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Fear and Confidence in Baja, Mexico

Chris joins a group bikepacking tour - 1700 miles through the Baja Peninsula: the Baja Divide. He shares his thoughts on travelling with others, and all things practical for riding the route…

The group comprised a wide range of characters: some inspiring bike travellers who spend most of their lives riding remote trails; some with other careers who explore by bike just when time and money allow; and others who had never undertaken a multi-day bike journey before. Some were friends; many were complete strangers. Together, this ragtag group were about to ride south into Mexico, following dirt roads for 1,700 miles, to the southern tip of the Baja California peninsular: the Baja Divide.

An open invitation to anyone who wanted to join this ‘group start’ had come some nine months before, from Nicholas Carmen and Lael Wilcox, who had put the Baja Divide route together in 2016 and wanted to generate some interest in this first season since their website went live. We had all been drawn by tales of beaches and cacti, of rich birria and spicy fish tacos, of endless dirt trails and epic coastal views…

I’d undertaken a number of bikepacking adventures over recent years, since my first two-wheeled journey from London to Switzerland in 2011. That first trip was on a mountain bike (over)loaded with four panniers, carrying so much gear that I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to ride the Black Forest Mountain Bike Route within ten minutes of trying to start. There is often debate about what the term ‘bikepacking’ means. To me, it’s about trying to make journeys like that more possible – about taking a (more) minimalist approach, lightening the load and extending the possibilities of where you can ride. The thinking is not so much ‘what can I carry on my bike to make life on the road as comfortable as possible’, as ‘how little can I get away with and still be comfortable and safe whilst being able to push up that sandy climb and survive that rocky, technical descent’. Since that first journey I’ve been slowly adapting my setup – an iterative process of continual learning, tweaking and experimenting – although I’m not sure I’m ever going to feel that I’ve got it right…

Despite my experience and the journeys I have since undertaken, I’d never ridden in a big group before, and never in a country where the terrain, culture and environment felt such a long way away from the familiarity of Europe. Of these two factors, somewhat unexpectedly, it was the prospect of riding with a group, rather than in the hot Mexican desert, that was the most daunting aspect when I had been considering whether to join this journey. In fact, my initial reaction to the announcement of this Baja Divide group start had been to think that perhaps I’d go and ride the route a few weeks after everyone else started. It was instinctive, and in hindsight seemed ridiculous, especially given that I often lament that I don’t know enough other people who enjoy these kinds of journeys. I thought about this a lot before booking my flight out to Baja and during the run up to the trip itself, trying to understand what it was that I found daunting. I came to the conclusion that I had ridden a lot on my own not because no-one else was available, but because I had actively shied away from travelling with anybody else – precisely what my instinct said here. This reaction wasn’t because I wanted an epic solo adventure or didn’t want to share breathing space with someone else who hadn’t showered for a week in the desert, but because I was nervous. I was scared. Fearful, on some level, of not being able to mix it with people I’d looked to for inspiration for years. Worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up.

My pace is never that fast – I’m slow-ish climbing hills, and the distances I cover each day are not massive. I’ve always been mostly ok with that, on the surface at least, but in a group it wouldn’t just be my expectations that I was dealing with, but also those of people whose journeys I felt drawn to emulate. Perhaps also, I was worried about just not getting on with a bunch of very cool, out there, folk. Of not being either cool or out there enough. But as Nick, the organiser, said a day or two before we arrived: “Maybe it’s just a bunch of people who wanna go and have fun riding bikes…”

Thankfully, nine months before, I made myself put my name down on the list and now here I was, stood in a San Diego park with a loaded mountain bike, a hundred other people, and no plans for the next two months except to ride south…

Preparing to ride this route was fairly straightforward. Nick and Lael provided lots of information on the Baja Divide website, including a GPX track, resupply information and strong advice on key aspects of gear / bike choice. The main considerations were how to carry enough water for sections of desert up to 120 miles, what setup would be best in order to be able to tackle very mixed terrain including tarmac, dirt, sand, and gravel, and how to ride hundreds of miles through the desert without suffering repeated punctures.

As I looked around at the other riders on the waterfront on that first morning, most were using ‘plus’ sized tyres – around 2.8”-3” width. They provide a good compromise for this really mixed terrain – not too heavy or sluggish on tarmac or hardpack, but with the ability to suck up all sorts of rough terrain, and with the air pressures lowered, make riding on sand much easier. Most, if not all of these, we set up ‘tubeless’ where, much like with a car tyre, there is no inner tube, and the tyre and rim form an airtight seal. A latex solution injected into the tyre plugs and seals any small holes that would normally cause a flat tyre. At the end of this trip, when I took a proper look at my tyres, I saw so many cactus thorns embedded in the tyre, but I hadn’t experienced one flat in the whole journey. Tubeless works amazingly well.

