Dirt Rag Magazine

Get it now: Dirt Rag Issue #194


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Cover photo: Abram Eric Landes

Our annual Personality Issue is now available in print!

Flip through its pages to find out what Floyd Landis (yeah, that one), a leopard print-clad Sue Haywood and Ray Petro of Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park are up to these days. Our editors also tested a bunch of new bikes and bike racks, and picked their favorite cockpit setups. As usual, our columnists are on point as they consider mountain biking in relation to life’s eccentricities, and our writers introduce you to two people devoting themselves to giving back to mountain biking—one using a chainsaw and the other using her skills and her voice.

Because this is an extra-special issue, we are re-printing the full intro letter from Mike, our editor-in-chief. If you still don’t know what’s up, it will explain. Then, grab the issue and dig in. Enjoy it and share it with a friend when you’re done.


Editor’s Letter

Words: Mike Cushionbury

We were not even a full mile into the ride and I was already gumming up the works.

Photo: Sterling Lorence

Photo: Sterling Lorence

After floatplane-ing to the remote Lorna Lake in the South Chilcotin Mountains of British Columbia, the plan was to ride to a campsite, spend the night and then ride back to the Tyax Resort the following day. At about 0.8 miles, after a short muddy singletrack, we came to a rickety bridge crossing a flowing river. When I say “rickety” I mean four untethered logs that rolled and flexed with every step, two of which were wet and slippery.

The first few in our group made it safely across. As I weaved and sidestepped like a drunk trying to ice skate, my cross-country shoes slipped and I set the bike in the river for balance. At that point the rushing current grabbed it and took control. My main mistake was now realized: I should have held the bike downstream from the bridge, not up. Like a violent shove from a mosh pit bully, the bike was stuffed under the bridge and gone from sight.

Luckily, my friend Andrew Juskaitis from Giant Bicycles (and rightful owner of this brand-new yet fully submerged trail machine) along with enduro racer Adam Craig jumped into the river to catch and save the most important tool I needed to get out of the middle of nowhere and into camp some six hours later.

I realized a few things in the following moments after they finally handed me the fished-out bike on the other side of the torrent: One, I’ll never be a master-class balance beam gymnast. Two, you can fully submerge an $8,000, 2017 Giant Trance Advanced 0 for a few minutes underwater and it will still perform as good as new. Three, luckily, carbon bikes don’t really float or that thing would have been gone. Four, you can really, really submerge a Lezyne Super GPS underwater for a few minutes and it won’t miss a beat.

Photo: Sterling Lorence

Photo: Sterling Lorence

Bike-turned-boat disaster averted, I also learned I wasn’t done learning. Just 0.2 miles later, we embarked on a huge, 45-minute hike-a-bike followed by multiple deep river crossings, which taught me a thing or two about how the friends and acquaintances you ride with often are the real personalities that make this mountain bike lifestyle so great, because of the vault of random experiences you’ve undoubtedly shared, and will share.

Back at camp (yes, I finally made it to camp in one piece), we ended the adventure as all good ones should end: with food, drink and stories. Hanging out at the lake and later next to the fire pit, we all swapped stories of the ride as well as some “back in the day” tales. The next morning, riding back to the lodge, Andrew and I joked about all those old-school SoCal races we did together that mean nothing yet everything to us now.

This brings me to our second annual Personality Issue. This time around you’ll read less about current racing superstars and more about regular riding folks or retired professionals who are just like most of us—tied to the sport in some way and doing what they can to give back or just enjoy the friends and experiences they’ve made along the way. It’s an intertwining of history, adventure and also some real darkness. When all that is added to the mix, it makes the best, most flavor-filled kind of gum that holds this vast group of local as well as world-known personalities together, which make up our random sport.

Columns and Readings

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“I believe that aggression makes it possible to dose out the trains of sand in our hourglass.” – Bama

“I find that, in general, my wanderlust is often trumped by proficiency at being a homebody.” – Stevil Kinevil

“And while there’s a weight and a mass to everything I’ve built in this town, I often wonder what happens to it when I’m gone. Does my own legacy have roots, deep or shallow?” – Watts Dixon

“I have a message for all of you: The bro-ification that today afflicts our trails will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end.” – Tech editor Eric McKeegan

“I can’t find an argument that will convince me that a bike with an electric motor is somehow not motorized. Call it pedal assist, call it Category 1, call it what you want: It’s motorized and therefore should be allowed only where motorized vehicles are allowed.” – Rebecca Rusch 

Personalities

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Our writers and photographers visited Floyd Landis at his new marijuana shop in Leadville, Colorado; sat down with “real American hero” and former cross-country racing national champ Sue Haywood; and Ray Petro, the founder of Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park.

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We also introduce you to Chainsaw Don and his flock of crows, and Tammy Donahugh, a former pro who is now at the forefront of coaching mountain bike instructors to impart riding skills to the next generation. We also bid a sorrowful farewell to friend, bike shop owner, longtime Dirt Rag columnist and mountain bike culture caretaker, Jeff Archer, and checked in on Charlie Cunningham’s long road to recovery following a bicycle crash.

Reviews and Stuff

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Our testers hit the trail on the new Rocky Mountain Pipeline 770 MSL, Cannondale Habit Women’s 2 and the Ghost SL AMR X LC 8. Also, our editors named the products that make up their favorite cockpit setups, and we put several rack setups from Thule and Yakima through the daily-life ringer.

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The Legend of Blue Collar Bikes


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Words: Robert Ives
Photos: Courtesy of Amigos’ Archive
Originally published in Issue #192

My name is Robert Ives, and to the best of my knowledge what you are about to read is a true story about making something from nothing and perhaps also about why that might be important to some, and most likely not to most.

At age 21 I gave up alcohol, cheeseburgers and a steady half-packa-day Camel Light habit. I decided I was tired of being flabby and hit the gym. Shortly after, a good friend came riding over on a pink and turquoise Specialized Stumpjumper, the first mountain bike I’d ever seen, and my newest addiction was set to start.

Mom helped me with the purchase of a badass Mongoose Iboc for my birthday because she’s awesome like that, and I was off. Hammering away five days a week in the gym and six days a week on the bike, I learned I possessed a tenacity I had not previously been aware of or had otherwise tapped. I realize now that I’d had it all my life, just never channeled it into anything that was going to have positive results.

I had grown up terrible at sports—close to last kid picked for gym class teams almost every time, couldn’t jump a BMX bike to save my life, and a skateboard was the quickest route to the emergency room for me. I never really found any sport I cared enough about to devote the effort into getting proficient at it. That all changed as soon as I wrapped my hands around a pair of mountain bike grips.

A friend of a friend who worked at a local bike shop in Sacramento, California, and with whom I’d ridden a time or two, rode an aluminum Ventana that was absolutely insane and way out of my broke-ass price range. During one evening ride, he told me that Ventana’s owner/ builder was selling off his personal bikes to raise money to rent a shop and expand the business out of his garage. Within a few days’ time I found myself in a small backyard in Folsom, California, at the home of Sherwood Gibson, who has a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering and is also a bicycle frame builder.

He wanted only $600 for his Marble Peak hardtail, complete with a Ventana custom aluminum stem and Suntour XC Pro parts group. I scraped, begged and borrowed from as many sources as I could to pull it together and returned a week later with enough cash to make it mine. With a new, killer steed in the stable, I finished out the ’93 season with a few promising race results in sport class and was ready to start racing with the big boys in expert by ’94.

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I had bumped into Sherwood several times after purchasing his bike, made friends with some other locals who raced for him, and was beyond stoked to be invited to race for Team Ventana. I dropped by the shop one day to see Sherwood mitering a massive 3-inch diameter tube that would be the foundation for the El Conquistador de Montañas, a prototype full-suspension off-road tandem featuring a Turner Bikes suspension rear end that would eventually end up as a production model featuring Sherwood’s own design. I was infatuated immediately.

Shortly after the Conquistador’s unveiling, I abandoned my flailing “solo” expert class racing career in favor of stoking the beast, with Sherwood as captain on the tandem. We did every ride and race we’d normally have done on our own just to see what we could pull off. As a result of our newfound interest, I was hired to work at Ventana on a new carbon fork project with a “wink-wink” that we’d have more time to train together on the tandem, which was exactly what we did. I loved my new job and I spent more hours staring at Sherwood’s back from the stoker seat of the Conquistador that year than I could possibly count. We were having a great time—work and life were good.

It was then that it really struck me how someone with some good ideas, skill and knowledge could create some pretty bitchin’ stuff without a great deal of machinery or resources.

I still liked riding single bikes and had a brand-new XTR-equipped Marble Peak hardtail on deck. The winter of 1994 promised to bring the full brunt of El Niño to California, and I was not about to destroy my expensive new components while training for the upcoming race season. I’d seen a few friends over the years riding singlespeed mountain bikes and had my ass kicked around a course by one or two of them occasionally and thought the perfect solution to my soon-to-be-weather-drenched woes lay with a winter singlespeed “training bike.”

So began my daily and monthlong campaign of harassing Sherwood to build me a real Ventana singlespeed. Sherwood politely shut me down at first, but I refused to be dissuaded. When I showed up to work every morning, the first words from my mouth were “Good morning, singlespeed.” I prefaced the answer to every question asked of me throughout the day with “singlespeed” followed by the actual answer.

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It took a month of this ridiculous badgering before Sherwood had enough and finally gave in, albeit with conditions. “In that drawer,” he said, pointing to a billion-year-old wood cabinet, “are 10 pre-mitered frame sets with smaller tubing than the Marble Peak but the same geometry from a discontinued batch of frames I was building for a distributor in Germany. If you can presell all 10 frames, I will make the dropouts we need and build a batch of singlespeeds.”

I do not expect he thought I could do it, which was exactly the motivation I needed. Within two weeks I had browbeaten enough of my friends to nearly complete the minimum sales requirement. Not to be left out, Sherwood became No. 10, and the first batch of Ventana El Toro singlespeeds were born. To the best of my knowledge, these were the first legit “production” mountain bike singlespeeds in modern history.

Once I started riding my single I rarely rode anything else. Come February, I signed up to race the Cool Mountain Bike Race, a notorious mudfest even after normal winters, and I ended up winning the singlespeed category.

On one of my many “ride up Mount Tam as many times as you can” training sessions in March, I ran across a nefarious-looking character named Leroy riding a hodgepodge-y Klein converted to a single.

He eyed me and my fancy Ventana up and down a bit before he spoke. “What is that?” he asked. I told him who I worked for, how I got the bike and that I was training for The Lemurian in April.

“Well,” he said, “that’s great because some friends and I have a little singlespeed race series we call the California Crusty Cruiser Cup, and The Lemurian is our season opener. Just find us on race day at the start line.”

The Lemurian Shasta Classic is a notoriously brutal sufferfest. I showed up at the rain-soaked starting line feeling pretty good but a bit out of place. The rest of the “SS” crew were friendly enough but were definitely wondering where this fancy lad in his team kit and fancy bike had come from.

The race was a mass start, headed immediately up a climb that lasted at least an hour. When you’re in the middle of 367 riders of all classes it’s easy to lose sight of whom you are actually racing against. I found myself riding alone for fair stretches of time, like I was in a dirt purgatory somewhere between those who could and those who couldn’t. I pressed on, eventually sliding my way down the infamous mud-and-rock-strewn “chute” descent to cross the finish line in a surprising first place in singlspeed and around 28th overall. I was as shocked as anyone; it was by far the single greatest day I have ever had or ever will have on a bike.

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I was congratulated by a few of the other “Crusties” when they filtered in and was told there was free beer for all singlespeeders at their campsite. I had rarely drank in the last few years, but that day of all days I’d felt like I’d earned it. I meandered around the parking lot until I recognized the group I’d seen at the start. By the time I left for home, I’d met most of the 13 hearty and friendly Crusties, got myself a singlespeed “race” schedule for the year and swore off racing anything with a derailleur ever again.

For the remainder of ’95 I cared about little else than riding my singlespeed, racing the Crusty Cup series and getting to the party afterward. I eventually roped two of my previously multigeared co-workers/ co-conspirators into the fold.

In early 1996 Sean Hunt, Scott Berg and I formed the Amigos one-speed team. Ventana supplied some sick new frames, but we were on our own as far as obtaining any other sponsors. In those days there were precious few options for 135 mm rear hubs that were suitable for off-road singlespeeds; most folks were chopping up and modifying cassettes or running goofy chain tensioners on frames with vertical dropouts. Paul Component Engineering made cool front hubs that we all wanted to run, but none of us wanted mismatched hub sets on our blinged-out new rides.

Sean, one of the most persuasive and clever individuals I have ever known (think of him as the “Faceman” of our “A-Team”) came up with the brilliant idea of hitting up Paul to make us true 135 mm bolt-on singlespeed hubs, threaded for a BMX-style freewheel. He was initially less than receptive to the idea, but after a fair amount of arm twisting and begging, he eventually buckled and built us the first batch of real mountain bike singlespeed hubs. I still remember the disclaimer as plain as the day he said it: “I’ll make these for you guys, but don’t bother trying to push them. Nobody else is going to want to buy these things.” Famous last words.

The ’96 race season for the Amigos was a nonstop alcohol-fueled shit show filled with more fun and hijinks than any of us can collectively remember.

What we were up to was working: Ventana El Toro orders were steadily picking up; batches of 20 or more at a time were not uncommon. Paul was flooded with customer requests for the rear hub. Not everyone involved was as excited about our “success” as we were, however.

Back at Ventana headquarters there were some concerns about how our drunken escapades were reflecting on the company. They tried on multiple occasions to have rational discussions with us about our antics, but we were having none of it. Just before the ’97 Sea Otter Classic (one of our all-time favorite expos for hijinks) we came up with a new Amigos team kit, the now infamous orange prison-style jumpsuit.

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Scott and I were already conspiring on branching out with our own style of bike business at some point, one where drinking and carrying on were the sheen of the company image rather than a blemish. After a short deliberation we settled on the name “Blue Collar” as our moniker since we were both happily doomed to be chained to blue-collar jobs for our foreseeable future. Scott screened a hand-drawn version of a drunken sombrero-wearing “amigo” and our current sponsors’ logos on our new uniforms. Ventana’s logo was intentionally left out, replaced instead by our fictitious company name.

Before the ink was even dry, we loaded our trucks and vans with copious amounts of alcohol, a big batch of “magic” brownies, as well as assorted other party favors and tore ass toward Monterey. The orange jumpsuits were a perfect fit for where we all were in our lives at that point in time. I for one felt pretty invincible, like I was wearing Superman’s cape. Turns out, though, there was more kryptonite around than my new super suit could repel.

A big cup of Strong Blonde ale combined with a way too potent “magic” brownie Saturday morning left me slouched in a camp chair flanked by the freshly upped remains of both my breakfast and lunch. I was unable to speak and nearly comatose; it was the middle of the day. I could hear and understand everything going on around me but had zero ability to respond to it. I rocked in that chair for hours and remember hearing all the voices and funny comments of my friends and cohorts passing by to witness the spectacle.

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At one point late in the afternoon, Sherwood and a few others from headquarters stopped by and expressed concern for my well-being as I sat there and bounced in that chair, but my compatriots convinced them I’d be fine and I just needed to ride it out. I came to just after nightfall, crawled into my van where the newest Amigo, Stevil Kinevil, was already nestled in, slapped a high-five for a job well done and drifted off to sleep.

Sean got it first, then I got called into the office. Sherwood apologized and was hardly a dick about it, but I was getting the ax. He tried to convey that he was worried about me; my binges and my recent exploits of the weekend were more than he could take. A lot of back and forth occurred.

I was pissed and I stomped out of there with my stubborn ears having reduced the whole interaction down to one sentence that went a bit like this: “Ever since you started riding singlespeeds your life has been on a path of self-destruction.”

I did not take the firing well. Instead, I made a spectacle of the whole affair, which was really unfair to Sherwood’s true intentions. In hindsight, I’d have fired my obnoxious ass way sooner than he did. On the bright side, Sherwood and I eventually got past the whole ugly affair and we still work and play together on a regular basis.

I soon turned my anger into inspiration. There’s no easier way to put it than to say that Blue Collar Bikes was born from spite, piss and vinegar.

After getting canned from Ventana, I was not going to be seen riding one anymore. Though my Amigo Scott was still employed by the big “V,” he was still down with the cause, so together we conspired to create the first two Blue Collar frames. After driving out to Nova Cycle Supply in nearby Rocklin and buying two Tange Prestige tube sets and some track dropouts, we commandeered a small portion of my dad’s garage and went to work.

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We used threaded rod and fender washers to fashion a bottom bracket perch and dropout holders on my dad’s somewhat straight “welding” bench. We sanded out wooden blocks to use for tube holders and did our best to lay out our frame’s geometry as close as possible to what the El Toro’s had been. We ground away nights after Scott got off work and often until the wee hours of the morning.

We had no real way of mitering tubes so we shared the sharpies, bench grinder, a fat stack of files and on most nights a 12-pack of PBR. We flogged away at the tube sets for a week’s worth of nights until we had something we could stick together. At that point we burned through my dad’s entire stash of brazing rod and what had to be at least 10-year-old powdered brazing flux just to stick two frames together, then commenced with another week or so worth of sanding down our frame’s lumpy joints.

Neither of us were sure these bikes would hold up after all the caveman-style beating and grinding their production required, so we both agreed a down tube gusset would be a good safety measure. Always the artist, Scott was fond of painting flames on the head tubes of his frames, and somehow, in a probably less than sober moment, we decided a flame-shaped down tube gusset would be the sickest thing ever.

We each gave our frames the best rattle-can paint jobs we could. Mine was matte black and Scott chose John Deere green. We masked off and “airbrushed” the flame gussets and were all set but for the lack of a logo and decals. Having been to numerous Interbike tradeshows over the years and having made tons of friends in the bike industry, we did have hoards of other companies’ decals, however. It only took a few beers before we came up with the Blue Collar kidnap font, made by cutting the letters we needed out of the stacks of stickers we’d collected in our toolbox drawers, glove boxes and stash spots.

We debuted our new machines at the very next Crusty Cruiser Cup Race at Pine Mountain in Marin County. I’ll have to admit, rocketing down some of Pine Mountain’s rocky descents on the first frame you have ever built was a bit nerve-wracking. After the shakedown I never worried again, and old No. 1 is still rideable today.

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I eventually scored another dream job at Ibis Cycles in Sebastopol, California. At Ibis I was shoehorned into the position of mitering and tacking all the steel and titanium frames and finally got my hands and foot on a TIG welder. I was beyond thrilled to be a part of such an iconic brand, and the crew there was amazing. It felt like home.

One night at one of our many watering holes, my buddy Dom asked me why I wasn’t building and selling my own frames for Blue Collar. I replied that I hardly thought anyone would want one. He disagreed and put his order in right then and there, assuring me there were others that would be interested as well. He was right, as it turns out.

Within a week of our crew finding out I was building Dom a BC, I had enough orders for a proper production batch. I was using much of what I’d learned at Ibis and busted out the first batch of BCs in around two months. Scott helped some, but he was also busy starting his own ironworking business.

When we worked together, we’d pass the time dreaming up intentionally obnoxious ad campaigns for BC that we were sure would weed out anybody too stuffy to get where we were coming from. The slogan “Made by Drunks That Care About You” was one of my personal favorites.

I vowed that I would never build something that I would not ride myself just because someone is willing to pay me to do it.

