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Holly
February 8, 2017

Cuba Dispatch – Guest Post by Joe Cruz

Posted by Holly
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Turn left onto the dirt track, drifting slowly to double check the GPS and that gives her enough time to come rushing out of the schoolhouse to call after us. I stop, her classroom is in a suspended stasis of looking at us through slatted no glass windows, giggling gesticulation little kid squeals. Their teacher, she interrupted their lesson for this, is saying no, no, not that way! The way to Vinales is to stay straight. I smile and take a deep breath, there’s no way that she could know that we have this conversation fifteen times a day,  kind generous Cubans who see some bike riders going in what they regard as an impossibly moronic direction. And they want to help.
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We’ve had to negotiate a fine line. Naturally we want intel about the path ahead and if there’s some real obstacle—an unfordable river, say, or a true dead end—we’d want to know about it. On the other hand, the locals have no practice seeing the unexpectedly expanded limits of our knobby tire multi-geared rigs. They see bicycles and bicyclists want the smoothest most direct route, no? Especially as there are no cars, so why not take the road? Nor is it helpful that generations of cycle tourists in Cuba have clipped their four bulging panniers on to rigid racks with an absurd pig sized duffle across the back to asphalt wobble along on Schwalbe 1.4’s.
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Our route has been a broken meander on the smallest back lanes, cow paths, stony clusterfucked hike-a-bikes, with a dose of wading and lifting sweat skin biting fly swatting. Naturally, we’re having a splendid, demented time. But it takes some negotiation effectively to convey that we’re aiming to do it this way, that, yes, we want to ride on the sendero de caballos and that malo es mejor, a phrase that when I say it, elicits laughs and then, after a few minutes, conceptual comprehension. I venture to the schoolteacher that, according to our map, there’s a trail that goes into the valley and then over a pass to descend to a river, and we want that trail. Again, she says no, it absolutely won’t work.
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It won’t work because there’s no trail, or because it’s not good for bicycles?
There’s no trail and it’s not good for bicycles.
But there is a trail?
You can’t go that way.
Because it’s closed?
There’s no trail and it’s not good for bicycles.
– – – – –
We’re laughing together, that’s also a truth about our so-far almost three weeks here. The pre trip images, mojitos, palm trees, 1950’s Detroit classics, Fidel murals and movie set architecture, those images have a kind of veridical presence, too. Owing to the impulse to gifts and joyfulness of Cubans, thanks to how they’ve opened this place to us, we’ve ridden hundreds of kilometers of rattling dirt farm roads, we’ve wild camped and set up our tents on people’s porches and in their yards and on ball fields, we’ve played dominos in the shade on a 90 degree January day, drunk rum with campesinos, had water offered to us from ice filled gas cans strapped to sugar cane harvest equipment. We’ve jungle bushwhacked and Caribbean sand surfed to sleep on the beach and swim in jade water cenotes. We’ve rolled into dusty towns to ask around after the uncertain possibility of food to be offered salchicha sandwiches or Moros y Cristianos con yucca.
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Everywhere we’ve encountered a lucidity and humanity, the idea—made explicit in the reflections of people whose daily rhythms are rural and local but for all that are also globally conscious—the idea that was told to us, we Cubans may be poor but that makes us all in this together, we help each other, we are all family, no one is better than anyone else. And after time spent in people’s homes or in roadside shacks knocking back dubiously cold Cristal beers in the company of so many, the bright smart smile and handshakes and cheek kisses has transformed us into and through friendship. That time when Nuria, after she took us in and fed us the most elemental delicious dishes, and in the morning as we were leaving she rubbed the skin on her arms, black as coal, and she said my skin is this color and yours is different but we’re family and we can’t forget that. We won’t.
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The schoolteacher finally admits that she’s not sure whether our trail exists. We continue on and we’ll have the same back-and-forth three minutes later with a group of neighbors on their porch, finally the oldest old timer will say yes, there is a trail, taking a bike there is the stupidest thing in the world, but there is a trail. We carry on and a half hour later meet a trio of Cuban women on the track with awkward bundles on their backs, they confirm that we’re where we think we are, but no way can you take bicycles there, they add that we should be very careful the track is rocky and definitely don’t try to ride it. Logan instinctively gets on his bike to go down the hill and they literally howl and invoke divine help. And then there’s the horseman an hour later who says of course there is a trail I take it all the time but it’s impossible on bikes. We laugh argue with him for a good ten minutes—it’s his considered view that we should go back to the turn with the school—before he relents and gives us a detailed list of the landmarks that we will see. Then you will start going downhill and you must listen for the river; when you hear it, bushwhack to your left. He predicts we’ll reach the river at 5:30pm, just before dark, if we make it at all.
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Words and photos by Joe Cruz. You can read more about his adventures on two wheels on his blog Pedaling in Place.
Holly
January 17, 2017

A Winter Rider’s Guide to Warm Hands

Posted by Holly

Whether you’ve been winter riding for a decade, or are braving your first cold snap in the saddle- there is one thing we all have to deal with, it’s keeping our digits from freezing. If you’ve come back from a ride with cold hands and first thought, “I need to buy new ____” You’re only thinking of one part in a much bigger picture of ergonomics and circulation to your hands. So before you try to buy your way to warmth let’s go through some simple things you can do to keep those fingers from going numb, or worse.

