Words and images by Evan Christensen with supplemental images by Stephen Fitzgerald
When I walked through Tom’s door and saw a flood of bikes and bags and cameras sprawling over the floor on the other side, I knew I was walking into another adventure entirely. Bo and I had been alone, just the two of us, for months up to the point. We’d ridden with other people for two days at the most, and in the three months riding to Armenia together we had developed a harmonious rhythm. It had been dug deep and as we fell deeper into that entrancing rut we rode through splendor and excitement and pangs and a new world at our own pace. We were happy with it. I felt like it could have gone on forever.
As bike enthusiasts or even, dare I say, bike nerds, we obsess over bikes, gear, weight, suspension (or lack thereof), geometry, and tires. We can’t help but keep track of what are the the latest trends and tech. So when bikepacking.com releases their the famous list of participants bikes and photos tackling an event, we can’t help but ogle at the myriad of choices. We are giddy with excitement for what is to come; often untold hardship and profound moments for the participants. On the other side dot watchers are all over checking in at various points throughout the day only imaging the vast terrain that yields slow, but steady progress.
On the eighth episode of the podcast, Nik and Stephen virtually catch up with Ashley Carelock and Dr. Seth Wood. They both recently competed in the 2020 Arkansas High Country Race and both set Fastest Known Time(s) (FKT). Your hosts dig into the experience the only way they know how, excitedly asking questions about what happened, like gear choices, or in Seth’s case a single gear!
On the seventh episode of the podcast, Nik and Stephen dig into which Star Wars movie was best. Just kidding! Rather they regale the trials and tribulations faced when attempting the iconic Kokopelli bike packing route from Fruita, CO to Moab, UT. We cover the motivations behind the trip, gear highlights as well as some choice meals. Most of the recap revolves around how to prep or not prep for a multi day bike pack.
On the sixth episode of the podcast, Nik and Stephen sit down with Evan Christenson. We talk about Evan’s multitude of bike touring trips, how he ended up getting his second choice pick of a custom bicycle–a Flaanimal 4.0– a bike he immediately took bike-packing in Morocco and Uganda. He seemingly hasn’t looked back, but if he isn’t out under the stars he has been at protests across the West photographing and taking part in the Black Lives Matter protests and handling customer service at Rodeo Adventure Labs.
The Tahoe Twirl is a deceptive beast- short in mileage but long with rocky technicality, it packs alpine summits and long, sweeping fire road descents into a literal breathtaking package and puts a big fat lake and a Cabela’s right in the middle of it all. The Tahoe Twirl is a beast. It’s no spring fling and no two-step shimmy. This one you plan for, pack for and train for. This one, you need to make an effort to come and see.
So naturally I threw all caution to the wind and showed up without looking at the route and with whatever was left in my truck. I’m off navigation duty this week, so I’ll bring an extra camera battery and settle in for some mindless pedalling. Ben and I chocked this up as a rest week and the finish line for getting my project car on the road and to Lake Tahoe in time. We spent two weeks burning quarts of midnight (and motor) oil to finally show up late, miss the rally location, and start hours behind the others we’re meeting up with. Hard on the gas out of the gate- What’s a vacation.
Day one is messy and makes Ben and I worry about the next four. We all make lame progress, and our fifth drops out not feeling well after looking at all the climbing left ahead. We run into two bears while looking for camp that night. We carry the search into the night and find a clearing and a cross to camp under. We all start praying for better fortune and go nervously bear hang our food- Tahoe supposedly has the highest concentration of bears in the US and our cans of chili smell delicious…
Day two reunites the split group and brings awaited time for introductions and shop talk. The most interesting part of this ride is the eclectic group trudging through it all. We have Ben and I, Arjun, and Logan. Ben just returned from two months bikepacking through Patagonia, and we’re just now getting time to compare notes and swap stories from our long trips the past year. His bike has deep scars and his beard is long and shaggy still from 2,000 miles in the dirt. We catch up too with Arjun, who is now diving deep into bikes after graduating. In college he bought an old Bianchi with down tube shifters and after a short 20 mile ride to the Marina, decided he wanted to ride from San Francisco to LA. Arjun went to San Francisco not knowing you had to put air in bicycle tires and planned on figuring it out along the way. Since then he’s bought a touring bike and he and Ben rode around Iceland last summer. Now, he’s planning on seriously mountain biking for the first time.
