Ohrid and Galičica National Park, Macedonia

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Back to our game of Balkan hopscotch, we cross the border into Macedonia with the plan to return to Albania in a few days– for a few more days of riding– before crossing into Greece.  We’ve already got our sights on an 8-day MTB race route across the northern half of Greece, called the Bike Odyssey.  This section of rural Macedonia is noted for several larger cities, and mostly, two large lakes, Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa.  Between the two is Galičica National Park, one of three national parks in the country.  A quick study of internet resources reveals a local mountain bike club in Ohrid and an annual race in the park.  A network of signed hiking and mountain bike routes are a welcomed surprise. Unlike the faintly existent national parks in Albania and Montenegro, which almost only appear on maps, this one may have some presence on the ground.

We arrive in our first Macedonian city, which looks and feels familiar.  Some churches, but also mosques and signs in Albanian.

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After exchanging money and buying some fuel, we’re off into the hills.  It is always fun to source fuel in each country: to learn what it is called and where it can be purchased.  In the Balkans, the pharmacy is usually the best place to look for the high grade 96% stuff.  Just ask nicely and look as sober as possible.  It is for my “kitchen” I tell the pharmacist, for “kamping“.

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This is strong stuff.  It burns like rocket fuel in the Penny Stove with almost no smell, which is nice when heating water under the rainfly on a damp morning.

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The road narrows and each community in these hills waves a Turkish flag.  Something is amiss.  We sit for coffee with a Macedonian guy that lived on Staten Island for some time, and he explains that “recent” Turkish immigrants have established small communities in this region.  Many cities and towns along the Albanian border are, nearly, Albanian.  Statistically about 65% of the country is Macedonian, 25% Albanian, and about 4% Turkish.  Officially, Macedonia is in conflict with Greece over the use of the name Macedonia, which is also a region in modern Greece, and of course, the name of the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great.  The temporary name in use is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.  The Greeks insist on using this name, and I’ve even seen the acronym in parentheses on maps.  To be fair, the recent government of Macedonia has supported some provocative campaigns of Antiquisation, drawing connections between the moderns Macedonians and Alexander the Great.  The Greeks claim the ancient Macedons and Alexander as their own.  It’s complicated and important on many levels, but it is hard not to think the dispute is also petty.  It is just a name, right?  The Balkans maintain a level of tension.  It is interesting to ask country A what they think of country B, and B about C, and C about B, and F about A, and so on.  I discretely let these topics come up in conversation.

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Climbing away from Debar and the dammed Debar Lake, we meet two young Turkish guys on a self-propelled mountain bike shuttle.  They labor up the road as high as possible to turn back and enjoy the descent.    That’s the international language of mountain biking.

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Eventually the road turns to dirt.  Clouds join us for the evening.  The mosque sits like a rocket ship, poised at the center of town.

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Sheep come round, by the hundreds.  The musical clanging of sheep’s bells in the Balkans is ever-present up high.

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Lastly, this guy sat in front of our tent for some time.  Not all Balkan sheep dogs are so mild mannered.  Some, as in Greece and Romania, will bare their teeth in genuine aggression.  I can’t blame them for their line of work.

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All those walnuts and acorns we’ve received become a treat of salted caramelized nuts.  Nice to have an abundance of high grade alcohol for such culinary exploits.  I’ve really enjoyed the new 0.85L MSR Titan titanium pot.  It is the perfect size, shape and weight for cooking and packing.  It appears to be constructed for the long haul, and easily stores our stove, pot support, and windscreen, along with a plastic container of sea salt, and a bag of tea or coffee. 

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The next day we descend through several more Turkish communities on our way to Struga and Ohrid.

The Struga waterfront is developed for summertime tourism, although cool and windy on this fall day.  Reminds me of home to feel the wind off the water like this.

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Looking out towards the nearby city of Ohrid and the mountains of Galicica National Park.

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Ohrid is a popular touristic destination.  Many people are speaking English in the main square along the waterfront.  We go looking for the market and a map.  Next, a discount German grocery chain supplies the orzo, wine, and sausages before riding into the hills for the night.

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Saints Cyril and Methodius are credited with bringing Orthodox Christianity and a written language to the Slavs.

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A quick bath before the end of the day…

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…and a climb out of town.  

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Some singletrack in there, along a wide bench-cut trail.

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Stop in at a local monastery in the mountains for water, although the spigot has a broken handle.  No one is around.

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Following a night of wind and rain, morning brings clearing skies over Ohrid and the lake.

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Signage keeps up on track, funded in part by Germany.  Elsewhere in the Balkans we see touristic facilities funded by the Austrians and Swiss.

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The GPS indicates a spring nearby, which we soon find via hiking signs and the word ВОДА.

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Rocky and well drained, the road climbs over the ridge leading to a rocky alpine meadow.  The MTB routes in the park are exclusively on dirt roads, which is typical of official mountain bike resources in much of Europe. 

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Detailed maps are posted at major junctions.

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Typical European hiking signs: directions, distance, and time.  These red and white signs have led us from Holland, in part.

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These newer bike specific signs are nice, indicating the distance to bike specific junctions.  There is one major route that claims a total distance of about 55km, traversing the mountains north to south.  This is a nice connector for anyone riding through the area and should be rideable on most any bike with a 2.0″ tire or greater.

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Feels like the American West, down to the color of the mud.

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Even the consistency is familiar.  Ooph.  I do my best to ride around the worst of the mud in the tall grasses or through the puddles, which alternately wash away some mud while adding a lather of watery mud to my wheels, resulting in a net loss of matter.  

