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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Baja Divide Route, Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arizona

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

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Flying the drone.

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

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

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

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New Mexico

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

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

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

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Arizona

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

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Back to Phoenix.

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New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Baltimore

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Washington D.C.

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California

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

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

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

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Riding to step aerobics with Jacklyn.

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

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Baja California, Mexico!

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

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Baja Coda– Seven Days of Dirt

Day 5  cabo pulmo  7

This is the final installment from Alex Dunn’s bicycle adventures in Baja.  Read more about Alex’s journey in Baja aboard a Surly Big Dummy.

it’s already been nearly two weeks since i last wrote. the days really do blend together into one long, glorious bicycle ride. once i arrived in la paz i remained there for four days, for it is a place i hold dear to my heart – almost three years ago exactly i stayed in la paz for the better part of a month, stoking the fires of an old flame. she attended spanish school, while i did my usual wandering about. this time around i stayed again in my favorite hostel, pensión california, just a couple blocks off the malecón. i had to do some re-exploring, mainly sniffing out the best food vendors in the crowded streets and eating to my heart’s content. the beauty of bicycle touring is that one can indulge in rather obscene amounts of food, with no real concern or regrets, for food is fuel and much fuel is needed. i often find myself eating upwards of five or six full meals in a day, not including the various desserts; but of course, the dessert compartment has an entirely different capacity.

after much feeding and rest, as well as swimming with whale sharks and mingling with germans and canadians, i was ready to ride again. i had been throwing around different ideas for what routes to take on my last big ride down the peninsula. i had nine days until my flight to ecuador, which left me seven days for cycling if i wanted to play it safe – reserve time to decompress and disassemble my noble steed and put it in a bike box. what i really wanted was pure solitude. not just a day or two’s glimpse, but a real confrontation. i wanted to be alone with this great peninsula and say my goodbyes to the land and water that have benevolently guided me. i had already seen the western cape from my previous journey and i was itching to ride on dirt roads, so it only made sense to head east towards cabo pulmo.

late in the afternoon i finally left la paz, after waiting around for a few hours in a bike shop for the owner to deliver me a 2.35in tube. he eventually arrived with tube in hand, but of course it was a 2in tube – smaller than I cared for. he then rummaged in the back and finally found one of ample size, yet despite his inspection i discovered several small holes in the tube already. i promptly left in mild frustration for i didn’t really need this tube, it was only for piece of mind since all three of mine were littered with patches from goat head punctures. being that la paz was the last big city i was going to encounter, and has grocery stores which carry such rarities as nuts and berries, good coffee, and so on, i squandered a few more hours of daylight purchasing enough food to last me almost a week. at long last, i said adios to the hostel and it’s dueño and i was on my way.

pedaling east on carretera 286 was a sluggish, steady ascent for about twenty miles, peaking at about one thousand feet. the sun was beginning to dim but i was not anxious, for the descent was one of the more amazing things to behold. i could see san juan de los planes twenty miles off in the distance, the road reaching down and out in a perfect straight line from myself to the small town. i easily covered this distance in less than an hour. in los planes i filled my bottles and bladders with water, fourteen liters in all, and started out on the dirt road for boca del alamo. the sun was growing heavy and tired, and so was i. half way up the climb to the ridge line of the sierra la gata, i gave in and set up camp right there on the side of the road. i hadn’t yet encountered anyone and things were becoming quite steep and treacherous, so i figured i would not be bothered. here i had a wondrous view of the setting sun over los planes and the wide valley stretching out into the sea of cortez. as i cooked dinner ants and spiders swarmed my station and the lonely song of the coyote filled the air, but i didn’t care for i had john prine, hank williams, and townes van zandt to keep me company– men who make loneliness seem alright; they make it feel appropriate, or honorable even. and so i relished in my loneliness and sleep came easy, my dreams filled with a feeling of amity.