That proclamation has kept BC a side project rather than any real source of income for me for almost two decades, but most importantly it has kept it fun and 100 percent mine. Eventually, the lease on our house in San Fran ran out, so I bid farewell to the boys at Ibis and back to Sacramento I went.

Upon returning home, I did some fab work at a hotrod shop for a while before slipping back into Ventana’s production crew. I’d pick up where I’d left off with Blue Collar frame building occasionally, usually when one of my friends wanted a new frame. It was nice to knock one out every once in a while with no pressure, just an opportunity to create and try something new without any economic pressures to conform to whatever was the big thing at the time.

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I have ramped up BC-related work with renewed fervor in the last few years. I have finally built my own shop, but I still refuse to let anything get too serious. I have designed and developed one of the first steel tapered head tubes available with my good friends at Solid BMX, as well as designed some 29er chainstays for Nova Cycles that are now getting a lot of use on 27plus size and fat bike frames by custom builders all over. Both projects took some time to come to fruition, but to be able to build frames how I think they should be I am happy to put in the time.

I’d rather dig ditches—and have, many times—than make a compromise I’m not happy with for just the sake of convenience.

No matter what happens with Blue Collar in the future, I plan on keeping the steady paycheck of a part-time “real” job so that I can maintain my mortgage payments and my sanity and still afford to exercise my freedom as a builder and occasional shit stirrer without fear of starving to death.

 

 

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Access Knoxville: A recipe for success



Secret Sauce for Promoting Your Outdoor Community

  • Gather a passionate and talented team of volunteers to devise a plan.
  • Stack the deck with a great photo and film crew.
  • Make a plan for media; make it easy for local news and TV to share your content. Provide good, consistent graphics.
  • Create fun (short), shareable videos.
  • Generate quick and to-the-point interviews (on the interviewee’s timeline).
  • Blast the internet, all the platforms, all the time.
  • Consider Google Adwords for nonprofits.
  • Hit the streets with your message.
  • Get creative with the resources at your disposal and leverage your connections, because in the end, everyone wants to help you win.

 

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Words and photos: Leslie Kehmeier
Originally published in Issue #192

There’s a lot cooking these days in the world of mountain biking. And contrary to what you might think, it’s not necessarily about the construction of progressive trails or constantly improving bicycle technology. At the core, it’s about the communities that have embraced this type of recreation and its connection to the outdoors, making it part of the sustenance that fuels everyday lives.

Over the last decade, Knoxville, Tennessee, is one such community that has been writing its own recipe for success. It is a place where trails are served up like family-style meals. There is plenty to go around and a bunch of really cool people to share the experience with. Although this medium-sized city is not the only location in the U.S. doing remarkable things with mountain biking, its achievements and momentum are about to put it prominently on the map as one of the best places in the eastern part of the country to ride bikes.

So how is Knoxville dishing up all of this outdoor goodness? It starts with a base of good geography. This city in eastern Tennessee is blessed with a swath of the Ridge and Valley Province of the Appalachian Mountains and a pleasant climate year-round. From there, its 200,000 residents layer on the right combination of trails and access, outdoor-minded people, long-term vision, and a natural, “live, work, play” attitude.

Trails and Access

Knoxville just surpassed the 100-mile mark for trails. That’s right, there are 100 miles of trails available to mountain bike, walk or run on throughout the city. Residents and visitors can chose from a full menu of options, from easier and intermediate trails deep in the woods to the recent addition of a double-black-diamond gravity trail that’s an experience straight out of a bike park.

It doesn’t matter if you prefer hours of pedaling on traditional singletrack or the thrill of launching yourself into the air via wall rides and table-top jumps, Knoxville has everything available. It’s a build-your-own, all-you-can-eat mountain bike kind of place.

What’s even more tantalizing is that a fair amount of the total mileage lies very close to downtown. The Knoxville Urban Wilderness is a unique outdoor recreation zone that comprises 1,000 acres of preserved recreational, cultural and historic spaces connected by an extensive trail system. Access is only a matter of putting on your shoes and rolling out the front door onto a trail.

“You could be in the woods for eight hours and then be in the heart of the city having a great meal within 10 minutes,” shares Carol Evans, director of the Legacy Parks Foundation. Evans is one of the leaders and major catalysts in the rising outdoor scene. She understands that people who support and connect with the natural landscape are critical to building momentum for the community.

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People

People are always part of the equation in every community. But the right people are essential to communities that end up being above average. Evans stands out in that regard, leading the way for the acquisition and management of the lands in the Urban Wilderness. While her background in marketing and previous work with the city gives her serious chops, it’s Evans’ emphasis on being inclusive and listening to the community that has certainly created a natural synergy between people and the outdoors.

“We’re doing more than just preserving green spaces; we’re selling the [outdoor] experience. And when people have a sense of the land, like they do here in Knoxville, we have to listen to what’s important to the community. Instead of bringing people in through our door, we bring them in through their door,” she explains.

Over the years, Evans, along with other leaders, has done a tremendous job bringing more people to the table, always making it larger and rounder. One person who is often sitting at that table is Brian Hann. He simply, yet passionately, loves bicycles and the outdoors. In fact, Hann thinks the bicycle is one of the greatest inventions ever and is certain you’ll fall in love with them just by riding one once.

As an avid outdoorsman and cyclist, Hann moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, to attend the University of Tennessee, jumping right into the woods as soon as he arrived.

“Knoxville has always been about the outdoors, something that I connected with right away. In fact, I didn’t even know there was a football team when I first came here. What I did know was this: Knoxville was close to the Smoky Mountains.”

Hann is part of the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club, a nonprofit mountain bike organization and the keepers of Knoxville’s singletrack trails. As past president of AMBC, Brian has put a lot of sweat equity into both the trails and the greater community. He’s not one to take credit for much, something that’s common among the people who are, as Brian describes, “really good at getting shit done.”

And he’s right. It is evident that everyone is on equal ground, enjoying the process of the entire community succeeding. “There’s nothing special going on here. We’ve just taken ideas from other places and then made them our own.” He also shares the not-so-secret sauce that exists everywhere, “It takes vision, a little planning, enthusiasm and the will to go for it. The energy generated from that combination of things is contagious. People should just see the potential [of a place or idea] and not think things are impossible.”

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Vision

Once the Urban Wilderness became well-established, the Knoxville community wasn’t about to stop preserving lands and building trails. In fact, they just celebrated their biggest accomplishment to date, the opening of the Baker Creek Preserve.

Set on 100 acres of donated land blessed with significant elevation, the park serves up a full plate of mountain bike experiences. In addition to a pump track and dirt-jump area, Baker Creek proudly boasts the Devil’s Racetrack, an advanced, double-black downhill trail built by AMBC, Legacy Parks Foundation, IMBA and a handful of local builders.

The project was funded through the 2015 Bell Built grant, which AMBC won after a six-month-long nationwide, public campaign. The victory wasn’t just a lucky fluke. It was achieved through a decade of doing great things with the Knoxville outdoor community.

“The strategy for success started years ago establishing ourselves as a club that builds and maintains multi-use trails, not bike trails,” shares AMBC President Matthew Kellogg. “We had years of work and goodwill saved up. During the Bell Built grant we cashed in much of that support when our team asked the community at large to support the project. It all snowballed from there, and now we have a world-class downhill run that’s connected to a progressive urban trail network.”

With the Baker Creek Preserve in place, Knoxville will undoubtedly become a big draw for visiting mountain bikers and outdoor enthusiasts from surrounding regions and eventually the nation. There’s more than a week’s worth of riding and other outdoor activities to enjoy. And beyond that, the city has all the other services that make it a great place to live or visit.

Live, Work, Play

As the community was designing and building trails, it was also taking the fi rst steps in quantifying the value of its outdoor-recreation assets. Riding around town, one notices great places to eat, drink, sleep and explore—all aspects of a place that creates tangible economic value. These amenities pair well with access to over 100 miles of trails, creating a draw for both residents and visitors alike.

A recent study by the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy reported that the Urban Wilderness is likely to be contributing $8.3 million to the Knoxville economy from a local level. The study also indicated that, as trails and recreation opportunities gain regional and national awareness, the numbers could grow to $14.6 million and $29 million respectively.

If Knoxville were a cake, these economic benefits would be the icing on top. Make a reservation for Knoxville. As it continues to expand its menu and invite more people to sit at the table, you can bet the outdoor feast will only continue to grow.



Secret Sauce for Promoting Your Outdoor Community

  • Gather a passionate and talented team of volunteers to devise a plan.
  • Stack the deck with a great photo and film crew.
  • Make a plan for media; make it easy for local news and TV to share your content. Provide good, consistent graphics.
  • Create fun (short), shareable videos.
  • Generate quick and to-the-point interviews (on the interviewee’s timeline).
  • Blast the internet, all the platforms, all the time.
  • Consider Google Adwords for nonprofits.
  • Hit the streets with your message.
  • Get creative with the resources at your disposal and leverage your connections, because in the end, everyone wants to help you win.

 

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Feature: The Crossroads of Beauty and Insanity


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What it was like to help start Independent Fabrication

Words: Steve Elmes
Photos: Jasen Stickler
Originally published in Issue #192

“What the proverbial fuck?” That’s pretty much what I thought the moment I was told that Fat City Cycles would be shuttering its Somerville, Massachusetts, doors and, in the process, laying everyone off.

I had just spent the better part of a year of my life trying to get a job in the bike industry. I bought every magazine and called every frame builder that advertised—and I mean every single one. I got a break. I had finally made it. I was working in the bike biz and for Fat F’n City Cycles. I was giddy beyond belief, and then it all fell apart. Who knew that moment, one that by definition should have been the worst of my then 26-year-old life, would in turn prove to be the greatest?

My name is Steve Elmes, and I was one of the co-founders of Independent Fabrication. It’s been about 15 years since I left IF, packed my bags and headed west. So everything I’m about to write has been filtered by years of experience and perspective. This isn’t a tell-all article; it’s simply my attempt to answer a question posed to me by a friend: “How the hell did IF become IF?”

Oh, man, trying to describe that is akin to asking how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. I’ll try to tell you, but unless you are willing to start licking, you’ll never really understand. Ask any of my partners and their answer to that question will most certainly be different. It’s a complex story to try to make sense of.

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I think about the fact that when we started, the internet didn’t really exist. Everything was different. The relationships which defined us and built us weren’t digital bullshit; they were real, honest-to-goodness, face-to-face, get-drunk-together, fight-together, ride-together, do-dumb-shit-together, have-each-other’s-back relationships. The greatest friends I have on this planet are because of that company, that time in my life.

The beauty of IF is that it probably should have failed and it didn’t. It rose from those proverbial ashes, and it was wonderful. We were dealt a crappy hand at Fat City. Nobody’s fault. Business is business and that happens. How we reacted? That is what I know set us apart. It was a perfect storm of the right people in the right place at what should have been the wrong time, ignoring everyone around us and making things happen. Probably not repeatable. And it was hard. The hardest thing I’ve done in my life.

It was 1994. Somerville was an incredible hotbed of frame building and continues to be so to this day. As a result of Fat City closing, I was unemployed, along with my future partners, and I had somehow convinced them that I could handle all the sales and marketing for IF. Truth be told, I didn’t know that much about marketing. Brand building? That term wasn’t a part of my vocabulary.

What I did know was that I could talk to people. I was smart. I was honest. I stuck by my word. I was driven. I loved bikes, and I had an unwavering belief that this was a good idea. I mean, seriously, it never crossed my mind that starting a company at 26 with folks I had only known for a year and with barely any experience of my own was anything but the grandest of ideas.

Most importantly, I was scared about being unemployed; I was broke and hungry. I wanted to be in the bike biz more than anything, and nothing was going to stop me. Youthful naïveté is an incredibly powerful thing.

When I think about what built IF, I often think about the things that tried to tear us down. It was the hard stuff that made us great. Back then, IF was an employee-owned and -operated company, with everyone equal and everyone doing what they had to do to make our idea a reality. That single decision, to be our own bosses, was no doubt the single most defining decision we ever made. More on that later.

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In the early days the easy part, for me at least, was knowing that our bikes were the best. They had to be. We were all ex-Fat City employees and the expectations from the industry were incredibly high. I just had to sell. As for our well-known frame builders Lloyd Graves, Mike Flanigan and Jeff Buchholz, words like “artisan” or “craftsman” didn’t even begin to describe them. To this day I am still humbled to have been able to work with them. They lived and breathed bikes. They churned out works of art under ridiculous conditions.

Our first space was in Dorchester, in a corner of a dingy, dirty basement machine shop called the Nexus. Tooling was built from scrap metal we secured by any means possible. Late-night raids to the scrap-metal cars parked in the train yards were a regular occurrence. Machines were bought at auctions for pennies on the dollar and made to run.

Mike would build frames all day with the guys, borrow my truck, drive to Hot Tubes in Worcester, where they can custom-paint and restore anything, paint for 24 to 48 hours straight with little to no sleep, drive back to Dorchester where we would prep frames, pack them up in frame boxes we got from local bike shops and ship them out to waiting customers. Seemed normal at the time, and it was.

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Everyone worked other jobs, and IF ran at the oddest hours in any given 24-hour period. We hardly saw each other; we just trusted each other to finish what needed to be done. And it worked. I share that snippet of history because I feel it’s necessary to answer my friend’s question and to paint a picture of what it was really like in the early days of IF: chaos and trust and progress. It was hard. It was exhausting. It was exhilarating in a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants sort of way.

We fought with each other a lot. Employee ownership brought a lot of that about. Equality isn’t always a good thing, but it can have lasting impact that was never imagined. We were five individuals, each with our own vision of what IF was going to be. Through conversation, oftentimes heated, we tried to find common ground and ideals for our company. That’s not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination— equality among employee owners should have sunk us. No leader. No individual decision maker.

At times it certainly paralyzed us. But it shaped us, too. It kept us from being stuck on a single vision. We stayed open to ideas. We had to. If it could help us sell a bike or give us a reason to talk to someone, we’d go for it. We placed almost no limitations on ourselves and relied on a collective gut to guide us.

We made it to Interbike in 1995 and truly took our first steps to becoming a recognized frame builder, albeit different from anything the industry had seen at that time. Granted, we were still mostly referred to as “those ex-Fat City guys.”

For the next several years we grew by leaps and bounds. The industry and our fans shaped our name from Independent Fabrication to Indy Fab to simply IF. It was organic and awesome. A clunky 22-letter name, a literal interpretation of who we were, had become the de facto cool company. We found a shop with windows and sunlight next to the railroad tracks. That was nice. Our ragtag team of racers spread the gospel of IF like something out of the Book of Revelation. Dealers signed on. We hired our first, second, third, 10th and more employees. The industry and our customers rallied behind us and IF started to become IF.

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It’s hard to describe that time because it is in many ways humbling. The new employees embraced the ownership vision and new ideas flooded in. New arguments, too. Beauty and insanity meshed together. Folks were getting IF tattoos. Our trade show booths were swamped. We were fucking kicking ass and it was fun! Mostly.

To this day, I recall the sheer elation the first time I saw someone riding one of our bikes and I didn’t know who they were. Someone bought one of our bikes? WTF? We leveraged every opportunity we could to promote ourselves without fear of repercussions, because we were always evolving. We were serious about what we did but never took ourselves seriously. We remained humble, and damn if people didn’t rally behind that.

Brands today feel limited by comparison, and it saddens me. The insanity of ideas we embraced still makes me laugh. Cow-painted bikes? Sounds like a great idea! The flashiest cross kits anyone had ever seen with racer’s names big and bold across their asses? Heck yeah! Singlespeeds. Twenty-four-hour races. The Leadville 100 on a tandem? Definitely. Work five days a week, run our race team on the weekend, maybe race ourselves, repeat for years on end? Sure!

We threw parties at Redbones BBQ because they loved bikes, and it became our home away from home. To the best of my knowledge the crappy BMX bike Mike painted with our logo and hung outside their front door is still there today.

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Every decision we made, regardless of how it might have seemed to outsiders, only added to our reputation. There was something special about the lack of guidelines we applied to ourselves. And I am 100 percent confident today that had we tried to shape any of that, had we actually thought about what we were doing—poof!—it would have all blown away. I look back on it now and think about how incredibly simple it feels. And in many ways it was.

What made Independent Fabrication IF? In looking back I can boil that down to one insanely lucky decision: employee ownership. Despite all its challenges, the chaos it often created, the fights we had, that decision created an environment of limitless ideas and vision. It attracted bright minds and talented people who wanted their voices heard and wanted something beyond a paycheck. It guaranteed that IF would live, even when folks like me left. Perfect.

I left in 2001. Lloyd, Mike and Jeff, along with Matt Bracken, Tyler Evans, Jamie Medeiros, Shawn Estes, Jane Hayes, John Barmack and countless others continued to take IF to unimaginable heights, far beyond what I had done. Soaring. IF grew, as it was always meant to do, even if we hadn’t really planned for that. Coal doesn’t always become a diamond, but on that particular day in 1994, it did. A diamond called Independent Fabrication.

 

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Feature: Bones of Oaxaca


Oaxaca-1

Words and photos: James Murren
Originally published in Issue #191

Shakedown in the Storm

The evening light wanes, but we ride on into it. Carlos’ German shepherds weave and dart between our bikes, never dragging tail. I am on a shake-down ride in preparation for the big one coming up two days from now. Singletrack to doubletrack and back to singletrack some more, pumping my heart faster. The bike feels good. Everything is working just fine.

The sky darkens. Thunder echoes. We carve turns to the watering hole as the storm churns above us. The dogs relish the respite, submerging their bodies and lapping up a thirst-quencher. Thick-to-thinning air is blown on us by a mountain storm that descends down the slopes. Is there anything more present tense than a first ride on unfamiliar trail as a menacing sky envelops the eye’s periphery?

Soaked to the bone in less than five minutes, we are. The trail tails keep running as all of us seek a dry porch, which is a couple of miles away from where we are. Lightning flashes and booms, its earth strikes resonating close by.

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Loop

It is less than 70 hours after the shake-down. The midmorning Zapotec sky is clear. A hardy, and hearty, group of us roll out from Carlos’ mountain bike center slash home. The day’s agenda is an hourlong climb—mostly more and never less—up into the Oaxacan sierra, followed by easier riding and then a fast, steep, rocky downhill, which can be especially bone-jarring if you miss the side loop turn. Some of us, me included, will end up missing the turn.

Here is what we know: The initial section of the ride is mostly a climb that covers more than 5 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of elevation gain. It is not all up all the time, though. The final push up the forest road, however, is all up with no sustained flat section to take a breather. Before that, there is some singletrack and rocky, rural “campo” roads that are characterized by somewhat strenuous cross-country riding. The way back to the village is mostly downhill that spans 7 miles in remote southern Mexican mountains, followed by a few workhorse miles of riding to the house.

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Bones

I see bones. Million-year-old rocks, aka earth’s bones, laying in a scatter in front of me. Jorge Guadalupe Posada skulls, aka calaveras, laugh with each other. Teeth fastened to jaws of my fellow riders chuckle while jokes sound out around the trail side. I feel my own teeth shaking in my mandibles. The mood is light. Everyone seems to be enjoying the camaraderie of the ride. We drop in and roll along a creek, rocks keeping us honest before a gut-punch climb that pops us out on a narrow, rocky trail. I roll them bones fine, along a small stegosaurus spine situated above the waterway.

