Bike Beast

A few years ago I went to the Air and Space Museum in DC and was excited to see that they had an original Wright Brothers’ bike there; it was a great reminder that not only did these bike builders use their experience to create manned flight, but also that despite the fact that bikes themselves have practically become space-aged technology themselves – with price tags to match – the fundamentals haven’t changed much. And still they maintain the same goal, to enable us bipeds the ability to get around more efficiently and enjoyably than either walking or driving.

Approximately 100% of bicycle use in these parts consists of either riding the roads on “road bikes” or on our well-advertised copious singletrack on “mountain bikes” (with a nod, of course to the 1% who commute on an array of bicycle styles).  The bicycle industry has acknowledged and encouraged this popularity by making annual improvements to their bikes; clutched-derailleurs that provide a previously unheard-of range of gears, electronic shifting, effortless 1 finger brake systems, dropper posts, ever-lighter/stronger components, bigger/better tires, and on and on.  And in an effort to create an even-bigger bicycle market, they are now convincing folks that they need a “gravel bike” – that is different than their cyclocross bike and different yet again from their adventure bike and all are of course different than their hybrid bikes.  All of which are reminiscent of…..a bike.


Most folks who have ridden bikes for a while remember the early mountain bikes such as the original Stumpjumper/Rockhopper, and the truth is that they weren’t all that much different than the road bikes.  The obvious differences were the smaller 26 inch wheels, fatter tires, and flat bars, but fundamentally they were steel or aluminum frames that had slightly modified geometry and similar shifting mechanisms (with bigger ranges).  The smaller wheel diameter didn’t actually spin any more slowly than a 700c wheel, and with skinnier tires they would roll just fine (in fact, for a while 26” wheels were all the rage for the triathlon geeks).   But they were pegged as “mountain bike” and that’s what people used them for, and many of those old styles have been relegated to the dusty cobwebs in the back corners of so many garages.

But should they be? Over the last few years there has been a lot of interest around “Bikepacking” which is a new school term for “bike touring”, and as noted above, the manufacturers have responded in kind, making all sorts of adventure and gravel bikes.  But for many folks who have way too many thousands of dollars invested in their road and mountain bikes, the concept of throwing down a few more $k for a bike that they might use a few times a year for a tour or a gravel grinder is daunting.   Enter Craigslist!  Any quick perusal of Craigslist or (in Utah) the KSL classifieds has lots of old school mountain bikes for sale, usually not very heavily used, and usually for somewhere in the  $75-$150 range.  These bikes usually have braze-ons to attach a rack for old-school panniers, and if you want to go new school with bikepacking gear the standard frame geometry of years past is nicely configured to provide plenty of space for a frame bag. They may take a bit of work to get back up running well, but they are simpler to work on than today’s machines and local shops love revitalizing old bikes.  While these bikes may not fulfill your need to get the Strava KOM down the Bobsled trail, they are a low-commitment way to get into the many opportunities for true adventure riding in Utah.

Once you embrace the concept of riding bothpavement and dirt on one ride on a mountain bike with appropriate tires, the possibilities are endless.  In northern Utah the Uintas have many options:  traversing the north slope, combining the Mirror Lake Highway and Wolf Creek pass areas via Soapstone, and traversing the south slope all provide many options, and the gravel section connecting the Chalk Creek road up out of Coalville to the Evanston side of the Mirror Lake Highway is a great conduit. The Wasatch Back from Snake Creek to Cascade Springs to the Alpine Loop road has lots of great road-to-gravel opportunities, and it’s connectible to the Wasatch Plateau across Highway 6, which has the 100-mile long, partly-paved, partly-gravel Skyline Drive running the length. The long Monte Cristo pass between Huntsville and Wyoming is a great conduit to gravel roads; this spring we did a great loop that went north of the Monte Cristo highway on 15 miles of gravel to the Blacksmith Fork river, down that riverside paved road to the Cache Valley south of Logan, then back to gravel up to climb over a pass that dropped us back down into the Eden Valley and back to Huntsville. Any of these could be utilized for long one-day rides, easy overnights, or 3-4 day tours.

And that’s just northern Utah.  An old-school mountain bike – maybe with an old-school Rock Shox fork – is great for exploring the lonely roads and double tracks of southern Utah as well.  The Hell’s Backbone road, Burr Trail, Smokey Mountain Road, Highway 12 from Torrey to Bryce Canyon, Highway 95 down to Hanksville and beyond to the Bear’s Ears area or to the Lake Powell ferry from Bullfrog to Halls Crossing and around to the Moki Dugway are all conduits to some wild, remote terrain via both paved and gravel roads that have little to no traffic.

Another great thing about these Craigslist beasts is that they make for excellent town bikes as well. With a rack and panniers they can accommodate modest grocery runs, and with lights and fenders you can commute throughout the year to keep your legs and butt-callouses in good condition for spring riding adventures, and the lack of bike bling will keep your fears of getting them cable-cut off the bike rack at Harmon’s.  And if you choose to go bigger and do a tour in Italy, Ireland, Vietnam, or Thailand and don’t feel like paying the airlines another 200 bucks to fly your bike home….just leave it; there are more to be found on Craigslist when you get home!   And as I found on tour in Africa last fall when I split a rim, the global presence of old school mountain bikes makes them easier to fix in far flung places.

Burke Swindlehurst, the director of the wildly popular and devastatingly difficult Crusher in the Tushar, has a link on his website to address the question of “which bike?” to use in this mixed-surface race.  The fundamental answer is this:  “This is the only race in the world that let’s you choose your weapon with only one guarantee… at some point you’ll be very, very wrong!”  As with many aspects of life, compromise is everything.  So when you are doing mixed-surface riding, you’ll soon understand that the configuration of frame geometry, wheel size, and tire type may not be perfect on all surfaces, but unlike the Crusher, you’ll likely not be racing, so a little bit of compromise here and there is no big deal.

If you take the low commitment plunge to a older rig it’s likely that you’ll be so tickled by the surprising abilities of the cheap, robust bike from Craigslist that you won’t even notice any compromise and will simply embrace the adventure that the beast from the past provides.

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