Saturday, May 11, 2013

April 2013 Stagecoach 400 Bikepacking in Southern California

April 26 was the start for this year's Stagecoach 400, my favorite bikepacking route - and always fun to know other people are moving the same direction (even though I actually didn't see any other rider after the first 24 hours). Brendan and Mary Collier of The Hub Cyclery in Idyllwild, California and their friends developed that route and I think it is just the best laid out route of such a distance. Last year (2012) was the inaugural event, so still a rather novel event on the calendar. It is about 372 miles, so well under 400. I think Brendan should go metric: As I hit Cowbell Alley, essentially back in Idyllwild, my GPS showed exactly 600 km (I don't do miles)!

On Thursday, as soon as I had come back from a business trip, I tossed my bike and a box of equipment into the car and headed out to Idyllwild, just arriving in time for the pre-trip meeting. Idyllwild is a mountain community, so the ride starts (and eventually ends) at the highest point. Route changes this year removed some of the more aggravating parts of last year's ride, so it looked as if the top riders could break 48 hours this time (which they did). For midpackers like myself, it still meant 3-4 days. However, the forecast called for warmer temperatures than last years and lack of rain this winter probably meant sandy trails, so I had concerns about conditions. As it turned out, heat and sand came with a vengeance and I eventually needed 5 hours or so more than last year. 2/3rds of the people quit before finishing, most of them before even trying to tackle the Oriflamme climb out of the desert.

After the pre-trip meeting, a bigger group headed over to Cafe Aroma for dinner (also highly recommended, I enjoyed every meal there). Keith Richards-Dinger sat opposite me and we found out that we both had collarbone surgery in January and therefore some fewer miles in our legs than last year. Maybe we could have opened our own new division, of recent surgery cases. Fastman Eddie O'Dea from Atlanta was sitting with us and had even worse recent surgery pictures, but they were not his, but his wife's whose bones were put together with an even longer plate.

Everybody was excited and in great spirits the next morning as we reassembled at Cafe Aroma for a breakfast and a group picture before rolling out of town. I'm on the far left in that picture. The group seemed smaller than last year and noticeably fewer women, about 35 total. Wonder if Jill Homer scared them off by writing that Stagecoach was the hardest thing she did last year?Jill's hardest events in 2012 Jill is a big opinion leader in the ultra-scene, but Stagecoach would seem to be one of the milder events on her agenda. Or maybe she had a point because this year only 1/3 of the starters finished. In any event, Tracey Petervary from Idaho was the only woman from last year who came back (but not very many men were repeaters either) and the only woman finisher this year. Last year's winner, Jay Petervary on the right on the picture (in orange), Eddie next to him (green/black outfit).

2013 Stagecoach 400 Start

The day starts pretty and easy, largely rolling down on dirtroads and single track,

leaving Idyllwild
lots of easy downhill at the beginning

then a few miles on a road through pine forests (the Amgen Tour of California would race through that stretch two weeks later)

and then a mildly technical descent down Thomas mountain to Anza. I got off at that spot, too.

It was going to be a hot day, so even though we were only 35 km in the ride, I stopped at the Sunshine market at the end of Anza, gulped down a quart of gatorade, a bottle of coke, and a few cookies, and loaded more water. Even though it would be less than 50 km to the next town and downhill as well, they are very challenging (big chunks without trail) and take a long time. Very shortly after Anza, we veer left and start dropping down into Coyote Canyon. During the descent, I caught up with Norb DeKerchove and we rode together for an hour or so. That is real desert and we'll be there for the next 24 hours.

Coyote Canyon is spectacular and also has a nice overnight possibility, famed Bailey's Cabin. But then, why not just sleep outside? In any event, this was just mid-morning, more than 12 hours to go before one could seriously call it a day.

Bailey's Cabin

After Bailey's Cabin, things slow down as there is no trail, so route finding through the canyon and a lot of sand. Initially fun, also because the heat hadn't kicked in yet, but eventually it becomes quite a slog. Norb DeKerchove, still full of energy, powers through the no trail section and soon was out of sight.

