The Salida Circuit

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Salida makes the list of exceptional small towns with happy people and healthy economies.  A loose association of places that I may someday like to live, these towns all claim something special aside from jobs and homes.  Salida claims world-class singletrack and one of the most popular paddling spots in the US, the Upper Arkansas River.  What it doesn’t have, is a thriving ski industry.  That’s why it looks and feels like a real place.  Marquette, MI has Lake Superior, rail-trails and nearby forests.  Ithaca, NY is Gorges, if a little less happy.  State College, PA has access to amazing local forests and trails, but an overwhelming college culture.  San Luis Obisco, CA is great, but about 12 miles too far from the beach.  I hear Ashville, NC is nice.  And Flagstaff, AZ.  Leadville is a dream, although living at 10,200ft has both costs and benefits.  The more I travel, the more selective I become.  I may never settle down.

Salida warrants a week.  We found a ride to Interbike with a local shop owner, so we had a week to spare.  We waited out some weather, commuted to town every day on singletrack, and went for an epic overnight trip.  For a week, we were residents of Salida, doing all the normal things that people do, except working.

The greatest warmshowers host has a home in Salida, but lives in Texas.  Imagine the luxury of a house on a hill out of town after three months in a tent.  Of course, the outdoor hot tub overlooks the valley and several 14,000ft peaks.  Every morning, Lael practiced yoga as I wrote and drank coffee.  In the afternoon we would commute to town on singletrack– North Backbone to Lil Rattler, and then the Front Side Trail to downtown Salida.  We finished the day making conversation at one of three local bike shops– all amazing– before stopping at the grocery store and riding home at dusk.  Every evening, we prepared a feast.

Waiting out some weather, and snow in the mountains.

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Commuting to town is fun, until someone gets hurt.

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Riding home.

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Enraptured in the routine of city life, another commute to town.

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Crying makes it better.

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Front Side descends right into town, right onto Main Street.

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Route planning in town.

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Salida, 7083ft.  West on County Rte 140, cross Highway 50 to 220, a dirt road.  Then a few miles up towards Monarch Pass on Hwy 50 to Fooses Creek.  Back on dirt, connect to the Colorado Trail and climb another 3000ft to the Monarch Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.  Push the last 1000ft up to 11,920ft.  Finally, almost 5000ft above Salida.  Rest.

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Five miles along the Monarch Crest Trail at almost 12,000ft towards Marshall Pass.  As you ride over passes, they are the highest topographic point.  When riding ridges, the passes are the lowest.  Four more miles to Silver Creek, the last drainage that will route us back to town.  Further, the Colorado Trail leads over the Continental Divide towards Sargents Mesa.  For now, we want to return to the east side of the Divide, to Salida.

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Beyond Marshall Pass, toward the SIlver Creek drainage.

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Silver Creek, as the sun falls.

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…until someone gets hurt, and a crank is bent.  Could be worse.  At least it clears the chain stay.  Fading light, pedal on.

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Final light.

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Finishing up by headlight.  As soon as the sun falls, my dynamo lighting becomes visible in the thick wooded singletrack.  At the junction of FS 201, the road to Bonanza, and the Rainbow Trail, we select the Rainbow Trail.  We were here a year ago and have already ridden down the FS road.  Time for something new, in the dark.

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The final descent to Hwy 285.  High fives and a fast paved downhill to town.

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Love. Salida.

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Many thanks to Anton from Salida Bike Company for the ride to Interbike in Las Vegas.  And many more thanks for the escape from hundred degree heat and slot machines.  For now, we’re back in Colorado.

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More capable and comfortable

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It was less than a year ago that Lael had her first experience mountain biking.  She’d ridden hundreds of miles on dirt roads and doubletrack trails on her Surly Long Haul Trucker with 1.75-2.0″ tires, but atop the Monarch Crest Trail near Salida, CO last October she had her first singletrack moment.  Over the winter, we explored the many miles of snowy singletrack in Anchorage with our Pugsleys as a fun diversion from commuting on icy rutted roads and sidewalks.  The challenges of riding on snow are limited traction and wheel-swallowing snowbanks alongside the trail.  It is quite like riding narrow forest or desert singletrack trails, yet quite different.

Back in Salida after a year of cycling and travel, we are headed up to the famed Monarch Crest Trail for another round of riding.  This time, we are equipped with mountain bicycles.  Since purchasing Lael’s used Raleigh XXIX several weeks ago as a nearly stock singlespeed steel 29er, many improvements have been made.

At  the time of purchase the seller was offering a suspension fork on another bike, as well as a multi-speed 29″ wheel and an older XT derailleur.  I offered a bit more money for these parts.  When I picked up the bike, the headset, cranks, and rear hub were all loose, and without pedals the bike was unrideable.  I was fairly certain that with proper adjustment the bike would be fine, but for the money I had spent I was a little nervous.  As it turned out, the 2-piece cranks needed tightening, and the rear wheel, a nearly new Shimano Deore model, is better than new with a load of grease and a good adjustment.  The current Shimano Deore rear hubs have a propensity for loosening, which can lead to premature wear.  The solution to the maladjusted headset, which later proved to be pitted and gritty, was a new Grand Cru sealed cartridge bearing unit from Velo Orange.  Three key components were needed to convert the singlespeed bike to a geared touring machine.  A derailleur hanger was available online for $16, as none of the shops within 100 miles had the part in stock.  I bought two.  A pair of smooth action Suntour XC friction shifters were donated to the project by Big Dummy Daddy, and the rear XT derailleur is from the original sale.  With a new SRAM PC-951 chain, the bike was rolling with a wide-range 1×9 drivetrain.  WIth the addition of Lael’s favorite On-One Mary handlebar, Ergon grips and gold VP platform pedals, the bike was ready to hit the trail.  To this point, the bike cost about $600.

