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    Otso Journal

    Sky Island Birthday Ramble

    A woman stands with her fully-loaded Otso bikepacking rig on a prairie ridge in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

    Bikepacking always feels like a reset for me. Or maybe it’s just sleeping outside and being away from the noise. Either way, it’s something I need every so often, especially to commemorate a new chapter. This trip was for my 31st birthday and I wanted to stay close to home to keep the stress down and ease up. The Sky Island Loop was just the route to meet that criteria. Lots of folks hit me up asking questions about this route as it is very close to my home in Tucson. I was always so embarrassed to say that I hadn’t ridden this route in its entirety, but just small fragments here and there. This trip’s goal was to change that, but also to celebrate making it one more year in my flesh suit, because god damn it was a hard year.

    A cyclist poses with his fully-loaded bikepacking bike, placing one leg on the handlebars and steadying himself next to his saddle.
    A female cyclist stands with her bikepacking rig on an Arizona prairie.
    A cyclist gives a peace sign to the camera as she poses with her fully-loaded bikepacking bike on the Arizona plains.
    A cyclist poses and smiles with her fully-loaded bikepacking rig.

    I invited some close friends to accompany me on this ride, some of whom had already completed the East Loop of this route. One person who was joining us, Sharon, had never been on a bikepacking trip and I was so stoked to have someone new to share this joy with. We started in Patagonia, AZ and our plan was to ride the route counterclockwise and camp at the Appleton Whittel Research Ranch that evening. It would be about a 24 mile day, and honestly that’s in the range of how far I like to ride each day on any other bikepacking trip. Unloading bikes from our respective vehicles always brings about this contagious giddiness. We joked about how hot it was already (it was 80 something) and that sunburns were sure to follow.

     

    A group of bikepacking cyclists begin their tour of the Sky Island Loop in Arizona.

    The ride out of Patagonia is on pavement for quite a few miles. We slogged along with our fully loaded rigs which always feel ten times heavier than they actually are on concrete. I could hear the water sloshing in my frame bag. We all were carrying 4 liters or more and it is just one of those shitty things you have to accept if you live in the desert. When we hit the gravel, we all slowed to a more comfortable pace, as we had also started our slow climbs for the day. The road weaved next to a dry streambed for quite some time until it suddenly wasn’t just sand. There was water! And unexpected water in the desert is always magic. Like a bunch of kids, we ditched our bikes on the sides of the road and shimmied into the creek to dip our heads. We had gone maybe 10 miles, but were already stained with sweat.  

     

    A happy cyclist leans over a large boulder to dip her head and hair in a fresh creek.

    We hopped back on our bikes and continued pedaling, the sun hitting our shoulders when it managed to break through or over the canyon walls. Giant sycamores grew near what I imagined was once a flowing river, their golden leaves shifting softly in a welcome breeze. The big climb of the day came at the hottest part of the afternoon (of course). The open prairie greeted us like an inland sea, the tall stalks of grass moving together in waves that seemed to break at the base of the small mountain we would climb up and over. When climbing, I like to tell folks to just go at your own pace and wait at the top for everyone, because nobody likes to feel like you’re holding someone up, or leaving someone behind. The climb was rough with the sun beating down on us, but we all made it and celebrated on the top with some snacks ranging from oreos to jerky.

    The descent to the research ranch felt longer than the miles we had remaining, but I was so glad to be out on my saddle to watch the sky turn from blue to a brilliant ombre of pinks, oranges and purples. The gravel road leading to our cabin for the evening was capital “C” CHUNKY and I was white knuckling it the whole way. We rolled up to a quaint little courtyard with some chairs and picnic tables. To stay at the ranch you need to make a reservation, but it was so worth it for a shower and the ability to wash dishes/your face. Not to mention the views and birds!

    A dusty cyclist rides through the desert haze.
    A female cyclist stands and smiles in front of a sea of tall prairie grasses.
    Two cyclists arrange their belongings and scout out the Arizona horizon.

    The next morning, our goal was to ride a little past Kentucky Camp which would be around 40 miles. More friends met us as we were leaving the ranch, and rode with us on the pavement near Sonoita. There was talk of sand in the upcoming miles and I began to get nervous. I was running 48’s, which did not seem adequate for the sand we might be encountering. We weaved between more tall grass and gravel, hitting pockets of sand here and there but not enough that required a lengthy dismount. We made it to the intersection of gravel and the highway and our friends who had joined us for the day departed. Eager to get to a campsite that was recommended by a friend, we rode on.

     

    A cyclist smiles with a wide open mouth in front of desert brush in Arizona.
    A cyclist, dismounted from his bike, surveys the Arizona desert landscape.

    The camp spot that was sent to us was just a little bit past Kentucky Camp. I thought it would be a good idea to set up camp, unload bikes and then return to get water. Everyone agreed and we continued for another couple miles. We turned the corner nearing the pin drop on the map and my heart sank. There was already someone camped out at this spot and we hadn’t seen another open spot for us along the way. I was tired. Everyone was tired. Folks were getting cranky and we knew we had to make a decision. Ride on and uphill to try to find a camp spot even further, or turn around and scout for a possible shit spot along the road. We opted for the latter and turned around to not only find a spot, but refill our dwindling water supply.

    The only spot we managed to find was right next to a questionable cattle tank. I know it’s kind of a big no no to camp near these, but I had seen multiple along the road and this was one of the only ones that didn’t have fresh and dry cow shit paddies everywhere. It would have to do, and we made the best of it, which wasn’t hard because we had a spectacular view and great company amongst each other. The evening was spent watching the sun set and me reading a small chapter of Dune Messiah out loud to folks, which, honestly, reading it to some folks who hadn’t even read the first book made it sound real real weird.

