Bunyan Velo, Issue No. 4

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For the fourth time in a year, we look forward to sitting down with a cup of black coffee or a tall pint of pilsener to the technicolor pages of Bunyan Velo.  This issue is a taller pour than the last, featuring words and images from Przemek Duszynski, Glenn Charles, Cass Gilbert, Lael Wilcox, Logan Watts and Virginia Krabill, Rob Perks, Donnie Kolb, Mark Reimer and Daniel EnnsGabe Ehlert, et al.

Incidentally, there are three unique perspectives of our travels this summer.  

Przemek’s reflections describe the lessons he has learned while riding, encapsulated in his song-like story titled “I’m Happy and I’m Riding and a 1,2,3,4…”  Within, he learns the difference between the number of miles ridden in a day and the number of good friends that surround you.  I guess this means he’s not mad that I gave him food poisoning on his birthday.  Hopefully, he’ll find time next summer to grow our riding group to 1, 2, 3 as we waltz around the Black Sea.

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Lael captures the height of summer in Czech.  Her story describes Czech people and Czech things, and our quest to cross paths with Joe Cruz in Prague.  I like how she portrays the reality of the road, in which our lives are intertwined with everyone around us.  Her colorful photos capture some of the best memories of summer in “Červenec in Czech”.Screen Shot 2014 02 26 at 9 38 48 AM

 

Finally, I share stories from our final months on the road in the American Southwest, between Colorado and Arizona  The capstone to a full summer of stories, our final ride between Tucson and Phoenix along a segment of the Arizona Trail provides an emotional close to the season, and a lasting memory through winter.  Look for “Last Chance, Arizona” in the latest issue of Bunyan Velo!

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Every issue of Bunyan Velo has been possible due to the unpaid efforts of riders, writers, photographers, and one very dedicated editor, Lucas Winzenburg.  Coffee and many late nights have also played an important role in the process.  Donate to Bunyan Velo to ensure future publication.  Stickers and handmade wool Bunyan Velo hats are also available on the BV webstore.  Hopefully, three months from now, there will be another round of adventures to share.    

Free publication is the best way to reach riders and readers, and we’d like to keep it that way to continue growing the community of homespun adventurers and storytellers.  Also, keep you eyes open for a printed anthology, now that Bunyan Velo has captured a full year of adventure cycling.  Tell your friends!

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 Photos: Glenn Charles, Przemek Duszynski, Lael Wilcox, and Nicholas Carman.

Farewell Arizona: Tucson to Phoenix, via AZT

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Our many-month ramble across counties and countries and continents always had an end.  A seasonal end to our travel is an inevitability from the start, much like the few months that we spend working each year will eventually end with the beginning of another round of travel.  By now, we’re both back in Alaska, working towards our next trip, next summer.  

After a few days in Tucson– before and after the marathon– we point towards Phoenix to prepare for our flight north to Alaska.  With a few days between here and there, we take the advice of Scott Morris and connect a premier section of the AZT near the GIla River en route to Phoenix.  The route prescribed should take only a few days–connecting us to our flight in time– but features some of the best that Arizona has to offer.  Being so close to Phoenix, this ride makes a perfect getaway during winter months, especially when ridden as a loop, as defined in Scott’s Gila River Ramble route.  However, do your best to avoid a week of rain as Cass, Gary, and Joe found earlier this year.

There has already been some discussion about passing the winter in Tucson next year.  The weather, the trail access, and the Mexican food can’t be beat.  Alternating winters between the Southwest and Alaska– between full-suspension big bikes and fatbikes– would be satisfying.  

The ride out of town retraces a familiar stretch of pavement– this is the way we rode into town, and this way I traveled out and back to watch Lael run her marathon.  I’m becoming quite familiar with Oracle Road.

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About 35 miles from the center of Tucson, we connect with the Willow Springs Rd near the town of Oracle.

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A brief section of singletrack breaks up what we expect to be a full day of dirt road riding towards Kelvin.  This piece of trail is part of the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo course.

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A cool, cloudy day in southern Arizona surprises us, as we bundle up in down jackets for much of the day.  Rural signage keeps our interest.

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While we disobey a few warnings to shortcut a large private tract.

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Eventually, we find the sign we are looking for.  The trail begins as a scenic ‘green-circle’ section of trail.  Tailwinds help to move us along.

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The entire region is characterized by decomposed granite, resulting in the granular ‘kitty litter’ soil common in the southwest.  The smaller knobs on the 29×3.0″ Knards don’t bite as well as the taller knobs on Lael’s On-One tires.  With a more aggressive tire like the upcoming Surly Dirt Wizard, 29+ could be the perfect rigid touring platform.  The experience reminds me of riding the Surly Endomorph tire on my Pugsley for the first half of the winter season in 2011-2012.  I was grateful that it got me around town, but once I tasted the traction of the Nate tire, I couldn’t go back.  

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The trail alternates between singletrack and derelict doubletrack, as the sun begins to fall.  A few jeep tracks are seen in the distance, but otherwise, there’s nothing out here.  A few ranch houses likely inhabit distant drainages.  Cattle munch of woody desert vegetation.

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Looking back towards Oracle, and Tucson beyond.

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Looking forward towards the town of Kelvin, and the Gila River.  This is wide open Arizona.

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he setting sun filters through cholla cactus.  One of the last Arizonan sunsets of the season.

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Certainly one of the last featuring the spires of saguaros, which are soon to be replaced by the spires of scraggly black spruce, capped in snow.

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Reaching towards the Gila River near Kelvin on the Ripsey Segment of the AZT, the trail descends several thousand feet, before rising again to elevation, then finally descending to the river..

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Descend in the evening.

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Ascend in the morning.  Life on the AZT is easy, even if it challenges our legs.  

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The quality of trail being built for the AZT is some of the best anywhere, and is designed for bicycles as much as hikers and horse.  The trail surface is most often broad and durable, carving switchbacks up relatively shallow grades.  Not that it is always easy…

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At the top, the trail follows a ridge, before diving down towards the Gila River.

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There are very few water sources out here.  Near the trailhead in Kelvin, a water cache is offered to passing thru-hikers.  Local residents– one variety of a diverse breed of trail angels– refill 1 gallon jugs to keep up with the trickle of demand for water out here.  We found a spigot at the ADOT yard in Kelvin to fill our bottles and bladders.  The Gila RIver flows all year and is another reliable source in the area.  Otherwise, local intel is essential, as is a large water bladder.  The GPS marks a few springs or tanks in the area, but these aren’t always reliable sources.  More frequently, as I’ve learned, they are only possible water sources.  The search for water is another reason that GPS is an invaluable resource in Arizona.  

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With the capacity to carry 14 liters of water– at maximum capacity between the two of us– we can make it through a day and a half this time of year.  Much more water would be necessary spring through fall.  It is December 11th already, and clear skies relieve us of wearing our down jackets on this day.

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Leaving Kelvin, the AZT rambles up and down along the banks of the Gila River for nearly ten miles.  This section of trail is the keystone to Scott Morris’ Gila River Ramble route.

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Singletrack trails hanging above cliffs.

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Long sightlines in the desert allow the eye to follow trail up, and down.

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Of course, I went for a swim.

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The trail meanders in the lowlands along the river, green from recent rains.  Lael particularly liked this section as it varied greatly from the Sonoran deserts capes we’ve enjoyed for the past few weeks.  

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Decomposing granite.

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As the sun begins to fall again, we climb away from the river for the last time.  The map shows several thousand feet of climbing ahead.  We hope to bite a chunk out of the climb before dark.

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Our final night is warm and clear.  We make a fire of dry ocotillo twigs to warm quesadillas.  Our food supplies are low, but our bodies are now efficient machines after a full summer of riding.  We are happy with smaller meals than we required at the beginning of the summer.  The first few weeks of touring are usually marked by ravenous appetites.  After weeks and months on the road, our bodies decide on moderate meals, yet they are capable of more and more.  Lael is thinking about racing fatbikes this winter.

Awake to Arizona for one last time.

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Awake to the AZT for the last time, until next year.

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The sun breaks the cool morning, as jackets come off.

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We continue ascending.  The river sits at 1600ft; we climb up towards 4000ft.  See if you can follow the trail, etched out of the mountainsides.  The first major push:

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Over the top, another world presents itself.  The trail continues to cut the mountainside, all around this basin, stabilizing around 3600ft before climbing over the top.

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Finally, the trail turns down.  Running tight on time, we hope to connect with a dirt road– the Telegraph Canyon Road– into the town of Superior.  There, we will pick up some food and hit the pavement into Phoenix.

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Down, down, down– this is a great piece of trail.  Although, descending the trail back down to the Gila would be even better.  The ascent from the river stands as one of the most incredible climbs of the summer.  Fare well Arizona, we’ll be back.

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Back on doubletrack, we are quickly on our way to town.  

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Quickly, kind of, as the road traverses the stream bed more than a few times, and climbs and descends several stair-step sections.

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Finally, within view of Superior, a classic Arizonan mining town.  