the next day’s dirt was precarious, yet gratifying, with climbs so steep i had to dismount and sudden descents that rattled me close to my own demise. i was periodically stormed by clouds of wasps, who seemed only to want to drink my sweat, no taste for flesh or blood. still, without revealing any sense of nervousness or trepidation, i could not help but feel a little wary inside for there were enough wasps to bring anyone into anaphylaxis. this only made me pedal faster and i reached the water’s edge quickly, arriving just north of boca de alamos in the early afternoon, roasting in the heat and swiftly turning on the first path i saw out to the water. i dumped my bike in haste and was immediately swimming in the ocean. the sun has only become hotter and hotter as i’ve traveled south, almost thwarting any desires to travel further once the early afternoon heat is upon me. after my swim i decided to camp in order to play guitar and reserve ample time for my sunset routine. as the light grew dim, manta rays began jumping out of the water twenty yards off shore, much like the salmon do of the northern pacific where I spend my summers. all through the night i could hear their large bodies slapping upon the surface over and over, either trying to rid themselves of parasites or loosening their eggs. they may also have been communicating or simply playing. apparently, this activity is still a great mystery to the many biologists who have studied them, just like the mystery of the salmon. i like this, when nature evades the scrutiny of humankind, when only our sense of magic remains to describe the world. we are infants stumbling upon a planet of creatures far older than ourselves.

in the morning i rose with the sun as always, yet i took my time. i am here to embrace the beautiful boundary of land and sea, not to hurry along to the next destination as so many bicycle tourists do. con despacio, con despacio had become my mantra. first i stretched, then drank coffee. next i played songs for myself, for the changing colors in the sky, and for the many saguaro cacti standing proud as they too looked out upon the sea and the wonder of the day unfolding. i packed up slowly and once ready i took a quick swim with the sword fish and puffer fish, to cool myself in preparation for the coming heat. and as expected the heat arrived. i skidded, slid and slithered along the mostly flat dirt for most of the day’s journey and it became quite unbearable to wear anything but my shorts rolled up and a bandana wrapped around my head, like a great naked bicycle pirate in the desert. for the few passing cars (mostly elderly white folk) i seemed to be quite a surprising sight to see – almost a bashful yet confusedly impressed look of shock they had on their faces. some of them even stopped their cars involuntarily, stunned and slack jawed, and i rang my bicycle bell and yelled yargh!– a sweaty, maniacal marauder on a strange two wheeled ship! and i loved it. anything to shock the old bald heads and white hairs. the heat was certainly going to my brain, and i needed to cool off quick. i decided to make this another short day and i stopped just south of punta pescadores to swim and drink the cold beer i purchased as i passed through cardinal. this beach wasn’t the best, and had the encroaching american retiree sprawl of los barriles just five miles southbut it was still beautiful and i was getting a little too picky in my search for ‘my own’ private paradise. it would have to do. i had neighbors camping a kilometer down the way, but they couldn’t hear my singing and hollering so i didn’t give a damn. more songs, more burritos, a deja vu baja sunset and the crystal clear light of the waxing moon. i drank my last beer then fell into a deep, blissful, oceanic slumber.

Pensión california  la paz

Saliendo la paz

Day 3  boca de alamo  3

Day 7  near punta gorda  4

Day 3  south of punta pescadores  2

Day 5  cabo pulmo

Day 4  cabo pulmo  4

i started early the following day since i had ambitions of reaching cabo pulmo by early afternoon. i was up and at it quickly, no time for traveling tranquilo like the last few days. i immediately rolled through los barriles, which certainly seems like a real paradise if one is old, has some money, likes to windsurf and doesn’t really know any spanish. at first i didn’t like the immediate transition from rural mexico back to american refuge – i could feel the imposing despondency of cabo san lucas already. although, after encountering my first little tienda in baja that carried all the vegetables and grains you would find at the local organic co-op in the united states of america, and witnessing the real happiness in the eyes of the aged couples as they motored around on their four-wheelers. with nothing to do but go from the villa to the beach to the bar and back, i began to understand. maybe if i make it to be as old as the hills and have a little cash stacked up, i’ll change my tune and i too will want to find a little piece of earth all safe and sound where the cold never comes, where the sun lights the way and nothing is ever urgent. i just don’t know if i’ll do it quite like this.

