MISSOULA, Mont. – What began as an off-pavement bicycle trip along the spine of the Rocky Mountains, became a few days in Portland by way of Greyhound and Amtrak.
I shipped my bike and most of my gear from Missoula and boarded an evening Spokane-bound Greyhound. In Spokane I changed to a 2:45 a.m. Amtrak Empire Builder train to Union Station in Portland, which arrived about 10 a.m. local time.
From the sidewalk in front of the train station I called a few hostels to find a room for a few days, making a reservation at the second place, Traveler’s House on North Alberta Street.
The idea for a diversion to Portland came while grinding up a gravel road somewhere north of Holland Lake on the way to Sealy Lake in Montana. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but Portland also seemed like an impossible distance away; and, I was supposed to be pedaling to the U.S./Mexico border.
In addition, I was on a well-researched and published route, one with a guide book, detailed maps on waterproof paper and published GPS file. Navigation was easy and I didn’t have to think about where campgrounds or motels were, since they were all in the book and on the map.
The route I first planned to Spokane, through Missoula, had no published information other than what Google Maps showed. The suggested route went over dirt roads as remote as what I had been on since Banff; but this time, I was on my own. It had the makings of a proper adventure.
The Spokane station makes use of Amtrak’s roll-on service for bikes, which may be limited to certain trains at certain times. Other stations require bikes to go into cardboard boxes, while other stations don’t allow any checked bags at all (on or off). This route was also still in bear country, which was worrisome.
Being able to roll my bike on a train and roll it off in Portland had a strong appeal.
Portland is easy to get around with a bike and has no shortage of fun places to ride both in the city and in its periphery.
Then another travel idea came up: ship the bike back from Missoula and head west from here, traveling light and easy. It seemed good also, but the lack of bike riding to Spokane echoed that concern about what I was supposed to be doing.
But, I’m not racing. I don’t have sponsors or a team to appease. This was travel, an adventure that happened to be with a bicycle. The bicycle riding aspect is always secondary to the travel, the adventure. To me a bike a generally preferable to a car – especially for day to day commuting and errands – but being in a train or bus isn’t so bad either.
I had already ridden about 500 miles/800 km (with a degree of havering) mostly off pavement, often redefining what I think of a hill.
This was my first bike tour, my first border crossing on a bike. I did it on a single speed and started the whole thing two days after returning from Burning Man, near the end of the weather window, alone.
When I consider all that, it doesn’t seem like I’m quitting – the psychological elements of the bike tour were the most difficult. I had to deal with not only being alone, but being really alone. There were bears and the howls of coyotes, owls and deer and a big moose. Strange insects occupied the air and the ground.
I had mixed feelings about this diversion to the Rose City, but once the process was underway, I began looking at it with a wide aperture through lenses tinted with travel and adventure. That left me more at ease.
I flew to Banff, rode a bike to Missoula, drove in a car with my wife to Glacier National Park. I took a municipal bus to a mall to get a pair of shoes, I rode a Greyhound bus to connect with an Amtrak train.
In Portland I took a ride in a gondola for no reason. I rode in trolleys, street cars and buses to get around (including a lot of walking). I took a red line MAX to get to Portland International Airport to fly to Texas.
I couldn’t come up with any more modes of transportation, other than a boat tour which I’ll do with my wife in March.
In that hostel, I discussed movies, travel, American politics (guns, Trump, health care, sports), and just the general bullshit people talk about when they gather from faraway places. That last night especially, the nations of Ireland, Australia (a few Aussies actually), England, New Zealand and the United States were all represented and discussed.
WHITEFISH, Mont. – Subsequent days on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route have gotten easier, but the challenge is still the same.
My health has improved and the nights are warmer. The idea of going uphill is still periodically redefined, as well as what I think of as a descent.
Montana has been a bit different so far.
The big difference is the international border crossing – my first on a bike.
Montana also has more pavement than other sections and plains in addition to mountains.
Civilization is closer than northern parts, but getting back out of the grasp of AT&T’s robust mobile signal isn’t that difficult. And in those off-the-grid locations bears are still a problem. The wet ground and soaked wood make camp fires almost impossible.
It’s not really a problem. I didn’t need campfires for cooking and it wasn’t cold enough where I really needed the heat source. I did have a good little fire going about 5 or 6 times at the Tuchuck Campground on the way to Whitefish.
Another plus is that surface water is plentiful on most of this part of the route, there is almost no traffic and every direction is a phenomenal view.
