Thursday, December 14, 2017

Rock, ice, and water.

And sand, and fire, and plain old earth.

Coincident with completing the build of a years-deferred off-piste bike on Friday night, the urge to go deep struck.  Jeny was out but Pete was game, so we hastily whipped together a plan then met in the desert loaded for brrrr.

Despite appearances, the desert is cold this time of year.  Carrying enough layers and food for our hasty objective were legitimate concerns as we set out into a crisp morning.

Derelict shandy roads gave way to cottonwood lined washes, and though we climbed a fair bit the trend of the day was downhill. 

We somehow missed a turn where there was no turn to be missed, then compensated by following a gully to a rock slab, and then dismounted to trundle ourselves down.  Not quite to the river yet, but the water collected here told us it couldn't be far.

Blending wholly disparate genres -- rock and ice -- of our riding careers turned out to be less exciting than expected.  Sure was pretty tho.

Eventually the wash opened onto a debris fan, across which ran a track that dead-ended at mining detritus above a translucent river.  We thrashed through a bit of willow and tamarisk to find waters edge, then enjoyed late afternoon sun while transforming to aquatic mode.

Low angle sun was delicious for precisely one bend of the river, at which point the current oozed us into shade and it was hard to think about anything other than finding a spot to call home for the night.

One bend later that spot presented itself.  I'm the guy that always wants to go one bend further, to cover miles now that won't then need to be covered in the morning.  Pete's frozen hands insisted that this spot would do just fine.

We fed the fire with tamarisk as though the supply was limitless.  Partly because the night was cold, and even once dinner was eaten and chores were done it was but 7PM -- way too early for sleep.

But also because it *is* limitless, as far as I'm concerned...

My self-employed status keeps me up late (by Pete's standards) most every night, while Pete's job as educator has him up obscenely early (by, um, any measure) most mornings.  He was up, breakfasted, had taken pics and video, reviewed them, shot more, reviewed those, then had largely packed up while waiting for the sun to reappear.  And for me to awaken.  

It was the crashing together of plates of grease ice mere feet from my head that ultimately got me up.

I'd guesstimated that direct sun would find us by 8, and was surprised when I rolled out of bed that it still hadn't.  I set about boiling water for breakfast and treating more for the day before I caught on that the sun wasn't going to touch this beach all day -- and maybe not for a few more months.  That was interesting, but the news of the morning was that I'd somehow not rolled out of bed until 10AM.




Knowing that we'd just burned ~2 hours of precious daylight on a day where we had zero to spare, I apologized profusely to Pete while hurriedly heaving gear into a pile.  He wandered up canyon to find some sun while I finished packing, then we shoved off into the slush.

I carried more insulation than Pete -- both the subcutaneous kind as well as the puffy sort -- and as such the temp seemed nice and I felt relaxed through most of the day.  Pete spent the day chilled, with downright cold hands and feet, which manifested in him paddling faster, often to tag a tiny sunspot on the other side of the river before drifting back into shade, only to cut across the next bend in search of yet more warmth.  As we paddled -- he with purpose and I with none -- we ogled heron and eagle, flicker and raven, all beneath a cerulean sky framed by sandstone walls.  I detected not a breath of wind all day.

I know my Canadian and Alaskan friends will look at these pics and read the next sentence and roll their eyes -- and they have some right to.  But the days are so short now that you can transit from mid-morning to late afternoon in the time it takes to round a bend of the river.  Suddenly we were feeling the miles left to paddle, and ride, not to mention a healthy drive home still looming.  We were moving as best we could, but the speed of the river is what it is -- we have no say in the matter.

The sun dipped below the rim minutes before our takeout appeared.  Neither of us had been here before so the ideal spot was somewhat open to interpretation.  We both know, now, that five minutes more on the river would have saved us ~45 minutes of dealing with mud, willows, crumbling banks, more willows, and cliffing ourselves out within sight of our trail.  We know that now.

But in that moment getting out ASAP seemed the smart thing to do, and led to one of us (raises hand) falling knee deep into the river, almost losing a paddle in the ensuing flail, then both of us thrashing through over-the-head brush (Pete took a stick to the brain -- straight up his nose) before delicately passing bikes down the aforementioned cliff, only to then clamber through a ravine and finally onto the trail.

Whence finally we could pedal again we took stock of what remained: 20 miles -- all uphill and in the dark -- might have seemed uninviting to most at this juncture.  My flash-frozen shoes made me grateful for it, and with Pete's company and what-me-worry attitude we unwound them without really noticing.  I was off once or twice to walk warmth back into my feet, but those instances coincided with steep bits of road so I'm not sure any time was lost.

