space with a picnic table behind the shop and got to work. Within about 45 minutes or so she was ready to go. I took my bike, bags and all the stuff I had meticulously packed in marked ziplock bags into the shop to get everything packed out while chatting it up with other folks doing the same.
One of the coolest things about bikepacking is the diversity in gear. Some people rock full suspension trail bikes, others hardtails. Handlebar bags or seat bags or backpacks. Some use frame bags and others use the front triangle for water bottles. No two bikes are alike and it really expresses a personality. Am I here to go super fast or just to enjoy the ride? You can usually tell.
My ride for this race/not-a-race is a
titanium hardtail with a Niner carbon fork rolling on
Teocalli wheels wrapped in Maxxis Ikon rubber. I had Clay build this frame up last fall after TNGA to be bikepacking specific. Lots of bottle bosses in particular places and the largest front triangle possible given my size. I also had sliding dropouts added to be able to convert pretty easily to singlespeed (either intentionally or an emergency conversion). In industry terms the frame is about a medium plus but the front triangle holds a frame bag designed for an extra large bike. I have owned both carbon and steel mountain bikes in the past and I can say that titanium is the best of both world. Light and laterally compliant like a carbon bike but vertically supple like a steel frame. I love this bike.
Just a teaser for what was to come
After getting my bike all squared away I checked into my room at the
and went out for a quick spin on the course. The first 2.5 miles of the route consisted of pretty steep climbing starting on asphalt leading onto rutted dirt roads. It was a great/horrible way to start a race. It woke your legs up quick and would surely thin the group out a bit. The top of the climb lead out into the first of many fireroads which descended pretty quickly dropping into some really fun singletrack. I only needed a quick spin so I found a way to cut over to hwy 74 and climbed back into Idyllwild.
Getting back in town I cleaned up, made a few adjustments on my bike and headed to the Silver Pines Lodge where the pre-ride meeting/dinner was being held. Something else cool about bikepacking is that they aren't really "races" per se and very loosely organized. This is intentional for a few reasons. One is that it would be very costly and logistically challenging to insure a sanctioned event that crosses so many boundaries. Hence.....these routes are typically put on as a social ride with no cost of entry. Stagecoach asks for a donation from riders that 100% benefits the
. This non-profit group helps bring art programs to local K-8 students.
The dinner at Silver Pines filled the house. There were probably around 60+ riders and family in the house eating a great dinner of pasta, salad and cookies. Lots of cookies. I love cookies. The volunteers from smARTS prepared and served all of the food. After everyone was pretty settled into a seat, Brendan got up and made a number of announcements ranging from a delayed start to 9am, weather conditions, dry spots for water and known dog areas. I was a little bummed about the delayed start as this was just another hour of daylight we were loosing but it was out of anyone's control as the rental Spot trackers were delayed being shipped out of another race in Anchorage. In races like this everyone is required to carry a little GPS tracker device that essentially does two things. First it updates your location periodically on a website called
which gives friends and family a way to follow along. Secondly these trackers have a button on them that sends a kind of SOS signal you can use in the event of a dire emergency. Think mountain lion attack or shattering a femur......not because you ran out of water. Evidently helicopters and seal team six comes in for the rescue. I hope I never have to find out.
After Brendan finished up I snuck out of the lodge and headed back to my room to make final preparations, layout the clothes I'll be wearing for the next few days and pack up my bags. I was in bed by around 9pm and slept like a rock.
Minutes before the start
7:30.....get up. Threw some street clothes on and took a short walk over to
coffee shop to grab a bite to eat. Coffee, two hard boiled eggs and a banana muffin into the belly. Chatted with a few other racers in there doing the same then headed back to the room. Got all kitted out and packed up my bags and threw them in my rental car. I rode over to the Idyllwild Bake & Brew at around 8:30 which is where everyone was nervously milling around. Lots of chatter about gear, the weather, what food are you carrying and fast dudes sizing up other fast dudes. Brendan was busy getting folks that rented Spot trackers all setup and there were the obligatory late comers but amazingly we rolled out right at 9am. If you are a mountain biker, you know that this NEVER happens.
