March 29, 2021 § 1 Comment
Climbing up Torrey Pines I was not surprised to get passed by numerous ARCs, none of whom said a word. What surprised me was this guy, John Kaplan, who rides for PAA in Pasadena, because he slowed to chat. Some ARCs, when they see a bicycle, all they see is another bicycle. So cool. Of course we knew people in common and had a lovely conversation that made the grade go by before I even knew I was on it. When people are kind to you it makes you happy.
John and I split off and I continued along; the day’s destination was Alpine, CA. Along the roadside was a deep shag carpet of orange. I stopped to smell the flowers like the cliche says, but they were without fragrance, so I did the next best thing and drank them with my eyes. Bike touring or bikepacking or, as it’s best known, “dicking off,” is the world’s best way to see the world. As David Treese said the night before, “There’s nothing better than seeing the world at the speed of a bicycle.”
A bit farther on, the powers that be have almost-completed a segregated bikeway that I kind of like. I’ve ridden the road numerous times as a road and it’s never been much fun. But San Diego County is trying to put together the roughest of patchworks to make it possible to kinda-sorta get around the area without being in the cross-hairs of the motorists. Much as I think we should be putting our dollars on education, laws, enforcement, slower speeds, and creating the critical mass that will make cyclists a legitimate part of traffic, it was nonetheless cool to buzz along like this … sometimes the good is the enemy of the commonsensical, but in this case, well, it worked for me.
Shortly thereafter I got a personal guide to the next section of my route, thanks to Norm Guay and his buddy Jimmy. Norm too said, “Hi!” and wanted to know “the story.” I love people like this, kitted up and on a schedule but not too busy to slow down, chat, and then show me the shortcuts along the best paths.
After parting, well, I’m simply not surprised anymore, even though I am wondering, “Is this really happening?” Meet Bill Webb, a blog reader, who spied me, flipped around, and chased me down to say hello. I feel famous, but in reality I think I simply look so weird that anyone on two wheels is bound to do a second-take. Bill measures molecules at Scripps and we had a great chat before he turned around to go back to the lab to “feed his spectrometer.”
Getting out of town I met these two friendly guys along the way, who were likewise not too busy to take a break from their Tour prep and talk to a fuzzy ol’ wanker dragging a leaden bicycle. The were interested as hell in bikepacking, so we talked about camping, how to do it, and they showed me a couple of key turns before we parted.
On Mission Gorge Road, knowing I was going up a gorge, I swung over at the Vons and had lunch. Lots of big calories and a glimpse at the map, which was up, up, up, as it had been more or less since Torrey Pines. I knew I had some beautiful riding coming up but recalled this route when I rode to Houston and quite literally came unstitched. Today was a different day, so the heat didn’t bother me any more than the elevation.
The entrance to the trail was thoughtfully set up for bicycles with the placement of a giant stone that would tear your derailleur and crank off if you didn’t carefully lift and guide. After that it was beautiful, easy, sunny climbing, and soon enough I was in Santee.
After Santee, which was all up followed by more up, I stopped at a 7-11 for a Gatorade and met some cool faces on the way. These two guys were buying life’s essentials and they wanted to talk bikes, touring, and life. I obliged. We stood out there for ten minutes as they pumped, probed, and generally enjoyed the hell out of my yarn. People love an adventure, even–or especially–when they are on a beer run. After that I ran into Aaron, a U.S. Army vet who has been living under a bridge for the last two years. He was standing on the roadside next to his bike, winded and hot.
“Oh, yeah. Just resting.”
“You okay for cash?”
“I’m broke, man.”
I handed him a few bucks and watched the appreciation play across his face. Then he said, “You’re welcome to join me at my camp if you don’t have anywhere to stay.”
I passed on the invitation since I wanted to make Alpine and still had a bit of riding to go, all uphill, but it struck me how it is often people with very little who are most open and willing to lend a hand to strangers. And then I thought something I’ve often thought, which is that people have an infinite capacity to endure difficulty, but we are absolutely unable to long endure ease, plenty, and wealth.
In Alpine I was worked, hot, thirsty, and ready for dinner. A plate of Mexican food later, a little bushwhacking, and I called it a day.
March 28, 2021 Comments Off on Dirt patch upgrade with Chaucer
I had staked out a little patch of sand behind a sign that said “No Camping.” I was waiting for the sun to go down and for the last ranger patrol to do his walk-through before stretching out my tarp, dragging my bike into the bushes, and curling up in my sleeping bag.
As I sat there a surfer walked by. “Where you headed?”
“Mexico,” I said. “Or back to the Sierras.”
“That’s cool! I walked from here to San Francisco once. It is so awesome to be outdoors.”
We chatted. His name was Tyson, and when he heard of my camping plan, he said, “You’ll probably be okay. But the solid bet is to pedal a bit more to Solana Beach, past the Cardiff Kook, and then scoot off onto the nature trail that follows the lagoon. You can set up a proper camp there, you’ll be the only person, and no one will hassle you. That’s what I’d do.”
In addition to being a local and having the cred of wildcamping all the way to San Francisco, I was feeling nervous about my current choice. So I thanked him heartily and moved on.
The path had a lot of houses on it, but they thinned out after crossing the railroad tracks, which had a giant “SUICIDE HOTLINE” sign right where you would step in front of the train if you were so inclined. I supposed from the placement that many had been.
The other side of the tracks had a couple of very auspicious spots but I continued on until there were no buildings, nothing. “Sweet,” I hummed to myself.
Around the bend, though, it got salty. There was a giant warehouse converted into a brewery, with an open wall facing the lagoon and shoulder-to-shoulder patrons so close to the path I could have touched them as I slowly pedaled by. North County being North County, where everyone either has or is married to someone who has a $15k bike, many eyes followed my beard, my raggedy locks, and my rig. I was glad to be past.
A couple hundred yards away I found a perfect spot tucked up against some marsh reeds. There was a flat patch of sand, well, not flat, but not steep, either. I laid down my pack and got ready to wait the last fifteen or twenty minutes until sunset when I could lay things out. I looked out at the lagoon in the setting sun.
“Hey, Seth!” a voice called.
