Chronicles of the Gravel Star

My Year On a Bike

GEAR CHECK 2018

After a life changing year on the bike, i’m still not quite sure how many miles I pulled off. My Garmin Edge 1030 has shown me how unreliable it can truly be when it comes to logging rides and just plain simply… not working. With the exception of the Garmin, Ive had the opportunity to tinker around with some really cool tech this year. The K-lite is, and has my favorite piece of tech since I dove into the Bikepacking world, couple it with a SON Dynamo Hub and It is as a lightsaber is to a Jedi. There were numerous events this year where I found myself unexpectedly pedaling into the night, and without the fear of battery life I feel as if those restrictions have been lifted. The Garmin Inreach is another exceptional piece of tech. Its ability to SOS, track, SATELITE TEXT (outbound and inbound), and its super handy ability to recharge has made this another staple of my Kit this year. The Packraft, which I found out isn’t for me (in FL at least) was one of the coolest things I’ve ever tested. The Kokopeli Rogue Lite completely blew me away with how compact and light this little boat could be. I can see this industry taking off in the next few years by providing bike packers with another dimension of the sport. Zpacks LLC has always impressed me with their customer service and product quality control, their sleeping bag quite literally saved my life on The Great Divide and Huracan. The Hexamid Solo tent was battle tested with over 5k miles with no holes, seam failures, netting abrasion, and a carbon tent pole that survived an epic desert storm in the Great Basin. As far as clothing goes, SURLY makes a badass Merino Wool Jersey that will run you about $135 but may save your life when you need it! When I say save your life I mean QUITE LITERALLY! I nearly froze to death in norther Wyoming and the one piece of gear that pulled me through it was that Merino Wool, a wonder material that stays warm even when soaked. Gear is something I tend to take very seriously hence the nickname Gadget Star and as they say…. you are only as good as your gear.

Gadget Star at his finest

Gadget Star at his finest


THE BIKE

Surprisingly Enough I own two bikes, one I train on and one I tour on. The Salsa Woodsmoke is my workhorse, Traveling both on the Florida Divide and The Great Divide this year it served me flawlessly. Once I was properly fitted from JC’s Bikes and Boards in Deland FL, all knee and joint pain virtually vanished. I highly recommend a proper fit on this bike as it has funky geometry that required a setback post and some riser adjustments. The bike looks like an abomination, a mountain bike with long profile design aero bars that make it look like a moose coupled with my Ergo grips. The Di2 once again proved to be flawless. The other, my Salsa Warbird, is my primary trainer. Pushing that 38T chainring has allowed me to become a stronger rider while riding unloaded on my rides. It resembles the Iron Man suite, candy red with gold accents coupled with a ridiculously ergonomic and quick drivetrain. I’m a big guy and I find myself flying like a rocket on this thing, only a matter of time until I eat face. Mine was a custom build through JCs Bike shop and I have to say they did a flawless job. My only recommendation would be DONT RUN PANARACER GRAVEL KINGS. After the horrifying experience of blowing two front tires at top speed, Id like to shy away from those bad boys and recommend the WTB Nano series instead (gum walls are a plus). Both bikes have put up with tremendous stress of a heavy rider and overpacking of gear but yet no structural issues after countless handlebar catapults and cow tips. Go Salsa! you guys are doing it right.

Jasper

Jasper


THE RIDES

The SingleTrack Samurai Series

Tally Tango 156 Extended 250 miles

Huracan 342 miles

CFITT 275 miles

This year has been full of some really incredible rides. The SingleTrack Samurai Series (The Huracan, Florida Divide, Matt Bull’s Tally Tango, and CFITT) were a crucial foundation for my completion of The Great Divide. You guys can talk about FL all you want and our lack of mountains but one things for certain, we are always pedaling. The CFITT was my crippling blow for the year, for the second time I scratched, and man I haven’t slept right since. I will be going back on the 24th of January 2019 to get my cross and film the journey. You would think that 3000 miles later a 300 mile ride would be tedious, think again… this thing is an ass kicker, but a rewarding ass kicker. A severe case of couch ass after the divide and lack of training brought me to my demise. Hard to gain progress but super easy to lose it if you aren’t actively pursuing it. Its hard to say which ride was my favorite out of this series. The Tally Tango will take you on a beautiful tour of the Florida Panhandle where you will see St. Marks (one of my favorites) and Skipper Bay where the playing field can go from bone dry, to swamp hike in a few hours, and the stars glimmer like diamonds in the sky. The Full Route of the FL divide from AL to Key West will take you through the Tally Tango, Aucilla, White Springs (Floridas First Tourist Attraction) and ultimately down the geographical divide of Florida. The legendary Huracan was an absolute blast! You will get the opportunity to visit a murder cabin deep in the foggy green swamp, and ford the Legendary Wekiva crossing that is a known alligator area and former JEEP crossing. The alligators are friendly here, you don’t mess with them, and they will most likely leave you alone. This crossing kept me up at night until I finally just jumped in and realized there was nothing to fear. The current was a bit of a surprise, get clumsy and you will take a dip pretty easily. Watching the last group cross at night was pretty exhilarating, talk about nerves of steel, you wouldn’t catch me in that water at night. What sets the Huracan apart from the rest of the rides is the fact that helping each other is allowed and encouraged. Obviously you cant go catch an Uber to the next checkpoint, but it loosens the tension a bit knowing you can ask for help. The Pruitt trailhead is majestic and an excellent place to camp, not too far off is a crashed plane, overgrown and rotting away in the woods not too far from the highway. Overall this series allowed me to grow into the bike packer I am today and I’m Thankful that Karlos Rodriguez Bernart (The Creator of all of the above routes, with exception to the Tally Tango) put these incredible events together. These rides are rich with history, beautiful ecosystems, and unforeseen challenges that you wouldn’t expect in Florida. We have large hills, aggressive single track, humid jungles, and lots and lots of sand. You can be in one park at any given time and see several different ecosystems at work, its really remarkable how diverse one side of a park can be from another. If you want further information on the Florida Divide: Alabama to Key West… scroll down and you will see an extensive write up on it.



THE VISTA 300

300 Miles

This extraordinary challenge put together by Kim Jordan Murrell was just an abolsutley unforgettable experience. I had the pleasure of riding this with MingleSpeed’s Dustin “D Balls” Welch and Jonathan Hicks. What makes this ride so unique is that you will have NO service for a week out there and you are truly far off the grid but never more than 20 miles from the start. The rivers here are pristine and the mountains are filled with unbelievable beauty. You will travel through rocky double track and speedy single track while being under the coverage of thick and gorgeous canopy. Lots of history here as well, and the locals frown upon the inquisition of Wifi. Ask a local if they have Wifi and they will most likely reply with… Wifi if I can Fish? This was my last ride before I took on my 65 day tour and I would have to say it was EXCELLENT Great Divide training. This was one of my highlights of the year and I will be back for the Mountain 420 this year. This would be the first time I bike packed and I was truly disconnected the entire trip, something amazing happens when your phone doesn’t work and you can look up and see whats going on around you. The Vista 300 promises to awe you with incredible sights, every ass kicking challenge always provides a great reward on this route. For those of you that want to know more about this incredible route check out my write up below about the route. Big Thanks again to Kim Jordan Murrell and Chilhowee Outdoors LLC for putting together a knockout ride!

 

The Altamaha River Adventure

90 Miles

My friend Mike Chavarria gave me a call and told me about a new route he was working on just north of Jacksonville in Altamaha GA. It would be Me, Mike, Irmantas Lu, and Jeff Thomasetti going on what was supposed to be a gravel grinder like ride through beautiful South East GA. The night before was a blast, we definitely glam packed pretty well. Mike Made us some awesome Ahi Tuna Steaks along with a Brussle Sprout side dish that was out of this world. We discussed how the route would eventually become a packraftable and it would be a about a 90 mile ride out and a 5 mile downriver raft ride back to camp. The route itself was a blast, lots of FL style sand, pristine forests with no garbage in sight but then we hit a road block. When the route was previously scouted there was supposed to be a short water crossing, what we had in front of us was about a football field of neck deep black water cypress forest. We all looked at each other and decided that we had gone to far and the only way out of this predicament was forward, so we started one by one to ford this massive cypress swamp. Now lets be mindful that this place was teeming with alligators but it was a cooler time of year and we all really lucked out. One by one we trekked through ink black cold water and tried to make it cypress island to cypress island. At one point Irmantas lost his footing and began to drift down river in the strong current. As mike scouted ahead he hit a deep spot and plunged underwater, all that was floating on the surface was his helmet. Over all the situation was sketchy, and though I would never do it again it was an absolute blast. It was amazing how buoyant the bicycles were, if we really needed to we could have just used them as rafts. We eventually navigated our way through tons of water and made our way back to camp with one hell of a story. This for me is something I will remember for the rest of my life.





