Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Missouri

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Photo: Trans Am Bike Race blog, Nathan Jones and Anthony Dryer

Outside in the dark of the night it’s so hot that I feel like I can’t breathe. The sun won’t come up for another five hours. It feels like we’re capturing extra time– every minute on the bike counts. This is the beginning of a huge day. We need to get most of the way through Missouri– our next obstacle is the ferry from Illinois to Kentucky. We pedal through the deserted streets of Pittsburg and are soon on farm roads. It’s blustery, but mostly the wind is in our favor and it starts to rain. Evan pulls over to put his rain jacket on and I holler that it’s not even cold out. I don’t want to stop, but he’s right. We put on our jackets and it starts raining harder. It’s nice to have a friend in the dark. Flat farm roads start rolling pretty quick. Up and down like a rollercoaster, we pedal into the sunrise. We make it to Ash Grove at 6AM just as the gas station is opening. An old timer finds us to give us a little encouragement. I down a couple cans of cold coffee and he says that’s probably not the breakfast I was hoping for. He says Steffen slept just down the way and he’s been rooting for me the whole time and he hated seeing Sarah beat me. I put on some sunscreen and we hit the road.

I buy slices of pizza in Fair Grove and the day starts heating up. It’s 100 degrees before noon. We fill water in Marshfield and knock on a door in Hartville to ask for water. The woman says nothing and points us to the spigot out back, next to an above ground swimming pool. I kneel under the water and soak my whole body.

We ride into Texas County near Bendavis. All of the buildings are whitewashed and look like they’re from a hundred years ago. We stop at the town store in Bucyrus that looks closed, but it’s not. I go to the bathroom in the back to rinse my shirt. The sink is stained blood orange and the water smells like iron and it dyes my t-shirt red. The lady behind the counter is in a long dress with plated braids. Her two sons stand next to her quietly. I buy bottled water and potato chips. She’s kind and smiling and asks where we’re from and then has us write it down in her ledger because her sons love to look up these far off places. They followed the race last year, but haven’t seen too many people yet this year. I tell her they’ll be coming and with heat like this they’ll definitely be stopping. She reminds us that the heat index is 107°.

We step back out into the furnace to ride to Houston. It’s a climb to a high point and a big descent. Crossing a bridge, I hear the hissing of my tire losing air. I pull over to check it out and find a piece of glass. It’s a small slice, so I pump some air into it to limp to the gas station in Houston. When I get there, Evan is packing some gatorade on his bike, just about to pedal back to find me.

I buy some super glue at the gas station and apply it to the outside of the tire in an attempt to keep my tubeless set up. Air bulges through. Evan is really overheated and hangs out inside the air conditioned gas station while I work on the flat. I just want to get rolling again. One local man offers to get a tire for me off a bike he has at home and another offers to get his air compressor. I’ve got what I need. I take the tire off the rim, clean it, boot it and install a tube. I buy a packaged egg salad sandwich and some cheez-its and we head for the Ozarks.

The heat has taken its toll. Evan feels awful. Into the Ozarks, the hills get steep, leaving me in my lowest gear standing and cranking on the pedals. It’s green and lush and into the evening it starts cooling off and I start feeling really good. I’m excited to be in this race. I want to get to the ferry. I start calculating, if I push through most of the night, I might be able to make the last ferry tomorrow night. I’d need to make 240 miles in 22 hours. I know I could do it, but I do need to sleep sometime and descending these steep hills in the dark is no joke. We’ve already got a plan– a good one. We’ll sleep in Ellington for 4-5 hours, make it to Elizabethtown tomorrow night and ride the remaining ten miles to Cave-In-Rock on the following morning to make the first ferry at 6AM. I realize we both could be missing a big opportunity here. We’re working so well together. Our best chance at catching Steffen is to ride together, to help each other through the nights and keep a good pace.

“Let’s do it, Evan. Let’s go catch him.”

The first step is getting to Ellington. We make it there by 11PM, check into the motel. I plug in my Di2, take a shower and get to sleep. I sleep deeply and wake up disoriented with bags under my eyes. It’s quality sleep.

We climb to Pilot Knob in the early morning hours and resupply at the gas station. I’m relying mostly on chocolate milk and try to eat sandwiches before the heat of the day. We detour a mile off route in Farmington so that I can buy tubes at the bike shop. A tall blonde rider meets us a the bike shop and catches us in the hills out of town. He’s a smiley guy, born in Anchorage and has lived in Farmington for the past 20 years. He hammers a couple pedal strokes uphill to move out of traffic and it gets Evan laughing. There’s no way either of us are moving that fast.

Out of the hills, we ride through a valley. A long bridge takes us over the muddy Mississippi River to Illinois.

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Kansas

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Photo: Trans Am Bike Race blog, Nathan Jones and Anthony Dryer

Within minutes, the sky clears and the wind changes, sweeping around behind us. It’s a ripping tailwind and we’re flying easy at 20 miles an hour. We see the bright lights of Leoti and then we’re past it. The 24 mile countdown to Scott City takes just over an hour and we make it there at 2:30AM. Do we dare stop? The wind in Kansas is unpredictable, liable to change at any time. We know we have to sleep sometime. We pull into the Lazy-R and bed down for five hours with a plan. We’re riding to Newton tomorrow.

The Newton Bike Shop is the only official support station for the Trans Am Bike Race. Support is allowed because help is equally available to all racers. Just after the midway point of the route, it is the perfect place to get bike service. During the race, the Newton Bike Shop is open 24 hours a day. James and Heather tirelessly welcome racers, feed them, service their bikes and send them down the road. Getting to and through Newton is a milestone. I plan to swap my tires, chain and cassette there. It’s a necessary stop and a lot of help, but stopping at all makes me anxious. By sleeping in Scott City, we’ve timed it so we’ll make it to Newton the next night to sleep for a few hours while James fixes our bikes.

Out of town in the morning, the wind is still blowing our direction. The riding is flat and fast and feels like a gift. The people in Kansas are exceptionally nice, the drivers are courteous and the cashiers bless us for visiting. There is a beauty to the prairie with it’s wide open spaces and little development– especially when you’re riding with a tailwind.

