Sunday, October 21, 2012

Coconino Bikepacking

The last bikepacking adventure of the year was also my first time mountain biking in Arizona. The Coconino Loop is a surprisingly hard 250 miles that runs from Flagstaff to Sedona to Mingus mountain to Williams and back to Flagstaff. 250 miles doesn't sound like much - it would be an easy 1 1/2 days on roads - but on those trails 250 miles actually is 3-4 hard days worth of riding (and a few hours of pushing). All the pictures I took are here:

I left Thursday after teaching my graduate econometrics class (my teaching schedule is very light, this is the only course I teach all year and my indicator that fall is really here). I expected to make it to Flagstaff early in the evening, maybe even before dark and see a bit of the area and also find a safe place to leave the car for the weekend. But a flat tire (big nail) 50 miles before Needles slowed things down. Very unpleasant having to change car tires in the desert and on the freeway - but I made it at least to a rest area. Tried to pump, but it was clear that the tire was beyond help, so the spare went on. This also meant having to get a new tire ASAP, Needles being the closest town, as there were 200 miles or so to go. So it was late in the evening when I made it to Flag and I checked into the Comfort Inn - pleasant hotel although near freeway hell.

I bought food for the next two days on Friday morning, checked car tire pressure, and parked the car in a residential area in north Flagstaff opposite an empty lot. Seemed a safe area. I rolled out of Flagstaff on the Arizona Trail at about 10 am.  The plan was only about 50 miles that day, most of it very nice, but there were some rather slow and surprisingly tedious parts (rocky bumpy surface). Too many gates to open and close. At about 1 pm, Lynda Wallenfels zoomed past and for the rest of the gate circuit, she opened them and I closed them a few minutes later. Approaching Munds, there was a stretch of dirt road as well that reminded me too much of Tour Divide: lots of dust from off-road vehicles to breathe. So at that point, I was torn: What is worse, very rocky slow grind single track or sandy/gravely dirt road with traffic? Neither one is that much fun. But once you turn off the dirt road to Munds, it was nice riding again. I made it just before sunset to the Sedona overlook, a mountain ridge maybe 2 hours away from the town. Spectacular view and a few other cyclists were camping there as well. Not a particularly hard day, although more than distance or elevation profile indicate.

Rolling out of Flagstaff on the Arizona Trail:
Sunset (and stop for the night) on a mountain ridge above Sedona:

After a breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee, I got to ride spectacular single track descending towards Sedona. The morning of the second day was the highlight of the trip for me (the last day would have probably been next, but I had to miss that because of mechanical problems). 

Lots of cactus pretty soon because now the route goes from pine forests into the high desert. I was glad it was not a hot summer day, but a gentle October day. Crossing the valley in the afternoon would be very hard for me in 100 degrees, which it certainly will hit in the summer, although the ride towards Sedona would be nice even them. The descent towards Sedona was slightly technical, not particularly difficult, not easy either. Very much what I had been looking forward to on this trip and there is a reason for Sedona's reputation as a mountain biking destination. 

By 11 or so, I got into Sedona, which is quite the New Age town, this goes on forever. I didn't know that there was a convenience store on the route that probably is the best resupply stop, so turned right into town and got to see a lot more of those new age stores. It is a funny base for an economy, but based on what I saw, that is Sedona's main industry. Ever wondered if the annoying yelping of your poodle might really be the echo of a desert coyote rather than inbreeding in Europe? I'm sure there are suppliers in Sedona that will be able to help you. 
More terrific, but very needly single track afterwards. Great riding out of Sedona, although I was getting hot and I was very glad this was a cooler fall day.  Basically a continuation of the morning ride, although more up and down rather than just down, but it lived up to expectations. Narrow trails and a lot of cactus meant now was time for the 100% all-natural traditional Southwest accupuncture! I mainly got it in my toes and shin, though. Single track and cactus, so you have to hold your line very cleanly or you catch a few. I quickly started picking cleaner lines. Did not distract from the riding experience, it was a great trail. 

The second day eventually became very long. As nice as the trails out of Sedona were, after crossing Red Rock State Park, you end up on the Lime Kiln trail, all the way to Cottonwood. Lime Kiln trail is very hard at the beginning and very tedious in the second half. It starts with a grueling hike-a-bike (and more cactus needles as it is too narrow for the bike and you). Then came a nicer descent where I  met Sharon and David Sell from Alaska as they were fixing flat number 14 that day. They were looking forward to getting to Cottonwood and buying more tubes. I was glad about my tubeless setup as it sealed all the punctures quickly. Maybe some cactus needles, but the problem with Arizona singletrack seems to be more goatheads/puncture vines as you collect dozens on a long ride like this. Maybe it was a particularly bad year. But Lime Kiln wasn't finished, so after some nicer parts, there came plenty of tedious sand to grind through, plus some seemingly extra loops to visit trash sites. My front tire got a cut on some rocks that took a bit longer to seal, so I went to the bikestore in Cottonwood for a refill on my sealant, also some duct tape to fix my shorts, which had a big gash. Probably caught on some barbed wire fence that I had to climb during the day.  If I get into this area again, I probably skip the hike-a-bike on Lime Kiln and take the road until it intersects with the trail again. Some parts just aren't worth riding/pushing, although more of that came in the evening.