I turned, startled. It had sounded like he said, “Seth.” A guy was approaching. Then he said it again. “Seth!”
I didn’t recognize him. “Yes?”
“Dave. You don’t know me but I read your blog. I saw you ride by the brewery. Where are you staying?”
I pointed to the patch of sand. “You’re welcome to stay with me,” he said. “I have a patio if you prefer being outside.”
The serendipity washed over us both. He is from Ohio and has only been in SoCal for a few months. He’d been sitting with his wife and a friend when I rode by. “I know that guy!” he’d shouted, to everyone’s amazement, before dashing out the door. I don’t think it’s common in this area for residents to go dashing away after bicyclists who look like they are either recently paroled or evading the law.
Dave, Molly, and Allison were all on bikes and lived a mile or so away in Del Mar, atop one very hard climb followed by an even harder one. The whole way we marveled and laughed at the chance encounter, until I reflected on the wisdom of Bryan Kevan, my touring Buddha, who had said: “These serendipitous moments of chance encounter aren’t chance at all. They are what happen when you walk out the door and start touring.”
Dave and Molly fixed me a spectacular meal, far beyond the patio upgrade that I’d been expecting, and before that, Dave asked me to do something that only one person, my dad, has ever requested: A Chaucer recitation.
Flattered and elated, I delivered the first minute or so of the General Prologue, “Whan that Aprille …” Since we’re right around the corner from April, what could have been more apt?
I got up the next morning refreshed, made coffee and oatmeal, packed my bike, and got ready to roll out. As part of my Dirt Path to Del Mar Patio upgrade, Dave sent me off with a cup of gourmet pourover coffee, and Molly made the most delicious bowl of fruit and yogurt. Winston, one of their two pugs, kept me company as I ate and pondered the day’s route.
Not sure where I’m headed next. Mexico? Back to the Sierras? Either way, I’m pretty sure that Ms. Serendipity will be just around the bend.
March 27, 2021 § 1 Comment
Planned on camping at Bolsa Chica SP, but they had no tent or hiker-biker sites. More discrimination in favor of cars and junk haulers, and against cyclists, pedestrians, and people with no fixed address.
Still, it was a brilliant day with a crisp tailwind, so I sailed south through Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and San Clemente. The park there was also closed to bike campers, but that didn’t dint the sunshine or tailwind, either.
San Onofre was closed to all camping, and since the day was fading I hiked up a back trail to its dead end, threw down my tarp, ate dinner, made a cup of coffee, and slept out under the full moon. The tent may not be seeing much use in days to come …
I was back riding the next morning, made Cardiff and learned that all San Diego state parks are closed to hikers-bikers because of covid. However, you can pay the auto rate and get a site. Apparently the germs know the difference!
Had a sandwich and contemplated my route. “Southbound” is a long-ass word.
March 25, 2021 § 6 Comments
I’m yard-camping for a couple of days in Long Beach, taking care of a few odds and ends, minor details like getting my brake rotors replaced, new chain and cassette, BB overhauled … the little things, courtesy of a generous $250 donation from Dean P.
Riding into LA from Leo Carillo State Park was strange. Many things I always accepted as normal now look weird beyond belief, and the feeling intensifies the closer you get to the city. It’s partly a result of bikepacking. When I live on my bike I get up before the sun rises, eat when I’m hungry, bicycle along until I’m ready to stop, put up my tent when it suits me, and go to bed when the sun goes down.
Once you’re in the city, which is all about control, hierarchies, and exploitation, that changes whether you want it to or not. What I noticed:
- PCH is a bad place to ride a bicycle. It is ugly, it smells bad, the drivers are often rude, the traffic moves too fast, and it is terribly ugly. Did I mention it was ugly?
- Everyone wants you to see their money.
- Everything is for sale.
- The ultimate and omnipresent California roadside decoration is the real estate sign.
- Time rules all. In the city everyone is subjugated to the clock. So dumb.
- People actually spend huge amounts of money on gasoline. One gallon of gas costs more than my breakfast, takes you nowhere nearly as far, and (I’m guessing) tastes a lot worse.
- Your Tesla is just as nasty as his pickup.
- On the bike path, there are more mopeds (e-bikes) than bicycles. No one appears excessively old or physically in need of the moped. But the riders do appear fat and lazy.
- Everything costs more and you receive less.
- Police are everywhere.
- The Avid Recreational Cyclists, a/k/a ARCs, never smile or look happy.
- The fat, lazy people on mopeds always smile and look happy.
- It requires an unreasonable level of skill, awareness, and fearlessness to ride in traffic.
- Cars are horribly noisy. Trucks? Moreso.
- It is never night.
- When you sleep in a tent in the backyard you can’t see the stars but you can still hear the freeway.
- Airplanes are horribly loud, too.
- There are hardly any trees.
- There are hardly any birds.
- There are hardly any flowers.
- When the wind blows, it doesn’t bring any fragrance, only stench.
- Whether they admit it or not, everyone is living the life they WANT to live.
March 21, 2021 § 5 Comments
Some people leave an outsized impact on your life. What started as a small interaction led to fundamental changes in my life, inspired and informed by Bryan Kevan, a brilliant guy with a heart as big as Patagonia. I had cracked a couple of seat stays on my way to Canada, and a series of fortunate events led me to Bryan’s place in Berkeley, where he repaired my bike, fed me homemade sourdough with peanut butter, and gave me a place to sleep.
The next morning he squired me from Berkeley back to my route in Marin. I learned that Berkeley isn’t near Marin. Really. At all.
The inspiration was seeing how one person can make the difference in your journey, between forging on and quitting. Between catastrophic failure and serendipitous encounters that bond real friendship in a few short hours. And of course I learned and continue to learn so much from this world-traveled, gentle, brilliant guy on a bike who also happens to, you know, wind his own carbon and build his own frames.
Because people with advanced degrees in bio-statistics always do that.
If you want to experience the depth and breadth of traveling by bike, I can’t recommend any nook on the web more highly than www.bryanmkevan.bike. His observations, his experiences, and his wonderful writing should make you want to grab whatever bike is handy and JUST FUCKIN’ GO. NOW.
