Eastern Enchantment on the Top Biking Trail 3, Montenegro

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Riding across Montenegro to meet in Podgorica, we first encounter signs for a multi-day off-pavement route outside Mojkovac, one of the larger towns on this 300km loop route.  The Top Biking Trail 3 is billed as a route of “Eastern Enchantment”, and is offered to riders through an official guide, limited trail signage, and a free GPS download of the route.  After meeting Przemek and Saŝka in Podgorica, we loop around Shkodër Lake and into a spectacular valley amongst the Albanian Alps along the northern border of the country, through Tamare, Selca, and Vermosh.  Our goal, thereafter, is to spend more time in Albania.  To do so, we have the option to turn back the way we have come, ride into Montenegro and make an unofficial (illegal?) crossing over an unmanned mountain pass back into Albania, or ride through Montenegro and Kosovo to reach the next official crossing into Albania.  Some friends of the blog had suggested visiting the valley of Valbona.  While only a short flight for a bird from Tamare to Valbona, a cyclable route will be much longer, necessarily.  No matter, as we reason that this way we get the chance to check out the Top Trail 3 in Montenegro and make a quick visit to Kosovo on our way back to Albania.

The Top Biking Trail 3 is a government project, in a series of other cycling and hiking routes across the mountainous country.  The official brochure is available in local touristic offices for 2€; surely, I can verify that it is available in Plav, which is home to a tourist information office and a national park office, which are both stocked with maps.  The region also boasts an international hiking trail called the Peaks of the Balkans, connecting the high mountains along the borders of Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania.  The full guidebook for the Top Biking Trail 3 is also available online for free, as is the GPS track.  

Our overnight ride from Plav to Rožaje covered only a section of the route.  From this experience, a GPS device is recommended.  The maps in the guidebook are reasonably detailed, although the route notes are purely literary and do little to aid in navigation.  In fact, I was missing some of the GPS track information and was forced to navigate via the guidebook entirely.  Not that there is much risk of not making it back to a paved road, but at one point I was running laps around an alpine meadow to decipher which faint singledoubletrack was our route, or at least the correct drainage towards town.

The route is comprised mostly of dirt roads which can be traveled with a common high-clearance vehicle or small truck, or in the case of the Montenegrans, like the Romanians, Serbians, and Ukrainians, a small 2WD Yugo, Zastava, Dacia, Lada, or Fiat.  Larger sections of quiet paved roads connect highland sections.  In two places on our ride, short hikes over steeper grassy ridges are required to connect otherwise unconnected roads.  As such, some locals will swear that you can’t reach the city of Rožaje by bike.  A proper mountain bike or dirt touring set-up is recommended, and as for the steep climbs, it is recommended to pack light, as always.

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Leaving the predominantly Albanian city of Plav, Lael and I decide to climb the first major ridge at dusk, as Przemek and Saŝka hang back for the night.  No surprise that within minutes of looking for a campsite they find a host for the night.  They leave in the morning with more food than when they arrived–this is the spirit of these mountains.  The mountain people along the borderlands of Albania and Montenegro, an historical region known as Malësia, are famously hospitable.  Anymore, it seems we can’t ride off-pavement segments without invitations for coffee every time we meet someone near their home.  The coffee is brewing, and then comes the offer of homemade rakija.  “Oh, and you’ll have a little cheese and bread won’t you”, as fresh yogurt and butter also populate the table, alongside the possibility of sausage or salo, homemade juice, and the offer of some tobacco.  And four hours later, stuffed and smiling and a little stupid, there are hugs and handshakes and photos and Facebook names to share; smiling faces in the sun, spinning legs in cycles they know so well, and the knowledge that riding bikes over mountains simply to hear the sound of dirt is not enough.  Riding over mountains is not the reason but the invitation, to drink with shepherds in the morning, to eat foods unavailable in local markets, and to play with children and share the language of laughter.  These are not one experience, but many.  I will come back to this region.

From the border of Albania near Vermosh, you connect with the route at Gusinje and ride to Plav on quiet pavement.  

If is possible to cross the borders here unofficially if you plan to return to the same country (as no one will know, and seemingly from all accounts, no one will care).  If you plan to exit the country at some point, it seems best to make official border crossings to keep the passport in order.  You don’t want the Republic of Kosovo or Albania questioning your route into the country, although the borders seem open and friendly.  Technically, there is a rideable dirt route over 6000+ft mountains from Plav to Valbona, through Cerem, over a pass that Wikipedia claims will someday house an official border crossing.  The local tourist office says it can arrange a permit to make the crossing official, which should provide documentation of your exit and entry.  The cost is 10€ and can be processed within 24hours, although it is possible to apply for the permit without local assistance which may take up to 5 days.  The route through Cerem utilizes part of an alpine loop section of the Top Trail 3 route.  The descent into the valley of Valbona would be spectacular.  

