Straight from the “just one more” category…
Moab was fun and I was certainly excited for it. But, at the same time I was missing out on some bikepacking action in AZ. Not only was there a new singletrack-heavy bikepacking route to sample, there was a new racing format: self-supported stage racing. This is something I’ve been thinkering on for a couple years now. Scott & I discussed it while on CTR earlier this summer and he really liked the concept for the Coconino route he was working on with Chad and Lee. As both events shared the same weekend there was only one option remaining, and that was to go give it a whirl ITT style.
Fortunately I went into Moab very fresh and came out injury free. Recovery was fast, within a few days I was getting hungry for some CocoBob. For this one I took an entirely different approach from the usual of planning it to death. I had a GPX file, knew the spacing between towns – what more do you need to know? I intentionally avoided post-race blogs and went into it blind, so to speak. Let the surprises come where they may.
Gears got the nod. Looking at the Mingus climb and a fair bit of mostly flat road riding, I built up the Leviathon. It had been laying pathetically forlorn on my garage floor for some time, but it’s day had come. To add to the novelty of the ride, I ponied up for the Oregon 550 GPS. I have a ton to say about this device – it is 90% friggin awesome – but the 10% that isn’t played heavily into the ride. For one, it’s got a built in camera meaning no more need to haul a camera on route. I like double duty devices :)
I carried a SPOT. It’s true. Those damn things change everything. But now that the technology exists to keep loved ones informed how can I justify not carrying it? It was odd to have it. Each time I saw it blinking in my pack it was a big reminder that I was not alone. Those watching the tracking page were enjoying the route vicariously, something I do myself watching others! It does change the experience in that it becomes more clouded. But, to not carry it when you could have, that too alters things. It’s a struggle.
I left Flagstaff right around sunrise. It was chilly, and got cooler as I got on to the Arizona trail. It wasn’t long before the first mechanical happened: the rear SRAM twisty shifter locked up. Looking closer at what was happening yielded an explosion of plastic, thank you Oakley eye protection! So, suddenly I am without shifting on a geared bike at mile 5.5 of 250. How ironic…what to do? In years past it was a no-brainer, I’d head back to town and start over. But I’m a SSer these days. I rigged it up to the 20 tooth cog and kept it rolling. It was a 3 speed as the front still shifted. In practice, the granny didn’t get any use. The 32.20 was perfect.
It didn’t take long to figure out I had navigational issues. The Oregon has a huge *shiny* screen. It is visible just fine in direct sunlight, but if there’s any angle to the light all I’d get was an eyefull of glare. In late October the sun is low in the sky and never gets overhead…so basically if the sun was shining and I was headed anything other than N or S, I couldn’t see the damn thing! I’ve got an idea for a mount to help this issue, we’ll see how it works. But for this ride, it was a big deal. Oh well. On the way to Sedona I got quite a few bonus climbs and miles.
The early AZT section contours alongside Mormon mountain. It is one sweet section of trail! Deep woods, bits of fir and aspen mixing in with the ponderosa heavy forest, swoopy buff trail. Yea, I could get used to this :) Schnebly hill road takes a dive into Sedona red rock country. I was certain that’s where the course went, but a ways down the descent I finally could see the GPS and I was way off route.
Doh! I missed a turn for the Hot Loop, and indeed, heading back up to the correct turn I got hot! It was well worth going back for. I’ve been to all regions of this route before but have only ridden a few of the trails – never knew this existed. Some prime local knowledge shared in the making of this route.
The Munds Wagon trail descent was more fun descending than climbing. It’s also a good wakeup call that the route is getting into some technical terrain. Rolling into Sedona I really wanted to find a bike shop and get a new shifter. So 2 miles off route I went to Mountain Bike Heaven. It wasn’t so much heaven…I was greeted by a sign saying they were closed for a memorial service. Not much left to do but get back on route and hope Bike & Bean would be open when I got there. Lucky for me, the chicken point singletrack went well, the legs were on fire, and I got to the bike shop in short order. It took some haggling to get them to split an XO shifter set…but once they agreed I was set up quickly! Those guys rock and got me out the door with a Naked juice, RedBull, working gears, and a custom grip combo that was half Ergon, half something else, all in about 35 minutes. Wow.
Fully geared now I felt super. The mojo was back in form, the trail was technical fun, the scenery off the charts in the final hour of daylight. Sedona is a great place to be at sunset.
Then came Red Rock state park. The big sign that requested $2 entry also says the park closes at 5PM. It was now 6:40PM. OOPS. I wrote 4:30 PM on the entry time form and rode on…
Lime Kiln is a looong, varied trail from Red Rock state park to Cottonwood. Sometimes ATV track, sometimes bovine track, sometimes deep sand, sometimes rocky hiking – it had it all. It’s probably fortunate I hit it in the dark because navigation was tough, and seeing the GPS was easy in the darkness. Eventually Cottonwood came into view, sparkling below like an inverted milky way. It would be a long while before I actually made it there though…psst! Whaaaat? A big fat rusty nail went through the tread of my rear tire and came out the sidewall. Stans spewed. I was on the rim inside of 2 seconds. Shit.
Until then I had never before had a flat in a multi-day ride. I’ve always used heavier tires, lots of Stans, and in general preferred reliability above all else. For varying reasons I was riding an old rear wheel setup with a Racing Ralph 2.25. Very light, and not so durable as it turns out. Stans system gone, I put a tube in, ate some grub, spent a good 20 minutes pulling spiny things out of the tire with a pair of pliers, and cruised on into Cottonwood.
