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.  

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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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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.

Leaving Las Vegas, NV for the AZT

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Post-Interbike exodus out of Las Vegas.  While everyone raced to the airport on Friday night and Saturday morning, we met friends Skyler and Panthea at the baggage claim, arriving from British Columbia.  We assemble bikes, eat on the sidewalk, and roll into the desert for the night.  The following day, after some additional preparations, we leave town on a series of paved roads, bike paths, and BLM dirt tracks.  Our search for dirt only lasts a day until the 100 degree heat pushes us onto pavement in search of St. George, Hurricane, Colorado City, Fredonia and the AZT.  

There are some options for dirt routes between Vegas and St. George, and most of the way to the AZT.  A month later in the season might make it easier.  Some of the riding between Vegas and St. George gets soft and sandy, less of an issue on Skyler’s 29+ Surly Krampus and Panthea’s Soma B-Side+.  Anyway, the heat rules the day.  We’re excited for the pines of the Kaibab Plateau and the cool nights up toward the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at over 8,000ft.  

Riding to the start gives us the opportunity to acclimate to the heat, to the elevation, and to riding loaded bikes again.  All but Lael require this transition.  Now that she is fully recovered from her second Divide ride, she’s ahead of all of us and still goes running every day (and jumping rope, and swimming when possible, and she does planks and push-ups in front of the grocery store when I’m inside).  We’ve downloaded GPS tracks for the actual AZT race route on Topofusion.com, and have printed map sections from the Arizona Trail Association website, as well as current water data from Fred Gaudet’s site.  Be sure to join the AZTA and donate!

Reassembling bikes at the airport with Skyler and Panthea, Lael prepares dinner on the sidewalk.

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Camping 10 miles from the strip, about 200 yards from the nearest house.

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Out of Vegas.

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I-15 Travel Plaza, slot machines, fireworks, cheap cigs, booze, and snacks.

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Skyler cut a sidewall on his Gravity Vidar tires before leaving the city.  His tube seems magnetically attracted to the steel wires which litter the roadside, remnants of worn truck tires.  Lael naps.

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Into St. George, over Old US 91.

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Southern Utah towns are real nice– well planned and maintained with nice public spaces.

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The best available tire option for Skyler is a 29×2.5″ Maxxis Minion DHF, a great tire for this part of the country, although not quite the volume he is accustomed to.  He’ll try these for a bit, then mount some of the new Surly 29×3.0″ Dirt Wizard tires in Flagstaff.  We selected the 60tpi tubeless ready Dirt Wizard for a more durable sidewall.  The two tires share a similar tread pattern, although different volume and casing construction.  He is using an Easton ARC rim with a 45mm internal width, about 50mm outside. 

I left Anchorage on undersized used tires, remnants left from repairs at The Bicycle Shop, and quickly realized my mistake.  I find some 29×2.4″ Maxxis Ardent EXO tires in St. George. 

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Near Hurricane, UT we reconnect with Bill and Kathi Merchant, whom we first met at Interbike a few days prior.  Bill and Kathi have organized the Iditarod Trail Invitational since the early 2000’s and have hosted both a 350 mile race to McGrath and a 1000 mile race to Nome every year.  Bill and Kathi have lived outdoors for years in the Arctic, in the Southwest, and elsewhere.  

Kathi is currently organizing a Fatbike Expo to precede the start of the Iditarod Trail Invitational this spring in Alaska.  The Fatbike Expo will take place in Anchorage with an indoor exhibition at the Egan Center as well as a series of rides and other events.  Look for the Big Fat Ride which will include hundreds, perhaps even a thousand fat bikers riding together through Anchorage’s wide groomed trails.  The Fatbike Exop and the start of the ITI would be a perfect time to visit Anchorage.  Come enjoy local groomed trails and winter singletrack, check out the first miles of the Iditarod course, and if conditions allow, you can even ride to the Knik Glacier or over Resurrection Pass!

The Fatbike Expo happens February 26-28 in Anchorage and the ITI takes off on Sunday 2/28.

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Virgin River.

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Rockville, UT, just outside of Zion National Park.

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More soon on my new pink Meriwether frame and the RockShox Pike fork.  

