Spencer Paxson

Hard Tales, Light and Fast, The Tools for 140-km of Slack-Country Shredding

What do you carry for big rides in your back yard? Here at Kona, exploring the rituals of “the big ride” is an evolving year-round job, and perfectly fitting to our Kona Adventure Team, to whom the term “off season” does not apply. No matter the time of year, our riders are ever scheming, ever exploring, and ever testing proof of concepts for outings that touch just beyond the realm of…sensibility.  Plain old, no-frills, leg-torching, trail-devouring good times. Consider this early winter: while Barry Wicks may be single-speeding down the coast to then paddle across the San Francisco Bay and then climb to the top of a mountain and back, Cory Wallace is 4-days deep and 15,000 feet up in the Himalayan backcountry getting charged by angry yaks. Meanwhile, emerging from “paternity leave” in the Pacific Northwest, Spencer Paxson is blithely linking together a series of backyard mountain trails to see just what is possible to get done in a day. Here, Spencer checks in on his tools for one of his recent outings, a 140-km (90mi), 5,000-m (16,000ft) vert mountain bike ride across seven summits above the Salish Sea. Read on for tidbits on his bike and setup, and a few notes from the ride.  For more details on the ride itself, be sure to check out Spencer’s blog.  

The Tool for the Job: Honzo CR, size Large. For long distance days with a mix of steep, technical, satisfying trail and long “transfer” sections (think big climbs), the Honzo has been my steed of choice, particularly in winter time.  I appreciate a return to the hardtail any time of year, but especially after a summer of riding primarily full suspension on increasingly dry trails (either the Hei Hei Race or Process 29). Once the trails get slick again and force a re-education of every line, the hardtail forces, for me, a deeper “tune-up” to my skills. Lines that worked so effortlessly in the summer time are suddenly way harder by virtue of the slime, and if I have to re-learn the terrain again, then I might as well get to the core of it and ditch the rear squish.  With that mentality, why don’t I just go full ridid singlespeed, you ask? Well, I am bit of a sadist, but I like to stay reasonable…

Light and fast: For long rides, it’s important to “bring the picnic“, as they say. I like to balance the load on and off the bike. For these long “slack-country” rides, a pitstop is usually feasible, and the ride starts and finishes at home, so there’s not need to carry an extensive backcountry kit.  Still, for a full day out, efficiency and preparedness still include sufficient hydration, calories, and safety precaution. Experience, terrain and weather conditions all dictate the limits to how “sleek” you can go. As for my own testing, I’ve used a combination of MTB stage racing and multi-day enduro racing to hone my “slack country” kit.  It includes small carry devices on my bike (totaling about 0.75L), and the rest on my hips, either in a snug-fitting 3-pocket XC jersey, or a fanny pack. Above is the kit that worked for me on the most recent sadist ride, where a friend and I put together our own “7-summits mega-enduro”: 90 miles and 16,000 feet of descending (and climbing >;) across seven mountains in our back yard. A 3D recap of the ride is below and the title is full of inside jokes, so don’t ask. As for gear geeking, game changer items for me have been mini water filters (Sawyer Water Filter) and freeze-dried backcountry food packs (Mountain House Foods, Adventure Team Sponsor).

Pedals to round and round: With all of the options available, and with all of the varying concepts of a “big ride”, gearing is a personal preference. For the last two years I’ve been running a Shimano drivetrain. On this particular setup, XT 175mm cranks and 34t chainring up front paired with an XT 12-42 cassette and XTR derailleur in back. For enduro competition I typically run a 36t and will vary the cassette depending on terrain and surface conditions.  I ride almost exclusively clipped in, primarily for the pedaling efficiency provided by stiff-soled trail slippers.  Go-to kicks for me have been the Shimano XC7 shoe paired to the XTR M9000 pedals.

Sip, sip: A bottle half-full at all times, or as much as possible. I keep a bottle with mix on the bike for ‘quick-grab’, but also carry a collapsible water pouch (at least 1L) on my hips, and fill as a reserve using a mini water filter…or a stop at a gas station.

Traction control: Okay, so a little suspension is prudent.  We Adventure Teamers have been running MRP suspension for the last two seasons.  The new Ribbon has been a fantastic fork, highly adjustable and, more importantly, very reliable for huge days. The biggest single day I have done on my MRP ribbon is 100 miles and 33,000 feet of descending, and my hands didn’t hurt…so that is evidence to me of a few things, including the fact that the suspension is doing its job.  Ground contact has been the WTB Trail Boss 2.25″, either light or heavy casing depending on how fast I need to go. And if it’s sloppy, I throw a Vigilante 2.3″ on front, or both front and rear.

As for a snipped of the latest ride…

Relive Lazer Heavy and Dr. Wetzel, the Bear Meat Entree or How Logan Earned His PhD

View my ride Lazer Heavy and Dr. Wetzel, the Bear Meat Entree or How Logan Earned His PhD

It was a good day…

Me (left) and co-conspirator Logan Wetzel of Transition Bikes all smiles afterwards.

