Croatia and the Adriatic Crest Route

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Abe rides a macadam road above the sea on the Adriatic Crest Route in Croatia, a route mapped and published by Joe Cruz on Bikepacking.com. 

The man uses both hands to carry the steel bucket out from his cramped home, which is half of the ground floor of some kind of outbuilding to the larger home on the property, which is shuttered for the season. We’ve asked him for water, but mostly we are just poking around a small community in the mountains in the rain to see what there is to see. The dirt road we were riding intersected a paved road from the coast, which appears to end here. My default topic of conversation when I don’t speak much of the language is to ask for water. The man obliges, but I hear him say malo which means little and I try to say that we don’t really need to take his water. He walks away toward the sink and lifts the bucket, walking it across the room and through the door to us. He leaves it on the table and offers a plastic mug to scoop the water to fill our bottles. I look into the bucket and laugh. He looks at me. I look at him, surely he is joking. There is a dead mouse in the bucket, floating peacefully in the water. I gesture to Abe, and look back at the man. It is clear that he hasn’t seen it yet, but when he does, he doesn’t laugh. He lifts the bucket and dumps it off the ledge into the grass. We walk over to a concrete cistern with a steel cover. We lower another bucket into the well and fill our bottles.

We have only been in this country for two days, and it feels like two weeks.

There comes a time when wearing a rain jacket is pointless. The rate of rainfall and the rate of perspiration are equal and you can choose to be hot and wet, or well-ventilated and wet. The conundrum, a topic of conversation more than a real problem, has us thinking on a long climb above the coast. We could see the Adriatic Sea, except we’re climbing in a thick cloud and can’t see anything. But I couldn’t be happier that our biggest challenge is trying to decide if we should wear rain jackets or not. Three days ago we were wrapped in our sleeping bags under a wooden pavilion outside Ustron, Poland wondering how we would ride through this kind of weather for the next two weeks. The now-obvious answer— in retrospect— is that we wouldn’t. I made mention to Przemek that I was looking at trains to the south. He and I think much the same way, and he quickly began searching train timetables and weather forecasts for us on his Polish smartphone. The next day we were in Zagreb, the next afternoon giving ourselves bellyaches from ripe plums found on the roadside, the next evening finishing a grueling accidental hike-a-bike through a limestone canyon. Poland was a distant memory in less than a day. I’ll be back to Poland, and I think Abe is even more curious than me about what lie across that border. I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about “The Red Trail”, as I call it.

We came to Croatia because it was a convenient connection by train from Czechia. We’re here to escape the rain. I rode in the Balkans first in 2014 and since that time, I have always wanted to return.

My friend Joe Cruz stitched together a route through Croatia this year called the Adriatic Crest Route, which he published to Bikepacking.com. Joe is a philosophy professor at Williams College in Massachusetts who seems to cash in every free moment in life to ride his bike. I’ve crossed paths with Joe in New Mexico, Alaska, and Czechia, most recently visiting him at his country home in Vermont. I enjoy following his digital lines through space almost as much as I have enjoyed riding and traveling with him. I know just enough about him to sense the process of route design when riding his routes.

The Adriatic Crest Route begins across the border in Slovenia, to the north, and passes south to ride two of the larger islands in the country before crawling back to the mainland for the remainder of its path. We connect with the route from Zagreb, and join Joe’s routing where it leaves the islands for mainland Croatia, continuing south along a spine of coastal mountains toward the end point in Split.

The route is a pleasant blend of forest roads, leading up to a high point of 5200ft; narrow paved farm roads and rural routes; and a few fragments of rough doubletrack and singletrack. As with any route you will follow from Joe, there are some short walks with the bike to make essential connections. 

Some of the prime features of the Adriatic Crest Route are a long summer season and pleasant late-summer days and nights, stunning scenery, and abundant fresh fruit. Yes, passing through populated areas and small towns results in an abundance of fresh fruits, especially plums, figs, apples, and pears. The riding is accessible, with some prolonged climbs. Several sections focus our attention to picking lines down the mountain, but mostly the riding is a consistent pace on roads of varying kinds.

