Baja Divide FKT Day 2: Jesus is waiting

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I’m up four hours later riding the moto road along the coast to Colonet. I forget to turn my SPOT on until the sun comes up and I’m almost in town. I stop at the OXXO to resupply. As I’m walking out of the shop with more food than I can possibly pack, Jesus and another young rider roll up. They’re excited!

“We’re going to ride with you up the mountain to El Coyote. We were worried about you because your dot wasn’t moving, but once it did you were here in a flash.”

Jesus is from Colonet, but he’s never been to El Coyote. The Baja Divide has changed the way the locals view their own towns. They all want to be part of the adventure. It’s contagious.

Four years ago, Jesus was eighty pounds heavier and could hardly walk. He was a sick man and didn’t believe he’d live much longer. He started riding a bike and he started feeling better– better and better. Riding a bicycle changed the course of his life. Riding a bicycle gave Jesus a life. When Ryan’s bike got stolen in Colonet in January, Jesus tracked down the thugs that took it and paid them 4000 pesos to give it back. He’d never met Ryan but he believed so much in the Baja Divide and the integrity of his community that he had to make it right. Salvador’s wife, Flor, gave Ryan a ride to Colonet to pick up his bike. Then, Jesus gave Ryan his bike back and offered him a ride to San Diego so he could retrieve more necessary gear. I’m blown away by the generosity we’ve received in Baja.

Outside of the OXXO, I drink a lot of yogurt really fast and we roll out together. It’s amazing to have friends. Jesus is slower on the climbs, but he bombs all of the descents. Ten miles later we pass through Ejido Benito Juarez. I don’t stop at my favorite store, but continue on into the arroyo. We start seeing water soon. The road is washed out and we get separated. I push my bike through a dozen water crossings, moving forward steadily. Then it’s a 2000′ climb and some chunky and sandy tracks. Then El Coyote. I keep rolling to Rancho Meling, stop to get water, drink a coke and pack one to go. By noon on day 2 of my Baja Divide FKT, I’ve already ridden what took us a full week to tour.

The ten miles out of Rancho Meling are insanely steep short climbs and descents. I grind my knees up most of them and have to push two or three pitches. I pedal over a grassy field past citrus trees. Nothing is easy on the Baja Divide. Even the descents are full of climbs. Eventually I make it to the arroyo leading into Vicente Guerrero. It’s full of water. The dirt road I rode in January has transformed into a flowing stream. I walk most of a mile or two to the edge of town. It’s nearing sunset.

Crossing the arroyo, a group of 20 or 30 people, including Nick, Salvador and his family, are waiting for me. They cheer me in as I push my bike across the knee deep water. One guy takes a video and we all take a group photo. The crowd demands that Nick gives me a kiss and shyly kisses me on the cheek. Nick, Salvador and a 12-year-old local racer will ride with me the next 20 miles to San Quintin. I wire in my headlamp and we’re off. It’s classic cross-country terrain to San Quintin, rolling with little ribbons of single track and high quality dirt roads. Salvador records a video with commentary on his iPhone for most of the way. I’m thrilled to have company and wish that Nick would ride with me into the night. Salvador and the kid split off to make their way home. Nick and I continue on into San Quintin and stop to get queso tacos. While they’re getting fixed, I go to the store next door to stock up on gummy candy and donuts and peanuts. I have a long remote stretch through the Valley of the Cirios ahead. I fill my water to capacity and the 7 liters is heavy, but I’ll need it.

It’s dark and cold. My body temperature drops and I’m worried about the night. It’s already colder than the day before. In the day, San Quintin is bustling, but by 9PM most everything is closed. I wish I could buy more clothes. I consider getting a motel room and sleeping for a few hours, but I’m really not that tired. I pack a couple of tacos to go and Nick gives me a big hug goodbye. I take advantage of the easy road miles. They’re fast and help my legs recover. I hit the beach at Mission Santa Maria. It’s high tide and the riding is very soft and slow. I take pressure out of my tires twice and crawl the four miles to Nueva Odisea. Town is dark. I fantasize that there’s a motel in town that I’d never noticed, but I know that there isn’t. In the dark, I roll past barking dogs and mistake a dirt driveway for the track and then start climbing. I’m motivated to get out of this cold valley. It’s past midnight and I warm up on the climb. I tell myself it’s warmer cause I’ve gained a couple hundred feet. I bed down at 1AM exhausted and set my alarm, but I don’t even need it. I shiver myself awake two and a half hours later.

