Mid GRIT to the end

All photos taken with disposable cameras by Anchorage GRIT students. Thanks for developing them, Rue!

The weeks fly by, the snow gradually melts and the miles rack up. We have lessons in bicycle maintenance, mapping, yoga and mountain bike skills. We work on custom panniers at Revelate Designs. We talk with former Olympian, Holly Brooks, about elite athletics and setting goals. We volunteer for The Alaska Botanical Gardens, Parks & Rec and Off the Chain Bicycle Collective. Every week the girls ride faster with more confidence. There were many falls and many questions and many challenges, but no tears.

While riding trails in the Campbell Tract, two weeks before the Capstone Camp Out, we talk about our agenda. We give the girls two options for their final trip. The first option is to ride out 18 miles to the Beach Lake Lodge, spend the night at the lodge and ride back the next day. The second option is to ride out to Beach Lake, spend the night, continue 35 miles the next day to the Serenity Falls Forest Service cabin at the end of Eklutna Lake and ride 12 miles back to the trailhead on the third morning. They unanimously pick the second option– choosing to take on a huge challenge. We make it clear that the Eklutna Lake ride includes an 1800′ climb.

“Do you see those mountains?”

“Yeah.”

“Riding to Eklutna Lake is like climbing up to those mountains.”

Their eyes get wide.

“Are you sure you want to ride all of the way out there?”

They silently nod.

We want this to be a fun trip. The total distance covered is not the priority. I assumed they’d select the shorter distance and am surprised. The girls want a challenge and this is their trip.

We meet on Monday of their final week for a packing class with Amy Breen. Amy, Cait, Lavanya and I arrive with loaded bikes. As a group, we ride to REI for the lesson. We talk about the gear that they’ll need for their final trip. The girls unpack our bikes and load our gear into their panniers and we go for test rides on the parking lot. The sun is out and energy levels are going through the roof.

That evening, I go out for a shop ride with The Bicycle Shop. Around midnight, nearing the end of a 30 mile mountain bike ride, we hit a single track trail behind Earthquake Park. I’m riding pretty recklessly, excited by the long daylight and dry trails. At speed, I turn onto a narrow bridge spanning a muddy ravine and slide ride off of the bridge. I fall seven or eight feet straight onto my back. I’m screaming in pain and I can’t move and my mind goes straight to GRIT.

“What if I can’t ride next weekend?”

It’s a blinding pain.

Nick comes running down. He’s terrified. He’s yelling at me. I’m sobbing– both in pain and disappointment. This is not going to be a fast recovery.

I’m covered in mud.

Nick helps me get up and pushes my bike back onto the trail. I get back on and ride five miles home.

I strip out of my muddy clothes and pass out.

The morning is rough. I can’t even put a t-shirt on and Nick has to help dress me. He’s pressed for time and has to get to work. He goes to the gas station and buys me 12 individual packs of Ibuprofen and a bag of ice. I really don’t know what to do. I take Ibuprofen and ice my back and text Cait to let her know what’s happening. I call my acupuncturist and I call my sister. She recommends that we go see her friend the chiropractor.

“If we go see him at his house, he can work on you for free.”

Since I don’t have health insurance, this sounds like a blessing.

She calls back minutes later.

“I have great news! He said he’ll see you at the office and he’ll sponsor all of your care.”

I start crying, overwhelmed by this kindness.

We set up an appointment for that evening. I sleep through the afternoon and my sister comes to pick me up to take me to Jesse the chiropractor.

He does some stress testing and says he thinks it may just be a muscular issue, but let’s take some X-rays just in case.

The chiropractor takes an X-ray and finds two fractured ribs. He also finds a broken vertebrae, but that’s from a crash last year that I never got checked out, so it’s “healed”. He tells me that I shouldn’t ride my bike for two weeks. Most doctors would recommend to take six weeks off, but he knows that won’t work for me. There’s not much I can do beyond rest, ice and Ibuprofen.

I know in my heart that if there’s any way that I can ride with the GRIT group, I will.

The night is hard. I prop myself up on five pillows and try not to move.

On Wednesday, Cait picks me up to drive to Begich. We’re all meeting there to pack up the bikes for the weekend ride. I tell the girls about my fractured ribs.

“Does that mean you’re not coming with us this weekend?”

“No, I’ll be there.”

We strap sleeping bags and sleeping pads to their racks with old bike tubes. We stuff their clothing and snacks into their panniers. They go for a short ride with all of their gear and we safely store the loaded up bikes in the Begich gym.

On Thursday, Cait and I drive out to Eagle River to pick up the keys for the Beach Lake Lodge and grocery shop for the weekend. I am creaky, but determined.

The lodge is spectacular, situated right on Beach Lake. It has a full kitchen, a loft and 2 small cabins. We got the go-ahead from the ladies at Parks & Rec to stock the fridge. We prep potatoes, onions and zucchini for tomorrow night’s dinner.

I test out riding my bike up and down the street. For me, pedaling is like breathing. Even in pain, it feels so natural. I practice keeping my torso straight and stable.

It rains all Friday morning, but clears up by the afternoon. Tamra picks me up and we drive over to Begich. As a group, we do some last minute packing and we’re out. The girls are so excited. Their big day has finally arrived.

I ride sweep. We make a couple of packing adjustments in the first block and then we’re set. We ride the Glenn Highway bike path all the way to Chugiak, cross under the highway and take the Beach Lake Road to the lake. I’m surprised how easy and normal it all is.

At the lodge, the girls’ unpack and Cait and I get dinner going. There is a burn ban in the Mat Su Valley, so we cook potatoes and hotdogs indoors. While we’re cooking, the girls write thank you cards to the sponsors and people that donated to the program. There are so many people to thank!

We eat dinner by 8 o’clock and there are still hours of daylight left, so we go for a walk around the lake. My ribs ache, so I turn back early. The rest of the group continues around the lake to a path that leads to the Knik Arm.

