Touring bikes at NAHBS

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This post first appeared on the Adventure Cycling Blog on April 2, 2013.  Above, Cass adjusts tire pressure on his vintage Stumpjumper while riding to NAHBS on Sunday morning. 

The North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show has proven to be a showcase for bicycles and ideas that find their way onto mass-market bikes, and into the mainstream. “Touring bicycles” have followed a hard line for decades, demanding 700c wheels, drop handlebars, and attachment points for fenders, racks, and water bottles. Recently, the traditional touring bike is challenged by modern concepts born on the dirt tracks of the Great Divide Route, above treeline on the Colorado Trail, and on the 1100mi Alaskan Iditarod Trail. Riding off-pavement promises low traffic volumes, excellent camping, and extraordinary scenery. To access remote settings via unpaved routes, several deviations from the concept of a traditional touring bike can help.

 

Breadwinner Cycles, Tony Pereira and Ira Ryan (Portland, OR)

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This elegant example of a traditional 700c touring bike by Breadwinner Cycles features front and rear racks, drop bars, fenders, lighting, three chainrings, and a pump peg. Breadwinner Cycles is a new brand from framebuilding veterans Ira Ryan and Tony Pereira.

 

Harvey Cycle Works, Kevin Harvey (Indianapolis, IN)

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This light touring model from Harvey Cycle Works features larger volume 650b tires. The rim is smaller in diameter than the bike above, but the frame allows a larger tire for a cushioned ride on rough surfaces. This bike hides a lot of modern features, including cable-actuated hydraulic disc brakes mated to Campy 11-speed levers.

 

Littleford Custom Bicycles, Jon Littleford (Portland, OR)

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The Littleford Expedition tourer makes use of 26” wheels as the foundation for a rugged world-tourer. 26” wheels are the most common wheel/tire size around the globe– the smaller wheel is inherently stronger, and the larger tires cushion the ride and provide traction when off the beaten path. Rugged racks carry a full load of luggage.

 

Hunter Cycles, Rick Hunter (Davenport, CA)

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Another popular concept in off-pavement riding is the 29” wheel. While the rim dimension is actually the same as the 700c wheels on your road or touring bike, with a voluminous tire the outside dimension of the wheel is nearly 29”. Larger wheels improve the capacity of the bike to roll over obstacles and maintain momentum. This can be helpful on rough, washboarded roads such as the Great Divide Route. This bike built by Hunter Cycles pays homage to vintage mountain bikes from the 80′s, with modern considerations, including disc brakes and big wheels.  More on the Super Scrambler on this previous post.

 

Cielo, Chris King et al. (Portland, OR); custom luggage by Tanner Goods (Portland, OR)

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Breaking from the traditional concept of touring with racks and panniers, this Cielo commuter/tourer is wearing rugged canvas and leather bags inspired by ultralight bikepacking equipment.

 

Moots (Steamboat Springs, CO)

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Moots Cycles displayed this titanium drop-bar 29er, designed to race the Tour Divide (GDMBR) and the CTR (Colorado Trail). While this design retains drop bars common on road touring bikes (and aero bars!), it is otherwise outfitted like a mountain bike with knobby tires. A framebag and other bikepacking equipment will round out the luggage system on this bike, which includes several mounting points on the fork for water bottle cages or the Salsa Anything Cage, which is a simple harness system for small bundles of gear. Pictured on the fork are two new Manything Cages from King Cage, constructed of tubular stainless steel to overcome some of the failure risk of the aluminum Salsa cages.

 

English Cycles, Rob English (Eugene, OR); custom luggage by Black Rainbow Project (UK)

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Pushing the concept even further, this custom creation from English Cycles loses the drop bars in favor of a multi-position upright bar. Aero bars will still be useful on long stretches of smooth dirt and pavement, as this bike is planning to race the Tour Divide as well. The full luggage capacity is shown, including two standard water bottle cages on each fork leg. The fork is also built to swallow a fat tire (26×4.0”) in the off-season.

 

Moots (Steamboat Springs, CO); custom luggage by Porcelain Rocket, Scott Felter (Calgary, AB)

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Not into ultralight racing concepts? This Moots bike is designed as a rugged trail-building machine. With integrated racks front and rear, it is loaded with a chinsaw and a multi-function shovel/axe, as well as a enough beer for a small crew. Built around the 29×3.0” tire introduced on the Surly Krampus, this bike has the capacity to reach remote places. Imagine losing the chainsaw and strapping a tent and a sleeping bag to the back.

 

Black Sheep Bikes, James Bleakely (Fort Collins, CO)

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In a similar vein, this Black Sheep fatbike features integrated racks front and rear on a slightly elongated wheelbase. In the wake of longtail cargo bikes, medium length cargo bikes have become a popular solution for handling less than epic loads. 26X4.0” tires will go anywhere you can imagine “touring”. Start dreaming!

 

Hunter Cycles, Rick Hunter (Davenport, CA); custom luggage by Porcelain Rocket, Scott Felter (Calgary, AB)

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The king of all touring bikes at NAHBS this year is this longtail fatbike from Hunter Cycles, built for Scott Felter of Porcelain Rocket. Rick has been building for years, and Scott sews custom bags– the combination of their expertise creates an integrated touring bike for one of the most remote tracks in the world. This summer Scott plans to ride the Canning Stock Route in Australia, which is over 1000mi of sandy desert doubletrack with no resupply points, and a limited number of water sources. Thus, this bike is designed to carry a month of food, several days of water, and several pounds of camping equipment. In addition to the framebag, Scott has made custom panniers for the rear rack– each double the size of a large Ortlieb bag– and a front handlebar roll to carry camping equipment. On 82mm rims and 4.8” tires, this bike is primed for expeditions on dirt, sand, or snow.  More on this epic touring bike on this previous post.