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Climb to Pines

Up and up and up we go. The turn-in to Carlos’ Flume Trail, which lives above the pueblo of San Pablo Etla, is a patience-testing leg and lung burner. Jokes subside. Tired, scattered human bones stop along the doubletrack. The forest road tries to beat us down.

“You OK?” I ask.

“I’m fine.”

“How much to go?”

“Not too much more.”

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Up we go some more, two-track lying behind our wheels. I am happy. Climbing is a mountain biking joy for me. We have reached the high point and are pleased in knowing so. Pine forest scents the mountain air that floats, endorphins pop and smiles emanate.

Flume Vision

I drop in on Flume and hit a baby armadillo shell. My front wheel knocks awkwardly, and I fall into a mattress of pine needles. I feel no pain; only my ego is bruised. Carlos is out in front, on his home turf. The trail is really tight, not permitting any unbalanced line. It’s barely wider than my tires if they were doubled in size.

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At a stop to regroup, I get the Cliffs Notes version of the trail-building history from Carlos: He studied maps. He talked with neighbors. He secured the local permissions and the paperwork to ride in private areas.

Years ago, Carlos walked one foot after the other, connecting map lines. Then he built trails where they were needed, starting at both ends and then joining them in the middle, fulfilling his mountain biking vision. Then he rode it, the dream coming alive. High in the sky, I watch his bones move in the motion of his dream.

Dark Forest

I care less about the other riders. My eyes and mind’s eye are focused. Again the singletrack is tight and narrow and does not allow for looking off the trail. I roll rubber up and down the deep, dark forest trail that drips sunlight from the tree canopy.

Ghosts live in the shadows: What scurried there? Did I hear something? And on and on my head flows, no longer focused on the trail. I tell myself to let go of the ghosts so that I do not wreck my bike. I do not, and at one point I clean a creek crossing followed by rocks and a hard right turn that immediately ascends a ridgeline. Carlos lets out a jubilant whoop.

Posada Bikers

They are a motley crew. I see them in the forest, bones sitting on bike saddles. Riders merge into memories. They have wings and long white beards, feathered caps and top hats and sparklers are festooned on their heads. I laugh; my calavera chuckles like a content Posada.

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“What do you think?” Carlos asks.

I do not know what to say. My cliche brain wants to say, “I am not thinking.” Instead, I offer, “This is a great ride.”

I continue on commenting about how remarkable it is that he had the vision to build this trail, to link up the connections to make this a big loop. He smiles. I wish that I knew how that smile feels.

Peek-a-Boo Vistas

The peek-a-boo vistas of Oaxaca are not unlike the East Coast of the U.S. where trails twist under the tree canopy and then suddenly turn out to long views situated along Mother Earth’s ribs. I revel in them. Out there, far below, humans work fields of corn. I taste “tacos de cabeza.” A thought of the greasy meat that hangs from steer faces and is cooked and then wrapped in corn tortillas gives me the mid-ride munchies.

I daydream for a few seconds of a taco stand coming up around the next corner. Alas, some dreams do not come true.

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Oaks

Dropper post is down. Still, my stomach graces the seat. My shorts are not far from the rotating rear tire. The terrain is that steep, and probably steeper. My calves burn like the rocks up on Monte Alban—the famed Zapotec ruins—that sear in the afternoon sun.

Pines blend to oak, and darkness opens up to more light. A bed of pine needles and tree leaves turns to rock and dirt and sand. I hear a yipping dog in the trees behind me. I squeeze the brakes less. Worn human bones stand off to the side of the trail, needing a break from the intensity. Yipping dog bones blast down the trail. I ride on, not stopping, slaloming down the mountain. Suddenly, I come upon more human bones that have dismounted their bikes. Skeletons are intact; none appear broken.

We regroup at an opening, the descent not yet complete and not yet past the turn for the extra side loop. Bikes with riders arrive with dust and dirt and sand flying into the air.

“Burros! I heard the burros and they made me go faster!”

“I heard the dogs!”

“Dogs?!”

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Riders are worked over to the point of dehydration. A human skeleton lies on the ground before me, where he wrecked his bike in a controlled fashion. He smiles, signaling that he is OK. Skulls laugh all around, heads back and teeth dancing.

The campesinos arrive with their donkeys strapped with pieces of pines and oaks. I think of fuel wood, cooking, the felling of trees, dead Ents and the need for people to eat.

Mountain bikers out of water are very thirsty. Some are in desperate need of H2O. The Oaxacan farmers, people of the land, have 1.5-liter Coke bottles filled with water that hang from a string rope of sorts that hangs from the burros. A few requests are made, and in a Polaroid instant, Coke bottles are untied and the bikers drink cool mountain water. Liquid passes teeth and runs down through rib cages.

Chunderstorm

The forest transforms into desert scrub. We all regroup again and then set out in troops. I am in the first one, about halfway back in the pack. No lines exist. It is rock. It is loose scree. It is ledges and drops. It is straight down and the kind of descent where you do not want to follow the person in front of you. With each heavy rainfall, the ride looks different. It is a technical mountain biking Zen moment that can be described as “tight-gripped and hold-on” riding.

Rocks are airborne. Black ones. Brown ones. Striped ones. Hippo vertebrae. Hip bones from burros and bears. Sea turtle shells. Jaguar toes. Whale tail slabs. Deer and coyote calaveras. Feline femurs and pig knuckles. Earth’s bones slide and tumble down the path, resettling somewhere, anywhere until disturbed again by donkey hooves, human shoes, rain and mountain bike tires.

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A couple of riders are stopped on the trail. Apparently, we have missed the turn. The hootin’ and hollerin’ is no more. In the hot, dry air, we seek shade. There is little to be found. Spent, all of us feel a need to be done with the ride. We wait for the other group of riders. And wait. Cell phones are checked. No connections. We wait some more.

I look out and feel in my bones that if we go down quickly, all will be OK. I hear humans and cars. That, usually, means hydration and food.

More waiting and then Carlos appears. He leads the other troop out from the side loop. He asks how we missed the turn; we got caught up in riding the gnar and blasted past it. He goes on to tell me that I missed one of his favorite sections. I am bummed. He talks of other ledges, rock slabs and drops that do not descend as quickly as the “trail” some of us just rode down. They are other bones that I did not get to ride. His entire vision is not complete in my mind’s and rider’s eyes.

“Next time,” I tell myself, a little disappointment in my inner voice.

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Flume Finish

To get back to where we started requires grit. Cross-country trails that scratch my legs, test my endurance and bore a hole into my psyche want to knock me down. I want to be done, but I am not. I pedal on, turning over and over. From a foothills vantage point that I stand on, I think of the Flume Trail and look back to the mountains.

When all is said and done, it is a loop ride that leaves me with sore muscles and my MTB appetite satiated. I am thankful for being able to ride the rough, dirty, raw trails that wander through remote mountains that see few mountain bike tires.

Back on the porch, I sit on a chair and drink water while Carlos rides around the yard on his bike. His German shepherds follow him, getting a little exercise for the day. The ride was too big for them to join us. In the backyard, they seem like they are ready to head out on a shorter ride. Carlos seems, too, like he could ride a few more hours.

Not me. Tiredness fills my bones, but they are happy and they smile.

 

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Feature: No Rest for the Weary


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Words and photos: Brice Shirbach
Originally published in Issue #191

For most of us, the UCI World Cup downhill series is a somewhat nebulous arrangement, largely unfolding by means of online media, live video streams and an assortment of social-media posts from the athletes themselves. While fans of the sport are well aware of what happens against the clock and between the tape, there’s much more to the process than what is conveyed through the various multimedia morsels we’re fed throughout race week.

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From the start of the season, fans are glued to computer screens and phones, desperately seeking out anything they can find that will quench a thirst for knowledge of course conditions, suspension setups, injury updates and which riders are in top form on any given weekend. While all that information makes for compelling narrative, there’s a nuance to race week that goes unnoticed in the quest for big-ticket storylines.

For professional downhillers, there’s much more to their existence than just seven World Cup Sunday races. Strict training regimens, suspension and bike testing, contract negotiations and constant self-promotion are required in order to have a job, and that’s before the first race of the year.

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Dirt Rag was granted the opportunity to spend crunch time with the Pivot Factory Racing team last August while they prepared for the lone American stop on the World Cup circuit. Made up of team manager and lead rider Bernard Kerr, as well as former motocross racer Eliot Jackson, Swiss national champion Emilie Siegenthaler and team mechanic Jack Noy, this squad of twenty-somethings is loaded with world-class talent. Here is a firsthand account.


Day 1: Track Walk

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The team arrived in the town of Windham, New York, late on Tuesday evening, having spent the week prior in eastern Quebec, Canada, for the 25th annual Mont-Sainte-Anne leg of the season. Wednesdays are typically the first day of the World Cup week when it’s cross-country and downhill combined. Teams are permitted to walk the course as often as they want within a strictly defined time period. Practice runs on the bike won’t come until the following day, making initial track walk critical in shaping each rider’s approach to the rest of the week.

Emilie

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Dislocated shoulder the week prior at Mont-Sainte-Anne

I’ve been doing physiotherapy in the mornings and [racing this weekend] is on me. I need to see how I feel. It’s all about tomorrow’s practice. The guys rode at Bromont, Canada, after the race and I didn’t. If it’s just a pulled muscle, I can rest and it’ll get better. But I think it might be more than that. I had a collarbone break before, but this is more of a ligament issue. There are still more races to come after this, plus world championships. How many risks are you willing to take? I need to consider the team and the overall. It’s a lot to think about, so I just have to wait and see.

Bernard

 

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Coming off a disappointing result of 38th at Mont-Sainte-Anne

It’s hard to stay pumped sometimes. When you’re doing well, it’s easier to ride the wave. When you do badly, it’s hard to bounce back. But this place [Windham] is super fun. You can just get so many rides in. There are some places that are so big, you get tired and you’re not able to get as many runs in. Here you can play on the track all day. When I have fun, I do well, and this place is fun. I have my own riding style and strengths like any rider, so different races bring about different expectations. If I win timed practice, I want to win the qualifiers. That’s a good way to build your confidence. I think it’s good to change up your expectations depending on the track, so you’re not just going out and getting disappointed if the results aren’t always top. I’m ranked 17th currently, so I can go out and put something fast down in qualifying and not have to play it safe.

Eliot

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Two separated shoulders forced him to miss much of the season

I’ve been spending a lot of my time trying to get healthy again. I have to try and get back to where I was, which is obviously a different mindset than trying to go out and be competitive at each event. I have a little head cold, but am mostly concerned with trying to get over my injuries from earlier in the season. I separated my shoulder after the first World Cup, and once it healed I went up to Whistler for a few days to get some riding in and I separated the same shoulder again. I was out for over a month. At this point, I’ve only been back on the bike for about four weeks now, and it’s been only racing.

Jack

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I’ve known Bernard for a while. We used to race against each other at the British Downhill Series and he was always way faster than me. I tried that for a few years and eventually decided to pack it in, as it’s a ton of money to spend a season chasing points. He asked me to wrench for this team when he first got on board. I had a lot going on at the time, so I passed on it at that point. But he asked me again last season, and I jumped at the opportunity.

Practice, qualifying and race days are pretty full on. After finals, you kind of polish up the bikes and take a breath. There’s definitely some pressure, though. I don’t want to get anything wrong. If something is running a bit nicer and that helps them get a half second faster, why not just do it? If it means I need to stay up late at night to get it done, so be it.

Day 2: Practice Round

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For an hour and a half, riders have the opportunity to take as many timed practice runs as they want. For many, this is an opportunity to experiment with line choices and utilize the clock to measure the effectiveness of their decisions. For some, timed practice is as much a mind game as it is a training tool. Bernard and Emilie were both well inside of the eligible standings to participate, with Eliot having to sit out due to his ranking and having missed most of the season up until recent weeks.

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After timed practice, most athletes will once again walk the track to examine problem areas they may have experienced on the bike, and to take stock of course conditions and changes after thousands of runs by the world’s best riders.

Eliot

I usually try to just learn the track during practice. I take it slow and make sure I know where I’m going. That way when I add speed, I can add speed to the right lines. It’s good to ride with Bernard as well, so we can bounce ideas off of each other. Some stuff is obvious, while others need more attention.

Bernard

I felt really good today. It’s still mostly a one-line course, and it’s hard because it’s so dusty. The track is going to get worse as it gets ridden more. The holes and ruts are just going to continue to get bigger. But generally it’s OK, just blown out, so you need to really focus on carrying speed out of turns. There will end up being so many guys on the same second here. My fastest practice run came in at 27th today, which is terrible. Times are just so tight. There are a few bits I know I will go faster on, so we’ll see what that does for me.

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Emilie

Today things went quite well, considering. I didn’t push it too hard, and that was my goal for the day. I wanted to see if I could get a good run in while cruising down. I wanted to hit all of the jumps, but not take any big risks. That’s what makes the difference here between a fast run and an average run: willing to brake less going into certain sections to carry speed. Today was all about seeing how my body felt.

Day 3: Qualifying Round

Qualifiers hold a great deal of importance for riders, as not only does the run determine your place in the starting order for finals, but points are available for riders looking to move up or maintain their current place in the overall season rankings by qualifying inside of the top 20 for the men and the top 10 for the women. Riders inside of those respective rankings are always granted a finals run regardless of their qualifying time.

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Once the dust settled that afternoon, Emilie, ranked eighth for the season, would end up having qualified in 10th place for the elite women. Bernard would notch in at 37th in qualifiers, nearly 12 seconds off of the leading pace set by top-ranked Aaron Gwin. Prior to Windham, Eliot was ranked 89th, having missed most of the season due to injury. A massive crash early in his qualifying run cost Eliot more time than he could make up on the season’s shortest and fastest track, forcing him to miss the finals in consecutive weekends with only the top 80 men making the cut.

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Jack

I’m gutted for Eliot. I’d like to see him do well. Otherwise, we’ve done pretty well this week. Everything has been pretty straightforward. Bernard’s snapping his handlebars during practice was pretty crazy. Not sure how that even happened. He’s doing some big lines, but the bike shouldn’t have a problem holding up to it. But he’s pretty good at seeing things for what they are. The broken handlebar sucks, but it doesn’t mean that he needs to slow it down tomorrow.

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Eliot

I felt good today going into qualifiers. There’s a drop in the woods at the top of the track, and I hit my chain guide on it and went over the bars. I’m not hurt or anything, but I tried to get up and get going in a hurry but just didn’t quite make it in time. It’s too short a track to overcome something like that.

Emilie

My whole day went pretty well. I started to get a bit looser and push the limits a bit more, which means I have more confidence in my body. I had a crash, but I’m OK and still did pretty well. I think that some of my lines were a bit too safe and not very fast. I think my shoulder is strong enough to push it a bit more during finals.

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Bernard

The track is just blown out right now—deep ruts and dust. I cruised down during my first [practice] run and had a huge crash during my second, so I ended up only getting one quality practice run in. It was hard to push it during qualifiers. You have to go all out everywhere and not make any mistakes. I ended up a mere three seconds off of 10th place, which put me in 37th overall. It’s so tight. In no other race can you be three seconds off of 10th and end up in 37th.

I walked the track again and want to go crazy tomorrow during finals. I have some big lines, and I’m going to keep them for finals. There are some little bits at the top and at the bottom that I need to clean up. I’m pretty sore right now, so I’m just going to relax and chill tonight. I’ll take a few practice runs tomorrow and hopefully go crazy in the race.

Day 4: Finals

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With Eliot missing out on a finals appearance, the pressures of the day were left to Emilie and Bernard. Out of 20 riders in the elite women’s field, Emilie would end up in seventh place, less than two seconds off of the podium. Bernard, who qualified 37th the previous day, would fare much better during Saturday’s final, finishing in 24th. Bernard would actually share the same second, 2:46, with eight additional riders and was less than four seconds off of the podium despite finishing 19 spots down.

After the race, the team would engage in customary celebrations with the rest of the World Cup circuit before a pre-dawn departure the next day to Crankworx in Whistler.

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Bernard

I thought my time was pretty good. There were, like, eight or nine of us on the first half of a second. I lost maybe a second and a half in one part of the track, and there goes the top 10. Generally I’m just stoked that I’m alive. The bike feels so good right now, so I can’t complain about anything. It’s just tight racing here. I have to move on. Gwin made everyone look stupid, so what can you do? I was just a couple of seconds off the podium, and I’m in 24th.

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Emilie

My race run went pretty well. My last practice run in the morning wasn’t very good; I messed up in a couple of spots, one of them more than the other. If someone told me at Mont-Sainte-Anne that I’d be getting seventh-place points, I’d would have been happy to hear that. However, as you begin to feel better, you want to do even more, but that’s just how it goes sometimes.

I’m happy to still be in the top 10 overall. It’s good to know that I can crash and still be OK. I’ve been taking painkillers, so I can’t really enjoy a beer tonight. I’m excited to head to Whistler and to get next week started. It might be tough on my shoulder, but I think it’s going to be good preparation for Worlds. Once the Garbanzo race is over [at Crankworx], I will be able to relax a little bit.

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Jack

Tonight we’ll have a couple of beers and a good time. You definitely begin to form a bond with these guys. This is Emilie’s first season with us, but she’s getting along really well already. Bernard and I go a ways back; Eliot’s a real cool guy too. We went and stayed with him last year before the season started. Perfect team. We’re all pretty excited about Whistler. I’ll actually get to ride my bike a bit, so I’ve already got my lift pass ready. All of that has to wait for a bit, though; I’ve got some bikes to clean.

 

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Feature: No Sleep Till Denver


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Words and photos: Montana Miller
Originally published in Issue #191

My back just went numb, right between the shoulder blades. Which actually feels a lot better than the shooting pain I had a few minutes ago. I hike slowly next to my bike; hopefully I can make the top of this pass before sunset. I’m 16 hours into the first day and I’m still hours from the first resupply in Silverton, Colorado, at an elevation of more than 9,000 feet. This is way harder than I thought it’d be.

This is the Colorado Trail Race, a 540-mile competition from Durango to Denver. It’s entirely self-supported, with no entry fee, no registration and no pre-planned resupplies allowed unless you mail them to a post office along the way. The rules also forbid calling ahead to make hotel reservations (most competitors camp along the course anyway). It’s not broken into stages—it is an individual time trial—so riders who go the fastest will be riders who sleep the least.


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It’s a few minutes before the 4 a.m. start. Nervous. Seventy riders with crossed arms, some hopping up and down in rain jackets to stay warm. Headlight beams flashing, shoes clicking into pedals, derailleurs snapping through gears. The pack moves up the empty pavement, away from town.

Onto singletrack, a few guys get excited and we start to move fast. Jesse Jakomait, who’s one of the guys who could win this year, sprints away. His light gets smaller and smaller as he winds up the steep switchbacks. I wonder if he’ll be able to hold that pace. Dust swirling in front of my headlight makes it hard to breathe.

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A few hours later, in weak morning light, we are close to the top of Kenosha Pass in cold rain. I stop in a scree field to put my rain jacket on. “I hoped we wouldn’t get the weather so soon,” says a rider close to me. “Mountains do what they want,” is my reply.