We all rolled out neutrally through town before making a left turn on Saunders Meadow Road next to the Idyllwild elementary school. Outside the school there were ALL of the students cheering us on as we started our journey. A truly awesome send off! Climbing up Saunders Meadow my legs were feeling fresh and I stayed up close to the front of the pack. After pre-riding yesterday I knew that I did not want to get stuck in a bunch of traffic when we hit the fast descent on May Valley Road and then into the singletrack. This opening section of the route was just a big blur. Before I knew it we were on Hwy 371 heading into Anza. I stopped at a gas station really quick to top off on water before making the push into Warner Springs. More asphalt, a truck trail and before I knew it I was in Warner Springs. The cue sheets made mention of a closed gas station that had a spigot that was turned on and I easily found this spot. As I was finishing topping off and eating a bit a few more riders came through including Isaac Chilton and Foon Wong. We chatted for a bit and then got back on route.
Out of Warner we climbed for a bit up Mesa Grande and then dumped out onto Black Canyon Road. This was one of the most memorable sections of the route for me. Foon and I were riding together and saw that the sky was getting a little dark and noticed some sheets of rain ahead. This was predicted and in the forecast so I took the time to stop and throw on my Gore rain jacket. Black Canyon was a really nice and fast 10 mile section of gravel road that twisted and turned through......you guessed it, a canyon (this is a common theme).
Rain continued and the sun went down. The next thing I remember is muddy trails and more muddy trails around Lake Hodges. I had flashbacks to the mud field at
last year. This was way worse. Peanut butter clay clogging everything up. Found my magical stick that I used over and over to scrape mud out of my stays and off of my tires.....praying, praying that I wouldn't rip off my derailleur. Kanza was a pancake flat 3 miles of mud. I have no idea how long the mud section around Hodges was but I was not carrying an 18 pound gravel bike. Oh no.....I was carrying a 40lb MTB with another 40lbs of mud catching a free ride. There were sections that were absolutely brutal but most notable was shouldering my bike and hiking up a 10%+ trail to San Dieguito Rd. I had never been so happy to see asphalt. I pulled out my magic stick (sticks were hard to come by in these parts) and pushed mud out of the moving bits one more time and hit the road. Lots of crunching was going on so I scoured strip malls and gas stations in this upper end suburbia for a solution. No hoses were in sight (probably not common here due to draught conditions) but finally resorted to using a window squeegie thing at a gas station to clean off my chain and cassette.
A little farther down the route the cues talk about a horse track or something. Just go through the gate and go down to the Coast to Crest trail. It was kinda late....maybe about 10:30pm and said gate was closed. There was also a gate to an adjacent trail with a lot of signage that said it was permanently closed. Naturally I ignored the sign and lifted my bike over the gate and then again over the fence into the horse grounds feeling very exposed and criminal. I pedaled down the south fenceline of the park and ran into the end where there was another gate. I could see the Coast to Crest trail but couldn't find access. Behind me there were some horses in stables laughing at me but they did draw my attention to a horsey bath area with a hose a spigot. Considering I was already breaking into this place I figured I might as well steal some of their water to get my bike nice and cleaned up. They were kind enough to even leave a few brushes out to get those hard to reach areas.
Back on a clean bike I looked for an easy fence to hop to get on the Coast to Crest and made my way towards the Pacific. This was an easy multi use trail composed mostly of small crushed California gravel which has always reminded me of kitty litter. Drains really well and best of all.....no mud! The trail dumped out onto Camino del Mar for a few quiet miles of road before a shallow climb up to Torrey Pines and then down into the UCSD campus. I wasn't really sure of what roads, sidewalks or bike paths to take through the college but I just followed the track on my Garmin the best I could. On the south end of campus the route turned onto the Rose Creek Bike Trail which is a really cool urban path cutting through northern San Diego into Mission Bay. I was surprised to see there were no protesters out at Seaworld as I cruised by turning south to zig zag through Sunset Beach. Next turn was onto Hill St which was not just a clever name. It was a very steep paved road that I ended up walking a lot of with very tired legs. The rest of the ride through San Diego was along the harbor which was pretty cool. Lots of empty sidewalks to cruise on and people stumbling out of the Gaslamp district. Some train tracks through National City and then onto the Sweetwater Bikeway heading east.
