Meet Homer

I definitely observe what bikes cyclists are riding. And wearing. But when it comes to bikes, I’m always on the lookout for a ride like mine, made of quality, durable steel. There are bike manufacturers that build exclusively in steel, companies like Surly, the brand I ride. Another steel frame brand is Rivendell Bicycle Works in Walnut Creek, CA, founded by Grant Peterson (more about him later).

So, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw a Rivendell A. Homer Hilsen bike at a rest stop during the Lighthouse Century a few weeks ago. Rivendell bikes are known for their beautifully lugged steel frames. Take a look:

Rivendell A. Homer Hilsen
Example of the art that goes into a Rivendell nameplate

As I’m admiring the A. Homer Hilsen the owner comes and takes it out of the bike rack, so I immediately struck up a conversation with him and learned we had something in common: the love of a high-quality, durable and inexpensive (comparatively) but beautifully crafted steel bike that’s meant to last a lifetime.

I first learned of Rivendell bikes during an Adventure Cycling Tour in Death Valley, earlier this year. Of the dozen or so riders, three of us were riding Surly’s, with one Rivendell. Not long after that I watched Russ Roca of Path Less Pedaled interview Grant Peterson, Rivendell’s founder. The title of the YouTube video is “The Future of Rivendell Bikes?” Notice the question mark. You can view it here.

In the interview, Grant Peterson comes across as a guy who cares about his product and the people he employs. A small niche bike manufacturer, Rivendell doesn’t make a lot of money, so its future is dependent upon a steady but growing customer base. For more insight, read the history of Rivendell here. Just the mere fact that Rivendell named one of its bikes A. Homer Hilsen tells you a lot about the company and the people.

Grant Peterson is also the author of “Just Ride: A Radically Practical Guide to Riding a Bike”. I downloaded the Kindle version, read it and it has become one of the most influential books in my library. Just Ride is a love letter to the joy of riding a bike, before cyclists became obsessed with racing, weight, speed, distance and spandex outfits.

My Death Valley Bike Tour

Me and Surly at Sea Level – Death Valley 2022

The Adventure Cycling Association is the premier bike touring organization in North America. I wanted to participate in one of their organized tours for some time. I had registered for a long weekend, self-contained ride around Lake Tahoe in September 2021. Due to fire and smoke, this ride was canceled, and I was given a refund and a credit to be used on another tour. I scouted the catalog of rides available and chose Death Valley, for a couple of reasons. First, I could drive to the start town, avoiding airfare and bike shipping expenses, and second, I’d never been to Death Valley. According to ACA, Death Valley is one of their most popular rides. I can understand why.

My opinion, there’s no place like Death Valley. I have never seen an environment or landscape like it. There were sand dunes, salt flats, valleys, canyons and mountains. At night the stars were so brilliant they dazzled the beholder. Death Valley is the largest national park in the U.S. It contains a wide variety of species, including the Death Valley pupfish, which have survived and thrived in this harsh environment. (See Wikipedia for more about Death Valley)

The Death Valley tour is a van-supported version, meaning ACA tour guides haul your stuff from place to place, along with all the other equipment needed to support and feed about 15 people. Riders are allowed two bags (I had two duffels, one for clothes and one for camping gear). Anything else I might need I carried with me on my bike.

Since the route was all paved road, my Surly Long Haul Trucker was just fine, even with my 28mm tire widths. I added two MooseTreks water bottle holders on the handlebars, and a water bottle cage on the down tube, so I had three 24 oz. water bottles to stay hydrated. I affixed a ROCKBROS top bar bag to hold a mini-pump, selfie-stick and Handlebar Jacks. Finally I added a ROCKBROS 8L saddle bag that attached to my seat post. And I am good.

The reason to participate in an Adventure Cycling tour is to be part of a group and be led by experienced leaders. I’ve only experienced an Adventure Cycling tour, so I can’t compare to others. I will say, however, the tour was well-organized, and the pre-tour communications were detailed and helpful. But I think the biggest appeal was joining a group of strangers who shared a passion for cycling and touring. One can learn a lot from hanging out and riding with other cyclists.