It takes all morning to make it to the top of the first climb, 6,500 feet above Durango on Indian Trail Ridge. I can’t stop yawning; I would kill for a cup of coffee. I get on my bike and try to ride the rocky, knife-edge trail. A fat marmot stares at me, matted fur, yellow teeth curled over his lip, barely stepping off the trail as I dizzily ride past, making it perfectly clear who owns that spot.

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Gray clouds swirl around the mountains. I lean back until my butt is on top of my seat bag, pull the brakes, inch around a tight switchback with a long drop off the outside. Letting off the brakes, the bike picks up speed and drops fast to the bottom of the saddle. Blackhawk Pass, Molas Pass, Bolam Pass. Walk up, boil hydraulic fluid on the way down. The trail hits every little rise, every high point, never dropping below 11,000 feet. Late in the day, I finally make the top of another pass.

It feels like there’s no way I’ll be able to make it to Denver—16 hours of hard riding and I’ve covered only 75 miles. I’ve finished hundred-milers in half that time. I’ll quit in Silverton tomorrow. It’s too much.

I throw my sleeping bag on the ground at the bottom of a pass, and I’m asleep as soon as my face hits the pine duff. I started dreaming about this race seven years ago, a high school kid on a laptop under a steel bunk bed in gray, rusty Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Ethan Passant and Jefe Branham were breaking new ground, covering huge miles without sleep. I was skidding a dozen-year-old Gary Fisher around on some slag heaps. I’d never seen a real mountain, other than the ones that glowed through that little computer screen.

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Up before sunrise, headed for Silverton. The sun throws weak pink light on the reddish brown and gray mountains. There’s some good singletrack descending, and I can hear the highway. Pavement to the gas station, a few miles to relax. The sausage sandwich is hot, and that’s all the good I can say about it. Cold, canned espresso, because drinking watery gas-station coffee would be like trying to start a fire with olive oil. Stretch my back. Everything hurts. And only 475 miles to go.

The morning sun creeps over the tall walls of the box canyon. But, man, I’ve wanted to see this trail for so long. I could try another day, see if it gets better. Back in the gas station to resupply: three pepperoni Hot Pockets, two bags of peanuts and a couple cheese Danishes. I don’t think Salida’s much more than a day and a half away.

On the bike and out of Silverton, past the last coffee shop. For a really long time. I swing around and grab one more coffee. A couple hours later I’m grinding to the top of Stony Pass. A rider sits in the scree at the start of the singletrack; Colorado’s finest natural painkiller and antidepressant burns between his fingertips. I sit down next to him to rest. “Any idea how this next section is?” I ask. “Hard. You know how it is, man,” he says, and exhales a swirl of white smoke. “Just keep going until it stops.”

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He’s not a liar. I push my bike up to the top of a peak at almost 13,000 feet. Wind screams over the mountain fast enough to make me stumble sideways. Scrubby grass and tiny flowers ripple and wave, green, yellow and pink. The trail rolls for miles, then out of sight over the next peak. Crossing the San Juans. Next time I make it to a place where there’s enough oxygen for my brain to work, I’ll think this was incredible.

I clip in to drop down, picking up speed fast. I see a few tiny dots way up the next mountain. Hike faster. Bikes come into focus. An hour later I’m just a switchback below them. When I walk past, none of us can spare enough breath to say much, even though we’re barely moving. The riders slowly fade back to tiny dots.

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Hours later, I make the high point of the route at 13,300 feet. I lean my bike against the sign and sit. Man, there’s a lot more of this to go, but maybe I’ll actually be able to make it. Just keep going until it stops. I crunch on a mouthful of peanuts. Another sunset, and I struggle to the summit of a mountain that slopes so gently that it hardly deserves the title. But I still can’t ride it. The meadow is so rocky and the trail so faint that I have to just stomp along next to my bike, make beelines between wooden trail markers. Moving 3 miles an hour, making hundreds of miles seems hopeless.

Dark morning on the third day. I covered most of a long road detour last night, slept next to the road until I heard tires crunch past. I’m stopped next to an irrigation ditch to filter water; I wiggle my frozen fingers to try to get some feeling back. My water purification chemicals turn bright yellow in the mixing cup; the sun slides above the ridge.

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Trapped in an endless rock garden. Head down, walking up the steep trail. I thought for sure I could make it through this 20-mile segment in a few hours, but it’s already been four. Sargents Mesa. No views or summits—just trees, rocks and fall-line climbs. Close to the top of the mesa, an old guy on a moto buzzes up the trail. Cuts the engine.

“Nice bicycle you got there,” he says, smiling a little. “I know I shouldn’t be up here on my motorcycle, but no chance I could make it any other way with my back being the way it is.”

“Hey, doesn’t bother me, man.”

“You know where Sargents Mesa starts? I’m looking for the Vietnam memorial up there.”

“I think this is the top of the mesa. Couldn’t say where the memorial is, though.”

“Thanks. I’ll just keep looking.”

He cranks the motor over. I get back on and start to pedal away, a little embarrassed at how down I was a few minutes ago. You’re not doing anything actually hard out here, not compared to what that guy probably did when he was your age. It’s just a hard bike ride, and nobody’s shooting. Suck it up and enjoy the scenery.

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My back tire hisses, starts to squirm. Fudge. I put on the brakes and drift to the side of the trail. Sidewall cut. Dig through my frame bag to find my repair stuff. I’ll try a tire plug. Maybe it’ll save my tubeless. Another rider hikes up the trail toward me. We’re out of the trees in the afternoon sun, and he looks as burnt as my mom’s cooking. “How goes it? You racing?” I ask, crouched over my tire.

“Yeah. Left Denver on Saturday. Is there any water up there?” he rasps.

“I don’t remember anything until the other side of Windy Peak, and that’s pretty far. Some dirty puddles on the trail up there—I’d go for those if you’re close to out.”

“Oh. Damn, I should have filled up on Marshall Pass. I already lost a day in Buena Vista with heat exhaustion. Will the dirt in the water make me sick?”

I look up at him. Seems weird to be trying this trail without knowing how to filter water. “I don’t know, man; maybe try a sock to filter some of the dirt out.”

“Oh, that’s a good idea. Thanks. You have everything you need?” he says.

“Have any iced coffee?”

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I shove the plug into my sidewall and start pumping. Over Marshall Pass, on the Monarch Crest. The sun drops, deep raspberry red. I stop in an avalanche path, wide open between the trees. Mountains stretch out for hundreds of miles. I just rode (or mostly walked) over those things. It seems impossible. And felt like it. Halfway there, halfway to go. I climb a little longer, then flop down on top of some pinecones.

Descending Fooses Creek Trail in the morning dew. Big root drops, steep, wet. First my left hand—no tapping the front brake here. I really hope I can make Buena Vista before this afternoon; it’s already been two days since I resupplied in Silverton, and I’m down to a few handfuls of peanuts. After this descent, there aren’t any huge climbs, so hopefully it’ll go fast.

It doesn’t go fast. By the time I cover the 40 miles of relentlessly up-and-down trail around the base of Mount Princeton, it’s late afternoon and I’ve been out of food for a few hours. When I heard people say it was 200 miles without resupply from Silverton to Buena Vista, for some reason I assumed they were rounding up.

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I roll into town running on that handful of nuts from six hours ago, grab a burger and fill my top-tube bag with french fries. Maybe I’ll be able to get to Leadville before sunset.

I can’t. It’s midnight by the time I roll into the old mining town. A Nas track thumps from the kitchen of a closing restaurant next to the 24- hour gas station. I buy a few sacks of peanuts and call my wife from a pay phone. Leave a message after the beep. “Hey, sorry I haven’t been in touch. Phone died a couple days ago and I still haven’t found batteries for my tracker. This is real tough. I’m gonna go as far as I can tonight, though.” I hang up the receiver and pedal the dark highway out of town.

Over Tennessee Pass, there’s a puffy lump asleep next to a bike, then another. After seeing only tire tracks for three days, it feels like I’m in a race again.

Descend for an hour to the overgrown concrete slabs of Camp Hale, where the 10th Mountain Division trained to fight in the Alps during the Second World War. It’s almost three in the morning. I’ve gotta sleep for a minute.

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The next morning, I’m in a field of wildflowers, almost on top of the pass before the sun comes up. There’s a wooden sign at the top. Oh, boy—just a descent now. I’m gonna make it to Copper at a reasonable hour for coffee. I look at the sign for mileage to town: “Searle Pass 2 mi.” Turds. This high up, it’ll take almost an hour to hit the top of that next pass.

By the time I finish the long, pedal-y descent to town, it’s past lunchtime. No morning coffee. Everything takes longer than I think it should out here. I ride the highway down to a gas station next to I-70 and the place is jammed. Fleshy tourists jiggle to the bathrooms, a long line of people buy candy bars and coffee lighter than iced tea as an endless stream of cars whooshes by on the interstate. When I finally get to the front of the line to pay for my soggy ham sandwich, I can’t wait to get out of there and start pushing my bike up another pass.

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I don’t have to wait long. A few thousand shuffling steps and three hours later, I climb up to some pointless nub, which is inaccurately named Ten Mile Pass. (A pass should be in a saddle, on the low point of a ridge—something that must not have been explained to whoever routed this trail).

I push my bike over and start the rough, hand-numbing descent down the other side toward Breckenridge. After the downhill, the rest of the afternoon is beautiful, effortless, flowing dirt. With heavy legs, a pinched feeling at the top of my spine and tingly hands, it feels real good to just cruise.

Georgia Pass in the moonlight. Wind blows softly through the tundra. I get off my bike and put my forehead in the dirt. This trail is wrecking me. Completely. But I’m going to ride to the end of it. Deep breath and back on the bike. The white light from my Dynamo glows brighter as I roll faster down the mountain. Things reach out to grab at me. My eyes shut. Wake up in the middle of a corner, going 20 miles an hour. Pop a caffeine pill. Keep it together a little longer. It’s two in the morning. I’ll just sleep an hour. Six in the morning, the sun is coming up over the Front Range. The end of the mountains. Goddamn, I’ve almost made it.

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Seventy miles on a road detour through a burned forest starting to grow back. Little green shoots around the base of wood skeletons. The sun is searing, then it rains. Flowing singletrack in Buffalo Creek. Only 35 miles to go now.

Mud. Slow, sticky, sucking mud. I’m so close to the finish in Waterton Canyon. I grind along at a couple miles an hour. Check the GPS. Only 20 miles to go. That’ s 10 hours at this rate. I’m not riding through another night.

I snap, scream at the mountains, suggest that they enjoy eating Popsicles made out of feces. The mountains just stand there, unoffended. Real mad, I ride faster. Down to the river, up the last big climb, almost going cross-country race pace now, I crash on a dusty switchback. Pick myself up, spin the bars around. OK, relax, man. It’s really almost over now. Finally off the singletrack, onto the road through the canyon. I put it in a big gear and crank. The sun sets, I roll into the parking lot. My wife walks over to meet me.

“Nice work, five and a half days!” says somebody standing next to a van.

“Five? I thought it was six,” I say.

“Nope.”

Apparently I lost a day out there. “Oh, well that’s great.”

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Colorado Trail Race Facts

  • 540 miles
  • 74,000 feet of climbing
  • Race start time: 4:02 a.m.
  • My 11th place finishing time: 5 days, 16 hours, 28 minutes
  • Winning time and new course record set by Jesse Jakomait: 3 days, 20 hours, 44 minutes
  • Final finishers time: 12 days, 12 hours, 19 minutes
  • Trail Magic: Unexpected and unplanned support from a random person giving you a coke or snack or finding a box of girl scout cookies on the side of the road
  • 2016’s event on July 24 will run reverse: Denver to Durango

 

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Riders Write: The power of high school MTB racing


This reader submission comes to us from Hannah Heydinger. She just finished her senior year racing in the Texas High School Mountain Biking League where she was team captain for St. Stephen’s in Austin. In 2015, Heydinger was invited to the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) banquet to be awarded the Specialized Student Athlete Leadership Award. In addition to all that, Heydinger wants to study creative writing in college and we’re pleased to have her story. We hope you enjoy her perspective! (Thanks to her mom for the photos.)


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I started mountain biking during my freshman year of high school when the St. Stephen’s mountain biking club decided to join the Texas High School Mountain Biking League. According to the league, a National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) chapter, then in its second year, the riders lacked only one criteria for competing: a girl. I didn’t have any experience mountain biking but was recruited due to the reputation I had gained for riding my bike to school with a lacrosse stick, a backpack, a P.E. bag and an alto saxophone.

Andrew Andres, my coach, told me to record three goals before my first race. They were meager: don’t get seriously injured, meet new people and don’t get last place. I achieved all of these goals and surprised myself—and everyone else—when I wound up first in state for freshman/sophomore girls and was voted team MVP.

25418534005_0f80553bee_oAndrew showed me how important it is to have someone be so dedicated in your success that you strive to push yourself and do the best you can. Andrew moved to Kenya two years after my first race. I was teaching a middle school girl how to ride up a technical climb when I mentioned how much I was going to miss him.

“He knew what I was capable of better than I did,” I said. “When I was struggling to get through a rough part of trail, Andrew would push me to make it, and I would.” She responded by saying, “that’s who you are to me right now,” and I was more proud at that moment than I had been after winning the championship two years earlier.

If you happen to camp at a Texas ranch in the Spring, you might see hundreds of kids in colorful jerseys sleeping in tents, riding mountain bikes, or running along trails and cheering. Riders are shouting, “great job!” while passing each other, and coaches are cheering, by name, kids that aren’t on their teams. The scene is a picture of sportsmanship at its best. It was this environment that enabled me to grow into the leader and athlete that I am. I have NICA—and all of the league directors, coaches, and volunteers who make it run—to thank for making mountain biking truly something special. Attend a NICA race and you’ll witness kids achieve things they didn’t think themselves capable of.

I have heard of no other sport in which the competing varsity girls can be found leaning over their tires chatting, encouraging each other and sharing Shock Blocks in the few minutes before the start of a race. “How did the Calculus final go?” and “Look, the cute rider on the Bowie team is over there” and “You finally replaced Joey! (the name of the rider’s former aluminum hardtail)” are not the sorts of things you hear from competing varsity basketball or volleyball players.

Competitors support each other and this is always something that surprises people who are new to NICA. We race against each other one moment and hug it out on the podium the next. It is this friendly environment that supported my growth as a leader. I am a successful leader largely because of the support I receive from the communities I lead, and this has been evident from my time in NICA. I enjoy introducing more girls to mountain biking because I want to share this experience. Constantly challenging myself shows me what I’m capable of, and teaching beginners, not just racing, enables me to put these capabilities to use in a way that feels truly fulfilling.

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In January, I was honored to attend the 2015 NICA Awards to receive the Specialized Student-Athlete Leadership Award at the Cliff Bar Headquarters in Emeryville, California. I met the recipients of the other awards the night before the ceremony and I can honestly say that I have never made friends so quickly.

The stories of the six other student recipients, especially those of the GU Extraordinary Courage Award recipients, Kade Brantiongton and Esmée DeBarssi, evinced how powerful NICA is in the lives of its student riders. Kade was from a small town in Colorado where he faced rejection and harassment— including getting his car vandalized—for quitting football to start mountain biking in the Colorado league. Mountain biking in the NorCal league helped the Esmée overcome Anorexia and she now educates students and coaches about promoting a healthy body image and overcoming eating disorders.

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We spent the morning of the award ceremony riding Mount Tamalpais with incredible riders like Todd Wells, Lucas Euser, and Gary Fisher before going to the Marin Museum of Bicycling to learn more about the incredible machines that brought us together in the first place. After a memorable evening at the Cliff Bar Headquarters, the other student recipients and I spent as much time together as we could, talking together in the hotel until our exhausted parents called us back to our rooms so we could prepare for the flights that would disperse us back across the country.

Every once in awhile, I’ll get a message from the “Super Awesome Bikers” group text we created before the awards. We still check in to see how each other’s races are going. I don’t always know what they’re talking about—I still don’t know what a bleed port screw or caliper is—but I know that we’re going to get back together to go riding again someday.

Just like there are “theatre people” or “music people,” there are “biking people.” They are, in my opinion, some of the best people there are and I am so grateful that NICA gave me the chance to become one.


Thanks, Hannah, for sharing your story and good luck at the University of Texas! Want to submit words to us? Learn more here.

 

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Feature: Maryland, An Old-Line State of Mind



 

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Words: Brice Shirbach
Photos: Abram Eric Landes
Originally published in Issue #189

Growing up, I’d often sit and stare at it.

My obsession began the moment my family moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland. I was 7 years old and we piled into a single-story rancher a mile and a half down the road from town square. From our backyard, I could see it planted across a few miles of rolling hills and fields. Just a few short years later, we found ourselves renting out an old farmhouse on a single-lane country road, and we were suddenly directly across the street from it. I don’t think I have ever really known its name, or if it was ever actually given one, but locals like to refer to it as College Mountain, although I’ve always assumed, or maybe just hoped, that its real name was something perhaps a bit more regal.

I have since seen and been on countless mountains that more than dwarf it, but whenever I find myself driving from my home in southeastern Pennsylvania to this little nook in western Maryland, it’s always the first significant spike in the landscape, and I’m as transfixed by its summit now, at the age of 33, as I was when I was 13. The mountain tops out at 1,700 feet, with Emmitsburg far below on one side and Mount St. Mary’s University nestled on the slopes of the other.

Emmitsburg sits on the Maryland half of the Mason-Dixon Line, just a couple of miles south of historic Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and a little more than an hour from both Baltimore and our nation’s capital. The Appalachian Mountains make their most easterly appearance in this part of the Mid-Atlantic, with Emmitsburg tucked neatly into a declivity of one of the Earth’s most ancient mountain ranges.

Growing up in this small rural community, my development and ambitions undoubtedly were profoundly affected by the mountainous surroundings, which likely has something to do with my desire to make a living riding bikes and telling stories.

I have long felt a debt of gratitude toward the mountains and ridges that surround my hometown, so it stands to reason that when I first heard about mountain bike trails being built on College Mountain, my imagination began to run wild.

“I thought trails would be a good idea for Emmitsburg since before I even moved here,” Tim O’Donnell tells me. “A few years ago, I presented the idea to the town council of Emmitsburg. They weren’t enthused by the idea, but they also weren’t against it. Jim Hoover was the mayor at the time and wanted to create a task force to investigate the concept a bit more.”

O’Donnell is in his sixth year living here, and halfway through his second term as a commissioner for the town. He’s been mountain biking for close to 30 years. This self-described Clydesdale rider and former collegiate rugby player is one of the primary figures involved in the design and development of the trails in Emmitsburg, and he looks to them as more than just an opportunity for him to ride his bike.

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“I’m the quality control,” he explains. “My goal for the trails has always been for them to not only be an asset for the community, but also provide an economic boost to the town by bringing in visitors. From the onset, our local effort has been very strong. Over the past four years, I’d say we put in close to 900 volunteer hours of trail work. Once the feasibility study came back saying that this would benefit the community as a recreational option, we began to really move forward with the project. Grant money came from the Trail Conservancy, which is run by Austin Steo. They pursued the Recreational Trail Program grants. The RTP grant is matched by the volunteer hours we put in.”

Nine hundred hours in four years equals a significant grant indeed. Austin Steo is not an Emmitsburg resident, but his parents are, and he’s long appreciated the trail and recreational potential for the region. His Silver Spring, Maryland–based company, Trail Conservancy Inc., is a 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization whose mission is “to provide assistance in developing, building and maintaining natural-surface trails using sustainable design principles that minimize negative effects on the environment.”