     

    A happy cyclist smiles at the camera, her group's bikepacking rigs lined up near a cattle trough in the deserts of Arizona.
    A cyclist builds a small fire outside of her bikepacking tent.

    We woke up the next morning ready for one of our biggest descents of the entire trip into Green Valley. It did not disappoint. I always forget how fast a fully loaded bike wants to go once it gets going, and my bike didn’t want to stop as I was sliding around corners kicking up dust. The route travels down a pretty steep canyon with breathtaking walls of stone dotted with brave cacti clinging on to dear life. The base of the canyon fell off to the side of the road and we could make out slight trickles of water here and there. About halfway down we hit it, deep sand. With enough speed and guts, you could glide through it. But I kept fishtailing at speeds that made me legitimately scared for my collarbone.

     

    A cyclist smiles at the camera as she rides a smooth gravel descent out of the Arizona mountains.
    A row of bikepacking rigs along a paved road at the bottom of an Arizona canyon.

    After a few miles of halting to sudden stops in sand pits that seemed to go on forever, we all hit pavement. Such a relief to cruise into town and heading straight to food. Some of my buds had to leave the tour in Green Valley due to work commitments, but Ally, Sharon and myself continued on. Our goal of the day was to ride around 55 miles. This is not the typical mileage I enjoy doing on a tour, but water refills necessitated this. We rode more pavement out of Green Valley in sun that didn’t seem to give us a break. I think we rode the fastest we had ridden on tour on the frontage road next to the highway, because it sucked that bad and we just wanted to get off of it as soon as possible. Thankfully the next stretch of pavement leading into Arivaca had been recently paved and was as smooth as butter. We rode this easily enough and turned onto some gravel that took us North. Then it started. That dull familiar pain. A whisper at first, but soon growing to a roaring ache I could no longer ignore.

    I had been suffering from what I thought was a knee injury for the past two years, and after this trip found out I had IT band syndrome. But here it surfaced again and I continued riding because I wanted to at least make it to camp for the night. We had a long way to go (about 20 more miles) and the sun was quickly setting. If you’ve been to the desert, you know the temperature inversion is kind of wild and so when the sun set, the temperature fell about twenty, then thirty degrees. Ally and Sharon were absolutely crushing it and I noticed I was starting to fall behind. I knew they wouldn’t leave me, but there’s always that bummer feeling of inadequacy in the back of your mind. We hit sand and rocks and at some point I got a chunk of barbed wire tangled in my rear wheel—and by some miracle managed to not break a damn thing.

     

    Three cyclists stand along a gravel road in Arizona.
    A view of a craggy wall of rock in Arizona.

    The last 5 miles before camp were the weirdest. We dropped down into the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge and what I imagine is some kind of swamp in wetter years. All of a sudden, Ally and Sharon’s headlights disappeared into a cloud of dust in front of me. I put my foot down to let the dust clear, but my foot went up to my shin in dust. Popping noises filled the air as I trudged along. It felt like I was walking through baking flour. I squinted through the dirt in the air and pushed my bike through the weirdest ground texture I’ve ever experienced. I rounded the corner and hopped back on my bike behind Ally and Sharon. We rode a little farther and encountered a badger hobbling along the trail and disappearing into the darkness. By about 8pm, we made it to camp and crawled into our warm sleeping bags thankful for our bodies for getting us through the hard day.

    My knee pain woke me in the morning. I knew today and possibly the rest of the trip would be up in the air. Growing “old” comes with a lot of shitty body stuff that can be hard to accept. Like “Oh maybe I should’ve stretched more and taken care of myself better and this wouldn’t have happened.” But here I am. And it’s something I’ve made peace with. My body isn’t and won’t be the same body it was 5 years ago, hell even not even the same body it was yesterday. But I love it most days, because it helps me move through life in so many different ways that bring me joy. And turns out listening to it has equated to feeling more joy.

     

    A cyclist in a Giro helmet smiles into the bright sun.

    I told Ally and Sharon that my knee was hurting me and that I might have to cut the trip short, which felt stupid to say because I’m the one who organized the trip. Of course being the rad humans that they are, they were completely understanding. Most of the morning involved more sand and amaranth that towered over our heads. The past summer’s monsoon season had turned the desert into a jungle and we were riding in the dry remains. A section of the route had been washed out and we stood in awe at the power of flood water. We made it to the road and I decided to call it quits and ride back to Arivaca. Sharon and Ally joined me and we rode in good spirits to town, soaking up the views of Baboquivari mountains.

    A group of bikepackers sit by their camp after a long day of riding.
    Two women cyclists stand along a gravel road in Arizona, facing the camera.
    Two cyclists turn and look back at the camera, smiles spread across their faces.

    All said and done, obviously I’m disappointed that I still can’t tell folks I’ve completed the entirety of the Sky Island Odyssey, but it was still the reset I needed and the continued reminder that my body knows best, no matter how badly I want to “complete” something. My obsession with completeness has driven me to unhealthy standards and decisions. A seeking mentality where I believed I was not fulfilled til it’s finished. Whatever that may be. And what I have found in my recent years of “incompleteness” by other folks' standards, whether that be racing or route finishing, is that I don’t need a checked box made by others’ to feel whole.

     

    A landscape view of the Arizona plains leading to the foothills of a mountain range.