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Baja Divide FKT Day 1: 5:12AM, March 2, 2017

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It’s still dark and I ride right into a stiff headwind, but I don’t care. I’m ready to get after it. Salvador and the owner of Bicicletas los Chinos drive behind me for the paved climb out of Tecate. I climb steady because I don’t want to blow up my lungs. The sun comes up by the time I hit the dirt past San Francisco. There is so much water on the route. I’ve already ridden this road four times and only once seen a tiny stream in this section. On this ride, there is gushing water and several stream crossings. I plunge right through in my shoes, soaking my feet. The shrubs are all green– so different from washed out December. About 20 miles in I pass a couple of loaded down bikepackers pushing uphill. At this point, the headwind is so strong that it is actually blowing sand into our faces. I’m fresh and jumpy and I don’t want to stop. One of the riders says he was wondering when I’d pass them. I ask the other how he’s doing and he tells me,

“I’ve been better.”

The wind lets up by the time I get to Neji. My bike is a total ripper and I’m loving it. I climb up to 4700 feet, the highest point on the route, and descend to Ejido Sierra Juarez. Dogs sound off and chase me through the village. I ride the washboard to Ojos Negros and stop at the last store on the way out. I buy drinkable yogurt and coke and Japanese peanuts and local hard goat cheese. An old man in a wheelchair asks me about my ride and my answers get him laughing so hard he ends up in a coughing fit. I drink all of the drinks and an Indian family watches me pack up my bike out front. And then I’m off. Touring the route, it took us a full two days to get to Ojos Negros. On my FKT ride I get there just after noon. It feels like time travel.

I power along to Rancho Tres Hermanos and then the route gets steep and loose and it’s hot and my legs just lose their juice. I’ve never had this experience on the first day of an intense ride. I usually feel so fresh and full of energy. It’s 3 or 4 in the afternoon and my upper thighs feel totally drained. I’m already regretting swapping my 28-tooth chainring for a 32. The route is so steep and loose! I climb on the bike at about 3 miles an hour. I have to walk a couple stretches. I make the high point, but it’s still a lot of up and down to get to Ejido Uruapan. The sun sets and I roll into town in the dark. Nick calls cause he’s worried that I’m having breathing problems. I tell him I’m breathing all right, but my legs just wouldn’t go. He tells me to eat some real food and encourages me to pick up the pace to Erendira.

Be careful out there! The road is loose and eroded.

I buy 7 beef burritos from a tupperware container off the counter of the store, fill my water bottles, drink a yogurt, pack a couple of slices of cheesecake and hit the pavement. It’s a five mile paved ride to Santo Tomas and my legs come back. I try to eat a bite of burrito, but I really don’t want it and end up spitting it out. I pull over right before the steep climb out of Santo Tomas to wire in the batteries on my headlamp. The neighborhood dogs bark fury and I’m out of there quick. I feel good in the night. The road is broad and graded to start. Nearing the Pacific it gets pretty rough, gravelly and loose and rolling and rutted from moto traffic.

I’m running a prototype Sinewave dynamo light and two Black Diamond Icon Poler headlamps– one attached to my helmet and one attached to my head tube. It’s so much light! I can see everything and I ride the rollercoaster to the Pacific. I’m focused on consistently pushing the pedals, on staying seated and riding through the terrain even if it’s hammering me. I make it through Ejido Erendira at midnight and ride another ten miles to the big rocky outcrop where Nick and I camped on our first ride last December. I push my bike up a steep incline to the rock, pull out my bivvy and sunshade and tuck myself in. I wake up in the night cold and cinch the bivvy tighter so that there’s only a tiny hole to breathe out of.

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Baja Divide FKT

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On January 2, 2017, Nick and I met 96 riders in downtown San Diego to ride the Baja Divide, a 1700 mile dirt route that we mapped down the Baja peninsula. It was not a race, rather an opportunity to meet folks, make friends and explore magnificent terrain and culture. We rode for two months, leap frogging riders all down the way. In late February, we flew back north so that I could attempt the Baja Divide again, this time with the intention of riding the route as fast as possible to set the Baja Divide FKT, the fastest known time. 

This is how it went.

The idea started forming before I could put a finger on it. What would the Baja Divide be like as a race? How would I strategize? How would the riding feel? What would be the best bike set up? How much distance could I cover in a day, day after day? How fast could I get it done? Somehow, I felt committed to the challenge of attacking the Baja Divide before I even actually decided to do it. It just felt so natural. This is our route– mine and Nick’s. I’d already ridden it three times in 14 months. I knew it– knew the land and the culture and the feel. Attempting a fastest known time felt like the final chapter to my Baja Divide year.
Gearing up for the ride, Nick rebuilt my bike. He spent hours at my Aunt’s house in La Ventana and Cale’s house in San Diego cleaning and replacing parts, installing a new fork, rebuilding the front wheel with a dynamo hub, and mounting lights. We optimized the gear and I left a lot of things behind, including my sleeping bag. It was only while buying Ibuprofen at the store in San Diego that I had the memory of pain. The pain that happens during these long, intense rides– throbbing knees and hands and feet, aching sleep deprivation and a dull brain. In that moment, buying the pills, I accepted it. I accepted the pain. It’s just part of the experience. I would not call it suffering– suffering is something that happens to you, something you can not control. Riding miles and miles is something that I choose to do, something I choose to do to see what is humanly possible. 

