The false flat portion of the fire road, a crushed gravel thoroughfare that lead from downtown Los Gatos up to Alma Dam, was giving way to the steep pitch that makes this stretch of unpaved way memorable. I’ve ridden it a half dozen times, but I’d climbed it only once before and I was contemplating which was likely to be harder—pedaling up a better than 12 percent grade on a bike loaded for touring, or walking the damn thing with its packs.
In what passes for machismo in my head, I concluded that I wasn’t going to unclip and I’d do whatever I could to grunt my way up the ramp. What I hadn’t considered was the way the load would improve traction and slow down the handling, making it easier to pick a line and stick to it. By the time I reached the top I could feel the lactic acid burning throughout my body, not just in my legs. If other people behind me decided to walk, I’ve got no idea. I was too busy doing donuts, trying to spin out the lactic acid.
Loaded touring hasn’t really been a part of my cycling experience for more than 20 years, though it used to be something I loved to do. During my time away, touring has come back into popularity, particularly through the emergence of bikepacking. Bikepacking is different from traditional loaded touring in that the idea is to go light and keep as much of the load on the centerline of the bike to keep the bike more nimble and able to pass singletrack if you encounter it. And that points to another relevant detail, that bikepacking leans mountain bike so that you can access places for which you’d otherwise need hiking boots and a backpack.
I’d been invited, with a few other journalists, to join Blackburn’s annual Ranger Camp. Each year Blackburn selects a handful of people who are planning to do a bike tour, like the Pacific Coast, and then outfits them with bags and other accessories. In return, they agree to be featured in some videos and write a few blog posts, plus stay active on social media. It’s one of the very best ambassador programs out there not only for the media, but for the simple reason that they get terrific feedback on the product line from people who have been living with the gear daily for weeks on end.
Ranger Camp is where Blackburn meets up with everyone, outfits them and then they head out for a shakedown trip. Our trip was a point-to-point, beginning at the airport in San Jose and then heading to Santa Cruz, roughly splitting our mileage between road and bike path, and fire road and singletrack.
As I removed clothing from my bag in the parking lot I had to pull Robin Sansom, the Blackburn Brand Manager, over to my area and ask him about packing tactics for bikepacking. We put my tent (minus poles) in the seat bag along with my rain jacket. In the handlebar bag we packed my sleeping bag, tent poles and extra down quilt. Two large cages had been hose-clamped to the Fox fork and to one I strapped my sleeping pad, while all my clothing went in a dry bag I strapped to the other cage. The frame bag contained my eating utensils plus a few snacks. I carried all my water, tools, tube, flat repair kit and most of my snacks in my hydration pack.
The load felt surprisingly well balanced, but I am glad I couldn’t see my GPS unit; I’m sure I’d have been disappointed with my speed. Once we got to the singletrack somewhere west of Los Gatos the fun really began. I was blown away at the traction in tight switchbacks and my ability to push through almost any terrain, and while I was climbing slower, I had just enough gear to keep me pedaling, rather than walking.
The Santa Cruz Mountains are one of the greatest places on earth for cycling. Doesn’t matter if you plan to stick to the road or not. The trails we rode were composed of mile after mile of hero dirt shrouded by great Redwoods. Because the folks at Blackburn had already planned the whole of the trip, my companions and I didn’t really need to worry about our timeline or navigation. It reduces stress; at least, it does for me.
We paused at an overlook that allowed unusually clear views of the South Bay, all the way to the airport where we started. It felt good to see what we were leaving behind.
Base for our two nights out was a Boy Scout camp somewhere near Boulder Creek. The fog rolled in just as we did. Wisps of water vapor drifted through camp as we pitched tents and munched on pre-dinner snacks. Camp was at about 2200 feet of elevation, and while not high by Alpine standards, it was high enough to lodge in the belly of a cloud and leave us cool and damp until we departed.
By the time dinner was served I had put on nearly everything I brought with me. Despite donning a warm base layer, long-sleeve jersey, longish baggies, leg warmers and my rain jacket, even that left me chilled.
We ate huge portions by campfire, delicious stuff far more ambitious than I’d ever cook away from home. Eventually the beer gave way to whiskey, and I was prepared to pass until Marcus—said, “This is really, really smooth.”
He was right.
The Ranger program enjoys a partnership with Big Agnes, a maker of sleeping bags, tents and other camping gear. The last time I bought a tent or sleeping bag, Big Agnes didn’t even exist. Considering how well the sleeping bag, tent, pad and quilt worked, I took that as an indication for why you want new companies in the market. Fresh ideas, yo. That said, I have a ways to go before I sleep as soundly in a tent as I did when I was in my 20s.
I woke to fog condensing into rain. Glad I brought that rain jacket.
While it felt a little odd at first, we boarded a shuttle for a ride over to the trail network at UC Santa Cruz, often just referred to as the UC. With the bags stripped away from our bikes, we could really enjoy the singletrack and hit some terrain you wouldn’t want to try on a loaded bike, or at least, I wouldn’t. For those who have never ridden in or around Santa Cruz, let me attest: It’s the best mountain biking I’ve done anywhere in the world. To go into the full why is the stuff of another post.
Night two’s dinner was as good as the first, and no one passed on the whiskey when it went round. I made sure not to inquire as to what we were sipping for the simple reason that I don’t want a bottle of that in my home.
Striking camp is something that always takes me longer than I think it will. Despite being among the first to start packing, I was the last of 17 to be ready to roll. Some patterns never change.
We rode into sunshine and lovelier temperatures, the stuff of short sleeves and the grins of those playing hooky. Remember hooky? The idea that you were doing something playful instead of being at school? Cleansed of social media and deadlines, we could talk of places, of rides, of bikes, revisiting moments that we wish we could have recorded in some sort of digital experience saver, like a Star Trek holodeck.
The Redwood forests of Northern California are different enough from every other place on the planet that everyone who visits is wowed and humbled. This would be a good place to bring Ted Cruz if you wanted to try to convince him that logging, mining and drilling every square inch of the planet is, perhaps, not an ideal solution.
Near the top of a climb known as Gazos Creek is a tree house. A literal tree house, a home constructed in a collection of Redwoods. There’s also a 100-foot section of railroad track below the house, on which sit several old rail cars. The why, curious as it is, pales compared to the wonder of the how. As our group collected, one rider after another looked the 60 or 70 feet skyward and whether they said it or not, we all asked the same question. What would life be like if you lived there?
The descent to the coast from there is just technical enough that you can’t roll it no brakes, but you can come close. The fire road is wide enough for a good-sized truck and is washed in just enough dappled sunlight that it’s short-sleeve warm and the surface is as sticky as the fingertips of a pickpocket. Of course, I’m sure a legend like Aaron Gwin could do it no brakes, a failed shock and with his left arm in a sling. I tapped my brakes and wished for a dropper post, all the while whooping like a cowboy.
Most of my experiences camping came as a result of the Boy Scouts of America. Through them I learned a great many skills and benefitted from a number of encounters that helped me grow, but we sometimes were fun deficient. We never combined camping with cycling. I long suspected that was a miss, but I never guessed how much. I need to see more of the world this way. And if I were 20 years younger (i.e., not a married father of two), I’d be applying for the Blackburn Ranger Program.