In the end we covered a seemingly inconsequential chunk of terrain in our brief time out.  Yet most of it was new to us, and the things we saw, did, and learned there made it seem like more somehow.

It almost always feels like that, doesn't it?

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Meow, ya big fat stud.

As the northern hemisphere tilts deeper into our dark season, many (me, you?) turn to their fat-tire bikes to gain flotation on snowpacked trails.

It's awesome that we have that choice, not to mention so many options for rims and tires to suit our particular needs.

Those in slightly more temperate locales or with unique microclimates end up having to put studded tires on their bikes to keep them upright.

And it's awesome that they have that choice.  

Still others need both fat and studs to ride all winter long.

It's nearly unbelievable how many options there are for studded tires these days -- unfathomable even 2 years ago.  Currently you can choose from 26", 27.5", and 29" diameters, and widths ranging from 2.3" up to 4.7".  You can choose to buy them pre-studded, or stud-your-own.  Not only that, but there are now options in the studs themselves -- pointed, flat-tipped, concave, and even 3-point crowns.  Amazing.  On top of all that there are varying options in each of these pocketed tires for your overall tread configuration -- some emphasizing traction over all else, others leaning toward a blend of speed and grip.

All unthinkable a few short years ago.  

Which brings us to our current place -- where there are so many iterative options, each of which can potentially steer you further away from what's ideal in your neck of the woods.  Analysis paralysis happens, and we haven't yet begun to discuss the effect of tire pressure on stud effectiveness!

I've been experimenting with studs on my own tires for about 30 years.  Back in college I rode my bike to class year-round, and for 3 to 4 months every winter that meant I needed to stay upright on rutted ice covered by plow spoil, and often with a thin layer of slush or meltwater at every intersection, left behind by idling cars.  Sketchy.

From there I transitioned into riding snow and ice in the mountains of Colorado, when almost no one else was.  Then came nearly 2 decades of training for and racing the Iditarod in Alaska -- an entirely different category of experiences.  These days I ride local trails covered with diurnal melt/freeze for 2+ months of every winter, plus another ~3-4 months of deep snow in the alpine, occasionally interspersed with a trip to ride some weird combo of ice and rock out in the desert.  Or maybe even back to Alaska.  

For literal decades I've embraced riding through the winter, and in doing so I have accrued a tremendous amount of experience with the many variants of northern hemisphere snow and ice.  I'm continually adding to that experience by testing different combinations of rim, tire, stud, and pressure.

I stock and sell tires of all configurations suitable to off-road travel over snow and ice.  Some of the more commonly purchased options are listed here.  Don't see what you need there?  Or uncertain of what you really need?

Drop a line:

Thanks for checking in.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Divide stories: Bike evolution.

My interest in the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route started back in '99, when John Stamstad did the original ITT on the route.  My head was still way-too-deep down the 24-hour and 100-miler rabbit hole, thus I didn't yet appreciate what John was doing.  I was a part of a few conversations between he and Pat Norwil re: rules to govern the ITT, but it took two more years of racing the Iditarod before I could really wrap my head around an ITT of my own.

And, when that day finally came, I was both too broke and too tired (from a season of the aforementioned lap races) to do the whole shebang.  I decided, with inspiration from Pat Irwin, to attempt a single-state ITT, from the Wyoming border to the New Mexico border, traversing my home state of Colorado.

The more I looked into the route the more it seemed that any bike I owned at the time was really unsuited to the endeavor.  Thus I borrowed a bike from Wes Williams -- his own personal touring machine.  He had it built with huge gearing, tiny tires, and drop bars, and although I rode it for a few days that way, I knew that it wasn't going to fly for an all-out TT effort.

Pictured below, I installed some ubiquitous Nanoraptors, flat (and narrow!) bars, bar ends, lots of grip padding, friendlier gearing, and aero bars.  Notably absent was any sort of reasonable frame bag: Back then almost no one had a frame bag, and the days of oversized seat bags had not yet arrived either.  Moots used to make a product called the Tailgator, with two oddly shaped bags slung off of a gossamer light titanium frame.    When I look back at this setup I remember how impossibly smooth the chassis was ("noodly" or "whippy" would be apt descriptors), how poor my lighting was (two OG Petzl Tikka lights zip-tied under the aero-bars, and that was *it!*), and how much wasted real estate there was in that main triangle.

For all of my divide attempts I used a "navigation system" similar to the one below, with paper maps and cue sheets inside of a BarMap OTG, at my fingertips on the bars.  Spare rubber bands in there, too...

Note state-of-the-art lighting under the aero bars.

