Mountain biking in the Estrella Mountains near Phoenix is, for me, a lot like eating at one of the ubiquitous fast-food joints with “berto’s” in their name. A few years will go by and I’ll think “hey, why don’t I ever go to Filiberto’s/Aliberto’s/Philbertberto’s?”
Then I get myself berto’s quesadilla or carne asada burrito. Hours later, I’m on the toilet regretting every decision I ever made in my life.
So it is with Estrella Mountain Regional Park, which is about 30 minutes from my house. Drive another 10 minutes or so, and I’m at the fabulously fun Fantasy Island North Singletrack. That network is a bit compact, so any decently long ride will wind up repeating plenty of segments.
That’s what convinced me to return to Estrella.
My History of Mountain Biking in the Estrella Mountains
I first rode the Estrella Mountains back in about 1996, in the beginner racing class of the Mountain Bike Association of Arizona series. I remembered it was a pretty fun ride, but not one of the best around. That’s even less true now as the newer, better trail networks have popped up.
I visited the Estrellas a few more times between then and now, including a visit to the Competitive Track, which doesn’t get much love and doesn’t really deserve any. Unless you like sand.
Oddly enough, I didn’t recognize anything at all during my latest ride. It’s like all the trails I rode back in the day have been erased.
Estrella Mountain Regional Park and McDowell Mountain Regional Park are both owned and administered by Maricopa County. McDowell is a great example of outstanding mountain bike trails that have something for everyone.
Estrella is … an example of what happens when sadomasochistic dentists get into trail building.
I took the Rainbow Valley Trail (and I use that word loosely) until it met the Toothaker (yes, that’s the correct spelling) Trail. The early portions of Rainbow Valley were alright. At some point, they got steep and loose, with copious amounts of rubble making it hard to get any traction. These trails will involve some bike pushing, especially if you dig singlespeeds.
I also spent a lot of time on the Gadsden Trail, which is fairly decent. It features some sandy bits, especially when it drops in and out of washes.
My major takeaway, though, is that the Pedersen Trail that connects with what appears to be some social trails over the park’s west border is the way to go.
The social trails appear to be built by the local developers rather than any sort of government entity. Had I more time and fluids, I would’ve scouted that area more to find some better mountain biking in the Estrella Mountains.
My Plan for future Mountain Biking in the Estrella Mountains
Next time, I probably won’t park at Estrella Mountain Regional Park. While the bathrooms are great, the water fountains were too weak to top off my bottles. So there’s no advantage to paying $7 to park there.
Also, the printed trail maps were not a huge help. It seems there are plenty of spurs that don’t feature on the map, which makes navigating hard. I think it would also be wise for Estrella to have a main named loop, and use it as a reference on signage (ie, This Way to the X Loop).
I also lost a few miles to a sign pointing me to a parking lot. I whizzed by too fast to notice that it was the Comp Track parking lot rather than the main parking lot.
Next time, I’ll probably go further into the maze of red tile roofs to try accessing the trails on the west side to go mountain biking in the Estrella Mountains.
One Other Complaint – But About Trailforks.com
A pox upon Trailforks.com. Until recently, Trailforks would let you scout and plan rides just about anywhere.
Sure enough, they hopped on the “pay up” bandwagon right after Strava did.
I have no problem paying for good help. I think, though, that Trailforks isn’t a good value at $36 a year for global trail info.
This is why Trailforks was on my mind: I couldn’t plan my ride, and I also couldn’t use the app to see where I was during the ride. Trailforks gives users a free area – anything not in that area is grayed out on the app.
So if you’re lost during a ride, don’t count on Trailforks to help.
They also say you can change your free area once. I looked up the directions, and it mentions features that don’t appear on my app or in the online version.
The answer is the Aravaipa Jangover Ride. The question is, what race starts just a few hours after a long work week and goes to the wee hours of the morning?
I registered for the 6-hour solo category of the Jangover Ride after lunch on the day of. That’s right. Nothing like waiting until the last minute. I could’ve also registered for a single 15-mile lap (too short), a 12-hour (too long, but there are also quad categories in addition to the solo), or a duo 6-hour (not for me). There was no separate solo class, though.
I’ve been riding a lot this year thanks go the coronavirus, so I knew I’d be fairly decent compared to previous versions of myself. I hadn’t been on my mountain since June, either.
Anyway, here are a few random thoughts and observations about the 2020 Jangover Ride.
Good Course – No Surprises
The Jangover Ride uses the well-known, 15-mile Pemberton Loop at McDowell Mountain Regional Park.
I consider this perfect for a few reasons: First, 15 miles is a nice chunk of trail. You won’t wind up riding it so many times that it’ll make you stir-crazy with boredom.
It’s also a well-maintained trail that has that elusive quality known as “flow.” It doesn’t feel like you’re constantly fighting the trail. There are tricky bits that require your attention, but it’s far from super-technical.
And there are bits where you can just let it all hang out. It’s a good time on a mountain bike.
Everything is on Fire … Again
The Sears Fire started earlier in the day. Riders could see the flames on every lap, which made an interesting if unfortunate backdrop.
Also, a water main at the park somehow broke. That meant the bathrooms were out of commission. Fortunately, the Aravaipa crew had plenty of drinking water plus Port-a-Johns.
They had a solid selection of food, though I stuck mostly to my own stash of solid foods. But I was grateful for the Heed electrolyte mix (to supplement my Gnarly Hydrate mix and Nuun mix), the cold water and the pickles/pickle juice. I could’ve grabbed cookies, watermelon, oranges and even a cooked-to-order quesadilla had I been so inclined. There were two aid stations – one at the start/finish line and one at the famous Jackass Junction that locals love so much.
It wasn’t quite as marvelous a spread as the Frenzy Hills race, but it exceeded my expectations for a race in the Covid era.
For non-food amenities, I appreciated the ample number of outlets and USB ports for charging lights. That’s invaluable!
Laid-Back and Friendly
Yet again, Aravaipa provided a friendly quality to an event. They ran out of t-shirts my size (no surprise, I was a last-minute entry), But they still offered to send me one. That’s exceptionally gracious.
They also texted me about moving my start time earlier, and even allowed me to grab a time I liked even better than my original start time.
The riders were all very cool, as well. The super-fast dudes passed safely and where appropriate. The slower people made room when needed. Riders chatted before the event and during laps.
It all just adds up to a good experience.
The start/finish area had tunes playing the entire time – though I’d recommend they start making it a tradition to play “Two Minutes to Midnight” starting at 11:58pm!
Desert Night Riding is Awesome
I don’t often ride at night. But desert night riding is something everyone should experience, especially in the summer.
What I like so much are the weird fluctuations in temperature. Sometimes, you’ll climb out of a ravine and the temperature will jump 10 degrees. Other times, you’ll drop a few feet along a wash and the temperature will plunge in seconds.
And you’ll see all sorts of desert critters – I saw jackrabbits and coyotes. I’ve seen plenty of snakes, tarantulas and scorpions on the Pemberton, too.
Plus the stars came out in full force once the moon set.
How I did at the 2020 Jangover Ride
I figured three laps would be a guarantee. I expected that I’d do two laps back to back, with both of those being at about the same speed. I expected my third lap to be considerably slower, and that I wouldn’t even want a fourth lap.
Well, I did those two laps and stopped for a break. I fought off a little cramp in my left hamstring with help from pickle juice, lots of electrolytes and some protein gel I got at Sprout’s.
I did feel the effect of going racing right after a long work week, and I’d been up since 5am. So I stretched out in the back of my RAV for a quick rest. That was probably a smart move, ultimately, because my third lap was remarkably consistent with the other two. My bike handling was slightly sloppier – possibly because I was having a lot of fun and just hammering a bit harder in the downhill bits.
I had more than enough left in my legs for a fourth lap. Taking that lap, though, meant I’d be virtually useless the next day. So I packed it in after three.
A few things I’ll do differently next time: Take a half-day off to get some pre-race sleep, and also set my camp up along the route to make my battery and water bottle switches faster. I also had a problem with my helmet light ejecting itself from its mount just minutes into the first lap, which cost me some time. I’ll need to figure out what’s up with that.
The Lighting Situation
My main light was an older Nightrider with a lithium-ion battery rebuilt by the super-awesome people at MTO Battery. My backup light was an Exposure Lights Race from Bicycle Haus.
I used the low mode of the Nightrider for the climbing parts of the lap before going to medium for the downhill. The Exposure Race was on some kind of interesting adaptive mode that used a dim setting for climbing, then brightened up as my speed increased. I put each on the charger after every lap.
Pro tip on the Exposure: It charges way faster using a USB3 port. If you have a laptop computer with a USB3 port, bring it for charging just in case. I also mounted it under my handlebar, so I had to cut away a bit of my number plate.
Oh, that other backup light on my helmet that fell off? That was one of my old MagicShine lights from like 2010. That thing sucks.There’s a reason why people who bought then started calling them TragicShine. I don’t know if the new ones are just as bad – but I’d be shocked if you didn’t wind up needing the batteries rebuilt.
COVID-19 is driving a lot of people outdoors to find some relief from the quarantine. On the surface, that’s a good thing.
But a lot of these people discovering (or rediscovering) the outdoors are going to wind up injured, sick or worse. I went out for a ride to scout the Goldfield Mountains near Apache Junction, Ariz., yesterday. I’d never seen such long lines to park at a trailhead.
While it was initially refreshing to see, I had some encounters with other trail users that show that the COVID-19 outdoor boom is going to have serious repercussions.
This is important right now because our healthcare system is already working itself to death. The last thing anyone needs is your ass in an emergency room for reasons that are 100 percent preventable.
Lack of Preparation Can Kill
During the last few minutes of my ride, a couple in their 50s flagged me down.
They’d wandered out of the park boundary on what they’d planned to be a “five minute hike” (insert face-palm here). No water, no sunscreen, no snacks.
The wife was calm as could be. The dude was losing his shit (they were literally less than a half mile from their car). He was getting dizzy so he sat down – and I actually had to tell him to get in the shade. He also said “can anyone come and get us?“
This was a singletrack trail, so that wasn’t possible. He also kept saying he didn’t think the directions I gave him were right – my dude, only one of us is lost.
I gave him some gels and electrolyte powder (his response was “what is it?“). I also made him put on some sunscreen.
Wildlife is Nothing to Mess With
Spring in the desert means one thing to me: rattlesnakes.
I’m sure the guy wandering off-trail in tall grass would disagree. Rattlesnakes were clearly the furthest thing from his mind.
Here’s the thing: Rattlers love tall grass. Fortunately, they really don’t want to bite people. That’s a last resort. But stepping too close to them is their definition of last resort.
And a good way to step too close to them is to not see them, especially in areas where they like to hide.
How to Stay Safe Outdoors During the COVID-19 Quarantine
I don’t want people to stay indoors during the quarantine. This is a great time to rediscover the outdoors for recreation and fitness. But I don’t want any of you to do anything stupid. Like get yourself killed (dehydration and rattlesnake bites are awful ways to die).
These are some basic by no means comprehensive tips:
Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return.
Carry water with you at all times. I recommend no less than a gallon per person.
Carry some form of electrolytes. Exertion and heat will make you sweat, and you need sodium, magnesium and potassium to keep your body working. I recommend Nuun tablets.
Bring a snack. Calories matter.
Screen yourself from the sun. Hats, sunscreens and long sleeves are the way. I know long sleeves seem counterintuitive. But loose-fighting, lightweight fabrics keep you cool and provide sun protection.
Use some sort of a GPS device, and carry a map, too.
Stay calm if things start going pear-shaped. Fear is the mind killer.
Finally, use the outdoors within your means. If you’ve been sitting on the couch for the last decade, don’t make your first hike an epic adventure. Work up to the bigger stuff.
I could add a lot of things, like first aid kits, a decent fixed-blade knife, etc. But none of that does any good unless you know how to use it.
