Ukraine, so far

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This is when and where everything becomes more infrequent, digitally.  There is internet, but there are also lots of dirt roads and rustic crumbling paved roads and old churches and inviting groups of men with horilka at lunch, and woman selling mushrooms by the side of the road, and kids who chase on bicycles and just a few weeks of summer left.  We left more than a few weeks of summer in Alaska, and we’re chasing the last of them in Ukraine.  We climb up Polonina Borzhava again tonight, almost a year later. 

Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine:  Uzhorod, to the Karpaty via dirt roads, some small paved road, to Volovets…

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Across Slovakia, up high

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Surely, we’re having fun.  We’re working hard– not working, technically– but riding lots.  On occasion, we stop in bus stops to avoid the rain.  This time of year, the sun is high, the air is wet, and the afternoons are stormy.  It seems we’ve also encountered a wet week in addition to normal summer storms.  That’s alright, as long as we can outlast thunderstorms by taking cover under bus stops and eating lunch in our t-shirts, or less.  These are the summers of my youth.  We’re eating pickled peppers stuffed with cabbage.  Slovakia is still a dream.

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Since our first foray out of Bratislava following touristic segments of dirt through the Male Karpaty, we’ve pedaled upstream of the Vah River, toward our eventual goal.  Ukraine, and possibly a brief segment of Poland are on our horizon.  A mix of dirt and pavement lead through the wine country of the lower Vah River valley.  Eventually, we leave the lowlands for the mountains.

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Much of the population of Slovakia lives in a few major valleys, although many small towns exist everywhere else.  This is still a country of mountain people.

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Each town features a small food shop, called a potraviny.  This one is a relic of times past.  Most often they look like mini supermarkets, with a limited range of common goods.  Everyone shops every day and buys little, but always buys those little crescent-shaped white bread rolls.  The rolls are always a little dry, and cheap as dirt.  We’ve learned to stack them with olives and tomatoes and cheese and meat.

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Each town features a bar or a restaurant or both, sponsored with signage by one of the major beer manufacturers in the country.  Lael habitually asks for dve kava and jedin chai in the morning– two coffees and one chai.  In reverse– “chai and kava”– she calles this Chai-kav-skij.

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As often as possible, we swim.  Slovakia is laced with cold streams.  The lowland countries nearby, full of people, are different.  Here we find plenty of water.  

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Finally, we’re surprised to find castles everywhere.  It is unlike Poland or Czech or Ukraine.  

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We entered the country with new(-ish) bikes.  Searching for chain lube was more complicated than expected.  I passed the opportunity to buy WD-40 several times.  Finally, I bought some.  Chains are silky smooth, for now.  XTR and WD-40 are a winning combination.

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I also bought a pair of real shoes, after a week and a half in Birkenstock sandals.  I committed to only bring clothing which I already owned.  While I spent a grip on new bike parts this year (for fun!), I knew for certain all the clothes I would need were already in my possession.  Self-destruction is inevitable with clothing, so why not let them destruct, before replacement?

I found some proper bicycle chain lube at the Tesco superstore.  Free sandals and chain lube to anyone that walks by.

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We begin our path over the mountains on a route comprised of narrow grey lines on our road map.  It proves to be a signed cycling route, and a reliable route over the mountains on a maintained dirt road.  

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Climbing into the rain…

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We find a secure cabin at the top.  All locked up– except for the outhouse– we take cover under the porch for the night.  It is nice to cover ourselves only in netting, and to keep our things dry.  The daily process of drying our things is tiresome, and an uphill battle.

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The morning is foggy, without rain.

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We eventually descend to in Trenčianske Teplice, for groceries, coffee, and internet.  Lael loves this poster advertising regional Slavic mountain festivals.

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Finally, we connect with the 1000 Miles Adventure Route.  This is an annual race route created by Czech adventure rider Jan Kopka, across Czech and Slovakia  We don’t know what to expect. 

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It begins on pavement, climbing tertiary roads into the hills.

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Mostly, we’re following signed hiking and cycling routes along the way.

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Passing through the heart of Slovakia, through towns of wooden villages, old churches, and active farmland.  

