It’s been nearly two months since I joined around 90 people on the waterfront in San Diego at the start of an off-road route stretching south for some 1700 miles, along the length of the Baja California peninsular, in Mexico.
I have been riding the Baja Divide, a new long distance mountain biking (bikepacking) route which starts in San Diego, California, USA and ends in San Jose Del Cabo, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Since January 2nd, we have fallen into a daily pattern of riding, eating and sleeping, following little used dirt roads to cross from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Cortez multiple times as we slowly make our way south.
We've passed through empty deserts, canyons and mountains and along both coastlines, by way of historic Spanish Missions, remote ranchos, tiny fishing villages and bustling highway towns. The trails have been tough at times - a mix of hard-packed dirt, sand, gravel and small boulders, but the scenery has always been beautiful.
Saying YES to this trip
I've followed the lightweight long distance mountain biking journeys of Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox for a few years now, and when they announced that they were putting together this route, I was really excited. At the same time, they extended an open invitation to an informal 'group start' on 2nd January 2017, as a celebration of the new route.
I've done a few similar trips before (which are documented here), although most of the longer ones have been on my own, and I wasn't completely sure about joining such a large group, especially as I thought most of the other riders would probably be fitter and more determined than I am! But I also know from past trips that I eventually find long solo cycles a little lonely and I just don't know enough other bikepackers who want to undertake journeys like this, so I bit the bullet and put my name on the list back in March last year.
It's pretty cool to recognise that since I said Yes to this trip eleven months ago, in a year when anything could have (and much has) happened, I now find myself writing this, nearing the end of the adventure.
Ride highlights so far
The route has been incredibly varied - even the desert itself has changed from a vast, empty, desolate space in some places, to a lush green forest of cardon cactus and cirio trees in others. Each change has been unexpected. I used to feel intimidated looking at images of desert journeys, but I've loved riding and camping here and it's given me the confidence to do more journeys in similar regions in the future.
Being part of such a big group has really added something special to this trip. Instead of being seen as slightly odd by most of my friends and colleagues for wanting to undertake journeys like these, suddenly I've been in the company of around 90 other people who completely 'get it' - we all share a love of the outdoors, travelling by bike, and being self reliant.
As the group has spread out into smaller bands of riders along the trail, it's also meant that it's been easy to get information on trail conditions ahead, good bike shops for repairs, and the best taco stands in the next towns!
I've loved the mix of people and I’ve learnt a lot from them. Riding off-road means it’s essential to minimise your kit and be efficient with how you carry it on the bike. Meeting so many people who are also trying to solve the daily puzzle of the best way to cram all your gear onto a bike, in a way that makes it still fun to ride on difficult terrain, has led to some great insights. It is funny how you think you're travelling pretty lightweight, and then you meet someone who has half the gear that you do, and they are surviving just fine.
The local people have been incredibly friendly. I would like my Spanish to be better, but between us we've managed and have received a warm reception from local families, kids and street vendors, who are always curious about the bikes, the big tyres and the gear we carry. We’ve been welcomed into homes, played football with a village load of kids, and been given fresh fish to take with us for dinner that evening.
Following a route that has been put together by other riders really makes the practical side of this kind of journey easier. I've ridden similar kinds of mountain bike routes before, and at other times I've made routes up as I go. By far the most enjoyable riding has been where someone has put time and effort into compiling a route that is rideable, and has provided some idea of re-supply options. It means that you're free to enjoy the riding more, without the nagging fear that the unknown dirt track you're following might just disappear or become a mountain goat track that is impassable, and for me, I think that this gives you more confidence to explore areas that you might otherwise miss, especially when you have to be mindful of not running out of water.
Riding with a big group
I haven't joined a ride with so many people before, but it's been great to do it on this trip. Although around 90 riders started the route at the same time, the group spread out pretty quickly, naturally forming smaller groups. This was important, both because such a large group in one place would detract from the point of being out in the wilderness in the first place, and to avoid overwhelming the smaller towns and villages on the route.
Although we all started together, other than a bunch of people riding the same route at around the same time, this is not an organised ride. Aside from the group start and some arrangements for first night of camping and dinner some fifty miles later, it’s everyone for themselves. It’s up to each individual how they want to ride: whether with a group or on their own; fast or slow; following every inch of the route or bypassing sections; wild camping every night or seeking out hotels and warm showers. No one cares whether you finish the route first, last or not at all. It’s just 90 or so individual journeys linked by geography and timing, and in the end, by new friendship, camaraderie, a love of the outdoors and of travelling by bike.