Bryan’s framebuilding work is coming to fruition so I texted him and requested a few minutes to talk. He graciously agreed.
Seth Davidson: Why bike touring?
Bryan Kevan: First off, I want to note how delighted I am to see you off and rolling, really jumping into this bike travel thing. I remember you showed up last year looking for how to get to SF without freezing and I started talking about Afghanistan and Xinjiang and you were like “Yeah but how do I get to SF?” Leads me to say that it’s a but-for test, but for x y wouldn’t have happened, so many people I wouldn’t have met but for the bike, places I never would have visited but for the bike, it’s a connection that I share with some long-haul hitchhikers and I think it’s a similar ethos where they’re hitchhiking and wouldn’t have certain interactions and experiences but for hitchhiking.
Seth Davidson: How did you start designing bike frames?
Bryan Kevan: My interest in building bikes goes back to high school. I saw a Calfee bamboo frame, elegant Calfee, and said “I can do that, there’s some bamboo growing down the street. Why not cut it down, wrap with carbon fiber and see where we end up.” Creating is neat. The bike failed after five miles but I definitely opened the door. Then I went to college, and living in a dorm I of course didn’t have the space to have a carbon fiber workshop. It doesn’t really fit with a college experience. When Trump was elected for better or worse I needed a distraction. 3D printing had grown a lot, printing plastic for molds for carbon fiber became much more accessible. Materials, more suppliers selling raw carbon fiber fabric. I was living in DC, and built a carbon fiber bike that finally rode like a bike, and rode it a long ways. Then I took my Surly Pugsley touring, which made me West-LA-fit, cycling wise. I’m not sure that I would have continued the hobby without the pantheonic, heroes-and-legends cycling energy of that LA scene. It forced me to do the real-world testing, which is to say 22,000 miles to date on my full carbon frames.
Seth Davidson: What are you doing that’s different?
Bryan Kevan: I wind my own carbon fiber tubes, giving me total control over ride quality and stiffness. You’ll see builders who source their tubes from Rock West or other carbon fiber suppliers. I enjoy making my own, and can do so at a reasonable volume and consistency. The lugs are 3D printed in metal. Each lug has a little plug that bonds straight into the carbon fiber. Some of the first carbon fiber bikes out there, Trek 2300s and things, these had notoriously poorly-made bonded designs. Those had reputations for coming unglued. They weren’t done in titanium which bonds to carbon well. Aluminum has notorious difficulties with carbon because it corrodes and attacks the bonds. Every other combined material industry seemed to have this figured this out, but Trek didn’t in the 90s. When I wind my tubes I start with an insulating fiberglass layer and anodize the part, which creates a further insulating oxide layer. This oxide layer in turn has a porous surface ideal for adhesive bonding. My aluminum is a high strength aluminum metal matrix composite, aluminum alloy mixed with silicon carbide or titanium diboride ceramic nanoparticles. It’s never been worth it in the past to cold form this material like other weaker aluminum alloys, it’s too tough. But if you print it, you just mix the powders and you have the piece. As a small-scale bespoke manufacturer, printing enables me to try new materials and alloys that literally haven’t been used in bikes before. (Here comes someone in the comments with a picture of the aluminum metal matrix composite Stumpjumper…)
Seth Davidson: How do you design and produce a frame?
Bryan Kevan: The metal printing is a matter of good CAD workflow/design and patience. So I model my lugs in the computer piece by piece and send them to a company to have them printed. That’s the biggest expense of the process. The carbon is pretty low marginal cost. If I have a good mould, I can wind the shape. The tubes look good now, but there was a lot of development to get there. They took 3-4 years of development to get where they are. There is surface prep, cleaning the lugs to get a good bond, but assembly is like fitting together a puzzle. There’s no mitering involved because the lugs are printed at the exact geometry I want. There’s no welding (only at the microscopic level), no cutting tubes to make sure they fit together at a specific angle, ultimate assembly and alignment is a straightforward process. My goal for order to delivery is 6 months for this low volume and that’s reflecting my desire to make bespoke builds, commissioned bike frames. If I can make a handful of frames a year that are really cool, that create that bond between me and a customer, that’s a win. I don’t want someone to go out on an epic bike ride on one of my frames, tell me about it, and then not have me be there, present, listening to their experience. There’s a choice, how much do you want to engage with the Bike Industry, because that engagement is a big step and I’m not sure I’m there spiritually or financially. It’s nice to build cool frames for people I have a personal connection with, but building at scale, I’m not sure it’s in my plans right now.
Seth Davidson: How do you test your frames?
Bryan Kevan: The bulk of my testing is riding in the real world. I’m 22,000 miles into real-world testing. There are ISO standard strength tests but I feel that if I was unsure that my bike would pass an ISO test (1100N on the pedals for hundreds of thousands of revolutions) I shouldn’t be riding it. The tubes are great and have been tested for a crazy long time, a hundred or so times down Tuna Canyon. Many times up Las Flores, Fernwood, Sullivan, Latigo. That’s where these tubes were tested. Stiffness is great, good absorption. Real world performance testing speaks for itself. I’d like to put a bike through the ISO test to see where it is officially within the next year. But there’s no way to replicate all the forces you put on a bike frame in a testing fixture; the real world is really important.
Seth Davidson: How does your riding inform your framebuilding?
Bryan Kevan: That’s everything. Without the carrot of my riding experiences, everything from group rides to long tours, I feel I would find it hard to push myself to build better frames. Riding strong and regularly is a crucial piece of the creative process. I was training for a long bikepacking race in Kyrgyzstan, that was the motivation for one build. Another bike was for fast road rides in LA. I build bikes for the type of riding I’m doing, and I have infinite control over how things are laid up. I can add a few layers of fibers in specific orientations, change the winding angle or pattern, to add more torsional stiffness. Even legendary steel builders don’t have that control. The riding gives me data and the flexibility of my workflow lets me put things into practice.
Seth Davidson: Are the demands placed on a touring bike similar to those of a gravel bike?