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Superior is home to mountains and mining, and meth.  In some towns, it is hard to ignore.  

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These 29×3.0″ Surly Knard tires are wearing thin, but a new pair await in Anchorage to replace them.  With a set of Rabbit Hole rims and fresh tires, I am hoping that the ECR will shuttle me around the city of Anchorage for part the winter until I save enough money to buy a fatbike.  While I think that 29+ would be enough to get around on the roads most days, to access the snowy multi-use paths and singletrack trails, a proper fatbike will be necessary.  A real fatbike will also make commuting safer and easier on many days, even on roads.  Anchorage is a messy city in winter. 

These tires have been set-up tubeless to Stan’s Flow EX rims for three weeks without issue, although the rim profile is not nearly wide enough for my taste.

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As you may expect, Knards also roll nicely on pavement.  But at $90 per tire, even for the less-expensive 27tpi version, designing a long-distance tour around this tire isn’t ideal.  Replace it with a normal 29″ tire if needed?  Sure, it is possible, but the BB will be much lower, as on a traditional road touring bike.  In this configuration, the ECR is not quite a mountain bike anymore.  More tire options between 29×2.5-3.0″  would be nice.

The ride into Phoenix is much more pleasant than our last experience riding out of town, back in 2009.  The city is nearly 60 miles across, but with some patience, a route composed almost entirely of canal paths and bike lanes is possible.

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Bike boxes, fresh from the dumpster, are hauled to our temporary home over the shoulder.  A few extra gear straps make a functional over-the-shoulder sling.  

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Thanks to Steve for the limo ride to the airport.  

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Off to Alaska for the winter!

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That’s it!– thanks for coming along this summer.  

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Tucson and The Marathon (and fatbikes)

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Nearly every day, Lael laces up her running shoes.  “Not every day”, she says, as an under-exaggerating technicality.  Yes, she packs an extra pair of shoes into her tidy bikepacking kit.  For part of the summer, she also had two pairs of sunglasses, one pair specifically for descending in low light, purchased for a few Euro in a French bike shop.  Two books are also common amongst her load.  In Switzerland, she bought a gold plated corkscrew for less than 1€.  This summer, she has enjoyed running new roads and trails.  Most often, she chooses to scout the trail ahead, returning with detailed reports like, “it’s real nice”,  or, “there might be some pushing”.

She has been a runner much longer than she has been riding bikes.  While cycling presents frequent thrills, running is consistent pleasure.  A week ago, she decided it was time to run another marathon.  It has been almost ten years since her last, when she finished third in the Anchorage Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon, run on the summer solstice.  She finished in just over 3:18.  Between now and then, she has run a 45km trail race in NM, a 12K road run, a half marathon a couple of 5k fun runs, and 40 miles of the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon.  The last one is a long story– in short, we just happened to ride into Urique, Mexico the day before the race.  She just happened to show up at the starting line, with the encouragement of a couple Missoulans.  And it just so happened, that she couldn’t walk very well for the next week.  She’ll tell you, “I had to pee in a push-up position.”  It was a tough run, that strengthened her interest in distance running.

Most of the year, she runs on her own, without a watch, without a plan, and without any nutrition or hydration.  She’ll be gone for an hour or two, and always returns smiling.  That’s the important thing.  She always comes back smiling.

So, when Northern Arizona falls under a layer of snow,

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…we point our tires south, off the Mogollon Rim.  Below 5,000ft we lose the snow, and eventually, the pines.  With our sights on the Tucson Marathon in less than a week, we forgo the AZT for some more rapid transit.

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Some road riding, and a couple hitches put us a lot closer to Tucson, within a few days of the run.

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All the while, passing through heartachingly beautiful country, traversed by the AZT.  This will serve as fuel to come back as soon as possible to ride more in Arizona.  Maybe we will have a few days after the marathon to catch some sun and trails, before flying to Alaska for the winter.  We’ll be fatbike shopping next week.

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Even road touring in Arizona is incredible.  The state is not full of tumbleweed and cactus, exclusively.  Mountains, and a diverse visual range, cover the state.

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As do mining towns, with dwindling populations and hesitant economies.  These kind of towns harbor relics of old America, including dusty old groceries, old politics, and old people.  Local grocery stores barely survive, we have found, as the Circle K convenience store grows ever-present across the rural Arizona landscape.  It is really incredible.  In a larger city, we have even seen two stores across the street from one another.

Eating well while riding the white line isn’t always easy.  We’re missing the fresh foods that were readily available in Europe, especially in the Ukrainian bazaar.  But, we’re doing our best.

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Arriving in the fresh stucco outskirts of Tucson, we meet a town with two sides.  A gauntlet of suburbia gives us time to scout a new pair of running shorts for the marathon.  In and out of Sports Authority in under 15 minutes, for under $15, is a good deal.

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Old Tucson remind us of Albuquerque, and the colorful automobile era in the west.

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In Tucson, we connect with Scott and Eszter.  Each of them are giants in the bikepacking world, but together, they are Goliath.  Eszter might be the fastest woman on the planet, on a bike, in events measuring 24 hours or more.  Scott has been in and out of ultra-racing for a decade, whose non-racing credentials including Topofusion, a powerful mapping tool (assuming you are running Windows); Trackleaders.com, a Spot tracking service which tracked the Baja 1000 and every major endurance bike race in the country this year; and Bikpeacking.net, an essential resource for adventurous off-pavement riders.  He’s put the Arizona Trail on the map for mountain bikers, and is continually involved with trail building, route design and mapping.  His promotion of the trail is most compelling to me, in the form of consistently sunny rides, dotted with towering saguaros, on southern stretches of trail near his seasonal home in Tucson.  If you like saguaros and singletrack, stay tuned to The Diary of Scott Morris.

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On the occasion of Global Fatbike Day, we dust off some fatties, source a few missing parts, and shoot off for a quick ride.  Eszter is embarrassed that her Fatback hasn’t been ridden in a while.  Last time she rode it, she crushed the Iditarod Trail Invitational to McGrath.  The bike needed some time to rest.  Some spare trail mix is hiding in her pogies, from Alaska.  A neoprene face mask has sunken to the bottom of her framebag.

Filling in the blanks, I imagine the internal monologue: “Why can’t I just ride the Spearfish?”

And, “What the hell is Global Fatbike Day?”

Oh, it is real, Scott and I assure her.  Facebook says it is.

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Wrenching on bikes– upside down in the driveway, of course– and riding, are a big part of the day.  While none of us are running playing cards in our spokes, life with Scott and Eszter has the simplicity of summer vacation.  Actually, Lael has a half-dozen Spokey-Dokes in her wheels.  We’re all doing things right, I think.  Except that we might spend next winter in Tucson.

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Scott’s Surly Moonlander, which also spent some time along the Iditarod Trail last winter, is ready to roll just a bit sooner.  Both are skeptical of riding their snow bikes on Tucson’s rocky trails.  I try to hide the fact that I used to be a fatbike evangelist.  Scott finds the right tire pressures.  A bike is a bike, and is still a ton of fun.

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Into Scott’s world…

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Tucson has been Scott’s playground for over a decade, when he first moved here for grad school (and sunshine and mountain biking, arguably more important).  This rocky climb is the current testing ground for new bikes and riders.  Lael tries on Scott’s Lenz Mammoth shred-sled, a finely-tuned long-travel 29er.  The penalty for coming up short is harsh.

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Lael passes on the challenge, to save her legs for the marathon the next morning.  We rode a couple hundred miles to get to Tucson this week.  The ride up to the start of the race is another 12 miles away, and we need to be there by 5AM.  She tries not to have too much fun before the race.

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Back home to begin our crosstown trek to the marathon.

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Even a technical bike-handling wizard like Scott occasionally puts a foot down.

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As we’re all riding unfamiliar bikes, our brief jaunt reminds us of the simple joy of riding.  Whatever 2014 may bring, we’ll all be riding, for sure.  Lael and I might jump into a few local fatbike races, while it is possible that Scott and Eszter might go touring.  Forward is always the right direction.

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Packed and ready to roll, we shoot back towards suburbia to register for the race at the Hilton.

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Lael signs in, and we stuff our pockets with as many energy bars and gel packets as we can bother to discuss with the Clif rep .  “Tell me about the carbohydrate profile of the Chocolate flavor, again.”

Oh, maltodextrin.  I see.

“Does this one have caffeine?”

Doubleshot?  Great.

Looking for a place to camp in suburbia requires a keen eye.

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A quick stop at the grocery store, than roll across the street onto a small patch of unimproved desert in the ‘burbs.  It is less than 50 yards from the road, but with stunning views of the mountains, we’ll take it for the night.

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To rise at 3:55AM.  Ride a mile to the school buses which transport riders to the actual race start, another 25 miles out of town, another 2000ft in elevation.  The race starts at 7AM, 8 minutes before sunrise, in freezing temperatures under cloudy skies.  Hey Tucson, where did you go?

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I begin my ride out of town, to intersect runners along the course.