One of the potential issues of riding in groups is that people tend to have a different pace, both of riding and of life. Some want to ride for ten hours a day, whilst others want to take time to enjoy coffee and breakfast at camp in the morning, and spend more time in the towns and villages along the way. So I was free to push on ahead of the group I found myself with, or slow down and take more time to smell the flowers. Either way it is easy to find other people also riding the route ahead or behind me. And as we are all riding pretty self sufficiently, with all the gear to travel and camp on our own, we have total freedom. I've ridden and camped with around four different groups of people in the last month as well a few days on my own, and I've really enjoyed the mix.
I like to try to document my journeys with photographs, and riding with others makes this so much easier and more interesting. Instead of having to photograph empty trails, or set up time consuming shots of myself, I've had a wealth of other people to photograph!
Advice for others thinking of bikepacking
The nature of (and usually, the point of using) off-road routes means that you're likely to be on more rugged terrain and in more remote locations than you might be usually. And whilst I am keen to not get bogged down in the 'gear', it pays off to consider what your priority kit, and how to plan for most eventualities. Getting stuck in the desert with a broken bike and without enough water is not ideal, so having kit for a contingency plan can make a huge difference.
The biggest considerations for this route were:
• Chunky, tubeless tyres. The fatter tyres allow riding on the more sandy sections, and running tubeless tyres (which don't use an inner tube, but which contain a latex sealant to immediately seal small punctures whilst riding) means that generally we haven't even noticed the numerous thorns that have punctured our tyres. We also brought a few ways to fix a bigger tear in a tyre (eg caused by a sharp rock), although (touch wood) this hasn't been an issue for me yet.
• Water. There are some long stretches of this route without water supply, and so we've all been carrying around 5-8 litres of water as standard, with a couple of sections where more was needed to last a few days. So everyone has had to think about how to carry such a volume on their bikes, and the rhythm of the riding is very much dictated by water resupply points.
Riding in a group can make this easier, because as long as you know you'll be with others, you can share gear, and if one of you has a problem, there are others there to help.
If you're planning a long journey with a small group, I think it's a good idea to have an idea of the kind of pace that you each ride at, and also the pace of life you want to enjoy whilst on the trip. If one of you wants to leave before sunrise each day and not pause in any of the local towns, and the others want long leisurely breakfasts and a more cultural experience, then things may become tricky. Having said that, riding with others who like to get going in the morning has helped me get moving more quickly than normal, which has been a good thing!
Baja has felt really safe, and the biggest issues have been bike mechanical problems, limited water on some stretches, as well as some illness. I've had to negotiate a lift from a remote ranch to a town as my rear hub bearings disintegrated, and then take a seven hour bus journey (each way) to get back to the nearest bike shop to get the bearings replaced. A few people have had issues where they've been slightly stuck due to other mechanical problems, but the bike shop has been able to send replacement parts where needed, sometimes with other riders who were passing by, or another local solution has been found.
Rain early on caused some sections of the trail to turn into a horrible, sticky muddy mess that became completely impassable, clogging up bike wheels and drivetrains and making it impossible to move anywhere. Many of us avoided these sections by riding the road or taking a bus, but stories from other riders included a couple of girls who got caught in heavy rain and were stuck for two days, only managing to move two miles until things started to dry out!
Some groups have had issues with some lurgy making its way slowly around everybody, one person after another. Whilst I also avoided that, I did have a scary day or two where, after four hotter and longer days that I'd been used to, I realised that I had blood in my urine. It was worrying, but there wasn't really any other option than to carry on. I was with other people who donated water and thankfully although we'd just had four days in the middle of nowhere, the next town was 'only' 22 miles away and mostly downhill. I went to hospital to be checked out and rested up for a week or so before continuing to ride. I am in good health now.
Serious health issues aside, these are just little challenges to overcome, there's usually a solution, and these become the stories you tell your friends and family back home!
Future bikepacking trips
I don't have another big trip planned just yet, but I'm sure it won't be long. I'd definitely like to ride with a group again, although it's unlikely to be as large - this was a pretty unique trip. And of course, I'll definitely do solo trips again. In fact, the kind of security blanket that comes from being part of a big group on this ride has made me feel more confident about undertaking further trips in challenging environments than I had before, both as a group and on my own.
Do get in touch if you’d like any advice or might want to join me on a bikepacking adventure!