2 for 2, Thoroughly Gnarly, Totally Balmy – Spencer Paxson Checks in from a Weekend of Kona’s Backyard ‘Cross Scene

Barreling down through the mud and the snow at the ever raw and rugged Cascade Cross Series. Photo: Matt Curtis

Team Rider Spencer Paxson checks in from a messy weekend of local cyclocross action in Kona’s back yard in western Washington. While our cyclocross superstar A-Team of Helen Wyman and Kerry Werner tear up the international and national ‘cross season, Adventure Team rider Spencer has been keeping his racing craft sharp (and flying the Kona flag high) at the epicenter of Washington’s cyclocross scene.  Spencer claimed back-to-back wins amidst brutal conditions, one aboard a Private Jake, the second aboard our new Super Jake. Read on for a brief recap and on how you can get your bike to look this good.

It’s not always pretty!‘ That’s what I thought as I pedaled back home after Saturday’s race at the Hannegan Speedway in Bellingham. Round #3 of the Cascade Cross Series.  It was 33 degrees, squinting as huge flakes of snow pelted my face. We had just spent the last hour racing through a horrifyingly muddy yet amazing track on the outskirts of town.  I kept the pace up to retain the dwindling warmth in my extremities. I could feel the thick mud caked across the front of my clothes begin to stiffen and freeze.  ‘Even after all these years…it’s remarkable that we do this kind of stuff.‘ But that’s part of the point, perhaps.  The bewilderment combined with the exhilaration keeps you coming back for more because it’s all just a mystery. Or maybe that’s only for crazy people like me…

‘Squish, squelch, squash, plosh’ – the real sounds of ‘cross. Photo Matt Curtis

But finally, cyclocross conditions worth reporting on! Until this past weekend, each race I had done was warm enough for bare arms and legs.  This weekend was deep, deep in the opposite direction.  One degree above freezing, with snow and rain mixed into a marrow-chilling breeze, as if there were such a thing as cold steam.  And hundreds of bike riders keeping the mud churned all day long.

Cascade Cyclocross promoter Kip Zwolenski marveling at the carnage from Saturday’s course. Photo Matt Curtis

Sunday’s race brought me south to Tacoma and Round 5 of Seattle’s flagship MFG Cyclocross Series.  I’ve been in a hot (now cold) off-season “battle” with friend and fellow Bellinghamer Steve Fisher for the series overall this year. Of course, I’m sitting second, and all statistical analysis points towards me sticking in that spot (the perennial Bride’s Maid!). But on Sunday I edged closer with a win (Steve wasn’t there). It was not without drama, however, as shortly after the start, while taking a strange line with a big bump, I dropped a chain and fell to dead last.  Ever experienced from weathering setbacks, I was able to slither my way through the field, back to the front, and hold a lead through the pelting snow and claim a discreet victory…it was snowing so hard, I don’t think anyone could see.

“Snow-Aero” – It was coming down so heavy during the MFG race on Sunday that a thick coating formed on the leading edge of all surfaces. After an early mishap, Spencer fought through these conditions and the field to take the win.

lofi cross

Crappy picture? “That’s the point,” said Spencer. In conditions so wet and cold that fingers could barely work to use cameras, “a crisp-looking ‘Insta-perfect’ shot just wouldn’t do it justice.” Here channeling his inner Erik Tonkin and Team S&M spirit, thus loving the conditions.

Stay tuned for more updates from Spencer’s “B-Team” cyclocross action, and some even more unappealing “off-season” activities.

Lost Trails Found, Trans Cascadia 2017

An adventure in the woods. Rustic trail. Real fast. Part race, part revelry, part trail stewardship, the Trans Cascadia is all about uncovering ancient trails, creating a valuable resource for those who like to share good times amongst friends going self-powered through the woods on two wheels.  Our own Adventure Team rider Spencer Paxson takes us inside a distinctive journey to the Old Cascades of central Oregon as part of the third annual Trans Cascadia, where he partook in four days of riding racing uncovered trail.

Daniel Sharp

A long time ago, before any so-called mountain bikers roamed, a wide web of trail was built in these here hills…the Old Cascade Crest…in a land called now Oregon.

Trails once upon a time meant to move through the forests in order to skirt the flanks of fearsome mountains, to be with the land and to trade things like huckleberries. Later on, to move wagons and pack animals, or to spy forest fires. Eventually, trails just to have trails, to experience nature, and move through the forests. 

Leslie Kehmeier

Eventually the trails were lost, or forgotten. Signs marking the way had become one with the trees, and the path through the forest was no longer.

Mike Thomas

Until, one day, a party gathered in the woods to uncover these old trails and clear their way through the forest again.

Dylan VanWeelden

“Mountain bikers”, they were called. These new trail stewards, those who value a certain way of going through the forest. Many came to rebuild, and then the rest came to ride the handiwork.

Mike Thomas

The goods are best when shared, yet kept secret enough. Undisclosed until the night before, queue cards are handed out in camp and studied under headlamp.

Mike Thomas
Nate Johnson

Like the operators of the old Santiam Wagon Road, the hosts treated their people very well and looked to every detail to make their stay comfortable. Much food is prepped for 100 people spending five nights in the forest. Special ingredients are added to stave off the inevitable loamatosis, which afflicts those who consume lush trail with such gluttony.

