Roaming Robos: Go Grand or go home
Welcome to the third installment of Roaming Robos, a travelogue of sorts, written by Jon and Pamela Robichaud. Follow along throughout 2016 as they sell their belongings, rent their house, pack their bikes and three-year-old boxer, Penny, into a Sprinter van, and travel across North America in search of adventure.
For those in North American cycling, when you hear the words “Sea Otter Classic,” your mind clicks into gear and you know the start of the industry’s expo/trade show season is underway. Having attended “the Otter” for 10 years now in varying capacities, I’ve seen the event and race offerings onsite grow and evolve. In addition to its staple of mountain bike and road racing, it now includes road and mountain gran fondos, and an e-bike race. Sea Otter has become a must-attend event for those in the U.S. cycling industry.
Pamela and I wanted to attend Sea Otter in a different capacity this year — to see friends, ride bikes, and enjoy the warm weather and beautiful central California coast. One of the rides we did was the SRAM 1x “Open The Road” demo ride. It was one of the best demo rides I’ve experienced in years. The course was designed by Sea Otter Classic founder, Rick Sutton. He took the group into Fort Ord, where cars were non-existent and singletrack was plentiful. Joining in on the ride were pro riders Meredith Miller and Jeremy Powers, and attending the post-ride BBQ feast was retired pro Ted King.
Besides the demo ride opportunities, the expo area is a cornucopia of bikes, people, products, and food. Within a few minutes of entering the expo, it’s easy to suffer from sensory overload. If you don’t know where you’re headed before you walk in, you can bet you’ll be there all day, looking at the next shiny thing that is bigger and badder than the last one you just saw. Sea Otter is also a place where pro riders, current and retired, are very approachable. Last year, Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen did the road fondo; this year, Danny MacAskill was on site, doing his unbelievable stunts. One of the bigger draws for the roadie crowd was Ted King, who was holding court at his UnTapped Maple booth. Then there was the “Queen of Pain,” four-time Leadville champion Rebecca Rusch, who was teaching women’s clinics at the SRAM tent each day.
The best part about Sea Otter is that it feels like a giant high school reunion you actually want to attend, once you get past all of the people riding bikes, slowly and poorly, through crowded areas. It’s nearly impossible to get through Sea Otter without unintended contact with someone on a bike in the expo area.
Last time we checked in, we were waiting on a few delayed parts for the van. So let’s catch you up on some of what’s taken place over the last month or so.
After a 10-day delay spent waiting around for a new lithium battery for the van, we finally left Boulder on March 29, and started wandering North America.
With so much to see and seemingly so little time (one year) to see everything on our list, we felt a bit overwhelmed right out of the gate. We headed south to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in hopes of exploring the road and dirt-road riding while staying with our friend, James Mazzio. James has worked the Skratch Labs food trailer events with us and is now the executive chef at Bouche Bistro. In the spirit of taking the roads less ridden or driven, we used as many back roads as possible between Colorado and New Mexico.
Our hopes of riding in Santa Fe were quickly dashed when we woke to freezing temps and unseasonably cold weather. We thought it would pass, but it stuck around for three days. Our goal for this adventure is to follow the sun and summer temps; we didn’t plan on doing fall/winter riding in late March. To make the best of it, we were taken on a culinary tour of the best local haunts in Santa Fe — a caloric-positive kickoff to our #Vanlife adventure.
After a second day of freezing temps, we choose not to wait it out any longer and vowed to return next spring. The beauty of living in a van with no real schedule is that we can just leave, and just leave we did. Waking to an inch of snow on April Fools’ Day was just too much.
After looking at the 10-day forecast and seeing a warming trend in Arizona, we hit the road and headed west to the Grand Canyon. It’s a long haul from Santa Fe to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon — seven hours and 450 miles, taking the scenic route — but it’s worth every mile and minute of the drive. We timed it just right and arrived a few hours before sunset, so traffic was minimal.
This was Pamela’s first time visiting, and my third. Her reaction to seeing one of the natural wonders of the world for the first time was priceless, and worth every moment of driving there in one day. Her jaw and eyes opened as wide as a kid seeing Santa Claus for the first time. The sheer size and beauty of the canyon is overwhelming. What’s also amazing is that the colors never seem to be the same, given the changing light, cloud cover, and layer of haze.
The best way to see the Grand Canyon is on two wheels, and ideally mid-week, when traffic is light. The cars we did encounter on the road gave us tons of respect and room, so thank you tourists and locals alike, who drive to and from the Grand Canyon. You can now rent bikes at the main lodge/information center. We saw a good amount of folks on bikes, but not a ton. We also encountered a handful of others out riding from Flagstaff and various campground spots. We called Mather Campground home for two nights; it worked well, as it is close to the general store and the main bike path.
Pedaling around the South Canyon truly gives one a perspective on how large the Grand Canyon really is. It is very easy to navigate with just the park map you’re provided. We enjoyed the surprise element of riding up on the groups of people at each vista who seem tethered to their car by a 10-foot leash. We seemed to be as much of an attraction as the herds of elk crossing the roads. Away from the tourist pullouts, you can really appreciate the stillness and quiet of the canyon.
We weren’t sure if it would be possible to top the views seen at the Grand Canyon, but we wanted to try at Joshua Tree National Park.
Neither of us had been, but the lore of the star gazing piqued our interest. Joshua Tree was on the way to Santa Barbara, Solvang, and Monterey for the Sea Otter Classic, so why not stop?
If you’re looking for breathtaking camping under the stars, stay in the south end of the park in Cottonwood campground. During peak season (mid-April) it fills up fast, but the $25 cost is worth it, and there are plenty of walk-up sites for day-of arrivals. Cottonwood offers running water, toilets and level campsites. If that’s full, and you’re able and willing, there is an abundance of BLM land just north and south of the park’s entrances that is free to use.
But enough of the guide book beta on where to lay your head — how was the riding? Breathtaking. Hands down, ear-to-ear smiles. If you’ve ever dreamt of riding on pavement that’s as smooth as can be without a pothole for 50 miles, then Joshua Tree National Park is the place to ride. There’s also a great deal of elevation to be found — over 8,000 feet of it if you ride the park from end to end. Not only are the roads in the park mouthwateringly smooth, they are void of any real auto traffic. During our time on the saddle we saw ten cars, and rode in the middle of the road (primarily out of fear of rattlesnakes at the pavement’s edge).
The miles flew by riding in Joshua Tree, thanks to a favorable tailwind (south to north), and the expansive views. You look to your right and see the edge of the Colorado desert, and to your left the start of the high Mojave, where the Joshua trees loom. The landscape looks like something from a Dr. Seuss book, with a combination of Whoville and Where the Lorax Lives with those funky trees. While the colors don’t pop due to the harsh desert landscape, there is something positively alluring about Joshua Tree. The cacti are small, tall and in-between, so watch out when you pull over or step from here to there to take that bike and scenic overview photo.
It’s hard to sum up into words how magical riding in Joshua Tree is, so just take our word and photos for how great it really is, and go do it yourself.
About the authors
Jon and Pamela Robichaud are early adopters and investors at Skratch Labs, a nutrition company based in Boulder. In addition to her physical therapy career, Pamela helped form Team ten20 Cycling, a Boulder-based women’s cycling organization with over 100 local and nationwide members.
In 2016, they packed up their bikes and dog into a Sprinter van to drive across North America, stopping along the way to ride as much as possible. Follow their adventures here and on their website, RoamingRobos.com.