After I got rolling after that difficult night, I found myself bogged down in a spirit-crushing climb that went on forever. Every turn revealed the dirt road reaching higher to the heavens, sometimes steeper, sometimes a little less so.
Steeper until I reached the top of the pass and began the long, glorious descent to Whitefish.
The road scrubbed off a lot of that elevation with no hesitation down a hell-ride “road,” and eventually became more civilized, delivering me back to the pavement with a pleasant, smooth ride with about 4 pedal strokes in 20 miles.
From here in Whitefish I’ll head to Columbia Falls for a weekend with my wife.
With these delays and my late start, I may be stopped in Colorado (or elsewhere) due to snow and I’m ok with that. I’m not racing.
I don’t have sponsors to appease or anything like that. I have the freedom to do whatever I want, so while the planned end of this tour is Antelope Wells, NM, the actual end can be anywhere.
FERNIE, B.C., Canada – The first day was brutal. I had a late start leaving from Banff and wanted to get to the first night’s campsite before dark.
I did it, but made some rookie mistakes along the way.
I was pretty warm riding but I didn’t remove layers and just kept sweating under an insulating layer I really needed to keep dry. I also didn’t remove the backpack during the short break I took, which made the sweat problem worse.
Normally it would be nothing more than a minor inconvenience, but the temperature at that lovely lakeside camping ground was dropping fast.
I was able to watch the damp air condense on everything (really, I’ve never seen it happen so fast) as it just got colder and colder.
I had a dry insulating layer on, but it wasn’t enough.
I was shivering.
However, at the campsite were my newfound travel companions for the ride to Elkford, where we parted ways: Jim and Leigh.
They had a camp fire and let me camp near them, avoiding a separate $26 CDN camp fee.
We talked about travel (Leigh has ridden through Danbury, CT, where I grew up, on a bike tour) and bikes and the weather. I was thankful for that camp fire.
The next morning, I swept a thick layer of hoar frost from my tent that covered my shoes. We all stared menacingly to slowly-building glow over the snow-capped mountains to the east, awaiting the sun to warm the frosty ground.
We talked about my titanium, alcohol stove and other things that escape me. I was still cold and had a shitty night’s sleep.
We ate breakfast and packed up and we’re back on the good gravel road by 11.
I ride with them to the next evening’s campsite, without making those first rookie mistakes.
The days blend together, but there was mud, soul-crushing climbs, terrifyingly exuberant descents and endless, epic scenery.
Looking in any direction is beautiful.
That night’s sleep, after a good camp fire and warmer and drier day, was also pretty bad. That sore throat was getting worse and my head was clogged with snot. My left knee was swelling and sore – some old injury of questionable origin that started 20 years ago and haunts me every now and then.
Jim said my snoring was “beyond category.”
We talked about bike races like the Vuelta Espana and Tour Divide while we packed up the following morning as the sun peeked over more jagged mountains.
The night before I heard a giant rockfall from somewhere in those mountains.
The temperature rose sharply and we headed out for a good ride to Elkford. We stopped for snacks at the Peter Lougheed (?) Trading Post and happened upon end-of-season discounts on snacks, soda and Gatorade.
My cold was getting worse, but the knee was working with ibuprofen.
This day was long, with more soul-crushing climbs, harrowing descents, epic scenery and ending with me at a mental and physical breaking point.
When we finally made it into the actual “urban center” of Elkford, my knee was not functional (walking was almost impossible) and I was at the early stage of the minor fever and accompanying headache that had me cold-sweating in a bed for 24 hours straight.
I knew I was in trouble when I booked the room, so I opted for two nights.
I hadn’t sleep well in weeks: the days before and during Burning Man, the few days after in Austin and Banff, and the few days on the Great Divide.
It may not seem like a lot, but I was not in good shape.
I finally emerged from that motel room with about a minute to spare before check-out time and had my first actual meal on a plate, at a table, since the breakfast poutine in Banff. I bought a few provisions and the nearby grocery store and had an easy ride to Sparwood.
I felt well, but not 100%, so I got another hotel room and relaxed, heading out later for a close-by fast food burger.
I aired out my sleeping bag, reorganized my gear a bit and took it easy.
I needed the sleep.
My plan was to ride to Elko, B.C., and make my dash for Montana the following day; maybe see some more of the Sparwood tourist things and of course, go by Tim Horton’s.