Know How to Encounter Other People
It’s inevitable that you’re going to run into other people while you enjoy the outdoors during the Coronavirus quarantine. See keep something else in mind: Be ready to encounter others. Stay to the right whenever possible. Don’t spread your party out across the entire trail.
Treat it like a road. Allow others to pass you, whether they’re going faster in the same direction or headed the other way. Model this behavior for your kids, too. They’ll act on the trails just like you do. So be safe and courteous.
The inaugural Frenzy Hills mountain bike race put on by Aravaipa Rides was one very cool event. Some of this was by design, and some was luck of the draw from Mother Nature.
In a weekend extravaganza of off-road activity, I raced my singlespeed in the 50-mile category. I think I may have been the only 50-mile SS rider to finish, albeit at the back of the entire pack for that distance. My wife did the 25k run the day before.
We both think Aravaipa did a great job with the events. I can’t speak to the running side of it, but I’m going to fill you in what I liked so much about the Frenzy Hills race. After that, I’ll share some thoughts about my day out that on some slippery, sloggy (is that a word?) trails.
Frenzy Hills, Not a Frenzied Vibe
This wasn’t a busy race. I drove up an hour before start and found a parking spot close to the start/finish. Everything was a laid-back affair.
I’d estimate there were only 20 people in the 50-mile ride. That spread us all out pretty well. I’m sure this made everyone more willing to banter when passing or getting passed.
Awesome Aid Stations
Most aid stations in most races are kind of crappy. I never count on them. I bring my own stuff.
But if Aravaipa keeps this up, I won’t have to do so for their races. The Frenzy Hills aid stations rocked. I only stopped at two of the three. But check this out: The best one, at Jackass Junction, had a spread that boggled my mind. My favorite items were the watermelon (for magnesium), the dates (for potassium), the energy gel package recycling box, and the delicious Gnarly pineapple electrolyte drink.
The station also had pickles, peanut M & Ms, cookies, bananas, and many other things that actually help in events like this. As I told the emcee at the finish line, it was almost like someone knew what they were doing. Love it!
Race Necessities Were Perfect
After a long race, pizza doesn’t just nourish the body. It nourishes the soul. Freak Brothers rejuvenated me with a sausage and pepperoni pie for the ages.
The venue also has bathrooms with showers, and Aravaipa provided a row of portable toilets.
Another nice touch: There was also a bike stand with a floor pump. I may have seen a few tools, too. This is just nice. It reflects a staff that knows what riders need during a tough event, and the mental lapses that sometimes occur when packing up the gear.
Frenzy Hills was on trails I know well: Escondido, Pemberton, and Long Loop, primarily. I do pretty well on Escondido, generally. My bike rips up the back side of Pemberton because I can settle into a nice climbing groove. The Long Loop is pretty rocky, so my hardtail gives up some speed to the squishy bikes. But I like riding it, anyway. And it’s the perfect bike for sloppy conditions thanks to its belt drive.
Most of the trails were wet thanks to off-and-on rain. The clouds made the McDowell Mountains look a bit like The Remarkables in New Zealand (which you may have seen in Lord of the Rings). The rain would soak me, then stop and let me dry off. By the time I got comfortable, I’d get hosed again.
My times up Pemberton Climb were far slower than usual thanks to soggy ground sucking at my tires. Some of the downhill portions were perfect hero dirt. Portions of the Long Loop were a bit scary for me. There was enough mud in places to make my rear tire sink in a few times.
An Interesting Lesson
I definitely drink a lot less in cool weather. I was down to a single bottle about every hour and 45 minutes. And I still peed three times during the Frenzy Hills race!
So I wasn’t dehydrated. Still, a cramp tried to take hold of me about 45 miles in. The watermelon I ate must’ve kicked in: I rode through it, and it was completely gone not 5 minutes later. My lesson is that I needed a higher concentration of electrolytes to ride my best. The cooler weather means I need to drink less, maybe, but I still need my magnesium!
Frenzy Hills Finale
This was a fun day to be racing, even if the rain made things a bit more difficult. It also added to the fun in a weird way.
This was the big year of my big comeback to the 70-mile course of the Tour de Scottsdale. That was the plan.
Back in 2016, I signed up for the Tour de Scottsdale after years away from riding road events. It started off good, but I got a lot of things wrong and wound up finishing in the 13 mph range. Terrible!
This year would be different
Leading up to the Tour de Scottsdale
Had there been a 70-mile course for this yearâ€™s El Tour de Tucson, I might not have ridden in the Tour de Scottsdale. But the financial trouble plaguing El Tour convinced me. Plus, itâ€™s close to home and doesnâ€™t give out the ugliest t-shirts known to humankind.
I havenâ€™t been training my hardest in the last few weeks, thanks to a trip to Seattle and general late-Arizona summer malaise. But I had a good base in mileage and a lot of confidence from good performances in El Tour, Tour de Mesa, Prescott 6er, Taylor House Century and a few other tough races.
The Tour de Scottsdale itself would come in with just short of 3,000 feet of climbing. A bit less than the Taylor House 60-miler, and without the problems of altitude. I had one late-race leg cramp in that ride, but still had a respectable day.
Something Awesome About Tour de Scottsdale
Last time I rode this event, I was frustrated by getting stuck behind some people whose bike-handling skills, situational awareness and courtesy were -- letâ€™s just say a bit lacking. Fortunately, my recent times earned me a place in one of the TdS "starting corrals." They tried to group riders of similar skills and speed together in seeded sections of the start line.
This made the first few miles a far better experience. It was also far safer for all involved. More races should do this!
Whatâ€™s in Your Feedbag?
One of my previous mistakes was relying on the aid stations to refuel me. Pretzels, Gatorade and bananas just donâ€™t do it for me. Even since that first Tour de Scottsdale, Iâ€™ve experimented with my food and drink.
This time, I carried stroopwaffles, a bottle of EFS gel, a fistful of Sprouts electrolyte powder packs, a few packs of GU Roctane and a vial of pickle juice. This allowed me to skip the first two aid stations before stopping at the third to refill my water.
I ate half a stroopwaffle every 45 minutes or so. I saved the EFS for the fourth aid station, and split the pickle juice between stations 3 and 4. The GU Roctane came in handy in the final 10 miles.
Hint: I froze all three of my bottles all of the way. This was a mistake. They didnâ€™t unfreeze in time to be completely empty by the third aid station as Iâ€™d planned. Still, I had to pee by the third aid station, though I held it until the fourth station. That was another mistake.
While weâ€™re talking about mistakes, I also left my heart rate monitor watch at home. And I wasnâ€™t as diligent about pre-loading myself the week prior with Trace Minerals Electrolyte Stamina capsules.
Quick Bike Note
I rode a Lynseky Urbano, which is a titanium frame with cyclocross geometry. Itâ€™s my third event of this type, and Iâ€™ve ridden them all with 30c tires inflated to 60 psi. Itâ€™s a smooth ride thatâ€™s outperformed my previous Lemond Zurich every single time. Which is funny because that was a dedicated road bike rolling 25c tires at 110 PSI. It might also have been lighter.
How I Rode the Tour de Scottsdale
My plan was to find a similarly paced group, maybe some people slightly faster, and shamelessly leach off of them. I have no pride!
It took me about 15 miles to find that perfect group -- which splintered shortly after at the climb up Rio Verde Drive/Dynamite Boulevard. Iâ€™d grabbed onto a few other groups that rode slightly faster than I wanted to go. But I decided to Push It and see if the extra effort would pay off. I only got a few miles out of each of the slightly faster groups, but I think they all helped motivate me.
I also took it easy on the descent down 9-Mile Hill. I maintained a low wattage on the pedals while letting the bike do its thing.
I got through all the climbs in Fountain Hills where my legs had cramped in my previous Tour de Scottsdale, which was awesome! Oddly enough, I had about five different cramps between mile 55 and the finish line – all in relatively flat or even downhill parts of the ride. Iâ€™m a bit flummoxed over this. I also rode through 4 of the cramps, with only 1 requiring a stop to massage the kinks out. And I also made it up one more nasty climb without a problem, which is odd. Why cramping in easier parts? Weird.
Also weird: It took about two miles for my GPS unit to connect to a satellite.
An Observation About the Cities
The Tour de Scottsdale of course goes through Scottsdale. But Fountain Hills and I believe Carefree are part of the route. Iâ€™m not sure if Rio Verde is an actual real town or a county island.
But hereâ€™s the point: Fountain Hilles closed a full lane of traffic on one of its busiest roads, even though it has an ample bike lane throughout its portion of the route. This was a convenient, safe and downright classy of Fountain Hills.
In contrast, Scottsdale did not close any significant portion of its roads. Closing a lane of traffic along Frank Lloyd Wright wouldâ€™ve been a great gesture toward safety -- and actually being the bike-friendly city Scottsdale claims to be. FLW is a terrible place to ride. It has no bike lane and no shortage of ill-tempered drivers who canâ€™t seem to stand bicyclists.
The End Result
I had hoped to ride the Tour de Scottsdale in the top third. I figured this was feasible since I was top quarter in El Tour de Tucson.
Even if Iâ€™d ridden both courses at the same speed, though, I wouldâ€™ve barely cracked the top half. The Tour de Scottsdale seems to draw a fast crowd. I finished in the bottom third.
On the plus side, I knocked 30 minutes off my previous time. Thatâ€™s progress! Iâ€™ll definitely have the Tour de Scottsdale on the calendar next year to see if I can bring it up to my Tour de Tucson and Tour de Mesa speeds.
I just did the Taylor House ride for the second time. I previously did it more than 10 years ago, and exactly three things stood out about it that first time:
A tube-socked dude who nearly wiped a bunch of us out through having some of the worst bike-handling skills I’ve ever seen;
A very scary return to Flagstaff from Sunset Crater National Monument;
The scenery was absolutely wild as the road went through the lava flow area.
That last bit is what really brought me back. These days, it’s possible to record ridiculously beautiful rides with gear like the Cycliq Fly 12CE bike light/camera combo. I’ve been testing one for about the past month, and I really wanted to let it roll on this beautiful ride, which comes in four flavors (35, 45, 65 and 95 – I did the 65, which featured about 3,200 feet of climbing).
So let’s break the ride down a bit with some things you need to know.
Taylor House Ride is More Overgrown Group Ride than Race
There are no number plates of official timing for the Taylor House ride. It’s an open course, so you won’t be separated from traffic except for about the first 5 miles thanks to a police escort through the main part of Flagstaff.
That’s pretty much alright until you’re headed back into Flagstaff on Route 66. You’ll have headwinds and crosswinds, plus some really narrow road shoulders. The bike lane also disappears in a few places. And you’ll have to jockey for position with semi trucks, people pulling trailers, RVs -- all that sort of stuff. And there’s a lot of pebbly crap to contend with, which can be scary in some of the faster spots.
On the other hand, the rest stops are superbly stocked and the volunteers are extremely helpful. F-Bomb had some of their cool keto nut butter mixes, which was nice.
There are also event photographers, but they didn’t manage to get a single good shot of me. Then again, I am not photogenic at all, so there’s that!
It’s All About Scenery
I promise that some of the scenery on the Taylor House ride will blow you away. This is especially a treat for people who haven’t seen it before. There are some wonderful bits of forest and prairie to cruise through.
And Sunset Crater National Monument is pretty much a movie set. Thousands of acres of lava flow and cinders, along with a dramatic cinder cone. Any person who visits from out of state will have trouble keeping their eyes on the road during this bit. In person, it’s far more grand than what you’ll see in my photos.
A Tough Ride Between Climbing and Wind
We had a brilliant day with a few clouds. But holy cow, we had one helluva wind behind us. I knew as our pack rolled through town effortlessly at 30 mph that we would face serious winds on the way back.
Sure enough, there were times when people would be crawling along headed back to Flagstaff. I really wanted to find a pack to stick with both out and back, but I was having trouble matching my speed to anyone. So I wound up going alone for quite a bit of it. It wound up being my slowest time in awhile, which wasn’t helped by a leg cramp with about five miles left; the narrow margin of error along Route 66 kept me from drinking for about 45 minutes, which played hell with keeping the electrolytes flowing.