The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route

3100 Miles



Jasper SingleTrack

Jasper SingleTrack

There is so much to cover on this extraordinary ride that I just can transplant 65 days worth of information into one little micro blog. What I will cover is some key places and events that occurred on my journey so that I can give you a little insight on the Divide and what to expect from my perspective. This is the very condensed 30% version of my Divide Story.

First and foremost lets discuss the Bears, and the lack of interest they had for either one of us. Dont get sucked into the fear and negativity of the forums telling you that you are nothing more than a bear taco, or that bears are vicious killing machines. Lets be fair, they are huge and terrifying, but at the end of the day Karlos and I had two instances where we came really close to a bear and its cubs and nothing went wrong. On one of the first few days of our trip I see Karlos begin to veer left away from the guard rail, me.. with my headphones blaring just kept pedaling straight. Little did I know there was a massive grizzly with her cubs just on the other side of that guard rail within feet of me and nothing happened. There was another instance that was far more tense where a blackbear and two cubs were in the middle of the trail and refused to move. She was standing tall with a huge white triangle on her chest and she simply let us know “Stay the F*** away from us.” After 20 minutes of failed negotiations we learned that yelling and bear bells do nothing so we began to continue on the trail, bear spray drawn and ready… and passed by her with no issues at all. The real apex predator out here is the massive logging trucks that expect you to pull off the road every time they come by. These things were massive, billowing clouds of diesel exhaust as they blew by.


Not my picture but Holy S***

Not my picture but Holy S***

Canada was a wonderful country, the People were friendly, the drivers were courteous and the prices were three times as much as everything here in the states. But with all of this being said, its the wildest place I have ever been, very far from anything at certain points, just massive pines and winding roads. The cities that stood out to me the most here were Jasper, Canmore, Fernie, and Sparwood. Logging and mining are huge in these areas but the forests were all pristine and canadians really love their public lands! Much of Canada was smokey from the BC/CA fires that were burning out of control. After some of our days riding you would have thought that we were cleaning chimneys with the amount of ash and dirt we were covered in. Fernie was a super cool town with excellent beer and food, very prided on its mining heritage as was Sparwood. There was one gurantee about Sparwood, if you grew up there you were most likley going to end up in the coal mines. Massive Mining Equipment and Machinery decorated the entire town, as their motto goes “SPARWOOD, YOURS AND MINE.” The single track throughout Canada was out of this world, and some of which was way beyond my skill level, the hardest of which started in Jasper. As soon as we hit the trail out of Jasper we were accompanied by a white wolf that led us down the trail for a bit until we came across some massive Elk and their calves. There were a few white knuckle moments for me as I had to walk my bike across a mountain washout with only a few feet of wiggle room, followed by some fast rocky ascents that set the tone for this incredible journey.

Probably not the safest spot for a Fuel Canister

Probably not the safest spot for a Fuel Canister

Canada felt much like the states, just different flags, money that looked like it belonged in monopoly, and everyone really loved saying don’t ya know, and you never really know. The locals here knew we were cycling tourists and they treated us with great hospitality and kindness. Supplies at this point were beginning to run low and the both me, my bike, and drone all needed some TLC from my traveling wonder box of goodies waiting for me in Whitefish.

Alas we crossed into the states and it was wonderful to feel like I was back in somewhat familiar territory. As we made our way into Whitefish we had an incredible view of the lake as we began our ascent into town. Montana from what I remember was just full of cows from start to finish. Cow pies all over the single tracks, roads, sidewalks and pretty much anywhere a cow can go it did. Montana Did have some pretty awesome highlights, between Lincoln and Helena there are two trail angels that run the Llama Ranch.. Barbra and John. These folks were some of the kindest people I have ever met and they opened their beautiful home and property to us for no charge at all. Their motto is “Pay It Forward” and that was one of the biggest life lessons I took from this whole journey. They had several cabins, one of which had its own woodburning stove and kitchen. Ovando was a really cool little town that only had three buildings, one of which was a 111 year old jail that I spend the night in. I was in need of new tires in Helena where I barley made it in with my Rocket Ron Light tire walls. Smoke from the fires was still pretty harsh in this area and we were looking forward into heading into Idaho which we basically rode in one day, and felt more like a beautiful dream than anything else.

A resident of the llama Ranch

A resident of the llama Ranch


Idaho proved to be so gorgeous and full of eye candy. Cliffside doubletracks would take us to abandoned train tunnels and would follow a beautiful river that was far down below us. I never gained appreciation for the phrase “amber waves of grain” until I witnessed it for the first time in person, an ocean of wheat blowing in the wind like a sea anemone.

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The Top of the Tetons

The Top of the Tetons

Wyoming was frigid, and this would be the first time I would see hail on the bike. To think that the Tour Divide Racers see this as an every day occurrence in June is just insane to me, many Kudos to those who have raced the Tour Divide, I don’t know how you guys do it in those rough conditions. We had a bit of a fellowship at this point, we had met fellow riders Dave Mertes and then Conan Thai a little later on. This group stuck together for a bit and then Conan Eventually made his way to Salt Lake City While Dave continued to ride with Karlos and I. There was a moment in Northern Wyoming where I almost froze to death, and the only thing that saved my life was a Marino Wool Jersey. A interesting fact I learned from Karlos is that you need to find your rhythm between overworking and sweating and not working hard enough and getting cold. Its a delicate balance that needs constant adjustment on the fly, and thats how the fat tire snow racers keep from freezing to death. I rode myself out, got soaked inside and out was was beginning to become hypothermic. Luckily not to far ahead was a ranch in the middle of nowhere where we took refuge from the storm to warm up. It took hours for me to get feeling in my hands and feet (closest to death I have ever been). There was a cold blast coming from the north that we had to beat and my next stop was going to be Colorado. Jackson Hole WY would be the first time I had ever seen snow in my entire life. The Tetons were magnificent, and looked like K2 in the distance. This would be the point where my teammate and I would part ways to an unforeseen event. So here I was at this point, alone, no maps, no plan. I decided to link back up with Dave considering that he had taken a few days off to hike with family the timing was perfect and the fellowship was once again partially in tact.

Photo Credit Dave Mertes

Photo Credit Dave Mertes

Dave Mertes

Dave Mertes

Leaving Jackson hole there was an awesome high friction bike path that just connected so well with my tires. There were Buffallo on the side of the road and wide open prairies with the Tetons always looming in the distance. You have to understand I came into this thing without studying the route, knowing how to read maps, or any other general knowledge of the route, I had to learn quickly or go home. Luckily Dave was an experienced and resourceful rider who had previously taken on and completed the 5,000 mile Trans AM bike tour across the US. He told me about the ACA app which was kickass and crucial to me finishing the route. Karlos was eventually kind enough to send me his maps which when used with the app made for excellent navigation. From here we were nearing the end of Wyoming and heading into my most dreaded section of the route that almost sent me home….

Home of the Infamous Wild Bill

Home of the Infamous Wild Bill

The Great Basin was a beautiful expanse of nothingness as far as the eye could see. Lucky for us we had spent a well rested night in Atlantic City at Wild Bills bed and breakfast. Wild Bill was a true American Badass, sporting an eye patch and long white hair that kind of reminded me of dog the bounty hunter. Wild Bill and his wife were lovely people and they took excellent care of us! They cooked us dinner at 11:00 at night even though we insisted they didn’t and entertained us with insane hunting stories and local lore. We met Scott Magnuson and Paul Gangi at breakfast. Two really cool guys that linked up with us again in NM. The next day bill sent us on our way with plenty of water, 8 liters on my bike to be exact. There was one hell of a climb out of Atlantic City and there it was, the Great Basin in all of its glory. Pronghorns watched us from a distance with curiosity and showed us that barbed wire fences can be jumped over and climbed under. This is a true old world animal that has no ties to anything living today, it almost looked like they were wearing decorative masks. I spent three 85 mile days in the Basin, and on the third I was out of water and running on no sleep. A horrific dust storm almost snapped my tent pole and crippled my tent, I spent the entire night awake literally holding my tent together. One of the most miserable and unforgettable nights of my life. The stars in the Great Basin were so exceptionally bright I didn’t even need to run my headlight. the next day I made way for Rawlins and dragged ass the whole way there. Dave and I separated at this point but he would return several times in the coming weeks to rejoin me on my journey. It was at this point I was close to the border of Colorado and Wyoming and decided to bypass the Columbine alternate so that I could stay at the legendary Brush Mountain lodge. Kirstin was an amazing host, you don’t meet too many kind an loving souls like hers. She stayed up all night and hosted all nine of us even though they technically closed for season the day before. There was pizzas, beer, cabins with their own wood burning stoves and just lots of tales of adventure and laughs. All of us stayed up all night and reflected on the journey up to this point. I was officially in Colorado and man did it feel good. The next day I watched as all riders began to leave, me being the last rider to leave of the season was sent off with the legendary cow bells. It was a really emotional experience to leave the lodge after the amazing time we all spent there. Special thanks to Kirstin and Brush Mountain Lodge for making my first day in Colorado and unforgettable one!

