Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bikepacking the Santa Ana Mountains

Sometimes it's good not to know what you are getting yourself into.  I mapped out an ambitious adventure on unfamiliar terrain through the Santa Ana mountains and convinced a friend it was a good idea.  The plan was to take the Amtrak to San Juan Capistrano, pedal out to the San Juan Trail via Ortega Highway, climb up into the Santa Ana Mountains, ride the Main Divide Truck Trail north until it was time to camp, wake up and continue north until we decided to take one of the trails down and Amtrak it home.

The first couple steps were easy.  We caught the 6:05am train out of San Diego and pedaled our way up the Ortega Highway towards the SJT from San Juan Capistrano.  The Ortega wasn't very pleasant.  The shoulder was wide at times and non-existent at times with a fair amount of high speed semi truck traffic sprinkled in.  Throw in a nice headwind and it starts to feel like a long 12 miles.  It didn't get me down though because I knew these would be the last cars I had to deal with for a while.

Ortega Hwy - Usually not such a wide shoulder

The San Juan Trail starts climbing from the very first turn of the pedals.  This would be a pretty tough one to start cold, right from the trailhead.  The switchbacks were close together to start and widen as you gain elevation.  I managed to clean a few of them, but it was pretty tough with all the weight I was carrying on the back.

SJT Trailhead

Early switchback

The short switchbacks early give way to longer traverses of the hillside with switchbacks much further apart.  These were good fun because they were easier to navigate with the loaded mountain bike and for a feature that I wouldn't appreciate until later...shade.

Looking back

Switchbacks leaving the trailhead

After the switchbacks things got tougher.  We started on the west side of the mountain in the morning which gave us some shade on the switchbacks, but by the time we got up higher the sun was solidly overhead and it turned out to be a hotter day than we expected, probably low 80s.  Not scorching, but not insignificant.  The terrain got a bit more technical, rutted, and loose - making us work harder.  We had to hike-a-bike a bunch of sections as the loaded bikes were difficult to maneuver through the ruts and uphill restarts were made more challenging by the sandy conditions.

We managed to find a few big rocks providing a little shade to eat lunch and rest a bit.  I think the afternoon sun might have clouded judgement a bit as we ended up taking a wrong turn at a fork in the trail and started down the Chiquito Trail.  The wrong decision proved fun for a while as the looping singletrack wound down through a shady creek basin.  Eventually, we came to a signpost that let us know we were on our way back towards the Ortega Highway.  We had to point the bikes back up hill and search out the Blue Jay campground.  We were pretty much out of water (started with about 90 oz each) so the spigot that came into view before discovering the campground was a welcome sight.

The plan had been to continue on up the Main Divide Road further that day, but we decided to stay at Blue Jay and climb "The Wall" in the morning.  Our camp neighbor was there to forage for edible mushrooms in the Chiquito basin and offered us some oranges when we were setting up camp.  Best orange I've ever had.  Since I got back from this trip I've been eating oranges like a crazy person, I think the positive association with that particular orange is responsible.  The camping got a little less pleasant when several cars full of OC yahoos set up camp right next to us with no intentions outside of partying.  They were pretty awful people.  Not a great night of sleep even after asking them to turn off their car speakers at 10:30pm.

The next morning we packed up and started the climb up the Main Divide road.  About halfway up it became more of a hike as the loose, steep road proved exhausting to ride with our loaded rigs.  It flattened out near the top and we rode up to the junction with Los Pinos and Trabuco.  We planned to continue on the Main Divide road, eventually taking either Horsethief or Holy Jim down towards Irvine.  We knew we weren't going to make it nearly as far as our ambitious plan to go over Santiago and down through Black Star Ranch.

While waiting at the junction a couple guys came riding up Trabuco and we started chatting about our plans.  They had good local knowledge and told us not to mess with Horsethief, especially with panniers, and that the Main Divide road turns into a steep rollercoaster of loose terrain and babyheads for 8 miles until Holy Jim.  We took their advice to head down Trabuco and were rewarded with fun, shady switchbacks through thick vegetation and a somewhat dicey downhill section that had a pretty high penalty for a left side bailout.


Time to replace the stock 1989 tires.

The sharp, loose rocks on the descent absolutely destroyed my front tire.  The tire was pretty old, so it's not too shocking, but I got pretty lucky that I didn't get any punctures.  I learned a lot on this trip.