Once I hit this area I knew I was very, very close to my planned stop for day one. In Chula Vista there was a spot that I found when doing recon that had a few hotels, gas station and a 24 hour Denny's. I rolled into the late night breakfast mecca at 3am and was greeted with a smile. Ordered a massive breakfast plate and what turned out to be the best hamburger I have ever had. Food in hand within 10 minutes and I was off to the Comfort Inn across the street to grab a room. I ate, showered, repacked all of my bags, laid my shoes & shorts on the AC to dry and set a timer for three hours. Once my head hit the pillow, I was out. Just ask my wife.....I can literally sleep anywhere. Get me horizontal and I'm gone.
Ring, ring goes the alarm. I woke up a little stiff but feeling pretty damn good considering I threw down 170ish miles the first day. I ate half of that marvelous hamburger and some fries packing the other half in a ziplock and jamming into my seat bag. Drank a cup of coffee and rolled out back onto the Sweetwater Trail. Just before hitting the trail I ran into Keith Richards-Dinger and chatted with him for a while. This trail suddenly turned very, very suburbia. It was Saturday morning and everyone was power walking in their best Lululemon. Looking like a dirtbag, I really felt out of place without a Starbucks cup in my hand but I did my best to blend in and courteously pass all of the beautiful people.
A cold hamburger never tasted so good
The terrain started to turn up and then shit......more mud. This morning it was thicker than it was the evening before and really demoralizing. I did catch up to a few other riders including Jose Bermudez who I had met on Thursday back in Idyllwild. Sometimes when the going gets tough it is at least nice to have someone to share the misery with. I quickly found another magical stick to poke and scrape the mud from my bike's spinny bits. One thing that is almost always certain with steep trails is that they tend to drain pretty quickly. After the mud near Sweetwater was passed it would be clean sailing from there on out. I honestly don't remember much of this section. I lost Jose and crew when they took a wrong turn and I think there was a really cool old iron bridge but before I knew it I was in Alpine. Second breakfast!
I stopped in a local bike shop and asked them to lube my chain up and was off to Janet's Montana Cafe to get a huge meal in my belly. I asked to sit outside on the patio in order to offend the least amount of people and ordered a massive gravy covered omelet with hashbrowns and a biscuit plus a chicken quesadilla to go. During this race I learned two things about food. Numero uno.....I can eat a big meal and get right back on the bike. I just need to keep my effort easy for an hour or so......something like below 160 watts. Dos......ALWAYS order a second meal that is portable so you can eat on the run. More stops = more time.
The route and cues
Just before my food came out Keith rolled up and came over to sit with me and grab a meal. As a veteran of this route it was great to talk to him, hear about years past and get a little intel on what lay ahead. We finished eating, packed up and made a quick stop at Albertson's up the road to restock on water and some snacks. I remember a very, very steep climb out of Alpine that reminded me of the Dug Gap road climb out of Dalton on the TNGA route. Not much fun on a full belly. A little way down the route we hit the Merrigan Truck Trail which was a really fun doubletrack climbing. We passed Oakzanita Campground which was closed. Supposedly they were going to have some really good food for riders......I'll never know. The sun was starting to get pretty low in the sky as we continued picking up elevation. I knew that once the sun went down and we got over 4000 feet it was going to be cold so I bundled up early with a few layers.
