Baja Divide Presentation: The Bicycle Shop Dimond at 7PM on Wednesday, April 20th in Anchorage, AK

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Update 4/24/16: Thanks to everyone that attended this event. We enjoyed an informative evening with nearly 100 guests, including descriptions of the Baja Divide and the planning and equipment required to make a successful tour of the route.  Thanks to The Bicycle Shop, Dimond for hosting the event, as well as Revelate Designs, Advocate Cycles, Bikepacking.com, Surly Bikes, and Meriwether Cycles for support. 

Join Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox at The Bicycle Shop on Dimond Blvd. to learn more about the new Baja Divide route, including details of the routebuilding process, maps and images of the route, and a discussion on how to prepare for a successful tour of the Baja Divide.  With help from a number of friends, we mapped a nearly 2000 mile off-pavement route from San Diego, CA, USA to the southern tip of Baja California at San Jose del Cabo, BCS, MX, scheduled to be published via a new website this summer.  This exciting new bikepacking route crosses an international border, travels both coastlines of the Baja peninsula, through every mountain range in Baja, and even includes a short boat ride across Bahia Concepion to a little used dirt road on the far side of the bay.  Encounter remote Spanish mission sites with cool water shaded by date palms, classic tracks from the Baja 1000 moto race, forgotten beaches, and rough mountain roads.  The complete route is a big adventure that requires some experience and planning, which we will discuss at this event.  What kind of bike to ride, how to pack, how much food and water to carry, are tubeless tires really necessary?  A short presentation with images will be followed by a Q&A.  Our loaded Baja bikes will be on display.  As always, ride a bike to the event for a chance to win some cool stuff from our sponsors.

Also, Lael will be leaving town at the end of the month to ride to the start of the Trans-Am Race, so come say hi and bye before she skips town.

Join us at The Bicycle Shop on Dimond Boulevard in Anchorage, Alaska on Wednesday April 20th at 7PM.  Doors open at 7, talk starts at 7:30.  There is a Facebook event page if you want to let us know you are coming.  This event is sponsored by Revelate Designs, Advocate Cycles, Bikepacking.com, and The Bicycle Shop of Anchorage.

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Baja Divide Update; Presentations in San Diego, CA on 2/4 and 2/5

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Attention San Diego area riders! Lael, Alex and I will be presenting about the Baja Divide on two consecutive nights, describing the routebuilding process, the rewards and challenges of touring in Baja, and more information to help plan a self-supported tour of the Baja Divide next season.  Sponsored by the San Diego Mountain Biking Association, we will be at Border X brewing in Barrio Logan, San Diego on Feb 4, and in Escondido on Feb 5.  Both events are at 5:30PM and more information can be found on the SDMBA Facebook Events page.  Small donations to the project will be accepted to help fund immediate expenses.

The Baja Divide route is taking shape.  Since December 8th, 2015, we have ridden well over 2000 miles from San Diego, CA to San Jose del Cabo, B.C.S., MX, including several loops in the southern cape.  Several friends have joined our routefinding efforts on a diverse range of bikes, arriving from from Missoula, MT; Anchorage, AK; and Fort Collins, CO.  These are the first riders to experience the Baja Divide, although at this phase that still includes a few dead-ends, a bit too much sand, and a lot of tacos and beer.  

However, there are several gaping holes in the route and many smaller details which require honing.  As such, Lael and I, accompanied by our friend Alex, have returned to San Diego.  We are planning a few days to reorganize ourselves and tune our bikes before crossing the border at Tecate for another month of riding in Baja.  All three of us will fly to Anchorage in early March to catch the last month of winter and the best month of fatbiking.   

I’ve had many considerate offers from supporters of the Baja Divide project offering professional expertise, encouragement, and money.  At this time, I have plans to build a proper website this spring, with help.  I’m still considering the details of a printed resource, although I consider it an essential part of the project as a way to enable broad scale planning and to communicate with locals along the route, especially to share such basic concepts as where you are going and where you have come from.  To follow the route, a GPS will be required.  Lastly, I am not accepting any individual donations to the project at this time.  Once the route file is complete and the new website is live, I aim to seek corporate sponsors for the project whose business and ethics reflect those of the Baja Divide.  As such, though our efforts and their expense, the route is meant to be a gift to the bikepacking community, and all digital information will be available for free.  Currently, Lael and I are funding the project, with limited in-kind assistance from Revelate Designs, SRAM, Advocate Cycles, Sinewave Cycles, The Bicycle Shop of Anchorage, Cal Coast Bicycles in San Diego, and SDMBA.

If anyone in the cycling, outdoor, or travel industry is interested in supporting the Baja Divide, please contact Nicholas at bajadivide@gmail.com.

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Alex arrived in Loreto with his expedition-grade Surly Pugsley, built with a Rolloff hub, Gates Carbon Belt Drive, and packing a small Martin Backpacker guitar.  He is a close friend from university in Tacoma, WA, now working summers as a fisherman in SE Alaska, originally from Fort Collins, CO.  He speaks excellent Spanish, having spent considerable time in Ecuador, Argentina, and Mexico.  He has touring by bike in the USA, Baja, and Ecuador.  Language skills aren’t essential to ride in Baja, although while developing the route it is incredibly helpful.  The Pugsley is well suited to soft-conditions, although the weight of this particular build is burdensome on the more technical sections and on prolonged climbs. 

While in San Diego, Alex is sending his portly Pugsley back home and replacing it with an XL Advocate Cycles Hayduke.  After two months in Baja, we’ve decided that 3.0” tires are the preferred tire size, while a suspension fork makes the riding more safe, comfortable, and fun.  The “sombrero casco” is a custom creation.   

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Erin also joined us in Loreto for three weeks, and flew out of San Jose del Cabo.  She is a close friend from university in Tacoma, WA, originally from Ketchikan, AK, now residing in Missoula, MT.  She has ridden the length of Baja by mostly paved roads in the past, and has also toured the Idaho Hot Springs Route.  Erin rode her secondhand Trek X-Cal 29er with 2.4” and 2.3” tires on relatively narrow Bontrager Mustang rims, which required a little engineering to ensure a secure tubeless system.  Her bike was well suited to all of the hardpacked riding, although she struggled in soft conditions more than the rest of the group as she was riding the narrowest tires.

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Christina joined us in San Jose del Cabo for a sun-soaked ten day ride, escaping the cold, dark winter in Anchorage, AK.  Christina and I first met while working at The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage, although she now manages the Trek Store of Anchorage.  She is originally from San Fransisco, CA.  She is an experienced mountain biker and road rider and is signed up for several endurance fatbike races this winter including the Susitna 100 and the White Mountains 100.  She met us last year to ride in Israel for ten days, enjoying the worst weather in our three months in that country.  We promised sun in Baja, and Baja delivered.  Christina rode a Trek Farley 9.6 with 27.5×3.8” Bontrager Hodag tires on TLR Jackalope rims.  Her bike excelled in soft conditions, over rough terrain, and while climbing, thanks to a lightweight bike, big wheels, and a minimal load.

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Lael continues to enjoy her 27.5+ Advocate Cycles Hayduke.  The tires are wide enough that at lower pressures, she can ride through all but the deepest sand, which the Baja Divide route intends to avoid.  The modern geometry and the RockShox Reba suspension fork make technical descents a breeze.  The bike climbs well and the tires maintain traction well on steep climbs, perhaps better than a fatbike in some cases.  Ultra-wide tires have a tendency to sit atop rocks and gravel, loosing the connection to the ground.  Expect a complete review at Bikepacking.com later this month.

We plan to service both of our forks in San Diego, as well as replace her chain and rear tire.  Aside from those wear parts, her bike has performed flawlessly over Baja’s diverse roads and tracks.  

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My pink Meriwether Cycles custom has become a trusted friend.  For riding in Baja my wide 35mm rims and 2.4”/2.5” tires do well, although even I am often wishing for a proper plus bike.

I was planning to convert the bike to 27.5+ with a new wheelset and tires, but have decided that the design is best suited to 29” wheels.  Compared to the 29×2.4” and 2.5” tires I am using, a 27.5+ wheelset would lower the bike by about a centimeter.  In fact, I like how it sits and how it rides right now, so I’ll save myself the expense and simply mount a bigger tire to the rear, a 2.5” Maxxis Minion DHF.  These tires are more aggressive than I need, although the tire volume and durable casing are excellent.  