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The generous clearances of the Surly Krampus are put to good use, and the bike keeps rolling.  Chain to tire clearance in the small chainring is good with Shimano MTB doubles, such as my Deore, but not as good as the Surly OD crank.  The chainline on the Shimano cranks is better than the Surly crank, for performance and drivetrain wear.  The big-big combination with the Surly crank is far from ideal, but the clearance is likely necessary if using 3.0″ tires.  Any MTB triple will locate the inner ring even nearer to the tire, as on Lael’s bike which uses a Race Face triple converted to a double with a bash guard.  In such conditions I try to use the big chainring to avoid jamming the chain full of mud. 

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Even the Fox fork lets the muddy tire pass freely.

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I stop to wait for Lael.  She arrives, carrying her bike.  

That’s not good.  But that’s not the problem.

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That’s the problem.  I’m carrying two spare derailleur hangers for her bike, remnants from the time when we both rode a Raleigh XXIX and used the same hanger.  I’m down to one, which is fine as both of our bikes can be easily set-up singlespeed.  Her bike has an eccentric bottom bracket and mine, rear facing Surly dropouts.

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It is not terribly important for the hanger to be especially strong, as it is designed to break before the derailleur or the frame, but these Wheels Manufacturing hangers are much nicer than the cheap Amazon.com hanger that it replaces.

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Her drivetrain has been unhappy for some time, the result of a cheap cassette and too much wear on the first chain before replacement.  Her drivetrain took a few days to settle after the new chain, while mine was just fine.  She also likes to ride in the little chainring, and thus uses the smaller cogs more frequently.  

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Her bike is rolling again, and we connect to the paved road at the pass.  From here, we can descend to Lake Ohrid or Lake Prespa.  We continue toward Prespa, and to a quiet border crossing with Albania.  There is even a little singletrack along the way, cow trails I think, that cut the switchbacks on the paved road.  I wonder if there is more of this in the area.  Some of the hiking trails we saw looked prime for riding; others are rocky and steep.

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Once back in Albania, we order a beer in Albanian.  A Macedonian beer arrives, which is not uncommon in the area if you order a big beer (0.5L).  A local boy stops to check out the bikes, wearing a jacket with the Macedonian flag and colors.

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The Macedonian flag waves proudly in the next few villages we visit, yet we are in Albania.

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Looking for a water source, the town center features a church and a fountain with a cross.  For all the Albanian and Turkish villages we visited in Macedonia, the only rural Macedonian villages we see are in Albania.  

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Back to Albanian Albania tomorrow!

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Willing hostages in Albania

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In the past, especially in America, I have become a part-time recluse on tour.  Eating a yogurt outside the grocery store somewhere in the U.S.A, a man asks where I am going, where I am coming from, where I sleep, and my favorite, “What do you eat?”  He pokes and prods, asks if I have a place to sleep for the night (he’s not offering), and then warns me that it is expected to rain.  All the while, I just want to eat my yogurt.  

In Albania, I’ve become an extrovert.  I’ve learned to pass through villages dragging my brakes to bring attention to our arrival.  I’m grateful for my unusually loud Hope freehub, which attracts the attention of every dog in earshot, and thus, every young boy, man, and woman.  In remote mountain communities, I purposely ask for water when I don’t really need it to get a better look at the beans that are drying near the house, or the grapes hanging from a trellis overhead.  Even so, part of my interest in the grapes is feigned, to get a better look at the young boys, who I know want to get a better look at me, and my bike.  I want to meet the women of this country, who spend much time out of the public space.  I want to see how people live and eat.  Old ways are still alive in Albania, and more than anywhere I’ve been, I want to see it and learn about it.

Albanians reciprocate my curiosity, and fuel it, with the most legendary hospitality I’ve experienced.  They invite us inside long before we exchange names or they learn where we are from.  They feed us in heaping piles of food, a purposeful gesture to treat us like royalty.  They pour us round after round of homemade raki, not because they want to drink with us or get us drunk, but simply because the glass is empty.  As in many places, the most open and honest people live in the mountains.  For several days in Albania, in between memorable dirt roads, singletrack cattle trails, and serpentine pavement, we’re willing hostages of energetic Albanians.  In two days, this happens with the regularity and substance of three square meals a day.

Leaving Kukës, we immediately shoot for a series of small dirt roads near the border with Kosovo.  There is an obvious secondary road which travels south, which is surely quiet, and paved.  But it has been too long since a proper ride in the mountains.  The weather is good and we wish to prolong our time in Albania.  The best way to do this is to go high and accept the pace of the mountains.

Our route from Kukës to Cajë includes a total elevation gain of 6,000ft, climbing on dirt roads to Xhaferaj, and then footpaths and cattle trails up to the grassy mountaintops.  From there, we continue on little-used dirt roads up near our high-point at 6,900ft.  There we find an array of 13 mushroom-shaped bunkers, and a shepherd with a large flock of sheep.  The high peaks of Macedonia and Kosovo loom in the distance.  Like an afternoon snack amidst the regularity of our three-times-a-day meetings with Albanians, he asks us to sit with him in the grass.  There isn’t much to say, and I don’t have any cigarettes to offer him.  We spend a few minutes sitting in the grass, the wind blowing just strong enough to erase the intensity of the sun on this fall day in the mountains.  And then, we’re off with handshakes and goodbyes.  We descend 5,000ft back to pavement.   

From Kukës, we pass under the highway and onto a freshly paved road.  There are several small border crossings in this region with Kosovo, although the roads to the border are unpaved.  

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Passing a small crossroads and the intersection of two streams, we ride around an industrial structure.  It appears to house some water catchment and distribution systems.  We continue on one of two dirt roads at the end of the pavement.

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The road turns up, steeply, towards Topojan and Xaferaj.

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Above both villages, at dusk, we find a small flat spot on a narrow ridge, just off the road.  I expect the road to run out soon, and I’d asked a young man who spoke English if we could camp somewhere nearby.  He laughs, and says “anywhere”.  He invites us to come back down to the store to have a beer with him.  He and a few others from the city live in the area during the construction of some water utilities.  