Exit Strategy

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May 8th: Ride or bus to Denver, fly to Amsterdam via Keflavik, Iceland; ride all over the place from there.  Much to do until that date.  Which bike to ride?

The Pugsley, in any of its fat, non-fat, or 29″ permutations?– maybe too much bike, but would allow for trail riding in the mountains and exploring the network of GR footpaths in France.  The Velo Orange Campeur?– not enough tire clearance for some of the intended riding, but just right for much of it.  The new Velo Orange ‘Bronco’ dirt tourer?– perhaps perfect, but not quite ready yet.

Which bike to ride?  Lael is almost certainly riding her blue Raleigh 29er, with lightweight bikepacking kit, comfortable handlebars and platform pedals.  She wonders, suspension or rigid fork?  Which tire?  Schwalbe Big Ben or Mondial would be a good candidate for durability and volume and some, but not too much tread.  The Rubena Cityhopper comes in 29×2.0″, at a good price.  There are other options.  Much to do.

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Photo: “Jumping Into Water”, Lael Wilcox; all others Nicholas Carman

Second Impressions of the Campeur

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I have ridden the Velo Orange Campeur in ways that it was designed and ways it wasn’t, forcing it out of its comfort zone since November 2012. Along the way, I have learned a lot about the bike and about my needs as a rider. I have (re)learned to appreciate a fast, natural ride on pavement. Although I’ve been on the road much of the last five years, this is the most road oriented bike I’ve ridden since 2009.

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First glancing the Campeur at Interbike, comparing geometry charts, and assembling the frame with new parts served to create a feeling about the new Velo Orange frame. Those were first impressions– pure speculation.  They were important because they framed my expectations of experiences to come. Disregard them. These are second impressions. These are based upon experience.

The Campeur has all the standard features of a proper touring bike to mount water and racks and fenders; long chainstays and stout tubing ensure stability; and a sensible headtube extension allows the handlebars near saddle height. Beneath the French aesthetic, the bike is actually a classic American touring bike. No, the Campeur does not compete directly with the venerable Trek 720 or Miyata 1000, which could or would cost much more to duplicate. Rather, the Campeur is much more like the Trek 620 or the Miyata 610, affordable versions of their top-of-the-line brethren. These models were known for similar features to their celebrated siblings, but they boasted a more rugged construction and were suited to carry more. Most of all, they were more affordable. The Campeur continues the tradition.

Ride quality

The Campeur is not a lightweight event bike, but it rides nicely unloaded with the right wheels, tires and tire pressure (see Mike Ross’ “1500 Mile Review”). Unlike many touring bikes, it features lively steering that is inspiring to ride unloaded. Its stout tubing does not provide the supple ride of an Italian lightweight and it may not plane when sprinting uphill unloaded, but it will handle daily life, transitioning from city to country and back. It could be ridden on a 200km brevet, to work all week, and onto dirt roads in the hills the following weekend. As with many touring bikes, the ride is enlivened with a load, feeling more grounded and assured and compliant. I have not ridden the Campeur in the traditional “fully-loaded” format with racks and panniers, but given the ride quality with moderate loads on fast descents I have no doubt that the load limit is still far off.  It is certainly capable of the kinds of trips where tires are dipped into the ocean.

Steering

I don’t think much about steering while riding the Campeur, which is a great compliment to a bike. I used to spend hours obsessing over low-trail geometry before realizing that trail is a necessary feature of bike design, best understood when the extremes (too high and too low) have been experienced. From some test rides, I know that extremely low-trail steering is not to my liking, especially unloaded (VO Polyvalent, 37mm trail). I’ve toured and commuted on a bike with notably high mechanical trail and gigantic tires with massive rotational weight at low pressures, and I know that high trail and heavy steering can force the bike wide around a corner, or off the trail altogether (Surly Pugsley, 88mm trail). I’ve toured on a very normal bike with many positive attributes, which became cumbersome with a heavy handlebar bag and too-narrow handlebars (1985 Schwinn High Sierra, est. 65+mm trail). First, I developed my touring chops for almost two years on a Made in the USA bread-and-butter touring bike with aluminum racks and panniers (1995 Trek 520, est. 65+mm trail). These are my reference points.

The Campeur provides the most natural steering I have experienced. I always ride with some kind of load. While never excessive, my load varies from a day’s supply of electronics, clothing, snacks and tools to a camping load for a couple of days or a load of groceries.  The steering geometry of the Campeur is best quantified as medium-trail, measuring 57mm of mechanical trail. For reference, the Surly LHT and Atlantis are both in the high 60′s (all on 38mm tires). Conventional wisdom suggests that high-trail geometry benefits the touring style, providing stability when riding straight all day, every day. But as front loads increase in mass and in height above the wheel– as with a basket or handlebar bag– high-trail bikes become cumbersome, especially when steering at low speed. The phenomena of heavy, slow speed steering is called wheel flop. It can be tiring and unnerving.

Daily, my experience riding the Campeur is casual and the steering is intuitive– it is neither twitchy nor heavy. I only notice the steering because of the smooth arcs that I carve on pavement. Broad curves at speed are managed with body english and almost no perceptible handlebar input. In the city, I lay the bike through tight corners with some input at the bars, and I always come out of the turn exactly when I want– never too soon– without losing much speed. The bike is unencumbered by a moderate front load, such as a full day’s supply in my Ostrich handlebar bag. The steering does not become heavy until I load a gallon of milk, avocados, apples, and a camera up front. At some point, a loaded bike is expected to feel heavy. This is when a balanced load becomes important.

For an in-depth discussion of my packing style, revisit my post “Packing the Campeur: Bikepacking Style” on the VO Blog.

