Bikepacking on a budget; a bike for Lael


She likes a nice pair of boots and a shiny brass bell, but she’s not all that fancy– she’ll sleep in barns and dugouts, atop mountains and aside rivers and is content eating a raw beet, seeds and some lettuce for dinner.  We’re both gypsies, connecting the dots by bicycle.  Another reason to reach Colorado, aside form the availability of water and shade, is that I’m still charged with the task of buying or building a bike for Lael.

To recap her bike situation:

Her Surly Long Haul Trucker is much loved and well used, but the limits of the bike have been reached considering the “real” mountain biking we’ve got planned.  With a 2.0-2.1″ tire the LHT is a very capable dirt road tourer and a light-duty trail bike, and still fits a fender.   It remains in Anchorage and is in daily use by a friend in need of some wheels.  My Schwinn High Sierra is providing the same service in Tacoma, WA.  I like to give bikes out for permanent loan when possible.  The potential to recover a few hundred dollars from a bike with considerably more utility seems wasteful when I can be assured the bike will be ridden daily.  If she needs the LHT again it’ll be waiting in Anchorage, free of dust.


Her Surly Pugsley was great fun and a great tool though the winter, allowing her to commute to work every day and to explore the local terrain.  The elementary school she worked at was five miles away, and many mornings she was on the bike by 7:30.  At this time of morning in Anchorage winters, you’ll encounter neither rain nor shine– it’s cold, dark and snowy.  Leaving for Europe, she liquidated her assets and sold the bike.  Mainly, the sale of the bike was a financial and logistical decision as shipping or flying with the bike was unreasonable, but her main complaint about the ride was that the wheels were heavy.  I can attest to that, and my Marge Lite rims improve the ride and allow me to open up my riding style, especially with as much climbing as I’ve been doing.

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The week before flying to Europe, I bought Lael a Cannondale Hooligan on closeout sale at The Bicycle Shop.  She’d been joking about it all winter (much truth…), and always hopped on for the “indoor criterium” circuit around the showroom floor.  With the handlebars and fork removed, the bike packs to the shape of a cello and avoids airline surcharges.  In spite of small wheels, the rigid frame and disc brakes are assuring and feel mostly like a normal bike.  Unlike the “normal” bike she is used to, the small wheels and an overall weight of 24 lbs allow the bike to climb and accelerate easily, perfect for city riding and the steep pitches encountered in Corsica.  Of course, it’s also easy to carry up stairs or onto the train, and is a fun conversation piece while in traveling.  On different sides of the globe, we’re both peppered with inane questioning about wheels and tires– Surely, small wheels must be slower?  And you must pedal two, or three times as fast to cover the same terrain?  We’d like to keep the bike for future experimentation, but it is most definitely not the bike for the Colorado Trail and beyond.  For that, we seek something more conventionally appropriate for the mountains.  After years of commuting, cycletouring, and ATB-ing, this will be real mountain biking.  Lael arrives in Denver on the 23rd with lightweight bike luggage and camping equipment, but without a proper mountain bike.


I’m looking for a new or used, steel or aluminum, rigid or hardtail, 26″ of 29″ wheeled mountain bike.  I’d dreamed that we could both ride fatbikes with lightweight wheels, but finances are steering me towards sourcing a used bike from the Denver-area Craigslist.  I’ve actually wanted to do this for quite a while– find a used bike en route, prepare it for travel, and ride away.  Denver is a great place for this experiment and the Colorado Trail will be a worthy proving ground.  Bikepacking on a budget!


Several days before traveling to Europe, Lael raced the Skinny Raven Twilight 12K in Anchorage in a time of 47:40 (6:24/mi), and placed third in her division amongst a field of almost 1200 runners.  She enters one race annually, and generally falls into a comfortable third place.  Not bad for an occasional racer!

Lael’s globe of adventure

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She carries a globe of adventure and has taught me more than anyone how to let go, give up, and go!  She’s the one that gives away clothing and books like she never cared about them; and in a moment, they’re of so little importance that they never existed.  It’s smart not to clutter your mind with such trivialities.  She likes strong simple bikes that don’t fuss, and she rides them.  She rides more than you or any of your friends, and wore out both of the rims on her Surly Long Haul Trucker this past year.  She rebuilt her front wheel just as the old Rhyno Lite rim bulged outward with 45 psi.