I wound up finishing in about 4:20, right about how long it would take me to ride 75 miles in El Tour de Tucson.
Wrapping Up the Taylor House Ride
I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I did it. I’m not eager to repeat my experience on Route 66 — some of that traffic is simply too close for comfort. If they decide to close off a lane for cyclists, I’d do it again in a second, regardless of the wind. I think the Absolute Bikes crew did a nice job with everything; they can’t wave a magic wand to make Route 66 better, but I encourage them to do what they can to reduce the pucker factor there. (Maybe I’m just a big baby who hates trucks, trailers and RVs … I’m OK with that!)
Also huge props for:
The well-stocked aid stations;
The tasty finish-line food;
The general event vibe.
Have you ever ridden the Taylor House ride? What did you think?
I’ve always wanted to climb Mt St Helens. The utter transformation after its early 80s eruption fascinates me, and provides a great reminder that the earth is still alive. But I’m not exactly good at the technical parts of scaling mountains, so I’m not sure if it’s in my skill set. Fortunately, I ran across Danny on Twitter. He’d just climbed Mount St. Helens, and he was pretty excited. I offered him a spot on WanderingJustin.com to share his story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!Â
Danny is a technician forÂ @Porsche, a wannabe outdoorsman and cyclist. He’s on Instagram, Strava and Snapchat asÂ @DannyOLee22.Â You should follow him.
It wasn’t easy for a noob. Looking back, I’m grateful that a layer of fog prevented us from seeing the peak on the way to Marble Mountain Sno-Park from Portland. A clear view of the task at hand mighta been the straw that broke the camel’s back of my nerves. The way I see it, I had the least amount of confidence among the three of us that I could make it all the way to the top; it was 2 miles longer and 4,000 ft taller than anything I had done in my life. I was nervous, and in my mind I was outta shape. Had any cog been out of place, I don’t know if I could have made it to the top.
I had always been a geology nerd. Having moved to the northwest from CA in 2016, I quickly became fascinated in the architecture and activity of the Cascade Range. Shortly after I met Keaton in 2017 and learned we had similar outdoorsy interests, we agreed that someday we would summit Mount St. Helens. Our perspectives of the mountain were lopsided, but together we had a well-rounded interest in the volcano. What I didn’t know was that Keaton meant business, so it was determined we were doing the summit in the spring!
We learned that unless we were hiking in the winter, we’d need a permit to hike anywhere above 4,800 ft on the mountain. When the permits first went on sale Feb 1, 2018, we weren’t able to obtain ours as the website experienced a 300% increase in demand from the year prior, and subsequently crashed. Permits went on sale again on Feb 28th, and we’d learned that the new permit distributor supposedly had the bandwidth to handle more traffic. At 9am on the 28th, Keaton and I were sitting by our computers, trigger happy to obtain our permits.
The website crashed, again … persistence paid off however and after about 20 minutes of screen refreshing we obtained 4 permits to cross the 4,800 ft mark of Mount St. Helens — on the weekend of the 38th anniversary of the eruption (May 18th, 1980).
In the months that led up to our late spring trip to the mountain, I really did nothing physically to prepare myself for the hike. Like-- nothing. I had never hiked in snow, didn’t have any of the equipment that I needed, and my bicycle was still on winter vacation so I wasn’t even riding to maintain my conditioning.
I guess you could say I was unprepared.
Preparing forÂ Mount St. Helens
In the weeks leading up to our hike, many desperate hours were spent researching the internet to familiarize myself with hiking up a snowy mountain, glissading down it, and what to expect. All things considered, I don’t think I spent a lot of money on equipment, and Youtube taught me how to self-arrest (more about that later). Micro spikes and trekking poles were sourced from a sketchy dude on Craigslist, hiking pants and boots came from the Columbia employee store at a FAT discount (work perks!), I had all my camping equipment already, boom. Lastly, I needed an "ice axe". I had only ever heard of that term while watching adventure shows on weekend tv. I think hearing me speak of ice axes and crampons gave my girlfriend anxiety, but anyway--
Our date with the mountain was scheduled for Sunday, May 20th, and Keaton, Nate and I decided to camp out the night before. We literally could not find a 4th person to summit the mountain with us, IKR? We arrived at Marble Mountain Sno-Park midday Saturday in low clouds and fog. The park is situated in the foothills of the mountain amongst densely wooded forest.
We were surprised to find that, at 2,500 ft or so, spotty patches of snow were still on the ground. I don’t know what that’s called-- it isn’t at all the powdery stuff as you might imagine, but it isn’t a sheet of ice either. If you’re like me and have minimal snow experience, it’s what happens when snow partially thaws, then refreezes, over and over and over again. It’s a sort of snow with an icy crust. It’s a slick, unstable hazard… and not fun at all to trek in. Anyway, we set up our tents and enjoyed an evening of laughs, food and alcohol.
The next morning we got up at 4am. It was still dark but light was beginning to make its way through the trees. More light was coming from the headlamps of hikers who were already making their way through the campsite and up the mountain. Feeling like we were already behind, we broke down our campsite while Nate made breakfast. I changed into my game day uniform that I had put so much thought into, but didn’t execute nearly as well as I wanted. It consisted of a long-sleeve base layer with a t-shirt up top, textile hiking pants, long cotton socks and my brand-new hiking boots. A cap and sunglasses were critical. I started with a light jacket as well but that quickly came off and was stuffed into the backpack.
Gear for TacklingÂ Mount St. Helens
While on the subject of the backpack, mine was an old Dimarini adult softball backpack that I dug out of the garage and used last-minute because couldn’t justify budgeting for a nice day bag. In it were my micro-spikes, a handful of Clif bars, lots of water, sunscreen, and gloves. My trekking poles and ice axe were fitted to the exterior.
And Back to the Action
We started out at 5:30am from the Swift Trail and hiked through dimly lit forest and patchy snow to connect with the Worm Flows trail about a mile and a half in. The Worm Flows trail would be our highway to the summit. I believe the trail got its name from the winding canyons that were cut from lava flows having some representation of a worm. At least that was the conclusion the three of us came up with while conversing on the trail. An hour in, I was already having a hard time. My new boots had given me immediate blisters and my heels were in pain. My confidence was equally bruised. Keaton had packed a first aid kit and miraculously had some tape available to wrap my heels. After repairing myself, my socks, boots, and spikes were refitted and we were off again. The pain never went away but it was all I could do. If I hadn’t mentioned it yet ima mention it again …
I had no confidence!
Not at the beginning, not after wrapping my heels, not after reaching the timberline, and not while getting passed by groups of snowboarders carrying more weight than me. I mean, it wasn’t until I couldn’t see any trees whatsoever that I figured I was in it for the long haul and the weight of my negativity subsided. Amongst few allies I did have was my determination to be able to say that I got to the top, and to see the sight of things like Spirit Lake and the rest of the Cascade mountains that I previously had only seen in Instagram pictures. At this point I developed a pace. I was making visible progress. We must have stopped 35 times for air, water or food on the way up. This was the only way I was going to succeed. Every time we resumed our trek, the blisters on my heels reminded me how discontent they were.
Natural markers, like rocks breaking through the melting snow atop ridges, made for checkpoints and rest stops for the 100 hikers who were allowed to purchase permits for the day. During our breaks we were able to turn around and really get an idea of how much progress we were making. It was a huge help because I had slowed to a snail’s pace and really didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. Also, the fog seemed to follow us up the mountain. Like a pulse, it was advancing and receding throughout the morning, but the receding fog made for the perfect excuse to stop and take in the view of the forest below (or catch my breath). The crusty snow was the single most discouraging obstacle on the way up. I couldn’t tell you if I would have rather been hiking up sand… but might as well have. For every few steps I made forward, one step broke the crust of the snow and left me knee deep in it. It took even more energy to lift my leg outa the snow and take the next step forward. My legs were yelling at me to end their misery. Thankfully there were steps pressed into the snow from not only the hikers in front of me but hikers from days, or weeks prior. It was hard to tell the age of the imprints.
As we got closer to the summit of the mountain, glissade chutes became visible. These are pathways cut into the snow that allow for hikers to slide down instead of walking. I was really excited to partake in more of that. Also, we noticed people were beginning to snowboard around us. This gave us the impression that we were nearing the summit--.
In Sight of theÂ Mount St. Helens Summit
We reached a ridge that exposed the true summit, another 1,000 ft or so up. The pace was such that it didn’t really discourage me. I mean I was already exhausted; taking breaks to rest on my trekking poles and catch my breath, but also to rest my screaming legs. In a sort of trance from the repetition of rest steps and squinty eyes from the brightness of the snow, I knew we were closing in on the top because of the updraft of clouds that were visible from the crest of the crater. We were approaching the steepest part of the climb. It had to have been like a 40 – 45 degree gradient. I recalled recently reading another hiker’s experience and remembered his logic: something like "10 steps, then rest." Until this point I hadn’t understood how 10 steps could justify a break, until I was stopping every 20 steps, then 10 steps, then 5 steps.
Remember, every few of those steps ended in sinking snow. Ugh, it was hard. I couldn’t really tell if the exhaustion I was experiencing was due to the thinning air, or the incline, or both…
But, within 40 minutes or so of tackling the gradient, we cleared the hardest part and the summit was visible! We knew because we could see a group of 25 or so hikers hanging out at the top. It was closing in on noon and by now Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams were also visible. Bringing up the caboose of our 3-man party, I gave it all I could to push to the summit. Keaton and Nate stopped about 20 steps or so from the top to wait for me, then the 3 of us muscled to the crater together and were greeted by another couple of hikers once we reached the roughly 8300 ft summit.
We had done it, finally! After days of prep and months of hype, numerous Youtube videos and countless Google searches, we had finally made it to the summit of Mt. St, Helens. And she rewarded us greatly. By now the fog had burned off, exposing a beautiful sunny sky and picturesque views of the Cascade volcanoes, including Mt. Ranier, a clear view of Spirit Lake, and an actively steaming vent in the center of a ginormous crater spanning nearly my entire peripheral eyesight! It was huge! It was beautiful! And it was everything I expected it to be.
ClimbÂ Mount St. Helens, Then Lunch and IPA
We reached the summit 7 hours after our departure time of 5:30am, just in time for lunch. My girlfriend had made sandwiches for us. Keaton and Nate had literally hyped the sandwiches up so much that I was afraid they were going to be disappointed — they weren’t. Keaton and I paired our bologna sandwiches with a locally-sourced Widmer upheaval IPA that each of us had packed into our backpack. Felt as though it was appropriate, also made for a cool photo. I tell you, a cold beer never tasted so good. We stood and watched as others made it to the summit, including a 64-year-old gentlemen who had never summited St. Helens before. (I wasn’t surprised to hear that he made it an hour faster than I did--) Also, a dog! A freakin dog accompanied a couple to the summit! It was an Australian Shepherd or something like that. We later saw the dog glissading with its owner down the mountain, pure awesome. Speaking of glissading, after about 40 minutes of sight seeing and catching our breath, it was time to make our way back to the car--
I didn’t expect the descent to be as exciting as it was going to be…
We followed a couple of dudes with what seemed were Russian accents to a glissade chute. This was it! I was equally nervous as I was excited to slide down the mountain. I didn’t know what to expect and had never practiced any of it. We were to glissade (slide on our asses) down the mountain as far as we could go. It saves hours and energy, although it isn’t exactly a free ride. Glissading does require some effort and patience. Lastly, I was supposed to use my ice axe to slow myself down and stop. Remember that whole "Self Arrest" thing? The Russian dudes started and our group followed behind. The first few chutes were rather uneventful. I enjoyed my slide down at least 2,000 ft of snow, occasionally pushing myself to gain momentum then transitioning to another chute when it was necessary. What the 3 of us were worried about was that we were subject to following the path of the chute without really knowing if we were following the trail to the bottom, or where we were really going at all--
Our worries (or mine) were confirmed as we reached the end of a glissade chute and couldn’t find any more, or the trail. By this time we had reached the intermittent fog layer, which didn’t help anything. We did know that we were west of the trail, so the 3 of us and the two Russian dudes made our way across untouched snow back toward the trail.
