Monday, March 31, 2014

Stagecoach 2014

2014 was the 3rd edition of the Stagecoach 400 bikepacking "race", by now the premier bikepacking event of the year in California. It is a 600km route (so well short of 400 miles) that starts in the mountain community of Idyllwild and crosses deserts, mountain ranges, and beach communities. Last year was particularly challenging because of heat and deep sand, causing 2/3rds of starters to abandon.  My 2013 trip report here:
and the end of 2012

As a consequence, 2014 saw a modified  route to avoid the worst sand stretches in the desert and also moved the start up a month for cooler temperatures. Full moon weekend in March, although the first day in the desert was still awfully hot, despite a start in freezing temperatures.

I arrived in Idyllwild on Thursday afternoon and checked into the Idyllwild Inn, which mainly or even exclusively seemed to have Stagecoach riders as guests that day. Blake Bockius from Truckee had the room on one side of me, Gerry Lattimer from Mission Viejo in Orange County the room on the other side. Blake finished the Arizona Trail Race last year in 9 days, a 750 mile route pretty much from the Mexican border to Utah, which requires carrying your bike across the Grand Canyon - no riding allowed in the National Park. Gerry has done the Stagecoach the last two years as well. With the Petervarys from Idaho sitting out this year, there are now only 3 people who have finished all three editions of the Stagecoach 400: Gerry, me, and credit-card racer Stan Potter.

Here is this year's bike setup, pretty much the same as last year: My steel Niner with triple chainrings and lots of room for water (5 bottles, a bladder, plus a backpack if needed - just for day 1, then the backback goes in the frame bag). Sleeping bag, cold weather clothes in the front roll under the handlebars. No sleeping pad or tent, but I have a tarp either as a ground cover or as a shelter for rain.
My bike packed for Stagecoach 400

The weather was beautiful, nice and sunny, yet all of a sudden it started to snow! I was initially puzzled because it was warm, the sun was out, no overhead clouds, but indeed it was snow.
It was warm and sunny at the Idyllwild Inn, yet the white specks floating down are snow!
By the time we gathered at the Hub Cyclery, the weather had changed: Cold, windy, and the snow was coming down hard. But I actually had fun riding my bike through in this weather, even if just a few blocks to the bike shop, I like it better than desert heat and sand.
Snowing at the Hub Cyclery

Brendan Collier giving out some instructions before the clouds came in. Keith Richards-Dinger (who rides a single speed and is faster than I'm with gears on the left) and Sam Johnstone  (who made this a longer trip: a day to ride to the start, then the loop, then another day to ride back home) packed up well in the middle. 

The next morning started early, still in the dark, and rather chilly.  Many of the trails were closed because of a recent fire, so in contrast to previous years, the way in and out of Idyllwild was on pavement and an early start meant fewer cars. The temperature was probably just a bit above freezing, but as we were going down the mountain, it was getting colder. One of the funny things is that low valleys are often colder than the higher mountains surrounding them. After 10km downhill, along Lake Hemet, my water bottles started to freeze (on the last night, there was a similar situation, much warmer just a few km of climbing out of Warner Springs than in the valley there).

After the town of Anza (which isn't an attractive stretch), the descent into the desert begins. Very pleasant temperatures now, just perfect, so the next hour is great. It doesn't take very long for things to heat up, though.

Down into Coyote Canyon
Brendan stopped for some water in Anza and passed me on the descent (he is a better descender than me, but he probably hasn't yet broken his collarbones on both sides either). Check out his taped achilles tendons, hopefully, he won't be limping on a crutch like me by the time his son starts college.

You probably have to be on facebook to see this link, but Brendan posted a video of how this descent looks from a cyclists perspective, it is pretty rocky.
Brendan's video of Coyote Canyon descent

Here is how the route through Coyote canyon looks for a few hours, there is a lot of getting on and off the bike:

While most of the time you see nobody, even that soon after the start, stop for a minute or two and other people will come by. Here is Claude Frat in the foreground (his first time on the route, but he is a consistent rider and had no problem finishing) and Eric Brown in the background (who hasn't had much luck with the route yet).

Middle willows, a dense jungle in the middle of the desert, never fails to surprise. Despite being a drought year, the water was deeper than I have ever seen it. Rather than just crossing mud puddles, it is riding in a creek with some deeper holes that are knee deep. Birds, insect buzzing, the jungle in the desert is a surreal experience.

Very overgrown exit out of the jungle, I heard some crackling behind me and waited for a minute. Can't yet see who it is (might have been Michael Grosso), but somebody who had a lot of fun and said this is way better than any amusement park ride.

