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Saturday, September 17, 2022

2022 Pony Express 120 Bikepack

And it makes me wanna take a back road,
Makes me wanna take the long way home.
Put a little gravel in my travel,
Unwind, unravel all night long.
Take A Back Road, Rhett Akins & Luke Laird (2011).

Sunset at the Pony Express Bikepacking Adventure.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

The Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash is a fixture on the Kansas and Nebraska gravel scene for its signature 120 mile race over rough gravel and dirt roads, shorter 30 and 75 mile routes, and relay races. Race Directors Renee and Mark Hoffman of Backroads Bicycles pull together a committed team and a legion of volunteers to create an energetic, festive event for everyone. Their gravel family continues to grow and this event is a big reason why.

Although the marque attraction is the main event on Saturday, I'm here in Marysville, Kansas for the 2 Day Bikepacking Adventure, which I rode two years ago. Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure. This unique event starts on Friday with cyclists carrying their chosen sleep gear and riding a chunk of the 120 mile route to a campsite for an evening of fellowship. In the morning, riders complete the 120 mile route to finish as part of the main event. You can even race in on Saturday, if that's your flavor.

New this year is a Bikepacking Swap Meet on Thursday night, followed by Q&A sessions by veteran bikepackers Peggy Waite Bradley (Cannonball 550), Aaron Apel (Great Plains Route), and Paul Brasby and me (Great Divide Mountain Bike Route). Lively interactions between passionate bikepackers extend past sunset and into the evening. It all ends far too soon.

Bikepacking Swap Meet on Thursday evening.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

Rolling out of Backroads Bicycles at 7:00 am on Friday, the bikepackers stream west on pavement to clear town and soon turn south onto rough gravel and dirt roads for which the Pony Express is known. Rough roads of mostly dirt wind through sprawling fields of ripening corn, soy beans, and sorghum. Although a few fields show some activity of the upcoming harvest, the back roads are still relatively clear of large farm equipment. It's the primo season to be riding out here.

The first 21 miles bump along toward the small town of Barnes for the first checkpoint. Boisterous volunteers Peggy and Tiffany, both of whom will race on Saturday, re-supply riders with water, snacks, and encouragement. The day heats up and the dirt roads get rougher. By the time I reach the second checkpoint at mile 43, I'm ready for a break. I plop down in the air conditioned Palmer Cafe for a cheeseburger, fries, and coke. No, that's not racing food. That's bikepacking food. I lounge there for more than an hour, and likely would have stayed longer, but the cafe closes after lunch.

Now, it's decision time. Do I continue on the 120 mile route for another 46 overheated, hilly, rough miles? Or do I ride an alternative route 16 miles straight to camp? Until the very recent past, that question would not have entered my mind. I would have simply continued the 120 mile route without a second thought. No longer. Today I decide to spin the short cut to enjoy several more hours hanging out with everyone at camp. That still means a 59 mile day on a loaded gravel bike on a whole lot of rough roads. 

Bikepackers Desiree, Gabriel, and Ben ready their gear at the Friday morning start.
Around the corner, I'm talking with somebody about something. I'll be along.
(photo by Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash)

The short cut blasts 14 miles straight east on moderately thick county gravel right through a relentless progression of rolling hills in the shadeless 95 degree heat. It's reminiscent of Gravel Worlds with its never-ending waves of hills across a vast sea of gravel. The main route starts to sound better.

At long last, I turn off for the final two miles to camp. The developed gravel road drops behind, replaced with steep pitches of loose dirt, rocks, and ruts. It's not over until it's over.

As the road finally crests a particularly nasty rocky pitch, a lone camper squats in an empty pasture overlooking a small pond. Our host Jon Naaf marks our campsite with a cozy oasis of chairs and coolers wedged into the camper's sliver of shade. He enthusiastically hails riders as they trickle in, first from the short cut and then from the main route. All are hot, tired, and grateful for relief. In addition to a hearty greeting, Jon offers cold drinks and snacks, cooks gourmet burgers, and gathers all to share a peaceful evening.

Many miles of dirt roads like this on Day 1.

With the backdrop of a fiery sunset, we gather around the camper over burgers, snacks, and drinks. New friends connect. Old friends re-connect. All share experiences of the day, of days past, and of days to come. It's a bikepacker rendezvous.

This unique event attracts both bikepacking veterans and new comers. The old timers may have more stories, but not necessarily better ones. For example, Jamie and Richard ride with their Boy Scout sons Noah and Charles, all experienced hikers and campers, but first time bikepackers. Their excited, joyful tales of their day long ride to camp bring smiles and laughter all around.