Within a few moments, some boys arrive to see what’s happening.  A man in his mid-thirties arrives, and takes control of the conversation.  He invites us to come stay at his house.  We like our campsite, and gratefully decline.  He is not satisfied, and tries to invite us again, injecting a little more vigor into his invitation.  Again, we decline.

Next, he warns us that the area is not safe.  I insist to know why.

He suggests there are some people around here which make it unsafe, and there are animals, and it will be cold.  A small crowd of young boys show no concern, and are watching with blank faces.  I insist to know who we are worried about meeting in the night?  “People!”  And which animals?  “Beers!”

“Bears!”, I exclaim, correcting him like every other non-native English speaker who pronounces bears like a refrigerator full of cold pilseners.  

Listen, I am from Alaska.  I’ve seen bears.  I will not be cold.  Thank you, but we will stay here tonight.  I think it will be safe.  

By now, he’s using Google Translate on his smartphone to translate more advanced concepts.  We both wait, staring at the phone as it slowly loads.  “Pity”, it reads.  

I now understand his motives more than before.  He wants us to come to his house, and to be his guests.  He may think it is cold and perhaps he would be afraid to sleep outside, but these are not actual concerns.  

Soon, an older man in a camouflage jacket arrives, speaking assuredly in Albanian and carrying a tall wooden staff.  At the instruction of our captor, he is now telling us to take our things to come to his house (or perhaps this is another house).  Lael points to the tent, and says that this is our home.  He looks at it, runs his hands along the thin nylon fabric, and scoffs.  He reaches to begin pulling out the stakes.  I put my foot down, literally.  The young boys are quietly laughing to one another, which after all the talk of bears and unsavory characters, I’m now convinced cannot be true.  After a short fight, the old man quits.  Our captor leaves us to our pitiful campsite, high on the hill.  He leaves us after a half-hour of frustrating, if hilarious, conversation.

Pasta is boiling, night has come.  Another man arrives with his two sons to insist that we come to his house.  He is softer in his approach, and kind.  I thank him generously, stuffing my hand into his with as much confidence as I can muster after a 3,000ft climb and a tiring conversation.  He understands, I think, and leaves us.  

Our food is salted and vegetables cut.  Nearly as my spoon enters my mouth, two boys are at the roadside.  These are the two boys that had been here moments earlier with their father.  One of them has been there since the beginning, and knows the entire history of the situation.  I stand guard, ignite my headlamp and engage them, preparing for a fight.  They offer a large packaged chocolate croissant and a liter of peach juice, purchased from the store below.  “Thank you.”  They leave us alone, and the village leaves us alone.  

Everyone in this valley now knows who we are and where we are camped.  Surely, we are safe now.  

We finish our dinner.  A truck arrives with two men.  The driver is the young man who we’d asked about camping earlier in the evening.  It seems a group of people has been waiting for us at the store.  He offers us a ride –no more than 250m– which we decline.  We clean up and ride down the steep dirt road.  Inside, a half-dozen men are waiting, with only a few beers in circulation.  They pretend not to be waiting for us, but they are.  We enjoy a pleasant conversation with our host and his friend, the store owner.  His family is from this area, but he lives in Tirana.  We ask all of the things which we haven’t been able to ask for days.  He is intelligent and mature, and we learn, only 21 years old.  Another man in the room that arrived on a loaded horse, looks at us smartly.  He’s a shepherd or a farmer, but claims to have been a teacher at some point.  He speak a little English, and writes a note on a napkin.  He looks exactly like our friend Eddie from Key West.  Actually, everyone in the room is healthy and well dressed, in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in a bar in Fort Collins, although this is a really small village at the end of a dead end dirt road in a very steep valley in Albania.  We are not allowed to pay for our beers, but I insist to leave a tip equal to the price of the beers.  I explain, this is how we make our money in America, and they laugh. 

If we want coffee, we are told that the shop owner will return at 7:30 in the morning.  As we thank the group and begin our ride up the hill, Lael and I agree that they probably don’t normally open at 7:30 or serve coffee.  In the morning we arrive for our coffee as prescribed.  The store is open, which I could see from our vantage on the hill.  The shop owner has spent the preceding 20 minutes smoking a cigarette and looking in the general vicinity of our camp.  He opens a fresh pack of Turkish coffee, lights the stove, and pours the boiling liquid into two small ceramic mugs.  He offers each of us a slim cigarette, turns on the TV and selects an English-language music station.  He quietly retreats to keep watch behind the counter.  Again, he will not accept money for the coffee.  Instead, we buy a few packaged croissant at his store.   

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The road ends a quarter-mile after the store.  Only three or four houses line the road beyond our camp.  As we’ve been warned, the route to Turaj is not passable.  I ask for clarification that in fact it is not passible with a truck.  

“With a horse?”  Yes.  “On foot?”  Yes.  “Might it be possible to walk my bicicleta?”  Most likely.

At first, the path is steep and muddy, rutted by horses and cows.  Then, it is rocky, like a narrow old wagon trail.  It becomes more level and smooth, rounding the hillside like an engineered rail trail.  Finally, it diverges into several narrower tracks, footpaths and cattle trails.  We select our path via the GPS, which actually indicates a trail up the mountain.  

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At the top, we encounter a series of small dirt roads, broad grassy meadows, and a cemetery.  We navigate a network of dirt tracks upward.  Passing through the community of Kodra, I stop for some water at a house.  

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In moments, a young girl is fetching a watering can to fill our bottles.  The older woman, weathered but no more than 40 years old, takes Lael by the hand and seats both of us inside.  She suggests, offers, insists that we will have some coffee as she lights the stove.  The wood stove in the center of the room is warm, and a large pan of milk sits atop it.

