Grassveld, Battlefields, Timberlands, Swaziland

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This route is a composite from the Dragon Trax website and our own adventure compass, connecting the border of Lesotho at Monantsa Pass through Swaziland at Bulembu, passing through part of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga Provinces in South Africa. The riding mainly consists of wide open gravel roads, railroad service roads, and forest roads, as well as some tar.    

Monantsa Pass (Lesotho/RSA)- Phuthaditjhaba- Kestell- Aberfeldy- Harrismith- Colling’s Pass- Elandslagte- Wasbank- Dundee- Utrecht- Knight’s Pass- Paulpietersburg- Piet Retief- Emahlatini Border (RSA/Swaziland)- Mankayane- Lusutfu River- Bhunya- Thembisa- Ngwenya- Maguga Dam- Pigg’s Peak Gold Mine- Ntabeni River- Bulembu- Josephdal Border (Swaziland/RSA) 

Only a week ago, I was happy to be leaving South Africa for Lesotho.  But we’re pleased to be back.  We look forward to a proper shower, an internet connection, and vetkoeks.  The thing we crave most is the mental space to relax.  I’ve never considered myself an especially private person– and I’m not in my own culture, I don’t think– but Lesotho has shown me how much personal privacy we have built into our lives. 

In time, South Africa is less and less challenging.  And while we are still learning and questioning and understanding, we begin an unconscious process of acceptance.  We know what we will find in local shops and what we like to eat.  We know how and where to find places to camp or who to ask.  We know which tar roads might have wide shoulders, which will have little traffic, and that the endless gravel roads are our home.  That word– “home”– is something which comes up infrequently while on the road.  It is only through the impassioned love of a place, such as in Albania, or with time that we might think of a place as home.  Here, it is time which has worked to make us feel this way.  That, and the shared cultural elements which make South Africa so much like America.  I have to laugh when South Africans ask knowingly about America, to point at the faults which Hollywood and media have so effectively spread to their shores.  Yes, we eat a lot of junk food and drive big cars and get fat.  It’s true.  

“But so do South Africans”, I say.

“Is it?”, which is the universal response for anything agreeable or disagreeable in South Africa.  Lean you head to the side, and ask calmly, “is it?”  It means as much or as little as “really”, which is as much a habit in America as “is it” is in South Africa.  But to me, the accent which Afrikaners impart on English is beautiful and charming.  Is it?  

We define newly discovered cultural similarities daily.

Coming from Lesotho, we shoot north to Kestell to camp for a night at the Karma Backpackers

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Vintage South Africana is everywhere in these old towns, which reminds me of the American West and the history of westward migration.  Voortrekkers left the Cape Colony to settle vast tracts of land in the interior, c. 1830-1840.  Many people traveled overland by covered wagon into sometimes challenging climates, to face attacks by the displaced or defensive native people, to eventually establish farms and communities such as the capitol city Pretoria, named for Andries Pretorius

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Vetkoek, literally meaning fat cake, is common in small town shops.  The fried dough is like an unsweetened donut, and at 1 rand apiece, makes an affordable packable snack.  Lael puts salt on everything.  

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The Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, or the Dutch Reformed Church, is a feature in many South African towns, although Anglican churches are also common.  Toyota trucks are a favorite of South African farmers.  Ford has recently entered the market.  Other Asian brands such as Mahindra, Isuzu, and Nissan are present to a lesser degree, as a lower priced alternate to the revered Toyota.  

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The greeting of wide open roads and rolling topography is refreshing after our time in Lesotho.  Each time we leave a country and return, it feels more and more like home.  

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Harrismith.

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Stretch the legs.

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This is a continuation of the Drakensberg, which are featured more prominently to the north and the south.

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This is the kind of riding, much like the karoo, that makes the Dragon’s Spine route like the Great Divide.

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Dropping off the edge of the Escarpment, from 5000ft+down to about 2000ft.  Trees, heat, and humidity are more abundant down low.

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The Dragon’s Spine route takes us along the railroad tracks from Elandslaagte to Wasbank, a once-great town that is now an impoverished shadow of its past.  Trees are growing through the windows of the old train station.  A hotel is advertised, now home to a single pool table and a bottle shop.  Some old towns are charming, but not Wasbank.  We are grateful to meet a shop owner who calls his parents, who offer us a place to put our tent for the night.  Inevitably, they invite us inside, feed us a traditional Indian meal, and offer showers and a bed.  Their family has owned the petrol station in town for many years.

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This is not the first time we’ve ridden RR lines in South Africa, but it cements the concept.  Most RR service roads are ungated and seem to be pretty reliable routes to travel by bike, although interruptions in continuity are possible, which add to the adventure.

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Dundee, where we are interviewed by the local newspaper, the Northern KwaZulu-Natal Courier.  

We speak with two very nice young woman, a reporter and a photographer, and the next week they publish an article titled  “Living young, wild and free from Alaska”.  

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Everyone describes the failing school systems in South Africa.  Most people have to pay to go to school, and options for high-priced education is available to those that can afford it.  The poorest children can attend school for free, and there are food programs as well.  I’m not certain of the quality of a free education in South Africa.  I’ve met some promising youth, but a lot of young people are slipping through the cracks. 

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RR lines are awesome in South Africa!  Johann, our host from Prince Albert, described a trip he made many years ago following RR lines for a great distance across the country.  We’ve only seen freight lines thus far.  

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Railroads, like canals, show you life away from tar roads.  We meet a farming family for the night.  We tour the farm and the irrigation system, which provides just enough water to grow maize in this semi-arid climate.  They prepare a braai.

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Near Utrecht, the only town in South Africa within a game reserve.

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Riding the RR line toward Piet Retief, and Swaziland.

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The quantity of productive timberlands increase around us, all the way across the border.

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We immediately notice the nice roadside bus stops.  The absence of now-familiar South African economic inequality is obvious.  That is, people are more uniformly poor in Swaziland, which to us, makes the county feel wealthier.  There is a calm to the country.  There are few fences.  People smile.  People speak English really well, and have ideas and opinions.  These are our first impressions.   

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That’s how you source local food.

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As in Lesotho, Swaziland is also the beneficiary of foreign aid.  New schools are a common project, as are improved toilets and rainwater catchment systems for the schools.

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The timber industry is healthy in the mountainous west of Swaziland.  In the eastern lowlands, sugar cane and bananas are the main production crops.  Agriculture and other industries are partly organized through the monarchy.

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Eucalyptus is a common hardwood resource.  It appears to be fast growing, resulting in tall, straight pole-sized trees

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Pines produce pulp and other low grade products such as fencing and palettes.

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The Coca Cola Company dominates the market in South Africa.  This cold grape-flavored Fanta is 40 rand, or about $0.35.  The currency in Swaziland is also fixed against the South African rand, as in Lesotho.

Beer and soda sold in both Lesotho and Swaziland is made in country, licensed from the South African parent company. 

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No need for coins, I watch these kids play round after round of ‘The King of Fighters” by coaxing the tines of a plastic fork into the coin slot.  This is outside a rural shop.

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Timber mill and timberlands.  

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Shoot me!  The kids are relaxed and kind, a little less maniacal than in Lesotho.  I really enjoyed this group.

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While taking a series of obligatory portraits, I try to organize a group photo before leaving.  They stop me as I begin packing up, “you must shoot him”.  

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They are referring to this young boy, who has been slowly making his way from down the road ever since I arrived.  All the other children quickly arrived at the road.  It just took him a little longer.  

All smiles.

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Mostly, the children don’t treat him any differently.

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Summer nights are nice, as long as the heat sets with the sun.

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Tracing the western border of Swaziland on our brief tour of the diminutive kingdom, we camp near Ngwenya for the night.  

Sunday night party outside the General Dealer and bottle shop.  This bar is bumping tunes to a small crowd of men, children, and older woman.  It is not uncommon to hear Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album in between classic African artists and more modern electro-pop.  The song “Koze Kuse” by DJ Merlon featuring Mondli Ngcobo is the most popular song in South Africa right now, if the stereos of local taxis are any indication.  The music video captures some classic South African scenes.

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Steps Over Swaziland, a film project advertised on the side of the road by this LP-sized sign.

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Swaziland claims the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in the world.  Public service announcements, free public health services, and free condoms are common.

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Diving back into the Timberlands on a series of tracks in the area near Pigg’s Peak.  This northwestern part of the country is prime for explorations, folded with mountains and laced with logging roads.  There are several MTB races in the area, mostly attracting South African riders.

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This route connects us back to the border of South Africa at Bulembu, now famous as the home of the Bulembu Emasi dairy.  Called mass, amasi or emasi, this cultured milk has a bright fresh yogurt taste, much like the yogurts we enjoy in Eastern Europe.  It is the best energy food in South Africa (sorry Coca Cola and Nik Naks).