south of los barriles i couldn’t escape the two mile stretch of carretera 1 before turning back onto dirt around buena vista. about seven or eight miles later, just past la ribera i pedaled through a skeleton of what was going to be a cancun-like resort. thankfully, president calderón denied building permits last year after research could not prove that the project would not damage the neighboring reef system. out and around cerro los teso, i entered the cabo pulmo national park, home to the oldest of only three coral reef systems in the entire eastern pacific (around 20,000 years old). several hours later i arrived in the town of the same name right on schedule. as i rolled through this tranquil little pueblito of post tourist season dormancy i encountered several old ex-pat, resident windsurfers. but mostly, everyone else was local save for a few of the dive shop owners. as i meandered about i was approached by a young american man who liked my bike and said it reminded him of the extracycles he and his friends used to ride from the northern tip of alaska to tierra del fuego. his name was jacob and he turned out to be one of the ‘ridethespine.org’ crew, a blog i had indeed used as a reference as i designed my own long bike. the serendipity of our encounter grew as we realized we shared common friends in seattle as well, and he invited me to go on a snorkel tour of the coral reef with him and his girlfriend the following morning. naturally i accepted, then i headed off to look for my campsite – i was directed by the locals to a privately owned beach that spanned a few kilometers north of town. here i was all alone on a littoral of small stones, sparse bushes and thinly scattered cacti. two dogs, one that looked similar to my dog reina back home and had the very same demeanor, greeted me as i was clearing out a space for my tent. right away they attached themselves to me and became my guardians for the next two days, scaring off any creatures that came within one hundred yards of my new residence. they even slept right next to me. reina’s cousin made sure that our sides touched through the tent walls all through the night.

i awoke earlier than usual to break camp so i could make it back to town for the snorkel tour. we headed out in a small skiff and snorkeled around the electric reef, swam with sea lions, hawksbill turtles, and great whirlpools of jack. so many other various species of fish of the most vibrant colors, parrot fish, banded guitar fish, sword fish and moray eels. we then went out a few kilometers to where the manta rays were jumping, sometimes upwards of six feet in the air. for some reason we could not help but giggle every time we saw one jump out of the water – it was as though, with each attempt, they truly believed they were one step closer to flying up and away from this confounded ocean. really they were just awkwardly flailing. we dove off the skiff and beneath us there were thousands of rays, what seemed to be millions, flowing beneath us. the surface of the sea is a guise for a real ocean below. these waters were alive with manta.

after the tour i said goodbye to my new friends and headed back to my camp, my guardian dogs patiently waiting for my return. a pair of horses had also come by to visit, inspecting my bicycle and tent and grunting in approval. i napped, played guitar, then cooked us all a little feast of rice and beans, avocado, cheese and chorizo. i even gave my new amigos a little beer for we were in a celebratory mood – they were quite thankful. the sun fell and the moon rose, emitting a glow almost brighter than daylight, and i could hear the pleasant sounds of the mantas practicing for take-off all through the night.

the next day i pedaled only twenty miles to punta colorada, about half way from cabo pulmo to san jose del cabo. nonetheless, at a pace of no more than six miles an hour this was a long four hour journey. the road was more like riding on the sandy beach and the sun had grown hotter, larger and more oppressive– a challenging and strangely euphoric combination. drink, sweat, pedal. my thoughts were no longer. i acknowledged the flora around me, the large white clouds hanging sparsely overhead, nothing more. if there were cars that passed my way, i cannot say. by circumstance this had become zen bicycle meditation– feet on pedals, wheels spinning round.

i awoke from my practice in the middle of an arroyo, hard packed dunes rising fifteen to twenty meters all around me. i followed the arroyo out towards the sea where it faded into the soft sand of a lonesome beach and i knew i was somewhere near punta colorada because despite my previous exercise in letting go, the words boca de la vinorama (a nearby rancho) hung lightly in my recent memory. there were five palapas or so along the water’s edge and no signs of humans, only a small house sitting atop a short plateau a few kilometers away. this was the ideal spot for my last night camping on the baja peninsula. i parked my bike underneath a palapa, dropped my shorts and dove into the surf. i swam well past the breaking waves and floated on my back, staring up at the drifting clouds. my ballad of cortez quietly played, fading into the pacific ocean here at the mouth of the gulf of california– the end of the sea of cortez. i had made it and i could care less if i pedaled to the famed arch at cabo san lucas– the geographical tip of the peninsulaa goal such as that would be existential regression. and so i smiled and said goodbye.

Day 4  south of punta pescadores  2

Day 5  cabo pulmo  5 reina s cuz

Day 6  south of cabo pulmo 3

Day 6  south of cabo pulmo 2

Day 6  south of cabo pulmo

Day 7  near punta colorada  3

Day 7  near punta colorada

South from San Felipe, Baja California Nord

Close to champala 4

“we gathered wood for the fire. ocotillo. mesquite. elephant tree. once ablaze we cooked fixings for hearty burritos of rice, beans, tuna, queso fresco, chiles and salsa. i decided it was time to cut some weight and crack open the nice bottle of tequila i had purchased for christmas. carsten and reiner were delighted by my surprise and we stayed up for hours drinking, smoking tobacco, and sharing stories.”