Glissading DownÂ Mount St. Helens
The fog had become thicker as we approached a ridge accompanied by a relatively deep canyon. One of the Russians spotted a glissade chute — and did I mention these two dudes were crazy. Like the kind of people that would probably describe themselves as "extreme". He took one look at the glissade chute with no visible course and quite literally jumped right in as if cannonballing into a pool. He let out a loud "whooo" as he disappeared right in front of me. His buddy turned to look at me, chanted, and followed suit. I watched as he disappeared, then a few seconds later I spotted a small black dot traveling at breakneck speed off in the distance. It was that moment I realized the distance and depth of the canyon, and what I had in front of me to deal with. Had I had any other option I might have taken it but this seemed to be the only way down. I don’t like roller coasters, I didn’t like what I just witnessed, but I did have my axe in hand and hell, I had come this far right? I took my seat on the chute and I was off. I IMMEDIATELY picked up a lot of speed as I seemingly free fell down the chute. It was so steep, it all happened so fast I remembered what I had seen online and dug my axe into the soft snow, desperately trying to slow down. Unsuccessful, I dug the axe deeper, until the snow ripped the axe out of my hands. What I didnt remember to do was secure the axe to my wrist with a tether.
I was helpless. Using split-second emergency decision making, I assessed the danger of trying to use my hands and feet to slow down, then determined it was what I was going to do. I dug my hands into the snow on both sides of me, only to displace snow into the air in a rooster tail fashion. I bounced off hard bumps of snow and the compression of each bump on my body made my chest hurt. About 500 ft later I finally slowed to a stop. Russian 1 and 2 cheered as I came to a stop but I wasn’t happy. My chest was aching and I lost my axe. I wasn’t about to make any attempt to retrieve it-- I couldn’t even locate the chute looking back. Nate slid to a stop behind me and miraculously was able to retrieve my white water bottle that I didn’t even know I lost. I couldn’t believe that he spotted it, and grabbed it amongst the snow. I spotted Keaton sliding down and yelled to him to grab my axe! His only contact with the axe however was with the blade against his arm, and he reached the bottom of the chute bleeding. I apologized for his injury but I think his adrenaline was in such a state that he didn’t care. He was too excited about what he had just experienced.
We mingled at the bottom of the ridge for a while until I overheard Keaton and Nate asking about a noise coming from the chute. "What’s that sound?" I heard from Keaton. I knew exactly what it was though. It was the sound of sliding snow and ice. We had created an avalanche on our way down the glissade chute.
I couldn’t tell the size or distance of the small avalanche because of the dense fog. The sound it was producing was such that I wasn’t about to hang around and find out either. I proclaimed to the group that we needed to go! We moved eastward for about another 20 minutes before we found a park ranger, and the trail. Although distancing ourselves from the sliding snow, the sound didn’t seem to be getting any quieter. It didn’t matter though. We had escaped potential danger and were now far enough down the mountain that the rocky ridges we used to hike up the mountain were in abundance. I feel as though the park ranger, who was as useful at the time as a trail marker, had chosen his location on the mountain to post up knowing he would encounter people like us who had lost their way. He assured us that we had found the Worm Flows Trail, and just like that we were back on track. I don’t know how we got separated from the Russians but it was ok. I really just wanted to be off the mountain. We, tiresome, descended for what seemed like an eternity down the mountain, through intermittent snow and boulders,
through the rocks and dirt, all the way to the timberline. I was disappointed to see that after all the progress I felt like we made, we had only reached the 4,800 ft marker. The sky had cleared up for good at this point, it was warm, and I was too tired to take off my base layer.
Four hours after we started the first glissade chute at the summit of Mt. St. Helens, we returned to our vehicles at Marble Mountain Sno-park amidst warm sunny skies and beautiful lush forest. We were beat up, cut up, wet, tired, but also happy, accomplished and proud. Keaton and I celebrated with IPAs, and his favorite: gin and tonic. We changed out of our busted clothes and after a few minutes of reflecting, we were on out way out. I said my goodbyes to the mountain in my head as I connected to the local service road. It took us about half an hour or so to get out of the mountains and onto I5 South toward Portland. As soon as I had the opportunity, I glanced back at the mountain from the highway; this time I could see it clearly, standing out like a sore thumb amongst the greenery of southern Washington. I couldn’t believe that I had done it. I had left my mark on the mountain, as well as my axe. My axe left its mark on Keaton, and the three had a pretty cool story to tell.
The hike could have not been possible without the information provided from the following websites:
This week, I found out that one of the places in the world that I want to visit most is no longer accessible. Back in 2017, operations at the Naica Mine ceased. That allowed water to re-flood the absolutely incredible Cave of the Crystals.
At one point, hikers were able to walk among the hornitos and lava flows in the crater. And then -- boom. It’s still an impressive crater. But with 60-percent grades into it, going into it probably isn’t an option. Notice also how the greenery around the summit is completely gone.
Hey, I started this with the Cave of the Crystals and then jabbered about Ol Doinyo Lengai! Sorry about that. I just happen to love the idea of that place. But the Cave of the Crystals ain’t half-bad, either, with its 40-foot-long crystals nearly 1,000 feet underground. And then there’s the 136-degree, 90+ percent humidity to deal with. Ouch!
People entering the cave had to wear special cooling suits. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t possible for just anyone to gain access. It was a working mine – and a thousand feet underground, like I mentioned. That’s a shame. This would be an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience.
I’ve found conflicting info about whether the shallower Cave of Swords, with its 6-foot-long profusion of crystals, is open for visiting non-scientists. This blogger claims to have been in it, though I’m skeptical (the writing is also vague – if I get in there, I promise that I will do a far better job). There also seems to be very little content devoted to the Cave of Swords minus the bigger Cave of the Crystals.
At this point, I’m just hoping like hell that Thrihnukagigur doesn’t suddenly become un-extinct and blow the Inside the Volcano tour off the map. That would just about make me retire from traveling, I swear.
OL DOINYO LENGAI UPDATE (compliments of my Facebook friend, Ellen)
“Ol Doinyo Lengai has been active for millions of years, it will reform – there are other cool,active volcanos you can walk right up to the edge of, see stuff in the Danikal Depression in Ethiopia for one. But in my opinion Ol Doinyo Lengai is THE most important volcano in the world.
Why? I’ll try to keep this short: it is a carbonic volcano, with very very deep ‘roots’ so when it blows, as it has been pretty much constantly for millions of years, it spews lots and lots of carbon into the air. That carbon floats on the prevailing wind right down to the plains betweeen Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. This feeds the grass there into ‘super grass’ very nutritious and this is why millions of zebra and wildebeest return there every spring to have their babies at that sight so they get a head start in life by eating that super grass. Further, the wildebeest migration is a very likely candidate as to why humans evolved the way we did – with big brains and walking upright.
The whole idea that humans were great hunters is a bit off, we were mostly likely excellent scavengers who occasionally had a lucky hunt. Early humans evolved in the rift valley/Serengeti area and started following the migration to pick off the weak and scavenge kills from predators. You can see this in the footprints perfectly preserved at Olduvai gorge, a site that sits just miles from the fields of ‘super grass’. So, basically, without Ol Doinyo Lengai we might not be who we are today.”
A few weekends ago, I rode the 2018 Tour de Mesa. It was my first of the Perimeter Cycling events held in the Valley after doing El Tour de Tucson for the past few years. The Mesa version was a 60-mile loop that had a bit of everything – flat sections, screaming downhills, grinding climbs, roads completely devoid of cars and sections where riders had to suck some serious exhaust. In short, a perfectly legit and enjoyable road ride made better with good support, good traffic control and a good finish line festival.
I’m not one of those guys at the front of the pack. The 2016 Tour de Scottsdale was my first road event in a very long time thanks to a near-miss some years ago. I’ve worked my way back into road bike events with the simple goal of trying to get a little better with each one. That’s been going well, with my average speed in each race rising.
With that out of the way, here’s my 2018 Tour de Mesa review.
Registration and Check-In
Online registration is what it is. It’s hugely convenient next to the old days of race registration. So that was all fine.
Packet pick-up was also pretty decent. There was a small exhibition going on. The first person who saw me was very enthusiastic – a bit too much so. Her recitation of “go here do this than that in this order” was more hand-holding than I need and was ultimately more confusing than anything else. I’ve checked in for many races, and it’s not rocket surgery. Ever.
The goodie bag was full of stuff that got recycled after a cursory glance. The bag it came in was by far my favorite item. Quality re-usable grocery bags are awesome! I didn’t take a Tour de Mesa t-shirt because they’re just as ugly as I expect from Perimeter event t-shirts. They put most Christmas sweaters to shame.
Getting the Ride Started
I showed up at the starting line for the 2018 Tour de Mesa confident in my preparation. Strava has been a huge help in tracking my mileage and effort. I’ve figured out what electrolytes I need. I’ve tuned my eating habits on the bike (no more gels – just fig bars). My ritual starting a week before the ride ensures that I’m hydrated, well-rested and topped off with electrolytes. I was probably a little too confident: I spent time yacking with other riders instead of making a visit to the portable toilets – that would cost me later.
When the group rolled out for its start, I had the novel experience of not being stuck in narrow streets behind riders who were all over the place. The wide streets allowed passing room, and I was able to find a comfortable pace within moments. I didn’t experience the frustration of being confined behind anyone. Sure, there were a few people out there who deserved a "hey, get to the right unless you’re passing" yell. But I contained myself.
Out of the City – 2018 Tour de Mesa
Once we turned on to Country Club/Beeline Highway, little groups started to form. Some were spontaneous, others were clearly friends who were used to each other. For a random guy like me who trains alone, this presents some opportunity to be social while also enjoying the benefits of drafting. But try as I might, I really couldn’t find a group in my Goldilocks Zone. Some were just a touch too slow, some a touch too fast. As the climbs steepened, I passed many of the groups who’d zipped by me in the flatter parts.
Beeline presented a nice place to get into a groove. Which I could’ve gotten into better if I’d made a visit to the john. But no. Within 30 minutes of the race start, all I could think about was a toilet. The second rest stop (I completely missed the first) came just short of 20 miles in, and I went running for the john. That little visit cost me about 2 minutes. The work I’d put in on the climb got undone. Ultimately, I’d see the same people over and over again: I’d pass them on a climb, then they’d band together in a downhill or flat section and pass my lonely ass. And they’d be going just a bit too fast for me – maybe because they were drafting off of each other, or I’d put it too much energy on the climbs.
Great Scenery, A Few Problems
I should mention here that the scenery after the third rest stop was spectacular. The mountains in this area area a treat for the eyes, and I wished I’d thought to put a camera on my bike. Next year, I definitely will. The speeds also picked up in the downhills. One guy on a low-slung handcycle that looked like a street luge zipped right by me at ludicrous speed. I really enjoyed seeing that!
I made my first refueling (as opposed to the "defueling" of the last one) at Aid Station 4. There, one of the friendly volunteers helped me wrangle my spare canisters of EFS drink mix into my bottles. I was in and out very quickly, and that proved to be the only filling stop I needed (I started with two full-sized insulated bottles and a smaller bottle, all filled with EFS).
I also had a few strange problems starting to pop up: My butt was absolutely killing me by about 40 miles in, which is extremely unusual. This is not something that happens to me at all. I’ll have to solve that mystery. Also weird: My left hip flexor didn’t seem happy at all. Fortunately, I know of some ways to deal with that.
The middle of the Tour de Mesa is kind of the crux of the thing: In my head, I had my sights set on two stiff climbs. As we were grinding up what I thought was the first of them, a couple of guys were like "just one more hard effort and we’re home free!" Somehow, the first of the climbs didn’t even register as a big deal. OK. I can deal with that. Five minutes later, we were descending back into Mesa.