Leaving Plav.  Mosques replace churches in most ethnically Albanian communities. 

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The last sign we will see for the next 56km.  No problem, but we were led to believe the route was signed by the official postings.  The bikepacker symbol would make a great tattoo, I think.

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The end of the summer, same as it looks in Alaska and Poland and many other great places.

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Leaving civilization behind by way of a 2000ft climb, we rise above the trees to a world dominated by alpine meadows called planina, active in summer months for grazing.

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Near the very top of the ridge, expecting rain for the night, I stake the tent tightly.

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By morning the rain has subsided and the color of the sky is promising.  We don’t hate rain, but we prefer when it occurs during the night, only.

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Clearing skies lead us up to 6300ft, our highest ride in the Balkans so far.  In fact, this is our highest ride in Europe.  It is no feat, but to us it is notable.  We’ve traveled over seven months in Europe over the last two summers from Amsterdam to Ukraine, and south to Montenegro and Albania, on dirt as much as possible.

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We remain at elevation on the appropriately named Planina Mokra, or the wet meadow.  We’re a stone’s throw from the Kosovo border, but a long way from town it seems.  Most of the shepherds have vacated the katun for the season.

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Al the third meadow– the third small seasonal alpine community– smoke escapes a chimney.  A dog barks, dutifully.  Soon, a man exits his cabin.  We stop to admire his property, as curious in him, as he in us.

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And then, like a magic trick of hospitality we’re seated on the porch drinking homemade blueberry juice, composed of a sweet syrup concentrate and fresh spring water.  He shuffles us inside.  “Hladno“, he insists, shivering himself to verify that we understand.  Back in Montenegro, the Slavic tongue serves some function again.

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Inside, his wife shyly smiles and arranges some pillows on the beds, which also serve as seating for the table, which has been rotated longways to maximize seating space.  The oven is hot, bread is rising, and a large shallow pot of milk is warming to separate the buttercream from the stuff that soon fills our glass.  

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Within the hour, or two rounds of rakija as I remember it, the bread is in the oven.  Mushrooms are fried on the flattop with butter and salt.  We’re dining on a bounty of local treats, each slyly and kindly supplied without possibility of refusal.

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Hot milk is poured into cooling pans to separate.  The butter will congeal on top, and will be saved in an outdoor shed for the winter.  

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Kids love selfies, and touch-screen shutter actuation, and previewing images on the camera– the value of digital photography.

Vasiliy the enthusiastic younger brother leads us back into the sun.

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He takes me on a typical backwards tour of all the things his dad doesn’t care to show– nothing personal or incriminating– just boring, by adult standards.  Good thing he and I don’t live by adult standards.  I think a muddy corner of the garden is fascinating.

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His sister sets about harvesting potatoes.

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He joins, joyously.  

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His father Yugoslav shows us the pigs and the piglets, the onions and leeks, the chickens, and the three cows.  I’m not sure exactly how they’ve come to this life, exactly.  Surely, it comes from their ancestors, but they are extremely happy about it, and seemingly, they’ve chosen it.  The kids go to school, and Yugoslav grew up in the nearby city of Berane.  He and his wife are educated, presumably through secondary school.  We are happy to see people having fun up high.

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Two neighbor men have arrived to eat with us, although mostly we all laugh and marvel at the concept of Alaska.  I do my best to make conversation with the men.  We laugh and tickle and take pictures with the kids.  Eventually, I divulge that we’ve ridden from Vienna through Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia…

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Home made: butter, tomato chutney, eggs, milk, rakija, blubbery juice, and homemade bread.  Salt, flour, coffee, sugar, and the bologna-type sausage come from town.

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As we prepare to leave they offer some of everything on the table.  We decline, as we are actually loaded for two full days of riding.  We all compromise with a two-liter fill of milk in the Klean Kanteen.  

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Dressing ourselves for departure, Yugoslav takes my hat and snugly fits it to his head.  He barely has to ask, but he suggests “I can have it?”  Sure.  Of course.  Definitley.  

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The hat was a gift from a new friend that I met while living in Albuquerque (thanks again Collin!).  He’d be happy to know that it covers the eyes of a shepherd somewhere up high on a planina in Montenegro.  In such situations, I try to offer a few euro, which are quickly declined.  At the second offer, it is gratefully accepted.  It is fair, and one of the best touristic agreements that can be made.