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Bulembu is an old mining town revitalized by the dairy and a small stream of tourism.  Asbestos was once shuttled to Barberton, South Africa by an aerial cableway (like an alpine gondola), a distance of over 20km through very mountainous terrain.

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Back in South Africa.  While the roads turns to tar across the border, the ride from Bulembu to Barberton is epic.  The road rides high ridgelines until a blazing fast descent drops us into Barberton, 3000ft below.

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The road is punctuated by geology lessons, funded by the state.  Called the Geotrail Route, the new roadside facilities don’t seem to get much use.  The road is deserted.

This academic paper provides a fascinating overview of the mining history in this region, with maps and images.  This is one of the most significant gold mining regions in South Africa.

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Descending to Barberton, we once again meet hot and humid weather, as well as mangoes and bananas.  We’re about a week away from the border of Zimbabwe, and the end of our ride across South Africa.

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Life across the karoo, in broad strokes

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Prince Albert- Willowmore- Steytlerville- Jansenville- Graaff-Reinet- Nieu Bethesda- Middelburg- Steynsburg- Burgersdorp- Jamestown- Roussow- Barkley East- Wartrail- Tele River

There are small towns and expansive farms with teams of farmworkers in blue cotton coveralls slowly working under the sun in full-brimmed caps.  There are afternoon winds and windless starry midnights.  Kudu sausage and lamb chops on our plates indicate the presence of wild game and managed stock, especially Merino sheep and Angora goats.  Twice, antelope race alongside the road excited by my 18mph presence, afraid or unable to cross the barbed wire fence.  Once, I reach past 35mph with the assistance of a powerful tailwind, gaining on the full-tilt sprint of the animal.  At last, side by side, it cuts right toward the fence and jumps.  Tired or distracted or unable to jump high enough, it somersaults into barbed wire in a flurry of fur.  It watches as I disappear down the road.  Both our hearts are racing.

This is the karoo.  Our first attempt to leave Prince Albert, situated on the north side of Swartberg Pass, is foiled by strong headwinds on washboarded sandy roads.  We turn back to spend another day in town.  There, while sitting by the curb drinking from my water bottle, a man pulls up in a white bokkie.  He invites us to join him for drinks with a few friends, which necessarily means multiple rounds of brandy and coke, plates of meat, and hot chips.  He invites us to stay at his house.  The next day, we tour his stonefruit farms where he grows peaches, apricots, plums, and nectarines in a series of drainages where the waters of the Swartberg Mountains meet the sun of the karoo.  Any further into the karoo and he’d be the owner of a dusty sheep farm, but here, he manages a vast oasis which employs as many as 184 people during harvest.  In the evening, we prepare a braai.  On the second day, after wind and rain have subsided, we head east.  For the next two weeks from the Swartberg Mountains to the Drakensburg Mountains and the border of Lesotho, we’ll not escape the embrace of similarly generous farmers, wide open gravel roads, and endless sunshine.  In consecutive nights, we are treated to farm-fresh lamb, indoor accommodations, and company.  If you ask for water in these parts, you’re likely to get a whole lot more. 

The riding is as I often say, “Divide-style riding”, named for the Great Divide Route.  The gravel roads are maintained to a high standard, towns come once or twice day; food, water, and camping are fairly straightforward, especially if keeping to public routes.  Our fortune continues all the way from Cape Town as tailwinds shuttle us to the north and east.  As our path curves through the karoo, the winds shift to our backs.  I don’t know what has brought us such good fortune, but I am grateful.  With few exceptions, we’ve enjoyed weeks of tailwinds.  I am not sure why both the Freedom Challenge and Dragon’s Spine routes are scheduled in the opposite direction, although they can be toured in any direction.

On our first day out of Prince Albert we continue on the Freedom Trail (more accurately, the Freedom Challenge Race route) to Willowmore.  There, we will decide if we continue on the Freedom Trail or the Dragon’s Spine route (GPS tracks; Riding the Dragon’s Spine guidebook), which we have just discovered.  One requires some advance planning, communication with the race organizer, payment for lodging or traversing permits, and eventual portages including a notable 4×4 track east of the Baviaanskloof, which would be our next stage.  Further, the race organizer is suspicious of how we will supply ourselves with food, and if we will be able to heft our bikes over 3m tall game fences.  He and I disagree about the term self-supported.  The Dragon’s Spine entices us with a rideable route on public thoroughfares, eventually deviating into Lesotho and continuing all the way north to the border of Zimbabwe.  The route also passes near Swaziland, enabling a quick trip into that country’s mountainous western half.  The decision is easy.  We begin working towards becoming Dragonmasters out of Willowmore.

Separated by fifty miles of open country, karoo towns melt together, yet slowly change from the whitewashed touristic strip of Prince Albert in the west to the mostly black communities of Barkly East, near Lesotho.  Despite this major trend, one town may be manicured and orderly while another is disheveled and drunk by noon, for lack of work and purpose.  I find it difficult to make conversation with poor blacks in this country, at least those that wear blue coveralls to work, which is the universal laborers uniform in South Africa.  Most blacks live in sprawling townships of ramshackle government housing outside of town, vestiges of official apartheid programs.  Footworn dirt tracks lead between town centers and black townships, and mostly unpaved streets connect rows and rows of houses, which may or may not have electricity.  Many homes feature passive solar water heaters on the roof.  

It is only outside the bottle shops and tuck shops that we share a few words, as passersby marvel and squeeze our tires.  While resting in the shade eating a papaya and maas, a local cultured dairy preferred by blacks, we receive friendly and curious looks.  I imagine their wonder, “why are those sunburnt white people sitting on the ground to eat?”  Some people must realize we are tourists; schoolchildren and groups of woman carrying goods on their head shyly turn away to laugh amongst themselves.  A man is sitting on the sidewalk twenty yards away, in front of a small panel of particleboard topped with shoeboxes of generic Nik-Naks– popular maize cheese puffs– and some barely past ripe apples.  We look towards one another, each as curious as the other.  We smile and nod, as if part of a secret club of humans than still knows sitting on the ground in the shade is a good use of time.  I think so.

I haven’t heard the word racism in South Africa, yet I can’t get away from it in American media, even from afar.  We do share healthy conversations with white farmers in the evening about the direction of the country, the degradation of the schools since “they” took power of the country, the ANC party, and the rising cost of labor.  We are guests in their homes and in their countries.  And I mean what I’ve said before, we meet some of the loveliest people in the karoo.  These people are living honest Christian lives.  Its just that they grew up in a system of legislated segregation, with hundreds of years of black labor to thank for their farms, their railroads, skyscrapers, and their wealth.  And as the owner of a potato chip factory likely complains about the seemingly inconsequential rising cost of salt, white farmers challenge the rising minimum wages in this country.  Different sectors of the economy maintain unique minimum wages, including the hospitality industry (home workers, mostly, not hoteliers) and farmworkers, the two labor groups we meet.  In an article dated from 2013, the minimum wage for farmworkers was reported to have increased from R69 a day to R105, a 52% increase.  Yet, that’s an increase from about $6 dollars to $10 a day at current exchange rates.  A can of Coca-Cola costs about $0.60, a full plate of Take-Aways is usually $2-$2.50, and while plenty of bottled beer and Cokes are consumed in this country most laborers and their families subsist on fortified maize meal.  As above average inflation plagues the South African currency, wages diminish in actual value while farmers who export their products gain from the devalued currency.  Exotic mohair for export?  Peaches and apricots off the tree while the southern USA and Turkey are frozen for the winter?  South African farms are far less mechanized than in America, where farming on a massive scale is the only way to compete.  The farm industry seems healthy, but there are sighs late at night.  “It’s hard.”

For us, there is still more to unravel.  Indians were also disenfranchised during apartheid, although less so than blacks.  “Coloureds”, an official class of mixed race persons also including Malays and others, fit somewhere in between.  Asians from certain nations, usually trade partners of South Africa, were given exception as “honorary whites”.  I’m can’t seem to find any honor in the situation.  And while the task of classifying the population was a continual challenge, it stands that the most important statistic is that the elite class of whites make up less than 9% of the country’s population, descendants of Dutch, English, French, Scottish, and Germans, mostly.  But they don’t control the government anymore, at least not since the first universal democratic elections in 1994.

The country is not unsafe.  Gruesome crimes are described, such as a well-reported series of farm attacks across the country, most likely crimes of desperation.  We’re constantly reminded and warned of theft.  But the streets of small cities and towns do not bear any aggression.  People are nice.  Markets are bustling.  The population is young and growing.  A peaceful disharmony exists, although periods of struggle are likely to shape the future.

I didn’t know anything about South Africa two months ago.

