Thursday, 16 August 2018

Ultimate Adventure 2017 - Part 1 'The Enlightenment' - Salsa Ride Camp

'The Enlightenment'

Learning is something we do throughout our life. Our autonomous bodies learn how to function more efficiently via controlled, induced stress. Our sentient minds process and adapt our thoughts and behaviours to become more efficient in action.

The purpose of this US trip (September 2017) - like many others before it - was to learn. Learn about bikes first and foremost. Like many trips I do though, there are tendrils of collateral learning and experiences that reinforce the primary learning phase. I'm sure there is a proper term for that in psychology circles, however I'm a simple bicycle mechanic, so I'll use a term that many are familiar with.


An oft overused word in the modern vernacular, but I'm not going to thesaurusize this blog to try and be hip. WYSIWYG.

Salsa Cycles run a camp, deep in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, called Salsa Ride Camp. I wanted to learn more about Salsa bikes, as this is a brand worth knowing about for my life's work (bikes) and for my business (Area54 Adventure Outfitter- in case you didn't know). But because there is no trade show here in Australia for Salsa, I saw it as a personal investment in my knowledge about Salsa, to see all their bikes, meet and chat with the people behind the brand and witness the passion they have for this marque of adventure. Ride Camp is so much more than brand awareness though - you meet people, share the love of riding and realise you aren't alone in your life of loving bikes.

My good mate Joe Stiller picked me up from the Minneapolis airport. I've raced with Joe on the Iditarod several times, he is the man behind BarYak (the original bikepacking gear carrying solution for handlebars), an agent for BikeBagDude bags in North America, runs the Trans South Dakota multisport bikepacking race in South Dakota, and a genuine nice guy. He is a quiet achiever and until you talk to him - you would not know the large and varied race resume he has.

Joe was doing some bikerafting product demos at Ride Camp, with his van he picked me and my gear up and set out for Northwoods. But first, he had a demo of Kokopelli packrafts to do at one of the lakes just outside Minneapolis.

I was so happy, less than 2 hours in the land-o-lakes and I was paddling around in a packraft with mates.

I also had a bike to build...a bike with a story...the kind of bikes I cherish. Just for this trip, I bought myself a new Salsa Deadwood suspension, XT, 29+ and 100mm of plush travel front and rear (all arranged via SCV Imports - the Aussie Salsa distributor). I arranged for Joe to collect the bike from Salsa in Minneapolis before he picked me up from the airport. He had a few issues getting there (traffic and location) but he came through with the goods and played a vital role this adventure - Joe I'm so thankful to you bro!

Laying out the tools and essentials for the build, along with the work area. Unbox the bike and the box becomes the workfloor to protect the components. I love that feeling of unboxing a bike - seeing the colour for the first time and the anticipation of going for that first ride, dreaming of the adventures we'll go on together.

Second nature. Having done this kind of a thing a few times, I knew what to expect and what tools to bring - what you don't have you will always improvise. The dropper hydraulic hose was way too long, so a quick trim was necessary - simple to do in the field if you plan it out.  I had my small Topeak Ratchet Rocket with me, along with a 5Nm torque head attachment. I sure was happy when I saw that starnut pre-installed in the fork steerer - saved me the trouble of looking for a decent sized rock... 

It was a beautiful afternoon - early Autumn - the lingering warm dusk light, the sound of a baseball game clinking nearby and the build completed before sunset. No test ride yet though, I wanted the first dirt session to be in Chequamegon forest (pronounced She-wa-ma-gon) - so I'm told, this was where the Deadwood suspension was prototype tested. I have a similar story a few years ago with my Santa Cruz Blur XC (first ride on SC dirt) and my Muru Cycles ti fatbike (first ride was in Alaskan snow). Bikes have their own stories. 

We drove into the night to arrive at Northwoods, we bunked down in Joes custom built van, woke early and starting prepping for the trip. I was going on a 2 day, bikepack trail ride with a bunch of ride camp attendees, peeps from Salsa and other outdoor brands like Big Agnes and Osprey. I was giddy and bouncing up and down with excitement like a little kid - bikes can have that effect on us - y'all have been there, right?

Time to load up on some calories, was a no brainer to see what bars I'd use. 