Back at the lodge, I sit on the steps with Lily, Natalie, Ella and Alyssa. I have to try not to laugh cause it hurts so bad, but they are just so funny. I am really going to miss these girls.

All of the mentors are asleep much earlier than the girls.

The mornings are the hardest. I wake up in fear, feeling like I’m not going to be able to get up. Once I do, the world comes back together.

We make coffee and scramble 3 dozen eggs for breakfast burritos. The girls eat well. Hobbs meets us at the lodge with the mini school bus and we load it up with the rest of the food.

It’s a three mile climb from Beach Lake back to the highway and then a climb to the Old Glenn Highway.

“Is this the big climb?”

“No.”

The girls count down the miles. We’re 3/35ths done!

As a group, we make it to the base of the Eklutna Lake Road, where the 1800′ monster climb begins. I start with the first group of girls. It’s steep! The ten mile road is marked with mile markers. We take breaks every half mile. I promise that it’ll get better after mile 5 and it does.

Waiting for the girls, I spot a woman in a car eating an ice cream cone.

“The ice cream shop is open! When we get up there, everyone can have an ice cream cone.”

It’s always good to have something to look forward to.

We climb a little more over the next mile and then it’s a descent all the way to Rochelle’s Ice Cream Stop. We stop and get cones and eat them in the sun on the green grass.

“Remember when we were climbing that steep hill?”

It already feels like a distant memory.

We descend another couple of miles to Eklutna Lake and Hobbs meets us there with pizza.

It’s a twelve mile trail ride out to the Serenity Falls Forest Service Cabin. Cait takes sweep and hauls a trailer with a cookstove and dinner and breakfast. I take the lead and get out of the saddle every time I see a rough patch. I have a few moments of wrenching pain, but mostly I’m so focused on the girls that I don’t think about it. I am so impressed with all of the skills they’ve gained over the six week program. They are competent mountain bikers, taking on steep and loose climbs and descents. And we have a tailwind!

We see Stephen Day, Duane and Dan out on the trail. They stop to give us Snickers Bars and gummy bears. We pass the lake at mile 8, then the airstrip and then a campground. The last two miles are really loose.

“I am totally over biking.”

“You only have two miles left to the cabin!”

And we make it!

Inside the cabin are cupcakes from Cody and Amy. Cody delivered them on bike the night before. Before doing anything else, we all sit and eat a cupcake and agree that they are the best cupcakes that we’ve ever tasted.

Then, Cait gets the cookstove out to heat up pasta and sauce. I go to the creek with Alana, Anika and Alyssa to fetch water. We purify it through a gravity filter and bring it back to the cabin. We’ve eaten so well all day that we hardly make a dent in our pasta rations. There are bags and bags left of cooked noodles.

“Let’s burn the noodles!”

We make a super hot fire outside and through the pasta in. It sizzles and burns. Girls play in the cabin and down by the creek. It’s awesome to have time and freedom!

I’m whipped. I lay my sleeping pads out on a bench and carefully lie down. Anika comes over and tells me that I can sleep on her bunk. The bench is really narrow. She says she’s scared that I’m going to fall off and hurt myself even worse and then I won’t be able to bike back to the trailhead. She’s probably right. Her thoughtfulness melts my heart. I move my gear over to the bunk, spread out, slow my breath and fall asleep.

It rains on the final morning. We drink coffee, eat overnight oatmeal and pack up. The ride back is mostly really fast. Near mile 5 we hit a narrow patch of single track. I don’t see her go down, but I see her and her bike on the beach. It’s Natalie. She’s way down there.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah! I’m fine. I just have dirt in my mouth, but I’m fine.”

We push her bike back up to the trail. She’s smiling, but she’s shaking and there’s dirt in her mouth and ears. This girl is so damn tough.

We inspect her bike. She’s entirely broken her left brake lever off and cracked her grip. She rinses out her mouth and gets back on her bike and starts riding like it’s no big thing.

Two miles later, Ella’s rack rattles off. We stop and bolt it back into place.

And then we’re back and parents are waiting for us.

“You biked all the way out here?”

They smile and nod.

We eat snack mix, and load bikes onto cars and hug each other and that’s it.

2017 Anchorage GRIT is over.

I couldn’t be prouder of the girls– proud of their riding, proud of their great attitudes, proud of the kindness that they showed each other.

Sometimes it’s hard, but if you keep pedaling, you’ll get there.

Next year, we’re doubling the size of the program to include 4 middle schools in the Anchorage School District and 24 students. We’re inviting this year’s GRIT group to come back as mentors for next year. I can’t wait.

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This is the start of Anchorage GRIT

Cait brings the pizza to The Bicycle Shop. I clock out of work and start setting up. The bikes are upstairs– 11 brand new Specialized Jynx bicycles. Cait writes the names on the top tubes. Eleven names of eleven girls and I’ve only ever met one of them. We carry the bikes downstairs and park them out front of the shop. We write their names on helmets and set them beside the bikes. The girls start arriving.

Fifteen minutes early, Jakira and Mhya are the first to arrive with Mhya’s mom. They look shy, but they’re not. They’re just polite. I tell them we’ll have pizza and soda and then have a lesson on safe riding. The rest of the girls and their parents file in. We welcome everyone and we all get some pizza. Lindsey and Kati from Bike Anchorage pass out packets and teach a class on bike safety. The girls are not too timid to answer questions. We learn how to signal and learn about general awareness while riding in the road. Then we all go outside so the girls can find their bicycles and helmets. We change seat height and tension helmet straps. Lindsey sets up some cones and one at a time, we practice signaling around turns in the parking lot. The next drill works on awareness. People stand at both ends of the parking lot. The rider passes the first person and has to look over their shoulder to see how many fingers that person is holding up.

It’s windy and cold. There is still plenty of snow on the ground, but due to the zealous Bicycle Shop staff, the parking lot is clear of snow and ice. The girls are shivering. We call the lesson to a close. Our first real ride is the next day. We will all meet at Steller so we can walk to The Bicycle Shop to pick up the new bikes and go for a ride.