    Happy trails!

    Made Of Grit: Dylan Morton & the Otso Riders of Unbound 2022

    Dylan Morton stands at the finish line of the 2022 Unbound Gravel XL with his fully-loaded Otso Fenrir Stainless bicycle.

    I love that I can go and put my Fenrir through hell and it doesn't care. Like, it's happy to take everything that I've given it and just keep moving forward.

    Dylan Morton takes a sip from his hydration vest and surveys the Expo before him. It’s a scorcher of a day in Emporia, Kansas; the wide, cloudless skies giving no respite to a growing group of cyclists as they move toward the Unbound Gravel XL start line. Dylan is in good spirits: he poses for photos, greets friends as they pass by, and even shimmies into dance aerobics while his fully-loaded Otso Fenrir Stainless models for its own glamor shots. The All Things Gravel Expo is conveniently located right next to the start chute, which is quickly filling with fidgety riders, fans waving beer cans, and fast-melting Untapped Maple creemees. Unbound security volunteers are desperately waving spectators toward either side of the timing barrier, but to no avail—cameras and phones jut into open spaces, trying to capture friends and family as they prepare for one of the largest, unsupported, ultra-endurance bicycling challenges they’ll face this year.

    It’s chaos personified. It’s, as Morton says, “a pregnant moment.” He’s right: the air is palpable, almost electric. “There’s an experience that’s about to happen,” Morton continues, and you can sense that each rider is interpreting this knowledge as best they know how. Briefly he ducks under the shade of the shared Wolf Tooth Components/Otso tents and soaks in the last portions of cool air he’ll find before grabbing his Fenrir Stainless and saluting the fanfare around him. He walks toward the back of the start line where he’ll review on-bike nutrition, determine he’s carrying too much, and give a big bag of M&M’s to a less fortunate friend. The start gun goes off in a flash, and Morton starts rolling.

    I think one thing that has been present in my life is, like, curiosity. What do I want to know? I say oh, I want to see this place, or I want to experience it. Long rides give you the ability to be like oh yeah, I went through there. I went through the whole thing.

    Morton is no stranger to endurance miles. In fact, he prefers them. His palmarès include a win at the 2021 Utah Mixed Epic (an annual 1000-mile event through the heart of Utah’s rugged landscape), a successful ITT of the 2021 1000-mile Arkansas High Country route (a craggy, unsupported route with over 75,000+ feet of elevation gain), as well as numerous bikepacking trips across Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, and other remote sections of America’s backcountry. “I’m curious,” Morton remarks, “I think one thing that has been present in my life is, like, curiosity. What do I want to know? I say oh, I want to see this place, or I want to experience it. Long rides give you the ability to be like oh yeah, I went through there. I went through the whole thing.”

    While some cyclists toe the lines of these epic endurance events with one major goal (to win) Morton’s approach to knocking out the miles comes from a more subtle need to find peace and balance: not only within himself, but in how he relates to the world around him. In 2022 he made the decision to ride his Fenrir Stainless 240 miles from Bentonville, Arkansas to Emporia, Kansas ahead of the 350 mile XL race—not because he needed the extra shakeout, but because it helped Morton solidify the natural bonds between his bike and his own mental/emotional state. “There’s something about riding to a bike race on the [same] bike that you are also going to race,” Morton explains, “It makes you feel like, no, I’m home. I’m comfortable. I have been riding this thing. I know exactly how it speaks to me. I can speak to it. If there’s anything even weird, fine. We’re in sync, and there is something in that that makes me feel so much more calm.”

    Dylan Morton's fully-loaded Otso Fenrir Stainless ahead of the 2022 Unbound Gravel XL.
    An Otso Cycles Fenrir Stainless with a race number plate for Unbound Gravel XL.
    A Wolf Tooth direct mount chainring with White Industries cranks mounted on an Otso Fenrir Stainless bicycle.
    A rear light and Wolf Tooth seatpost clamp covered in dirt and dust.

    Morton isn’t here to win. He’s here to become a part of the course. “[Winning] is not my goal,” he states. “That’s not in my DNA.” Yet, that doesn’t mean these races aren’t meaningful for Morton. Having the ability to stay “consistent and purposeful and motivated and moving” is evidence enough of his mental and physical fitness; however, Morton’s ethos toes the line between pushing power and appreciating his body’s strength in the moment. “I feel like if you’re going to a race, you should feel like you’ve given it every bit of effort, that you should not leave anything in reserve. But you shouldn’t be at the end [of the race] thinking, cool, turn around, get the bike ready to go. As long as I got across the line, that’s appropriate. And I always want to leave that for me.”

    The Unbound XL capped a 590 mile journey for Morton’s Otso Fenrir Stainless, which, as Morton states, “disappeared” as he reached a groove on the southward course. “Everything was selected for [that bike],” he explains, “Like, conscious choice. There was nothing that was just given to me … or, like, I wasn’t aware of. Like, the tires—fully aware of them and selected and chosen and put on there. And there is something really fun about that. But I think the reason why I do those things is so that when I’m riding a bike, that’s the last thing I have to think about.” The course itself was “very pedaly”: “Didn’t have to get off my bike at all, didn’t have to turn on my head lamp," Morton says. "I could actually use my Dynamo, which requires my front wheel to be spinning at a certain speed to create light. Didn’t have to worry about light the whole time because that was on all night.”