Of course there is cheese - Wisconsin is the #1 state for cheese in North America. 

My setup was minimal to a point - I took a few small backup redundancies as I had zero intel on where we were going and what the local weather patterns were like. It was a pleasure trip too, not a race trip. It's the midwest, but the greenery indicates the area receives healthy annual rainfall. 

On the bars I had a small Revelate Sweetroll (Mont Bell spiral down hugger quilt, Exped Synmat UL7, S2S Aerpillow) with a Revelate Pocket clipped to it for sundry items; Revelate Magtank on the toptube (food); dual Revelate Feedbags next to the stem (food in one, camera in the other); Revelate Tangle bag, mounted upside down in the frame triangle (bike spares, clothes); Revelate Pika seatbag (TarpTent Contrail, rain gear) and was the perfect size for the dropper; Osprey Manta 25 pack with water, food and stove (Jetboil ti). I upped the fork (Pike) and shock (Monarch RT3 Debonair) pressure to account for the added load, still ran 30% shock sag with no loss of trail feel or fun. Wheels were still tubed. 

Mike 'Kid' Reimer assembled all the good folk who were heading out, for a rider briefing. 

There were several groups - advanced trail overnighter, beginner trail overnighter, advanced gravel overnighter and beginner gravel overnighter. Each had different routes, level of difficulty and camp spot.

Our advanced trail crew from left of picture: me, Lindsey C. (Salsa ambassador) Jeff F. (Osprey North America) Brett D. (Salsa ambassador) Rob P. (Big Agnes North America), Chris R., Joe M. (Salsa brand manager), Ethan F. (Salsa support mechanic), Tony K. (Tony owns and runs a nearby bike farm called Silver Creek Springs, with his wife. They have mtb trails, farm to table meals and yoga - rad place and pace)

We wasted no time getting into the trails. Temperate cool in the forest but we soon warmed up, paused to de-layer. Tony pinned and pumped it like a pro on his loaded, rigid Mukluk.

We threaded the needle through the forest like kids on a sugar high, hootin' and hollerin'. It was lush, fast and tacky, I was so stoked to be riding here. The trail texture was moist and loamy with a touch of unmanicured hero, a few wet rocky sections but were coarse faced with enough traction as long as you chose a good line. Jeff was 2nd wheel on a shiny demo Woodsmoke.

We emerged a few hours later for smoko, forearms pumped from the single and a bit torn from the raspberry beside the trail, but with grins as wide as our handlebars. We were only a few hours into the tip but I knew that getting the Deadwood was a good decision. I do have a few bike options in my quiver, yet none were as refined as this for this exact type of trip - loaded bikepacking on fun singletrack, short travel dually with big volume tyres. The bike I had originally prepped at home for the trip was my Lynskey Ridgeline 29 hardtail, 100mm fork with 2.1 rubber. Yeah nah, that bike would have been a bad choice, m'kay.

Wisconsin is known as the 'land of a thousand lakes' for good reason. The water is clean and fresh, many lakes have sandy bottoms with abundant fringing greenery for filtration. In the winter these will be frozen with several feet of snow through the forest - the trails become XC ski trails.

We still had more trail to cover before our campsite stop. Joe and I chatted about the development of the Deadwood suspension model (he was part of the team that worked on the Deadwood project) and was great to hear the brief for the bike, why they chose certain items in the spec and the tyre platform - direct from the project manager himself AND on the trails that the bike was proto tested on! Joe knew the trails of Chequamegon like the back of his hand - it was basically the backyard for mountain bikers of the twin cities and he rode it like a cowboy on his Pony Rustler 27+.

It was so darn pretty every turn we took, I was mesmerised by the natural beauty all around me while we paused to regroup.

I grew increasingly confident on the Deadwood, I edged into the butter zone with each corner, until the bike and I moved seamlessly together in our tango of singletrack and hero dirt. I forgot I had bikepacking gear onboard. I forgot I was in a group. I was glued on Joes wheel, my mind and body embedded in a symphony of trail flow.

'Alright alriiiight' was Joes exclamation as we rolled into our camp spot for the night. Was a postcard setting. Lindsay hung out with us a for a while, she was only out for a short pedal and wasn't staying the night.