I’m also looking forward to trying a SRAM 11-speed group soon.  For the steep rolling terrain we often encounter, I find myself forcing shifts from the big ring to the little ring with haste, which occasionally gets ugly with a worn drivetrain (i.e. chain suck).  A single chainring system reduces the number of shifting permutations, and focuses my efforts in a simple upshift-downshift pattern.  I’ll be using a combination of parts, including a steel narrow-wide 28T chainring and a steel 1150 10-42t cassette.  Can a SRAM 1×11 drivetrain be a durable touring group?  Now that the technology has spread around the globe and to lower pricepoints, this will be a more frequent consideration.

We are all using tubeless wheel systems and between the five of us and two months time, we haven’t had any flat tires.  Correction, Lael was carrying a 2” thorn in her tires for weeks, until it finally poked through her rim strip and flatted her wheel.  The tire was fine, so we removed the tire and repaired the rimstrip with a small square of tape.  The tire reseated easily and we were on our way.

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Our time in Baja has been restful thanks to great weather and long nights under the stars, but since dedicating ourselves to the Baja Divide project, our commitments have grown and life is now quite busy again.  We plan about six days of work and preparation while in San Diego, crammed into about three and half days.  We cross the border back to Tecate this Saturday, February 6, and plan to arrive in La Paz by Mar 6 to catch a flight back to Alaska.  That distance, and the amount of work we have in between, will be challenging.

Even so, life is good in Baja.  We’ll be certain to enjoy our time here and we look forward to sharing it with others.

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The Baja Divide Route, Mexico

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Don’t ride MEX 1, ride the Baja Divide.  Lael descends toward Ejido Uruapan on her Advocate Cycles Hayduke.

It’s called the Baja Divide.  The route touches the Pacific Coast and the Sea of Cortez multiple times.  It crosses every mountain range in Baja California, a desert where freshwater streams and springs are not uncommon in winter, and where traditional ranching and fishing lifestyles persist.  The route climbs and descends on well traveled graded dirt roads, popular 4×4 and moto routes, and forgotten jeep tracks.  We’re planning a connection across Bahia Concepcion by panga, the durable fiberglass fishing boats used by local fishermen, to access a little used dirt road on the other side of the bay.  The Baja Divide is a personal project of Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox to give back to the bikepacking community.  We’ve enjoyed routes in Israel, Arizona, South Africa, Slovakia, Montenegro, and elsewhere.   

The Baja Divide is a dirt bikepacking route from Tecate to the southern cape.  When the route is complete, it is expected to be nearly 2000 miles long and over 90% unpaved, recommended for bicycles with 2.3” tires or larger.  Thus far, 3.0” tires as on Lael’s Advocate Hayduke have proven to be perfect for the route, and 4.0” tires would not be out of place.  As always, pack light, leave room for food and water, and leave most of your cold weather gear at home.  The route would be best enjoyed between November and February, when most dirt routes in the USA, Canada, and Europe are closed for the season.  

What began as a personal project to craft a pleasant ride down the peninsula– an experience and a route which we hoped to casually share— has developed into a commitment to publish a real route in Baja.  As such, a real route is thoroughly researched, tested, and recorded.  A GPX track, route narratives, and a resupply guide will be prepared.  Most of all, I hope to be able to publish a printed resource similar to the high quality maps we have come to appreciate from the Adventure Cycling Association.    

There is much work remaining to complete the route.  Thus far Lael and I have connected San Diego to La Paz by a series of dirt routes, and we plan a few more weeks of exploration in the southern cape with a rotating cast of friends who have joined us to escape winter and help with the route.  Thereafter, Lael and I plan to take a bus back north to Tijuana to ride down the peninsula a second time.  We will ride alternate routes, make detailed notes and waypoints regarding resupply, and record more GPX tracks from which the final route will be compiled.  It is a big project, seemingly growing in scope every day.  

The future of the Baja Divide requires your support.  We are looking for corporate and individual sponsors who wish to promote the project and the culture of self-supported bikepacking through financial or technical assistance.  In-kind equipment sponsors are also welcome to offset costs associated with building the route, including worn tires and drivetrain parts, camping equipment, etc.  For instance, Lael and I are both using threadbare sleeping bags, worn from nearly four years on the road.  Additionally, I am looking for a high-quality 27.5+ wheelset for my Meriwether, as I’ve been jealous of Lael’s 3.0” tires on the many sandy and rough jeep tracks in Baja.  My six year old Brooks B17 saddle has bent rails and has lost two rivets. We are also seeking assistance in building a high-quality custom website for the project.  For now, I have built a simple WordPress.com site for the project at www.bajadivide.com.

I expect to have a complete GPX track available later this spring.  An informal group ride is scheduled to start on January 2, 2017.  Lael and I will be there.  Ride self-supported at your own pace, form your own groups, ride as much of the route as you want. 

I will begin sharing stories on the blog from the process of route building in Baja in the coming weeks.  Look for more stories on Lael’s Globe of Adventure, the new Baja Divide website, and our new Instagram accounts @nicholascarman and @laelwilcox.  

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The Edge of Winter: AZ/NM/NY/DC/CA/MX

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We’re off to Baja for a few months!  Lael is riding her new Advocate Cycles Hayduke, a steel 27.5+ hardtail, and I am riding my pink Meriwether.  Thanks to the donation of a used iPhone from a friend, as a multi-purpose travel device, we now both have Instagram accounts.  Follow us there at @laelwilcox and @nicholascarman.

The first moment in long pants and a sweater, come fall.  The first afternoon in short sleeves and a shirt, when rotting piles of snow linger in the shadows and thin blades of grass emerge from the matted brown lawn.  It is the leading edge of any season which I especially relish.  For more than a month, we’ve ridden the breaking wave of winter across Arizona and New Mexico, through New York and the Mid Atlantic, and now through California and Baja California.  But it isn’t meant to be.  We’re headed south for the season.  

On Wellesley Island, NY, where my parents now live, I encountered an entire harvest of apples beneath a tree, forgotten by nearby residents in favor of store bought varieties.  And the next day, an inch and a half of snow covers them.  In Baja, we’ve encountered freezing nights just several hundred feet above sea level, yet warm dry nights at elevation, a phenomena which continues to elude me.  Above, at nearly 10,000ft,  a dusting of snow falls on the Sierra de San Pedro Martir.  Yet Washington D.C. is the coldest place I’ve been in the past month, where winter threatens with cloudy skies and 39 degree rain.  I say anything is better than 39 degree rain.  Give me Alaska, Minnesota, or New York in February, but never cold rain.  Any time we ride in 39 degree rain, Lael reminds me of the last time we rode to Baja from Tacoma, WA.  We left on November 16th, 2009 to ride south, and it rained every day until we crossed the border.  The final week in Southern California at the end of December amounted to record rainfall.    

Our time in Arizona concluded with Lael’s AZT750 ITT attempt, a pursuit which has been captured as part of a brief documentary feature, set to be released this spring.  More on that when it is released next year, but the process of filming was enlightening and a lot of fun.  Expect aerial drone shots of Lael.  What could be more fun than aerial drone shots of a girl riding her bike and eating, pissing in the bushes, hurriedly buying a dozen cookies from a small grocery?

For the filming, I was contracted to help scout film locations on the backcountry route and to transport Lael to the start.  Thus, a vehicle was rented in my name and for almost two weeks, I piloted a small Chevy Sonic around the state, bashing the undercarriage on all manner of unpaved roads.  That’s why you get the full insurance.  After the ITT attempt, we spent a weekend in Santa Fe to finish some filming, which gave us the chance to reconnect with some friends in New Mexico, crossing paths with Rusty and Melissa; Cass, Nancy, and Sage; John, Jeremy, and Owen.  Each of these people play a role in our lives.  Rusty arrived in Albuquerque the week we were leaving and took a job at Two Wheel Drive where I had worked; Melissa is riding my old Raleigh XXIX; we stayed with John’s high school friend in Athens and recently John went to ride the Bike Odyssey route in Greece; Owen sold Lael her first upright touring bars, some secondhand On-One Mary cruisers which we used to replace the drop bars on her LHT; Cass and I have crossed paths more than a few times, dating back to the summer of 2009 in Alaska; and, I believe, I was present to witness Nancy’s first day of her first bike tour, as two inches of snow fell while we climbed up Lynx Pass on the Great Divide Route in October.  It is a motley crew of bike people, and although we’ve never lived in Santa Fe, it the nearest thing we have to a bike family outside of Anchorage.  

