Tour Divide Update: Silver City, NM

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Tour Divide AK command center at The Bicycle Shop, Anchorage, AK.  At the moment, Lael is pushing to the border at Antelope Wells, NM.  She hasn’t stopped pedaling since Sunday morning and should finish before noon, Mountain Time.  

She called several miles out of Silver City.  I’m holding the saddle rails of a donated 12″ wheel Magna, recently unpacked and assembled by a 13 year old and a three year old on the front lawn.  Joshua has been ripping around on a 12″ Specialized Hotwalk since last summer, a pedal-less walking bike designed to instill the basic mechanics of velocipeding.  The chance donation of a pedal bike by another family, who never found use for it, is well timed.  As soon as we set the training wheel height and the saddle, we set out to ride.  Even before I arrive, he is calling it a mountain bike.

Pedaling is hard.  The motion is challenging.  The leg strength is not there, or at least not the coordination, and the combination of plastic pedals and cowboy boots is not ideal.  The bike only steers to the right as Joshua looks all around shouting orders to everyone.  “I’m in charge.  Let’s go the ‘kishla Park.”  We follow, and I assist from the left end of the handlebar to keep course.  In time, small realizations lead to riding.  Within the hour we are riding around an asphalt ice rink.  Jada piles feathery cottonwood droppings, instructing Josh to aim his tires at them.  He does, and the moment of focus is a victory.  He’s riding a bike, and is in control.

Lael immediately tells me, like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar, or in trouble with the principal.  “I fell.”  

She landed on her knee and shoulder.  It was stupid, less than 100 ft from the pavement coming down off a technical section of the CDT.  It was getting dark and she didn’t see some rocks in the road.  She’s mad, embarrassed, aching.  She doesn’t want to see anybody.  It’s not serious.  I can understand her feeling, but I don’t share the emotion exactly.  The thing that she is doing is deeply real for her, chasing miles down dirt roads into the night.  Falling is disappointing, yet it also shakes her brain into a sense of hyper reality.  She’s talking like it doesn’t matter any more.  Who cares about this thing.  I agree, but I remind her that she’s chased this thing since June 12 in Banff, since May 15 in Anchorage, and since the HLC in Israel.  It all started with that three day solo ride from Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat on the Israel Bike Trail, a manicured backcountry singletrack route across the Negev Desrt.  If that ride went well, she would race the HLC.  If the HLC went well, and she enjoyed it, she would race the Divide.  After her three day ride to Eilat she was flying high.  She hasn’t descended since then, and my fear that she has been flying too close to the sun grows more real.  Her spirits are back on the ground, covered in blood and dust.   

Joshua continues his never-ending right hand turn, bumping into the boards of the Scotty Gomez neighborhood ice rink.  The first time we sat him on a pedal bike at The Bicycle Shop last summer, he said, “I can’t do this”, which no one in the family had ever heard from him before.  We decided on a walking bike, but not the pink one to which he was so attached.  There were tears, everyone had a different idea of how to herd this opinionated two year old, and we left the store.  But I selected a red Hotwalk and we took it home along with Jada’s XS Specialized Myka.  The next day, the red bike was his favorite color, he decided.  He began walking from the saddle that day.

While tightening the axle nuts on the Magna this evening, sitting in the grass out front of the house, Joshua asks me, “Do you miss Aunt Lael?”  

Yes.

“Me too” he says.

Follow the Tour Divide 2015 at Trackleaders.com.

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Tour Divide Update: The Gila, NM

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Lael and Kathy at the Pie-o-neer Cafe, 8000ft, Pie Town, NM.  Photo courtesy Pie-o-Neer Cafe.