Back into the Concrete Jungle
Our route along University took us into a section that didn’t have a bike lane. Fortunately, the local police agencies (including DPS) had that all under control. A few drivers had moments of confusion, but the situation was well in-hand. Everyone seemed to feel safe and able to concentrate on the last miles of the ride. (Except for some people on the Facebook page. There was some carping about the section without the bike lane, which I can understand.)
We had a wind coming in from the southeast, which gave a little boost of speed as we approached downtown Mesa. About a half mile from the finish, I accelerated and passed a few riders without getting overtaken myself. My right calf didn’t respond well to the hard effort, but I can’t complain about a slight, fleeting cramp in the finishing chute of a race. Not at all.
I also learned that medals were based on your finishing time, and my finish was good enough to snag me a gold. I think that’s kind of a nice setup, and I think more races should consider having different medals. It’s something to shoot for when you know you don’t have a chance at winning.
There were a few food truck available for refueling – and some company was giving out samples of hard kombucha (that went down pretty well!). Another nice touch: There were activities for kids. Had I known, I might’ve recommended that my wife bring our little person down to enjoy the fun.
I’ll definitely do this race again and look forward to it. Good course and an overall good vibe.
Random Thoughts: 2018 Tour de Mesa
STUFF I ATE/DRANK DURING THE RIDE: A fig bar every 45 minutes, one bottle of EFS per hour. DID NOT USE: Hammer Gel that I carry just in case, vial of pickle juice.
LESSON LEARNED: I might need to team up with other people to take my times up a notch, especially in El Tour de Tucson
RANDOM OBSERVATIONS: Strava tells me my heart rate was a bit higher for this ride than for my previous road rides. This tells me I’m able to work a bit harder without worrying about cramping. That’s huge, and means I have a bit more performance to extract from myself.
After riding the same road bike since 1999, I’ve decided to replace it. Just a few years ago, I had it — a Lemond Zurich — repainted. And then I put an Ultegra 6800 group on it. I just rode it and loved it in the 70-mile Tour de Tucson.Â
But gravel bikes have turned my head. Or audax, adventure, gran fondo, road-plus, or alt-road (ick) bikes -- whatever name you call it, it pretty much means more relaxed geometry, clearance for bigger tires, disc brakes and through-axles. Anyway, I’ll keep calling it a gravel bike, even though I’ll ride it on the road a good 80 percent of the time.
Here’s the deal: Drivers are making more and more nervous. They get away relatively scot-free with killing and injuring cyclists. Add to that an improving but still below-par local bike infrastructure -- and a multitude of unpaved canal routes, and you have a perfect place to take advantage of the "go anywhere" capabilities of a gravel bike.
Also, this whole gravel-riding thing just looks fun. They can go off-road and cover ground faster than mountain bikes. They’re in their element on unpaved forest roads, which opens up possibilities to see things and go places that are new to us. So yeah, I’m in.
Gravel Bikes: Build or Buy?
I considered buying a whole bike – I wanted steel or titanium. I love my titanium Domahidy mountain bike, and obviously the ride quality and longevity of my Lemond are strong arguments for steel. I saw quite a few bikes that I saw – The Milwaukee Mettle is wonderful; the All-City Cycles Space Horse likewise; and Fairdale’s new Rockitship looks terrific. This is just to name a few solid possibilities.
I am not a big fan of the big guys like Trek, Specialized or Giant – not because their bikes are inferior, because they do what they do extremely well. I just crave a certain mojo from my bikes that the bigger brands don’t deliver.
I put myself into “scan” mode for a few months. If I found a great deal on a complete bike, I’d do it.
Ultimately, I found a good frame and chose to repurpose the compatible parts on my Lemond; they’re are all relatively new and extremely solid. And I could focus on the filling bits according to my own personal vision.
Few Standards, Many Options for Gravel Bikes
Now, gravel bikes are still a bit of a Wild West. Some have two chainrings, while some roll mountain bike-style with one. Some are for touring/bikepacking and need all sorts of additional places to carry stuff. There’s definitely a learning curve in learning what to look for. That’s why I’m collecting my thoughts as I start this process, and I will share with you whatever I learn.
This post will link out to future posts covering some of the major details. By way of background, I used to work at a well-respected local bike shop. I’ve built and maintained my own bikes since the 90s. I leave hydraulic disc brake and suspension maintenance to others, but handle everything else myself. I’m not quite a cheapskate, but I love a good value.
Right now, all I have in my possession is a frame. After a lot of looking at geometry and asking a lot of questions, I landed on the Lynskey Urbano. Now, I was a little bit skeptical because it’s designated as a commuting bike on the Lynskey website. But I spent some time emailing a Lynskey sales rep, and I compared its geometry with my Lemond and with other eligible frames. The geometry is only a bit more relaxed than the Lemond, and its wheelbase is only a smidge longer. Some bikes seemed like limousines! It also has a threaded BB shell, which I prefer.
Just eyeballing the Lynskey, it appears very nicely made – good welds, beefy stays, nicely shaped tubes. It’s set up for flat-mount disc brakes and 12mm through axles, and can accommodate electronic shifting.
OK, that’s about it for now! Coming in future episodes – these will all have links when the posts go live, so you can use this post as your central Gravel Bikes hub:
Picking a fork – and why I am convinced that carbon forks are great, but they’re also a giant rip-off. I know this will be controversial. I’m willing for someone to prove me wrong when I make the case. Sometimes I don’t know what I don’t know.
Tires are almost as difficult to choose as wheels. What width? What pressure? What tread? Argh!
A few thoughts about what impacted my choices beyond specs and prices, from the advice of knowledgeable friends to how companies handle themselves on social media networks.
Putting it all together and riding. I’m planning to go with 31c Vittoria tires to start. My big question is whether the do-anything, go-anywhere wheels and tires make my performance take a big knock. I’m determined to do better at the 2018 Tour de Tucson, and I’m curious to see what impact riding a gravelly, road-plus bike makes on my times as I train.
Special thanks to Craig Swetel from the Facebook group Riding AZ Gravel. Not only did he let me help myself to most of the photos in this post, he also is spreading the word about gravel-riding fun.Â
The year 2018 is going to be the Year of the Gravel Bike. Really, it might be already.
The Ongoing Gravel Bike Mission
This year, many of my rides have had a mission beyond logging miles. I’ve been trying to find as much off-the-road riding as possible. Not off-road, like for a mountain bike. More like paved canal paths and separated bikeways. I was hoping for some improvement in complaints I had years ago about how hard it is to commute by bike in Phoenix.
The reason is two-fold. Obviously, cyclists and cars have a hard time dealing with each other in Arizona. And it’s always the cyclist who comes out on the wrong end of that equation. Secondly, I like to get into a nice groove when I ride. On a mountain bike ride, I can literally pedal for hours without interruption. On a road bike, it seems like the traffic lights are actively out to get me every quarter of a mile (I’ve started thinking Scottsdale’s slogan should be City of a Million Ill-Timed Traffic Lights).
Here’s a piece of deep knowledge: Arizona has more miles of canals than Venice or Amsterdam. Many of those miles have bike-accessible, unpaved banks. They are perfect for gravel bikes. Some canal banks are closed off, and it would be good to open them up. Also, innovative projects like Grand Canalscape are underway to make canals better suited for bikes – the biggest benefit will be traffic signals where canal bike paths cross streets.
My mission has led me to two big conclusions: Every piece of decent bike infrastructure in metro Phoenix has at least one big flaw with it. And the gravel bike, in many cases, is a potential game-changer to rectify those flaws. We’ll save the flawed infrastructure for a future post and go straight to the gravel bike.
What the Hell is a Gravel Bike, Anyway?
For those of you unfamiliar with the term "gravel bike”: It’s a lot like a road bike, but with bigger tires, stronger brakes (usually discs), a longer wheelbase and often accouterments for long-distance, unsupported riding. Some people, especially overseas, called it an audax bike. Here in the U.S., marketing nerds position them as road-plus bikes, adventures bikes or — gag — alt-road bikes. They’re more stable than cyclocross bikes.
During my off-the-road explorations, I’d ride a beautiful piece of paved bike path that would inexplicably have a huge break in it. We’re talking a few hundred feet of chunky rubble. Or I’d spot a perfect unpaved workaround that would keep me away from cars.
One day, pointed my LeMond Zurich into one of these unpaved areas. Let’s just say a short wheelbase, aggressive road geometry and 25c tires inflated to 100 psi don’t exactly fit well in that milieu. A gravel bike would cruise through this sort of thing on 30-40c tires and a longer, more-stable wheelbase.
Right now, there are gravel riding Facebook groups swapping secrets. That’s a sign that the gravel bike movement is growing fast. One elite female racer told me that many of her friends are tapping into gravel bikes for training away from cars. And connecting with the overlooked female cyclists could be a huge shot in the arm for the bike shops, the manufacturers and the culture.
The Gravel Bike Can Also Help Transit Planners and Bike Shops
Now, the gravel bike also has implications beyond the users: They also have implications for government transit planners, especially those focused on bicycle infrastructure. It has huge implications for bike shops.
Let’s focus on the bike shops. The bike industry as a whole has a bit of a problem with re-inventing itself. It needs new stuff to keep customers engaged, and it needs stuff that customers will actually use. Too often, these attempts at re-inventing relevance take the form of “innovations” of dubious value.
The Gravel Bike Changes Things
They’re perfect commuter bikes in addition to being great for experienced, fit cyclists looking for a new challenge. The capabilities of the gravel bike were what finally prompted me to pick up a new frame to start the retirement of my LeMond, which I’ve ridden since 1999.
And bikes that can go anywhere means less need for paved bike paths. Planners could designate a stretch of unpaved canal, install signage and add crossings where needed -- and not worry at all about pavement. A perfect example is the Arizona Canal. This stretches for miles on the west side of Phoenix with underpasses and signed crossings.
But over on my side, it goes for miles with no pavement at all. I’ve tried it on my road bike, and it’s completely squirrely. If the road-plus/adventure/gravel bike becomes the standard, that’s something planners won’t have to worry about (though some signaled crossings would be nice still).
Buying a gravel bike is going to be a nightmare of options for customers, especially those newer to cycling. Should your new bike have a one-chainring setup or two chainrings? Through-axles or quick releases? How much air should you put in the tires? Even I’m still working through this as a long-time cyclist. The answers are going to come down to intent. I plan to use mine as a road bike -- but I want it to be able to swing onto an unpaved path and hammer for miles without being a squirrely pain in the butt. I’d also like to commute with it.
Gearing Up a Gravel Bike
As for myself, my new gravel bike – or more Road-Plus, in my case – will be equipped with through-axle hubs, hybrid hydraulic disc brakes and tubeless wheels that will allow far wider tires. It about 3c longer in the wheelbase for stability. I expect it will not only allow me to ride on canals and other unpaved surfaces, but it might even allow me to ride rather than walk the infernal sandy hell that is part of the Tour de Tucson 70-mile course.
And then there’s this Rio Salado bike path. The Mesa side is fairly well dialed in, aside from a ludicrous 15-mile-per-hour speed limit and a really silly break to cross McClintock (they’re working on an underpass, but it will literally be years before cyclists can use it).
The Gravel Bike = Better Experience for All
Having people on bikes that are able to handle any surface also cuts down on the possibility of user conflict. Rollerbladers and dog walkers can be the bane of a cyclist’s existence on a shared paved path. The rise of bike share services have also increased the number of people on bikes – and the bike share users aren’t exactly great bike handlers and haven’t yet learned the situational awareness skills that help serious cyclists stay safe. Spreading the load away from the paved path has huge benefits for keeping us all safe and friendly toward each other.
A little breathing room a la bikes that can ride on more surfaces will definitely be a great thing for all of us. I love bike shares despite some of their flaws – and I welcome any chance to get more people on bikes without waiting years for governments to catch up on infrastructure. The gravel bike is making this happen – and I, for one, welcome our gravel bike overlords.
