136 MILE GRAVEL RIDE + 4 DAY MTB BIKEPACKING + 3 DAY STAGE MTB RACE
We did it. We did a bunch of weird things all smushed together into 10 days. As I write this I can feel my cracked lips from the desert exposure and sun, there is still a pile of laundry to be done and the bus has smelled better. But stoked we are, for we have checked off a lot of random things from whatever list we had going into it all. What follows is a (not-so) short synopsis of what we did and how I feel about all. There are photos too, so if you're not into the words, there is something from everyone.
TLDR version: I packed the bus in a few hours, left a day early and drove 11 hours south to ride gravel bikes, bikepack and race mountain bikes in one 10 day trip with Ellen and my friend Lauren. We did a whole bunch of laughing, lots of pedaling, an extreme amount of packing and unpacking and shuffling and re-packing. This was some version of a bike trip vacation before the craziness of the season starts, and though I'm feeling tired I'm also refreshed by the unfiltered fun we had down there!
This mega week started with one event we knew we wanted to do, and as good things often do, it expanded into a 10 day tour of Southern and Central Arizona. I tend to do this, I'll loop projects and rides and friend meet ups into my race calendar. Does it make things more stressful sometimes? Sure. Is it worth it? Most definitely. I knew I wanted to do Ruta del Jefe, an event my friend Sarah Swallow puts on outside of Elgin, Arizona near the US/Mexico boarder. It's such an intensely special event with a unique gathering of participants, educational speakers, camping and riding. This year the food, mainly the bread, was the real star of the weekend (pictures follow).
Part 1 - Ruta del Jefe This is the second time I've had the pleasure of attending this incredibly special event. The first year we experienced a full 48 hours of rain, epic mud so sticky we had to turn around and some altered routes. This year, one day brought us 50mph wind so fierce it flattened tents but not our spirits! People gathered, people rode, people learned and celebrated. There were several route options to choose from, 55 miles, 70 miles or 136 miles. I opted for the long route as a good challenge for the beginning of the season. I love myself a good hard ride without any competition, it's literally my favorite thing ever. And this route didn't disappoint on the difficulty scale! The entire day I kept seeing spots I'd been before on a bikepacking trip from 2021, a trip we took 3 days to ride. We did most of that in ONE day for RDJ, yikes! Ellen had a bit of bad travel luck and arrived a full day and a half later than we'd planned. She had the ole, build a bike in a field at night while trying to eat dinner and not fall asleep, experience. Good thing she is resilient and was stoked to take on her longest ride ever the next day.
Photo- The Radavist
I was really excited to get to ride with Lael, both a friend and hero within the sport. That woman is one strong, steady wheel to follow but even better, she is great company for the 10.5 hours it took us (and our new friend, Scott) to finish the loop. It wasn't just the milage but how rough the terrain was that made for such a slow day. We pretty much kept moving the entire day, stopping a few times for water, snacks and almost a beer in Patagonia, AZ (I was so very tempted, though, had I said yes, I certainly wouldn't have finished the last 40 miles). We were the first 3 finishers of the day, coming in right before sunset which was a treat. My first feeling was that it was a much harder ride than I had expected. I did the thing where I was so busy with everything else leading up to this trip that I hadn't given the route any thoughts, it dawned on me the night before the ride that it was going to be a really, really long day. So I packed a PB&J, lots of snacks and hoped for the best. It wasn't race pace, but it certainly wasn't easy, and when I had de-chamoised, eaten and watched as riders trickled in throughout the evening I was humbled by how tough everyone was. I mean, this is my job, I ride a shitload, I can prioritize fitness and have some of the best gear in the world on my back, buns and beneath me. For most people out there, they were riding their only bike, they took time off of their jobs to attend this event and they were finishing at all hours of the night, and even into the next day...WITH SMILES! It is truly one of the more inspiring things I've had the chance to see in person.
The next day, as we packed the bus up, we said goodbye to new friends and left the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch feeling both full and empty. The entire event was a blur of amazing scenery, amazing people, and a heaviness knowing that the area is also plagued by the negative impact the boarder wall has had. Our entry fee was a fundraiser for all of the groups working to protect people, animals and the biodiverse area that we are so lucky to explore. (Read more about those issues and the groups that do some great work in protecting the most important things!)
Part 2 - Bikepacking the Gila River Ramble This was the chill part of the trip, or as chill as going straight from an all day ride directly to a dark trail head to pack all of your somewhat "clean" gear into tiny bags and coordinate 3 extra people arriving from all different places (Canada, Mexico, Colorado). I have met up with my friend Lauren for little rides and trips since she left Durango 8 years ago. We first started bikepacking together in 2017 and since then it's been a really special way to connect with an old friend. *Side note, she used to be one of the top XC mountain bikers in the country, racing on the same semi-pro team with myself and some now famous cycling folk like Sepp Kuss, Payson McElveen, Stephan Davoust, Howard Grotts, Teal Stetson-Lee, etc.
We drove the bus up to Superior, AZ and camped near the Picket Post TH on the AZT with our bike bags 1/2 way packed, our food and water stored in every nook and cranny and our bikes covered in a layer of protective tape and vinyl. If you've ever prepped for a bike packing trip you'll appreciate how crazy this all was trying to pack in a tiny bus the night before a trip with 5 people. I like to remember this simple rule, the more time it takes to prep for something, the higher the stress levels are, the sweeter the ride is going to be! Trust me, anytime I'm franticly throwing Mac&Cheese into a stuff sack at 2 am, the ride the next day is glorious.