I didn’t see more tourist things, but I did go by Tim Horton’s. I headed south on the Fernie Alternate version of the Great Divide, into strong headwinds under menacing skies.
The headwinds slowly changed to drizzle, then a cold, steady rain.
I found refuge at the Fernie Chamber of Commerce on a bench under an overhang. I added a layer and headed deeper into Fernie, with brief respite from the rain in a covered bridge where a cycle track or bikeway crosses the Elk River.
The rain picked up and I sought refuge in everyone’s favorite generic place to linger: Starbucks. That’s where I wrote the bulk of this and made travel plans for next weekend.
So far every day has had its own unique joys and problems, ups and downs. I imagine that theme will continue.
The first order of business tomorrow: bike shop. I want to return to the ways of the wire basket (I couldn’t figure out how to pack mine for flying) and I just realized I can’t seem to get the nozzle of my pump on the valve stem.
BANFF, Alberta, Canada – Something draws us to the worst place on earth at a high cost in time and treasure.
Some create or participate in epic artwork – performance, built things or both – while others volunteer (often buying a ticket to go work for free). Some go for the big sound camps that showcase top tier DJs or the endless other musical performances from bluegrass to burlesque; Nordic metal to marching bands.
So, really, what is the reason 70,000 people of all stripes and reasons congregate in this caustic, dusty hellhole with unmatched enthusiasm?
My best guess, at least a hypothesis closest to my point of view, is the community.
Modern life isolates us from one another and we have lost our sense of community, our sense of the collective tribe made up of individuals.
Black Rock City either provides that or lets us find it for ourselves.
So what does this have to do with a single speed Troll?
I view my trips to Black Rock City, Nev., the temporary city built for Burning Man, as small bike adventures with unnecessarily crazy logistics.
Pedaling through a white-out dust storm is always fun; as is riding along the edges of the city next to the “trash fence,” the pentagonal boundary of the city, is also fun. Neither are particularly easy, but they often reveal that dusty sort of magic and odd circumstance one only finds in this worst place on earth.
The main mode of transport in BRC is a bicycle. I’m a bit of an oddity in that I bring a “real bike,” and not the more usual fare: a decorated but cheap Huffy beach cruiser (often with backwards forks and poor to no maintenance) or human-powered creations from clumsy to phenomenal kinetic artwork.
I fall in with the travelers and journalists – the wanderers, seekers and storytellers. The thick skinned and curious. This is my tribe, my reason to make the trek to this prehistoric dry lakebed in northern Nevada. Like them, Burning Man isn’t my entire life, but it’s an important part of it. Its people and culture – for good or ill – draw me to my tribe every year.
This year the trek to the dust was part one of a larger adventure. Part two is riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. I’m writing this from a wonderfully empty flight to Calgary on my way to Banff, to start the route.
For the people who only ride a bike in Black Rock City, the bike aspect may be some sort of fun quirk or hellish nightmare, depending on their point in of view.
I’ve heard all sorts of stupid advice from the non-cycling burners about riding a bike there.
It’s generally gibberish. Black Rock City and the dust is no worse than a New England winter. The myth that it destroys bikes is baseless; the bikes most burners have are junk and not maintained.
My Troll rode wonderfully for my 10 days on the playa. The tubeless Surly Extra Terrestrial were bomber through the deeper dust dunes as well as the concrete-like surface elsewhere. The K-Lite and SON 28 light/USB combination worked flawlessly. Everything worked just as it would elsewhere.
The Salsa rear rack and Arkel Dry-Lite panniers carried a camera a few times and a bullhorn, but mostly stayed empty. I used the Surly 8-Pack Rack to hold an REI Flash 18 with a sweatshirt, goggles, Chapstick and a few other odds and ends.
I stashed water and/or coffee bottles in the Revelate Feed Bags on the handlebars.
The Surly/Revelate frame bag held a lock and some bike tools.
Having a comfortable and durable bike designed for riding through terrible conditions made riding all over the city fun and effortless.
AUSTIN - The Surly branded Revelate Ranger frame bag finally arrived, and it’s nicer than I thought it would be. Surly worked with Revelate to make frame bags for all of their current frames.
I assume the other bags are all made in Alaska like everything else from Revelate, and have a stellar, custom-like fit, as this number 7 bag has. It’s really quite brilliant, and to make things even more better, the frame bag comes packed in a Surly-branded bag akin to a tent bag; a ripstop, polyurethane-coated bag with a drawstring and a cord lock (the common spring button thing).