This is serious desert, so it never fails to astonish getting to the middle willows, which is a jungle seemingly coming out of nowhere. Wet, mud, no way to get through the dense vegetation if you miss the main trail. Doesn't take long to emerge back in the driest desert, though, but now mud caked.

this is not a little creek, this is the trail through middle willows

There are some gnarly rocky descents towards the end of the canyon, before the road into Borrego Springs. Last year, I just rode those without thinking about it, a few hospital visits since have made me a lot more hesitant and I actually got off the bike and walked a few of those. Especially since Gerry Lattimer caught up with me just before them and said he took a spill there last year (I think that's what he said, in any event, my brain started to get fried by the heat).

There was a minor route change before Borrego Springs which allowed us to see some of the sculptures displayed all around town (really around, they are on the outskirts). Great move, I knew about them, but have never seen them before.

Finally in Borrego Springs, only 80km and all downhill, yet 7 hours already. I always do badly in the desert, lose a lot of time on the front group, although I make up some of that in the cooler sections. There were a few riders when I arrived, but they left around the time I got my burrito at Jilbertos.  Norb looked surprisingly fresh, one person commented he looked as if he just stepped out of the shower while the rest of us showed more strain. When I filled up my water and stepped out of the shade, the heat really hit, by now we were well into the 90s and temperatures had not peaked yet (it was around 3, and 5 is the hottest time).
some living things survive even in these hostile conditions

The next 40 km or so were road, providing a bit of a breeze and I caught up to two other riders on a climb, Norb DeKerchove and somebody else and we rode together on Split Mountain until the beginning of Fish Creek Wash. No fish, no creek, just sand, it is full blown desert.  Fish Creek Wash can be spectacular, but my heart sank as we started: Even the beginning was very sandy. Since the wash only gets more difficult and sandier as it climbs, that could mean 50km of barely rideable surface.

Sun Set in Fish Creek Wash
and after the sun was long gone. The moon lit up the canyon very nicely. 

The trail conditions turned out to exceed the worst expectations. Brendan in his blog also wrote that this was the worst sand he ever encountered in Fish Creek (and he has been there many times). I prepared for heat (although maybe not quite as much sand) and during that day drank 3 gallons. Yet by the time I stopped(159 km, not even reaching 100 miles, so less than last year) I only had 1/2 bottle left. About 12 hours of actual moving time (can't call it riding with all the walking). Still, a beautiful night out in the wash, full moon lighting up the canyon walls, and I wasn't too thirsty yet and with the cool morning, 1/2 bottle should get me through the last 20km (but several hours) before getting to water again. Happy to camp out there, just plopped down in the sand behind a big boulder.

Aerial view of Fish Creek Wash

I started just before dawn, about 5 am, and had a beautiful desert sunrise. In the first 2 hours, I saw more coyotes than I normally see in a whole year.

dawn in Fish Creek Wash
The cool temperatures were nice, but the surface was still deep sand. Since I have problems walking (I tend to use my bike a bit like a crutch when pushing), this was getting very tedious. I tried to avoid deep sand, looking for the hardest patches I could find, but that also meant riding occasionally a bit close to the cactus. I set up my tires tubeless (essential for desert anyway) and added a double amount of sealant in the week before, so wasn't too worried about the tires, they would collect dozens of needles, but in contrast to using standard tubes (at least without sealant), it doesn't cause flats. However, I personally caught a few more needles than I cared for during my deep sand avoidance maneuvers. This is a particular annoying one:

Many little spines that break off. Can't pull it out with the other hand (would only double the fun), so I searched for  candy/bar wrappers and used those. Then about 10 minutes with pliers to get rid of all the broken off spines.

The final straw was when after a few hours (now out of water), I reached the top to descend 10km to the Stagecoach RV park for water, and found that much of the downhill was barely rideable (and indeed involved a few walking/pushing interludes) because the sand was too soft and deep. Now, I really had it with desert!