We make a 90 degree turn at Rush Center and as fierce as the cross wind feels, I know it’ll be at my back in twenty miles. Back down at low elevations, it’s cooking. Apart from the heat, the rest of the ride to Newton is a breeze and we get there before 10PM. Heather waits for us on the main street and James greets us at the door of the shop. We roll our bikes in and are motivated to get everything situated. Heather gives us loaner clothes to borrow while she does our laundry. She says we probably want to take a shower right away, but the shower at the rec center is closed, so she’ll drive us to their house. She leads us to a Suburban and drives us across town. It feels strange. One moment I’m in the middle of a bicycle race across the country, obsessing over every minute of efficiency and the next I have my seat belt buckled and I’m talking to Heather about air conditioning at the hostel. Evan is in the back seat and his knees are killing him. We shower and head back to the shop.

We talk to James about bike work and he’s set to service our bikes while we sleep. Heather sits us down to huge plates of chicken and rice, sliced vegetables, garlic bread and juice that her daughter prepared. It’s my first and only sit down meal for the whole race. James tells us that Steffen packed up in a hurry and left 30 minutes before we arrived. He had no idea how close we were. We really might catch him.

Evan has arranged to have a knees massage and I tuck myself in to a bunk bed in a dark, windowless room in the back of the shop. Heather tell us not set alarms. She’ll wake us up in five hours.

It’s nice to put on clean clothes in the morning. I ask James to straighten out my seat. It’s been crooked for days, but I haven’t wanted to take the time to straighten it out. When he’s tightening it, he notices a lot of play in the seat post. I ask him if that’s going to be a problem and he says no. I buy a bunch of gu and Heather finds me some chapstick and changes the batteries in my Spot. James wants us to sign a 76 Bike Route sign and his hat and he weighs our bikes. We say goodbye to the Barringers and the webcam and we holler on the way down the street. We’re over halfway! The next major obstacle will be the ferry to Kentucky– days away.We’re past the freezing nights of the Rockies. Our bikes are serviced and we’re ready to go.

The route out of Newton is hillier. The wind is lighter, but still favorable. In the early morning, the sun is already really hot. We stop frequently for water, even packing extra bottles because it’s so hot. There really isn’t much happening in Eastern Kansas. Coming up to Chanute, a girl calls to me from the side of the road. It’s Whitney Ford-Terry. She’s a tour guide for Adventure Cycling and is leading people east to west on the TransAmerica Trail. She offers me her water and when I decline she insists, telling me to drink it all. I’m getting to my afternoon boiling point and it’s nice to have company. My skin has blistered and is peeling for the second time. I ask her if she can ride with us and she comes along for a couple minutes, but can’t stay long. We part ways, but I know I’ll see her in Missoula next month for Adventure Cycling’s 40th Anniversary party.

We stop at a t-shirt printing shop and ask for water. I soak my t-shirt in the bathroom sink and run the water over my head and neck. We stop again at the gas station for drinks. It’s blazing. We stop 26 miles down the way in Walnut and slug cold cans of iced tea. I feel like I’m losing my mind. I buy a bacon cheeseburger from the hot case, telling myself I’ll eat it on the road and it’ll bring my brain back. On the road out of town, I start hearing my bike creak. Louder and louder it creaks with every pedal stroke. I step off and tighten the axels, but the sound remains.

Evan calls the bike shop in Pittsburg. They close at 6 and might be there until 6:30, but can’t promise anything because they’re planning on going for a ride. It’s already a quarter to 5 and we’re 30 miles away. We hammer to Pittsburg, racing the clock and get there by 6:25. I’m gasping for air and thrilled to make it. The shop is a big empty room with a few bikes and some dusty accessories. A man and his teenage son stand in the service area. The son is suited up for a ride and the man agrees to look at my bike. I roll it to the service area and he tells me to go ahead and take a break and eat my sandwich. After checking out the bottom bracket and the cranks, he finds the problem. He rocks my seat back and forth on the seat post and says I’m lucky it didn’t snap off while I was riding. He takes a seat post off another bike to replace mine. It’ll take about 40 minutes and Evan and I walk to the gas station to resupply.

The sun is going down. It’s 109 miles to Marshfield, the next major town and my bike is not ready to go. At the gas station we decide our best strategy is to sleep here for a few hours and head out in the dark. A night pursuit sounds invigorating. I go back to the bike shop to wait and Evan pedals down the street to find a motel. When I get back, the shop owner is measuring the seat post length and seat angle. He tells me to elevate my legs, so I lie down on the floor and stretch them up the wall. The shop owner was the head mechanic for Danny Chew for RAAM and once set up Danny’s new bike 36 hours before the race. He cares about the details and I trust him. He asks if he can fix my front brake while he’s at it and machines a piece of plastic to stop my chainring from rubbing my frame bag. I’m so grateful. I pay the man and ride to the motel to find Evan.

Just a few miles from the state border, we set the alarm for 1AM. The real race starts tomorrow in Missouri.

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Colorado

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Photo: Kyle Sheehan

We make it to Walden just after dark and check into the North Park Inn & Suites. We push our bikes past the indoor swimming pool and carry them up the carpeted stairs. I charge my electronic shifting every night because I don’t trust it. I take a shower and fall asleep before I remember closing my eyes.

We wake up to an alarm in the dark.

“Sarah is here.”

“What? How? Something must have gone wrong.”

I know we haven’t done anything brilliant to catch her, so I know something is wrong. I don’t cheer her misfortune. I’ve been there.

We shrug and get out the door. We’re riding by 4AM. A bright light in the dark catches us. It’s Sarah. We begin the climb up Willow Creek Pass together. Sarah and I greet each other, but we’re both pretty quiet. In the dark hours it’s surreal to see her. The last I knew, she was at least a hundred miles ahead. Evan is friendlier.

“Hi, I’m Evan.”

“I know.”

He falls in behind us.

Sarah starts talking, looking straight ahead. It’s not conversation, they’re just words.

Steffen took a wrong turn. I took a wrong turn too… every crack in the road feels like it’s going straight into my spine… the road just kept going up to Walden… it took hours…

She’s arching her back and rolling her head forward and back slowly.