So, yes, I’m using it as a tent bag as you can see on the front rack int he photo.
(I know that packing job is terrible; it seemed OK at the time. I’ll do it better)
The bag is a little different from my original ill-fitting Ranger. The front of the bag has a plastic strap (like on the stirrup strap on the bottom of my gaiters) with a locking buckle, instead of the daisy chain loop meant for a Velcro strip. Otherwise, the X-pac fabric is the same, the zippers are the same (although the zipper garages are bigger), the pocket arrangement is the same, the inner divider is the same — the overall burly construction and brilliant quality are all wonderfully the same.
What’s missing is inside: the mesh pocket on the downtube side and the daisy chain on the top tube side. I found the mesh pocket good for a Crank Brothers multi tool, tire levers and other small things; and, the daisy chain loops good for attaching a pump.
Neither omissions are deal-breakers, especially given the custom fit of the bag for the price and availability of an off-the-shelf Ranger.
OK, more about the Surly Extra Terrestrial tires I’ve been running recently — and plan to run for Burning Man and my Great Divide tour after. A few weeks ago I bought a tubeless kit from Orange Seal, meant for two mountain bike wheels.
The other day I finally got to the tubeless setup. It was easy. I removed the hilariously cheap hot pink duct tape I had as my original rim tape and cleaned the rims and tire beads with warm soapy water (I should probably clean up the rest of the bike like this).
Orange Seal includes O-rings for inside and outside of the valve stems, but I needed neither. The DT Swiss FR 570 rims I’m using have a nice rubber grommet of sorts, so I didn’t need the smaller O-rings intended for the outside of the rim. I also didn’t need the larger ones for the inside. Given the robust shape of the inside of the valve stem, I don’t see how anyone would need it. I don’t know, maybe on some rims (or older stem design?).
After I installed the valve stems, I mounted the tires without sealant to see what would happen. It worked curiously well. I inflated with a floor pump (valve core still in place) and the tires inflated with the reassuring percussive pop as the tire beads slam into the grooves in the sides of the rim. I inflated the front to 2 bars, and the rear to 2.5 bars. The front seemed to not leak at all while the rear showed some bubbling in a couple of places on the rim.
Although I was curious to see how long the tires would remain inflated, I wanted to get on with the conversion. I deflated the tires and, using the included valve core tool, I removed the valve cores. After mumbling “what the fuck is an ounce?” I realized each wheel gets half the included bottle of sealant.
Oh, right. OK. Why didn’t they just say that in the beginning?
So far, none of this is out of line with other reporting on tubeless tire conversions or installations. Roll the wheel a bit, lay it horizontal on one side, then the other, roll it around more … you get the idea.
Fast forward to earlier today. The tires still have air, although I haven’t checked exactly how much yet.
Here are some extra things you may want to know:
The Extra Terrestrials roll nicely through small amounts of sticky mud and seem to handle the small amount of actual singletrack I found near my house. It happened to be raining for days so everything was wet outside, which gave me a chance to ride through puddles and some mud in my first outing on my touring-loaded Troll, and the first ride on tubeless Extra Terrestrials.
While my initial packing job isn’t great, I’m pretty stoked with the tires.
AUSTIN - In an effort to test out the new Surly Extra Terrestrial 26 x 2.5 tires in something other than my apartment parking lot or my 5-mile (8 km) round trip to class, I rode around Ladybird Lake on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail in downtown Austin. It’s about 10 miles (16km) of decomposed granite and other dirt, mixed with stretches of pavement with a variety of concrete surfaces and parts that hover over the lake on what they call a boardwalk (although it’s a long bridge with a concrete surface).
I generally take Shoal Creek Boulevard to where it meets the Shoal Creek trail at 38th Street and becomes an off-street trail through a greenway. This adds a bit of asphalt to the other mix of hard surfaces.
But this is about bike tires, let’s continue on to that:
My most immediate comparison to how the Troll rides with the Extra Terrestrials is to the expedition tires I ran previously, Schwalbe Marathon Mondial 26 x 2.15 Evolution. The Mondials are big (by traditional standards) and sturdy and meant to go everywhere from the smoothest pavement/tarmac/bitumen to tracks that may only loosely resemble a “road.”
To be honest, if Schwalbe made a 2.5 version of the Mondial, I imagine I would not be the only one very happy about it. I rode the Mondials everywhere from fierce dust storms in Black Rock City to warm swamp mud and gravelly clay-loaded sticky mud in Austin.