    Riders at the start of the 2022 Unbound Gravel XL bikepacking race.
    Cyclists lined up at the start of the 2022 Unbound Gravel XL race.
    Water covers a part of the 2022 Unbound Gravel course.
    Dylan Morton pedals forward on his Otso Fenrir Stainless at the 2022 Unbound Gravel XL bikepacking race.
    A row of flowers alongside a Kansas field.
    A field of corn is blanketed by a cloudy blue sky.

    The Otso Fenrir Stainless is a ride-anywhere bike—a bike meant for speedy singletrack, craggy climbs, long bikepacking journeys, and afternoon coffee rides. For Morton at Unbound, it became a steadfast workhorse so reliable it “melted away” as his pedals pushed forward through the Flint Hills, from El Dorado to Eureka, Hamilton to Madison, and finally back to Emporia. Consistent and capable, the Fenrir shepherded Morton to his flock, taking “every bit of input” and saying “yes” to whatever Morton asked of it. “I just put it out in front of me,” he explains, “and it just rode over everything, and there was nothing I had to worry about.”

    Sometimes… you actually are a part of the landscape. You’ve lived here your whole life. Tell me who you are. Who is the person who wants to be here?

    The famed rains that soaked through the 200- and 100-milers met Morton with grace, having already ridden through several storms on his trek into Emporia from Bentonville. For endurance bikepackers, rain is “part of the process”—Morton, however, takes the sentiment a bit further. “[It’s] this kind of relief,” he says. “Now we’re riding in a little bit of mud and a little bit of cold. Thank you, [mud and cold]. Like, this changes the script. This cools it off. This is different.” Being present and in the moment on course affords Morton the time to respect and honor the lands he rides on—to make them a part of “his bones.” As a full time mechanic for The Meteor in Bentonville, Morton uses experiences like Unbound XL to reintroduce himself to the world: to become a part of the larger spaces in which he rides. “Sometimes… you’re just like, you actually are a part of the landscape,” he muses, “You’ve lived here your whole life. Tell me who you are. Who is the person who wants to be here?”

    Dylan Morton holds a Pacifico beer and kisses a dog following his finish at the Unbound Gravel XL race.
    Dylan Morton stands with his Otso Cycles Fenrir Stainless at the end of the 2022 Unbound Gravel XL.
    Dylan Morton, covered in mud, smiles for the camera at the finish line of the Unbound Gravel XL race.
    Dylan Morton's muddy, dusty, and dirty Otso Fenrir Stainless at the end of Unbound XL.

    Morton completed his Unbound XL journey at 4:20PM on Saturday, June 5th, having ridden a total of 350 miles in 25h 23m 08s on top of the 240 miles already logged between Bentonville and Emporia. As he is greeted at the finish line with beer, hugs, and a wet towel from Chamois Butt’r, Morton suppresses his thousand-yard-stare, poses with his Fenrir Stainless, and shares ride details with friends. “I rode the bike, it did its thing, and I didn’t have to think about it, do anything, put a chain back on, worry about it,” he says, wiping his face. “I love the aspect that I can go and put my Fenrir through hell and it doesn’t care.” At this point, it’s safe to say that Morton and his Fenrir Stainless have become one. Just like Morton, the bike is “happy to take everything [given to it] and just keep moving forward.” And forward they will go.


    Otso Cycles makes versatile, performance-first bikes that are inspired by the spirit of the forest. You can find us on the terrain less traveled, in the winding woods, shredding a forgotten trail, and also on social media. Check out our Unbound gallery below to see Otso riders ready to take Emporia by storm.

    A cyclist proudly holds her Otso Cycles Waheela C.
    A cyclist proudly displays his Otso Warakin.
    A cyclist proudly displays his Otso Cycles Warakin bicycle.
    An Otso Cycles owner proudly displays his Voytek.
    A cyclist proudly stands with his Otso Cycles Waheela C.
    A cyclist proudly stands with his Otso Warakin.
    A cyclist stands proudly with his Otso Warakin at Unbound Gravel 2022.
    A cyclist proudly displays her custom Otso Cycles Waheela C at Unbound Gravel 2022.
    A cyclist holds up his Otso Cycles Waheela C on one wheel.
    A cyclist proudly shows off his Otso Cycles rig.
    A cyclist proudly displays his Otso Waheela C.

    Sounds2Sounds 2022 Recap - Hana Black

    Three women in cycling kit stand in front of a lake while each raising a fist.
    A line of cyclists walk their bikes across a boat dock toward the shore in early dawn.
    Three cyclists ride along a gravel road while dark storm clouds swirl over the hills in the distance.
    A long stretch of dark gravel road winds towards a mountain range on the horizon.
    A cyclist rides along a tree-lined gravel road.
    A fully-loaded Otso bikepacking bike leans against a white gate that reads
    A cyclist rides down a sandy descent with both feet off the bike's pedals.
    A cyclist rides her Otso bikepacking bike along a gravel road that leads to a vast mountain range under a clear blue sky.

    Sounds2Sounds is the latest event on the increasingly well appointed New Zealand bikepacking calendar. Conceived by the Kennett Brothers (New Zealand's mountain bike race and brevet pioneers and prolific route and guidebook editors) it connects Totaranui/Queen Charlotte Sound at the top of Te Waipounamu/South Island with Piopiotahi/Milford Sound in Fiordland. The event links many of the New Zealand Cycle Trail network routes into a 1460km brevet, with a few alternates to make it suitable for various bike set-ups and plenty of elevation to keep the legs and heart working hard.