Brush Mountain Lodge

Brush Mountain Lodge

Colorado was amazing for so many different reasons. The leaves were in prime color change and the weather was literally perfect, and all the towns along the way were awesome and full of great food, beer, and other legalities. The towns that stood out to me most would have to be Steamboat and Salida. Boreas Pass looks like a monster on paper but it was probably one of the easiest climbs on the entire route. This is when the trail magic began to happen after a few weeks of hardships. As I was resting near the top of Boreas Pass I hear “Hey are you Team Samurai?” I looked back and to my surprise its Adam Darling that came down to surprise me with some beer and good company. We rode to the top of the pass together where I met the rest of his family and hung out for a bit. It was such a morale lifter to see a familiar face on the route, especially when I thought I was in for a nightmarish climb. The mountains were full of people wanting to take pictures of the leaves and it made for a pretty dangerous situation up and down the mountain. Steamboat was such an awesome little town! This is where my wife came to stay with me for a few days for some much needed rest. This was the one moment of my trip that I wanted to stop and go home, it was so hard leaving my wife on that last day and continuing on alone. Even though she fully supported me, the fact that she said “You can come home if you want” just totally killed me. As I was preparing to leave Steamboat I bumped into a few fellow riders Nicolas and Eianar that invited me to stay at a Warm Showers place at a ski resort. My host was Matt Ladley, A very successful pro Snowboarder out of Steamboat that treated us with excellent hospitality. Its amazing how many good people I bumped into on this route, I still cant believe it to this day. Making my way south to Salida I found a skeevy Hostile that I stayed in (I won’t say any names but it was gross and weird). One of the best places I stayed in Colorado was the Spring Garden Ranch. They were super awesome, clean, and provided excellent service at a great price.

My beautiful bride!

My beautiful bride!

As Im sitting out front pretty bummed out to be alone again I hear a set of tires whiz by. I didn’t think much of it until the same bike turned back around and screeched to a halt in front of the Hostile. This is where I saw one my best friends and fellow Florida Divide Rider Charles Watkins looking at me with a grin on his face. I jumped to my feet thinking that I was seeing things but nope here he was, thousands of miles away from home and his family to come ride with me. Charles would proceed to ride with me to the finish and get a taste of the Divide. He will be back at it this year when he takes on the Great Divide after he completes several Yo-Yo’s, this guy is a beast put plain and simple. He drove up from Sea Level in FL just in time to climb one of the biggest and most intimidating passes on the route, Indiana Pass.. and absolutely crushed it! Spirits were high once again at this point and we once again began to make our way South to the New Mexican Border, and picked up a new friend along the way… Atticus. Crossing into NM we met Dan Parisian at the border who joined us on our journey to get to the border. As we made our way to our first campsite in NM we see that its closed and there is no one there. With nowhere to go we proceeded to camp anyways and then we saw a headlight in the darkness. I looked over blinded by the light and I hear “Well Its good to see you again” and then Dave emerged from the darkness like Gandalf the white and rejoined us once again. Now we had a nice little group going once again. NM had alot of really cool Air BnBs for an excellent price. When we needed to get to town this was the greatest option available. Lots of super speedy decents in NM, the most memorable for me was the super long 40mph+ downhill into Cuba. You would think that coming to the end of the route things would be getting easier but it was proving to be quite the opposite. It was full of sand, glorious climbs, and decents that would make the eyes water. This route was literally going out with a bang and I was loving every second of it. The Toaster House in Pie Town was a legendary place on the route you would have to see to believe. Its a Biker/Hiker/Wanders refuge and nirvana, and its located on a very tactical part of the route…. and im not gonna lie, the pie was pretty damn good. The roads began to grow rockier and rockier and then eventually once we left Silver City we were in the open desert. Our last stop before the finish would be a visit to Jeffrey Sharp’s house on the route in a little town called Hachita. Jeffrey and an excellent host and provides shuttle services, lodging, and food accommodations at a very reasonable price. When you see Jeff you know your journey is almost to an end. The next day was all pavement to the finish and my wife was en route to intercept us at the border. Tarantulas scurried about and the day grew super hot. After hours or riding in a straight line the road began to curve right and there it was in the distance, I just remember the sign itself being so small and the station was tiny as well. I was expecting Fort Knox. 65 days, 6 tires, and one set of brakes later the Divide was finally complete.


The Take Away

Well if you made it this far Im super stoked that you are still reading, there were many valuable lessons that I learned on this trip. The number one thing that I took away from this experience is that regardless what the news and media says, there are still alot of good people out there in the world. In my 3100 miles I got two middle fingers (both in the US) thats about it. I was humbled by peoples generosity and genuine kindness to go completely out of their way to make sure we were all comfortable even when we rolled in late at night. I had strangers in the middle of nowhere roll up and make us sandwiches and restocked all of our water and snacks. Coolers full of ice water were found randomly when you needed them most, and all these people had one thing in common…. they just wanted me to pay it forward. No one that helped me out ever asked for money once, they just all respected what we were putting ourselves through and wanted to make sure that we made it to the end. I realized how powerful a fellowship can be when it comes to moral support, problem solving, and just plain old having a good time. I am very blessed and fortunate to have been able to complete this journey and even though it took me forever it was still really tough. Kudos to all of those who race it, especially in those harsh conditions. Trail Magic is a real thing, and even though the route will show you no mercy at times, it always balances out.

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The Vista 300: Small Patch, HUGE CLIMBS

A Shot of the Hiwassee River

A Shot of the Hiwassee River

There has been a buzz of social media chatter over a new beast in the southeast that needed slaying. It was described to me as being harder than the TNGA, and some went even far enough to call it a good old kick in the teeth. Considering the fact that my Tour Divide attempt is 4 weeks and few days away, I wanted to provide myself with a mountain challenge. After 8.5 hours of endurance driving from Deland FL I found my way to a beautiful historic town called Reliance, home of Route Creator Kim Jordan Murrell's Vista 300 and Mountain 420. I had been waiting for my Gimbal and Action Camera to arrive in order to document this trip so I didn't leave Deland until about 7PM which set me up for an arrival time of 3:30AM. Leaving Florida the roads began to slowly grow into rolling hills, and the street lights became a rare sight. Hours of diligent driving and Military Grade Caffeine gum, I cross the TN state line. The Menotinous highway I had been on for a while led me to a steep winding mountain road which felt like the equivalent of riding single track at night. These small lanes (originally designed for horses and Model T's were not match for my massive F150. The Ink black darkness of the night was broken by a stunning sight, a Historic Texaco that was back lit like an opera house. I had only seen one other Historic Texaco like this in the ghost town of Kerr City FL (Ocala National Forest). I had reservations to stay at the Hiwassee Whitewater Company which is the HQ for this event and marks the start and finish. I threw down my sleeping bag, wrapped up my sweater into a pillow, and closed my eyes for some much needed rest. What would come next is the greatest challenge I've faced thus far. 

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Historic Texaco (still in service) Reliance TN

Historic Texaco (still in service) Reliance TN

 

Sunshine filled the bunkhouse and it was now 7AM, rubbing my eyes I walk outside and my breath is taken away by the first of many Vistas I would see. The Hiwassee River Company sits on a gorgeous piece of property and backs up onto the Hiwassee river which is the states top 1% of cleanest Water. The owners (Brian and Michelle) are a really kind group of folks that will show you the meaning of Southern Hospitality. Mountains filled this landscape as far as the eye could see and I was in awe of its majesty. White Water Rafting is a HUGE industry out here, and outposts dominate the river throughout the area. Dustin Welch, A seasoned white water veteran and river guide took me on an Epic class 3/4 whitewater rafting trip down the river. My adrenaline was pumping so hard that my ears were ringing but I had full confidence in my guide and was able to take in all of the incredible scenery. The rush of cascading water and the lush landscape surrounding it made for a truly mystic experience. We were waiting for our third rider, Jonathan Hicks who arrived later that evening. None of us had really studied the route but we did know we were in for some pretty violent climbs for the first 198 miles of the course. The best advice anyone gave me was "Once you hit Ducktown you're good!"