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An apiary/treehouse, or beehouse– surprises us in the forest.  There are a lot of bees here, in managed bee communities, in converted trailers and raised beehouses.

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We connect to an historic road, cut from the hillside.  Up, and up, above 1000m.

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A hiking shelter.

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Up…

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up…

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up…connecting a dirt road to a dirt road, via an unrideable hiking trail for a short distance.  We’re beginning to understand the “route”.  It is mostly rideable, but does not shy away from unridable connectors as needed.  This is our preferred mode.

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At the top is a small ski area and a seasonal hotel. It is barely open in the summer.  Winter must be busy here at about 4000ft.

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There are well-signed hiking and cycling trails in these mountains.  It is nice to see cycling trails comprised of rough, unpaved routes.  Slovakian cyclists are hardy.

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Follow the red and white, as ever.  Up and up, as ever.

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We’ll talk more about the bike later.  Yes, the main compartment of the framebag doesn’t have a zipper.  The seatpack conceals a MacBook Air.  I drilled a hole in the fork and several holes in the frame.  And yes, the bike still shreds.

Thanks to Eric Parsons of Revelate Designs for the design, creativity, and fabrication, and the dedication to do all of it at the last minute.  Thanks to him, I’m carrying a MacBook and the bike rides like a bike.

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Up over 5000ft, from the river valley below near 1000ft.  Our legs are figuring themselves out.  Rather, mine are gaining figure.  Lael’s have been ready to go since before the Fireweed 400.

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Down, down, down…

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Brakes are hot and our stuff is wet.  Swim in a stream and eat an apple.

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Of course, drink a beer.  Small drinking establishments are ubiquitous in Slovakia, as in Czech.  Beer is about $1, or less.

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The next day, we awake to sun and the opportunity to dry our things.

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The route takes a hike over some high meadows.

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And down grazing lands and logging tracks.

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All of this is adjacent to the Low Tatras National Park.  We soon learn that the logging continues into the park, although you are warned not to ride a bicycle on unstable soils.

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Up again, now on the red hiking trail, one of several national hiking trails across Slovakia.

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Don’t ride on fragile soils, say the signage.  Just drag some logs down the wet roads.  

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I do my best to keep the tires running through the frame.  Thanks to the new Fox fork and the Surly Krampus, even these muddy 2.35″ Hans Dampf tires keep rolling.  That was the plan.

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Six-wheel drive ensures the road remains a quagmire.

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Again, we wash in the stream, dry our things in the sun, and dine.  We refuse to get wet every day.  Lael says, “the forecast in Lviv calls for sun every day”.  We’re moving east.

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Out of the high mountains, between the Low Tatra and the High Tatra, we point towards Ukraine.  The 1000 Miles Adventure Route chooses some mellow dirt and pavement at the front range of the Tatras.

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Celebrating our last few days in Slovakia– not that we aren’t always celebrating– we fire a round of sausages over the fire.

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We enjoy a few more days in the country, before our focus leans towards Ukraine.  Considering our current location in the northeast of the country, a few days in Poland may be in order.  There’s something about Poland.  Namely, the Red Trails capture our attention. 

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Slovakia for a few more days.  Poland for a minute.  Ukraine, for a month or more.

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To Slovakia!–nothing not to like

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It has been a long time coming, our return to Slovakia.  We grazed the border of Slovakia on several occasions last summer.  Once, en route to meet Przemek for the first time, we rode through Slovakia for part of a day.  Unwilling to participate in yet another currency, we starved ourselves for the afternoon and raced into Poland to begin our ride on the red trails of southern Poland (Note: they use Euros in Slovakia, we started the day with Czech kroner and ended with Polish zloty).  On another occasion, we detoured from the red trails in Poland to spend a few days writing for Bunyan Velo,  We crossed the border a few times in two days, curious about the pace of life in Slovakia.  Poland is a dreamy place, as long as you are in the woods.  On the roads and in town, the energy is high.  Slovakia, like Czech, is relaxed and kind.  We liked it, but the trails, and Przemek, were in Poland.

