Before I left for Interbike my wife said something to me she says before I depart for any industry function.
“Have fun,” she called to me as I walked out the door.
I’m kinda past the point of trying to explain to her that at events like Interbike my days are long and rather intense. That I enjoy myself there is without doubt, but I define fun as something that is carefree in a way that these events just aren’t.
So I haven’t told her much about the ride I did with some folks from Blackburn as well as a few other journalists. The agenda was simple. We climbed on a bunch of bikes suitable to dirt roads and headed out from the Outdoor Demo on bike paths, both paved and unpaved. Our destination was Hoover Dam.
I’ve been going to Las Vegas for Interbike for 15 years. To the degree that I’ve ever enjoyed myself, it was because I’ve spent time with people I know and admire. And while I’ve done some enjoyable rides, none of them ever had as pleasant a feel. It felt—it felt like I wasn’t working.
The point of the ride was to introduce us to Blackburn’s revamped line. What they’ll tell you is that Blackburn has gone back to its roots. They are focusing on racks, bags and lights, stuff you’d use in touring. And while that’s an easy elevator pitch, the reality is that the product line is far superior to the touring products I was using in the early 1990s, which is the last time I bought a bag or rack from Blackburn.
So we rode a bunch of gravel on an old railroad bed that took us to the Hoover Dam. The lights of Las Vegas disappeared. The rush of traffic on the highway disappeared. The noise, rush and force of the city disappeared. Views of Lake Mead spread to our left and the novelty of the old railroad tunnels promised new views at each exit.
Honestly, it was the first time I’d encountered this part of Nevada in a way that gave me a chance to appreciate its natural beauty. It’s the first time I’d had an experience I’d actually recommend to others.
And then we arrived at Hoover Dam.
This was my first visit ever to one of the great engineering marvels of the 20th Century. Built under that socialist debacle known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that puts many thousands of Americans to work building the country’s infrastructure when no other jobs were available, the Hoover Dam isn’t just a fine piece of engineering—the actual value of dams and the environmental impact can be debated in another forum—it’s a testament to the vision of the Roosevelt administration.
Beyond the dizzying presentation of the dam itself, the other structures are a reminder that our infrastructure projects once rose as more than just feats of engineering but as testaments to the power of our democracy. The experience recalled the impression that visiting the National Mall in Washington, D.C. made on me when I was in high school.
Robin Sansom, above, is the product manager for Blackburn and the person responsible for the responsible for seeing through the overhaul of Blackburn’s line. While Robin was riding a Volagi Liscio, several riders and I rode the Volagi Viaje, the company’s steel bike. I have to admit that at first I wondered how well the bike would handle because the bar was nearly as high as the saddle. I was concerned that I didn’t have enough weight on the front wheel. As it turns out, it helped prevent the front wheel from shoveling in the looser gravel. It was easily the most comfortable steel bike I’d ridden on conditions this rough.
The bike was also equipped with SRAM’s new hydraulic road disc brakes, and this was the first occasion when I began to gain an appreciation that disc brakes may offer a notable improvement in braking modulation.
Of course, it could be that we were having fun just because most of us had Tecates in our bikes’ bottle cages.
Blackburn sponsored a group of riders, called the Blackburn Rangers, to take their products on some long-distance tours. While I don’t think you need proof that the stuff works, the videos they produced make for compelling watching. I can’t help but want to pack up and hit the road when I see them.
My first serious road bike was a Specialized Expedition. It was a take-n0-prisoners touring bike meant for people disinclined to leave a forwarding address. It was a bike for people with ambition. On that bike I crossed the Continental Divide seven times in a single trip.
Like I said, it was meant for people with ambition. I didn’t say anything about brains.
In addition to the one big tour I did through the Rockies, I also did several shorter trips through New England. I commuted on that bike, raced ‘cross on it and bombed more than a few gravel roads. That bike helped me learn how fun touring can be. My disposition is such, though, that the bike may not have been necessary. I seem to be partial to touring, whether I have the touring bike or not.
Bike touring, though, isn’t the hip end of cycling. The touring bike is the pocket protector of the bike world. It’s not fast, and as a result lacks the sexy je ne c’est quoi that we automatically attribute to racing bikes. I get the attraction of the racing bike, but I must confess that I also get the attraction of the fully-loaded touring bike. It’s a bike with possibilities, a bike that’s prepared and maybe it’s just the Eagle Scout in me, but I resonate any time someone suggests that I should be prepared.
All this is to say, I have a very soft spot for bike touring.
It is with that in mind that I point your attention to the ad at the top of the home page, the one for Blackburn. Recently, they came to me and told me about a promotion they were doing. They were sponsoring a bunch of riders to go out and tackle ambitious tours. These weren’t two-day trips from Boston to the end of the Cape, no these were doozies. Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Coast Highway, and the Great Divide Route.
Can we just go over that again? Blackburn is SPONSORING riders to go on long tours. How amazing is that?
They call them the Blackburn Rangers. Little sheriff’s stars seem in order. The idea is a simple one: If you make touring gear, what better way to test your products than with people who will really put them through their paces. Lots of companies have a select roster of riders who comprise their torture chamber. What’s different about Blackburn Rangers is that they are riding completed products, so their role is less to test the product and make sure it works than to demonstrate proof of concept.
All that sounds nice, but then I got an email from Blackburn asking me if I wanted to intercept one of their riders coming down the Pacific Coast Highway and ride a bit.
Is Amanda Bynes cray-cray? Hellz yeah!
I met up with Jennifer at the Manhattan Beach Pier. She was actually on a rest day, which meant that she was likely to ride less than 30 miles that day and with less than her full load on the bike. She’d started her journey back in mid-June and as you read this she’s probably boarding a plane to head home to Seattle. She’d had the good sense to allow herself plenty of rest days, something on the order of every fourth or fifth day she took as a rest day.
Jennifer has been riding that Voodoo for more than 10 years, mostly as a bike commuter, but she’s also done some supported rides like STP, the Seattle to Portland ride. The rig, while serviceable, was nothing fancy: steel frame and fork, nine-speed drivetrain, double chainrings (not compact, no triple) and only a rear rack. No computer. I’m not sure I’ve met a more capable cyclist less concerned about equipment. What a trip.
Of course, that wasn’t where our conversation began. My first question was how she managed to find six weeks to ride her bike. Did she have a really understanding boss? Was she a freelancer? Trust fund?
Nope. She quit her job and her husband was chill about it.
She also left behind a chihuahua and when we stopped for chai in Venice, she was easily distracted by one just a few tables over.
When I asked her what the biggest surprise of the trip was she told me it was the people that she met. From other cyclists she encountered on the road to the folks she met off the bike, she was continually amazed by the kindness, warmth and generosity of the people she encountered. What she’d expected to get out of the trip was beautiful scenery, but it was in meeting people that she’d had her must pleasant and surprising encounters.
When I asked her about her favorite stretch she had ridden, she mentioned when she first rode into a Redwood forest, which would have been Del Norte State Forest, on the Pacific Coast a bit south of Crescent City, in far northern California. She talked about how she marveled not just at their massive presence, but how, from the saddle of a bike, she was able to take in the full effect of their size, that she didn’t have car windows letter boxing her view, how the scent of the forest washed over her as she rode and how she could feel the damp air of the forest on her skin.
Given the chance to be plucked out of Southern California and returned to any spot on her tour via helicopter, she said that was the spot.
Most of us don’t carpe that diem often enough. I’ll admit that I did more than just covet Jennifer’s adventure, I envied it. And while envy may be one of the seven deadly sins, in this instance I think it may have served a useful purpose in reminding me that it’s a big world. I need to get out and see more.