The Death Valley bike tour route is a loop that runs from Pahrump Nevada north to Beatty, then west into Death Valley, eventually winding south and east and back to Pahrump. The tour leaders sent the RideWithGPS files out ahead of time, and I downloaded the route to my Garmin Edge 130.

Death Valley Bike Tour Route

The tour lasts 8 days, of which 2 are layover days. The ACA counts the arrival day as the first layover day.

Day One, Saturday Feb 26, 2022. Pahrump Nevada. Pahrump is 62 miles north of Las Vegas, so about a 4.5-hour drive for me, which is no big deal. A few other riders also drove to Pahrump, from Northern California and as far away as Washington state and Ohio. The rest of the participants flew to Las Vegas and hoteled Friday night and then loaded their bikes on top of the Adventures Cycling van Saturday morning and headed to Pahrump with the tour leaders. We all gathered at a hotel that had been reserved for us by the tour leaders.

One of the unique things about Van Supported tours is that the riders share cooking responsibilities for dinner and then breakfast the following morning. The tour leaders provided dinner the first night, after which we went grocery shopping at a Walmart in Pahrump. You’re paired with another rider and given a menu with ingredients. My cooking partner and I were responsible for dinner on the third night, the entre being red beans and rice. Back at the hotel, we loaded all the food into the van, utilizing coolers for the food that required refrigeration, and everything else was stored on shelves.

Day Two, Sunday Feb 27, 2022. Pahrump to Beatty Nevada. 75 miles. Everyone took advantage of the free breakfast buffet at the hotel and then hopped on our bikes and headed north to Beatty. A few of the riders had paired up and rode together, but there was no official start. Everyone just took off. Since I’m a solitary rider most of the time, I didn’t mind that I found myself riding alone. I was dressed warmly, wearing long cycling pants and a fleece top. I think it was about 40 degrees Fahrenheit when I started off.

The route utilized back roads out of Pahrump, eventually connecting with U.S. Highway 95. The van had parked near the intersection to 95, where I refueled, filled my water bottles, and rested up a bit before the long ride to Beatty. I will mention that the ride to Beatty on 95 was my least favorite part of the tour. The one highlight was the Area 51 Alien Center, where all the riders stopped and took photos and grabbed some lunch.

The famed Area 51 Alien Center

The rest of the ride was mostly uphill, and the riders were buffeted by high winds and huge semis as they blew past on a busy highway. Eventually I made my way into Beatty and located the hotel that had been reserved for us that night. The Day Two crew made dinner for a hungry group of cyclists. I was grateful not to have cooking and cleaning duties that night, as I was spent from the long, busy climb into Beatty. So I hit the sack early and slept soundly.

On this particular tour, sleeping arrangements were in hotels for the first two nights. The rest of the tour we would be camping. The night of Day Two I was grateful for a hotel and a king-sized bed.

Also on Day Two, one of the riders bailed on the tour, telling one of the tour guides it wasn’t what he had expected. So, he Uber’d back to Pahrump where he had left his truck. Day Two was probably not what anyone expected, but that’s adventure cycling. Some days are good, some not. Every uphill has a downhill, just keep pedaling.

Day Three, Beatty to Mesquite Spring, 64 miles. Heading west out of Beatty I encountered a 7% grade before crossing into California from Nevada. At the top of the climb Death Valley was laid out in front of me, and it was a thrilling site, and downhill all the way. Another rider and I stopped at the entrance to Death Valley National Park to use the restroom. While we read about Death Valley on a giant display, a volunteer Park Ranger came up to us and we chatted with her for a while. Turns out the National Park Service has a robust volunteer program. We said goodbye to the nice volunteer lady and headed downhill to the basin of the valley.

The tour package we received pre-ride had warned us not to get fooled by the downhill ride into the valley, as we still had to negotiate a long climb to the campsite. Experiencing the long downhill, I forgot all about that. The route made a right turn near the basin, where the van had parked, so I stopped to replenish my water and chat with the tour leader. I had packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which I devoured under a canopy. It was starting to heat up. Next stop, Mesquite Spring campground.