HEY! I’m building a gravel bike for myself right now. I’m doing it bit by bit, part by part. Once I have it built and get a few rides in, I’ll share what I learned. Follow the blog or my twitter account so you don’t miss this post!
Within a few miles of starting El Tour De Tucson a few weeks ago, a mantra came to me out of the blue. It was a phrase I’d heard from a co-worker. It was "Calm yo’ tits." (Hearing it for the first time was doubly funny since it came from the mouth of the most Disney-obsessed young Mormon woman on the planet.)
Here’s the thing: When I rode El Tour De Tucson last year, I rode a high of starting out fast and furious. I was feeling way too good and pushed way too hard when I should’ve saved more for later. I’ve been hanging my head in shame ever since.
This year, I was determined to ride calm and cool – like Spock, Iceman, Arthur Fonzarelli and Jan Ullrich gene-spliced into one El Tour de Tucson-riding machine. I would reign myself in by repeating "Calm yo’ tits" whenever my mood swung. Ripping it up with a fast time? Calm yo’ tits. Feeling like I should be motoring faster? Calm yo’ tits.
To set the stage, last year’s El Tour went beautifully for me until about the 55th mile of the 76-mile race. The route turned up Silverbell Road into a headwind and a slight climb. At some point both my quads contracted. When I finally loosened them up, I could barely spin the pedals without warning signs of another cramp. My average speed went from respectable to laughable. I was literally embarrassed.
I didn’t want that to happen again.
At the last tours – and in fact for most race events I’ve ever done – I’ve relied on gels and Skratch Labs drinks. I can’t even remember exactly where I found two vital pieces of advice: that I was too low on magnesium and that I needed to eat some solid food earlier in the ride and save the gels for later. I do know that my wife, who had four Ironman triathlons to her credit (including one in the 11-hour range) and has actually been coached, had advice for me.
And then there was the pickle juice debate: I was skeptical. It’s just a bunch of salt, right? Well, one of the faster local people pointed out that the vinegar in pickle juice is just as important.
When I lined up for El Tour De Tucson, here’s how I was loaded:
Two packages of organic fig bars (total of about 400 calories)
A vial of pickle juice
Three bottles of EFS mix, about 100 calories each with a huge hit of magnesium
A bottle of EFS gel for the final stretch
Two Hammer gels just in case
An extra serving of EFS in a Nuun tube
Two packages of electrolyte brews I found at Sprouts
We started it off by breaking my coffee fast with a perfectly made cappuccino at a place called Ombre; we grabbed breakfast at the adjoining Bisbee Breakfast Club; their baked oatmeal is a perfect way to fuel for a race. It’s also on the big side – two people could pretty much split it.
From there, we made our way to the race start at the east campus of Pima Community College. This is a bit of a chore since Google maps wants to route you up roads closed for the event, and the El Tour map in the race packets isn’t very handy. There’s also not much signage near the start line. This made my wife, who was at the wheel, a bit crazy. It’s really the only criticism I have of El Tour De Tucson – well, that and the absolutely dog-ugly t-shirt that is already pulling drivetrain-cleaning duty in the workshop.
I don’t do this stuff for the t-shirt. I do it for a good ride and a good vibe. Even last year at my worst point, I had nothing but praise for El Tour De Tucson. This year’s tour – from course to volunteers to traffic control – was just as good.
I was Fonzi-cool through the chaos of the first 10 miles. I chatted with a few people and tried to find my happy place -- that perfect pace where I can settle into a groove and establish a good base for the race. The course starts off with a bit of climbing, and then a long section of screaming downhill. I held back a bit on the descents, choosing to keep the legs fresh for the later parts of the ride. I ate my first fig bar on schedule 40 minutes in, and finished my first bottle of EFS in the first hour.
The first 18 miles flew by. I stopped for a good pee at the "push a bike" section, and then the course got a bit hilly. There was the steepest climb of the route, and I blew past a bunch of people but also met some people I’d ride with on and off for the rest of the ride. If I were smarter, I would’ve pulled us all into a little group. I’ll give that a shot next year.
The next 20 miles had some climbing, but also more than a few descents to break things up. The climbs were a bit tough, but I rode inside my comfort zone. I largely ignored my heart rate monitor, but dropped to the lowest gear of my 2X11 drivetrain early and spinning it out instead of pushing big gears.
I ride a 1999 Lemond Zurich. It’s been repainted and refitted with a 2016 Ultegra 6800 group and wheelset. It has a slick Ritchey handlebar/stem combo. In the months leading up to the Tour (this year and last year), plenty of new bikes have turned my head. But then I ride this thing in a tour, and it feels like I’m on a monorail. So steady and comfortable. I know it’s not 100-percent future proof with its 1-inch headtube. I’d love at some point to have a road bike with thru-axles, disc brakes and room for bigger tires. But holy cow, it’s really hard to give up on this bike. Really, really hard.
Here’s the interesting part: In analyzing my Strava data afterward, it appears the I climbed faster in 2017, yet descended slower.
How about them apples?
I made my first real stop just before the big Oracle climb. I refilled all my bottles, and dumped my EFS into one of them. I recognized this next 15 miles or so as pivotal for my ride. I resolved to repeat "calm yo’ tits" no matter who I passed or who passed me.
I had some good chats with a guy doing the 100-mile ride, and teamed up shortly with a few different people. Thing is, none of us were paced perfectly for each other. I seemed to be climbing faster, while others hammered the descents or flats. The Moore Road section was a bit desolate, and the surface is pretty chewed up. How rough was it? The rattling would actually ring the little Knog bell on my handlebar!
My confidence was growing here because my legs felt good, but the rest of my body seemed happy, too. No aches, no pains – and I was sharp mentally. I’d stuck to my schedule of one fig bar every 40 minutes, and one bottle of EFS every hour.
At the end of Moore, we had our screaming descent toward the freeway. And toward a repeat of my old enemy -- Silverbell Road.
Last year, my legs started to get that funny electric tingle that warns of cramps right when I crossed the I-10. This year? Nothing. Not a twitch. I told myself to "calm my tits" and check in again five miles later. Sure enough, rock solid. I rode into a rest stop a bit up Silverbell, which was the last stop for the ride. I ate half a banana, grabbed some bits of chocolate cookie -- and then – I noticed little cups full of pickle slices. Brilliant! Perfect! I quickly gobbled a few cups and topped off my third bottle with Gatorade – I figured better to have something with salt in it rather than just all plain water, especially since I’d used my pickle juice already.
As I rolled out of the rest stop, someone latched onto me. He was moving a bit more slowly than I probably would, but I figured he would help me stick with my "calm yo’ tits" mantra. He turned out to be fun to ride with since he could talk about stuff like long-haul air travel and solar power. He was eventually unable to keep the pace, so we parted ways and I headed out alone.
I hit the 65th mile, than the 70th. Not so much as a twinge of problems from the legs. My back was holding up, and I was still mentally really alert. Silverbell seemed to fly by, especially without last year’s horrible headwind.
Sure enough, the course made its final turn toward the finish line, and I rolled in with a strong finish. I lopped more than 45 minutes off my previous time. The thing is, I could’ve done even better. I had a hard time being disappointed with myself about that because I rode and ate according to plan. I now have a very good idea of what I need to do to avoid cramping and stay focused and dialed in through a good tour. My official results brought me into the top half of the pack, which I’ll take any day!
To really make a big improvement next year, I am convinced that I’ll need to find a few other people to form a pack. If any of you want to join me, I’m gonna aim for a moving average of 17-17.5 mph. Hit me up if that sounds like a good pace for you, and let’s see about working together.
After the race, I refueled with a giant burger at Graze. After some rest at the Varsity Club hotel (which I highly recommend), we headed to the new-to-us Tucson Hop Shop to have beer; I dearly love the beer at Pueblo Vida, but I couldn’t get my head around voluntarily heading into the downtown Tucson traffic again.
I have to say, Tucson Hop Shop is one of the coolest beer bars ever. Such a relaxing vibe – and that stupidly delicious Sri Lankan fusion food truck helped, too.
I am 100 percent on-board with riding El Tour de Tucson in 2018. Again, hit me up if you think it would be fun to ride with me!
As a longtime cyclist, I can tell you that there is nothing dorkier than a recumbent bicycle. But stuff a recumbent bike into a metal-and-plastic pod, hang it from a bunch of steel beams and all of a sudden you’ve got yourself a human-powered suspended monorail.
Or a Schweeb, as it’s known down in Rotorua, at the stupidly fabulous patch of land known as Agroventures.
This was my second visit to Agroventures: The first was back in 2010, and I’d been kicking myself since then over my failure to just pay another $35 US or whatever to pedal the Schweeb (instead, I picked a trip down a hill inside a Zorb sphere, which was also pretty awesome). This time, I came to Agroventures specifically for the Schweeb.
And holy balls, it was one minute of heart-pounding, banked-turn goodness that left my quads twitching. If I lived anywhere near Rotorua, I’d be like "My dearest Agroventures friends, can we set up a payroll deduction system so I can feed my Schweeb addiction, please?"
If there was one here in my hometown, I would organize a Schweeb racing league (unfortunately, nobody was around to race me, which would’ve added to the fun).
The Agroventures people slap a GoPro outside the Schweeb for each person and will sell you footage of your circuits on a convenient thumb drive. It would be even better if they’d let you use your own POV camera in addition to theirs because multiple camera angles and good editing make for better videos than static shorts – and yes, I would pay a few extra bucks for it because I’m goofy like that. Other than that, the Schweeb is perfection based on the dweebiness of the lowly recumbent bike. Who would’ve ever thought it possible?!
Look, this wasn’t the world’s greatest trail. But Papago Park is where many Phoenix area riders got hooked on riding. It’s where we took friends to show them the ropes. It’s where we hold silly-ass races for quick after-work fun. And it’s right in the middle of a major city â€“ it’s hard to find an amenity like the Papago trails anywhere else -- just minutes from an international airport.
A bunch of mountain bikers want the city of Phoenix to destroy the 5k trail and restore it to singletrack. They come up with excuses about sustainability and public input and whatever. And I get it. But they’re also just pissed, and they’re more than a bit self-centered. Those associated with the Operation: Saving Papago are also way too pleased with themselves for forcing the issue onto a city meeting agenda (hint: City entities move really slowly, and you need to ride Papago That Is before deciding you really, really want Papago The Was). In their self-righteous fury, the group overlooks other solutions to the situation.
On the plus side, it appears that someone with time and know-how built some new singletrack. And it’s flippin’ sweet if a bit rough around the edges. We’re talking about steep chutes, lots of twists and some opportunities to catch air.
I hadn’t ridden here since I first encountered the 5K trail that replaces the original Papago Park trail. It was absolutely pointless to do so. It’s just not fun riding. But I was pressed for time and determined to get some mileage. And I hoped against all reason that someone had been at work doing something to rectify the situation.
And these trails I found? I’m diggin’ them, as was every single other rider I talked to this weekend. I now like riding Papago better than I ever have before. The new trails remind me just a bit of Fantasy Island, minus all the silly decorations. Much of the new trails are part of the Strava info you see above, where it’s known collectively as “1/2 Vigilante.” It continues west, though, and it seems those bits aren’t on Strava.
You know what? I’m even more convinced that the best course is to let the other users have their trail. Adopt the new singletrack, and maybe even add more of it. Find the trailbuilders, and allow us to take them out for beer. Hell, name the trails after them!
Something tells me this is not the trails the city would’ve designed at Papago Park. They’re a little too fun and just don’t have that bureaucratic municipal stank. So get out there, ride these and make sure the city doesn’t feel comfortable trashing them like they did the old trails, OK?
The very same day I mountain biked in the Whakarewarewa Forest, I started to wonder where else in New Zealand I could ride. Our itinerary would take us to a sheep farm, Wellington and then on to Nelson. So I googled Mountain Biking Nelson, New Zealand -- and found out that none other than the International Mountain Bike Association give the Nelson trails one of its very few Gold ratings.
Oh, boy. This could escalate quickly.
