Thursday, September 6, 2018

Bikepacking Colorado's Sawatch, part 1

"The alpine tends to be pretty burly and rocky"  Fred Marmsater rarely minces words and has a good sense of adventure, so when he sent me a message asking if I wanted to do a bikepacking tour in Colorado I knew that it would likely be challenging and exciting. 
Fred spends more time outside than anyone I know
"We can link up some epics of the best alpine singletracks in the state, and do so utilizing the new-school bikepacking gear that neither of us had ever tried before; despite Fred's many talents (pro photographer, PhD chemist who intro'd a new cancer drug, top level waterskier, ultra-distance athlete, burly skier, sailor, etc) he had never done any bike touring before and was keen to give it a go.  But in classic Fred fashion, even though he hadn't gone overnight on a bike before, he wanted to go big.  So he cooked up a route that started traditionally enough on the Colorado Trail, but instead of simply following that, Fred's route veered off multiple ways in order to descend 10 mile long technical descents, climb over multiple 12-13,000 foot passes and peaks, gave us the opp to possibly ride a 14'er, and do so - in Fred's words again: "stupid light."  I knew I had to be ready.  And I needed a good bike. 

Recently I wrote an article for the Utah Adventure Journal singing the praises of the Beast Bike:  the old school mountain bikes with 26" wheels that seem to linger in many folks' garages for a long time until someone finally decides to unload on Craig's List.  These bikes can very easily become perfect townie or commuting bikes and can be great touring bikes as well since they are simple, sturdy, and the parts are universal so they are easily fixed around the globe.  And I even went so far as to say that the "standard frame geometry of years' past is nicely configured to provide plenty of space for a frame bag." So there I was:  Fred was giving me a rare invite to come join him on a trip that I knew would be at best challenging, I knew he'd have a new school bike with a carbon frame, lots of front and rear suspension travel, big tubeless-ed tires on stout 29-inch wheels, and a dropper post, all of which provided the confidence to slay any technical singletrack that we might find.   I, on the other hand, had....a mid-90's Fisher Gitchee Gumi steel frame with a rigid fork, a 7 speed cassette, V-brakes, and cheap mixed-surface tires, and the knowledge that it worked fine on well-graded gravel roads. My "normal" mountain bike is an equally sorta dumb rigid steel singlespeed, and I was a bit intimidated at the prospect of using that rig at high elevations loaded with gear on unknown and ambitious terrain (I was paranoid of being the Hold People Back Guy).  So I kinda needed a bike.

It's a bit silly, really; almost all of my peers have nice bikes that would work just fine for a burly trail, high elevation bikepack trip, yet despite the fact that there are 9.5 bikes in our garage (one uni) I didn't have an appropriate bike.  Despite my enthusiasm for the used Beast I got affected by some old fashioned American Consumerism and thought "I need something else, that's slightly better than what I have!"  At least I started out by taking a little of my own advice and went onto Craigs List to see if on the odd chance I could find a more appropriate steed, and indeed I did:  a little-used Surly Crampus.    Steel frame, 29 inch wheels that had 3 inch tires already converted to tubeless, and very similar to Ash's Salsa equivalent (the Deadwood) that she got some time ago and loves.  The guy wanted $1200 for it, the ad had been up for a few weeks and the bike was still available, so I probably could talk him down a fair bit.  Yet right as I was on the verge of getting in the car to hit the bank for the cash and make the 20 mile drive to get the new bike, Ash pointed out that all I was really getting for the extra $$ of yet another bike was bigger wheels, and that I was being a bit of a weenie.  That was all I needed to decide to make the Gitchee worthee. 

In the garage we had a Marzocchi suspension fork that was so old I couldn't remember what bike it used to be on nor if it would fit the Gitchee.  But maybe it would work?  In Ethiopia I had split a rim due to excess brake wear and had a guy on the street build me another wheel for $10 that had a permanent, untrue-able lump in it; would that wheel be worthy of alpine abuse?  I used the reminder of that rear split rim to check the front, and it was a good thing I did; the rim was well-ground by the brake pads and it was clear that it wasn't long before that one wore through too (another good reminder of why disc brakes have become the rule).  And 26-inch wheels and good tires with tubeless-worthy sidewalls that would (just barely, not really) fit inside the rear triangle of an old school bike - are hard to come by now!  But after multiple trips to Fishers bike shop and a coupla test rides I thought I was ready to go, with Fred's further admonition "make sure your bike is tip top!" ringing in my ears as I traveled to Denver.

