Baja Divide Route: Q&A with Nicholas Carman

February 12, 2016

There are many reasons I’m looking forward to the Montana Bicycle Celebration in Missoula this summer (July 15–17), but if I had to nail down one specific element I’m most excited about, it’s having Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox in town. With their powers combined, they are one of the most interesting duos in bicycle travel. They live it, love it, and right now, they are contributing to it:

Nicholas and Lael are currently riding southbound through Baja, mapping out a Baja Divide route, covering roughly 2,000 miles from San Diego, CA to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. This route crosses every mountain range along unpaved and low-traffic back roads. You could think of it as a desert version of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route ... with fish tacos.

Just before Nicholas and Lael hit the trail, I was able to catch up with them for a quick Q&A:

Q: Nick, the two of you have seen a lot of the world from the seat of your bike. What made you settle on Baja for your location of a long distance mountain bike route?

A: We traveled in Baja back in 2010. We left Tacoma, WA on Nov. 16, which I remember because that ride down the west coast was the wettest ride of the last eight years, including a record week of rainfall near Los Angeles around Christmas. We crossed into Baja on New Year’s Day and for the next three months, which we split between Baja and mainland Mexico, it never rained. We rode down Highway 1 in Baja and explored some of our first off-pavement touring routes while on the peninsula.

We came back to Baja this year because we were looking for a place to rest after a busy year and a half of touring, racing, and working. Lael was especially toasted after a busy summer of racing on the Great Divide route, both as part of the Tour Divide in June and and a solo ITT in August, including two transport rides from Alaska to Banff. In Baja this time of year, the long nights ensured that we would get plenty of sleep. We knew there would be many backcountry routes to explore, so I bought an out-of-print Baja Almanac and a really nice GPS basemap for my Garmin. The result is our eventual commitment to building a route in Baja. 

For the first few weeks, we just made our way south of the border and slept 12 hours a night. But within the first thousand miles we caught up on sleep and decided to do more than just build a GPX track that would float around the Internet, we’d build something really special, for everyone! We brainstormed a name for the route, we argued about whether the route would require a fatbike or a plus bike (27.5+, 29+) or a standard width mountain bike tire, I registered a domain name, and then, I shared the project. Immediately, we received tons of positive feedback from riders all over the world, many offering assistance with the project. 

And like all things worth doing once, we finally decided that we would have to make another ride down the peninsula to further research and verify the route. In the second week of February, we will depart San Diego for a second time to ride a variety of new and old routes through Baja.

Baja offers so much to the off-pavement touring cyclist, especially to those based in North America or Europe. The weather in winter is truly enjoyable when most of North America is closed to off-pavement riding. The food is great, there are two massive and diverse coastlines to discover, and the history hidden in the backcountry is ripe to explore. Rural ranches and fishing communities remain strong in many places, far from the pavement; Spanish missions and groves of date palm inhabit the dozens of freshwater oases in Baja; and in the few larger cities you’ll catch a glimpse of a vibrant, modern Mexico. For most of us living in the USA, San Diego is an easy place to access. And with the current exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Mexican peso, a month in Baja is a valuable, yet inexpensive, experience.

Q: Creating a 2,000-mile dirt route from scratch is no easy feat. What have been the most difficult challenges you’ve faced when putting this together?

A: Right now our greatest challenge is finding routes near La Paz. The encroaching urban space, private property, and even some mega-properties make it hard to avoid the paved roads. But most of the routing down the peninsula has been straightforward, where we find routes on the map and ride them to verify they connect, they are legal, and they are awesome.

In the last few days around La Paz, we’ve encountered many locked gates, we’ve taken a meeting with the land managers from a property owned by Christy Walton, where they are developing some IMBA singletrack, and we’ve ridden some great cow-trail singletrack on an abandoned road bed.

And out of all of this, the best routing I have at the moment, in and out of La Paz, includes a big chunk of pavement. It’s not terrible road riding, as on certain sections of narrow Highway 1, but considering that this area probably includes the highest concentration of mountain bikers on the peninsula, the results of our research are ironic. More people, less access. In most of the rest of the peninsula, we see few locked gates, few private property signs, and relatively few people. 

Q: What are some unique challenges a rider can expect to face when tackling this route?

A: Expect long sections without food and water, rough roads, sandy roads, sun exposure, and surprisingly potent roasted peppers at taco stands. Strong winds are common in Baja, although thankfully, the prevailing patterns are from north to south, which is how the route is meant to be ridden. I wouldn’t ride it the other direction. 

Q: Is bear spray an effective defense against El Chupacabra?

A: No, but Trek makes a super-cool 29+ hardtail called the Stache+ which features 29x3.0 inch tires called the Chupacabra. It would be wise to ride a tire like that. In fact, we recommend a 3-inch (plus) tire for the route. The route is possible on 2.3 inch tires, at a minimum, but most riders will be more comfortable on wider rubber. There is a lot of sand in Baja, a fair bit of washboard, and lots of rough, rocky roads. If you choose to ride 2.3 inch tires, you can expect to labor through sandy sections, including some time off the bike. Mostly, the route avoids prolonged sections of deep sand, but sand is part of the landscape in Baja. Don’t show up to ride the Baja Divide on a Surly Cross Check. It won’t happen.