Competitive triathlete Jeff shifted to bikepacking to ride with his teenage son Carter, again both first time backpackers. Carter looks absolutely shelled when arriving at camp, slumps over in a chair, and moves not a muscle for maybe an hour. Eventually, he revives. By morning, he's a colt busting out of the corral. Carter ultimately finishes second in the race home and is a living example of the recuperative powers of youthful exuberance. And sleep.

Nineteen bikepackers gather at camp, all told, and elevated chatter fills the air well into the evening. As the skies darken, a blast from a fast moving cold front scatters the group to their individual shelters. The oppressive heat of Friday is over, but so is our gathering for the night.

Paul Brasby and Ben Cooper find a solitary tree a bit off the main campsite.
(photo by Paul Brasby)

At the first hint of daylight, the camp stirs to life under threatening skies and a steady northerly wind. With
heavy rain forecast, Race Director Mark Hoffman sends us on the "wet" route, an alternative route home that replaces miles of dirt roads with good gravel and pavement. Sure enough, at 7:00 am with our first pedal stroke from camp, the first rain drops fall.

With only 28 miles to ride back to Marysville, the 50-some degree rain is not a big deal, but the rain does not stop all morning. Nor does the wind. It is a wet, windy, cool, muddy ride all the way home. Thanks to the re-route to gravel and pavement, it's actually a ride home, rather than a slug through the mud.

My only picture from a rainy Saturday is at the finish after a hot shower.

Notwithstanding the conditions, I see nothing but smiles and hear nothing but good cheer from all the bikepackers at the finish. A hot shower certainly helps, along with homemade pie and ice cream, other food and drinks, a Finisher's towel (appropriate), and my door prize (concentrated bike cleaner, again appropriate). Many talk of returning with more friends.

For beginners, the Pony Express is a low risk introduction to bikepacking. For veterans, it's a celebration and gathering of kindred spirits. Renee and Mark Hoffman, along with their team and all the volunteers, really put together an event for everyone.

Take A Back Road, Rodney Atkins (2011).

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Bikepack Testing the Ronin

The F-18 NATOPS contains everything they want you to know about your aircraft.
I'm assuming you know the book, inside and out. 
(tosses book into trash). So does your enemy. 
But what the enemy doesn't know, is your limits.
I intend to find them. Test them. Push beyond.
Captain Pete "Maverick" Mitchell, Top Gun Maverick (2022).

Fully loaded for an overnighter, the Ronin flies on Primary roads.

All summer I've been riding my new Alchemy Ronin gravel bike on an mix of pavement, prairie county gravel, Black Hills dirt, and even single track. It's light, fast, and agile. And a whole lot of fun.

Even with a big technology update over my older bikes (see New Bike Day), I find that my biggest adjustment is its weight. At 18 pounds, the Ronin handles so differently from my much heavier steel bikes, especially when navigating around and over obstacles. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.

One afternoon, while bouncing over rough Forest Service roads exploring my limits of fun on a feather weight drop bar bike with 45 mm semi-slick tires, I realize that summer is quickly fading. Flying up the schedule is the Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure, a two day event that I rode two years ago on my Black Mountain Monster Cross. 2020 Pony Express Bikepack. I wonder if the Ronin is up for an overnight load.

Onto a Low Standard road, the loaded Ronin just handles it.

So, I assemble bags and gear for a 120 mile warm weather overnighter on north-central Kansas county gravel roads. Compared to a multi-day or multi-week self-supported bikepacking ride, my sleep kit, cold and rain clothes, tool and repair kit, food, and kitchen are significantly scaled back. I'd call it appropriately minimal for the Pony Express ride. 

All my gear fits into three Revelate Designs bags:  the Salty Roll and Egress Pocket on the handle bars and a 14L Terrapin on the saddle. A small Gas Tank on the top tube holds on-the-go food. With judicious loading, the Ronin feels pretty well balanced, fore and aft. This may work. 

Topped off with 2 liters of water, the loaded bike weighs in right at 37 pounds, about one-half the weight of my loaded Jones 29+ at the start of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route last summer. That's good, as I'm currently probably at one-half the strength and conditioning as then.

A view of the south side of Buzzard's Roost, a popular single track trail system.