1. Big elevation gains on loose terrain with a full load are hard, real hard.  
2. Don't get trail mix with pieces that can melt.  If you do, be sure to keep it in a ziploc.
3. The Rock Combo is a mule.  Lack of suspension didn't matter on the climb, kept me under control on the descents.  (On the way down Trabuco some guys climbed past us and I heard one of them say to the other, "Did you see that guy's bike?  None of these modern accouterment, just vintage cromoly.  Awesome.")
4. Good company with positive attitudes is crucial.  Erik was down for anything.  At times he was suffering, at times I was suffering, but it was always temporary.
5. A more detailed map would be a good idea.  I was using the Cleveland National Forest map, not enough detail.
6. Bikepacking is a pretty rad way to get out there.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Life of Walt

Walt is my everyday ride.  For a long while, he was my only ride.  I found him at Velo Cult, sort of on accident.  My dad had given me his old road bike that was, in reality, a very new bike since he probably only rode it about 3 times.  It was a top-of-the-line in it's time carbon Trek from the mid-1990s.  I had been using the Trek for commuting and road riding, but after finding a rusty, beater beach cruiser leaned up against it and locked over it I decided it was time to add another bike to the stable that could handle a little abuse.

I scoured craigslist armed with about $100 and very little knowledge of what constituted a decent used bike.  Eventually, I found one that looked decent.  I took it for a test spin and coughed up $100 for it.  I can't even remember the make or model now.  I took it in to Velo Cult to have it tuned up and they immediately found a whole bunch of bad news (bent fork among other things).  I called the guy back and, not surprisingly, he didn't feel bad about selling me a junked bike.  Burned, but lesson learned.  I came back to VC to look for a used bike that would get me around and found Walt.  He is an 1984 or 85 Raleigh Marathon.  Nothing fancy, but he had a classy air about him: lugged steel frame, friction shifters, mustache bars and friction shifters mounted on the stem.

Walt's near original configuration.
Almost immediately I realized that stem shifters were the devil's work.  In order to climb a hill I would have to bow my right knee outward to avoid shifting into a harder gear.  Back to VC for some old downtube shifters and a used rear rack which set me back about $20 total.  The rear rack and a set of panniers (not the ones shown above, those are a pain to use) is really what opened my eyes to the possibility of just riding everywhere.  Once the load was off my back I felt less like a pack mule and more like a person getting around town.

The next modification I made to Walt was to splurge on a Brooks B-17 and abandon the cloth tape for cork which I find to be much more comfortable.  With those two changes and a pair of shoes on my feet all the points of contact with the bike were dialed in and I started to rack up the mileage, really only using my Vanagon for hauling stuff that can't fit on a bike.  Some creep stole the Trek, so Walt became my do-it-all...road rides, commutes, brevets, shopping trips, camping.  You name it, he could do it.

Walt taking in the scenery.
Eventually, my stable started to grow and I added some specialty bikes that limited Walt's use - although he remains my daily commuter and around town bike.  I decided to make a couple more modifications to his set up to make him into something of a Rivendell on the cheap.  New Tektro big mouth brakes would let me switch to 700c rims and open up the possibility for bigger tires, 35mm Pasela tires would give a more comfortable ride, and a Nitto Tallux stem with Albatross bars would give a more upright feel (I never did fall in love with the mustache bars).  The 35mm tire was actually too big to fit on the back, so I went with a 32 in back and 35 up front.  I'm loving the new set up - looks like a upright townie, but still rides light and fast (relatively) like a road bike.  I can't think of anything else I would like to change, for now.  Well, now that you mention it, I'd like to bring those downtube shifters up to the bar ends or maybe on top like the old stumpjumpers....but that will have to wait.  For now, Walt is perfect.

Walt the Franken-Riv

Thursday, January 10, 2013

When the Big Apples rot....

...I know what tire I'm getting next: the Schwalbe Big Ben.  If these had been available when I bought the Big Apples for my Rock Combo, I probably would have gone for these instead.  They seem to be somewhere between a Big Apple and a knobby tire, but a bit closer to the apples than to the knobbies.  The apples are great tires and can handle some off-road use if you lower the psi, but they are a little sketchy if you hit sandy stuff.  Now I just wish Schwalbes weren't so long lasting so I could hurry up and buy 'em.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Mascota MTB

It has been a long time since I last updated the blog. I received a temporary job offer that involved long hours, relocation to Chicago, and little opportunity for adventure on two wheels. The job only went until November 6 (hint, hint) so now I'm back in San Diego and itching for some adventure. 

Recently, the lady and I went down to Mexico for a couple weeks to visit her family in Sinaloa and Jalisco. I was able to borrow a bike in both places, although one was considerably better than the other. We went to a small town of about 8,000 people in the mountains between Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta called Mascota. It's technically on the way to Puerto Vallarta, but the roads are pretty winding and dangerous so the buses take the long way around the mountains and skip over Mascota. It's also not much of a tourist destination so you only really end up in Mascota if you are from there or have family there. Did I mention it's insanely beautiful? The cobblestone streets are traversed equally by bikes, horses, quads and cars and it is surrounded by rolling ranches and green mountains on all sides.  The town feels laid back and safe, though I did hear some warnings about straying too far into the hills solo as there are known to be some unsavory types growing things who wouldn't take kindly to random visitors.  The town itself was very welcoming and we were often stopped by folks just curious about how we ended up there.  When we stopped to take a picture of an interesting 1940s era bicycle with Trek Singletrack decals, the older vaquero who owned it chatted us up and insisted he was Ana's uncle.  Turns out it wasn't that much of a stretch of the truth.