Just as an overloaded handlebar bag can be cumbersome, a full saddlebag without a front load feels a little strange. When both bags are used in conjunction, even when full, the bike feels right– it is once again grounded and natural. For bulky items and camping loads I look to my Carradice Camper saddlebag and its 25L capacity. It swallows laundry for two, or camping gear and food for a few days. Even at high speeds with a full load, the Campeur is unwavering. The bike does not shimmy (speed wobble) when loaded, even when attempting to instigate or propogate a wave. Riding with one hand on the bars, or with no hands, is possible.

Low BB

Another notable feature of the Campeur design is a low bottom bracket, which is a common on the touring bike checklist. However, a low BB is not a feature for the kind of riding I like to do. Dirt roads may include erosional features and embedded rocks, and the Campeur is challenged by limited pedal clearance in some situations (45mm, tires; 175mm cranks; VO Sabot pedals). As such, I have switched from the large platform of the Grand Cru Sabot pedals to narrower VO Urban pedals for increased clearance. I have gained the confidence to corner without fear of pedal strike in the city.  Regarding vertical pedal clearance, I have learned to time my pedal stroke to avoid contact in the rough. Such riding is not the exact intention of this bike, although it is my passion and the tire clearance allows it. This is a personal caveat. For normal gravel road riding and unpaved rail trails there is little concern of pedal strike and a low bottom bracket does benefit stability, minimally.

Quill stem

The Campeur also uses a standard 1” threaded headset and quill stem. For my build, I have chosen a VO quill adaptor with a threadless-type stem. Both are finished nicely in polished silver. This system provides the best of both worlds– simple vertical adjustments and easily replaceable stems with removable faceplates if I choose to adjust the reach or swap handlebars. The claimed benefit of a 1 1/8” threadless system is a stiffer interface, which one can easily believe. However, I count a benefit of 1” quill systems to be the damping of road vibrations. Surely, the system also allows some lateral motion and torsion without ill effect, but the dampening is notable when riding fast on rough dirt roads or on broken pavement. For proper trail riding or sprinting, stiffness may be a feature. For riding along on real roads, compliance and comfort have a place.

Finish

I’ve seen all of the VO production frame models first hand, mostly in the brief time that I worked in the VO warehouse. The Campeur is the most refined of all previous models, both in design and finish. Tire clearances are exactly the same all around the bike. Rack, fender, and water bottle mounting points are all well-placed. The fork has a pleasing curve. The dropouts are utilitarian, yet proportional and elegant.  Cable routing is modern and sensible. The paint and decals are very nice. And, it has a headbadge.  I like the new Campeur decal and typeface.  It has a bold, modern feel and the illustration by Dan Price is playful and appropriate.

The Campeur is a touring, commuting, camping, utility bike– executed with subtle flair and an attention to detail. Mostly, it does not do anything that your beloved road touring bike cannot do. But in such a narrow category with close competitors, (in)significant details can make all the difference. The Campeur is fun to ride. The Campeur is a capable road bike for a path that is not always smooth or straight.

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These photos are from a three-day camping trip in the Jemez Mountains northwest of Santa Fe, NM.  We started and ended on pavement and connected about 70 miles of dirt roads at the heart of the route, including a section of the Great Divide Route (section Abiqui to Cuba).  Jeremy was riding his Rivendell Hunqapillar with a basket and a saddlebag.  He was rolling on 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Super Moto tires, which are a lightweight version of the Big Apple.  I had a Schwalbe Mondial up front (actual, 43mm) and a Dureme in the rear (45mm).  This kind of riding is a little out of range for the Campeur, but is possible with a medium-light load and larger tires.  

Keeping the things that I really enjoy about the Campeur, I would increase tire clearance and increase bottom bracket height (decreased BB drop) for an optimized dirt road tourer and a more versatile exploration machine.  These thoughts are parts of a longstanding mental thread regarding my ideal dirt touring bike.  In all, the Campeur is a very nice riding bike. 

A full geometry chart can be seen here.

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Roots

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A loop around the Valles Caldera on dirt roads is a suitable test for the new bike. Leaving Santa Fe, Jeremy and I ride north for an hour on pavement to Espanola. The feeling of being on a road bike again is exhilarating. Just west of town, the unpaved 31-Mile Road (FR 144) climbs 5000 ft over a ridge connecting Chicoma Mountain and Polvadera Peak, linking with the Great Divide Route for a bit. Chicoma is the second tallest peak in New Mexico at 11,561 ft– the road passes a thousand feet below the summit. We find cold nights and sunny t-shirt days as November becomes December, miles and miles of dirt roads and hardpacked snow in the shadows; deserts and pines from 5500 to 10,500 ft; and a back door entrance to the popular San Antonio Hot Springs.

Reverting to my roots, the VO Campeur is the most road oriented bike I have ridden since I sold my well-used 1995 Trek 520 three years ago. It is thrilling to be able to connect the dots on paved roads so easily, to transport myself well out of town in only a few hours. It is satisfying to “do more with less”, and to explore sandy, rocky, but mostly well-graded dirt roads. It is frustrating to not be able to go absolutely everywhere, as I have come to expect on the Pugsley. Compromises are the nature of any bicycle expected to serve varied functions. A more complete discussion of the Campeur will follow in the coming days.

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On the last day of our trip, my workhorse MacBook Air was stolen from aside my bike. Jeremy and I are picnicked only a few feet away, deep in conversation, and as we begin packing to leave I sense an absence. Fuck. Dig deeper in the saddlebag, but of course it has nowhere to hide. My external hard drive is also missing, and as many as twenty thousand photos are gone. I select a direct route toward Albuquerque, and coast downhill in awe. The road flattens, pedaling eighteen, twenty miles an hour into the sun, knowing that lactic acid and tears serve some of the same function. The new bike rides; it really, really rides. I ride for fun, for transportation, and now for release. A missing hard drive is not the same as the loss of memory. It does not impede the future. Rolling into Albuquerque at sunset, barely, I am happy about our trip and committed to forward motion– these are the roots of my cycling life. Be happy, roll on.