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Smiling, stuffed and pedaling once again.

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Over the top, along a faint doubletrack which disappears on the ridge.

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Several options exist from the ridge.

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The route descends 2000ft on fantastic dirt roads, to climb another 2000ft back to elevation.  A quick turn along a walking route takes us over the second unridable ridge of the day.  

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From the top, without the GPS track information, I do some old-fashioned looking around.  The map is helpful, but the level of detail is inadequate .  No problem, the topographic information on the GPS helps me isolate which drainage to descend.  Eventually, we find the small jewel of a lake the guide describes.  It elaborates about the small lake, which “sheds a tear for each traveler that leaves it”.  It is a muddy pond, I swear.

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At last, we begin the descent down to Rožaje.  We will camp near town for the night to meet Przemek and Saŝka in the morning.

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Off to Kosovo, in the rain!

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(dirt) Road Bikes

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Dirt, road, bikes.  Rock ‘n Road.  Dirt roads are much the way they sound– they are roads composed of local sediments, sometimes groomed and graded and maintained, sometimes abandoned and rugged.  But the variety of dirt roads is greater than the variety of paved routes, which partly explains the great variety of bikes in use for these kinds of rides.  Still, the emergent genre of dirt road riding is finally landing on some common themes– not quite standards– but commonalities in tire size and tread, handlebar concepts, and in some cases, luggage.  Of course, riding on unpaved roads is ancient as far as bicycles are concerned.  But today, greater accommodation of comfort and efficiency on unpaved surfaces is afforded through new equipment.  Specifically, a vast array of lightweight large-volume 700c/29″ tires are perfectly tuned for dirt, road, riding.

Some dirt road rides are self-supported races over many thousand miles.  Others are actually half on pavement to connect the dots of featured dirt segments, and still others are about the pursuit of adventure and reaching remote destinations by the only means available– a dirt road.  We are not talking about mountain biking, which is an exclusive search for dirt trails and tracks and rough terrain.  We are not talking about a brief segment of unpaved rail-trail– yes, I know you can ride it on your road bike.  We are talking about road riding, potentially at a brisk pace, on dirt roads.  Dirt, road, riding.  Common themes include medium to large volume 700c tires, powerful brakes, a range of gears; drop bars, aero bars or multi-posiiton handlebars; and lightweight frames, in reference to true mountain bikes or touring bikes.  The following are a sample of modern concepts from NAHBS:

 

Ellis Strada Fango

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29×2.0″ Schwalbe Furious Fred tires, Shimano CX-75 brakes

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Retrotec Half

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700x43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires, Paul Racer brakes to brazed pivots

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Soulcraft Dirtbomb

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700x43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires. Paul Mini-Moto brakes (linear-pull brake, compatible with road levers)

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Steve Potts, w/Type II fork (1987)

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26×1.95″ Specialized Ground Control tires, WTB Roller Cam brakes, and WTB Dirt Drop bars.  One of only two 26″ wheeled bikes in this collection, back when large-volume 700c tires were unavailable.  Several years earlier, a few Marin builders had gotten their hands on some 700x47mm Nokian Hakkepelita tires for use off-pavement, although supply issues forced the concept out of existence.  A year after this Potts frame was built, Bruce Gordon released his 43mm Rock ‘n Road tire.  This bike would have been considered a true mountain bike at the time, but has since informed the kinds of bikes that are popularly ridden on dirt roads, such as the Salsa Fargo.  Marin County is home to many historic fire roads.

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Reeb

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29×2.20″ Kenda Karma tires. Avid BB7 brakes

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Moots Farrhoots

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29×2.2″ Geax AKA tires, mechanical disc brakes (Shimano CX-75?)

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Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road

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700cx43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires, and custom Bruce Gordon cantilever brakes.  This design and the accompanying tire celebrates 25 years in existence.

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Rob English Black Rainbow Custom

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Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires, Avid BB7 brakes

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Rick Hunter Super Scrambler

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Continental RaceKing tires, Shimano CX-75 brakes and vintage WTB Dirt Drop bars.  Check out this thorough post on the Super Scrambler.

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Twenty2 Cycles Custom 650b/700c

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650B Schwalbe Rocket Ron tires, Avid BB7 brakes.  Fits large volume 650b tires or cross-type 700c tires.