But by 9am, I made it to the RV park and filled up on water (and coffee, milk, and Pepsi). I probably was one of the last riders who finished to emerge from the wash (Gerry Lattimer showed a bit after me, but then there was only one other left in the wash who would finish). The ones hanging out at the RV park were already talking about quitting, so better to ride on quickly. Plus there were the added incentives that 1) only 3 hours to get out of the desert, but 2) mostly climbing in full sun and the sooner I got going, the less I get cooked.

Next on the list is famed Oriflamme Canyon. By itself just a bit more than 5 km, but more than 500 m of climbing on rocky jeep trail (3.5 miles, 1,700 feet)
Oriflamme Canyon Climb
Norb deKerchove started the climb with me. His last words were "It's getting quite toasty out here". Then he dropped off. I thought he was just going to take a break, but later learned that he backtracked to a road and quit. Maybe he didn't believe me when I told him that it would take less than 3 hours to get out the desert. Norb is an experienced bikepacker from Idaho, I last met him a few years ago on the continental divide as he was riding south from Canada to Mexico and I was going the opposite direction and we stayed at Brush Mountain Lodge the same night. But SoCal desert got the better of him this time.
looking back down halfway up Oriflamme

After Oriflamme, of course, another climb, but now there is a breeze and now I'm clearly out of the desert! Beautiful meadow, nice single track, things really improve drastically.

Meadow near Sunrise Highway

Single track through the meadow

Then more nice single track on the other side of sunrise highway and a few road miles, although it is all climbing and eventually over 5000 feet again. But not getting water at the top of Noble Canyon (the pump at the trailhead was broken) was a downer and I misestimated how long it would take to the next water source (the metallic-tasting brown water at the horse camp before Descanso). So I actually did not enjoy Noble and Indian Creek trail as much as I could have. Indian Creek has even a bit of flowing single track before it turns into the more standard rocky trail.

Some of the prettiest parts of the whole loop are the meadows near the end of Indian Creek trail. Would be a perfect place to camp or stay longer. However, whenever I get there it is mid afternoon and I'm out of water and food, so I don't . In fact, with more water and food, riding that section could become my favorite part. But onwards....

And not that much later, after spending all morning climbing up, now it largely goes all the way down, but there is Alpine and time for dinner and stocking up on food and drink.

Just like last year, it is getting dark as I leave Alpine and can't really say a lot how the next few miles look, although they probably are very pretty. Filled up with food and water, it is enjoyable evening riding, mostly dirt road (there is a stretch on a very washed out descent with deep ruts that should be taken slowly), then a few miles of road with a lot of traffic (Rancho San Diego), but a bike lane, and then single track at Sweetwater Reservoir. I rode a bit of the trails at Sweetwater Reservoir and slept there, stopping around midnight. This time on a picnic table with a cover, so don't even have to mess around with a tarp (otherwise the fog gets the sleeping bag wet). Just a few miles outside Chula Vista, could see houses on the other side of the reservoir, but felt like being far away from everything. Stayed up for a little while to just enjoy where I was. Pleasantly foggy Southern California, but downtown Tijuana is not even 10 miles away.

That was day 2, also about 100 miles (ok, so sometimes I use miles), but 14 hours of actual moving time.
I planned a crack of dawn start or maybe just before and be out of San Diego before lunch time (but after having lunch while being in an urban area).

But it's only been 320 km in 2 days (and not easy days), can I do the remaining 280km in one setting tomorrow?

To be continued......

2013 Stagecoach 400: Part II The darkest hour

Day 3: Sunday morning. 280 km out of 600 km left, so I've done a little more than half of the distance. I planned on doing the second half in one throughride, expecting to need somewhere between 25 and 30 hours. Most of the climbing is still to come, probably about 6000 m, and they are concentrated in the last third of the ride, but in contrast to the first half, almost all of those 280 km are rideable.

I was up at about 5, nice cool temperatures and fog. I feel much better in that climate and knew that I would have a good morning.

