Last year, my partner Karla and I rode the northern half of the Baja Divide which soon, and as expected, became the hardest pedaling we had ever done, but also one of the most fulfilling experiences of our lives so when we went home we just kept on dreaming about going back for the second half of it.
Recently, we got back on an old trail that we used to ride, especially during lunch breaks. We used this trail to train in view of a multi-day bikepacking trip. Over the years, wind and snow have broken and even uprooted many trees, resulting in an unpassable section of singletrack that crosses the coniferous forest. So we decided to clear the passages obstructed by the trees. That’s when we noticed that on some of these trees there were bird nests. From time to time, the characteristic noise of the woodpecker at work could be heard in the distance. At that precise moment, the idea was born to “recycle” some sections of these conifers and create birdhouses with them, letting the rest of the logs follow its natural cycle as humus.
The idea for a WTF Bikexplorers Gravel Program sprouted in 2019 as I spun back into the gravel race scene. I saw the same deficit in diversity that bike-touring had (and still has) when five friends and I decided to organize the first WTF Bikexplorers Summit in 2018. Despite gravel racing as a rapidly growing sport within cycling, it is still very grassroots. It is not controlled by the UCI – yet – or any other sanctioning bodies and therefore it has the opportunity to mold and change to be the way we want it to be.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild
geese jaguar, harsh and exciting
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.
-(modified) Mary Oliver “Wild Geese”
The weather matched the event in challenging the assumptions of what a desert landscape or a gravel race should be for most of the riders of the Ruta Del Jefe this year which was hosted at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch in Elgin, AZ. The imagination of a desert as a dry and sunny landscape dotted with saguaros, prickly pears, and cholla was expanded for those who held that thinking. Home to the Madrean Sky Islands ecoregion that includes the Santa Ritas, Whetstone, and many other mountain ranges, this area is a treasure trove for those who eat gravel for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sky Islands refers to the unique interplay between the low lying desert grasslands and the dramatic wooded mountains that become islands in the sky for their residents. Natt Dodge introduced this concept as “mountain island in a desert sea” back in 1948 which was then cemented by Weldon Heald’s book Sky Island in 1967. In the lowlands, this area is home to many unique varieties of grasses who abundantly glow their sunshine and straw colors to her visitors.
Up to this point, the route-finding came easy in Kyrgyzstan. The North-Eastern zone of the country has seen its fair share of bikepackers floating along its gravel tracks to weed through the wealth of options available. As we made our way south from the small oasis city of Baetov, our direction was less clear. We knew we’d be heading for Northern Tajikistan, but had no real idea about how we’d end up there or what type of riding we’d be in for along the way.
From the shadow of mount Tam to the coastal plains of Santa Barbara exists a quilt of broken earth. An underlying structure of torn apart geology transported hundreds of miles from where it was originally emplaced. A Mediterranean climate of warm summers and cool wet winters that becomes progressively drier towards the equator. A diverse floral assemblage stemming from the eroded remains of rocks past and present harboring condors, salmon and mountain lions. From North America’s largest estuary reflecting pastel sunrise to the sandstone peaks of the east/west transverse ranges gleaming pink and orange as the sun sets over the pacific.
Last fall I was invited out to Scullbinder ranch near Mancos, CO, for a triall run of one of the many trips Steve “Doom” Fassbinder and Lizzy Scully will be offering through their new guide service, Four Corners Guides. The trip I was to sample was a 4-day bikepacking tour of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, which is literally a stone’s throw from their cabin’s door. Due to scheduling conflicts, I was only able to join for the first two evenings of the trip. Having not spent much time in this corner of Colorado and neither having visited Mesa Verde, I had never seen or visited any Ancestral Puebloan dwellings, I was quite excited, to say the least.
Author’s Note: This article was originally written almost 4 years ago, but was shelved after thinking I had lost a majority of the photos to a failed drive. After I managed to find many of the lost photos on an old SD card, I figured it was still worth sharing the last trip that inspired me to quit my job and travel the world by bike…
He thought there would be a limit and that would stop him. He depended on that.