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Ellis Inox Rando

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Kenda Happy Medium tire, Paul Racer brakes, dynamo lighting and mini-rack.  This is the narrowest tire of the bunch, but represents what many people consider to be an appropriate tire for unpaved surfaces. This size is fine for graded, hardpacked surfaces without a load.
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Littleford Expedition Tourer

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26″ Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires, Paul Touring cantilever brakes, dynamo lighting, and expedition-grade racks.  In this instance, 26″ wheels are selected for durability and the ability to source wheels parts all over the globe.

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A brief history and tribute

Credit to Bruce Gordon for pushing the first large volume 700c tire through to the American market, and building a bike to fit it.  And to the 700x45mm Panaracer Fire Cross XC.  Credit to mountain bikes and all-terrain bikes and down-home dirt roads everywhere, and the people who ride them.  Credit to the Surly LHT which is a “real touring bike”, but fits bigger tires and is a gateway bike to dirt roads for many; and the Cross-Check, the monstercross bike of the people; and the Salsa Fargo, which has reintroduced the idea of knobby tires and drop bars to a lot of people.  Surely, credit is also due elsewhere: Grant Peterson and Rivendell (and the drop-bar Bridgestone MB-1), cross bikes, Jan Heine and ultra-plush 650b tires, Charlie Cunningham and the WTB drop bar, Wes Williams, Chris Skogen, Mike Varley and the Black Mountain Cycles Cross frame; Divide racers, gravel grinders, Hemistour riders, the BLM, and the most prolific builder of dirt roads in the world, the United States Forest Service.

Bruce Gordon’s influence is immeasurable.  If you ask Bruce, he started it all.  Note: the BG Rock ‘n Road tire was actually designed by Joe Murray, and borrowed heavily from the Nokian Hakkapelita.

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Does your bike happily ride on dirt roads? rough dirt roads?

The United States National Forest Road System consists of more than 380,000 miles of roads. The types of roads range from permanent, double-lane, paved highways to single-lane, low-standard roads intended only for use by high-clearance vehicles, such as pickup trucks. At this time, a significant portion of this system is closed or use-restricted to protect resources. (USFS website)

Further, 1.3 million miles, or more than one-third of all road miles in the U.S. are still unpaved gravel or dirt roads. (ARTBA website)

 

Rick Hunter Camouflage Dirt Tourer, AKA the Super Scrambler

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Standing at a distance of about six feet, I placidly gaze at the features of this bike, as in a museum.  Steve Potts approaches, now two of us standing shoulder to shoulder in appreciation.  Nothing to say in particular, although I stumble through a few words about the paint and drop bars and how this is probably my favorite bike at the show– “if I could take one bike home with me, this would be it”.  He kindly nods.  Pausing for a final moment to look, he walks away.  The bike receives the Steve Potts seal of approval, and that’s saying a lot.

Rick Hunter has been building bikes in Santa Cruz, CA for 20 years.  His featured dirt tourer at last year’s show was highly praised, complete with custom canvas framebags from Randi Jo Fabrications.  This year, he brought a showstopping custom longtail fatbike, built for Scott Felter of Porcelain Rocket.  But this drop bar 29er is the bike that stole my heart.  

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Vintage WTB Dirt Drop bars, Dura-Ace levers and Shimano XT shifters.  The bars are finished with a layer of Grab-On foam in the drops, wrapped in cotton tape.  This is still a really good way to mount shifters.  

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Custom Cunningham in-line barrel adjusters.

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Destined for Monkey Wrench Cycles in Lincoln, NE.

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Custom 6-speed cassette on a Chris King singlespeed hub, yielding a dishless rear wheel and a wide range of gears.

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Rick crafts beautiful and functional fork crowns and chainstay yokes.

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The build is completed with a NOS Avocet Touring saddle and Deore XT seatpost.

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Scott Felter says “Rick Hunter is a genius”.  I couldn’t agree more.  His bikes are highly functional, featuring a utilitarian aesthetic that is in itself, artistic.  He finds creative solutions to the specific needs of his customers, manufacturing custom racks, fork crowns and chainstay joinery.  While this bike is styled like an old Cunningham drop-bar mountain bike, painted like a Ritchey, it is designed and specced like a bike that is actually meant to ride.   

More images of the Super Scrambler and other bikes from Hunter Cycles on Rick’s photostream.

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South from San Felipe, Baja California Nord

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“we gathered wood for the fire. ocotillo. mesquite. elephant tree. once ablaze we cooked fixings for hearty burritos of rice, beans, tuna, queso fresco, chiles and salsa. i decided it was time to cut some weight and crack open the nice bottle of tequila i had purchased for christmas. carsten and reiner were delighted by my surprise and we stayed up for hours drinking, smoking tobacco, and sharing stories.”