Out of Prince Albert.  Into the wind.

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Jaco rescues us from the roadside, settles us at his home, and feeds us heartily.  He has made several journeys to Namibia by motorbike and recalls the hospitality he received while there.  Clean clothing was a highlight.  He plans a motorbike trip from Cape Town to Cairo in the future, if he can ever get away from the trees.  In addition to fruits, he also grows onions for seed, a common crop in the mountains before the Great Karoo.

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His fruit sorting facility is nothing like I expected.  The computerized system inspects and sorts fruits on a massive scale.  Laborers harvest the fruit.

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Back on the Freedom Trail, toward Willowmore.  The thorny acacia is omnipresent in this part of the karoo, a subregion called the thornveld.  Veld is Afrikaans, literally meaning field.

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Not much out here other than windmills and stock tanks, miles of barbed wire, and the occasional farmhouse.  When someone says “pass a few farmhouses”,that can be ten miles or more.  

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We stop for some water at a farmhouse.  Incidentally, this is a mid-day stop during the Freedom Challenge race.  We ask how frequently they see riders outside of the race.  Very few, it seems.

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Many farmhouses date back a hundred years or more, and are composed of several accretions over the years.  You’ll find some unusual floor plans in these homes.

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Angora goats, whose hair is called mohair, characterized by long, silky fibers.  Angora fibers come from an Angora rabbit.

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As we request water at dusk, we are invited indoors.  Invited to an impromptu meal, prepared by a farmer whose wife is away for the evening.  He keeps goats and sheep, some for their fibers and others for meat.  Two ostriches are what remain of a once profitable ostrich farm..

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He is a gracious host willing to share his stories and impressions of the world.  We’re fascinated to learn what people think of our country, although I didn’t know anything about this place until recently.  If he looks a little out of place in the kitchen, it may be the case.  He apologetically assembles a series of sandwiches and hurriedly thaws some meat from the deep freeze.  But of all the lamb we taste in the karoo, this may have been the best.  Perhaps it is the instruction to simply take it from the fire with bare hands that makes it taste to good.

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Kudu boerwors and lamb.

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All sheep farmers are former rugby players.  All karoo farmers love to eat meat.  South African men take great pride in their braai, both the technique and the equipment.  His braai is homemade from an oil drum.

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The next morning we detour towards a possible connection with some hot springs which Johan has recommended.  Still early in the morning, we opt to continue riding.  However, these unimproved springs are located with a waypoint on the Tracks4Africa GPS basemaps.  From the north, you can follow the rail line from Vondeling Station between the mountains.

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Rains re-awaken the desert.

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A few towns offer a limited touristic infrastructure, which diminishes as we travel east away from the reach of Capetonians.  Eventually, small towns feature a single aging hotel at the center of town.

Willowmore.

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Outside of town, the black townships sprawl into the veld.  Each township appears like an upscale suburban neighborhood on my GPS, but I soon learn the pattern of the land.  White people live on farms in the country or in the small grid of old homes in town.  Blacks live in farm housing, or in sub-urban townships as much as several kilometers from town.  The quality and vintage of the housing varies.

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Along the Groot River for the evening.

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Some farm housing, more substantial and scenic than most.  No electricity, no running water, and only salvaged wood to heat the home and cook.

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Again, at dusk, we inquire about water and a place to camp.  We are offered a place on the lawn.  By morning, we’re called to a hearty farmer’s breakfast of eggs, sausage, and toast with coffee.  Homemade marmalade is a highlight.

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This is our turn, of course.

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Steytlerville.

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Jansenville.  Ripping tailwinds put us over 100 miles on this day.

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Again, with the plea for water, we are offered a place to sleep.  Rather, I try to insist we sleep outside but it seems foolish in light of the offer.  A guest cottage down the road is our home for the night.  As we step out the door, Sydney and his wife Gay hand us two freezer bags of meat.  One is kudu sausage, or boerwors (farmer’s sausage), and the other are lamb chops.  We’re tired, but we start a fire outdoors to cook the meat. There is only one way to prepare meat like this.  It would have been a shame to waste it in the pan.

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In the morning we are again called to breakfast, and asked to assist with a special project.  A ewe is suffering from severe mastitis and cannot feed her young.  Lael sternly assists in the delivery of a formula.

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And before we go, a meat snack for the road– homemade kudu biltong.  This lean cured meat is like jerky, but usually requires the aid of a knife to portion it into manageable bits.

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These days, we’re carrying as much as 4-5 liters of water each.  That full quantity is only essential if we expect to camp overnight.  The system of bottle cages on the fork was first devised for long stretches of the Freedom Trail, although established water sources are more plentiful on the Dragon’s Spine route.  Each side of the fork holds 1.6L of water in two cages, tightly taped to the fork with about a half a roll of electrical tape.  Other tape works just as well, but the trick is to get it tight.  With two bottles playing precariously near to the front wheel, we fashioned some velcro straps for security.

Note, we are carrying a pack of water treatment tablets purchased in Cape Town in case we require them, but are relying upon taps in town or on farms, and occasionally at stock tanks.  If we camp near a water source we will prepare hot food or drink from the source, bringing the water to a boil.  

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Graaff-Reinet.

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At the Spar supermarket, Braaipap is marketed toward a white Afrikaner audience.  Everyone eats maize in South Africa, cooked into pap, usually the consistency of thick grits or polenta.  Poor families rely upon it as a staple, usually purchased in 25 or 50kg bags.  Most common brands of maize are fortified.  About 11 or 11.5 South African rand to the dollar this week, so even these 5lb bags of premium maize are less than $2. 

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Stopped to camp by the roadside.  Lael is still jumping twice a day.

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Erasmuskloof Pass, just a little notch in the many small mountains that dot the karoo.

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Thankfully, all the gates on these public routes swing open.

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Nieu Bethesda, a quaint little town in the karoo that white people like to visit.  Situated at 4500ft in a small mountain valley, it really is a beautiful setting.  Read more about it on the Revelate Blog.

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Several kitsch-chic cafes serve the touristic community.  A local brewery offers these fine unfiltered ales.

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Dirt Busters by Deon Meyer is a great resource for off-pavement routes across the country.  Meyer is an Afrikaans novelist famed for thrillers.

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Signs in miles, before converting to metric.

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Droewors, Afrikaans for dry sausage.

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Camped inside a game reserve, we hear antelope and zebra throughout the night.

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Here, our GPS track chooses a less travelled doubletrack.  Admittedly, I don’t have the complete guidebook of the route.  I glanced at a few pages in Prince Albert before I was certain that we’d be riding the route.  There are some inaccuracies and missing sections in the GPS files offered on the Dragon Trax website, not unusual for a new resource like this.  I’ll see if I can offer some improved tracks.  

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Just to see how one might singlehandedly cross a 3m game fence with a loaded bike, I pass the first 2m fence in front and hoist my bike to the top of the taller fence.  

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Let it down slow.

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Middelburg.  The owner at the dainty Afrikaans coffee shop (tea room/craft center/jam cellar) asks if we have a way to cook some sausage.  Sure!  I expect she will return with a small freezer-pack of local boerwors.  She returns with a large plastic bag of fresh, never frozen local kudu sausage.  At least six or eight pounds in total, maybe ten.  I make room in my seatpack, which I just packed with two days of food.

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Seeing as the sausage must be cooked immediately, we set about on a mission.  A gravel pit, salvaged fencing and barbed wire, and scrapwood from the veld serve to make an impromptu braai for our meat.  Under clear skies and with a chilled bottle of sauvignon blanc from town, we sit and slowly cook the wors.

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Such high-quality lean meat has us soaring for days.  We both enjoy meat, but this was some superfood.  Biltong is second best.

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Steynsburg.

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I’ve stopped many times to offer air to riders whose tires are gradually and continually losing air.  This bike has been converted to a singlespeed.  The frame is broken at the top of the seat tube, has been welded, and is broken again.  The front wheel is from an English three speed, 26 x 1 3/8″, and uses a Dunlop valve.  The rear Schrader valve was no problem for my Lezyne pump though.

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There is surprisingly little washboard on these roads.  When we tell farmers that the roads are very nice in their country, both the paved and unpaved roads, they are astounded.  Somehow, the world imagines everything is perfect in America.  

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Burgersdorp.

I’m pretty much fluent in Afrikaans, as long as it relates to coffee, tea, sugar, cookies, and milk.  One-stop shopping in aisle two.

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Another black township on the edge of town, this one is called Mzanomhle.  These townships typically include many of their own shops, schools and other services.  Rugby and cricket are popular sports for white youth.  Football, sometimes also called soccer, is a black sport. 