Lael is gaining ground on the women.  Even on a short day– only 156 miles– she has stretched her lead to the point that she is over 300 miles ahead of the next female competitor.  Two riders, Joe Fox and Andres Bonelli, have gained some ground and are riding steadily behind her by about 17 miles.  If they all continue pace they may never see each other.  If their paths cross, we may have a race to the border for sixth place.  Lael slept early last night and started on the bike at about 3:30AM.  She only rode about six miles before stopping for another three hours.  Either she decided that a little more sleep would be necessary, or was disturbed by something or someone in her original location.  Perhaps she suffered a mechanical in the dark, fumbling with cold hands.  These things are hard to say from cold digital data, and a solid reminder that the even 9.4mph pace that every rider seems to keep, exists outside the digital vacuum in which we read it.  It hails, it is hot and dusty, there are headwinds, broken forks, saddle sores, and frequent stops to eat, resupply, refill water, lube the chain, lower tire pressures, talk to people, navigate the route, plan the day ahead, eat pie, and sleep.  Yet, the strongest riders in this event seem to be set to autopilot, pedaling a consistent trajectory for up to 20 hours a day.  I know for certain that at least three of those things happened yesterday for Lael.  Steady headwinds and sidewinds slowed much of the ride into Grants.  The Pie-o-neer Cafe in Pie Town reports 36 seconds of hail yesterday, amid thunderstorms.  And, Lael seems to have gotten her pie.

Kathy Knapp, from the Pie-o-neer Cafe, reports: “I spied her our the window– leaving town- and yelled at her to come back.  GOOD LUCK Lael!!!”  

Lael got a glimpse of the Pie-o-neer where I spent a magical evening back in 2011.  I rolled into town on the bike in November.  On the same day three southbound CDT hikers occupied the Toaster House, the local free guesthouse for thru hikers and bikers.  The Toaster House is the gift of Nita to the community of self-propelled travelers through this corner of New Mexico.  Catron Country, NM reportedly has no traffic lights.  But there is a house adorned with toasters, full of beds and couches and old magazines and a wood stove– and most importantly, a shower and a freezer full of frozen pizzas and pies.  Nita has moved a few miles down the road and has left something very special for us.  She accepts donations to keep the freezer stocked.  One day years ago when her kids were young, she invited a lone hiker into her home.  This is how she learned about the CDT, which passes on the dirt street in front of the house  She has made an effort to invite weary travelers to her home ever since.

Back on that day in 2011, I enjoyed a few slices of pie and free wifi for several hours as a customer at the Pie-o-neer.  I was was invited to return later that evening with the others, after hours, to a private gathering.  Some friends of Kathy’s were coming from out of town.  A table of food was presented, red wine, and at the right time, there were pies.  Several small tables of friends, including our now-showered group of hikers and bikers, enjoyed the dimly lit space, sitting close to the wood stove on this cold November evening at 8000ft.  The dishwasher plays the guitar, Kathy and Nita sing, and a few other friends join with instruments and voices.  The set list is Arlo Guthrie Guthrie and Joan Baez, and other hits from the era.  These hippies didn’t go to California.  They found a better place on the Continental Divide in remote southwestern New Mexico.  Near the end of the evening, Nita and Kathy lead the group in the Kate Wolf classic “Across the Great Divide”.  I’d ridden my 1985 Schwinn High Sierra from Maryland to New York and Ontario, out to Banff, Alberta and down the Divide to Pie Town.  Nearing the end of my five month odyssey, there couldn’t have been a more perfect song for the moment.  I will always be grateful for that song in that place at that time.  Of the three hikers I’d shared that time with, I was sad to learn this past year that one of them, Benjamin Newkirk, was killed in a climbing accident in the Sisters Wilderness near Bend, Oregon.  Ben and I stayed in contact.  I helped him prepare for his first bike tour.  After countless miles in the backcountry on foot , he transitioned well to cycle touring aboard a Salsa Vaya.  But his place out there was on foot.

Salsa Cycles provided Tour Divide racers with commemorative Pie Town top caps at the Grand Depart in Banff.  The stem top cap, a small part on the bicycle, could be used as a token worth two free slices of pie in Pie Town.  Thanks Salsa Cycles!

Dylan Taylor and Alex Harris both finished yesterday ahead of 2012 record pace.  Congrats on the strong ride!  Lael and her group will be next to Antelope Wells, sometime tomorrow.

Follow the Tour Divide 2015 at Trackleaders.com.

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Tour Divide Update: Grants, NM

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I’ll will never understand how Tour Divide riders pedal from Canada to Mexico with those cumbersome colored dots.  They really should consider a digital version.  Goofing off on FR 70 near NM 126, Santa Fe National Forest, NM.  Photos courtesy Elizabeth Quinley.