I met Steo for an evening ride to discuss the project and his role with it. His excitement over the trail plan and construction was immediately clear. “It’s pretty awesome to have a place in the area with the terrain that Emmitsburg has, and the riding experience it can offer,” he says as we work our way up and around the stacked-loop design of the trail network. “The lower land here doesn’t have a lot of rock in it, but as you go up the mountain, there’s a whole lot more technical terrain. There are some amazing rock outcrops that you’d be happy to ride through, and it looks like the town wants to do that as well. We want it to be fun and interesting, but sustainable at the same time. This mountain has a lot of features, and trying to piece them together is certainly a challenge. But it’s a fun one.”

Steo and his Trail Conservancy are not solely responsible for the design and construction of the decidedly ambitious trail plan for the town. There are currently a little more than 13 miles of trail available to riders, but current plans call for more than double that amount, eventually taking riders from near the top of the mountain down onto Main Street. It’s more than just a marked increase in the length of the trail system; it also more than doubles the 550 feet of elevation change currently available from the highest point to the lowest, to upward of 1,200 feet.

This kind of plan requires quite a bit more than what volunteers are able to provide with rakes and shovels. “I was walking around downtown Frederick after we moved here and I saw a flyer for the Emmitsburg Trail Series,” remembers Elevated Trail Design co-owner Andrew Mueller.

Mueller and his girlfriend moved to Frederick from one of the East Coast’s most heralded mountain biking regions—Asheville, North Carolina—after she was hired by an area biotech company. He’d been researching riding and building opportunities in the Mid-Atlantic when he began to hear about the plans for Emmitsburg, 20 minutes north of his new home and Maryland’s second-largest city.

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“I knew that they had been trying to build up there for a while. I gave Tim a call and he put me in touch with Austin, who interviewed me over the phone and told me to go ahead and come by the next week to start building.”

As Steo and O’Donnell realized several years prior, Mueller was quick to see significant potential for the region, as well as some logistical challenges. “There are some really dense briar patches up there, which makes trail design tough because it’s difficult to visualize the layout. As you get closer to the top of the mountain, the rocks are enormous as well,” Mueller says. “But I think that overall this place can be really awesome. There is just so much to work with on that mountain. The dirt packs in really nicely, and there’s enough rock to create some really cool features and put some cool texture in your trail. I’m excited to get up there and build more.”

Because 13 miles of trail certainly isn’t much when compared to what other destinations in the region are currently offering—even ones like Michaux to the north, or the Frederick Watershed to the south, both of which share the same ridgeline with College Mountain—Steo and Mueller both acknowledge that they don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to the next step for the trails in Emmitsburg. They do agree, however, that the best results tend to come from compromise.

Mueller doesn’t believe that beginner and expert terrain are necessarily mutually exclusive.

“I’m pretty excited about getting to build some beginner stuff, because I think that there is a lot that can be gleaned by creating stuff you can take riders to learn on, but still provide you with the opportunity to ride with your buddies and find things in the terrain that beginners might not have an eye for,” he explains. “I don’t think that mountain biking has to have this exclusionary approach to trails and terrain. Obviously we want to push ourselves and explore new lines, but I don’t see why a beginner trail can’t still be fun for experts.”

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The town of Emmitsburg is comprised of about 660 acres within its corporate limits, but is surrounded by 1,800 acres with development restrictions in place, implemented in hopes of preserving the abundant open space available to those seeking to enjoy the natural playground the land here provides.

But, growing up, I never felt as though the town looked to the mountain as a fundamental part of its identity. Whenever I make the trip home nowadays, I’m still not convinced that the community is entirely aware of its own potential. Taking this place and these opportunities for granted can lead a small town down a dangerous path, both economically and socially.

This town of 2,900 has had to deal with a number of issues in recent years, including a burgeoning heroin problem with area youth and a lack of new businesses, particularly retail, coming into town.

Both issues seem to indicate a general lack of desire by the community to move forward in a positive fashion, but there is hope that the trails are a sign of change for the town—and it’s not just the mountain bikers who are beginning to see it.

“Right now we have about $30 million worth of projects going on around town,” Don Briggs notes. Briggs is a former real estate appraiser and the current mayor of Emmitsburg. He and his wife moved to town back in 2003 after having run their respective businesses here the decade prior. Briggs, a longtime conservationist, has high hopes for what the trails can do for the community and is working hard to ensure that there’s an infrastructure in place to allow for social and economic growth.

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“We want to show that we’re investing in this town. That’s been my main drive. We want to show people that we have a stake in this town, and I think that we have done that. We’re upgrading the sewer plant, we replaced all of our street lamps with L.E.D. lights and we’re working on developing a walkway from Mount St. Mary’s University onto Main Street in town. We’re redoing our square in downtown as well. We’re putting over $1 million into our square. This is a special nook and cranny of our state. We’re really ticking into a lot of things.”

“The first step is the trail,” Tom Rinker tells me during our discussion at his Frederick bike shop, The Bicycle Escape. Rinker was approached by O’Donnell more than eight years ago and was asked to write a letter of support for the trail plan. “My first thought was how fantastic this could be. My second was that I hoped that Tim has the endurance to stick with this concept,” remembers Rinker. “Some of the plans and conversations have evolved quite a bit, but Tim saw it through. Other towns are now looking to that success as a model for their own projects.”

When I asked Rinker whether or not he’d ever consider bringing his bike shop into Emmitsburg, he hesitated at first. “I’d want to see more complementary retail and food in town in order to consider opening a bike shop there,” he said. “It could work, but it’s not there yet.”

“We have room for some creative thinking,” O’Donnell says, with no attempt to mute his hopeful and optimistic tone. “We have room for some entrepreneurial and creative individuals to bring some life into town. When we acknowledge and listen to the locals who have concerns, we bring them into the fold and they become friends of the trails. I know it won’t be everyone, and I need to respect those who don’t agree with what we’re doing.”

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Mueller has made a living helping communities by building trails and has seen firsthand the positive effect they can have on a declining municipality. He also knows that it’s never a quick fix. “Places like Brevard, Fruita and Downieville took a lot of time to build up to where they are now,” he says. “I am going to try and continue to help Austin and Tim realize that they’re competing with places that already offer big miles. I think that the focus should be on building something different. We should be concentrating on putting in features and directional trails. We can offer riders a full range of terrain here in Emmitsburg. You can create a true playground here; it’s not just about the miles. I think that a quality-over-quantity approach will pay off big time down the road.”

Hope is widespread in the discussions I have had with everyone, and it seems to be for both the trails and the town itself.

Perhaps that’s the narrative thread Emmitsburg never knew it needed: a proper connection with the mountains that cradle this community. Change won’t happen overnight, but when does it ever? Progress within the town, and on the trails themselves, isn’t rapid, but it’s steady and it’s being led by a committed contingent of people who see the same potential for this area that I saw as a kid staring up at the top of the mountain from my backyard.

“This is an opportunity for the people in town to open their eyes and help shape this community,” Steo tells me after our ride. “It takes some time to get moving, but eventually, if it’s a good thing, it’s going to happen. And this is a very good thing.”

Explore some of the Emmitsburg trails, courtesy of MTB Project: 


 

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Beyond the Bike Park: The Dirt Affluence of Park City


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Words: Matt Kasprzyk
Photos: John Shafer
Originally published in Issue #190

There’s a lot in Park City for the cosmopolitan, just as there is for the adventurer. We know that not everyone rolling up to its opulent resort in a Porsche is a millennial wearing sweatpants and an Affliction T-shirt—some have a roof rack on their Cayman. We know not every dude wearing a $6,000 wristwatch as he sits in a cafe with his wife likes bathrobes and spa days—that watch has a heart rate monitor. We also know that resort towns can seem like cesspools of bacteria-laden brown mud leaking out of the abandoned mine shafts that these towns were built on—a place that can be a hub for incredible adventure far off the beaten ski resort path. A type of choose-your-own-adventure of sorts for those who prefer grit to glamour.

Most people think of two things when Utah is mentioned: Mormons and beer. Rightly so, perhaps. Although those two things may not come to mind together, they are separately associated with Utah, for sure. There’s an odd juxtaposition of values in Utah, and more specifically Park City, where the tourists outnumber the residents.

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But there is a lot more to the story than Brigham Young, “mild drinks” and Gucci. For example, the Utah Recreational Use Statute of 1971 “is to encourage public and private owners of land to make land and water areas available to the public for recreational purposes by limiting the owner’s liability toward persons entering the land and water areas for those purposes.”

That’s a pretty big deal. The land that many of the resorts use around Park City is privately owned—not leased from the state or federal government—giving the public easier access to the terrain with fewer restrictions. Since landowners in Utah are much less liable for uninvited guests, the statute has helped create a unique ride center that is less restricted by land access issues compared with much of the nation. It’s no surprise then that this valley on the Wasatch Back, with more than 400 miles of public access trails, was IMBA’s first gold-level Ride Center.

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This development wasn’t overnight though. There’s been a tangible commitment to recreation in Park City since the 1960s. It’s hard to imagine that the now affluent community was once almost an abandoned ghost town. Like many other modern resort towns throughout the Rockies, Park City has a history of mining and extraction. It was once the site of the largest silver-mining camp in the country, and the Ontario and Silver King mines were two of the most famous silver mines in the world. But then there was a devastating fire, several mining deaths and a declining silver market, all of which contributed to a dramatic shift in the economics of the region.

On Dec. 21, 1963, United Park City Mines opened Treasure Mountain using a combination of federal funds meant to revitalize the community and its mineral rights. The last surviving mining corporation in Park City opened a ski resort on the land they had the property rights to. Most of the infrastructure was old mining equipment. Aerial trams that hauled ore were converted into chairlifts. The special “Skier’s Subway” was a 2.5-mile ride through the Spiro Tunnel on a mine train that culminated with these early skiers boarding a mining elevator that climbed 1,750 feet to the surface. By the end of the ’60s, Treasure Mountain had changed its name, and we currently know it as Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR).

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The reason all this winter stuff is relevant is that it illustrates a dramatic shift in policies and economics that helped created a unique environment based on outdoor recreation and land access. The tourism industry now reportedly contributes over a third of the total economic value to the state of Utah. In a few decades Park City went from being almost forgotten to the center of the world stage. When Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Olympic Games, some of the events were held at PCMR and Deer Valley.

Rags to boots lined with fur riches. Tourism to the resort saved the town. It’s a community that embraces and preserves its heritage while encouraging material indulgences. The Victorian storefronts of Main Street are an eclectic group of bars, restaurants, boutiques and tourist traps. Park City hosts the Sundance Film Festival, but the No Name Saloon will host your motorcycle club. Across the street there could be a Lamborghini parked in front of the Banksy mural. You can take a beater shuttle van up to the top of Wasatch Crest or fl y your private jet into town for an afternoon ride. There are expensive resorts and less expensive resorts.

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But what you don’t have to pay for is trail riding away from said resorts. PCMR, Deer Valley and Canyons all have unrestricted trail access. Sure, you can buy a lift ticket and ride the bike parks. Deer Valley’s new Tidal Wave flow trail, designed by Gravity Logic, opened for the 2015 season and was finished by early September. Canyons Resort has also been investing in its bike park, but it’s the singletrack access right in town that’s unique.

There are a few mini-Valmont-style bike parks with pump tracks, jump lines and progressive skills courses throughout the Salt Lake City and Park City areas. From anywhere in Park City you can hop on a free bus with your bike. Although the buses are outfitted with the usual metro tray racks on the front and back, you can also bring your bike right into the bus with you and get a free shuttle to anywhere in town. Many of the resorts also offer complimentary shuttle services with your stay. So once you get there, you can leave the car parked and head off the mountain to ride. White Pines Touring is a great place to start your ride experiences. They offer guided tours of area singletrack or rail trails.

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There’s so much riding in the locale that a guided tour is a great idea for first timers to the area. Behind the White Pines Touring shop you can pick up the bike path and ride safely to the Park City bus station. Grab your bike and hop a bus to Mid Mountain near the Montage Deer Valley resort free of charge. The Montage is a new bike-friendly resort hotel that offers superb access to the Mid Mountain trails. It also has every amenity to make your stay incredibly comfortable. From the bus stop, or front door of the Montage, it’s a quick ride up the road to the Mid Mountain trailhead.

The Mid Mountain Loop is an IMBA Epic ride. According to MTB Project, it’s a 22.9-mile loop featuring “classic Wasatch singletrack with lots of climbing, descending and ridge-top riding through aspen and pine forests.” Highly rated, it’s a must-do ride. End it at the Silver Star Cafe near the Sundance Institute and you won’t be disappointed.

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Deer Valley also has terrific dining options. Prepare to indulge yourself, but don’t feel guilty about a plate of four ice-cream sandwiches for lunch that are made with homemade cookies. You’ll pedal it off at Strawberry Narrows. At Alberto’s Mexican, grab your breakfast burrito for the road because this recommended ride is a bit out of town but worth the drive.

Strawberry Narrows begins at the Aspen Grove Marina. The trail follows a narrow strait between Strawberry Reservoir and Soldier Creek Reservoir. There isn’t much net gain or loss in total elevation, but you’ll be doing several short, grunty climbs. It’s a lot like riding the rolling terrain of the East Coast. What’s unique about it, though, is how often you’ll transition between sagebrush with high-desert-like conditions to pines and aspens. The Narrows is a winding strait between two larger bodies of water. Each finger that juts out has two distinct sides—one that gets a lot of sun and one that doesn’t. The out-and-back ride transitions between desert-like flora with some ledgy rock sections to swoopy forest singletrack through aspens.

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Another not-to-miss loop is Big Cottonwood Canyon, 12 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. There are some technical sections threaded together by high-altitude ribbons of dirt with spectacular scenery and terrain. A long ride on the Wasatch Crest can take you all the way to Canyons Resort. Pick your own adventure through this bike park’s trails as you meander your way to the base to grab some post-ride beers.

If you really want to plan a getaway and challenge yourself, there’s the Park City Point 2 Point race held Labor Day weekend. It’s billed as one of the toughest endurance races in the West, clocking in at about 78 miles with 12,000 feet of elevation gained. Plus, 90 percent of the course is singletrack. And about that beer in Utah…

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Not everywhere has lusty singletrack, but you can bet that nearly everywhere in the world has their local brew. Utah is no different. Yes, they have it, but there are restrictions. The craft beer and distillery scene in Utah isn’t as strong as other places around the country, but nonetheless great things are happening there despite a few Mormon-influenced laws still in the books. Beers served on tap cannot be above 4 percent ABV. Secondly, you can’t have more than one drink in front of you at a time. Also, alcohol higher in proof and ABV must be purchased at a state-owned store, but that’s not much different from some other states. It’s still very possible to get drunk.

When I asked a bartender about the unique laws, the response was, “Are you coming here to drink or are you coming here to ride?” Point taken. I was there to ride some of the most affluent singletrack on earth.

 

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Beyond the Bike Park: Whistler, Canada


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Words: Hailey Elise
Photos: Mark Mackay
Originally featured in Issue #190

She’s elusive. Cheeky, only showing glimpses of her true nature the farther in you find yourself. And by farther in think of an hour climb. Whistler’s trail systems are easily accessed by those who are looking for them, but outside of the bike park they require a mindset of going on an adventure. Beautiful, extreme and a few pedal strokes away, the established network can provide a great ride while allowing for exploration of Whistler’s wilderness.

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With a history extending almost 30 years in the making, the trails spanning the Whistler Valley have evolved alongside the modern-day mountain bike. As technology advanced, so did the trail building, leading to new-school trails that are feeding the current trend among gravity riders of earning your turns.

History

With mountains set before them, rogue builders went in search of downhill descents in Whistler as early as the 1980s to escape the boredom of the offseason from skiing. The first trails can be traced back to decommissioned logging roads that provided access to the hills surrounding the valley. Trails such as the challenging Binty’s were carved into the mountainside using dirt bikes and chain saws. Many of the skeletons of trails created by these first builders laid the foundation for the trails we know today.

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While mountain bike technology improved and the sport grew, trail building increased throughout the Resort Municipality of Whistler. With that came conflict and the need for maintenance, regulation and supported growth. The trails were soon faced with potential closure, and The Whistler Off Road Cycling Association, or WORCA, came to be in 1989 to lobby against the bike trails being shut down.

River Runs Through It, Cut Yer Bars and other infamous trails became established shortly after the founding of WORCA. The acknowledgment of biking as a recreational resource for the area translated into increased building, participation and trail traffic, in turn laying the building blocks for Whistler’s extensive world-class riding.

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New Directions

Driven by the progression of the sport and technological advances in mountain bikes, modern-day trail builders in Whistler have been creating descents that have been putting Whistler on the map for riding well outside the bike park. One such trail builder is Paul Stevens, co-builder of Blackcomb’s Micro Climate, a trail containing a little bit of everything from steep to flow and every bit worth the climb. His initial inspiration came from Dave Anderson, fellow rider and co-builder of the trail, who skied the zone in the winter and felt the terrain would be perfect for riding a bike down.

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The following summer, the two flagged the line and Micro Climate began. Upon completion, the trail gained a lot of traffic. What’s more, the Enduro World Series was making its debut at the 2013 Crankworx. Developers wanted to showcase the best riding Whistler had to offer as well as release a course that would surprise even the locals. The inclusion of Micro Climate helped set the stage for the Whistler round of the EWS to be known for challenging and exciting riding.

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Expanding Zones

WORCA, along with new builders, is expanding the horizons of Whistler’s biking scene to the surrounding mountainous zones, such as Wedge, Sproatt and Whistler. In addition to an extra-long descent, the creation of trails that connect subalpine regions to well-known recreational areas allows for an adventurous ride down through the stunning forest zones of British Columbia’s Coast Mountains. A bike rider now has the option of taking a full-day excursion or a leisurely few-hour jaunt.

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When asked about the future of building and riding in Whistler, Stevens says that he thinks it is following the new-school style, which focuses on using the terrain more efficiently and emphasizes sustainability. Whistler is notorious for its rugged, technical and rocky landscape, but as building advances, more fl ow and jump trails have been popping up along the outskirts of the valley.

Stevens is also quick to note that with the transient population that goes along with being a resort town, involvement from people looking to build for their preferred style of riding could lead to some interesting trail innovations.

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Culture

Together with progression and growth in trail building, the biking culture in Whistler has grown immensely. From WORCA-sponsored weekly rides to larger-scale events, mountain biking has become a recreational and social foundation for the Whistler area. Far more people, locals and tourists alike, are riding outside of the resort.

Climbing has become as sought-after as the world-renowned downhill singletrack, whether it’s for the fitness or the thrill. Social gatherings now take on forms ranging from epic day rides to after-work climbs. And one cannot forget the traditional post-ride visit to one of the many lakes.

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The past, the present and the growing mountain biking culture have made Whistler a destination for all disciplines of riding. Although Whistler is most known for its incredible bike park, there is a whole other dimension that incorporates adventure, beauty and equally exciting trails. The mountains that line the village already harbor trails that will leave you wanting more, and the future looks bright for the surrounding regions.

“Intriguing, gorgeous and challenging” sounds just like the perfect soul mate, but in fact it’s Whistler’s trail systems. The only way to find out is to book a plane ticket and to experience for yourself, exploring the real Whistler.