I made it to Cottonwood maybe around 4, made some inefficient resupply decisions that wasted time (looked for a supermarket, but they are out of the way, better to stay on the route and resupply at a gas station). So I puttered around for too long in Cottonwood, but I also wanted a break as toughest part of the day was still ahead: A 4500 foot climb up Mingus mountain. I personally like doing those seemingly endless climbs later in the dark, partly (but not only) because it is cooler, too. 

The route up to Mingus might have been the most brutal single climb I've ever done. The last section is very steep and difficult to even lift get the bike over some ledges. Other routes have similarly steep climbs (e.g. the top on Fishcreek Wash on the Stagecoach 400), but they are always very short. Mingus, however, gives you that difficulty for a long time, certainly more than an hour, maybe 2. I don't think I'll do the front climb again as there is an easier climb from the back that is more rideable. It was well after 11 pm when I made it to the top and stopped for the night at the picnic tables. It was chilly, although not too cold, and little humidity, so I just put the sleeping bag on the tarp. Some extremely noisy animal woke me up at 5 am, ugly sound and very loud. Don't know what it was but a bit bigger than a cat and moving around fast. 

After climbing all evening, the next morning was all about decending back down into the desert to the Verde River. Overall, an enjoyable early morning ride. Around 10 am, I met Mark Allen from Arizona who was trying to filter some water but decided against it as it looked extremely filthy and had a dead rat swimming in there. So next water supply was Verde River. We started riding together when suddenly several spokes on my bike broke. Bad news as this ruined my tubeless setup in an area where tubes are a bad idea. Mark helped me getting the wheel ridable again (and he had a spoke that fitted perfectly), but this was stressful. 

 I made to the Verde River around 1 pm and filtered 7 liters of water. A few other cyclists were hanging out in the shade as well as there was going to be a hard climb from 3000 feet to close to 9000 feet - and the next few hours were fully exposed before getting into the pine forest again around 7000 feet. 

My tire was leaking, but manageable with occasional pumping - but a few hours later during a repump, the valve broke off. Now I had only one tube left and I know that this would end the ride for me in Williams unless I could get my wheel repaired. I was already resigned to rolling straight into Williams when I caught up with Mark Allen. He had spare tubes and talked me into doing the full route (which would add another 2 hours to the day). Unfortunately, I pinchflatted at the bottom of Bill Williams and had to put it my last tube. I spent the rest of the daylight removing thorns from the tire, at least 20, to give the tube a chance to survive for a while. I must have gotten most thorns out and didn't collect too many new ones because I made it without pumping to the town of Williams. However, the tire was pretty much flat by then. Losing the remainding daylight, however, was disappointing because it was clear as we were starting the climb up Bill Williams that this would be a very nice section of technical trail. Mark was strong, but I also bonked and could hardly ride anything uphill once we got going again. We made it to the top probably around 8 and then started a technically challenging descent. Something that would be great to do fresh in the morning, but in the dark after a long day and worrying about the tire it was not so much fun. 

So I checked into a Motel and was hoping to find a bikeshop in the morning. Unfortunately, no bikeshop in Williams, so I had to skip the last section of the loop and went to search for  a car ride back to Flagstaff.  Mark still tried to convince me to start and offered one of his spare tubes, but that really was too sketchy - a long day on a wobbly wheel, goatheaded tire, and out of backup options. Fortunately, the motel owner offered to take me back to Flagstaff and I was back at my car by 11.

Too bad, because I expected that the last day might have been my favorite part (no desert riding). Have to come back for it some other time.

Even though I thought I had found a safe place to park my car, somebody crashed into it and tore off the left side mirror. Nothing too bad, just the side mirror, and I could tape it together to drive back. Just about $200 to get it replaced, but not the best ending to the trip.  

1 comment:

  1. Funny you did not do the last segment- we didn't either. I broke 3 spokes going down Bill Williams mountain, so we rode the frontage road back to flagstaff instead of staying on route. I need to go back and do the last stage too! Heres my blog-

    We went a lot slower than you. My friend I went with was terribly slow in altitude (and then he started smoking me once we got down to 4000 feet).