 

My First time whitewater rafting


5:30 AM my alarm goes off and I earn the nickname "Dad" for the rest of the trip since it was my job to wake everyone up and be bossy. We all begin to get ready, my palms are sweaty and heart is beginning to beat a little quicker knowing that we are about to head into the belly of the beast. The three of us had pretty different set ups. Dustin was on his fixed 28X20 gear, I was on my 11 speed with a 32 tooth chainring and Jonathan was on a 12 speed. The simple specs are as follows:

Gravel Star

2017 Salsa Woodsmoke 

2.8 front and back Rocket Rons LS

32 X 11 Di2 XT DriveTrain

Shimano XT 4 Piston Brakes (New Tech) 

Salsa Cage and Bracket kit (New Tech)

Pike Front fork 

Salsa Woodsmoke 2017

Salsa Woodsmoke 2017


 

Dustin "Dballz" Welch

Specialized Chizel Full Rigid Single Speed

2.1 Fast Track Grid Front tire

2.3 ground control Grid

Specialized Chizel Carbon Fork

Surely Singular Chain Tensioner

28 X 20 Retro

Specialized Chizel Full Rigid Single Speed

Specialized Chizel Full Rigid Single Speed


 

Jonathan Hicks

Trek Pro Caliber 9.8

Blackburn Cages

Knox Carbon Wheelset

Niner Rigid Carbon fork (Excellent travel and very responsive)

I9 Back Country rear wheel

3.0 Bontager Chupacabra 29+ x 3.0 front and back tire

Trek Pro Caliber 9.8

Trek Pro Caliber 9.8


Reliance to Tellico Beach

 

Our Journey begins in Reliance TN, the mist filled mountains of southeastern Tenessee stand before me and dwarf the landscape. The crystal clear waters of the Hiwassee River pass under our feet as we traverse the bridge to Teleco Reliance road.  With a river flowing on wide side of us and rocks petruding from the mountain walls the views are stunning. Pavement turned to gravel as we made we started our way down spring creek road. We would tackle our first and largest water crossing (that ended up being way more mild than what the grand depart riders expereienced) .The climbs had started and we were slowly making our way up our first summit. Our first vista was about to present itself to us and its name was Coffee Branch. The rolling roads leading up the steep mountain passes would tease us with glimpses of open vistas. Everything was so green, spring was in full effect here, the air was crisp and the morning mist would begin to subside by noon. Temperature ranges were quite surprising. Scorching days with a high UV index would give way to cold wet nights. It was pretty easy to find comfort wearing my camp shirt and base layer. We ended up camping at Tellico Beach which marked the beginning of torturous no see ums. We called these lowlands "Noseeumlend" and boy I was happy I brought my ZPacks Hexamid Solo with mosquito netting. The river and babbling creeks were a great way to end the evening at Tellico Beach.

 


 

Indian Boundary to Green Cove

This part of the route was mostly gravel up hill with some pretty steep ascents. I had been averaging about 3mph up some of the climbs. The surrounding forest seemed very old but I was surprised to learn that most of the area was once completely logged, and what I was seeing was about 100 years of growth. The debris left behind from all of the deforestation gave way to a massive fire that wiped out the area. These were some of the tallest trees I had ever seen. The gravel crunched under my massive 2.8 inch monster truck tires, what a satisfying sound. Water filtration was key on this route. I used my MSR Trail shot but learned that the Sawyer was far more time efficient. The trail shot is still a great piece of gear, it can directly connect to your bladder and fill it with ease. The heat was sweltering, and the thick canopy was the only thing keeping me cool. Jake Best would be our first and much needed water stop. This canopy was so thick that it disrupted signal to my tracker several times, this happened to me on TNGA as well. GLONAS (russian satellite that orbits lower for a better signal) is a necessity out here if you are going to be in dense tree cover. As I stared out in marvel at the woods I thought I had seen two children playing, both of which looked like they were wearing vintage clothing. When I looked again they were gone. This event would set the scene for a really strange night as we camped at the edge of the Indian Boundary. There have been many tales of strange phenomenon in this particular part of the mountain. We set up camp, resurrected a fire and prepared to bed down for the night. At 4:00AM I wake up to blood curdling screams from Dustin as he yelled "get it off of me! get it off of me!" Jonathans yelling would be soon to follow a few seconds after. As I unzipped my tent I saw nothing, however the three of us swore we saw something run off into the woods. The rest of the night would prove to be sleepless. The sunshine couldn't come any sooner, I was surprised to fine a beautiful creek flowing not too far from our camp where I promptly restocked and broke down camp. We had run out of gas and it had only been day 2. We would soon be pounded by a massive rainstorm that was as cold as ice as we made way for Green Cove a white squall was at our backs. The storm was literally chasing me down the gravel decent, if I slowed I was blinded by the rain, so I was in full on downhill mode. Jonathan put all of our wet clothes in the bathroom with a space heater and everything was bone dry in the morning. The staff here was very friendly and the store proved to be an excellent restock.


 

Bald River Road to Holly Flats

Cherohala Skyway was absolutely breath taking! It was the most punishing piece of pavement I have rode to date, but every single challenge proves a substantial reward on this route. Harley Davidsons chased us up the mountain as we made our way to the Vista up on the skyway. We eventually made it to the crown jewel of the route... Buck Bald. From here you can see the entire course, and another interesting fact I would like to point out is that at all time you are no more than 20 miles from the start. This makes for an excellent response time in the event of an extraction or DNF. There was a a concrete park bench and fire ring on the top of a well manicured Buck Bald and the view was otherworldly. We were reminded that we couldn't stay too long when a barrage of sweat bees tore into our skin. We quickly made it down the rough Ascent that we had taken up and picked up speed as we made out left towards Ducktown. We would set up camp at Boyds gap which was a stunning view in the morning. The night was cold, at least for my Florida swamp blood, my hoody and down sleeping bag kept me comfortable through the chilly night. 


 

Brush Creek to Kips River Outpost

Boyd Gap had been an excellent place to stop and rest. The morning was warm and filled with sunshine as we approached Brush Creek. Everyone was in excellent spirits and I decided to lead the group into the flowy pump track like single track. I wasn't even a mile in when I came down hard on a concrete sewer grate that snuck up on me. CRACK went the rear carbon wheel, the kind of sound you hear if you stepped on a wicker basket. I had known that that moment that the wheel was toast. Lucky for me my fellow riders waited with me while my spare wheel was delivered by my friend Eddie. Since we all left together and no riders contested my help, I was still able to participate and be scored in my ITT! It appeared things were going great once again when I realized that I hadn't seen Jonathan or Dustin in a while. My Garmin Inreach Chirped and I look down to see "Dustin bent his wheel." I hurried back to the spot I last saw them when Dustin and I almost waffle stomped each other around a blind corner. He was able to bend back his carbon rim and throw a tube in within 8 minutes and got the wheel rolling. My carbon wheel on the other hand was compromised and had to be changed out. My first attempt at installing the cassette didn't fit, come to find out that I just didn't torque it down enough to the hub. As we left Brush creek we made our way to a much needed swim at Old Copper Road at the the Whitewater Center. We also got the opportunity to ride the Tanasi trail which consisted of three main trails: Bear Paw, Chestnut, and Thunder Rock Express. The end of Tanasi Trails led us to a steep gravel climb on FSR 45 which would eventually bring us to an extraordinary trail called Sylco. This trail was breathtaking and the woods around it were very lush and dense. A thin line marked the buff single track her. These are Kim's stomping grounds, and what she calls her "Backyard Trail." There was plenty of hike a bike for me here but my compadres shredded it. Night Fall drew in slowly and we found our selves at Kips Whitewater River Outpost. He was kind enough to let me and Jonathan camp on his property while Dustin rode on through the evening. In the morning I awoke to find that I had camped right next to a Mercedes Unimog, a very neat ATV that can climb pretty much ANYTHING.


