Heaping gear in a livingroom pile before it’s arrayed geometric and photogenic. Visited Slovenia a couple of years ago, fairytale mountain and castle peaks, the green of the near summer Alps. I rode for a couple of days then, enough to be persuaded of a return trip. Duffle stuffed full, Jack and I will rent bikes, secure the bags and head out into the gravel doubletrack, mountain paths, small roads, meet up with Marko for part of the circuit. A map, a plan, the basic kit, a beautiful place.
Usual great breakfast at Moab’s Eclecticafé—well it’s Joel’s second breakfast—we’re sunburnt murmuring the contentedness of the last three and a quarter days gallop, squinting at Jeep traffic and people and ceramic wear clatter around us. J and I only have a couple left before we leave, so I’ve proposed something dead easy, maybe relaxing, a little scenic: we’ll resupply, pedal out to Kane Creek Canyon, spend the night, then curl around Behind the Rocks to return to town via Pritchett Canyon. The boys gamely agree. We buy one night’s dinner and have the space luxury to load up beyond the bare necessities. I put a ten pack of flour tortillas in my shopping basket and Joel asks whether we should plan to split that. “Um, no.” Logan and Skyler use some of their frame pack volume for campfire beer. Fill up water at GearHeads, head out.
A rolling road ride then onto a sandy track, fat tires make comfy work of it. Hot, dry, clear skies. We linger for lunch in a wash, relaxed and open with one another, kind company, guys I’d ride anywhere with and those aren’t that easy to find. Somehow I’d thought that the canyon on the Monday after Easter wouldn’t be that crowded, but some of the Jeep Week folks have stayed an extra day. The noise, exhaust, and tread tracks maybe get in the way of perfect solitude, but, after all, Moab has reinvented itself just this way from a tumbleweed mining town past to somewhere everyone goes. I wrestle my thoughts into a kind of equipollence, they’re trail users, too, they’re friendly and supportive. Glad when the canyon goes quiet at evening, but there’s no good in swishing bile around in my mouth. We reach a group bunched up and set to cross the creek, take another break and let them disappear ahead. Almost at the top of the canyon, we relax next to a fire tall telling myths about future rides.
Next morning leisurely rollout, temps already gathering around us. By the time HWY 191 and the HOLE N” THE ROCK [sic] lunch, we’re confident in the timing. Skyler redirects us toward sand dunes off the road, it’s a painful slog into fierce wind to get there. Once we arrive the playfulness has been sapped out of us, but S grabs one of the Borealises and gives it a gamely go. The roll to Pritchett is through classic Utah landscapes, red dust the way Mars was pictured in 50’s scifi, Joel blows through a turn and heads off into the distance, we three just sit and chat and stretch out laying on the rock for the 40 amusing minutes it takes him to realize we’re not with him and to backtrack. Mid afternoon rhythm, empty jeep track, buttes, swirling serenity and this place rises above the fact of the people and the overlove of the backcountry and just is itself, is its own austere desert stasis. I realize we’ve been by ourselves for three or four hours and my body is just like the grains of sand tailing off of the ridges. Pritchett itself is sublime, sloping shadows encroaching walls. Impossible angles and the bulbous rock formations, I quip to Logan that this is “…some wondrous Call of Cthulhu shit,” and he laughs and gravity and our own effort fly us back to town.
Wake warming to the half sun lifting above the ridge. Legs don’t feel too bad, J and S are already gathering cooking tools for coffee. The flat valley is even more striking than sleep’s memory allowed, can intuit that we all want to linger here but instead make a committed effort to pedal into the day. We’d run into some cyclists on the route last evening who indicated that they had a support vehicle meeting them in the campgrounds a few miles beyond our camp, and that they had plenty of water to save us the trouble of treating the streams we’d soon enough see. After an hour we reach the trucks coming up the track toward us, chat with the drivers, play with the dogs, gratefully refill our water packs.