When we finally got to Nelson, I spent a day poking around the bike shops to see who had the good stuff. There were plenty of fine bikes to be had, with one pop-up rental operation sending people out on Santa Cruz Bronsons. Fine bikes, but the KTM Lycan at Crank House Nelson caught my eye (I can demo all the Bronsons I want here in the US, but I didn’t think KTM made anything that didn’t have a throttle on it).
So the Crank House KTM it was -- I pedaled out toward Codgers Mountain Bike Park, which is apparently the closest place to ride. Other places would require driving and a bike rack, which wouldn’t exactly work for my situation.
My wife was nice enough to hang with the little person while I rode, and I wanted to be considerate and not disappear for a huge chunk of the day. I really wanted to cap my ride at not much more than three hours – time for riding and faffing off with my GoPro.
Get Ready to Work Hard
My first five miles included about 1,000 feet of climbing. Most of it was grinding up a jeep road. The trail signage wasn’t exactly helpful, and I didn’t do myself any favors by not knowing the full capabilities of the awesome Trailforks app just yet. It could’ve helped me navigate quite a bit better than just blundering around on my own.
Singletrack trails branch off of the main jeep road. They’re full of switchbacks, and pretty steep in places. There’s also a good amount erosion. Those of you who identify as more downhill-inclined will particularly love the Codgers trail network.
As more of a cross-country guy who loves some good flow, I simply didn’t love the Codgers trails. The scenery wasn’t much, either. Next to riding in Rotorua, Nelson seemed kind of blah. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t covered in massive groves of redwood trees. And the trail contours were a bit predictable -- a bunch of switchbacks all headed pretty much the same way.
There Might be Better Riding than Codgers MTB Park
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I simply missed something. I’d bet a local could’ve pointed me to the best bits. After my ride, a guy at Crank House Nelson clued me in that the trails that have more my style of flow would be at Richmond Hills MTB Park or SIlvan Forest MTB Park. Those areas seem a bit -- compact, shall we say, if you want to get in 20-plus miles.
Of course, that would’ve required some driving and a rack for the car. I could’ve also rented a bike in Richmond (New Zealand), but I really liked the Crank House crew, so I wasn’t into that option. Certain shops just have a good vibe, you know?
About That Bike
So about this KTM Lycan bike -- look, I don’t obsess over linkages and spring rates. That sort of stuff makes my eyeballs shrivel (and possibly other balls, as well). Let me ride the thing, and I’ll tell ya if it works, OK?
And the KTM Lycan works. I love my simple, single-pivot Santa Cruz Superlight. I know there are better suspension systems out there. But I also know that the improvements are by and large incremental, and the added weight and maintenance simply doesn’t justify the difference.
The KTM Lycan forces me to re-think my position. Late in my ride, my legs were hammered -- but I wanted to check out another bit of trail. All of a sudden. The trail shot straight up, and it didn’t look like I was going to get much traction. I’d also lost all my momentum. I had no choice but to shift into the lowest gear and stand up – not a best practice for climbing on a full-suspension bike.
Well, wouldn’t you know, that rear wheel crunched right into the ground and gave me everything I needed to get up that steep, crappy climb with energy to spare. Awesome. I am certain that I could not have pulled this off on my Santa Cruz.
The Lycan also had 650B wheels and a 2X10 drivetrain. Both were absolutely spot on for maneuvering and shifting. The Rock Shox (Recon Silver, I believe) came in well behind the forks I’m used to -- a Recon Gold, Fox Vanilla Float and X-Fusion Slide 29RL. But that’s a Rock Shox issue, nothing to do with KTM.
Wrapping It Up
I was super-excited to ride in Nelson, and I’m glad I did it. Next time, I’ll likely head to Richmond instead of Codgers, though. Your mileage may vary – if you have more time than I did and really like some rutted switchback action, give it a go!
My training plan for the 6 Hours in the Papago mountain bike race wasn’t a winner: A month before the race, I came down with strep throat. Before my antibiotics even ran out, I was headed to New Zealand for two weeks. That doesn’t add up to a lot of pre-race saddle time.
Fortunately, I didn’t plan to win anyway. Did I have fun, though? Oh, hell, yes. It was one of my better days at a race … I credit the pre-race dinner of raviolis and Stone Xocoveza.
If you’re looking for a good race when January rolls around next year, here’s what you should know about 6 Hours in the Papago.
It Used to Be 12 Hours in the Papago
That’s right – 6 Hours in the Papago was once twice as long as it is today. The change in length had something to do with permitting from the City of Tempe. The new setup did wonders: Twelve hours is a LOT of time on a 7-mile loop in Papago Park. No, downright monotonous. But for a six, it’s pretty spot on.
The Course is Jam-Packed with Stuff – Kind of
Each 7-ish mile loop will give you about 500 feet of climbing. That’s pretty solid as the laps pile up. And they’re not long, grinding climbs. Instead, you get short bursts. There are also no long downhills, but there are a few parts that can be tricky – especially as people jockey for position.
You’ll also spend some time blasting along flat, smooth canal bits. Not the most exciting, but … hey, it’s a mid-metro area mountain bike race.
From the course marshals to the crew of kids at the refueling station, every 6 Hours in the Papago volunteer was smiley and helpful from the first lap to the last. They put out a lot of energy to give the race a very fun vibe.
Organizers and Sponsors Had Their Priorities Straight
Look, I don’t need a huge medal and a bunch of useless sponsor coupons in my race bag. And frankly, I have exactly one race t-shirt that I’ll wear out of the house.
What I got for my entry fee at the 6 Hours of Papago was frankly, far more valuable than any of that: a well-stocked refreshment tent where I could fill up my water bottles and grab some sponsor-supplied Hammer gels whenever I needed them (I could swear the electrolyte mix was Heed, which I supplemented with Kola Nuun tablets – exactly why are those delicious little tablets discontinued?!).
Speaking of sponsors, AZ Barbecue was there selling food; racers got a ticket for some free bbq, but I didn’t partake – my priority after a ride or race is to take my shorts off and brush my teeth, and one of those always causes me problems if I do it before I leave the venue. Oh, and SRAM was the title sponsor. I’ve had soft spot for them since the Grip-Shift days, and my current bike is mostly SRAM. Just sayin’.
I Think I Missed Solo Alley
I thought there was supposed to be a place where solo riders could park and make a little encampment. But it looked like that plan morphed into more of an area for teams and clubs to congregate. I really could’ve used having my car and gear around … my 6-, 12- and 24-hour race plans always involve (I know this sounds gross) copious amounts of V-8 and chocolate milk, and that run to my distantly parked carÂ — and the cooler inside it — was a bit of a pain. But it was hardly enough to put a damper on things. Just a small tweak that could be in the works for next year?
What’s the Strategy for Average Joes?
I’d like to improve my standing the next time I do this, and I’m trying to lock onto a good strategy. I noticed that my first four laps were considerably faster than the dudes just ahead of me in the standings. Then my times ballooned up again (corresponding with the laps where I had to jet out to my car). Maybe I’d be smarter to hold back a tiny bit more … maybe use some lower gears in the climbs and hit the electrolytes a bit harder earlier.
I did start spinning low gears a bit, and the decision seemed to pay off, especially after my final infusion of V-8 kicked in. On my last lap, my quads came back online to nearly full power with no danger of cramping … that was after the previous three laps where I relied on calf power to spin the pedals (and frankly, no small amount of farting – to anyone who’d been with 150 feet of me, my deepest apologies).
I’ll sign up for 6 Hours in the Papago next year for sure. It was fun and well-supported, not to mention 10 minutes from my front door in the middle of a huge metro area. That’s an opportunity not to be missed.
If you ask me whether I like something, I can give you a definite answer. Do I like black licorice? Oh, hell, no. Do I like a nice big bowl of tonkatsu ramen? You betcha. Do I like Hawaiian Airlines?
Hmmm. OK. I’ve just flown four long legs on Hawaiian Airlines, and I honestly don’t know how to answer this question. You’d think it’s a simple question -- but it’s hard to evaluate the sum of the parts versus the individual parts themselves. Let’s break it down into pieces so you can see whether Hawaiian Airlines is right for you.
Where I Flew
Phoenix, Ariz. to Honolulu, Hawaii
Honolulu to Auckland, New Zealand
Let’s Start with the Schedule and Airports
One of the reasons I chose Hawaiian Airlines was to avoid Los Angeles International Airport, both outbound and inbound. Hawaiian’s flight from Phoenix gave me a great morning flight on Thursday as opposed to a late-night flight.
Hawaiian also connects via Honolulu to all sorts of destinations in Asia, and our future travel plans include South Korea and Japan (both on our list). So if they passed this test, they’d be a perfect airline for future trips.
Oh, and Honolulu International Airport? It’s wonderful for a layover on the way to Auckland Airport. The little garden area and semi-outdoor corridors give it the nicest vibe of any US airport. Unfortunately, its customs, immigration and baggage areas are an absolute morass. I’d take LAX any day, and that’s saying a lot.
How was the Hawaiian Airlines Staff?
Pilots, flight attendants, gate agents -- no matter what their role at Hawaiian Airlines, they were all far nicer than your typical North American Airlines. Here are a few examples.
I slept through the initial snack/meal service on my flight out of Auckland. I went back into the galley and asked if they had anything left. I got a nice little sandwich, some fruit and a cookie. And no disgruntled attitude about why I missed the flight attendant’s pass through the cabin.
On my flight from Phoenix to Honolulu, I drained my 24-ounce collapsible water bottle and was feeling the thirst. I took the empty bottle back to the galley and asked if I could get a bit of water. Well, the flight attendant kindly filled it all the way up.
Small stuff, right? But it adds up.
Speaking of Food ….
The meal services on the flights were fairly nondescript sandwiches and chicken/rice dishes. They were still considerably better than most meal options I’ve had on long-haul flights with US legacy airlines, though considerably short of the fare on Asiana or All Nippon Airlines (with Asiana being downright tasty).
On the flight into Honolulu from Phoenix, they also served some fun flavors of the islands: sweet onion potato chips and some sort of rum punch that was plenty tasty.
Da Planes, Da Planes!
Tail Numbers and Aircraft Names
PHX-HNL: Boeing 767 with Sky Interior (N588HA, Iwa)
HNL to AKL and Back: Airbus A330 (N388HA, Nahiku; N389HA, Keali’iokonaikalewa)
HNL to PHX: Boeing 767, old interior (N581HA, Manu o Ku)
This is where Hawaiian Airlines has some problems. I really liked our first 767, even though it didn’t have AVOD (on-demand entertainment) at each seat, which is pretty much the standard for long-haul flights on other airlines. It’s the old-school drop-down screens. But I didn’t really care since the Hawaiian Airlines flights were about $1,000 cheaper for my party collectively than competing airlines. Plus, I had a Kindle loaded with some great books. I also like the 2-3-2 seating configuration on the 767, which also gave me ample legroom (6’2 with a 32-inch inseam).
The 767 from HNL to Phoenix was older, and had the earlier, dingier interior. Still, the legroom was perfect.
Now let’s talk about those A330s. They’re the future for Hawaiian Airlines as the 767 gets phased out. The A330 in and of itself isn’t a problem: How Hawaiian Airlines chooses to configure them, though, is a big-time pain for tall travelers. I slid into my seat, and my knees immediately contacted the seat in front of me. So I did what all smart travelers do: I pitched all the reading material in the seat pocket onto the floor in front of me. It opened up some space, but not enough to separate me from the seat. It’s odd that seatguru.com lists the pitch at 31 inches; I’ve flown on plenty of planes with 31 inches of pitch that gave me a little room between seats. The seat cushions were pretty bad, with my left buttock aching about an hour after takeoff.
Also, the Airbus cabins were Yukon cold on both flights. They did have AVOD, but most content would cost. Again, not a big deal for the price break. But factoring in the tight spacing, this becomes more of an issue.
I will definitely avoid any Hawaiian Airlines A330 in the future until they decide to provide some extra space, regardless of price or convenience. There’s just too much competition out there.