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I admire the space and the hand-carved wood panels which make the walls and the cupboards.  The building has settled over the years, the ceiling is sagging.  The floors are dirt, there is a television in the corner.  We poke and prod at the silver cylinder on the floor.  It is powered and purring.  A laundry machine?  A sanitizer for canning?  Eventually the woman opens the machine to stir it and reveals a quantity of milk, on its way to becoming yogurt.  The table is populated with bread and butter, yogurt, cheese, and one spicy yellow pepper.  Two glasses of milk arrive, and two coffees.  And then we eat, and everyone watches.  The neighbor children arrive to watch, as does an older woman who smiles a lot and makes conversation with us in Albanian.

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Everywhere in the Balkans, Turkish style coffee is prepared on a small high-heat burner.  The recipe seems to call for sugar and coffee and water in equal proportion.  Only the size of an espresso shot, it should take some time to consume, often up to an hour or more.  

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The road trends upward with the gentle curve of the hills.  Ridable rural dirt provides us with some of our happiest moments on the bike.  We’re part time mountain bikers, and cities are becoming more appealing to me while on tour, but this is the kind of riding we love.  We can talk and think, and for only a few minutes at a time serious attention must be paid to the ride.  

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Juniper berries, ripe and ready to become raki.

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An assortment of dirt roads and cattle trails take us to our pass.  We have several options down the mountain.  With several hours and warm weather, we shoot for a longer route to another road further south.  This should bring us another 1000ft higher.

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A large concrete structure stands atop one of these mountains, most likely an old military facility.  The three-way border of Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia is nearby.  In recent history, this was simply the border between Albania and Yugoslavia.

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The last ride (or push) is up a steep 4×4 track to 6900ft.  This will be our highest point in the Balkans, and in Europe.  

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At the top we break for some olives and almonds and admire our good fortune.  An array of concrete bunkers loom at grass height.

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There are thirteen on the distant hill, the most I’ve seen in one place.

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Just as soon as we begin down the mountain, a shepherd stops us to “chat”.  We sit quietly in the grass for a few minutes.  I indicate that we are from Alashka, Amerika. I point towards Greqia.  He understands.  We roll on.

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The GPS indicates a track of some sort.  There is a feeling to the grassy hillside that makes me think we are following something, but the complex of cattle trails is deceiving.  Nonetheless, we can see where we are going.  Much of the steep meadowy hillside is rideable in a switchback pattern, although a bit technical.

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Two cattle trails do not make a doubletrack, but my eyes hoped that this would be a “road” down the mountain.

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Instead, we continue overland down to Cajë.

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And down the valley back towards the pavement.

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Immediately, the paved road climbs toward a pass.  We stop in Bustricë for a beer, and let the light fade without a plan or a place to camp.  In time, the men at the next table warm up to our presence and ask where we are from.  They buy us another round of beers.  They send a plate of feta and olives to our table.  After I quickly eat everything on the plate –Lael gets none of it– they ask if we’d like another.  They invite us to their table, buy another round of Skopsko pints, and we talk.  We learn that the bar owner has provided the beers, while his brother bought the olive and cheese plates for us.  His son is serving us, and speaks excellent English.  His other son, we met by the roadside as we entered town.  

I eventually ask for a place to camp nearby, something simple.  They show me a place in the field across the street.  Perfect.  But within minutes, they’ve reconsidered.  You will come to our home.  

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We walk up the hill to the house.  It is nice and modern, simply furnished and open.  The door is wide open, covered in a thin fabric like a veil to maintain the flow of fresh air into the house.  We remove our shoes on the porch.  The man’s wife and his mother greet us.  We all sit down, drinks are procured and seats arranged around a small table taken from the corner.  The room is large with a kitchen along the far wall, and couches along two walls.  No permanent dining table is present.

It isn’t long before the likelihood of an oncoming feast is impossible to ignore.  Plates and piles of food are growing on the counter.  The oven light is on.  The men in the room, and Lael, are drinking and smoking and talking.  The women are cooking but when they come to the table to socialize, they borrow a beer or a glass of raki to join us in a toast, “Ge zuwar!”  They don’t drink.  We are instant friends. 

Dinner arrives, piece by piece, beginning as a hearty meal and growing to a modest feast, and then, an epic feast.  At one point, Lael is filled to the brim.  She sips a glass of water and pokes at some cucumbers and tomatoes.  Someone reaches across the table to pile more meat and potatoes on top of her heap of food.  That’s the Albanian way.  Despite what you’ve heard, hospitality is the only hazard in this country.

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Official photos are taken, and as has become habit, Facebook contacts exchanged.  The two boys, who have just come home from working at the bar are told to sleep on the couch.  We are told to sleep in their room.  The man’s mother– the grandmother– gives Lael a pair of knit slippers.  

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Lael’s had a big day, on the bike, and off it.

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The following morning we make one last stop at the bar-cafe.  Another round of drinks–coffees this time– for which payment is refused.  I leave a tip in excess of the price of the coffees.  The money is declined.  I insist, it is a tip for their son Kevin, who uses this English variant of his Albanian name in our presence.  He is only 18, but is living in Tirana to study English.  I insist, this is how we make our money as well.  Lael and I are assured in this gesture, thinking about the money she makes as a server or bartender in Alaska or elsewhere in the US.

We continue south towards Peshkopi, near the border of Macedonia.  The plan is to stop in town, briefly, and ride across the border. 

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We stop for coffees along the way, equally interested in the stone structure as in the group of men outside the rustic shop.  Each is a good excuse to enjoy the other.  The shop owner sends us with a bag of acorns.

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We break for lunch at a large communist-era monument on a hill between villages.  We cook the remaining sausages in my framebag, cut vegetables and cheese, and make a palatable expression of a bunch of two-day old food and plastic grocery bags.

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It is not long before the sound of young boys enter our space.  We hear them, and soon, we see them.  Nine boys are standing within feet as we consider eating lunch, trying to eat lunch.  They don’t say anything–  we speak to each other knowing they can’t understand, laughing at our situation.  Even between villages at the top of the hill out of site of any homes, they’ve found us.  Most of the time, young boys and dogs are best at sensing or expecting our presence.  Young boys are often the most talkative.  But not these boys, not yet.