Evan pulls ahead and starts pushing the pace and I follow him. It’s chilly even climbing until the sun hits. We climb strong and chatter through the morning. It is going to be a beautiful day. Soon, we’re over the pass and descending to Hot Sulphur Springs. Less than a mile from town, I roll over a sharp rock and it gashes my rear tire. We stop and boot it and I put a tube in. A nice couple on their Sunday morning ride stop to help. They even offer me a ride to Silverthorne. I tell them about the race and that I’m confident I’ll make it to Breckinridge to buy a new tire. There are plenty of good bike shops in Summit County. We pass a closed burger shack and Sarah catches us at the gas station, but she doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere quick.

“It’s a shame that the restaurant is closed… I miss my dog…”

I sympathize while a chug a liter of chocolate milk and we’re back out on the road.

Kremmling is wide open and western and surrounded by mountains. We follow the Blue River to Silverthorne and then the bike path to Frisco. A giant German tourist on a cheap hardtail waves me behind him, offering a draft. I decline and he hammers ahead. We waste time looking for a bike shop that has apparently moved to Dillon. The sky is dark and it starts to rain. We get back on the bike path to Breckinridge. I buy a tire, spare tubes and gu at Avalanche Sports. The rain stops and the skies clear. Evan and I are both getting a little nutty. He’s pacing around and I put on all of my clothes in the middle of the afternoon because I feel like I’m freezing. We resupply at a health food store and chug cold cans of yerba mate. I pack away a couple burritos and sliced Kerrygold Dubliner cheese– definitely the best food I eat for the entire race. Right as we’re about to leave, Kyle pulls up on his bike! He’s an old friend from Annapolis. We’re ready to move.

Do you want to ride up Hoosier Pass with us?

Sure!

And then there’s another guy, Derrick, on a loaded up Long Haul Trucker and he’s coming along as well. And I’m laughing and excited and the sun comes out bright. It feels like we’re a party riding up Hoosier Pass, the highest point on the Trans America Trail. After the pass, we’ll descend out of the Rockies and out of freezing nights for the rest of the race.

Derrick blows through a red light, hollering that he’s above traffic law. The rest of us wait for the light to change. I pull over a mile up to strip back down to shorts and a t-shirt. Evan and Derrick ride ahead and Kyle waits for me. He moved to Carbondale three months ago. He saw I’d be that I’d be coming through close by and came out to ride a stretch. He says he can’t believe how much fun we’re having considering how much we’ve been riding. And we are having fun! Evan slows up to pedal with us.

“This guy has a mental illness and we need to distance ourselves from him.”

He’s not kidding. Derrick is hauling ass up the pass, carrying way more equipment and schooling us all. Without a sound, two silver-hairs on road bikes pass us too. They’re training for the Bicycle Tour of Colorado. Evan rides alongside their friend and later tells me that he smelled liquor on the guy’s breath. It’s party time on Hoosier Pass. By the time we get up to the top, Derrick has already lit up his pipe as the old guys eye him suspiciously.

We stop for a quick minute, Kyle takes our picture and heads back down the pass and Evan and I continue on. We’re going to Cañon City, 90 miles away with a lot of descending. And then we’ll be in the Colorado flats and then Kansas and then halfway to the end. This race isn’t looking quite as long as it once was. We’re both anxious to get through Kansas as the wind is unpredictable and a headwind could make riding flat, straight terrain total hell. Evan says the race doesn’t really start until Missouri. The relentless hills in Missouri will expose a rider’s true colors. For now, descending out of the Rockies in Colorado feels monumental.

We wave to a touring cyclist in Hartsel and minutes later he catches us pumping music through a speaker mounted to his handlebars. It’s Derrick and he’s ready to ride through the night with us. He’s from Oklahoma City and he’s riding 6,000 miles this trip at 100 miles a day. He spins his legs at double speed and rides fast. He’s got two big panniers and what looks like a suitcase strapped to the top of his rack. He’s carrying a big tent. Sometimes he likes to hang out in there and get baked and watch Game of Thrones on his iPhone with the sound blasting out of his speaker. He stops every afternoon to cook himself a high quality meal and mostly eats quinoa. He says if he keeps eating quinoa and riding his bike, maybe he’ll be ready for the Trans Am Race next year. He’s fed up with those old timers at the top of Hoosier Pass cause they just don’t get it. Sometimes he just wants to get baked and talk about it. He’s pretty sure those guys get drunk and talk about it. He started riding a bike two years ago and has lost 50 pounds. His friends don’t think much of it, but they’re not doing anything. He used to be in the Navy and still gets Navy money and that makes his brother jealous. His brother refuses to see him. I think he told me he’s 24, but it could’ve been 26. I like this kid. He asks me when I’m going to ditch Evan and I tell him I’m not.

We’re still at 9,000 feet through Guffey and the terrain rolls and finally descends. Derrick pulls off at the RV park at the Royal Gorge– as good of a time as any to get a shower and camp for the night. We say goodbye. His bright smile lights up the warm night. Evan and I continue on US-50 and make it to Cañon City by 1AM. We check into the Econolodge and conk out.

Passing the lobby at 6AM we grab a couple of hardboiled eggs at the breakfast buffet, choke them down with apple juice and pedal away from Cañon City. It’s different than the high country with orange rock and scrub. The route rolls up and down, but mostly down as we drop in elevation. It’s warm and wide open. We have a light tail wind and we’re cruising. The route through Pueblo follows neighborhood streets and through a city park. We pedal past murals and stop at a gas station to resupply. And then it’s flat and rural and hot. The towns are sparse, marked by grain silos and not much else. We’re pushing the pedals and moving and it’s easy. A lady stands by the side of the road and welcomes us to Eastern Colorado as we’re heading into Ordway. She finds us at the store. She saw Steffen this morning and remarks that he was kind enough to stop to chat. He was out of food and couldn’t buy any until Eads because all of the stores were closed. She asks me where Sarah is and tells me that I was really far behind. It’s hot and humid and I’m just trying to get a gatorade and get out of there.

We pedal 60 miles past the grain silos of Sugar City, Arlington and Haswell to Eads. We meet a couple of cycle-tourists at the convenience store and the sky is purple. Inside, a tv is blaring a tornado warning for the whole area. The cashier shakes her head in disbelief when I tell her we’re riding to Scott City. It’s over a hundred miles away. One of the bikers recommends the Lazy-R Motel and that settles it. We’re going to the Lazy-R in Scott City. I chug a red bull and pack a 5-hour Energy for the morning and we leave Eads before 7PM to ride into a tornado watch. Lightning flashes into the dark sky ahead of us, but we see no rain. A sidewind blows into us as we cross the border into Kansas and enter central time zone. At this rate, it will take us another five hours to ride the 64 remaining miles to Scott City, but we’re committed to getting there.