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Near mile 13, I spot bright green shorts and a big smile– Lael!  She claims the only genuine smile amongst a sea of runners.  It makes her easy to spot in a crown.

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Scott mentioned that last year, after a long mountain bike ride, they scored a bunch of unopened race food along the course.  Additionally, I scan the roadside for warm layers in my size.

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The course is a boring 26 mile paved run, losing nearly 2000ft.  It sounds easy, but most runner’s muscles aren’t accustomed to such a long descent.  Lael is amongst them, and is better prepared for climbing.

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But a summer of riding and running prevail.  She keeps her pace and flies across the finish line in 3:14.27, several minutes faster than her previous marathon.  She is the 4th female finisher, and qualifies for the Boston Marathon with 20 minutes to spare.

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After the race, we are back on the bikes within the hour.  We slowly ride into town to rest and recover for the night.

I guarantee that Lael was the only runner that arrived at the race by bike.  After the marathon, we watch a parking lot full of cars slowly empty.  Runners hobble to their vehicles, turn the key, and drive away.  For Lael, activity has no boundaries in her life.  She is always moving.  Getting Lael to ride in a car is like trying to wrestle a puppy into the back seat of a sedan.

By morning, we’re riding out of town again, to eek out a few miles on the AZT before connecting with Phoenix, and our flight to Alaska.  If we’re lucky, we’ll find a few days of Sonoran sun and singletrack, now just a few weeks before Christmas.  We’ve been pretending that it is summer for a long time.  As snow falls above Tucson, it might be time to recharge the clock and start again up north.

First, a few more days of summer.

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A Great Divide Thanksgiving (ABQ to AZ)

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Above: A BNSF freight train crossing the Continental Divide along I-40, on our way back to Arizona.

A few days in Albuquerque to wait out the weather, quickly turns to a week, nearly.  In that time, we enjoy an indoor picnic of homemade tamales with both green and red chile (the combination, called Christmas, by New Mexicans); some salad at Vinaigrette, where we both used to work; a few days hanging out at bike shops, swapping parts to the Surly ECR frame at Two Wheel Drive and talking with the crew over at Bikeworks, over a pint of La Cumbre beer from the keg in the back; and, a few rides in the Bosque and down several of Albuquerque’s 18mph Bicycle Boulevard’s, both of which we consider our old stomping grounds.

When charged with the task of getting back to Arizona to resume our ride, we post an ad on Craigslist for a rideshare, and tentatively plan to hitch if nothing comes up.  Luckily, friends Rusty and Melissa are looking for something to do over the long holiday weekend.  For the last few years, the’ve gone camping, in place of the sometimes stressful Thanksgiving gatherings we’ve all attended.  We spend much of the year camping, and when some discussion of riding bikes enters the conversation, we make a plan to ride and camp together for a few days for Thanksgiving, en route to Flagstaff, AZ.  The result of our efforts is a memorable holiday on a brief, scenic section of the Great Divide Route near Grants, NM.  We find cold nights and some muddy roads, up and over 8200ft.  We cook fresh cranberries and other vegetarian delights over a campfire, scouting the Milky Way by midnight.  And I hope, we plant a seed that will someday amount to a few weeks or months on the Great Divide for Rusty and Melissa.  For good measure, I left my well-used Raleigh XXIX frame for her to ride.  As far as I can tell, the deal is nearly done.

First, a few days in ABQ.  Good New Mexican food is only found at diners and dives, plentiful along the Route 66 corridor.

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The desert, at 5000ft, still claims some winter.  The rain and snow we ran away from in Arizona makes it over the state line to NM, dumping loads of snow on Santa Fe, and a few wet inches in ABQ.  Jeremy’s Pugsley hides behind Rusty’s vintage Trek 650B conversion.

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A quick visit to my favorite bike shops in town uncover some fun surprises.  This Surly Pugsley is built with a now-unavailable Maverick SC32 fork.  The ride is a revelation, compared to that of a rigid fatbike– less bouncing, more shredding.  The fork is no longer available, since Maverick has folded, but they are available used, for a price.

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Seen at Two Wheel Drive, new Surly tires all carry secret phrases, mostly nonsense, molded along the tire’s bead.  This one reads “FIREFLIES OWL HOOTS AND A CANDLE AND A CURSE IN THE DARKNESS”.  Weird.  Surly.

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Of course, a ride or two along the Bosque, on the banks of the Rio Grande River is necessary.  Rusty rides his rigid Kona Unit 29er, with 2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf tires and Velocity Blunt35 rims.  This is one of the top 29″ rim/tire combinations for trail riding and tubeless trail touring.  Faster rolling models might be optimal for dirt road riding.

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He’s working towards a full framebag, most likely one of the new Revelate bags offered in stock sizes.  A Carradice saddlebag is employed for overnight affairs.  Years ago, I began with one of these handy Jandd Frame Packs.

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Running out of town on Thanksgiving Day, we land in Grants, NM, the crossroads of I-40, and both the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and the Continental Divide Trail.  Late in the afternoon, we take off up Zuni Canyon.  This is a but a small slice of the Divide, but it stands as a good example of what the other 2,725 miles are like.  This is Rusty’s first look at Divide maps while on the route.  These full-featured maps are a delight, full of reassuring information including distances, elevation, food and water resources, and touristic asides.  There’s even more to them, and they are worth the money.  More importantly, the Divide is worth a look.  What are you doing next summer?

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Up the canyon, the walls grow taller.  Snow lingers on north facing slopes, even though the sun soon has us in t-shirts.  The road is mostly dry, but spongy.  Slowly climbing, 29×3.0″ tires have some advantage on the soft stuff.  They also feel a bit hefty.  Thinking, riding, thinking– the perfect bike is out there somewhere.

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Rusty’s Kona Unit has evolved from the single speed that he brought when moving from the midwest last year, to a fully geared mountain bike with wide bars.  A suspension fork is coming soon, although it is not necessary for this kind of riding.  This section of road, much like the rest of the Divide, is high quality dirt.

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Lael has no question about which bike she likes best– her own!  She’s talking about full-suspension for next summer, that is, after she lays down some money for a lightweight fatbike this winter.  She likes the looks of Surly Clownshoe rims (100mm) and Bud and Lou tires (5″).  Set-up tubeless, on a lightweight frame and fork, and she’ll be on her way.

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We cross the geographic and hydrologic Continental Divide near 8200ft, at sunset.  An easy 1600ft climb is a nice way to prepare for a Thanksgiving fête.

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I’m discovering new features on the simple Garmin eTrex 20– 8224ft and 8 minutes to sunset, moving at 0 mph.  A good time to reflect and be thankful.  A good time to ride downhill to dinner.

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Melissa awaits with a campsite and an aperitif, including cold beer and a cheese plate.  On the fire, we roast potatoes, cranberries and a vegetarian stuffing dish.

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The morning is frosty, but the sun is warm.

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We continue along the Divide towards Pie Town, NM, which I last visited in 2011 while riding the 1985 Schwinn High Sierra.

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Passing crumbly lava flows within El Malpais National Monument.  From afar, lava rock and snow look like dirt-worm pudding, the homestyle dessert made of chocolate pudding and crushed Oreo cookies.

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Volcanics all around.

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And mud, not too sticky, but messy.

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Messy enough that we don’t move very quickly.  Messy enough to turn around.  The entrance to this section of road might have warned about being “Impassable When Wet!”, but we had to see for ourselves.  This section of the Divide Route also offers a paved detour.

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Frozen is better, but not by much.

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My homemade offset double crank– built from mismatched crankarms and an inexpensive square taper BB– is holding up well, and offers more chain-to-tire clearance than my previous bike, despite much larger tires.  Why don’t more 29ers have this kind of clearance?  Between the Pugsley, the Raleigh 29er, and the 29+ ECR, I’m honing in on perfection.

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Instead, we shoot back down Zuni Canyon Road, the way we came, with views of Mount Taylor to the north, towering above the high desert at 11,306ft.  The moisture than ran us out of Arizona deposited the first major snowfall is much of the region.

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Just a few miles of hard packed snow, but my mind is already wandering back towards fatbaikes.  I’ll be shopping for a full fatbike on Dec. 16th in Anchorage.  The ECR frame will eventually get properly wide 50mm Rabbit Hole rims.  I plan to install some studs in a fresh set of 29×3.0″ Knards.

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Down, down, down, breezing along the old railroad grade.  The Zuni Mountains were once extensively logged, with several railroad lines serving the area.

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We load up the bikes to complete the journey to Flagstaff.  Arriving by night, we stop for a pint at the Mother Road Brewery, named in honor of Route 66, and pick a campsite in the nearby Coconino National Forest.  By morning, we realize there might not be much riding left up at this elevation.  Lael and I plan to ride some pavement south towards Payson, we we expect to find more dry dirt.  Oops– between our escapades with Jeremy, lost in Sedona, and our ride on the Black Canyon Trail, we miss the end of the season up on the plateau of Northern Arizona.  Summer persists further south.