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This is approximately what I see on my GPS when entering town.  I know the classic grid in white near the intersection of the main yellow roads will be the town with the main shops, owned by white Afrikaners, Chinese, and Indians, mostly.  The complex of red communities are the black townships.  Oh, and the red lines are dirt streets.  The white ones are paved.

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Commuting to work.  This rider caught up with me on a short climb, although my excuse is that we had just started pedaling for the day.  I need some time to warm up.

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Jamestown.

You can’t go wrong in this freezer.

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Schools are an important part of life for children here, and during the day groups of children in uniform populate the town during a midday break.  These boys enjoy the afternoon after a half-day of school on a Friday.  After a substantial English exam in the form of a lengthy conversation in which I asked everything I’d been dying to know about lives in the township, I share a bag of cheese flavored corn puffs with them.  The eldest boy on the left is the most outgoing– in English at least.  His mother works as a cook at the school and his father drives an ambulance.  Their favorite meal at school is chicken and pap.  There are eleven official languages in South Africa, including 9 native languages besides English and Afrikaans.  English is the official language of government and business, but many whites grow up speaking Afrikaans, especially on farms.  However, everyone speaks some English, and there are truly English families, some of which speak the language, and others who also trace their ancestry to the Isles.  Some of the other languages include Xhosa, Sotho, and Zulu.

There are schools that teach primarily in English, Afrikaans, and any of the other nine languages.  All teach some English, and many still teach some Afrikaans.  However, attending a proper English school is a huge advantage for these young boys.

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Not far down the road, perhaps an hour or two, we are stopped by a passing truck to come fill our waters at their farmhouse down the way.  We stop, we talk.  We play with the kids.  Now, we are asked to stay for dinner and to stay the night  In that case, I jump in the small above ground pool with the kids.  

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They show us around the farm, home to hundreds of merino sheep.  They will be sheared several times, but eventually they are sold to slaughter.

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She is as charming as she looks, and has taken a liking to speaking English although her family mostly speaks Afrikaans at home.  Who says TV is a waste of time?  Despite her indoor education (even before school age) she is most at home outdoors running barefoot through pens full of sheep shit.  Her older brother will soon move away to boarding school for the semester.  Most farm children move away for school, as young as 5 or 6 years old.  They grow up quickly.

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Their father Casper is the head of the provincial wool growers association.  In addition to facilitating the industry across a vast area, he is also involved with a program to connect upstart black farmers with the skills and expertise they may need to achieve independent success– a refreshing perspective.  Livestock theft is common, especially at night.  He says it happens frequently on a full moon.  This is one of few farm families that did not have a servant in the house during the day.  At less than a dollar an hour, it now makes some sense to me how people can afford this.

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Dordrecht.

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I’m still trying to unravel the marketing mystery of coffee and chicory in this country.  All share almost the exact same packaging and claims of being “Rich and Strong”.  They’re are all cheap and tolerable, easy on the stomach, and virtually caffeine-free.  They brew a dark pot best enhanced with a spoonful of sugar.  We’ve grown to like it even though real coffee is available at the fancy supermarkets.  Rooisbos tea is also a favorite midday drink as we pass time in the noon hour in the shade. 

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There is either an Anglican or a Dutch Reformed Church in each town, or both.

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Roussow, an exclusively black community without any historic infrastructure, no grid, no old church.  This village reminds us of some reservations in America.

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Again, we replay the request for water and receive a room for the night.  Twenty four year old Vossie is living by himself in a five-bedroom house, managing part of a sheep farm with over 8000 sheep.  His parents and brother live several kilometers down the road.  Hard rain falls through the night and all through the next day.  We spend the day drinking coffee, napping, and watching bad movies with Vossie on TV.  He is the sixth farmer we have stayed with, the fifth to prepare lamb for us, and the sixth to also be a rugby player.  One of the few white people we have met near our age, we is refreshingly aware of life in America.  Again, a little TV never hurt, although he was concerned we might all be gun-crazed hoarders preparing for the apocalypse.  I think the Discovery Channel is to blame.  Lots of American TV is exported to South Africa. 

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His home is tucked up into the hillside, near 6000ft.  From Prince Albert we have slowly ascended from about 2000ft.  From here, we remain above 5000ft all the way through Lesotho, the Mountain Kingdom.  We’re getting close.

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Shuttling sheep along the paved road with flaggers.

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Barkly East.

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Take a look at the local slaghuis, the butcher shop, for some delightful dried meats.  We buy half a kilo of biltong and half a kilo of droewors to pack into Lesotho.

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The Dewey Decimal System, in Afrikaans.

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Some Xhosa books.

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Natural products and tinctures on the shelves of the local market.

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There is a small stifling culture of inns, teas rooms, and coffee shops operated by white Afrikaner woman.  I suspect much of this will disappear in the next generation.

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This is more or less how Lael sees things.  

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Railroad switchbacks.  Took me awhile to understand this.

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 Hansa Pilsener is a popular SABMiller product, a fraction of the company’s global beverage dominance.  The original South African Breweries (SAB) originated in 1895.

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The Drakensburg Mountains are surfacing.

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Protein loading.

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What’s that, a bag of meat?

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In our last night in the country before crossing into Lesotho, we meet another sheep farmer.  Vossie mentioned a friend who had a farm near Wartrail on the right.  I assumed his instructions were lacking detail and ignore them.  By chance, when we ask for water, he’ve hit the mark.  Another guest cottage for the night.  Just ask for water.

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Off to Lesotho!

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Just a sliver of South Africa left, through the Transkei region along the border before crossing at Tele Bridge.  Should be all mountains and crumbling dirt roads for the next week or more!

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A Greek Bike Odyssey

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Greece is all mountains, they say.  It is easier to name the few non-mountainous places in Greece, like the Plain of Thessaly, than to begin naming all of the ranges and peaks.  There are many narrow unpaved roads connecting villages.  In recent decades, many Greeks have moved to the cities leaving only a handful of old men to sip coffee in the cafes.  Scenic mountains, quiet dirt roads, frequent villages, and plenty of water equal great riding, great camping, and few logistical challenges.  Greece is one of the most inviting places to go looking for unpaved roads in Europe.

When looking for routes in a country I start by browsing a map of the entire region.  I look for mountains and major highways and cities; climate and weather patterns; recommended routes from other touring cyclists and multi-day MTB race routes, as well as routes described in adventure motorcycle and 4×4 forums.  If nothing comes up I look for the largest area with the lowest density of major roads and start connecting the dots.  At other times, I might choose to connect the dots along a stretch of mountainous coastline without a major road.  Contacting someone in the country can be productive.  I e-mailed George, a Greek cyclist and bikepacker from Athens, who recommended an MTB race route called the Bike Odyssey. An 8-day race route is a big discovery.  One that begins near the border of Albania and finishes within range of Athens is even better.  Thanks George!

The Bike Odyssey is a multi-day stage race held in June, including one prologue stage in Laista and seven transit stages which begin and end in different villages.  The total distance of the route is about 400mi (600km) with lots of climbing.  The route connects about 80% dirt roads and 20% pavement and is entirely rideable.  Greek dirt roads are most commonly is good condition, with little to no traffic.  A few sections are modestly technical, typically due to steep grades, loose rocks, and erosion.  The mountainous paved roads all feature extremely low traffic.  Water is available everywhere on the route, thanks to a well-developed network of public springs.  Every town center has a spring, and hundreds are available along the route.  A few springs surprise us at the top of an extended climb.  Many villages no longer have stores, although it may be possible to purchase some bread or cheese from the cafes that remain.  Best to stock up on the essentials in the few larger towns, and augment supplies along the way as needed.  Over the eight or nine day period we sourced food in Konitsa, Metsovo, Karpenissi, and Gravia.  The version of the route which we followed deviates from the route scheduled for 2015.  I suspect our GPS track dates from an earlier version of the race.  The first four days are mostly unchanged.

Crossing from Albania, we pedal a short distance to the small Greek city of Konitsa.  The Bike Odyssey route begins in the nearby village of Laista.  The low valley is full of figs and soon we are both full of figs.  This experience will leave us searching for figs all through the Greek mountains.  We source maps and supplies, and load the track to our GPS.  

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We leave town with about two to three days of food dispersed between framebags and seatpacks.  This nearly fills my bags unless we choose foods which pack more efficiently.  Included are two loaves of bread from the bakery, nearly a kilo of feta, olives, two packs of sausages, orzo, some vegetables, and dried fruits and nuts.  I drain a big bottle of wine into the Klean Kanteen.  Cooking alcohol is available everywhere in Greece, used to fuel small candles at religious monuments and memorials by the roadside and in homes. 

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The paved climb out of Konitsa is an indication of what we will find in these mountains, including steep grades and quiet roads.

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We camp for the night on a narrow ridge above the road, looking across at a high range.  