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Wyoming

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Images courtesy of Trans Am Bike Race blog, Nathan Jones and Anthony Dryer.

The ride through Yellowstone in the evening is out of this world. Geothermal smoke steams away from colored rock and pools of water. There is very little traffic. The park is at a standstill as everyone watches the sunset. In the calm evening, I ask Evan for advice. Throughout the day, I’ve watched his legs spin. His form is strong and concentrated, his legs push power. I tell him that I really don’t feel like I’m performing, even though I’m trying really hard. I feel like I’m taking the wrong approach and I need to change the way I’m riding. He tells me that I need to maintain a more consistent pace. I love hitting the climbs hard, but my legs are totally toasted for the flats. Evan is more scientific about it. He rides with a power meter and tries to maintain more consistent power throughout by backing off on the climbs and pushing through the flats. I take his advice to heart. He tells me that he’s sure I could improve a lot over time with practice. I tell him I want to improve right now. I’m in this race right now and I want to do the best that I can and I’m working for results. He explains to me the concept of lighting matches. Every time you burst up a hill, you’re lighting a match and burning yourself out. You’ll have to pay for it later. He’s right. I’ve been paying for it. I’ve been struggling.

We talk and ride into the waning sun. The only concern for the night is where to sleep. Sleep is never long, but it’s always significant. I know a few hours of sleep is the best I can do to recover. In a multi-week race, if you don’t sleep, you pay for it later. Travel in the dark is always slower than in the day, so it’s important to sleep during the dark hours. At this elevation, the night time temps drop to freezing– too cold to lay out in just a bivvy. Evan has called ahead for a room at the base of Togwotee Pass– a hundred miles away. Flagg Ranch, thirty miles closer, was booked up for the night. It’s already dark. Evan got caught up in this section last year and he’s anxious to get past it. We talk through scenarios as we pedal. Maybe I could beg someone to sleep in the lobby of Flagg Ranch for a few hours or maybe I could sleep in a pit toilet. Hours pass and we keep each other awake in the dark. It’s cold enough to see my breath. When we pass Flagg Ranch around 1AM, I say, the hell with it, I’m game to ride the next thirty miles. Let’s do it! So, six days into the race and full of spirit, we do.

We make it to the Hatchet Resort just after three in the morning– nearly 250 miles for the day despite headwinds and climbing. I curl up on the floor exhausted. Three hours later, I’m groggy and awake and my knees are throbbing. I think about packing up and then I think I’ll benefit from another hour of sleep so I extend my legs up the wall and sleep.

I wake up upside down and get out to the sunshine pretty quick– the whole point is to maintain a level of urgency. Every minute counts just as much as every other minute and if I can keep my mind wrapped around that idea, I’ll stay in this race. It’s all about deciding how to spend your minutes.

I buy cold milky coffee at the gas station and start riding up Togwotee Pass. I catch up with a couple ladies on hardtails with big tires and bikepacking gear. The Trans Am and the Great Divide both climb the pavement up Togwotee Pass. I take Evan’s advice and slow-up to enjoy their company. There are three of them riding together and they just got started yesterday and they hope to make it up and over Union Pass. Oh yeah, it’s beautiful up there! I tell them to have a great ride and I go catch their friend and on the way Evan catches me.

There’s an accident at the top of the pass and nobody is moving. We stop. People get out of their cars and get social and everyone is friendly. No, no one is hurt. A big guy on vacation laid down his motorbike and the road is blocked up. I’m feeling pretty good and I ask Evan if we should try to get to Rawlins. It’s far off, but there really aren’t many communities in this part of Wyoming. We’ll definitely have to sleep between six and seven thousand feet where it freezes at night– too cold to sleep out in a bivvy. What about Jeffrey City? It’d be a short day, but we could set the clock back and get an early start on the next day. Done. All of a sudden Evan and I are riding together with a plan to get to Jeffrey City tonight. I’ve never understood how people could ride together during endurance races. I never understood the benefit, until I found myself doing it.

A man offers us bottled water and we tell him about the race. After a few minutes he suggests that we try to walk around the police cars and see if we can get down the other way. We shrug at each other and go for it. We sneak by and then we’re cruising down Togwotee Pass. The people in the cars on the other side holler out their windows.

“What’s the hold up?

“Will it take long?”

“Yeah.”

It’s ups and downs to Dubois. We resupply at a Sinclair and I buy the lonely item in the hot case– a paper sack stapled shut. Back out on the road, under the sun and behind Evan, I unwrap the bag. It’s a deep fried disc. I take a bite. Oh man, that’s bad. It’s a deep fried burger patty coated in cheese– definitely the greasiest thing I’ve ever tasted in my life. I’m struggling to push the pedals. I take small bites and successfully finish the disc on the ride to Lander. We stop there for chocolate milk. Evan buys a pump at the bike shop and straps it to his frame. I feel woozy riding out of town and we take it easy until I start feeling better. It’s another stunning evening ride through the high plains in Wyoming. The road rolls into the sunset. Once it’s dark, the temperature drops. We see the lights of Jeffrey City from miles away and it seems like we’re never getting closer. But Jeffrey City is the goal and sometimes having a goal makes the riding mentally easier. Tonight, all we have to do is get there. I’ll think about tomorrow and the 2700 miles I have left in this race, tomorrow. We pass a pottery store and a bar and pedal up to the motel. These are the only three businesses in town. Evan comments that he likes the retro furnishing in the motel room. It’s not style, it’s just old. We agree on five hours of sleep. I plug in my bike, take my first shower during the race and crawl into bed. As the days progress, sleep is the only thing I truly crave.

The early sun quickly heats up the morning. We’re both slow to start with aching knees. Evan is convinced that we can maintain a stronger pace. He says we’re doing everything else right. We’re resupplying efficiently and sleeping a reasonable amount. The one thing we can manipulate is our power, so we agree to work on it. The ride to Rawlins is flat, a great stretch to make up some time. We warm up on the way to Muddy Gap, take a quick stop for snacks and I buy some sunglasses. We push the pedals to Rawlins, buy food at the gas station and take a look at the map to make a night plan. We aim for Walden. The mileage is short, but we’ll get there around sunset, avoid the mental strain of riding into the night and get an early start on the next day.