Lael and I are each carrying standard mid-size backpacks on our handlebars.  It is legal to possess and transport a bike through the Grand Canyon, so long as the wheels don’t touch the ground.  Alternate routes around the canyon are long and complicated, and shuttling bikes and equipment is expensive.  When given the option of a 190mi paved detour and a 25 miles hike– with our bikes on our backs– we packed backpacks.  I’ve carried mine since Vegas, which I brought from Alaska.  Lael is borrowing one from Bill and Kathi, which we will return via mail from Flagstaff.

Okay, the paint is incredible, the details of the frame are nearly flawless, and of course, it fits like a glove.  More from Flagstaff once the bike has a few trail miles under its tires.  

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Green salsa and shade.  

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Lael and I have been joking a lot about the Tour Divide, mostly because I can’t keep up with her.

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Riding and pushing out of Rockville, we connect with a dirt route for a place to camp and to avoid the narrow paved climb out of Hurricane.

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Sleeping at the edge of a cliff, Lael calls this “Hollywood desert”.  The dirt is good, most of the plants are friendly, and there is shade when needed.

The forecast looks good for weeks and we’ve sent our tent ahead.  I’m sleeping on a 99¢ sunshade and Lael is using her XS Thermarest Prolite which she used on her two prologue rides this summer.  Nights are warm and dry.

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With a moment of sadness, we pass the turn to Gooseberry Mesa, a famous mountain bike trail system.  The day will soon be too hot and we continue on toward the cool pines of the Kaibab Plateau.

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Dead rattler.

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Off to Arizona and the AZT.  Flagstaff in a week.

Hope to catch up with James and Deja, Cosmic Ray, Stefan, Joe M., Nick from Rogue Panda, and anyone else in the area.

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Interview at The Bicycle Story

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More questions and answers, this time thanks to Josh Cohen of The Bicycle Story.  Curious to know about my next touring bike, where we will be riding later this summer, and how we started touring?  Check out the full interview entitled Nicholas Carman: Pedaling the World as a Gypsy by Trade.

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Photos: Lael Wilcox, Przemek Duszynski, and Nicholas Carman

Farewell Arizona: Tucson to Phoenix, via AZT

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Our many-month ramble across counties and countries and continents always had an end.  A seasonal end to our travel is an inevitability from the start, much like the few months that we spend working each year will eventually end with the beginning of another round of travel.  By now, we’re both back in Alaska, working towards our next trip, next summer.  

After a few days in Tucson— before and after the marathon– we point towards Phoenix to prepare for our flight north to Alaska.  With a few days between here and there, we take the advice of Scott Morris and connect a premier section of the AZT near the GIla River en route to Phoenix.  The route prescribed should take only a few days–connecting us to our flight in time– but features some of the best that Arizona has to offer.  Being so close to Phoenix, this ride makes a perfect getaway during winter months, especially when ridden as a loop, as defined in Scott’s Gila River Ramble route.  However, do your best to avoid a week of rain as Cass, Gary, and Joe found earlier this year.

There has already been some discussion about passing the winter in Tucson next year.  The weather, the trail access, and the Mexican food can’t be beat.  Alternating winters between the Southwest and Alaska– between full-suspension big bikes and fatbikes– would be satisfying.  

The ride out of town retraces a familiar stretch of pavement– this is the way we rode into town, and this way I traveled out and back to watch Lael run her marathon.  I’m becoming quite familiar with Oracle Road.

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About 35 miles from the center of Tucson, we connect with the Willow Springs Rd near the town of Oracle.

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A brief section of singletrack breaks up what we expect to be a full day of dirt road riding towards Kelvin.  This piece of trail is part of the 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo course.

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A cool, cloudy day in southern Arizona surprises us, as we bundle up in down jackets for much of the day.  Rural signage keeps our interest.

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While we disobey a few warnings to shortcut a large private tract.

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Eventually, we find the sign we are looking for.  The trail begins as a scenic ‘green-circle’ section of trail.  Tailwinds help to move us along.

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The entire region is characterized by decomposed granite, resulting in the granular ‘kitty litter’ soil common in the southwest.  The smaller knobs on the 29×3.0″ Knards don’t bite as well as the taller knobs on Lael’s On-One tires.  With a more aggressive tire like the upcoming Surly Dirt Wizard, 29+ could be the perfect rigid touring platform.  The experience reminds me of riding the Surly Endomorph tire on my Pugsley for the first half of the winter season in 2011-2012.  I was grateful that it got me around town, but once I tasted the traction of the Nate tire, I couldn’t go back.  

