Russell Finsterwald texted me in November and said that I should fly down to Tucson, Az in January for a 4 day, credit card style, bikepack trip. He also convinced Keegan Swenson and Ryan Standish who are MTB (also gravel) racers. They were planning to use this as a springboard to jump start their 2022 training regime. I figured I could use a little bit of volume and sun after 5 weeks of continuous CX racing. The trip’s dates fell just 2 days after I flew home from Belgium, where I know from experience, vitamin D is in short supply. So, with little convincing or thought about travel, timing, etc. I booked a flight.
I raced the Pacific American Championships and National Championships then flew straight to Europe for the Kerstperiode. After 3 weeks in Belgium and 9 races I was fried. I was bored of the race, rest, repeat schedule so I was getting super excited about stretching my legs in the desert with my friends. I was even more enthusiastic about the prospect of wearing shorts and short sleeves for the first time in months!
I landed in Roanoke, repacked for the bikepack trip, petted Shermy worms as much as I could, then flew out 2 days later for Tucson. As soon as I landed Russell told me that we would be delaying the start of the trip because Keegan and Ryan both got Covid. So we postponed it a week to give them some time to test negative.
After a week of getting some easy, warm, miles in everyone tested negative and we pushed off for 350 miles and 4 days. I was excited for this trip because it would be my first credit card style trip. For clarity, “credit card style” means we only packed a change of clothes. No camping gear, no water filtration, no dehydrated food. Since we would be staying in hotels, passing through gas stations, and starting and finishing everyday in civilization we could travel light. Our bikes were only loaded down with a big saddle bag (for clothes and toothbrush) and a bar bag for food. We might have carried 20 extra pounds compared to the 60 extra pounds we brought for the Colorado Trail.
Day one was the shortest day, 69 miles from Tucson to Arivaca over Keystone pass. We pounded pavement out of town and hooked a right onto a “no outlet” road, which set the tone for the rest of the trip.
We climbed over the saddle of Keystone Pass and dropped down the other side on loose chunky gravel, which eventually spit us into a drainage wash. Hence, “no outlet”.
A quick hike-a-bike put us back on to dirt roads and we continued working our way towards Arivaca. The vastness of the desert was welcoming. A good change of pace form the hustle and bustle of city life.
We finished the final section of dirt/gravel and rode the last 16 miles on the pavement of Arivaca Road.
We B lined it straight to La Siesta Campground where Russell had coordinated a 5th wheel trailer for us to sleep in. Arivaca is an extremely small town with one intersection, one cafe, one gas station, one convenience store, and no hotels. Steve, the owner of La Siesta, pulled out all the stops and picked up burritos and beers for us from the one and only cafe, which was closed on the Monday we arrived due to Presidents Day. Host of the year for sure.
That night, we all gathered around the fire pit happy with how the first day went but wondering out loud with trepidation how long the next day would take. The first day, riding 69 miles, took us 4.5 hrs. Day 2 was 120 miles and much more remote. This, we determined, was the Spirit of Gravel and we were eager to let the Gravel Gods have their way with us.
We woke to alarms at 7am, repacked, and set off for breakfast. A quick cup of coffee and breakfast sandwiches, then straight to the one and only gas station before heading into nowhere for 40 miles.
Heading south towards Nogales we rolled as a squad making good time, stopping only to let the locals cross the road.
In Nogales, we crossed the interstate and restocked at the only gas station before Bisbee. Russell, tricky as a fox, smuggled a Smirnoff ice from Arivaca with the intention of icing Keegan. If you are not familiar with this frat boy prank it’s quite simple. You hide a Smirnoff ice for someone to find. Whoever finds it must chug it.
Keegan came out of the gas station with arms full of haribo gummy rolls and ho ho’s to find a Smirnoff in his bottle cage. We all got a laugh out of it.
The rest of us then went into the gas station to restock, not realizing that Keegan’s ice came from a 6 pack… We all came back out with Ice’s in our bottle cages and thus, we all left Nogales with 12oz of hydration we hadn’t planned on.
This next 80 miles was the crux move of the day. We were totally isolated, aside from lots of border patrol vehicles, with the border wall constantly reminding us that we were as far south as you could be.