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This is the third post in an ongoing series from writer, rider, musician and photographer Alex Dunn.  The most recent excerpt from travel in Baja can be found here, entitled “Oye Amigo!– Ensenada to San Felipe”. His first post, “Big Dummy”, details his Surly Big Dummy longtail bike and the first leg of his ride from San Francisco to San Diego.  Dig in!

christmas day. i swapped my tires from front to back since the rear had been wearing twice as fast, and did an oil change on the rohloff speedhub for good measure – now it shifts quite smooth. It’s good to be a little fastidious out on the road i suppose. good for a clean conscience at least.

erin and i decided we would head out of san felipe for puertecitos, despite the warnings to avoid drunken christmas drivers. we wagered that most people would actually be drunk and stuffing themselves on holiday feast at home with family, not driving around inebriated on a road to nowhere. we were also starting to get a little restless in the city sand, though very grateful for the chance of repose. so off we went in the late morning, quietly pedaling through the silent, vacant streets. past closed storefronts, the empty beach off the malecon, and out of town. it seems our drunken compatriots of the road were merely figments of a proud boast of communal deprecation. we encountered maybe four or five vehicles the entire 50 miles or so – all seemingly sober and unhurried.

the road was practically ours – mile after mile of smooth pavement like low rolling waves. the hot wind blew so fierce at our backs that pedaling was more of a charade, our bicycles more like giant sails pulling us forward down the highway. we really hadn’t to crank much at all and arrived in puertecitos in about 3 hours, quite impressive for such a heavy vehicle as mine. the sun soon began to touch the top of the dusty hills as we set up the tent beside some palapas in the bay, and after camp was made we rode up over the point to the hot springs. the springs themselves are actually tidal pools that change temperature as the tide comes in and goes out, requiring you to move pools as the water becomes too cold or too hot. we soaked that evening in a long, narrow slit at high tide with a young couple currently touring around baja and some mexican soldiers who had just been monitoring the springs from a house up the hill. tony has been riding his motorcycle around the united states and canada for the past year and now is venturing through mexico and beyond – his girlfriend follows him in her truck, with the comforts of a bed, a kitchen and true companionship. quite a nice set up really. his photos can be seen at http://www.intotheblueagain.com.

rising in the morning to yet another beautiful sunrise, we decided it best to spend the day in puertecitos soaking our tired bones in the thermal pools and relaxing (as if the life we lead is anything but). after a long breakfast of our usual porridge (oats, flaxseed, almonds, cranberries), fresh papaya (cuban), and several cups of coffee, we went back to the pools where we remained until sundown. while soaking i shared beer and conversation with an oceanographer from ensenada named juan. juan was there on a week vacation with his three beautiful children, camping on the beach two kilometers south. he was impressed with my endeavor and with my spanish and offered to get me more beer with his truck. realizing he had finished his last bottle, he drove off to the market and returned with several different mexican beers he wanted me to try. as we lay in the pools with his children, sharing an intercambio of spanish and english he asked what my dinner plans were. i replied that erin and i had no real plans as always, so he invited us to come to his family’s camp where he would cook us hamburguesas, papas fritas, chorizo verde (quite rare actually, compared to red chorizo), chili rellenos, and of course mas cerveza y tequila! certainly we inclined to do so, and once the night fell upon us we rode off to find their camp. the dinner and company were perfect and magical, as we shared food, drinks, laughter and traded more english and spanish.

this experience was just another prime example of the many acts of kindness and hospitality we have experienced in baja thus far. i have been thinking much lately about all the horror stories i’ve heard of kidnappings, thievery, rape, and whatever else a person of high anxiety can imagine. and i’ve realized that they all have been from people who know little to no spanish at all. it is quite practical, almost critical really, to have some sort of grasp of the language that is spoken in the land that you travel. or at least display a desire to learn. if you cannot connect, how do you know whether or not someone is offering you their generosity, or if they have an ulterior motive? it is no wonder that such a barrier only leads to misinterpretation and apprehension. you also may come across as self important and superior, alienating yourself and possibly being taken advantage of. people are people and the beautiful ones exist everywhere – baja is full of them. the world is full of them. common sense and compassion go far.

as our fogata turned to embers and our bellies tiredly full, we said our goodbyes, gave thanks and abrazos and rode back to our camp – no need for lights, for a full moon hanging from the clear black sky is the best lamp of all. before bedding down we stared up at the stars and relished in our great fortune. experiences like these are what sparks a lust for life.

