Seeking Speed in Searles Valley with Bontrager’s Aeolus XXX Wheels

Speed. It’s a motivation for many on the bike and while it’s not something we necessarily pursue over here at the Radavist, there’s a certain beauty found within documenting it. The desert has a long history with speed. From iconic Trophy Trucks, to the Baja 1000 and the salt flats at Bonneville, the desert offers an iconic backdrop for the pursuit of speed.

As you’ve noticed, much of my free time – in the shoulder seasons anyway – is spent in the Mojave, Sonoran and Colorado deserts, the three zones surrounding Los Angeles. One of those zones that has always resonated with me, in both a geological and photographic manner, is Searles Valley surrounding Trona, a small town with a large mineral mining operation. Trona is named after the mineral they mine there and is very much active. From the supersonic, bird-deterrent sound canons, to the trains leaving with full cargo cars, the industry surrounding Trona extends well beyond the bustling town limits.

Luckily, someone somewhere made the conscious decision to set aside a region that borders this mineral extraction site known as the Trona Pinnacles. These tufa spires were formed as gas exited an ancient lake bed 10,000 to 100,000 years ago. Roughly 500 of these spires litter the landscape, with some reaching as high as 140 feet. The resulting landscape is straight out of a Hollywood SciFi flick, which is why I’ve wanted to do a commercial cycling shoot there since first coming to this region a few years back.

That’s where our story begins. Commercial photography is a side-hustle and rarely does it trickle over here to the website. I like to keep them separate. Unless, of course, there’s a story to tell both visually and in this case, geologically. Cari and I scouted this zone back in December, exploring the myriad of interconnecting dirt roads, many of which ending abruptly at sheer cliffs, while others creating massive loops, primed for cycling.

Commercial photography rarely exists within the zone of what you and I would consider a bike ride. While the end game on a bike ride is the journey itself, on a shoot, it’s the photo. That’s the dichotomy of doing what I do. I almost always ride with a camera and will shoot all day, regardless of light. On a shoot, however, the focus is light and unfortunately, there’s a small window of opportunity. Unless, of course, there’s an inversion layer, which allows for ideal light all day. That’s a photographer’s dream and we must have done something to appease the desert gods that day because that’s what we had on our first day.

Bontrager wanted imagery for their new Aeolus XXX2 and XXX6 wheels, in both dirt and road versions, leaving the backdrop and shot list, for the most part at my discretion. We linked up with So Cal model Spencer Rathkamp, coordinated an outfit – desert high vis, murdered out black, and packed up the ‘Cruiser with everything we’d need for a two-day shoot in Searles Valley.

Trona Pinnacles

At 1,800′ in elevation, the Pinnacles are hardly considered the “high desert,” especially with the Panamint mountains being right there, neighboring Butte Valley and even the outpost of Ballarat. All of which we’ll take a look at later, in a Radavist Road Trip post. I was immediately drawn to these tufa spires for photos. There’s something alien-like about the backdrop and since it’s BLM land, it’s a free-for-all zone as long as you follow the posted rules; stick to the roads, leave no trace and please, no bikes on the hiking trails. Dirt roads though, those were fair game.

Usually, my vehicle of choice for desert riding is a 27.5×3″ tire, but Trek and Bontrager wanted their Checkpoint with Aeolus XXX wheels to be the subject here. After a quick scouting, Cari and I realized that the roads here, while sandy in the many washes, was actually made from hardpack white clay up around the spires. It provided an ideal substrate for a capable bike like the Checkpoint.

From sunrise to sunset, we hammered through the shot list, taking extra time to do the thing we do best: play. Spencer’s bike handling made everything easy, allowing for extra time to experiment with a 14mm prime lens. Zooooom.

Searles Valley

Road bikes have gotten the back seat for me as of late, so it was fun visiting the concept of speed with the new Aeolus XXX wheels on a crazy Trek Madone 9. The road just past Trona is made from a local cinder pumice, resulting in a snaking, bright red datum intersecting the Mojave sage and scrub brush. Since first visiting this zone, I knew one day I’d have the opportunity to photograph this iconic stretch of road, with the Panamint mountains as the backdrop. Zooming through this stretch of road, like an F-18 Hornet from Edwards AFB, Spencer transitioned from shreddy off-road to speedy on-road.

Unlike the day before, we had ample direct sunlight, so when it shifted to high noon, we drove into the Panamint Resort in Death Valley for lunch, then to the Charcoal Kilns in Wildrose on Telescope Peak, where we found a massive amount of fresh snow, that had been dumped on this zone the night before. It was wild!

As the sun dropped across the Panamint Valley, we hauled ass across the region in hopes of hitting one last stretch of road for some of that “Big Country” vistas Trek and Bontrager had expressed an interest in.

Epilogue

Routes. They’re easy in this zone and apps like Strava or Ride With GPS make it easy for you to plan out a loop or a point to point ride. Take on as much as you’d like, be it fast-paced speed fests or slow-rollin’ tours. These two zones provide miles upon miles of plentiful, desert recreation. Next time I’m back, I’ll probably still have a camera, but will be on the bike, instead of chasing one around in a 4×4.

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Follow Bontrager on Instagram and Spencer on Instagram

  • Nick Erickson

    Great post, love the history, the transparency about the shoot almost all the things accept the one thing all the black…. Trek can make stuff in any color why so much black? The bike industry makes apparel in typically 2 colors, burn my eyes neon or the less than visible black. Maybe change his sock and frameset color to make those wheels pop.

    • I was the one that made the decision on the tonality of the wardrobe and bike. My thoughts: the landscape is colorful enough and black is actually pretty high vis in this landscape. I’m a minimalist and am not a fan at how crazy colorful most bike marketing is. Sure, visibility is an issue, but for a shoot with the intent of landscape and art, color was substituted for muted tonality.

  • ??

    Really nice shots.

    • Thanks! It was a lot of fun to visualize.

  • Such a great story about the hot and damn those pics, other level!

  • Ryan

    Roadie shots have never looked so awesome.

  • Adam H

    Fantastic shots! I’m planning on heading down to the Panamint and Butte Valley area later this week, and was considering trying to get up to the charcoal kilns. Was that shot just recently, any idea if I should be expecting snow up there? Thank you for all the stories and photos of this area, it’s been a great inspiration for getting down there and exploring!

    • I’d say you’re good to go. These photos were from the end of February. If you’re going in to Butte Valley through Coyote/Goler/Mengel, it was chill for us last month, but they got rain so it can be totally fucked. Mengel’s fun though!

  • smoovebert

    👏🏻🔥

  • Beautiful photo set. Well done!

  • Chris Chou

    so fucking good my friend!!!