While we missed the first part of the route which hopped across a number of islands up north, the southern part of the route reconnects with the coast and affords the opportunity to enjoy the rocky Croatian coastline and its mellow waters, an essential experience when visiting Croatia. After a week in the mountains, Abe and I were happy to finish the ride along the waterfront of Šibenik, Trogir, and Split. Deliberately slowing our pace afforded several lazy afternoons and an overnight beach camp before catching a boat into the busy touristic center of Split.

For more info on the Adriatic Crest visit Joe’s original post on Bikepacking.com.

Follow our ride on Instagram at @nicholascarman and @akschmidtshow.

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Boarding the train at 5:45 AM along the Czech-Polish border, we roll across the Slovenian border at sunset, pass border control into Croatia in the dark, and arrive in Zagreb at 11PM. The air is warm and dry, the city is calm. Our decision to come south is brought with great confidence the moment we step outside.

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In the morning, we awake to sun and clear skies.

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Within a few hours of being in Croatia, we enjoy burek and kefir and begin our ride out of the city.

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Burek is a pastry made of many thin layers of dough, filled with cheese or meat, and sometimes found with savory vegetable fillings or sweet fruit filings. A tart farmer’s cheese filling is the most common, and arguably the best. A greasy burek is best paired with a small jogurt or kefir.

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Abe an I plot a route out of the town for the afternoon. The plan is to get into the local mountains and learn the ways of Croatian roads and trails. In a couple days we will connect with the Adriatic Crest Route. For now, we soak up the sun and new surroundings.

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Learning the ways of Croatia. The mountains are steep. Not all trails are rideable, not all trails get regular use or maintenance. Abe and I descend an overgrown trail into a strenuous downhill hike-a-bike in a tidy little limestone drainage. Little do we know what is ahead. 

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Passing the point of no return. Of all the times we should have decided to turn around, we’d look at the GPS and declare, it is just another 0.41 miles. 

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Little do we know that it ends in a 100 ft waterfall. There is a trail around it, but it is so steep that we hike it all first without the bikes, then come back for our beasts of burden. There are steel cables along a portion of the descent, which help. The rest is a creative and physical endeavor. At least it finishes with a great place to swim.

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We exit the forest at sunset, to the minute exactly, and rip down a packed limestone road to the nearest town. We order a beer and laugh at the whole endeavour— barely a half day out of Zagreb and we’ve already given ourselves a week worth of adventure. We find an unoccupied building in the middle of town to bed down in, mostly to keep the dew off. It is always fun to interpret the former use of such buildings by analyzing the interior. Whenever I first enter an old building like this, i walk around and try to identify the different rooms. I imagine myself as the cook in the kitchen or the headmaster at a desk. Then I find a little piece of floor without any broken glass or tiles.

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Our first morning outdoors in Croatia, and the beginning of a long transport day to get closer to the coast to connect with Joe’s route. After yesterday’s experience, we agree to follow “mostly roads” today. Mostly we keep to cycling routes shown on the Open Cycle Map in Gaia. By the end of the day we’ve ridden 70 miles, which Abe informs me is the longest distance he has ridden on a bike in one day.

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It is good to see a variety of signed cycling routes and advertised touristic loops for bicycles.

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After a period of lowland riding, we pass back into the mountains and ride over a series of N-S trending ridges nearing the coast.

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Resupply.

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Finally, cresting a ridge at close to 3000 ft, we descend to connect with the Adriatic Crest Route. Our first few pedal strokes include a mellow descent above the sea.

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Some singletrack.

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Rocky abandoned doubletrack, or doublesingletrack as I’ve often called it.

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The command center has grown over the years, with a camera bag on the far left and a large insulated wine holster on the right (aka Revelate Feed Bag). The Sinewave Beacon headlamp simplifies things a little as the USB charging device is housed within the light’s head unit. I use both a Garmin eTrex 20 and an older iPhone 5 on the handlebars for navigation. The Garmin provides all weather function, best for existing routes and inclement weather. The iPhone is not in a waterproof case but helps when navigating cities and for some large-scale routing, as well as quick wifi missions in town. Abe and I are both running the Gaia program, and are beginning to dabble with Komoot for route planning as well.

Deer Tick plays on repeat for a couple of days.

A liter of graševina in the Feed Bag, with a bit of rosemary for dinner.

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We begin to see these fruits, which I recall are called thana in Albania. In English, they seem to be called Cornelian cherry, scientific name Cornus mas. They are bitter like a cranberry but eventually ripen to the point that you could eat them. In Albania they were being collected to be made into raki, a homemade liquor.

