Well, this goes back a bit. I’ve been motorcycling for a while. I’ve been bicycling for a while. ~5 years ago, I spent 4 weeks riding my motorcycle around Canada and Alaska.
As my next 5 year sabbatical approached, I began planning what I thought would be a motorcycle trip down the Continental Divide (from the Canadian border down to Mexico.)
I also started recovering from my latest injury and began bicycling more, culminating in participating in a local hill climb series (shout out to Low Key Hill Climbs!) as well as dropping the latest 30 pounds I gain every time I get injured.
I figured I should use my current cycling form for something, and decided I should at least ride all the top climbs in California this summer. Which lead to John Summerson’s “Complete Guide to Climbing by Bike” book.
Unfortunately for me, I loathe long car road trips.. but I can ride my motorcycle day after day forever, no problem.
A quick Google for “bike racks for motorcycles” turned up the most excellently engineered 2×2 Cycles Rack and a vague sketch of a plan formed in my mind: I would travel around the western US with my motorcycle AND bicycle. Motorcycle to the foot of a remote climb, switch to bicycle, ride it, then switch back! CRAZY!
Crazy enough people said I should blog about my experiences, including my lovely wife. I don’t do Facebook, my Instagramming is inconsistent, and Strava only covers a small aspect of it. Plus, I’m capturing my own learnings and actions as I go along.
So, here it is… count-down to (probably) June. Please leave a comment if you’re interested in any particular aspect of this craziness!
This is, so far, my deeply thought out plan (each balloon or diamond represents a notable climb.)
Today was the ride home from Kernville, no bicycling.. but the motorcycle was definitely letting me know it had been neglected. The chain & sprockets were toast before I left, and now they were really bad. My aux fuel tank wasn’t working properly. My XM radio was cutting in and out (the horror.. at least on Interstate 5 it is!)
As a test trip, I’d give this a 9 out of 10. In general the things I expected to work, worked well. A few modifications and things on the “to do” list, mostly bicycle & motorcycle mechanicals, as well as figuring out how to pack for a multi-week trip and not just a single week trip.
Multiple climbs per day is unlikely, unless they can easily be pedaled between
Be selective on climb choice – scenic/epic vs. “really hard for no good reason”
Avoid back-to-back bicycling days
Camping should not be the first option as it consumes a lot of time and energy
SLEEP SLEEP SLEEP. The more the better! Motorcycling + bicycling is tiring, mentally and physically
Ride motorcycle more to remember how to ride properly
Accept being a ridiculous spectacle on the road and in parking lots, because it is ridiculous!
To-dos (crossing them off as I do them, ignore)
Replace chain and sprockets on the motorcycle
Fix aux motorcycle tank venting
Fix XM antenna to prevent suicidal boredom on interstates
CR2032 spare battery in front pack as a spare
Figure out how to pack bicycle chain lube without it making a mess
Fab metal bushing for fork axle bicycle mount
Fix broken Pelican case stay
Liner shorts for motorcycle riding
Larger tail pack to make room for longer trip stuff in the cases
Replace bicycle fork with something less sketchy
Tune up and R&R parts on the gravel bike
Acquire mesh gear bag to attach wet/sweaty gear to motorcycle when required
The previous night I rolled into Furnace Creek and it was 90+ degrees. Furnace Creek is 200 feet below sea level, and the air feels thick and hot.
Original plan called for camping (when the forecast was only 81!) but I quickly vetoed that and got a ridiculously over priced hotel room, which was worth every penny! They also accommodated my desire for a late checkout if I had any incidents out on the road. Once again I was a spectacle in the parking lot, with a dozen people taking pictures of me and my crazy motorcycle-bicycle rig.
Dante’s was the ride I planned on rolling out before dawn due to the heat (and later I would hear this day was an all-time record high of 99F, beating the previous record set in 1948) so before leaving I acquired a small, rechargeable 350 watt headlamp – a NiteRider Swift 350 (Amazon). I have a bunch of different headlights, but I wanted something light weight and reasonable enough to use for an hour or so before the sun comes up. When I did Mauna Kea to the visitor center, I used a TINY 20 or 30 lumen lamp, and nearly crashed when the shoulder ended suddenly. Lesson learned!
I rolled out a little before 6 AM, straight into a nice head wind. The grade here is pretty minimal (2-3%) – so you’re really just churning along in the dark. Once out on the road, you immediately get smacked by the heat radiating off the ground. Even in total darkness, it felt like 80+ degrees.