Sweetwater Reservoir
Bugs do like that climate better than the desert as well, so I had to shake a bunch earwigs out of my sleeping bag. My left-over pizza, although in a plastic bag, in my backpack, and on the table (not left on the ground) was taken over by them as well. Quite the party on the table, big caterpillars, a few big hairy ones, lots of earwigs, and a bunch of others.

So my breakfast had to wait, but I was just 2 hours away from downtown San Diego. While I think of the route of rolling into San Diego from the east, the route actually is further south (Chula Vista and National City) and even by the time it hits San Diego Bay, it still is just 10 miles to Tijuana.

I enjoyed riding the last little sections of single track around Sweetwater Reservoir, but the route quickly becomes urban, although still on trails away from roads. Then from the San Diego Bay on, it is on streets. A little bit after 7, I was in a cafe in Little Italy.

Foggy morning at Sunset Cliffs
Riding through San Diego early on a Sunday morning isn't bad at all, although it probably would annoy me at other times. It has its own charms as an interlude between the remote parts of the ride.

The SC 400 takes you through through the convention center area, downtown, past Little Italy, through the Sunset Cliffs neighborhood, around Sea World and Mission Bay, and even on a campus tour of UC San Diego. And at the end, a quick side trip through the Torrey Pines Preserve instead rolling down a 4-lane highway. Pretty cool for an urban ride.

Overall, the ride through San Diego is more bike friendly than this sign and section would indicate (near Sea World):

20 meter of bike path to lead you smack into a signpost (no bikepath afterwards)
I stoppped at UC San Diego for an early lunch, there is a nice eatery near the economics dept. So if you see economics dept on the right, stop right afterwards at the cafeteria. Best burrito on the trip. Real meals are served starting at 10.30 (I waited around for a few minutes) including Sundays (it was Sunday), coffee is available earlier. Given that I was in the urban area by 5.30 or so and this is the end, the total urban San Diego time came to about 5 hours.

UC San Diego

Now comes the biggest surprise: Great riding through suburbia.  San Diego is surrounded by suburban hell for many miles. Countless big developments, all cul-de-sacced with huge artery roads as the only entries/exits and connectors. Until last year, I had very low expectations for gettting out of San Diego, but surprise: We are largely off-pavement and on great trails to boot. 

Between all those developments is lots of open space. The tricky part is finding it because the developers and/or residents are not trying to make it accessible. Some individual loops are well known, e.g. the Tunnels (officially: Del Mar Mesa Preserve), which is a nice flowing single track in an overgrown canyon, but mapping out a long-distance trail is brilliant. Eventually, there may be an official long-distance trail which is the goal of the San Dieguito River Park, but the existing sections don't connect (although the SC 400 route creates those connections). 
The Tunnels
After the Tunnels comes a good example of why you'd never find a good route on your own. The Tunnels section ends at a gas station, which also marks the beginning of a big suburban road, many huge intersections with long waits at traffic lights, shopping center. But just for a short distance, you make a sudden left turn, into a cul-de-sac and take it to the end. No signs, looks all like private driveways and a dead-end, yet there is a gate that takes you out into the next open space area. Around there is where I saw the biggest rattlesnake in a long time: 
It started getting uncomfortably hot again, definitely leaving the cool ocean breeze behind, but it was nice riding. I could feel getting brain fry setting in again. My rear brake didn't work very well, squealing loudly, but hardly any breaking power. The pads weren't worn down, but washing it out or trying to roughen the surface with a bit of sand grinding didn't help. Maybe I overheated on the long descents yesterday and damaged the pads, but the brake needed work. But even in the shade, it took me several minutes to to take the rear wheel out and change the brake pads, being as clumsy as if I had never done that before. I was overheated myself. But I managed without losing parts and eventually had a reliable rear brake again. And sitting in the shade for a while was good, too.   