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With rain in the forecast, we enjoy a dry evening above the Adriatic Sea.

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Morning is warm and damp, but not uncomfortable in any way. Rain jackets come on and off throughout the day as we wind our way up to the high point on the route at 5200 ft.

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We are in a section of the route which is described as having no immediate resupply for over 100 miles. However, we encounter a vender on a mountain road selling smoked cheeses and honey. The cheese only comes in 1 kilogram rounds. A kilo of cheese is no match for two hungry riders and I pass over the cash in the rain. This powers us all the way to the end of the route.

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Nearing the top of the National Park Sjeverni Velebit, which would normally provide stunning views of the mountains and the islands below.

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At 5200 ft, we’re stuck in a cloud. The mountain hut provides respite from a damp day.

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The history inside the building is obvious the moment we enter with photos of the hut in winter and memories from mountain conquests in the Himalaya and other distant lands.

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We sign the guest log, purchase a beer from the caretaker, and enjoy a few moments in a wooden chair out of the rain.

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Descending from Zavižan, we look for a place to hide away for the night.

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This old forest cabin remains as a shelter. Incidentally, another 100 yards down the road is another cabin which is equipped with a wood stove and other amenities such as cots and jars of coffee and tea. Even so, this one is clean, and dry.

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The national park encompasses a broad mountain massif and protects several higher peaks and a large forest.

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Some of the shelters listed on our maps are closed for the season, although they would normally be staffed through the summer.

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Descending out of the clouds, we drop into a world of limestone crags.

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A popular climbing area, with routes shown on this map.

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Joe’s GPS track takes us from one valley to another via a “short hike-a-bike”. It was short, and totally pleasant. I laugh to myself, because I’ve been on some long hike-a-bike segments with Joe and know his great love for pushing his bike. I’ve been told I am the same way. It must be a matter of perspective.

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Most hiking trails in Croatia are signed with this bullseye pattern.

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Limestone and beech trees.

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The route drops us into the town of Gospić, where we quickly resupply at the supermarket with a stop at the bakery and are out of town just before dark to find camp in a farm field under the hum of high-voltage power lines. Rain returns overnight, and showers are forecast to come and go through the next few days. The plan is to ride when it is dry, and find cover when wet— if we can.

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A final climb should take us over a rocky pass to sea level for the first time.

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The jagged limestone mountains are different than what we’ve been seeing, and as soon as we cross the high point the climate changes. There are distinctly different climates between coastal Croatia and inland areas. The coast is mostly dry and rocky.

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Descending to sea level at Obravac, we encounter a group of boys in town. Rather, I immediately lean my bike against the bridge and slip off my shoes and shirt. I hoist myself onto the railing and dive into the river. The boys come running.

They speak some English, I toss a little of my Ukrainian at them for fun, which they mostly understand. I try my hardest to convince them to come swimming, but mostly they just want to get me to do a “backflip”. 

Unprompted antics for the camera.

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Serious faces.

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And our first fig tree, on the climb outside Obravac. Thus begins our obsession with figs.

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Thunderstorms brewing.

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Home for the night. This part of Croatia has tons of abandoned buildings, as well as old stone walls and other aging infrastructure. This area feels much older than the inland cities.

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Look at the size of that fig tree!

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While bathing in a local river, we discover an old limestone building with a well. There are actually a series of buildings which we interpret to be some kind of mill. Water is channeled into several different pathways.

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To drive these machines.

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The area between Obravac and Šibenik is interesting. Low hills, scrub oaks, lots of limestone walls and buildings. Lots of abandoned buildings, some old, some not that old.

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Soon enough, the river we expect to cross comes into view. The Krka River is locally famous for its travertine waterfalls, and the hydroelectric history that was pioneered in this area. We’re mostly just looking for figs and swimming holes.

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We also see the first of many signs celebrating the local HNK Hajduk Split football club. Split is our near destination, and the team’s patters show up all over the place. Abe photographs his Advocate Cycles Hayduke in front of the “Hajduk” graffiti. A hajduk was a peasant warrior, something between a robber and a hero, who famously opposed Ottoman forces in the Balkans.