The Lagunas are an area that Wendi and I rode a few years ago when we were in the San Diego area for a conference, so it felt pretty familiar. I think I rode DOWN Indian Creek on a 5" bike and it was a LOT of fun. Going the other way with a 40lb bike was a lot of challenging climbing. It was hard but I really didn't mind it. One thing that Lynda worked into my plan was a good bit of hike a bike practice. Learning different ways to carry your bike and strengthening muscles that you don't use when you are pedaling. At the intersection of Indian Creek and Noble canyon I saw a light. When I got up there Forest Baker was taking a break and we chatted for a bit before I made my way up Noble. He had woken up really early on the day of the start and decided to get a head start on the group around 3:30am. Also turns out he was bit by a dog somewhere near Terwilliger Road.....an infamous canine encounter spot.
The first pitch of Noble was a lot of fun....not terribly technical just a lot of good singletrack. I came to a big intersection and then I got lost looking for the continuation of the trail. The GPX and the maps on my Garmin said to go a certain way but there was no trail. I went round and round for 30 minutes or so but decided to take another adjacent route to get to the top of the canyon and onto Sunrise Highway. By the way.....it was f'ing cold up here! I had put all of my clothes on and was still freezing. Garmin said 36F. Refilled water before getting on the highway then Keith and I kept moving to stay warm. We were on Sunrise for a while before hopping off onto some singletrack and then down Mason Valley Truck trail. This was rough, rough stuff. Steep, very rocky switchback descents. It was about the only time on the ride where I wished that I had a suspension fork. We got close to the bottom and there was a truck parked with a sign that said "Stagecoach 400 BEER". As soon as we pulled up a dude hopped out of the back and offered us drinks and snacks. I really could have gone for a beer but wanted even more to keep moving.
We dumped out onto a road and there was a sign that said "Oriflamme Canyon" and I proclaimed....."Sweet! We're getting ready to go down Oriflamme!". Keith looked at me, shook his head and said "We just went down Oriflamme". They should have really put a sign at the top. Back down around 2000 feet it was starting to warm up a little. The next 10 miles was all fast downhill asphalt dropping the remainder of the elevation to Aqua Caliente. This was the gateway to the desert.
We stopped at the then closed Agua Caliente general store and rested for about 1.5 hours and then hit the desert at around 3am. This was the section of the route that I was the most apprehensive about and I can say that I was most happy to have Keith there to show me the ropes. I have ridden in sand near some of our costal trail in the south before, as well as churning through sand in cyclocross races but I have never experienced the expansive sand of riding through desert washes. This section through the Anza Borrego desert was 25 miles. Yea......25 miles of sand. Think Tatooine.
Turned out I was pretty good at this sand thing. Keep your legs spinning at a pretty high cadence, keep your head up and find the solid lines and glance at your Garmin every once and a while to make sure you haven't wandered off course (this happened a few times). Occasionally you'd hit a patch of deep sand or make a mistake, wash out and have to hike a bit and find a solid place to get started again. On these washouts I would typically take the time to eat something and get a drink. One time I just sat there for a second, turned off both of my lights and covered the screen on my Garmin. There was only a sliver of a moon that night. Complete silence, nearly complete darkness and total isolation. It was a pretty strange feeling of emptiness and reminded me why I love bikepacking.....self-reliance.
Sun peeking over the horizon
Diablo drop-off was a pretty cool downhill sandy section where you could just get behind your seat and surf down the sand. The drop into Fish Creek Wash was more of the same surfing. There wasn't a huge elevation drop to this section but the temperature dropped 5 degrees or so when I reached this wash. There was very little wind, with told me that the colder air had kind of settled into this area. A few miles into Fish Creek, the sun was starting to come up over the horizon and I finally started to see the beauty of the desert. The route wound through these beautiful red rock slot canyons for miles and miles until I was eventually exiting the desert onto Split Mountain Road which was rather boring for 8 or so miles into Ocotillo Wells. When I made it to this little town I was pretty beat. I sat under a little awning thing next to a closed general store for about 15 minutes or so to rest and collect myself. I looked at the cue sheets to see that Borrego Springs (I call it Burrito Springs) was only 19 miles away and it was all asphalt. How hard could that be?
