You know the story, 4 pints and no dinner and suddenly one of your mates is telling tall tales. This story starts that way, with 3 lads in a bar and one of them talking about a mountain that was 3 km high and had a 100km climb to the top, starting at the ocean. All of our little drinking group love going down to Tijuana, some of us speak Spanish, most of us ride bikes, all of us love tacos. It wasn’t long before I woke up the next day with a sore head, a lighter wallet and a topographical map of Baja California covered in pencil marks and pint glass rings.
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What the map showed was what our friend Hank had claimed. There really was a huge mountain with a perfect road up it. Hank wanted to know if we thought we could ride it in a day, we thought we could. In fact we thought we could start from sea level at the beach, ride up to the snow, ride down again and then make our way to the other side of the peninsula. A few months later, we found ourselves packing that same map into a pannier, watching the sun come up over the Pacific and setting off on an adventure that seemed a very long way from a bar in San Diego.
That day isn’t one I’ll forget soon. 180km, 4500m of climbing and a peak of 3000m only tell part of the story. The real story is told in the snapshots we have in our memory. The highlight reel includes Sean zigzagging up the steep climbs, me somehow running into a local cyclist with an ominously armed guard, the last 3km which took forever as the air became so thin that we felt nauseous. The memory that will last the longest is us looking out over the desert from 3km above. Literally and metaphorically breathless at how far we had come.
The next day is one I will remember, but not from 3km above. After a night at a cattle ranch we set off on dirt roads and tracks in the pouring rain. Yesterday had seen us high above the desert floor but the sloppy trails and heavy bags saw me become intimately familiar with the dirt as I fell off my bike multiple times. Where Sean had struggled with the climb, I was in trouble with the heavy bags and rocky trails.
After 4 hours of slow progress in the rain, we were both glad to find our way to another ranch. After a cocktail of cheap whiskey and cheaper coffee and drying our clothes on the fire, the world looked a little brighter, either that or the rain stopped.
The next day we were sad to leave. But we were full of beans (literally, I have never eaten more beans and tortillas in my life) when we eventually set off. The first 10k of slow climbing gave way to 30k of the sort of fast gravel that made every minute of slow progress the day before worthwhile. This was followed by a delicious burrito stop, a quick satellite phone check of the route that lay ahead and 30 k of tarmac, on which we saw the only traffic of our whole trip.
Turning off that road led us into the great unknown, the dry lake bed which we needed to cross for nearly 100km. At first we were bouncing along over golf ball sized rocks. It was fast but it was not comfortable and over 100k it would have been brutal. After cresting a hill we saw another path, across the Salt flats over a dune. We decided to take it. After hiking across deep sand with our bikes to get to the harder ground, we were soon cruising over the sort of terrain that I had only seen in land speed record attempts. This seemed almost too good, no cars, no road, no mud just fast, fun and a distinctly savoury taste from the wheel of the rider in front.
Soon it wasn’t so good. Mud and sand slowed us from 40kph to 8. For hours I was reduced to stopping every 10 minutes to clear out my fork and let the wheel rotate. It seemed as if we would never see the Sea of Cortez. Just as I was ready to curl up in a ball and cry, we hit a road. Not much of a road, nothing you’d take a car on unless you’d rented it. I literally hit that road. Within 5 minutes my eagerness to get done, lack of sleep and the fading light had lead me directly into a huge rock. After over 400km we found ourselves fixing our first flat. This involved removing our panniers, discovering I had terminally rendered the rim tubeless incompatible. Taking a high pressure spout of tyre sealant to the face and, eventually, pumping the tyre back to just enough pressure to get us down to the road. From there it was 15km of fast pavement. We ate our last lollies and got our heads down, pedalling towards the ocean as the sun set behind us.
We finally rolled up on the Sea Of Cortez in time to grab a tall can of cold lager from our crew, a taco at a nearby stand and a grandstand view of the day’s last light. The adventure which began in a bar ended on a beach and our beers felt well earned, so did the subsequent margaritas and plates of tacos (both of which had been a topic of much discussion during the day’s 10 hours of saddle time). The next day, the pain in my head matched that in my legs, back and forearms. In the 7 hours I spent in the back of a Toyota Tacoma on the way home I was able to add my backside to the list.
I’ve ridden bikes all over the world, I’ve raced in all of the continents that don’t have penguins on them and I still had experiences on this trip that were not only new to me, but that I had never known I could have on a bicycle. I can’t express enough that for the cost of the racks, pannier bags and touring bikes I gained a sense of freedom and adventure that can’t come from trains, planes or automobiles. With my bikepacking set up, and desire to see new places, I can go anywhere. It might take me a bit longer than driving or flying but I will see more and know more of the places I travel through. This journey, as much as any I can think of ,was about getting to the end, not being at the end. For someone who engaged with cycling through racing, this is a dramatic change. When you travel under your own power, it isn’t about how fast you get to your destination but how much fun you have along the way. Between the hypoxia, the crashes, the altitude sickness and the thickest sand I have ever encountered, I had more fun, laughed harder and smiled more than I can remember having in a very long time. Next time you have a few days off, I can’t think of a better way to spend them than exploring a new part of the world, under your own power and at your own speed.
This was guest post by cyclist, adventurer and writer James Stout.
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