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Gear updates:

Zippers are still undermining the reliability of a lot of good gear.  Zippers, like chains and cassettes, eventually wear out.  Small zippers, like 11sp chains, are more prone to failure.  Mismanagement and abuse, like an ill-timed shift under load, can lead to failure.

The zipper on my framebag, since being repaired in Flagstaff several weeks ago, has since failed to operate.  The bag was also poorly fit to the new frame, as the ECR features a more compact triangle.  Luckily, Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution has a framebag in stock sized to a L Salsa Mukluk, close enough to work in my frame.  It is a bit small, but it might just fit one of our fatbikes this winter, or I can sell it when I find the time to replace the entire zipper on the Porcelain Rocket bag.  I’m hoping to make more repairs to my own gear in the future.

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Further, the zipper on the rainfly of the Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2 has broken.  As opposed to wearing out, like most other zippers, the chain of wound nylon that comprises the “teeth” actually broke while Lael was opening the fly.  More robust zippers are found on the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 model which we’ve used for years.  Big Agnes makes a zipperless tent called the Fishhook, although the design is more spacious, and would be a bit larger and heavier to pack.  A simple shelter such as the Seedhouse or Fly Creek without zippers would be ideal.  Such a tent would be the ultimate for our lightweight nomadic lifestyle, as it would be for other thru-hikers and long-distance cyclists.  Then again, if the Fishhook was durable, it could be worth the weight.  I resolve to go ‘zipper-lite’ in 2014.

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29+?  I’ve got a pair of well-worn 29×3.0″ Surly Knard tires mounted to my wheels, built with comparatively narrow 29.1mm Stan’s Flow EX rims.  It works for now– no time for new wheels, no one stocks the right parts– but I look forward to some proper wide rims when I land in Alaska.  Until then, I’ve bought a set of fresh 27tpi Knards to be shipped to rural AZ to improve traction.  I’ll mount them in a few days.

These are first impressions only: I am into bigger tires, and I like 29″ wheels.  The 29+ platform has merit, but still lacks an aggressive tire, like the Hans Dampfs and Ardents I am accustomed to (Dirt Wizard should be out sometime…).  A suspension fork with true 3.0″ clearance is still unavailable.  Big tires are not a replacement for the evolved features of modern suspension.  Naturally, a rigid fork is maintenance free, with low risk of failure.  That’s good.  I’m just not sure if I am a tourist or a mountain biker.  It is starting to seem like the latter is true.

29×3.0″ Surly Knard on the left; 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Hans Dampf on the right.  The Knard measures about 75mm wide on various rims, while the Hans Dampf measures about 61mm.  The outside diameter differs by about an inch.  There’s a difference, for sure, but what about an aggressive 2.5-2.75″ tire, a largely unavailable range of tires (check our the 29×2.5″ Maxxis Minion DHF).  With a suspension fork, this might be ideal.  More ride time is required, as well as some fresh tires and wider rims.

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Riding south: A day or two of pavement riding should put us out of the snow, and more importantly, out of the mud that results from slowly melting snow during the days.  Back to dirt soon.

Standing on a corner in Winslow, AZ– (Attention ABQ!)

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Inches of rain in Arizona are undoubtedly good for a state in perpetual drought, which is the exact nature of a desert as I understand,  For us, aside from cold fingers and toes, this means the possibility of sticky, muddy roads and trails.  We’ve enjoyed the length of the Black Canyon Trail, tasting temperatures below 2000ft in elevation.  It was nice to be back in shorts and t-shirts for a few days, but our focus on the AZT brings us back to Flagstaff, nearing 7,000ft.  A chance of snow, amidst a 100% chance of rain for several days has sent us looking for something else.  The solution is to hitch to Albuquerque for the weekend to visit friends.  We lived in ABQ last winter for six months, and would hate to let another year or two pass before making contact in New Mexico again.  By that time, contacts will be lost, and it all fades in memory.  While traveling, we make an effort to visit as many friends and family as possible.  It is a lot of fun, but it can also be a lot of work.  In total, it is worth it.  These are, after all the effort, lasting friendships.

More on the Black Canyon Trail soon.

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Thanks to Lil for picking us up at the south end of the BCT, and transporting us back north.  What luck, that also included a genuine Mongolian yurt for the night, out of the rain; a hot shower, laundry, and even a hot tub.  After coffee in the morning, and conversation, we peeled ourselves away to make our way east, along the I-40 corridor, which has mostly grown over historic Route 66, but not entirely.

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As such, we’re standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, a line made famous by the Eagles song “Take it Easy”.  We’d be lucky if a girl in a flatbed Ford would slow down to pick us up.  Until now, it has been a bit grim, standing in passing rainshowers.  Hitchhiking is not our preferred mode of transport– it is far form the freedom of being under our own power– and there is an Amtrak train between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, but hitching often makes sense for our impromptu decisions, and for our budget.  This is our first time hitching an interstate highway corridor.  I’ll take my luck on backroads any day.  The interstate is depressing.

Thanks to the truck full of Navajo construction workers who got us out of Flagstaff.  Those guys understand.

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ABQ!– Burqueños, be ready.  We hope to be in town sometime today (Friday).  I hope to arrange some gatherings over the weekend.  A ride in the Rio Grande Bosque, a Ukrainian feast, a fresh salad at Vinaigrette, or a pint at La Cumbre?  Anyone in ABQ?

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The road to the Black Canyon Trail

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By now, we’re off on the Black Canyon Trail, a recently refurbished, reimagined, 79 mile multi-use trail through central Arizona, running along the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains, through a corridor from the northern Arizona grasslands down to the prickly Sonoran desert.  

Leaving Flagstaff for the last time, we shoot for the northern terminus of the trail, near a little town called Mayer.  Between here and there is a whole big slice of northern Arizona.  From Sedonan spirituality, to public service signage in Mayer that reads, “There’s life after meth.”, this chunk of rural country has it all.  While we’re here for the AZT and the BCT, amongst other routes and trails, sometimes it is the roads between that capture our attention most.

Above: The last bit of the Lime Kiln Trail, connecting Sedona to Cottonwood, AZ.  Mingus Mountain looms in the background, under stirring skies.

Below: Riding from Flagstaff back to Sedona– this, our second time– we descend Schnebly Hill.  I could make this ride a hundred more times without losing interest.

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By the time we near town, we stop for some of Arizona’s best.

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For another few days, we make loops around town.  From our preferred grocery in town, it’s a quick five minute ride back onto trails, connecting with the Ridge Trail down to the gravelly beach along Oak Creek.  

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Across the Chavez Ranch, to Oak Creek.  We wade across the creek at sunset on this night.

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To ride the Templeton Trail– again, a third or fifth time– in the dark. 

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To a camp spot scouted on a previous ride, on a hilltop near the intersection of Slim Shadey and Templeton.

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Awake, to this.

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Towards the Village of Oak Creek, the blue-collar town south of Sedona, home to the IGA, $49 motel rooms, and a scattering of outlet shops.

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A second broken Salsa Anything Cage in one summer means it is time for another solution.  I’ll miss the 64 oz. bottle.

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New shoes for Lael.  Which look better?  She has nearly worn holes through the packable Merrels that she has been using all summer.  Rocky trails hurt her feet through thin soles.  Let’s go shopping for discount kicks at the Famous Footwear!  Historically, Alaskans would always go shopping when “going outside”, to pick up brands unavailable up north.  Alaskans love Arizona.  

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Then, meet and ride with another Alaskan– a transplant like the rest of them– on a loop including Templeton and Llama, two of my favorite trails in Sedona.  

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By evening, time to navigate out of Sedona.

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Onto the Lime Kiln Trail, which is included as part of the Coconino Loop route.  It is a bit prickly out of Sedona, crossing Highway 89, but the trail quality picks up steam towards Cottonwood.  

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A rainy night in Arizona.  Part of the reason we’ve chosen to squeeze the BCT into these few days is to avoid some weather coming through.  Back to the AZT after the BCT.

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Morning ride into Cottonwood.

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Into a diverse blue-collar town at the junction of the Verde Valley, and the mountains above.

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A fat sack of Mexican pastries for the climb.  Good tortillas and a panaderia are perks of visiting working communities in the southwest.

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Up Mingus Mountain.  

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From the Coconino Loop route info, we choose the bypass route around Mingus Mountain, avoiding a hike-a-bike over the top.  On a blustery rainy day, the top of the mountain looks uninviting.  The sun suggests we have made the right choice.

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Since leaving Sedona, I haven’t slept a night without the sound of gunshots nearby.  Arizonans love their guns.

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Thankfully, the roads are not not too tacky, with the help of pine needles and gravel.

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Descending the backside of Mingus, towards the pavement.

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The paved pass over the mountains, an alternate route from Cottonwood through Jerome, is seen in the distance.

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Down to the Prescott Valley, where the sun is shining.  Freshly constructed Bible churches are bursting at the seams on this beautiful Sunday morning in the valley.  Prescott Valley is a rapidly growing community, largely due to cheap land.  Houses are seemingly glued together; many are currently for sale, yet the area is growing.  The next Phoenix?