Enter the Surly Extra Terrestrial 26 x 2.5. They are big and heavy, but in my unscientific arm’s length test, seemed lighter than the Mondial. The ETs were a bit tighter to mount than the Mondials, which themselves were not easy to mount. The ETs are tubeless ready as well as the rims on which I mounted the tires. The ETs are stiffer and a little heavier than Surly Dirt Wizard 2.75, but a little more pliable than the Mondials.
As one would expect from such a big increase of tire volume, the ride is smoother. The bumps are still there, the static from spider-web broken pavement and rough, unpaved surfaces is still there; it’s just muted. It’s just smooth.
I ran the rear tire at 2.5 bars, the front at 2. The tire’s maximum recommended inflation is something like “why would you do that?” at 4.4 bar.
My first guess at a good pressure seemed to work out nicely so I left it there. I want to test the tires at a lower pressure like 1 bar, but not really at anything higher than 2.5. The rims have a maximum of 3 bars (is this just a DT Swiss thing?).
At 2 and 2.5 bars, the tires didn’t feel sluggish on the street; if anything, they felt pretty fast since the tire absorbs static.
On my ride I came to the where the bridge over the creek in Roy Guerrero Park was destroyed a few times over by repeated flood. The area around the demolished bridge and collapsing banks had become a construction site, but without the pile of rubble that used to be a concrete bridge. I climbed down the dusty banks as I had many times before, but unlike those other times, the debris on the creek bottom was clear the bottom was smooth - ish. It looked like a good place to see how well the ETs did on deep sand and silt.
Ha! Nope. I don’t think deflating to a bar or less would have helped. ETs not meant for that kind of riding, although another bike touring blogger, Getting Nowhere, did the same tire switch and was able to ride firmer beach sand. This is big fat bike territory. The silt was almost as fine as playa dust, it seemed.
But back on the hard pack trail and subsequent “actual mountain biking,” one has to do for a short stretch over rocks, partially buried logs and some mud to pass through the disc golf course, the tires excelled. While I always thought of the Mondials as legit mountain bike tires, the ETs were just better.
They gripped better and rolled smoother, just like the Dirt Wizards, but without the clumsy feeling I had with the DW. It could also be the slippery and super sticky mud was dried, or I finally took a good line, I’m not sure. What I do know is how easy it was to ride through where I needed to push a little before.
I realized with a defeated exhale that I may need a back pack for my Great Divide ride coming up two days after I return from Burning Man (I have pictures on my website from previous years). I looked around, asked the internet questions, read reviews and looked at prices. The best option was the Osprey Talon 22 (size S/M), although Cass Gilbert (not the architect) is not a fan of back packs.
If I could redo my shit-carrying plans, I would go with a Surly rear Nice Rack and small/front panniers in the back, instead of the Revelate Pika seat bag; hence, negating the need for a back pack. I’ve already spent more than I should have outfitting myself for my upcoming trips, so buying another $300 of gear to carry stuff is a bit much.
My biggest issue with bags attached to me is back sweat. One giant problem with messenger bags (I was a NYC bike messenger for a year) and two-strap back packs is they seem to make clothing trap more heat and disable the ventilation.
Messenger bags kept a permanent cloud of sweat right under my face, although they allow one to get to the bag’s contents fast.
The Talon seems to get away from some of that with the design of the back with mesh and ridged areas where the bag meets my back. It’s not perfect, but not bad either.
Some of the more elaborate ventilation systems greatly reduce the volume of the bag, or made the bag bigger than it seems like it should be.
The Talon also features a wonderfully nice amount of adjustability (and it comes in two sizes) and practical ways to carry your shit, like waist belt pockets and smaller organizing pockets elsewhere. It has a sturdy provision for an ice ax and a means to carry ski/trekking poles on the left shoulder strap. Just above that is a small elastic mesh pocket with a purpose that eludes me.
AUSTIN - I wasn’t completely sure about the Schwalbe Marathon Mondial 26 x 2.15 Evolution I mounted to replace the Surly Dirt Wizard 26 x 2.75. I mean, they’re burly tires meant for the craziest expeditions over the most unridable surfaces with an elephant strapped to your bike, with an expectation for ridiculous amounts of wear. They’re smooth enough on pavement/tarmac/bitumen and handle dirt roads, hard packed trails and moderate soft surfaces with aplomb.