“Hello, where are you from?”, one boy asks, without the capacity to make further conversation.  But we point and shoot and learn a few Albanian words as they share their English vocabulary with us.  Lael assumes the role of English teacher, which she declares is much more productive in Albania than it was in France where she worked for seven months.  Soon, they are asking for pictures to be taken in front of the monument.  They become boisterous, fighting and laughing with one another.  Some boys are older, and some younger; some are extremely talkative and organize the group, while one boy does not talk at all.

The energy in the group grows to a high.  I pull the bag of acorns from my bag to offer a snack.  They plainly refuse, an official policy I suspect.  Instead, I ask them to show me how to shell the nuts.  Then, I ask for their help to shell them all.  Soon, nine boys are (almost) quietly shelling my acorns, although most of them will not eat the nuts.  A few boys eat some.  By now we are friends, and Lael and I have lost interest in our lunch.  We cut our sausages into pieces and offer them to the boys.  Now that we’re friends, they accept, reaching and grabbing past each other.  Lael signals to quiet down and to only take one piece at a time, generally polite practices.  Instead, they take one sausage and hide it behind their backs, reaching with the other hand.  The same happens with our raisins, and almonds.  Preparing to leave, I pull out my stack of photos.  These are test prints and rejects from The Art of Bikepacking show I presented in Anchorage this summer.  Nine of those photos are now in a small town in Albania.  Nine Albanian boys have photos of Lael pushing her bike somewhere in Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland…

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Near Peshkopi, a young man pulls over to the side of the road to talk.  “German, English… French?”, he asks hopefully.  He speaks nearly perfect French, the result of having lived and worked in Paris for three years.  He is only 19 years old, at home for some time to visit his family and rest his ankle after an injury.  He and Lael hold an energetic conversation.  He verifies the Albanian principles of hospitality that we have recently experienced, and suggests that he will return to the city in an hour to meet us and show us around.  Tentatively, we agree.

After shopping for supplies (mostly burek and apples), we look about the city for some internet and a coffee.  We take our time, and have one last look near the plaza to see if Bajram, or Brian as he is called in France, has arrived.

We find him and are invited to sit with him and his friends for (more) burek.  We talk, several hours pass.  Again, it is dark.  There is some discussion about “hearing some music” at the discotheque across the street.  After some time, we descend a staircase to a club under the Grand Plaza Hotel of Peshkopi.  Music is at full volume, and nobody is in the nicely-appointed room.  Mirrors and curvilinear seating and small tables line the wall around a central dance floor.  The bartender, also the DJ, gladly invites us.  We are a group of four young men and one girl who hasn’t showered in weeks, wearing muddy Sidis.  We’d inquired about the club scene earlier in the evening.  It seems it is hard to meet girls in this city– a small city in the generally Muslim country– much unlike Tirana, or Paris.  Here, girls don’t go to clubs and if they did, people would talk.  

We have a nice time, Lael and I incited a brief dance party with our friends, and we listen to some really loud music.  Bajram leads us in a traditional Albanian wedding dance to the heavy beats of of a traditional tune over a modern track.  

All the reasons to go on a bike trip cannot be known from your current vantage.

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We pile out of the club with the authentic energy of a whole night in some big city discotheque, as if it were 5AM.  The streets of Peshkopi, just past 11PM, are vacant.  The plaza is quiet.

We arrive at Bajram’s house near midnight.  His mother is awake and waiting for us.  We sit on the couch.  A table appears along with a feast of cheese and yogurt, vegetables, and fasole, a traditional bean soup.  Bajram opens a bottle of wine, although we can barley keep our eyes open.  He and his mother quietly enjoy our company while we eat.  We ask to sleep and are given a spare room in their spacious home.

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Early the next morning, under foggy skies, we make a break for the border of Macedonia.  Thanks, Albania, it’s been great.

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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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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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Seven days of dirt

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The only antidote to working seven days a week is riding seven days a week.  Of course, you can imagine the resultant sleep schedule, especially as days grow longer than eighteen hours, technically.  On a clear night, the sky never goes completely dark.  On one night after work, I rode laps around the network of trails at Kincaid with some friends. As they turned towards home, I pointed my tires towards the beach to revive a smoldering campfire.  Out of my framepack I revealed a pack of sausages, buns, a bunch of carrots, and a small brick of cheese.  Lael rode out the Coastal Trail after work– after midnight– for a late evening dinner.  We enjoyed a never-ending twilight until turning home past 3 AM.  This is summer in Alaska.

This past week, I’ve chased trails every night of the week.  The riding is different and fun.  Dirt is different than snow.  Everyone I know was riding trails for the first time last week, except I was riding for the second, third, fourth…

Thanks to everyone who joined me last week, including Kevin, Lucas, Rob, Ryan, Henna, Jeff, Dan, Abe, Hobbs, Clint, Daniel, Brian, Charlie, and of course, Lael.  May the season be rocky and rooty for all.

Kevin is especially committed to riding.  We partnered on several rides to the Campbell Tract, Kincaid, and the Kepler-Bradley trails in the valley.  He’s putting some serious work on his new All City Macho Man Disc cross bike.  

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If only so I don’t forget what a great week it has been, and what great fun can be found in town, here is a quick tour of the local trails and characters.