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I nudge Lael awake at sunrise for some Greek coffee, which is just like Turkish coffee, except that it is Greek coffee.  Don’t call it Turkish coffee.  Don’t tell everyone how much you enjoyed Albania.  Don’t talk about Macedonia, only FYROM.  

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We join the route near Laista and immediately begin climbing towards Vouvousa.

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Vouvousa, in the valley below.

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Here, warm dry air and well drained soils support pine forests.  North facing slopes often support cool beech forests in the same valley.

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Vouvousa is our first town along the route and our first lesson that many villages in Greece no longer have shops.  Thankfully, we’ve packed enough food for the next few days.  We are kindly treated to a round of beers by a man named Dani who is visiting these mountains with his new van, which has been converted for overnight adventures.  It is a welcomed change after a lifetime spent on motorcycles.  Once an official diplomat, a novelist, and a writer for motorcycle magazines, Dani gives us an informative introduction to Greece.

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Climbing into the Pindus National Park.

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Beech.  Reminds me of Maine.

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Pines.  Reminds me of Santa Fe.

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Three months away from Alaska and we’ve lost all of our table manners.  Our clothes haven’t seen a laundry machine since landing in Vienna in July.  We manage to stay reasonably clean, at least considering the company we keep (each other, Albanian kids, old Greek men, Ukrainian women).

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The Bike Odyssey coincides with both the E6 and E4 walking routes at times.

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Aside from this washed-out section of road, not much more than a few hundred meters, almost every inch of the route is rideable.  Keep your eyes open for Bike Odyssey placards taped to signposts and trees; these red and white plastic flags; and red spraypaint, usually indicating the “BO” and an arrow.  Paired with the GPS track, navigation is easy.  The track I downloaded from the official race website may be an early version and led us astray on several occasions.  If the track ever leads you straight into the woods or onto an unreadable route, look for signage on the ground or consider the most obvious path (usually the dirt road you are already on).  

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We detour from the route to Metsovo to buy a few things, which adds an extra climb and descent.  Metsovo and Karpenissi are the two largest cities near the route.

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Leaving Metsovo we cross under and over this highway, which features a series of tunnels through the mountains.  Greece is all mountains.

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We leave Metsovo 18 minutes before sunset and arrive 3500ft higher only a few minutes after it is finally dark, a little over an hour and a half later.  As we approach the top of the road a truck comes quickly from behind, cuts in front, and stop near a pack of dogs.  Greek sheep dogs can be extremely aggressive.  Caution is required, and a handful of rocks is recommended.  When a dog comes running I skid the rear tire to a stop, and pick up a rock.  I throw the rock, genuinely trying to hit the dog, and attempt to pass.  Usually, I must launch a series of rocks to pass an area, and to fend off the four to six dogs which are common with every flock of sheep.  Alternatively, most shepherds will keep the dogs a safe distance, although that doesn’t mean they aren’t baring their teeth and growling from six feet away.

These shepherds tell us that we cannot ride onto the ridge, as there are other dogs that will get us.  It is unsafe.  It is dark, and they aren’t offering solutions.  We’ve seen more than a few dogs in Greece already.  We continue onto the ridge.  The dogs bark, from a distance.  We safely pass two or three shepherd camps, and I can hear dogs barking ahead in the distance.  We camp as far as possible between the camps.  

This time of year the ridges and east-facing slopes are best for camping to ensure the warm, drying sun meets us in the morning.  A few cold nights on the wrong side of the mountain teach us to climb to the ridgetops before the end of every day.

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Not many places to buy food on the route, but we fill our bags and our bellies with apples and figs as much as possible.  

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The northern half of the Bike Odyssey route is characterized by heavily metamorphosed rocks, in constant decay.  Further to the south, more solid volcanics are present.

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On this night, while searching for a place to camp that will receive sun before noon, we stop into a local cafe.  We request permission to camp near the church.  All four men inside agree.

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By morning, we awake to church bells and sun.  A spring gurgles nearby.  

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In fact, there is another cafe in town selling some preserves.  There is one bag of orzo on the shelf and a refrigerator full of cold beers.

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From what we have seen of the E4 and the E6, the trails are little used, rocky, and mostly unridable.  Often, we look to see the trail disappear into the woods, and we can’t see the trail.

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Agrafa is a beautiful town on a mountainside with several cafes.  One cafe on the main street has a small store.

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I expect to find water somewhere along the route, and have not carried any from town 3500ft below.  At the last moment, near the top of the climb at the end of the day, we find some.

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We crest the ridge to camp, but high winds and impending weather send us downward looking for shelter.  We have the option of an abandoned concrete structure or a newer pavilion aside a large cross.  We opt for the pavilion with the water source.  Some wet weather is expected to remain in the area for a few days.

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Addicted to figs, we slow our bicycles when arriving in each town.  Figs do not grow wild in these parts, but when planted near town they can survive and thrive.  We reach over a lot of fences.  We call ourselves the “Fig Robbers”, saving the figs from a rotten existence on the ground.

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During a period of intense rain, we seek an inexpensive hotel in Karpenissi.  From here, we make plans for the winter.  Rather, we’re hoping for an endless summer. 

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Each ridge leads us into a new micro-climate, this one abundant with chestnut trees.  Actually, chestnut trees are also common along other parts of the route, but a fresh chestnut is nothing compared to a fresh fig.

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Some lingering moisture makes a foggy ride away from Karpenissi.  Clearing skies are predicted.

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Mountain roads in Greece are nicely paved, narrow, and nearly traffic free.  However, many roads are damaged or partially blocked due to slumps and rockfall.  Many remain that way.

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In Artotina, a truck passes loaded with fruits and vegetables.  Turkish guys drive around selling produce, announcing themselves from a PA atop the car.  At first I thought they were running for office, then I noticed the broccoli.

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These Bike Odyssey sigs are abundant along the northern half of the route, while spraypaint and plastic flags are more common in the south.

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Again, we crest a ridge at sunset seeking a high camp.  The dogs bark and chase.  I fight valiantly and we narrowly escape to a nearby ridge.  The dogs bark in the night every time I roll over.  They’re good at what they do.  

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The town of Athanasios Diakos, like many others, features a large plaza with a church and four large cafes, but no stores.  It is a mystery to us how these towns, quiet as they are, can support so many large cafes.  And for the remaining residents, why isn’t there a store?  

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We camp near a church and a cemetery before our last day on the route.  It is very easy to camp in Greece.  In town or near town, look for a church.  Out of town, camp almost anywhere.

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On our last day, nearing Delphi, the climate changes once again.  It is hot and dry, and the trees mostly fade to low shrubs.

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At last, we can see the Sea of Corinth.

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Delphi, 1200ft below.  The GPS suggests a small track down the hillside.  I am not sure if this is another mistake in the track, but we go looking.  Note: The current race route does not end in Delphi, but in Amfikleia.

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Oh, my.  After over 350 miles of Divide-style dirt roads, we are treated to a chunky footpath down to town.

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Stairsteps.

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Delphi is important in Greek history, and features many ruins.

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This place is a world away from the rural villages we have come to know.  There are actually some tourists here.  The trend will continue toward Athens.  

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Night.  We fill our bottles and push out of town on a dirt track.  Just below town and above a valley full of olive orchards, in warm dry air, we lay our sleeping bags out under the stars.  We enjoy the air and the sky.  We talk about the winter.  South Africa will be great.

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Eastern Enchantment on the Top Biking Trail 3, Montenegro

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Riding across Montenegro to meet in Podgorica, we first encounter signs for a multi-day off-pavement route outside Mojkovac, one of the larger towns on this 300km loop route.  The Top Biking Trail 3 is billed as a route of “Eastern Enchantment”, and is offered to riders through an official guide, limited trail signage, and a free GPS download of the route.  After meeting Przemek and Saŝka in Podgorica, we loop around Shkodër Lake and into a spectacular valley amongst the Albanian Alps along the northern border of the country, through Tamare, Selca, and Vermosh.  Our goal, thereafter, is to spend more time in Albania.  To do so, we have the option to turn back the way we have come, ride into Montenegro and make an unofficial (illegal?) crossing over an unmanned mountain pass back into Albania, or ride through Montenegro and Kosovo to reach the next official crossing into Albania.  Some friends of the blog had suggested visiting the valley of Valbona.  While only a short flight for a bird from Tamare to Valbona, a cyclable route will be much longer, necessarily.  No matter, as we reason that this way we get the chance to check out the Top Trail 3 in Montenegro and make a quick visit to Kosovo on our way back to Albania.

