Minnesota Postcard

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To Ben and Lucas these are familiar textures, known in summertime and after work escape. Pedal along bike paths, quiet rural roads, in betweens and local knowledge throughs, river bridges hidden parks first the Minneapolis then the Saint Paul skylines crouching behind the trees. Everyone mentions how it was in the 70’s here last week, but today our fingers pinch sting when we pull them out of mittens to take a snapshot or adjust a zipper, we take a break at a Mexican grocery store, wide eyed appreciative of the expanse of candied fruit and spanish labeled staples.

Hours of that unhurried talk the way when you know that we’ll be sleeping in the woods tonight so not all of the details have to come out at once. Our accommodations are luxury, a yurt in a state park the wood stove hissing at the unexpected flurries that turn into a full snowfall. We’re met by companions and Ben plays his guitar and banjo, sleep to wake to winter and it’s fine (because) we’re on bicycles.

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Minneapolis Stories

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A little over a week ago, Lucas Winzenburg—publisher, editor, and artistic director of Bunyan Velo—hosted the first BV Evening of Adventure at the Angry Catfish in Minneapolis. A crowd of nearly 200 packed the shop and eddied onto the sidewalk to listen to stories and music and to see photos of bicycle travel far and near. It was a terrific event, a smashing success, an inspiration. I was lucky to share the stage with a half dozen other speakers and to get to know a little of the vibrant Minneapolis cycling community.

Aaron Ortiz offered a hilarious recount of his trip with Lucas in the Scottish Highlands and then down to Land’s End, laughing through weather and quirky encounters all the way. Ben and Kat talked about their risk taking, even the risk of making the first forays into touring, and the inestimable repayment of doing so. Mark read his eloquent and insightful meditation on the value of working to learn something of the places you visit from the local people there. Then Amy O itemized what she learned on her first bikepacking trip, last year’s Oregon Outback. From not having her bike arrive to realizing that GU is not ideal daily ride fuel, lessons offered in Amy’s happy slapstick. And Ben Weaver talked about Astonishment, the thing that we’re all seeking as cyclists, and he’s right about that. He played three of his songs, it was the perfect close to the night.

For my part, I shared some of my thoughts on fear. While undeniable and present, it faces its own fragility. Fear is just one voice among many when you are on a high mountain pass; the insistence of fear loses its shrill edge over days and weeks of exhausting, solitary travel; your own fear is so often matched by fear in the environment of you, metaphysically, existentially, the two dissolve each other to leave just the world; and fear, especially of people and cultures not your own, poses question after question, sometimes they have answers in knowing that human beings are mostly good and mostly more like you than different.

After the event, several us rode a short way to the city’s edge and slept on the bank of the Mississippi River. We each gathered our sleeping bags around ourselves and shivered and gasped into the cold. On a day that began with sunrise coffee on Gold Medal Hill, it ended with the same orange in stories and fire.

Crete Climbs

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Ascend a small road from Paleochora into the mountainous interior, away from the sunny beach, away from the Libyan sea. At another time of the year it would be possible to traverse the Lefka Ori on mountain bike trails, but the snowy peaks that keep their name winter consistent with the white limestone of summer offer no welcome. So the 2000 meter peak beckons and weaves, hides and seeks through the cuts that the switchbacking road follows, and the mediterranean water below yields to sky or frost as the dominant backdrop.

Coy Greece, neither committaly warm nor cold, I was assured that at this time of the year there wouldn’t be crowds in the western part of the island. The truth is town after small mountain town quiet and seemingly abandoned for city blur escape. Sometimes I’ll see an older couple not far from a beaten pickup truck gathering up the olives that have fallen on the green or black netting carefully tucked under branches. They’ll slow down to a pause, unbend, and look at me into a smile and greeting, the hello of puzzled surprised welcome all bound into one expression.

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Two thirds of a day at bolder gradients, sunshine but those winds unrolling off of the crags like waves breaking around me, now clouding over, I’ve gone to them, not them to me. Haven’t seen a car in six hours, though when I descend briefly onto a plateau there’s a span of bigger road before I equalize my psyche into another climb on a one lane pass. By now patches of snow are common, dolloped, streaked, chunked. Soon they encroach on the pavement, ride through the melted patches or fishtail across in effort.

I happen on an Audi parked half on half off up ahead, headlights impassive at me, see two adults and child making snowballs marveling. I reach them, nod, shouldering into the pedals. He says something in Greek and I confess, so he switches to English and says that the pass is closed, I won’t make it. The road has the look as if it was plowed at the height of a storm maybe a week ago, I can see the scrape of the edges of the scoop on each side. “We went another kilometer and could go no further, you won’t make it.” His slicked back hair and the fact that he won’t take off his aviator sunglasses as he talks to me fixes in place that I’m going to try anyway, “okay, thanks, I’ll give it a shot.” Maybe he’s right that it was cleared to a dead end, but I’ve been climbing for so long that it’s easier to sunk cost believe that it goes all the way through.

Walk a few stretches of frosty slush, pedal again, the road narrows and the snowpack on either side grows. The days have been just warm enough so that bergs have slid and dropped, a sense that walls are in a slow motion, only the gust keeping it all together in a barely wide enough for a jeep keyhole.

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A few kilometers is right, all the Earth seems level with my chest, no shadows, so I guess that the climbing is nearly done. Curves, change of direction, now freewheeling, which it feels like I haven’t done for some time, click and tire hiss on the wet. Valley opens, accelerating.