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A series of pools and lakes are found along the path of the Krka River, making for some prime swimming opportunities, even on a humid and damp day. We manage to avoid most of the major deluges that day, until the evening.

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In the final miles, we pedal through a pounding rainstorm and rummage around an old factory until we find a building with a good roof. Setting up tents in the rain is no fun, rolling into a spacious two bedroom apartment with great ventilation and good views— priceless.

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Croatia provides palatable wines, although this is actually a Macedonian bottle. We don’t quite have the appropriate stemware, but these little 0.6L titanium pots suffice.

To my untrained palate, most Croatian wines taste like cooked sausage and onions, with notes of coffee and a touch of titanium. Or is that just my kitchenware telling me it hasn’t been washed properly in a month?

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The morning is hot and sunny, and everything except for our shoes are dry.  

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Šibenik.

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I love these old concrete block apartment buildings.

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The bike section at a supermarket. They sell dynamo lights at the Kaufland! Many urban bikes in Europe are equipped with rack, fenders, and a bottle dynamo.

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Grapes.

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Craft brew, from Zagreb.

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Figs. Everybody loves them!

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A large comercial vineyard leads us to a big rocky climb.

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Joe’s instructions: “overgrown, push through”. 

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And push up.

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If you think you’ve seen a lot of figs, imagine how many we have eaten. So, many, figs.

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Figs are rotting on the roadsides they are so plentiful. Many local people will harvest and dry them for the rest of the year. But nothing beats a ripe fig.It took Abe no more than one fig to became as rabid a fan of this fruit as I am.

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Trogir, our first real taste of high-density Croatian tourism. The city is beautiful and historic and worth a visit, but I’m glad our routing hasn’t been along the coast the entire time.

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We push out of Trogir in the afternoon and ride to the end of the road, until it turns into a trail. We hike our bike the final few minutes to a remote rocky camp.

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Croatia is everything the tourist office wants you to think. The craggy limestone mountains are just as you expect, the sea is as good as it looks, and the figs. Oh, the figs.

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The final few kilometers of the route include a ferry from the island into the center of Split. What a way to finish the route! I love when routes finish in a city or at the sea, or both, and I love putting my bike on a boat. 

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After a rest day in Split we’re off to Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania!

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Into the Mountains on the 1000 Miles Adventure, Czechia

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Abe climbs a trail out of Špindlerův Mlýn, CZ crossing signed DH bike trails and chairlifts which won’t move for another couple months until the snow falls.

Following my first week on the 1000 Miles Adventure route where I traced the Czech-German border in alternating days of clouds and rain, I rested for several days in Liberec anticipating my friends Abe and Malcolm to arrive. Malcolm would only be in the country for a week, while Abe begins an open-ended journey. Together, we head east. East, always east!

Until it gets cold, and then we go south.

I meet Abe and Malcolm at the train station in Liberec. They are both coming from Alaska by plane via Frankfurt, and by train from Prague. My friend Spencer from the Baja Divide group start last winter arranged a host for the night in Prague. Abe and Malcolm built their bikes at the airport and rode into town, passing the busy old city of Prague just as the sun set and tourists were wandering dumbly at critical mass taking pictures of that one clock tower which does something every couple of hours but is currently concealed in scaffolding. Prague is a beautiful city, but the hordes of tourists make you want to run away to the countryside and go for a long hike or bike ride, which is what Czech people seem to do in the summer.

In Liberec, we efficiently resupply and begin riding out of town. Within a couple of hours we are atop our first pass, riding a forest road along the contours of a mountainside, and descending to our first village for celebratory beers. Riders in many European countries can do the same— traveling from major cities into the mountains via human power and public transport within a matter of hours is easy. The ride out of Liberec was along a signed cycling route, some of which was dedicated bike trail. In fact, there are so many routes and trails in this country that it helps to have the guidance of the 1000 Miles Adventure route. Rather than deliberating over maps all day and making hundreds of small decisions, we can pedal and spend more time thinking about what is for lunch and when we might find a place to splash around in a stream or a lake.