“An Atlas of the Difficult World – VIII” – Adrienne Rich
Before I left:
A month before I left, a bus hit me on the sidewalk as I avoided² the dangers of an indifferent suburb riding to the job I did as pittance-paid worker on a bike industry profit trawler. The night before I left, I couldn’t get the tire off, sobbed, exhausted. Six days before I left, I stopped having fun at a race and decided to bail, tired, beer softened, slowed wrong, ate gravel, wrist sprained. Before I left I destroyed my shell in the wash. Before I left I shook nothing down. I wasn’t ready but it didn’t matter. I had to go. How would I keep on otherwise?
Some of us are hoping for limits. There are reasons for that.
Up since the break of dawn, all day we’d been rolling on washboard roads. Yet it was hard to complain. We’d just spent a few days hiking around Ikara/Flinders Ranges National Park and it felt good to be headin’ north again. As the sun dropped toward the horizon I stopped for a bit of a feed. Dan rolled up beside me and we began to look for somewhere to camp. It was dead flat aside from the occasional patch of scrub. You could’ve pitched in anywhere but for some reason, it still felt good to choose a spot. It was then, with bikes stationary and no wind to speak of, that we were struck by the immense silence of our surroundings. This was our first proper encounter with the vastness of the Australian desert. The endless horizon. We had made it to the edge of the outback, and thousands of kilometers of dusty track lay in wait.
The first time I found myself in Puerto Rico was quite a few years back, it was on a sandy city street that ended at the beach in the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan. It was wintertime on the east coast where I flew in from, but I was now in a sunny island paradise.
At 7am the alarm went off (feel free to cue up the “waves” ringtone on your iPhone to set the mood). We were in our cushy-ish hotel in Naryn city after having a couple of days off to rest. This is ALWAYS when it is hardest to pry yourself from the grips of city comforts. Knowing that we had more than a week between towns of any significance on the horizon only added to the challenge of getting moving.
THE GREAT DIVIDE
Like my four-year-old son said the other day: “You can’t survive death.”
Somehow this made me think of this race. It’s all about surviving in the end. But it’s mostly about being alive, to the fullest.
The Readers Write is a short-form feature where readers can write about their local rides, submit photos, and course routes, lowering the barrier for entry with sharing stories here on the Radavist. It’s a new feature we’re implementing in 2020 but have yet to set up the infrastructure for submissions, so sit tight!
Convincing folks to do a group ride is difficult enough during daylight hours in nice weather conditions, but as the nights grow longer and colder, finding a crew to roll with becomes damn near impossible. Enter the New York Pizza and Dynamo Society (NYPDS): A group of cyclists dedicated to exploring some of our city’s finest eateries, exclusively by the light of kinetically-driven lamps.
The Salton Sea first appeared to me back in 2016, a couple of days into the Stagecoach 400 bike packing trip with the Borrachos. It appeared to me then as it appeared on this passage, an out of place body of water in the desert landscape, planar and mirage inducing. It could have been the heat exhaustion the first time I saw it, but the sea seemed to bend the horizon. We only saw it in the distance at that time, as our Stagecoach route took us up and away into Anza Borrego. This time around though, we’d pedal straight for it.
“You’re sleeping in a tent out there? Aren’t you worried about them?” a girl from Kyrgyzstan’s capital city who was enjoying a weekend trip to the local favorite Song-Kul lake asked us. I thought to myself wondering what she might be referring to. After a moment she realized our confusion and clarified… “The Wolves”.
The Kosciuszko Alpine Classic is just a name I came up with for a ride I did with my two good mates, Ben and James. We had organised a week off work in late October to go and spend some time in the Australian Alps. The route would see us riding primarily through the Kosciuszko National Park, taking in the wild brumby infested Long Plain, then going up and over the highest rideable trail in Australia, and also along some of the newest and flowiest single track built in the region. It was going to be classic!
My friend Rebecca Gates once told me, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.” She quickly admitted that this piece of wisdom came from tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Since then it has been at the top of my mind. There is power in this expression “Start where you are” eliminates steps to action. “Use what you have” wrests back agency– doing this engages oneself in action while giving oneself to taking action, or “do what you can.”
Action, especially towards a greater good, is the most salient way to combat the various tentacles of existential dread, whether they are cancer, capitalism, or climate change. No matter where we turn, dread appears. Unavoidable but not unconquerable, we succumb only through inaction. Taking the first step towards action can be difficult, especially in our culture, which seems to perpetually discovering new heights of apathy. The world and our culture can feel like an incredibly heavyweight.