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I’ve been told that my first season on the VeloNews staff was . . . unconventional, to say the least. In February, when I made the transition from public health RN to cycling journalist, I was promised a sunny summer of gravel racing, gear testing, mountain biking, and lots and lots of airline travel. Obviously, none of this went according to plan.
Nevertheless, the abundant time at home wasn’t without some silver linings. My partner and I racked up the miles and vert on our favorite backyard gravel; a special memory is spending the summer’s solstice riding 200 miles for the Equal Justice Initiative. When Everesting became passe, my colleague Ben Delaney and I kicked off Project 14er and spent a glorious day lapping Colorado’s 14,265 foot Mount Evans, twice. One of my best friends and I bikepacked the length of the Colorado Trail.
I also Zwifted for the first time, won a gravel race in Nebraska, and sampled all the finest in women’s-specific bibs. Turns out that for bikes, 2020 wasn’t all that bad.
The Mid South
I realize it’s odd to pick a muddy, miserable, and scandalous gravel race as a favorite bike thing, but as I reflect on the 2020 Mid South, I am reminded of how important it is to give each other a measure of grace during times of turmoil.
The Mid South is my personal ‘I remember where I was when’ — the ‘when’ being the moment that the coronavirus pandemic turned from elusive news story to real deal. When we left Boulder, CO for Stillwater, OK, we knew something was up, but it wasn’t quite clear if whatever it was should prevent us from going to a gravel race.
The crappy weather in Stillwater did nothing to assuage our unease and if anything, put us all at the social distance we would soon be advised to create. Although Bobby got a lot of sh*t for not pulling the plug on the race as the bad news ripened like a rotten banana, I believe that he did the best he could, with what he knew, at that time. A race promoter’s job is never easy, and that was never more true than on March 14.
Liv was late to the game with a gravel bike, but the wait was worth it. So was all the time I spent on the bike, because I wasn’t an immediate devotee.
When I first threw a leg over the Devote, I worried that it was too tour-y, too upright for an aggressive gravel rider like myself. I didn’t let that stop me from taking it everywhere I would normally take a gravel bike (i.e., everywhere), and I soon learned that the bike was so much more capable than I gave it credit for.
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Kremmling to Steamboat Springs? Check. The Roubidoux Quick and Dirty gravel race in Scottsbluff, Nebraska? Check. I even ended up getting the QOM on one of my favorite techy, singletracky gravel segments in Boulder. With nearly slick tires!
With its endless mounts, generous clearance, and dropper post compatibility, there was so much more than the Devote and I could have experienced together. I’m grateful to have had the time that I did.
Velocio’s women’s-specific bibs
I have often wondered how those folks at the pointy end of races do it: they never seem to pee. Since I’m not winning, I’m definitely peeing (or it must be that I’m not winning because I’m peeing). Fortunately, most of the apparel brands out there have caught on that a woman’s anatomy (I almost said ‘unique anatomy,’ but ‘eff that) warrants a different design than men’s.
I’ve sampled some great pee-friendly bibs from Rapha, Pearl Izumi, and Specialized, but my favorites are the ones from Velocio.
The New Hampshire-based brand calls their pee-break friendly design FLYfree, and I love the way it works. You just grab the back of the bibs where the straps meet the shorts and pull down. Easy peeing with no snaps or zippers or stripping by the side of the road. I got so used to the ease of peeing in Velocio bibs all summer that I had to request a pair of thermal tights for the colder months. I’d rather peefree than not pee at all.
My WhatsApp account was gathering virtual dust before the pandemic began, but now the notifications keep my screen lit up at all hours of the day. This is primarily because I use the messaging service to keep in touch with cycling folks not located in North America.
Whether it’s banter between Jim, James, and Hoody (our European VN contingent), or phone calls with the athletes that live in Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, and beyond, WhatsApp has provided an easy way to communicate with people in the cycling world during a time when we couldn’t meet up after a race or have a beer in the hotel lobby.
Katadyn BeFree water filter
When riding in the mountains or in rural, unpopulated parts of Colorado, it can be hard to find places to refuel and fill up bottles. In the summer, however, it’s not hard to find sources of running water outside.
