Building a Bike for the Baja Divide

September 22, 2016 - Nicholas Carman, along with Lael Wilcox, recently published a new bike travel route on the Baja Peninsula.

Baja Divide published: Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox recently published their new bike travel route on the Baja Peninsula, the Baja Divide. You’ll find the edited GPX track on their site, along with informational guides and section narratives.

Scholarship: You’ll also find information about the “Lael’s Globe of Adventure” Women’s Scholarship. One lucky recipient will receive an Advocate Cycles Seldom Seen bikepacking bike, Revelate Designs luggage, a stipend, an Adventure Cycling membership (includes our awesome bike travel magazine), and more for an adventure on the Baja Divide route. Submit your application by November 11, 2016.

Now, the good stuff from Nicholas Carman:

Building a bike for the Baja Divide

The Baja Divide is a 1700 mile off-pavement bikepacking route from San Diego, CA, USA to San Jose del Cabo, BCS, MX, developed in the winter of 2015–16 by Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox. But what kind of bike do you ride on a route with lots of rough, rocky roads and loose sandy tracks? A plus bike, of course!

Plus bikes: more than a mountain bike, less than a fatbike

Plus bikes feature 3.0 inch tires, which are almost an inch larger than conventional mountain bike tires, but at least an inch less than a fatbike tire. Wider than standard rims, ranging from 35–50mm, support these mid-fat tires even when used at the low riding pressures required to tackle soft sand and other loose terrain. 

The Surly Krampus, released in 2012, established the plus bike genre with its massive 29 x 3.0in. tires fitted to 50mm wide rims. For many, the concept was a revelation, providing increased utility without some of the burdensome bulk of a true fatbike. But 29+ wheels are still massive. The concept was slow to catch on.

In 2015, the first 27.5+ bikes were released, featured suspension forks and tubeless ready rims and tires with 3.0 inch wide casings. These 27.5+ hardtails, and even some full suspension models, behaved more like mountain bikes, with quicker handling and lighter wheels, blending the nimble feeling of a 29er with some of the Jeep-like qualities of a fatbike. The promise of a do-it-all backcountry adventure bike had arrived! 

And since the first iteration of the Krampus almost five years ago, 29+ hardtails have also evolved, developing shorter chainstays and gaining tubeless technology. But for most riders, the 27.5+ wheel size is where it’s at. Note, 27.5+ wheels share a similar outside diameter with the proven 29 inch wheel size, allowing short chainstays for quick handling and less than massive wheel weights, even with the heavy duty tires required for desert riding.

Traction, suspension, flotation!

Plus bikes are gaining popularity for lots of reasons. The confidence that results from massive traction along with the comfort provided by the natural suspension of a 3.0 inch wide tire is the hook for most riders, but for the Baja Divide, flotation is the key component. Several prolonged sandy sections on the route are unrideable on a standard mountain bike, but a plus bike provides enough surface area to keep the bike upright and the riding moving forward. During our investigative rides in Baja last winter, Lael’s 27.5+ Advocate Cycles Hayduke frequently floated over soft terrain at low tire pressure, allowing her to enjoy the scenery while I furiously pedaled my standard mountain bike, eyes fixated on the sandy terrain in front of me. I plan to return this winter with a “plus” sized wheel and tire. Thankfully, when my friend Whit and I designed my bike, a custom pink Meriwether Cycles bikepacker, it was intended to fit both 29 x 2.4in. tires and 27.5 x 3.0in. I’ll be riding the latter this season.

Fatbikes also provide the necessary flotation for riding the Baja Divide and other sandy backcountry routes, although the massive rotational weight of fatbike tires and rims is a disadvantage to riders when the full width of the tire isn’t necessary. Since we know that 3.0 inch tires are enough to tackle the terrain, we consider that to be the optimal size for riding the route — any larger tire simply adds unnecessary heft. That said, we had two friends riding fatbikes with us in Baja last winter. One was riding a 26 x 4.0in. tire on a Surly Pugsley with a Rohloff hub, a chromoly rear rack, and a stout Jones multi-position handlebar. His bike neared forty pounds in weight, unloaded. 

Another friend was riding a new carbon 27.5 x 4.0in. Trek Farley with a lightweight tubeless wheelset and a 1x11 drivetrain, using only lightweight Revelate Designs luggage. Despite the similarities in wheel size, her bike AND gear weighed just over forty pounds, total ... that's light.