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Feature: The Legend of Victor Vicente of America


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Words: Christopher Harland-Dunaway
Photos: Toby Kahn and courtesy of VVA

Victor Vincente of America, a man born as Michael Beckwith Hiltner, stood on a dirt road that runs along the small mountaintop valley he calls home most of the year.

“I mean look at this party!” he implored, as much to me as to the distracted world around us. The valley air shifted in an almost supernatural response. Crickets sang, the dry grass fluttered, unkempt grapevines stood in repose on their trellises, and the pine-covered hilltops locked fingers with a cloud-scattered sky.

“Let me just be really candid and say lots of times I feel like I’ve had just about enough of life. Not a lot more I really want to do. If I can just see my book in print, I’ll be happy. It’s always hard to think about leaving the party—that’s the way I refer to dying—just a party here!”

It’s been an eventful and creative trip for Vincente. He is now 40 as his current self, who began with a long stumbling, victorious and eager 34-year stint as Michael Hiltner. Together, the two personalities combine into a man that is 74. His journey from road cycling to pioneering one of the first mountain-bike frames, and being one of the first mountain bikers, has earned him notoriety, even legend.

Hiltner grew up without his father in the postwar Los Angeles basin. Imagine suburban tract housing purchased by new families on a GI Bill in the arid hills beyond the breezy coast of Santa Monica. Think pomade-structured hair-dos, “that’d-be-swell-Dad” vignettes of 1950s California. Amid an era unrivaled in its conformity and material aspirations was where the fates dropped Hiltner.

At high school he was unequivocally a loner. One of his only friends was obsessed with medieval warfare. Sometimes he played chess, but there wasn’t much to his social life beyond the cowboys-and-Indians games he had outgrown. “Nature Boy,” as his classmates dubbed him, ate lunch alone everyday by a little spring that trickled fresh water from a concrete spout, surrounded by pine trees. He loved it for reasons he wasn’t able to articulate at the time, but now he emphatically says, “It was nature!”

Grasping for nature epitomized the way in which Hiltner made discoveries throughout life—pursing ideas with visceral impulsiveness. So Hiltner decided that he was going to ride his bike to school. High school was an awkward age to be seen riding a bike. He did it anyway, undeterred.

On his ride home, he was chased down by another bike rider, who suggested he try racing. The rider was Dave Waco. Waco was prominent in the Santa Monica Cycling Club. For the ’50s, though, he was an aberration— shaven legs, kit and simply riding a bike, especially as an adult. Vincente remembers the colorful pages of cycling newsprint that Waco obtained from France.

“There was Coppi and Bobet and Anquetil in full color, glistening with sweat with their race-horse legs. We were doing little races, 10 miles; these guys were doing the Tour de France— that was unimaginable.”

Right away, entire lists of regional championships were sucked into the victorious Hiltner dragnet. At the 1959 Southern California Grand Prix, he met a rider from Northern California named Lars Zebroski. Zebroski persuaded Hiltner to come north and train to make the 1960 Rome Olympic team. Italy was the crucible of road cycling at the time. To succeed there, or just make it there, meant everything.

Zebroski was often quiet but intense and irreverent. He masterminded the Olympic effort for Rome, which depended on a two-man time trial at the Olympic trials to decide two of the 14 total roster spots available. Zebroski and Hiltner moved into the Santa Cruz Mountains and created a training hermitage along Tunitas Creek. Here among the redwoods they lived a borderline ascetic lifestyle in which they bathed, showered and washed their clothes in the brisk wintertime creek.

As they forged themselves into Olympians, they depended on cheap cheese from a dairy farmer down the road. The farmer offered his skim milk for free. Zebroski would sometimes go down the road with a peanut butter sandwich to make himself thirsty, so he could chug as much skim milk as possible. Hiltner’s favorite cheap ride food was a carton of concentrated pineapple juice with cottage cheese mixed into it.

The two lived minimally, but richly, and dreamed of the games. The Zebroski-Hiltner two-man time trial smashed the Olympic trials and punched their tickets for the ’60 Olympics. When they arrived in Rome, the city was wilting under an oppressive late-summer heat wave. The Olympic Road Race was a sequence of staccato images of flashing musculature glossed in sweat, drenched in suffering. Hiltner finished 24th.

For a long time, his result was a source of inspiration for emerging American riders; ironically, the judges made a mistake and Hiltner was actually lapped. With the games over, Hiltner, Zebroski and a crew of itinerant American bike-racing expats stayed on. They spent their first evening feasting with the famous Signore Cinelli at his villa in Tuscany. They left with factory-priced Cinellis, the best in the world.

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Photo shortly before the World Championships in Berne, Switzerland.

Hiltner dove headlong into his first season racing in Tuscany. Once adapted, he learned how to sniff out breakaways and use his penchant for suffering to great effect. He won solo one occasion by riding everyone off his wheel in a hilly finale. By the end of his first campaign he won four races, a pioneering accomplishment. The dumbfounded Tuscan press noted, “And who in America could have possibly taught this young man how to race a bike?”

During the winter offseason, Hiltner fell in love with a girl who worked across the narrow street from his house. Her name was Leda. Leda visited Hiltner’s room at the villa, where they talked for hours. By this time, his Italian had gotten pretty good. The two took frequent trips into the countryside on his roommate’s BMW motorcycle, a shaftdrive 500 cc BMW motorcycle. But Hiltner struggled with the awkwardness of his socially cloistered suburban upbringing.

“I remember lounging on the bed with her and feeling loving, when all of a sudden something loud fell somewhere in the villa. It completely ruined the moment,” he recalled. “That didn’t work out there. When the racing season got going I was out by Pisa so I didn’t see her much.”

Hiltner, or Victor Vincente as he stood in his small kitchenette, exhaled wistfully, breaking the Italian reverie. He turned to the photographer and me and asked, “Would you both like some hot cocoa?” I had brought a gallon of milk at Vincente’s request: 2 percent, nonorganic. When he saw the white jug he cried, “Milk! I haven’t had milk in weeks!” As he finished up the hot cocoa, using obscure ingredients such as Chinese five spice, he paused and turned to us, saying, “I usually finish it off with a splash of rum.” He tipped the Kings Bay into each drink and distributed the mugs, leaving the last one, his favorite, for himself. It read “I love crosswords” on the side.

He also has a pair of pajama pants with a crossword pattern. He has taken a pen and written his name through the crossword boxes, and over time, found ways to intersect the names of the many lovers with his. Vincente has had three wives since leaving Italy, and many more lovers. The concept of free love and multiple lovers became a hallmark of the Vincente persona. He considers monogamy more fraught than society generally believes.

“A certain percentage of men, it’s either in their nature or they learn how to focus on one woman and that’s plenty. I never learned that,” he put it.

Hiltner’s Italian adventure started to go flat after he began to use amphetamines while racing. “It wasn’t such a taboo subject, but other teams didn’t mention it outright. They’d joke around on the starting line. ‘Quante pastiglie prendete oggi?’ How many little pills are you going to take today? It’s like drinking a lot of coffee. I’d stay up all night after races sometimes, staring at the ceiling.” After winning four races in ’60 and two in ’61, the season of ’62 was a bust. Hiltner didn’t win any races in Italy and returned to California to recuperate.

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“Would you both like to go for a walk?” Vincente suddenly asked. We nodded and stepped outside into day. There was a spring chill in the air, the last gasp of winter holding on to the hills. Vincente directed us to the trailhead where a small signpost was planted in the ground, which read “VVA Trail.” The Victor Vincente of America Trail. It sounded very grand and heavy with importance. It announced itself as some famous land feature might: Half Dome, El Capitan and Evolution Basin. The trail opposed the grandiose imagery its name evoked. Moss gently covered the stones and tree trunks surrounding us. It was just as he liked it, curving and hugging the terrain, moving with it.

We came to a footbridge he had built over a creek. It was sturdy and made out of slats of wood that had been painted garish colors of yellow, blue and red. The lumber was reclaimed from a group of Hare Krishnas that owned the land in the ’60s.

What transformed a timid boy racer into a prolific creative mind? A meandering chain of events precipitated this radical change, beginning when Hiltner went to Brazil for the Pan-American Games in 1963. Hiltner and his teammates stayed after an uneventful event.

Vincente remembered a special day they left the Pan-Am Village for a training ride: “On one of our first days out training from the Pan-Am Village, [Bob] Tetzlaff, [Tim] Kelly, about a group of six of us roadmen were out for a spin. I remember an intersection and there was a gal around the corner smoking a cigarette and we said hi to her, and she waves back—that’s all it took for me. I made a U-turn. That was my first wife, Naide.”

1965. Michael Hiltner on the way to becoming national road champ. This photo is on Mulholland Drive, at the top of the Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles.

1965. Michael Hiltner on the way to becoming national road champ. This photo is on Mulholland Drive, at the top of the Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles.

Their courtship consisted of free meals at the Pan-Am Village, where Naide worked as a switchboard operator. Despite Hiltner’s lack of Portuguese, they fell in love and he asked her to marry him. She said yes. Six months later the two returned to California, where Hiltner continued racing. That year, Hiltner won the U.S. National Road Race, which he regards as his greatest career accomplishment, and he was sent to San Sebastian, Spain, for the ’65 World Championships.

Vincente can’t remember San Sebastian: “I don’t think I finished.” Naide and Hiltner sold everything to live in Italy. They stayed outside of Florence, as Hiltner had as a budding road racer. Vincente prefaced the tale with a deep sigh. “That was the winter that the Arno overflowed its banks and did a lot of damage in Florence. The water invaded basements and historical archives. Did a lot of damage … Naide and I were living just a few miles outside Florence. Just to get into Florence was dangerous because you’d drive through miles of water. It was completely upsetting, so we just decided to go to Brazil instead of braving the winter.”

Without realizing it, the return to Brazil would lead Hiltner into the major doldrums of his adult life, and eventually, the collapse of his marriage. The two took a cruise liner to Brazil and Hiltner signed up with a local racing team. He struggled, was dropped and was left staring down the barrel of an existence outside of bike racing. Naide’s parents got him a job at one of the largest publishing houses in Brazil.

“I had a job. A real job. For three years straight,” Vincente remembered disbelievingly.

The loss of bike riding left Hiltner adrift. That changed when he and Naide encountered a pair of Mormon missionaries on the streets of Sao Paulo, and the couple ended up converting. This was hard to believe—Hiltner, or Vincente, a Mormon at one time? He quickly explained what he found so compelling.

“Well for one thing, if you followed that straight path and you do everything they tell you to and you learn everything that is learnable, eventually, sometime within eternity you can become a god.” He laughed heartily and continued. “Some kind of god, whether it’s the God or an assistant god, I don’t really know, but you could have powers of creation and decision making. So that was a part of it. I guess the organization itself was attractive.”

His time as a Mormon came full circle when he volunteered as a missionary. “I personally baptized four people. By that time I was an elder; you have to be an elder to carry out that function. So that’s part of your steps to becoming a god, eventually,” explained Vincente with a wry smile. “It was good for me in some ways, and it was deadly in others.”

Vincente tithed 10 percent of his earnings at the publishing house to the church. Naide always resented this, because well into their marriage, and in a home for more than a year, the couple could not even afford livingroom furniture. “The church in that way was sort of destructive to our marriage. But for me more personally, it gave me kind of an organization in my life.”

In the last year of their marriage, Hiltner and Naide had a child. Ultimately, they could not assuage his restlessness. All the life had gone out of the marriage, and he wanted to go back to California. The end of their marriage was the beginning of an immensely creative time period for Hiltner, and soon for Vincente. The idea of human-powered vehicles had come to him in Brazil— recumbent bikes encased in a fairing. Before that, though, Hiltner was occasionally struck with creative urges, like when he once did a watercolor painting in the offseason in Italy.

His homecoming to California in 1971 fell against the backdrop of a fizzling hippie movement. He dabbled in psychedelic drugs and marijuana, loved freely and created new things prolifically. “I did open up creatively during that period when I wasn’t racing. I’d always had a creative drive but had always put it on the back burner because of racing,” he said.

First, Hiltner built his human-powered vehicle. He was shocked to discover that others had the same idea and they were racing. He recalled steering problems during once race that led to speed wobbles and a crash into the spectators. Abandoning that, he started designing and fabricating clothes. He made androgynous designs that used sparkling or sheened textiles. Some used wizard-like sleeves, long skirts and monochromatic tie-dye. Eventually, he developed his signature-style overalls that frequently used vivid colors and unusual prints. They seemed to be the most practical outfit for a man inextricably tangled in his love for cycling.

He tried a racing comeback but had lost everything in Brazil. “I thought I would be a few seconds behind my best times up all of the climbs, but I wasn’t. I was minutes slower.” Still, his amazing endurance remained, so he hatched the idea of the double transcontinental record. Hiltner rode from Santa Monica, California, to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and back in 36 days and eight hours, establishing the double transcontinental record. He had a support crew that began with four men but dwindled to two. One decided to take a job in New York, while the other was kicked out when he stole the support car to go visit his family in Nebraska. He made a run for the car when the group had stopped to picnic on a watermelon. The highway patrol had to chase him down.

After long, contemplative days in the saddle, the name Victor began repeating in Hiltner’s mind, and when the ride was over, Mike Hiltner decided to change his name to mark his achievement. That is when he officially became Victor Vincente of America.

In 1979, Vincente made his big discovery. He remembers the moment very clearly. “I was on my bike one day, coming down a canyon road from Mulholland down to the San Fernando Valley, lots of fancy homes up there. I was heading home in the valley, I was going down this paved road, and then the pavement stopped and I was on a dirt stretch of sand and rocks and I got a flat tire. I liked that dirt stretch. The dirt impressed me so much.”

The creative engine began to run hot. “So right after that I figured, well, I don’t want a flat tire riding on dirt. I figured, well, if I put on heavier tires, I can easily do it.”

It began as a practical solution but grew into something else entirely. As we stood along the VVA trail, he took a California bay laurel in hand. “I’ve noticed a certain way that comes about sometimes. You know how on a plant there’s always a growing tip? Well everything grows from right in there. That’s the way I feel about creative ideas, it just sort of comes out. It sort of grows. So I usually find if I just let that happen, anything can grow.”

From there, Vincente developed the Topanga! frame. Topanga! used 20-inch BMX wheels with BMX tires, fitted into what was essentially a road frame. As soon as he had a machine, Vincente began frequenting the Santa Monica Mountains, discovering a network of fire roads he had no idea existed. He routinely found tire tracks that were his own and no one else’s.

VVA-2

He soon began to hear murmurs of a dirt-riding group in Northern California, about whom he knew little. Bringing more people into the fold of dirt riding proved challenging. Vincente’s solution was to create dirt-riding races, most famously, Puerco!, as advertised in his Topanga Rider’s Bulletin in his own trippy typeface, West World. The races Vincente began to put on were not aimed at establishing a pecking order in the world of dirt per se but to find who else even existed in the world of dirt.

For his first race, a motley crew arrived from Northern California in a double-decker bus. Vincente soon found they were the Northern Californians he had heard of. “Gary Fisher won the race, Charlie Kelly was there, Joe Breeze was second place, then Wende Cragg and Denise Caramagno. They took away the prizes. Most of the prize list!”

Racing aside, Vincente’s primary love of dirt-road riding, or mountain biking as it was quickly dubbed, lay not in racing, but in the wild, in nature, the communion that was possible. “It’s not so much the feeling of the surface, but then there’s bushes right alongside the road, even on a mountain road when it’s paved—I don’t know, it just seems like there’s the road and then there’s wilderness, which seems almost alien. Not much interest in getting into the bushes. But on a dirt road, the bushes are right there, maybe there’s wildflowers, you can stop right there, there’s no traffic, you can leave your bike in the middle of the road, maybe look at the stones, the stones you’ve been riding over or the boulders on the side of the road. It’s more like you’re in the world.”

Vincente was also crafting electronic jewelry, a concept ahead of its time, perhaps too far. He was inspired by gazing at stoplights at night. Vincente’s first electronic jewelry used mercury switches, which were little glass capsules half-filled with mercury. He installed them in wiring boxes with holes drilled out for small incandescent lights that were covered with taillight plastic to emit different colors. The wiring box was worn as a pendant, and whenever it moved the mercury in the switch would splash and intermittently complete the circuit, flashing the lights. Vincente’s design continued to evolve, and he began using lines of LED lights to flash in different patterns. Despite their gradual sophistication, they were hard to sell for $300 apiece.

After years of honing his mountain bike frames, particularly his VVA 26-inch Semi- Custom Dirt Road Bicycle, which he showed us before our walk on the VVA Trail, Vincente moved on to a more permanent art form: coin making.

“Around ’88. This was another one of those instances where I dreamed something up and just had to make it happen. As a legacy and as a medium, [a coin is] more enduring than fabric. Since my teenage years I always enjoyed coin collecting and I had handfuls of favorite coins and I just realized I can make artwork and stamp it in metal and people could hoard it and keep it in a museum.” He laughed. “As with many other dreams I’ve had, inventions I’ve come up with, dirt road bicycles is one, coins another, I dream them up and they’re something new to me. For me it was an independent invention.”

Vincente raises an important question: “Does it matter who was first if you’re creating something for you the first time? From my point of view it’s just a new thing with me. It was just my child, my baby,” Vincente explained.

We reached the end of VVA Trail. The low sun cast long shadows from the 100-yearold walnut trees that surround his dwelling. He threw his leg over his VVA 26-inch Semi- Custom and rode around, the intrinsic delight beaming from him. Really loosened up, he asked, “You guys wanna burn some money?”

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We went inside, and Vincente took a lighter to a dollar bill. “I do this when I become too preoccupied with material ambitions.”

For a man who at times seems to be at a crossroads in age, whose body has begun to fail him in disturbing ways for a lifelong bike rider, the gleam of intellectual glee burns brightly. He now considers bike riding a waste of time and would rather work on his book or absorb others’ creative output.

“Having been perfectly healthy for a long time, just to see the body start to go downhill is hard. Go downhill fast. I like that phrase too. I’m going downhill fast now!” And when Victor Vincente of America does leave the party, it will be going downhill. Fast.

 

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Feature: Singletrack, Spiders and KFC


Words and photos: Jay Goodrich

The City: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai is a city built upon a city. A place where history totals many hundreds of years instead of the mere 100 that my current home in Wyoming has under its belt. It’s a place in northern Thailand that boasts the highest mountains in the country, and I was going there to ride them.

The hotel view in Bangkok, Thailand near the airport.

I was told that the city also possessed some of the best food in the country and that Chiang Mai was considering applying for creative-city status from UNESCO (a project that celebrates, maintains and protects cultural diversity and past industry).

This area has not been without its conflicts over the course of history, though. The current, or “new,” city has essentially been built upon the foundations of the old. You can still see the walls and moats that were part of the city’s defense during the days when the Burmese and Mongols continuously attacked the location.

From the standpoint of population, Chiang Mai is rather small compared to other Asiatic regions I have visited. The main city boasts a population of a mere 140,000—just over a million if you include the surrounding urban sprawl. Believe me, though, after getting off of the plane, I definitely knew that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I mean, Wyoming.

Andrew Whiteford and I met our guide, Win Jalawin, and our driver for the next week, Mr. Sak, almost immediately after exiting the airport, and the heat hit me like running blindly into a brick wall. I almost had to drop a knee. Shooting photos and keeping up with Whiteford in this environment felt like it just became a bit harder.