It was easy going, especially with Keegan and Russell at the front. The miles ticked by as we talked about this or that, reminded each other to eat, talked about the season ahead and what gravel racing was all about.
We climbed up to Coronado Peak, the final pass of the day. At the summit you could see the Mexican/American Border stretch out to the west. Looking back east you could see the nothingness we just cruised through as if it was our normal Tuesday afternoon ride loop. There was an innate sense of accomplishment, as the “hard” part was behind us, but a stronger feeling of the here and now. We had 20ish miles to go but we were in no hurry to get there. We knew we would arrive in Bisbee, it would just be a matter of time and a few hundred more kj’s.
We dropped the snaking gravel road into the grass lands below and pounded pavement into Bisbee.
While Bisbee is much more populated than Arivaca, it appeared almost as empty when we rolled in just before dark. We set up camp at the Copper Queen and started hunting for food. Most establishments were closed or had a huge wait because it was one of a few places open. We had to settle for Whoppers, milk shakes, and fries, which in all honesty wasn’t a hard compromise.
We woke at 7am with grumbling stomachs. We struck out on our first attempt at breakfast but just 1 block over was Kafka Coffee. It was open, the espresso machine was operational, and they had plenty of bagels!
The ride started with a short climb out of Bisbee followed by a ripping down hill into Sierra Vista. We crushed the first 20 miles in an hour before stopping at a gas station just on the outskirts of the Fort Huachuca Army base. This would be our last stop for the rest of the ride before arriving in Patagonia, 60 miles away.
With supplies topped up, we hit the road to get our credentials at the army base. This required us to stop, take a number, and wait inside the security building before proceeding further on our route.
Everyone cleared the checkpoint and we made our way west into Garden Canyon. We were warned by a security guard that it could be wet and impassable from recent rain. However, it turned out to be in perfect condition. The rain tacked up the loose gritty soil, which made the steep climb up and over much more manageable.
We dropped into the Miller Peak Wilderness and to our surprise, but also delight, dropped onto the Arizona Trail for a handful of miles. We all chuckled out loud when we were presented with single track, par the course at this point.
We headed north past Parker Lake to Canelo and dropped into the San Rafael Valley to the west. This was a magical experience and a huge treat as we worked our way towards Patagonia. The wide open valley floor was covered with golden brown grass land contained by mountain peaks in all directions. The miles came easy here as our smiles never wavered.
The scenery remained the same for 15 miles but it continued to bring jaw drops and amazed exclamations. Our appreciation for our surroundings was only growing stronger as we logged more miles. Fatigue didn’t exist as there was so much more to focus on outside of ourselves.
We dropped into Patagonia on more snaking canyon roads, first dirt, then paved, arriving in Patagonia with plenty of time for burritos and a chance to scarf down my first Sonoran dog (bacon wrapped hot dog).
We checked into the Stage Coach Stop, showered, changed, and hit the Lumber Co for beers. I could get used to this credit card style bikepack thing.
At 7am we turned our alarms off and shuffled down the street to the only place open for breakfast, Gathering Grounds. The diner style breakfast had been set as the holy grail of breakfast options the whole trip and we got it on our final morning. Never ending coffee in thick ceramic mugs, pancakes, eggs, and home fries. We were ready to bring this thing home.
The previous evening, Keegan decided to add a 40 mile loop to our already 70 mile day, which I first thought was unnecessary. However, the bonus loop he added would turn out to be one of the more magical parts of this ride.
We headed out the same way we came in the day before but instead of continuing east through the San Rafael Valley we turned right and continued south. We cut through some cattle guards and wound our way up ranch roads until reaching the high point on Red Hill. The view up there was something to see. The lichen thriving on the sides of exposed, mined, rock was throwing off colors in a way that seemed other worldly. Were we tripping balls or was this real?
We couldn’t take too much time to analyze what we were seeing because the reality of our situation was pulling more and more of our consciousness to the ever increasing steepness of the descent we were working our way down.
The road was getting more loose and unpredictable and my 140mm rotors were starting to boil mineral oil. Though all the while, I couldn’t help but wonder why/how these roads were here and how they managed to navigate them in the past century.