 

Day 1: Work to Campbell Creek Trail, Campbell Tract trails, and home; with Kevin Murphy

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Day 2: Work to Coastal Trail, Kincaid STA trails (round and round and round), home via Raspberry and C Street; with Kevin, Abe and Hobbs

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Day 3: Work to meet at Tastee Freeze for ice cream cone, to Kincaid STA trails (round and round and round), to the Bluff Trail, then home via Middle Earth and the Coastal Trail; with Kevin, Rob, and Ryan (Abe, Hobbs, Erin; Clint and Laura on the trail)

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Day 4: Work to Kincaid STA trails (round and round and round), then home via Raspberry and C Street; with Dan Bailey

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Day 5: Work to Kincaid STA trails (round and round and round), then down the Bluff Trail to the beach at midnight to revive a smoldering fire, roast hot dogs and drink beers with Lael until 3AM, home via Coastal Trail; with Jeff and Henna, Lael meets after work past midnight, walks through intertidal waters to find me

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Day 6: Work to Coastal Trail to Kincaid STA trails (round and round and round), then home via Raspberry and C Street to Campbell Creek Trail, swimming in Campbell Creek; with Lucas O’Loughlin

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Day 7: Work, then catch a ride out to Kepler-Bradley Trails in Palmer to ride melange of trails amongst kettle lakes and glacial moraines, including buff flow trail, rooty singletrack, and wide XC ski trail; with Kevin Murphy, Charlie, Brian, and Daniel  

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Anyone planning to come up to Anchorage for Singlespeed World Championships (SSWC) in July?  The event will be held out at Kincaid, which hosts miles of fun trail and epic in-town scenery.

Anyone looking for a 19″ (Large) Mukluk near Anchorage?  It’ll be for sale next week.

TMV: Wissembourg to Saverne

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The Traversée du Massif Vosgien connects the forested Vosges Mountains of Alsace from north to south.  The Vosges are an understated range with few rocky exposures– they are the French mirror of the Black Forest of Germany, which is found just on the other side of the Rhine River.  The TMV has been in existence since 2004-2005, when it was officially mapped and signed by the Alsacian Chapter of the French Federation of Cycletourists (FFCT).  It claims over 400km of trail and 8000m of climbing, favoring the east side of the mountains and the intermontane zone along the eastern flank where most Alsacian wines are produced, between the Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin regions.  Compared to American dirt touring routes, the TMV offers riding similar to the Great Divide Route, with climbs as much as 800m (2500+ft) and a highly rideable dirt surface.  Maps and trailside signage serve to make navigation simple.  Resupply is simple, and available daily.  The route includes only about 10% pavement– little enough not to bother the dirt lover– and big climbs with grades and surfaces manageable enough to be inclusive of any athletic rider.  The TMV balances physical challenges with accessibility.  Also within range of many bike-friendly TER Alsace train stations (regional ‘slow’ trains accept bikes at no cost) and several major cities (Strasbourg, Colmar, Mulhouse, Basel), and short enough to be done in a week, the TMV will likely gain popularity as more French (and German, Swiss, and Belgian) riders become wise to the pleasures of dirt touring.

Taking a few days to regroup following weeks of rain, we center ourselves in Wissembourg at the start of the route, at the north end of the Vosges.  We climb into the hills every night to tuck away in the woods. Free, legal camping close to town is always a treat.  A morning descent to croissant and cafe is routine in France.  An inexpensive public pool is real special to a touring cyclist.

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Located just outside the ramparts.

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We installed new brake pads, a chain, and replaced Lael’s worn WTB Exiwolf tire while in town.  Espace Cycles in Wissembourg is one of the best mountain bike shops we have seen so far and readily supplied all of the parts that we desired, including Schwalbe tires for cheap.  A 30€ folding Schwalbe tire is a treat, considering that similar tires cost as much as $90 in the US.  With borrowed air from the shop’s compressor, tubeless touring is a breeze.  We haven’t had a single problem in two months of tubeless touring.  We have some spare sealant and tubes packed away, but haven’t had any use for it, and haven’t experienced any flats.  We’ve only used our pump a few times in two months.

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A placard near the center of town describes the trail and serves as an official start point.

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It departs, winding through historic Wissembourg, and follows a paved cycle path out of town.  Within six km, it joins a forest road and sets the tone for the remaining 400km– tranquility, with some climbing.

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Atop the first climb, we meet Gaby at his home.  He works as a mechanic at Espace Cycles and offers to lend us a hardcopy of the maps, which are currently out of print.  The complete set is available as a .pdf file online.  He and his wife Valerie lead us to a special camping place near Climbach with a fresh water source.  The site is an old chappelle, which predates Christianity in the area.  For a little guy, 26″ wheels still make sense, but 29″ wheels are starting to take off in France, even on some longer travel Cannondale models found at the shop in Wissembourg.

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The next day, despite some rain, we enjoy a diverse range of forested tracks connecting small villages.  The elevation along this part of the route ranges from 200-400m.  Still, there is plenty of climbing.

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And plenty of water.  Les sources, or public springs, are found in abundance in the Vosges.  Even when declared to be ‘not potable’, we usually fill our bottles.  All of the water is cold and beautiful.  Cemeteries are also a reliable source of water in Europe.

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Endless forest service roads are found in the area; most are closed to motorized traffic.  Mostly hardwood forests around, with interspersed conifers which favor well-drained sandy soils.

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Some roads are recovering doubletrack, on their way to becoming wide singletrack corridors.  Follow the orange signs marked TMV.  We mostly follow trailside signage, although the maps help us whenever we feel unsure about the route.

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Nearing another town we find scattered houses and farms.

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A church, mairie, école, and a bakery.  Often, a war memorial reminds of both major conflicts that affected this region in the last century.

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Some towns, especially in the Vosges, feature the ruins of ancient castles and forts.  They cannot be reached without a steep climb, ever.

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As quickly as we arrive, the trail leads out of town.  Steep climbs provide occasional challenges, although mostly the route is extremely rideable on anything from a rigid 26″ mountain bike (even a Surly LHT for example) to a full-suspension 29er or even a fatbike.  A minimum 50mm (2″) tire is recommended, especially as the northern Vosges are underlain with sandstone, thus mostly sandy roads.  Luckily, sandy soils drain well after weeks of rain.