Another Little Hitch
Our flight to Auckland was delayed a full three hours by a mechanical problem. That put us at the gate in Auckland just short of 2 a.m., which is pretty rough. Our scheduled 22:25 arrival was already late for travelers craving rest in a real bed.
But things happen, and I get that. Still, Hawaiian Airlines could’ve scored some points by setting passengers up somehow for the delay. Maybe by providing meal vouchers for the delay, or waiving the in-flight entertainment charge. Unfortunately, they missed that chance to make a better situation of a long delay.
What’s the Bottom Line?
I really wanted to love Hawaiian Airlines. I still want to, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. That’s a bummer, because the actual on-the-line employees got it right. The corporate suits, unfortunately, have handed them either aging or cramped aircraft that are well short of the standards being set by other airlines. They’re addressing the aging planes, but they’re replacing them with cramped sardine cans. This is a huge disservice to their pilots, cabin staff and ground staff who do so well.
Fortunately, it’s also reversible. The suits could make some adjustments to the aircraft coming into the fleet, and heed my very good advice when it comes time to refresh the cabins of the A330s currently on hand.
Here’s the good news: If you’re of a shorter stature, the seat pitch won’t matter as much to you. My wife, who is 5’7, had no problem catching Zs on the 767 and A330. Obviously, my 2-year-old wasn’t bothered by the seat pitch!
But since we come as a package and I’m the guy who gets to book the flights, I don’t see Hawaiian Airlines being my go-to airline for future flights unless they’re on a 767 or the A330s get a bit more room for us tall guys.
The Whakarewarewa Forest in RotoruaÂ is absolutely the worst place in the world to go mountain biking. If you ride here, you will go back home. You’ll prep your bike for a ride and get yourself to what used to be your favorite local trails. You’ll straddle your bike at the trailhead, look down the trail and think "Well, this is a bit pointless."
That’s because your local trail doesn’t beckon you with the fragrance of spruce. It isn’t protected from the sun with a canopy of redwood trees and ferns. Its ground doesn’t grip your tires just right.
What I’m saying is that, next to the Whakarewarewa Forest, your local trail probably sucks. I’m sure you love it. I used to love my favorite local trails, too. But within 6 minutes of cruising through the Whakarewarewa Forest, I felt like it ruined my local trails for me. I thought of my usual rides -- mile after mile under a punishing, unrelenting, angry sun through acre upon acre of dried-up Tattooine-like dirt that is practically unfamiliar with concepts like moisture or wetness.
I’ve ridden in some cool spots like Whistler, BC. But the trails there didn’t make me think I’d hate returning to my local trails.
Seriously, This is What It’s Like to Ride the Whakarewarewa Forest
I started my ride out by renting a bike at Mountain Bike Rotorua, which is perched right at the edge of the trail area. My Giant Something-or-Other full-suspension bike, some packets of Gu and a map cost me $60 NZ for 2 hours, but I planned to go longer (they promised to make up the difference later). I brought my own pedals and a helmet. Just one thing: I was so eager to get out on the trails that I forgot to get a pump from the staff. This would come back to haunt me. No fault of theirs at all, and everyone was perfectly nice and accommodating.
Anyway, the trails meander uphill, but not consistently. They roll and dip upward. You might gain 100 feet of elevation but climb for 160 feet. Jeep roads radiate up the hill and intersect with the trails. Much of the singletrack is directional, with a general net loss of altitude. I guess locals go up the Jeep roads, then grab the trails on the way down.
So all these trail intersections make it really easy to get lost. And it’s easy to lose your place on the map. I made life harder by taking photos of the map before handing it over to my wife so she could hike – the important one came out blurry.
The trails themselves feature lots of changes of direction rather than relatively straight, fast runs. You’ll do a lot of steering, and you need to pay attention. There are steep chutes and the occasional drop-off. And you’re going to work hard: I climbed 1,800 feet in about 20 miles.
How was the Rental Bike?
A mixed bag. It was my first experience with a 650B/27.5 wheel. It thought it handled almost indistinguishable from a 26er, which is nice considering the sharp turns and switchbacks. It was also my first time on a 2X11 drivetrain, which I found really agreeable. This one wasn’t very well tuned, though, and the chain often wandered in the first two cogs. It probably worked fine in the bike stand, but things change when a drivetrain is under load.
I’ve been on the other side of this equation. There were a few creaks and groans throughout the whole package, too. The Fox fork worked well. Overall, the Giant just didn’t have that meticulously maintained feel of my personal bikes – but hey, what can you expect? It’s a rental, and it wasn’t built part-by-part by a guy like me. And it doesn’t get broken down to bare frame and rebuilt regularly like my bikes.
Tell Me About That Missing Pump
Welp. I got a flat. I had a patch kit, but I made the mistake of leaving port without a pump. I nearly brought my own on this trip (I also forgot to bring an SD card for my GoPro, so I took the ill-advised route of one-handed cellphone camera videos).
Anyway, I walked a good way looking for someone with a pump. I went through six riders before finding a few that had pumps. The upside is I got to banter with some nice people. My patch kit and borrowed pump saved the day; the Mountain Bike Rotorua staff seemed inordinately surprised that I used my own stuff to patch the bike up.
I wasn’t really thrilled to be out there without a pump, so I tried taking some roads as a shortcut back, and I got really damn lost on all those roads. And my blurry map photo was no help. I actually got to a place where I was clueless about my whereabouts, and I was genuinely nervous. I thought back to my training from Cody Lundin, and cultivated my "party on" spirit – which involved riding back to the last location where I knew where I was – even with legs about to cramp and no Gu left. Sure enough, that got me back where I needed to go. My 2-hour ride had ballooned to nearly 4 -- but the Mountain Bike Rotorua folks didn’t charge me for the extra time because of the flat.
So is Whakarewarewa Forest the Worst Place in the World to Go Mountain Biking?
Yes. I have a six-hour race the weekend after I get back from New Zealand. All I can think about is how I’m gonna keep from falling asleep of sheer boredom turning laps on this dry, dusty, barren expanse of trails. I mean, I had strep throat a week before my trip. I haven’t been training per se during my two-week trip. But hey – I’m not expected to win. And six hours isn’t that long for the physical effort. But man, mentally it will be hell after riding in the Whakarewarewa Forest. I’ve actually thought about not showing up, but I just can’t bring myself to not do something I signed up to do.
I suppose I’ll get over it and start taking my pleasure in my local rides again. But my wife and I have both the phrase “the next time we’re here” already, and you can bet I’ll have some serious mountain bike plans when that time comes. And may it be sooner than later.
I hate summer heat in Phoenix – and I’m sure I’d hate it in any other hot, desert city. But you know what? It’s not so much the heat that bothers me. It’s the people who don’t know how to deal with it. I’m going to clue you all in based on my experience living here since 1980.
Stop Obsessing Over the Temperature
Right, that’s it: No more posting graphics about the forecast. No checking the forecast. Look, you don’t need to know whether it’s going to be 95 or 125. In this case, knowledge isn’t power. There is literally nothing you can do as a result of knowing the exact temperature that will make summer heat in a desert any more comfortable or any less challenging. You’re gonna be hot until October, and that’s simply all there is to it. Whether it’s 95 0r 135, you should take exactly the same steps. Repeat it with me: Exactly. The. Same. Steps. The only impact knowing the temperature has is psychological, and it’s demoralizing rather than helpful.
Drink a Lot of Water, Already
I don’t want to hear anyone say "but you can drink too much water, too." Tell you what – come up with a sourced number of people who have died from hyperhydration Â (aka, drinking too much water) in a given year. Then, I’ll reply with stats from the same year from dehydration deaths. Guess which one will be astronomically higher.
I’m now at 6’2, 198 pounds. I usually drink north of a gallon a day – more if I do anything outdoor. Oh, and it helps to know how to drink water. Don’t sip it: Pound a quart per sitting if you can. Read Cody Lundin’s "98.6 Degrees: The Art of Keeping Your Ass Alive" for the science behind it. Something salty to go with your water or even an electrolyte tablet now and then will also help. I have a post with more advice about hydration.
Get Out In It
If you do nothing but scuttle from air-conditioned area to air-conditioned area, you will never acclimate an iota to the summer heat. You need to spend at least some time in the heat. That doesn’t mean you need to be stupid about it, so dress right, wear sunscreen and – I can’t possibly say this enough – drink your damn water.
What does dressing right mean? On days I head to the office, I wear breathable, light clothes. Fortunately, I work in a place where people won’t think twice about my Eddie Bauer Guide Pro pants and (discontinued, damnit) Mountain Hardware McClane shirt.
On my own time, I favor my Onno hemp t-shirts and -- well, pretty much the same sort of pants I wear to work. I don’t believe in shorts. If I’ll be in the heat a long time, I’ll cover my head with something. And I never, ever hike without a pretty good bunch of gear that works for me; one of the more unusual items is a shemagh, which is great for covering up from the sun or even any sudden dust storms that blow in (yes, that happens in the summer).
Why no shorts? Because I like to cover skin from the sun. If I were really smart, I’d probably opt for a long-sleeve version of my hemp t-shirts. Look at traditional Arab dress – it’s light, flowing and layered. Great for insulation from the summer heat. Oh, and avoid wicking materials. They dry too quickly to cool you. Stick with quality cotton or – as I prefer – hemp or bamboo blends. They’ll keep you cooler and won’t make you stink.
As I was cleaning out a closet stuffed with books, I unearthed my old copy of Round Ireland With a Fridge, a true-but-silly travel story about Tony Hawks; Tony lost a bet, and his "reward" was to circumnavigate Ireland by hitchhiking. But here’s the kicker – he had to do it while toting a small refrigerator. The re-discovery of this book propelled Ireland back into my mind, and to the forefront of my possible destinations for 2016.
Round Ireland With a FridgeÂ paints Ireland’s people as up-for-anything characters who roll with the oddities in life and don’t sweat the small stuff. The descriptions of the towns sound more than a bit idyllic, especially to a desert dweller like me. I would really welcome some cool temperatures once we’re in the middle of months of 110-degree heat (that’s about 50 for you Celsius users).
And I have to bet that the craft beer craze has sunk its claws into Ireland at least a bit, so I’d be eager to look beyond the Guinness (if you’re a craft beer aficionado who knows Ireland well, this is your cue to speak up.
Also, I’m more than a bit intrigued by WestJet‘s service to Dublin. I can hop on a WestJet flight from Phoenix to Toronto, and there I can board one of the new-to-them WestJet 767s and get to Dublin. It sounds like a lot of fun without too much fuss – but I am one of those oddballs who finds getting there to be a big part of the fun. I recently had a great round-trip experience on WestJet, and I’d like to see how the airline makes the most out of its upgraded fleet on a flight to Dublin.
So, once we’re there, what’s next?
Usually, we like a good mix of independent travel mixed in with a guided tour here and there. The do-it-yourself method allows flexibility and spontaneity, while guided tours are great for those times when some local expertise and know-know can enhance the experience.
I’d plan to use some of the major cities – Dublin and Galway in Ireland, and Belfast in Northern Ireland – as bases. From there, we could take a look at some of the better-known sites while keeping an eye out for surprises beyond the guidebook. TheÂ Giants Causeway is definitely among the best-known destinations, and I’d have another read of Round Ireland With a Fridge to ferret out a few more ideas.
And I admit that I’m about to bet a bit nerdy here: I’ve read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series – which TV viewers know as A Game of Thrones – five times already. I visited the Wall when I was in Iceland, so I’d like to see some of shooting locations scattered around Northern Ireland. There are also plenty of castles for me to check out because I really can’t get enough of them. I also have some good friends who insist that I’d love hiking in Ireland – we can’t hike like we used to since our daughter was born last year, but we can at least get in a few short but interesting hikes, I’m sure.
When my family starts to talk about our big yearly trip, this is will all be part of my pitch for Ireland.
If you’ve been there, what are some travel tips you’d offer a couple traveling with an 18-month old?
This post is sponsored by Allens Belfast Bus Tours.
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