 

Kim's Outpost (Needle Eye) to Reliance Finish

Well rested, Jonathan and I made our way for the Needles eye, Kims outpost and neutral ground on the route which was nestled in Mennonite Country. The Mennonites were a fascinating group of individuals, and I envied the simplicity of their lives. This community is perfectly content living the old life, free of Cell phones, Drama and Kardashian nonsense. Every man woman and child had a smile on their face as they gave us a friendly wave and nod. It was close to noon when Jonathan and I rolled up on Dustin lounging out at the outpost. The sun was relentless and this was the best way to beat the heat for the day. We charged our devices, rested, and recapped on the trip. Chilhowee loomed in the distance reminding us that there was one more massive climb before the gratifying finish. The outpost itself was beautiful and simple, a wrap around porch, two cots, a fridge and plenty of outlets made for an excellent home base. A little garden adorned the yard and the firewood was plentiful. I spent the night on the porch watching the stars until my eyelids felt too heavy to lift. Tomorrow would be my ride to the finish. The climbs on the following day would prove to be the hardest. Kimsey Mountain was an endless climb, so steep at some points that I found myself hiking. Dustin had lost an expensive pair of glasses and a cycling computer and decided to call it near the top of the mountain. This rockstar rider kept in front of me on his Single Speed while I struggled to keep up on my 11 speed, it was with heavy heart that we parted ways this close to the finish. Jonathan and I continued up the mountain when I heard him yell "Nick! I think Im really hurt!" I turn around to see him covered in blood, to the point where I thought he was hit by a car. He was bleeding profusley and looked like he was in slight shock, a fast fall on gravel was the culprit. I patched him up and he bled through the bandages within the first hour. It was at this point I recommend that he go to a hospital and we coordinated with Kim to have him extracted. Jonathan went on to finish his Vista 300 after spending 8 hours in the ER with Kim until 5:30AM. With my second riding partner gone I felt reluctant to ride into the night but I had no choice, I had to get this thing done. My climb up Kimsey mountain led me to my favorite stretch of single track I have rode to date, The Smith Mountain trail. After hiking up a massive hill I began a super speedy decent down buff single track. This was the kind of grade that made letting off the brakes feel like a motorcycle throttle. My eyes watered as I had a smile from ear to hear. The forest was silent, no wind, no rustling of leaves, and strangley enough... no crickets. The one thing there was an abundance of were owls (which proved to be the spirit animal of this trip) In the darkness I could see the suspension bridge which would mark my home stretch to pavement. The suspension bridge creaked as I rode across and water rushed below me. The SingleTrack gave way to an extremely fast downhill gravel decent that transferred over to speedy pavement where I reached a max speed of 42mph on a 300 pound bike. Rolling into Flip Flops around Midnight I was greeted by Brian with a camera where he took my finishing shot. I always expect to have a crowd of people and confetti at the finish but it never seems to happen that way, seeing Brian there however was such a morale boost and more than I could ask for. Alas I had conquered the mountains of southeast Tenessee and would mark the biggest challenge I have taken in bike packing yet. 


 

Lost and Broken Gear

I had to write up this section because it was ridiculous how much went wrong in the week we were out there. Im not complaining, this is what brings the spice of life to bike packing, the unpredictable is what writes the adventure.

3 Pairs of Tifosi Glasses

2 K-lite Switch Failures

1 Lyzene Computer

1 Garmin Etrex (Which was later recovered by Derrick)

2 pairs of sandals

Salsa front bag damaged and ripped at the seems

Ortleib bag zipper failure

1 broken Whisky Carbon Wheel

1 Damaged Aluminum Wheel

1 Evo SS Gimbal Chest mount

1 Garmin Virb Ultra 30

1 Sawyer Water Filter bag leak

1 Fabric DRL

1 Edge 520 Malfunction


The most Challenging Part of the Course From our Perspective

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Jonathan's hardest night would have been night 4. Lack of nutrition and hydration coupled with endless climbs made for a pretty dark place in his mind. 

Dustin's biggest struggle was standing for 75% of the trip to get his Single Speed up the climbs

My Biggest challenge was the climb to buck bald. I was bonking at this point and the sun wasn't helping. The climb looks so short on the map but it just takes a while to get to the top. The single track especially Sylco was tough for me, lots of climbing and on a 32T chainring there was a bit of walking for me. 


Perks of the Course and What you should know going into this...

Overall The Vista 300 was life changing for me. Not only was it a challenge, but it presented me with a whole new landscape that I had never seen before. This route is extremely scenic with plenty of clean water flowing around you pretty much the whole way. There wasn't one time that we caught a dry spell, just make sure you pack a filter, preferably a sawyer squeeze filter. Food is very hard to come across, so I brought 5 Days worth of meals on the bike and went through all of them. I used the gas stations as supplemental food but did not fully rely on them. Every Climb that we did was rewarded with an incredible vista, and the landscape itself was dotted with beautiful old historic structures and barns. White Water Rafting is a must here! I would recommend either getting here early or staying later after the trip to try out this amazing sport. Swimming in the rivers brought us back to life and washed away the bad energy that was following us around. I feel like this was harder than TNGA and I highly reccomened this to anyone who is planning on doing Tour Divide. My Hat goes off to Kim Jordan Murrell for all of her hard work and dedication to this route, I will certainly be back next year to do the Mountain 420 route!

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The 2018 Florida Divide Alabama to Key West


First things first... Lets Talk Gear

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I have been known to pack more than I need, not so much in fears but comfort. This journey would prove to be very different. I can honestly say I used every single thing on this table with the exception of my Bear Grylls knife (yes you can roll your eyes now).

 Food was the main focus on this trip and I started with about 4 days of it along with Cliff energy blocks for supplemental nutrients. I knew that in the panhandle the first 3 days would prove to be pretty sparse. These Mountain House meals use quite a bit of water, but that was one of the resources that was readily available on the first few segments. Cheesecake bites for the win!

Shelter Consisted of the ZPacks Hexamid Solo which is truly an incredible piece of gear. Weighing in at 15oz (not including stakes and collapsable tent pole) it was a no brainer. Cuben Fiber has revolutionized the UL hiking/biking community and has been crowned one of the new wonder materials. It doesn't get funky when wet, packs down incredible small, and is ultra light and tear resistant. A collapsable carbon fiber tent pole along with eight carbon fiber stakes makes for feather light structural support system. On future journeys I will be swapping out the carbon stakes for Titanium sonic stakes that can be hammered into hard ground. Carbon is extremely strong in certain directions and will snap like a twig if tweaked the wrong way. 

Emergency Beacons and GPS Units Are essential for all of my bike packing trips, and on long distance trips I always bring a back up PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). As a secondary GPS/2 Way satelite Messenger/SOS beacon The GARMIN Inreach Explorer + is the way to go. This piece of equipment is exceptional and probably my most prized piece of gear in my arsenal. Yes they do get you on a monthly plan but for me, its totally worth knowing I have a way to contact my wife or seporated members of my party. It saved my ass on the TNGA when I was lost, and also got me extracted to Mulberry Gap when I completely destroyed my bike. As far as a bike GPS goes The GARMIN edge 1030 was my computer of choice, and unfortunately I cant say that with much confidence. For the whole first half of the trip I had nothing but problems with this device. It would freeze for 45 minutes, reboot and then freeze again, almost as if it were running off of Windows Vista. I had everything updated, I think the biggest issue was lack of RAM on the device. I lost much of my ride and wasted a lot of time getting this thing up and running. Since I've been back I added an SD card in the back part of the unit and everything seems to be working smoothly. 

Cook Kit consisted of an Jet Boil Mighty Mo burner, Jet Boil Fuel, Topeak Titanium Cup, Titanium spork. All of these were wrapped in a buff and stored in my cup. The Mighty Mo burner flat out sucked, and will not be joining me again on future adventures. The built in self ignitor died on day three, and by day 7 the entire stove rattled to pieces. Needless to say I was pretty pissed but had made it out of the crucial portion of my trip where I really relied on it. MSR pocket rocket it will be from now on.

Water Purification consisted of and MSR Hotshot (which absolutely ROCKED!!). Water Tablets dont weigh much and I always bring them with me for emergencies but they didn't get used once.

Medical I used an Ultra Light Medical kit 5 that I found on amazon. I then pieced together my own kit adding hemostatic agents and a small snake bite kit. Its not watertight so I recommend ziplock bags (as I do to all of my gear). One travel size Aleve, one travel size Tylenol.

Electronics and Tools are a necessity on any trip, especially if you are running a Di2 system that has to be charged half way through your tour. I carry 3 Micro USB cables along with 2 Lightning Cables, an Extra Di2 Wire, Di2 Charger, and a Ravpower 26800mAh cache battery that also doubles as a nuclear reactor. For everything else I use my generator hub to charge smaller devices like taillights and GPS units. I use the Cache battery to top everything else off, and to provide me with some piece of mind. As far as my tools go: 11 Speed multi tool, 2 bottles of Stans 2oz, valve tool, spare valve, dollar, superglue, 10 Zipties (5 small, 5 large), Skeletool Pliers, Duct-tape, 2 tire levers, cleat, boot up tape, tube repair kit, and a tire dynaplug repair kit.  

Dynamo & Lights My favorite gadgetry of bike packing is the miracle of Dynamo Technology. I run a SON Hub, which is manufactured in a small workshop in Germany. The K-lite is and ESSENTIAL piece of equipment that allows me to have an endless source of light and power to charge my electronics. Sinewave makes an excellent USB charging system that plugs into the K-lite Bikepacker Pro kit. For a rear tail light I run a Garmin Varia rear view radar which I believe is an extremely crucial piece of safety gear for ever single bike trip. In order to produce enough energy to run the light and charge electronics you must maintain 8mph+. In places like Aucilla and Ecofina where there was plenty of hike a bike, this option wasn't very feasible for me, so In order to compensate for this dilemma I attached a Volt1600 headlight to my aero bars.