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Evening is one of our favorite times to ride.  Mornings are reserved for coffee.  Some people tour early in the day, we prefer to ride late.

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Note, baguette protrudes from the Carradice saddlebag.  Overall, we both ride lean machines.  Framebags hide a lot of gear, even on Lael’s small frame.

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Even at the end of the day, Lael must go for a run.  As this was the 4th of July, I took the chance to prepare a special evening.  While she was gone…

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I prepare a fire for her to light.  We rarely, almost never, have fires on tour.

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Chilled some crémant Alsacien, a sparkling white wine, and a couple Alsacien beers in the source.

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Prepared a feast of sauerkraut and sausage, to be served on baguette with mustard.  This was our best effort at hot dogs and beer in Alsace.

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No fireworks.  Not bad.

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In memoriam, the cork becomes a new bar-end plug the next morning.

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The following day is our best day on the trail so far.  Smooth singletrack and wild blueberries spoil us.  Bicycle touring is not hard– not never, but not always.

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Sandstone defines the northern Vosges– the area encompassed by the Parc Naturel Régional des Vosges du Nord, from Saverne to Wissembourg along the TMV.  Sandy soils are ever-present, but rarely are they soft like beaches.  Mostly rideable hard packed surfaces are found, while pine needles and beech leaves quiet the ride.

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Many tourist offices provide resources for free, or for a small fee.  The TMV maps are out of print, but I know at least one copy exists in La Petite Pierre if you want it.  A trail map is not essential, but a regional road map would help in case you lost your way and were traveling without the official guide.

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The FFCT promotes cycling touring, and the growing sport of touring by velo tout terrain, or VTT.

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A few squishy, muddy spots make things interesting.  Mostly, very little special equipment is needed except for a big tire.  Guesthouses and hiking shelters offer an alternative to camping for some.  Camping is possible almost everywhere along the route.

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Local hiking and biking clubs maintain trills, signage, and shelters.  The number of hiking routes in the area is astounding.

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These aren’t guesthouses, but troglodytic homes restored for viewing.  For the culturally curious, there is much to do in the area.  Alsace has changed hands many time between French and German leadership over many hundreds of years, and Alsaciens maintain a strong identity despite a diverse heritage.

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For us, the riding and the camping are most important.  This is some of the best.

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Ride down to Saverne to meet Andi for a few days of riding.  The TMV is officially mapped in three sections: the northern Vosges, the piedmont, and the mountainous southern Vosges.  Leaving Saverne, we begin the Pidemont des Vosges, gaining elevation.

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GR5: Genk to Stavelot

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In the Netherlands, the GR5 was an interesting ramble through town and country.  In northern Belgium, the route frequently follows managed forest tracks and local mountain bike routes, often abandoned doubletrack.  Passing near Maastricht and Liège, the routes enters the famed Ardennes Mountains, famed for being the only mountains in Belgium.  If this were Pennsylvania, which is how it looks from squinted eyes atop a hill, we would joke that these are mere hills.  But the same is true both here and there, these are steep hills approaching 1000ft in elevation range, and after riding up and over a couple I am happy to regard them as mountains.  Finally, this is real mountain biking.  The diversity of the trail has not diminished, simply more time is spent off-pavement and even off-road– yes, there is a distinction.  Some hiking required, and many challenging ascents and technical descents, but mostly pleasant riding.  ‘Bikepacking the Ardennes’ may be a ready made route, and an instant classic.

These images are from the last three days, as hills turn to mountains.  Only 1550km to Nice.  Not sure if we are going there.  Always passing through tunnels.  

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We never leave at first light, but we ride until the last hour almost every night.  The sun retires past 10PM, lingering below the horizon for another hour.  As the days get warmer, evening becomes a nice time to ride.  

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Mornings are equally nice– cool and full of excitement for the day.  Change is the essence of this route, and scouting the next turn keeps us busy all day.  Shopping for food, picnicking, and swimming revive our muscles and our interests in riding.  Belgian beer, chocolate, and waffles keep our energy levels high for the next climb.   More than a few locals have been interested in our curious ‘touring bikes’.

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We share the route with a few others, including farmers, cattle, cars, hikers; nettles, raspberry brambles, deer ticks, tall grasses, overgrown trees, mud, rock, roots; and very infrequently, other cyclists.

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The Ardennes are wonderful.  Growing up in rural New York, I hunger for these kinds of landscapes.  Touring in the Rockies the past few summers and living in New Mexico, I had forgotten about humidity altogether.  Mud and nettles; rocks and steeps; cities and steps all got together. 

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Many stone buildings do not have provisions for exterior plumbing, which can make it hard to find unattended water sources.  Cemeteries are a safe bet.  In the mountains, streams are always found in the valleys.

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Camping has almost never been easier.  Much of the trail passes through public forests.  A bench, like a picnic table, is a nice feature.

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In 2009, the GR5 marked its 50th anniversary.  

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Here, our descent to Stavelot–  a half-day in the life of a GR5 thru-biker.

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 A tunnel completes the route to town.  Both natural and manufactured features make the GR routes exceptional.  The footpath shares this tunnel with a small stream.

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Riding south, hoping to reach Luxembourg City this weekend.  A friend from Tacoma performs with The Paperboys at midnight on Saturday.  

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Correspondence: Notes on a Stealth Fatty

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Hmmm, how long has it been, only a few weeks since I picked up the necromancer pug but it’s been an honest blast. I genuinely feel these bikes should be the absolute standard for off-roading, be it touring or park ratting. The bike is really well balanced and carries it’s weight well when riding technical single track and has stunning stability on “off the back of the saddle” descents. There’s definitely a re-learning curve with accepting the tire pressures that get the most out of the bike.  The psi’s are definitely different in regard to what you are riding.  This brings me to the tubeless.