An hour and a half of the valley floor, you make the turn to Dante’s, this was right around when the sun was coming up:
This a pretty great climb as it starts off easy and gradually gets more difficult. From 3-4%, to 5-6% to 7-9% and then the final kicker: 10-15% for the last half mile or so.
I was basically staying ahead of the rising temperature, so it was a pleasant ~68 degrees the entire ride.
Here’s the view looking up to the final set of switchbacks up to the summit.
Here’s where my 30-42 gearing pays off – I was pretty tired after all the riding (both cycling and motorcycle) but cruised on up to the top. There was no one at the summit to take my picture, hence the Shadow Selfie.
Dowwwwwwwn we go – this is a pretty fun descent, past the 15% stuff, no need to really use much brakes at all. Just tuck and haul on down. At the turn off, I met 2 other cyclists pedaling up. Dante’s is definitely a popular climb (for Death Valley) since it conveniently starts at the Furnace Creek resort area.
Some time during the descent, my Stages power meter ran out of juice. My poor preparation struck here – it was well over 1700 miles on that battery. Oops. So some of my training load & kJ power is incorrect for this ride.
I rolled back into Furnace Creek and took a shot of my GPS showing 195 feet below sea level.
Scarfed some food and drank a bunch of fluids, showered and loaded up the motorcycle (once again gathering a crowd!) and headed back to Kernville – 185 miles away, with 3 Death Valley climbs in the bag!
A little bit about my original cycling Death Valley plan: Originally I was thinking I’d tackle 2 climbs per day, get up early.. ride one.. relocate to the start of the next, ride another. Just looking at the bicycle parts, that’s not super crazy – I’ll do 7000 ascent as a regular ride, and if I just do the climbing vs. droning along boring flat stuff, the actual saddle time would be shorter.
However, riding a motorcycle is also tiring. So is packing, unpacking and camping. After Wildrose, I headed over to camp at Panamint springs. Originally I was going to ride Towne pass back-to-back with Wildrose – I quickly abandoned that idea and decided to ride it the next day, and if I was feeling good, ride both sides.
Once again, up early (due to heat) and headed out to climb Towne pass. Starting from the Panamint side is definitely easier, here’s the view going up.
This climb is mostly just a grind on up, there was the occasional car, but nothing really notable. Despite it being in the Top 100, I wouldn’t have been real sad if I skipped it.
After about an hour and a half, I reached the summit and had to decide if I was going down the other side!
Actually this wasn’t a difficult decision – I was tired out. For my longer trip, I think back-to-back motorcycle-bicycle riding is probably not a great idea. I’ll need to be more selective about which climbs I choose.
I pointed my way back to camp and hauled down hill, sitting up the entire way, hoping not to overheat my brakes. These long Death Valley climbs make it real easy to hit 50+ mph. I was still on my small knob CX tires, so this was not an experiment I was keen to try out. I’ll be back on near-slick tires for the multi-week trip!
Back to camp to shower, pack up, and wait out the heat before heading over to Furnace Creek (55 miles by motorcycle.)
Alright, this is it. When planning this trip, there were 2 climbs I really wanted to do: Wildrose to the Kilns, and Dante’s View. I knew Wildrose was going to be a challenge, because of several factors: 1) it is in the middle of no where, truly the exact sort of climb I wanted to target for this adventure 2) the road is closed, and it has been for some time due to washouts, land slides, deep gravel, etc. 3) the weather forecast was getting worse and worse, now looking like mid-90s.
Now add that this is the first climb of the trip, because it was “on the way” from Kernville, it was setting up to be a bit of a nervous time.
DISCLAIMER TIME: Riding a motorcycle is dangerous. Riding a bicycle is dangerous. Riding either of these in Death Valley is extra dangerous. Doing one, or both of these, ALONE in Death Valley, is not to be taken lightly. I carry enough food and water for double what I expect to encounter. I carry a certified PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) in case of true emergency, but basically I assume I’m on my own for 24+ hours. I aim to be at 50% at all times (50% of food, 50% of water, 50% of my bicycling capability, 50% of motorcycle grip, etc.) That way when I go over the limit by accident or mishap or surprise, I don’t die.
Alright, up ~2 hours before dawn, drank coffee, bicycle kit on, motorcycle kit on top of bicycle kit.. and a rather precarious 2 hour motorcycle trip in the dark to the Panamint valley side of Death Valley. This illustrated a challenge: I have not been riding my motorcycle very much and am badly out of practice. More riding required.
After a quick gas stop in Trona, the sky started getting light and the vastness of the desert opened up. Droning another 45 minutes through the middle of no where, brought me to the Wildrose turn off. It is literally, a turn off into no where.