Field Trip to The Bicycle Shop and our first ride

I get to the shop early and scramble to fill water bottles and mount bottle cages onto each of the bikes. I ride over to Steller at 2:45. Cait is there with snacks. The girls meet in Ashley Van Hemert’s classroom. Ashley is an old family friend. We haven’t seen each other for years, but got in touch over email. She helped select students for Anchorage GRIT. We asked the teachers and counselors from the two schools to nominate students that were hard working, motivated, would benefit from and enjoy GRIT and may not get this kind of opportunity. Five of the six girls from Steller are boisterous– full of stories and jokes and opinions. The sixth is introverted and spare with words, but the rest are kind to her. They know her and she is one of them. I’m relieved. I don’t know what I would do if they weren’t kind.

While we wait for the girls from Begich, we find a place in the school to lock the bicycles between sessions. There is a portable classroom behind the school that locks automatically. It is only used by the band teacher for the first period. We can keep the bikes and snacks in there.

The Begich girls arrive. Together we walk half a mile over to the Bicycle Shop. Christina and Sue meet us there. I introduce the GRIT girls to Mike Shupe, the owner of the shop. Mike opened The Bicycle Shop in 1964. It is the oldest shop in Alaska. Mike is in his 70s and still rides 9-15 miles to work every day. During the busy summer season, he works seven days a week and inspires us all to work hard, be kind and care about the community.

Christina takes us on a tour of the shop. On any given day, there are hundreds of bicycles at The Bicycle Shop, both new bikes for sale and used bikes in for repair. It is amazing to see how they all fit in this three story building.

We go out into the parking lot and Sue gives us a talk about shifting and braking. Then we head out to ride.

The multi-use greenway trails are all still covered in snow, so we stick to the roads. Crossing the intersection of Benson Boulevard and the New Seward Highway, my mom honks and waves to us.

“That’s my mom!”

“Really?”

“Wave to my mom!”

They all wave.

Riding past the University of Anchorage, Kristen Shupe, Mike Shupe’s daughter, honks and waves at us. Anchorage is the biggest small town I’ve ever experienced.

We hop on a short stint of the Chester Creek Trail. The girls push their bikes through snow on an overpass. Inevitably one of them falls on the descent. The first of many falls that take my breath away until I know that they’re okay. We part ways at Tikishla Park. The Steller girls turn around to head back to their school and I ride with the Begich girls to the east side of town. We ride past my old high school and then past Russian Jack Park, up busy Debarr Road and through neighborhood streets back to Begich Middle School.

“How far was that?”

The girls are tired. We rode 9 miles across town.

“Nine miles! That is awesome!”

It totally is. On April 10, 2017 Eleven 7th grade girls and 5 mentors rode their bikes across Anchorage. This is the start of Anchorage GRIT.

Prelude to Anchorage GRIT

Hanging out with Cait Rodriguez while I was in Anchorage last December, we got to talking about community bike projects. In the spring of 2016, Cait, Nick and I teamed up to source and repair 35 bikes for two low income third grade classes at Russian Jack Elementary.

At the time, my mom was a teacher at Russian Jack. In the spring, as the days were getting longer and the snow was melting, she asked her class how many of them had bikes. Only six of the thirty kids in her class raised their hands. She came home from school and told me about it.

Then, she asked, is there anyway we could get these kids bikes?

I called up Cait. Cait is a volunteer manager at Off The Chain Bicycle Collective, the Anchorage Bike Coop. I told her about my mom’s class and asked if there was anyway we could get these kids bikes.

Oh, sure. We’ve got tons of kids’ bikes at the coop.

So, we got to work. We tracked down bikes with 16”, 20” and 24” wheels at the coop– mostly used Walmart bikes. We told people around Anchorage about our project and they donated more kids bikes. Volunteers from Off The Chain and The Bicycle Shop helped to get them rolling. At the time, Nick and I were working 7 days a week at The Bicycle Shop. We spent many nights working until midnight at the coop to get the kids’ bikes rolling. We hosted two field trips at Off The Chain, one for each of the third grade classes at Russian Jack. The students visited the space, learned about volunteering and test rode the bicycles. Fortunately, all but one of them could proficiently ride. During the field trip, we fitted students and put their names on bikes. A couple of the kids had bikes at home that were out of repair, so we told them to bring the bikes to school and we’d fix them up.

Once the bikes were ready to go, we transported all of them to Russian Jack Elementary for a third grade bike rodeo in the parking lot. We set up five stations and a practice course. In addition to the bikes, the students received helmets and locks. When you’re seven-years-old, having a bike is a big step towards independence. Scott Jensen from Alaska Dispatch News captured this project in a short video.

This project wouldn’t have been possible without an extraordinary amount of energy from the third grade teachers, the mechanics from The Bicycle Shop and the volunteers from Off The Chain Bicycle Collective.

This year, I’ve received several emails asking if we’re going to repeat the kids’ bikes project this year. I would be happy to help facilitate this project, but we really need a specific school and teachers to work with. Off The Chain still has plenty of donated kids’ bikes and fantastic volunteers that would probably help get these bikes rolling. There are still many kids in Anchorage that don’t have bikes. If you have a vision for this program this year and energy to see it through, get in touch with me and I’ll do my best to help. Anchorage is a city rich in resources with a great disparity in wealth. I truly believe that providing bikes to people of any age is a step towards independence and health. Let’s get more people in Anchorage on bikes.

This December I asked Cait, do you want to do another kids’ bikes project?

Oh, sure. But what if instead of providing bikes for elementary school kids, we worked with middle school girls.

And that was the start of Anchorage GRIT– Girls Riding Into Tomorrow, a middle school girls’ bicycle program. Our imaginations fired up. There were so many things we could do with these girls. So many things we would’ve loved to do when we were in 7th grade. First, we schemed up the final project, a 45 mile ride from Anchorage on bike paths and gravel roads to Eklutna Lake and an overnight at the Serenity Falls Forest Service cabin. Then we started designing a schedule to lead up to the capstone camp out.