Bryan Kevan: I don’t know what qualifies as a gravel bike these days. I think of a touring bike as a Surly. Steel, Ortlieb bags, built to be jostled and have hundreds of pounds of weight on it. Durable in every sense of the word, can be fixed if you’re anywhere in the world. Not just if you randomly have a friend who knows a carbon fiber hobbyist in Berkeley. A gravel bike, I suppose, there’s more focus on performance and going fast, it’s not a requirement to go fast but … I’ve toured on gravel bikes, I’ve ridden a touring bike on gravel so I largely feel like the best bike that gets you from A to B given the circumstances is the one you should go with. There’s people touring on Citi bikes.
Seth Davidson: Bike touring or bikepacking? What’s the difference?
Bryan Kevan: My trips mix those two concepts so often. I used to say “bike tours go between mountains and bikepackers go up mountains.” I’m not sure that’s really true. Is it paved roads? I’ve had long tours on gravel before. Is it expensive bags that are called “bikepacking bags”? I’ve bikepacked with Ortlieb panniers. I use the terms interchangeably. If someone uses the term bikepacking with me to describe their trip, that’s the term I’ll use, or bike touring I use that. It depends on your definition. Who am I to say that something is or isn’t bikepacking? There’s a prestige that bikepacking has that touring doesn’t, or at least that’s been my perception, that bikepacking is more adventurous and out of the way but man I’ve seen some crazy tours where people are living on $2 a day and they’ve been out for two years and their entire blog is posted on a site that looks like it was made in 1998. That’s as hardcore as any polished Tour Divide report, or slick race video. I suppose there’s a wealth aspect to it? Expensive bikepacking bags and customized gravel bikes, touring is more ‘throw together your bike and just get on the road.’ But there are crazy expensive image-focused “touring” components too, like Rohloff hubs. I’ve never been able to come up with a good explanation. “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” Same kind of thing.
Seth Davidson: How did you get into touring?
Bryan Kevan: I jumped off the deep end, I went straight to Patagonia after college, had my Surly Long Haul Trucker, dropped into the Carretera Austral, a mostly gravel road that runs into the Patagonian wilderness connecting all the rural communities there. Three months later I was at the bottom of the continent. It was everything I wanted from a travel experience. I don’t like chasing buses. All these things that would never have happened but for the bike … things I couldn’t do in a car even if just saying hi to someone on the side of the road. Yeah, just after college straight to Patagonia. That’s where it all went wrong!
Seth Davidson: What was your toughest tour?
Bryan Kevan: Nothing really hit back like five months on the Silk Road in Central Asia. Plateaus at 14,000 feet, Tajikstan, my tracking beacon going dark on the Afghan border due to Taliban interference. Rode across Xinjiang before the extent of the mass imprisonment of Uyghurs was popularly known. I passed prison camps in Northwest Uzbekistan and was reached out to later by a journalist because a random picture on my blog was the only one in existence and they needed it for a documentary. It was wild. Suffocatingly vast. The deserts are vast. The steppes are vast. Vast dried up seabeds, the Aral Sea, just huge. There were weeks that were spectacular, high in the mountains, tiny little remote towns clinging to the edge of society but that was the one that really pushed me to the point where it was like, “maybe some time in West LA will do me some good.” I rode from Georgia in the Caucasus to Mongolia so across the Caspian, through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan a few times. Xinjiang.
Seth Davidson: What have you learned through long-distance touring?
Bryan Kevan: Meat on stick and meat in carb are universal human experiences.
Seth Davidson: How has touring helped you understand other people and their culture? How do people in rural communities react to the tourist passing through their town?
Bryan Kevan: In most rural places the nomadic lifestyle is part of the collective experience. I’m not saying there are a bunch of nomads, but that lifestyle is part of the collective experience. You meet people traveling the same speed as you. Life moves at the same pace as yours, whether it’s shepherds with a herd of goats, seasonal yurts in Mongolia, this has become a big piece of how I relate to others. There’s a lot of surprise when I show up. I’m an oddity. I try to find alternate routes and border crossings, where life happens about as fast as I’m riding my bike. Sometimes that shared pace is all it takes to make the connection. Kids will chase me on bikes and say hello. People who work on the farms will take notice and say hi. The main point being that I love rural areas and in my experience they love me back because the fact I’m on a bike is an indication that I am comfortable being vulnerable on their turf. That I’ve sought more knowledge of their world, and that has brought me, on a bike, to this place. That’s enough to make the connection with people around me, regardless of whether or not I speak the language. That’s all it takes. Humans are wonderful and react to surprising things. Especially on rural roads out in the middle of nowhere.
Seth Davidson: What’s the worst thing about touring?
Bryan Kevan: Putting cold, wet shoes back on in the morning.
Seth Davidson: Do you have any rules of thumb for touring?
Bryan Kevan: Yeah. When I’m approaching a town I prefer to camp outside and stock up in the morning rather than spending the night in a hostel. Spend the morning in town. Never cross a locked gate. The wi-fi always works better in the other corner of your room.
Seth Davidson: Road cycling is famously snobby. Touring is famously not. Why?
Bryan Kevan: I have a blank on this one. I’ve met some pretty snobby bike tourists in my life. Anything can be overdone. I guess I’m largely a roadie now. I hope to bring some of the let’s-just-have-fun-on-bikes ethos to roadie life and there are plenty of people who share that in the roadie community. I don’t think the vast majority of people who ride road bikes on the weekend are snobby. There may be some egregious examples, but when it comes down to it, it’s whether you’re a good person or not. If you’re a tourist and just going around and not having humility and respect for the place you’re in and not understanding you’re on someone else’s turf, it’s easy to turn this open-ended exploration into something that’s really exploitative and voyeuristic.
Seth Davidson: Josh Kato, after winning the 2015 Tour Divide, advised tourists to “Embrace the Fred.” What do you think about that?
Bryan Kevan: I ride my homemade bikes on the NOW Ride so … I suppose claiming some sort of SuperFred status would be the aggro roadie way to respond. What’s a Fred to a Framebuilder? I love people who are out on their bike enjoying life, I love seeing the roads clogged during the pandemic. I make a habit of saying hi if I’m out and about.
Seth Davidson: In 1958, three guys rode across the interior of Iceland. A 2015 Rapha team was unable to replicate the feat despite superior equipment, logistics, and data. Why?