Jeff and Nick, thanks. Y’all did a stunning job. I’ve ridden this bike with absolute negligence and disregard with no burps or flats. Really, I’ve riddled the tires with a whole lot of goatheads and ridden it damned hard on and off road at 2psi, and the tires are still attached to the rims. Which does pose a complication as the larry is a liability. It’s been hot and tacky out and i’ve really been pushing the bike on the local trail systems– the Larry really will break loose. The nate is stunning, the Larry, it’s gotta, gunna go eventually. I hope before me, ha ha.

I just wanted to let y’all know how much I appreciate the effort 2 wheel drive put into getting me on this bike. I dig it. I’ve attached some pics documenting some of the finer moments since getting the pugs.

-jmg

Jeremy is “over the handlebars for New Mexico”, which is our way of saying that he likes it here and he goes over the bars a lot.  A recent transplant from Texas and everywhere, he makes the most of this rugged and beautiful state and rides like it doesn’t hurt when you crash.  I wonder if Jeremy has really ridden down to 2psi?  He’s a little guy and when the snow is soft it’s easy to let it all out, so it’s possible, but 4psi may be more likely.  Hey Jeremy, I’ve got an extra Nate tire if you stop through ABQ sometime soon.

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Photos: Cass Gilbert and Jeremy Gray

Also, check out my “Fatbiking Micro-Adventure in New Mexico” on the Adventure Cycling Blog, and my older post about commuting and touring on a fatbike.

Exploring White Mesa

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Gary Blakley has been riding here for decades.  Spinal ridges and a rocky white mesa are a bike playground unlike anywhere else, except Moab.  In the appropriate season, the deserts of New Mexico present opportunities unknown to riders in temperate, forested regions.  Since Gary’s time on a 1987 MB-1 with drops, the White Mesa mountain bike trails have been developed by the Bureau of Land Management.  The trails are well defined, signed, and fun– except that every time we ride there someone goes over the bars.

Separate from the main trail system, rough jeep trails and faint singletrack lead to another world known as The Moon.  Underlain with bright white gypsum, the area is part of an active mine, and adjacent to the mining operation are hummocks of crusted white sediment.  These features are nature’s dirt jump track– traction is good, transitions are smooth and the landscape is wide open.  Play is inevitable.

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Leaving from the trailhead, follow the ridgeline along the aptly named Dragon’s Back trail.

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The spine of the dragon, looking north toward the western end of the Jemez Mountains.

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This short steep cliff blocks our passage, for a moment.  Teamwork gets us up; the reward is a fast descent off the north end of the ridge.

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Working together.

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An old cabin slowly melts into the desert off the north end of the trail system.

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This part of New Mexico has a relatively mild climate, so this place will do just fine.  Gary suggests a few improvements.

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Our bikes speak of a broad range of approaches.  Like a touring bike or a road bike, a bicycle only becomes a mountain bike when it is out riding in the mountains, or in the hills or the meadows, deserts or forests.  For this reason, I prefer the term all-terrain bike, or ATB.  In various modes, any of these bikes would be fine on the road, on tour, or on dirt tracks.  Gary’s custom steel AMPeirce is thoughtfully built for comfort and utility on trails.  Come spring, it will serve as a touring bike for a time.  As planned, it may be for a very long time.

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Patti’s bike is also custom fabricated by Andy Peirce outside of Del Norte, CO.  The bike fits more comfortably than any bike she has owned, and uses neutral stem and seatpost positions.  She has recently converted to On-One Mary bars, and loves them.

Gary and Patti have hosted passing cyclists on the Great Divide Route in Del Norte for years.  This summer, they rode north on the Divide from their home in Colorado to Banff, AB.  Leaving this spring, they plan to spend over a year cycling the world.

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Lael’s Raleigh XXIX has become a favorite of all the bikes she has ridden.  It felt like a lot of bike when she transitioned from the small wheels of the Hooligan this summer, but now she rips.

The Hooligan will soon be back from storage.  Some simple modifications are planned, including a more upright bar and some larger tires.  I’ve ordered a Velo Orange Tourist bar, which features generous rise and sweep to allow a more upright riding position.  Some voluminous 20×2.125″ Kenda K-Rad tires will conquer both paved and unpaved commutes in town, and are well priced.  Right in the city, Albuquerque has some historic irrigation ditches with dirt levees which are a blast to ride, and less than a quarter-mile from our house some mellow singletrack trails wind along the river.  Lael loves gold things, especially her Marys.

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This bike needs no introduction.  The Carradice saddlebag has been removed and may spend some time on the new VO Campeur when I complete the build this week.  For a time, I will have two bikes allowing me to refine each to a more specific purpose.  The fenders will soon be removed, and the Pugsley will become a dedicated ATB.  I may consider building some 29″ wheels at some point to continue my experiments from this spring.  The new 29×3.0″ Knard tires designed for the Krampus will fit the frame nicely.

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Jeremy is traveling through town and has several interesting bikes in his possession.  The design of this Laguna Mountaineer is representative of mid-80′s mountain bikes like my High Sierra or Stumpjumper.  High quality 120tpi 2.35″ Kenda Small Block Eights are the heart of the ride.  The basket is the soul.

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Also in his traveling stable, Jeremy has a Rivendell Hunqapillar with drop bars and 2.2″ Geax AKA tires.  I intend to spend some time riding it to develop the idea of my ideal dirt road tourer.  Groundwater seepage is rich with minerals, and crystallizes as snowy salts at the surface.

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We aren’t in Texas anymore.  A 34T chainring is a little steep on some hills.

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Given the color, some iron may also be present.

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In search of The Moon, we leave the signed trails behind.  In a rare instance, this actually looks steeper than it it.  Still, it was too steep to ride and at least one rider (with a wire basket) flipped over the bars.

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The faint trail disappears into a narrow drainage.

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Sandy doubletrack…

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…to The Moon!  Linger and play.

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And as the sun falls, we spin back to the start.  Riding in circles isn’t all bad.

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