Returning the car to the Tucson airport, I put my bike back together and head back to the AZT to reride some of the smoothest trail on the route, from I-10 back to Tucson.  Did I mention I’ve rented a car twice in my life, both times from the Tucson Airport, within a period of three months this summer?  I connected with my friend Dusty from Anchorage while in Tucson, and spent a few days riding local tech trails and buff singletrack circuits.  Dusty is the other half of the Revelate Designs team in Anchorage, although it seems most of his time is spent climbing Denali and grooming himself for shots in the Patagonia catalog.  Dusty is like the Tasmanian Devil on a bike, and likes to bump and jump everything on the trail.  I witnessed no less than three encounters with cactus in two days.  Several days prior he landed on his elbow while accidentally riding a trail in wilderness on Mt. Lemmon.  He required stitches, and was rock climbing within days.  

After a week with some of Lael’s extended family in the Phoenix area, we flew to Ottawa to visit my family in Northern New York for Thanksgiving.  There, we helped them move into a new house and enjoyed the company of my family for several weeks.  The constant passing of freighters on the St. Lawrence River is endlessly entertaining, especially as boats the size of small cities pass in the night.  From the right vantage it is hard to tell if the house is moving to the side, or if a ship is passing.  The low rumble of massive propellers warns of a passing vessel before it arrives.  I grew up in Central New York, my parents later moved to Northern New York, and they’ve moved once again further north, now about one mile from the Canadian border.

Lael received a new bicycle from Advocate Cycles while in New York.  It arrived the day before we planned to leave NY.  Her blue Raleigh was donated to our friend James in Flagstaff, who has since repaired a hole in the frame, repainted it white, and purchased a new suspension fork and luggage.  The Specialized Era was quickly sold before leaving Phoenix, the transaction taking place out front of a Trader Joe’s just two hours before leaving the state.  She was happily without a bike for two weeks,  a needed break after her year long riding binge.  The new bike, a marvelous mid-fat steel machine, will be perfect for our exploits in Baja.  

The Advocate Cycles Hayduke is a 27.5+ hardtail with a 120mm Rock Shox Reba fork, WTB Scraper rims, and an 11-speed GX1drivetrain.  Aside from a few simple modifications, the stock bike is prime to shred Baja’s mountainous backroads and sandy desert tracks.  The 27.5×3.0” tires— effectively the same outside diameter as 29×2.3” tires, thus interchangeable— grant unique abilities without the debilitating heft of a true fatbike wheel.  In short, it’s kind of a fatbike that rides like a mountain bike, or it’s a trail-oriented mountain bike which floats over loose rocks and soft sand.  Aside from the difference in wheel size— 27.5×3” vs 29×2.4”— Lael and I are riding remarkably similar bikes.  My pink Meriwether can fit 27.5+ wheels and Lael’s Hayduke can take 29×2.4” Ardents.  That versatility is one of the main features of the new crop of 27.5+ hardtails— they’re also 29ers!  

Leaving New York, we catch a ride down the coast to Baltimore, Washington D.C., and nearby Alexandria, VA where my sister now lives.  After a brief visit and a cold crosstown commute in the rain, we board our $100 flight west to San Diego.

We arrive in San Diego after a night in the Denver airport with our sleeping bags, greeted by warm sunny weather.  We reassemble our bikes and gear outside the airport and pedal across town to visit Lael’s godmother in Coronado.  There, we photocopy, cut, and paste maps; downloads digital basemaps to our Garmin; and generally prepare our bikes and equipment for several months of travel.  

We roll south out of Coronado on bike paths, through Chula Vista, and over Otay Mountain on a dirt road used most often by border patrol agents.  We descent to Tecate and cross into Mexico.  I have a series of potential routes down the peninsula, which we hope to weave into a pleasant journey and a route which we can share with others.  We traveled here five years ago, enjoying our first extended off-pavement rides on drop bars and medium wide 1.75” Schwalbe Marathon tires.  This time, we come prepared.  And even through the peninsula is crossed with fascinating routes well documented by the moto crowd, any search for bikepacking routes in Baja come up short.  We hope to change that. 

By now, now that the dust from this long summer season has settled, we’re pedaling along the Pacific Coast or the Sea of Cortez, or camping under millions of blistering stars enjoying long winter nights and a caguama of Tecate.  Considering that recovery is still a priority, especially for Lael, this is how we know to do it best.  Thirteen, fourteen hour nights will do that.

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Arizona

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Lael’s AZT750 rig, a Specialized Era Expert, fully loaded for freezing nights and the requisite food, water, and tools.  Despite her continued breathing issues, the bike and all systems were nearly perfect, including the 14L Osprey backpack for the Grand Canyon hike with the bike on her back.  I’m planning a brief feature of her Tour Divide and AZT bikes, for those that are interested in such details.  

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Flying the drone.

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Eric made this lovely framebag for the Era. This new fabric looks like it belongs in a menswear line.

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Afraid of the long, dark nights in late October, we devised what we consider to be the best and most reliable combination of lighting for this particular event, including a k-Lite 1000 lumen dynamo light and a 320 lumen Black Diamond Icon Polar  The Icon is an ultra-bright headlamp which takes 4 AA batteries and pushes out max light for 7-8 hours, enough for a full night of riding on spring or fall ultra events.  The Poler version includes an extension cord with a threaded attachment, allowing the battery pack to be stored in a pocket while in use (thus, not on the helmet), and it can be removed entirely during the day.  Only the lightweight head unit stays on the helmet.

The k-Lite puts out considerably more light than my Supernova E3 Triple.  Most importantly, it performs much better at slow speeds, pushing out more light while riding at walking speeds, with less flickering.  The standlight also puts out some usable light, whereas the Supernova fails to put out anything useful.  The quality and construction of Kerry’s lights are impressive.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t integrate this light into Lael’s new bike, as the Hayduke comes with Boost spacing.  An SP Boost dynamo hub is due out soon. 

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New Mexico

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Just enough time to shoot some interviews and some riding, and just enough time to ride and dine with friends for a few nights.  Thanks to John and Jeremy for a warm house for the weekend!  

We enjoyed a little of each of Santa Fe’s trail systems, including a jaunt into the local backcountry to ride the “Secret Trail” with Cass, Rusty, and Jeremy.

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Outside of the Whole Foods, we meet a young cyclist from CA named Chris.  He was beginning a brief tour down to El Paso.  He had managed to strap a full re-usable shopping bag under his seat as an impromptu seatpack.  We offered to let him borrow Lael’s cavernous Tour Divide seatbag for the trip.  Chris has some photos from his trip on his Flickr account

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Arizona

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Back in Tucson, ripping trails with Dusty for a few days, before riding back to Phoenix to try to sell Lael’s bike and prepare for our flight east.

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Back to Phoenix.

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New York

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Our brief time in New York— sadly, too late for the leaves (or the apples) to still be on the trees— is much overdue.  I hadn’t been home to visit in over two years.  We helped my parents move into a new house on Wellesley Island on the St. Lawrence River, which connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean.  It is a massive river famed for the Thousand Islands region, notable for over 1800 islands amidst swirling currents and historic homes, dating from a time when the East Coast and nearby Watertown were booming.  Lots of large commercial vessels travel this river.

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We mostly spend time off the bike while in NY, although we did get out for a few brief rides.  Lael is on my dad’s old Specialized Hardrock.  It’s a good bike, but it makes you appreciate the features on even our less than space age touring bikes.

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On Thanksgiving Day we volunteered with a group of employees and families at the hospital where my dad works to prepare and deliver over 300 meals to local families.  The food was prepared by the time we all arrived in the morning, but it was our job to portion and package it for delivery.  

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Finally, the day before leaving NY, Lael’s bike arrives.

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About the first thing she says to me: “There’s a new sheriff in town!”  Those 27.5×3.0” tires certainly miniaturize the appearance of my once voluminous 2.4” Ardents.  We plan to replace the ultralight stock Panasonic Fat B Nimble tires with some Specialized Ground Control tires weighing about 200 grams more, per tire.  The extra weight will be well worth it on a two month trip the desert.

There is always a learning curve when riding a new bike.  At first, it did feel a bit strange.  Once we swapped handlebars, stem, and seatpost, things got better.