Within minutes everybody had staked out their spot on the soft cushion of pine needles. I instantly regretted bringing the tent instead of just a bugnet - with scenery this good I prefer to be in the open and the tree canopy would deal with any potential sprinkle of rain. So far the reality vs expectation ratio was around 2:1 - over the years you absorb a steady stream of media content from places like this and you dream of how cool it would be to ride there. 

There was a food and bevvy drop of Backpacker Pantry freezies and local IPA frothies that were handed around. I inhaled a propack Lasagna left over from 2017 Iditarod - that barely touched the sides, so a second helping of texan beans and rice found the mark. I'm a non drinker, so water from the sand bottom lake satiated my thirst.

Brett Davis is a qualified mountain guide (and Salsa Ambassador) and teaches from his home base in Durango, CO. A recent expedition of his was in the Brooks Range of Alaska, with a bunch of buddies riding, trekking, climbing and packrafting. Each of us in the group shared stories of our various trips through the years - it was awesome to be amongst adventurers with so much depth, variety and experience. With my back against a mighty conifer by the waters edge, my toes warmed by the fire, I drifted in and out of a light sleep, rejoining the conversation with a tale from Iditarod. The temps were mild - no need for a winter bag at all. I fell asleep in my tent with the strong scent of pine needles and the remnant buzz of todays riding leading into more of the same unleashed radness tomorrow.

Owls hooted through the night. As the morning rolled in, so did the daytime birdsong. Jays, woodpeckers and the nil-echo call from ducks on the lake, soon to be joined by the soft crackle of wood and maple sap reaching its flashpoint, as the campfire sprang to life.

Coffee presses emerged and the morning process had begun, we spoke in hushed voices in respect for those still ensconced in their bags, also to savour the silent gifts of morning. 

At some point in the night, we inflated the Kokopelli packraft to demo it on the lake and get some pics. It was too good an opportunity to miss - I jumped in and paddled out, eager to get closer to a raft of ducks, in my floating yellow raft making duck calls. The irony wasn't lost on me - to the ducks I looked like a big bathtub squeeky toy.

It was a relaxed pack up, today the aim was more singletrack and ride back to Ride Camp HQ.

The trails just got better and better, there was so much variety tucked away.

We went to a new park area that was insane flow trail with big elevation ramps and long shore bridges. We hit this as a group, nose to tail in close formation, there was a film crew out there capturing some marketing footage for a brand project. Given that we'd all been following each others lines the last day or so, we were all fairly confident in each others skillset. Plus the fact that we were all still fully loaded with bikepacking gear didn't stop us pinning and grinning! We did 3 or 4 rounds, pumping faster and faster on each pass, clearly in zone 11 on the awesome scale.

...until Chris's shock got stuck down on his Pony after a big hit. Not quite enough primary air spring pressure - a lesson learned to up the fork and/or shock pressure to allow for additional bikepacking gear weight. Joe and Ethan made quick work of removing the air can and reassembling, ready to go again.

Thoughts of HQ and grabbing a late lunch at the food tent started to take root in all our minds, and the predominant downhill run on gravel roads back made fast work of it. Joe mentioned Surly Brewing had IPA on tap and that was all the group needed to hear. I cruised back, took a few side roads and solo explored this little pocket of Wisconsin. 

The expo was all setup when I returned to camp. It was Friday afternoon and most attendees were yet to arrive. I cruised around to check out the gear from Petzl, Outdoor Research, Kokopelli, Baryak, Skratch Labs, Redington, SRAM, Maxxis, Osprey, Big Agnes and of course - Salsa.

The Raptor 14 from Osprey is a very popular bag for ultra racers and bikepackers, with loads of smart storage features. The bladders are the best in the business I reckon, with practical features like a rigid backboard, easy access roll top for filling and cleaning, integrated handle and simple bite valve.

This rolls out from the bottom pocket - a removable tool or first aid roll, all segmented with dedicated pockets for gear.

Big Agnes was there with Rob at the helm, a larger than life character and a great guy to hang out with the last few days on the trail.

SRAM had some great cutaways of their latest gear on show, with tech on hand to answer questions.