So off we went the next morning, right on time, at the crack of noon! Like a herd of turtles we hit one of the most beautiful parts of the AZT, stoke was high, bikes were packed and heavy and the trail was techy and slow. There are so many moments of note within these trips, too many for this newsletter that is already far too long. The highs are so high, the lows are medium, sometimes you run out of water and that is scary in the desert and when you run out of food that also sucks. We had all of that happen, but when it did I was the most grateful to have such capable, strong, smart friends next to me to figure it all out...and then fart next to in the tent.
We rode only 112 miles in 4 days, but as I've said before, not all miles are created equal, and this route really proves that point. The milage was slow, technical and beautiful. Most of the riding was on the AZT, which means narrow, winding single track full of pokey things like cacti or derailleur smashing rocks. We had some incredible descents into camp at sunset, we had some scorching climbs in full sun in the middle of the day, we had a few hike-a-bike sections (a classic occurrence of most bikepacking trips), and we had some questionable water sources. I think the thing I love the most about these trips is how quickly you get to catch up with the important pieces of life. The nature of this "sport" truly forces you to slow down, I never look at any of the information I normally pay attention to, I start recalibrating to the essentials, food, water, shelter, connection. It's challenging in a totally different way, it's rewarding in a totally different way and it's vital for my mental health. I feel so lucky to have some really close girlfriends that can also do this weird thing and the older I get the more thankful I am that my own body can carry me to these amazing places too!
I use Bikepacking.com for most of my bikepacking trips and I am so grateful for this amazing resource. The routes they put together are full of just the right amount of information and inspiration to take on something like a back country trip in a new place. Especially when the routes sync with Ride With GPS, it makes an intimidating thing much more achievable! They're not a sponsor, I just really love what they do.
Stage 3 - The Cactus Cup was our last stage in our epic adventure and the one that I was the most hesitant on committing to. So much so, that I forgot to even tell my coach (Chris McGovern) that I was doing it, oopsie! I was really apprehensive to dive back into cross country mountain bike racing in general, and I knew that stacking it at the end of an epic trip like this would certainly put me in a much different starting place than the rest of the women racing. It was a good way to check the ole ego and focus on the details that I could improve upon with each of the 3 day stage race.
First up was the time trial, about a 20 min effort all out, all alone. Literally my least favorite type of racing and boy did that show. I was really disappointed with how I finished, normally I wouldn't look at my finishing spot/time. It's a weird thing I do with timed finishes, I figure that if I win I'd find out and anything lower than that isn't worth looking. NOT a growth mindset and something I'll be working on this season! It was both funny and expected that I quickly forgot that this race was anything but a focus and our lead up to the weekend was going to make it really challenging to have the results we'd like. But you can't take the athlete mindset out of the athlete, every finish marks an opportunity to be better and do better. After a disappointed call to Chris, we came up with a game plan for the second stage the next day (40 mile xc race). The goal was to remember that I am, in fact, a mountain biker. I was going to focus on looking through turns, keeping my speed up out of corners and not being intimidated by riding on the slippery, kitty litter terrain next to other racers. I'd say I forgot ALL of that for the first 15 minutes of the race. I let everyone go by me in the start and was very near last place when we entered the single track. This course was everything I am challenged with, fast pedaling the whole time, flat, loose turns, very little climbing or room for passing and no slower, techy moves.
As the race progressed I started settling into my groove, reminding myself that I am a mountain biker and I began catching and passing riders! Eventually I found Ellen's wheel and we were able to ride, get this, AS TEAMMATES the rest of the 40 miles together! It's wild how much I learned following her wheel, she'd lead on the descents and I'd lead on the climbs. We worked together to catch and pass more riders and dare I say, we had fun! An unfortunate flat near the end of the race separated us for the last 5 miles or so, but Ellen was able to fix it quickly and we rolled in with two top 10 finishes!
Often times with these weekends the highlights are the in-between moments beyond the actual racing. We camped next to Maghalie and David, our friends from the cyclocross scene, and had so much fun hanging out, catching up and making camp dinners together. Those two are some of the most positive, down to earth, hard working and talented teams around and I feel incredibly lucky to get to call them friends. It made the little cherry on top extra sweet for this adventure sundae.
The last stage was the "enduro", and honestly I was just focused on applying all of the lessons I learned from the day before. We had fun getting a more relaxed day of riding together and catching up with other riders, it's such a fun format of racing and even though it's timing the part of racing I'm the least confident in, I always seem to have a really good time. The worst part of the day was having to say goodbye to everyone and part ways, it was such a whirlwind adventure that once you get into the mode of go-go-go it takes a second (or a 7 hour drive home) to switch gears back to a more standard life and schedule.
Words From Ellen!
Wrapping up a jam-packed week romping through the desert on bikes brings a good opportunity for reflection. We did a lot in 8 days; 136 mile gravel ride, 4 days of bike packing and a 3 day mountain bike stage race. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how everything was going to go or how I would feel during and after. I just dove right in. And it was a wild, fun ride. My main take away is resiliency. We can do challenging things, then do another one and then another. And yes we are tired but we keep moving, we keep having fun and then surprisingly we sign up for more challenges. I’m fairly new to the ultra-endurance or longer side of riding so this was a neat thing to learn about myself. I’m proud of our little tiny team for filling these 8 days with endless pedal strokes, thoughtful conversation, giggles and of course an orchestra of toots from bikepacking food.
So here we are, back home for a few blinks to recalibrate before the first race of the Lifetime Grand Prix begins in April with a marathon XC MTB event at the Sea Otter Classic. I have been practicing some morning meditation, taking Norman on walks, catching up with my family and finalizing some fun but intense projects we have coming out soon. I often have moments where I feel both incredibly overwhelmed and incredibly fortunate to have the life I have right now, those moments appear with more and more frequency as the season starts ramping up. So here I go, reminding myself that we get one shot at this life and to make use of the privilege I have to choose my path!