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In 2010, I set out with my dearest expedition pals, Kate Harris and Rebecca Haspel, to become the first all-female team to summit Lingsarmo/Pinnacle Peak – a 6955m peak in the heart of the Indian Himalaya. By the time we were descending from the precipitous summit, we were already brewing up our next expedition. A few years later, we headed to Tajikistan to ski its unruly border with Afghanistan, China and Kyrgyzstan in the cold of the Pamir winter. Again, as our adventure neared its end, seeds germinated for what would come next for our trio. Kate and Rebecca are Canadian. I on the other hand was just a hopeful one, but am now a permanent resident. Though Kate knew that Rebecca and I might be useless without skis on our feet or axes in our hands, the idea was born to explore by bike the frozen world in our own backyard. As Canada would be celebrating its 150th birthday, it would be a momentous year in the history of these northern communities. Knowing at the time that this would also be the last year of the Inuvik-Tuk ice road, we became fixated on biking, skittering, on the Arctic Ocean the last year it would be possible. Our idea was to start on the spring equinox, at the tail end of the Arctic winter, and hope to finish just before spring break-up. We would begin in Dawson, and bike north (because why not add the challenge of a constant headwind?) to Inuvik. After biking the length of the Dempster in winter, we would ride on the frozen Mackenzie River until we hit its mouth, bearing down across the Arctic Ocean until reaching the northern edge of the continent: Tuktoyaktuk. And if we timed it just right, we could coincide with spring jamborees in the communities along the way. And if we got really lucky, we would also catch the reindeer crossing, as they made their way to spring calving grounds.

The rub: two of the three of us hadn’t even done a single summer overnight bikepack before, let alone a multi-week 1050-km Arctic winter bike expedition. Rebecca and I – alpine climbers, skiers, but by no means bikepackers – would learn by fire (ice?) how to travel on wheels and not skis in winter. Luckily, a big piece of this was known to us – the winter camping part. The part where you know how to live and function and laugh at -30 for weeks. But when Rebecca and I looked at our pile of stuff in Whitehorse that was going to have to fit on our bikes, we were unconvinced it would even be possible. Kate, with an impressive resume of bikepacking expeditions and off-road racing, laughed herself to tears as she watched the two of us be pushed into this new and uncomfortable world; studded tires on a shifting icy groundscape, heavily weighted bikes threatening to throw us off.

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“Holy demoralizing headwind,” I wrote after the first day. How on earth were we going to bike with that weight and those temps into a headwind, 50-80km per day, until hitting the Arctic Ocean? After a couple days, we started to learn the new systems, and get more comfortable with this mode of winter travel.
The lunar landscape of the Tombstones lay deep in winter. As we made our way out of that first mountain range, our world studded with sharp white peaks, one of our coldest mornings had me worried about frostbite on my feet.

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In that very moment of deepening worry, we spotted a paper plate on the side of the road with something written on it: “Hi girls (bikers), u r welcome to stay in small brown cabin km131, gone snowmobiling.” Bacon, brownies, and the kindness of strangers saved my feet and fueled our fannies over Windy Pass, along the Blackstone River, and into the Ogilvies.

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The next night, we climbed out of the Ogilvies and into the Richardson Mountains.
Eventually, we climbed onto the high exposed Eagle Plains. Kate and Rebecca built a bonfire outside the tent, and we dried our frosty wet socks while roasting sausages and cakes that a passerby had given us, celebrating everything good and simple in that moment.

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The next couple days were long, cold, mentally trying strings of minutes. We made it to Eagle Plains on March 27 where, lucky for us, we had our only forced rest days. The road closed for two days due to extreme high winds – ample time for drying gear, fixing bikes, and making up for lost drinks in the amazing Eagle Plains bar.

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Two days later, they opened the road and gave us a head start on the trucks backed up in Eagle Plains. 
We crushed some Dempster miles, crossing the Arctic Circle and winding northwest toward the Northwest Territories. After a bitterly cold night, we spent the next day battling fierce winds through Hurricane Alley and over Wright Pass, into the NWT.

3 (6)Kate and Rebecca somehow managed to stay pedaling on their bikes over the pass. The side winds swept my bike out from under me, and I walked stretches of the pass, unable to stay on the bike. We pushed hard that day, and made it out of the danger zone to Rock River. It was protected, out of the wind, and worth the push.

On the last day of March, we cycled through the coldest section yet, over the frozen Peel River and into McPherson.

