It’s taken a few months and many hours but the first episode of Chainwheel Diaries Podcast is now live. My first guest is Colleen Ponzini, a bike traveler I met on a Death Valley tour in 2022. Colleen is a seasoned bike traveler, and recently rode with a small group from San Diego CA to Phoenix AZ along the Adventure Cycling Association’s Southern Tier route. She followed that with a fully-supported bike tour in Vietnam.
We explore how Colleen first got interested in bike travel and her first bike adventures. I think you’ll learn a lot from her experience and knowledge. Enjoy!
If the number of sold-out cycling tours is a decent indicator, then bike touring is enjoying a tremendous resurgence. Of the 66 guided tours on the ACA website, 37 are sold out with waitlisting available. First, here’s the list of available tours. Please visit the ACA website for details on type (van supported, self-contained, inn-to-inn), location and pricing.
TransAm Express Westward | May 12-Jul 25
Great Allegheny Passage | May 25-28
Black Hills | May 28-Jun 03
Utah Parks | Jun 03-10
Ohio to Erie Trail | Jun 10-17
Intro to Road Touring – Wisconsin
Lake Tahoe | Jun 17-20
Cycle Montana – Big Sky Country | Jun 24-30
Cycle the Divide – Montana
Glacier-Waterton | Jul 08-17
Great Divide Canada | Jul 08-18
Great Divide Canada | Jul 11-21
Glacier-Waterton | Jul 13-22
Great Divide Montana | Jul 15-25
Intro to Road Touring – Oregon | Jul 16-21
Idaho Trails Relaxed | Jul 16-21
Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania | Jul 22-25
Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania | Jul 27-30
Crater Lake | Jul 29-Aug 06
Vermont’s Green Mountains | Aug 03-06
Vermont’s Lake Champlain & Green Mountains | Aug 12-18
Maine Coast | Aug 14-18
Black Hills – South Dakota | Aug 19-26
Grand Canyon | Sep 03-09
Cape Cod & The Islands | Sep 09-16
C&O Canal/GAP | Sep 16-23
Acadia and Mt. Desert Island | Sep 16-19
Vermont | Sep 18-24
Florida Keys | Oct 28-Nov 06
Here are the waitlisted tours. Might be worth it to get on the waitlist for one of these. Think of it as crowd-sourcing the most popular rides.
Death Valley Bike Tour, Feb 26 to Mar 5, 2022. I had wanted to participate in one of Adventure Cycling’s bike tours for some time and had signed up for a self-contained long weekend tour of Lake Tahoe, to be held in September 2021. Fire and smoke canceled this tour, so I applied my credits to a longer tour in 2022, in part because I would not be able to ride in RAGBRAI 49 due to a family commitment.
I chose the Death Valley tour because I had never been there, and it was close enough I could drive there and not have to ship my bike. This tour was limited to about a dozen riders, plus two tour leaders, and van-supported, meaning the van would carry everyone’s equipment from place to place. All we’d need to do is carry what we needed for the day and just ride.
The tour also looked to be challenging, including such cyclist favorites as wind, dry humidity, and elevation. Despite the fact that most of Death Valley is well below sea level, the route included a number of fairly tough climbs. Yet it was a wonderful cycling experience, comprised of riders mostly like me – casual riding outfits and steel frame bikes (including three Surly LHT and one Rivendell). A week-long ride in Death Valley, well-organized and staffed, is a great way to meet riders of a similar type and forge new friendships.
You can read my detailed post about my experiences on this tour here:
San Luis Obispo to Paso Robles and back, March 11-14, 2021. I had been meaning to find a reason to visit Paso Robles and one of my closest friends. I got on RWGPS and designed a roundtrip route from SLO to Paso. I would drive to SLO, stay at a hotel where I could leave my car, pedal to Paso, spend the night with my friends, and ride back to SLO the next day.
I utilized a RWGPS feature where I could see if anyone had already developed a similar route, and sure enough, found one that I repurposed as my own. The original route had good notes, but I overlooked one key part of the route.
My route would head northwest from San Luis Obispo towards Morro Bay and then inland heading East on Old Creek Road from Cayucos. The original route, the one I copied, exited Old Creek Road at Santa Rita Creek Road, and I missed this bit and it cost me dearly. I’m still riding my 2005 Diamondback Edgewood, weighing in at 30 pounds before baggage and rider. I suddenly flashed back to the climbs and switchbacks I dealt with on Old Stagecoach Road. Once again, I had to mix riding and hike-a-bike in order to reach the top.