    I signed up for the event as soon as I caught wind of it, despite it starting only a month after Tour Te Waipounamuthe hardest race on the NZ bikepacking calendar. I planned to ride this event at a more relaxed pace, and it would be the perfect opportunity to break in my new Otso Fenrira beautiful stainless steel bikepacking-specific bike with a carbon Enve fork, which was fresh out of the box just a few weeks before the ride rolled out. I got it set up with a set of Revelate Designs kit and managed to squeeze in one two hour loaded ride: to an urban park to practise pitching my Big Agnes Scout tent, and make sure everything was in working order.

    A woman unpacks and sets up her bikepacking camping gear that she has carried on her Otso Fenrir bikepacking bike.
    A collection of bikes wait on a ferry boat on a calm lake under a warm and bright sunrise.

    After disembarking from the pre-dawn water taxi to Meretoto/Ship Cove on March 1st, 84 keen riders spaced themselves out for a quick debrief and karakiaa Māori prayer for favourable conditions on our ride. There was no mass start; rather riders were left to roll off as they felt ready to ensure social distancing of at least several bike lengths on the Queen Charlotte Track. I teamed up with friends Rachel and Debbie for the first day, and with similar motivations to ensure a good time was had, we stuck together all the way to Milford, nine days later.

    The Queen Charlotte Track is a fun 70km undulating singletrack through lush coastal forest, with plenty of opportunities to look out across the turquoise water of the sound. The Fenrir flowed around the switchbacks, and the seat dropper ensured the steep, sometimes rocky descents, were not too hair-raising. Although it was our shortest day, at 90km, the 2600m of elevation gain made it a challenging first day.

    A cyclist rides their Otso Fenrir bike up a gravel incline; in the background, a calm lake and the side of a mountain range.
    Clear blue waves lap against a gravel beach while clouds snake over a mountain range on the horizon.
    A vista of clear blue waters vignetted by foliage and deep green ferns.
    A cyclist walks her Otso Fenrir bikepacking setup through a rocky river crossing.
    New Zealand street signs point towards cities and areas of interest.

    Day two offered a stark change of scenery as we slowly crawled our way up the wide open Awatere Valley into a stiff headwind. Our first apple tasting came from a trail angel on the Taylors Pass road standing by with buckets of juicy apples and pears from her garden. The vineyards in the lower valley soon gave way to steepening tussock-covered hills as we ascended into the guts of the backcountry on the Molesworth Muster Route. Shortly after arriving at the station gate in the early evening we heard we’d narrowly missed the actual muster, as thousands of cattle had been herded through the campsite just a few hours before our arrivalMolesworth Station is both a recreation reserve and New Zealand's largest operating farm. With access restricted after 7pm we settled in to camp with a posse of other riders for the night.

    Two cyclists stand against a dramatic red sunset with their fully-loaded bikepacking rigs.

    The morning frost was a good motivator to get going, pedalling hard to warm up before the sun made its way high enough to reach us. Soon after, the climb to Wards Pass (1130m / 3707ft) had us stripping back the layers, and by the time we reached the cafe and hot pools at Hanmer Springs it was too warm to even think about having a dip. Instead we fuelled up for a team time trial with Andrew and Hazel to quickly dispatch the busy road to the Culverden shop to resupply. Some zig-zagging on quieter backroads, via a couple of disappointing apple trees (too green), had us arriving at The Hogget pub in Hawarden for another 7pm-ish finish, establishing this as our preferred time to stop for the day. Bruce sorted out the key for the Rugby Club showers and camping at the domain while we feasted on surprisingly gourmet meal options for a very small rural town.

    Consensus the next morning on the road was that none of us had slept well, but the legs slowly woke up while we witnessed another beautiful sunrise. We rolled up and then down through north Canterbury, to Amberley for a well-needed second breakfast and perhaps the best coffee of the ride. Shortly afterwards we branched off the Hurunui Heartland route, following the alternate via Oxford, to avoid Christchurch city. The day was highlighted by more wild apple tasting (red but sour) and a stop for a famous Sheffield pie, as well as a couple of locals coming out to cheer us on. I’d outlined an ambitious schedule of nine plus days of riding, but today's 220km plan to Mt. Somers went out the window as we reached the Rakaia Gorge campsite around 7pm, took a look up at the climb ahead, and called the day done.

    An Otso Fenrir bike leans against a sign that reads
    Two women cyclists talk while eating and holding multiple bitten apples in their hands.

    The climb out of the gorge was nowhere near as daunting in the dark the next morning, and was well timed for another magic red dawn as we started out across the Canterbury plains—hugging the foothills of Kä Tiritiri o te Moana/Southern Alps. We made time at Mt Somers for an obligatory pie and coffee, followed by several more successful apple stops on the ride to a relaxed cafe and resupply break in Geraldine. From here things got surprisingly hilly, as we began the traverse inland via climbs over Mount Gay (small but sweet apples) and Rockwood Roads to a creekside camp before Mackenzie Pass. It was a peaceful Friday evening, apart from the locals out hunting wallabies after dark who insisted on speeding back and forth through the nearby fjord. I guess there’s not much else to do for fun out there.