She’s the same age as I, for a month.  Yesterday was her birthday and I remembered on the 17th, forgot on the 18th, and remembered in the middle of the night– technically, it was the 19th already and I was sleeping by a river without internet or a way to connect with Corsica.  I presume she’s cycling and hiking along Corsica’s mountainous spine, or lazing along it’s azure coastline and having a good time of it.

She will drink more water than any other human and will pee on every road shoulder– on top of Boreas Pass, on the Knik Glacier, or in a snowbank on the Coastal Trail.  When the weather gets bad, she burrows deeper in a sleeping bag leaving me to sweat the details that don’t need sweating.  She never gets tired or sore on the bike and she never rides beyond her limits.  If you don’t call it “mountain biking” she loves it, and riding to work through six inches of snow at 7 AM is just another day.  And then she rides home, and runs to yoga in six inches of snow, and runs home from there.  And with nothing to prove she will out-run, out-ride and outlive most of us.  That’s Lael.

Happy birthday!  See you in a month for the Colorado Trail.

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Kick, kick, and the Colorado Trail.  Below is Lael’s second day of “mountain biking” on the Monarch Crest Trail, a diversion from the dirt roads of the Great Divide Route.

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Consider this a virtual birthday party by leaving a comment celebrating Lael and wishing her a happy birthday, even if you don’t know her in person.  In a month, we’ll be lucky to see photos of Lael riding her bike above treeline on the Colorado Trail.  In a month, I’ll be lucky to be riding with her.  Here’s to another year of acting like kids and riding bikes.

Globes of adventure, like “globes of boredom” from John Steinbeck’s Log From the Sea of Cortez.


Real touring bikes: British Columbia


More real touring bikes from the Alaska Highway, the Cassiar and the Yellowhead–most of these bikes are highly personalized adaptations of otherwise familiar bikes.  If you saw these in stores you’d think, “Sure. That’s a mountain bike, and that’s a road bike and that’s a hybrid”.  On the road, they’re all touring bikes.  A unique theme threads it’s way through these bikes: this is the Joe Murray edition of “Real touring bikes”.

This Basque rider was on a Giant Iguana, purchased in 2001.  His signage suggests he’s been on the road for fifteen years, and over 150,000 kms.  He was carrying two spare tires and a spare rim, amongst many other things assumed quite practical when away from home for part of a lifetime.  His Carradice panniers were well-worn and bulging, but holding together.  When asked why he had the extra rim, he explained that when he saw it in Calgary he had to have it, owing from some past experience.  In a thick accent he declares, “Alex rim (brand), very strong!”.





The Swiss rider was on a closeout Voodoo Bizango sourced from a European distributor going out of business.  Fit with a Thorn Mt.-Tura fork (suspension corrected), he described his rigid ride to be quite capable, but that the fork soaked vertical disturbances on dirt roads quite nicely.  He shared with a hand gesture the appearance of the fork flexing, soaking washboard or rumblestrips.  Overall, a tidy bike; note the can of bear spray at his hip.  As well, the Thorn fork locates the v-brake mounts on the rear of the fork crown, presumably to make room for racks.  Voodoo Bikes are headquartered in Flagstaff, AZ and are designed by Joe Murray.  While riding through Flagstaff, this rider’s host insisted on taking him to see Joe.  Delighted, they shared a beer.


A Kiwi on the Cassiar riding a Giant Sedona with a standard carry-on suitcase and a folding camp chair strapped to the rear rack.  To know that some real comforts are stored amongst his equipment is reassuring, as I sometimes cannot imagine what’s hiding in all those Ortlieb panniers.  A camp chair would be a real comfort.