Our week on the 1000 Miles Adventure route would differ from my first week. We enjoyed warm sunny days all week, with cool late summer nights at elevation. We climbed and descended, and climbed, and descended, and climbed— the route right out of Liberec ascended into the Jizera Mountains and then Krkonoše National Park, along the Czech-Polish border. The route, as before, continues along a series of forest roads, minor paved lanes, and singletrack walking trails. While in the mountains of Krkonoše National Park, bikes are mostly only allowed on wide gravel roads and paved routes. As we pass east of the park boundary— still traveling in similar terrain with peaks over 4000ft— the route utilized more rustic corridors. The footpaths in Czech, as in many European counties, are used most often by local traffic, not long-distance users like us. The people we meet include families enjoying a weekend hike from a nearby city or locals collecting blueberries and mushrooms. Even so, the dense network of local walking, cycling, and ski trails in any one area connect in all directions. Since starting the 1000 Miles Adventure route in western Czechia about 600 miles ago, I have never left the signed recreation trails that make this route possible. I’ve pedaled plenty of pavement and passed through many towns, but at all times I can see colored paint blazes on trees and fenceposts and stone churches.

European walking and cycling routes do not fear the civilization through which they pass, in contrast to our obsession in North America with experiencing the wild, even if in a curated manner. Clearly the land use practices and population density differ greatly from Europe to North America, but for a place with such discontinuous wild spaces, European trail resources are extremely well connected. Why do American trails so often go nowhere? Why do we drive to mountain bike trails to ride in circles? I strongly appreciate the interconnectedness of the trails in Europe, and much of that is possible because there are fewer fences and fewer signs prohibiting access, some of which must technically be private land. Many walking routes pass very near to rural homes and farmhouses, some are even signed on the corner of a house or down a gravel driveway.

I first started saying this years ago when riding footpaths in Europe in 2013, but the result of such a network of trails is a massive opportunity to “choose your own adventure”. On the weekend, Czech families are out in great numbers riding bicycles, walking, collecting food, and eating outside. While there is plenty of vehicular traffic to access the national parks and the mountains, nobody drives a car around all day to “see” the nature. They get out and experience it under their own power. Eastern Europeans are a tough and self-reliant lot. We regularly see parent hauling kids in child seats and bike trailers up long gravel climbs, and once graduated to 12″ and 16” wheel bikes those same children are now descending those same routes.

Malcolm left us one morning to descend to the nearest town with a train station to return to Prague and Alaska, while Abe and I stayed on course. We departed the 1000 Miles Adventure route yesterday to link to the Main Beskid Trail in southern Poland, the longest walking trail in the country. Officially called the Kazimierz Sosnowski Main Beskid Trail (or Główny Szlak Beskidzki imienia Kazmierza Sosnowskiego, in Polish), the trail travels nearly 500km from the small city of Ustron in south-central Poland to the Ukrainian border in the east. By comparison, the Main Beskid Trail should be more constantly challenging than the 1000 Miles Adventure route, both physically and technically. Abe and I are looking forward to it, now that we’ve each got some miles under our legs.

Follow Abe’s stories from the trail on his blog AK Schmidtshow. For smaller morsels follow our ride on Instagram at @nicholascarman and @akschmidtshow.

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In other news, I ordered a new bike frame yesterday, although it won’t ship until late fall and I won’t likely see it in person until spring. My friend Cjell Monē has spent the past two years refining the designs of two bike models under the brand Monē Bikes. The La Roca is an adaptable short chainstay steel hardtail for 29″, 27.5+, or 29+ wheels with all modern bikepacking attachment points; the El Continente is a drop-bar 29+ steel touring bike.

Cjell and Corbin were two of the first riders down the Baja Divide this past fall, while Cjell is otherwise known for his exploits as a global bike adventurer, Tour Divide singlespeed veteran, ultralight thru-hiker, and all-around kook great human. Cjell has built bicycle frames under his own brand, sewn and tested his own bikepacking luggage and hiking packs, and established a legacy as a man who charts his own course and has fun doing it.  Pick up the La Roca and El Continente for special preorder pricing through this weekend, frames are $750 right now but will be sold for $1250 after the weekend. All frames will be handmade in Taiwan this fall. Check out how much brass is on show– these frames are gorgeous and I can’t wait to ride the La Roca!

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Rolling through Liberec in northern Czechia to meet Abe and Malcolm.

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Out of the city, over a small mountain, through a forest, and into another town. The pattern begins.

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Note, red circles indicate prohibited activities, such as possessing a phonograph or riding an elephant.

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Water runs from the mountain sides, moist forests harbor blueberries and mushrooms.