Turns out it was really hard......at least for the state of mind I was in. The headwinds were brutal and I just stared at my odometer counting down the miles. I played games like "you can stand up and pedal when you hit mile 316" or everyone's favorite "get to that next telephone pole and you can take a drink". Just little mind games to make hard, boring miles tick by. Oh.....and there was "Texas Dip". I have no idea why it is called that but it is this bowl that is about 9% down and the same back up. 9% down seems fast....right? Not when there are 20mph head and crosswinds. Pedaling with all you have downhill and moving slow. When I rolled into Borrego I was at my very lowest but when I pulled up to Jilbertos burrito shop there was something sitting outside that immediately pulled me up and out of my hole.
Isaac Chilton's orange Meriwether was leaned up against a bench outside the shop. What the fuck? How did I catch him? I thought he and Ben were waaayyyy out in front of me as they had kept pushing through San Diego as I took some rest in a hotel. I took my helmet off and grabbed my dirty ziplock of cash and credit cards and walked into the shop. We chatted for a few minutes and then I went up to the counter to place my order. Beef burrito plate and a dozen crispy rolled tacos to go. I went back and sat down with Isaac as he was finishing up his lunch chatting about the route so far. Turned out he had some mechanical problems dealing with the mud back on day one and had limited gears to push. I told him that I thought there was a bike shop here in town but I didn't know where. Before my food came out he was off.
Boulder fields between peaks
in Coyote Canyon
It was great to get some real food. Other than snacking on quesadillas I packed in Alpine I hadn't had a real full meal in about 16 hours. The burrito was actually pretty greasy and disgusting but I ate one of them and all of the rice and beans on the plate. I called Wendi to check in and catch her up on the overnight and chatted with Paul Dennis who ITT'd the route the previous month. Two weeks before the race I talked to Paul and he gave me a lot of good guidance on the route. He told me a number of times that the upcoming Coyote Canyon was the crux of the route and it took him about 12 hours to get to the finish from Borrego. This was good. The end was in sight. I had been up for 24 hours at this point.
I went next door to a liquor store to restock on water & food and packed it all up. Just about then Keith pulled up and got the last burrito before the power went out at the shop. I hit the bathroom real quick to take care of business and freshen then rolled back out onto the route. Making my way around the roundabout in the middle of Borrego my Garmin 810 turned off and then back on again. Unfortunately it isn't uncommon for this to happen.....it had crashed a few other times on this trip. Normally it comes back up, doesn't lose any data and lets you resume your activity. Not this time. Big bummer. 24 hours of ride data lost which totally sucks for a metrics nerd like myself. I cursed at the dumb thing but I didn't let it get me down. Hit start and got back after it.
Quick stop at Bailey's
Rolling out of Borrego was another long flat road like the one I came in on. And then there was a sign that said "Welcome to the Anza Desert" or something like that.....and there was more sand. More sand? I thought the desert part was over? Nope. More sand. Oh well.....I had gotten pretty good at this and it was way more interesting than asphalt with headwinds. This was actually a really fun segment where at some point I caught up with Isaac while he was taking a food break and I kept on pushing. Turns out Coyote Canyon was about 25 miles of really varied terrain which kept it fun. Sand, fire road climbs, scrambling up a huge boulder field and even slogging through "the middle willows". That last part left my socks and shoes muddy, soaked and filled with sand. I made a quick pitstop at Bailey's Cabin which is a really cool feature to change my socks and eat some food. Isaac showed up and we chatted for a bit and got back underway.
Slogging through the willows
The rest of the route out of Coyote, down Terwilliger, stopping at Sunshine Market and then cruising down Hwy 74, I really enjoyed riding with Isaac. A vast majority of the miles I put in on this route were solo and having someone to hang and chat with was very welcome. It was a very friendly pace and we were having a good time. I started thinking maybe we'll just roll across the line together? My legs are really tired.....this dude has got a lot of depth in his legs watching him climb some of the fire roads through the canyon and there is no way I'll be able to match him when we get into some of the technical singletrack and climbing back into Idyllwild.