Nate Johnson

…and after dinner ceremony, neon dance revelry…

Mike Thomas

…and after neon dance revelry, neon sleep in the woods ritual…

Lyden Trevor

…and come morning, the wheeled stables bring the steeds and their riders out the paved road and on to the primitive trailhead.

Chris Hornbeck

The ride begins along an old way through the forest. The trail is barely perceptible through the thick green moss. Walking.

Mike Thomas

A delicate balance across the creek to the next path. No pole vaulting required, just bike balancing.

Mike Thomas

Eventually out of the thick forest and up into the mid-alpine meadows, kept open long ago for living and hunting, the trail is barely perceptible through the golden grass. Old stone cairns mark the way, and clouds float.

Chris Hornbeck

Across misty, huckleberry-strewn ridge tops they go.

Leslie Kehmeier

As the descent becomes ever closer, the excitement builds.

Mike Thomas

Dropping down through the fiery fall foliage.

Dylan VanWeelden

Travelers were obliged by the swiftness of the trail to join in a train of shred. Unlike covered-wagon routes, these trails are as serpentine as possible.

Shimano

The author foot out, flat out

Mike Thomas

A section of trail ripe with Loamatosis shredarensis

Lyden Trevor

Airborne, peak sustained speeds in the section: 33.6 mph

Leslie Kehmeier

Returning to covered-wagon speed, back uphill again, across the next section of the pass.

Mike Thomas

Trail snacks galore since 1873…

Dylan VanWeelden

Along the Old Cascade Crest…

Mike Thomas

Really, it was like a dream. Repeat.

 

Joe Lawwill

The author and his steed. Spencer ended up 7th overall aboard his 2017 Process 111, snagging a few 4th & 5th stage placings across 16 stages in four days, and over 25,000 ft of descending. Check out more of Spencer’s outings on his blog, or follow along his Instagram account @slaxsonMTB

 

 

 

Process 111 Swan Song & Trans Cascadia Tech Talk with Team Rider Spencer Paxson

Kona team rider and endurance/backcountry specialist Spencer Paxson reports with an in-depth bike & gear check as he preps for the 2017 Trans Cascadia, a renowned 4-day blind format, backcountry enduro event taking place somewhere deep in the mountains of Oregon’s Willamette National Forest on September 28-October 1.    

Just as my 2017 event season began in April with a mountain bike stage race (Pisgah Stage Race in North Carolina), it will conclude in October with another multi-day mountain bike event – the coveted Trans Cascadia, a 4-day blind-format, backcountry enduro race through Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. It’s the sort of event that eager-beaver MTB folks save up for all year in their piggy banks and vacation hours in order to capture a gourmet, catered, well organized wilderness experience with friends, and the remarkable autumn riding conditions unique to the Cascade Mountains.

After a 2-month mid-season break from travel and competition (“parental leave!“), I’m looking forward to representing at this special event – a showcase of trail stewardship, eco-tourism, high-level competition, and plain old good times riding bikes in the woods. One of the special aspects of this event is that it is the impetus and fulfillment of reviving forgotten Forest Service trail networks, expanding high quality recreation resources and bringing them back into the fold for others to enjoy. See a more in-depth write-up from our friends at Pinkbike.

In keeping with the inner geek in most of us mountain bikers, below is a rundown of the gear I’ll be taking along, and my rationale for using it. As I’ve said of previous gear-related posts, hopefully you know to never listen to a sponsored professional, as they never provide unbiased advice…;)…but they do come from experience…

The 2017 Kona Process 111 w/ Team Spec – size Large. Indeed this will be the swan song for this trusty steed, as the new Process G2 platform (released earlier this month), is bringing on a new generation of trail machines well-suited for events such as Trans Cascadia. From my perspective as a team rider, the new bikes are better off selling like hotcakes and going into the hands of Kona customers asap…me, I’ll get my turn eventually.  In the meantime, lets give this horse one more good run through the mountains.

I am 5’9.5″ (1.75m) but with a relatively long torso, so the reach of this bike (475mm) suits me well, especially in a gravity & speed-oriented scenario.

I balance the long reach with a short stem (35mm Pro Bikegear Tharsis Trail Stem), 740mm bar (Pro Bikegear Tharsis Trail), and a 46mm fork offset (MRP Ribbon 130mm), which provides 5mm longer mechanical trail compared with the standard 51mm offest.  In my experience, this combination provides a pleasant balance of quick steering axis with slightly increased high-speed stability and consistency through corners.  It’s a bit different than my XC race bike setup, but not wildly different (see other post on the 10,000-meter ride setup on Hei Hei). I keep a grip with WTB’s Padloc Commander grips (30mm diameter). Shimano XTR M9020 Trail brake levers can handle a bit more abuse than the light M9000 brethren, plus the additional stopping power and reduced fade is noticeable. Those brakes are using a 180mm rotor in front and a 160mm rotor in back…and metallic pads in the calipers for longevity.

Critical to any “long” bike setup (or really any MTB, for that matter) is a dropper post, ideally one that drops all the way to the seat collar. Back on the handlebar, I run the small KS Remote lever on the left side pointing downwards so my thumb has easy access while the rest of my hand stays safely positioned for handling and braking. I run the KS Lev Integra paired with a WTB Silverado saddle on top.