So, if you’re going fat, remember, weight matters while on a bike tour. Consider trying to pedal extra weight down a sandy road, where the total weight of the bike and rider is engaged in a battle to stay afloat. You don’t want to sink in the desert; it’s a little like sinking in a boat, but with much less water.

Tubeless tires, for real

Tubeless tires are one of the greatest innovations in the last decade of cycling technology. Simply put, a tubeless wheel system directly mounts a tire to a rim without the need for a tube. A valve is installed into the rim and a liquid tire sealant is used to seal the system. A small quantity of sealant remains after installation to combat future puncture risks, which aggressively seals tire damage by coagulating at the site of the puncture, much the same way that our own blood seals the surface of our skin. If necessary, a tube can be installed in a tubeless system in the event of serious tire damage.

However, the desert is the kind of place where you want to avoid using tubes at all costs. A high risk of thorn punctures, easily mitigated by a tubeless sealant, make traditional tubes the Achilles heal of desert travel. 

Make an initial investment in durable tubeless equipment for a successful backcountry tour in the desert. We strongly recommend for the Baja Divide: tubeless ready rims, reinforced tubeless ready tires, and a healthy dose of tire sealant. A Baja-ready tool kit should include a tire plug kit to seal larger punctures, a curved needle and thread to stitch major casing cuts, and a tubeless tire patch kit to repair the worst kinds of tire damage. But, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so invest in a durable tire before leaving home. Note, installing sealant into a tube is not an effective solution for backcountry touring in the desert as tubes are too thin and pliable to be properly sealed by this method.

Suspension softens the ride

In the three months we spent in Baja last winter, Lael and I were happy to be riding bikes with suspension forks. While sections of the route pass with relative ease (assuming plus sized tubeless tires, of course), the route alternates between soft, sandy segments and rough, rocky jeep track, blazing fast descents to the sea, and washboarded dirt roads. While there are many parallels to the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route — such as frequent washboarded roads — in general, the Baja Divide is more technical, featuring rocky descents, remnant features from Baja 1000 races, and storm-damaged tracks. Even though a 3.0 inch tire provides some natural suspension, modern air forks provide a controlled and tunable suspension with compression and rebound adjustments which make riding rough routes safer, more comfortable, and more fun. Most 27.5+ bikes on the market come with suspension forks. A few bikes come stock with rigid forks although most are “suspension corrected,” making them readily compatible with suspension forks.

The following is a quick guide to bikes, tires, and other equipment for the Baja Divide.

Bikes:

  • Advocate Cycles Hayduke/Seldom Seen
  • Raleigh Tokul
  • Salsa Timberjack
  • Specialized Fuse
  • Surly Karate Monkey 27.5+
  • and plenty more ...

Tires:

Durable tubeless tires and tubeless ready rims are essential to a backcountry tour in the desert. Consider reinforced tubeless casings such as Maxxis EXO, Schwalbe Snakeskin, Specialized Control or Grid, or the new Terrene Tough casing. Lightweight tires, including 27.5 x 3.0in. tires weighing less than 850 grams, are not likely to survive a tour in Baja.

Suspension:

Not all suspension is created equal and inexpensive suspension forks feature little adjustability, are less durable, and provide less of the control offered by a high quality air suspension fork. Stick with the trusted brands found on high-quality mountain bikes such as Rock Shox, Fox, and Manitou. If a quality air fork is not in your budget, consider rigid bike models such as the Surly Karate Monkey, Marin Pine Mountain, or Advocate Cycles Seldom Seen.

Luggage:

The rough terrain of the Baja Divide is not welcoming to rack and pannier luggage systems, nor to Bob trailers. Lightweight luggage systems enable the most nimble ride experience, which is necessary on some sandy or rocky terrain. Modern bikepacking luggage is best for this kind of ride, although the ability to carry up to 10L of water can be a challenge. A combination of water bottles, bladders, or even a hydration pack is the solution to carrying enough water. Luggage is widely available from Revelate Designs, while Oveja Negra, Porcelain Rocket, Bedrock Bags, and many other small builders provide quality custom solutions.

The Baja Divide was developed by Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox in the winter of 2015-16, and is a gift to the bikepacking community with support from Revelate Designs and Advocate Cycles. Both companies also support the Adventure Cycling Association. For further details of the route and information about the “Lael’s Globe of Adventure” Women’s Scholarship visit www.bajadivide.com.

And hit this link to find more photos from Nicholas Carman on the Baja Divide.

Photos by Nicholas Carman

 

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