The country is crossed with mountains, and farms, and relatively few people.  The beer, as in Czech, is cheap.  The mountains, as we are coming to find, are laced with roads and trails, accessible by a plethora of hiking and cycling routes.  These things are always easier to discover in country.  The women– I promise I won’t let this become a place to review the women of the world– have long legs and have obviously spent the summer outdoors doing things they enjoy.  Seriously, Lael agrees, and we marvel at the discovery of Slovakian women– they are beautiful and healthy.  It’s like they’ve never outgrown the age of 12.  We find this to be an interesting social and cultural marker.  The men?  Well, they mostly look like sunburnt farmers.

When crafting a plan for this summer while back in Alaska, the far eastern part of Europe invited us once again.  I want to spend more time in Ukraine, and the other half of the Carpathian Mountain chain in Romania.  Lael wants to learn some Romanian, and bulk up her Ukrainian vocabulary.  We both want to ride bikes in the countryside and mountains in places that are habitable and arable, but not yet overcome by the hypermodern life we know.  Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania.  Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania.  That’s the plan for now, at least as much of a plan as there will ever be.  Beyond that?  Greece and Macedonia?  Spain and Corsica and Morocco?  There are many opportunities further afield, but we’ve really just begun.  Its not fair to this end of the trip to focus on that end of the trip.  We’re focusing on this side of Slovakia for now, trying not to look too far forward.

We took advantage of the Condor Airlines flight over the pole, which runs nonstop all summer from Anchorage to Frankfurt for about $500.  To hone our eastern aspect, we chose a connecting flight to Vienna, which is only 40 miles from Slovakia.  While I am reading maps, Lael is honing her Euro style.

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Look who met us at the airport in Vienna– Przemek!  He came bearing gifts for Lael’s birthday, including homemade currant liqueur and a small loaf of his mother’s bread.  I’m not supposed to tell, but he also made the three hour drive to the airport the day before.  Upon returning home, deflated, he realized that we had departed on the 22nd, but would not arrive until the 23rd.  Thanks for coming back a second time.

We may have the chance to spend a few more weeks with him later this summer.  Our tentative plan is to rendezvous in Romania in late August or early September.  He’s currently living in Slovenia for work.  He still does a very good impression of a Polish man, in English, for our benefit.

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We’d planned a Warmshowers.org host in Vienna, although a delayed arrival and the time it took to reassemble our bikes meant it would be too late to ride into the city.  Neither of us had much interest in the big city, for now.  Rather, we pedaled towards Slovakia.  Head east!

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We connect to a bike path adjacent to the road, only a short distance from the airport.  We ride through several small towns, over the autobahn, and onto a signed hiking route on a small dirt road.  This leads to a dirt track along the Danube River, dotted with rustic fishing cabins.  We slept well on our first night, on a dirt road, alongside a river, only three miles from the airport.  Even the passing “dinner and dance” barges from Vienna didn’t bother us.

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Awake early, without a plan, we pedal.  Several hours later, barely 7:30, we realize we must have been up before 5AM.  This never happens, although we appreciate the extra hours.

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What time is it?

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Immediately, our eastward route intersects the EuroVelo6 route, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea; the local St. James Way, which eventually leads to the local Camino de Santiago route in Spain; and a plethora of local walking and cycling routes along the Donau (Danube).

Signposts are stacked with signs and maps covered in colored routes.  The pathways are in constant use by a steady stream of riders, runners, rollerbladers, and walkers.  Many cycling routes incorporate graded gravel farm roads or unpaved cycling paths.  Most routes utilize existing facilities.  Creating bikeable routes is sometimes as easy as providing maps and signage.  Rest stops like this one are also welcomed, which include drinking water, a bike rack, a detailed map, a covered picnic area, wooden reclining chairs, and some green space.  These are luxuries to a cyclist on a long ride.

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The red and white signage indicates a hiking route.  The shell signifies the way of St. James, whose terminus is in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.  The most prominent portion of the route is in Spain, although routes and signage begin much further afield.

907 must be the hiking route number.  We’re not in (907)Alaska anymore.