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Puertecitos to gonzaga

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morning. another perfect sunrise. porridge, fruit, coffee. bliss. will this ever end? just as i was finishing my breakfast a tall german man came strolling down the beach and approached me in such confident gaiety. he introduced himself as carsten and said that he and his best friend reiner had arrived themselves by bicycle the night before. they had started in san diego ten days prior and were headed south for the next two weeks. we talked of our mutual plans while looking at the map and he inquired if we should like to camp with them later that night. of course we welcomed the offer, though they were already prepared to leave and we still needed to wash up, pack, relax a little more.

shortly after, we said goodbye to puertecitos and peddled south again, up ample climbs immediately followed by wonderful descents with immaculate vistas. the wind was calm and the pace was steady over forty five miles of new, open pavement. we passed the german cyclists early on and played leap frog with them throughout the day, as each of us stopped frequently to take in the wide open expanses of the desert foothills falling gently into the sea of cortez. the pavement dropped off five miles before bahia gonzaga, and the sun hung heavy in the west. as we reached the crest of the last hill at punta willard a man in a truck came barreling along the dirt road, sliding to a sudden stop in front of us. he hopped out of the small pickup with his little chihuahua named daisy, yelling buenas tardes bicicleros!  he introduced himself as mario and asked where we were headed, from where we were coming, and related stories of his own adventures as a long distance runner and avid hiker (he claimed to have run the 50 mi from san felipe to bahia gonzaga many times, and to have hiked across the peninsula as well). he spoke little english, but was of course enthused by my grasp of spanish and he was he wildly excited by our bicycle exploits. he was headed to ensenada for four or five days but offered first to lead us a few miles out to his beachfront property where we could stay as long as we wanted and even enjoy his guest house (an airy trailer with no running water and a few broken windows). we abandoned ourselves to his offer and followed him out to the property just as the sun slipped away, trading its attention with the fast rising moon. he was quick to show us around, give hugs and wish us well before he and daisy jumped back into his truck and sped off in haste. mystified and elated by our unexpected gift, we set up camp wearing giant smiles, reiner whistling all the while.

after camp was made we gathered wood for the fire. ocotillo. mesquite. elephant tree. once ablaze we cooked fixings for hearty burritos of rice, beans, tuna, queso fresco, chiles and salsa. i decided it was time to cut some weight and crack open the nice bottle of tequila i had purchased for christmas. carsten and reiner were delighted by my surprise and we stayed up for hours drinking, smoking tobacco, and sharing stories. the two of them had met in boy scouts in germany and have remained best friends ever since. both of them are forty eight years old, but started cycletouring together at the age of twenty eight – for the past twenty years they have cycled in a new part of the world (pakistan, ethiopia, uganda, papua new guinea, iceland…) for their four weeks of winter vacation. i like to think that they have always ridden side by side, just as i would come to find them without fail over the following week.

as we continued to add wood to the fire, we returned to the topic of language as i discussed before. and as we delved deeper, we came to the language of the bicycle. our great benefactor mario was obviously connected to me via our ability to converse in spanish, but he was also linked to all of us through our means of conveyance. he was impressed with our desire to navigate a foreign land by method of such self sufficiency. we are not isolated within fast moving cars, nor reliant on the help of others as backpackers most often are. and though we move about on our own accord, our speed is such that we truly experience the roads, the land, the people that surround us. this is something that carsten and reiner said they have always experienced in every country they have toured. even if they can’t speak the language, people are always kind and generous and widely affected by the nature of the bicycle itself. so i say this – get out of your fast moving cars, strap your backpack to your bicycle, and engage in the land that you travel!

-a

Close to champala 3

Close to champala 2

20 year old trangia  german s

Coco s

Champala

“…as we delved deeper, we came to the language of the bicycle. even if they can’t speak the language, people are always kind and generous and widely affected by the nature of the bicycle itself. so i say this – get out of your fast moving cars, strap your backpack to your bicycle, and engage in the land that you travel!”

Long distance

All words and images: Alex Dunn

Coming soon: A good look at Coco’s Corner. Back to pavement and at long last, a desert oasis.

The basis for a new bike

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The new bike will be built around a Velo Orange Campeur frame. I had imagined a proper rigid steel frame– non-disc and not suspension corrected– that would fit a 2.1″ tire and a fender. It does not exist, but in considering the available options with long forks and mountain bike geometries, I reverted to more traditional designs. The leading options for such a bike in a competitive price range are the Black Mountain Cycles Cross, the Surly Cross-Check and the VO Campeur. All satisfy my demands, but with slightly compromised tire clearances. However, as I envision fast riding with a lightweight load a narrower tire will suffice. Living in New Mexico for the winter, I will forgo fenders in trade for increased tire clearance.