Starting out on a USFS Primary road, I certainly feel the extra weight, but it's all relative. At 37 pounds, the loaded Ronin weighs about what my Jones 29+ weighs with a couple of water bottles and a few M&M's. Other than taking a little more work to get up an incline, the extra weight matters not. The Ronin rides straight and smooth, undisturbed by the light gravel and uneven surface.

More specifically, the Ronin handles solidly on the Primary roads, perhaps even a bit more stable loaded. It does not wander through loose gravel and is not skittish over washboard. Onto a series of USFS Low Standard dirt roads, I work more of the road to ride a suitable line and the Ronin just handles it.

The loaded front end feels different from my Black Mountain Monster Cross, which features a relatively stiff aluminum stem and handle bar coupled with a gently sloping steel fork that visibly moves to absorb vibrations. The Ronin carbon fork feels much stiffer, but the carbon stem and carbon handle bar feel much more active, which I had not noticed so much unloaded. That's a pretty long head tube, so the titanium frame probably contributes, too. I don't know.

Overall, the ride seems to be comparably comfortable to the famously comfortable Black Mountain. More time in the saddle will test this initial conclusion, but so far, so great. And, yes, the Ronin is headed to Marysville, Kansas for the Pony Express 120 Bikepacking Adventure.

Pilot Training Scene, Top Gun Maverick (2022)

Thursday, September 1, 2022

One Of A Kind - Jones Bikes 20th Anniversary

One of a kind love affair, 
Is the kind of love that you read about in a fairy tale.
Like the sun that shines on a rainy day,
It's a cloud of love.
One Of A Kind, Joseph B. Jefferson (1973).

Jeff Jones recently announced a 20th Anniversary celebration of Jones Bikes. Jones 20th Anniversary. That's quite an achievement for an eccentric tinkerer who fortunately focused his creative energy on bicycle frames and forks. That's also my cue to mark the occasion by linking my various blog posts over the years about the amazing Jones 29+ that I bought in the spring of 2018. To be fair, every blog post on bikepacking the Cloud Peak 500, Black Hills Bounty, and Great Divide Mountain Bike Route involves my Jones 29+. I love this bike.
Not from a catalogue. Jeff Jones sent me this image of my bike before shipping it in 2018.
That fork! That chain stay! That wheel base! Those angles! That upright position!
Even with those 3.25" knobby tires, that clearance, both front and rear!
What in the world?

In early 2015, I started researching mountain bikes for riding single track and rough roads, especially loaded for multi-day bikepacking. I sought to take my overnight rides on my Black Mountain Monster Cross to the next level of rough stuff and distance, maybe even something way out there like the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Eventually, I stumbled across, where Jeff explained the inspiration, experimentation, and evolving designs of his frames and forks in a series of detailed articles and videos over some years. I loved his innovative thoughts, iterative process, and hands-on trials, but so many individual pieces seemed so far off conventional thought. How does all that come together?

With no Jones bike to borrow or demo and with virtually no used Jones bike market (that says something), I ultimately took a leap of faith and bought a new, custom built Jones 29+ LWB in the spring of 2018. Jeff spent over two hours on the phone with me going through, in great detail, the selection of every single  component for my build. Every. Single. Component. It was unforgettable. A Mountain Bike By Jeff Jones (decision thought process); Jones 29+ The Build (initial build); Jones 29+ What It Is (first month of riding). After 4 1/2 years of riding, I could not be more pleased.

New bike joy on M-Hill.
(photo by Chani Groseth)

For me, the Jones 29+ is a perfect bike for single track and rough back road riding, loaded or unloaded. It has flawlessly carried me over many miles and days, including my 2021 ride of the entire 2,500+ mile length of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. The Jones 29+ performs with exceptional comfort, control, and capacity riding rough stuff all day, day after day after day, fully loaded for touring.

Here's a link to my posts of the Jones 29+ as I prepared for my 7 day ride of the Cloud Peak 500 route in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming in August 2020. Gearing Up For Cloud Peak. After Cloud Peak, I reviewed the Jones 29+ to prepare for riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in the summer of 2021. Cloud Peak 500 - Jones 29+ Next Time. Then I analyzed its performance on the Great Divide for future rides, including a possible return. The Great Divide - Jones 29+ No Change. It's worked out great.

My Jones 29+ about 1,000 miles into the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 2021.

So, Happy 20th Anniversary to Jeff Jones and Jones Bikes! Thank you for your unique contributions to the bicycling community. I love my Jones 29+ and hope to still be riding it for your 40 year anniversary.

One Of A Kind, The Spinners (1973).