Suspension – The front end is held up by MRP’s new Ribbon fork, highly adjustable and reliable, which I’ve enjoyed to great success across a diverse range of trail conditions, from marathon XC racing to aggressive trail riding. The rear end is held up by FOX’s Float DPS Evol shock.

This fork is set at 130mm. I weigh around 155 pounds (70kg) hydrated without riding kit. For fast riding I typically run a firm sag around 15%, with the positive chamber filled to 95 psi (~10psi higher than factory recommended for my bodyweight) and the negative chamber filled to 102 psi or just under 110% the pressure of the positive chamber. I have the Ramp Control knob set to 14 (2 clicks from fully “ramped”), rebound at 11 (from closed), and low speed compression is a quick flip switch at the top right leg, which at this firm setting stays open most of the time. This setup works for me because it feels very supple and progressive, and for my riding style works well for moving proactively along the high-speed, velvety, high-traction conditions of many of my favorite trails in Washington and Oregon…but of course may take some tweaking once we get to these new trails at TC.

I run around 25% sag in the rear with the custom Process factory tune from Fox.  This works out to 142 psi with rebound set at 10 clicks (from closed) and the compression switch flipped to “open” most of the time. Again…this may need to be adjusted for the conditions in Oregon.

Wheels and Tires – WTB tires and wheels go round and round.  Given the blind format racing, I plan on needing extra braking traction on the front end of the bike to keep from flying into the woods on unfamiliar turns, which is why I’m likely going to run the 2.3 Vigilante, Tough Casing, Fast Rolling compound.  It’s a bit heavy (1140g) compared with the next option, the 2.25 Trail Boss Light Casing Fast Rolling (795g), but the extra grip and security may be worth it.  We’ll see.  In the back I’ll run the Trail Boss.  And depending on conditions, either dual Trail Boss if it’s not too rough, or dual Vigilante if the skies decide to open up. Tires are mounted to the WTB Ci31 29″ rim, laced to Shimano XT hubs.

Trail Boss…a bit less bite than then Vigilante, but this casing option is significantly lighter and may be the ticket for speed on the balance of climbing and descending.  It treated me well on the 10,000m Challenger High Epic back in June.

 Tire pressure will be a day-of decision based on trail surface and conditions, but in general have been running anywhere from 18-21psi, typically the same front and back (weight distribution shifts to either balanced or more weight on front of bike while riding aggressively down). I think about “system weight” for tire pressure…bodyweight + kit + bike.  Though I weigh around 155lbs (70kg), my system weight is closer to 190lbs (86kg).Drivetrain – An MRP 1x V3 chain guide keeps things in line aboard the Shimano XTR/XT drivetrain, with 175mm XTR M9020 cranks, 36t ring, XTR M9000 rear mech, and XT M8000 11-42 cassette, and XT M8000 chain.  The front chainring size certainly isn’t for everyone (nor is anything on any bike, for that matter, all setups are individual!), but I prefer it because 1) I have the strength and power to push it efficiently, 2) there is slightly less chain-wrap around the ring so it feels a bit better and wears less in the muck, and 3) I can keep a bit more tension on the chain as it spends more time in the smaller-interval middle cogs in the back (15-17-19-21) …and if I need to cover lots of ground at a very high speed, I don’t spin out as quickly. Pedals are XTR M9000 pedals…with fresh cleats after a long summer of riding!

I spend the majority of my bike time in the more fitness/endurance-oriented world of XC, marathon, and cyclocross, and since 2012, a power meter has been an important training tool.  I use a Stages power meter mounted to my XTR crankarm in order to collect performance data from training and competitions so that I can be more efficient with training for a specific discipline, tracking progress and managing fatigue along the way.

The ride kit will include the following items tucked into a High Above Designs Lookout hip bag, and a Barrier Micro seat bag by Blackburn Designs:

CLIF product (Bars & Bloks) in a 1/2 size screw cap “snack can”; Sawyer water filter & 1L bag (there’s time to stop and refill in putt-putt enduro biking); tire plugs for quick fix + 2x spare tubes 27.5×2.3 w/ tire lever, filled by Blackburn SL Mini Pump w/ CO2 backup; emergency whistle, space blanket, compress & quik-clot, plastic baggie /w NSAIDs + antihistamine just in case; zip ties, spare der. hanger, Blackburn Wayside multi tool for a good fix; iphone + GoalZero battery pack.

Off the trail…Though Trans Cascadia will provide tents and sleeping pads a generally posh setup, I’m still planning to travel with my go-to quiver of Kona Adventure Team gear. After all, this is a backcountry adventure.  You never know what’s going to happen!  Tents from Eureka, sleeping systems by Klymit, bags and camp wear from Mission Workshop, backup camp food from Mountain House, cookwear from JetBoil (in case we need some midnight snacks), and gear bags from Blackburn Design.

Over and out for now…

Kona Endurance Team Completes Epic Rides Triple Crown, Spencer Paxson 5th Overall in Series

This just in, Spencer Paxson set out to climb over 10,000 metres in a day on the longest day of the year. Check out his Instagram stories while they’re live for the next few hours, and read on below for his report on this year’s Epic Rides Triple Crown…

Words by Spencer Paxson.

