1x Baja Brotherhood
Words by James Stout
Photos by Appetite 4 Adventure Media
It all started in a bar. You know the story, three guys, three pints each and someone breaks out a topographical map. The next thing I knew, I’d made a commitment I couldn’t go back on and planned an adventure I couldn’t stop thinking about. We’d committed to riding from one coast of Baja to the other, over a 10,000-foot mountain, across a desert, into a dry lakebed and through miles and miles of trails that had never been attempted before on a bike.
A few months later I’d spent some quality time with that map, my friend Sean, and several of San Diego’s better IPAs. A route was planned in conjunction with our buddy Hank who owns Baja Bound, a company that insures vehicles in Baja. He knew a lot about motorcycling in Baja, and enough about cycling to tell us in no uncertain terms, “that’s a pretty challenging route, I mean, it’s going to be really hard.” Nobody knows Baja better than Hank, and he seemed to think it was possible, not easy, but possible. I like bike riding, I enjoy a challenge and I love Mexico, so I thought “why not?” I reminded myself of all these things, and tried to ignore the rain, as I sat in the back of a pick up truck on the way South to San Telmo to set off on our journey.
That night we slept in a surf shack, literally a shack made of surfboards just a few feet from the Pacific Ocean next to an enormous whale skeleton. The following day we woke up with the sun and the sound of the waves pushing us toward our destination. With the coffee made and the bikes loaded, we set off on a huge day. The road we were taking climbed 12,000 feet in just 100km. Fortunately, we were unlikely to get lost. With no intersections or other roads to take, the only way was up, up to the observatory on top of the 10,000-foot peak. As we reached the top of the mountain I felt like I was running a 1x lung set as well as a groupset, but I never felt as if I ran out of gears with my 44-tooth chainring and 10-42 cassette. The descent from the observatory offered a welcome chance to breathe again and spend the better part of an hour at above 30mph and below 100 watts!
The final climb after the long descent stung our legs. I thought I was suffering until I saw the look of sheer misery on Sean’s face. I couldn’t help but laugh, 110 miles and 16,000 feet is no joke, but Sean’s face was pure tragic comedy. We cut through the mist wearing just about every item of clothing we had in our panniers and must have looked pretty sorry for ourselves as we rolled up at the cattle ranch we would be sleeping at that night. Having fuelled up on the better part of a dozen tortillas and a pot of beans, we collapsed into the kind of sleep that only comes when you’re physically exhausted and an hour’s drive from a cellphone signal.
The next day we woke to the unmistakeable sound of the kind of rain that turns the trails we were planning on taking into the kind of mud that looks like pudding and feels like peanut butter. After more coffee than is healthy, and even more Pan Dulce, we set off for a shorter day. The 25 miles on the card looked easy, but four hours later I’d have argued otherwise. The tracks might have been fine for the local goats and the occasional scrambler bike, but our 33c tires were not up to tackling the sloppy mud and slippery rocks. That didn’t mean we didn’t try. By the end of the day I had spent a long time in the 42t cog, and quite a bit of time face down in the mud. It turns out that bunny-hopping a rock is much harder with 20lbs of tents and bags attached to your front wheel.
After I had dragged my mud-covered body into Mike’s Sky Ranch to finally end what might be the slowest ride of my entire life, it was Sean who was doing the laughing. As we went down to the river to wash ourselves and our bikes I caught a glimpse of myself in the water, there was no denying that I looked more like some kind of camouflaged commando than a cyclist.
Fortunately, once I was cleaned up and had availed myself of a large cup of awful coffee, doctored with a large measure of the (possibly contraband) whisky we’d bought with us, I began to perk up. A couple of cans of Tecate, and a dinner which disappeared at breakneck speed, set the world right as we sat around the campfire discussing my uncanny ability to find the biggest rock on a given trail, and then lie down next to it wondering where it had come from.
The final day of our trip had the most varied terrain. Indeed, we weren’t sure if the final day was going to be that day or the next. If we made the same speed as we had the day before, we were in for three more days of dirt naps and telling each other “it gets less rocky pretty soon, I’m sure of it.” Fortunately, it eventually did get less rocky. Sean and I pedaled up the hill out of Mike’s with a sense of trepidation that rapidly turned into a hypoxic haze as the altitude and steep, rocky roads sent us into the 44x42.
However, after an hour of climbing, a chance encounter with the most hardcore Vaquero I have ever seen and not one single incidence of braking with my face, we made it onto a fast, loose and dry descent to the highway. We spent the next hour at 25-plus miles an hour and the smiles on our faces were visible even from our dust covered GoPros. I knew I was smiling for the first time because I felt the dried on dirt cracking on my cheeks. It felt great to be in the 10-tooth cog for the first time in two days!
After the descent, we hit the main road across Baja, but not before we hit a burrito shop to fill up with yet more tortillas and beans, and a pocketful of lollypops. Local truck drivers greeted us with a mixture in incredulity, respect, and hilarity; the latter was mostly caused by my inability to eat the spicy salsa without crying like my dog had died.
A mere hour, and 28 miles later, we left the welcoming (and mildly petrifying) draft of a friendly member of Mexico’s road transport community behind and set off across the dry lakebed. This point of our journey was the great unknown, we couldn’t find anyone who had ridden here and the only people who knew anything had crossed it in trophy trucks as part of the Baja 1000. We didn’t have that kind of horsepower, or suspension, or support. So we were, to put it mildly, apprehensive.
Our fears melted away as we sped across the dry lakebed, a quarter-inch of dry salt on top of hard dirt made a funny crackling noise as we rode along, but it felt like we were flying. Our high spirits and high speeds were put to a swift end as we plunged into a section of mud that, although invisible, was inches deep and stickier than anything I have ever encountered.
The mud ballast did not help us as we battled sand so deep that it would swallow our hubs. We found ourselves back in the 42 tooth cogs on a perfectly flat road making progress at 4mph. After an hour of this, and approaching our breaking point, we stopped for a lollypop and a frank discussion. I was looking over Sean’s shoulder when I noticed that the desert on either side of the track looked rideable. Five minutes later we had doubled our speed and we were dodging cacti and snakes riding purely on a compass bearing towards San Felipe. Somehow it worked and we made it to a rocky, but less sandy road an hour later where we were able to hit 30mph.
Just 7 miles from the end we hit the road to San Felipe. We stopped and ate the last of our delicious Mexican candies and got into a two-man time trial mindset. With our lights on and our exhausted brains and bodies on their last legs, we focused on the road, or wheel in front of us and not much else. Until we looked up and saw the ocean. From here on it was all smiles and high fives as we cruised into town. We made it to the beach in time to see the sunset.
As the Mariachis played and the fish tacos kept coming, we took a moment to reflect on a journey that had taken us just a four-hour drive from home and into another world entirely. We’d ridden hundreds of miles and seen not one stop light or sign, we’d met people we would never have normally encountered, and we’d slept under a sky that was so dark that we’d seen the stars like never before. Sean and I are both bike racers, but this was a more profound experience than any race I have ever won. The process of planning, executing and reflecting on such an adventure has changed how I look at cycling and I hope you’ll take the time to do the same one day. It’s not until you feel the dirt cracking on your cheeks that you really know what it means to smile.