 

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1. Comfortable bike geometry

Simply put – your hands should be comfortable on the bars and not go numb through regular riding, if they are, your bike positioning is causing bad circulation and possibly putting undue pressure on your wrist and hand nerves which will lead to numbness and poor blood flow. Bikes setup with aggressive XC or racing geometry should be suspect! The solution is easy – relax everything – raise up your cockpit, use bars with a minimum of 17 degrees of sweep and get comfortable ergo-grips. With less pressure on your hands to start with, you’ll have better blood flow and that equals warmth.

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Blue foam also comes in pink as shown in this “two-holer” outhouse. Riding bikes is more fun with friends and so is….

2. Insulate your cockpit
If you’ve ever used an outhouse in the winter with a blue board cutout, you’ll know where I’m going with this… Aluminum bars, levers and hard rubber grips are your enemy. Cold is easily conducted through your bars and controls to your body. The solution just takes a bit of effort to pay huge dividends in warmth. The best thing you can do is wrap your grips with foam or cork (road bike) bar tape. Carbon bars also help as they conduct minimal heat. If you don’t have carbon brake levers, lizard skins sells tiny neoprene lever sleeves, or wrap your levers with Hockey tape. Adding a little bit of insulation here to combat the conductive heat loss is more effective than insulation added by pogies.

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High Sweep bars, Ergo grips wrapped in cheap bar tape. Note covered brake lever too.

3. Start with a warm bike

This one is obvious, but easy to get careless with. It’s a lot easier to keep something warm, than to warm it up. Keep your bike in your garage or in a warm place until you’re ready to jump on the saddle. Don’t let it sit outside for 10 minutes while you finish getting geared up. Obviously if you’re driving to a trail head you can’t avoid this, but any measures you take will help.

 

4. Have a simple hand ware strategy

Ideally, you’ll be able to ride bare handed inside your pogies, if you need to, add a pair of simple fleece liner gloves. Inside pogies, gloves do not need any kind of outer shell, the extra material reduces breathability and increases drying time. When you’re out on a long ride (especially in subzero temps) there will be a point where your hands will get cold no matter what you’ve done. For this, you should pack a “bailout” pair of lightweight mitts to make it through that big down hill, or after you fix your frozen derailleur. These mitts should again be fleece, but have also had good luck with the liners from big mountaineering mits with the super light taffeta shells. The liners from BD Mercury Mitt’s work very well as they have an optional trigger finger for your brake levers.  What you don’t need is a bunch of leather and big gauntlets. When you swap out to the bail out mitts, put your thin gloves close to your body so the moisture in them does not freeze and possibly dries out a bit. Swap out for the lighter pair as soon as you warm up again to keep the bailout mitts dry and sweat free for the next time.

5. Vent

Your wrists and forearms are a major zone for thermoregulation. Wear clothing than you can easily pull up to your elbows to dump heat when you need to on climbs. With exposed arms, you should easily keep your hands from overheating inside pogies. Forearms and wrists are prone to sweating, while we’re not going to cover layering here it’s a good idea to avoid thin long sleeve wool or synthetic layers here as our experience has been that the forearms get damp wet with sweat easily and can freeze while you’re wearing them then boom – cold hands. You’re better off using thin stretchy fleece that does not absorb moisture in the first place. If the weather calls for a shell of some sort, make sure you still are able to vent your arms.

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6. Recognize who you are and prepare accordingly

A big guy who is warm “no matter what” is going to have a lot easier time keeping their hands warm compared to a petite woman with Raynaud’s syndrome. In the case of the latter, you’ll have to pull out all the stops to stay happy. There’s no shame in using Little Hotties.

7. Stay hydrated and fed

Photo credit: Andrew Burr

Photo credit: Andrew Burr

Getting dehydrated is the main cause of frostbite. Have a winter hydration system (like ours!) that you can easily rely on to stay hydrated. Bonking on long winter rides also has far worse consequences than in summer time. Don’t leave the house without some snacks in the bag.

 

8. Get good pogies

Pogies have two main jobs – they block the wind and insulate. For temps above zero you can get by with pretty minimal insulation ( if you follow everything else on this list). When you start getting well into the negatives, you’ll need some puff to combat the thermal gradient.

 

What did we miss? Got something to add? Make a comment!

Holly
October 10, 2016

Kyrgyzstan Dispatch – Guest post by Joe Cruz

Posted by Holly
August 2016
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We’d been prowling long enough up and down the river so that my patience sheared apart. Fuck it, I stepped in, three, then six more steps and the water swirled up past my knees. It felt warm and alluring, though I knew that was entirely the contrast between it and the shivering rainstorm windblow that we’d been shouldering into for most of the day. I oriented the bike, already starting to ride up in buoyancy, parallel to the current, and took sideways footfalls pausing for a secure stance here and there. It was wresting and dragging, but fifteen meters coughed me up on the other side. I waved to the others to cross. Dubious of my success, they kept searching for a wider, shallower section.