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Resupply is uncomplicated, until Abe and I forget to plan ahead for the weekend when most stores are closed. We decided to eat out all weekend at mountain huts and small beer gardens. It wasn’t terrible.

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Mountain bike trails! These were pleasant, although some of the walking trails are much more fun.

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Temperatures have been warm, but totally comfortable when off the bike. When climbing two thousand feet at a time up steep grades, it gets a little sweaty.

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Many mountains in Europe form natural boundaries between countries, and in the case of the 1000 Miles Adventure the route follows the German border until Poland appears to the north.

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These border trails, in virtue of being drawn through virtual space are all wonderfully wet, rocky, and rooty, unlike other trails which are selected for good drainage and mild grades.

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Dancing across the border, we end the day in Poland and make use of a small shelter for dinner.

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Blueberries are everywhere above about 2500 ft. Pine forests alternate with tall beech forests, all are new growth. Many old photos show logged landscapes, and even an ecosystem challenged by the early industrial era and a stifling atmosphere from local industries.

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Unable to procure alcohol for cooking in Liberec, our first coffee outside is made over a small fire of pine.

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To provide the best bikepacking hospitality I know how, my framebag is stuffed to the gills with treats. Over the course of our first three days of riding, I continue pulling out delicacies from Liberec.

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The Jizera Mountains northeast of Liberec are reforested with pine, mostly, with rounded peaks topping out around 3500ft.

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Once we go down, I tell Malcolm and Abe, we are going to climb that distant ridge. Day two included no less climbing than day one.

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An old mine is found along the CZ-PL border.

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Keeping to a strict diet of soup, beer, and sausages, we stop into a Polish eatery at one road crossing.

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One of my clever route innovations, resulting from taking a wrong turn and seeing another connection on the GPS. Note, it is better to go back and follow the route. My frame is still stained with blueberry.

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But as a reward, every time we hit the top of a mountain we find a mountain house serving hot food and cold beer.

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And every time we drop to town resources are plentiful and free wifi is common. This is what social media looks like. #optoutside

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Then begins the next big climb. Over the first couple of days the climbs seem to get bigger and bigger. The total elevation gain isn’t massive, but some roads and trails take relentlessly steep routes out of town.

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Climbing through a ski area, with signed DH mountain bike trails.

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This was one of our nicest evenings on the bike, climbing out of Špindlerův Mlýn to camp at 4200ft for the night.

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Once again we find a shelter to call home for the night.

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I don’t go anywhere without a bag of cabbage.

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While Abe and i are both carrying small pots, Malcolm selected not to bring a vessel for his short trip. The reasoning is sound, but we constantly had to find creative ways to serve three people with two dishes,without fighting over a pot of food like dogs.

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I made Malcolm an ultralight coffee mug.

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Our ride that morning was a little more of my creative routefinding. Once we topped out at 4400ft, I wanted to descend by some other means than a gravel road. We found a winter ski trail. It started off rideable, and turned into a wet hillside traverse before finally clearing toward the end.

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As Abe would say, it was a “spicy” descent.

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Yep, you guessed it. Another mountain house.

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Of course, another beer. This is the local Krkonoše beer from Trutnov.

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Our route continues to nudge the Polish border, passing through some of the highest mountains in Czechia. For this reason, the hills are alive with people walking, riding, and simply being outside. When not being active outdoors, people are eating and drinking beer en plein air. The mountain houses that we frequent are a mix of private guesthouses with beer gardens and restaurants, while a few on the mountaintops are operated or at least leased by the KČT, or the Czech Hiking Club. Many in Poland will be operated by the PTTK, or the equivalent hiking organization in that country.

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As we exit the national parks and the more popular touristic regions, we begin to see a less polished version of Czech and Polish life. It reminds me where we are going in rural Poland, and Ukraine.

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Finally, passing through small communities we find an abundance of plum trees. I’d been promising this to Abe and Malcolm and until now, I would have been lying. Then we happened upon more plums than we could eat. The best fruits are found on the ground, recently separated from the tree and ripened in the sun.

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These smaller varieties of yellow and red plums are some of the best. Many of the larger more typical plums are not quite as plump and sweet this year. I suspect a hot dry summer is to blame, despite recent moisture.