Lael crushed the 4000ft climb from Abiquiu yesterday, which I interpreted from Trackleaders data, verified by her account over the phone while riding out of Cuba.  She rode fast through the entire section from Abiquiu to Cuba, except for the time when a high school friend from Alaska, now living in New Mexico, dropped by for an impromptu photo shoot in the woods.  Some things never change with these girls.

The big news today is that the top three men have finished, smashing Jay Petervary’s official record from 2012 by more than a full day.  There are some fascinating details to the newest record.  Jay’s 2012 ride finished in 15:16:14.  In 2013 Mike Hall blazed the course in 14:11:55, but a necessary detour around a wildfire in New Mexico voided his claim to the record, although it was more than a day faster than Jay’s performance.  There are plenty of people that recognize Mike’s ride for what it was– the fastest Tour Divide ride ever– but lacking official record status has left that footnote to wither in favor of Jay’s official record.  But we knew it could be done, thanks to Mike.  He posted the first sub-15 day time on the Divide.  Until this year.

Jay and Neil battled all the way from Banff, with Seb Dunne, Josh Kato, Alex Harris, and Dylan Taylor in tow for much of the race.  Alex and Dylan dropped back in Colorado and New Mexico; rather, they got dropped.  Seb busted his fork.  Josh was trailing most of the way, never far behind, but always at a deficit.  In New Mexico, Josh attacked the course and caught Jay and Neil in Abiquiu, only to be left at the store as soon as he arrived.  This continued for some time, all the way to Pie Town, where Josh would catch the leaders, ride with or near them, and get left in town or on the course.  He was coming from behind. On the last night, Jay and Neil bedded down in the Gila together.  Josh– presumably unaware of where his competitors were exactly, as we know from Trackleaders data– continued into the night just long enough to pass the two sleeping dogs.  He camped not much further down the road.  It is reported that he knew they were sleeping along the route, and that he was afraid his light would wake them.  By morning, all three riders were together, pushing over the 8 miles section of the actual Continental Divide Trail to Silver City.  All three riders stopped at McDonalds’s in Silver City.  They all left about the same time.  Then Josh dropped the hammer.  Jay and Neil chased.  Josh won.  

There are more details unfolding on the Bikepacking.net forums, and the stories will soon come from the racers themselves, but Josh simply rode faster from Silver City to the border.  He pedaled faster, he stopped less.  It is reported that he ran out of water with 25 miles to go and for fear of cramping, pulled some water out of a culvert.  Even if it had made him sick, he would have made it to the finish in front.  The water was “nasty tasting” according to a follower who was present on the route to the finish.

Josh finished in 14:11:37, faster than Jay’s 2012 run by more than a day and 18 minutes faster than Mike Hall’s 2013 run.  Jay finished in 14:12:03 and Neil finished in 14:12:23.  The top three finishers all improved upon Jay’s 2012 record by more than a day.  Dylan Taylor and Alex Harris are both ahead of that same record pace.  Dylan has hardly slept in days, across most of New Mexico, and will finish in the around noon on Saturday.  

In a distant sixth place, Lael is battling headwinds on her way into Grants, NM this morning.  She is about 250 miles ahead of Eszter Horanyi’s 2012 record pace, and 270 miles ahead of Bethany Dunne, the next female competitor in this race.  She reports from Grants that she tore a large hole in her sleeping bag last night, as she camped near a barbed wire fence in the night.  We’ve already replaced the slider on the zipper once before, and she’s repaired numerous large tears in the bag.  After four solid years with the Western Mountaineering Summerlite bag, the fabric is weathered, faded, and weak.  She will leave it in Grants in a place where someone may find it.  Unsure if she will reach Pie Town before the two pie shops close, she will use the extra luggage capacity for the 240mi push to Silver City.  Lael pedaled 184 miles yesterday.

I am excited to report that Seb Dunne, who had left the route due to a damaged fork, managed to secure a carbon Niner fork with assistance from Andy Peirce, a framebuilder in Del Norte, CO.  The fork shipped overnight express.  Seb rejoined his wife Bethany on the route near Horca and will continue with her to the finish.  Bethany is tracking about 20 miles behind Eszter’s record pace.  

Thanks to Elizabeth Quinley for the photos and the LW bubble.