This was what I really wanted to see and touch - the Salsa bikes of 2018. Justin Steiner from Salsa was on hand to walk me through the new models, as well as the changes to existing models. Like I mentioned previously, this was the very best way for me to see all the bikes firsthand in the one place, discuss the spec and test ride a few of the key models. Lets get into it.

The Fargo had a revamp framewise and adopted the footprint capability of the 1st gen Deadwood (that was a rigid steel, dropbar 29+ bike). So new Fargo can be 29+, 29, 27+. Carbon Firestarter fork. Version 1.5 alternator dropouts allow s/speed or belt drive.

Base Fargo with the steel fork.

This was 'Kid's custom bagged Blackborow. Kid loves fly fishing, so the storage reflects this and the scheme reflects the colours of the fish he catches.

Another variation on the theme of fat expedition on the Blackborow platform.

Beargrease carbon in the Teal/black colour fade.

Another model 'grease. 

The top shelf 'grease gets HED 85mm carbon rims.

The carbon Mukluk, top shelf model has HED 85mm carbon rims.

Next model down is no slouch with 85mm alloy rims and DT Swiss 350 Bigride hubs.

No pressfit here.

The split V1.5 alternator dropout allows belt drive. This design is rolled out on many other models too.

The Cutthroat is a popular rig for ultra distance racing, not hard to see why. 

This model kitted out with full EXP Series bags.

Warbirds ready for CX and gravel, carbon and alloy frames, carbon fork.

Collossal and Vaya. Steel frame and carbon fork.

The Woodsmoke is a competent bikepacking hardtail.

Ooooohhh, and there were demo bikes! Beargreasii, Mukluks, Woodsmokes, Deadwoods, Pony Rustlers...

Cutthroats, Warbirds, Collossals, Fargos...

...and a baby prototype Muk!

Food bell is rung and you gotta be quick to beat the queue. Wasn't so bad, was fast moving with loads of choices. If you went hungry, it's your own dam fault!

Twas a Friday night, most folks had a long week of work and were keen to kick back and soak in the atmosphere, keen for a ride in the morning on demo bikes. I caught up with my buddy JayP, we small talked our way around the subject of Iditarod 2018 and what we had going on.


Queues were long  for the demo bikes, but well worth it. Salsa aren't direct to consumer in the US - they are only sold through shops, but this is the way they connect with riders and a great way to demo a bike, no commitment, on buff trails and gravel roads. Some would say all care, no responsibility - ride it like a rental - either way, these bikes were here for ridin', not fer lookin' at!

Salsa team swapping pedals, setting shock and fork sag, tyre pressure, saddle heights etc. I booked early for my demo bike for the day - I was heading out on the advanced 100 mile gravel group ride - I had a large Cutthroat with Apex 1.

    I may be a non drinker, but I'm omniverous.        Brekky time and time to load up for another        solid day on the pushy - a demo one at that!   


There were several groups heading out, bikes in the cargo and riders into the schoolbus!

We were headed to Cable, a small town with a big history and an even bigger bike festival! Remember, it's She-wa-ma-gon, not Check-wa-may-gon...

We had a huge crew out for the ride, I can't recall everybody, but Joe M. was leading the ride (Salsa product manager) Kate A, (local elite gravel racer), Ben W. (Musician, Salsa Ambassador, gravel machine and tour divider), Matthew W., Andrea C. (Salsa Ambassador, elite gravel and tour divide racer), Greg G. (Gleaso, Salsa Ambassador and tour divide racer) and me (some race up in Alaska). The respected gentleman in the grey shirt is Gary Crandall - a legend of the sport and race director of the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival - running since 1983!

A bunch mass start, a bit of blacktop and not long before a left turn and onto the dirt.

The moment I hit the dirt on the Cutthroat, I was impressed with how it managed the small bumps and the carbon damped the vibration. I kept the tyres quite firm, so I knew it wasn't the tyres isolating the gravel chatter. 

We alternated between blacktop and gravel, a time for conversation and stoke sharing. As the lone Aussie at Ride Camp, I did my best with my accent and tried to keep the slang low key. 'Yeah nah mate, she'll be right, aye'. I have no idea if they understood.