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Gas station coffee.  Lots of big pick-up trucks.    

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Some agriculture is left in the area.  Cattle graze the remnants of the Halloween harvest.

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A new bottle and cage under the down tube, and a once daily ‘clean and lube’.

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Almost ghost town, AZ.

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A bit after noon, it’s beer :30, en route to the BCT trailhead.  For this stretch, we stick to the pavement. One of the routes we had planned was signed as a private road, with a locked gate.  Thus, the detour into the city of Prescott Valley, and down through Dewey-Humboldt.  There are better ways to connect Mingus Mountain with Mayer, off-pavement.

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Into the town of Mayer.

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Which hosts a failing local grocery, a Family Dollar, and a Circle K gas station.  Between these stores, you can buy canned foods and chips at three places.  We found a fine assortment of food for a day on the trail, including a few apples.

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Just off the side of paved Highway 69, between the halves of Mayer (several miles apart), we spot a sign for the BCT.

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I know it goes under the road, but the trail is hard to spot.  A gravel parking area, to serve as a future trailhead, is nearby, but gated and locked.  

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A newer cattle gate is a good sign.

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And a pile of rocks suggests some well-meaning trail volunteers.

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It leads to a beautiful ribbon of trail over the hill, and off into an Arizonan dreamscape.

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Should be a great ride!  Back in a few days, when we’ll shoot back north to connect with the AZT near Mormom Lake.

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AZT: Grand Canyon to Flagstaff

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The Arizona Trail is one of the newest additions to the scene of long-distance hiking and bikepacking routes.  Originally conceived by Flagstaff resident Dale Shewalter in 1985, it was officially completed in 2011 with many volunteer hours and the assistance of federal National Scenic Trails funding.  Dedicated signage is now present from the northern terminus at the Utah border, to the southern terminus at the Mexican frontier.  Counting nearly 800 miles of trail along the way, the trail will continue to change as trail designers and trail crews sculpt better routes across the rugged Arizonan backcountry, including more durable singletrack trail with greater natural and scenic value for all user groups, including hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders.  The trail is technically done, although it will continue to change and improve.

For cyclists, the Arizona Trail is not as straightforward as if hiking the route.  Aside from some tough climbs and technical trail, several logistical challenges affect cyclists.  Wilderness sections of trail must be circumnavigated, as bicycles are prohibited; the Grand Canyon stands in the way as either a long hike-a-bike or a multi-day paved detour from the North Rim to the South Rim; and several challenging sections of trail promise additional hiking and pushing.  Add the challenges that all trail users face, such as sourcing food and water along the way, and the AZT becomes an epic undertaking.  Section riding lessens the challenge, and is a good way to enjoy a slice of Arizona and the AZT.

There is no single, definitive resource when planning to bikepack the AZT.  First published in 2002, Andrea Lankford’s book Biking the Arizona Trail suggests one possible route, which favors rideable dirt roads in place of the actual AZT at times.  To experience the state of Arizona on rideable off-pavement routes, this would be a great place to start.  More cavalier cyclists, with ultralight loads and racer’s legs, often choose to stick to the actual AZT as much as possible.  Back in 2005, Scott Morris and Lee Blackwell set off to ride, hike, and push through as much of the route as possible, bringing home valuable perspectives and GPS data for the rest of us to ponder.  Scott had previously ridden Andrea’s route in 7 days, while this effort consumed 25 days.  As a part-time Arizona resident with a handle on conditions of the changing trail, including newly-built sections, Scott says:

No one AZT trip has been the same. New sections are built, old ones rerouted, and the biggest question an AZT thru-rider should ask themselves is, “how much do I want to stick to the trail?”

There are two extremes of this route choice. Staying with the trail can lead to some long hike-a-bikes (but also amazing terrain). The other extreme is the route described by Andrea Lankford’s book, which is often comprised of dirt roads.

The current recommendation is to go with a route that is somewhere between the Lankford route and the “trail-no-matter-what”. There are several key sections of beautiful trail that simply weren’t built when Lankford wrote her book. There’s no need to spend so much time on dirt roads.

As such, we set out from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon last week to take a look for ourselves.  Along the way, we’ll follow some of the actual AZT, the best recommendation for cycling routes around wilderness, and on occasion, we’ll choose the easier of several options, especially to avoid prolonged hike-a-bike.  Our intention is to experience the state of Arizona by bike, for the first time.  As always, our intention is to live well and have fun.  In the coming weeks, we hope to bring more transparency to cycling the AZT.

The best resource for history, inspiration, and routeplanning a tour of the Arizona Trail is Scott Morris’ website Bikepacking.net, with a page dedicated to riding the AZT.

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At the Grand Canyon, we pick up a package shipped to us General Delivery by Big Agnes.  Our first night in the Fly Creek UL2 proves our new shelter to be a cozy place to spend a 19 degree night.

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In the morning, Lael looks for a way to keep her fingers warm.  She slides some spare sil-nylon stuff sacks over her wool mitts.

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Setting off for good from the town of Tusayan, south of the Grand Canyon Village, we enjoy an afternoon ride along meandering singledoubletrack along the Coconino Plateau.  The trail is well signed, and makes for a pleasant afternoon on the bike.  Carpets of pine needles and dappled sunlight are most of the reason we came to ride in AZ.  Riding amongst Arizona pines has been alluring for a long time.

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Signage on this section of trail indicates distances to trailheads and major road crossings, as well as stock tanks along the trail, which are potential water sources in season.  Lots of tanks are dry by this time of year in the high country.

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From atop the firetower, overlooking the Grand Canyon to the north, at sunset.

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The next morning, we rise to more rideable singletrack.  There are a few short pushes, especially as we acclimate to loose, rocky Arizona riding.  As a matter of habit, I will not mention these short periods off the bike, as they are a natural part of bikepacking.  Longer, more memorable pushes, however, will receive attention.  All nice riding here.

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The GPS track downloaded from Bikepacking.net indicates a waypoint, with text: “Sign says walk bicycles, but rideable”.  These little nuggets of information are invaluable when staring at a 2 1/2 inch LCD screen, chasing a pink line across the state.

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These high county forests are cattle country, with numerous cattle gates of various designs.  This one gives me a photographic perch as Lael rides beneath.

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Fire also plays an important role in these seasonally dry pine forests.  While mature ponderosa pines typically survive the fires, the understory remains open and airy as a result.

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Not here, but almost anywhere else.  Camping on the AZT is a dream.

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Only a day away from a proper grocery store, with generally cool weather, we enjoy fresh vegetables along the trail.  A bag of washed kale makes for a hearty salad trailside.

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Stock tanks come in many shapes and sizes, containing water from nearby surface water collection ponds.  When the ponds flood, gravity forces water through underground piping to fill the tanks with water.  Many tanks are fully-contained to limit evaporation to the atmosphere.

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The large tanks can then be used to fill water troughs for cattle.  Almost no water is present at this tank, called the Russell Tank, except for some lightly-frozen water in the smaller covered reservoir.  It smells alright, and we treat several liters with our UV pen.

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The central section of the route from the Grand Canyon to Flagstaff includes a series of dirt roads, some of which trace an old wagon route to the Canyon.  Just before 1900, the ride cost $20 and took about 12 hours.

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Out of the forests and into more open country.

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Crossing a large private land tract.  Gaining passage across such properties is essential to the success of long-distance routes such as the AZT, or hiking routes such as the PCT.

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Federal funding is also essential, in addition to countless volunteer hours.  Join the Arizona Trail Association to support the trail and to gain access to guides and trail resources.

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Open country en route to the San Francisco peaks above Flagstaff.  The route south of the Grand Canyon makes its first major climb up to 9000ft along the flanks of the Snowbowl ski area north of town.  The highest point, Humphrey’s Peak, reaches to 12,633 ft, the highest point in Arizona.

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Fast dirt road riding comprises about 30 miles of the AZT across the Babbit Ranch.  A nice place for a sunset ride.

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Shooting for some cover from the wind, we ride back onto USFS property.  Trail signage commemorates the official completion of the trail in 2011.

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Arizona promises memorable sunsets, clear nights, and warm days, even into November.

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And crisp mornings.

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Clear skies all around, save for some lenticular clouds looming over the San Francisco peaks.

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Back into the pines, we find some cover from strong winds this morning.  At singletrack speeds, winds are not a huge issue.  Still, a calm day makes for better picnics.

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Up into aspens above 8,000ft, better cover from the wind and some meandering sections of trail marked “new AZT” on the GPS are worth writing home about.  This is one of the nicest, most durable sections of trail anywhere.  With such high standards of trail building, the AZT is soon to be a premiere long-distance bikepacking route.

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We’ve just missed the golden hues of fall, as these trees now await frosty mornings and snow.  Looks a little like Anchorage in the winter.  We’ll be there soon enough, just in time for Christmas and the fatbiking season.