This setup saw me through CO in what felt like a blazing fast time back then.  I liked it but I didn't love it, and knowing that I was going to attempt the whole GDMBR ASAP I asked Willits to create something similar but -- at least for this event -- better.

And man did he!  Below is my Willits B2, with the oh-so-supple Action Tec fork, a Moxey suspension post, Zipp 404's, 3 x 9 gearing, and a whole lotta manipulated tubing intended to give me a comfy ride.  This bike was amazing, but a drought that year meant uber sandy trails as well as searing heat and massive forest fires across the west.  Thus I (barely) finished an ITT of the Kokopelli on this bike, then DNF'ed the Grand Loop and DNS the GDMBR ITT.  Just too hot/smoky/sandy.

Pat Irwin and I teamed up with Airborne the next year, collaborating with that company to produce an affordable, comfortable, and durable chassis with next-gen (keeping in mind that it was '03, and 29" wheels were still seen as a redheaded stepchild) geometry.  Big changes from the Willits were disc brakes, slacker HTA, more upright position, a resurrection of Zoom Brahma bars in a massive ~610mm width, and, for the first and last time, cranks that rotated on an ISIS bottom bracket.  This bike was good -- especially given the price.  But it didn't really improve on the Willits.  That, and on my '03 ITT of the entire GDMBR, I found cracks in the seatstay bridge before I'd made it 1000 miles into the route.  Catastrophic failure seemed unlikely so I just kept going, but then my seatpost rack failed coming into Steamboat, and my achilles tendons and psyche cratered not long after.  I'd been pushing everything a bit too hard, and paid the price with a DNF at ~halfway.

Cockpit view of the Airborne during that '03 ITT.  Zoom Brahma's wrapped with 3 layers of cork tape were comfy, but still not quite enough padding.  Also note the 90* off orientation of my cue sheets.  I think I was already unraveling if I couldn't be bothered to stick 'em in there straight.

Airborne the company cratered in '03, leaving lots of dealers high and dry.  I liked that chassis but with no support behind it I moved on -- to Moots.  Kent Eriksen was still there and was interested in working with me to build a ne plus ultra bike for my return to the GDR.  Pictured below with YBB suspension, Zipp 404's, a not-nearly-big-enough frame bag, a custom rear rack, and my Kenda Klaw training tires.  I remember being super excited about these tires when they came out -- thought they were way too big (they were 1.9"...) but loved having that confidence when riding local trails.

By now I'd learned that I didn't have the motor to go mano a mano with the fast guys, thus I needed to outsmart 'em to have a chance.  To that end I had no choice but to shave every last gram from my kit, not waste any time in transitions, and cut sleep.  Among the many ways I shaved weight was to use a car sunshade sleep pad (~5oz, warm, not comfy enough to oversleep...) -- note below how I trimmed it to keep my calves from brushing it on every pedal stroke.  The lower parts of the rack's forward stays were originally round tubing, but my calves made contact with those, too, so Brad Bingham @ Moots cut the tubing and fabricated the plate variation -- literally while I waited.

I always opted for a rear rack for the GDR and other bikepack races -- even if we didn't call 'em that yet.  Proponents of the uber-sized seatbags tout their lower system weight and lower likelihood of failure.  And they're right on both.  What they don't factor in is the time spent stuffing/unstuffing them.  I liked the rack/bag system because it was so easy to get everything in/out, easy to keep things organized, easy to strap stuff to the top of it (like a rain shell, when I was overheating but could already see the next storm bearing down on me) for quick access or to dry it out.

This setup was incredible.  Were I to head back to race the GDR today (Ha!  Not in a million years...) I'd use something very, very similar.  I'll give detail on that below.  I kept a tube and spare parts (chain links, spare cable, spare cleats/bolts) in a small pack in the seat tube bottle cage.  Always had Gatorade or similar in the downtube bottle.  The bottle under the downtube had a simple charcoal filter in it -- which I used every few days to purify stream water on long stretches between towns.  Inside that tiny frame bag I always had what you see pictured below: A Crank Brothers multi-tool, a pile of jerky, a pile of Twizzlers (usually Pull and Peel...), a few Salted Nut Rolls, and sometimes I'd even cram in some gummy something or other.  Pure nutritional bliss...

Part of my disdain for the GDMBR stems from how much time you spend not just on pavement but in the aerobars.  It is emphatically a quality touring route but calling it mountain biking just doesn't fly with me.  The shot below was maybe 6 miles from the finish of the '04 race.  You can see Pete Basinger just coming into the picture behind me.  Stories about Pete and the GDR are coming, including the situation pictured below -- trust me...

