words and photos by Doug May
“I don't bike.”
As cyclists, we can sometimes forget that not everyone in our friend group rides bikes. To some, the idea of polishing up a narrow seat for hours on end seems more like torture than fun. Rather than cut those people out of my life like any normal person would do, I decided to surprise three of them with a bikepacking trip on the Coconino 250 loop in Arizona.
Bags were packed, maps were highlighted and tires were inflated. Just not by my friends who would soon lose their bikepacking virginity on one of the bikepacking classics, the Coconino 250. Every year four of us go on a trip, planned entirely by one of us without the others knowing where they are going, or what they are doing. Spouses (or roommates, thanks Mike and Steve) pack the bags based on a list that is sent out shortly before departure. I was in Flagstaff a few days early, getting everything set up while nervously waiting to see how my friends would feel about the thousands of their dollars that I spent to get us here.
The grand reveal happened as soon as we were all together. As is tradition, everyone guessed what we would be doing. No one guessed bikepacking. As I passed around a picture of a loaded bike while trying to describe what we would be doing, there were more questionable looks than smiles. Somehow everyone contained their excitement as I confidently passed around the mid 1960's topo maps with a hand drawn route before heading to load up the rented bikes. The snow dusted mountains around us served as a reminder that it was mid November in the desert.
If you've read up on the Coconino 250, you know that it starts off in Flagstaff. If you've had the pleasure of riding it you know that it starts off on pavement in Flagstaff. If you happened to be there on the day we rode by, you would have heard “I don't ride bikes” said in a pretty serious tone by the guy at the back of the pack on that very pavement. As we staggered up sustained climbs of at least 4% , lasting tens of meters the breathing grew heavy. “Guys, I don't do this. I don't ride bikes.” We struggled along, my old black and white maps guiding us along a route that seemed to have us turn around more times than a Bonnie Tyler song. Eventually we pulled out the GPS and realized that we were pretty off course. Not bad for less than 10 miles in. Rather than backtrack, we discovered we could simply bushwack up a small hill, rejoin the trail, and be on our merry way. Ask anyone else who was there that day, the “small hill” was more of straight up, thorn infested cliff.
When someone tells you that they don't bike at the start of a grueling ride, the thing to do is apparently not to encourage them on with hopes that they will somehow be as capable as everyone else. Seconds into finding the trail, we ran into our next problem. If you ever need to imagine a scenario where one grown man is rubbing the legs of another grown man while looking as stiff as the tin man, I can tell you all about it. The cramps had arrived. It took some liberal rubbing, a lot of laughing and at least one real tear before we were back on the bikes. The rub down clearly helped as we were able to continue on for the rest of the day without too much trouble. If anything else had come up, forcing us to slow down or stop, we might have taken the opportunity to fill up our water bottles. Instead I got to learn what pasta water tastes like.
We set up camp, exhaustion making sleep come easy. The coyotes had other ideas for us that night though. I had brought a tent, but not for me. I had the pleasure of being under a tarp, strung over the rented Stumpjumper. It's amazing the comfort that comes out of a bit of tent material between you and the cold, dark desert. The two occupying the tent made that very clear. I would have given all the pasta water in the world to be in the tent rather than watching coyotes run around, yipping away any chance of falling asleep. Thoughts of how my sleeping bag made me into some wonderful, dried sweat smelling hot dog as I clutched my headlamp in one hand and a rock in the other, the sounds eventually faded and so did I.
Late fall in Arizona, any Canadians dream. Instead of unzipping a sleeping bag to a bright sunny day, we woke to frost blanketing the ground. Realizing that we were all out of water made for a pretty bleak morning. Instead of coffee, we could only taste the disappointment of water used to cook pasta. We got going and the adventure quickly continued. If it weren't for the descent out of our campsite down to a highway, we might still be there. A good old fashioned leg rub can only go so far. We had a discussion about it and decided that we would ride down to the road and figure out a way for the one friend to make his way back to Flagstaff. For him, the next time on a bike would be attempting his first jump on a bike in Sedona. Quickly followed by his second attempt at a jump in Sedona, only with a lot more scrapes on his hands.
We quickly flagged down an old SUV. A grizzly looking man stepped out and with a warm rural accent asked if we needed a hand. After explaining the situation, he happily topped up out water bottles (he carried a bunch of water in his car, it is hard to find water after all). He shuffled a few guns around and made room for Kyle up front. Off they went to Flagstaff and down we went toward Sedona, back on route for now. Little did we know that in a mere few hours, we would be drinking a strangers Coors light taking in one of the best views I've ever seen.