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I shiver during the wide open descent, small rocks have fallen onto the roadway here and there, fingers sting for numb, switchback radius until I’ve pierced the floor of the snowline again. At the bottom is a village as silent as a snapshot, tenacious green grasses between shuttered concrete or stone houses. Roll through and past and start looking for camp.

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Cleaveland Everything Bags

Carrying water bottles on the fork is standard bikepacking practice, and is familiar from touring bikes going well back. (My friend Ed Carman’s beautiful mid-1970’s Eisentrout Limited has a fork that is probably not the original but was drilled for bottle mounts in the early 80’s). I’ve secured two bottles to each fork leg with no grief.

I have also used Salsa’s Anything Cage to good effect on my forks, secured by a combination of hose clamps and the mid-fork rack mount. As long as the loads are kept reasonable and are roughly symmetrical, bike handling is only minimally affected. The concept is exemplary, but Anything Cages are fairly fragile. Salsa has promised a redesign.

Jeremy at Cleaveland Mountaineering sews up an alternative in the form of a cordura semi pocket with a closed bottom and a metal stiffener to bolt to triple bosses. Optional large steel band clamps are available for attaching it to an undrilled fork. The pocket has two straps with metal strap locks to secure diverse roughly cylindrical loads. Because the body of the pocket is soft and compliant, there isn’t a chance of damaging it from rough road shaking or laying the bike down. The pockets each weigh a bit more than an Anything Cage, so this is not a weight saving measure. Still, the bomber construction, ease of use and massive versatility absolutely gets the job done.

Rescued Photos talk by David Herlihy

David Herlihy—renowned cycling historian and author of Bicycle: The History and The Lost Cyclist (two of my favorites)—gave a terrific talk today on recently recovered images from the famous round-the-world trip by Allen and Sachtleben in 1891. The photos were scanned from negatives long buried in UCLA’s archives, and include samples from their time in Greece, Turkey, and Persia. This is part of the span that would provide the source material for Across Asia on a Bicycle (1894).

The cultural and social aspects of their journey fascinate the most, but looking at their strikingly modern bikepacking gear for broken rough roads is a treat, too.

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If you’re in NYC tomorrow (May 4th), head down to the Bike Expo NYC to catch a repeat performance at 4pm.

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Return of the Pugsley

My Pugsley had been in pieces since I returned from touring South America over a year ago. I left most of the drivetrain, the threadbare tires, and anything else that had reached its end behind in Argentina. Last Spring, I sent out the frame for a repaint and some mods. That work was done quickly, but I hadn’t bothered collecting replacement parts until recently.

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2010 Surly Pugsley frame with original offset fork drilled for a bottle cage and an Anything Cage on each leg, bottle mounts at rear dropouts (instead of hose clamps and yielding capacity for six bottles: two rear and four on the fork), downtube triple mount for Anything Cage. Canti posts removed. Matte black powdercoat.

Shimano SLX trigger shifters, SLX rear derailleur/ceramic bearing pulleys, 12-36 Shimano HG61 cassette, XT front derailleur, Mr Whirly triple ring crankset, Race Face bottom bracket, KMC X9 chain, original Large Marge wheelset (XT rear hub, Surly front), Larry tires/downhill tubes, Avid BB7 brakes, Thompson post and stem, Easton Monkeylite bars, Ergon GS1 grips, FSA headset, Selle Italia SLR XP saddle, MKS Gripking pedals, King steel bottle cages.

This is right now my go-to expedition cycling wheel.

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Tarps & Alcohol Stoves

I aim to bikepack light. The pursuit of it can, of course, become an obsession and a laughable absurdity, but, then again, such things are also the makings of a largely harmless hobby and an aesthetic. In an admiring nod to the Crane cousins, I went for one month in Ecuador and Peru where every day I got rid of at least one thing to drop my travel weight. “Things” could include tags on the inside of a jacket or lengths of overlong compression straps. It was an amusement and an inquiry, of sorts. Best not to take it seriously.

The promise is faster movement, longer distances, fresher legs to do and see and be more. Lifting the bike up, cracking down a techy descent, no Earthly pitch too steep. No doubt for some it’s an experiment in getting rid of possessions; it can also make some Europeans inexplicably righteous and angry. But light gear is often expensive, it can incur discomforts small and large, it can let you down if it’s fragile, or it can make it so that you’re less social, like when cooking only for yourself with your tiny mug or when you regretfully decline a ticket to the opera because your only trousers are ghastly stinking 3/4 cycling shorts.

And sometimes light stuff just irritates. Obviously, this is an expression of my own limitations. A few months ago I borrowed an alcohol stove from Nancy. The innocuous seeming bottle of harmless-ish fuel, the quiet operation, the existential relief of the parsimony of the design (it is, um, a cat food tin with holes in it): all of that was compelling. Night after night, though, I just scowled at the thing and its kind of warming my food performance. Inevitably it would run out of alcohol just short of an important milestone, like cooking. My companions were polite in not speaking aloud their moral judgment at my colossal lack of virtue.

On the other hand, I recently had only a tarp for conditions which, if you’d told me about them in advance, I would have certainly brought my tent for. Yes, I got a little wet from windblown rain, I had to mind the edges of the quilt a bit more to keep in heat, I woke in the middle of the night having to deal with pooling water near my head. But the rectangle of nylon was brilliant and I couldn’t have been happier.

Evidently, to me finicky cooking is a pain in the ass but finicky sleep is just flat out great. Lightweight gear seems more like empirical introspection about the bizarre idiosyncratic things you don’t care about than it is about rational equipment choice. I’m okay with that.

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