They say the third time’s a charm… and in the case of bike-camping, this is true. With just days left before our epic trip around Lake Michigan, we went on one final trial-run to test our gear, riding legs, and at one point, our relationship.
The first time we tried to bike camp, we got rained out and ended up driving. The second time we bike camped, again with a group of friends, our gear more or less failed us, which was a huge bummer and resulted in innumerable comparison-shopping trips to REI. So really, this was the first time we were riding fully self-supported, alone, with each other.
On a tip from a fellow bike-camper, we set out for Needle Rock, a camp/hike/fish spot just outside of Fountain Hills, AZ (NE of Phoenix). We knew how to get there on our own, but in the spirit of testing all our gear, decided to fully trust the GPS, which lead us on a winding and car-free scenic route.
After a while, I was starting to struggle and terribly thirsty. It was getting dark so it was hard to see the terrain, but once we got out bearings, we realized the GPS had taken us on one of the steepest climbs in the area - not ideal if you are carrying 20 pounds each.
The GPS offered a service road shortcut, which we gladly took to get off that climb. A few yards in, we realized the SR was completely washed out and was just a sandy, gravely death trap. We were hoping it would get more rideable, but it was after 9pm, pitch black in the Tonto desert, and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, much less the length of this service road. The trail got progressively more and more dangerous, riddled with sandy sink pits and craters.
Riding on loose gravel and sand is literally my worst nightmare (and the main reason I’m not into mountain biking or cyclocross), which I made sure to scream ahead, several times, to my partner, just to remind him how much I hated this. I ended up hiking my bike for the final stretch, swearing under my breath.
After getting off the SR and back on to the main road, we immediately arrived at Needle Rock. The signage was not clear, and there were no other campers, so I am pretty sure we inadvertently guerrilla camped in a picnic area.
The good news is that our camp gear worked great. Dinner was cooked quickly on our little Coleman propane set and we drank some tiny bottles of wine we got at CVS just before leaving town. We used REI’s blow-up sleeping pads and basecamp pillows (yes, the big ones… we sleep in luxury). We traded our Marmot mummy bags for NEMO bags, which have a better comfort rating and are only slightly mummy-style, so you can move your feet around and don't have to fish-flop your whole body to the side in order to roll over. We slept like babies.
On the way home, we followed our own route which was more efficient but also had more car traffic. We took our time in the morning which was relaxing, but we hadn’t really accounted for the heat of a mid-day ride (over 100 degrees) and really regretted not leaving earlier after a couple hours on the sun-scorched desert road.
After all of our gear-testing and overnights, and all the advice and help we’ve gotten along the way, I would say that gear-wise and physically, we are set for the big tour. There is only one thing I would change for the Lake Michigan Tour based on Bike Camping Version 3.0, which is this:
We had heard Needle Rock was so gorgeous, I was anxious to get there and see it. I was nervous about riding in the dark, and more or less rushing the ride to try to get there and have some time to explore the river and hiking trails. But by the time we arrived and set up camp, all I wanted to do was drink a glass of wine and lie down. I was completely content just relaxing, commiserating about that ridiculous climb, and laughing until my sides hurt at Ivan’s impression of me screaming “THIS IS LITERALLY MY WORST NIGHTMARE” over and over again during the stretch we now refer to as “The Beetlejuice Sand Pit.”
Point being: that cliche about “enjoying the ride” is true. During a tour, you may ride for 8 hours in the day, and have the energy and time at the end of your ride for one or two hours to explore a town, beach, or bar. A tour is literally ALL ABOUT the ride… so you best enjoy it… not rush to finish it to do something else, or get it over with quickly to move on to the next thing… that is it. The ride is it. So enjoy it! And even the crappy parts will be a story to retell and laugh about, even if it takes a couple days (or weeks, or years) for you to find the humor :)