While we were in San Diego it rained an inch and a half. In the rain, Nick and I took the bus to the border at Tecate, crossed the border, checked into a $13 a night motel room and waited two days for the roads to dry out. 

The dirt roads on the Baja Divide contain a high percentage of clay. When it rains, the clay turns into mud, mud that clings and cakes onto tires. Within a couple of revolutions, the tires are so coated with mud that the wheels can no longer clear the frame and as a rider, you are forced off of the bike. This mud is so thick that you can’t even roll the bike, but have to shoulder it and trudge on. And then, the heavy mud cakes to the bottom of your shoes. It’s a death march.

We watched the weather forecast obsessively. I wanted to start as soon as possible because it was starting to get really hot in southern Baja.
On the day before my projected depart, Salvador from FASS Bike drove 200 miles to visit us in Tecate to see my start. He held a mini press conference in a restaurant in Tecate and welcomed local mountain bikers to hear about my ride. Salvador Basurto III has shown amazing support to riders on the Baja Divide. This route is rugged and remote with few bicycle shops. In the first season, Salvador has helped countless riders all along the route source parts and repair their bicycles. When Jace cut a sidewall, Salvador sent him a new tire. When Ryan’s bike got stolen, Salvador helped track it down. When Nick and I couldn’t get cash in Vizcaino, Salvador arranged a money transfer. He has a wall sized map of the Baja Divide in his shop in Vicente Guerrero and has hosted parties for riders coming through. He is a fantastic guy with a great attitude and we really appreciate his support. Whenever we had a problem, Salvador always seemed to have a solution.

I dedicate my FKT ride to Colleen Welch. A mother of four boys, Colleen rode with us for the group start of the Baja Divide. We crossed paths a few times down the Baja Peninsula. Colleen was always up for everything. Spending time together in La Paz, I started telling her about my plans for Anchorage GRIT and the FKT and I broke down in tears. I was overwhelmed and broke. It all seemed so hard. The next day Colleen said,

“You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to give you two thousand dollars.”

“You can’t do that!”

“You bet I can!”

And she did! Colleen made my FKT attempt possible. I am overwhelmed by her generosity. She told me that the Baja Divide was a pretty inexpensive tour and about money, you can’t take it with you when you go.

I set the start for my FKT Baja Divide attempt for 5AM on March 2. A funny part about riding solo is that you can really start at any time. There are no other racers and there’s no official schedule. I actually roll out 5:12AM. 

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Alaska Heart Lines///Riding all of the major roads in Alaska

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Meet me at The Bicycle Shop at 6PM on Saturday, June 24 to ride with me out of town. We will ride 15 miles to the Eagle River Campground and camp overnight. The next day I will continue north, riding pavement and dirt to Deadhorse.

This summer I plan on riding all of the major roads in Alaska, including all of the major spur highways and unpaved roads– a project I started in 2014. 

I am a runner. In 2014 I injured my achilles and couldn’t run. I was so frustrated that I started riding my bike farther and farther to fill the void. I’d climb 2200′ up to the Glen Alps Trailhead and then ride across town to Kincaid Park and connect the single-track through to the Coastal Trail and then ride the Coastal Trail to work at the Rustic Goat. I couldn’t get enough and I had to get out of town.

On my first long ride, I took the train to Seward and rode my bike the 127 miles back to Anchorage in a day. A couple weeks later, I flew to Fairbanks and rode the 375 miles back to town in 2 ½ days– making it just in time to work an eight hour bartending shift. I loved the challenge of fitting huge miles into a tight time frame. Then, I rode 224 miles through the night to visit my grandparents in Homer. At the end of the summer, I raced the Fireweed 400 from Sheep Mountain to Valdez and back. It was my first race and I won. I started looking at the map more. I started tracing the lines in and out of Anchorage with my finger tips. I wanted to ride it all. To me, Anchorage is the heart of Alaska with roads extending like veins and arteries to the rest of the state. In 2014, I established that someday I would ride all of the major roads in Alaska. I would ride the heart lines of my state.

I am fifth generation Alaskan. There are so many places in my own state that I’ve only ever heard of and never seen. Our state is huge– twice the size of Texas, but there are only about 4,000 miles of road. I want to ride the Dalton Highway through Coldfoot to Deadhorse. I want to pedal through Chicken to the Top of the World Highway and the Taylor Highway to Eagle. I want to ride the McCarthy Road to visit the remains of my great grandfather’s store in Kennecott. I plan to ride 100-200 miles a day in a series of trips. I can get it all done in one summer. I’ll pack light and ride fast and far. 

At 6PM on Saturday, June 24 I am launching my Alaska Road Rides project. Meet me at The Bicycle Shop and ride 15 miles with me to the Eagle River Campground. We will campout for the night and the following day I’ll continue to Deadhorse, the northernmost road in the Alaska road system. I’ll be riding the new 2018 Specialized Diverge for this project. 

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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.

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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