Q: It seems like every route has a few signature locations attributed to it. Can you pick out a couple spots for this route that people will be sure to remember?

A: La Paz is a great city; the border crossing at Tecate reveals a pleasant border community; the mountain bike singletrack in Cabo Pulmo and La Ventana is excellent, and growing; anywhere in proximity to Bahia Concepcion; all the small freshwater streams in the mountains, amidst a vast desert; the Spanish mission churches deep in the mountains; brilliant starry nights. Every taqueria, panaderia...

Q: Where there’s an off-road route, there’s someone willing to race it. Do you anticipate this appealing to the self-contained racing crowd? 

A: Sure, but I don’t endorse racing the route. My aim is for people to engage with the landscape and the people, to discover the culture and digest the food and experiences along the way. Racing is the antithesis to that experience, a selfish proposal of one person versus time and space. In contrast, I’ve proposed a group start on the route next January 2, 2017. To be clear, this will be a group start, not a race or a group ride or a guided tour. We will start together on the same day in San Diego, and a group of Mexican riders may meet us in Tecate. We will ride at our own pace, we will form groups in any way we please, and within a week or two the group will be spread out along the route. Riders will stop whenever they want, east as much as they want, and take time to enjoy the places they visit. This doesn’t necessarily mean a slow ride, at least for me, but we will be certain to be guided by more than the clock. And if anyone wishes to ride the Baja Divide as fast as possible, the route will be 100% public access, open to ride at any time.

Q: When do you expect to have this route polished up and ready for the world?

A: The route will be mostly complete after our second ride down the peninsula, ending in early March. I hope to publish the GPX track later this spring. Digital guides and narratives will be available this summer, and a printed pocket map and/or guide will be available sometime thereafter. I will publish something tangible for the ride next January 2017, although it may be more like a draft. A more official guide or map may take more time, and in actuality, the route may require one final stage of research and refinement to be polished to perfection, which would happen next January.

Those who choose to ride next January can consider themselves part of a test group. Their input and public reactions will improve the route and also help to make the route known. Part of the impetus for the ride next January is to get people on the route in the first year and to build a culture around the route as soon as possible to ensure that it continues to exist and grow. In that way, the concept is influenced more by Bikecentennial than other group events like the Tour Divide, although both are models. The Pâques-en-Provence rides, which are part of the French cycle touring culture, are another influence for the group start in 2017, although the concept is reversed as we will meet in one place and disperse along the route. 

Q: This takes a tremendous amount of your time and resources. How can people help you turn this from a vision to reality?

A: They can share the idea with their friends, with their local bike shops, and with the greater cycling community via social media. Most importantly, they can begin planning to ride the route as soon as next season, winter 2016–17. The January 2 group start is just a suggested start date and a way to build community, but the route will be open to ride at any time, although the recommended season is November-March.

I’m working to secure funding from a few larger brands in the cycling, outdoor, and travel industry, whose business and ethics are in line with our project. At this time, I’m not asking for small individual donations. Rather, the Baja Divide is meant to be a gift to the bikepacking community, a combination of our efforts at the expense of the companies that exist because we spend our money with them. At the heart of the Baja Divide are the values of self-reliance, learning through experience, and global community. If anyone in the cycling and outdoor industries wishes to sponsor the Baja Divide project, please contact Nicholas Carman at bajadivide@gmail.com.

Follow the Baja Divide route-building process at www.gypsybytrade.wordpress.com. Look for official updates on the Baja Divide website at www.bajadivide.com. Follow the Baja Divide research team on Instagram: @nicholascarman, @laelwilcox, and @m.alexdunn

Photos by Nicholas Carman

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Comments

Gavin Ross March 11, 2016, 2:12 PM

Your article doesn't mention safety or crime at all, which are issues I've read about in the last couple years in Mexico and Baja. Can you discuss how these should be considered on such a potentially isolated route?

Have you encountered any unsavory experiences in your initial rides? Thanks!

Nicholas Carman August 17, 2016, 11:49 AM

Gavin, Baja California is extremely safe and we've never felt unsafe, nor do we feel there is any reason to expect unsafe situation in this part of Mexico (and probably in other parts of Mexico, but I won't speak to that). Both states in Baja are popular with both American and Canadian travelers, many of whom travel in the backcountry by motorbike or 4x4 truck. Both states also feature low population density. The people are extremely friendly.

Cathy Griffin February 13, 2016, 12:42 PM

About time I had an adventure. .. do u venture to a Lands End - John O ' Groats trip - in May this year? My holiday company may let me down N cancel the trip. I'm looking for a replacement travel group.

Let me know?

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