Yes, I still own a skin suit! Amidst all of our backcountry adventuring, we members of the Kona Endurance Team have also been busy doing some good old fashioned bicycle racing. Last Sunday saw the conclusion of the 2017 Epic Rides Off Road Series in Carson City, Nevada.  The three-race series began in late-April through the cactus of Prescott, Arizona, the slick rock of Grand Junction, Colorado in mid-May, and wrapped up under the hot blue skies of the the Sierra Nevadas.

Painface on a knobby-tire breakaway for two laps before being caught by the pack. Photo by Brian Leddy c/o Epic Rides

I can speak from experience that within the realm of endurance mountain biking, the Epic Rides Series has come to be the most distinguished race series in North America, attracting the entire tribe of top-ranked endurance racers this side of the Atlantic (and in some cases a few Europeans, too), all vying for a piece of the prestige and $100,000 prize. This year I managed to log consistent efforts and earn 5th overall in the series.

A podium finish eluded me this season, and snagging a top-5 overall admittedly had more to do with luck. I finished 9th in Carson City, and was a subpar 14th in the other two events.  Going into Carson City, a few riders in the top-10 were unable to contest the final event due to injuries, and there were some mechanicals in Sunday’s marathon that shifted things around even more.  Not exactly how you want to earn your marks, but then again, consistency and luck are a reality of the sport.

The Pro men start the Capitol 50 race Sunday morning. Photo by Brian Leddy c/o Epic Rides

While the racing is serious, one of the greatest things about the Epic Rides Series is that it proves how well-done events go far beyond the racing itself.  Each event consists of a 3-day festival atmosphere where beginners, seasoned amateurs, and the world’s fastest pros come together to enjoy mountain bike culture, live music and world class singletrack.  A pro fat-tire crit kicks things off on Friday night (it’s all about putting on a show!), followed by great music and beer gardens Friday and Saturday nights. Amateurs race on Saturday morning, and the pros race on Sunday. Over a thousand racers partake in the events, and thousands more come to watch and experience the weekend.

Barrington Levy headlined the music festival on Saturday, providing mellow reggae tunes for the crowd. Photo by Brian Leddy c/o Epic Rides

Each stop of the Epic Rides Series places a rewarding spotlight on its host communities, helping to promote community health, outdoor recreation and making a real boost to the local economy. As the Executive Director of the Carson City Visitors Bureau was quoted in the Nevada Appeal, “Epic Rides is more than just a good fit in Carson City. It has made an impact in our rebranding and we are seeing a dynamic change.” According to the Carson City Visitors Bureau, Carson City’s revenue in tourism increased 64 percent over the last four years, from $12.3 million to $20 million.

Racers take in a flowy descent on the Postal Run trail Saturday. Photo by Brian Leddy c/o Epic Rides

Out for food on Friday night, we noticed that several new restaurants and other businesses had opened up in Carson City since the first event in 2016 thickened their circle on the map.  Significant buy-in from sponsors and host cities provides the largest cash purse in endurance mountain biking (split equally for men & women) along with a strong media platform.  That in turn attracts major industry players and their top professional riders to participate in a world class set of events.

The momentum is unquestionable, and the series plans to expand in 2018 and beyond.  Meanwhile, Todd Sadow, President and visionary of Epic Rides, looks to support groups within the host communities to build and maintain trails of the Off-Road series. The fundraising goal in 2017 is $30,000, and 100 percent of the funds will go to repairing, maintaining, and expanding existing trail systems — evenly split between the host cities.

Proud to be keeping Kona Cog a strong presence at the Epic Rides events since their inception as a noteworthy pro-am series. Photo by Patrick Means

It is a great series to be a part of – as an elite-level racer, as a member of the mountain bike tribe at large, and as someone who appreciates the value of a healthy, local community.

Needless to say, I’m stoked to come back for an even bigger and better series in 2018!

In the meantime…time to head into the mountains.  Stay tuned for the next installment of the Kona Adventure Team’s “Cooldown Adventure”…somewhere in the mountains above Lake Tahoe…

Blazing through the streets of Carson City in Friday night’s street race. I nearly held off the pack for the win despite racing knobbies! After all, it is called a FAT tire crit.

The Kona Adventure Team, aka The Prairie Dog Companions and the Kokopelli Trail

Photos by Patrick Means.

No, The Prairie Dog Companions and the Kokopelli Trail is not an indie band name, but it probably could be.

Rather, it is the latest installment of the Kona Adventure Team, connoisseurs of two-wheeled outings, and their recent trip to the rocky trails of Colorado and Utah. There, they competed in the 50-mile Grand Junction Off Road, followed by a two-day, 165-mile ride along the Kokopelli Trail all the way to Moab.

Aboard their Hei Hei DLs (and one aboard a carbon Honzo), they endured hot sun, spotted dinosaur tracks, and fueled up on hot dogs. Read the full account as published on the front page of Pinkbike.

Long and rugged climbs through sandstone and desert sage give way to eventual singletrack and alpine shredding.