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Out of the aspen and back into the pines, we top out near 9000ft before beginning a nearly 15 mile descent into town– all on singletrack.

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Mexico, only 611 miles away.  Gone are the days of touring a hundred miles a day on pavement.  Bikepacking on singletrack is a whole other world.

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A bit of snow up high reminds us to keep moving south.

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Down, down, down…

Not a bad place for big tires, or suspension.  For those contemplating the new 29+ (29×3.0″) tire platform available on several new Surly models, Andy (aka Big Dummy Daddy) has written a thoughtful ‘reckoning’ of the E.C.R. from a recent ride aboard one of these bike camping beasts at a Surly-sponsored bike camping event in Colorado.  However, trails like this lead me more to the higher bottom bracket and descent-oriented geometry of the Krampus.

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Lael lands hard on the sharp edge of a rock– on her rear tire, that is– pinching a hole in the thick rubber of her 2.25″ On-One Smorgasbord tire.  A few minutes and some Stan’s sealant do the trick.

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Singletrack all the way into Flagstaff.  This is a great introduction to any town.

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We find a home for the night with Cosmic Ray, a local cycling legend and Warmshowers.org host.  Ray publishes a series of mountain biking and hiking guides throughout Arizona.  He has been riding and touring for decades, recently making passage along the EuroVelo6 Route across Europe.  Note, the TA 50.4BCD chainring in the mobile.

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Details from drafts of the 24th edition of his mountain biking guide.

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An airstream trailer houses the two of us for the night, plus a particular tattooed Pugsley rider from Santa Fe.

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Ray has been at it for a minute, having co-owned a bike shop in town back in the 80′s.  These days he rides, and edits his guides, which are updated annually.

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A nice collection of bikes mark various points in his cycling life.  This repainted Ritchey is a gem.

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Although he also spent a lot of time on an early Stumpjumper, back in his bike shop days.  He claims to have modified balloon-tire cruisers with gears and brakes prior to mass-produced models.  Marin, Crested Butte, Flagstaff…

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Now, his tourer and daily rider is a custom Coconino Cycles frame.  Macy’s coffee shop in Downtown Flagstaff is his usual morning hang, and a great place to enjoy an espresso in the morning.  It is a great place to get a feel for Flagstaff as well.  Thanks Ray for the hospitality, and the intel on Arizona Trails.  Check out the legendary “Cosmic Ray” guides at bike shops all over Arizona, or online at Amazon.

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Leaving Flagstaff towards Sedona, Jeremy joins us from Santa Fe for a few days of riding.  Step number one when leaving town on a fatbike, let some air out.  We plan to ride some AZT, and some of the Coconino Loop route towards Sedona for a few days in the sun down near 4000ft, before returning to Flagstaff.  Be back soon!

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News and updates:

The computer:  Moving on from the financial heartbreak of a waterlogged computer, I replaced the old machine with a new one.  Apple quoted $800 for repairs, and was unclear about whether data recovery would be possible.  There are a few days of photos that weren’t backed up anywhere else, although most of my files are safe.  Best Buy was offering the computer for $50 off the full retail price, although the price listed in the store (from last week’s sale I presume), was a full $100 off the full price.  I jumped at the chance, they honored the price– I insisted– and then put some of the money saved towards a full warranty against drops and spills for the next year.  I am handy with used bikes, free camping, and cooking healthy food on the road for cheap.  Computers, unfortunately, have been an expensive habit.  I’m learning; I promise to do better.  Time to move on.

Bunyan Velo: Bunyan Velo is offering a stack of stickers for $5.00.  Issue No. 4 is due out in January.  A printed anthology has been discussed, in addition to more affordable printed goods in various formats.  Support the future of Bunyan Velo with a few stickers.  Other BV paraphernalia coming soon.

Zippers, zippers, zippers!:  Zippers are dying everywhere, mostly from extended use and now, from gritty southwest sand and clay.  Framebag zippers are joining the fate of windbreakers, layers, tents, and rain jackets.  There is an inexpensive repair shop in Flagstaff that repairs zippers.  The result isn’t pretty, but it is cheap– a six-pack of beer and “at least five bucks” was the charge.  I offered $23 for two new sliders, one new zipper with slider, and some basic stitching on Lael’s torn sleeping bag.  Look for the small shop on San Francisco St.

This winter:  We plan to return to Anchorage for the winter.  As soon as we get back, we’ll be looking for work, fatbikes, and friends.  Any help is appreciated.  Due back mid-December, most likely.  Wanna ride fatbikes?

This color dirt only found in Sedona…

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From basin to range, Utah

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From the south end of the Lockhart Basin Road, I’d spotted a forest service route over the southern portion of the Manti-LasSal National Forest, connecting with Highway 95 down near the Arizona border.  Our expectations are for another day and half of cycling, up near 9,000ft, with a long descent to pavement down the other side.  With just enough food– and some good intel on water sources in the moutnains– it is a perfect plan.  But as we’ve learned over many years of cycling, especially in the wild places of the west, plans are meant to be broken.

Diving away from pavement of Highway 211, up the Bridger Jack/Beef Basin Road.  Continue onto FR 88/Elk Ridge Road, all the way over the mountains.  There are innumerable possible variations, but this is the simplest to navigate, with (most likely) the highest quality roads.

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Most signage around here is oriented to the hordes of climbers that stick to the canyon walls this time of year, like geckos soaking sunshine.  

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The west is still a bit wild.  Cattle still graze the highlands in summer, and someone has to call them home for the winter.  That’s what cowboys are for.

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We might have thought it was another decade up here, with the abundance of well-preserved cans along the road.  Clint Eastwood drinks Schlitz in the Dirty Harry movies.  As such, I’ve also had a soft spot for the stuff.  This one also has the patented SOFTOP lid– all of this is well before my time.

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In waning light, we climb towards 7,000ft.  Have I mentioned that this is my favorite time to ride?

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The dinner view– like the namesake formations of the nearby ‘Needles’ area of Canyonlands National Park.

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By morning, the light reverses itself, highlighting Cathedral Butte.  

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This will be one of the last nights in our Big Agnes Seehouse SL2 tent, which we’ve enjoyed through wind, snow, and rain over 5 years and about 700 nights.  Zippers are dying everywhere amongst our gear (not only on the tent), while the rainfly is torn from a midnight mishap.  While in the shop for repairs in Steamboat Springs, CO, Big Agnes has offered to send us a Fly Creek UL2, about a half-pound lighter than our current tent.  They’ve been great about repairing and replacing parts over the years, for a reasonable price.  In all this time, only the ground cloth remains from our original tent.  

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As we pack up and roll out, dark clouds are rolling in from the west.  Coming from across canyon country, they energize as they storm up the mountainside, rising 4000ft all at once.  These roads are no fun when wet.  Still, we hope for the best.  Our luck seems limitless.

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Looking out on Canyonlands National Park, the two air masses meet.  We are going the wrong direction.  Climbing, climbing, climbing…

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Until we can climb no more.  By now, we are all the way up the mountain, nearly half way to the pavement on the other side.  But it isn;t in the cards for today.  Unless we ware willing, or able, to carry our bikes for miles, the only choice is ride back the way we came. 

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Drink before thirsty, eat before hungry, says Velocio.  We’re already worked up an appetite.  A tortilla stuffed with cheese will hold us over until we ride out of the clouds, and out of the risk of tacky roads. 

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On the bright side, we look forward to a 3000+ft descent.  Lael picked up a new Revelate Feed Bag at Salvagetti’s in Denver, CO.  It mostly contains small portions of condiments stolen from gas stations, as apples.  Occasionally, it is filled with a liter of kefir, a habit she picked up in Ukraine.

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Out of the forest.

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Back amongst sage and ancient juniper, a herd of elk calling nearby, crossing the road a distance ahead.

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Down into the sun, where the memories of wet roads and rain are nearly forgotten.  From desert to forest, the weather also changes from 5000ft to 8500ft.  

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Finally, back near the road, we boil some water for coffee.  While filling up on clean water at reliable sources whenever possible, we either treat or boil a drink of surface water whenever we have the chance, to extend our range.  On an established route, it is common to know the distance to the next water source.  Without such information, it is a necessary habit to carry too much water.  Thankfully, water, like food, always gets lighter.

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The only choice now is a long paved route around the mountains.  There are worse places to be touring on the road.  Rural Utah is a treat, on or off pavement.

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Soon, a quick ride to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, then Flagstaff, Sedona, and beyond.  Anyone in AZ?  We are looking at riding some AZT, Cononino, Black Canyon, and whatever else we can find.  Route ideas?  Anyone want to ride?

Lockhart Basin Road, Utah

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Dirt touring routes south of Moab?  Surely, there are more than a few ways to figure it, but the Colorado River, Highway 191, and the LaSal Mountains make for some natural barriers.  Leaving town toward the south on the Lockhart Basin Road is an obvious choice.