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Of all the signage we pass, this excites me greatly, The upper symbol is the radiant sun of the Way of St. James, or the Camino de Santiago in Spain. From all over Europe you can connect to routes leading to the same place. I was excited to see a sign indicating the terminus of the route over 3000km away.

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We pass the famed sandstone formations of Adršpach. So many of these towns and places are familiar to me, as our route in 2013 wound through some of the same country.

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The beauty of following a prescribed route is that you can release ourself of the responsibility of route design, and simply follow a concept through space. And then, just pedal and open your eyes. You’ll see what you see, you will meet people, you will eat things.

Then you might take a wrong turn and be too proud to turn around and the GPS says there is a way through and now three guys are carrying their bikes through a forest of sandstone towers.

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My fault. Glad you both enjoyed the scenery.

Some of the older trail signs appear to be hand painted. This one dates from 1993, the year that Czech Republic and Slovakia split.

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The lower yellow sign, which denote cycling routes, warns of a “dangerous downhill:. We never got the warning that it was a strenuous uphill.

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Border monuments are painted red and white, with survey markings or coordinates on two sides, and the first letter of each country listed on the other two faces. The other side has a large P, this side a prominent C, yet a faint ČS reminds us of the former Czechoslovakia.

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Polish cycling routes are signed with bicycles, and as you trend further east, cycling routes get more and more “rustic”.

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If you love maps, you’ll love traveling in this country as every major trail junction provides a map of some kind. Often, several maps are provided highlighting cycling routes, hiking routes, topography, national park boundaries and touristic features.

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If you are ever unsure of where you are, look for the point on the map without paint. Hundreds of fingers have worn away the color.

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Weekends can be very busy.

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A series of bunkers dating to around 1938 line the modern Czech-German and Czech-Polish borders. In either case, the enemy was the same— the Third Reich.

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While thousands of small bunkers form a line in the mountains, a series of larger bunkers served as logistical bases and as more substantial armaments against the enemy.

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A groundskeeper invites us in for a tour.

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This communication device is made in Czechoslovakia.

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This gun was made in Venezuela.

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This truck is Russian.

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I was intrigued to learn that there is a gauge to signal how much maslo, or butter is available. Does the word also mean oil, as in motor oil?

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More traffic on the trail.

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Bunkers, everywhere in these mountains.

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Eventually our route follows a small river and we find time to rinse our clothing after a sweaty week.

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Rolling into town on Saturday afternoon we are surprised to find the store closed at 3PM. We seem to have missed our chance to buy food for the weekend. Plan B is to eat at mountain guesthouses and small town eateries. On our first night we find an authentic Italian pizzeria in a small city.

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And roll out of town at dark.

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Plugging a battery into my new Sinewave Cycles Beacon dynamo light provides full light power even as slow speeds, or when stopped. This is perfect when searching for a campsite in the dark. On this warm, dry evening Abe and I lay out under the stars. Within a couple hours, heat lightning surrounds us. Enchanted with the feeling of a warm breeze and distant lightning, I go back to sleep. The next time I wake up it is pouring rain. We both scramble to erect our tents; I quickly insert my sleeping bag and other sensitive items into the tent body before installing the poles and stakes. I manage to keep things dry, mostly.

Buckets of rain fall for hours.

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By morning, the wet earth is steaming and calm. Since losing a few hours of sleep, we are both slow to get moving in the morning.

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The free laundry service is much appreciated. The scorpion underwear are courtesy of the Asian markets on the CZ-DE border.

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Abe packs up that morning, finding a place for all of his things. He is riding an Advocate Cycles Hayduke, which is only a few weeks old to him. After a couple days of riding he sent some equipment home with Malcolm, so he has established his kit for the season. Everything now has a place, packing becomes a ritual.

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Signs. So many signs.

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Another quick spin up to 4000 ft. Finally, after a week with a lot of climbing, our legs and lungs are catching up.

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Alas, there is food and beer at the top.

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Our recovery is due in great part to a healthy diet of potato knedliky, meat, cabbage, and beer. 

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Now out of the mountains, we pause for a moment in Opava before riding across the border to the Main Beskid Trail in Poland. I have about 600 miles of this route behind me, with around 300 miles of the Beskid trail to the edge of Ukraine. One way or another, the 1000 Miles Adventure continues. Ukraine is a whole other adventure.

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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 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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