We were just in time for the Peel Jamboree. We scooted down to the Peel to watch some snowmobile races, and then our pedal-pushin’ legs learned to jig. The next morning, we set out across the frozen Mackenzie and Arctic Red River. Have you ever wondered if it was possible to have so many epic adventures by bike that your rim could explode into pieces? Wonder no more. About 20 km short of Tsiigehtchic, Kate’s rim split in two. It had begun to split five days prior, but (with no rear brake, and one hell of a constitution) Kate bravely rode it to its oblivion. She hitched a ride to Tsiigehtchic, and Rebecca and I rode into town later that day where we reunited for the evening.

Rebecca, who had canoed the Mackenzie 16 years prior – a formative experience – took her time retracing old steps through the town. In the morning, Kate hitched a ride to Inuvik, where a new wheel awaited.

For the next two days, Rebecca and I pedaled in whiteout conditions and a cruel, unrelenting headwind. Late on our second afternoon sans Kate, we started seeing signs for Inuvik. We pedaled into town, overjoyed to make it to the end of the Dempster and reunite with our fanny. We also were met by a friend who had flown in from Whitehorse, who would join us for the final ice road leg from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk.

When we left Inuvik, the start of the ice road seemed promising. Would this be our fastest three days yet? We were too smug, too soon. After ten minutes, the fast hard-packed snow and still air turned to glare ice and the worst side winds we had encountered yet. We only made it 50 km that day, with some hard falls on the glare ice, and sought refuge within a building at Reindeer Station. The following day we stayed hunkered down in the high winds. They let up the next morning just enough to make some headway. Slowly, painfully, we spun north on the ice to Swimming Point. We searched the ice road for anything to grip on – small snow patches, areas where the graders cut teeth into the ice, small cracks. Anything. I tried not to focus on the ice, on the fact that we were biking on a river. 6 (5)

We made it to Swimming Point and set up our tent behind the shelter of a defunct building. I sunk into my sleeping bag, knowing tomorrow would be our final, and most trying, day. We were too far north to stop before our trip’s destination. The -40 temperatures, the winds, the 80% humidity (!?), meant pedaling without much stopping until we hit Tuk. With heads down all day into a steady Arctic headwind, we inched our way toward the edge of the continent. We relied on one another. The Mackenzie River was beneath us no more. We had met the expansive Arctic Ocean; the frozen sea heaved beneath us, kelp and seaweed frozen in time, the signs of ocean life paused. The DEW Line and pingos of Tuk appeared on the horizon. We biked toward them for hours, seemingly no closer than when they first appeared. At 10pm, as the golden Arctic sun began setting on the infinite skyline, we shed our bikes, down suits, face masks, and stepped into the warmth of a building. Looking in unified disbelief at the sun out the window, falling off the curved edge of the continent, we had made it.

On our travels back south, we kept with our tumbleweed philosophy. This rewarded us with perfect timing for celebrating at Inuvik’s Muskrat Jamboree, and witnessing the reindeer migrating for the last time across that inconceivable ice road.3 (8)

Words and photos by Alison Criscitiello. Read more about the Arctic Biking Fannies & Team Borderski at their website.

Holly
May 5, 2017

Road to Mulege – Guest Post by Lavanya Pant

Posted by Holly

I wake up holding my cramping stomach, I could just lie here but after four days in the backcountry we all want to get to Mulege for food and comfort. As we start riding I feel sorry for myself then I feel better and a great idea knocks me over, that I won’t stop again. If I don’t stop I’ll be in Mulege in a few hours drinking Coca-Colas, Tecates and other civilized medicines and sleeping for as long as I want.

Three days ago we rode for a few hours with Lael during her Baja Divide FKT attempt. I watched her skillfully eat an assortment of intricately packaged snacks on her bike. Maybe I could try that, start with the easy ones that I can tear with my teeth like Snickers and gradually move up to taped up, tri-colour Mexican flag coconut fudge. I give it a go, it works well.

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With no stops I get ahead of Al and Derryn, Al catches up to me. This happens on several climbs before he says we should wait for Derryn who is having minor bike issues. I tell him no because I must get to Mulege quick. Why? I want to and they will no doubt catch up to me.

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So I keep pedaling till I hit a fork in the road. I am not the navigator on this team. I turn my phone on to look at the map and the route sends me to the left. A ranchero approaches in his truck with a bull tied to the back.

“Estas sola?” he looks momentarily puzzled
“No my friends are coming”
“Que le vaya bien” we smile and he speeds off leaving me in a small cloud of dust.