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Baltimore

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Washington D.C.

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California

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We spend a few days with Lael’s godmother Jacklyn in Coronado, including a few trips to the beach between planning and preparing for Baja.  Both bikes get bottle cages on the fork and a couple of packable bladders in the framebag.  We install luggage and new tires on Lael’s bike, and a Salsa Anything Cage to the underside of the donwtube.  Why doesn’t the Hayduke come with a mount for a bottle cage or a Salsa AC down there?  Why do many steel Surly and Salsa models also fail to include this simple feature?  The world may never know.  

Specialized 27×3.0” Ground Control tires set-up tubeless perfectly on WTB Scraper rims, with a floor pump.  I used Gorilla brand clear repair tape for the first time.  It seems well suited to the application, and is perfectly sized for the WTB Scraper rims.  I had to use a razor to score the roll of tape for my 35mm rim.

Hose clamps keep the Anything Cage in place.  It will be used to hold a 64 oz. Klean Kanteen, as I have been doing for many years now.  This is the first time Lael has the extra capacity.

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Riding to step aerobics with Jacklyn.

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Our route out of San Diego includes a segment over Otay Mountain on dirt roads.  It is a stunning 3000ft climb to the top of the mountain, and a fast descent back to paved road 94 on the other side.  The result is a short paved ride to Tecate from San Diego.

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Baja California, Mexico!

By now, we’ve crossed the border and pedaled a week into Baja, and touched both coastlines after our inland crossing at Tecate.  Thus far, I can highly recommending crossing at Tecate compared to Tijuana or Mexicali. Tecate is a small pleasant city.  As soon as we crossed we passed a shaded park full of men playing cards.  Last time we crossed into Tijuana we saw a guy stab himself in his calf with a needle soon after crossing.  We connected to dirt roads about 20 miles out of Tecate.

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Picketpost to the end on the Arizona Trail

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Lael on her Specialized Era Expert in the hills around Mt. Lemmon.  The AZT is an incredible resource.  For an alternate cross-Arizona route consider blending the AZT with the Flagstone 500 route which incorporates Sedona, some of the Coconino Loop, and the Black Canyon Trail, thereby avoiding paved detours along the middle section of the AZT.  Both are worthwhile routes through the state.  The Arizona Trail, or more accurately the AZT750 version for mountain bikes, should make every avid bikepacker’s list.  Check out Part I (Utah to Flagstaff) and Part II (Flagstaff to Picketpost) from our travels on the Arizona Trail.

She introduces herself as Corinna.  Asking where she is from, a question which is similarly challenging for us to answer, we receive a short history of her life.  She has recently taken a new job as a librarian in Durango.  She rides a Salsa El Mariachi.  The staff at Velorution Cycles are knowledgable and supportive, she tells us, and this is her first solo bikepacking trip.  This is her third, or perhaps fourth morning on the Arizona Trail.  We’ve been living on the trail for over two weeks, minus a five-day layover in Flagstaff during the rain.  Sitting with legs crossed, mixing Emergen-C vitamin drinks and dining on rice crackers and apples, the first thing I notice at eye level is the pattern of bloody scratches on her shins.  Ours looked the same just a few days ago, although by now the lightly scabbed wounds hardly show.  We inquire, knowingly, about the trail ahead.  We share similar details of the trail north of Oracle: overgrown, hard to find, and prickly.  But we’re happy to report— as we are crossing paths in opposite directions— that she is soon to enjoy the smoothest part of the entire Arizona Trail in the downhill direction.  If she was overjoyed at the good trail ahead, she doesn’t show it, nor do we grimace to learn that more leg scarring thorns lay ahead.  Like choosing to go cycling in England, you can’t hate the rain.  You can’t hate Arizona for rocks and thorns and 90 degree heat.  Most of the time, being here is pure desert bliss.    

We arrive at the Picketpost Trailhead, the beginning of this section and the end of the long detour around multiple wilderness zones, with great excitement.  From our last time in Arizona in 2013 when we connected from Tucson back towards Phoenix via this route, this section was one of our favorite routes in the state.  The trail climbs several thousand feet along rideable singletrack to a series of high points, tracing high lines on the walls of deep canyons, plummeting down to the Gila River and the lowest point on the entire AZT.  The trail from Hwy 60 (Picketpost) to the small community of Kelvin on the Gila River is the keystone in the AZT, the most recently completed section of trail.  It is also the most stunning ridable section of trail— thereby excepting the Grand Canyon and sections of the Highline Trail.  This section is nearly 100% rideable.

Descending to the Gila River mid-afternoon, we spend more than an hour swimming in the shade.  By the time we are back on the bikes, the sun is low in the sky.  Even though we know better, we’ve miscalculated the remaining distance to Kelvin, where we hope to refill our waters.  The silty Gila River would be fine if treated, although we’re only traveling with a few spare chemical treatment tablets from South Africa with dubious properties.  The remaining 15 or 16 miles are wonderful riding, a little longer than expected, a little more topography than expected, and naturally, a little slower in the dark.  As we close to within 7 miles of Kelvin, in the dark, we both run out of water.  I have been rationing for the last hour and am quickly thirsty.  Without spoken agreement, we begin riding faster, grunting up short steep climbs, trusting the shadows and riding blind around tight corners.  It is an exhilarating ride fueled by desperate thirst.  We arrive without water, although Lael exhumes a small bottle of spirits out of her framebag and we wet our lips like sunburnt cowboys.  For a moment, it quenches the thirst.  We race the final mile to Kelvin for water.  Up the road there is supposed to be a trailer court.  We travel in that direction, into the darkness, but soon return to the glowing yellow lights of the locked ADOT yard.  I climb and squeeze between the gate and load all of our bottles and bladders with brackish, yet potable tap water.  Outside the fence we each consume over two liters while laying in the gravel, enjoying the feeling of mid-summer in October, now at 1600ft in southern Arizona. I return to refill our bottles, tearing the back of my cut-off t-shirt on a piece of barbed wire.  We roll away to camp for the night.

The following afternoon, forty or forty five miles down the trail towards Oracle, we cross a large wash and a low point on our track.  Rain clouds loom overhead, and only a short distance stands between us and our next resupply in the town of Oracle. I reason that we could arrive just after dark, perhaps and hour after sunset, two hours maximum.  Lael is skeptical, fooled one too many times by me, by straight-line mileage, and by the Arizona Trail.  We scout a route down into the valley, where we expect to find a paved road and several towns.  We race down Camp Grant Wash, keeping to the crusted sediments along the edges of the dry seasonal riverbed, avoiding the soft jeep tracks in the center.  We arrive at the railroad line adjacent to the road and ride the remaining miles into Mammoth in the dark.  It is a long detour for food, but since we are traveling without shelter, it also assures some chance of finding cover if needed.  We eat canned beans from the Dollar General and fresh pico de gallo from the new Mexican grocery next to the Circle K.  We sleep in town for the night, on a hill just above the main road.  In the morning we ride back out to the mouth of the wash and back up toward the trail.

Leading the way up the wash without GPS– as I have attached it to Lael’s handlebars for this trip– I miss the turn onto the trail.  I continue further and further up the wash until nothing looks familiar, thinking the trail crossing is still ahead of me.  I push towards rock outcroppings and even a windmill, faint recollections from yesterday afternoon.  But in different light, in a different direction, nothing looks familiar and I am lost. I could go back the way I came, but I feel like the AZT should still be ahead of me, or right near me, and I don’t know how to admit defeat and turn back.  I ride up a well-travelled side drainage toward the south, reasoning that I will at least cross the AZT at some point, but I don’t.  I climb and climb and climb the sandy track, desperate at least to gain some view of something.  By the time I reach elevation, I am hopeless that I can solve this riddle and resolute that I must retrace my steps, all of them.  But by that time I figure Lael will have left the wash, and would have gone back to Mammoth or toward Oracle on the AZT.  We don’t have cell service, nor an obvious meeting place.  I crest the hill and continue along the road.  I cross the Arizona Trail and begin back toward the wash.  But I discover that I am actually headed in the wrong direction, toward Oracle and away from Lael.  I reverse my route and now begin riding toward the wash on the AZT, about two thousand feet below.  The trail climbs and falls over a series of rounded peaks in these folded mountains.  I’m charging around corners at race pace, trying to make the most of my mistake and to find Lael as soon as I can.  Coming down the final rocky ridge toward the wash, I finally spot Lael walking her bike up the ridge.  We’re overjoyed at the encounter, nearly two hours after we split.  She decided, finally, that she would continue toward Oracle.  She left a note at the trailhead in the wash.  I fall to the ground, needing a proper meal.  Lael is crying and laughing.  It feels like a miracle, but we soon pack up and begin toward Oracle, together.