The Kona Endurance Team’s Wild West Tour

“…at last the Lake burst upon us—a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! … As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” So said Mark Twain of the great Lake Tahoe in 1871. The view is no less spectacular nearly a century-and-a-half later, though viewed after a 24-mile and 4,000 vertical foot climb in the middle of a marathon mountain bike race, my thoughts toward it were a bit glazed. We were atop those snow-clad (yes, still, in late June) mountain peaks aloft much higher than the mighty lake, and we were only half-way done!

Picture1

Photo Joe Lawwill

We had been climbing into the thin air for nearly two hours, a lead group of a dozen or so, cresting at nearly 9,000 feet. Carson City, where we had started, felt very far away. My body, and maybe my constitution, had succumbed to Boyle’s Law, and my heart had somehow floated into my skull and was thudding like a metronome. I focused on calming down, breathing, willing the power to come back into the legs. The lake below was big and blue and the view of the mountains made me feel better, like summit fever. This was a contrast to the loud, crowded World Cup. Now I was alone and it was quiet but for my breathing and my tires in the sandy dirt, the other spandex-clad figures lurching up the hill in front of me, getting smaller. I wished I was smaller and that I could dash up this hill a bit more efficiently. That extra muscle I’d put on for sprinting through short-format races wasn’t helping my cause here. I was used to 800 meters and this was the 10,000. Bike, body and spirit came alive again when the trail turned down hill, but my temporary lapse in momentum had already cost me a top result. I charged through the rest of the day solo to finish seventh. A second-tier result for a first-class race.

Picture2

Photo Joe Lawwill

We had just finished the first-ever Carson City Off Road, the conclusion of the 2016 Epic Rides trilogy, and the final stop on a week’s tour through Washington, Oregon, and Nevada. An increasing number of elite riders and sponsors have put this series (and its $100,000 purse!) at the top of their list – and for good reason. The air is fresh. There is a sense of enthusiasm from the promoters, athletes, sponsors, hosts and fans alike. The level of buy-in from everyone is remarkable. These events are about a good, hard ride in a beautiful place, based in a nice town with good food, beer and music. They are the events that you put on the calendar over a year in advance, and pack up the whole family and friends to take part. The pay is good if you are really fast, and the atmosphere is rewarding no matter how you do. We collected our commemorative railroad spikes and wedged our tired legs and dusty equipment back into the van.

Picture3A week before…

Any time I catch a sweet alpine scent in the air, I’m reminded of racing at Mt. Hood SkiBowl, and any time I think of SkiBowl, I think of growing up racing in Oregon: old-school cross country, long climbs and fast trails twisting through the rhododendron, aspiring to be like those fast dudes, Tonkin, Wicks, Decker, Trebon, becoming part of a tribe. The last time I had raced here I was in high school, maybe just graduated, a shop-team rider with open-ended aspirations for racing bikes and going to college, yet no concept for returning to this starting line after a journey as great as these last thirteen years.

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Thanks to a last-minute organization effort Kona alum Erik Tonkin and his crew at Sellwood Cycles, here we were, most of us anyway, back at SkiBowl for an unofficial homecoming race after nearly 50-years combined experiences shared between us Kona alums – -Tonkin, Wicks, Babcock, myself, not to mention many other familiar old faces.  Even my dad was still racing, and now my wife was here, too, lined up with all of us as we received our final directions.  I felt young and old at the same time.  We ripped out of the parking lot and into a little time capsule for the next two and a half hours.  The trails were just as I remembered them.  I still knew all of the little roots and corners.  As the small field spread out, Wicks and I cruised along the old trails and I wondered how our 18-year-old selves would have done against our 30-something-old selves.  We had three laps of varying length, 30 miles total, and I could have been any age in between 1998 and 2016. This was the first place where I learned to get in the zone, where grinding up a big climb I had those first daydreams, imagining myself snatching that big performance as some big pro in a big race.  This was the feeling I’d brought with me around the world and it still felt the same here, but now I’d been there and back again.  It was a special day.  The reminiscing over cold beers after the race was priceless.

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Photo: Matt Fox

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The Blitz…

Our journey continued south to Bend, OR for the 7th annual Blitz, an invite-only dash for cash from the hinterlands of Mt. Bachelor down into town.  The Blitz is a major highlight for the local riding community and draws a big crowd at the finish line stunt at Tetherow Golf Course.  Eric Eastland and his All Access stage company put on the event.  They’re the same group that does the stage setup for the Superbowl Halftime show, so for one evening out of the year, a handful of us mountain bikers get to feel like we’re part of some primetime entertainment.  It’s legit, and so are the cash prizes and the party.  I donned my glow-in-the-dark Kona chrome shorts, survived some tangled wheels into the local line, breathed some dust, and came away with a good paycheck and a big growler of Deschutes beer.  The only bummer was that a rainstorm blew in just in time for the after-party and the organizers decided to cancel the marquis arm wrestling contest.  Instead of blowing out our shoulders, the $2k up for grabs to the strongest man and woman was donated to the local trail organization, and we all cleaned up early and prepared for the final leg of the journey to Carson City, Nevada.