The near term agenda is an all-morning dirt climb followed by a ripping descent into Castle Valley. Then we’ll climb back up to elevation on pavement before reaching the top of Porcupine Rim. A steady day, one where we’ll spread out from each other to ride in thoughts or absence, regroup at lunch and snacks, Logan’s hilarious jokes, Skyler’s deadpan, Joel’s immutable grin.
Up top, we’re wobble stand exhausted from the climb. S put his headphones on but ran out of battery, L and I had traded singing song lyrics to our favorite black metal songs, J shaking his head in mystification. The official Kokopelli route here descends the road to the Slickrock trail, passing the seemingly always full camping areas. It parallels the Porcupine Rim Trail, a classic Moab route, deserving its preeminent status. We dig in our packs for whatever is left, a little glassy, murmurs of burritos and beers in town. A little speech about how easy it would be for us to say that we’re done, we’ve done the route, just coast into town. But how much better to finish in the bucking blaze of some concentration riding, we crunch onto the single track, castles below.
With at least twice yearly visits to Moab for a decade starting in the late 80’s, can’t say how many times I’ve ridden this trail. But never in this light, the breathless excitement of fatigue and the end of our food, never with the whole desert rock sand cliff dusk warping wrapping around us like a well told fairytale. The horizon pools impossibly blazing watercolor canary yellow and purple, bikes rumbling skipping on the distinctive perpendicular orange fins. We’re burning with reentry enthusiasm, leaping heavy bikes, surfing our whoops.
By the time we get to the wash, it’s dark. Avoid putting on my headlamp to the very last moment, gingerly touch our way along the ledgy parts where I know there’s a highway and river below. The final down climb across the small cliff with the bikes on our shoulders, roll to the bottom, under the highway and there are festive strung lights at the first campsite. The gang there tell us they’ve been watching our lamps, that we came from where?, and here are some snacks and brews. We laugh with their kindness, remount and time trial to Moab, arrive center town at 9:47, Joel sweet talks the maître-d’ into sneaking us under the last call for food, don’t even wash our faces before we’re digging into our dinner.
Here’s the thing. The Kokopelli trail has been ridden and raced for so long, it has turned into a shrugging cliché for bikepackers these days. That was my fool’s attitude. It’s a tremendous ride, though. Whether you’re jaded experienced or planning your first multi-overnight, do this trip. Find all the logistical details on Logan’s Pedaling Nowhere Kokopelli Route writeup.
Last week in Minnesota for Bunyan Velo’s Evening of Adventure, event partner Surly loaned me an ECR for getting around town and for some bikepacking. Tyler flashed a broad grin as he rolled up with it, he knew I was going to have fun and I did. The ECR has everything you could want for pedaling into rough conditions: stout confidence, braze-ons, unflappable stability, the impossibly versatile and comfortable Jones loop bars (might have to put those on my personal rig), and, of course the 29+ format.
I’d brought my own compliment of bags and they mounted on the ECR with nary a hitch. In fact, the Jones bars made things especially easy, as I could hang the sling on the closer bar and then wrap the pocket over the far bar. This lifted up the bedroll so that it easily cleared the front tire; this is often a problem for me, as I ride small bicycles and there isn’t always a lot of space between the bar and the top of the tire. The hand position was comfortable and easy to get used to. It would take more adaptation for me to pull very technical maneuvers due to the changed upper body dynamics, but I don’t doubt that I could quickly get up to speed.
Overall, the feel of the ECR was familiar from riding a full fat—or is a Pugsley now a skinny fat?—though marginally more spry. It couldn’t be knocked off its line, there was abundant traction, it felt like it could go for a day or a month. I didn’t get a chance to test the limits of low pressure, but I suspect that the 26″ fat tires maintain an advantage, even if it’s close.
I felt completely at home on it imagining long days far away.* Thanks, Tyler.
* Sourcing replacement tires overseas would be difficult. And there’d be no easy way to limp along as you could on a 26″ fat. For now, the ECR is best for North American use.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you’re in NYC tomorrow (May 4th), head down to the Bike Expo NYC to catch a repeat performance at 4pm.
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.
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.