In three days, we’ve run out of water, run out of food, and lost each other.  That’s the price of riding like vaqueros, too confident in our abilities and in my sense of direction.  That, and the final ride to Oracle is a mess of overgrown trail, hard to follow and famously prickly.  That is how our legs came to wear all these scabs and scars, branding from the trail.  That is how Corrina and Lael and I commune upon meeting.  

The rains finally arrive in Oracle, and we seek shelter for the night under cover of $1.50 pints of Miller Lite at the Oracle Inn and a country band with a digital drummer.  We sleep under the pavilion to the side of the post office.  Gusting winds blow the rain sideways and I barricade our exposed down bags by turning several picnic tables on their sides.  In the morning, we resupply and head up Oracle Ridge.  

Oracle Ridge holds great weight around here, much like the Highline Trail and the Grand Canyon—these are the epic obstacles on an otherwise challenging route.  But, Oracle Ridge isn’t as bad as we had expected.  There is some rideable trail, some easy hiking, and some shrubby overgrown trail which could be a lot worse, which is proof that the trail isn’t very good.  The fact that this is still the Arizona Trail is remarkable considering the many sections of trail which receive frequent maintenance, seemingly swept clean on a daily basis.  We reason that even though we are carrying our bikes up 4,000ft, most people wouldn’t be able to ride much of the descent anyway.  About six hours after leaving Oracle, we exit the trail at Summerhaven, 20 miles and 4000ft away from our starting point.

The AZT750 continues along a prolonged stretch of pavement around wilderness, including a long descent, which stings after such a hard-fought ascent.  We enjoy the mellow pedal down Mt. Lemmon and seek shelter for a third night under the overhang of a locked concrete block toilet shelter in a closed campground.  In the night, we rearrange ourselves to avoid pooling water from the rain.  

Our ride resumes as the AZT exits wilderness, on a section of trail between Molina Campground and Redington Road, where it detours yet again around wilderness, channeling us into Tucson for the night.  Leaving Tucson begins a manicured section of trail through Saguaro Nation Park, the Colossal Cave area, across Cienega Creek, and under I-10.  And that’s where we meet Corrina, the only cyclist we meet along the entire AZT.

We tell her that we’re from Alaska, that we work seasonally and spend much of the year riding bikes.  She pauses, and asks our names.  

“Nicholas.” 

“And I’m Lael.”

Corinna informs us that she followed Lael’s Divide rides this summer and that it inspired her to get out and ride the AZT by herself.  

“Don’t curse me when the trail goes to shit”, Lael clarifies, distancing herself from responsibility.  “Mostly, the Arizona Trail makes me want to ride a road bike.”  

We laugh and point our tires in opposite directions.  

——————————–

Resupply, bold is on route: Superior, Kelvin (water), Kearny, Oracle, Summerhaven, Tucson, La Sevilla (water), Sonoita, Patagonia

Superior is 4 mi from Picketpost, Kearny is 7 miles off route, Oracle is 2 mi from the road crossing, Tucson is minimum 1.5 miles to decent resupply.  Kelvin is water, only.  

 

Download the complete AZT750 track at Topofusion.com.  Get current water date from Fred Gaudet’s site.

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Leaving the Picketpost Trailhead toward Picketpost Mountain.

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The trail reaches a series of high points.  The jeep track indicates the next high point in the distance, although the trail is hidden along the hillsides to the right.

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Epic AZT.  Rideable AZT.

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Coming over the third and final high point.

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Beginning the descent down to the Gila River.

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Ocotillo.

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Saguaro.

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The 15 or 16 miles along the Gila River seem to catch many people off guard.  Don’t underestimate this section.  There is some great riding, but these aren’t free miles.

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This is the Gila River.  Lael shares with me that on the Tour Divide, she sang the tune of the song “Tequila” to herself in the night while riding through the Gila.  Insert “the Gila” into the song, in place of “tequila”, then repeat the tune over and over and over.  These are the secrets to riding 200 mile days.

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Into the night, out of water.

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Kelvin is just a dot on the map, no services other than water are available.  Kearny is about 7 miles down the road from here if necessary.  Oracle is another 60 miles of mostly singletrack.

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The Gila River.

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The much-loved Ripsey segment.  Views and high quality ridgetop singletrack.

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The Meriwether is at home on many of these trails.  I think less often about full-suspension bikes, as a result.  

I’m happy to see a hardtail revival in the new breed of 27.5+ bikes like the Advocate Hayduke, Jamis Dragonslayer, and Marin Pine Mountain 2, but why are 29” trail hardtails losing steam, especially with the now common wide trail rims?  Even a company like Salsa, who claims the “Adventure by bike” motto, allows their El Mariachi 29er hardtail to languish in mediocrity while chasing esoteric “bikepacking” models?  

I replaced my broken front derailleur in Flagstaff with a Shimano SLX direct mount unit.  

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We’ve learned a lot in the past year, or year and a half.  In that time Lael has learned how to navigate by GPS, she’s ridden three different bikes, and clocked a whole lot of miles and saddle time.  Riding the Specialized Era on the AZT is a really positive experience, and puts her technical skills on a fast track.

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I cut my rear tire sidewall, a Maxis Ardent EXO casing.  Lael adds stitching sidewalls to her toolbox.

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At Freeman Rd., a little used trailhead provides a much needed water cache along this 60 mile stretch of trail between Oracle and Kelvin.  A local motel owner in Oracle stocks this cache, and leaves his business card with a welcoming note.  

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Cholla forests plus wind equal lots of cholla in the trail, lots of cholla in our tires, and lots of cholla in our legs.

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Windmills and washes.  This section isn’t the most scenic, but the riding is great and old ranching history is abundant.

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Camp Grant Wash, our detour route to Mammoth.

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The threat of thunderstorms leaves little more than a few drops, but an impressive rainbow.

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In rural Arizona, you can count on Circle K.

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Mammoth.

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Camp Grant Wash features a substantial freshwater seep.  We pulled water straight from the source.

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The remaining trail to Oracle is overgrown with dry grasses, which are losing lots of sharp seeds this time of year.  Acacia thwart low points and drainages.  Cholla pepper the hillsides.  

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Oracle.

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Oracle State Park, en route to Oracle Ridge.  The first miles out of Oracle are great!

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Mt. Lemmon and Oracle ridge loom in the distance.  Thunderstorms threaten.

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Classic AZT signage.

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The smoother side of the AZT.

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This is the part where we joke about how pleasant Oracle Ridge is, before the trail turns up, and before the trail nearly disappears.

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There are some rideable sections of singletrack, and a substantial section of jeep track in the middle which is rideable.

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There is a trail in there somewhere…

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Looking east over the San Pedro River.

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Rocky, overgrown, but not too bad with the bike.  There is a nicer way to ascend or descend, along the Oracle-Mt. Lemmon Rd., a winding graded dirt road connecting Oracle and Summerhaven.

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Some riding.

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Ducking and crawling with the bikes.

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The final section includes some on and off riding, although there are definitely several miles without riding.  We’re happy not to have to fight thorns, at least.

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The paved Catalina Highway takes as back to 5000ft.  This is one hell of a road climb from Tucson.  

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Shelter from the storm.  Mostly, traveling without a tent has been a blessing.  Instead, we brought a simple ground cloth and our sleeping bags and pads.  Lael is using an XS Therm-a-rest Prolite pad, and I’m on a 99cent windshield sunshade.

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Just over the hill from the Molino Basin Campground.

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There is a lot of clear freshwater this time of year.  We both bathe and splash for a bit.

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The AZT750 route soon departs the actual AZT again as the trail continues into the Rincon Mountain Wilderness.

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The AZT750 take a series of rough 4×4 tracks back to Redington Road, an unpaved access road connecting us with metro Tucson.

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Redington Road is all guns, and lite beer, and 4x4s.

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Leaving Tucson, following a pleasant paved section of about 15 miles, we reconnect with some of the smoothest singletrack of the entire route in Saguaro National Park.