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A short way down the river, Bratislava comes into view.  The capital city of Slovakia borders both Austria and Hungary.  Of the three countries we choose Slovakia, although the long-distance “blue trail” in Hungary is enticing. It claims to be the oldest long-distance footpath in Europe (c. 1938), and comprises part of the modern E4 route across Europe.

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We find easy entrance into the city on paved trails.  Some public maps suggest an off-pavement exit.

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Large Soviet housing projects are common in these eastern cities.

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Europe is full of signed and mapped routes for walking and cycling.  Many walking paths are great fun to ride.  Some cycling routes include mellow dirt tracks, although most prefer pavement.  Dirt routes begins immediately outside the city, climbing into the Malé Karpaty mountains.

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The park includes many features benefitting activity and community.  The greater area includes routes for miles, trending northward through the mountains.

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Dirt, right out of the city.

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The red and white is a walking route, the colored “C” routes are cycling routes.  They diverge, and converge, in this case.

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Along the way, we find dozens of picnic tables, gazebos, and grassy areas.

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And plenty of signage.  Lots of signage.

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Segments of genuine singletrack are exciting, through managed forests dominated by beech trees.

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Some of our route convenes with the race route of an upcoming series.

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Even some hike a bike on day one.  Not bad, considering we don’t have a plan.

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22-32.  This one gets a lot of use.

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Further from the city, the moutnains grow taller and all the cycling routes descend into the valley.  We continue for a time on walking routes, with some pushing.

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Descending from the mountains, we direct ourselves north and east.  A near goal is to get to Ukraine, although there is plenty of riding in Slovakia to keep us busy for years.  We’ll sample some along the way, including some of the 1000 Miles Adventure Route, which crosses Czech and Slovakia.

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Fruit falls onto the roadways.  Camping is abundant.  Nothing not to like.

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Swimming.  Once a day keeps the stink away.  Public laundromats don’t exist where we’re going.

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More cycling and walking routes in the mountains.  So many options.

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The beech forests!–generouslly spaced trees, filtered sunlight, singletrack.

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Dobra Voda.

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Descend to Dobra Voda.  Ascend from Dobra Voda, through a cemetery.

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To a castle.  We didn’t expect a castle at the top of this hill.  Not that this is the fist castle we’ve seen in this corner of Slovakia.  There are dozens.

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A short distance away, we make camp at the top of the mountain, along the red trail.  Red trails are most often major routes, which cover longer distances.

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From the top, we descend through more scenic beech forests to town.  Slovakia is a new favorite.  Nothing not to like.

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The E8 walking trail, like the E4 and the E2, crosses the European continent from Ireland to Turkey.

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This map locates all the castles, in reference to cycling routes.

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Searching for chain lube, we go looking for small town bikes shops.  It seems WD-40 in spray cans is preferred.

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We choose pavement for a few days to make some distance north, and east.  When possible, we interject mellow dirt routes chosen from local signage.  A forecast for heavy rain will keep us off the dirt for a few days.  Much of the dirt riding ahead of us promises to be steep, as we enter higher mountains.  Lael also has a nagging ankle injury that likes to ride a bike, but not to push bikes up steep grades.

Postcard Slovakia: Soviet housing, sunflowers, rolling hills, and blue skies.

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Tidy houses, forested hills, small farm plots, and fruit trees.

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Swim in a cold stream, a castle on the hill.

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Slovakians love to ride.  There are often families and groups of riders on the weekends.  Through the week, people commute to work and ride to the store to get what they need.  Most often, older men and women ride vintage step-through frames with 24×1 3/8″ tires and rider bars, perfectly practical for this kind of riding.

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Proper bike shops are infrequent, although bikes from the past several decades are still riding alongside newer bikes.  It is not uncommon to see a 30 year old bike with patina and signs of use, still exhibiting smooth operation.  This is what happens when you value the things you have, and take care of them.  The values of our grandparents are still alive here.

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Aside from maps and signs by the roadside, detailed guidebooks and “Active” maps for hiking and cycling are available from local bookstores and supermarkets.  This book details cyclings routes around Slovakia, concentrated in the southwest corner, nearby much of the country’s population.  This book includes paved and unpaved routes, and many routes which combine the two.