Many tight switchbacks, but I rode them better this time than ever before
There is the memorable switchback section which connects (after a climb) with the singletrack section around Lake Hodges and, after going under I-15, the San Pasqual Valley trails. I stopped for an early dinner at Panera Bread for a salmon salad and a sandwich for the rest of the ride and filled up on Pepsi. Panera's  sandwiches are mediocre and overpriced, but it still beats gas station food. Obin and I were disappointed with their food last year when we ate there (we rode in the San Pasqual Valley). The salad was good, though. By this time, I was a few hours ahead of my time last year and on target to finish in under 3 days/72 hours. Especially since I felt better than last year when stopping here and even then I had a fun ride through the night. And it is only 100 miles back to Idyllwild from here, although almost half the climbing of the total ride may still be ahead. I'm not sure, but the first day has very little climbing, the second day has its share, but less than 10,000 feet, and the 3rd day has been reasonably flattish so far. So could be as much as 15,000 feet left.

This is a nice trail, but it eventually ends and then comes an ugly moment: 3 miles climbing on 78 (which is the main road from Escondido to Ramona/Julian). A busy road, no shoulder (the road just squeezes in between the rocks) and cars still going >50 miles. So I put on all my blinkies, took another big swig of Pepsi, and sprinted up that hill as fast as I could. It really wasn't that unsafe, there are occasional turnouts and not one car even came close. Still, I hate that section, even for 20 mins. But then, road cyclists do that all the time and even Tour Divide has hundreds of miles like that. 

Only 3 miles, then a turnoff onto a dirt road, although so washed out that it is at times single track. Another part that I really like. 

Eventually the climbing starts and it got dark, so can't say much about the views. But there is a lot of uphill and much of it steep. In Black Canyon, I saw this beauty:
Black Canyon Creature

Around 10 or 11 in the evening, I got very weak and tired. I took a 1 hour nap somewhere off Black Canyon, ate a bit, and hopped into my sleeping bag, even though it was not a comfortable spot. That break improved things a little bit and I headed on, but rather slowly. 

2 hours later, now on the road around Lake Henshaw (76), so a brief pavement stretch, I was again getting very weak and tired.  The Tour of California will zoom down on the same descent and then make a left turn where I turned right two weeks later. But they'll go 40 km/h and at that moment, I could not go faster than 15km/h (<10 miles). So off the bike again and this time I found a very attractive spot. Deep pile of leaves under some trees, extremely comfortable and as good as any bed. I slept for a bit, probably about 2 hours, and started up again at 3 am. 
Deep layer of leaves under trees make a great sleeping spot
My performance didn't improve at all, still averaging 15 km/h on a largely flat paved road. Yes, some headwind, but there was no escaping the obvious conclusion that I had totally run out of power for the moment. I sputtered through Warner Springs without stopping (there isn't anything to stop for either and I had water). As I turned back into the National Forest towards Indian Flats, I got really cold, although objectively it cannot have been that cold, put on every layer I had and still was shivering going uphill. 

Now what to do?  I already tried eating and sleeping. There was no attractive stopping place either. So this was the darkest hour moment of my ride and it fittingly came during the wee hours.  Very different from last year, when just around this time of the night and this section of the trail was one of my most enjoyable times of the ride. 

"Dark hours" do happen, typically a consequence of a mistake in not eating or drinking enough, digestive problems, or just having tried to ride above ones abilities. Or they can creep in without any obvious reason because I couldn't think of any mistake I had made the previous day (except some yucky drink I bought at the gas station after the Tunnels). My "dark hours" are most likely to occur mid-afternoon when the sun is out at full blast, dehydration sets in, but when the sun goes down I feel strong again and enjoy riding. This time it hit me right in the earliest morning hours. Not much that could be done at 4 am in a National Forest, so onward, at a slow crawl and occasionally even just a slow push. 

The sun always rises and it didn't even take that long before the sky slowly started to become brighter. And as it became brighter, though still before daylight, the ghostly period fainted away and everything was fine again, even without a meal or stopping.  But in the 12 hour period since the early dinner stop, I fell about 5 hours behind my pace last year and only about 1-2 would be extra stopping time - the rest was slower pace. Surprising at the amount of damage that period of weakness did. 