Punta willard 2 1

This is the third post in an ongoing series from writer, rider, musician and photographer Alex Dunn.  The most recent excerpt from travel in Baja can be found here, entitled “Oye Amigo!– Ensenada to San Felipe”. His first post, “Big Dummy”, details his Surly Big Dummy longtail bike and the first leg of his ride from San Francisco to San Diego.  Dig in!

christmas day. i swapped my tires from front to back since the rear had been wearing twice as fast, and did an oil change on the rohloff speedhub for good measure – now it shifts quite smooth. It’s good to be a little fastidious out on the road i suppose. good for a clean conscience at least.

erin and i decided we would head out of san felipe for puertecitos, despite the warnings to avoid drunken christmas drivers. we wagered that most people would actually be drunk and stuffing themselves on holiday feast at home with family, not driving around inebriated on a road to nowhere. we were also starting to get a little restless in the city sand, though very grateful for the chance of repose. so off we went in the late morning, quietly pedaling through the silent, vacant streets. past closed storefronts, the empty beach off the malecon, and out of town. it seems our drunken compatriots of the road were merely figments of a proud boast of communal deprecation. we encountered maybe four or five vehicles the entire 50 miles or so – all seemingly sober and unhurried.

the road was practically ours – mile after mile of smooth pavement like low rolling waves. the hot wind blew so fierce at our backs that pedaling was more of a charade, our bicycles more like giant sails pulling us forward down the highway. we really hadn’t to crank much at all and arrived in puertecitos in about 3 hours, quite impressive for such a heavy vehicle as mine. the sun soon began to touch the top of the dusty hills as we set up the tent beside some palapas in the bay, and after camp was made we rode up over the point to the hot springs. the springs themselves are actually tidal pools that change temperature as the tide comes in and goes out, requiring you to move pools as the water becomes too cold or too hot. we soaked that evening in a long, narrow slit at high tide with a young couple currently touring around baja and some mexican soldiers who had just been monitoring the springs from a house up the hill. tony has been riding his motorcycle around the united states and canada for the past year and now is venturing through mexico and beyond – his girlfriend follows him in her truck, with the comforts of a bed, a kitchen and true companionship. quite a nice set up really. his photos can be seen at http://www.intotheblueagain.com.

rising in the morning to yet another beautiful sunrise, we decided it best to spend the day in puertecitos soaking our tired bones in the thermal pools and relaxing (as if the life we lead is anything but). after a long breakfast of our usual porridge (oats, flaxseed, almonds, cranberries), fresh papaya (cuban), and several cups of coffee, we went back to the pools where we remained until sundown. while soaking i shared beer and conversation with an oceanographer from ensenada named juan. juan was there on a week vacation with his three beautiful children, camping on the beach two kilometers south. he was impressed with my endeavor and with my spanish and offered to get me more beer with his truck. realizing he had finished his last bottle, he drove off to the market and returned with several different mexican beers he wanted me to try. as we lay in the pools with his children, sharing an intercambio of spanish and english he asked what my dinner plans were. i replied that erin and i had no real plans as always, so he invited us to come to his family’s camp where he would cook us hamburguesas, papas fritas, chorizo verde (quite rare actually, compared to red chorizo), chili rellenos, and of course mas cerveza y tequila! certainly we inclined to do so, and once the night fell upon us we rode off to find their camp. the dinner and company were perfect and magical, as we shared food, drinks, laughter and traded more english and spanish.

this experience was just another prime example of the many acts of kindness and hospitality we have experienced in baja thus far. i have been thinking much lately about all the horror stories i’ve heard of kidnappings, thievery, rape, and whatever else a person of high anxiety can imagine. and i’ve realized that they all have been from people who know little to no spanish at all. it is quite practical, almost critical really, to have some sort of grasp of the language that is spoken in the land that you travel. or at least display a desire to learn. if you cannot connect, how do you know whether or not someone is offering you their generosity, or if they have an ulterior motive? it is no wonder that such a barrier only leads to misinterpretation and apprehension. you also may come across as self important and superior, alienating yourself and possibly being taken advantage of. people are people and the beautiful ones exist everywhere – baja is full of them. the world is full of them. common sense and compassion go far.

as our fogata turned to embers and our bellies tiredly full, we said our goodbyes, gave thanks and abrazos and rode back to our camp – no need for lights, for a full moon hanging from the clear black sky is the best lamp of all. before bedding down we stared up at the stars and relished in our great fortune. experiences like these are what sparks a lust for life.