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Photo Patrick Means

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Photo Patrick Means

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Chasing Dragons

“The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and rouuuunnd,” sings a tiny little voice belonging to the happy two-something-year-old perched on a stool at the kitchen counter. She fidgets and smiles and is briefly fascinated by an avalanche of frozen berries, which steam as I pour them into a hot pot of oatmeal. It’s just after 6:30 in the morning and two dear friends and their young daughter are visiting for the next few days. I’m jet-lagged on central European time, returned the night before from a race trip in Germany and France. At this hour I’m feeling great, and ready for this babysitting adventure. Her parents have borrowed bikes from the garage and are out on a dawn-patrol escape. I’m on breakfast duty.

I’ve made this breakfast a lot. Steel cut oats with eggs and other accouterment. And cardamom. It’s nothing special at all, but it’s been part of the special routine. For a moment it brings my mind back forty-eight hours to France. It’s the morning of a bike race, just another bike race, just another one as in the way another pot of good breakfast is nourishing and a good way to start the day. But this race has been on my mind literally or imaginatively in a way no pot of oatmeal has ever been. If everything could come together, an extraordinarily good performance would mean that I preserve this Olympic campaign. Zika virus and debauched Olympic establishments be damned, a ticket to Rio and fulfillment of a boyhood dream might still be possible. Possible if I could just take all of the last four or eight years’ worth of oatmeal and training days and race beyond perfect. It’s always been a long shot, but I know I have what it takes. I wouldn’t have come this far if that wasn’t the case. Stirring the pot, I contemplate that perfect race that didn’t happen, and the perfect outcome that won’t.

“Yesterday we went to the zooooo,” says the little one, “and we saw a dragonnn!” she says in a snarling tone with big eyes, making claws with her fingers. Maybe she’s referring to an actual Komodo dragon someone showed her at the Woodland Park Zoo, or she’s just mixing up something she was shown in a storybook. Either way, my brooding over youthful athletic fantasy fades and I slide her a little bowl of breakfast. Watching her smack it down and play with the glob of banana that falls off her spoon, I think about how we all have big imaginations and that young and old, we still get confused by things that don’t necessarily exist in the world the same as they do in our own minds. For kids, I guess it’s things like monsters and dragons, and for adults, it’s notions like chasing perfection in the pursuits we care about. All of these things exist in some form or another, those monsters and dragons and perfect jobs and perfect training regimens and perfect performances. But the reality is that these things only exist in very discrete ways, in little fleeting bits along the way. None exist completely or absolutely. Is part of growing up being able to comprehend that there isn’t actually an implicit contract that yields complete fantasy outcomes proportional to the energy you put towards achieving them?

“What should we do today?” I ask when I notice she’s finished her bowl of oats. “Fish!” she exclaims. I laugh at the random idea, and am still thinking about how this little two-year-old has inadvertently rebalanced me by reminding me the difference between what really exists in front of me and what exists between my ears. I start to clean up.

“A, B, C, D, E, F, Geeeee,” she starts to sing, reciting the entire alphabet perfectly, even holding a tune while doing so. Somebody taught her that and she’ll turn it into so much more. Reading books and writing papers and designing her own life full of adventures and professions and chasing the odd dragon. I ponder what it means to put energy into things that grow; kids, careers, personal ambitions. Inputs that equal something greater than the sum of their parts, creating something whose energy goes beyond you and keeps giving. That’s a good growth trajectory, isn’t it? If I hadn’t chased this Olympic dragon, I can’t even imagine how much growing I’d have missed out on myself.

“I want some moorrre!” she says.

‘Me, too,’ I think to myself. ‘Me, too.’

UCI MTB World Cup DH XCO

Dropping in to the Cairns, AUS World Cup – Photo by: Sven Martin

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Somewhere in my back yard. Photo by: Caleb Smith/Kona Bicycles

UCI MTB World Cup DH XCO

Cairns, AUS World Cup – Photo by: Sven Martin

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Churning through the turns at Laguna Seca Raceway, CA – Photo by: Caleb Smith

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No Lace or Lingerie – Kona Plants One on the Podium at the Whiskey Off Road

C44H9227Photo by Caleb Smith

The 13th edition of the acclaimed Whiskey Off Road took place in Prescott, AZ over the weekend of April 29th-May 1st.  The tradition for a 13th anniversary is lace and lingerie, which may have been fitting for the start-line on start line on Whiskey Row had it been any year between the late 1800s to the 1950s.  It used to be a famous red-light district.  But no, this was 2016 and none of that was on hand, unless you counted lycra bib shorts and those nearly-see-through race jerseys.  Rather, it was just a small band of cowboys with shotguns, whose blast signaled the start for 1,800 mountain bikers to embark on a testing 50-mile race around the high desert.  Amongst those mountain bikers were our very own Kona Endurance Team crew of Barry Wicks, Kris Sneddon, and Spencer Paxson

Many had traveled with bike and flasks in hand to the high desert trail mecca for the first of a 3-race series put on by Epic Rides.  The other two races will take place in Grand Junction, CO and Carson City, NV in May and June, respectively. Todd Sadow, President and visionary of Epic Rides, along with his hard-working crew, have organized a distinguished series for 2016 with a whopping $100,000 cash purse for the Pro field.  There is nothing else like it in the States, or anywhere else for that matter.  Many say the Epic Rides series is the reawakening of American mountain bike racing, bringing the combination of recognizable prestige, festival atmosphere, substantial money, destination riding, and community for pros and amateurs alike, all of which has waned since the early 2000s.  Others say that these Epic Rides events are to American mountain bike racing what the “spring classics” are to European road racing.  An elastic analogy perhaps, but considering the names who have stood atop the podium over the years – National Champions, Olympians, World Champions – these races are undoubtedly prestigious. C44H9579