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The trail alternates between singletrack and derelict doubletrack, as the sun begins to fall.  A few jeep tracks are seen in the distance, but otherwise, there’s nothing out here.  A few ranch houses likely inhabit distant drainages.  Cattle munch of woody desert vegetation.

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Looking back towards Oracle, and Tucson beyond.

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Looking forward towards the town of Kelvin, and the Gila River.  This is wide open Arizona.

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he setting sun filters through cholla cactus.  One of the last Arizonan sunsets of the season.

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Certainly one of the last featuring the spires of saguaros, which are soon to be replaced by the spires of scraggly black spruce, capped in snow.

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Reaching towards the Gila River near Kelvin on the Ripsey Segment of the AZT, the trail descends several thousand feet, before rising again to elevation, then finally descending to the river..

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Descend in the evening.

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Ascend in the morning.  Life on the AZT is easy, even if it challenges our legs.  

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The quality of trail being built for the AZT is some of the best anywhere, and is designed for bicycles as much as hikers and horse.  The trail surface is most often broad and durable, carving switchbacks up relatively shallow grades.  Not that it is always easy…

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At the top, the trail follows a ridge, before diving down towards the Gila River.

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There are very few water sources out here.  Near the trailhead in Kelvin, a water cache is offered to passing thru-hikers.  Local residents– one variety of a diverse breed of trail angels— refill 1 gallon jugs to keep up with the trickle of demand for water out here.  We found a spigot at the ADOT yard in Kelvin to fill our bottles and bladders.  The Gila RIver flows all year and is another reliable source in the area.  Otherwise, local intel is essential, as is a large water bladder.  The GPS marks a few springs or tanks in the area, but these aren’t always reliable sources.  More frequently, as I’ve learned, they are only possible water sources.  The search for water is another reason that GPS is an invaluable resource in Arizona.  

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With the capacity to carry 14 liters of water– at maximum capacity between the two of us– we can make it through a day and a half this time of year.  Much more water would be necessary spring through fall.  It is December 11th already, and clear skies relieve us of wearing our down jackets on this day.

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Leaving Kelvin, the AZT rambles up and down along the banks of the Gila River for nearly ten miles.  This section of trail is the keystone to Scott Morris’ Gila River Ramble route.

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Singletrack trails hanging above cliffs.

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Long sightlines in the desert allow the eye to follow trail up, and down.

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Of course, I went for a swim.

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The trail meanders in the lowlands along the river, green from recent rains.  Lael particularly liked this section as it varied greatly from the Sonoran deserts capes we’ve enjoyed for the past few weeks.  

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Decomposing granite.

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As the sun begins to fall again, we climb away from the river for the last time.  The map shows several thousand feet of climbing ahead.  We hope to bite a chunk out of the climb before dark.

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Our final night is warm and clear.  We make a fire of dry ocotillo twigs to warm quesadillas.  Our food supplies are low, but our bodies are now efficient machines after a full summer of riding.  We are happy with smaller meals than we required at the beginning of the summer.  The first few weeks of touring are usually marked by ravenous appetites.  After weeks and months on the road, our bodies decide on moderate meals, yet they are capable of more and more.  Lael is thinking about racing fatbikes this winter.

Awake to Arizona for one last time.

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Awake to the AZT for the last time, until next year.

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The sun breaks the cool morning, as jackets come off.

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We continue ascending.  The river sits at 1600ft; we climb up towards 4000ft.  See if you can follow the trail, etched out of the mountainsides.  The first major push:

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Over the top, another world presents itself.  The trail continues to cut the mountainside, all around this basin, stabilizing around 3600ft before climbing over the top.

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Finally, the trail turns down.  Running tight on time, we hope to connect with a dirt road– the Telegraph Canyon Road– into the town of Superior.  There, we will pick up some food and hit the pavement into Phoenix.

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Down, down, down– this is a great piece of trail.  Although, descending the trail back down to the Gila would be even better.  The ascent from the river stands as one of the most incredible climbs of the summer.  Fare well Arizona, we’ll be back.

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Back on doubletrack, we are quickly on our way to town.  

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Quickly, kind of, as the road traverses the stream bed more than a few times, and climbs and descends several stair-step sections.

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Finally, within view of Superior, a classic Arizonan mining town.  