Arjun? I like him. I like his can-do mentality and off the cuff approach to bikes. He’s strong as an ox and smiles all day long. Ben asks him about his gearing the first day and Arjun laughs. “I can actually answer that now!” I smile like Palpatine and feel the electricity in my fingers. Welcome to the dark side…
And then we have Logan- an engineering student from UCLA whose previous cycling experience is a short ride to the beach on a cruiser and a couple short mountain bike rides in the neighborhood. Logan’s never worn Lycra, never been bikepacking and has 0 miles in the legs. He bear hangs with a plastic grocery bag and bungee straps his sleeping bag to his dad’s old mountain bike. He wears Converse low-cut sneakers and a heavy backpack and pushes through new terrain and distinct, novel challenges excitedly and ambitiously. Logan likes descending and catches on quick. Climbing? Does anyone truly love climbing? Is it still that necessary evil? Logan argues the necessity and we push high into the mountains. It’s only day two and we’re already scratching 8,000 feet.
This day brings markedly slow progress to start. I’m just having fun doing circles riding a loaded bike again and wondering why I’ve spent 20 years in California and 0 days in Tahoe. The beauty here- the magnitude of it all is so epic. It slows the pedals and boggles the mind as ski resort after ski resort come into view. Tahoe? Oh so amazing. A perfect companion to get out of town and decompress after getting humiliated by the truck.
We finish the day with a swim in a reservoir and I fly-fish a small stream we camp by. I find a couple bites on a midge but I’m too tired to react to anything. Oh wait this is a fishing story. I caught a dozen and they were all 15 pounds or more. You should’ve seen ‘em!
The riding starts to blend together. Long days of pedaling strung back to back are like throwing an entree in a blender. A lot of it tastes like spaghetti sauce, but every once in a while there’s a chunk stuck in your teeth of sweet, smooth singletrack with an epic vista off to the side or a fast fire road into town. I grab some photos when the occasion permits and a loud “YEWWW!” when it doesn’t. The rest of the spaghetti sauce is still so damn good too. And it pairs so well with that heavy bike that rides all noodly. This right here? This is my heaven. A noodly bike and mountains of epic spaghetti sauce with good company and nowhere but ten miles down the road to be. Signed stamped and sealed- Life is better this way.
Ben and I split off onto the route extension. We feel good and are both starting to remember what the wind in the hair feels like as it blows us towards more mountains and chunky, brutal descents. I’m two years past fit but always down to sit low and push hard pretending I still can. We find a flow and start covering serious miles. We’re only interrupted by a couple river crossings we take our shoes off for. It’s an interruption like in a crit when there’s a big crash and 10 riders go to the hospital and you sit up and reconsider life except it’s way better in literally every single way. I debate pulling the fly rod back out but axe it in favor of a long lunch stop on a big rock and we look out at the flats and listen to the wind. It’s a much different pace here than the back of a crit.
The next two days everything changes. We go from cool mountains and pretty views to truly epic climbing. We climb seemingly endlessly for the next two days and dance with 10,000 feet on exposed peaks and race down long, flowing single track. It cascades down mountain sides with beautiful jumps and berms and creeks and I start crying at one point it’s so fun and so beautiful and so right. The loaded bike takes it all so well and I want this final descent to keep descending until I die. Two groms on downhill bikes tow me in to a jump line at the bottom and I send 10 foot tabletops on my loaded gravelbike and the descent almost does last until I die. We regroup and race the fading light back to the cars pedaling hard and screaming at how much fun those past five days just were and it’s over just like that.
Logan, dirty, exhausted and blown-out smiles when I ask him if he’ll ever go bikepacking again. This has been an absolutely brutal introduction to the sport, and I’m unsure if he’s scared off or ready for more.
“Oh totally. But maybe an easier route next time.”
After months of prep and a whole lot of hush hush, I’m excited to finally spill the beans and offer a full breakdown on the Traildonkey 3.0 that I’ve built up to race next week at Atlas Mountain Race in Morocco. This bike is a lot of things to me. It has layers like an onion. So to simply put up the photos and list some gear would be to short sell the effort and consideration that it took to bring this build into existence.
I’m just now entering the stage of the bike ride when the hang over moves from the head to the legs. The road has finally returned after dropping off sandy double track and the wind is soft as we climb into the mountains surrounding Anza-Borrego. The early morning light is splitting canyon walls and we pedal on. It’s day two of the trip and we’re already dancing with God.
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