Once I summitted, I began a nice downhill ride and connected with Highway 46 heading East into Paso Robles. I made it to my friend’s house where I was greeted with a cold beer, well-deserved.
March weather had been fairly kind to me Saturday as I headed West on Highway 46 back to Highway 1. I had added a Garmin Edge 130 to my tech and installed an additional application from the Garmin app store called Windfield by Scott Beam. This is a terrific app and lets the rider see windspeed and direction. Wind, as everyone who rides a bike knows, is the bane of cyclists.
As I’m climbing Highway 46 out of Paso, I’m glancing at my Garmin, and the Windfield app is showing 19 MPH winds from the West. I’m getting a break from these high winds on the climb to the Highway 46 summit, but once I start heading downhill, I’m riding straight into the teeth of the almost 20 MPH headwind. A headwind so strong I’m still having to pedal on what is one of the longest, fastest downhills in the area.
I reach Highway 1 and turn south and suddenly the wind is at my back — a tailwind! Nirvana! I cruise into Cayucos and make the obligatory stop at Brown Butter Cookie Company and buy a bag of originals. I had downloaded a reverse route on my Garmin, but I had pivoted to Highway 46 after experiencing Old Creek Road the day before. I used turn-by-turn on my iPhone, stayed on Highway 1 until the turnoff into San Luis Obispo and cruised to my hotel. I made a mental note to revise my SLO to Paso out-and-back route for another future ride.
Finally, this turns out to be my last ride on the trusty and dependable Diamondback Edgewood. Time to upgrade.
San Luis Obispo CA to Santa Barbara CA, Dec 3-6, 2020. With one weekend tour under my belt, and then discovering how easy it was to use Amtrak to get you and your bike to a starting destination, I mapped out a route from San Luis Obispo to Goleta CA with a layover in Lompoc CA. Once again, I learned that designing a route is a lot different than riding one.
Highlight of the tour was the Amtrak ride from Union Station Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo on the Pacific Surfliner. Amtrak has bike racks inside the last car, so I simply rolled my bike on and then navigated my way back to my first-class seat. First class is the way to go in my opinion. Included in the ticket was a snack box and complimentary glass of wine. Service was outstanding, despite the fact that COVID restrictions were still in effect. I had selected a hotel a short bike ride from the SLO train station where I spent the night before starting the journey Friday morning.
The route I designed utilized back country roads versus the always-busy Highway 1. This took me southwest through Pismo Beach, Guadalupe and Santa Maria. From there I had chosen to ride the Harris Grade Road which was a direct route into Lompoc. It was a fantastic route, very little car traffic and passing through quaint towns and farmland. I’m rolling along, enjoying 70-degree weather and fairly smooth pavement when my route abruptly ended at a locked security gate.
I discovered there was no way around this gate, and I couldn’t understand how a winery could close off what seemed to be a public road. There was a keypad that could be used to summon someone on an intercom, but despite trying this button repeatedly, no one responded.
So now I have to reroute. I’m not lost. I know where I am, and I know which direction I need to go to get to Lompoc. I use my iPhone to assess my location and next steps. I would need to backtrack slightly and then enter Highway 135, navigating two lanes of highway traffic, to then exit 135 and get on Highway 1 (aka Cabrillo Highway at this point). Which I managed to do, and then was confronted by multiple steep climbs on Highway 1 heading west towards Lompoc. I had specifically designed my route to avoid Highway 1 and the climbs by utilizing Harris Grade Road, but I was stuck now, gritted my teeth and pedaled on. This is why it’s called “adventure” cycling.
Lompoc is the home of Vandenberg Air Force Base, where I made a left turn to head to my hotel. I was using Google Maps for turn by turn now, which worked out fine, and arrived at the lodging as the sun was setting. The hotel is known as O’Cairns Inn and Suites, and it’s one of the best hotels I’ve experienced. Even with COVID restrictions I was able to get a drink at the bar and have dinner delivered to my room. I totally recommend this hotel.
Saturday was bright and sunny, typical weather in this part of California in December. I had breakfast and then prepared to pack up my bike and ride. Coming out of my room I dropped my helmet and broke the action camera mount that I used for videoing my rides. So now I have no way to mount my action camera to my helmet, and I have no way to mount it on my handlebars. Then I remembered I had a tripod with gumby-like legs, and I was able to fix it somewhat reliably to my handlebars. It was now past 10:00 am and I had planned on a lot earlier start.