Casey and Igor at Velo Orange tell me that the large frame sizes (59 and 61cm) will fit a 700x45mm Panaracer FireCross tire, barely. Given the aggressive nature of this tire and the tall side knobs, I am hoping that a smooth 45-50mm touring tire will fit. I do not enjoy fitting tires, fender and racks where they do not belong, although I cannot imagine exploring the rural dirt roads in this area without at least a reasonable cushion of air. As long as I have the Pugsley, aggressive traction is not an important feature of this bike, but a reasonable tire volume is.

It is my impression that many of the Schwalbe touring tires that I adore (Marathon, Supreme, Dureme) are undersized relative to the advertised sizes, which is good news. Some of these tires labeled 47 or 50mm may reasonably fit the Campeur with some room to spare. On such a tire, on such a frame, I expect dirt roads to disappear under me. Rough doubletrack and some singletrack will be rideable at a passable, touring pace, and pavement won’t be a problem. With 47mm tires, this bike will be much like my Schwinn High Sierra, but with the benefits of a larger wheel. I expect the bike to tackle great distances at speed in rural parts of the state. I’m hoping that this will be a fast comfortable road bike for real roads, in both town and country.

The frame is not yet in the mail and most of the build is not finalized, yet I have found two foundational pieces at a local bike swap. A NOS 36 hole Specialized front hub cost $5, while the Deore LX bottom-pull front derailleur was $2. For an extra $2, I bought a similar front mech for Cass as well. Thus far, these pieces are the basis for the new bike.

See my post from Interbike about the VO Campeur, including lots of live photos.

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Cass has some Schwalbe Duremes that we can play with when the frames arrive. If they do not fit with a reasonable margin for a bent rim or some mud, I will look elsewhere. Here are some additional considerations:

Clement X’Plor MSO, 40mm (actual width, 38.5mm)

Michelin Transworld Sprint, 42 mm

Bruce Gordon Rock’n’Road, 43mm

Vee Rubber XCX, 1.75″ or 47mm

Real touring bikes: Canadian Rockies

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Another round of bikes from all over the world, attracted to the picturesque peaks of the Canadian Rockies.  Germans in particular are quite fond of the north country, although they travel to many destinations.  I’ve recently encountered two German couples, separately, traveling with a baby of one year or less– it seems the Chariot is a preferred method of hauling live cargo.  The following bikes were spotted between Jasper, AB and the Montana border.  A self-contained ACA tour of the Great Divide Route from Banff to Whitefish was a goldmine of great bikes and characters.  In the Yukon I managed to capture almost every bike I saw; more recently, I catch a little over half.

Two bright beams approach from the northbound shoulder of the Icefields Parkway.  I leave my light on all the time as well, and readily spot the piercing LED from afar.  Approaching, both parties come to a halt and exclaim, expectantly and knowingly, “Germans?!”.  If you see a bright dynamo light coming down the road, “German?” is usually a good guess.  I am right; of course, they are not.  I tell people I’m from Alaska.  We speak about the growth in popularity of dynamo lighting in the US and the General influence of German cycling equipment.  Upon closer inspection, they are riding perfect examples of German tourers: Rohloff hubs, Magura hydraulic rim brakes, Schwalbe Extreme tires, Tubus, Ortlieb, Schmight lighting, SKS fenders, ESGE kickstand, Ergon Grips, and stout aluminum Idworx frames.  Proudly, only the pedals are from Shimano.  A limiter keeps the handlebars from turning more than 90deg, which prevents damage to the hydraulic brake line and the headlight.

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Kiwis on tour riding 26″ wheels, both are riding Jamis mountain bikes with Vaude panniers.

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Americans on Kona Sutra touring bikes with Ortlieb panniers.  These are the second pair of Sutras for this couple; their other Sutras have been used for several longer tours and now reside at the winter residence down south.  It was time for some new drivetrain parts on the old bikes so it was decided that new bikes would solve the problem.  That’s the third, and most expensive approach to drivetrain maintenance– new bikes.  Note disc brakes with rim brake mounts.  I’ve seen numerous lowrider racks mounted to cantilever posts as shown.

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I finally captured it!  People stop and point and poke at my Pugsley all the time.  Tourists in Banff particularly enjoyed it.  A vacationing German couple asked if the framebag contained a motor.

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Not a touring bike, at least not yet.  As I often say, “it’s not a touring bike until it’s on tour”.  Likewise, when it’s out on the open road, it’s a touring bike no matter if it’s made of carbon or features full-suspension.   Just a town bike in Banff, but this Kona Explosif caught my eye. It’s hideous, unless you grew up reading mountain bike magazines in the 90’s.  Technically, this bike was a little before my time.