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Superior is home to mountains and mining, and meth.  In some towns, it is hard to ignore.  

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These 29×3.0″ Surly Knard tires are wearing thin, but a new pair await in Anchorage to replace them.  With a set of Rabbit Hole rims and fresh tires, I am hoping that the ECR will shuttle me around the city of Anchorage for part the winter until I save enough money to buy a fatbike.  While I think that 29+ would be enough to get around on the roads most days, to access the snowy multi-use paths and singletrack trails, a proper fatbike will be necessary.  A real fatbike will also make commuting safer and easier on many days, even on roads.  Anchorage is a messy city in winter. 

These tires have been set-up tubeless to Stan’s Flow EX rims for three weeks without issue, although the rim profile is not nearly wide enough for my taste.

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As you may expect, Knards also roll nicely on pavement.  But at $90 per tire, even for the less-expensive 27tpi version, designing a long-distance tour around this tire isn’t ideal.  Replace it with a normal 29″ tire if needed?  Sure, it is possible, but the BB will be much lower, as on a traditional road touring bike.  In this configuration, the ECR is not quite a mountain bike anymore.  More tire options between 29×2.5-3.0″  would be nice.

The ride into Phoenix is much more pleasant than our last experience riding out of town, back in 2009.  The city is nearly 60 miles across, but with some patience, a route composed almost entirely of canal paths and bike lanes is possible.

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Bike boxes, fresh from the dumpster, are hauled to our temporary home over the shoulder.  A few extra gear straps make a functional over-the-shoulder sling.  

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Thanks to Steve for the limo ride to the airport.  

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Off to Alaska for the winter!

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That’s it!– thanks for coming along this summer.  

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Tucson and The Marathon (and fatbikes)

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Nearly every day, Lael laces up her running shoes.  “Not every day”, she says, as an under-exaggerating technicality.  Yes, she packs an extra pair of shoes into her tidy bikepacking kit.  For part of the summer, she also had two pairs of sunglasses, one pair specifically for descending in low light, purchased for a few Euro in a French bike shop.  Two books are also common amongst her load.  In Switzerland, she bought a gold plated corkscrew for less than 1€.  This summer, she has enjoyed running new roads and trails.  Most often, she chooses to scout the trail ahead, returning with detailed reports like, “it’s real nice”,  or, “there might be some pushing”.

She has been a runner much longer than she has been riding bikes.  While cycling presents frequent thrills, running is consistent pleasure.  A week ago, she decided it was time to run another marathon.  It has been almost ten years since her last, when she finished third in the Anchorage Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon, run on the summer solstice.  She finished in just over 3:18.  Between now and then, she has run a 45km trail race in NM, a 12K road run, a half marathon a couple of 5k fun runs, and 40 miles of the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon.  The last one is a long story– in short, we just happened to ride into Urique, Mexico the day before the race.  She just happened to show up at the starting line, with the encouragement of a couple Missoulans.  And it just so happened, that she couldn’t walk very well for the next week.  She’ll tell you, “I had to pee in a push-up position.”  It was a tough run, that strengthened her interest in distance running.

Most of the year, she runs on her own, without a watch, without a plan, and without any nutrition or hydration.  She’ll be gone for an hour or two, and always returns smiling.  That’s the important thing.  She always comes back smiling.

So, when Northern Arizona falls under a layer of snow,

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…we point our tires south, off the Mogollon Rim.  Below 5,000ft we lose the snow, and eventually, the pines.  With our sights on the Tucson Marathon in less than a week, we forgo the AZT for some more rapid transit.

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Some road riding, and a couple hitches put us a lot closer to Tucson, within a few days of the run.

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All the while, passing through heartachingly beautiful country, traversed by the AZT.  This will serve as fuel to come back as soon as possible to ride more in Arizona.  Maybe we will have a few days after the marathon to catch some sun and trails, before flying to Alaska for the winter.  We’ll be fatbike shopping next week.

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Even road touring in Arizona is incredible.  The state is not full of tumbleweed and cactus, exclusively.  Mountains, and a diverse visual range, cover the state.

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As do mining towns, with dwindling populations and hesitant economies.  These kind of towns harbor relics of old America, including dusty old groceries, old politics, and old people.  Local grocery stores barely survive, we have found, as the Circle K convenience store grows ever-present across the rural Arizona landscape.  It is really incredible.  In a larger city, we have even seen two stores across the street from one another.

