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......


  1. Hey Roland. Great report and looking forward to Chapter 2. Way to get this race done in tough conditions!

  2. Wow Roland! I really enjoyed reading your blog and seeing the photos .... ! ( carry your mandolin? )

    Any thoughts about going back to VOM ?