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Water at La Sevilla Picnic area, between Saguaro NP and I-10.

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We continue south of I-10 on more super smooth trail, trying to finish in time to get back north for an upcoming weather window, which will be essential for Lael’s AZT750 ITT.

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Corinna, from Durango, CO on her Salsa El Mariachi with 1×10 drivetrain and Maxxis Ardent 29×2.4” tires.  She is the only bikepacker we met on the entire trail.  Read Corinna’s story about bikepacking the AZT300 on the Velorution site.

Lael later admits that she is surprised to meet a woman alone on the trail.  I suppose it gives her some perspective regarding all the strange reactions she has gotten while traveling alone.  

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The AZT: hike, horse, and bike.

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We peel away from the trail at Sonoita, needing time to get back north so that Lael can do it all again.  I thus continue a pattern started 8 years ago.  I have never completed a route or trail.  There is always reason to come back.

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Our shins will heal and we’ll be back for more of the AZT.  Arizona will always be one of our favorite places to ride.

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Flagstaff to Picketpost on the Arizona Trail

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The is Part II of a three part series about our tour of the Arizona Trail.  In essence, this section is really two parts: the singletrack ride from Flagstaff to Pine, and the wilderness detour from Payson to the Picketpost Trailhead at Hwy 60.  Check out Part I from the Utah border to Flagstaff, AZ.

There is more to Arizona than a few spare saguaro in an endless desert.  Arizonan topography is more complex than I once thought, including broad plateau, deep cut canyons, and sky islands.  Changing scenery is entwined with variable elevation, from golden aspens at 9000 ft to wide open pine forests at 7000ft, piñon and juniper and scrub oak at 5000ft and classic Sonoran scenery dominated by the towering saguaro cactus below 3000ft.  And in a few places, such as in the Grand Canyon or on Mt. Lemmon, you’ll traverse multiple zones in less than half a day.  The Arizona Trail crosses reliably flowing surface water, in the form of Arizona’s major rivers, in no more than a half dozen places.  As expected, overall, Arizona is a dry state.  

Leaving Flagstaff toward the south, the AZT wanders through spacious pine forests and open meadows, passing a series of shallow wetlands and lakes.  A full day of riding is required to exit the pines, at which point the trail reaches the edge of the Mogollon Rim and drops toward the Highline Trail and the town of Pine.  The quality of riding on the Mogollon Plateau is high, not full of thrills and big views, but mostly smooth with the exception of some rocky trail and tracks battered by cattle in wet weather.  The first miles out of Flagstaff are especially memorable.  There are minor resupply opportunities off-route in Mormon Lake and Happy Jack, although we packed food for the distance from Flagstaff to Pine, without a peanut to spare.  Pine is a great trail town thanks to several local eatieries and a brewery called That Brewery, as well as a nice local grocery store.  

The Highline Trail looms as one of the great challenges of the AZT by bike, a reputation bolstered by the number of times its name is uttered in simple reference to the major obstacles along the AZT, a menacing gang including the Canyon and Oracle Ridge.  But not all challenges are created equal and the Highline Trail is remarkably ridable with high scenic value, an impression gained from our extremely low expectations.  The Highline is a 50-plus mile trail along the Mogollon Rim escarpment, crossing every minor drainage which comes from the cliffs above, although the AZT only follows about 20 miles of that trail.  Sections of the Highline are highly ridable, seemingly taken right out of the Sedona playbook, which sits at a similar elevation not far away.  Southbound riders definitely benefit from some gravity fed assistance overall, although the trail climbs and descends in both directions.

South of Pine, riders continue along a brief sections of the actual AZT before beginning an extended detour around the Mazatzal and Superstition Wilderness areas ending at the Picketpost Trailhead where the route rejoins the AZT.  The bikeable AZT750 continues on a series of chunky dirt roads to Payson where full resupply is possible 24/7, and on graded dirt roads and pavement to the south, including the scenic Apache Trail along the Salt River drainage.  Between Payson and Picketpost, quality roads and frequent resupply make for a quick and easy ride.  

The Apache Trail connects a a series of dammed lakes along the Salt River, each lake taking the place of what was once a great valley or canyon.  The presence of crystal blue water in the desert is stunning, and a welcomed relief on hot days.  The Apache Trail connects us to the furthest reaches of urban Phoenix, to a community called Apache Junction which provides convenient resupply in the form of a Basha’s supermarket on route, as well as other amenities.

Beyond Apache Junction the AZT traces a series of dirt roads, including a final water resupply in Queen Valley, before reconnecting with the Picketpost trailhead at Highway 60.  From this point, the town of Superior is about 4 miles to the east.  From this point toward the town of Oracle, the riding gets really, really, good.

Get GPS data for the AZT750 at Topofusion.com.  Current water resources along the AZT managed by Fred Gaudet.

Resupply notes, bold is on route:

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Flagstaff, Mormon Lake, Happy Jack, Pine, Payson, Jake’s Corner, Punkin Center, Tonto Basin, Tortilla Flat, Apache Junction, Queen Valley, Superior

There are a number of easy water resupply point between Flagstaff and Pine in the form of USFS campgrounds, just off route.  There are several near Mormon Lake and several at the intersection with AZ Rte 87.  There is clear running water along eastern sections of the Highline Trail.

————————-

Riding out of Flagstaff. 

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Regaining some elevation, looking back at the San Francisco Peaks.

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Above Lake Mary.

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Keep gates closed.  Jumping fences often saves time over opening and closing gates, and you’ll grow a massive pair of guns like Lael.

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Without shelter, October nights leave us shivering in our damp sleeping bags until the sun is well above the horizon, at least up above 7000ft.  Lael’s new Specialized Era transforms her riding, making her more confident over technical terrain.  The full-suspension platform also tracks better over rough ascents, improving her ability to climb rocky trail.  Fatigue is also reduced on long days.  There are many challenging technical sections of the AZT which require intense focus, yet there are many mundane rocky sections which aren’t all that challenging, but slowly abuse the rider over the course of a day.  A bike like this especially helps with the latter.  Rear tire clearance is a little tight.  

The proprietary Brain suspension is unique to Specialized bike and reacts to the terrain— firm on smooth trail yet opening to full stroke on bigger hits.  It is a brilliant system and it works marvelously.  I was a skeptic, until the first moment I rode it. 

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I remember a lot of mundane bumpy trail on the Mogollon Plateau, not that challenging, but taxing.  There is also plenty of trail much like this between Utah and the edge of the Mogollon Rim.  Lael and I call this “green circle trail”, and we like it.

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Through old oak groves which feel like they once accompanied a ranch house, amidst a greater ponderosa pine forest.  Northern Arizona is amazing, and most people have no idea.

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Much of the state is fenced to keep cattle in and keep cattle out.  Nick from Rogue Panda describes to me that Arizona is a “fence out” state, which means it is the responsibility of the landowner to prevent grazing cattle from entering their properly, not the other way around.  Nick spent some years doing trail work on public lands in the west.  In many states, it is the responsibility of the rancher to contain their cattle which becomes a financial burden considering the massive land tracts in the west, so the “fence out” principle is pro-ranching.

Here, a fence divides grazing lands on the right and non-grazing lands on the left.

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Pines, volcanics, sunshine, and sweet, sweet singletrack.

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General Springs.

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General Springs Cabin.

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At the edge of the Mogollon Rim is a brief section of trail called the Pipeline Trail, a several hundred foot scramble up, or down in our case.  Our first impression was, “so, this must be the rim”.

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Aside from the Colorado River we cross the first flowing water on the Arizona Trail just below the rim.  Naturally, we splash in a knee-deep pool.

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Tarantula.

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Some chunk, but lots of great trail.  There are large sections which require hiking, but the overall experience in positive.

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The trail crosses many drainages which means lots of fresh water, and lots of short climbs and descents.  This is some fine technical riding.

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Burn.

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Juniper.

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Shred.

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Newer AZT signage on the right, older Highline signage on the left.  The Highline Trail is a classic in Arizona.  The descent down to the Geronimo Trailhead—southbound, remember— is awesome!

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We finish the night by descending the final 800ft into Pine in near darkness, an exciting and frightening challenge at the end of a proper full day of riding.  Lael still doesn’t have the guts for such stuff, but my new pink bike nails it.  The geometry of the Meriwether, the Pike fork, a fresh pair of Ardent tires– they let me do things I shouldn’t.