This year made ducking into convenience stores even more tricky, so I got in the habit of carrying the Katadyn BeFree water filter on my rides. As a backpacker turned bikepacker, I can’t imagine toting around the bulky filters we used to use, but the BeFree folds up easily and fits in a jersey pocket or handlebar bag. It comes in 0.6L and 1L versions and is silly simple to use. From the creeks high above the ghost town of Caribou to the snowmelt off of Independence Pass, this filter has given me access to some of the freshest H2O the Rocky Mountains have to offer.
Crowd-sourced gravel beta
Am I saying that right? What I mean is: excellent information about gravel routes in any given location, often provided free of charge by generous cyclists everywhere.
One of my partner and I’s first forays out of Boulder in May was up to the Black Hills of South Dakota. The length of the drive was comparable to going to Moab, we’d never been to South Dakota, and the population seemed . . . sparse. We loaded up the gravel bikes, he drove, and I Googled. To my delight, not only did I find routes, but they all had downloadable files.
Want to check out the more than 1200 miles of gravel near Trinidad, Colorado? Someone else has done the dirty work. Hanging out in NorCal? Check out the Grasshopper Adventure Series courses. Are you more of a DIY’er when it comes to route planning? Check out what others have loaded into Gravelmap.com and go from there.
But then, be sure to share with the rest of us.
Lightweight ‘non-bike’ stuff for bikepacking
I know, I’m breaking the rules with the ‘non-bike’ thing. But really, there shouldn’t be rules when it comes to how and what you adorn yourself and your bike with.
Bikes get heavy when they are loaded with enough gear to keep you fed, sheltered, and warm on a bikepacking adventure, so every gram counts. Therefore, when I set off to bikepack the Colorado Trail in ten days, I wanted to take just what I needed and nothing more. Some of the best pieces of gear I brought were not cycling-specific.
My foul-weather gear, for one. The Gore-Tex Shakedry Trail Hooded Jacket was bombproof when it rained and folded into the tiniest little packet when I wasn’t using it. I brought along a pair of Ultimate Directions ultralight rain pants, hoping I would not have to use them (I did). Those 3.5 ounces came in extremely handy during a freak snowstorm one night.
Another hero was a simple Patagonia long-sleeved Capilene top that I tried to wear most days to protect my arms from the relentless sun. And, of course, my trusted Patagonia Baggies on the bottom. They wash easily and dry in seconds. I never go bikepacking without ’em.
Fix-It Sticks (Replaceable Edition)
I’m no mechanic, so multi-tools that have more widgets than I know how to use intimidate me. Thus, I have a particular affinity for my Fix-It Sticks. I like the way the tool looks (high-quality steel), feels (T-shape for leverage), and also comes in handy off the bike, as well (I keep the T-Way wrench in the glove box of my car).
The Fix-It Sticks Replaceable Edition comes with a set of 2mm – 6mm hex bits, a T-25, and Phillips #2 replaceable bit; any other 1/4″ bit will also work. I throw a valve core tool and a $10 bill in the orange and black case, and I feel as pro as a non-pro ever could.
Ryan Leech’s 30-day Wheelie Challenge
Like baking sourdough and daily meditation, the initial COVID-19 lockdown period saw many people taking up homemaker-type hobbies. In Colorado, we were fortunate enough to continue to be able to enjoy the outdoors, and as mountain bikers, we were fortunate that pro rider and coach Ryan Leech made his 30-day Wheelie Challenge free of cost during those initial depressing days.
The Wheelie Challenge wasn’t only a great way to work on a skill I never thought I would have, but it also gave us a reason to get outside and spend time with all the other neighbors and dogs, and we became closer because of it.
The bike boom
In addition to baking sourdough and daily meditation, I really, really liked bikes before the pandemic. But it turns out that not everyone did; or rather, perhaps they’d simply forgotten how much joy riding a bike can bring.
The pandemic bike boom made international news, as places from Paris to Pennsylvania saw more cyclists on the streets, more service tickets for long-neglected bicycles, and empty shelves and stands at retail outlets.
According to data from the NPD group, April was the first month since it began tracking the cycling market that sales have reached $1 billion in a single month. Typically, April sales are $550 million to $575 million.
As someone who believes bikes really do improve the quality of life, I hope that people’s (re)discovery of riding does not disappear with a return to ‘normal.’ Riding bikes is good for the environment, our health, and seems to be one of the few ways to get people to put their phones down and remember what it feels like to exist away from a screen. Even if there are more of us out there — the trails are more crowded and the shop might be sold out of your favorite accessory — more people on more bikes is always better. Especially if we all take the time to smile and wave.