    In anticipation of the view across the expansive grassland of the Mackenzie Basin we were pedalling early, passing two dead wallabies and one live one that had escaped the hunters’ guns. Early light on the Southern Alps while we were on the descent from Mackenzie Pass was ample reward for the sometimes steep climb. I was keen on the optional mountain bikers’ direct route to Twizel, but my legs voted against me, and my stomach confirmed second breakfast was the better choice as we rolled up to the Greedy Cow cafe in Tekapo and ordered a table-full of flat whites, croissants and cinnamon rolls in the sun. Tekapo marked the start of the Alps 2 Ocean route via lakes Tekapo, Pukaki and Ohau. A sharp change in weather was forecast and by the time we left the glassy Lake Pukaki, took a decent stop for lunch in Twizel, and reached the aptly named Lake Ohau—Place of Wind—waves were whipping across the lake. An early stop was debated and when it turned out accommodation at Ohau Lodge included a three-course dinner and breakfast, and they had a guest laundry, a rest-day was declared with a 5:30pm finish.

    A warm breakfast of croissants, lattes, and sweet buns are laid out on a wooden table.

    A cyclist rides alone along a double-track gravel road into a foggy hillside.

    By now we were over 1000km in and we finally got some nasty South Island weather thrown at us to see what we were really made of. After warming up with our only hot pie for the day at Omarama, and Rachel and Debbie had bought some warmer socks and gloves, we decided to push on and find out. It was a heads down grunt up the steep rough road to Omarama Saddle (1260m / 4134ft), battling into a rather unpleasant southerly front. With our field of view narrowly focussed by the rain it didn’t seem to take too long before the brakes were on for the even rougher descent to Top Hut. It was more sheltered from the storm in the upper Manuherikia Valley, and realising that the river wasn’t up as much as feared, we ploughed on. It was a super slippery ride, with approximately 20 river crossings to wash the mud off us and the bikes. The road briefly turned to the worst kind of mud—incredibly sticky peanut butter—stopping us in our tracks until a suitable tool could be found to scrape enough off to move on. The day ended with a friendly welcome in Oturehua— many thanks to the locals at the Railway Hotel, Gilchrist's Store (owned by Debbie’s mother’s cousin!) and Crows Nest Accommodation for looking after riders as they passed through at various times during the event. They even have an apple tree on the main street!

    An Otso Fenrir's tires and water bottle are covered in thick mud.
    A cyclist stands and looks back at the camera while holding an apple up to her face and smiling.
    A cyclist walks their Otso Fenrir bikepacking bike through a high and rocky river crossing.

    It was a cruisy 60km in the slowly lifting fog on the Central Otago Rail Trail, arriving in Alexandra for elevenses of a hot bacon croissant, cream donut and latte in the sun. After a quick stop to help ourselves to the most delicious apples of the ride—left on the Anniversary River Track for S2S riders—and then an unwelcome bee sting, it was onto the Lake Dunstan Trail and a blur of e-bikes as we rode against the flow of traffic. Word of the latest Great Ride has spread fast, with nearly everyone in New Zealand keen to get on it before tourists are let back into the country. The spectacularly cantilevered bridges over the lake and the aroma of wild thyme do make this a unique ride.

    With over 110km already under our wheels we slowly inched our way up the 1000m climb to the route's high point at Duffers Saddle (1280m / 4200ft), regrouping with Bill and Brett for a group photo to celebrate. Sadly it was not all downhill to the finish, we still had another 50km and 500m up the Nevis Valley to get done. My legs were not impressed about the overtime in the saddle, so I had to channel Jens Voight and give them a talking to—“Shut up legs, do as I tell you”—before happily arriving at the rustic Garston Ski Hut at 9:30PM. It was our longest day by a couple of hours, but we felt like the lazy ones as we got into our cozy sleeping bags while a steady stream of Godzone adventure race teams trickled by, enveloped in their little bubbles of light and fatigue.

    A group of cyclists stands at the top of a mountain for a group photo.
    A fully-loaded Otso Fenrir leans against an embankment while the sun dramatically sets in the distance.

    What goes up must go down, and when it’s a 650m descent to hit The Coffee Bomb caravan in Garston it takes no time at all. The caffeine kept us rolling along nicely on the Round the Mountains Trail, though the chore of opening gates through the Southland farms got a little tedious. Our self appointed domestique Debbie kindly went ahead and made the job a little easier for those of us lagging behind. Never one to shirk her responsibilities, our chief apple taster Rachel checked a few more trees off on the way to Mossburn for a venison pie and, you guessed it, coffee top-up for the remaining leg to Te Anau. With just 125km to go we spent the evening socialising with other riders: the three B’s Bill, Brett and Bruce who we’d played tag with for the whole ride, Andrew and Hazel who’d finished earlier that day, and a couple of others just watching the dots this time around.

    It had been 13 years since my last visit to Fiordland National Park, part of Te Wähipounamu-South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage Area, and I’d forgotten how dramatic the stunning sheer-sided alpine scenery was. Needless to say the last day was our slowest, as we rode along craning our necks to try and take it all in, and making countless photo stops. The superb views made up for the lack of apples and cafes — though we did come across a surprise coffee cart at Mirror Lakes, and Rachel found an apple in her bag she’d stashed days earlier. There was still 1650m of climbing to do but we enjoyed every slow minute of it, especially without the pre-Covid tourist traffic levels, and we had the road virtually to ourselves. The final prize was the 900m descent from the entrance of Homer Tunnel down to Piopiotahi/Milford Sound—an exhilarating finish to an already memorable ride. There was no fanfare but we did arrive to a one-man welcoming committee waiting to take our photo in front of the iconic view of Mitre Peak and buy us a beer — cheers Bill!

    A cyclist rides alone along a gravel road toward a mountain range and cloudy sunset.
    A cyclist wearing Otso kit stands in front of a mountain lake with her Otso Fenrir and smiles at the camera.
    A photo of a map of Milford Sound in New Zealand.