Bryan Kevan: I think the Rapha team was on 30mm tires. Come on. I spent two weeks there but the weather can change on a dime. I don’t blame them at all. If a storm picks up on the highlands, you’re sunk, regardless of the state of the road. You just can’t bike, let alone walk upright. They have emergency houses just in case you need to shelter down for a few days. That being said I have a Brooks Cambium seat and I also have my Rapha gear. Oddly enough, the Brooks seat just wasn’t compatible with the Rapha bibs. It tore them to shreds. I guess I don’t really know what Rapha gear is doing in the highlands of Iceland in the first place if it couldn’t handle a Brooks saddle. Anyone is free to purchase a $500 thermal kit and prove me wrong, of course.
Seth Davidson: Is there a point where “easier” ruins the challenge of the thing, whatever “the thing” is?
Bryan Kevan: By choosing bike touring you’re already choosing the harder path. It’s not like there is a path of least resistance for touring. You choose it because the bike is how you slow down life and take time to smell the roses. But for the bike, it is difficult to be present. If you take an easier route through that mountain range, I don’t think that ruins the challenge it just means that you’re not feeling it that day for some reason. Your challenge is your challenge. Placing a hierarchy on experience is an aggro roadie thing.
Seth Davidson: You are an excellent and insightful writer. How did you develop your writing skills?
Bryan Kevan: I went to a liberal arts school, so I’ve been fortunate to have always been surrounded by thoughtful people and good writers and good communicators. I was an academic kid, and academia is intensely creative. By growing up in that world, you are exposed to the best writing, are influenced by great communicators and awesome mentors and teachers. So you emulate, look up to that, and then free associate on that try to add your own twist. I see wonderful influences around me my entire life, not just writers but creative people in general. I don’t want to call anyone out. You just take tips and inspiration along the way from that.
Seth Davidson: Who’s your favorite rider?
Bryan Kevan: Alexandera Houchin. She’s a Native American winner of the Tour Divide. She’s a great writer, has an awesome blog and a great piece on The Radavist about how D—K— was an problematic race title.
Seth Davidson: Who’s your favorite writer?
Bryan Kevan: I enjoy Steinbeck a lot particularly in touring settings. His writing has aged but I find myself returning back to him a lot in rural settings. Nomadism. Family Agriculture. It captures the spirit, if not a particularly modern way, of thinking about rural communities and things.
Seth Davidson: What do you think about Major Taylor?
Bryan Kevan: An absolute icon who should be mentioned in the same breath as other groundbreaking and transformative sports figures.
Seth Davidson: What drives you?
Bryan Kevan: Creation and the prospect of making something that wasn’t there before is enough to get me up in the morning whether creation of a route or a bike.
Seth Davidson: Greatest Tour rider?
Bryan Kevan: Lemond of course. Because he builds bikes and races them.
Seth Davidson: Who inspires you?
Bryan Kevan: I go back to my Patagonia Trip. Doug/Kris Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard because of how they fought for preservation and conservation in Patagonia. The parks they built infrastructure for down there are gorgeous. Kris eventually oversaw the handing over of the parks to the Chilean Government, all were private lands and donated to the government, dramatically expanding the national park system down there. Conservation done right and done with the finances it takes to conserve and maintain remote wilderness like that. They’ve always done right by the local communities. When I was there on my first tour and it became clear that these parks, the ones that were well kept were set up by Doug and Kris. In terms of someone who comes from privilege and turns that around and pushes it into conservation. Chouinard as well, of course was an old friend of Doug’s, who has eventually gone on to shape one of the most responsible, anti-plastic-waste brands out there in Patagonia. I have a frankly incredible tank top from Patagonia I’ve had on every tour I’ve been on, and you can’t find it anymore because I think it is made out of unsustainable plastics and was discontinued.
Seth Davidson: What are you up to now?
Bryan Kevan: I am in the frustrating, last-90% stages of these prototype bike builds. The overarching frustration is putting your project and your vision in the hands of somebody else, especially when money is involved. Printing ain’t cheap, and in a nascent industry like this, personal connections are important. And that’s what’s required with the 3D printing.
Seth Davidson: Riding?
Bryan Kevan: I ride from Berkeley, that’s basically it until I get these prototypes out. My last road bike is coming to the end of its life. The emotional connection I have to a bike I built and rode for 15,000 miles. I love that bike, it’s an important piece of the puzzle.
Seth Davidson: Near-term, far-term, dream-term tours?
Bryan Kevan: I live vicariously through others. I’m burned out on the multi-month things, it’s a lot. At this point the barrier to doing that is just growing higher, obligations, jobs, you just don’t have time to jump out alone for months on the road, and I’m honestly fine with that. Eager to get out for more 2-3 week things after COVID, though. Show up in a country, bike right away from the airport, little tiny bag, ride big and not carry a lot of weight on the bike. There’s a few guys at UCLA who I’ve captured from the racing world, and to see them approaching the end of college and eventually go out as well and find happiness through bike travel (You too, Seth!) is cool. YI get to sit here and see the cool creativity of others and not have to worry about pushing my bike through crazy wind and rain all day. I like my sunny, reasonable, 2-hour Morning Rides!
March 21, 2021 § 1 Comment
Last night I camped under towering sycamores and was serenaded to sleep by the alcohols. Through the trees a large group of ten that sounded like a hundred howled, yowled, and sang songs until I fell asleep. If you’re ever wondering how a bunch of drunks sound trying to sing “Sweet Home Alabama,” take my word for it, they sound like shit.
I got up to pee long after the alcohols ran out. The campground was utterly still except for the crash of waves two or three hundred yards away. The moon shone through the trees.
There are so many reasons to get away from your things, even if only for a weekend. Your things weigh you down, physically and spiritually. In the last few days I’ve run across so many people simply by riding my bicycle here and there.
I met this guy who owns a recording studio in Mussel Shoals, Alabama. His daughter Zendaya is a talented singer and we talked about bikes, life, what it’s like to have aging parents, bikes, and of course bikes.