In January, Cait and I flew to San Diego to ride the Baja Divide. We hashed out the the details for GRIT while riding and camping together in Mexico. Anchorage GRIT would be a six week mentorship program in Anchorage meeting 2-3 times a week. We would work with 2 different middle schools from the Anchorage School District. The schools would select five 7th grade female students to participate in GRIT. All of the sessions would lead up to the capstone camp out, a weekend long bikepacking adventure from Anchorage to Eklutna Lake. All of the sessions would include a ride to a lesson or a volunteering opportunity with lessons in safe riding, bicycle maintenance, route planning, packing for trips, mountain bike skills, stretching and fitness. From Mexico, we sent an itinerary to principals in the Anchorage School District about working with their schools. We started recruiting mentors and expert women from the community to teach the workshops. GRIT was gaining steam fast– it seemed like everyone we talked to about GRIT was wild about the program and wanted to help us however they could. During this time, I reached out to Vanessa and Katie Sue from Specialized and asked if they could provide bikes for the girls. They were all for it!

In February, Cait headed back to Anchorage and I kept riding in Mexico. Back in town, Cait started meeting with counselors and teachers from the schools. We focused in on Begich Middle School and Steller Secondary School. Teachers from the schools nominated students for the program and Cait held interest meetings for the students and parents. In early March, the girls and parents committed to GRIT.
On April 8, 11 Specialized Jynx bicycles arrived to The Bicycle Shop. With the help of all of the employees at the shop, we built the bikes after hours and had them ready for the parent and student meeting the following day.

On April 9, We wrote the girls’ names on the top tubes of their bicycles and parked them out front of The Bicycle Shop. That evening, the 11 students and 5 mentors that make up Team GRIT met for the first time at The Bicycle Shop. The girls found their new bikes and Lindsey Hajduk and Kati Ward from Bike Anchorage taught a safe riding lesson. We fitted the girls to their bikes and practiced skills in the parking lot.

The next day, we met at The Bicycle Shop for our first real ride.

Exchange Rate

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On January 2, Nick and I met bikepackers from around the world in downtown San Diego to begin the group start on the Baja Divide. We met up with old and new friends, passed around GU Stroopwafels and started riding the route around 8:27AM. Day one on the Baja Divide includes a 3000 foot climb over Otay Mountain– the single longest climb on the whole route. We reconvened at Barrett Junction Cafe for a fish fry (thanks, Leon!) and camping. Though the ride was strenuous, everyone was smiling by the end of the day.

At Barrett Junction, Baja Divide riders screen printed their shirts with the Baja Divide logo (thanks, Holly!), helped each other with GPS problems (thanks, Rob!) and last minute bike issues. Riders received Revelate Designs peso pouches (thanks, Eric and Dusty!), an assortment of GU snacks (thanks, Magda!), and bottles full of Slime tubeless sealant (thanks, Joe!)

The Baja Divide route and group start are a gift– a gift to the bikepacking community and hopefully something that will benefit Baja California. Nick and I are very proud of this project and we are so grateful for all the help we’ve received!

On the 3rd of January, 97 riders rolled their bikes across the border into Mexico. Hector, from the tourism bureau in Tijuana, met us in the plaza in Tecate. He thanked us for making Baja California more visible to the bikepacking community and we took a group photo.

The exchange rate is good right now on the Baja Divide. We are all riding bikes, eating and sleeping, working hard and having fun, making friends and solving problems, speaking Spanish and English, and learning a lot.

Thanks Revelate Designs and Advocate Cycles for believing in us from the start. We really appreciate your support!

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Homecoming at The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage, AK!

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Thanks to The Bicycle Shop for hosting our event, Racing the Trans Am Bike Race, a fun evening of stories from my race. Nick and I rolled right off the plane from San Diego and into a group of over 100 of our best friends in Anchorage. We’re only here for two weeks before we head back to San Diego for the group start of the Baja Divide.

Five years ago Nick had to beg for a job as a mechanic in the middle of the winter and now we get to organize awesome events and help get more people on bikes. Only later did I learn that the owner of The Bicycle Shop– Mike Shupe– was friends with my uncle JV in junior high.  Anchorage feels like such a small town if you grew up here. It is so cool to see the explosion of winter cycling in Anchorage and to see the oldest bicycle shop in Alaska killing it!

Thanks to Mike Shupe, Kristen Shupe, Ray Clayton, Chris Wineck, Jamin Hall, Christina Grande, Zac Heinen, Rick, Roland, and Devon. Big thanks to David Henke for supporting the event with audio and video.

It is great to be home.

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Lavanya Pant receives the Baja Divide Women’s Scholarship

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Lavanya Pant got me laughing from the start. Her application was full of comedy and heart, adventurous exploits and profound insight. And then I saw her photography. She’s talented, she’s young and she’s committed to bicycle adventure. I see her as capable of uplifting others— inspiring people to try new things, to follow their hearts and be kind to one another. In a word, I fell in love with Lavanya Pant and I think you will too.  Please donate to the community-supported travel grant that we have established for Lavanya on Generosity.com. 

Lavanya Pant is 26 years old. This is her story, in her words.

I was born in India and lived there till I was 13. For 3 years my family lived in the remote towns and settlements of Bikaner and Barmer in the Thar Desert in Rajasthan where heat and power outages often forced us to sleep outside and I first developed an affinity for doing so. I taught myself to ride on my neighbor’s bicycle in New Delhi when I was 10. In exchange, I’d ‘let her play’ with my well-liked and not manipulative little sister. My parents migrated to Australia in 2003. Retrospectively, I am very grateful. I don’t think I would be riding around the world if we hadn’t. At the age of 13, in Australia I got my first bike. I rode to school everyday.