A ripping tailwind pushes us down Interstate 80 out of Rawlins. We sneak past a traffic block and soon we’re into Saratoga. I buy four slices of pizza at the Kum & Go and green Superfood juice, the gas station with the worst name and the best selection. We climb through the warm afternoon back into the mountains. For the first time in days, I feel both blessed to be out here and enchanted by my country. Evan and I ride side by side into Colorado. Nathan and Anthony take our picture as we cross that imaginary border and I know in my heart that my race is finally turning around.

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Montana

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Thanks, Joan!

I wake up in the Lolo Hot Springs cabin around 5AM feeling like a hungover 80-year-old. My knees creak and my brain is fried. I click on my shoes and get out the door, feeling disoriented by the bright morning. The hours spent in the cabin feels like a time lapse. I hop on my bike and like magic, the shifting works again. I drop the cabin key off in a mailbox slot and I’m pedaling downhill all the way to Lolo.

These mornings it takes a few minutes to get reacquainted with my saddle. I have to sit for a couple minutes through the hot discomfort until my saddle and my seat become friends again. The pain in my knees remains. I trust it’ll go away eventually, everything does. For now, every pedal stroke is a grind.

Evan catches me at the gas station in Lolo and tells me that Kai has caught up with us and he thinks he past Lee sleeping on the side of the road. Sarah and Steffen are battling it out a hundred miles ahead. I feel like we’re not even in the same race at this point. Evan leaves first and I watch him pull away on the bike path to Hamilton. Even though the sun is shining, I feel a little sullen. I want to ride faster and I do sometimes but then my legs run out of juice and I just can’t keep up. I work on turning my attitude around. I tell myself to do my best and I remind myself to be thankful for so many things– my health, the weather, this place, my family, Nick, the trees, that rock, this road and on and on and it works.

I buy a box of snickerdoodles in Stevensville. They taste like dust. I stop at the Sinclair in Victor and ask the cashier if I can fill up some water. She says there’s only a sink in the restroom and I shouldn’t fill up there because that’s where people wash their hands. I thank her and fill up. Outside of town, Joan and Cindy are standing with a huge Lael banner on the side of the bike path. Joan tells me not to stop because she doesn’t want me to lose any time, but of course I want to stop to give her a hug! It definitely brings my spirits up. I’m through Hamilton and Darby quick. Kai, Evan and I all converge just outside of Sula at the start of the climb up Chief Joseph Pass. Nathan Jones and Anthony Dryer are there to take our picture. A man cheers out of a van window that I’m doing great. For the first time in days I feel like I’m actually in a race. I tell him I feel better than I’ve felt in days and he says that probably has something to do with the weather. He’s right. It’s not nearly as hot as it’s been. Kai and I start hammering up the hill and Evan just smiles knowingly. At the top, I stop to fill water at a stream and Kai cruises by. Down the hill, I turn into Wisdom cause my legs are whipped. I buy a quart of chocolate milk at the general store and chug it out front while Nathan and Anthony stand by quietly. It hurts my gut, but I’m desperate for energy. I pat my tummy and say that I hope it goes straight to my legs. Anthony smiles and nods and says that it will. Nathan says I have a beautiful ride ahead of me, his favorite of the whole route. As I’m heading back out, Evan is riding into Wisdom and tells me to have fun riding into the headwind. I pedal out of town real slow. My legs feel like they have nothing left. Evan catches me quick on the ride out of town and then Kai passes us both. Finally the chocolate milk kicks in. Evan and I ride together to Dillon. In the evening light, the rolling ride through the valley is exceptional. The descent into Dillon is torn up for construction and we take our time. Evan splits off to find a motel. I stop to resupply at a gas station. The girl at the register is on the phone and frazzled. Their computer system is down. I give her a $20 for some chocolate milk and a sandwich and tell her to keep the change. I consider getting a room at the motel because it’s chilly, but decide to head down the road and take my chances with the cold. The wide highway is empty in the night. I pedal five miles down the road and pull my bivvy out in a field.

I wake up early and cold and move on. The ride to Twin Bridges is flat and easy with lots of signs for bikes, but it’s so early that nothing is open. I stop at the Sinclair in Sheridan and buy a Nesquick and heat up a double-decker burger in the microwave. Some lady is hollering about idiot tourists in Yellowstone and the cashier is friendly. I coat the burger in ketchup and mustard to mask the flavor, wrap it in a paper napkin and stuff it in my gas tank. It’s terrible. I climb past Virginia City, a phony western town, and rip down to Ennis. I buy a bunch of drinks and a turkey sandwich at the gas station. The attendant asks if I want mayonnaise and notices my cracked and bleeding bottom lip. I tell her about the race and all the sun I’m getting. She tells the other cashier gal and they get all excited and then show me where the chapstick is and then cheer me out the door.

I start pedaling the long, straight flat road towards West Yellowstone into a fierce headwind. It’s relentless. I watch my speed drop below eight miles an hour and I’m flailing out there. I start wondering if I’m even going to make it the 70 miles to West Yellowstone by tonight. Evan rides up behind me and I’m happy to have a friend out there. We agree that this is brutal. He says that Kai pulled over for a nap in the sun. He says if I want I can watch his wheel and we can fight this wind together. I don’t draft, but I stay within sight and it really helps to have something to focus on. I’ve never ridden with anyone for any extended period of time in a race. I usually relish riding alone, but I’m here to do my best and for the time being, riding with Evan and getting past the wind is the best that I can do. We get through it! Mountains offer some relief and the road turns a bit and everything gets way easier and more possible. We stop at the Sinclair in West Yellowstone. I copy Evan and buy some candy and also pack a pepperoni Hot Pocket for later. I spot Kai rolling into town as we’re packing up. We pay fifteen dollars at the Yellowstone Park entrance and pedal into Wyoming.

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Idaho

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Near the top of Brownlee Summit, I see a rider slowly swerving back and forth across the road like a staggering drunk. In a couple pedal strokes I catch up to him. It’s British Lee. He glances over at me quick and straightens out his form.

 “Hey there. How are you doing?”

“I’ve been sick. I made the mistake of eating a burger and chips at the bottom of the hill and it’s all come back up.”

“You’ve been throwing up?”

“Yeah.”