There were several other considerations on our minds upon setting out, but we decided it would be better to gain some experience on the bike before spending any more money.  That way, we could make wise purchases rather than speculating about what we might need.   Over the first few days of riding, several things were apparent: the rear 2.1″ Maxxis CrossMark tire was neither large or aggressive enough to gain reliable traction on steep climbs nor could it descend with comfort and speed; the range of gears was a little high as  the chain spent much of the time in the lowest gear, or walking; and the stem may be a bit long.  We casually asked at shops in Breckenridge if they would have any inexpensive or used parts to improve the bike.  Transitioning to ski season, very few shops were equipped with anything useful.  Finally, Podium Sports in Frisco, CO provided a 29 x 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent tire, and when we inquired about chainrings and cranks the following day, a string of other useful parts surfaced.  Kris, the kind and highly experienced shop manger immediately got to work helping us with our project, volunteering his time.

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A lightly use Race Face RideXC crank with a single chainring replaced the original Truvativ FireX, and to it we added a 22T steel Shimano chainring.  I had been packing the other shifter from the Suntour pair and Kris dug up an older XT front derailleur, as well as a clamp-on housing stop (the frame was designed for SS).  We got to work connecting cables.  The design of many modern top-pull front derailleurs is quite bulky, and the 2.4″ tire comes within about 5mm of the FD pivot.  At this time we determined that the rear triangle of the frame was bent towards the drive side, as the wheel was off center in the frame and the front derailleur cage rested dangerous close to the tire when relaxed.  With some frame building experience, Kris was prepared with calipers and a Park FAG-2 alignment tool.  The two of us went to work bending the frame back into shape.

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Push the driveside chainstay in, pull the non-drive chainstay out, check the spacing.  140mm.  Push the non-drive in again.  Check the spacing.  136mm, close enough.  Dish the wheel back to center, correcting our earlier corrections.  Fly through the gears, check limits, crank bolts and tire pressures.  Sixty bucks and a couple of hours later Lael has a fully-geared steel 29er with 2.3-2.4 tires, her favorite handlebars, a suspension fork and three water bottle cages.  I couldn’t have imagined that it all would have come together exactly like this, but for about $700, it’s a fully capable trail touring rig.

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As for the stem, Lael thinks that the problem is as much about her posture and the tension she holds in her neck as bike fit.  We’re sticking with the old stem for now.

Kris has a nice collection of bikes including an NJS Keirin track racing bike and a steel 29er frame with a Gates belt drive, his first frame built several years ago while training at UBI.  I spotted this nice Panasonic ATB, likely from 1984.  This is nice example with a Hite-Rite seat post system, SR-100 slingshot-style stem and a Takagi Tourney XT crank.  While all three of our bikes (Pugs, Panasonic, and XXIX) are vastly different, there is a kinship of rugged construction and large tires among them.  It is bikes like this Panasonic that drew my interests away from vintage road touring frames, which offered only limited tire clearances and demanded high prices.  My 1985 Schwinn High Sierra is still my favorite bike to date.  If only I could get something like this Panasonic of the High Sierra for a 29″ tire…

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Thanks for all the help Kris. Lael says, “thanks for the extra gears”.

Colorado Trail: Copper Mountain to Leadville

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Just another day or two on the Colorado Trail.  Still, there’s nothing not to like.  Pushing the final few hundred feet up to Searle Pass, the sun sets in amber brilliance.  Sleeping above treeline ensures an immediately warming morning sun; sleeping in the trees is cool and moist, and the most enticing campsites near water seem to be shaded until noon.  At just over 12,000 ft, we erect the tent as a shield from a cool breeze and frosty, mountain dew.  By morning, only a light layer of ice has fallen.  The early sunlight treats our tent like a greenhouse; growing, glowing, warming until slowly awake.  The final half hour of sleep, cradled in warmth, is the most restful.  We like biking and hiking and eating and sleeping, but this time of year the sleeping is best.  Golden aspen and light snow on high are signs of the season’s change.  We love fall weather, but winter is soon to follow.