The Top Biking Trail 3 is a government project, in a series of other cycling and hiking routes across the mountainous country.  The official brochure is available in local touristic offices for 2€; surely, I can verify that it is available in Plav, which is home to a tourist information office and a national park office, which are both stocked with maps.  The region also boasts an international hiking trail called the Peaks of the Balkans, connecting the high mountains along the borders of Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania.  The full guidebook for the Top Biking Trail 3 is also available online for free, as are the GPS tracks for all the sponsored Top Trail routes in Montenegro.  Additionally, a mountain bike guidebook entitled Wilderness Biking Montenegro with “17 mountainbike trails from east to west” is available via Amazon or directly from the German publisher, although the guide is in English.  A high quality map of the 17 suggested routes is also available online.

Our overnight ride from Plav to Rožaje covered only a section of the route.  From this experience, a GPS device is recommended.  The maps in the guidebook are reasonably detailed, although the route notes are purely literary and do little to aid in navigation.  In fact, I was missing some of the GPS track information and was forced to navigate via the guidebook entirely.  Not that there is much risk of not making it back to a paved road, but at one point I was running laps around an alpine meadow to decipher which faint singledoubletrack was our route, or at least the correct drainage towards town.

The route is comprised mostly of dirt roads which can be traveled with a common high-clearance vehicle or small truck, or in the case of the Montenegrans, like the Romanians, Serbians, and Ukrainians, a small 2WD Yugo, Zastava, Dacia, Lada, or Fiat.  Larger sections of quiet paved roads connect highland sections.  In two places on our ride, short hikes over steeper grassy ridges are required to connect otherwise unconnected roads.  As such, some locals will swear that you can’t reach the city of Rožaje by bike.  A proper mountain bike or dirt touring set-up is recommended, and as for the steep climbs, it is recommended to pack light, as always.

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Leaving the predominantly Albanian city of Plav, Lael and I decide to climb the first major ridge at dusk, as Przemek and Saŝka hang back for the night.  No surprise that within minutes of looking for a campsite they find a host for the night.  They leave in the morning with more food than when they arrived–this is the spirit of these mountains.  The mountain people along the borderlands of Albania and Montenegro, an historical region known as Malësia, are famously hospitable.  Anymore, it seems we can’t ride off-pavement segments without invitations for coffee every time we meet someone near their home.  The coffee is brewing, and then comes the offer of homemade rakija.  “Oh, and you’ll have a little cheese and bread won’t you”, as fresh yogurt and butter also populate the table, alongside the possibility of sausage or salo, homemade juice, and the offer of some tobacco.  And four hours later, stuffed and smiling and a little stupid, there are hugs and handshakes and photos and Facebook names to share; smiling faces in the sun, spinning legs in cycles they know so well, and the knowledge that riding bikes over mountains simply to hear the sound of dirt is not enough.  Riding over mountains is not the reason but the invitation, to drink with shepherds in the morning, to eat foods unavailable in local markets, and to play with children and share the language of laughter.  These are not one experience, but many.  I will come back to this region.

From the border of Albania near Vermosh, you connect with the route at Gusinje and ride to Plav on quiet pavement.

If is possible to cross the borders here unofficially if you plan to return to the same country (as no one will know, and seemingly from all accounts, no one will care).  If you plan to exit the country at some point, it seems best to make official border crossings to keep the passport in order.  You don’t want the Republic of Kosovo or Albania questioning your route into the country, although the borders seem open and friendly.  Technically, there is a rideable dirt route over 6000+ft mountains from Plav to Valbona, through Cerem, over a pass that Wikipedia claims will someday house an official border crossing.  The local tourist office says it can arrange a permit to make the crossing official, which should provide documentation of your exit and entry.  The cost is 10€ and can be processed within 24hours, although it is possible to apply for the permit without local assistance which may take up to 5 days.  The route through Cerem utilizes part of an alpine loop section of the Top Trail 3 route.  The descent into the valley of Valbona would be spectacular.

Leaving Plav.  Mosques replace churches in most ethnically Albanian communities.

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The last sign we will see for the next 56km.  No problem, but we were led to believe the route was signed by the official postings.  The bikepacker symbol would make a great tattoo, I think.

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The end of the summer, same as it looks in Alaska and Poland and many other great places.

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Leaving civilization behind by way of a 2000ft climb, we rise above the trees to a world dominated by alpine meadows called planina, active in summer months for grazing.

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Near the very top of the ridge, expecting rain for the night, I stake the tent tightly.

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By morning the rain has subsided and the color of the sky is promising.  We don’t hate rain, but we prefer when it occurs during the night, only.

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Clearing skies lead us up to 6300ft, our highest ride in the Balkans so far.  In fact, this is our highest ride in Europe.  It is no feat, but to us it is notable.  We’ve traveled over seven months in Europe over the last two summers from Amsterdam to Ukraine, and south to Montenegro and Albania, on dirt as much as possible.

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We remain at elevation on the appropriately named Planina Mokra, or the wet meadow.  We’re a stone’s throw from the Kosovo border, but a long way from town it seems.  Most of the shepherds have vacated the katun for the season.

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Al the third meadow– the third small seasonal alpine community– smoke escapes a chimney.  A dog barks, dutifully.  Soon, a man exits his cabin.  We stop to admire his property, as curious in him, as he in us.

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And then, like a magic trick of hospitality we’re seated on the porch drinking homemade blueberry juice, composed of a sweet syrup concentrate and fresh spring water.  He shuffles us inside.  “Hladno“, he insists, shivering himself to verify that we understand.  Back in Montenegro, the Slavic tongue serves some function again.

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Inside, his wife shyly smiles and arranges some pillows on the beds, which also serve as seating for the table, which has been rotated longways to maximize seating space.  The oven is hot, bread is rising, and a large shallow pot of milk is warming to separate the buttercream from the stuff that soon fills our glass.

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Within the hour, or two rounds of rakija as I remember it, the bread is in the oven.  Mushrooms are fried on the flattop with butter and salt.  We’re dining on a bounty of local treats, each slyly and kindly supplied without possibility of refusal.

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Hot milk is poured into cooling pans to separate.  The butter will congeal on top, and will be saved in an outdoor shed for the winter.

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Kids love selfies, and touch-screen shutter actuation, and previewing images on the camera– the value of digital photography.

Vasiliy the enthusiastic younger brother leads us back into the sun.

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He takes me on a typical backwards tour of all the things his dad doesn’t care to show– nothing personal or incriminating– just boring, by adult standards.  Good thing he and I don’t live by adult standards.  I think a muddy corner of the garden is fascinating.

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His sister sets about harvesting potatoes.

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He joins, joyously.

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His father Yugoslav shows us the pigs and the piglets, the onions and leeks, the chickens, and the three cows.  I’m not sure exactly how they’ve come to this life, exactly.  Surely, it comes from their ancestors, but they are extremely happy about it, and seemingly, they’ve chosen it.  The kids go to school, and Yugoslav grew up in the nearby city of Berane.  He and his wife are educated, presumably through secondary school.  We are happy to see people having fun up high.

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Two neighbor men have arrived to eat with us, although mostly we all laugh and marvel at the concept of Alaska.  I do my best to make conversation with the men.  We laugh and tickle and take pictures with the kids.  Eventually, I divulge that we’ve ridden from Vienna through Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia…

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Home made: butter, tomato chutney, eggs, milk, rakija, blubbery juice, and homemade bread.  Salt, flour, coffee, sugar, and the bologna-type sausage come from town.

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As we prepare to leave they offer some of everything on the table.  We decline, as we are actually loaded for two full days of riding.  We all compromise with a two-liter fill of milk in the Klean Kanteen.

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Dressing ourselves for departure, Yugoslav takes my hat and snugly fits it to his head.  He barely has to ask, but he suggests “I can have it?”  Sure.  Of course.  Definitley.

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The hat was a gift from a new friend that I met while living in Albuquerque (thanks again Collin!).  He’d be happy to know that it covers the eyes of a shepherd somewhere up high on a planina in Montenegro.  In such situations, I try to offer a few euro, which are quickly declined.  At the second offer, it is gratefully accepted.  It is fair, and one of the best touristic agreements that can be made.

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Smiling, stuffed and pedaling once again.

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Over the top, along a faint doubletrack which disappears on the ridge.

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Several options exist from the ridge.

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The route descends 2000ft on fantastic dirt roads, to climb another 2000ft back to elevation.  A quick turn along a walking route takes us over the second unridable ridge of the day.

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From the top, without the GPS track information, I do some old-fashioned looking around.  The map is helpful, but the level of detail is inadequate .  No problem, the topographic information on the GPS helps me isolate which drainage to descend.  Eventually, we find the small jewel of a lake the guide describes.  It elaborates about the small lake, which “sheds a tear for each traveler that leaves it”.  It is a muddy pond, I swear.

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At last, we begin the descent down to Rožaje.  We will camp near town for the night to meet Przemek and Saŝka in the morning.

