Culture

Groad Trip: Bikepacking, van life, and social injustice

I dove deep down the rabbit hole of van conversion research, and let me tell you, it’s a slippery slope.

I never thought I’d jump on the #vanlife bandwagon. I was just fine doing what I was used to all my WorldTour years: flights and hotels (add rental cars now that I’m privateering). With the COVID-19 crisis, I realized that flights, hotels, and rental cars will be infinitely more complicated in the future, as well as riskier, and probably more expensive with reduced demand. With plans to pivot to some alternative challenges that will be announced shortly, and to be more responsible and fully self-contained when events do open up again, I realized a livable van would be an unexpected but ultimately logical and necessary expense. I dove deep down the rabbit hole of van conversion research, and let me tell you, it’s a slippery slope. I now relate to the passionate people behind this culture, and can easily see how one could fork over their entire savings on these build-outs!

Alas, I settled on a great Mercedes Sprinter that my friend Matt agreed to sell me. He is a racer and works in the bike industry himself, and it was built for him and his family. So it’s ready to adventure immediately yet still has some room for personalization. Hello, offseason project number one!

Photo: Peter Stetina

The only hiccup is Matt lives near Atlanta. Upon settling on a price, I quickly made plans to fly one-way (as safely as possible) and road-trip back west to California. This would be the perfect break-in trip for my new rig. As we settled on a pickup date, Matt also pitched another idea: A bucket-list backpacking trip.

The Appalachian Gravel Growler is a 200-mile North-Carolinian point-to-point route connecting some of the coolest breweries in the Southeast via remote gravel roads. Without hesitation, I agreed, and suddenly this former ProTour roadie turned gravelleur was now entering the world of weighted-down self-sustained bikepacking. We stashed the van at our endpoint, drove his truck to the start, and set off. I loved the entire journey, from stopping at our leisure, to studying the map to choose where to sleep, to even trying to handle a gravel bike with all the packs. It’s most relatable to riding a tandem without anyone on back; stand up and everything just wants to wiggle. The most challenging moment came when, upon nightfall, a massive thunderstorm rolled in along the ridge where we’d stopped for the night. Being the hot, muggy Southeast we’d only brought a tarp for cover. Luckily Matt is an experienced outdoorsman and at 10 pm was instructing me how to use a stick to dig a trench around my sleeping mat.

Photo: Peter Stetina

Overall the route was inspiring and fun. The vert of this route is not to be underestimated, however, especially when carrying these heavy loads. The final was pure dessert though; an hour-long descent off the Blue Ridge Parkway into downtown Asheville, NC. Ideally, we would roll up salty and grimy, sit on a patio with beers and bask in our completion of the journey, slowly hopping from brewery to brewery sampling a few of the 20+ breweries that dot the Asheville region. Reality bites though: Between a rainstorm rolling through town and COVID-19 precautions, we instead quickly changed, grabbed a bunch of to-go beers at Burial Brewing, along with some food truck sustenance, and got to our campground. It wasn’t the fairy-tale ending but we still had a great time drinking some beers by the campfire before parting ways the next day.

Photo: Peter Stetina

I then headed west, pushing through the night. I landed in Graveltown, USA (aka Emporia, Kansas, home of the Dirty Kanza) for some quintessential flint hill gravel before pit-stopping at my Mom’s house in Boulder for two nights. Upon writing, I am headed to Moab for two nights and a big ride on the White Rim in Canyonlands before making my way across Nevada and back to Lake Tahoe.

Photo: Peter Stetina

A lot of my driving has been filled with podcasts, and obviously, a lot of current attention is on the racial injustice that is happening in our country. I know people follow me for bike adventures and not my political views. I consciously steer clear of a lot of that in my social media, however, this is something that transcends political party lines. It’s about humanity and I feel obligated to speak up. I am doing my best to educate myself and really open my eyes to this deeply ingrained injustice in American culture. I am learning how many actions — even if unintentional — can sustain this injustice. I have been thinking about what I can do as an athlete with a relatively small platform to do my part. Cycling has a diversity problem and it’s nice to see some in the industry taking a proactive approach. Two of my biggest sponsors, Clif Bar and Canyon Bicycle, are openly trying to be a part of the solution and I plan on working directly with them in their endeavors. I hope I have something to share soon. If you’d like to read about what they have done to start, please click the links in their name above.

Photo: Peter Stetina

Now, to get back in my van, and point the nose westward.