A little bit on the “Road Closed” – road conditions can change very rapidly in Death Valley, as nearly all the roads run along natural “washes” (normally dry river/creek beds) – so any precipitation will rapidly reconfigure conditions. In this case, there had been no precipitation for a few weeks, and I had reliable reports from motorcyclists & 4x4ers about potential conditions. At worst, it sounded like a few sections of hike-a-bike.
The main risk would be lack of traffic – no one was going to rescue me if I had a mechanical or injury. But see above disclaimer, I was pretty well prepared and riding cautiously.
First observation: Changing from motorcycle to bicycle takes a lot longer than you would think. Without really rushing, I’d say it took me 20+ minutes before I was ready to roll. It’s just a lot of bits and pieces to move around, bolt together, lock together, etc.
For my longer trip, this type of ride will definitely need to be an exception vs. norm.
I was somewhat nervous leaving my motorcycle & kit.. but hey, that’s part of this trip too, can I deal with possibly coming back and having no gear or motorcycle?! I did leave a note strapped to my bike in a document holder:
“Hi, I’m off bicycling and/or hiking for a few hours. I have plenty of food, water, and a GPS emergency beacon. Please don’t mess with my motorcycle or gear, I will need it when I get back so I don’t die. Thanks. Emergency contact xxxxx.”
Okay, off to bicycle – and as expected, yeah, there was some gnar on the closed road section. Deep gravel, washouts, some mud starting around 3500 feet. This ended up using a lot more watts than I anticipated, as pedaling through deep gravel requires a fair amount of watts or you fall over and/or stop and walk. Luckily there was only one section that I couldn’t actually pedal through, so I walked maybe 100 feet.
This overall section was probably the highlight of the trip. It was interesting, it was unknown, and it was EMPTY. When you are alone in Death Valley, you are REALLY alone. I saw not a soul until reaching the intersection with Charcoal Kilns road about 3/4 up.
Once past the closed section, you junction up with Charcoal Kilns Road, which takes you up to the old kilns that were used to make charcoal for the various smelters in the area.
This is more typical Death Valley – vast vistas and basically nothing.
The segment I had loaded on my Wahoo ELEMNT was from John @ PJAMM, which was labeled “2 miles past dirt” – well lemmie tell ya, that dirt was the worst. Lots of washboard, rocks and gravel. Both challenging and unfun.
Double unfortunate, that segment didn’t go all the way up. So when I was “done” – I had 20 more minutes of climbing to do, all of it from to 10-14% grade.
Eventually I made it up to the 2nd gate (the road continues further past the 2nd gate, but stuck to my plan to turn around here, given the potential heat down in the valley, etc.)
I had just finished off my 2L camelbak at this point, so I still had 2 full water bottles.
The valley heat was not far from my mind, so I hit the descent. This was even worse going down. Heavy washboard is the one thing a rigid gravel bike is really bad at. So it was slow, riding the brakes for several miles of dirt road. Once I hit the pavement, it was 40+ mph until the turn off to the closed section. Having some experience going up, this was not as bad going down since I could float over most of the gravel sections at a reasonable speed.
Back at the bottom, air temperature was around 87F. Not too bad, but glad I didn’t hang around.
Here’s the Strava segment. Note on John’s page, this is #56 with a Fiets score of 8.64, but as noted above, I kept on going for another 20 minutes of 10-14% grade. Plotting my route on ridewithgps.com returns a Fiets score of 11.64, which would put this climb up in the Top 20 in the country. Add in the remoteness, it was no surprise I had to create a new Strava segment to cover it!
After mounting the bicycle and donning my motorcycle gear, I motorcycled the remaining 15 miles to Panamint Springs to camp overnight.
2 days before leaving and spending a lot of time figuring out my packing logistics, I figured I should probably also mount up the bicycle I was planning to take both on this trip, and my extended June trip. This is a generic China carbon CX frameset, configured with hydraulic disc brakes and ultra low gearing (44/30 + 10-42 cassette!) – the main difference between this and my Parlee is the thru-axle fork configuration. The 2×2 rack is transformable for both QR & Thru-axle, so I didn’t think too much of it.
One thing to address right away is ensuring I had a disc brake spacer to avoid compressing the pads together on accident. So tossed an extra spare one into my spare bag, this also adds a setup/tear down step.
Next up, I went to attach the bike and realized my China fork’s dropout was too small to mate over the outside of the 2×2 rack.
The “shoulder” on the fork was approximately 1.5 mm too narrow to sit nicely on top of the rack.