Mingus!!! From Cottonwood the route climbs up and over Mingus mtn – over 4k’ vert, initially dirt road, then jeep trail, then singletrack. A good bit of the trail is even rideable, but there is pushing aplenty too. Steep! By now it was well past midnight and I was in the zone. This climb was spectacular and I loved it. A skunk jumped out in front of me, tail raised high, looked directly into my lights, then started ambling up the road in front of me – tail still raised. I wasn’t about to pass him…and he led me up this road for a good 10 minutes! Finally he bombed off-road. As the route climbed ever higher, the lights of the Verde Valley towns below twinkled oh so bright. Stars were thick overhead with an active meteor shower going off. It was calm and cool – cool enough to prevent any long stops. Not that I wanted to stop…based on the profile I thought this climb would really kick my butt, but instead it turned out to be one of the highlights of the ride. It was challenging for sure, but the views of far off towns – Jerome floating in mid air to the north, Cottonwood spread out down below, Preskitt valley twinkling on the other side – were constant eye candy. Doing this section, sight unseen, in the dark of night was strangely satisfying as well. Life was good.
At the top I was surprised by 4-5 girls running out of the woods – at 3AM! Twisted hallucination? Nope. Turns out the menfolk had sent the girls into the woods for more firewood – they were camped right at the entrance to the next challenge, the Yaeger trail. This trail is a real techy, ledgy romp down the backside of Mingus. Like many sections of singletrack on this route, it was rideable, but just barely in spots. Big drops, one after another, really make you think about the wisdom of riding something this remote, this difficult, at such an hour. After 20 hours or so of riding it seemed prudent to walk in a couple of spots on this nutbuster of a descent.
“Wave your hand to open gate” is what the waypoint said for the next challenge. In reality I was faced with a big steel gate covered with no trespassing signs and nasty barbed wire to either side of the gate. I did wave my hand at every part of that gate, it must have been the sight….all to no avail as the gate only stood still, mocking me, denying entrance. It required a bike toss, but I got over it. Nothing broke and the gate did not impale my ass. Whew. Now I was in stealth mode, thinking I was trespassing and worried about dogs. None found me, it was getting late – so I stopped for a quick bivy. I wasn’t really tired, but I had a new sleep system I wanted to try out.
Let’s just say the new sleep system didn’t lend itself to long bivys ;) I got rolling at first light. It was actually pleasant, easy going all the way to the Verde river. Well, except for the flats. That rear tire turned out to be a goathead/prickly thing magnet. I never saw one prickly thing pierce the front Bonty tire, but that rear Schwalbe did a good job of cleaning the road surface of them. From Coyote spring to Williams I had 7 more flats as I recall – and still had to stop and add air every 30-45 min. I couldn’t seem to get those holes plugged…
From the Verde crossing is a long but fairly easy climb to 7k’. It’s always enjoyable to climb several climatic zones, big contrasts happen quick in AZ. From prickly desert to big ponderosas in short order, and that forest was refreshingly cool! Some of the sandy bits of the climb were getting darn warm. Next up was Bill Williams mountain, a 2k’ singletrack climb. It went by in a hurry! It was another bit of the course I expected to hurt some and it seemed to go by easily. Rideable grades nearly everywhere, but some of the switchbacks I found to be tighter and more off camber than my skill set could handle – and one section was covered in at least a foot of fallen oak leaves, hiding the rock features below. From the top you could see Mingus to the south, and Mormon Mountain to the SE, roughly completing the route “triangle”. The descent off the peak was a blast. It’s not stuff I see often these days, steep descents under aspen cover.
In no time I was in Williams. Taco Bell had my business! All fired up by the descent and feeling good, I had intended a quick bite and then roll on to the finish. But as I scarfed 3 burritos, I came to comprehend my conundrum. First, I didn’t have a spare tube anymore. Second, I was nearly out of glue to patch holes. Third, my sleep system was not really adequate for a full night out above 7k’ in late October! It had been freezing – the previous morning rolling out of flag my camelback tube froze solid, as did my bottle, forcing the first 2 hours to be sans fluids. So, the conundrum was this: I had a tire that was leaking, no tubes left, a shrinking glue supply, and if I couldn’t fix it and keep moving it was going to be a cold painful night.
Equipment choices are oh so important in these things!
Feeling a bit trapped, I caved and got a room. It was plenty warm, and had a sink in which I could search out all the pinholes I could find in that tube and get rolling in the morning. So that’s what I did…and the last leg of the trip flowed nicely with only a few shots of air to the tire needed.
The first challenge was Sycamore canyon. I hit that in the dark and it was techy enough that it threw me off guard and I ended up on foot quite a bit. It was techy in a different way, odd sized/shaped rocks everywhere. When the sun began to rise it all got easier. Instead of cursing Chad (the hard parts were always Chad’s doing! ) I accepted this entry to the AZ skills camp and had a blast with it.
From Sycamore it’s a long, enjoyable scenic road haul to the next bit of trail – Wing Mountain moto trail. This trail was soooo much fun. I was blown away. Not having any clue what lied in store was half the fun – my imagination, combined with knowing how Chadisms abound on this route, had me thinking it could be one knarly hell. But no, it was ripping banked curves and so much fun at one point I started laughing uncontrollable. A crazy guy on a bicycle, no question. The sweet trails just kept going all the way to the end. Some tech, some buff. I was impressed by the variety and the obvious local knowledge required to string them together.
At the end of the day, this was a great learning experience. I haven’t before gone with an aggressive kit – but this time I did. It was very light and enabled me to move fast – when I could move. Those decisions also cost me roughly 12 hours. So, I guess this makes me the first rider to finish the route in thru-rider fashion. Time was 2 days, 3 hours, 46 minutes. It’s a soft time and it can go faster. If you’ve got a hankering to give it a try all the clues you need are in this post. It’s a great route. Scenery aplenty, water enough, lots of singletrack, and plenty of technical challenges that make you go “hmmmm”.
Huge props to Chad, Scott, and Lee for their work in establishing this route.