Clothing included 1 kit (it gets pretty gross sometimes), My Signature blue Gravel Star Patagonia R1 jacket, Patagonia Houdini Rain Shell, Synthetic base layer thermal, and of course a camp outfit consisting of a bathing suit and Salsa Cycles T-shirt. Fondo Sleeves and my Buff were crucial for keeping me out of the heat and acting as a HEPA filter for when dump trucks blew down the gravel roads. 

The Bags The thing that makes toting all of this gear around possible. For the Frame Bag I ran a Bedrock Bags custom frame bag, The Saddle bag is a Revelate Pika Large (You have to get the large its like an anaconda for gear), Sweet Roll Large, My mini Revelate dry bag in the front that doubles as a European Shoulder Bag, and a Salsa Gastank bag. However Ive said it once and Ill say it again, The RS Tech Whistle Blower bags stay on the bike... another essential piece of gear for my kit.

The Wheels and Tires At the discression of my local bike shop.. JC's Bikes and Boards, I went with 27.5x2.8 with the Carbon Whisky #9 wheel set. These were paired with the Ultra light LS Rocket Rons and allowed my monster truck tires run efficiently on the road.  Couldn't have made a better purchase and I truly feel a faster rolling difference. In addition to the lighter payload, the Carbon stayed so rigid that after 1600 miles of being bashed around, my wheels were perfectly in true. Mind you I weighed 205 before this trip with an additional 70 pounds of gear. 

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The Salsa Woodsmoke, my "I mean business bike"


Gravel Star at the grand depart of the FL Divide 2018 in Open Pond Alabama

Gravel Star at the grand depart of the FL Divide 2018 in Open Pond Alabama

After staying the night in Andalusia Alabama, my Wife and Family began to make our Trek to the start line at Open Pond Alabama. Everything is running smoothly until we all lost cell service and navigation 20 minutes from my destination with less than 15 minutes to spare before the official grand depart. I turn on my garmin Edge 1030 and begin to navigate myself to the start. Wandering around Open Pond TH searching for the start was actually a very serene experience. The park itself was absolutely gorgeous and there were people out on the lake casting away and taking in the beautiful light dewey morning weather. Clear skies and a light cool breeze  set the stage for what would be the most extraordinary journey I have taken to date. To my relief I see my fellow friend and rider Charles Watkins, who spent a good portion of the morning looking for the start as well. Soon after the only other rider to join us was Patrick Thomsen (Creator of the Green Swamp Thing and the Patrick Cup). The three of us pose together and take our mandatory grand depart photo and then begin to head into the vast Alabama Wilderness. Blue Blazes greet us as we begin to traverse towards the Northern Terminus of the Florida Trail. 

As the Trail Guide Journal of the Single Track Samurai States: "To my surprise I found Blue Blazes"

As the Trail Guide Journal of the Single Track Samurai States: "To my surprise I found Blue Blazes"


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Blackwater Creek

The Start of 1000 bridges

We begin our gradual accent onto the pine needle single track leading us through the tall pine forests of northern Alabama. The sun began to creep through the canopy and just 10 minutes in we were all shedding layers. The pine single track eventually converted over to an incredible gravel road which eventually snaked its way into a  red clay road that resembled the surface of Mars. Blue blazes continue to meander about until we begin to see the evidence of our first wooden bridges, signaling that we were crossing into the realm of Blackwater. The fellowship at this point was still in tact and looking promising for the moment. As we began to cross these bridges the topo around us began to grow swampier by the minute until we reached several creeks with crystal clear water. Little purple flowers lined the narrow river banks that we decided to filter our first batch of water from. Charlie as my witness, this was the best water i've ever tasted in my life! Cold crisp pure plastic free water that brought us back to life as we neared the end of our first segment. As we continued to cross these bridges I hear a massive crunch behind me as Patrick's Derailleur smashes down on one of the slippery bridges. The three of us assess the damage and Patrick is the first to confirm what we all thought "Man this doesn't look to good." Miraculously he manages to pry the cracked carbon derailleur back in place and presses on, leaving us in the dust on a broken component. He knew he had to get to a shop ASAP, leave it to adventure biker code, what can go wrong will go wrong. As day one began to draw to close, Charlie and I took refuge at Alligator Creek where we had unlimited clean water and tons of seasoned firewood. It proved to be a cool evening, coyotes stalked our camp all night and the moon shined brightly through the cloud cover. Our Next stop would be Eglins Airforce Base.

 
 

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Eglins Airforce Base

Whatever you do, DONT TOUCH!

Prior to this trip a mandatory document that I had to obtain was my Isportsman Permit to enter Eglins Airforce Base. Part of the permitting process required me to watch a video about all of the unexploded ordinances (Flares, missiles, cluster bombs) out there, and to "Not Touch." Here you are a the mercy of the ever-changing bombing drills that assault the landscape all around you. Even though there is a map with projected bombing exercises and drills, it is subject to change at ANY time. This place is so unique, massive river eroded canyons make for a MOAB like experience in Florida. We arrive, and  are greeted by a nice little segment of sandy hike a bike. At this point we have been following Patricks tracks (which served as our motivation and kept us going). As we follow our pink line on the GPS to our next turn we are halted by a streamer of red tape and an armed ranger waiting to see if we cross it. No biggie, plenty of reroutes right? Well it turns out the whole road was shut down for miles while fighter jets scrambled over our heads. We eventually had to follow a straight line out of the park and made a wrong turn onto a paved road lined with forest. In the distance I saw what looked like the truck from jeepers creepers about 100ft in from the tree line. When Charlie and I investigated we found and incredible Army Bridging vehicle that was heavily damaged and left in its final grave in the woods. 

 
 

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Sweet Spot creek

The river of Gold

After making it through Eglins and taking a sigh of relief, we make our way to this incredible watering hole appropriately named Sweet Spot Creek. We used the abundance of water to cook lunch, restock, and simply cool off. The tree cover here was perfect and it was a great way to escape the heat. Our Target camp for the night was Pine log, and this was the restock that was going to eventually carry us there. The water here was ice cold and tasted great as well. As we continued along the FT we crossed an incredible open prairie that was covered in what looked like lavender. The beauty of this segment is so hard to put into words, we just stood there in amazement for about ten minutes and let our brains process what we were looking at. This was one of the many wonders of the panhandle for me. I found out that my Profile Design Aero Bars were also engineered to carry a pizza and two liter coke to camp. The greasy pizza box ignited an old fire that dried us out and kept the bugs away. Long after the fire burned out the hearth stayed super warm, and made for an excellent spot to dry clothes from the light rain storm we hit on the way in.

 
 

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Ecofina

An ocean of tree fell

As we continued west through lush forest with numerous waterfalls and crystal clear water, we come across what looked like a scene from ferngully. A massive logging operation was in progress and even though the trail guid provided us with a re route, the three of us decided to over look that and go swimming through and endless sea of tree fell. With no blazes or reference point we were strictly relying on the pink line to guide us where we needed to go. It had been several days since we had seen Patrick and we began to wonder whether the derailleur issue was resolved and wondered how far ahead the Jedi might be. This place looked like a legitimate rattlesnake haven and every crunch under my feet made me wonder if one would latch on to my ankle. T-mobile LTE was something that had been non existent for several days now and I had just stumbled upon one bar. Dark Sky took a minute to load but once it did I just saw a massive orange and red storm cell slowly creeping up on us. The mission was get to Camel Lake as fast as possible where we would find shelter, showers, power. It was at this point that Charlie and I committed to riding until 4am, a decision the proved to be rewarding when we rolled up on Patrick at Camel Lake. Sheets of rain began to below down on our pavillion as we just set up on tables and passed out. I experienced my first Ultra Hallucination along the way where I saw a man wearing a blue sweater with a reflective triangle on the chest. Perhaps the Gravel Star had mastered time travel and came back to witness my struggle through the darkness?