When we got off the road and back into the trails on what would be the last 10 miles of the route something unspoken happened. I think Isaac was ahead of me at this point or maybe I was but we both started pushing a lot harder.....this was racing We were both riding the technical sections really well considering the mileage in our legs but we each bobbled and changed positions a few times. At some point the technical trails gave way to fast, flowy meadow trails while I was up front and I just let it rip. The trails turned back to steep fireroad when I hit May Valley and I took a quick glance back and didn't see any lights.
One two three......awesome guys, great race!
Now I was just running scared. I figured there were just a few miles left but it went on forever. I kept it in the red and picked my way through the puzzle that was every single rock strewn fireroad......they all looked similar but not one had the same solution. There were a few openings and turns in there calling for a quick glance down to my GPS to make sure I was on track but I kept pushing, pushing. Feeling I was getting close was confirmed with I noticed the name of the road had changed to Cowbell Alley and started to trend downward. This took a left onto Saunders Meadow Road and I knew right where we were. The agonizing climb out of town at the beginning of the race was now a blazing fast descent with swoops and curves where my screeching brakes were giving away my position. I hit Hwy 243 next to the school and took a left to climb back up the hill to the Hub for the final mile of the course. I gave it all I had looking back every minute or so expecting Isaac to sneak up on me. Finally making it to the bike shop I was surprised, excited and so so stoked to have finished 2nd in this epic bikepacking route. Ben and a couple of other guys were there delivering high-fives then showed me to the sign-in sheet, pizza and beer.
A few minutes later Isaac rolled up and we all went inside, told war stories for a while and then headed to our cabins to get some well deserved sleep.
Fast dude breakfast
The next morning I got up and was moving a little faster than I though I would be. A bunch of us who had already finished met at the Red Kettle around 8:30 to grab some breakfast and talk about the weekend. It's always a really awesome thing to get together with people that understand and are passionate about this ultra-endurance form of mountain biking. I packed up my bike on the patio of the shop while talking to Foon (who had finished in the middle of the night) and then made my way back to Irvine to catch a flight the next day.
I learned a lot about myself at this race/not-a-race:
- First and foremost......the body is capable of absolutely incredible things if it is properly prepared. I have been working really hard for the past three months with my coach, Lynda Wallenfels, to get ready for this first race of my season. Endless hours of hard intervals and long weekend rides away from my family made this possible.
- I can race on very limited sleep. I really only slept for about 2.5 hours in Chula Vista. Everything else was just little breaks to reset the body and mind. In the future I might adopt a micro-napping or short rests to remove some additional time.
- I finally figured out how to eat big meals, get back on the bike and digest on the move. This is a huge time saver.
- Take a minute to look around. Every route looks the same if you are just staring at your front tire. When you are taking a break to eat or rest snap a few pictures to remember the moment. We do this kind of racing to challenge and push ourselves but also to get out and see some new scenery. What other route can you see alpine mountains, the pacific ocean and a beautiful barren desert in just a few days?
And of course a couple of people to thank.
- My wife Wendi. She is about the only person that really understands me and why I have the need to subject myself to these difficult challenges. Without her full support encouragement there is no way I would be able to do this sport that I love.
- Any of you out there that texted, facebooked or otherwise encouraged me while I was on route. I really enjoy being disconnected when on these types of rides, it a massive moral boost to reconnect at a food stop and see the outpouring of support on the onlines. Keep it coming!
- Oh......and Audible. I listened to three books while on route....so now I am not only stronger and more confident as a rider but also a little smarter.
- Post Office by Charles Bukowski (recommended my John Karrasch) - super funny and vulgar
- A History of Eastern Europe - The Great Courses - really learned some new things
- The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow - love this guy.....really heady stuff
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