The route I had planned sent me out of Lompoc on backcountry roads with very little traffic and plenty of farmland scenery. I wound my way on Highway 246 through Buellton, then Solvang, and then Santa Ynez where I would ride on Highway 154 for a few miles before exiting onto Stagecoach Road, an off-the-beaten-path that would eventually take me by the Cold Spring Tavern, where many years before my future wife and I went on our first date.
Once again, riding the route was vastly different than designing the route. I had failed to consider the elevations and switchbacks on Stagecoach Road that I encountered. Also, there was so little traffic that the thought of my bike breaking down on this road might leave me stranded. That’s when a little panic starts to creep in. I can’t go back. I can only go forward. My Edgewood doesn’t have the kind of gear ratio I needed for these climbs. I was down to my lowest gear ring and largest cassette cog, but I still had to hike-a-bike to continue forward. Turns out I could walk faster than I could pedal.
Eventually I made it to the Cold Spring Tavern, elevation about 2,200 feet. I was fatigued from the ride, somewhat emotionally tired from panic attacks due to the seemingly endless number of switchbacks, and the fact that it was late in the day and the sun would be setting in an hour. I still had some additional climbing after Cold Spring, but eventually I reached the top and prepared to head downhill. Elated that I had completed the climbing, I stopped at a viewpoint and asked one of the visitors to snap my picture.
I made it into Goleta as darkness fell. I had chosen Goleta because it was a smaller station stop for the Pacific Surfliner, had more affordable hotel rates, and was a short bike ride from my hotel. Sunday morning, I rode a short distance to the Goleta Amtrak station and boarded the Surfliner for the trip home.
Bike Travel Weekend, September 26-27, 2020. BTW is a weekend bike travel event sponsored by the Adventure Cycling Association. I planned a solo ride from Santa Barbara CA to my front door in Palos Verdes Estates. Weekend mileage would be 110 miles. My initial plan was to ride fully racked and packed and camp at Leo Carillo State Park, about 60 miles from Santa Barbara. But COVID had closed or severely restricted available campsites, so I pivoted to hoteling the first night in Port Hueneme. That broke the ride into a 40-mile Day One and a 70-mile Day Two.
My wife and I drove up to Santa Barbara, met up with our daughter who was visiting friends, and had brunch near the beach. I would bike off from there and my wife would meet me in Port Hueneme.
I had created my own route for the weekend trip using RideWithGPS, which is now my go-to route planner now. But I was new to the app, so I cribbed off the Adventure Cycling Bicycle Route Navigator Pacific Coast route to gain some context. This worked out pretty well as it kept the route confined to mostly bike paths, bike lanes and the Coast Highway. I downloaded an offline copy to my iPhone.
My ride was a 2005 Diamondback Edgewood hybrid that I had updated as a touring bike. I added Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, Planet Cyclery fenders, and a Brooks B17 saddle (big mistake!). Regarding the Brooks saddle, it is a fabulous piece of workmanship. But in my haste to add it to my hybrid, I overlooked the research on how long it actually takes to break in the B17. Like thousands of miles. I had about 100 miles on my B17, so basically riding it long distances for the first time. Painful lesson learned.
Despite hoteling at the end of the first day, I still carried all my gear in two rear panniers. Those included clothes, toiletries, camera equipment and tech. Doing so added a little extra weight, on top of the Edgewood’s 30 or so pounds. While the Edgewood was not designed for long-distance bike touring, it was the bike I had, and these are times when one must ride the one they’re with.
Day One route took me from Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, onto a pretty nice bike path that paralleled the 101 Highway, into Carpinteria, down by Rincon Beach and off the beaten path through Ventura into Port Hueneme. My wife rolled up in our car just as I was checking into the hotel. We had a nice dinner in Ventura that evening, and a nice breakfast in Port Hueneme the next morning. Then I took off for the remaining 70 miles.
One of the things I’ve learned in route planning is that even the best software can’t compare to actually riding the route. I soon discovered as I approached Pt. Mugu on the Coast Highway that there were elevations I clearly hadn’t factored into the equation. There were a number of up-downs on the way to Malibu and riding up so many hills now exacerbated the unbroken Brooks B17 situation. This caused me to take a number of rest stops along the way.
After about 30 miles I reached Malibu and stopped at a Chevron station to get water and enjoy an ice cream cone. Then I pedaled on through Malibu, hitting a ton a car traffic as I reach the city center. Made me glad I was riding a bike because I was able to maintain a pretty good cadence through the chaos and soon reached Will Rogers State Beach.
