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.

DJI_0247.jpg

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.

IMG_0866.jpg