The Jungle: Downhilling Doi Suthep

Whiteford was a famous skier and mountain biker from the mountains south of Yellowstone. One look at him and you wouldn’t believe he ever threw a backflip in his whole life, but he definitely has the scars to prove it. Win—Mr. Win Jalawin— was from Chiang Mai, and the light and space of Thailand really put the helmet on his head and the hardtail between his legs. Then there was Mr. Sak, the driver. It might have been our trip, but it sure as hell was Sak’s pickup truck.

The view out of the back of the pickup truck in Chiang Mai, Thailand with Andrew Whiteford.

The view out of the back of the pickup truck in Chiang Mai, Thailand with Andrew Whiteford.

After assembling bikes for about an hour, getting eaten by about a thousand mosquitoes, sweating out a gallon of water and realizing that Whiteford’s rotors had somehow been tortured so badly on the flight over that eventually he was going to ride brakeless, we got into the truck: a fairly new, standard-issue Toyota Hilux diesel that I have seen in force in every other country but the U.S. Our goal was to drive up to the Doi Pui Summit of Doi Suthep at 5,400 feet above the city and get in our first shuttle-assisted downhill jaunt.

Andrew Whiteford rides single track in the higher altitude jungle near Ban Sop Gai, Thailand.

We immediately noticed how many people were cycling on our exit from town. And I am not talking about those people riding the beat-up townie bikes you might think would be commonplace in an Asian city. I was seeing riders motoring around on full carbon road and mountain bikes dressed in shrink-wrap Lycra matching that of Tour de France racers.

The twisting switchback road had me ready to let go of my lunch thanks to my backseat location and sightseeing out of the side window, but within a few minutes of unloading bikes and standing on terra firma, I was ready to chase Whiteford down the beat-up doubletrack used by local hill-tribe people to harvest coffee, mango, tea and lychee.

Andrew Whiteford rides the Doi Bakia Trail in the higher altitude jungle near Ban Sop Gai, Thailand.

Loose limestone marbles, super-packed sand, river and stream crossings and high-speed descending were all served up to us on this 11-mile descent. It wasn’t 10 minutes into our ride that my worst jungle nightmares came into focus. I set up against a tall embankment along our ride to shoot some photos when the frightening discussion began.

“Win, I have been to Costa Rica, and there my guide pushed a long stick into some embankment holes just like these to pull out some of the biggest spiders I have ever seen.” Win, laughing: “Yes, Andrew, that is the same situation here.”

Jungle Mountain Biking Thailand Pine Forest Descent

As I looked into the hillside that was supporting my leaning arm and camera, I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of web-covered holes. Snakes, spiders, plants, lizards, frogs and insects all seem to carry the moniker of “very dangerous, you go first.” Maybe I will just choose a faster ISO that doesn’t require me leaning into the hillside for support …

The Never-Ending Road: Chiang Mai to Chiang Dao

It was on this day that I began to worry that I wasn’t going to have a story to tell, but that is when stories always seem to form. We rode 32 miles in 100-degree heat and 100 percent relative humidity. Mostly on pavement, which seemed to be uphill both ways, or maybe it was just my lack of tolerance for heat that made it seem that way.

They say when you are given lemons it’s time to make some lemonade. Although I was disappointed by the lack of mountain biking on my mountain biking tour on this day, both Whiteford and I realized something that we never have in years of traveling: By being on a bike, you get to see, experience and immerse yourself into the local culture like nothing else you have ever experienced. Bus, car and plane just don’t allow it, and it was at our lunch stop where the lemonade came pouring out.

A local forest ranger prepares lunch in the jungle near Chiang Dao, Thailand.

A local ranger who was in charge of protecting the surrounding forest from wood poachers decided to make himself a meal in a kitchen that was outside next to our open-air lunch table with only a roof to protect him from the elements. There was a small Singer refrigerator, a bucket of water, lots of dishes on a shelf and this little clay thing (for my lack of a better word) with ashes in it. Since there was no door or windows, we quickly became engaged with our new friend.

As he cooked, I began to see a scene unfold. The ranger was going to cook everything over fire; he was making chicken, eggs and crickets. The aromas coming from his very basic cooking scenario and kitchen was amazing. Whiteford was, of course, about to become the guinea pig for tasting our local menu. I personally coined him my coal mine canary from this point on.

Jungle Mountain Biking Thailand Lunch Eating

So what do crickets taste like? Sautéed onion, garlic and Thai basil, with a crunchy texture. That’s what the canary told me, anyway.

From here we rode more pavement in the same 100-degree heat and humidity to the Chiang Dao Cave. Although this cave is a bit touristy, it was a welcome additional cultural experience for the lack of the singletrack I was craving. Even though the cave was out of the elements and in complete darkness, I think it was hotter and more humid within this heart of darkness. We did get to see some amazingly ornate and detailed Buddhas within the cave and in the jungle surrounding it.

Jungle Mountain Biking Thailand Rice Field Sunset

Finally, there was a trail to end our day. It was short, but ended in a rice paddy right as the sun set over the prominent peak we were circumnavigating on this trip. Whiteford and I then thumbed a ride on a sidecar motorcycle with one of the locals, who brought us right to the elegant resort we were going to be pampered at for the next 24 hours. We decided that we needed to return to northern Thailand and rent one of these things for each person on the trip to create our own personal mountain bike shuttle system.

Squeal Like a Pig: Doi Buak Ha Descent

I woke up at 5 a.m. in that dusky darkness before sunrise to the sound of a rear hub clicking. There was a moment where I thought I was going to be chased for my two dollars, but Whiteford was already up fixing what seemed to be the 10th flat of our trip so far. Remember, the jungle is full of things that bite, squirm and generally freak me out at night, and along with that comes plant life full of spines and thorns. All of our tubes had been patched, re-patched and then patched again. All of our wheels were now spinning with the help of Stan’s NoTubes sealant.

Jungle Mountain Biking Thailand Pine Forest Descent

As Whiteford fixed his flat, we began to realize that his warped and bent brake rotors were about to finish off the pads that were mounted in his calipers. We couldn’t head down to the local bike shop and solve the problem, even if there was one in town. His brake rotors were about to rear their ugly head on one of my top rides of all time.

We left the Marisa Boutique Resort with a mascot dog sharing with us his basket of swept-up flower blossoms collected on the resort’s grounds. On the way out of town, Mr. Sak told us he needed to stop to get dinner for this evening: KFC. We were staying in a hill-tribe member’s home somewhere in the mountains. Both Whiteford and I didn’t understand the KFC connection that Mr. Sak kept talking about for dinner. I was interested and worried; there are many things in the jungle, and none of them are connected to the KFC I knew.

Jungle Mountain Biking Thailand Pine Forest Descent

After about two hours of fairly difficult 4×4 driving, breaking through multiple cattle herds and getting our insides bounced around like the chrome ball in a pinball machine, we arrived at the 5,200-foot summit of Doi Buak Ha. Fir trees, fog and finally cool air surrounded us. I almost felt like I was home in the Tetons. This trail was the golden nugget that Whiteford and I had been looking for.

We rode a short but steep ascent, then reached a screaming downhill totaling 4,800 feet in 15 miles. Whiteford rode multiple passes along our upper-elevation singletrack while I shot composition after composition. I could see that our guide, Win, was getting worried about time, but I could spend all day on a trail like this one. We found air after air, rock transition after rock transition and even a section of washed-out hillside that made a perfect wall ride for Whiteford. As we descended, the environment began to heat up, but the trail was so steep and fast that we didn’t care.

DR Thailand photo duo

This is when the brakes on Whiteford’s bike decided they’d had enough. His pads were now significantly worn in such a warped way, just like his rotors, that in every braking section they squealed like a stuck pig. Everyone now knew we were coming down the trail, including the spiders.

We were really late getting back to meet Mr. Sak, so I took the reins and changed our scheduled afternoon ride to the next day and decided to ride only a section of the amazing Bamboo Tunnel Trail, which was supposed to happen the next day as well. This allowed us to shuttle to our homestay instead of riding to it. This took, again, more bouncing around for hours, but the scenery along the way had us drooling for potential singletrack descents in amazing evening light diffused through thick humidity.

A Meal to Remember: KFC

It was nearly dark when we pulled into the tribal village for our evening stay. We were truly about to experience how the locals live: little to no electricity and running water only to the individual cisterns that held water for flushing the toilet and taking a shower.

I was pretty much as sweaty and disgusting as they come after riding for 20 or so miles in moderate to extremely hot temperatures, so I became the canary for the shower. Even though the outside temperature was still hovering in the mid-80s, when the first bucket of cistern water hits the body there is considerable shrinkage for most mortal men, but not me. Never me. Refreshing nonetheless after a long day.

Andrew Whiteford explains how our bikes work to a local farmer along the road to Doi Bakia in the jungle near Chiang Dao, Thailand.

Andrew Whiteford explains how our bikes work to a local farmer along the road to Doi Bakia in the jungle near Chiang Dao, Thailand.

After my shower, I was ushered into the kitchen area and into complete darkness (no lights, remember). There, Mr. Sak was cooking up dinner in dueling woks over an open flame created by the wood he’d chopped. Think of Mr. Sak as a much younger, much happier Thai version of Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid.”

As soon as he noticed my presence, his face transformed into that special Thai smile that I had witnessed from almost every person we had met on this trip. “Jay … KFC!” as he handed me a plate of beautifully presented and cooked chicken wings that were deep fried in wok number one. I couldn’t believe it, freaking KFC, only free-ranging, killed this morning, served at the perfect temperature and amazingly seasoned. I toasted Whiteford with opposing chicken wings. Dinner was going to be simply amazing.

Jungle Sunset Mountain Biking Thailand Homestay Village Tribal Dinner Candlelight

I sat at the dining table, again in the open air, with a bunch of candles and a single lamp off in the distance, drinking ice-cold beer as Mr. Sak brought up the courses of his meal of green curry, fried chicken and rice. All made on an open flame in a kitchen without any lights, and to this moment in time I can safely say that it is in my top five meals ever. And I am a snobby foodie akin to Anthony Bourdain. It was that good. In addition, for the record, every meal that I had in Thailand was absolutely amazing. Just make sure you don’t drink the water.

Squatting in the Bush: Ban Sop Gai

What started out as a cool, overcast, bridge-jumping, singletrackriding perfection of a morning quickly turned into a bit of a brush with hell. The sun popped out on our climb to the top of our extraction point with a force that left me breathless. The heat decided I was going to lose today once and for all. I started seeing stars. I couldn’t focus on pedaling. I could barely push my bike.

Jungle Sunset Mountain Biking Thailand

Whiteford noticed, grabbed everything he could of mine and forced gallons of water down my throat as we made a painful push to the top of a peak that was going to take a bite out of me. After a 15-minute session of squatting with diarrhea in the bush I, remarkably, felt much better and ready for another insanely fast downhill.

This one, though, was full of loose rocks the size of baseballs in the steepest section and choked with some crazy shrub close to the bottom that liked to rip the skin right off our arms. I was totally stoked that I decided to roll with flat pedals on this trip; it completely kept me alive on this little nugget of trail and out of the shrubs that would have left me a bloody mess.

Jungle Mountain Biking Thailand Pine Forest Descent

After lunch, we rode the lower piece of the Bamboo Tunnel Trail. It was section after section of firm, sand-lined singletrack through tunnel after tunnel of bamboo. Once we finished giggling like schoolchildren, we headed back to downtown Chiang Mai for two days of riding that, although slower, was going to completely change my perspective on riding in Thailand.

Heavenly Experience

“Spiders. Why’d it have to be spiders?”

“Bird-eating spiders, very dangerous. You go first.”

Jungle Mountain Biking Thailand City Chiang Mai Night Market

We arrived back in Chiang Mai in early afternoon, right as shopkeepers were setting up for the Night Bazaar. Whiteford and I decided to throw our tiring legs over our bikes and explore the goingson. I can only say the size of the Night Bazaar is nearly overwhelming. You can buy anything from shoes to food to pieces of art. We found everything but brake rotors and pads that Whiteford desperately needed. As we finished exploring the Bazaar, we headed back to our hotel and spent the evening sitting in the pool drinking cocktails constructed with all types of exotic fruit and topped off with those obligatory little umbrellas.

Jungle Mountain Biking Thailand City Chiang Mai Night Market

In the morning, Win and Mr. Sak shuttled us up to the top of the Mae Wang trail. There is typically a bunch of climbing to get to the top, but since we had a 4×4 truck, we made Mr. Sak take us all the way up for another wonderful piece of Thai singletrack without any of this climbing nonsense. This trail went right past a massive waterfall where we saw one of the biggest spiders I have ever seen on the planet. It definitely ate birds and I still get goose bumps talking about this thing. I most certainly made Whiteford go first; he was still the canary or guinea pig, your choice.

The dirt on this ride was very different from what we’d experienced up to this point. Red and packed between what seemed to be sharp and crusty volcanic limestone, it rode amazingly fast and super grippy. We ditched the spider and screamed back down to the valley floor, where we both agreed we wanted Mae Wang again.

Back to the pool and more umbrella drinks.

For our final day, we dropped another downhill line off of Doi Suthep, right where this whole journey began. This day was the only one where we encountered a lot of water from a rainstorm the night before, so not only did we get hammered with the usual sweat from the humidity, but we also were covered in mud from our watery surroundings.

Jungle Mountain Biking Thailand Descent Waterfall

Northern Thailand is one of those places that every person needs to experience. I am personally not built for heat and humidity, and am completely freaked by snakes and spiders, but I would go back in a heartbeat. Maybe in December rather than October, though, when this destination is at its coolest. The food is great and the people will become your best friends with nothing more than a simple smile. The riding covers every gamut I have ridden to date in my 30-year mountain biking experience, but in general the trails ride way tackier than they appear on first examination.

Lean into your turns and your bike will hook up. This place is not the new-school manicured, groomed descents we are becoming accustomed to here in the U.S. They are old-school, super-steep, hardcore doubletrack and singletrack of years gone by.

 

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Feature: One if by Bike, Two if by Kayak


Words and photos: Dan Milner
From Issue #188

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“It looks farther when looked at through sober eyes,” mutters Taj Hendry, more with surprise rather than alarm. Laid out before us on the gravel beach is a map showing the trail we’re going to ride. But it’s not the trail that has Hendry rubbing his beer-blurred eyes in a cold-light-of-day moment, but the realization that to reach the trail we’ve first got to paddle kayaks across nine miles of open water.

Sea kayaking on its own is no big deal. After all, people have paddled these sleek, efficient boats around Antarctica and across the Bering Strait. What will make it harder for us is the fact that, tied to the back of our kayaks, are inflatable rubber rafts onto which we’ve lashed our bikes. In one single moment of clarity—or madness, depending on how you look at it—our once-streamlined kayaks have become slow, lumbering tugboats. It’s like using Donald Campbell’s recordbreaking speedboat, Bluebird, to tow a barge.

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But here we are, stashing bivi bags and overnight kits into the hatches of three sea kayaks and checking the knots that will stop our precious bikes from disappearing to the bottom of Scotland’s deepest loch, Loch Morar, located in Lochaber, Highland. Ahead of us sits a lot of hard work, a little pain, a few midge bites and one major mechanical.

But this beach is also the start of two nights and three days of unique adventure. With midge repellent applied, we push off, floating out onto crystal-clear waters and beginning to paddle toward a cluster of beautiful islands. Brightly coloured mail-order rafts reluctantly but obediently limp along behind like lazy, overweight pet Labradors.

kayak-duo

Water and bikes are not logical bedfellows, so the idea to use kayaks to move between trails involved a little head-scratching when it was first mooted between Nick Bayliss, Royal Racing clothing’s designer, and myself. There are plenty of bridleways that run alongside rivers or lakes in the U.K. that could be accessed by boat, but how do you make this idea into a real adventure? “Use kayaks!” we reasoned, unsure then how we’d actually get our bikes onboard. With a little lateral thinking, we soon realized that using an inflatable boat as a bike trailer was key, giving the kind of stability to our cargo that would mean we arrived with our bikes at the other end.

And so a plan was hatched, and to give it a real wild and woolly feel, we plumbed Scotland’s west coast as the ideal location. Here, we’d get a real sense of untamed adventure, while Scotland’s liberal “right to roam” policy meant we’d unlikely cause a fuss camping out on the side of a loch (or lake, as it were).

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That’s why we chose Loch Morar. With an established trail running route along its northern shore and a couple of lesser-ridden, more remote trails winding their way out from its eastern and southern shores, we had plenty of options. Throw in its location near a kayak rental base, cheap hostels and pre-adventure beer in the village of Mallaig and we had a plan.

All we had to do now was load up and paddle to the trailheads. Our idea raises an eyebrow from Mike at Sea Kayak Highlands when we turn up to get our boats. “It’s the wind that’ll cause you problems,” he says, trying not to look overly concerned. Mike’s Sea Kayak Company is used to showing people the stunningly beautiful west coast between Arisaig and the Isle of Skye. He leads kayakers out to local seal colonies and takes them dolphin spotting. He’s not used to people wanting his boats to tow dinghies laden with mountain bikes.

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“When the wind blows in from the east, it funnels down the loch and you’ll not get anywhere towing a dinghy behind you,” he advises. I look at my two fellow adventurers. “We’ll have a bash,” I say, adding, “we’re all pretty accomplished paddlers.” With a window of only four days for our three-day adventure, we’re left hoping the wind stays calm, or perhaps, considering we’re in normally windy Scotland, that it is at least blowing on our backs.

Out on the loch, we settle into a steady pace. Long, mellow paddle strokes equate to spinning the cranks when you’re freewheeling: applying just enough pressure to add a little forward momentum without hurting. It’s May and we’re lucky: We begin our epic under clear skies and bathed in sunshine. Little do we know that our return paddle will be in lashing rain while battling a headwind.

Two hours later we go to shore for a brew up and to rest our shoulders. Kayaking is all upper-body workout, something we’ll feel later pumping our bikes along Loch Morar’s technical, rocky trail. It’s then that my two kayak-and-crank aficionados, Bayliss and Hendry, come clean on their previous kayaking experience. Between them they’ve accumulated approximately a weekend’s worth of paddling, and confess that much of it was spent swimming rather than staying upright.

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Despite my own previous competition-level kayak experience, I’m anxious. I look out across miles of placid Scottish water and pray the weather stays with us. Even in May, the water in the loch is hand-numbingly cold, meaning that capsizing in open water would require a very quick rescue before hypothermia sets in. I advocate hugging the coastline, disguising my suggestion as increasing our chances of seeing otters. I have no idea if Loch Morar even has any otters.

It takes us five hours to reach our planned camp spot at Swordland. We pull kayaks and rafts up onto a rocky shore and set about with some much-needed beers. A large cake appears from Hendry’s boat with the announcement that it is his birthday, along with several bottles of ale and some decent dregs at the bottom of a bottle of whisky. Around a small fire lit to waylay the midges’ evil intents, we sit and chat and absorb our stunning surroundings as the sun makes its slow dip toward the horizon. We have the place to ourselves.

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It’s fair to say that the trail we ride the next morning is as good as you’ll get anywhere in the world. It’s also fair to say, at the risk of piddling on our own adventure bonfire, that you don’t need a boat to reach it. Running the length of Loch Morar’s northwestern shore, you can ride it as an out-and-back from Morar village or grab the Knoydart ferry from Mallaig to Tarbet and ride back from there, via Swordland. But for our first kayakand- bike adventure it makes a good start point, and if the legendary Morag—Lock Morar’s own mythical monster—swallowed up our kayak’s we’d still be able to escape by bike back to civilization.