My first solo travel experience was when I turned 19. I saved up to go to Cuba, Mexico and the US for 2 months. In Isla Mujeres, I gave my neighbors 250 pesos to borrow their daughter’s bike for a day.  I rode the 13km perimeter of the island four times. I saw baby turtles, swam in pristine waters, and was joined on one leg by seventy-something Vietnam vet Jerry or ‘Captain Bananas’ from Florida who showed me Mayan ruins I thought had only existed on the mainland. I spoke to so many locals and had the time of my life. On returning from this trip, I took out an academic loan for a study tour to South Africa and Rwanda for 4 weeks. We met many genocide survivors, heard their heartbreaking stories and were amazed at how Rwandans couldn’t stop beaming with huge smiles and warm hearts despite their recent history. I hope to revisit Cuba, Mexico, Rwanda and USA on my bike one day.

My partner Alistair and his friends got me into riding longer distances. In 2012, Al lent me his 3-speed Raleigh Twenty and I did my first overnight and off road ride on the Warrnambool-Port Fairy rail trail on the Victorian coast. I loved every bit of it, even my rattly Raleigh. The following year, we built a Surly Disc Trucker. I was suddenly so much faster and capable of riding dirt! But still unable to keep up with Al and his friends. Frustrated but inspired, I started a girls riding group called The Winona Riders. I was surprised at how many women were interested in riding and traveling by bike.  Al and I held a bicycle mechanics workshop and ten Winonas did our first dirt overnighter in January 2014 – 45kms into the Warburton ranges. We squeezed ten people into four small tents by the river, ate kangaroo burgers, giggled hysterically. Our title offset any danger of getting down or taking things seriously.

In the 2014-15 holiday period, me and 8 friends (including two Winonas), slow rolled through dirt roads and fire trails cutting through the middle of Tasmania. It was hard, hilly, remote and so much fun! We had a 3-day stretch with no resupply. One memorable day was when the Winona Riders beat all the boys to the top of the biggest climb of the route owing to good navigation and stocking up lots of Tasmanian cheese.

In July 2015, Al and I quit our jobs and bought a one-way ticket to Denmark. We rode dirt and pavement from Copenhagen to Athens. I got a real taste for riding dirt in France, Montenegro and Albania and want to progress to riding desert roads and more technical trails. This was my first experience travelling internationally by bike. The gradual process of breaking down physical and mental barriers between my environment and me was invigorating. Some things I learnt – people and animals are not scary, rain and snow is not bad and often fun, cleanliness and smelling good is not essential to making great friends, language barriers inspire creative interaction and can fasten ties better than strings of familiar words, gracefully accepting relentless hospitality is an important skill to hone, and caring for my body and things I own is essential but worrying about them unnecessary. Also, not to fall for government travel advisories and political hearsay about how dangerous the world is. And definitely not to believe self-imposed advisories on what I can and can’t do. Bike touring is one of few ways of travelling where I am constantly reminded of these facts. The more openly I interact with the people and places around me, the better I feel about the world and myself in it.

Now, I live and work in Tokyo and commute as much as possible and ride into the mountains on weekends. I did my first solo overnighter into the Okutama mountains from Tokyo in July. At the local izakaya, the other patrons bought me a round of beer and pickled plums (for ‘fatigue recovery’) when they heard I rode out there alone. This winter I plan to get to Shikoku or Okinawa islands and do a longer solo bike tour.

I have native proficiency in Hindi, Urdu and English. Recently, I started learning the Urdu script for a gateway to Arabic and Farsi. In the last 7 months in Japan I have gained intermediate proficiency in speaking Japanese and can orient myself in many situations. I can read the phonic scripts and love deciphering the forever evasive Kanji, which are hieroglyphics, that I don’t think I will ever master. In Montenegro last year, 15yo Selma from Berane taught me some of her favourite songs in Serbski. These songs are great lightweight souvenirs and ever since I have collected them in Hindi, Marwari and Japanese.

For the last 6 months I have been working in Tokyo and saving to buy a hardtail with plus size tires and bikepacking gear so I can travel through the Mongolian desert next year and hopefully meet Kazakh eagle hunters! The latter I have fantasised about since I was 16. I want to roll over sand and riverbeds and it seems like this is a necessary step in my riding evolution. I pay student loans in Australia and am enrolled in a mandatory Japanese pension scheme so currently I couldn’t have made it to Baja this year without the scholarship.

It is a thrill to feel supported and rewarded for adventure. Earlier this year I was in India, where some people did not approve of my bike travels. It was seen as irresponsible and rebellious. These attitudes are not surprising but hurtful and discouraging nonetheless. My younger female cousins were most supportive and I feel grateful for them….

A scholarship that supports women in doing what they love and giving them a platform to share those experiences will have a domino effect in inspiring courage and creativity in more women and potentially changing the attitudes of others.

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Lavanya will ride the Baja Divide this February and March with Alistair and any Winona Riders and friends that can join.  She will ride an extra small Advocate Cycles Seldom Seen with Revelate Designs luggage, and will also be awarded with additional new equipment and support from Big Agnes, Specialized, and Adventure Cycling Association.  I really hope I get to meet her.

Follow Lavanya on Instagram: @lavlavish

 

 

 

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“Meet and Treat” at Interbike

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Come to Revelate Booth #21070 at Interbike at 4PM on Thursday, September 22 for a “Meet and Treat”. We’ll talk about the Trans Am and Tour Divide and eat snacks. I promise we’ll have chocolate milk.

The gas station tour of America

During the Trans Am I bought all of my food at gas stations and ate all of my meals while riding. Popping in and out of a gas station is much faster than navigating a full-sized grocery store, waiting for someone to prepare food or even buying fast-food. Time on the bike is miles. Over the 18 days of the Trans Am and two runs on the Tour Divide last summer, I’ve visited hundreds of gas stations. They are not all equal.