    Thanks to everyone for the dot-watching and support, especially to the trail angels and the locals that went the extra mile during the event — it was very much appreciated. The photos might make it look like a holiday but my legs and backside beg to differ.

    Ride Stats

    Total Time: 9d 9h 9m
    Distance: 1480km / 920m
    Elevation Gain: 16,764m / 55,000ft
     
    Thanks to the following for their support:
    Otso Cycles and Wolf Tooth Components
    Revelate Designs
    Big Agnes
    Sungod Sunglasses
    Biomaxa
    Passchier Handlebars
     
    Photos: Hana Black, Rachel Berry, Bill Brierley

    Tuscobia Winter Ultra Race Report - Amanda Harvey

    A fully-loaded Otso Voytek leans against a metal bridge railing while a winter river steams in the background.

    The Tuscobia Winter Ultra is a 160 or 80 mile race along the Tuscobia and Wild River Trails that takes place in December or January. The 80 mile course is one way, this year from Northern Pines Resort on Butternut Lake to Rice Lake, Wisconsin. The 160 mile course starts in Rice Lake; at Butternut Lake racers turn around and go back the way they came. In 2019 I completed the 80 mile race on bike, it was warm (for winter), rainy and icy. This year I was wishing for cold and my wish was granted, and then some.

    The alarm went off at 4:00AM, but I was already awake. The buzzing was just confirmation to get up and start the final steps of getting to the start line of the Tuscobia 160. I tried all my tricks to get to sleep, but the anxiety of staying out over night in forecasted -20 degrees Fahrenheit weather and the unknowns of the trail had my mind racing. Time to get out of bed, make breakfast, layer up and roll out the door of the hotel.

    Except, I decided to make some last minute clothing changes because the temperature was currently -4F and I thought it would be 5 above. Not that 9 degrees make that big of a difference, but in my head below zero meant warmer layers were needed. This was no simple task, as it meant unpacking the saddlebag, swapping out clothes, and packing it up again. I checked the clock and I was still doing great for time.

    Then I decided I should put face tape on and be done with it. Face tape is used to prevent exposed skin from getting frostbite. I hacked some tape roughly into face shapes with my Leatherman knife and put them on. This took longer than anticipated because I used a small knife and not scissors to cut; you gotta use the correct tool for the job. I checked the clock and now I was running late.

    I asked my husband, Andy, to bring my drop bag to the start for me and rolled out into the dark. Twenty-five minutes to get to the start should be enough to go 2 ½ miles, but not in a comfortable amount of time. This ride gave me my first taste of the trail conditions and the north wind that blew straight down the first 5 miles of the course. It wasn’t a good taste.

    Thankfully, I arrived before the race began with enough time to check in, snag my drop bag from Andy, add it to the truck with the others, give Andy a kiss, the dogs a pet, and hop back on my bike. Unfortunately, my hurrying meant that I had sweated a whole bunch. Winter ultra veterans will tell you sweating means trouble. We sweat when we’re warm to cool our bodies down. When it’s cold outside, you don’t need to be any colder. By now the temperature was about -13 degrees Fahrenheit and I was worried I was in trouble.

    Race Director Helen Scotch gave us the count down to go and we were off! I used the first straight 5 miles to calm my breathing and tried not to overheat. Top layers were unzipped and goggles came off because they fogged up due to my sweaty face. At the turn onto the Tuscobia Trail, I stopped with some other racers and took off a layer of socks because my feet were so warm.

    Then I spent the remaining 30 miles to the first checkpoint in my own head with thoughts like, why do I do this sort of thing, it’s actually not very fun, and I’m going super slow, maybe I should just drop. But how can I drop out with my dignity? I couldn’t come up with a good answer because even though the going was slow, I wasn’t cold and I was still going. My liner gloves were wet, my baselayer through to my outer fleece were damp, my buff formed an icicle that attached to my outer layers and eventually I couldn’t unzip them to get to my water. Before that happened though, I dug out my phone to look at why my eyelashes kept sticking together.

    A woman with a headlamp and face protection shows off her frozen eyelashes.

    The eyelash ice was becoming a problem and I worried about getting frostbite on my corneas. So I pulled out a ruff that’s attachable with magnets and put it on the hood of my fleece. Once zipped the ruff created a wonderful little microclimate around my face that melted the frost. With this set up I was still too warm, but felt confident enough that I could make it to the first Ojibwa checkpoint to dry out and change baselayers.

    Once I got to the checkpoint the wonderful volunteers checked me in, offered me food and drink and helped dry out my gear. Seeing friendly faces (hi Rebecca!) and getting such support buoyed my spirits. Here I was told that I was in 2nd place for the women’s 160 race. This was surprising and it lit a little spark in me to keep going. A volunteer in a fox costume did a cartwheel in the snow for me as I turned back onto the trail with a smile on my face.

    After the town of Winter I started seeing more 80 mile racers coming in, and cheering them on was one of my favorite parts of the race. Greeting everyone, looking to see if I could spot friends in the distance kept my mind focused on positive things. I had planned to squeak my narwhal horn in encouragement for folks passing by, but it was so cold the plastic had frozen stiff and Gnarly couldn’t squeak.

    A fully-loaded bikepacking bike leans in the snow by a plowed trail road.

    One aspect I appreciate about winter training is that I get to see a lot of sunrises without getting up too early. After the race start, when I was grumpy and in my head, there were some really beautiful and delicate undulatus clouds marking the first sunrise of the New Year. That evening we were treated to a stellar sunset as well. Riding your bike is a great way to do some cloud spotting, and always remember to look behind you.