 
 

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Tallahassee

Hospitality at its Finest

Ecofina had been a bit rough on the bikes, logs and Di2 don't mix to well and Charlie had sliced his rear tire. Higher Ground Bicycle CO in Tallahassee was our only go to, the only problem was our ETA there was 15 minutes after they closed. It was in this moment I called in desperation and these kind souls opened the doors to us for an extra hour and a half and got everything on our bikes squared away. Judy and Warren took their time to recalibrate my derailleur, rewire my Di2 switch so I can have a satellite shifter on my aero bars, and happened to have Charlie's tire in stock which no one usually carries. All in all they went completely above and beyond and if it wasn't for this shop, it could have really put a damper on our ride. After sticking my Single Track Samurai sticker that I'd been carrying around since CFITT we made our way over to Matt (The Creator of the Tally Tango) and Michelle Bull's house. Let me just start off by saying these folks are some of the kindest souls i've ever met. They opened their home to us and allowed to to wash clothes, charge up, and gave us a bed to sleep in. Zander (their pup) inspected all of my bags and made sure everything was tip top shape before I took off. Tally is home to some really awesome people and we were both extremely grateful for the hospitality we received while we were up there, I've got a lot of love for you guys! Fully recharged we continued on our journey and made our way under some of the largest and most majestic oaks I have ever seen. The Munson trails never disappoint, and they are a blast to ride at night. The trees were truly massive and the single track everywhere was in impeccable shape. 

 
 

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St. Marks

Into the Shimmer we go

On the way to St. Marks the Fellowship was reunited when the three of us stopped at Outzs Too for some Apalachicola Oysters (bucket list item in my book) and some brewskis. Ironically enough, my first cue sheet ended at Outzs which landed us in Dorthy's Hall of fame. Awesome food and really friendly service this stop is a must if you are in the area! I Fell in love with St. Marks when I rode the Tally Tango. Last time I went through here there was a hurricane hugging the gulf and storm surge flooded a portion of the trail for about a mile of waist deep alligator trekking water, this time everything was bone dry. Its amazing to see how much this playing field changes in such a short period of time. Recently I became ever more obsessed with St. Marks since i've seen the Sci-fi thriller Annihilation, which was inspired by the through hike of this trail. The beauty of this park is beyond words, massive expanses of beautiful sawgrass dotted with little islands of palm trees. The wooden bridge of this park is iconic and is a great spot to chill out and take it all in. Shade was pretty sparse but eye candy was everywhere. Sand Spurs are you biggest hazard out here, but as long as you are tubeless you should be fine. 

 
 

Aucilla

Whatever you do, dont fall in

Aucilla, This place is truly a wonder all in its own. Its where Florida's Aquifier gets recharged and is also home to the only rapids in the state. This segment was riddled with caves and massive sinks that were surrounded by slick rock walls, one wrong move and your spending the night swimming. The fellowship was still in tact at this point and the three of us decided to tackle this monster at night. This for me was the most technical segment on the whole course, plenty of hazards like holes in the ground with no apparent bottom, and single track that meandered around the rim of these massive sinks. At night everything begins to look the same and if you make that left instead of a right... your ass is going for a pretty unpleasant swim. There was plenty of hike a bike here, we started in the early evening and by the time we finished it was pitch dark. My Volt 1600 lit the forest on fire as I hiked up and around massive rocks and tree feel. All I can think was holy shit if I fall in this pool i'm so screwed, there is just no way out. The magnitude of these caverns and sinks cant be justified in the pictures, they were just incredibly massive.

 

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White Springs 

Florida's First Tourist Attraction

As we left the Amazon like wilderness of Aucilla behind us, it was as if we had set food into a time machine as we crept our way back to civilization. White Springs is a town frozen in time. There is history pretty much everywhere you look, however there is one anomaly here that stands our more than the rest. White springs, which was once a sacred Native American healing ground, was bought up and turned into Florida's first tourist attraction. Stories of its medicinal properties existed since before the settlers discovered it. Today it stands nearly empty, slicked with highway runoff and filled with garbage. This dilapidated site filled me with sadness. We went through a local history park of which I don't know much about and came across a very interesting single track that bordered giant granite pylons in the brush. It looked as if they deconstructed the acropolis and tossed it in the woods. After we grabbed lunch at Fat Bellies (which was excellent and right next door to a laundromat) we began to make our way out of town as the rain followed closely. As we traversed and old Iron bridge that crossed the Suwannee River. We followed a very buff segment of FT that snaked around the river. The sights here were incredible, we are talking 40 sheer drop into the river if you took a biff. Then the rains came, ground shaking thunderstorms that sent mud rivers coming down all of our climbs. At one point I stopped to rest my leg on a stump and the whole damn thing rotted through up to my thigh and almost popped my knee. This area was very, very old with massive trees and abundant amounts of saw palmetto, I just remember everything being so crisp and green. Tallahassee must mean "the old fields" for a reason. Not too long after this point is when the bottom bracket nightmare begins...

 
 

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Gainseville

Sometimes the trail turns into a river, follow the river

Naturally after a torrential downpour your going to get a bit of ground water, in Gainesville... I rode through straight up rivers! At this point in time my solo journey had begun. Fatigue began to set in and when it came towards the end of the Panhandle GPX file and when I switched over to the Fargo File, I began to start following it up north, approximately 16 miles off course (8 out 8 back). At this point I texted Patrick and Charlie and told them to keep on, the last thing I wanted to be was a burden on everyone, so thus began my solo journey. The entire segment from start to finish had water and numerous crossings. Olustee was a beautiful segment, full of lush greenery and mini rivers cutting across the trail every ten feet or so. At one point you traverse and old railroad trestle thats overgrown in flowery vines. I came across a gorgeous water Moccasin on this route who didn't seem to be to perturbed by me. In San Felasco the water got pretty deep. The trail "Soggy Bottoms" was practically a massive cypress swamp that got chest deep at certain points. The most direct route to bypass this was no better, I found myself almost waist deep for a pretty good stretch of flooded road. I have to say it was actually pretty refreshing to start the day off like that. Charles and Patrick went through that segment at night, my hat goes off to them because it was challenging for me in the daytime. Tour De Gainesville trails were to hardest for me mentally, and I was once again pretty fatigued and the trail turned into a shallow river covered in pine needles. following the line was the only way out and now, I was fighting to get out of this segment before the sunset. I one point I almost twisted my ankle on a mossy log that was hovering under the pine needles. Conquering this segment felt incredible, it was the hardest one for me both mentally and physically. The storms really built a stage for a bike swim. Eventually things dried up, Hawthorne trail was cake segment of super speedy and flowy bike trail. I thought for sure I was going to catch my squad but apparently things didn't work out and I called it a night at Lochloosa Fish Camp (5 miles off route). The next segment would bring me the closest I would get to my home. 

 
 

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Central Florida

The Closest to home I'm going to get

The massive Barge Canal Bridge looms in the distance, I take a sigh of relief and finally say to myself, this is the end of the water. I had been on the road now for almost 15 days. My bottom bracket was beginning to show signs that I was living on borrowed time. I climb up the bridge and begin my very quick decent down and make my left to begin my loop under the massive monolith. Its incredible in this part of the Ocala National forest its basically a desert, powdery tan colored sand and snake tracks dot the road and set the scene for what will be my most favorite segment on the route. The sun was hot, and the sand was just bouncing the heat right back up into my face. The beauty of this forest helped me keep it all together, after all this is a very special place for me. My first bike packing trip took place right by Farles Prarie, where my wife and stepdad huddled around my "ultralight" Biolite camp stove. Humble roots were set here and It will always be the place that I found my love of adventure cycling. Like Karlos says "you can come here and see all of the ecosystems at once." Paisley was in its last stages of a controlled burn, The smoldering popping trees looking like fireworks as the sunset. My biggest motivation at this point was to reach one of the most iconic curiosities on the route.... The 88 Store. The 88 Store is a miracle in the middle of the forest, beer, food, restock, Suds' n Bud's and of course the Incredible restaurant connected to the building that was serving Lasagna made from scratch. The owners are incredibly friendly and the patrons are always entertaining to interact with. A group of fisherman were exchanging some the most amusing tales of being out on the St. Johns river. One man had one hell of a hatred for his brother, who cost him a trophy fish. I heard him say "I wouldn't piss in that son of a bitch's mouth if his guts were on fire!" Not too long after a man attempting to back in a pontoon boat took out the telephone poll by the gas pumps. I winced, waiting for an explosion... and then finished my beer and took off before the real festivities began. Next stop would be the continuation of the feared Ghost Trail, punishing when missed, incredible when properly navigated. It will take you through what is (a lake bed in the wet season) in the middle of the forest, lush greens capes and carnivorous plants inhabit an oasis in the desert. Now I don't know if it was the beers or fatigue, but something big followed me on the segment leading up to Juniper Prairie and stayed a good 60ft back. I began to yell and scream every obscenity I could think of and it finally stopped before the main fire-road that took me out to the highway. Juniper Prairie TH was only a mile or two down the highway but there closed at this point. As I roll in I see the rangers locking up the office, now flashlights are on me. I was able to talk my way into staying at the camp that night and they were extremely nice about it. The route will always provide. My target at this point was to reach Shark Tooth Spring which was slightly off route near the Florida trail. The water here comes right out of the rock, and if you sift your hards in the spring you will find fossils and shark teeth. It was here I restocked, bathed, and beat the heat. I had just missed John Moorehouse by a few minutes for my interview. 