During the Trans Am I survived mostly on chocolate milk– full fat if I could find it. TrueMoo is not very good, but it’s better than Nesquick. Full fat Darigold is delicious. By the end of the race, I switched to regular whole milk. Almost every gas station in Kansas had hot pizza slices, easy to eat even when they’re cold. It’s hard to make really bad pizza. I ate a lot of cheese danishes– they never taste good, but they’re pretty neutral. During the Tour Divide I survived mostly on Fritos and cheese– cheddar if I could find it, but mostly individual packets of string cheese. It tastes like nachos. As far as potato chips go, I’d select Ruffles or Kettle Chips over Lay’s Original because they don’t crumble as easily. I got really sick of chips during Tour Divide and switched to Cheez-Its and crackers. I quit eating hot dogs after Tour Divide. I’ll also never eat another eggroll, corn dog, or taquito from a hot dog roller, although never is a pretty strong word. For nutrients, I drank lots of smoothie juices and tomato juice. In hot weather, I prefer PayDay to other candy bars because they don’t have chocolate and don’t melt in the sun. Yellow Gatorade only tastes good when it’s hot as hell outside. After burning out on Clif bars, I switched to Sunbelt granola bars, typically the oats & honey flavor. They’re greasy and taste like cookies. Cookies taste good almost all the time. Muffins make messes. A pack of nuts is good emergency food, but rarely appetizing. Ice cream is rocket fuel, but the downside is that you can’t pack it away for later. 

Gas stations are better in Mexico because they have fruits and vegetables.  

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“Lael’s Globe of Adventure” Women’s Scholarship for the Baja Divide 2016-17

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The Baja Divide route is complete and the website is live!

The “Lael’s Globe of Adventure” Women’s Scholarship is an opportunity and a challenge to get more women on bikes. Be brave, be open and do your best.

This is the best I can do to encourage and help someone ride the Baja Divide this year. I’m so excited that Advocate Cycles and Revelate Designs think it’s a great idea and are generously donating a bike and gear to make this happen.

From my experiences traveling and racing I’ve been overwhelmed with positive energy– from people telling me how inspired they were to take on new challenges, to get outside, to ride their bikes. People share my experience and make it their own. I’m trying my hardest, I’m doing my best and I’m happy. Let’s extend that to another woman. Let’s give her the opportunity to work for something, to push the pedals through Baja California, meet the people, camp in the desert, eat ceviche, swim in the Sea of Cortez, speak some Spanish, coast along the wild Pacific, get tired and dirty and dreamy. And then she can tell us about it.

The details:

The “Lael’s Globe of Adventure” Women’s Scholarship is available to one female rider who intends to ride most or all of the Baja Divide in the 2016-2017 season.  Named for Lael Wilcox and her adventurous exploits by bike, the applicant should possess an interest in international travel and global cultures, have some off-pavement bicycle touring experience (or substantive paved touring, bikepacking, or travel experience), and be willing to share her ride on the Baja Divide through writing, photography, visual art, or music. Thanks to the generous support of Advocate Cycles and Revelate Designs, the recipient of this scholarship will receive:

–Advocate Cycles 27.5+ Hayduke or Seldom Seen

-Revelate Designs luggage kit including Ranger framebag, Sweetroll and Pocket handlebar system, Viscacha seatbag, and Gas Tank top tube bag

-$1000 community-funded travel stipend (minimum amount)

-Additional lightweight camping equipment

The recipient will be expected to provide one substantial written piece to Advocate Cycles, Revelate Designs, and the Baja Divide website. The application deadline is November 11, 2016. The recipient will be announced on November 18, 2016.

If you know of a place to share this opportunity, spread the word!

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Virginia

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The hills of western Virginia are mythical– exponentially longer and steeper than those in Kentucky or Missouri, they make you feel small. I am Sisyphus, rolling my bike up for eternity only to come back down to the base of another hill. The Trans Am Trail routes through nearly 600 miles in Virginia with more elevation gain than any other state. I honestly just want to be done.

I stop at the gas station in Haysi and drink redbull while the lady makes me two feet of omelet sandwich. The eggs look like yellow discs and taste like nothing. Accents are thick and my brain is fried and I really don’t want to be around people. I start feeling pretty woozy in the afternoon near Meadowview and stop at a white country store with an empty parking lot. Shelves are mostly bare and the strongest drink they have is Mountain Dew. I take two and fill my bottles. Signs in the parking lot announce that shoplifters will be persecuted and I have a hard time imagining what they could be stealing. I’m struggling to focus my eyes and I feel pretty wretched. I know I can’t continue like this for another two days. I need backup.

Just out of town, I push my bike across a construction site on Interstate 81 to a Love’s Travel Stop. I head for the trucker drugs aisle and pick out the most expensive caffeine pills I can find– there are at least four options. I buy a new pair of sunglasses and two 5-hour energies and get back on my bike. I can’t afford to ride unarmed. I need to finish this.

I stop in Damascus, looking for gu at the bicycle rental shop and don’t find any. At the top of the climb, I pump water from an abandoned house to fill my bottles. A few miles down the road a guy in a sedan pulls over. He offers me Gatorade and water and bananas. I just filled up, but it’s nice to have a friend in the woods. He tells me that Steffen has the look of fear in his eyes, like an animal being hunted. I tell him I’ll do my best to track him down.

I drink some whole milk in Sugar Grove and set in for the night. The sun sets over Rural Retreat and then I’m riding on a frontage road alongside I-81 in the dark. Just before 11PM I call it. The riding is easy, but it’ll be faster after a few of hours of sleep. I roll my bike through a lawn and into the trees across from the Fox Mountain Inn. I set my alarm for three hours and tuck into my bivvy. I’m so grateful for sleep. One more night to Yorktown.

I pack up at 1AM and start moving. I stop at the Radford Travel Station before sunrise. They have a short order cook fixing hot breakfast, but I don’t want to wait so I take some biscuit sandwiches to go. The riding is easy and I’m zooming. Outside of Red Mills an older guy stops to give me chocolate chip cookies that his daughter baked him. He’s driving back and forth between me and Steffen, giving us cookies and updating us on the other’s progress. He finds me again outside of Lexington and gives me a Klondike bar– the first ice cream I’ve eaten on the route. It feels like rocket fuel.