My thoughts were interrupted when I looked back and realized I was alone. Russell had found a loose spot and the extra weight we were carrying took him off line and sent him straight into the wall. He went high side and took a tumble for the ages.
He was quick to get on his feet, though sore and rattled. We all determined it was better he headed for the wall rather than off the road into the canyon below. We had been descending for a few minutes though it was still a long way down.
Russell soldiered on and we continued with our bonus loop, off road, until we hit route 82 north east of Nogales. From here we headed north back to Patagonia to start our actual route back to Tucson. 42 miles down, 70 to go.
Out of Patagonia we had 26 miles of rugged Mount Wrightson Wilderness. While we were not strangers to rough jeep roads at this point we found ourselves tediously picking our way through lots of these sections. Mountain bikes would likely have been faster machines for these roads but that was part of the fun.
Consequently, it makes sense that this section would claim it’s first flat tire. No bother. It was bound to happen. To be honest, I am surprised we came away from this trip with only one. Ryan threw a tube in and we were on our way. The break was welcomed. We warmed ourselves in the desert sun and watched Ryan boot and reinflate.
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We continued descending out of the wilderness zone and could see the city limits of Green Valley stretch out in front of us.
We touched pavement on Mt Hopkins Rd, waving good bye to the last bit of dirt as we passed by Elephant Head and rolled ever closer to a gas station. Out of raw toughness (or stupidity), we chose not to stop in Patagonia after our 40 mile bonus loop for a refill. That meant 82 miles with no food or water stops. Therefore, the gas station was the carrot we had been chasing the last 3 hours.
We filled up in Green Valley for the last 1.5 hrs of pavement. Old Noagie (Nogales Hwy) had it’s way with us as we rode on the bumpy shoulder into Tucson.
We had plans of stopping at Seis Kitchen and thus the slogan for the day was “Seis by seis”. However, Russell’s girlfriend Sofia decided to make pozole so we called an audible and amended the slogan to make it to “Sofie’s by seis”.
Ripping through Tucson as the Catalina Mountains turned pink felt like a welcome home.
We rolled into Russell’s at 5:55pm, holding true to our goal. We cracked beers, showered, and filled our friends in on the shenanigans that took place over the course of four days out in the desert.
As the pozole warmed our bellies the stories kept rolling out. Laughter filled the dining room and we all concluded that we would be doing more of this “credit card bike packing” thing in the future. Being able to cover more ground would give us the freedom to plan bigger routes and, more importantly, pedal out of the saddle without feeling like we were piloting a tug boat.
While this trip started as a training exercise it proved to be much more than that. It was an experiment in not over thinking and just doing, then reacting to the consequences. We relinquished control and let nature take its course, welcoming adversity because we wanted to be uncomfortable. We wanted to find the limits. On the fringes is where growth lives.
The world of pro cycling is all about structure and planning, thinking down the road, how to approach this and that. Living is done within the confines of a training regime. When you get away from that world you get to think on your own terms and you learn a lot about what is important.
This realization came to me on day four, half way through a moon pie. We were coasting down a gradual descent, I had both hands wrapped around a moon pie, mouth full of chocolate covered graham cracker and marshmallow, and realized I wasn’t thinking about anything. I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to do after this trip or was this really a good idea two weeks before the World Championships of Cyclocross? I didn’t care about watts, or avg power, or the time of day. I was engrossed in my moon pie, the company around me, the mountains rolling by, a warm breeze gently pushing us from behind. It wasn’t just a fleeting thing either, I was stuck in it. I turned to Ryan and explained the phenomenon I was experiencing. He said “I think you did it man. You found the spirit.”
We’d been poking fun at this idea of the “spirit of gravel” for the entirety of the trip. “Why are people making such a big deal about gravel?” Bikes have been around for a long time allowing people to use them how they wish. But maybe that’s the problem. There is already a status quo assigned to the established disciplines of cycling and gravel cycling has become this space where people from all sides of the cycling spectrum can ditch those labels and find new ground. There are no preordained notions of style to uphold. It’s a blank canvas and people are free to make their own path and carve out what they think is important. It doesn’t matter how saggy your jersey is or how white your socks are. The width of your tires or the range of your gears is insignificant. There is no right or wrong way to do it as long as you are out there just doing it.