Eating well while riding the white line isn’t always easy.  We’re missing the fresh foods that were readily available in Europe, especially in the Ukrainian bazaar.  But, we’re doing our best.

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Arriving in the fresh stucco outskirts of Tucson, we meet a town with two sides.  A gauntlet of suburbia gives us time to scout a new pair of running shorts for the marathon.  In and out of Sports Authority in under 15 minutes, for under $15, is a good deal.

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Old Tucson remind us of Albuquerque, and the colorful automobile era in the west.

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In Tucson, we connect with Scott and Eszter.  Each of them are giants in the bikepacking world, but together, they are Goliath.  Eszter might be the fastest woman on the planet, on a bike, in events measuring 24 hours or more.  Scott has been in and out of ultra-racing for a decade, whose non-racing credentials including Topofusion, a powerful mapping tool (assuming you are running Windows); Trackleaders.com, a Spot tracking service which tracked the Baja 1000 and every major endurance bike race in the country this year; and Bikpeacking.net, an essential resource for adventurous off-pavement riders.  He’s put the Arizona Trail on the map for mountain bikers, and is continually involved with trail building, route design and mapping.  His promotion of the trail is most compelling to me, in the form of consistently sunny rides, dotted with towering saguaros, on southern stretches of trail near his seasonal home in Tucson.  If you like saguaros and singletrack, stay tuned to The Diary of Scott Morris.

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On the occasion of Global Fatbike Day, we dust off some fatties, source a few missing parts, and shoot off for a quick ride.  Eszter is embarrassed that her Fatback hasn’t been ridden in a while.  Last time she rode it, she crushed the Iditarod Trail Invitational to McGrath.  The bike needed some time to rest.  Some spare trail mix is hiding in her pogies, from Alaska.  A neoprene face mask has sunken to the bottom of her framebag.

Filling in the blanks, I imagine the internal monologue: “Why can’t I just ride the Spearfish?”

And, “What the hell is Global Fatbike Day?”

Oh, it is real, Scott and I assure her.  Facebook says it is.

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Wrenching on bikes– upside down in the driveway, of course– and riding, are a big part of the day.  While none of us are running playing cards in our spokes, life with Scott and Eszter has the simplicity of summer vacation.  Actually, Lael has a half-dozen Spokey-Dokes in her wheels.  We’re all doing things right, I think.  Except that we might spend next winter in Tucson.

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Scott’s Surly Moonlander, which also spent some time along the Iditarod Trail last winter, is ready to roll just a bit sooner.  Both are skeptical of riding their snow bikes on Tucson’s rocky trails.  I try to hide the fact that I used to be a fatbike evangelist.  Scott finds the right tire pressures.  A bike is a bike, and is still a ton of fun.

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Into Scott’s world…

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Tucson has been Scott’s playground for over a decade, when he first moved here for grad school (and sunshine and mountain biking, arguably more important).  This rocky climb is the current testing ground for new bikes and riders.  Lael tries on Scott’s Lenz Mammoth shred-sled, a finely-tuned long-travel 29er.  The penalty for coming up short is harsh.

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Lael passes on the challenge, to save her legs for the marathon the next morning.  We rode a couple hundred miles to get to Tucson this week.  The ride up to the start of the race is another 12 miles away, and we need to be there by 5AM.  She tries not to have too much fun before the race.

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Back home to begin our crosstown trek to the marathon.

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Even a technical bike-handling wizard like Scott occasionally puts a foot down.

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As we’re all riding unfamiliar bikes, our brief jaunt reminds us of the simple joy of riding.  Whatever 2014 may bring, we’ll all be riding, for sure.  Lael and I might jump into a few local fatbike races, while it is possible that Scott and Eszter might go touring.  Forward is always the right direction.

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Packed and ready to roll, we shoot back towards suburbia to register for the race at the Hilton.

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Lael signs in, and we stuff our pockets with as many energy bars and gel packets as we can bother to discuss with the Clif rep .  “Tell me about the carbohydrate profile of the Chocolate flavor, again.”

Oh, maltodextrin.  I see.

“Does this one have caffeine?”

Doubleshot?  Great.

Looking for a place to camp in suburbia requires a keen eye.

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A quick stop at the grocery store, than roll across the street onto a small patch of unimproved desert in the ‘burbs.  It is less than 50 yards from the road, but with stunning views of the mountains, we’ll take it for the night.