Outside of Lexington I meet a couple of young guy cycle-tourists. One of them tells me that the tourists along the route are keeping up with the race and cheering us on. I invite him to ride the hills through the night with me, but he’s looking forward to a break in town. Just as we’re parting ways he tells me,

“Lael, if I don’t see you again, I just want you to know that I’m really proud of you.”

It’s the nicest thing anyone says to me for the whole race. Riding away, I feel both like I’m going to cry and determined to get it done, to do something that people can believe in.

Climbing along signed Bike 76 Route, Nathan and Anthony wait for me with cameras at the top of a hill. The route sign points right and I start to turn and Nathan says it’s the other way and points left, so I turn left onto Interstate 81. Holy shit! It’s a divided freeway and 18 wheelers are honking at me cause they know that I’m not supposed to be there. Nathan and Anthony pull up in their Saturn looking sorry and tell me they fucked up and drive away. I don’t see them again for the rest of the day. I really don’t want to ride backwards on a one-way freeway. I see a concrete embankment sloping down to the frontage road that I’m supposed to be riding and shimmy down, using my bike brakes for traction.

It’s a hot afternoon. I stop at a church and kneel under a spigot and drench my whole body. The route turns to gravel along the Chalk Mine Run. A guy in a pick-up truck honks mean at me and then I see him pull into his driveway and then he sees me jump into the creek with all of my clothes on. I pass construction workers improving the roadway and one of them tells me that I’m all wet. Yep, I am.

The ride out of Vesuvius to the Blue Ridge Parkway is definitely the steepest of the whole route. I am standing up cranking in my smallest gear. The sky gets dark and it’s starts pouring once I get on the Parkway and it’s blowing wind. I cross paths with a young cycle-tourist and we look at each other in disbelief and we both start laughing. What the hell are we doing up here? I know that once I get down I’m almost out of the hills and I just want to get there. The rain lessens and the views open up. It’s spectacular to see the mountains drop off and to see so much of Virginia.

At the end of the Blue Ridge, a sign advertises aid to Trans Am Racers in Afton, a quarter mile off route. Bill meets me at the road and takes me to his place. His wife reheats half of a cheeseburger and makes me a turkey sandwich and Bill loads me up with energy bars and gu. I pump up my tires and lube my chain and I’m ready for the final push. Bill rides me back out on the route. The wind is still furious, but the storm seems to be dying and I’m happy to have some company. Bill points out the country store where Mike Hall drank milkshakes in the movie and sends me on my way.

I make it to Charlottesville around 9PM. I stop at a gas station and buy a pint of ice cream, a cheese sandwich, two slices of pound cake, yogurt covered pretzels, a 5-hour energy and a bag of potato chips. I’m loaded up good cause if I ever catch Steffen, I’m not stopping again. The soles of my feet are killing me. They’ve been wet since the creek before the Blue Ridge Parkway and they’re starting to burn. I hunt around the gas station, looking for socks. No luck. In town, I pass the campus bookstore, full of University of Virginia paraphernalia. Bingo! I buy a pair of XL shin high socks and sit in a corner of the shop to put them on. At this point, my feet are white and seriously shriveled. What a relief! I throw the old socks away, pop the cap off my pint of ice cream and eat it as I pedal down the road. It’s definitely messier than I envisioned, but tastes like a million bucks.

The road is narrow near Monticello and cars honk at me and I don’t care. I get really tired near Cuckoo and can’t keep my eyes open. I pull over in a farm field and set an alarm for twenty minutes and after twenty set it for another twenty and wake up after ten. I tell myself I’ll ride another ten miles, at which point I’ll sleep if I have to or I’ll go for it.

After ten miles, I feel fine. I chase a caffeine pill with a 5-hour energy and I start cruising. All I need is water. I fill up from a spigot at a gas station and then I’m ready. This is it. I’m going to chase down Steffen. It’s 2:30AM and I start riding hard. Just past a massive water reservoir, on the outskirts of Bumpass I see a bright light coming towards me. Immediately when we cross paths, the biker turns around and starts riding next to me. It’s 3AM. I’ve slept a total of six hours in the last three nights. Not everything is making sense. I look over at him, first thinking that maybe he’s a fan that has come out to encourage me in the night. But his face looks serious and his bike is all packed up like mine.

So I ask him, “What’s your name?”

And he responds, “Steffen.”

An alarm goes off in my brain. Holy shit! This is the guy I’ve been chasing for two weeks. And I start sprinting like mad. I’m no longer tired. I am so excited! We ride side by side on the rural Virginia streets. I push the pace and every time he catches up square to me, I push it a little harder. I’m riding super aggressive, burning through stop signs and cutting corners. My lungs are on fire and we still have 125 miles to Yorktown and I really don’t know how long I can keep this up, but I’ll keep going til I can’t. We continue like this for twenty miles until the road splits. I head to the right and Steffen calls out that the track is to the left. He slows up a bit for me to catch up and when I do he says,

“Let’s talk.”

I don’t want to talk. I just want to ride, but since he waited for me, I concede. We ride and talk.

He says, “We’ve been battling for two weeks. Let’s just finish this together.”

I say, “Together? No! This is the best part. It’s a race and I want to race to the finish.”

Then he says, “But, you’re losing.”

I shake my head. “No.”

He nods. “No.”