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The following day we ride through Payson, stopping to dip in the East Verde River.  Surface water in Arizona is a precious resource.  I am sure to swim in all of it.

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Descending from Payson, adjacent to the Beeline Hwy.

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Jake’s Corner.

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Resupply in rural Arizona.  Okocim beer was a staple from our time in Poland.  This is the first time I have seen it in the US, at a small grocery in Tonto Basin, AZ.  Reminds us of our time with Przemek in Poland and Ukraine.

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Rural America is beautiful.

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Theodore Roosevelt Lake, collected from the upper Salt River drainage.

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This dam marks the point where the Salt River convenes into a narrower drainage, most of the way to Phoenix.  Along the way the river is collected in a series of lakes which are partly responsible with providing water to the greater Phoenix area.  The Colorado River picks up the slack.  The unpaved Apache Trail, eventually a paved road nearer to Phoenix, is a great ride bounded by wilderness to the north and the south, highlighted by a brilliant strip of water.

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Migrating retirees treat this area much like migrating birds, stopping for a few weeks in spring and fall while traveling between their summering grounds up on the Mogollon Plateau and wintering grounds to the south in places like Slab City.

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Leaving pavement for a bit.  This 150 mile road detour, both paved and unpaved, certainly shortens the time is takes to cover the 750 mile route.

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We find ourselves camping on a sandy beach for the night, just a few steps away from clear freshwater.  I would have never expected this in Arizona.

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Our campsite is on the beach in the foreground.

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The Apache Trail is an old stagecoach route from Tonto Basin to the Greater Phoenix area, which follows human trade and travel routes along the Salt River which have been in use for many centuries.  Theodore Roosevelt, who was president at the time of the construction of both the dam and the road, says, “The Apache Trail combines the grandeur of the Alps, the glory of the Rockies, the magnificence of the Grand Canyon and then adds an indefinable something that none of the others have, to me, that is most awe-inspiring and most sublimely beautiful.”  

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The western portion of the road is now paved, the eastern portion alternating between wide graded sections and narrow pieces of dirt, clinging to rocky mountainsides.

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Tortilla Flat.

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As near as you’ll get to Phoenix on the AZT750.

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The AZT750 passes a Basha’s grocery in Apache Junction, the last good resupply until Oracle.  If touring northbound, the four mile detour to Superior might make sense.  Picketpost (the trailhead at Hwy 60, near Superior), is about 90 miles from Oracle.  

En route to the Picketpost Trailhead from Apache Junction along a powerline road, with a brief stop in the rural retirement community of Queen Valley.  There is a diner and a very small store there.

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Picketpost Mountain, a welcomed sight guarding the nicest section of the AZT.  From here to the Gila River is a newer piece of trail worthy of Theodore Roosevelt’s description of the Apache Trail.  If only TR rode a mountain bike…

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Rejoin the AZT, duck under Hwy 60.

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Picketpost marks the end of the annual AZT300 race, an event which predates the hefty AZT750.  The AZT300 begins near the Mexican border (lopping 14 miles of dirt road riding from the actual border), and includes a high volume of singletrack, excepting some detours around wilderness in the Tucson/Mt. Lemmon area.  The 300 miles route has been ridden in as little as 45 hours and 7 minutes by Kurt Refunder.  We’ll certainly take much longer, enjoying the majesty of Arizona.

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Rogue Panda Designs and Flagstaff, AZ

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Nick Smolinske is Rogue Panda Designs, in Flagstaff, AZ.  Check out the Rogue Panda website for product and ordering information, or the Rogue Panda Facebook page for news and monthly deals.  Don’t forget, I keep a fairly accurate list of all known bikepacking bag makers from around the world.  Please send corrections and submissions!

I once wrote that I thought every town should have a baker, a brewer, a framebuilder, and a bag maker.  Flagstaff has all of these, in addition to a nice slice of the Arizona Trail and some of the most pleasant fall weather in the country.

Nick Smolinske is Rogue Panda Designs.  Nick has been designing and making bikepacking equipment for years, and blends his passion for lightweight backpacking and bicycling at the helm of his sewing machine.  His business recently outgrew his bedroom, his spare room, and his Etsy retail space.  Earlier this year, Nick quit his job to invest in full-time bag manufacturing and design.  He moved his equipment into a rented garage across town, a building which once acted as a horse stable with a few dusty corners to prove it.  Rogue Panda Designs debuted a full-featured website at the same time with an active retail portal featuring in-stock products and a custom ordering process.

Rogue Panda offers most of the now-standard bikepacking designs, but a few products stand out from the rest.  The Picketpost seatbag is designed to maximize the space behind the seatpost on a hardtail bike, preferring a more vertical orientation that also serves to stabilize the bag on technical trails.  Several companies are working to improve the stability of the modern seatbag, with varied approaches to solving the problem.  

The Oracle downtube bag is a small zippered pouch meant to hold tools, tube, or other dense items which don’t need to be in a framebag.  It attaches to the downtube or any other part of the bicycle via non-slip straps, with an integrated compression strap.  

Lastly, Rogue Panda’s custom framebags stand out for the detailed and bold designs which are offered.  Nick is most proud of the radiant Arizona state flag designs, yet regularly offers bags with the New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming state flag logos.  If you live in a state or country with a simple and preferably geometric flag, you could wave it proudly on you bike.  I’m thinking Israel, South Africa, Sweden, and Macedonia would be great candidates for a country flag.  Texans, you know you need Texas themed bikepacking kit.  Check out the time-lapse video of an Arizona flag framebag in production.

Most Rogue Panda products are named after sections of the Arizona Trail.

The name Rogue Panda originates from a local prank in which an electronic traffic sign was hacked, and the banner was modified to warn motorists of a “ROGUE PANDA ON RAMPAGE”.  Nick is not responsible for the prank, I don’t think.

Every town should have a friendly bike shop like Flag Bike Revolution.  The bike shop shares an old industrial building with an artisan Neopolitan-style pizzeria with a subtle bike theme called Pizzicleta, and the Mother Road Brewery, named for the famous Route 66.

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Our friend James manages Pizzicleta and bakes the best bread in Flagstaff, as a way to use remnant heat from the previous night’s fire. The bread bakes each morning while James preps for the day.  In the evening, the tiny eatery is packed with guests who share a single large table.  We gave Lael’s blue Raleigh XXIX to James while in Flagstaff.  We also gave Lael’s old green Surly Long Haul Trucker to his girlfriend Deja several years ago.  Since, Deja has traveled to Italy with the LHT.  

James reports that the rusty blue hardtail has been repaired– he discovered a hole in the frame while preparing for paint– and the frame now wears a new coat of white paint with metal flake.  A brand new RockShox Reba fork rounds out the build, along with a new framebag and seatbag.

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Building and customizing Lael’s Specialized Era at Flag Bike Rev.  She will be moving to a new hardtail in the coming months.  Anyone looking for a great full-suspension cross-country and bikepacking rig?

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A visit to Rogue Panda headquarters reveals a colorful array of bikepacking gear, and a few innovative designs.

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The Picketpost seatbag, mocked up on my Meriwether hardtail.  The two lower plastic loops are used to connect the bag to the seatstays for added stability.  This design also maximizes the total volume of the bag, without forcing a load beyond the rear axle.

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Nick has prepared a drawer full of Arizona flag panels, awaiting fabrication into complete framebags.  All framebags are custom and pricing starts at $125 for state flag bags, or $95 for single color and single compartment bags.

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This custom two-compatment bag is headed on tour in New Zealand on Brian’s Surly Cross Check.  Logos represent local businesses who have helped him prepare for his trip, and the text at the bottom is in memory of his parents.  James gave this bike to Brian, we gave a bike to James, the world is a better place.  Nick prefers a photograph of the bicycle with a measuring tape or meter stick in the image, rather than a hand-drawn pattern.

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Once the bag has been ordered and a pattern provided, the star is located on the drive-side panel.

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Handlebar bags are mostly standard designs, including sealed seams and a multi-purpose daisy chain which enables secure attachment to Jones Loop bars.

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Later, Nick joins us for a ride on the Flagstaff Loop Trail and a brief section of the AZT.  Our friends Lucas and Monica, once of Anchorage, Alaska, also roll through town while we are in Flagstaff.

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This mural by Cosmic Ray, now on display at Cosmic Cycles, depicts the local trail system.  The text in the bottom right reads “Copycats will ride Huffys in Hell… (Full Wald Gruppo!).