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I still have a bike and a camera. The blog will be rolling again soon.

Lovely Bicycle considers the difference between a camping bike and a touring bike. I have an ideal camping bike in mind, capable of roads and trails and moderate loads. What is your ideal camping bike?

Faire du camping

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Finally finished some lingering writing projects and work around the farm.  The bike is almost built.  Tomorrow, the train to Santa Fe and a three day camping ride.

The bag is from Oveja Negra threadworks in Leadville, CO.  The button is a gift from Shawn Granton, the artist behind the Urban Adventure League and Ten Foot Rule comic-zines.  The black headset spacer is carbon fiber, to save weight.  The Campeur frame is 59cm, square.

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NOS Specialized hub to VO Diagonale rim with straight gauge DT spokes.  The rear wheel is a NOS black Shimano LX hub to the same rim, with straight gauge Wheelsmith spokes from another shop.  Both wheels are 36 spokes with brass nipples.  Standard bearing grease was used to prep the threads and eyelets.

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The VO Pass Hunter rack makes a great saddlebag support on taller frames with cantilever brake mounts.  The underside of the seatstay bridge is threaded for a fender, so I drilled the bridge in the other direction to accept the rack.  The backstop keeps the bag away from the straddle wire, and will leave a little room for a small drybag under the saddle.

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Clearance with a borrowed 30mm Michelin Cyclocross Jet tire on 25mm rims.

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I am hoping to mount some borrowed 50mm Schwalbe Marathon Dureme tires tomorrow, although the fit may be too tight for practical use.  Some 40mm Clement X’plor MSO tires are in the mail, and will fit nicely.  A friend is sending a single 45mm Panaracer Fire Cross tire from Fairbanks, AK.

Also on my radar: the re-released 43mm Bruce Gordon Rock’n’Road tire, the discontinued 44mm WTB Mutano Raptor, the budget 42mm Michelin Transworld Sprint, several 42mm Continental cyclocross models, and several 1.75″ micro-knobbies from Vee Rubber.

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Imagining the Campeur

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When I speak of the older bikes that I have ridden, I refer to the process of rebuilding the bike as re-imagining.  An older bike made to function is refurbished.  A classic bike made to appear as it once did, is restored.  An old bike, reborn as something new, is re-imagined.  The High Sierra and the Pugsley have both been imagined and re-imagined multiple times.  My new Velo Orange Campeur frame arrived this week along with a bundle of parts, and I’ve begun imagining what the bike will become.  To do so, I must imagine what the bike will do.

The build will be fairly typical in many ways– wide range gearing, durable wheels, and drop bars– but in others, it will reflect my riding interests and landscape.  I intend to explore a range of tires between 40-45mm for commuting and short-range touring on mixed surfaces.  I will be using a wide-range double chainset with 46/30T rings.  In the near future, I hope to have a framebag made to efficiently store packable goods. With such a large main triangle, the framebag will swallow most of my gear on short, lightweight trips.  I expect to strap dry bags to the bars and saddle when traveling overnight.  In town, I will use a large handlebar bag with the VO Pass Hunter rack and VO decaleur.  A well used Ostrich bag is in the mail from my parent’s house in New York.  The Ostrich bag was a reliable companion for a full year of touring and commuting.

A fresh harvest on the farm.

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Most Velo Orange models feature low-trail geometry, purported to handle front loads while retaining a light feel at the handlebars and stable handling.  Trail, also referred to as the “caster effect” such as on a shopping cart, is influenced by head tube angle, fork offset, and tire size.  Fork offset is generally accomplished through the curvature of the fork, or rake.  On straight blade forks the blades make a slight angle at the fork crown.  Suspension forks and BMX-style forks often put the dropouts in front of the stanchions, and build some offset into the crown.

The VO Polyvalent measures 36mm of trail with a 38mm tire.  Trail on the VO Campeur measures 56mm, also with a 38mm tire.  Most touring bikes feature even greater trail; the Surly Long Haul Trucker and the Rivendell Atlantis measure 67mm of trail, as does the Black Mountain Cycles cross frame.  The Cross-Check has 68mm of trail.  The current Trek 520 has 61mm.  The Bruce Gordon BLT measures 62mm.  These numbers are all for 58-60cm frames with a 38mm tire, as I would ride.  Numbers may vary slightly through the size range, and with different tire sizes.

Deciphering these numbers: Notably, all but the Polyvalent feature similar trail measurements.  Although the Campeur is more similar than it is different, it is still designed with lower trail than traditional touring models.  A front load should play well on this frame, especially if you prefer a handlebar bag and front panniers, or a large handlebar mounted bikepacking load.  The low-trail numbers on the Polyvalent are influenced by French touring bikes, and more importantly, by French porteur bikes which were designed to carry bulky and heavy front loads in the city.  The Campeur should exhibit neutral handling in multiple loading configurations.  Neutral handling– steering that doesn’t draw your attention away from riding– is desirable.

Edit: The Pugsley measures 88mm of trail.  I input the 94mm nominal measurement of the tire, but the actual measurement may be slightly smaller when mounted and when under load at low pressure.  This explains some of the handling characteristics that I have experienced, in which monstrous rotational weight and traction are also in effect.

Check out this handy trail calculator.  Visit the manufacturer’s website to find your bike’s geometry.