Then I take off and I don’t look back. Six miles down the road I realize I dropped him and the realization that I could actually win this race sets in. Then the battery on my electronic shifting dies. Oh no! First I think I might just singlespeed to the finish, but the terrain is pretty flat and I know I’ll ride much faster with gears. It’s still dark and I stop at the Sheetz gas station in Ashland, so I can work under the light. I roll my bike around to the back, so Steffen won’t see that I’m having a mechanical problem if he catches me. I remove my seatpost to get to the battery. I can’t seem to pull the battery out of the post, so I just unplug the cord, plug it into my spare battery and shove both batteries and the cord into my frame. I can’t get my seatpost wedge to tighten, so I pedal away standing up feeling pressed to get the hell out of there. I tighten the seatpost wedge down the street at a bank and then I’m home free.

98 miles to Yorktown! I ride a solid, fast pace and I’m focused. I watch the road like a hawk, looking for debris, telling myself over and over “No mistakes and no flats.” I’m going to win this race! The day heats up. I stop to pee twice and fill my bottles with water and that’s it. The track is flat. Some folks wait along the side of the road to cheer me on and take my picture. The road surface gets pretty rough twenty miles from the end with small stones embedded in concrete. I don’t care and I don’t slow down cause I just want to finish. I make a couple of turns through phony colonial Williamsburg, past revolutionary reenactments and children marching with flutes and snare drums and then I’m back on the Colonial Parkway. Just out of Yorktown, there’s a construction detour, so instead of following the track I navigate through town, following signs to the Victory Monument. And then I’m done!

At 11:10 AM on June 22, after 18 days and 10 minutes, I arrive at the Atlantic Coast. A small crowd waits and cheers me in. Nick is there, Nick’s sister Katya is there and Jen Barr is there. I couldn’t have better company. Someone sets out a camping chair on the foreground of the Victory Monument. I sit down, take off my shoes and tell my story.

Two hours later, Steffen rolls in. He stops in front of the monument, pulls a blueberry muffin out of his framebag and eats it, face first. Once he’s finished, Nick gives him another muffin.

Eight hours later, Evan rolls in. I am so happy to see him!

Two days later, Kai rolls in. We bring him donuts and coffee and beer and gatorade.

Three days later Kai, Nick and I take the train to New York City. The Trans Am is over, but we’re still riding bikes in America and drinking chocolate milk.

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Trans Am Bike Race 2016: Kentucky

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

Evan and I ride up the hill away from the ferry. We pass a big bellied man sitting on the porch drinking a Mountain Dew. I wave and he doesn’t wave back. We stop at the gas station in Marion. It has a full breakfast buffet in the hot case– biscuits, home fries and strips of bacon, breakfast sandwiches, fried eggs and fried apple pie– in the next two days I find this is the norm in Kentucky. I pack a couple of biscuits for later. Kentucky is rural and hilly. Trump signs are posted in lawns and home made Trump signs dangle out of trees and there’s no shortage of confederate flags. We pedal right through Whitesville. We’re headed for Bardstown– the bourbon capital of the world. The day passes like much of the rest of the days. Fifteen days in, it feels like this race might not ever end and the end definitely isn’t in sight. We pedal through the heat, past white Baptist churches. Above ground swimming pools, giant trampolines and rusted car bodies decorate yards. Evan drinks lots of sweet tea and I drink lots of chocolate milk and the sun sets. Still on the road after midnight, our headlights illuminate the towering bourbon storage structures on the outskirts of Bardstown. The night is quiet and the buildings are spooky with narrow windows stacked seven across and eight high– like some kind of prison apartment complex for ghosts. We ride into the lights of town, turn left at the McDonald’s and check into the Bardstown Parkview around 1AM.

We get moving after 6AM. It’s Sunday and most everything is closed. We find a Circle K at the edge of town to buy food. I’m not sure when we crossed into the Bluegrass region, but we’re there. I’m ready to finish and aim to stay on the bike. Evan says the climbs get longer and steeper after Berea. A couple waits for us in a church parking lot before town with juice and water. We fill our bottles. They watched Inpsired to Ride and are thrilled to see racers pass through their hometown.

The hills out of Berea are so green, and Evan was right, they’re monster climbs. I ride standing up for most of the afternoon, feeling really good. Evan is tired, trying his hardest to stay awake and hang on to the pace. He hasn’t been sleeping well, but he keeps a positive attitude and we’re going after it. The last time I see him is on a descent. I pass through a traffic light and the light changes colors and I figure he’ll catch me in a couple minutes, but he doesn’t. I call him from Booneville because I haven’t seen him for an hour. Reception is spotty and he doesn’t answer, so I leave a message. He calls me back an hour later and leaves a message that he was falling asleep descending next to 18 wheelers. He stopped at a gas station to slam a couple Mountain Dews and plans to make it to Hazard to get some solid sleep. I’m back on the bike and now I’m alone for the first time since Wyoming. And now I know that I’m on the hunt

I stop at a mountain shop near Buckhorn and buy a Monster Coffee. I want to stay up for a while. The shopkeep asks where I’m coming from. He says he remembers seeing the first bikes come through forty years ago when he was a teenager. I tell him about the race and that I’m chasing down the leader. He asks if I’m riding about forty miles a day and I say that I’m riding about 240 miles a day and he says I must really want the win. Yep, I do.

I ride back out into the evening past Chavies and past the Holiday Inn in Hazard. There’s an Arby’s across the street and hot food actually sounds good, but I feel the pressure of time and the need to stay on my bike. I’ll save my stopped time for sleep. I get off the main highway and ride into the sleeping communities of Dwarf, Fisty, Emmalena and Carrie. Into Hindman around 11PM, I don’t hesitate. I pull into the schoolyard, set my bivvy out next to the deserted building and go to sleep. I set my alarm for two and a half hours– I’m cutting sleep to the finish, counting down the nights to Yorktown. I dread sleepless nights, so I don’t force myself through them. A short sleep is better than none at all.

Riding by 2AM, I’m gaining miles. I stop out front of the Dollar General in Bypro to buy water out of a vending machine. Nothing will be open for hours. Around 6AM I pick up some hot case breakfast and then I’m pushing for Breaks Interstate Park. It’s greener and steeper than ever before. In the early morning hours, I ride into Virginia. Finally, the end is in sight.

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