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Lael on her first dirt ride on the Specialized Era, also her first ride with a backpack.  She successfully used this Osprey Raptor 14 pack to haul her bike through the Grand Canyon. 

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Nick is proud of his dirt cheap custom bikepacking rig.  The frame is a Bikes Direct freebie from around town, a simple coil suspension fork, custom luggage, Thudbuster seatpost, with platform pedals.

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An early prototype of the Oracle downtube bag.

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Fresh bread!  Thanks Deja.

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Route 66 lives in Flagstaff.

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Pizzicleta is highly regarded for thin crust pizza, although I just like knowing that the pizza man rides a bike.  James treated us to an exceptional meal at “Pizzi”, as he calls it.  

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To come: A series of posts about the rest of the Arizona Trail, and some more insight into Lael’s AZT ITT and her future with ultra-endurance racing.  Lastly, in the next few weeks I plan to roll out a series of posts from our time in the Middle East this spring, including time spent in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine riding with Julian, Christina, and Klaus.  Lots of fresh stories coming soon.  

We will be in the Phoenix area over the next few days, then back to New York State to visit my family.  We will be in Northern and Central New York, NYC, and even the Washington D.C. area in the next few weeks if anyone wants to meet for a beer or a ride.

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Lael Wilcox AZT750 ITT Update: Mormon Lake, AZ

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Charging toward Oracle Ridge, in the uphill direction.  The AZT is a monster, and everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses on route.  Lael was looking forward to the 4000ft ascent up Oracle Ridge. 

Lael left Flagstaff on the morning of her third day on the trail.  Slowed by a familiar breathing problem, she camped before town the night before, unable to safely continue due to shortness of breath and wheezing.  In the morning, she quickly covered the seven rocky miles on the Schultz Creek, Rocky Ridge, and the Lower Oldham Trails.  The AZT Urban Loop passes a few notable resupply points on route, including a Fry’s grocery store which we have frequently visited while riding through the area.  She spent some time at the grocery store resupplying and rethinking her ride, over a tall cup of Starbucks drip coffee.  If it hand’t already happened the night before, by that morning, she had come to terms with the fact that her breathing may not allow her to continue.  Even so, she left town with enough food to get to Pine.

Lael called that afternoon.  Her breathing had worsened by noon, and her progress slowed through the afternoon.  “Technically, I could keep moving”, she says.  “But I am not having fun and it doesn’t feel like I am racing anymore.  My legs feel good but my lungs can’t keep up.”  Lael got off the route and ended her ride near Mormon Lake.  We had both studied the forecast up until the start date and were well aware of the chance of rain on the fourth day of her ride.  Today is the fourth day and it is pouring.  If she hadn’t gotten off route, I likely would have extracted her from a muddy situation today.  How her respiratory condition would have worsened, we cannot know exactly.  We’re both certain that she has made the right decision.

Up until breathing issues changed the ride, Lael claims she “was having so much fun!”  She went out fast and rode without regrets.  If she plans any long-distance racing in the future, we’ll have to look seriously at her breathing condition.  For everyday touring and exercise, it has never been an issue.  Lael’s passion is to be healthy and active, and happy.

Thanks to everyone who helped put this ride together including Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution and Absolute Bikes; Revelate Designs, Specialized, and K-Lite; Greg Greene in Tucson and James Worden in Flagstaff.

We’re planning to visit Santa Fe and Albuquerque this weekend.  Send a message if anyone is in the area and would like to meet.

Lael Wilcox AZT750 ITT Update: Flagstaff, AZ

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Packing the new bike on the new backpack in a cheap motel room on Route 66 in Flagstaff, AZ, a few days before the start.  Several days of rain followed by several cool, dry days led up to Lael’s AZT 750 ITT.  The preferred packing method is to leave the rear wheel in the bike.  

Lael reached the Grand Canyon quickly.  She hiked through the Canyon in a total time of 14 hours, including a two hour nap by the river.  She hiked out of the Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail in just over four hours.  She rode to a high point on the route alongside Humphrey’s Peak at sunset on the second day when a familiar feeling crept into the scene.  On an extended singletrack climb from the open plains of the Babbit Ranch to aspen groves at 9000ft, the taste of blood touched her tongue.  This is a feeling she describes often, made familiar by cold weather high output activities like cross country skiing and running in Alaska.  Further, she described in a late evening phone call from her bivy, her airways tightened and mucus developed over the course of the afternoon.  She reports a bloody nose while pedaling into headwinds across Babbit Ranch.

She told me not to worry, that she would leave the remaining five miles of rocky trail for the morning, that she would resupply and rethink the ride in the morning, that morning would provide all of the questions and answers required.  At that moment, since leaving the Utah border almost 40 hours ago, she’d only had 2 hours of sleep while traveling about two hundred miles, including that little hike across the Colorado River.  Perhaps morning would be better.  I think we both knew exactly how the morning would be.

In the morning, she called from the grocery store to say that she would continue south of Flagstaff.  But we both know that the pattern is likely to continue, as it did during the Tour Divide.  Mornings are fine, afternoons are worsening, evenings are difficult to impossible.  She has a few strategies to minimize the risk of an attack.  Last night she slept between 8-9 hours, which may also help.

Despite delays, she is currently only a few hours behind her approximate “hopeful” schedule, more in line with the “expected” timeline.  She was once ahead of both projections, until her breathing changed.

Considering the pattern in the Tour Divide and again on the Arizona Trail, the likely diagnosis for her condition is exercise induced asthma, more accurately called exercise induced bronchoconstriction (EIB).  In any case, Lael was clear to say that she wasn’t interested in riding her bike every day until she collapses in an asthmatic fit.  She has been here before.  It isn’t fun, and there are potential long-term health risks.  A sustainable lifestyle is more important than a single fast ride on the AZT.

By the end of the day we’ll have a clear idea if she will be able to continue, competitively.  Cold rain is expected tomorrow.

Follow Lael’s AZT750 ITT at Trackleaders.com.

Lael Wilcox Arizona Trail 750 ITT

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Lael is at it again!  She left the northern terminus of the Arizona Trail at the Stateline Campground along the Utah/Arizona border on Monday October 26th at 5:24 AM.  She intends to ride the length of the Arizona Trail- – specifically the bikeable AZT750 route— as fast as possible.  This individual time trial (ITT) will take more than a week, and requires that she portage her bicycle through the Grand Canyon, strapped to her back.  At the time of writing, only 23 hours after starting at the Utah border, she has exited the Grand Canyon at the South Rim and is en route to resupply in Tusayan.  She hopes to reach Flagstaff by the end of the day.

The Arizona Trail is a nearly 800 mile cross-state hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trail from the Utah border to the Mexican border, ranging in elevation from 1500ft to 9000ft, from shady ponderosa pine forests to scorching Sonoran deserts.  Several wilderness areas require dirt and paved road detours for cyclists, and the established AZT750 route is the version in use during the group time trial informally known as the Arizona Trail Race, held every April.  There is also an established detour north of the Grand Canyon from the North Rim to Jacob Lake along pavement, as snow typically lingers along this section of trail in the spring.  Lael followed this detour, with prior approval, as most AZT750 records have been set along this version of the route.  We toured this section of trail several weeks ago and in the context of a tour, it is highly recommended.

Our tour of the Arizona Trail ended several days before Lael’s ITT commenced.  We toured every inch of the trail from Utah to Sonoita, lopping off the last day or two of riding to get north in time for a weather window. This time of year, in an El Nino season, dry trails up north are hard to come by.  There is a risk of wheel-sucking mud north of Payson, mostly in the section between the Mogollon Rim and Flagstaff.  Long nights will also be a challenge, although a full moon will help light the night.  

Several hours of rain accompanied us on the night before Lael’s departure.  Despite freezing temperatures at elevation and the saturated earth, she passed the first section of trail to Jacob Lake with haste.  From the Stateline Campground the trail begins with a series of switchbacks to ascend well over a thousand feet.  I watched her headlamp disappear onto the Kaibab Plateau.

For this ride, Lael is a riding a new Specialized Era Expert, a 100mm travel full-suspension bike.  She is using custom Revelate Designs luggage, K-Lite dynamo lighting, and some other exciting new equipment.

Follow Lael’s AZT750 ITT at Trackleaders.com.