Bivvying is a simple existence, uncluttered and unfussy. It takes us little time to pack up camp and stash gear back into the boats after breakfast and get out on the trail. We ride over to Tarbet first, just to have a look at Loch Nevis—another pedal-and-paddle candidate we considered—before climbing back to Swordland and riding west.

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The trail is a schizophrenic mix of flowy singletrack and tough, committing rock ledges that demand front-wheel precision. Get it wrong and it’s an early, if much needed, bath in the peaty loch far below. We climb high above it at times and descend to the edge at others, and then repeat the pattern all the way to its western shores and yesterday’s kayak launch beach. Here we sit and devour energy bars before turning around and riding back. By the time we reach camp we’ll have climbed 2,400 feet and descended the same. Alternating rock gardens and puddles of mossy mud keep us on our toes and short, sharp climbs punish our lungs.

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It’s a perfect natural trail and we’re having a blast until a peaty bog takes its toll. Although looking shallow, this pungent beast turns out to be hub deep, and as Bayliss tries to clean it, he’s pitched over the bars. He escapes with no worse than mud-soaked gloves, but his carbon framed bike is history. Coming down on a rock, the right-side chainstay has been snapped cleanly in two. We’re about a mile from our kayaks and he’s forced to limp back gingerly. The broken bike might have scuppered our following day’s ride plan to hit a trail from Meoble heading south to, and along, Loch Beoraid, but it’s not dampened our sense of adventure.

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Beneath the caress of a glorious late-afternoon sun, we load our bikes back onto our dinghies and lash them down tight. “How many knots are too many?” I wonder. We launch our flotilla and paddle across the loch as planned for our second night of beer- and bun-infused bivvying. It’s a one-mile paddle across the loch and I’m thankful the weather is still on our side. Our traverse takes us across the deepest part of the loch, with 1,000 feet of cold, dark water disappearing down beneath our boats’ hulls. It’s the perfect place for a Morag hideout and a risky spot if we suffered capsizing.

Our crossing is without issue, and as we reach the southern shore we are greeted by perhaps one of the most stunning bivvy spots you’ll ever find: a crinkled shore of tussock grass punctuated by pure white-sand beaches. Encouraged by the fuzzy embrace of ale, I take a post-ride bath in the loch before settling down around a campfire to eat a freeze-dried meal from a foil packet and watch the sun set to the west. Life is beautiful.

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Tomorrow’s plans to ride have been scrapped thanks to the bike breakage, and even though we awake next morning to the sound of rain on our bivvy shelters, it’s still with reluctance that we have to move on. This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, even in the rain. Just behind camp, a primordial forest of weather-twisted trees hugs the hillside, and across the open loch swirls of mist swallow up any sight of the trail we rode.

Dressed in GoreTex, we climb into our kayaks for one last push back toward home, a four hour paddle through driving wind and rain. My hands are wrinkled and numb, my ass soggy and rivulets of water are running down my face. My shoulders ache and at times the wind blows so strongly I’m brought to a standstill right in the middle of the loch.

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For a moment I curse the inflated dinghy that’s acting as a sea anchor behind me, cursing the ridiculous effort I’m needing to cross this patch of water. Near the northern shore a motorboat skims past, effortlessly. And then I remember: If it weren’t for this damned dinghy behind me and its ingenious bike-carrying potential, our adventure wouldn’t be happening. I’d have not camped out with friends and shared a birthday so uniquely. I’d have not returned from a ride to paddle a kayak across a loch to a beautiful beach. And so I dig deep into my energy reserves and smile through my grimace, and ahead of me I think I can sense Hendry and Bayliss doing the same.

Five things to consider when kayaking with bikes

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  1. Loading your bike on a dinghy is easy to do. Remove the wheels to keep it compact, lay the wheels on first and then tie on the frame. Make sure nothing sharp is rubbing the dinghy.
  2. Not all dinghies are made the same. We used an Intex Explorer Pro 200 dinghy (amazon.com, 30 euros) and a Sevylor Colorado Pro inflatable kayak (350 euros) to haul our gear, finding that although the Sevylor was heavier, its size could handle two bikes and its keel meant it was easier to tow.
  3. Waterproof everything! Even stashed in kayak hatches, things will get wet, so seal everything in dry bags, especially sleeping bags.
  4. Keep the dinghy as light as possible. Dinghies aren’t as streamlined as sea kayaks, so load the kayak, not the dinghy, for an easier paddle.
  5. Wind is your main enemy when kayaking, with or without a dinghy in tow. Plan your paddle, but consider alternative options/routes and bailouts if the wind is against you.

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Feature: North Carolina’s Appalachian Beer Trail


Words and photos by Logan Watts
Originally featured in print in Dirt Rag Issue #181

NC Beer Trail Cover“I’m about ready for that beer,” Dustin bellows as we plummet the last downhill of the day. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that statement echo down a ribbon of singletrack, I’d have a sizable collection worth every bit of four dollars, at least. “Me too,” I shout as I haggle with an awkward loaf of granite.

I had actually been pining for a proper brew for about six months or so. I was just completing a long bike-packing odyssey through Africa when the seed was planted for this trip. Needless to say, the post-ride selection of watery pilsners on the Dark Continent fell flat, sometimes literally.

It’s remarkable how a hankering lasted half of a year. But it wasn’t only hoppy beer that I craved. No matter where I am in the world, as soon as April rolls around my mind begins to wander through the rhododendron tunnels of Pisgah, North Carolina.

My muscles start to weaken at the thought of the unrelenting ascents and knuckle-bleaching descents that make up the epic trail network in the heart of the Appalachians. It’s kind of like I am being called back home.


The idea was to piece together a five-day bike-packing route that would traverse each of the four major trail networks in the area and enable us to sample some of the finest beer in the country. The principles were simple: It was required that we pack lightly so that we’d be nimble enough for the burliest downhills that the Blue Ridge has to offer; it was mandatory that we tackle a tough route that would kick the crap out of us; it was compulsory to treat yo’self in between; but most of all, we had to dig deep into the remoteness of the forest.

OLD FORT

After dropping a car at the route’s end and driving a little more than an hour back to Old Fort, my clock reads 7 p.m. We intend to climb the Old Mitchell Toll Road, a rough and steep doubletrack also known as Hella Rocks. We’ll crest Heartbreak Ridge, camp, and follow the Pisgah enduro route tomorrow morning. Afterward, we’ll pause for a cold glass of Pisgah Pale Ale at the brewery.

A scant five minutes into the trip, plans derail. We choose to start at the Pisgah Brewery (with a cold glass of Pisgah Pale Ale, maybe three). Pedaling commences at dusk and it immediately starts spewing rain, a soaking rain; we ride up a hill and abruptly stop at the gate of Ridgecrest, a private community that owns the property at the base of the ridge.

“Well, unfortunately I can’t let you pass. We don’t allow cyclists through here after dark. It’s just a rule; I didn’t make it up,” kindly states the elderly gatehouse attendant who emerges from a dark doorway smelling of tobacco smoke. Who knew? We could bail, then try and sneak around through back roads and several dark dirt-road interchanges almost guaranteeing that we get lost.

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Instead we rethink, adjust, and climb up the switchbacks of Kitsuma Peak. We can camp there for the night and descend Young’s Ridge, a classic screamer of a downhill, the next morning. As soon as camp is pitched, a dry front passes through and clears away any lingering sentiments of our botched plans.

The next morning, I wake to a muffled rumble from a nearby sleeping bag and a bluebird sky filtering through the canopy of trees, the latter being somewhat of a summer rarity in this deciduous rainforest. Autumn is knocking.

After brewing some stout black coffee and rolling up camp, Dustin proceeds to pull on his right glove and discovers a giant black millipede emerging from the dark recesses of the thumbhole. I scream like a grade-school cheerleader—referred creeps, I guess. You’d think I’d have a little more grit after camping in the African bush for six months. Then I recall waving my hands and running in circles as I was chased around the tent in Zimbabwe by a 5-inch camel spider.

“What time is it?” I ask. “I would say around 8:15,” Dustin responds. “OK, let’s get a move on.” I guess we haven’t fully unmoored from time and the daily grind.

BEER RUN

Watery eyed and grinning, we shoot out the bottom of Young’s Ridge and begin the paved portion of our journey toward Asheville. There we are forced to choose amongst a dizzying array of 14 craft breweries. Our first stop is Wicked Weed Brewing, named after a quote from King Henry VIII referring to the pernicious hop plant. At barely more than a year in operation, they are already turning heads with their Funkatorium’s barrel-aged sours; their Serenity Wild Ale won gold this past year at the Great American Beer Festival. From there we pedal a few hundred yards, saddle up to the bar at the lauded Burial Beer Co., and sample the epic Wrecking Bar Black Saison.

A lot has changed up here in a year. Sierra Nevada opened a brewing facility and tasting room, New Belgium is well underway with building its East Coast facility, several new restaurants have taken root, magical breweries out the wazoo have set up shop…and it all seems to be flourishing. I ask Tim Gormley, Burial’s head mad scientist, if he thinks that there are too many breweries opening at once.

He lets us in on their little secret to success: “The craft-beer community here is kind of like a bunch of friends, people who help each other out; we are all working hard on our own passion [to create and share beer], but it’s kind of like a group effort to make Asheville a unique place to live. As tourism grows, every brewery seems to find its niche.”

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The area mountain bike scene seems to share the same qualities. It’s like an ultra-happy summer camp where everyone is sharing ideas, team building, and pitching in for the greater good. Tim hands us a bomber of Cemetery Gates, a Belgian IPA born from Burial’s collaboration with Pisgah Brewing. Named after a song by the band Pantera, this complex concoction will be a perfect post-ride beer for whatever rock-strewn widow-maker trail we’ll inevitably be tackling.

Next stop, Bent Creek, Asheville’s most accessible singletrack, located about 10 miles from town. For most Ashevillians, it’s the good ole backyard place to ride above-average loops and downhills, but to us it’s the eastern gateway to the Pisgah Ranger District—the foyer of my home, so to speak.

FREAKOUT

As daylight fades, we continue our trek southwest, leaving a vapor trail of hops and any remaining stress particles we had harbored from our almost-forgotten workaday routines. That’s the thing about bike-packing: It feels like all strings are severed when you set off on a packed bike not knowing where you’ll sleep that night. Everything is stripped away except the pasty-white core of what you absolutely need in order to sleep, eat, and ride—the essentials of a long-term adventure, the kind that requires you to pedal for days in order to reach a place that will change your mindset.

My first “freakout” was a little more than a decade ago. I had a handsome job in marketing, I bought a house, and everything was swell. After 9/11, the recession sunk in and the world changed a bit. Life seemed shorter; maybe I simply got tired. I was living in a town I didn’t care for, and my dirtbag dreams had all but faded in the proverbial rearview mirror. So I quit my job, leased our house, and my girlfriend (now wife) and I took off on an extended trip through India, Thailand, and Tibet. The freedom to move, cultural immersion, and beautiful places made us swear that we wouldn’t get sucked back into the American Dream.

NC Beer trail

Then our wallets ran dry. I was quickly funneled back into the real world, eventually started my own company and commenced to work my ass off. Almost two years ago, despite having even more trappings to anchor us in place, we did it again. Handed over the keys to my small business, had a massive eBay selloff, stuffed a storage unit like a sardine can, and set off by bike. We cycled from Mexico to Panama. I was addicted to the freedom of traveling by bicycle.

A year later, we decided to bike-pack southern and eastern Africa via dirt roads and mountain passes. After each one of these trips, the pull only seems to get stronger. Each of these freakouts work like a magical reset button—a detachment from the grind. I’ve been home (my in-laws’ attached suite) for just a couple of months and the pressure of American life has already started to sink in again. Rental-property issues, finances, family matters, insurance, IRS, etc.

By mid-August I was ready for a mini-freakout. Dustin was ready to get away from it all too; he self-reports that a “mini midlife crisis” of his own was long overdue.

THE REAL PISGAH

After a beer-fueled sleep and breakfast of grainy bars that don’t quite curb the hangover, we gingerly attack a 1,200-foot climb to reach the crown jewel of Bent Creek, Greenslick. Formerly known as Mo’ Heinous, this 2-mile, ridiculously fast downhill is complete with big berms and plenty of rollers. We relax the wind-peeled grins from our faces at the bottom and start up Lower Sidehill. Another quad-wrenching climb puts us on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and after a couple miles of being sideswiped by Harleys in blind corners, the Trace Ridge trailhead appears. There we drop into a 4.5-mile rugged descent that wrangles us into the hearty embrace of the real Pisgah.

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Just before I rode these trails for the first time, back in the late aughts, I stopped by The Hub, an aptly named bike shop (complete with taproom) that’s conveniently located at the junction where Highway 276 enters the forest. I sheepishly asked some folks at the service counter to recommend a good 10- or 15-mile loop, not having a clue what I was getting myself into.

The mechanic heaved a glance of concern at another employee, then they voiced in unison, “Have you ridden up here before?” “Er, no,” I replied, “but I’ve ridden in Bent Creek once.”

“Well, now you’re in the real Pisgah,” the wrench croaked. About an hour or so later I was wide-eyed and careening down the raw and technical rocky face of the Black Mountain Trail. I was hooked.

A lot has changed up here since then, and a lot more people have figured out the draw of these trails. Oskar Blues helped build the REEB Ranch; DuPont State Forest added a couple masterpiece trails; the bottom of the Black Mountain trail got overhauled. When I first heard that last bit of news, a wave of fear reverberated down my spine. These trails are raw and the Black Mountain Trail is my special place—the figurative kitchen of my home.

GAZING INTO NOTHING

We break our riverside camp the next morning at the bottom of Trace Ridge and catch the gravel fire service road up to the Laurel Mountain trailhead. The Laurel Mountain/Pilot Rock ride is one of my personal favorites—a gradual and technical climb followed by a heart-in-throat descent. About halfway up Laurel I hear a loud scraping sound and look over just in time to see a fairly large black bear shimmying down a massive poplar. He crashes to the forest floor and is out of sight before I can say, “Hey, bear.” The moment reminds me that Laurel is notably “out there.” For me, this trail is a long meditative traverse, kind of like a therapeutic massage via roots and rocks.

There are basically three types of trails in Pisgah: 1. ones that were originally created by the timber trade for rail-bound logging carts, back when the land was owned by Rockefeller himself. These are characteristically long, sweeping routes with moderate and fairly technical climbs; 2. trails that go straight up, then straight down. These are extremely rugged, raw, and full of drops, boulders, steps, and deep ravines where they have been weathered over time; and 3. endless rock gardens.

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Pilot fits into the #3 description, a 1,600-foot drop over a 2-mile boulder field. The kind of ride that inspires high-fives and requires a shot of whiskey to calm the endorphins after you clear it. At the bottom of Pilot we decide to take the inner Pilot Cove loop and camp on a giant, exposed granite overlook about halfway through the route. It is an amazing place situated in the middle of a giant bowl of forest. We arrive late afternoon and are greeted by the shed skin and severed torso of a copperhead.

Dustin reassures me, “Don’t worry, I think copperheads eat millipedes.” Within minutes our asses are parked on the side of the mountain, our minds staring into nothing. It’s not often you can find a view where there are no signs of human impact—no cell tower, no ridge-perched million-dollar homes, no roads.

BLACK MOUNTAIN

We wake the following morning and have a breakfast of sweet-and-sour pork, curry chicken, and rice that should be enough fuel to push us over Buckhorn Gap and then up the arduous hike-a-bike to the top of Black Mountain. A couple hours later we crest the overlook on Black Mountain and I am hungry. This is the spine. If the measure of a place’s wildness is based on how much it makes you forget the rest of the world, this ranks pretty high up there, especially for the Southeast.

The Black Mountain Trail is one of the most brutal that Pisgah has up its sleeve, especially the top section. They definitely didn’t redesign this part. There does seem to be a little more room on the sides of the washed-out trough that runs a significant percentage of the downhill. It had developed a sizable V-shaped ravine and had become difficult to ride after last year’s record rainfall. It turns out that some of the underbrush was cleared to allow riders to skirt the ravine, in turn promoting good erosion to help push dirt back into the gap—quality-over-quantity trail maintenance. The bottom part has definitely changed, and in my opinion it’s been reworked perfectly—new undulations, better-tracked berms, rollers, and a new bridge. We fly down the fast lower section and it seems as if it’s twice as long as it was in its previous life.

NC Beer Trail flask

As we spill out into the parking lot, a fellow cyclist offers us ice-cold beers and asks about our trip. We pour the beers through grins, share some small talk, and wave goodbye. The local bike path leads us over to The Hub, where we pony up to the bar (their in-house “Pisgah Tavern”) overlooking the twirling Allen wrenches in the service area. We make a couple friends over a Wicked Weed Freak of Nature Double IPA and jump back on the bikes for a quick ride to Oskar Blues for one more round. After poking around their facility, dusk is settling in, so we head out to our final camp, the Bike Farm on the edge of DuPont State Forest.

We arrive at dark, pitch camp, and get some rest. The next morning, we’re greeted by the friendly proprietor, Cashion, and his blue-eyed dog, Mya Surlsmith. He tells us about the newly constructed Red Bull Dream Line on the property, the relationship with Oskar Blues, which helped make his dream a reality, and the future plans of this unique mountain bike base camp that beer helped build. Then Cashion bids us farewell and heads out to guide his Peruvian guests, who’ve also come to experience the raw trails and rugged wilderness of Pisgah.

We have one more ride. DuPont has a new loop called Hickory Mountain, and we’ll finish with the fast flowing blitz of a trail called Ridgeline. We leave the farm, pedal to the top, and pause before the tear-jerking descent. “I wish we had one more night to ride out to Squirrel Gap and soak in the forest,” I utter. Dustin replies, “No kidding…that’d be nice. I’m about ready for one more beer.”


Find the route here on Logan’s website, Bikepacking.com

 

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Inside Line: First ride with the new Giro Montaro helmet


Photos by Justin Steiner

Giro has had a huge hit on its hands with the Feature, a great all-purpose trail helmet that doesn’t break the bank. The new Montaro builds on that success with several new technologies that make it more of a premium product.

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The first key design priority on the Montaro was making it more easily compatible with goggles. Giro says it is one of the few half-shell helmets on the market that can perch a pair of goggles on your forehead below the visor. To make it work the visor tilts really far up with several detents along the way, making it unnecessary to lock it in place with screw tension at the pivots. The vents along the rear of the helmet are also lined with a rubbery plastic that helps hold the goggle strap, a nice touch.

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Ventilation was another key aspect of the design, and the Montaro has Giro’s Roc Loc Air retention system that keeps the body of the helmet suspended slightly above your head, allowing air to move in and through more easily. If you do end up warming up and sweating, you should notice a lot less of it ending up in your eyes thanks to the super-absorbent brow pad that uses the kind of material you’d find in a ShamWow. If you pull it out and squeeze it in your hand a rather disturbing amount of sweat comes out.

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Other features include a clip-in GoPro mount, easy to adjust straps and a MIPS liner on all models. There are eight colors and three sizes for the standard Montaro and three colors and two sizes in the women’s Montara version, which is otherwise identical. It will go on sale for $150 this October.

Montaro

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Montara

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In action

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