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The Pass Hunter rack, at a mere 250g (claimed), offers a high strength to weight ratio.  It solidly mounts to the fork crown and brake posts, without any moving parts, brackets or hinges.  Also, Dia-Compe ENE bar-end shifters utilize the micro-ratchet mechanism borrowed from older Suntour designs, such as the venerable Sprint series.  The aesthetic is pure Campagnolo, and the mounting pod is borrowed from Shimano.  These VO brake pads offer better stopping power in every condition– even better than the Kool-Stop Salmon pads.  Sheldon would agree.  I used them exclusively on my High Sierra last year.

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Other VO parts include a 90mm stem with 17 deg rise and threadless stem adaptor, a brass bell, and 46 cm Rando bars.  The pronounced flare common to randonneur bars is invisible from this perspective.  The shape is much like the Nitto B135 Randonneur bar that I used on the High Sierra.  Prior to that, I used an SR rando bar on the Trek, borrowed from the Miyata 1000.  This summer I enjoyed the Salsa Cowbell bar which features a similar flare and a shallower drop.

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VO Model 3 touring saddle, shaped much like my beloved Brooks B-17.

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The Polyvalent cranks feature 46/30T aluminum rings and a chainguard on a standard 110/74 BCD.  I will explore this gearing for a bit, with the option to change rings in the future or to make a full triple.  The 30T can be replaced by a ring as small as 24T on the inner 74 BCD.  In building a triple configuration, a 34T is the smallest ring that will fit on the 110 BCD.  Hot off the press, the new Sabot pedals are a treat to handle.  Quality is on par with other modern sealed cartridge pedals I have seen, including Lael’s gold VP-001.  The bearings are exceptionally smooth, like high-end road and mountain pedals.

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VO Diagonale rims are 25mm wide, sized between the Sun CR18 (22.5) and the Rhyno Lite (27.5).  Matching Deore LX derailleurs front and rear were sourced in town, and are the same that were on my first touring bike,  a 1995 Trek 520.

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A built-in barrel adjustor with a rubberized lockring is a nice detail.

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More eyelets, a chainrest for wheel changes, and long chainstays.  Tire clearances are the same all the way around the bike.  Details like these are challenging to sort, either in production or on custom frames.

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Details of the fork: Robust socketed fork ends, like little lugs, are clean and strong.  They are also a labor saving measure and help keep costs down.  The pronounced boxy shape of the eyelets appeals to me, and reminds me of my 1983 Miyata 1000, which had an elegantly industrial aesthetic mated to military green paint.  The smoky grey color on the Campeur furthers the industrial aesthetic.

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Mid-fork rack mounts are threaded all the way through the blades.  Modern cantilever posts are spaced 80mm apart, center to center.  Some older touring frames are narrower.

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The fork crown offers 50-51mm of tire clearance, perfect for a 38mm tire and a fender.  Living in New Mexico for the winter, I hope to fit a larger tire.  The construction of the frame is tidy, and the welds are clean.

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A recessed nut can be used on the back of the crown.  The underside of the crown is drilled and tapped for clean fender mounting, as was common on high-quality constructeur bikes.  Technically, the arrowhead tangs on the crown serve a purpose, but mostly they look nice.

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Of course, you can’t go anywhere without a bell.  In a city full of bike paths, this will get plenty of use.

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These mellow singletrack trails are within shouting distance from my house and will be perfect for tire tests and a quick escape from the urban landscape.

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Note: The frame and fork were supplied by VO for long-term review.  The parts to complete the bike were offered at cost, but are all of my own choosing.  In some cases, availability and finances dictate the use of locally sourced parts including used derailleurs and NOS hubs.  I worked for VO for two months in 2011, sandwiched between bike trips in Mexico and on the Great Divide.  One creative afternoon before this bike had a name, several amusing suggestions were offered.  The Velo Orange Cassoulet, a French dish containing white beans and meat, would have been a nice counter to the midwestern Salsa Casseroll.  Camionette, the French word for a small truck, was offered in reference to the popular Surly Long Haul Trucker.  The Campeur name is simple and apt.

Real touring bikes: Montana

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These are real touring bikes.  These are real people.  These are real places.  If you have missed the “Real touring bikes” series, check out the Yukon, British Columbia, and the Canadian Rockies.

July in Montana is high time for bicycle touring.  Adventure Cycling maps draw cyclists into the state on several routes including, the Great Divide, Northern TIer, Lewis and Clark, Great Parks, and the landmark TransAmerica Trail.  Glacier National Park and heavily forested mountains offer the next best thing to Alaska, and the sight of a bear is a regular possibility in the western part of the state.  Montana is expansive and wild, but charming towns and small cosmopolitan cities create a diverse experience.  Whitefish is a friendly tourist town, aware of its growth and committed to maintaining its allure.  Missoula is ever one of my favorite places, and every time I visit, I resist leaving.  A trip to Missoula is incomplete without visiting ACA headquarters, FreeCycles, and the refreshing Clark Fork River.

In Eureka, MT: This Swedish rider has come from Boston, and selected to hop the train through the Dakotas and eastern Montana.  He rides an older Cannondale touring frame with Vaude panniers, neatly pasted with reflective tape.

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Also in Eureka, this rider has come from Seattle.  His newer Novara Randonee has a replacement fork; the original fork was damaged in an accident and this hybrid fork was sourced from a local bike shop out of a pile of homeless parts.  The duct tape is integral to the system– it attaches the fender and keeps the spring from coming loose from the brake arm.

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Whitefish, MT:  This town is full of touring cyclists in the summer.  Three routes pass through town– the Great Divide, Northern Tier, and Great Parks.  Outside Glacier Cyclery, nearly a dozen touring cyclists convene one morning.  Ryan‘s mid-nineties Trek 520 reminds me of my first touring bike.  He carries a simple kit in a pair of panniers and a handlebar bag.  Only a month into his first tour, he has already unloaded a pair of front panniers, and developed a relaxed approach.  A steel mug is a solid companion on the road.

