Off-Road Redemption

No traffic, no stop signs – just the view from your handlebars. Mountain biking sets you free from the confines of the road.

Full of first-day excitement, we stood – 10 cyclists and two guides – atop a high plateau called Island in the Sky. Thanks to the clear October weather, we could see for nearly a hundred miles: mountains in the distance, and in between, a strange landscape carved by time, wind and water. A sandy road, created by uranium prospectors in the 1950s, snaked down the cliff’s edge into a land of buttes and mesas, spires and sinuous canyons.

After a caution from our guides – “easy on those switchbacks!” – I took a deep breath and pedaled off. I felt the rush of descent, the sand blessedly firm under my knobby tires, as I embarked on my first mountain-bike tour ever.

Soon we had swooped down 1,200 feet and were wheeling along the White Rim Trail in spectacular Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah. Above us stood the reddish, crinkled sandstone edges of the mesa, and behind us, all the trappings and responsibilities of civilization.

For five days we would not see paved roads, much less beds or running water (except for the rivers far below). Virtually the only motor vehicle we’d encounter was the 4-wheel-drive support truck provided by our host, Nichols Expeditions of Moab, Utah. The truck, our chief luxury on this trip, carried our camping gear, drinking water, food, rain tarps, bike parts, tools and a guitar belonging to Jeff, our guide.

Getting Past Pavement

The surreal and varied landscape of Canyonlands makes it the perfect getaway. This 337,598-acre park boasts more miles of unpaved road and backcountry trail open to mountain bikes than just about any other national park. Because of its lack of water, Canyonlands is not especially hiker-friendly, but a supported off-road bike tour is the perfect way to experience it. I didn’t miss carrying my own gear, and I thoroughly enjoyed cycling past surreal rock formations, tenting under the stars and watching sunrises turn the cliffs from gray to pale pink and apricot, and then to flaming orange and vermillion.

Friendly from the outset, the group of six women and four men on my tour ranged from 30 to 50-something. They spanned the gamut of experience – from skilled mountain bikers to one adventurous marathon runner with no off-road cycling history. After a couple of seasons of trail-riding at home, I was somewhere in the middle. We rode at our own pace on a fairly flat route with a few short, technically challenging climbs and descents that could be walked when the going got tough. It was a perfect tour for our mix of abilities.

Off-Road Offerings

Considering the wide range of mountain-bike or off-road tours available through bike-tour organizers, my five-day itinerary was neither the most arduous of knobby-tire expeditions nor the easiest or most luxurious. But, like all off-road bicycling trips, the route we cycled – 85 miles on an unpaved road that crossed packed and loose sand, slick rock and some loose rock and gravel – is not to be undertaken on a skinny-tired road bike.

A mountain bike’s fat, knobby tires and suspension are essential for providing adequate control in difficult conditions and some cushion on rough roads. Many tour companies give you the option of using supplied bikes or bringing your own.

You can sign up for a mountain-bike tour on almost any continent in the world. You’ll find tours that take you into the wilderness and others that travel almost entirely through towns or cities but that require mountain bikes (or sometimes hybrid or cross-bikes) for less than perfect roads.

You can rough it – or not. Some tours involve primitive camping without running water; other camping tours will stop over at accommodations with showers and flush toilets. If you want a few more amenities, some companies feature first-class inns, elegant B&Bs and gourmet meals, while others offer more basic but still comfortable lodgings.

The Flat and the Steep

At the less rigorous end of the spectrum, for example, is an off-road tour run by Timberline in Missouri’s Katy Trail State Park, with motel, inn and bed-and-breakfast lodgings. The six-day, van-supported tour travels the full 227 miles of the nation’s longest operating rail trail, built mostly on the beds of abandoned railroad tracks. The Katy Trail more or less follows the Missouri River across the state to the Mississippi River. The tour ends in St. Charles, a river town that was the launching point 200 years ago for the historic Lewis and Clark expedition.

Since the route is a former railroad bed, the crushed limestone trail is almost flat. “We used only two gears the whole time,” says Claire Goldstein, from Douglastown, N.Y. Goldstein and her husband had done a lot of cycle touring but were delighted by their first off-road tour. “You didn’t have to watch for traffic,” says Goldstein. “You just chugged along and enjoyed the scenery at your own pace.”

At the other extreme of mountain-bike touring is Adventure Cycling Association’s Great Divide Tour, an experience that two guides who’ve led it call “life-changing.” The 75-day expedition from Canada to Mexico crosses the Continental Divide more than two dozen times with a total elevation gain of about 200,000 vertical feet. At 2,490 miles, it’s the longest mountain-bike route in the world.

Participants camp, help cook the group meals and lug their own gear up challenging climbs on mostly dirt roads. “It’s tough,” says Brian Martindale, tours director for Adventure Cycling. He’s seen seasoned bike racers blow out their knees and have to drop out because they couldn’t get used to switching to a lower gear for hauling their load of camping gear up the climbs. Good news: Adventure Cycling also offers supported tours that cover just parts of the trail.

Going On Tour

While experienced cyclists may choose to plan and outfit their own tours, a guided commercial tour offers many benefits, especially if you’re new to mountain biking. And if you are traveling solo, as I did on my tour, it’s nice to have a ready-made group to share the fun. Seasoned riders, too, are often happy to leave the planning to a tour company.

A Good Tour Company Should Offer the Following Services:

  • GUIDANCE ON SELECTING A TOUR FOR YOUR SKILL LEVEL. Tours are usually rated for difficulty and daily mileage, and the staff will gladly provide more specific information by phone or email. If you’re already skilled on rough terrain and single-track trails, just let them know you are interested in a more challenging ride.
  • BIKE-HANDLING TIPS for challenging trail conditions. On my tour, we were taught how to ride in deep sand (“Keep your weight back; don’t oversteer”) and encouraged to walk “whenever that little inner voice says, ‘I don’t know …'”
  • GUIDES WITH FIRST-AID AND BIKE-REPAIR SKILLS and tools. When I crashed after ignoring the above advice (I thought I could handle a tricky descent), my bike needed more first aid than I did. Fortunately, our guide was able to change the bent crank. Otherwise, I would have ridden the last two days in the truck – not a great way to end a tour.
  • A SUPPORT VEHICLE to carry gear, supplies and personal luggage. Touring loaded is an extra challenge, particularly on bumpy or hilly terrain. This is especially important if available drinking water will be in short supply along your route: On the White Rim Trail, the recommended daily minimum is a gallon per person – a lot to carry when riding unsupported.
  • EXPERTISE ABOUT THE AREA. Guides should be able to answer questions about the landscape, history, weather and wildlife.If you can’t find a company that meets your needs, ask a local outfitter for recommendations or do some digging online. With luck, you’ll find the trip you’re looking for at a price you can afford.

Susan Weaver is the author of A Woman's Guide to Cycling (Ten Speed Press, 1998; rev. ed.), a how-to book for seasoned and beginning female riders. She is a past editor of Bicycling magazine.

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