Water carrying capacity was the key issue in terms of packing. My Jamis Dragonslayer had two water bottles carried in cages strapped to the suspension forks with electrical tape, two more carried in stem cells hanging from the stem & handlebar and one 2 litre bottle in a large Anything cage mounted underneath the downtube. This gave me five litres of water, and I had a couple of collapsible bladders in my frame bag and backpack for when I needed more capacity. Over the next weeks, carrying five litres became the norm, although any more still felt heavy and burdensome…

That first morning, there were chats, last minute preparations, and photographs. Nick gave a short welcome, thanking everyone for coming. And then we rolled out; a ribbon of mountain bikes spreading out through the San Diego suburbs, heading towards the Mexican border. Arrangements had been made for food and camping for the first night at an old fish diner just before the border, 50 miles away. It was a tough first day with a mountain thrown in for good measure, and a few of us rolled in after dark that night.

The following morning we crossed into Mexico, gathered in the main square in Tecate for a photograph with the Mayor and then slowly dispersed into small groups, grabbing supplies, local cash and sim cards, and enjoying the first of many tacos and Tecate beer, before eventually pointing our wheels south and rolling out of this small and friendly border town…

Other than a bunch of people riding the same route at around the same time, this was not an organised ride. Despite my fears about group riding, I knew that after that first night it was just up to each individual to decide how they wanted to ride: whether with a group or on their own; fast or slow; following every inch of the route or bypassing certain sections; wild camping each night or seeking out hotels and warm showers. Individual journeys linked by geography and timing, a love of the outdoors and of travelling by bike. And, despite my fears, riding as a part of this loose group was amazing. Of course it was.

As we progressed south the small collections of riders ebbed and flowed as some sections of trail became unrideable after heavy rain, bikes suffered mechanical problems and people’s natural pace varied. We leapfrogged each other, spreading out and regrouping again in towns, often unexpectedly. This was part of the beauty of riding in this way. I spent time with at least four different groups of people, and managed to squeeze in a few days of riding and camping on my own, which I relished. The first night wild camping in the desert on my own was magical. But most of the time, whichever group I was with, the pattern was similar. We wild camped together, made tacos together, struggled with Spanish together. We sweated together up the climbs and grinned from ear to ear at the bottom of roller coaster descents. There was a little too much whooping and hollering at times for this Englishman, but the group was mostly American, so I suppose they are forgiven; it’s kind of compulsory (and perhaps even a little bit contagious).

Sometimes we pooled limited and random collections of avocado, peanut butter, tortillas, tomatoes, packets of tajin seasoning, and chocolate cookie of choice – chokis – into joint feasts. Often we separated for periods during the day with the slower riders catching up during breaks, at lunchtime and for camp. And when it mattered, people were there. When my rear hub disintegrated, Rich and Amy negotiated and hitched a ride with me to the next town, where Rafa (the Hispanic Mechanic) spent the best part of an afternoon helping me search for a bike mechanic, or at least the right parts and tools. When I start peeing blood after four days in the desert, Marilyn, Abe, Amy and Ana pooled their water for me for the remaining 20 miles into Loreto, and Marilyn took me to hospital to help translate things to a doctor. That’s another story…

It’s hard, over a year later, to describe riding the Baja Divide fully. The scenery was so diverse, the locals so welcoming, day-to-day life so simple, and the desert so beautiful and hot and unexpected and amazing and challenging all at the same time. And the people I rode with, some just for a short while, were all inspiring in some way. The photographs here offer just a snapshot of the journey.

My fears were not completely unfounded. There were many riders much faster and much more capable than I was. Some sections were tough. I got sick. My bike broke. But none of these things impacted negatively on the journey – in fact they are the parts that I remember most. They challenged me and forced me to push myself; they started to help me tackle those original insecurities.

Since I’ve been back in the UK, nearly all my riding has been with groups, often with people I’ve only just met. I’ve actively sought out events and group rides, through which I’ve met many awesome people who share this common fascination with bikes and joy of pedalling miles. I’ve ridden 100 miles in one go for the first time in my life, and then did it again the following weekend, overnight. I have a renewed sense of confidence in what I might be capable of.

Nick Carmen once said that riding the Colorado Trail would change my life. I don’t think that it did, but riding the Baja Divide with such an awesome group of people definitely has…



Chris Goodman
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