The route was fairly flat as I departed the rest stop, so I hardly noticed that the elevation began to rise gradually. I had worn shorts and my fleece top, and I now removed the fleece and stuffed it in my saddle bag. I was feeling the heat and dryness as the road continued to rise. I glanced at the image on my Garmin, which showed a significant climb, and the little icon that represented me was still at the base. The Garmin Edge 130 is a small device, and to render hills it must squeeze the image, so any rise looks like Everest. Still, the image was doing a job on me mentally.

I kept pedaling. The grade was maybe 2-5% but the climb seemed endless, plus there was a decent 5 MPH headwind. I kept looking down at my Garmin, only to see that I had made little progress. I shifted down to my lowest chainring in front, and about midway on my rear cassette. I was able to maintain a decent cadence on the climb. Yet no summit in site, and the icon on my Garmin had barely moved.

The climb to the Mesquite Spring campground was a little over 20 miles. I finally crested the summit and made the left turn to proceed to the campground. It was late in the day and I had cooking duties this night, and I still had to pitch my tent and sort my gear. I was pretty toasted.

Since I was late and dinners were scheduled for 6:00 pm, some of the riders that did not have cooking duty pitched in, which was really cool of them. My cooking partner starting doing meal prep, and others helped while I set up my tent. I had purchased a sixer of Lagunitas IPA back in Pahrump, which was chilling in one of the coolers, so I grabbed one, popped the cap and took a long swig of the ice-cold beer. Then I got cooking.

Dinner turned out well. We had two versions of our red beans and rice entree – vegan with no sausage and regular with. My cooking partner and I had done a surprisingly good job of gathering the right amount of ingredients. There was virtually no food left over.

That evening we held a group meeting to discuss the next day’s ride. The tour leaders had a satellite device for scouting weather forecasts and for emergencies. The forecast told us we would face some morning winds. We also learned that the campground had no lights, and so later in the evening everyone turned off their headlamps and we were treated to a spectacular celestial view of the stars. We hung around for a bit, chatting amongst ourselves, and then everyone began to turn in.

If the night of Day Two had been restful, the night of Day Three was not. First, I would point out that I’m 70 years old, and have a bladder the same age. I was up frequently during the night to use the “restroom”. Second, my sleeping pad had sprung a leak, so during the night I had to re-inflate it several times. So, I didn’t sleep well or enough, and was not energized in the morning, with breakfast duties upcoming.

But there was coffee. Starbucks made in French presses. We were furnished four presses and plenty of Starbuck’s Pike Roast. Unfortunately, on this morning, brisk winds buffeted the flames on the gas grill, making it hard to get water to a boil. But we persisted, and everyone was able to enjoy a cup or two of strong coffee and a continental breakfast.

Day Four, Mesquite Spring to Stovepipe Wells, 38 miles. We finished breakfast and packed up our gear and loaded it into the van for transport to the next location. The route this day had a side trip to the Ubehebe Crater, which would add another 16 miles to the route. I was so tired from a restless night and knowing there would be a headwind going to the crater, I decided to join some of the other riders who opted out of the side trip. That left a mild 38-mile jaunt, now a breezy downhill compared to yesterday’s constant uphill. We rolled into Stovepipe Wells midday. We were also down another cyclist, who SAG’d out bothered by an old injury. But he stayed with the group, and his wife, and I was glad he did, because he was really likable and fun to be around.

Compared to the very spartan and remote Mesquite Spring campground, Stovepipe Wells offered stores, restaurants, showers and a swimming pool. I kicked myself for not bringing a bathing suit. I could’ve jumped into the pool wearing my chamois liners but thought that was gross. I settled for a shower.

At the store I bought a half pint of vodka, the only brand they had, but that didn’t really matter. I enjoy a cocktail after a bike ride, or any time for that matter. It was nice to have a mixed drink before dinner. Another rider had brought a fifth of Crown Royal. All riders had arrived in camp, and we gathered under the popup and lounged in chairs provided by ACA. It was warm but not Death Valley hot.