 
 

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Lake Mary to Kissimmee Prairie 

A storms a coming

With my bottom bracket on the fritz and a monster storm at my back, I decided to take refuge in Lake Mary and track down a local bikeshop that might possibly have the parts I need to get rolling again. Dave's Cycle World was the only place in town open so I rode over to see what they could do about my grinding BB. As the technician removed the BB, a considerable amount of water flowed out and then out came some crapped up bearings. The shop had no BB in stock and only one bearing, considering that both of mine were toast at this point... I took a chance with the one. John Moorehouse met me at the shop and gave me an in depth interview of my experiences on the route. I'm currently down a day and a half at this point as I duck out the red solar flare thats coming towards me on the radar. Patrick and Charlie made the right moves and stayed just in front of the storm. It was as this point I realized, we won't be seeing each other again on this route. These Zero Days gave me a good chance to carb up, ice my knees, and get some much needed RR before heading back on the the Cross Seminole trail and absolutely gorgeous FT connectors that would eventually bring me to the cattle town of Oviedo and Christmas Florida. It was here that I contacted Infinity Bike Shop In Melbourne and had my bottom bracket express overnighted and began to make my way off route to East Melbourne. So here I am with my hands tied once again, another day lost as I await parts to complete my journey. The Next day Geoff calls to inform me that my parts have arrived. I wolf down my pad thai and cross over the bridge to make my way to the shop. This shop was excellent and got me running very quickly. The bike shifted so clean as I hit the pavement setting course for Three Forks WMA. Then it happens, THACK THACK THACK THACK, my whoopee cushion grade sidewall picked up a massive drywall screw, and my tire had begun to piss Stan's everywhere. In goes the tire plug and the calamity ceases for the moment. For the remainder of the trip this plug would leak slowly and drive me insane. I pull into three forks, early in the AM, what a surreal morning. The sun was coming up slowly in the distance and the the fog gently rolled away from the endless fields of wetlands, this park is OUTSTANDING!  It would be beautiful gravel and limestone roads from here on out for a while. Massive alligators sunned themselves all along the levy banks while giant blue Herons hunted for their morning catch. It was an inherent concern that I was approaching Kissimmee Prairie after this massive storm front rolled through. There was a guarantee of flooding, this entire segment was marked as swamp on my topo, but to my surprise just as quick as the route showed me its teeth, I was rewarded with a dry passage. River Ranch was an incredible stop for a restock. They have a post office, starbucks, subway, Bisons, buffaloes and longhorns all in the same property. Here was my last restock before continuing to Kissimmee Prarie, which looked like it was straight out of Africa. There would occasionally be tiny ponds along the route, each one guarded by a dinosaur that would hop in as I went by. The sun was so hot, no shade, no water, just gravel and scrub palmetto as far as the eye could see. I couldn't tell if the cattle were looking at me with disgust or amazement. That night I arrived to find a dry 7 mile Slough. I met the ranger and she allowed me to camp after hours. I set up camp and was careful to not give off any ambient light. The entire camp site was booked but no lights were on. The stars gleamed like i've never seen them before and the Milky way presented itself in all of its wonder at 3AM. It was almost as if the stars were being projected onto the sky. In the morning I awoke to find that raccoons had unzipped my frame bag and stole several cliff bars and Cliff cubes, they must have had a rude case of the shits after that little heist. I took in the beauty of the sunrise and took one last glance at one of the most incredible sights i've ever seen in Florida. My water filter was no longer safe to use as I slowly made my way to the Devils Garden.

 
 
 

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The Devil's Garden

Where shade is non existent

Every so often you hear about this "Green Death" Algae that kills everything it touches. That monster was born out of the sugarcane industry and is the reason I stopped filtering water right before Lake Okechobee. Fertilizer and pesticides poison the water and animals out here, and once that toxic algae hits those chemicals, blooms explode and take over waterways. With the single track behind me and nothing but long levy roads ahead, the route began to show me a new kind of brutality.... heat and wind. Being surrounded by sugar cane all you can smell is the Iodine from the chemicals being used on the crops, and that coupled with the heat can be very trying on the senses. My buff and rondo sleeves proved to be crucial at this moment in time. I set out with 3 bike bottles, 3 bottles of water in my pockets, and a 2.5 liter camel back that was starting to become the monkey on my back.  I ran out of water completely about 3/4 of the way through the segment. When I say NO SHADE, I mean there wasn't even a shadow cast by the street signs. Local Area temps soared to 100 degrees according to my external GARMIN sensor linked to my watch. I made my way to Clewiston and stayed at the Creepy Clewiston Inn. Apparently this place is crazy haunted and even though I didn't see ghosts, It did creep me out. No one stays open past 8:30 PM out there so I resorted to an authentic Italian dinner at Dominos. The bike seemed to be in tip top shape with the exception of the plug that that was still leaking. A little superglue seemed to hold it together for another 24 hours. My next stop would take me to the wildest part of Florida, the river of grass.

 

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The Everglades

Sleeping with the Big Cats

Big Cypress is about as wild as you can get in Florida, on the FL Divide you literally traverse through the heart of the Florida everglades. From this point forward its all levee riding and road to the finish. Sunniland Marks the beginning of panther country which ranges from the souther most everglades all the way up to the Ocala National Forest. Though there has never been a recorded panther attack, there was something a bit unnerving about locking myself into the panther preserve shortly before sundown. This fence is here for their safety, we both share a common predator.. the automobile. Knowing I wouldn't make it to monument lake camp ground I had decided to get to the first primitive camp I could find which was about a mile or two in. I didn't know if the bear bell would be effective out here, or if I would just sound like a giant cat toy, so I tried to keep the commotion to a minimum. Fire keeps the boogey man away and right after my shelter went up I had and abundance of firewood to burn. The stars were exceptional from this location as well. The sun was my most dangerous foe and I decided to get up at 3am and hit the road again before the convection oven was turned on. Alligators were everywhere, for sure the largest I had ever seen. In the small canals running parallel to the roads they lived in limestone caverns where they thundered into as I rolled by. Its incredible to see how wild these parts of Florida still are, as I continue riding I see a 10ft alligator road killed on the bike lane, something you don't see everyday. As I hit the levee my tubeless completely fails and I have to do the inevitable.. throw in a tube and hope for the best.

 
 

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Key Largo to Finish

Please don't pop again

I made my push from Big Cypress to Key largo for a 138 mile day. everything is going great until tube number one pops in a construction zone in key largo. Moments before this I almost traded paint with an F150 that blew by, things weren't looking to good and the course was once again snarling at me. Flustered and exhausted I throw my last tube in and head to the nearest restaurant I can get to. I rolled into the first bar I could find and they were kind enough to re open their kitchen and comp my beers. Next step was to find lodging, and for some reason this weekend, it was non existent. I fumbled around until 12:30AM until I walked into the Tom Thumb and offered the cashier $100 to sleep in her (or a friend's) yard, she looked at me and smiled and said "Baby you go on back and get some sleep." Blown away by her kindness I run to the back and find an 8x8 patch of grass that my tent stakes sank into. I tied my guy lines to my bike and slept for 4 hours. In the morning I decided I was going to go for it on one tube. My documenting fell off towards the end, I spent the entire keys segment staring at the ground and avoiding nails, fishhooks, and glass. My legs were firing at full capacity by the time I hit the Seven Mile bridge and I blew threw the islands one by one. When I reached long pine key I threw out my camel back, I just couldn't take it anymore. It felt like I carried a child on my back for 1600 miles. From this point forward I pressed on and finished in the afternoon with my beautiful wife waiting for me at the finish. I had completed the longest one state route in the country, crossed over 1000 bridges, and broke my record for consecutive longest distance, and became the 6th finisher of the Florida Divide AL to Key West. 1500 miles were officially scored, 114 miles of wrong turns, reroutes, and tom foolery made my 1614 finish.

 
 

 
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Aknowledgments 

First and foremost, I would like to thank the route creator Karlos Rodriguez Bernart for putting together this life changing experience. I've lived in Florida my entire life and had no idea what wonders it had to offer. Karlos has selflessly taught me everything I know and without him I wouldn't be able accomplish and undertaking like this so soon. All of the Single Track Samurai Routes have been the basis of my training. The Team at JC's Bikes and Boards has always treated me like family and put me on the right gear. They have spent a tremendous amount of time answering my questions and being generous with knowledge. 

All of my friends and family who met me on the route, I'm forever grateful and humbled that you all took the time to come out and visit me when I least expected it. What a morale boost it is to see you all when your use to not seeing anyone. Ive got a lot of love for you all!