Check our this digital resource for all the walking routes in Slovakia.  Cycling routes are all here.  An Android App called Hiking Map Slovakia is also useful, and is currently installed on Lael’s Nexus tablet.

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Look for these maps as well, in country or online.

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Cycling signposts also include directions to local attractions such as castles, swimming pools, and this BIKEPARK.  Mountain biking is increasingly popular here.

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Cycling routes are surprising in Slovakia, ranging from busy two-lane roads to this levee singletrack.  A mountain bike makes a versatile touring bike in this county.

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As anywhere, it ensures the right tool to avoid busy roadways.

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Much like in Czech, beer is everpresent.  When we order kava at 7AM, it is not uncommon to see a table of townspeople talking over tall glasses of beer.  At about 4%, a beer or two in the morning is like a strong cup of coffee with sugar, right?

Hops and wheat, from which beer is made.  Slovakian lowlands are filled with fruits, vegetables, and grains.

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We’ve had such good luck finding campsites all over Europe.  As a rule, as night falls, find a small road and ride uphill.  Ride past the last house, ride onto dirt, and soon, the place will appear.  In this case, as we ascended a dirt road we passed several mountain bikers coming down, including several young boys with full face helmets.  We ascended to find an historic logging railbed.  We camped alongside a picnic table in the woods several kilometers from the nearest town, 500ft down in the valley.  Nothing not to like about the touring life in Slovakia.

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The best part is that every morning, sooner or later, we descend to a town.  A period of rest each day, including kava and pivo and ubiquitous free WiFi, encourages enough energy to pull out the maps and plan another day’s ride up and over something.  Our immediate goal is to explore some of the 1000 Miles Adventure route, which is an adventure race route organized by Czech racer Jan Kopka from the border of Germany and Czech to the other edge of Slovakia, on the border of Ukraine.  The mixed terrain route promises some significant challenges, but also a largely pedalable route across the country.  Incidentally, I met Jan this winter before the Iditarod Trail Invitational.  He and Greg came over from Speedway to buy all of our fatbike tubes at the shop.  If Lael’s ankle cooperates and the weather is not too wet, we’ll follow as much of this route as we want across the country.  Soon enough, some time in Ukraine is also a priority.  And Przemek will be waiting at the Romanian border in another month or so.

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We’re trying not to make plans.  Mostly, were trying to do a lot of this, if we can find it.

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Ukrainian meals

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Above: One of the finest meals presented to us, prepared by my mother’s godfather’s granddaughter, who visited us in the US in the early 1990’s.  Her grandfather was very close with my grandfather, as they emigrated to the United States together through Germany, during and after WWII.  

Between Amsterdam and Lviv, Lael and I dined and drank almost exclusively on the ground.  We purchased food in markets and in small town shops, and ate in parks and high atop hills.  We pointed at cheeses and meats and pronounced new words to taste the local flavors, ranging from fresh cheeses to the popular packaged snacks of the country.  In each place, we discover favorite in-season produce, packaged cookies, or alcoholic libations.  Cheeses and sausages change subtly between places, but they change.  Wine gets better or worse, depending upon your proximity to France, Italy, and Spain; while vodka gets better depending upon your proximity to Poland, Ukraine, and Russia.  Belgian and German beers are the best, while the Czech brands are also among the best, perfect for an afternoon in the shade.

In Ukraine, our patterns changed.  We left our bikes for a period of ten days to travel by rail, bus, and foot.  We visited family, dined in restaurants, and picnicked on overnight trains.  Most all of this time, we ate in chairs at tables.  Most impotently, we often dined with the guard of a local cook, ensuring a uniquely Ukrainian experience.  In Ukraine, we were served horilka (vodka) at breakfast, although we declined.  We experienced the season in which trucks loaded with watermelons from the coastal plains of the Black Sea flood the countryside with produce.  We tasted caviar from the Caspian and homemade wines from grapes grown overhead.  We ate familiar and unfamiliar things, discovering that many of the things we prepare for ourselves as Ukrainian-Americans is outdated, regional, or most likely reserved for special occasions.  As anywhere, we discovered a food culture which is far greater than the summary of a few popular dishes.