In this heat that sounds awful. I pedal past him and he climbs past me at the very top, showing renewed vigor. And that’s the last I see of Lee. It’s all downhill to Cambridge. I buy a large pack of Hostess coffee cake at the convenience store and the man at the register asks if I’m part of the crew riding to Virginia. He tells me there were some guys in here earlier taking pictures of a girl. He says there’s a storm brewing and I might get hit pretty hard between here and Council.

I ride into a headwind to Council as the light fades. My progress is slow, but the scenery is stunning– green flat expanses surrounded by mountains. Idaho has some beautiful farm country. In the dark I climb to New Meadows. The road winds through the woods of national forest. I’m alone in the trees. I feel the chill of passing streams before I see them. It’s humid and cold. The terrain flattens out before Tamarack. In the night, industrial lights beam through the mist and expose a massive logging operation. I’m alone with the cranking machines. I pedal through New Meadows and I don’t see a soul, just neon signs above closed stores and vacant motel lots. Everyone but me is asleep.

Out of town, the road turns to gravel. It’s flat and wide open. I push the pedals a few miles and pull off on an overgrown, abandoned frontage road. I lay my bivvy over the gravel and tuck myself in.

I wake up in the night, shaking with cold with no choice but to get up and pedal on. Once I’m moving, I’m warm, but a couple hours down the road my eyes start blurring and then closing. I can’t keep them from closing as I’m descending alongside a logging truck. This isn’t safe. I stop, lift my bike over a fence and lay down to sleep for another hour. Awake to my alarm and groggy, I stuff away my bivvy and get back on my bike to move, but a couple miles down the way I know I need more sleep. I pull over and lay down for another 45 minutes to sleep in a ditch. This time it sticks. I ride the rest of the way to Riggins, past rows of sports fishermen, in the early morning sunlight. I buy breakfast sandwiches and hot coffee at the store in Riggins and clean and lube my chain out front. A passing lady offers me her old newspaper.

The day heats up. I follow the Salmon River upstream to White Bird and fill my water at the saloon. The town looks like it’s designed for tourists, but there aren’t any here. I switchback up a tree-less pass,  gravelly at the top, and zoom down the other side to Grangeville. I’m urgent to get in and out of town and down the road. I chug a pint of chocolate milk and a pint of vanilla milk and I’m out of there. The farm roads to Stites are straight and rolling with sharp 90 degree turns. I’m making it, but I’m boiling hot. My skin is red and actually feels like it’s scorching and I start feeling desperate. I stop at a gas station in Kooskia and ask for sunscreen and they’re sold out. They direct me to the supermarket down the street. A checker there personally walks me to the sunscreen section and I’m pretty sure I look like I need the help. I buy a gigantic bottle, the only option, and it gets me through the rest of the race. Outside the store, I coat my entire body with a thick layer of white sunscreen and watch it immediately soak in. The road out of town follows the Clearwater River, winding and beautiful, it becomes a living nightmare. As I ride upstream, I really feel like I’m not getting anywhere as the same scene loops over and over. It is such a gradual climb. I watch the river wind it’s way 90 miles up to Lolo Pass, the division between Idaho and Montana.

Two thirds of the way up, I click my shifter to change gears and nothing happens and again, nothing. I thought the battery would last me another thousand miles to Kansas, but I guess I killed it on day 4 in Idaho. I stop, thinking I’ll pull out my seat post and swap the battery and while I’m standing there, Evan pedals up. We agree that Lolo Pass takes forever. I tell him about my dead Di2 and that I’m thinking about switching the battery. His died yesterday. He suggests that I ride single-speed to the top, it’s a mellow grade the whole way. There’s a restaurant up there, I could charge it for a few minutes and he could get some food. There’s a hotel at Lolo Hot Springs, on the other side of the pass, and I could get a full charge there.

Sounds like a good plan and I’m happy to have company to break up the monotony. We ride together into the night. Evan is full of stories and he’s easy to be around. After the sun goes down, the air gets chilly. By the time we make it to the restaurant near the top it’s dark and closed. I’m carrying loads of extra food. I give Evan a cinnamon roll and we head for Lolo Hot Springs. If they’re closed up for the night, we’ll descend to Lolo. We get to Lolo Hot Springs near midnight and there’s a light on in the bar. I knock on the window and a young guy opens the door. He’s cleaning up for the night. We ask about rooms and arrange to stay in a couple of cabins across the way. I buy a cinnamon roll as big as my face and pedal across the street to find my cabin. I’ve never slept inside during an endurance race, but with my dead Di2, I’m tethered to a power source. I’m so relieved to find a solution. I unlock the door to my cabin. The bed spread is folded open, like someone just climbed out. I plug in my electronic shifting, set my alarm and don’t hesitate to crawl into the warm bed. The sheets smell like cigarettes. It’s my first night in Montana.

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Oregon

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Top photo: Trans Am Bike Race blog; bottom photo: Josh Spice

 

Darkness on day 2, just past Prairie City

I feel sick to my stomach, disgusted by my slow pace. I’m losing and I feel powerless. I just can’t ride faster and I can’t get the miles done. Too many expectations. I want to ride 250 miles a day and I want to win this whole damn thing and I want to ride fast and I’m covering the distance, but I’m just not riding fast enough. Why can’t I ride 14 miles an hour? I’m struggling for 12. What I don’t realize is that I’m nearly 500 miles into the race by day 2. There is only one rider ahead of me and three sleeping in Prairie City. I lift my bike over a farm fence and hoist myself over to the other side. I pull out my bivvy, set my alarm for three hours and lay down. I close my eyes to rest, but my mind isn’t ready to sleep. I lay for fifteen minutes, easing my mind and I do feel rested, but I’m not ready to sleep. I want to go climb that hill. I need to. I need to keep my head in this race and I need to move. So I stuff my bivvy back into my framebag, hoist my bike back onto the road and start pedaling up the hill. It’s the right choice. Settling for disappointment never is. It’s dark and calm and rural. I pedal uphill until my map turns green for State Forest. And now I’m really tired and ready to sleep. I pull into a turnoff among tall trees. And this is where I’ll lay to rest. I feel comforted by the trees as if it’s the place I’m supposed to be. The day was hot and the evening is warm. I lay my bivvy over pine needles and reset my alarm.