I took a breakfast break and then tackled the seemingly endless sequence of hill after hill. You always think that Anza must be right behind the next mountains, but it never is. Very pretty, though, and I didn't see any of that last year because I was long through here before it got light. So there was an upside to the ghostly nighttime episode. I enjoyed the ride again. 

With all those endless climbs, you get to study the ground for a long time. What do we have here? Fresh Nano tracks, probably less than an hour old, certainly less than 2 hours. 
Fresh Nano tracks, Tracey Petervary must have been here less than an hour ago!

While I had no idea which other riders were still riding or who might be where - I had not seen anybody since the Stagecoach RV stop 2 days before - this looked like Tracey Petervary to me. It's kind of funny what odd skills you pick up over time. I actually didn't know what tires she was riding and only that on those distances she is about my speed, but I could tell that this is a lightweight rider with smooth pedaling style. All the other tracks were noticeably older and to the extent that they were still readable looked like very different types of rider (heavier, mashing pedals). And in one case somebody extremely exhausted and about to fall off their bike: Lots of micro-swerves, getting off to walk. Probably just how my tracks from 3 hours earlier looked. But they were all much older tracks, nothing else was recent. 

But eventually, there really was the final hill climb and on the other side was Anza valley. Now all the way down, across the valley, and up the mountains on the other side back to Idyllwild! 

Anza Valley

I thought I could see a cyclist ahead of me, but it was so far that it was more like a moving dot. It was almost 9 am as I reached Terwilliger Road where almost exactly 3 days earlier we turned left and  dropped into Coyote Canyon. Now I was coming to this road from the other side, so made a left onto Terwilliger Road. Stopped at the Sunshine Market to fill up my bottles and as it turns out, the store just opened as I got there. So instead of starting the last climb, I took a longer break in the shade, with a bottled iced coffee. 
Thomas Mountain descent - but now climb

  I know I came down that trail before, but it sure didn't look that steep before. As much fun as the descent it, the climb is a long walk, at least after just having done almost 600km. It is steep, it is long, it is fully exposed, and by now it was hot, too.  

Then a bit of pavement on the Pines-to-Palms Highway again, May Valley, almost back. After getting off the highway, my chain really started to act up and even generous amounts of lube didn't help. Having spent too much time working on the front derailleur earlier this morning, I had no interest of playing with the chain so close to the end. But the chain got very moody and wanted to jump of the chainring whenever I pushed hard (I could see at least one bad looking link), so I tried to softpedal as much as I could softpedal up a climb. My GPS showed 600km, I could see the top, I was done - but then the chain fell off. Picked it up and was unsure what to do now, but I remembered that it is essentially all downhill to the bike shop and the Idyllwild Inn (where I left the car). So I started to roll, but must have made a wrong turn because I didn't get to Cafe Aroma where we started (and which is uphill from my car and the bike shop) but instead ended up on the highway below. But I was not going to repair a chain and use a new master link for the last half mile so just walked the rest to the Idyllwild Inn. 

I got to the bike shop at 1.50 (Brendan's official time). Tracey Petervary's arrived 1 1/2 hours before me, so with the Sunshine Market break, the mechanical delays, and the final walk, the dot that I saw in the Anza valley might have very well been her. Funny how close we were at the end given that I last saw her at the start (and she got out of Fishcreek Wash 6 hours or so before me). 

I was the 9th finisher, but the field thinned a lot as 2/3rds had quit. The finishers were very spread out. Gerry Lattimer was the next to finish and he came more than a day after Tracey and me, while the 3 fastest riders (Eddie O'Dea, Guy Sutton, and Jay Petervary) had arrived 1 1/2 days earlier. 

Definitely too square-eyed to start driving home, so I hung out at the bike shop for a while. The guys had just ordered pizza, so my timing was perfect (or maybe they knew from trackleaders where I was). 

Was home before dinner time after a weekend well spend. Need to do that more often because those rides always put me in a good mood for while.