I blame it on Surly. They released what looked like the perfect tire and I had no intention of buying them and was perfectly happy with my Mondial/FR 570 combination. Nope, not spending more money. I was on the fence about running the Mondials tubeless (they seemed more than sturdy enough,
and mounted solidly on the tubeless-ready rims) … but I probably wasn’t going to do it.
Well, the perfect tires I wasn’t going to buy, Surly 26 x 2.5 Extra Terrestrial, arrived today, along with a tubeless kit from Orange Seal. I mounted the tires onto the DT Swiss FR570 (33mm outer, 27.5 inner) with a degree of effort. The rims are on the small end of the width for which the ETs were designed, so I was happy if they fit a bit tight. Also, being tubeless, I was especially happy, although I mounted them
with the “thornproof” tubes from my idle Surly Dirt Wizard 26 x 2.75 tires (which are for sale!). I’ll get to the tubeless this weekend. I figured 2 bars in the front and 2.5 - ish in the rear would be a good starting point. The rims have a maximum of 3 and the tires … well, more, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t imagine such a big tire at more than 3 bars, especially with a cutout rim like the Surly Rabbit Hole (which now I wish I still had laced. Damnit) where that much pressure will bulge the hell out of the Surly rim strips and make it difficult otherwise.
These tires aren’t something lightweight for race day; no, they’re sturdy with a reassuring heft. Holding an ET with an extra thick tube in one hand, and a Mondial with an extra thick tube in the other, the ET seemed lighter, which is interesting because it’s noticeably bigger.
A few laps around the parking lot reveal they roll a wee bit like a larger wheel and are fairly smooth over asphalt static and speed bumps. It’s not rocket surgery, they’re big tires.
I should be writing a German paper instead of mounting new tires, giving them a quick test and taking pictures. I’ll have more pictures, more writing and some long term testing coming up from Burning Man, the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route and other adventures.
More information: http://surlybikes.com/parts/tires/extraterrestrial_26_x_2.5
AUSTIN – The bulging of the Surly rim strips in the Rabbit Hole rims was driving me a bit crazy. At 2.5 bars it was just too much – I’m sure it was structurally fine, but it annoyed me.
It looked like the tubes (these aren’t tubeless, yet) would stretch too much and eventually the strips would also. It also looked like it was a puncture or tear waiting to happen.
On my way home from class, I stopped at Breed & Company, half a local Ace Hardware store and half fru-fru housewares and fancy confections.
I decided to use something like reflective tape or digital camouflage tape (it’s like cheap duct tape, but
comes in colors and patterns). I forgot how cheap the cammo tape was – I could see through the outer layer to the layer below on the roll – and I wasn’t really sure how I would get it around the rim with the proper side out.
I walked a few aisles over to the mailbox numbers, where the safety tape was. I saw the various reflective tape in different colors and configurations, but it was all adhesive and sold in 24” lengths. I bought a few of them and a roll of Gorilla tape (and a box of strawberry shortcake cookies. Every hardware store should have cookies) and rode home to put it all together.
To keep from being wasteful, I cut the tape in half, which was enough to cover the rim cutouts, if I lined it up perfectly (I did not). Given the reflective tape was adhesive, I had the extra fun of removing backing and getting the tape as tight and centered as possible, lining up three joints, before two tight layers of Gorilla Tape. I know a non-adhesive version of the reflective tape exists, and I’ll use it when I
eventually redo these wheels. I hope it will also be in longer lengths so I don’t have as many seams.
AUSTIN – Weather warnings and watches murmur and squawk as creeks flood, thunder rattles the windows and lightning rips holes in the churning sky.
Perfect day for a small bike ride.
We weren’t riding small bikes; I mean it was a short ride. I mean … my new Surly Troll is a size small, but Justin’s Origin8 29er something is a bigger size, but that’s not important now.
As with every other ride and adventure, we made up plans last minute and changed then enroute. We both made our way to Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery, which is close to where he lives and even closer to where I used to live in Hyde Park. It gives me a chance to ride through the unpaved alleys in the neighborhood, an opportunity I never pass up.
I should mention that he and I have four or five multi-year conversations going at the same time. They never really begin or end, and generally overlap and punctuate each other. So, a quick meeting to start a bike ride turned into an hour-long discussion physics, philosophy and the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, among other things.
We found a pedestrian bridge over a creek on our created-as-we-go route northwest. I pointed out a large tree with roots that encompassed a rock strewn bank of the creek. They grew over everything and
under the water, across to the other side.