So, like any good Motorcycle Farkler.. I broke out the Dremel and some sanding discs and ground down the rack “axle” so it would fit. Having a tight interface here is critical to avoid damage to the fork, given all the forces that are going to be put on it.
Once I had the fork mounted I gave it a good shake and noticed there was still a fair amount of movement between the rack & the fork dropout. Again, this is the major interface to the bike/rack, so any movement here is a bad thing.
More measuring and it appears my Chinese fork axle is ~14.6mm, and the inside diameter of the bike rack is ~16.6mm. The result is that the axle can “wobble” in the rack, rubbing the dropouts. Time for more Farkle creativity – a layer of heat shrink tubing over the axle, hit it with the heat gun, cooled and sliced off as a spacer.
This is still not ideal since it is made of rubber, but 48 hours to launch you use what ya got. For my longer trip I will replace with some aluminum can shim or stainless sheet.
Final challenge: Stages power meter lives on the same crank arm that secures the back end of the bicycle. For this I glued & zip tied a few layers of thick rubber as a spacer against the crank arm.
Reviewing PJAMM’s “Top 10o U.S. Climbs” I quickly noticed there’s a bunch that are unlikely to be possible to ride at the height of summer, especially anything in Death Valley. I’ve been through Death Valley on my motorcycle in 2011, as well as riding through once in late Fall and the heat on the valley floor is something difficult to describe. So I mentally crossed these off the plan for June.
However, while I was experimenting with my whole moto-bicycle scheme, some buddies were planning a parallel dual sport motorcycle trip for early March to the same area. And after my successful Diablo ride I needed a longer, multi-day, with camping, multi-point moto-bicycle trip to practice with.. so.. why not leap straight to “difficulty level 10” in logistics and piggy-back onto their trip? That way I have some people in the local area if things go off the rails.
Unfortunately for me, I’ve had a bit of a nagging hip issue for the past month. I’m pretty sure I didn’t injure it while bicycling, since it is barely noticeable while on the bike but it was improving slowly enough it was difficult to say. So, in short, I didn’t decide to go on this trip until a week before launch, and even then I was probably 50/50 until 2 or 3 days before.
You can see where this is going. One of the biggest challenges of motorcycle-bicycle-camping-extended-trip is packing logistics. Volume is king on the motorcycle, and the bicycle steals both space for bags and adds a lot of volume with shoes, helmet, water bottles, food, etc. Also a small issue was that the bike I plan to take on the trip is not the bike I put on for the Diablo trip..
– it holds everything I need to set up camp – tent, cot, jetboil, camp chair, mini-hatchet, etc. Unfortunately this bag is both too big to comfortably fit behind the bicycle fork, and since it is a top roll, “transformation time” would be extended. Given the kit I had available due my last minute decision, I rolled with my Kriega US20. This held my spare motorcycle tube, pump, and first aid kit, in addition to the items I would use while bicycling: Pacsafe squid, stuff sack for my motorcycle gear, bicycle shoes, hydration pack, bicycle tail pack with tube/spares/etc, bicycle handlebar bag with food, emergency beacon, glow stick, water filter, e-blanket, etc.
With so much loss of volume, my “luxury camping” gear went out the window – no tent, no stove, no camp chair. I figure combining bicycling and motorcycling doesn’t leave much time for camp setup/tear down anyways, so going for speed here is probably more realistic.
Right case, day-to-day stuff: clothes bag, bicycle kit bag, bike helmet filled with ride stuff (bike computer, HR strap, gloves, skull cap, etc.), bicycle tools/spares/batteries/etc, bath & hygiene stuff. I also put my water bottles for the bicycle in here since there was room to keep them upright and not leaking all over.
Tank bag (Giant Loop Diablo – Amazon) – Usual ride-all-day stuff: hat, sunscreen, bug repellant, ibuprofen, chapstick, camping headlamp, etc. This also holds my CamelBak hydration bladder, which during bicycling with no water available will transfer into my hydration pack.
So, the bicycle transformation plan with this kit:
Remove & assemble bicycle
Remove Pacsafe & stuff sack for motorcycle gear
Pull out hydration pack
Attach tail pack & or front pack to bicycle
Pull out bike shoes
Remove helmet & gloves/windbreaker/etc
Pull hydration bladder from the tank bag and put into hydration pack
Put tank bag where the helmet was in the side case
Attach water bottles to bicycle
Jacket into stuff sack. Stuff sack + pants + boots into Pacsafe, secure to motorcycle with cable & lock