An early Kona Explosif, designed by Joe Murray.  This watershed mountain bike established tighter geometries, sloping top tubes, and straight-blade forks for mountain bikes to come.  At least, Cass (who’s old enough to know) waxes endlessly of the virtues of the early Explosif.    As Kona literature explains, Joe didn’t invent sloping top tubes, but he’s helped make them standard in the best new bikes (c. 1991).  Lots of Charlie Cunningham is hidden in the important features of the Explosif, at least to my eye.  This one’s got a purple fork, Deore DX components all around, original wheels with Araya RM-20 rims, and a U-brake in the rear.  Victor, one of three Spaniards in the group, saved it from collecting dust in a garage for another decade.  I suspect it’s from 1990, cross-referencing the existence of the short-lived Deore DX group and the popularity of U-brakes and Rollercams in the 80’s.





This couple from Buffalo, NY were riding newer Trek 520s.  If you go into a Trek bicycle store this is what they sell you for “touring”.  The male rider has had numerous problems with the stock wheels and warranty replacements.  I’ve ridden with other riders that have had similar problems with the wheels on a newer 520.  In a pinch, I’ve even purchased a wheel from a Trek store, similar to the ones specced on these bikes a few years ago.  It lasted only a week.  There’s no mystery to strong wheels;  what I’m suggesting is that Trek specs these bikes with crummy wheels.  They should know that people will load their possessions and ride cross-country on these bikes.  It’s no wonder they are losing ground to the Surly Long Haul Trucker which boasts a smarter frame, better tire clearances and stronger wheels from the start.  It’s cheaper too.

My first touring bike was slated to be a vintage military-green 1983 Miyata 1000, but the drive-side dropout broke a few weeks before the trip.  A 1995 Trek 520 was in waiting and carried me through my first year of cycletouring.  The 1985 Schwinn High Sierra replaced it, and was the gateway to my obsession with larger and larger tires.


A French rider from Nantes, riding an upright Giant bike with 700 x 47mm Schwalbe Marathon tires.  He was in love with the concept of fat tires, and we exchanged information and e-mails.  I listed for him the names of the Surly Pugsley, the Salsa Mukluk, and a new French builder of fatbikes, Salamandre Cycles.  The giant yellow drybag holds two sleeping bags, both quite old and worn as I was told.  He wasn’t sure what kind of temperatures to expect in the great Canadian north– it was 90 degrees on this day.


From Calgary, this woman attached herself to the French rider, although they travel together symbiotically.  She was teaching him English idioms and every time she wished to depart, she insisted that they “shake a leg”.  Home-stitched panniers and handlebar bar adorn this late-80’s Miyata RidgeRunner, which is an everyday rider back in town.




Her method of chain lubrication is unique.  Upon reaching a critical mass of lube, the rear derailleur becomes a self-lubricationg system which lightly dampens the chain with each pass.  The chainrings do the same.  In fact, this wet accumulation is what dry or wax-based lubes are supposed to avoid.  She was having a great time, regardless of specific chain-lubing techniques, or lack thereof



And this Surly Long Haul Trucker was wearing 700 x 47mm Schwalbe Marathon tires, vintage Campagnolo pedals, Nitto Randonneur handlebars, S&S couplers, and a custom aluminum front rack.  This Eugene, OR based rider borrowed the rack design from a Jandd Extreme front rack, but with a porteur-style top.  A local organization that teaches kids to weld bikes assembled the rack from his plans and materials.  Paul Thumbies are mounted on the tops of the bars, upside-down.  The rider has also owned a Bruce Gordon Rock’n’Road, which he loved; a Rivendell All-Rounder which shimmied uncontrollably, and was sold; and this Surly LHT, which fits the largest tires of all and seems to be up to the task of carrying some things.




The Joe Murray trifecta:  these vintage Rock’n’Road tires date from as far back as 1988, back when Bruce Gordon’s 700c Rock’n’Road frame was pushing the boundaries of the 700c based bike.  Now recognized as an important proto-29er, the BG Rock’n’Road fit tires as large as 45mm.  This tire was designed by Joe Murray for Bruce Gordon, and was manufactured by Panaracer.  I wouldn’t have know anything about this tire three days ago, but it has recently been re-released and is available at Black Mountain Cycles (Point Reyes Station, CA and online), where I learned about it on shop owner Mike Varley’s blog.  Actually, he’s been talking a lot about 40-50mm 700c tires, which fit his Black Mountain Cycles cross frames and hook up well with assorted Marin roads and trails.  In theory, the rider planned to use these on remote dirt roads up north.