Astoria, June 4, 2016

Sixty racers meet at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon with the intention of racing to Yorktown, Virginia– 4300 miles away. No one will make it there tomorrow or the next day or the day after that or even in two weeks time, but we’re all hell bent on getting there. Going into this race I have confidence that I could be a contender, but standing in this crowd, it’s hard to believe. These guys are bigger or stronger or sleeker than me. They’re roadies and in my grey cotton t-shirt, I’m not. I tuck my t-shirt into my shorts to be more aero, but mostly I look like a third grader getting ready for gym class. I spot Sarah Hammond across the plaza and in that moment I know she’s competition. She has a tight bikepacking kit and a fierce presence. But there’s no way she’s carrying two massive burritos like me and I’m not planning on stopping.

Nathan Jones stands on a concrete block to give final pre-race instructions. My mind is buzzing and I’m not really listening.

“Do not interfere with other riders… Ride your own race…We’ll have a neutral start until we cross the bridge at mile 5. I’ll lead you through it.”

This is my day. I can’t imagine finishing this race and I can’t imagine what the days will be like, but I know I can do it. We all line up behind Nathan Jones and his copper colored handlebar wrap and start pedaling. If it wasn’t a neutral start I might just go bananas. I love hammering on day 1 because it’s the only day I’ll have fresh legs. I pull up near the front next to Sarah. We’ve never met but we talk like we have. I remember her words:

“The food in America is terrible.”

“The drivers are hostile to cyclists in Australia.”

“The only difference between road biking and mountain biking is that on a road bike you can see long straight distances.”

“I like coaching women in Australia there are only two levels of female riders– novice and expert.”

“But you have loads of experience.”

I feel her tongue-in-her-cheek on that last comment. She’s an outright confident person and in this moment she knows she can stomp me.

Nathan Jones pulls over after the mile 5 bridge and we start for real. I’m hungry for miles. I stand up on my bike and start cranking. This is the only day we’ll ride in any kind of a pack. It’s a busy summer Saturday morning on Highway 101 and the beach front bike path. Neither the cars nor the pedestrians like us, but we’ve got to get through. It’s a race! I ride a few minutes with Jay P and Mark Seaburg and they’re friendly. I pass all the guys on the climbs and they cruise past me on the descents. Sarah hammers past me 20 or 40 miles in and is out of sight in a flash. She’s so fast!

It’s hot and just getting hotter and it’s going to keep getting hotter for days. The first 100 miles are fast and fun. I tell myself I’m going to have a good first day, then a good second day, then a good third day and then a good fourth day all the way to a good seventeenth day cause that’s what it’ll take to win this thing and I believe it. I leapfrog a few times with Brian McEntire. I’m a rabbit up the climbs and he rolls like a bowling ball down the descents. I’m breathing hard and my legs feel good, but my mind is starting to lose it cause I need to eat. It’s just too hot. I start taking bites of my massive burrito. I don’t want to stop, but I have to because it’s so hot. I fill my bottles with gatorade in Rose Lodge and turn inland. I buy chicken sandwiches and strawberry cream pies at McDonalds in Corvallis. At dusk a man flags me into an impromptu aid station near Harrisburg, but I keep going. Tatooed Kai pedals away from the aid station and passes me and I like the feel of this guy. It’s amazing how much you can sense from a person just sharing space for a moment. He’s calm and smiling.

I’m alone past 200 miles. Someone calls out to me in the dark, snaps a photo and pedals up. It’s Josh Spice! The last time I saw this guy was in Spring of 2013 in Alaska when he lived in a dry cabin in Fairbanks. He’s since shaved his big beard and moved to Eugene, a short pedal from the Trans America Trail.

“I’m packed light like you, with a little bivvy and some snacks. I’ll ride with you over McKenzie Pass through the night if you want.”

“Awesome!”

It’s dark and warm and we’re afraid of nothing. We chatter and pedal through the night. I’m over 230 miles in and feel lively, but not fast. I have slowed way down, but I’m happy with all my miles and Josh’s company. He’s ramped up about the race and entertains the idea of sticking with it, of riding another 4200 miles. It’s giddy. I know I want to get near McKenzie Bridge before I sleep. A rider flies past us up the climb, his flashing lights veer around a corner and then they’re gone. Evan, the ER doctor from from Portland, catches us, makes a couple of minutes of conversation and cruises by. We fill water from a garden hose. And then it hits me on the climb. If I keep riding with Josh, I’ll never get sleepy. This early on in the race, I want to get sleepy because I want to lay down and rest for two hours to reset. I want to get up and ride strong tomorrow. Josh totally gets it and we part ways. What a nice way to spend the first night! I mentally unwind over the next ten miles and pull over on a small road between Rainbow and McKenzie Bridge at 2AM. I’m still wired, but I talk myself down and have little trouble sinking into a restful sleep.

Up by 4AM, I’m not really rested and I’m not really tired, but I’m ready to charge ahead. The feeling is so familiar that I don’t hesitate to pack up and get moving. The rest of the climb up to McKenzie Pass is easy in the early morning. It’s green and lush on the west side and volcanic rubble on the east. I fly down hill past dozens of Sunday morning cyclists. After day 1 of the Trans Am Bike Race, the leaderboard is all but determined. In the next 4000 miles, I’ll only see five other racers. Ultra distance racing is a lonely pursuit and I like riding alone. In fact, I don’t see another racer at all on day 2. Sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re racing when you don’t seen anyone.

I stop at the first convenience store in Sisters and am happy to see an old man with a burrito stand inside. I order a couple of chicken and rice burritos to go and buy some snacks and drinks while he makes them. I really don’t care what I eat. I just know that I have to have lots of food on the bike. Consuming 10,000 calories a day while riding through 100º weather isn’t delicious, but it’s what I have to do if I want a chance at winning.

The old man grins a row of gold teeth as he passes me two paper bags, each holding the biggest burritos I’ve ever seen in my life.

By the time I get passed Redmond it’s sweltering. I stop for Redbull and Gatorade at a road side stop before Prineville featuring a massive fried chicken case. In Prineville the bike shop owner takes my picture and his lady friend cheers me on. My skin is roasting and I’m not wearing sunscreen. Huge mistake! I pedal over Ochoco Pass. Some kind soul from Mitchell has set out a water cooler and a spray hose for Trans Am Racers. I fill up and drench myself. What sweet relief! The route doesn’t actually pass through Mitchell and I figure I’ll skip it and resupply in Dayville or John Day. I’m still carrying 1 ½ chicken burritos from this morning. They’re some of the worst burritos I’ve ever tasted, but once I eat them, it doesn’t matter.