I met this guy, Jimmy, from Fontana, who had taken the train up to Carpinteria for a couple days’ camping. He’d bought a bike at Wal-Mart for $149 and figured it would be a great way to spend the weekend. Jimmy has twelve grandkids and we talked about parenting. “You want the best for your kids,” he said, “but there’s only so much you can do. My parents always told me, ‘We’ve told you the right thing to do, so if you fuck it up, don’t say you didn’t know.”
Two other guys in the campground, Anthony and Mike, had pedaled down from Goleta en route to Ojai. They were from my hometown, Princeton, NJ. We shared cookies and stories over a campfire. Real fellowship, the kind of chance meeting no one has nowadays because people are locked into their houses or their cars or their RVs or bound up in their #profamateur cycling outfits on THE GROUP RIDE. (There’s only one, you know.)
Across the way were Dan and Penny. He had been maintenance head of Hearst Castle and was now visiting his kids for his grandson’s tenth birthday. He was so impressed with my vagabonding ways that he invited me over for dinner, but I was leaving that day and wouldn’t be around.
Strolling along the beach I met Dave Wilson, superintendent of five regional state parks. We talked about the hike-bike system and he taught me the history of the Carpinteria State Beach. Eventually to make the park happen the state had taken a few homes by eminent domain. It made me wish that there was more public land in such wonderful places instead of cordoning it all off to the rich.
One evening I met a group of fellow transients who were camping illegally in the park. They were drunk or high or both and were cursing loudly about the “motherfucker” who had tossed the barbecue sauce and ketchup out of the hiker-biker food locker. Since no one was at the site but me and I was storing food in the locker, I had thrown away the “junk” not realizing that campers left behind uneaten food for the homeless and transients.
I lay in my tent listening to them talk about how they were going to kick my ass if I ever dared come of my tent. It was late at night and I was scared. Finally I just said, “Fuck it.” I figured if those guys wanted to hash it out I’d rather do it then than wake up in the morning and find my bike vandalized or ruined.
I put on my jacket and emerged. I must have looked kind of rough, tall, shaggy and bearded in the moonlight, and baggy clothes that made me seem much bigger than I am. I got my water cup off the table and walked over to the hydrant. As I passed they were all staring at me, “Evenin’, boys,” I said.
“Evenin’,” the ringleader said back, as meek as meek can be.
Then they retreated into their tent and I heard nothing the rest of the night. At daybreak they were gone.
March 14, 2021 § 1 Comment
I have a map. I use it to tour. On that map there is a thin, red line.
The way it works is simple: You follow the line and do what it says. It orders. You obey. There is a carrot at the end.
Of course you have to read the directions; “turn right,” “turn left,” “go straight.” And you have to use your eyeballs to match up the red line with objective reality.
But all in all, what you do is follow the line. The thin, red line. Which is what I did. It got me to Canada and back and even to Houston. The thin, red line works.
I was reading a journal by a guy named Ryan Conaughty. He, too, was following the thin, red line, following it from Yorktown, VA to Astoria, OR. It’s a line that has existed on the bicycling map since 1976. Tens of thousands of bicyclists have followed it.
But one day Ryan got some local intel, kind of like when Dan Melkonian advised me to leave the red line and take the dirt road up and over to reach Trout Lake. Ryan took the local’s advice, as I took Dan’s, which meant Ryan was no longer riding on the thin, red line. And this happened:
It’s strange feeling, diverging from the red line of the map. On one hand, I feel like I’m cheating, almost lying. I feel like I’m breaking a rule and I feel not only bad for it but somewhat scared. I don’t know what road I’m on as we ride ,,, On the other, I feel free. I’m really not following a set destination. I’m just riding my bike, letting the road take me where it may. It’s exciting and invigorating. I don’t have to do what the red line tells me … We’re all on our own red line. And we’re all trying to get off it.Ryan Conaughty, 2008, http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?o=1mr&page_id=79637&v=OZ
Is there any better representation of life? We are all on a red line and trying to get off of it.
For most people, they will never get off. You see, they save their nickels and promise that when they retire they’ll splurge and buy a […] or take a trip to […] or finally go all in on their TRUE life’s passion, […] It never happens, though, because after a lifetime of calculation and delay, when the big day arrives they are too old, or too weak, or the spark has gone out under decades of soggy dreams. Instead, maybe they simply buy an RV and call it good.
For others, they actually do get off the thin, red line. Usually it involves divorce, getting fired, almost dying, losing everything they thought they had … You don’t get off the line easily or through whimsy. Ever. But most of those people quickly return because they somehow carry all the problems that they had with them to the new destination. The new blue line is refreshing at first but quickly becomes indistinguishable from the old, thin, red one.
A vanishingly small number get off the thin, red line. They really do leave their troubles behind. Better put, they resolve them and learn to travel lightly and freely. Even those people, though, don’t manage to stay off the line for long because they realize that simply being isn’t enough. There’s nothing to occupy their hands, their heads, their hearts. And one thing about the thin, red line that’s guaranteed is that it will keep you busy until death.
I’ve been trying to get off the thin, red line all my life. Just like everyone else. But after I ordered a set of Trans-America cycling maps, I realized that I hadn’t really gotten off of the line, I’d just swapped one red line for another.
The effort, though, is worthwhile. You have to fail repeatedly to succeed. The answers may be easy, but applying them never is. Riding my bike from place to place as I try to hash through my problems and make sense out of nonsense, well, it’s working, because some thin, red lines really are better than others. But when tomorrow rolls around I won’t be following that thin, red line.
I won’t be following any line at all.
March 5, 2021 § 7 Comments
It’s a truism that the road scene is often less-than-welcoming and that bike touring seems to be less threatening to civilians. Is it the lack of the spaceman-in-goggles-outfit and crazy-sleek bike? Is it the fact that most tourists look like normal people on bikes, i.e. Freds, and are therefore more approachable?
I dunno. But I know that when I finished one of the harder rides in memory, the return leg of a 6-day tour from Los Angeles to Lake Isabella, I dismounted in a fog. The ride had taken me from sea level in Long Beach up and over the La Canada-Flintridge climb, and from there another ten miles of miserable climbing along Angeles Forest Highway to the Monte Cristo USFS campground.
I could barely pedal. The final six miles had all been uphill, my pack was crushingly heavy, my bike was light as a concrete truck, and I had bonked.