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On the Divide, a wide variety of bikes are to be found but most feature proper mountain bike tires.  This Trek Marlin 29er is a two day ride from home in Calgary, and less than ten miles from the start of the Great Divide Route in Banff.  This rider approached the local bike shop with a budget and list of anti-specifications: the bike could not have hydraulic disc brakes, it could not have an air or oil fork, and it could not have 26″ wheels.  The result was an inexpensive 29er which came in way under budget, to his surprise.  A simple reliable bike doesn’t require a hefty price tag!

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A full suspension 26″ wheeled carbon Norco.  The rider enjoyed the ride and claimed not to have any issues mounting racks.

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Nothing to see, but another statistic.  A young German woman on a Giant XTC mountain bike with front and rear racks.

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This is by far the most unique bike I’ve seen since Alaska, and perhaps for the entire summer to come.  Tim SanJule constructed this bike of parts and tubing from several other bikes, building on lots of real world touring experience and improving upon his last touring bike, an old steel Specialized Rockhopper.  A second down tube, or diagatube, was added for strength and to prevent shimmy while loaded.  S&S couples were sourced from a Craigslist bike, the eccentric bottom bracket (EBB) from a KHS tandem, and the tubing from a variety of old bikes.  The parts are described as “tough North American stuff”, referring to a mix a Paul, White Industries and Phil Wood.  A vintage Sachs front derailleur and a short cage Dura-Ace rear derailleur add some flair; don’t shift into the small-small combination or the chain will go slack, but the short cage derailleur shifts better and reduces chain slap.  Both front and rear Avid BB7 disc calipers are operated by a long run of exposed cable from the top of the fork and near the BB, respectively.  The housing stop on the caliper itself has been removed.  Cromoly Tubus Cargo racks are mounted front and rear and the fork features multiple braze-ons for bottle cages and racks, a la Salsa.  This rider is leading a dozen riders on a self-contained ACA tour of the Great Divide Route from Banff, AB to Whitefish, MT.  The following bikes are from that group.

Tim grew up in the same small cowtown I did.  We comprise the entirety of cycling culture in, or from, Cortland, NY and make for a curious pair of bikes and riders.  Tim pedals in a climbing helmet and a well-worn pair of Converse Chuck Taylor athletic shoes.  When I was a “mountain biker” in high school, I used to ride in my “Chucks”.

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A carbon Trek 29er, purchased several years ago in preparation for riding some of the Great Divide.  In that time, this rider has accumulated lots of gear to suit his needs but was bursting at the seams of his bikepacking-inspired setup.  An Old Man Mountain rack is mounted in front with Ortlieb panniers, as it was decided that a rear rack would place unsafe stress on the carbon frame.  Slow speed steering is described as “heavy”, which can be especially hazardous when climbing loose surfaces.  Seven separate Revelate Designs bags are hidden here.

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A Rhode Island based rider on a Tout Terrain Silkroad with “the works” from Peter White Cycles in New Hampshire: a Rohloff Speedhub, an Shimano Alfine dynamo hub, B&M lighting, Schwalbe Marathon Extreme tires, and T.A. cranks.  He was a bit disappointed to have had a puncture with his highly specialized, and expensive touring tires.  I assured him that such things were normal, and quite possible on any tire.

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An early 1990’s Bridgestone XO-3 with a Cane Creek Thudbuster seatpost and a Girvin suspension stem, comprising a simple short-travel full suspension system.  This bike also wears a pair of older (vintage?) Schwalbe XR touring tires.  S&S couplers have been installed.

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A first generation Salsa Fargo with Revelate framebag and panniers, wearing an uncommon Schwalbe tire, the Marathon Plus ATB in a 40 or 42mm dimension.

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I took a liking to this bike, a Surly Karate Monkey with Rohloff, Revelate bags, Continental Mountain King tires, and a small pair of Jandd panniers on a rear rack.  The Revelate Tangle bag is nice as it leaves enough room for both water bottles to be used.  This one fits the frame nicely.

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A Niner S.I.R. 9 steel frame of Reynolds 853 tubing.  A nice clean build with an attractive older White Brothers suspension fork, pulling a BOB trailer.

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An eight-year old custom titanium Seven 29er with S&S couplers, also with an older White Brothers fork.  The White Brothers forks were the best, and only option when 29ers first arrived.  They continue to be made in Grand Junction, CO.  This bike was wearing a pair of WTB Nanoraptor tires, the first true 29er tire available, first offered back in 1999.

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