The campsite was decent but also featured a very rocky surface. I had to sweep the ground free of rocks and pebbles before pitching my tent, mindful of the fact that my sleeping pad was still leaky. Again, I had to keep re-inflating my sleeping pad during the night, limiting hours of decent sleep.

Day Five, Stovepipe Wells to Furnace Creek, 50 miles. Another fairly easy ride to Furnace Creek, which has become a tourist destination in the last several years. There’s a resort, shopping, a golf course, camping and a swimming pool. I used the showers and then rode my bike to the shops where I found an outdoor store and a was able to purchase new sleeping pad.

The route also had another side trip, where we could, if we wanted, ride past Furnace Creek and then uphill to the Artist’s Pallette, a colorful rock formation. Again, a few of us opted out of the extra mileage and settled in nicely at the campground.

Day Six, layover day in Furnace Creek. This was to be a relaxing day for recovery or sightseeing. Some of us were going with one of the tour leaders in the van to check out the Artist’s Pallette. Some were going hiking. Some were headed to the swimming pool. The van trip hit a bump when we awoke to learn that one of our group had tested positive for COVID.

Nothing like a positive COVID test to put a damper on a bike tour. None of the rest of us were symptomatic, and barring development of any symptoms, we would all test when we returned home. But the head tour leader had to take the rider in the van to Las Vegas where she could get a PCR test. There went our ride to the Artist’s Pallette. I spent the rest of the day hydrating and napping on my new and comfortable sleeping pad.

That evening we had another group meeting to discuss Day Seven’s route. The satellite forecast called for head winds, so I decided that I would try and get an early start.

Day Seven, Furnace Creek to Shoshone, 74 miles. It’s one thing to hear about forecasted headwinds, quite another to ride into the teeth of one. I managed to get out of camp by daybreak. It seemed a little breezy, so I mentally crossed my fingers. Then I got out on the main road and was nearly blown off my bike.

Headwinds are the scourge of cyclists. So are hills, but eventually you crest a summit and ride downhill. The route to Shoshone was directly in the line of the headwind, and if you stopped pedaling, you stopped period. My Garmin was telling me the wind speed was 15 MPH, but I felt it was blowing a lot harder than that. I figure it was more like 20-30 MPH. There was no place to hide. Nothing to break the wind.

Our first rest stop would be at Badwater Basin, about 20 miles from Furnace Creek. Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. By the time I reached this rest stop, I was toast. So were other riders. At Badwater Basin, about half the group SAG’d out.

The next rest stop was another 20 miles, and four of the group made it to this location before SAG’ing. Only two riders completed the entire ride from Furnace Creek to Shoshone. I have nothing but admiration and respect for them. For me, it was not going to happen.

A word about SAG’ing. SAG stands for Support and Gear. If you’re on a van-supported tour, there is that option to SAG out and hitch a ride to the next destination if you can’t continue for whatever reason. Obviously, if you’re on a self-contained tour, and carrying all your stuff, there is no SAG and you will have to cowboy-up and finish the ride. Yet I have read many firsthand accounts written by riders who were riding self-contained, either across the country, on the Great Divide MTB Route, or to South America. In many cases, these riders encountered conditions that forced them to alter their riding plans for the day. It happens. Was I wistful that I hadn’t completed the entire route? A little.

The campsite this night was an RV Park in Shoshone, and we happily discovered that the tent sites were covered with soft grass. The park had nice facilities, laundry if you needed it, and great showers. After setting up camp, cleaning up and enjoying a beer or cocktail with the group, we all headed over to the Crowbar Cafe and Saloon where our tour leaders sponsored dinner.

Despite only managing 20 miles this day, I was still tired from the week and ended up finally having a solid nights’ sleep on the final night of the tour. Thank you new sleeping pad.

Day Eight, Shoshone to Pahrump, 28 miles. It had been a stellar week, but I personally was glad there was but one ride left in the tour. Two of our group skipped the final ride and SAG’d back to Pahrump. The route out of Shoshone was blessed with a tailwind, a decent climb right out of the gate, and then mostly downhill or flat ride to Pahrump. It was much cooler this day, and while I had worn a long-sleeved shirt over a t-shirt, I wished for my fleece which was packed in my gear. I had also chosen to wear shorts, as usual, but kind of wished I’d worn my long pants. The sky remained overcast, keeping the temperature cool all the way to Pahrump.