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Tour Divide Update: Abiquiu, NM

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Looking back toward Abiquiu on a weekend Jemez Loop with Jeremy on the Velo Orange Campeur, in 2012.  Cerro Pedernal stands in the distance.  Our route from Santa Fe to ABQ around the north side of the Valles Caldera via the San Antonio Hot Springs intersected a section of the Great Divide Route.

Lael climbs Polvadera Mesa this morning out of Abiquiu, the last big topographic obstacle before the horizon clears toward the border.  Thereafter, she rides over a hundred miles of pavement beyond Cuba, sandy roads to Pie Town, and the relentlessly rolling drainages of the Gila– and 8 miles of the actual CDT– to Silver City.  She ascends the chunky 4000ft climb alone, forty miles ahead of her one-time competitors.  We rode here very late in the season back in 2011, experiencing snowy, muddy roads and very cold nights.  This is the north side of the Jemez Mountains, where we used to play when we lived in Albuquerque for a season.  She has less than 500 miles to the border.  

Heat and afternoon thunderstorms are forecast every day, beginning yesterday on her ride over Brazos Ridge.  I spoke with her this morning from Abiquiu and she said the mud slowed her down a bit.  She pedaled 156mi yesterday from her campsite halfway up Indiana Pass to Platoro, Horca, La Manga Pass, up Brazos Ridge, across NM 64, and through Vallecitos.  There is a bit of chunky stuff in there, and a lot of topography.  She camped just short of El Rito and began riding at 4:30AM.  She will arrive in Cuba later today, and will begin the long paved ride to Grants, and to the Pie Town turnoff.  Daily thunderstorms are exactly the reason why the paved alternate between Cuba and Grants is allowed during the race.  The caliche mud in this area would stop the race.  She also reported that new owners at the store in Horca equate to prepared foods only, no store.  She said it took forever to get her food for the ride ahead.

Jay and Neil rode close toward the end of the day and camped together for several hours in the night.  Josh Kato rode late to catch them, unknowingly passing them in the night to camp less than a mile or two away.  All three are riding together into the 8 mile CDT Alternate, which is the official TD route to Piños Altos and Silver City.  The race continues.

Listen to “Columbine” by Townes Van Zandt, a song about setting free, about reaching and falling, and throwing the pedals to the wind.  It is a song about a girl, through the symbol of a flower, but it might as well be about Lael riding a bike 170 miles a day.  It took me by surprise when I heard it for the first time in months, earlier this week.  Petals and pedals are the same when sung.  Keep those pedals dancin’ Lael!

 

Cut yourself a columbine, tear it from the stem

Now breathe upon the petals fine, and throw ’em to the wind

Watch the petals dancing, see ’em twirl and sing

Now all your pride and prancing, how much does it mean

 

Watch the petals start to fly, and then come falling down

Aw, hear the wind begin to cry, as she sees ’em touch the ground

All lady like and flower fair, some day you’ll have to fall

And you can find me standing there, to catch you if you call

 

“Columbine”, Townes Van Zandt, 1969

 

Follow the Tour Divide 2015 at Trackleaders.com.

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Tour Divide Update: Indiana Pass, CO

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Greg, a cousin of a bike friend from Anchorage, AK intercepted Lael at the top of Marshall Pass yesterday morning.  They’ve only met once, so when Lael saw him she said “Hey, I recognize you.”  He tried to give her sandwiches, which she declined.  Greg reports, “she looks good/strong, but sounds horrible with a lingering cough”.  Photo via Nathan Bosch.

Arriving in Poncha Springs later than the boys, Lael stopped at a corner store for food and camped across the street under a tree.  She was on the bike by 4:30AM, pedaling the 3400ft up Marshall Pass at a brisk pace, alone, ahead of the others.  For the rest of the day, she fought off the group at her heels, gained some distance while riding, lost some of that distance in the final miles to Del Norte, but still arrived about a half hour ahead.  She stopped in Del Norte for about a half hour and pressed on up Indiana Pass, one of the single greatest climbs on the Divide.  The top of the pass also marks the high point on the route at 11,920ft.  The other riders stayed in Del Norte.  