I rode fairly fast in that '04 race but I had so many mishaps -- like melting my sodden gloves when trying to dry them over a campfire, or breaking a pedal spindle and having to ride 30 miles on just one, then having to detour off route and then wait overnight to buy a replacement, or killing two cyclometers just in Montana, plus having a spate of flat tires on that same day, or having my bottom bracket unthread itself, then having to backtrack *downhill* 15 miles to the nearest town, so that I could buy a monkey wrench and some superglue to mickeymouse it back in place, only to turn around and re-climb that 15 miles in a monsoonal downpour -- that I could only look back and think "what if?"  As in, what if I took all that I'd learned, all the fitness I possessed, and somehow strung together a mistake-free ride?  I figured I could knock at least 36 hours off, and maybe over 40.  With more favorable weather I thought I could knock more than 2 days off, but then I started to see the flaws -- or misplaced optimism -- in that sort of thinking.  How can you ever plan for ~2 weeks of ideal weather in the mountains?  You might just get it, but you certainly can't schedule it.

It was that line of thinking that had me asking Moots to better my current steed.  I even succumbed to the trend of using drop bars for a bit -- as pictured below -- but no amount of padding or positional tweaks could keep me comfortable on them for long.  Too much nerve damage had already been done in training for and racing the GDR in '03 and '04.  Ultimately I came to just accept that I'd done the best I could with what I had, and pretty much let go of the idea of going back.  Zero regrets there.  This bike is currently on long-term loan to my friend Brian.  Keep it clean, B...

I build wheels full-time, and get asked about once a week to suggest not just a wheelset but a whole bike build for some aspiring GDMBR racer.  Not everyone has the same goal of just scorching the course, thus not every suggestion adheres to a wrote formula.  For those that want the end-all-be-all no-compromise get-me-there-as-fast-as-you-can-with-nothing-left-in-the-tank setup, I tell them to put together a frame that fits them perfectly, preferably made from titanium or light gauge steel.  I would personally not use carbon for the frame -- largely because there are so few custom builders using it.  I recommend custom because fit is everything when overusing your body in this way -- any tiny blip in the fit and you have an overuse injury.  You're courting overuse even with a *perfect* fit.

To that frame I'd add a Bodyfloat post, a Lauf fork, 29 x 2.2 (or so) low-tread tubeless-ready tires, quality carbon rims laced to DT 240s hubs, and a cockpit that fits you and spreads out the weight on your contact points.  Some swear by drop bars but they didn't work -- at all -- for me.  Aerobars for sure.

Some these days swear by dynamo hubs to power their lights and GPS and smartphone and other non-essential devices.  I believe in all of that technology but I'm not sure I'd want or need it for a stripped-down race on the divide.  

I'd use a 1x drivetrain for sure -- ditching the front derailleur would be a no-brainer.  Precise gearing would have to be figured out by riding the thousands of miles you need in the bank to arrive at the start line ready.

Plus tires?  Comfy as all get out but slower than regular 29".  I wouldn't go bigger than 2.2", and would insist on no smaller than 1.9".  That air volume matters.

Ful suspension?  Well, I kind of already suggested that with the Lauf and Bodyfloat.  Think critically about how those two units work and you might come to understand that the high-frequency/low-amplitude bumps (read: washboard and small chatter) that you'd most want to filter out aren't really removed that well by modern bicycle suspension.  Thus, rather than take a complicated bike that weighs more than it has to and doesn't function as well as it should, I'd opt for a supple (<-key hardtail="" non-traditional="" p="" suspension.="" the="" with="" word="">

And yeah, I'd probably still take a rear rack.  But maybe not.  I'd carry all of my water in an easy-access dromedary in my frame pack, with a hose routed up to the bars.  I'd keep all of my tubes/tools/pump/spares in there too.  I'd keep my sleep kit behind the saddle.  Since it'd only be needed once a day, and stashed the rest of the time, maybe one of Eric's smaller seat bags would work.  I'd have food close at hand in twin top tube bags -- one against the head tube and one tucked up to the seat tube.  No feed bags hanging off the stem -- don't need 'em (too much crap!  simplify!!) and they rub my knees when standing.  Rain gear would be easy access in an under-bar bag.  I wouldn't wear a pack.  I would emphatically not have bags on my fork legs: In addition to being the opposite of aerodynamic, they represent added mass that you just don't need to go fast.

I'd skip the filter and carry a bit of Aquamira.  I'd eat more fat and less sugar.  I'd still minimize sleep to 4 hours or less, and I'd still be uncomfortably sprawled on a foil sunshade when doing it.

So there you have it -- my slightly out-of-touch but utterly authentic and rooted in experience take on what works best for divide racing.

Don't hesitate with questions.