At Will Rogers a got another ice cream cone and water at the food shack and rested up a bit before heading down the oceanfront bike path, getting off PCH. I’ve ridden the Strand bike path, also known as the Marvin Braude Bike Path, a number of times, but never on weekends when all the amateurs come out. So it was slow going through Santa Monica to Venice, Playa del Rey and then into Manhattan Beach. On weekends Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach all require cyclists to walk their bikes by the pier pedestrian traffic. With my butt aching from the rock-hard B17, I was more than happy to hop off and walk my bike for a stretch.
At Torrance Beach I began the first of three climbs on my way home. First the ramp at Torrance Beach, an 8% grade, then Paseo de la Playa (9% grade) in Hollywood Riviera, and finally Palos Verdes Drive (7% grade). When I finally turned onto my street, my daughter and my wife and two golden retrievers were there to cheer me as I finished the ride. Pretty good accomplishment despite the weight of the Edgewood and the unforgiving B17. Here’s a quick video commemorating the moment.
Partially torn tibialis anterior tendon. Yes, I’ve torn the one on the inside of my right ankle, from riding my bike frequently on long distances. Surgery to repair the tendon is scheduled for Jan 5, 2023, so no cycling for me until March 2023, which has given me time to reflect. With the end of 2022 in sight, I’ve decided to chronicle my cycling adventures so far.
I’m not sure what first inspired me to travel by bike. Like many, the COVID lockdown forced me to find a way to get some exercise. In 2005, I had purchased a Diamondback Edgewood hybrid commuter bike. At the time I was just looking for basic cycling transportation. The Edgewood had plenty of gears, riser handlebars, suspension fork, dropper seat post and index shifting. It was easy to ride and handled hills and climbs fairly easily.
Prior to COVID, I had done a little bit of long-distance riding. In 2006 cyclists were allowed to bike the LA Marathon route, which I did, and a few years later did the same at the Pasadena Marathon.
2020, the first full year of COVID lockdown, I got serious about riding, starting with 10-mile rides and building up to 20-plus mile rides. Nothing fancy, just rides around the Palos Verdes Peninsula where I live. I could pedal down my driveway and in a minute be cycling along the Pacific Ocean.
Once I got more serious about cycling, I began to peruse the Internet to learn more about it. Which ultimately led me to websites dedicated to travel by bike, like the Adventure Cycling Association, which I consider the Rand McNally of bike mapping. I was amazed at the number of bike tours offered by the ACA. The thought of traveling by bike had never crossed my mind. Bike touring was a real thing!
Googling “bike touring” took me to YouTube channels on bike travel, where I discovered Ryan Van Duzer, riding his bike from Honduras to his home in Boulder CO, pulling his worldly belongings in a trailer behind his used Trek. So now bike touring has become bike packing, since he carried camping gear as well. But my takeaway was his message: you don’t need a fancy bike, just ride the one you’re with. “Get out there!” In other words, my Edgewood would have to do for any bike travel I might undertake. So be it.
Around the same time, I discovered Shift Bicycle, which at the time consisted of a mobile bike repair van operated by its owner, Jason Morin. Riding my bike around Malaga Cover, I spotted the Shift Bicycle van, looked up the contact info on the Internet, and made an appointment for a tune-up on my Edgewood, done right at my house. Jason advised me that my rear cassette was pretty worn, and the small cog was pretty much non-functional. I managed to hunt down a new wheelset and Jason installed a new cassette along with new brake and derailleur cables.
Then I began shopping for accessories on Amazon, purchasing a new rechargeable headlight and taillight combo, pannier racks front and rear, pannier bags, and a seat bag. New saddle? Check. New helmet? Check. I added fenders and new tires. Watching Ryan Van Duzer’s videos inspired me to buy an action camera. I found a cheap GoPro knock-off on eBay. Now I was ready to go someplace on my bike.
But where? I decided my first bike travel trip would start in Santa Barbara and wind its way down the Pacific Coast, eventually right to my front door in Palos Verdes Estates. My trip would coincide with Adventure Cycling’s Bike Travel Weekend. Let the adventure begin!
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.
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 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!
Friday June 4, 2021 I’ll ride from San Luis Obispo to Paso Robles, about 50 miles, and then Saturday reverse the route back to SLO. I’ve done this ride before but last time made the mistake of routing over a major climb. Then I learned about Santa Rita road which isn’t as challenging, but does have a section unpaved. I inspected the unpaved part on Google Maps satellite and it doesn’t look to gnarly. No rain in the forecast (we’re having another drought season) so no mud to worry about. This ride is part of #biketravelweekend, sponsored by the Adventure Cycling Association.