Lael called while riding the bike path out of town.  She still has a lingering cough, although she reports no respiratory distress.  When I rattled off questions about her physical condition– butt, knees, Achilles, hands?– she admitted her knees felt a little creaky in the early morning, that’s it.  As far as I know, she has not slept indoors or showered since Banff.  She’ll be due for a long hot soak in a few days.  The border is less than 700 miles away.  She rode 176 miles yesterday over Marshall Pass, Cochetopa Pass, Carnero Pass, and then about half of Indiana Pass before laying down to sleep.  She will cross into New Mexico this morning and may reach as far as El Rito or Abiquiu tonight.  

The lead group has splintered.  Alex Harris is riding well behind the other riders now.  Dylan Taylor has ridden through the night to put down some miles.  Josh Kato, who caught the two leaders in Abiqui, has made chase and stayed close.  That is, until Jay and Neil each arrived near Grants last night, and each of them rolled out with just over 3 hours of sleep.  This is the race to the finish.

Jay rolled out a few minutes ahead of Neil and has been hammering the pedals, opening a 16mi gap going into Pie Town.  Neil is riding strong, and is chased by Josh Kato 23 miles back.  Dylan is 54 miles behind Josh.  The race for the record is between the top three, although gaining 39 miles on Jay in the last 200 miles won’t be easy for Josh.  In fact, staying in the lead won’t be easy.  Riding long days, repeatedly, is a challenge for all of the riders.  But to finish a long battle with a gloves-off boxing match to the finish is going to hurt.  

Jay Petervary celebrated his birthday yesterday.

Seb Dunne, the sixth component of the lead group of men, has walked and hitched back to the San Luis Valley of Colorado, and is searching for a new fork between Alamosa and Del Norte.  His current fork, damaged beyond repair, has a tapered steerer and accepts a 9mm QR.  I chatted with him this morning and it sounds like framebuilder Andy Peirce might have a workable solution for him in a used Salsa fork (which has a straight steerer, so would require another headset) .  He also mentioned ordering a Whisky carbon fork from QBP via expedited shipping, which is available for 15mm thru-axle only (he may have an SP/Exposure hub with an adaptor).  Alternatively, Del Norte is only 80 miles from Salida, which may present a solution.  BTI is located in Santa Fe, NM and may be able to ship quickly.  His fork folded at the crown.  Thankfully, he was uninjured.  

Seb hopes to get back on the route as soon as possible to continue his ride, even if at a “touring pace”.  However, it sounded like he would be happy to get back on route and hammer a few long days to the finish to post a strong time.  If so, he and Lael may cross paths.  Can Seb and Lael hunt down Alex Harris to collect the $1M prize from The Munga?  The South African Divide-style race, which was first scheduled in December 2014, promised a $1M prize purse built from $10,000 entry fees and corporate sponsorship.  Failure to procure sponsorship and budget the event forced organizers to cancel The Munga.  The website for the event describes the proposed 1000km race along a marked course across the interior of South Africa as “The Toughest Race on Earth”.  It further states, “Being tough is not a right or a privilege.  It is a choice”.  The history of racing along the Great Divide Route is about 15 years old.  Entry to the event has always been free.  There are no prizes.    

Both the men’s and women’s records are set to fall this year, set at 15:16:04 and 19:03:35, respectively.  Jay is riding about 230 miles ahead of his record pace from 2012, with four others ahead of the historical data for that ride.  Lael is about 140 miles ahead of Eszter’s pace from 2012, and if Bethany Dunne can put in a strong ride through New Mexico she may also improve upon the current record.  Eszter Horanyi, the most decorated female bikepacker ever (by a long shot), has written a thoughtful post on her blog Zen on Dirt titled Watching Tour Divide Records Fall.    Elsewhere she writes, “If there’s someone who’s going to take my record down, there is absolutely no one else in the world who I’d rather it be than [Lael]“.  Thanks for being awesome Eszter!  A record 18 women started the Tour Divide 2015.    

Follow the Tour Divide 2015 at Trackleaders.com.