The first thing I did was make a cup of coffee, then sit on a stone and stare, dazedly, as I drank. The campground was empty except for a family next to me. They were cooking something delicious on the grill and chattering away happily in Spanish.
Coffee finished, I began pitching the tent but had to take a break after a few minutes, I was so tired. The ladies next door and their kids were walking by my campsite to get some water.
I looked up and said, “Hola!”
They all stopped, smiled, and a rapid conversation ensued … on their end. On mine it was slow, rusty Spanish trying to answer their questions about when, how far, how could I do it by bicycle, and of course how tired I must be. Then they went on.
I got the tent up and sat for a few more minutes, shoulders hunched, thinking about the huge effort that awaited known as “preparing dinner.”
One of the ladies, Josefina, came over and proffered a plate covered in tinfoil. “For you,” she said with a smile.
Inside was a stack of hot tortillas and a mound of amazingly seasoned, deliciously barbecued beef strips. The words “muchas gracias,” repeated effusively, didn’t communicate my appreciation as much as the ravenous hunger on my face.
I walked over to their campsite and we all took a group picture. They told me that they picnicked most weekends to “refrescar” from life in the city. The guys were putting things away and I thanked them, too.
Back at my table I enjoyed a memorable meal, with the amazing seasoning of that initial “Hola.”
February 22, 2021 § 8 Comments
I got there only having ridden two out of the three days.
The first day I got to meet Bodfish-Caliente Road. It is one of the hardest and most beautiful roads I’ve ever ridden, and I took the easy way, which is southbound. How hard is it? It’s hard enough to make me want a Garmin when I return to prove I rode it.
The descent into Caliente is five miles of twisting hairpins followed by five miles of screaming drop along a valley. And before that a solid seven miles straight into a 20mph headwind.
I was doing my first bike tour of 2021, a ride to Long Beach to see my newest grandbaby, Suzunami. Since I live about 207 miles and a lot of mountains away from Long Beach, I figured now was as good a time as any to learn the commute. I started in sunshine and in great spirits. Neither would last.
I climbed to Lake Isabella, a nice 8-mile leg opener, and from there began the long grind up Bodfish-Caliente Road. It quickly became several miles of switchbacks with the obligatory dead person.
After a long descent the road continued in total silence; no wind or cars at all. These are the roads you long for but you have to fight to attain. I got to the “town” of Havilah, which is no town at all though it was extremely well-stocked with fierce dogs, all thankfully fenced.
Shortly after that nothing good happened besides huge wind and climbing. I descended into Caliente, another non-town, in full bonk, but was saved by Kristie who had driven ahead and stashed life-saving sugar and water at the bottom of the descent. She had to work in LA and was joining me for part of the ride.
Next came a murderous climb up Bealeville Rd. on dead legs, where I met up with Kristie, followed by four miles of more murder up CA 58 towards Tehachapi. We exited at Keene after having coffee in a ditch and prayed for cheeseburger at the Keene Cafe. Prayers were duly answered but what we should have prayed for was no wind.
Next came six miles of climbing into Tehachapi. Kristie had parked at the RV Park I stayed at last summer. No one was there but there were plenty of spaces. But we had no cash and I couldn’t remember if they took cards. So I called.
“Do you take cards?”
“No and move your car. It’s blocking the dump station.”
“Ok. How much to tent camp?”
“No tent camping allowed in winter. It is too cold and too dangerous. A storm is coming. Get a motel.” Click.
“Sounds bad,” Kristie said.
We saw a passing cyclist. I chased him down and explained our predicament. “No worries,” he said. “You can camp out by the MTB trailhead.” He gave us directions and on we sped to get the car. I hate cars.
On the way to get the car Kristie saw a sign to the Brite Lake County Campground. “Let’s try there,” she said.
We pedaled for miles into a horrible crosswind that became a luscious tailwind.
We got in the car and drove to the campground. “Tent?” the camp host said incredulously. “There’s a storm coming. You’ll blow away.”
We pitched our tent in the 20mph wind which would turn out to be nothing compared to what was coming. Thankfully we pounded in all sixteen stakes because the so-called Summit Series North Face tent, rated to 24,000 feet, was about to get tested at a fucking campground.
Did I mention Tehachapi is covered with wind turbines?
The storm came in over the lake and blew huge rain and 35+mph wind with 50+ gusts all night. The tent held except for our tiny porthole on the fly, which was ripped out, and when the rain started coming in from the side I went out and re-staked the guys. After which we were snuggly, dry, and warm despite the freezing temperatures. We awoke to more wind.
The wind never really abated and I was wrecked from the ride and the first night of camping so we slept in, ate late, threw the shit in the car and drove to our next campsite, Monte Cristo in the Angeles National Forest. Did I mention I hate cars? Well … I didn’t on Saturday.
The new campsite was cold but sunny, empty, gorgeous, and had a mere 10-15mph of wind. We set up camp and went to bed at 6:30, at which time the camp filled up. Our neighbors were a family of thirty including countless distant relatives named beer, tequila, boom box, and trumpet.
The trumpet playing consisted of two notes blown hugely towards our tent, which excelled at repelling wind and rain but not trumpet. How tired were we? We gave our remaining five fucks and crashed hard.
We got up early next morning but so had our neighbors. They had frozen and were all huddled around their picnic tables looking miserable. The most miserable was the trumpeter, who stood in a ditch and vomited. I cut up some oranges and brought them over. They were so grateful and ate them quickly, because nothing combats hangover and prepares you for Sunday morning drinking like fresh fruit.
We shared the oranges with a camper across the way, a vintner from south Africa who gave us a bottle of his best white wine. We will pass it on but appreciated the gesture, just as he appreciated the morning puking revenging itself on the trumpeter of the night before.
I had a few miles of climbing until I reached the descent into Pasadena. It was a beautiful morning with no traffic and balmy temperatures. I ran into a guy who tried to drop me but could not, so then we had a great conversation. He advised me to get riding clothes and shoes because he felt it would make me go faster. I told him that I had been riding for a while but was pretty sure that the clothing was not what pedaled the bike. He laughed and agreed.