Back at the first day’s hotel, we said our goodbye’s and wished each other safe travels. Those of us who had driven packed our bikes into our cars, along with our gear, and prepared for the drive home. The rest loaded their bikes back on the van rooftop and headed back to Las Vegas. I grabbed a Starbuck’s for the ride home and headed south on 95 toward Las Vegas and then hopped on the 15 heading southwest to LA.

Observations. I came away with a deep appreciation and respect for the Adventure Cycling Association and its tour operations. Planning and supporting over 75 rides in North America is a staggering achievement. And consider that ACA has mapped routes all over North America that thousands of cyclists have used to navigate their rides. The ACA is like the Rand McNally of cycling.

  • Would I do this tour again? Many of us felt like it was a one-off, a great experience but not one you’d do again and again. Some of us felt like the tour was a lot harder than we had anticipated. Still, I think about this tour often, as I’m a little sad that I didn’t take advantage of the side tours and didn’t finish the next to last ride. Death Valley is like no place on earth, and I am so glad I’ve been there and experienced its wonder.
  • Would I do another Adventure Cycling tour? Absolutely.
  • I met and rode with a great group of people that I would never come across under any other circumstances. I remain in touch with a few and hope to meet up with them again in the future. Great people sharing a love of cycling and touring.
  • ACA provided a Google site for all the tour registrants so that the tour leaders and riders could introduce themselves and get to know each other. A few had done several tours, some had done one or two, some like me were officially touring for the first time.
  • We had strong riders, and we had weaker riders, like me. I ride at a slow pace compared to others. I ride a steel frame bike that weighs about 25 pounds unloaded, plus my 200 pounds on the saddle.
  • Four of us were riding steel frame bikes, and three of us were riding Surly Truckers. The LHT and Disc Truckers are great touring bikes, with plenty of gear range, good geometry and a solid road feel. One in the steel frame group was riding a Rivendell, a brand with which I was not familiar. So, I learned something new, and later did research on Rivendell, and discovered its founder, Grant Peterson. He has written a fantastic book on cycling, titled “Just Ride: a Radically Practical Guide to Riding Your Bike“. I read it, and his philosophy dovetails nicely with mine.
  • The four of us on steel bikes also had Brooks leather saddles. I’ve ridden on a Brooks saddle for the last couple of years. One was brand new and breaking it in was painful. When I bought my Surly LHT on Craigs List, it came with a Brooks saddle that was fairly broken in. All that said, the four of us were all complaining about discomfort with the Brooks. I noticed that both of our tour leaders’ bikes had Terry seats. When I returned home, I investigated the company and ended up buying a Terry Liberator Y Elite after consultation with a customer support rep. BTW, she was excellent and the saddle, after riding on it since March, and after a few minor tweaks on height, fore and aft, and pitch, has proven to be much more comfortable than the Brooks. I shared this info with the other riders.
  • Working as an ACA tour leader is hard work. Ours not only shuttled our gear from place to place, but also pitched in on the cooking, led group meetings and kept us informed of what to expect, gave us nightly forecasts, rode with us occasionally, and provided support along the way. One leader had to escort the COVID victim to Las Vegas, certainly not how he had planned the day. ACA tour leaders really make a difference.
  • All but a few of us wore traditional cycling outfits. I’m a t-shirt and cargo shorts guy. I don’t believe spandex provides any kind of advantage on a bike tour. It’s not a race, it’s a ride.
  • Most of the riders were retirees, and a few of us were still working full time. I can’t go on a bike tour on a whim. I have to plan ahead, make sure I have enough PTO saved up in my account, get my boss’ permission, submit the request for time off, and then go. I can do maybe one week-long tour per year, the rest of the time doing weekend and early morning rides in my area.
  • The van-supported bike tour is a nice compromise between self-contained and fully supported trips.
  • To finish up this blog post, here’s a little viddy I made to memorialize the occasion. Cheers!