So with that, bottoms up to team rider Spencer Paxson who, fresh off the plane from the World Cup opener in Cairns, Australia, animated the front of the race all day against eventual race winner Howard Grotts and perennial champ Todd Wells.  Spencer chugged his way across the line in 5th and into a good chunk of the $30,000 price money.  It is very likely that his teammate Barry Wicks,would have been right there, too, with all the fitness from his 600-mile bike packing adventure in early April settled into his legs.  But it came to pass that Barry suffered the fateful influence of the 13th year, taken out of contention by a mechanical early in the race and forced to chase the rest of the day.  Kris Sneddon, dealing with a case of the “black lung”, may not have been the fastest on the day, but put forth a good example of the dogged persistence he is known for.      C44H9765

Up next for the Endurance Team is the second stop of the Epic Rides Series in Grand Junction, Colorado, where Barry and Kris will brave the rugged sandstone cliffs and canyons in search of a top spot.  Meanwhile, Spencer will be headed overseas to Rounds 2 and 3 of the World Cup in Germany and France.          IMG_3773

*The boys ran their carbon Hei Hei Race DLs equipped with MRP Loop front suspension, Shimano XTR 1×11 drivetrains and Maxxis tires.  2K16_Team_endurance

Crocodiles, Dark Horses and Donkeys: Spencer Paxson puts Cairns in Context

UCI MTB World Cup DH XCO

Photo: Sven Martin

Traveling 7,000 miles from home just to go to a bicycle race might seem like a rather crazy thing to many people. But when put in context of all the passion and devotion that goes into pursuing the adventure that is bike racing, a trip half way around the globe for the World Cup of mountain bike racing begins to sound half way rational. Four short years ago I finished my first spring World Cup campaign as a first-year rider for Kona, drawn to the challenge of international competition and a dark horse (try dark donkey, even) campaign for the US Olympic team. Using up all my vacation time, traveling with my bike and set of wrenches on a personal global safari, I became hooked to the pursuit, all despite being punched in the face, or getting consistently shat out the back of the field finishing 2 or 3 laps down and one of the last Americans in the race. I hung on to the notion that if I came back four years later, I might still be a dark horse, but I would be in the race like I belonged there…maybe not the winner of the world, but ‘in it’, leaders lap, top American, top-30, top-20, leaving an mark.

UCI MTB World Cup DH XCO

Photo: Sven Martin

Thus, Cairns, Australia is over 7,000 miles from home and I traveled there for the opening round of the 2016 Mountain Bike World Cup, in the running for the US Olympic Team, and thrilled to be pursuing the craft that I love most at the kind of race that tests it the hardest. Perhaps I suffer from some competitors’ version of Stockholm Syndrome, or other delusion toward the World Cup. It is such merciless, fast racing, all compressed into such a short time where so much more can go wrong that right. In four years, I’ve improved much about my game, except for my position on the starting grid. For several reasons, I’ve failed to amass the “compatieconomic” status that would earn me a starting position near the front of the race. (Read “more UCI points”) When the gun goes off, I’m clamoring from the pauperous trenches and charging headstrong toward the proverbial castle wall. Winning the race is like capturing the throne at the top of the tallest turret. To have any chance of that, you’ve got to be standing at the bottom of the spiral staircase with sword drawn when the gun goes off. In my situation…I still need to cross the moat full of crocodiles.

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UCI MTB World Cup DH XCO

Photo: Sven Martin

I didn’t see any of the famed crocodiles of the Gold Coast, but the analogous “crocodiles” I dealt with were the violent crashes and dust-filled air as the pack of some 87 riders hurtled down the start-straight at a breakneck, 1,200-watt sprint. Sprinting and throwing shoulders for every inch in the back, then stopping like a herd of delirious wildabeast at the first sharp turn, back into a dogged sprint up to the top of the hill, stop, go, stop, some riders going so hard they turn into Mr. Gumby on the bike as soon as we hit the first technical section of trail, bikes flipping over and hurtling through the air down the first descent as riders loose control…there’s no chance of capturing the throne from here…but somehow there’s still some beauty in navigating this melee and making your race happen. Eventually it did happen for me on Sunday, in a version that few can appreciate. I finished assertively on the leaders lap and 2nd for the U.S. But only 54th next to my name on the results sheet, a result that says so much, yet so little at the same time. It’s not a good result, but it wasn’t a bad race. That’s the World Cup, and round 2 is in Germany in four weeks. There’s room for improvement, the quest for Rio is not yet a fantasy, and I’m hungry for more. Maybe by that time I’ll be starting just from the base of the castle wall.

UCI MTB World Cup DH XCO

Photo: Sven Martin

UCI MTB World Cup DH XCO

Photo: Sven Martin

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Photo: Tim Bardsley-Smith

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