Seems to be the top question people ask on the road!
Most people are surprised to hear this is a $300 generic carbon bicycle from China, with some vinyl stickers glued on for my trip. The rims are also direct from China, but with name brand spokes & hubs. I’ve put about 2000 miles on the frame/wheel combination, including a few punishing adventure rides (one where I discovered your bicycle will float away if you don’t keep a good hold onto it.)
Why this bike instead of my (substantially more than $300) sub-15 pound Parlee?
Crazy low gearing (a low gear of of 30-42)
Larger tires for comfort & bad (or entirely unpaved) road conditions
Security of thru-axles for mounting to the motorcycle
If I break it or it gets stolen, it’s $300! (of course the parts are a lot more than that, psychologically it is still comforting.)
Frameset – Miracle Bikes FM286 Cyclocross frameset
Fork – TRP Carbon Fiber with eyelets (although I never had issues with the stock fork, it’s the one part of the bike I always worried about)
Wheels/Tires: Light-bicycle RRU35C02 Rims (35 mm deep, 25 mm wide OD, 18 mm wide ID), DT Swiss 240S centerlock hubs + 160 mm Shimano Freeza rotors, 28 hole CX-Ray spokes. Tires are currently Hutchinson Sector 700×32 Tubeless, although sadly they measure out to 30.4 mm, so not really great for serious dirt use.
Shiny and new, lots more wear on it since!
Shifters/Brakes: Road Shimano ST-RS685 Mechanical shifting/Hydraulic brakes
Crankset: Mountain Shimano M985 XTR 44/30 (spacers all on the non-drive side)
Front Derailleur: FD-6800 Ultegra
Cassette: SRAM 10-42 XX1 Cassette
Rear Derailleur: Mountain Shimano XTR RD-M9000 11 speed + Tanpan travel agent to work with road shifters
KMC X11SL Chain
Pedals: XPEDO Mountain Titanium SPD compatible
Saddle: SMP Composit
Seatpost: China knock-off of an Ergon
Bars: Easton SLX4 Carbon
Stem: 3T Team alloy
Total weight without bottles & bags: 18.7 pounds
Bags I am still experimenting with, the tail pack + front bag are 5 velcro straps to mess with every time I mount/dismount the bike, so I am experimenting with a quick release Ortlieb saddle bag. Not as convenient as the front bag, but faster to attach/detach.
Total Motorcycle Miles: ~300
Bicycle Miles: 82.1
Bicycle Ascent: 11,300′
Minimum/Maximum transform time: 22/36 minutes
Number of selfies with people (Hi Toby!): 1
This was a “no planning” attempt – what’s the minimum information and logistics to connect a bunch of climbs together. Also testing out new modifications to the bicycle & motorcycle rig as that continues to evolve.
I identified two climbs I wanted to do (Mt St Helena & Bald Mountain) plus some likely secondary climbs to get some extra miles in.
My preparation consisted of:
Identify a starting point nearly the climb(s), preferably next to a restaurant.
Load Waypoints into Garmin Zumo 665 GPS on the motorcycle.
Load the climb segments into my Wahoo ELEMNT
Plan a route in ridewithgps.com and load into Wahoo ELEMNT
Saturday – Bald Mountain & Los Alamos
Up at dawn, rode the motorcycle up through the east bay (I haaate going through San Francisco!) and parked in a relatively empty Safeway parking lot.
New aluminum bushing and fork QR sped up my transform time a bit, the previous QR and rubbery bushing requires some wrestling.
Still wasn’t terribly organized on what goes where, since I wasn’t fully packed up I could be pretty sloppy.
Rolled out toward Bald Mountain around 8 AM, down Highway 12. This section was pretty unpleasant, roads in Napa/Sonoma/Santa Rosa are some of the worst in California.
I was glad to be on fatter tires (700×30.5 Hutchinson Sector tubeless.. they claim 700×32 but they aren’t.) There was also a TON of glass, apparently driving drunk is very popular in this area!
The turn off to bald mountain takes you up a pretty narrow and twisty secondary road with a relatively pleasant grade, until you reach Sugar Loaf Ridge State Park – where a nice confused man attempted to figure out if he needed to charge me for admittance (Hint: No.)
From here, turning left takes you onto a dirt fire road. A few minor kick ups, but good flat dirt for the most part. At this point you reach a gate with old, broken pavement. This is where the real climbing begins – pretty much sustained 10 to 18% grades.
3/4 of the way up it turns back into dirt – but much steeper and looser gravel, and you are greeted by 20%+ pitches.
At the top, you’re greeted with awesome views of both sides of the mountain.
Descending is definitely an “advanced” descent – the top dirt section is very steep and loose, and the pavement section has a LOT of loose marbles on top of pavement. Once past that, smooth sailing back through the park and back up Highway 12 – this time with a head wind.
When I planned my route, I wanted to get some additional climbing in each days, so I tagged on Los Alamos front & back. Other than the terrible pavement (a theme!), the climb up wasn’t bad.