But it doesn't take long and it's full desert again. It becomes easier shortly afterwards, although the exit out of Coyote canyon is a sandy road and that is tedious. Temperatures were still ok, nothing miserable, just tedious.
Claude Frat and Eric Brown near the end of Coyote Canyon

Borrego Springs is about 5 hours or so after the start and lunch break time. I never feel great here, although this year was better than other years. Had my burrito at Jilberto's and on. There are metal sculptures all around Borrego Springs and at the outskirt, I found my favorite desert monster. With the temperatures now, I felt like it already got the rider.....

The next stretch is pavement, longish, and a day pavement rider caught up with me and wanted to chat the whole time. I like to ride by myself and am minimally interested in chatting, 5 minutes are nice, but no more. Initially annoying, but it is such a boring stretch that eventually I didn't mind it. 

Then comes the hardest part because of time of day and temperature: Fishcreek Wash. The next few hours have a great scenery, but being a dry year, it is very sandy and requires a lot of pushing. Getting into Fishcreek Wash is like riding between 2 pizza stones. The heat is just too much for me. So I appreciate the potential of riding here, but never enjoy it. Maybe middle of the winter after some big storms would be good. 

It wasn't long until I saw a few cyclists sitting under one of the lonely trees there, Brendan, Kevin Hinton, and another guy. I headed for that shade. I was so uncoordinated that I even kicked the tire of one of their bikes trying to dismount - so I really needed a break. No issue with water, I had plenty with me, topped up my 2 gallon capacity whenever I can before starting a desert stretch.

Kevin Hinton and Brendan Collier

The desert is as desolate as riding on the moon

The desert can be as desolate as riding on the moon
A change in this route cuts the Fishcreek Wash section a bit by turning off the Diablo dropoff. Very steep and very deep sand, so a tough section even if short. With my difficulties to walk particularly challenging because it is not easy to use the bike as a crutch here. Spectacular view from the top of Diablo, now getting late in the afternoon. The last few hours were spent laboring down there in those canyons:

I briefly see Brendan, Kevin, Claude at the top, but there were some sandy sections that require walking and as soon as there are hiking sections, I get dropped. So they were out of sight quickly.

Not much later, the sun was setting, the moon was already up there, temperatures were mild, and there was another sandy wash. It would be a perfect place to camp and as far as I'm concerned also the right distance. These washes are great for the night as long as you have enough water and I stopped in Fishcreek wash the previous two years. However, because of an early start, it was only 7 and really too soon to call it a day even though there wouldn't be any better camping. My preferred timing would be a middle of the day start, then dry camp at night in one of the washes.

But onwards....... It gets closer to "civilization", at least in the sense that you start seeing more cars. At the same time, it becomes less attractive to camp. Sound carries well, you can hear people a few km away. Eventually the route hits pavement, the Great Southern Overland Stage Route, or more prosaically labeled S2. First stop is Agua Caliente, a few houses, county park, convenience store. A whole bunch of riders were hanging out there, well supplied (some with cold beer). Of course, being so slow on walking sections meant that I arrived well after the store had closed, 10.30 or so. Not that I really needed anything, but it still would have been nice..... Keith had bought a half gallon of milk and had problems finishing it before taking off. I finished that and that was all it took for an energy boost.

While I was plenty tired and really felt done for the day, I had no interest spending the night in or near a parking lot, so left the guys behind and headed on. It would be another two hours to get to Oriflamme canyon on pavement, but my idea for those trips is to spend the night as far away from cars, electricity, and people as possible. A bit after midnight, I was off pavement heading into Oriflamme canyon and found a nice sandy patch at the bottom of Oriflamme. Perfect!

About 200 km for the day.

Day 2

I had a good night and started the long climb out of the desert around sunrise. By starting so early, the temperature was great for this climb. So there is a trade-off for this route: Either you do a reasonable first day, which means stopping for the night in a wash earlier (but that means the Oriflamme climb out of the desert will be hot during day 2 - my approach the previous 2 years), or do an excessive first day (for me at least), but start the climb early in the morning. I think a late start the first day and stopping before the pavement would be my preferred way, but this worked out fine as well. Generally, it is risky to overdo it on the first day, going too deep bites back later. It probably is the reason why so many people quit on those trips: They cannot very well assess their own abilities realistically and being full of energy overdo it trying to stay in the front group.

Anyway, Oriflamme and then Mason Truck is tough, even early in the morning. On Mason Truck, I found Michael Grosso still being cold and having a slow start. He made the mistake of doing most of the climb at night. I had a very pleasant night at the bottom of Oriflamme, he had a very cold night 3000 feet higher, making it hard to get going.

Oriflamme climb

Halfway up

Great view once you've made it to the top, this is just a few km before Noble Canyon.