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Off to Kosovo, in the rain!

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(dirt) Road Bikes

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Dirt, road, bikes.  Rock ‘n Road.  Dirt roads are much the way they sound– they are roads composed of local sediments, sometimes groomed and graded and maintained, sometimes abandoned and rugged.  But the variety of dirt roads is greater than the variety of paved routes, which partly explains the great variety of bikes in use for these kinds of rides.  Still, the emergent genre of dirt road riding is finally landing on some common themes– not quite standards– but commonalities in tire size and tread, handlebar concepts, and in some cases, luggage.  Of course, riding on unpaved roads is ancient as far as bicycles are concerned.  But today, greater accommodation of comfort and efficiency on unpaved surfaces is afforded through new equipment.  Specifically, a vast array of lightweight large-volume 700c/29″ tires are perfectly tuned for dirt, road, riding.

Some dirt road rides are self-supported races over many thousand miles.  Others are actually half on pavement to connect the dots of featured dirt segments, and still others are about the pursuit of adventure and reaching remote destinations by the only means available– a dirt road.  We are not talking about mountain biking, which is an exclusive search for dirt trails and tracks and rough terrain.  We are not talking about a brief segment of unpaved rail-trail– yes, I know you can ride it on your road bike.  We are talking about road riding, potentially at a brisk pace, on dirt roads.  Dirt, road, riding.  Common themes include medium to large volume 700c tires, powerful brakes, a range of gears; drop bars, aero bars or multi-posiiton handlebars; and lightweight frames, in reference to true mountain bikes or touring bikes.  The following are a sample of modern concepts from NAHBS:

 

Ellis Strada Fango

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29×2.0″ Schwalbe Furious Fred tires, Shimano CX-75 brakes

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Retrotec Half

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700x43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires, Paul Racer brakes to brazed pivots

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Soulcraft Dirtbomb

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700x43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires. Paul Mini-Moto brakes (linear-pull brake, compatible with road levers)

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Steve Potts, w/Type II fork (1987)

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26×1.95″ Specialized Ground Control tires, WTB Roller Cam brakes, and WTB Dirt Drop bars.  One of only two 26″ wheeled bikes in this collection, back when large-volume 700c tires were unavailable.  Several years earlier, a few Marin builders had gotten their hands on some 700x47mm Nokian Hakkepelita tires for use off-pavement, although supply issues forced the concept out of existence.  A year after this Potts frame was built, Bruce Gordon released his 43mm Rock ‘n Road tire.  This bike would have been considered a true mountain bike at the time, but has since informed the kinds of bikes that are popularly ridden on dirt roads, such as the Salsa Fargo.  Marin County is home to many historic fire roads.

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Reeb

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29×2.20″ Kenda Karma tires. Avid BB7 brakes

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Moots Farrhoots

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29×2.2″ Geax AKA tires, mechanical disc brakes (Shimano CX-75?)

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Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road

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700cx43mm Bruce Gordon Rock ‘n Road tires, and custom Bruce Gordon cantilever brakes.  This design and the accompanying tire celebrates 25 years in existence.

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Rob English Black Rainbow Custom

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Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires, Avid BB7 brakes

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Rick Hunter Super Scrambler

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Continental RaceKing tires, Shimano CX-75 brakes and vintage WTB Dirt Drop bars.  Check out this thorough post on the Super Scrambler.

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Twenty2 Cycles Custom 650b/700c

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650B Schwalbe Rocket Ron tires, Avid BB7 brakes.  Fits large volume 650b tires or cross-type 700c tires.

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Ellis Inox Rando

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Kenda Happy Medium tire, Paul Racer brakes, dynamo lighting and mini-rack.  This is the narrowest tire of the bunch, but represents what many people consider to be an appropriate tire for unpaved surfaces. This size is fine for graded, hardpacked surfaces without a load.
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Littleford Expedition Tourer

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26″ Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires, Paul Touring cantilever brakes, dynamo lighting, and expedition-grade racks.  In this instance, 26″ wheels are selected for durability and the ability to source wheels parts all over the globe.

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A brief history and tribute

Credit to Bruce Gordon for pushing the first large volume 700c tire through to the American market, and building a bike to fit it.  And to the 700x45mm Panaracer Fire Cross XC.  Credit to mountain bikes and all-terrain bikes and down-home dirt roads everywhere, and the people who ride them.  Credit to the Surly LHT which is a “real touring bike”, but fits bigger tires and is a gateway bike to dirt roads for many; and the Cross-Check, the monstercross bike of the people; and the Salsa Fargo, which has reintroduced the idea of knobby tires and drop bars to a lot of people.  Surely, credit is also due elsewhere: Grant Peterson and Rivendell (and the drop-bar Bridgestone MB-1), cross bikes, Jan Heine and ultra-plush 650b tires, Charlie Cunningham and the WTB drop bar, Wes Williams, Chris Skogen, Mike Varley and the Black Mountain Cycles Cross frame; Divide racers, gravel grinders, Hemistour riders, the BLM, and the most prolific builder of dirt roads in the world, the United States Forest Service.

Bruce Gordon’s influence is immeasurable.  If you ask Bruce, he started it all.  Note: the BG Rock ‘n Road tire was actually designed by Joe Murray, and borrowed heavily from the Nokian Hakkapelita.

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Does your bike happily ride on dirt roads? rough dirt roads?

The United States National Forest Road System consists of more than 380,000 miles of roads. The types of roads range from permanent, double-lane, paved highways to single-lane, low-standard roads intended only for use by high-clearance vehicles, such as pickup trucks. At this time, a significant portion of this system is closed or use-restricted to protect resources. (USFS website)

Further, 1.3 million miles, or more than one-third of all road miles in the U.S. are still unpaved gravel or dirt roads. (ARTBA website)

 

Rick Hunter Camouflage Dirt Tourer, AKA the Super Scrambler

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Standing at a distance of about six feet, I placidly gaze at the features of this bike, as in a museum.  Steve Potts approaches, now two of us standing shoulder to shoulder in appreciation.  Nothing to say in particular, although I stumble through a few words about the paint and drop bars and how this is probably my favorite bike at the show– “if I could take one bike home with me, this would be it”.  He kindly nods.  Pausing for a final moment to look, he walks away.  The bike receives the Steve Potts seal of approval, and that’s saying a lot.

Rick Hunter has been building bikes in Santa Cruz, CA for 20 years.  His featured dirt tourer at last year’s show was highly praised, complete with custom canvas framebags from Randi Jo Fabrications.  This year, he brought a showstopping custom longtail fatbike, built for Scott Felter of Porcelain Rocket.  But this drop bar 29er is the bike that stole my heart.  

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Vintage WTB Dirt Drop bars, Dura-Ace levers and Shimano XT shifters.  The bars are finished with a layer of Grab-On foam in the drops, wrapped in cotton tape.  This is still a really good way to mount shifters.  

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Custom Cunningham in-line barrel adjusters.

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Destined for Monkey Wrench Cycles in Lincoln, NE.

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Custom 6-speed cassette on a Chris King singlespeed hub, yielding a dishless rear wheel and a wide range of gears.

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Rick crafts beautiful and functional fork crowns and chainstay yokes.

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The build is completed with a NOS Avocet Touring saddle and Deore XT seatpost.

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Scott Felter says “Rick Hunter is a genius”.  I couldn’t agree more.  His bikes are highly functional, featuring a utilitarian aesthetic that is in itself, artistic.  He finds creative solutions to the specific needs of his customers, manufacturing custom racks, fork crowns and chainstay joinery.  While this bike is styled like an old Cunningham drop-bar mountain bike, painted like a Ritchey, it is designed and specced like a bike that is actually meant to ride.   

More images of the Super Scrambler and other bikes from Hunter Cycles on Rick’s photostream.

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South from San Felipe, Baja California Nord

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

The basis for a new bike

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The new bike will be built around a Velo Orange Campeur frame. I had imagined a proper rigid steel frame– non-disc and not suspension corrected– that would fit a 2.1″ tire and a fender. It does not exist, but in considering the available options with long forks and mountain bike geometries, I reverted to more traditional designs. The leading options for such a bike in a competitive price range are the Black Mountain Cycles Cross, the Surly Cross-Check and the VO Campeur. All satisfy my demands, but with slightly compromised tire clearances. However, as I envision fast riding with a lightweight load a narrower tire will suffice. Living in New Mexico for the winter, I will forgo fenders in trade for increased tire clearance.

Casey and Igor at Velo Orange tell me that the large frame sizes (59 and 61cm) will fit a 700x45mm Panaracer FireCross tire, barely. Given the aggressive nature of this tire and the tall side knobs, I am hoping that a smooth 45-50mm touring tire will fit. I do not enjoy fitting tires, fender and racks where they do not belong, although I cannot imagine exploring the rural dirt roads in this area without at least a reasonable cushion of air. As long as I have the Pugsley, aggressive traction is not an important feature of this bike, but a reasonable tire volume is.