“It just makes me look bad, you dropping me on the hills in those blue jeans, backpack, and tennis shoes.”
It took me a while to navigate from Pasadena to the bike path but from there it was smooth sailing all the way to my baby!
January 24, 2021 § 11 Comments
I did my first GRAVEL ride today.
Not my first gravel ride, but my first GRAVEL ride.
My first gravel ride was in 1983. I had met up with Jack Pritchard, Phil Tomlin, Mike Murray, Charley DiCarlo, Jay Bond, Tom Paterson, and the regulars for my first Saturday group ride. We were hauling ass along some road somewhere and Jack shouted out “Dirt!”
Everyone knew what that meant except me. Sure enough, we hit dirt and all hell broke loose until about a mile later when Jack yelled out “Low water crossing!” and as I prepared to get wet everyone slammed on the brakes, threw their bikes down on the edge of the little creek, and lit up several joints. The pace mellowed, oddly, but the dirt and dust went on for miles.
Yeah, there was gravel on every ride, only it wasn’t called “gravel” or even “dirt,” it was called a “bike ride.”
No fat tires. No wide fork clearance. No one-bys. No disc brakes. No tacos al carbon rims. Whatever bike you were on, and chances were good you only had one, that was your gravel bike, I mean your road bike, I mean your training bike, I mean your TT bike, I mean your racing bike-minus-race-wheels-if-you-had-them-I-didn’t.
In between 1983 and 2021 I rode off road a lot and never really enjoyed it. It was always a necessity when I did it, like the time I rode from Keystone to Gunnison via an eternity of dirt roads up and over Vail. My “gravel gearing” was a Suntour 13-23, Campy SR 52/42. For many years I did the BWR, which was a road race with a lot of dirt, or a dirt race with a lot of road. I raced ‘cross for four miserable years. I never backed out of a ride because it had dirt but I sure as hell never included it if I was calling the shots.
When I rode to Canada and back I had a lot of real miserable dirt shoved down my throat. Don’t talk to me about dirt until you’ve climbed and descended Windigo Pass with forty pounds of panniers. Or Lolo Pass outside of Hood River. Or the 8-mile climb “It’s nothing!” to Trout Lake with those same panniers. [Note to Dan Melkonian: It was something.]
So I’ve ridden more dirt than a lot of people, and I’ve ridden less than others. One thing is certain: I’ve never done a GRAVEL ride.
What is a GRAVEL ride?
I was flummoxed for years. As soon as I heard about GRAVEL rides I was confused. Were they rides over, you know, gravel? Sometimes. Were they rides over dirt? Sometimes. Were they a mixture of gravel, dirt, and tarmac? Sometimes. Mud? Sometimes. Snow? Sometimes. Did someone have a graph to show you when you were riding GRAVEL like the gear ratio chart you use on the velodrome to figure out which gear goes how many inches? No.
Oh, and didn’t they already have this and wasn’t it called “mountain biking”?
So I typed “what is gravel riding” in the search bar and bam, out came the answer:
Gravel riding, aka gravel biking, isn’t really anything new, but it has become more popular in recent years.Denver Post, Sept. 2020
I felt better reading these key words: IT ISN’T ANYTHING NEW. No wonder everyone was acting like it was something new, because it was old. Here is a line from The Knight’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, written in about 1390: “There is no newe gyse that it nas old.” What does it mean? It means that there is nothing new that hasn’t been done before, Which makes sense because people have been riding gravel since bicycling was born. The first person to cycle around the world did it on dirt without gears.
Farther down in the article it did explain that although IT ISN’T ANYTHING NEW, there is something that is new. What might that be? You guessed it … stuff!
In recent years, bicycle makers decided to get on board with the trend and start making bikes specifically designed for gravel. Better equipment has made it easier for more people to start gravel riding, thus boosting its popularity … Put another way: “Gravel bikes are like the SUV of the bicycle world,” James said.Denver Post, Sept. 2020
Well, I think that says it all. Whereas bike riding used to sometimes make you go over gravel/dirt/mud/cobbles at high speeds on skinny tires, and it was hard as fuck, and dangerous as fuck, and hurt like fuck, and didn’t cost fuck, it made you a certified badass. Now there has been equipment to make it easier, and who doesn’t like easier? And who doesn’t like an SUV, which is an oversized, gas-guzzling wagon for slugs too lazy to walk into Starbucks because someone might steal the unridden bikes ostentatiously hanging on the rack?
No wonder GRAVEL riding has taken off. It’s easy, safe, comfy, requires lots of new shit, and is a lovely buzzword that immediately makes everyone on the outside look shamefully at their existing equipment, and like any religion has zealots falling out of the trees telling you that this is the one, the only, the true bicycle faith. I’m going to revisit the equipment list that you need to really do a GRAVEL ride, but not now, not today.
Today I’m going to tell you about my first GRAVEL ride and what made it such.
First, I used a GRAVEL bicycle. A GRAVEL bicycle is one that no self-respecting roadie would be caught dead with. I only have one bike, and I’m not self-respecting, and it serves as my road bike, touring bike, and commuter bike. Second, I wore GRAVEL cycling apparel. GRAVEL cycling apparel is different from road apparel because it looks ridiculous, but since road apparel also looks ridiculous, GRAVEL apparel is characterized by looking like my blue jeans and wool jacket. Third, and this is the truly defining thing, my GRAVEL ride began on dirt, continued on dirt, and ended on dirt, and the whole point was only to ride on dirt. It’s the first time in my life I ever intentionally chose an unpaved road to start out on knowing that I’d never see tarmac til I got back to within 200 yards of my driveway.
So what can I tell you about my first GRAVEL ride? It was fucking hard. I climbed about an hour and a half before saying “Fuck this,” turning around and going home. The snow got crazy deep and it was in the low 20s and lots colder descending with the wind chill, and the snow lower down that was slush had turned the road to mud and it was hairy.
I can also tell you this: My tars were pretty fat, 35mm, but they were touring road tars and they slipped around a lot. Next time I will let some air out of them if I can remember.
Also, GRAVEL riding means your bike is covered in shit and so are you. I hope you like that.
Finally, I still suck riding off road no matter what you call it. Some things aren’t ever gonna change.