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Down-tube shifters, a stem mounted bell, and a tidy bike.

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The train also passes through Whitefish, and is a popular way for people to come and go.  He scheduled to take the train to Portland to take a rest from touring and to visit with friends.

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I still don’t understand why this bike looks like a spaceship, but it is actually much more normal that it appears.  The frame is aluminum, and features internal cable routing and some non-functional black plastic venting on the headtube.  The rider is from northern Europe, and is equipped as one would expect: lighting, fenders, panniers, low-rider rack, kickstand and an upright position.  The bike is a Batavus Venturo Extreme, a touring model that is sold ready-to-roll with racks, fenders and lights.  That is not a suspension fork, although the lengthened steerer suggests that the design is suspension corrected for a short travel fork.

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This rider had just completed an unsupported group trip, operated by the Adventure Cycling association.  We has headed back home, but was keen to share his new Surly Long Haul Trucker.  It is mostly a stock build, with an aluminum rear rack and a Surly Nice Rack up front, made of tubular cromoly steel.  The rider has also installed fenders and a double-legged kickstand.

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The Surly rack is indestructible, but heavy.  When carrying a lot of weight, it is an excellent choice.

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This young rider had begun his trip on an older Bianchi mountain bike that has served him through many commuting seasons in Pennsylvania.  Along the way, a crack developed near the rear dropout.  He considered repairing the bike, but several components also needed replacement.  Instead, he purchased this new Specialized Tricross Sport Disc, one of the growing class of 28ers on the market.  Including the Salsa Vaya, Raleigh Roper, Kona Rove and others, these bikes fit tires up to 40-45mm.  Many newer models blend both drop bars and disc brakes, while less expensive models are sold with upright handlebars and rim brakes.

The rack extension is designed to carry a mandolin, which he had only begun to play on this trip.  Rear panniers, not pictured, are also in play.  The extra leverage of the rack extension and the weight of the panniers resulted in broken rack bolts at the dropouts.  Also to blame is the “disc-specific” rear rack, which puts considerable leverage on the rack bolts due to a widened position.  This rider left most of his gear in Columbia Falls,  ten miles away, and rode into Whitefish seeking repairs.

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The sheared bolt can be seen in the frame.  Note the black barrel on the backside of the rack strut.  It spaces the rack away from the frame to avoid disrupting the action of the disc brake, but it puts a lot of stress on the long bolt that is required.  Other disc-specific racks use a similar design, but a short bolt is installed inside the extension barrel, which puts the stress on the rack itself, and not on the bolt.  The Topeak Explorer Disc works well with disc brakes and is affordable.  It does not suffer from this design flaw.

Propery tightened bolts are also less likely to shear.  In this case it appears that a disc-specific rack was not even required, as is becoming more common on utility bikes with disc brakes.  Disc brake touring bikes from Surly and Salsa do well to make rack installation easy as the caliper is attached inside of the rear triangle, rather than on top of the dropout.

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A family of Salsa Fargos is headed north, only a few days from the end of the Great Divide Route.  They began in New Mexico.  On the right, daddy Fargo; center, mommy Fargo; and the left, baby Fargo.  The younger rider is only twelve years old.  He began the trip carrying only a portion of his load, but now carries all of his own gear.

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Daddy Fargo.

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The stick and the red bandana signal a child’s dream to hit the road.  What kid didn’t stuff a sandwich and some marbles into a bandana, tied it to a stick, and threw it over his shoulder?  Let your kids run away from home.  Go with them.

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His first bike trip traveled cross-country, when he was only eight or nine years old.

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Pedalin’ Pete is now an old friend in Whitefish.  We met last year, and I was happy to see he is still in town.  He rode this Tout-Terrain Silkroad up to Alaska, where he spent several weeks climbing Denali.

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Jason is a friend of Pete, and joined me for two days of riding to Missoula.  His touring kit includes a Specialized Crux, a cross racing model, and a vintage Burley trailer.  Read more about our trip in my post, The Flathead.

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Sean joined me in Missoula for a week of riding.  His bike is a repurposed Novara Aspen from the late 80′s, with drop bars and 26×2.3″ Kenda K-Rad tires.  A Bridgestone XO-1 rests in the foreground at the Orange Street Food Farm.

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On the Great Divide.

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Brent is an active warm showers host in Missoula who welcomes dozens of cyclists throughout the warmer months.  He spent several years upon a bike, but is now a student of computer science and jazz music.  While staying at his house I crossed paths with several other cyclists.  This Pake C’Mute frame is nicely built with an Origin 8 SpaceBar, much like the On-One Mary, and had come from Virginia en route to Oregon.

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Ian Hibell’s Norway to South Africa bike is now prominently displayed at ACA headquarters.  The bike is nearly complete with original equipment.  The Carradice handlebar bag is a replacement for display purposes, but only the color is different from the original.

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This Centurion is one of the older models I have seen.  Repurposed with some new parts, it now serves as a tourer and commuter.  The early history of Centurion and the WSI corporation is well-documented on Sheldon Brown’s site.  Originating in Oakland, these riders are headed east.

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Her riding partner is on a late 80′s Trek 520, after both the 620 and 720 had been retired.  This appears to be a 1988 or 1989 model.  The wheels are original to the bike, but have been refit with 27″ Schwalbe Marathon tires.