The Lockhart Road is a Jeep track, or ORV route, one amongst a bevy of classic Moab routes.  Thankfully, all but the most technical of these rock-crawling Jeep routes are ideal for riding.  While the Lockhart Basin Route is signed as a “Most Difficult” route for motor vehicles, thanks to a few stair-step rock features scattered with boulders, the route is almost entirely rideable chunky doubletrack, with some fast dirt road riding in between.  From the center of Moab to Highway 211 at the south, the route requires one big day, or two leisurely days of riding.  Water is scarce– none is officially available on route– and even in cool October days, we were careful to watch our water consumption, choosing foods that do not require rehydration and sipping our bottles conservatively.  The total distance from Moab to Hwy 211 is about 60 miles, along some of the most scenic, accessible, legal riding we have found anywhere.  We left town with about 14L of water between the two of us.  If it sounds like the riding is getting better and better for us, that’s because it is.  Coming and going, via Moab, makes for some great riding.  

Thanks to Cass for the initial route recon, back in the fall of 2009.  That summer, he and I crossed paths for the first time at the Off the Chain Co-op in Anchorage, AK.  He visited our humble trailer along the banks of the Nenana River a few weeks later after riding south from Deadhorse.

Leaving Moab at dark, we shoot for some public land.  Camping in the west has spoiled us.

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We awake to the sounds of a small spring only several miles from Moab.  An early start is becoming more common, as food and water scarcity challenge us to keep moving at a healthy pace.

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Seemingly, it is 30 degrees in the shade, but 70 degrees in full sun.  Clear skies at 5000ft make October an excellent month to visit Utah.

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Our first climb reaches toward Hurrah Pass, less than 1000ft above.  Then, we drop down toward the Colorado River on the Lockhart Basin Road.

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Leaving the Kane Creek drainage, toward Chicken Corners.

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Up to Hurrah Pass.

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Since landing in Denver, I’ve done extensive work on our bicycles to get them back into top (well-used) condition.  Most notably, this includes new cables and housing, and some new drivetrain parts.  To replace worn chainrings on my crank, I ordered a new RaceFace Ride crank for about $100.  A new Shimano SLX derailleur was included to replace the uninspiring slop in the previous rear derailleur, which had been cobbled together from parts in New Mexico.  In haste, I ordered a newer 10sp SLX derailleur, which didn’t like my friction shifters and 8sp cassette and chain.  The system functioned, technically, although 10sp gear utilizes a different cable pull from the shifter (much like SRAM equipment), requiring a real big push of the thumb to access the climbing gears.  The eventual solution is a used $20 Shimano XT derailleur from Moab Classic Bike,  a hip little shop in a town obsessed with high-tech all-mountain machines.  The SLX unit is shipped home in a box with some other stuff.  The big ring — all 44 unnecessary teeth– is removed, in favor of: chainring to rock clearance, a shorter chain for crisper shifting, and a little less weight.  Works great, with less room for mud to hide when the trail gets thick.  For now, 32×22 rings up front, and an 11-32 8sp cassette in the rear.  That’s 16 gears!  

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The view from the top, near Hurrah Pass, looking down on Kane Creek.

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An unspectacular feat– the climb to Hurrah Pass is small change compared to the climbs on the Kokopelli Trail.

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The otherworldly vistas are unlike anywhere we’ve ever been, certainly a long way from Ukraine.  Note the broadly curving anticline, of the arch-like curvature of the sedimentary layers.

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This might be the best weather of the year.  Riding temperatures are perfect.  Nights are cool to cold, but we are well prepared for much colder weather. 

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Stick to the Lockhart Basin Road, as the route to Chicken Corkers cuts right, toward the Colorado River.

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This is where the trail gets tough.  Excepting these few pushes over chunky, rocky, boulder-filled slickrock canyons, the route is extremely rideable.  Just a few unrideable pushes in this section, before riding back onto something more like a ‘road’.

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A road in there somewhere…

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Rideable, once again.

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The route is easy to follow, especially as all two or three major junctions are signed– there aren’t too many places to get lost.  However, we were following a GPS track of the route, so navigation was a breeze.  A few rock cairns help locate the route along the way.

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The basin is a broad topographic low, adjacent to the Colorado River, characterized by canyons and valleys, and the resultant ridges and spires.  The route follows the edge of the canyon the entire way, hugging steep cliff walls for miles.

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While constantly undulating, the route hovers right around 4500ft.

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There is no shortage of chunky road to navigate, although most of it is fun to ride quite fast.  We’ve enjoyed these rides, like the Kokopelli Trail, that blend wide-open dirt roads and rough technical tracks.

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Shadows grow longer, for a memorable early-evening descent.

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Lael claims this might be her favorite ride ever!

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A six mile road leads down to the Colorado River, but to preserve our southward trajectory, we stick to the main road.  It looks like a worthwhile detour. 

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Ride until dark, camp, ride again.  Overland travel by bicycle in the west has a nice rhythm.

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Moments before dark, Lael laces up her shoes for a run.  Not a day passes that she doesn’t aim to go running, often for an hour or more.

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Sunset, and sunrise are worth a few moments of our time.  So are the stars, and the mornings, and afternoons, and evenings– never a bad time of day or night, this time of year.NicholasCarman0001 915

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In addition to rocky, chunky tracks, sandy washes are also best navigated on larger tires.  

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Back on Highway 211, we detour several miles to the west to pick up some water.  The Needles Outpost is a private facility near the entrance to Canyonlands National Park.  Water is available in gallon jugs for a price.  Free water is available inside the park, a few miles further, for a $5 entrance fee.  Riding east on Highway 211, you should encounter surface water in several places along Indian Creek, although cattle ranching in these parts mean a reliable purification or filtration system is necessary.  Not sure is these streams run dry mid-summer.  Water levels seem good this time of year, or perhaps just this year.  

At least the water is still cheaper than gas, which goes for $6.50 a gallon.  Edward Abbey, who was a park ranger in these parts, would be happy to see the price of fuel.  

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Continuing south, we have our eyes on Elk Ridge Road over the southern portion of the Manti-LaSal National Forest, which eventually connects to Highway 95.  From the end of the Lockhart Basin Road, the Needles Outpost is 4 miles west; the beginning of Beef Basin/Bridger Jack Mesa Roads (to Elk Ridge Road, FR 88) is about 8 miles east on Hwy 211, with a pit toilet and information board at the head of the road.  Monticello is about 45 miles from here.

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Lael devours the last few pages of her novel, Pretty Boy Floyd, by Larry McMurtry. to save weight in her pack.  She’s already carrying the replacement novel by Tom Robbins, purchased for 50 cents at the Moab Public Library.  She loves the Moab library.

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She leaves it on the message board at the head of Beef Basin/Bridger Jack Road, amongst notes from climbers and hunters.  The area is a very popular climbing destination.

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Into the mountains!

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Kokopelli’s Trail: Fruita, CO to Moab, UT

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When routeplanning from afar– via internet and memory from Ukraine– riding Kokopelli’s Trail across the state line from Colorado to Utah stood out as a good starting point.  In such wide open country with so many roads, routes and trails, a signed and mapped route such as this is a blessing.  It builds confidence in the kind of riding found in the area to be able to follow a popular route for a bit.  It reminds us how to carry four days of food and as much as 8 liters of water apiece.  We’re a long way from Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Czech, Germany, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands– it has been a good summer.  For me, autumn in the cool dry air of the mountainous west is the capstone to a third consecutive summer.  Sleeping under starry skies under a frosty tent amongst juniper and sage and aspen is starting to feel like home.    

Kokopelli’s Trail, officially arranged by the BLM as a bicycling route from Fruita, CO to Moab, UT measures about 142mi in length.  Several distinct sections exist: a dozen miles of singletrack trails leave Fruita, miles of high desert dirt roads with brief interruption of rougher jeep tracks fit in the middle, and a push up and over the LaSal mountains to Moab finishes the route in the E-W direction.  The final section contains most of the climbing of the entire route, with several-thousand foot ascents and descents, along the canyons and ridges of the LaSal range.  The middle portion, on the high desert plains, is subject to becoming quite sticky following precipitation, due to a high content of clay in the soil.  Otherwise, it is fast and fun Divide-style riding  The first miles out of Fruita are sublime, especially when consider as part of a longer-distance touring route.  

For experienced mountain bikers, the concept of carrying supplies over several days may be a challenge, with great reward.  For the experienced cycletourist accustomed to ‘roads’, the riding will likely be the challenge, a step up from the open roads of the Divide, for example.  The scenery, for all, is unbeatable.  For us, it is a happy welcome back to the country.

Our ride begins at nightfall.  Within several miles, rain showers and precipitous cliffs send us dashing into our tent, illegally camping along the local singletrack circuit.  At dawn, we quickly pack up to begin riding some of the most beautiful singletrack we’ve encountered.  These trails are, let us not forget, central to the sport of mountain biking in the US.  Nearby is Horsethief Bench, for instance.     

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Above the Colorado River.