On the way to puertecitos 2

Nuge

Puertecitos

Puertecitos springs 2

WP00001 83

Puertecitos to gonzaga

First day dirt from gonzaga 3

Porridge and papaya

First day dirt from gonzaga

First day dirt from gonzaga 2

morning. another perfect sunrise. porridge, fruit, coffee. bliss. will this ever end? just as i was finishing my breakfast a tall german man came strolling down the beach and approached me in such confident gaiety. he introduced himself as carsten and said that he and his best friend reiner had arrived themselves by bicycle the night before. they had started in san diego ten days prior and were headed south for the next two weeks. we talked of our mutual plans while looking at the map and he inquired if we should like to camp with them later that night. of course we welcomed the offer, though they were already prepared to leave and we still needed to wash up, pack, relax a little more.

shortly after, we said goodbye to puertecitos and peddled south again, up ample climbs immediately followed by wonderful descents with immaculate vistas. the wind was calm and the pace was steady over forty five miles of new, open pavement. we passed the german cyclists early on and played leap frog with them throughout the day, as each of us stopped frequently to take in the wide open expanses of the desert foothills falling gently into the sea of cortez. the pavement dropped off five miles before bahia gonzaga, and the sun hung heavy in the west. as we reached the crest of the last hill at punta willard a man in a truck came barreling along the dirt road, sliding to a sudden stop in front of us. he hopped out of the small pickup with his little chihuahua named daisy, yelling buenas tardes bicicleros!  he introduced himself as mario and asked where we were headed, from where we were coming, and related stories of his own adventures as a long distance runner and avid hiker (he claimed to have run the 50 mi from san felipe to bahia gonzaga many times, and to have hiked across the peninsula as well). he spoke little english, but was of course enthused by my grasp of spanish and he was he wildly excited by our bicycle exploits. he was headed to ensenada for four or five days but offered first to lead us a few miles out to his beachfront property where we could stay as long as we wanted and even enjoy his guest house (an airy trailer with no running water and a few broken windows). we abandoned ourselves to his offer and followed him out to the property just as the sun slipped away, trading its attention with the fast rising moon. he was quick to show us around, give hugs and wish us well before he and daisy jumped back into his truck and sped off in haste. mystified and elated by our unexpected gift, we set up camp wearing giant smiles, reiner whistling all the while.

after camp was made we gathered wood for the fire. ocotillo. mesquite. elephant tree. once ablaze we cooked fixings for hearty burritos of rice, beans, tuna, queso fresco, chiles and salsa. i decided it was time to cut some weight and crack open the nice bottle of tequila i had purchased for christmas. carsten and reiner were delighted by my surprise and we stayed up for hours drinking, smoking tobacco, and sharing stories. the two of them had met in boy scouts in germany and have remained best friends ever since. both of them are forty eight years old, but started cycletouring together at the age of twenty eight – for the past twenty years they have cycled in a new part of the world (pakistan, ethiopia, uganda, papua new guinea, iceland…) for their four weeks of winter vacation. i like to think that they have always ridden side by side, just as i would come to find them without fail over the following week.

as we continued to add wood to the fire, we returned to the topic of language as i discussed before. and as we delved deeper, we came to the language of the bicycle. our great benefactor mario was obviously connected to me via our ability to converse in spanish, but he was also linked to all of us through our means of conveyance. he was impressed with our desire to navigate a foreign land by method of such self sufficiency. we are not isolated within fast moving cars, nor reliant on the help of others as backpackers most often are. and though we move about on our own accord, our speed is such that we truly experience the roads, the land, the people that surround us. this is something that carsten and reiner said they have always experienced in every country they have toured. even if they can’t speak the language, people are always kind and generous and widely affected by the nature of the bicycle itself. so i say this – get out of your fast moving cars, strap your backpack to your bicycle, and engage in the land that you travel!

-a

Close to champala 3

Close to champala 2

20 year old trangia  german s

Coco s

Champala

“…as we delved deeper, we came to the language of the bicycle. even if they can’t speak the language, people are always kind and generous and widely affected by the nature of the bicycle itself. so i say this – get out of your fast moving cars, strap your backpack to your bicycle, and engage in the land that you travel!”

Long distance

All words and images: Alex Dunn

Coming soon: A good look at Coco’s Corner. Back to pavement and at long last, a desert oasis.