The stretch of road leading into and out of Dayville is my favorite in Oregon. The colored rock and winding river look prehistoric. My legs are slow and I tell myself that when I find a store, I’ll get something good like chocolate milk. It’s Sunday and everything in Dayville is closed. An old man cycletourist cheers me on and offers water. I don’t want to stop, so I wave and pedal on. The heat diminishes into the night. This is an opportunity to start riding faster and I try to start pushing the pedals because that’s what I think road riding is all about. I want to be faster and I just can’t seem to do it and it’s starting to bother me. My slow legs are paying for yesterday’s speed. Everything is closed in Mount Vernon and then closed in John Day. I missed the last gas station by 20 minutes. I find a half bottle of coke and a mostly full gatorade and I pour them into my water bottles and move on. Then I’m to and through Prairie City and my mileage is short, but the day is over.

I wake up in the trees shaking with cold, stuff away my bivvy and pedal on. I eat the last of the cold shredded chicken burrito on the ride to Baker City. The day is already hot by the time I get there. Smiling Evan in his reflective jersey catches me at the convenience store.

“It’s so hot out there!”

“I know, forcing down food is the worst part about it. Yesterday I had a moment where I was choking down dry lunchables in the heat. We’ve got Hell’s Canyon coming up. Make sure you don’t miss the last store before the big climb. It’s at the bottom of a descent. Last year I missed it and had to ride back to it.”

He’s in and out of the store fast and effectively drops me. He raced the Trans Am last year. I chug a canned coffee, pack some fried food for later and get out of town. Evan was right. It’s an incredibly hot ride, but a stream follows the road. In a flash, I jump off my bike and run over to the stream. Fully clothed, socks shoes and all, I submerge my whole body. My brain stops boiling and I feel great and that’s my game plan for the rest of the afternoon. Every time my clothes dry out and my skin starts to fry I take a quick plunge in the water. I pick up drinks in Richland and stop at the last store before the dam. Out front I spot a couple loaded touring bikes, some of the first I’ve seen on the route. I say hi to the guy and our eyes both get wide in recognition. It’s Jamie from Silver City! We go right in for a big hug. I met him last year after I finished racing Tour Divide. He’s full of bike love and positive energy.

“Hey! I didn’t know you were racing this! You’re doing awesome.”

“Thanks! So great to see you. Are you guys riding the Trans Am?”

“Yep. We started in Astoria a couple of weeks ago.”

Too cool to run into a friend in what feels like the middle of nowhere. Jamie offers to pay for the gatorade and cookies I’ve picked out. At the register, I ask the man if there’s a good place to fill up some water.

“I’ll fill them up for you. Do you happen to know a rider with the initials LW?”

“That’s me!”

“No, not you, another guy.”

“Oh, Lee?”

“Yeah, probably. If you see that guy, run him off the road! He came here earlier and I asked him to kindly move his bike off my porch. He said he didn’t have to cause nobody is in my empty store anyway. I ran him right out of here!”

I see that he’s tracking the race.

“Isn’t there a girl up front?”

“Nope. She was going about 4 miles an hour in the heat just like everyone does, but then a guy came along while she was climbing the hill and passed her like she was standing still.”

The man is still fuming. I thank him and then thank Jamie and get out of there. I guess Lee isn’t too far off.

It’s like riding into a furnace. I jump in the river one last time and then the road gets steep and keeps climbing. Along the dam, I cross a bridge into Idaho.

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2016 so far

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Celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Bikecentennial in Missoula, Montana, July 16, 2016.

January

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Baja Divide route research

 

February

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Bus back to Tijuana and ride it all again.

 

March

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We flew home to Alaska from Mexico and rode fatbikes around the state.

 

April

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We worked at The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage, built the Ruby and got 50 third graders on bikes.

 

May

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I rode from Anchorage to Haines, ferried from Haines to Bellingham and rode to Astoria.

 

June

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I won the Trans Am Bike Race from Astoria to Yorktown.

 

July

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Bike-train-plane trips in the east coast and the Montana Bicycle Celebration and then I turned thirty.

Now we’re back in New York planning to publish the Baja Divide route this month and then…

Colorado Trail? 

The 1000 Mile Adventure Route in Czech and Slovakia?

Ride dirt in Georgia and Turkey?

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The people of Baja California

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Baja is diverse and mixed. It is California in Mexico. It is a mountainous desert dotted with oases and surrounded by the sea. The beating hearts of this land reflect its warmth through kindness. They seem to know us before we arrive.

Read my story about our friend Pancho on the Revelate Designs blog.

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Advocate Hayduke in Baja California

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I’m riding an Advocate Cycles Hayduke in Baja California with Nick. 

I’m happy to be back in Mexico, traveling on the bike and riding fat tires in the sand. And we’re having fun.

Tim Krueger wrote to me in September to offer bikes to us. I met Tim and his wife Odia in Las Vegas at Interbike. They seemed like really kind folks. I only have one bike at a time and they gave me one and it’s great. The Hayduke is a steel 27.5+ hardtail. I was hoping to ride the titanium frame, but it wasn’t available in time for this trip. Advocate is a new company that released three bikes this fall.

The Hayduke is a great bike for this trip because it has three inch tires and a suspension fork. We’re riding sandy jeep roads and rough mountainous tracks. It rides like a Jeep, the tires float like a fatbike when I need them too, but it’s not burdensome for climbing and technical riding. Having a new Rockshox Reba fork is pretty sweet compared to the crusty old fork on my blue bike. I was concerned the bike would be really heavy, but it’s not a tank. Nick tried to convince me to tour on my white Pugsley four years ago and I refused. This is not the same white bike. It’s kind of a mix of all the bikes I’ve ridden in the past five years, even the Hooligan. I may look to build some 29 inch wheels for it in the future with carbon rims. 

Nick is designing a dirt route through Baja that we’re riding and hoping to share. We’re really excited to ride with friends next month visiting from Missoula, Seattle and Anchorage.

I also have an Instagram account, follow me @laelwilcox for pictures from the road. 

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