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Correspondence: Notes on a Stealth Fatty

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Hmmm, how long has it been, only a few weeks since I picked up the necromancer pug but it’s been an honest blast. I genuinely feel these bikes should be the absolute standard for off-roading, be it touring or park ratting. The bike is really well balanced and carries it’s weight well when riding technical single track and has stunning stability on “off the back of the saddle” descents. There’s definitely a re-learning curve with accepting the tire pressures that get the most out of the bike.  The psi’s are definitely different in regard to what you are riding.  This brings me to the tubeless.

Jeff and Nick, thanks. Y’all did a stunning job. I’ve ridden this bike with absolute negligence and disregard with no burps or flats. Really, I’ve riddled the tires with a whole lot of goatheads and ridden it damned hard on and off road at 2psi, and the tires are still attached to the rims. Which does pose a complication as the larry is a liability. It’s been hot and tacky out and i’ve really been pushing the bike on the local trail systems– the Larry really will break loose. The nate is stunning, the Larry, it’s gotta, gunna go eventually. I hope before me, ha ha.

I just wanted to let y’all know how much I appreciate the effort 2 wheel drive put into getting me on this bike. I dig it. I’ve attached some pics documenting some of the finer moments since getting the pugs.

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Jeremy is “over the handlebars for New Mexico”, which is our way of saying that he likes it here and he goes over the bars a lot.  A recent transplant from Texas and everywhere, he makes the most of this rugged and beautiful state and rides like it doesn’t hurt when you crash.  I wonder if Jeremy has really ridden down to 2psi?  He’s a little guy and when the snow is soft it’s easy to let it all out, so it’s possible, but 4psi may be more likely.  Hey Jeremy, I’ve got an extra Nate tire if you stop through ABQ sometime soon.

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Photos: Cass Gilbert and Jeremy Gray

Also, check out my “Fatbiking Micro-Adventure in New Mexico” on the Adventure Cycling Blog, and my older post about commuting and touring on a fatbike.

Correspondence: First ride on a fatbike

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Hey again Nick,

Thanks for writing back!  I’m really lucky to have met some people like you and Jeff who can help me get oriented here in the early stages, so thanks for that.

Hope all is well.  Have had the bike out a few times and am going to ride again today.  We have some nice mellow singletrack right behind the house, in addition to rocky doubletrack trails and sandy arroyos, so the new Pugsley provides a good bang for the buck.  Nothing spectacular or difficult but a great place for a couple of beginners.  Yesterday, we found a little bit of everything from deep mud, to ice, to snow, to rocky single track.  The Neck Romancer is a blast and seems very forgiving with the wider tires.  It’s a smooth ride (I let a little air out) and just plows through mud and eats up rocks.  It almost feels like a full suspension bike with the tires running low.  It was the most fun I’ve had on two wheels!  I have a lot of work to do though – there is a nice short but steep climb that I’m going to make my goal to be able to get it by the end of the month without having to walk the last third (part of it is I need to work on my shifting, etc.)  Anyways, I’ve attached a few images just for fun – nothing amazing.

Do keep in touch, I would probably drive you and Cass absolutely insane with how slow I would be, but hopefully I will start getting some legs under me and get out there.  I will keep you posted as well about any cool rides in the future.

– Matt

For some amazing photos, check out Matt’s photography website.

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“Correspondence” is a series I began with this post, in which I share some of the conversations I have with friends and acquaintances about bikes, equipment, touring routes, and other aspects of bicycle travel.  Matt and Cammie live on the Navajo Reservation that spans the Arizona-New Mexico border, and have access to vast expanses of remote country.  Above, Cammie is riding and pushing a 26″ wheeled full-suspension Specialized, which Jeff recently converted to tubeless for desert exploration.  But, she’s ridden a Moonlander around the block…

Awake to Cochiti

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1:46 PM, Railrunner train in Albuquerque.  2:45, Kewa/Santo Domingo station.  3:15, Peña Blanca; 3:45 Cochiti Pueblo and grocery.  4:15, FR 289 or St. Peter’s Dome Road, gated dirt.  Rain.  5:30, dark.  Climb.  6:15, camp.  Wind and rain and wet clothes.  7:30 AM, awake.  Cochiti Canyon.

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Second Impressions of the Campeur

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I have ridden the Velo Orange Campeur in ways that it was designed and ways it wasn’t, forcing it out of its comfort zone since November 2012. Along the way, I have learned a lot about the bike and about my needs as a rider. I have (re)learned to appreciate a fast, natural ride on pavement. Although I’ve been on the road much of the last five years, this is the most road oriented bike I’ve ridden since 2009.