One of the other allures of the trip to 'Rado was that it was an opportunity to reconnect with our old friend Mike O'Sullivan, whom I had done a few ski trips with a long time ago but then he chose to become a Caribbean sailor man and had disappeared from our world.  Fortunately for us he got bored sailing and headed back to terra firma, bought nice van, converted it, headed back to the mountains, bought a bike, took a skills course, and was keen to give this bikepacking thing a go. But a couple of days before I was to leave I got this picture from Fred:

Mike had apparently gone over the bars on a night ride with Fred and crashed, um, "hard", with the result of a broken femoral head, 4 broken ribs, a compressed L5 vertebrae, and broken off several of the "wings" (transverse processes) of some of his other vertebrae, and was concussed.  Literally a crushing blow for all of us.  But as he's well aware, he was lucky; as it was he was unconscious and convulsing long enough that Fred was wondering if his friend was going to expire right there on the trail in his arms.

But Mike came to, they were close to the trailhead, Fred activated his inReach (he had it for "just" a short ride; food for thought), they got a ride in a very expensive vehicle, and modern medicine prevailed.  Though he was in a lot of pain the two docs who tag teamed on him agreed that he will heal up fine, but it'll take a while.  And being the great friends that we are, Fred and I decided to forge ahead with the trip.

(as an aside, over the weekend on a real mountain bike ride in the Wasatch I saw two guys riding without helmets.  As someone who has broken - yes - about 25 helmets with my head and won't ride my cruiser around the park without a helmet, I can't believe that people are willing to spend the resources to buy a bike, shoes, shorts, etc....but don't wear a helmet?!?!).

As a successful pro photographer, (his website is worth perusing) Fred has become a master at working his outdoor industry clients for trips that will generate great shots for them.  This trip was a bit different; he was going out "just for fun", but he was able to secure one for-sure deal with Light And Motion and three potential programs with Ortlieb, Darn Tough socks, and Patagonia (the first pic on Patagonia's home page is a Fred shot) all of whom sent him products to use and shoot, which was great because those are all brands I've used and liked a lot.  But Fred doesn't usually look to me as a model because:  a) I'm no young gun pushing the limits in anything worth photographing, and b)  I'm usually a bit of a shitshow when it comes to gear and - more importantly - looking good.  So Fred had a good challenge to "pretty me up nice" for his pics, and had to specifically tell me to "Leave that Tyvek shit at home" (at first he thought I was joking when I said I wanted to bring my new secret weapon white Tyvek onesie...Tyvek is no joke!)

But when Fred saw my circa-90's bike

he did a triple take, shook his head, and wondered how he would be able to get any cycling shots worthy enough for Patagonia's latest new school cool-guy mountain bike clothes and Ortlieb and Light And Motion's new product lines.  But at least the socks were black, and Darn Tough was actually looking for an essay for their blog along the lines of "using only one pair of socks for a weeklong mountain adventure" which is just weird enough to be right up my alley. 

And when I arrived in Colorado Fred told me that he'd gotten a last-minute addition to the trip in Chad Melis, the recently-formered marketing director of the venerable Oskar Blues Brewery (which is now part of a larger group that also includes Utah's Wasatch and Squatters breweries).  Chad not only is a longtime excellent mountain biker and a great guy, but also has the cool enduro bike (from Reeb bikes, which is the Oskar Blues house brand; note what "Reeb" spells backwards) and Chad shoulders new-school mtb clothes much better than I do, so that took a bit of the pressure off me as Fred's only (shitshow) model.  Chad and his wife just had a baby 2 months ago, but like any good hedonistic father who's just bailed on working too hard for too long with a wise wife he was stoked to rage through the Rockies for a few days. 
That's what being liberated from a too-long job apparently feels like
And thus with Mike convalescing at Fred's house, me sporting my new duds and my retro bike, and Chad meeting us after the first couple of days, and Fred loaded down with his nice camera, we were off on our first bikepacking adventure, that was destined to be full of buffed singletrack, high altitude pushing, beautiful high passes, burly, rocky trails, and a few yuks.

To be continued....

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