The Delta Diner is an icon of the state. There were so many interesting menu combos - ever had Jalapenos with pancakes? I wasn't game but I knew what my body wanted. 'Chiko and dead horse mate, unless you do a floater?' Oi hang on, I was still in Aussie mode. 'Fries and gravy, please'

We chucked a u-ey at the Diner and delved deep into ATV trails - the afternoon light was insane, iridescent greens with an occasional flash of orange-red to signal that fall colour was only a week or two away.

The afternoon paced out and so did we - before long a red mist had settled on the group and some fun half wheelin' was goin' on, a throttle was twisted somewhere and *braaap* there was a break that grew and grew. After a while of elbow flicking I looked around to see nobody on my wheel - which was strange as I thought I had at least 2 others with me. Ooops - I was ensconced in type 1 fun, I paused at the next junction to regroup.

Ben and Andrea (both Salsa Ambassadors) raced the 2018 Tour Divide

Our final stop was a postcard gingerbread town called Namakagon (pronounced Nar-ma-gon, not Nar-ma-kar-gon) in the aptly named Fairyland State Natural Area. We still had a ways to go and some riders needed sustenance in the form of a beer or an icecream - arvo smoko. The Namakagon grocer filled the needs of all - with an ice creamery and bakery out front, and bar out the back! (bit like an Aussie mullet) Everything was neat as a pin in the town, lots of tended flower beds and manicured lawns - I tried to visualise it all in the winter, under many feet of snow and -30F. The midwest has a solid reputation for harsh winters.

Ah yes, I wondered where my cookie went...gravel ground into my feedbag with the multitool as the pestle.

Brett Davis is the kinda guy you want on your team. A natural adventurer all of his life, he presented a slideshow and talk on his latest expedition to the Brooks Range in Alaska. It was a multifaceted trip - he and a bunch of similar capable buddies loaded up their fatbikes with trekking, climbing and packrafting gear. Plan was to ride from their plane drop-in point, through trail-less backcountry up to an elevation where they could no longer ride, stow the bikes and transition to trek mode, hoofed it to where they could make a base camp. Prep and load climbing gear, climb 8 local peaks, then do it all in reverse but this time, follow the blue lines on the map with the packrafts down to the extraction point. 

Following Bretts slideshow, we watched a compilation of the submitted images that attendees had taken over the weekend, along with the perfectly matched, live acoustic music from Ben Weaver. This was a true highlight, getting to see the fun that others had during their own rides over the weekend.

It's just habit to stow food in a pocket before racking out, then waking up to a body temp snack before getting out of the sleeping bag.

The last day but the fun wasn't done yet.

Pete Koski is the lead suspension engineer for Salsa, that morning he ran a tech workshop explaining the setup process for Split Pivot (that's the name of the rear suspension design). Nothing like getting the tech direct! Just like happiness - tech isn't real unless shared, so here are a few things I will share about Split Pivot:
  • with the brake mounted on the brake arm, suspension is active when you brake and minimises brake squat
  • aim for 25% sag in the fork, 30% in the shock
  • check sag before every ride
  • allow for bikepacking gear weight and set pressure to suit

This is Justin. With a beard like that - you just know he knows his stuff! He walked me through the Salsa lineup and talked me through the models. 

Joe is the Salsa product manager, all round great guy and crazy fast on the singletrack. 

There was one more mass group ride for everybody to wind down - a time to reflect on the weekend just gone, the friendships made and the trails ridden. The slideshow revealed a great connection - that no matter your background, what bike you rode or what country you came from - the love of bikes, adventure and natural surroundings connected us all. We learn from the people we meet, as much as we teach them; this collective shared experience helps us draw more passion for, and comprehension of the amazing things we can do - the intricacies of adventure by bike.

Postscript: There were a whole bunch of prizes drawn at the end of the weekend - there was schwag from Salsa, a  SRAM Eagle groupset, Big Agnes gear, Osprey packs, Outdoor Research clothes - but the biggest, heaviest and most envied prize of all, went to Aussie Troy! A 60L Yeti cooler - the most respected cooler brand in the US. Sadly, it just wasn't a practical item I could take with me on my travels or home on the plane, so I donated it to my good mate Joe Stiller, to use during the Trans South Dakota bikepacking race that he runs. They provide a small amount of support for the racers, and I know first hand how good it is to be handed an ice cold drink at the end of a stage or multiday race in summer.