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My friend Doug welcomed me in Bozeman, where I  built a new wheel on a Surly Marge Lite rim.  Doug enjoyed his first bike trip this summer from Bozeman to the Oregon Coast.  I consulted him during the planning process.  He is keen enough to see value in a Kona Dew, priced at less than $500 dollars.  I recommended that a rear rack and some panniers would carry all of his gear, if he avoided packing for the Bikapocalypse.  A handlebar bag and Jandd Framepac balance the load and offer some convenient storage for snacks, and probably more snacks.  Doug is a hungry guy.

He selected a riser bar for a more upright position, and 38mm Schwalbe Marathon tires for increased comfort and reliability.

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I often recommend this class of bicycle when asked about a cheap (new) bike for touring or commuting.  Some that come to mind with wide-range gearing and reasonable tire clearances: the Kona Dew, Novara Buzz, Jamis Coda, and KHS Urban XPress.

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I met this Korean rider on one of many short sections of pavement on the Great Divide Route.  He was riding cross-country on pavement on a new Surly Long Haul Trucker with butterfly bars, and didn’t speak a lick of English.  Instead, we laughed for five minutes and took pictures of one another.  This was a great exchange, and the last touring cyclist I would see in the state before reaching Idaho.  Coming soon, Real touring bikes: Idaho and Wyoming.

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My bike evolved all summer.  I entered the state on 26×2.35″ Schwalbe Big Apple tires, and left the state on 26×3.8″ Surly Larrys.  For a time, drop bars and fat tires coexist.

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Ride one bike

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The greatest asset that any cyclist can bring to a ride, except fitness, is familiarity with the machine– with the exact moment that the tire loses traction in a turn, the precise action to avoid pedal strike through rocks, and the best way to hide from the wind when the Cateye reads more than 20.  Riding one bike will foster a connection with the machine that is lost when multiple bikes are in play.  I’ve heard of riders with as many as five different mountain bikes who must know which trail the group is planning to ride to be able to select the appropriate machine.  There are such things as training bikes and racing bikes, and road bikes for paved roads and different road bikes for gravel roads.  There are true cyclocross bikes and cross-type bikes that are marketed as light-touring bikes and commuting bikes and hybrid bikes.   Yesterday’s downhill bikes are today’s all-mountain bikes, while yesterday’s cross-country bikes aren’t really even mountain bikes anymore.  Snow bikes have stable geometry at slow speed while trail-capable modern fatbikes are faster handling and feature higher bottom brackets.   This week, both a carbon fatbike and a titanium full-suspension fatbike have been released.  Every year, there are more bikes for more disciplines of riding.  Pick one.

Hybrid has become a dirty word, spoiled by uninspired comfort bikes with low-quality suspension and remarkably upright riding positions.  However, the concept of a hybrid bike signals a versatile machine that can find its way through a variety of conditions.  Historical hybrids such as the Trek Multitrack and Specialized Crossroads give credit to the genre, although few people realize the value of these older models.  The same bike with a drop bar would compete with a Surly CrossCheck or any off-the-peg touring bike, for a fraction of the price.  But nobody wants a bike that doesn’t claim to be great at anything. Fortunately, I demand a bike that is good enough at everything.

The ideal everything bike does not exist.  For some, knobby tires and suspension are essential tools.  Despite the admonishment of purists, riding around town on a mountain bike isn’t a real problem.  Others may require to keep up with an aggressive paceline on Saturday or to break away from the peloton, and a race bike can certainly ride to work on Monday.  I get passed by Cervelos and backpacks all the time on the bike path, and I’m a little jealous as I bump along on a fresh Nate tire on my Pugsley.  But the Pugsley can do things the Cervelo never dreamed– our needs are obviously different.  Many riders are well served by bikes disguised for touring or cross or comfort.  These are the workhorse hybrid bikes of our time and can participate in road rides with friends as well as long-distance travel on dirt roads, and sometimes even singletrack.  A highly specialized machine has long been the standard of an optimized bike, but it is easy to see how a specialized bike is quickly compromised in changing, real world conditions.  Optimization through generalization will ensure you are never on the wrong bike, even if it’s not the right one for the job.

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Hybrid is not a dirty word.  Neither is comfort.  Ride one bike.

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

Santa Fe Lost and Found

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Charged with forest service maps, local hiking and biking trail maps, and an iPhone, our plan was for five days of riding dirt roads and singletrack.  Even before leaving town, we consult the iPhone.  Stop and go navigation was to become a pattern, and a series of forest fires and floods over the past decade would erase much of the valuable information from our maps.  More images from my trip with Lael, Cass and Joe, here is another installment of riding with friends.

Leaving town on a rail-trail is easy.  Eventually, we find our way onto dirt roads and BLM property and encounter a spectacular rocky descent from atop a mesa.  So far, so good.

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Navigation is easy when you can see where you are going.  This vantage offered a map view of the area.

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Several transport stages require riding on pavement.  Working together to reach the Jemez Mountains and USFS lands by dark, a brisk paceline forms.

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A map view of the Jemez area indicates concentric ridges and canyons around the Valles Caldera, at the center of the Jemez Mountains.  In the morning, we climb a ridge on FR 289 into the trees.  The views from atop this ridge are our first signs of the dramatic effect of forest fires over the past decade.  This fire burned last June, and was followed by a biblical flood event.  Fire followed by water is a toxic potion in arid climates.

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In search of water, we venture down a gated 4×4 track.  Followed by a fun descent, we hack our way through shoulder high vegetation.  The map indicates a trail, but we only find the obvious signs of erasure– fires and flood, and the thick regeneration of understory vegetation.  In five days, we encounter only five surface water sources.  Luckily, several opportunities to fill our bottles from municipal sources ease the strain.

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In lieu of a trail, a sandy creek bed will do.  It’s handy to be riding a Pugsley in times like these, although a lightweight bike and soft 29 x 2.4″ tires will also do the job.