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Early days for us, these, in Kyrgyzstan. From the Central Asia city chaos of Bishkek to the hired sprinter van ride out to the far eastern part of the country to now, we’re breathing the place in. Sharktooth mountains of the Tien Shan range, unfurling green valleys, galaxy night skies. Nomads and Islam and vestiges of the Soviet days.

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Shivering with all my clothes on and every inch of cord cinched goretex battened down. It’s grey enough for the sunglasses to be too dark, but I keep them as a shield against the stinging drops. I meditate. The others find a way over, in silence switch to dry socks and we press on. I lean close to the touch screen of the GPS and blow hard—it won’t register my frozen fingers across droplets unless it’s near dry—and scroll ahead. We’re about to turn hard west from what had been a southerly course. I shrug to myself that that’s where the gusts are coming from. This section is open wet and tussocky tundra, no discernible track so we are justing pointing our fat bikes toward landmarks that fall on the map line. It’s that stupid satisfaction of half luck and half intention when I yell here’s more or less where we should turn and at that moment if you look at the ground just right you could see the two faint marks of an old long abandoned road. The wind picks up fiercer, I’m riding shoulder to shoulder with Joel. Logan and Lucas are a bit behind us, we’re all in our easiest gear struggling on the flat. Sometimes we holler words across the enforced loneliness, but mostly I let myself be absent in the rattling rustling of my hood, the jet engine howl in my ears, the squinting to look up for cracks in the low clouds. We’ll ride this way for a couple of hours into dusk and a brief window from the storm. I’ll sleep the sleep of exhaustion and elation.

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I’m listening to the thwap tick thwap on the fly and shuffling a bit, thinking about breakfast. There’s enough ambient light in the tent so that I have a good guess about the hour. Logan, whose tent is closest to mine, calls out. “Have you been outside yet?” I say something about the rain and he laughs and tells me to check again. Heavy bloated flakes stream in half way between a float and a fall when I pull the zipper open. There’s a few inches on the ground and our gear is covered, we’re both laughing. Mountains in August, we’ll be sweating in short sleeves on the dusty plains in a week. We pack up that slow, ass dragging packing and along the way all sheepishly confess that we slept in the same layers, namely all of them, that we wore all day yesterday.

Today was supposed to be a lengthy bushwack along a narrow river cut north of us. During planning the walking track was visible in the close satellite images, and some Russian trekkers had posted photos on Google Earth of their traverse a few years back. Given the conditions, we opt instead for my backup plan contrived for bad weather or slow progress. The psychical drag of the 50k per day pace we’ve been on is enough to have us stick to the more obvious route, though even that plan is uncertain because at closest zoom it looks like the doubletracks don’t link up, though they obviously should.

Pedaling away from camp in a classic New England wintry mix, our tread cuts down to the grass on our way to the narrow ascending dirt road. Fistfuls of mud are flung up over our heads in comical rooster tails.  It’s day four of the trip and we’re nearing what will be the thirteen thousand foot high point, elevation-wise, of the three weeks. Ahead of us, that elemental battle: rolling roiling clouds close to the earthly peaks leap forward and then are beaten back by wind, bolts of sunshine crack through, heating things up and putting the frost deeper on the defensive. But then the tiniest of whorls and the grey mounts an counter. Nearing the top we stop at a lake to refill bottles, we’re all sweating not just from the effort but because the temperature really is rising now. We’re queasy for it, since that means worse mud. Soon we’re stopping every 100 meters to clear the chain and seatstays. Gobs accumulate enough to knock the chains off our single rings, Lucas hangs back to shake out his rig in a pooling chocolate milk puddle.

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Then we’re at the lip of the ridge with switchbacks receding below us. Joel doesn’t say anything, just brings his camera to his eye to grab the dappling light and now wispy tendrils. Something breaks in us, something about the focused corralled tension of traveling in rough conditions, something about the turning inward and hiding inside yourself against toes frozen for hours and always just a stray chill away from shivering, something about struggling to breathe and riding flat out to keep a walking speed pace. It breaks. Logan rolls up, Lucas too, and we’re all descending now sliding now missile re-entry through the turns, the crunch and dirtspray across ruts and manualing over cracked boulders.

The track, two stark dirt ribbons through low grass like a fairway, straightens over downvalley rollers. I’m whooping off the brakes and there’s warm yellow light on the backs of my bare hands. Cold watercourse crashing alongside, the occasional yurt and shepherd and roaming free pack of horses, we have 40k of this in front of us, rolling down it, none of us ever having seen a road that lifts us like this.

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Joe Cruz—Revelate Designs and Seven Cycles Ambassador—is a professor, writer, and expedition cyclist. Read more from his Kyrgyzstan bikepacking trip at joecruz.wordpress.com and follow @joecruzpedaling.