Justin decided to check it out by climbing down to a concrete wall with a broken sidewalk on it, past the “no trespassing, private property” sign. Austin has many ruins like this: old bridges and concrete
walkways and tunnels around and through creeks. Some look like they were destroyed in floods 100 years ago, some look like they were never finished, or were built half-assed and never maintained. This sidewalk, or whatever it was, looked like a combination of everything: cheaply built, poorly maintained and partially destroyed by some epic flood.
I was still nursing the ankle I destroyed in Iceland a few weeks prior, that was my excuse for not exploring the mangled and curious concrete structure below.
I thought we should head to an area north of 51st Street, bordered on the west by Springdale Road, and on the east by Ed Bluestein Blvd/US 183. It’s right behind a hotel and apartment complex.
The entrance is technically Rangoon Road, but it doesn’t have any signs and it’s not paved. Maps show the road going farther than it actually does (although satellite images are more accurate). In the area, there are jeep tracks, single track and a swamp-like access road for a utility, with a bridge over Little Walnut Creek. Just riding the access road and the flat parts of the jeep track are an adventure in mud, swamp water and thick vegetation. If one rides the singletrack up the 10000 percent grade, deeply
rutted hills, then it’s a whole different thing.
This is where I wanted to go with Justin.
We headed in that direction amid showers and dropping temperatures – just as forecast.
Our path wound through the Hyde Park, Cherrywood and Mueller neighborhoods, keeping to grass and unpaved bike paths whenever possible.
“Let’s go up there,” Just said, pointing to the plateau of sorts in the middle of Mueller.
Mueller is a planned community on the grounds of an old airport of the same name. It has green spaces, sidewalks and the homes have garage doors in alleys behind the houses. The center of the community is slowly coming together, with lots of undeveloped areas of various nature.
We rode down a new street. It was only asphalt and sidewalks that more resembled a marina choked with mud and coarse gravel than a planned community.
“I wonder how muddy this is,” I said as I pedaled into it, mud immediately clinging to both wheels, frame, fork as I started to get bogged down. The mud had a variety of pebbles in it, which helped jam up the bike even more (and helping to remove some of the new “Steve’s Pants Blue,” paint, as
Surly calls it).
The plateau was a block away, which we rode on the brand-new street. More mud, more gravel, more bog. More pebbles, less speed. More wheel spinning, less rolling.
We pushed our mud-laden bikes through a swamp of some sort choked with undergrowth, and up a mud hill, rear wheel dragging along. I found I could roll the bike backward to dislodge the larger pebbles, and roll forward collecting more pebbles.
The rain became more than a forecast or suggestion of a possibility. The dark clouds and wind gave way to light rain, which cleared, then began a little harder, then cleared, becoming a bone-crushing torrent,
which also cleared.
That mud was as angry as the sky and it intended to show it.
With some more pushing and climbing, we reached the top and took in the view of downtown – distant under threatening skies, lightning to the west, oddly bright skies to the east. In a strange stroke of luck, I found a piece of bent rebar to carefully dug the mud out of my bike, making it mostly
ridable, if not very heavy and ungainly.
Back down we went, navigating ruts and mud, to the bottom. More swamp, more vegetation, more mud.
We reached the new cycletrack where we took a break and made plans to ride to Cherrywood Coffeehouse, in a roundabout sort of way, after we addressed the mud jamming our bikes, and giving he and I an “adventurous” appearance.
After a short break, we pedaled around a bit, stomped our feet. I found a wooden stake and dug more mud out of my bike and off the wheels. Justin said he found a working spigot on a new and unoccupied house. I pointed to the new and unoccupied houses and said that was not where he was.
Some nice family let him use their spigot, unbeknownst to them.
We were rolling again, with some woops and shouts of approval from a woman on the sidewalk as the remaining mud flew from our wheels in a developing rain shower. The more we rode, the messier we got, the lighter the bikes became; all whilst leaving muddy tire tracks for a curiously long distance.
Under threats and promises of rain we arrived at Cherrywood, where we found an outside table on the patio. We had an umbrella above us, and a corrugated-plastic sign on the fence next to us, so we were covered in an oasis of relative dry.
As always, we continued our simultaneous conversations, while adding plans for next time: north, farther south. A few overnight tripsfor fun and so I can prepare for the Great Divide.
From there we parted ways, until next time.