It is my impression that many of the Schwalbe touring tires that I adore (Marathon, Supreme, Dureme) are undersized relative to the advertised sizes, which is good news. Some of these tires labeled 47 or 50mm may reasonably fit the Campeur with some room to spare. On such a tire, on such a frame, I expect dirt roads to disappear under me. Rough doubletrack and some singletrack will be rideable at a passable, touring pace, and pavement won’t be a problem. With 47mm tires, this bike will be much like my Schwinn High Sierra, but with the benefits of a larger wheel. I expect the bike to tackle great distances at speed in rural parts of the state. I’m hoping that this will be a fast comfortable road bike for real roads, in both town and country.

The frame is not yet in the mail and most of the build is not finalized, yet I have found two foundational pieces at a local bike swap. A NOS 36 hole Specialized front hub cost $5, while the Deore LX bottom-pull front derailleur was $2. For an extra $2, I bought a similar front mech for Cass as well. Thus far, these pieces are the basis for the new bike.

See my post from Interbike about the VO Campeur, including lots of live photos.

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Cass has some Schwalbe Duremes that we can play with when the frames arrive. If they do not fit with a reasonable margin for a bent rim or some mud, I will look elsewhere. Here are some additional considerations:

Clement X’Plor MSO, 40mm (actual width, 38.5mm)

Michelin Transworld Sprint, 42 mm

Bruce Gordon Rock’n’Road, 43mm

Vee Rubber XCX, 1.75″ or 47mm

Real touring bikes: Canadian Rockies

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Another round of bikes from all over the world, attracted to the picturesque peaks of the Canadian Rockies.  Germans in particular are quite fond of the north country, although they travel to many destinations.  I’ve recently encountered two German couples, separately, traveling with a baby of one year or less– it seems the Chariot is a preferred method of hauling live cargo.  The following bikes were spotted between Jasper, AB and the Montana border.  A self-contained ACA tour of the Great Divide Route from Banff to Whitefish was a goldmine of great bikes and characters.  In the Yukon I managed to capture almost every bike I saw; more recently, I catch a little over half.

Two bright beams approach from the northbound shoulder of the Icefields Parkway.  I leave my light on all the time as well, and readily spot the piercing LED from afar.  Approaching, both parties come to a halt and exclaim, expectantly and knowingly, “Germans?!”.  If you see a bright dynamo light coming down the road, “German?” is usually a good guess.  I am right; of course, they are not.  I tell people I’m from Alaska.  We speak about the growth in popularity of dynamo lighting in the US and the General influence of German cycling equipment.  Upon closer inspection, they are riding perfect examples of German tourers: Rohloff hubs, Magura hydraulic rim brakes, Schwalbe Extreme tires, Tubus, Ortlieb, Schmight lighting, SKS fenders, ESGE kickstand, Ergon Grips, and stout aluminum Idworx frames.  Proudly, only the pedals are from Shimano.  A limiter keeps the handlebars from turning more than 90deg, which prevents damage to the hydraulic brake line and the headlight.

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Kiwis on tour riding 26″ wheels, both are riding Jamis mountain bikes with Vaude panniers.

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Americans on Kona Sutra touring bikes with Ortlieb panniers.  These are the second pair of Sutras for this couple; their other Sutras have been used for several longer tours and now reside at the winter residence down south.  It was time for some new drivetrain parts on the old bikes so it was decided that new bikes would solve the problem.  That’s the third, and most expensive approach to drivetrain maintenance– new bikes.  Note disc brakes with rim brake mounts.  I’ve seen numerous lowrider racks mounted to cantilever posts as shown.

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I finally captured it!  People stop and point and poke at my Pugsley all the time.  Tourists in Banff particularly enjoyed it.  A vacationing German couple asked if the framebag contained a motor.

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Not a touring bike, at least not yet.  As I often say, “it’s not a touring bike until it’s on tour”.  Likewise, when it’s out on the open road, it’s a touring bike no matter if it’s made of carbon or features full-suspension.   Just a town bike in Banff, but this Kona Explosif caught my eye. It’s hideous, unless you grew up reading mountain bike magazines in the 90’s.  Technically, this bike was a little before my time.

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On the Divide, a wide variety of bikes are to be found but most feature proper mountain bike tires.  This Trek Marlin 29er is a two day ride from home in Calgary, and less than ten miles from the start of the Great Divide Route in Banff.  This rider approached the local bike shop with a budget and list of anti-specifications: the bike could not have hydraulic disc brakes, it could not have an air or oil fork, and it could not have 26″ wheels.  The result was an inexpensive 29er which came in way under budget, to his surprise.  A simple reliable bike doesn’t require a hefty price tag!

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A full suspension 26″ wheeled carbon Norco.  The rider enjoyed the ride and claimed not to have any issues mounting racks.

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Nothing to see, but another statistic.  A young German woman on a Giant XTC mountain bike with front and rear racks.

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This is by far the most unique bike I’ve seen since Alaska, and perhaps for the entire summer to come.  Tim SanJule constructed this bike of parts and tubing from several other bikes, building on lots of real world touring experience and improving upon his last touring bike, an old steel Specialized Rockhopper.  A second down tube, or diagatube, was added for strength and to prevent shimmy while loaded.  S&S couples were sourced from a Craigslist bike, the eccentric bottom bracket (EBB) from a KHS tandem, and the tubing from a variety of old bikes.  The parts are described as “tough North American stuff”, referring to a mix a Paul, White Industries and Phil Wood.  A vintage Sachs front derailleur and a short cage Dura-Ace rear derailleur add some flair; don’t shift into the small-small combination or the chain will go slack, but the short cage derailleur shifts better and reduces chain slap.  Both front and rear Avid BB7 disc calipers are operated by a long run of exposed cable from the top of the fork and near the BB, respectively.  The housing stop on the caliper itself has been removed.  Cromoly Tubus Cargo racks are mounted front and rear and the fork features multiple braze-ons for bottle cages and racks, a la Salsa.  This rider is leading a dozen riders on a self-contained ACA tour of the Great Divide Route from Banff, AB to Whitefish, MT.  The following bikes are from that group.

Tim grew up in the same small cowtown I did.  We comprise the entirety of cycling culture in, or from, Cortland, NY and make for a curious pair of bikes and riders.  Tim pedals in a climbing helmet and a well-worn pair of Converse Chuck Taylor athletic shoes.  When I was a “mountain biker” in high school, I used to ride in my “Chucks”.

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A carbon Trek 29er, purchased several years ago in preparation for riding some of the Great Divide.  In that time, this rider has accumulated lots of gear to suit his needs but was bursting at the seams of his bikepacking-inspired setup.  An Old Man Mountain rack is mounted in front with Ortlieb panniers, as it was decided that a rear rack would place unsafe stress on the carbon frame.  Slow speed steering is described as “heavy”, which can be especially hazardous when climbing loose surfaces.  Seven separate Revelate Designs bags are hidden here.

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A Rhode Island based rider on a Tout Terrain Silkroad with “the works” from Peter White Cycles in New Hampshire: a Rohloff Speedhub, an Shimano Alfine dynamo hub, B&M lighting, Schwalbe Marathon Extreme tires, and T.A. cranks.  He was a bit disappointed to have had a puncture with his highly specialized, and expensive touring tires.  I assured him that such things were normal, and quite possible on any tire.

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An early 1990’s Bridgestone XO-3 with a Cane Creek Thudbuster seatpost and a Girvin suspension stem, comprising a simple short-travel full suspension system.  This bike also wears a pair of older (vintage?) Schwalbe XR touring tires.  S&S couplers have been installed.

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A first generation Salsa Fargo with Revelate framebag and panniers, wearing an uncommon Schwalbe tire, the Marathon Plus ATB in a 40 or 42mm dimension.

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I took a liking to this bike, a Surly Karate Monkey with Rohloff, Revelate bags, Continental Mountain King tires, and a small pair of Jandd panniers on a rear rack.  The Revelate Tangle bag is nice as it leaves enough room for both water bottles to be used.  This one fits the frame nicely.

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A Niner S.I.R. 9 steel frame of Reynolds 853 tubing.  A nice clean build with an attractive older White Brothers suspension fork, pulling a BOB trailer.

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An eight-year old custom titanium Seven 29er with S&S couplers, also with an older White Brothers fork.  The White Brothers forks were the best, and only option when 29ers first arrived.  They continue to be made in Grand Junction, CO.  This bike was wearing a pair of WTB Nanoraptor tires, the first true 29er tire available, first offered back in 1999.

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