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Lael makes use of the backpack purchased in Ukraine.  It has never been our intention to ride with a pack, but our hurried start left us with three full-sized bike magazines, part of a 12 oz. bottle of Stan’s sealant, about 16L of water, and four days of food.  At the time, it was easier to load the pack with lightweight flotsam than to bother with framebag or saddlebag wizardry.  We hate to admit, but a proper backpack could be a viable solution for someone looking to expand their capacity.  It is much easier to accept a monkey on the back on a cold rainy day, than on a sweaty afternoon.  There is something comforting about the extra layer on a cold morning.  I still don’t think I could do it mid-summer.

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With rain threatening, we keep an eye on our escape routes.  We are aware of the tacky potential of western roads and trails.

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However, the Fruita trail system is well designed and drained, mostly composed of rock and sand.

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Except when we stray off route onto a jeep track, and push through clay until our bikes no longer roll.  After a few minutes, we cover enough distance to make it apparent on my GPS that we have lost the route.  I know exactly where we strayed.  

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A thick layer of mud coats our shoes.

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Back on track, we enjoy a singletrack descent to clear our tires of clay.  

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Eventually, reaching a tributary of the Colorado River, we descend and cross a set of train tracks.  With an eye on nearby 1-70, we consider the option of routing around potentially tacky roads ahead.  

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We break for lunch to reassess.  Not much changes in this time– rain to the north, less menacing white clouds to the south.  We continue.

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Climbing away from the river, pushing as much as riding on some rocky trails, we reach open desert plains adjacent to I-70.

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The roads we encounter are composed of sand and gravel, mostly, and make for fast riding.  A tailwind reminds me that I also enjoy long days on open dirt roads– such as on the Divide.  Chunky sections of trail have me dreaming of a Surly Krampus, but these roads lead my thoughts to a drop-bar Velo Orange Camargue

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I’ve been looking for a good piece of steel wire to repair my pot stand for my stove.  Not much barbed wire in Ukraine, but plenty of extra in the US.  This scrap will do nicely to repair my cook system.

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All is well, until a change in elevation, through changing geology.

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Dead in our tracks, no sooner than ten feet into this stuff!  Unfortunately, once the bike doesn’t roll, it has become no easier to carry thanks to pounds and pounds of mud.

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Looking forward to a 300ft ascent on sticky slippery clay, we heft our bikes into a nearby meadow for the night.

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By morning, no rain has fallen.  Clearer skies and some sun allow us to roll our bikes up the grade.  At the top, we ride our bikes back and forth on dry, sandy dirt roads to release as much clay as possible.  We clean and lube everything as best as possible, and ride on.

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Lael has a new pair of tires.  The rear, a 2.25″ On-One Smorgasbord looks like a cross between my Schwalbe Hans Dampf and the Nobby Nic she used this summer.  The front, a 2.4″ Chunky Monkey is exactly as it sounds– chunky.  Only sixty dollars for the pair–less than the price of one EXO Maxxis Ardent tire or a tubeless ready Schwalbe– this is an unbeatable price in a tire this size. The tires are constructed of thick rubber, making them suitable for use in rough country without fear of flimsy sidewalls.  They set up tubeless without any troubles.  I hope and expect that at $30 apiece, they are composed of an inexpensive, durable rubber.  Funny how this works, but cheaper mountain bike tires often use longer-wearing rubber.

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While Kokopelli is well signed, rock-cairns are user-maintained to help along the way.  If nothing else, they add an element of discovery to the process.

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A brief portion of pavement leads back down to the Colorado River.  

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We detour towards the Westwater Ranger Station in hope of finding fresh water.  The river could be a water source, although it is a bit silty.  However, the ranger station serves filtered water through an outdoor spigot.  It is operational mid-October, even despite the government shutdown.  

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These facilities are mostly aimed at floaters and paddlers on the river.  Campsites, pit toilets and fresh water are available.

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Riding away across more open plains is a joy, even packed with as much water as we can carry.  Almost all official resources state that there is “no water along the route”.  This proved to be untrue more than a half-dozen times, although Westwater provided the only source that did not require treatment.  A short 1.5 mi detour is nearly on the route, I say.

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Loping near, but not next to the Colorado River, we encounter changing scenery and conditions.

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Until at last, we are next to the river itself.  One perfect campsite beckons, about it is an hour earlier than we have planned to camp.  

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A quick swim will suffice.

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We encounter several curious fatbike tracks.  Incidentally, some internet stalking had lead to these details an hour before starting our trip in Fruita.  From Twitter:

Back from WA and running shuttle for the Kokopelli Trail with Dave and Jonny!

 

I met Zachary by chance in Kremmling, CO last summer while riding the Divide Route, soon after he had bought his white Pugsley. I lent some Divide maps to him, and borrowed some local maps from him. Now I was following his tracks, as well as the tracks of two other fatbikers.

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Crossing the pavement.  I guarantee that our byway is more scenic than this paved byway.

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Just before camping for the night, we slither along slickrock until the trail become difficult to follow by natural light.

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This is my favorite place to be this time of year.

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Rounding the first corner in the morning puts our sights on a new goal– the LaSal Mountains.  Moab is over and around those snowy peaks.

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Sandy slickrock trails are made possible by Jeeps and other motorized users.  

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Here signage for bicycles and motorized vehicles coexist, not that you couldn’t piece together routes from all of these resources.  

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Back down to the Colorado, across highway 128 again.  We could be in Moab this afternoon on the pavement, but that wouldn’t be as much fun. 

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Another swim, and another clean and lube at lunch before heading into the mountains.  It is warm in the sun, and cool in the shade– just how I like it.  Lael still talks about going to Mexico daily.

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We expect a big climb to the top, and then a big descent into Moab.  As we are mostly following trail signage and a GPS track on my tiny eTrex, we lose some of the perspective gained by a large-scale paper map.  I overlook several thousand-foot descents and ascents while relaying upcoming trail info to Lael.  Anymore, she doesn’t believe anything I say.

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Another water source.  Clear, with only a bit of grit and grime.

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Up…

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…and back down.

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The erosional patterns in such a climate, though sedimentary rock, form deep canyons and ridges.  Thus, the route climbs up and down several times before ascending over the mountains to Moab.

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Recent rains leave more than just water in the streams.

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From pavement, to roads that aren’t roads, Kokopelli is diverse.  This looks more like a rockfall, included as part of the route, although Jeep tracks were founds all down the length.  Needless to say, we carried our bikes.  A proper mountain bike is a good choice.

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Another night in the tent, which we are mostly using to stay warm.  We love sleeping out under the stars in dry climates, although the tent retains 10-15 extra degrees.  Our bags also stay dry and lofted throughout the night inside the tent.

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Quickly, sun fades the memory of a cold night.  This time of year, we are prepared with fleece gloves, long wool socks, and sleeping bag liners

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Frozen fields at five or six thousand feet.

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We encounter yet another water source listed on our GPS track near a remote campground.  The water smells of sulfur, but looks clear.  We picked up a USB-rechargeable Steripen Freedom in Denver.  For now, we are putting faith into this little blue light.  For reliable water treatment in the desert, I might still consider a physical filter, especially with an effective pre-filter for sediment.

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Up toward the peaks, past six, seven, and eight thousand feet.

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From here, we look back on the first few miles of riding this morning.  A long circuitous route is often necessary in canyon country.

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Nearing the top of the route, we enter aspen ablaze for the season, and some remnant snow from an early-season storm.

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From the top of the route, we look forward to a big descent into Moab.

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Around the corner, dirt turns to pavement.  Surely, we didn’t climb all this way to descent into town on pavement?

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Two thousand feet below, the routes turns up again, still on pavement.  It climbs back to 8500ft, before turning onto dirt for the last time.  Never underestimate the features in canyon country.

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Turning onto a popular trail system outside of Moab is a treat.  Now, we ascend to town, where pizza and beer, or some such delicacy, saves us from dining on the last of our peanut butter and pepper jack cheese for the night.

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Moab is densely used by many.  “Share the trail” is nearly as strongly encouraged as “Stay on the trail”.  The desert is a fragile place.

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Down into town by sunset.

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Nearly, by sunset.  Descending past BLM campgrounds into town, we ask about the possibility of finding a place to camp for the night.  Wild camping is a challenge this close to town, and all the campsites are full due to the government shutdown and a popular Jeep Jamboree.  A friendly government employee from Montana offers a place for the night in his campsite.  It seems being let off from work for a few weeks has some perks.

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For further information about the Kokopelli Trail, including a GPS file of the route, the Bikepacking.net website is an invaluable resource for numerous bikepacking routes.  Thanks to Scott Morris, curator of the fine Bikepacking.net and Trackleaders.com websites as well as Topofusion mapping software, for helping with some last minute learning curves associated with Garmin software and my new eTrex 20 device.  The GPS has become an essential tool for me, despite some initial frustrations.  Check out Scott’s personal ride diary for a healthy dose of backcountry riding.  His ride reports date back to 2003!     

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Headed south, looking forward to places like Lockhart Basin, Bridger Jack, Cottonwood Canyon, Needles, Beef Basin, Elephant Hill, and Arizona!