The first day we climbed to the top of the small hill at the south of town, capped by a white cross.  The weather was perfect in December, probably about 70 degrees and clear.  In retrospect, this is the day I should have gone for a ride.

View from the top of the hill.


View from the road, can just barely make out the cross on the top of the hill.

On the third day I was able to borrow a 1990s era Giant hardtail from Ana's uncle and head off on my own.  I planned out a 30ish mile route that would climb a rough road up to a crater lake, then traverse over to a really small town called Navidad, finally descending about 3000 ft in 12 miles.  I had to forget about most of the ride as it took a while to get going and by that point the weather had turned a little.  I decided to just try to climb to the crater lake and return.

The road out of town.  Molcajete Volcano ahead.

After about 2-3 miles of gentle climbing over a cement, double-tracked road the rain started to pick up.  I stopped to take a drink of gatorade and mull over my options.  I thought about returning to town and hoping for a clearer day and earlier start the next morning, but in the end, I was enjoying the quiet road to myself too much and just thought that a little rain would add to the tall tale I could tell later on.  Eventually the smooth, cement road gave way to a patchy and rough cobblestone road that turned decidedly upwards.  The road became a relentlessly steep grind with pitches over 25% that just went up and up.  The rain also started coming down a bit more so the visibility wasn't great, but I did manage to catch a few views of the ranches and volcanoes.

A view of the ranches near the start of the cobblestone climb.

Up, up, up.
When the rain started to form small rivers in the road I decided I should probably turn back.  I did have to descend that beast still after all - stopping many times to give my braking hands a break.  The cobbles were a little slippery and I had a few sketch fish-outs, but managed to keep the rubber side down.  When I got back to the house and checked my GPS track I found out I was only about a mile away from the crater lake.  Oh well, maybe next time in better weather.  The rain didn't stop for two days, so it's good I didn't turn around in the beginning with hopes for better weather.

Rainy road back into Mascota.


Leaving town.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Great Western Loop

Took the speedy, lightweight bike out to do the Great Western Loop with some friends.  A few of us opted to "ride to the ride."  I understand that sometimes you need to drive a car to get to a ride (especially for mountain biking), but I think we do this too much.  The GWL is about 40 miles and we tacked on an extra 35 getting there and back.  I left the camera at home but took a couple crappy photos with my thinks-it's-smarter-than-it-is phone.

This doesn't do the scenery justice:

Free puppies at the Lyons Valley Trading Post, probably a good thing I didn't have my handlebar bag.

You name it, they got it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Dirt touring

I went on a mini tour this past weekend, trying to hit dirt trails and roads where I could.  I left from Normal Heights hitting both Mission Trails and Sycamore Canyon trails on my way to Ramona.  I camped north of Ramona somewhere high up the Black Mountain Truck Trail.  My original plan was to camp on top of Black Mountain at the old fire lookout, but I couldn't make it up before dark.  In the morning I woke up in a cloud and continued up the trail to the top.  Not having any local knowledge I planned my route using Google maps and discovered a locked gate at the top.  Instead of turning around, I went through a gap in the fence.  I know, probably not the right call, but man it was worth it.  It was this little wonderland in a cloud, with lush green carpeting, large stone features, and a mix of new growth and fire damaged trees.  It felt like a Tim Burton movie set.  I had to go under another fence to get out of there and eventually ran into another locked gate that I couldn't go around or over.  I saw a couple people in a driveway so decided I should ask the way out.  The rancher was surprised to see me back there as apparently the roads had been made private about 30 years prior.  He was mostly amused that I had been camping out on my bike and that I didn't have a car parked anywhere nearby.  He said that he didn't mind that I was riding around back there, but if some of the other owners saw me they would be pretty upset.  He showed me the way to get back to Black Canyon Road and wished me good luck.

I cruised down Black Canyon Rd all the way back to Ramona, then took the 78 and Elfin Forest Road to Solana Beach.  Along the way I caught up with some sdbikecommuter friends out for a 65 miler.  My friends from Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers were playing at the Belly Up and I planned to camp at San Elijo State Beach.  That plan was foiled as the campground was closed for renovations, but some concertgoers were admiring my rig and offered their backyard as a campground.  Good times!

Mission Trails

Sycamore Canyon

Black Canyon Road

Pamo Valley

Private property.  

Backyard camping.