From my time at the Ukrainian table, both at home with my grandparents and in Ukraine, I know that simple handmade food is best.  In Ukraine, family-style dining is the only style.  Potatoes, cheese, tomatoes, bread, kovbasa, and maslo (butter), are good for you.

While in Ukraine, I stood on chairs at every dining table I visited.  I photographed markets, picnics, parties, and farms.  We dined in homes with family, and prepared simple meals while traveling by rail.  These photos are the result.  This began as a simple project to reveal several memorable and picturesque table settings.  It has become a broad catalogue of our time in Ukraine, and the relation of people and food and family.  It is an exciting reminder of where we are headed in a few weeks.

We begin by visiting my grandfather’s family in Bershad, near Vinnytsia.  There is a great market in Vinnytsia, adjacent to the train station.

Breakfast.

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Lunch, times three. As guests on my birthday, we received overflowing hospitality.

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Two.

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Three.

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Dinner

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When visiting, sometimes you need a snack between meals.

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And a snack between snacks.  When you want to be the best host that you can be, food is essential.  In a country that has experienced shortages and hunger, food is one of the most important things you can give.

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Traveling to Kyiv, thanks to my cousin Yaroslav.  A meal appears out of the trunk of the car.

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Visiting Olya, my mother’s godfathers granddaughter in the suburbs of Kyiv.  Another birthday cake, this one is the popular Kyivski Torte, most notably manufactured by the Roshen chocolate and confections company owned by recently elected President PoROSHENko.

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At the B&B in downtown Kyiv, probiotic yogurt, coffee, rolls, and fruit make a nice breakfast.  Kyiv is a world away from life in the village.  They might as well be separated by 80 years.

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Dining out is the only time we received individual plates of food, although we applied family-style dining rules.

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Great handmade varenyky and bliny at the Pecherska Lavra monastery.

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Picnic on the train, more Euro than Ukrainian.

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Chai, almost always plain black tea, is common.  How many scoops of sugar do you want?  They will look at you strange if you say none.  Some use enough sugar so that the spoon will stand up.

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In Stakhanov, in the far east, we visit my grandmother’s family.  We arrive to a refreshing lunch outdoors in the garden.

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They don’t buy the wine and horilka, but make it at home and reuse old bottles.  The woman in the green dress is like a great-aunt to me, and is reported to have a small business selling homemade horilka.  She’s got to be sure to test her product for quality, even at lunch.

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We enjoy a late dinner outdoors after taking Zhenya to see his first movie at the theater in town.  It is watermelon season, for sure.  Trucks line the roadsides selling melons from down south.

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The next day is structured around a meal at another house down the street.  The table sits beneath a trellis of grapes, next to the root cellar, amidst drying sunflowers.  These people are hardly farmers, but they grow most of their food.

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And make their own drinks to enjoy.

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Three generations.

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Back to Kyiv, via Kharkiv, on the train.  A quick snack in the train station.  Trains operate at maximum occupancy.  While many facilities and trains are old, the stations are gorgeous thanks to Soviet spending.

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Take-out in Kyiv, including traditional Ukrinian dishes and a French baguette.  Incidentally, it is harder to find tradtiionaf food in Kyiv than is it to find some more modern international offerings.  Sushi is immensely popular in the city right now.

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Leaving my parents and my family behind, Lael and I train back to Lviv, to ride our bicycles into the Carpathian Mountains.  We stop in Striij to rejoin Przemek.  He’s already made friends in town.  In fact, he’s made a lot of friends.

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Darts, once the meal has subsided.

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And a little homemade juice for the road.  Thanks Djorka!

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Into the moutnains, we stop at a small farm which serves simple meals.

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Down the road while filling water at a mineralic spring, we are invited to stay with Pavlo and his wife at their summer dacha, about 25 miles up the road.  We arrive to a hot meal of stuffed peppers.  They live full-time in Ivano-Frankivsk, and are lucky enough to have a small summer home in the mountains.