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First glancing the Campeur at Interbike, comparing geometry charts, and assembling the frame with new parts served to create a feeling about the new Velo Orange frame. Those were first impressions– pure speculation.  They were important because they framed my expectations of experiences to come. Disregard them. These are second impressions. These are based upon experience.

The Campeur has all the standard features of a proper touring bike to mount water and racks and fenders; long chainstays and stout tubing ensure stability; and a sensible headtube extension allows the handlebars near saddle height. Beneath the French aesthetic, the bike is actually a classic American touring bike. No, the Campeur does not compete directly with the venerable Trek 720 or Miyata 1000, which could or would cost much more to duplicate. Rather, the Campeur is much more like the Trek 620 or the Miyata 610, affordable versions of their top-of-the-line brethren. These models were known for similar features to their celebrated siblings, but they boasted a more rugged construction and were suited to carry more. Most of all, they were more affordable. The Campeur continues the tradition.

Ride quality

The Campeur is not a lightweight event bike, but it rides nicely unloaded with the right wheels, tires and tire pressure (see Mike Ross’ “1500 Mile Review”). Unlike many touring bikes, it features lively steering that is inspiring to ride unloaded. Its stout tubing does not provide the supple ride of an Italian lightweight and it may not plane when sprinting uphill unloaded, but it will handle daily life, transitioning from city to country and back. It could be ridden on a 200km brevet, to work all week, and onto dirt roads in the hills the following weekend. As with many touring bikes, the ride is enlivened with a load, feeling more grounded and assured and compliant. I have not ridden the Campeur in the traditional “fully-loaded” format with racks and panniers, but given the ride quality with moderate loads on fast descents I have no doubt that the load limit is still far off.  It is certainly capable of the kinds of trips where tires are dipped into the ocean.

Steering

I don’t think much about steering while riding the Campeur, which is a great compliment to a bike. I used to spend hours obsessing over low-trail geometry before realizing that trail is a necessary feature of bike design, best understood when the extremes (too high and too low) have been experienced. From some test rides, I know that extremely low-trail steering is not to my liking, especially unloaded (VO Polyvalent, 37mm trail). I’ve toured and commuted on a bike with notably high mechanical trail and gigantic tires with massive rotational weight at low pressures, and I know that high trail and heavy steering can force the bike wide around a corner, or off the trail altogether (Surly Pugsley, 88mm trail). I’ve toured on a very normal bike with many positive attributes, which became cumbersome with a heavy handlebar bag and too-narrow handlebars (1985 Schwinn High Sierra, est. 65+mm trail). First, I developed my touring chops for almost two years on a Made in the USA bread-and-butter touring bike with aluminum racks and panniers (1995 Trek 520, est. 65+mm trail). These are my reference points.

The Campeur provides the most natural steering I have experienced. I always ride with some kind of load. While never excessive, my load varies from a day’s supply of electronics, clothing, snacks and tools to a camping load for a couple of days or a load of groceries.  The steering geometry of the Campeur is best quantified as medium-trail, measuring 57mm of mechanical trail. For reference, the Surly LHT and Atlantis are both in the high 60’s (all on 38mm tires). Conventional wisdom suggests that high-trail geometry benefits the touring style, providing stability when riding straight all day, every day. But as front loads increase in mass and in height above the wheel– as with a basket or handlebar bag– high-trail bikes become cumbersome, especially when steering at low speed. The phenomena of heavy, slow speed steering is called wheel flop. It can be tiring and unnerving.

Daily, my experience riding the Campeur is casual and the steering is intuitive– it is neither twitchy nor heavy. I only notice the steering because of the smooth arcs that I carve on pavement. Broad curves at speed are managed with body english and almost no perceptible handlebar input. In the city, I lay the bike through tight corners with some input at the bars, and I always come out of the turn exactly when I want– never too soon– without losing much speed. The bike is unencumbered by a moderate front load, such as a full day’s supply in my Ostrich handlebar bag. The steering does not become heavy until I load a gallon of milk, avocados, apples, and a camera up front. At some point, a loaded bike is expected to feel heavy. This is when a balanced load becomes important.