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Our eventual escape from this isolated drainage requires some pushing  Technically, it was my suggestion to find water that led us to this point.  Later, it would be Cass’ enthusiasm for singletrack that would have us hauling our bikes over logs.  For now, push.  Joe says any day with more that 50% riding is a success.  This day was to be a success, as we are soon back on the road.

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In search of secondary forest roads, we dead-end at an abandoned gravel pit.  Return.

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Riding out, the boys consider this “road” rideable.

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Lael has a good head, and considers a mellow hike instead.

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We encounter a local resident and trail-builder who verifies that all local singletrack trails have been destroyed by fire and flood.  He suggests some alternate routes near Los Alamos, and offers a roof for the night, just as the sun takes a dive.

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We awake at the edge of Cochiti Canyon.  Torched and flooded, the canyon has seen the end of days, but is finding some footing after a year and a half.  A light frost has fallen on the mountain tops– beautiful.

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Joe is riding a custom, packable Rob English 29er travel bike.  The rear triangle can be removed for easy packing, but there are no delicate hinges and it is a fully functional mountain bike.  It is equipped with a White Brothers carbon fork and a Shimano Alfine 8-speed internal gear hub.  Cass rides his road-worn Surly Ogre.

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In Canada, cattleguards are called Texas gates.

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The grassy plains of the Valles Caldera Preserve, at the center of the Jemez.  Hiding somewhere are a herd of elk.

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Doubletrack above Los Alamos.  We connect with local singletrack recovered from devastation by local trail crews.

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Dressed in black, Joe is perfectly camouflaged amongst torched trees.

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Lost and found– Cass consults the map.

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Cass and Joe have been cycletouring for years, and have probably ridden enough to encircle the Earth several times.  There is no shortage of stories with these guys, such as that one time in Egypt, or riding a tandem in Kyrgyzstan, or the millions of delectable calories consumed.  Cass and Joe, talking and riding:

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Near Los Alamos, we break for some friendly competition.  Joe suggests a proper pull-up, while Cass advocates for the underarm method.

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The eerie, empty streets of Los Alamos are home to national laboratories responsible for developing weapons, including the historic Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb.  The town feels like the combination of a large public university and a Soviet facility.  Signs proclaim, “Take two minutes for safety!”.  Safety and solidarity, comrades!

The Bikini Atoll is an island chain in the Pacific which was the site of 23 atomic detonations in the 40′s and 50′s.  It continues to be unsafe for human habitation, and is the name of a street in Los Alamos.

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Loaded up with food and a carton of wine, we climb up past the ski area above Los Alamos in the final light of day.

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Los Alamos below.  The subject of tomorrow’s ride is seen in the distance on the other side of the valley.

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Camping in an alpine meadow, we commune around food and wine.  Cass and Joe commune inside a shared Megamid tarp, telling touring stories into the night.

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The next morning, we climb the Pipeline Trail to a huge singletrack descent.  The forest fires have reduced the organic content of the soil.  The resulting rocky “kitty litter” soil is hazardous on off-camber trails.  There are a few white-knuckle moments on the ride down, especially on well-worn Surly Larry tires.  It may be time for some new rubber.  Nearing the end of my “fat year”, it’s almost time for a new bike.

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Joe’s Revelate handlebar bag has recently been replaced after much use, and the new design features convenient mesh side pockets which he stuffs with fruit.  As advertised, those are Avid single-digit levers.  Joe is an expert lightweight bikepacker, and keeps his bike as tidy as a Japanese cycletourist.

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Resupply.  Despite the signage, this is actually a grocery store.  Four tired and dusty dirt touring bikes take respite from riding.  We are all effectively riding 29″ wheels, although mine are 26×4.0″.  On the right, Lael’s bike is the only one without a framebag.  With camping gear and clothing, her loaded bike weighs a mere 45 lbs.  The bike was sourced from parts on Craigslist in the Denver area and cost less than $700– not bad for a real mountain bike.  Although she arrived with lots of cycling experience this fall, she did not consider herself a mountain biker.  Commuting on a Surly Pugsley this winter developed sharp reactions on the bike, and previous dirt touring experience in the US, France and Mexico on her Surly LHT engrained a love for off-pavement travel.  After almost two months of riding singletrack, she can no longer hide the fact that she is a real mountain biker.

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These two never run out of things to talk about– Rohloff vs. derailleurs, remote Peruvian routes, popular superhero films, and home-made beer can stoves.  Ride up to the Nambe Reservoir for the night.  The next day, we expect to ride up the Rio Nambe Trail.  Expectations, like rules, are meant to be broken.

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After coffee, a breakfast of broken expectations.

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And unexpected encounters.  This little bear is limping, and quickly backs down from Joe’s stern demeanor.

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As we near town, evidence of trail use grows despite continued damage.  Still, very few people pass this way, especially on bikes.

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All at once, we are back on the road and on our way back to town.  By 5PM we have spent most of the day pushing our bikes, lost.  Descending on dirt at the day’s end, we include a little singletrack descent back to town.  Found.

As Lael and I begin looking for a place to hang our hats this winter, I look forward to more riding with friends.  Cass will be a short train ride away, and we’ve both got plans for some new go-fast allroad touring bikes.  As snow begins to fall in the mountains, we will escape to the south and to lower elevations.  With a lightweight load and some svelte new machines, Pie Town, NM will only be a day or two away.

Capable of both paved and unpaved surfaces, I’m designing my ideal “road” bike around a VO Campeur frame.  At the center of the build will be a versatile, voluminous tire and a large framebag.

Note: Velo Orange has recently announced a significant drop in their frame price; the Campeur, Polyvalent, and Rando frames are now available for $500.  A healthy Campeur build kit is available for $650, and for the first time a complete bike is offered for $1600.

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