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To rise at 3:55AM.  Ride a mile to the school buses which transport riders to the actual race start, another 25 miles out of town, another 2000ft in elevation.  The race starts at 7AM, 8 minutes before sunrise, in freezing temperatures under cloudy skies.  Hey Tucson, where did you go?

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I begin my ride out of town, to intersect runners along the course.

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Near mile 13, I spot bright green shorts and a big smile– Lael!  She claims the only genuine smile amongst a sea of runners.  It makes her easy to spot in a crown.

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Scott mentioned that last year, after a long mountain bike ride, they scored a bunch of unopened race food along the course.  Additionally, I scan the roadside for warm layers in my size.

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The course is a boring 26 mile paved run, losing nearly 2000ft.  It sounds easy, but most runner’s muscles aren’t accustomed to such a long descent.  Lael is amongst them, and is better prepared for climbing.

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But a summer of riding and running prevail.  She keeps her pace and flies across the finish line in 3:14.27, several minutes faster than her previous marathon.  She is the 4th female finisher, and qualifies for the Boston Marathon with 20 minutes to spare.

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After the race, we are back on the bikes within the hour.  We slowly ride into town to rest and recover for the night.

I guarantee that Lael was the only runner that arrived at the race by bike.  After the marathon, we watch a parking lot full of cars slowly empty.  Runners hobble to their vehicles, turn the key, and drive away.  For Lael, activity has no boundaries in her life.  She is always moving.  Getting Lael to ride in a car is like trying to wrestle a puppy into the back seat of a sedan.

By morning, we’re riding out of town again, to eek out a few miles on the AZT before connecting with Phoenix, and our flight to Alaska.  If we’re lucky, we’ll find a few days of Sonoran sun and singletrack, now just a few weeks before Christmas.  We’ve been pretending that it is summer for a long time.  As snow falls above Tucson, it might be time to recharge the clock and start again up north.

First, a few more days of summer.

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Standing on a corner in Winslow, AZ– (Attention ABQ!)

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Inches of rain in Arizona are undoubtedly good for a state in perpetual drought, which is the exact nature of a desert as I understand,  For us, aside from cold fingers and toes, this means the possibility of sticky, muddy roads and trails.  We’ve enjoyed the length of the Black Canyon Trail, tasting temperatures below 2000ft in elevation.  It was nice to be back in shorts and t-shirts for a few days, but our focus on the AZT brings us back to Flagstaff, nearing 7,000ft.  A chance of snow, amidst a 100% chance of rain for several days has sent us looking for something else.  The solution is to hitch to Albuquerque for the weekend to visit friends.  We lived in ABQ last winter for six months, and would hate to let another year or two pass before making contact in New Mexico again.  By that time, contacts will be lost, and it all fades in memory.  While traveling, we make an effort to visit as many friends and family as possible.  It is a lot of fun, but it can also be a lot of work.  In total, it is worth it.  These are, after all the effort, lasting friendships.

More on the Black Canyon Trail soon.

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Thanks to Lil for picking us up at the south end of the BCT, and transporting us back north.  What luck, that also included a genuine Mongolian yurt for the night, out of the rain; a hot shower, laundry, and even a hot tub.  After coffee in the morning, and conversation, we peeled ourselves away to make our way east, along the I-40 corridor, which has mostly grown over historic Route 66, but not entirely.

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As such, we’re standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, a line made famous by the Eagles song “Take it Easy”.  We’d be lucky if a girl in a flatbed Ford would slow down to pick us up.  Until now, it has been a bit grim, standing in passing rainshowers.  Hitchhiking is not our preferred mode of transport– it is far form the freedom of being under our own power– and there is an Amtrak train between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, but hitching often makes sense for our impromptu decisions, and for our budget.  This is our first time hitching an interstate highway corridor.  I’ll take my luck on backroads any day.  The interstate is depressing.

Thanks to the truck full of Navajo construction workers who got us out of Flagstaff.  Those guys understand.

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ABQ!– Burqueños, be ready.  We hope to be in town sometime today (Friday).  I hope to arrange some gatherings over the weekend.  A ride in the Rio Grande Bosque, a Ukrainian feast, a fresh salad at Vinaigrette, or a pint at La Cumbre?  Anyone in ABQ?

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