For an in-depth discussion of my packing style, revisit my post “Packing the Campeur: Bikepacking Style” on the VO Blog.

Just as an overloaded handlebar bag can be cumbersome, a full saddlebag without a front load feels a little strange. When both bags are used in conjunction, even when full, the bike feels right– it is once again grounded and natural. For bulky items and camping loads I look to my Carradice Camper saddlebag and its 25L capacity. It swallows laundry for two, or camping gear and food for a few days. Even at high speeds with a full load, the Campeur is unwavering. The bike does not shimmy (speed wobble) when loaded, even when attempting to instigate or propogate a wave. Riding with one hand on the bars, or with no hands, is possible.

Low BB

Another notable feature of the Campeur design is a low bottom bracket, which is a common on the touring bike checklist. However, a low BB is not a feature for the kind of riding I like to do. Dirt roads may include erosional features and embedded rocks, and the Campeur is challenged by limited pedal clearance in some situations (45mm, tires; 175mm cranks; VO Sabot pedals). As such, I have switched from the large platform of the Grand Cru Sabot pedals to narrower VO Urban pedals for increased clearance. I have gained the confidence to corner without fear of pedal strike in the city.  Regarding vertical pedal clearance, I have learned to time my pedal stroke to avoid contact in the rough. Such riding is not the exact intention of this bike, although it is my passion and the tire clearance allows it. This is a personal caveat. For normal gravel road riding and unpaved rail trails there is little concern of pedal strike and a low bottom bracket does benefit stability, minimally.

Quill stem

The Campeur also uses a standard 1” threaded headset and quill stem. For my build, I have chosen a VO quill adaptor with a threadless-type stem. Both are finished nicely in polished silver. This system provides the best of both worlds– simple vertical adjustments and easily replaceable stems with removable faceplates if I choose to adjust the reach or swap handlebars. The claimed benefit of a 1 1/8” threadless system is a stiffer interface, which one can easily believe. However, I count a benefit of 1” quill systems to be the damping of road vibrations. Surely, the system also allows some lateral motion and torsion without ill effect, but the dampening is notable when riding fast on rough dirt roads or on broken pavement. For proper trail riding or sprinting, stiffness may be a feature. For riding along on real roads, compliance and comfort have a place.

Finish

I’ve seen all of the VO production frame models first hand, mostly in the brief time that I worked in the VO warehouse. The Campeur is the most refined of all previous models, both in design and finish. Tire clearances are exactly the same all around the bike. Rack, fender, and water bottle mounting points are all well-placed. The fork has a pleasing curve. The dropouts are utilitarian, yet proportional and elegant.  Cable routing is modern and sensible. The paint and decals are very nice. And, it has a headbadge.  I like the new Campeur decal and typeface.  It has a bold, modern feel and the illustration by Dan Price is playful and appropriate.

The Campeur is a touring, commuting, camping, utility bike– executed with subtle flair and an attention to detail. Mostly, it does not do anything that your beloved road touring bike cannot do. But in such a narrow category with close competitors, (in)significant details can make all the difference. The Campeur is fun to ride. The Campeur is a capable road bike for a path that is not always smooth or straight.

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These photos are from a three-day camping trip in the Jemez Mountains northwest of Santa Fe, NM.  We started and ended on pavement and connected about 70 miles of dirt roads at the heart of the route, including a section of the Great Divide Route (section Abiqui to Cuba).  Jeremy was riding his Rivendell Hunqapillar with a basket and a saddlebag.  He was rolling on 29×2.35″ Schwalbe Super Moto tires, which are a lightweight version of the Big Apple.  I had a Schwalbe Mondial up front (actual, 43mm) and a Dureme in the rear (45mm).  This kind of riding is a little out of range for the Campeur, but is possible with a medium-light load and larger tires.  

Keeping the things that I really enjoy about the Campeur, I would increase tire clearance and increase bottom bracket height (decreased BB drop) for an optimized dirt road tourer and a more versatile exploration machine.  These thoughts are parts of a longstanding mental thread regarding my ideal dirt touring bike.  In all, the Campeur is a very nice riding bike. 

A full geometry chart can be seen here.

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