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The most typical Ukrainian breakfast includes buckwheat, prepared with a fried egg and a pickle in this case.  Black tea starts the day.

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While cycling in the mountains, we encounter a couple of young Ukrainian bikepackers.  We share a picnic outside a small shop including pickled fish, cheese, bread, vegetables, and chocolate.

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Returning to Striij, we enjoy one more meal with our friends.  We peel potatoes, cut watermelon and salo (pork fat), and sit under a starry sky.  Nights like this are validating and encouraging, despite occasional challenges on the road.

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Food in Ukraine largely comes from close to home.

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Just out the door.

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Out back.

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In the garden.

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Or out in the fields.

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Drying for later use.

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Underground for much later.

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Brought to the table bit by bit, until hopefully, the next harvest has arrived to replenish the supply.

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From local markets.

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Selling goods from distant regions.

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Or from local producers, selling goods which may be transported around the country, such as these wines from Crimea.

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Chardonnay.

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And horilka, this one made with buffalo grass to produce a lightly sweet flavor.

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In shops it is not uncommon to see an abacus in use, although it appears there is a calculator in case the abacus fails.

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On the trail, it is hard to ignore this bounty of apples.

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Or these honeys and nuts being sold on the roadside.

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Fresh almonds.

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In Crimea, samsa serves as fast food, sold from this wood-fired drum by the roadside.

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It is less than three weeks before our discovery of food continues in Eastern Europe. Oh, and there should be some good riding along the way.

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The Art of Bikepacking: July 16, 2014 in Anchorage, AK

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Join us for an evening event celebrating bikepacking, photography, and travel.  Ride your bike to The Bicycle Shop on Dimond Blvd. on Wednesday July 16, 2014 at 7PM.  Pack the bike as if you were going on a big trip or a little trip, or a trek across town.  We’ll have things to talk about.  This is the week after the Fireweed 400 and the week before Singlespeed World Championships, so leave a little room in your schedule and invite out of town visitors.  

The evening will commence with food and drinks and conversation.  The program includes a diverse range of presentations including visual displays, stories, and expertise on routes, packing, planning, and photography.  Our personal bikes will be on display, packed for adventure.  As well, we’ll have an array of Salsa, Specialized, and Surly bikes packed for touring, commuting, and lightweight bikepacking.  Free food, beer, and gifts.  

Eric Parsons will share a personal history of Revelate Designs, including experiences from the trail, and from his years designing gear that works for himself and the rest of us.  Eric’s business has grown from a one-man custom operation to a rapidly expanding Anchorage-based company which supports adventurous and accomplished riders across the globe.  

Dan Bailey will share his expertise as an Alaskan adventurer and professional photographer.  His images inspire readers in magazines and commercial media, including recent credits in the Patagonia catalog and advertisements for the new Fujifilm X-T1 camera. 

Lael and I have prepared stories and a series of printed images from our exploratory summer of bikepacking in Europe.  This event happens less than a week before our return to find new routes (and food) in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe.  Come say hi, and goodbye.

Thanks to our event sponsors, we will be giving away a load of awesome gear from Surly, Salsa, Adventure Cycling, Revelate Designs, Velo Orange, and Bunyan Velo.  So far, there are steel touring racks, a winter wool cycling cap, lightweight luggage, water bottles and cages and socks and t-shirts and hats and stickers, and a complete Great Divide map set to give away.  I will also throw in some maps for the new Idaho Hot Springs Bikepacking Route from Adventure Cycling.  Ride your bike to the event for a chance to win!  

Finn says, get riding over to The Bicycle Shop, Dimond on July 16! 

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Photo: Eric Parsons

Interview at The Bicycle Story

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More questions and answers, this time thanks to Josh Cohen of The Bicycle Story.  Curious to know about my next touring bike, where we will be riding later this summer, and how we started touring?  Check out the full interview entitled Nicholas Carman: Pedaling the World as a Gypsy by Trade.

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Photos: Lael Wilcox, Przemek Duszynski, and Nicholas Carman

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.