I hook into a goat’s milk caramel lollipop. This is apparently dangerous in the unlikely event of a crash but the only people that can and would stop me are not here. I keep rolling.

There must be at least 20 river crossings – wet and dry. After each, the route travels along the river on sandy tree-lined roads. Shade is precious and even the smallest trees are generous in contrast with the Cardon cactus and Ocotillos of the last few weeks. Then I’m riding into the mouth of a big canyon, which I now know is the Sierra de La Gigantica. In the early morning, sunshine is bouncing off the water and the rich desert greenery, which is abundant from recent drought breaking rains. This is so great!
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I pass several quiet family ranches and their goats, cows and donkeys. The donkeys, usually tied to a tree, jump in and out of my path testing the safety of both options in relation to my approaching bike. I think of those Year 7 math problems that go like – If you are travelling at x speed and a donkey is erratically jumping towards and away from you in how many seconds will you collide with donkey? I’m not sure, but I manage to avoid a collision so I guess I can confirm math isn’t so important.

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Some rancheros wave, I see a sign for goat’s cheese. Two days earlier a woman in El Datil told us we could go to any ranch along the way and ask to buy queso fresco. I think about it. Oh wait! Al has all the money and I haven’t seen them for a few hours. The first holes begin to appear in my cool plan to descend into Mulege and sip on miscellaneous beverages while waiting for my amigos to roll into town.

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Further along, my path is blocked by a big herd of goats and unlike the other goats on the route they don’t budge. I look around and it becomes clear they belong to the family of seven who all have eyes on me. A little black ferocious Chihuahua runs out and is about to grab my ankle so I roll forward. All seven people yell at the Chihuahua while I cut circles to keep my ankles canine free. An eighth appears to join in the yelling and the dog relents.

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They tell me to come inside into the shade.

“Mucho calor”

The grandmother points to a seat, the mother brings me a glass of water and goes back to hand washing a family load of laundry.
I wasn’t going to stop but I am unable to resist their friendliness.
We exchange names and situations. The grandparents have a ranch up the road but they spend most days here.
The mother asks if I am hungry, before I can answer she disappears into the house. A few minutes later she brings out three warm burritos filled with frijoles and queso fresco. Yum! I ask if they make the cheese themselves. “De chivas” she nods and points to the goats.

The four children and husbands are also very busy saddling, feeding dry alfalfa to the horses and herding the goats. I chat to the women about everything; they tell me about the government choppers that do food drops when they get flooded in during wet season.

Some time later Al, then Derryn, arrive. The mother is again in and out with fresh burritos. While eating, we watch the rancheros don chaps, boots, jackets and transform into storybook charros. Three of them head out into the heat of the day.

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This is our cue to leave but I have become so comfortable here I had forgotten about my fantastic idea. We say our goodbyes; they tell us to stay cool. We push on and it is mucho calor. Immediately we are on an absurdly steep climb, I get off to push my bike. Al rides past on his heavily loaded bike with ease. This is mildly irritating. What’s the big rush anyway?
I lose sight of Al and Derryn on the descent, then an identical climb. There are no more trees. The heat is stifling. I work myself up into a frenzy thinking I won’t catch the others on this terrain, which means I can’t stop and wait it out.

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I get up and over the next climb at the bottom of which my friends are soaking in a sweet water (agua dulce) oasis. I frantically demand we take a break.
“Sure” they agree to what they are already doing.
I join them in the pool. Red, blue and purple dragonflies spin around us. Tiny fish try to nibble at our feet. We are not going anywhere, I become calm.

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When we resume with brighter moods the terrain is still rough and now with even sharper grades as we sink deeper into the canyon. The roads are storm damaged. The loose cobble descents scary.
On one long slippery descent, I pump mindlessly at my brakes and come to a dead sideways halt. How did this happen? I shrug and awkwardly realign myself with the road to keep going.

As we inch closer to town the road is flatter and graded. We wind past several ranches then big agricultural properties. Three teenage cowboys ride next to us, but they are fresh and fast like the wind. When I spot the first date palms I become excited again and start rushing to where all the cars are coming from. We hit the pavement and roll into Mulege as a team and head for the first mini market. The fridge is chock-full of Coca-colas and Tecates.

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Lavanya Pant is the recipient of the 2017 Lael Wilcox’s Globe of Adventure Women’s Scholarship. Through an application process focused on she was selected as an outstanding individual to receive an Advocate Cycles bicycle, Revelate Designs bikepacking gear and a community supported travel stipend. To see more photos from her adventures find her on Instagram @lavlavish.

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.
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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.