A short section of trail from Breckenridge to Copper Mountain climbs and descends at extreme grades, and is said to involve much hiking and pushing.  Theres is a paved 16 mile bike path around the Tenmile Range, which we took in search of the next rideable segment of trail.  Climbing across ski slopes and away from Copper Mountain, Searle Pass finally comes into view.  A final push over the pass leads to our camp, in top-of-the-world brilliance.  Just before cresting the pass, not a single road or building can be seen.  On the other side: a mine, a paved highway, and a few forest service roads are visible, and in the morning several bow hunters crest the ridge.  We’re far away, but not that far.  This is what I like about Colorado.  Alaska allows you to get away, but only through a gauntlet of muskeg, moose and mosquitos, with very few trails and roads for access.  The constant threat of grizzlies adds to the sense of the wild, and lessens my level of comfort.  Alaska is a beautiful idea, but not ideal for comfortable outdoor living.  While we tackle immense challenges, hardship is not part of the design.  Colorado is easy living.

Lael’s bike has seen some improvements recently, including a new tire.  The fast-rolling Maxxis CrossMark was great for smooth hard packed trails and dirt roads, but was short of traction and volume on much of the trail.  Her XXIX has some monster tire clearances, and a 29 x 2.4″ Maxxis Ardent hooks up well.  Descending, the suspension fork and the large tires allow her to pick her way through rocky sections without steering around every pebble.  The bike is finally becoming a familiar extension for her, despite a few mishaps.  No matter how well equipped, a rider must become intimately aware of their bike.  This is why we choose to own and ride only one bike at a time.  Equipment or skill is no match for familiarity.

Lael’s Hooligan has broken the one bike rule, but it is exceedingly fun and practical, and has a future with us.  For anything but real trail riding, including urban riding and touring, she demands to have “Hooli”.  With a 2″ tire, it would be fine on mild unpaved surfaces.  While 4″ tires and 29″ wheels provide much benefit, there is a lot to say of a highly maneuverable, and lightweight bike.  26″ and 20″ wheels have their place.

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Searle Pass is the saddle left of center.  Many trails become quite rocky above treeline.  Gaining the ridge:

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Camp at 12,050 ft.  Over the pass, a large mining operation and a few roads are visible.

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Warming light.  Yoga atop mountains is Lael’s favorite, in lieu of yoga in the park, on the sidewalk, in the backyard, on the beach, in the woods, or inside.  She has done yoga almost everywhere.  Dressed for the cool morning, she practices “Yoga for Ninjas”.

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Riding, pushing over Elk Ridge and descending down to Kokomo Pass near 12,000ft.  Descending, descending, down to 9,000ft feet over several miles of trail.  Brakes, kick up dirt, pedal and lean, fly; brake, skid, stop.  Snack.  Soon, 10, 9 thousand feet again and climbing.  Up, to Tennessee.

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We both appreciate the value of a lightly packed bike.  I was carrying a small cooking system and a two-person tent all summer, so Lael only had to show up in Denver with a sleeping bag and pad, as well as some clothing.  She’s packed into a Revelate Vischasa seat bag, Revelate Gas Tank top tube bag, Revelate Mountain Feed Bag, and an eVent Sea-to-Summit compression sack.   A spare tube and tire are strapped to the down tube, out of the way. She’s not carrying a shelter at the moment, but overall, her bike is optimal for this kind of riding.  It is simple, quiet, and light.  The bike rides like a bike.

Every day, I enjoy Lael’s combination of socks and shoes.  Other trail riders must think we are lost, or from another decade.

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I am carrying quite a bit more equipment, but this is exactly what I was carrying all summer.  We carry our own gear in favor of trying to match our paces by re-distributing the load.  Releasing ourselves from the idea of matching paces and necessarily riding together, we are relieved of stress.  It’s simply too much mental work, and is likely to slow one of us down or push the other along.  For such a fun, simple endeavor as walking or riding, there’s no need to complicate the joy of being on the trail.  Sometimes I ride ahead and wait at junctions.  Often, I ride behind allowing Lael to see the trail first, and we talk all day.  Other times, Lael rides ahead, descending with abandon as I stop to take photographs.  We’ve had too many fights about nothing by trying to match paces, so we don’t.

Tightly packed away is MacBook Air and an Olympus E-PM1, as well as a gaggle of accessories, chargers and cables.  Maps, a water filter, tools, a tent, and a cook system are stowed away along with food, clothing and shelter.  It’s tidy and it rides well, if a little heavy.  A framebag is a key component of any lightweight touring system and is the single greatest step to leaving racks and panniers at home, unless you are Lael and don’t even need a framebag.  In many cases, more important than the weight of equipment, is the ride.  My bike is quiet and comfortable, and the tires cloud the rocky disturbances of the trail.  I’m finally finding the optimal tire pressure for these trails, and it is much lower than I initially estimated.

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Up and over Tennessee Pass, and on to Leadville.  We heart Leadville.  Good living at 10,200ft.  Without a ski resort, Colorado towns such as Salida and Leadville avoid the glut of condos and t-shirt shops that plague other mountain towns.  Leadville and Salida are both beautiful communities in the mountains.  Fourteen thousand foot peaks, everywhere.

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The beauty of this part of the state is that it’s not a simple destination for tourists, but finding transportation out of town has been a challenge.  We’ve finally secured a ride to Interbike.  Some writing obligations and planning will take some time away from riding this week, but we’ll be back at it in a few days.  Thereafter we will transport to a galaxy far away from the CT, awash in the glitz of Las Vegas.  Whatever it brings, Interbike and Vegas will be an experience.