And finally out of the desert!
I always like the meadow

Later that morning came an unpleasant surprise: The pump at the top of Noble Canyon was broken again. Fortunately, this year I had more water than last year, so I was ok to Descanso. Last year, this caused more suffering than necessary. I like Indian Creek better than the Noble alternative. Noble is too chunky to be fun on a loaded bike and then requires a steep pavement climb. Indian has a short pushing section, but is pretty much all rideable and no pavement climb at the end.

Nothing more to report for the afternoon, nothing so spectacular that it required pictures, but by about 7 pm, I got to the urban outskirts of San Diego (or rather Chula Vista). In previous years, I camped at the Sweetwater Reservoir, the single track area is empty at night and a good spot, but again the early start changed my timing. A bit awkward because it is probably hard to find a good spot in San Diego. Maybe Mission Bay, would be attractive, although police may chase you away. So I just rode all the way through town just to make sure I don't have to worry about that and stopped maybe around 1 am along the Los Penasquitos trail. As far away from houses as one can get in suburbia, but just not as good as the other nights.

Again 200 km today.

Day 3

I slept somewhat late, had been light for a while before I woke up. Even before I got out of my sleeping bag, Brian Remlinger rode by and took this picture. So you can see minimal hassle to camp. Take the sleeping bag out, have some water and food close, done. Easy, fast, quiet, comfortable, cheap, beats any hotel. You can see that I was quite happy even though my camping spots the other 2 nights were far superior.

For suburban riding, the whole morning is pretty good, always stays away from developments, although you know the trail snakes between different "Ranchos" or "Ranches", i.e. euphemisms for suburban hell. There is a nice single track along Lake Hodges, but middle of the day is busy. The last resupply possibility comes right afterwards, then food and water needs to last through the rest of the route. I stopped at Panera for a long lunch and took 2 sandwiches for the road.

My knees were hurting, something that hasn't bothered me before, so I knew that I would not try to ride through the night. I was ahead of my schedule, so with a throughride could have finished in under 72 hours as I did in 2012 (and I very much enjoyed riding through the last night then). The cause was obvious: There was a lot of descending and some technical riding on the first day, so I intentionally started with my saddle a lot lower than usual. Good idea, but than desert brain fry set in and I completely forgot about the saddle until the middle of the second day when I felt some knee twinges. Then I immediately put the saddle back to normal, but the damage was already done after having ridden half the distance that way.

After lunch come more trails through  the San Pasqual valley and a quick stretch of the worst road on the route: 5 km uphill on highway 78.

San Pasqual Valley trails
The afternoon got very hot, especially the climb out of the Pamo valley. Then Black Mountain, but it cooled down again. I had never seen it before because I always got there after dark, but it is nothing worth seeing: Just long, long wide graded dirt road with a gentle gradient. It was dark before I got to the top:

I always thought there was a steep descent back into the desert on the other side, always felt like it, but in reality it is a pretty minor descent to the area around Lake Henshaw. This valley is around 1000 m, so actually very different than the low desert around Borrego Springs, which is just a little above sea level. No wonder I'm often cold here, this is not just the time of day. I kept puttering along, don't like the pavement (fast cars, no shoulder), but it was late enough so there was hardly any traffic, through Warner Springs, and starting climbing again. Warner Springs was very chilly, but it got warmer as I went higher. Not only did I feel warmer because I was riding uphill, the temperature itself increased the further up I went. It was a lovely evening and I turned off my lights and rode in the moonlight for a while. Around 11 or 11.30, I saw a nice flat spot and stopped for the night on a ridge with great views (even at night in the moonlight, even better in the morning). I also slept well and didn't hear anybody. The next day, Brian Remlinger (who finished an hour before me) told me that he rode by and saw me at about 2 in the morning. He had stopped near Warner Springs, but it got too cold in the valley, so he started to ride again and then made a second stop not long past where he saw me.

Lot of climbing today, so only about 126 km.

Day 4

A lovely morning, I enjoyed the ride except that my knees where now really bothering me, especially the left one. From here, it is just a seemingly endless sequence of rolling ups and down, just like the picture below. You reach the end of that little valley and just over the hill where the road now disappears comes another one like that, and another one, without the big descent into Anza that is expected. It's all pretty, didn't see a single car or person all morning, just a nice morning.

But eventually the seemingly endless sequence of valleys comes to an end and then there is a real descent into Anza, across that valley, and back up on the other side. 

After Anza comes a very steep and long climb that most people have to push.

Then a stretch on pavement and I was back in Idyllwild. Although the last stretch should have been easy, by then my knee was bothering me so much that it became difficult, so glad I was back because I couldn't have done 200 km today. But there were only 80 km left, so it was not a hard day. The total elevation gain for the route was 7854 meters or about 25,800 feet. That is a lot less than the route two years ago, which had 31,500 feet.

Back home, looks like an attack by the desert monster. Actually, most of it comes from the first day and mainly the middle willows jungle. 

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