However, descending down into Hood Mountain Park I began to have a few regrets! The good news is at least the pavement was nice, it was definitely a grind getting back up.
Back to the shopping center, had lunch and researched for a hotel (yes, I had done no hotel planning, just like my real trip.) – my hotel criteria is usually “cheap and I can walk to food” – because having to kit up in smelly motorcycle gear again after showering is not ideal.
I am willing to splurge extra if they have a hot tub. Another lesson I’ve learned: Check in early. Even when traveling remotely, hotels are often full by 4 or 5 PM. Another reason to get my riding done at dawn.
Packed up the bicycle (1 spectator) checked in (hot tub broken! boo!) showered, got dinner, went to bed early to get ready for Day 2!
Sunday – Mt St Helena & Ida-Clayton
Hotel waffles for breakfast, and then motorcycled over from Santa Rosa to Calistoga and parked next to a cafe along Highway 128.
Back onto the bicycle and started following the route in my ELEMNT. This is really 3 (or 4 if you’re stupid) climbs:
1. Old Toll Road – a typical tertiary Napa-esque road
2. Highway 29 – fast cars and no shoulders
3. A hiking trail that is the WRONG DAMN WAY
4. A long, long, long fire road that goes to the summit
#1 and #2 – nothing really notable here, just keep pedaling
#3 requires some explaining: Since I was doing “minimal planning” – I didn’t give a lot of scrutiny to what ridewithgps was mapping. Apparently I was supposed to keep going another couple hundred yards on Highway 29, to the start of the fire road climb.
Ridewithgps decided it would much prefer I go STRAIGHT UP Robert Louis Stevenson hiking trail.
Since these two routes are so close, the Strava segment indicator said I was still on the right path. So I assumed (wrong!) that eventually the trail would become rideable.
WRONG WRONG WRONG
I don’t even have pictures of the craziest parts, where someone had cut ledges into the rock so you could climb up, in my case, carrying my bicycle wearing carbon soled mountain bike shoes like an idiot.
I nearly turned around to retrench, but a hiker who had done the route before assured me I didn’t have much more to go, so I scrambled my way up to the intersection with the fire road.
I took a break at the top of the ridiculous hiking trail, admiring my stupidity and having a snack, an then settled into the long grind to the top. This is basically loose gravel of various sorts on top of hard pack. It did make me wish I had slightly larger tires on, and I’d also consider this ‘advanced’ riding on a relatively skinny tired bike.
It went on for a long, long time and required paying attention to not end up in deep gravel, and to mentally note sketchy parts for the descent.
The last couple hundred yards to the top get even rockier, deeper, and sketchier – I skittered my way up, but was definitely on the edge of traction capability.
Amazing views at the top, and definitely satisfying giving the ridiculous hiking part!
I walked down the sketchiest bit at the very top since I wasn’t keen to break a collarbone, but took the fire road down the whole way (I would NOT want to try to descend the crazy hiking trail while carrying my bicycle!)
From here it was basically a fast blast back down to the valley, descending 29 and then the bumpy and cruddy Old Toll Road and then onto Ida Clayton road, one of the roads they do for Levi’s Fondo. This road is also a pretty typical climb, nothing really notable and no real view on the top either, so I took a picture at the top with some quality Napa pavement.
Another bumpy descent and I enjoyed a nice lunch, kitted up, and rode the 120+ miles back home on the motorcycle.
Another successful journey and more tweaks to bicycle & motorcycle, and I really need to acquire a Bluetooth keyboard so I can update while on the road.
Death Valley trip illustrated I needed to get some more room in my side cases, otherwise I wasn’t going to be able to pack enough stuff for several weeks!
Unfortunately my “big bag” just won’t fit under the fork, and my Kriega US20 was just a bit too small. Giant Loop makes some cool, cleverly designed stuff – I’ve been beating up their tank bag for years.
In the “side loading” bag segment, they have several interesting options – the Giant Loop Revelstoke (Amazon) seemed to fit the best size/shape profile for me. Interestingly this is advertised as a “snow mobile” bag – I’m not sure why it would care if it is attached to a motorcycle.. but that’s what I’m doing!
This bag comes with Giant Loop’s “GL Mount” stainless steel clips that capture the pack straps. With the Kriega I always felt like I was fiddling with all the various straps and buckles. The GL Mounts promise to make removing and replacing the bag easier, while being very secure.
Here’s a close up of the “TRI GLIDE BUCKLES” that lock into the GL mounts.
They seem VERY secure, so I’m hoping this bag stays attached even if contents shift or I forget to really crank down on the straps.
So, size-wise, I can fit everything I had in the Kriega, plus my Luxury Lite Cot, my Bivy, and a few camp incidentals. It would be nice if I could also fit my sleeping bag, but I guess that’ll have to do – it frees up about half a side case. That should be JUST enough room with some judicious packing.
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
Figure out how to load GPS maps to external memory of Garmin
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.