    A fully-loaded bikepacking bike in the snow by a paved road with a cloudy sunset in view.

    By Loretta my goal times were out the window and I was just riding to carry on. I had to admit to myself that I would be riding into the turnaround at Butternut Lake in the dark. Once the dark hit I ended up leap frogging with a couple other riders. We’d ride together for a bit, split apart, and then come back together. I was set at riding my own pace because I didn’t want to burn out and leave nothing left to get me back to Rice Lake.

    The new route to the turnaround at Northern Pines Resort on Butternut Lake was like snowmobile single track. It was pretty fun in parts and pretty steep in parts, which was tough on the legs after riding for so long. Once on the lake, construction barrels traced the route to the cabin and reports of open water had me keep close to them while riding in the dark.

    Once again the wonderful volunteers at the turnaround checkpoint were attentive and incredibly helpful. They dried out my clothes and brought me hot soup and tea. I finally got to chat some more with other racers and it was nice to get to know people better who do such silly things as ride their bikes through the night in the dead of winter. As I dried out I worked through what to do next. Do I bivy there and finish the last half of the race refreshed? Do I go ahead and just keep pushing? Eventually I decided to head back to Winter, possibly to bivy by their newly remodeled train depot which has very nice heated bathrooms. Using a nice warm toilet instead of a frozen-ish port-a-potty was very enticing. Plus, bivvying at the turnaround would make it too easy to drop. Though with the number of folks dropping, getting a ride back to Rice Lake before morning was unlikely. At this point I knew my second place finish was secured, as long as I finished. This helped me mentally to be less frustrated with being slow. Just keep on going, I have plenty of time to finish.

    With fresh baselayers I headed out into the night with another rider. He was planning on going at a sweat-free pace and I thought he’d be a good person to follow along. Unfortunately for me, coming off the lake I bounced off a snowbank and tipped my bike over. Alas, I was alone again. The snowmobile single track was much more fun on the way out, with chicken noodle soup in my belly and a good rest on my legs. This energetic, revived feeling did not last.

    I became startled by animals in the snow. No. No, that was just snow that looked like an animal. My bedtime is pretty strict, mainly because my body enforces it. And now it was after midnight and I was up past my bedtime. Maintaining a straight line was a struggle. I decided to chug half my thermos of black tea to try and stay awake. The main outcome of that was to make me feel ill—like I was about to be sick. But at least I wasn’t sleepy. After what felt like an eternity, I arrived at the train depot in Winter. Despite what I thought, the depot itself wasn’t open.

    I joined other racers while we all tried to figure out our next steps. Sleeping at the depot meant laying out on the wooden platform, which would be quite chilly in -20 degrees F with the draft under the platform. Saying goodbye to the nice, warm bathroom, I decided to push on the next 5 miles to the Ojibwa checkpoint. By now I was really sleepy and thought these 5 miles would drag on. However, the clouds were clearing, making the temperature drop, but then the stars began to shine. Down the trail, just above the trees I could see a red star, twinkling, leading me onward. Mars! Seeing Mars energized me and the five miles I was dreading went by quickly.

    Again the volunteers took good care of me, providing me with hot chocolate and soup. Another racer, Matt, and I talked over the benefits of taking a nap or pushing through the night. My knees had been hurting for a couple dozen miles, so a nap would help with wandering across the trail while being sleepy and would give my knees a rest. Matt agreed a nap would be good and we set up our bivvies. I wore my big puffy jacket, puffy pants, refreshed the toe warmers between sock layers and wore my boot liners in the sleeping bag. The hardest thing about an accordion pad is keeping it from folding it back on you, so I got some help to stretch it back out and then laid down for a sleep. I’ve never slept really well in a bivy, so I didn’t anticipate needing an alarm, I planned to get up when I got tired of trying to fall asleep. Looking at the stars I closed my eyes.

    When I opened them again the sky had changed colors. It wasn’t black anymore, it was a cold shade of teal. I had slept! I felt better! Wow! The volunteers were moving the picnic tables around us, so I decided it was time to get up. Matt and I hadn’t discussed if we were leaving together or if we would go on our own. He was still sleeping, so I did what my Dad does when packing up the tent while we’re camping. I put my sleeping bag away really noisily. Unfortunately it was only two pieces of gear, so I made up for lost noise by chatting with the volunteers. It was just before 7am, so I had slept for over 2 hours. No wonder I felt refreshed! Matt awoke and started on the process of getting ready too. After getting water refills and additional snacks, we were set to go out. I told Matt to go on ahead so I could go at my own pace and not worry about slowing anyone down. Sure enough on the trail from Ojibwa Park to the Tuscobia trail, I had to stop to adjust my layers. And then I stopped again because the sunrise was beautiful. And then again because the steam coming off the Chippewa River was gorgeous. A nap will do wonders for your mood.

    A woman in outdoor gear with frozen hair and face protection smiles in front of a calm sunrise.

    A fully-loaded bikepacking bike leans against a fence by the Chippewa River.

    After stopping for photos I realized that my goggles were dry and I wasn’t sweaty, so I could actually wear them again. All kinds of good things were happening! Too bad my knees weren’t feeling the joy. At least it was only 45 miles back to Rice Lake. I had the whole day to get there. So even though I was plodding along, I was still plodding.

    After the thrilling up and down by the Lemington railroad tracks (will a train come through the valley at the same time as me, in a deeply unmatched game of Criss Cross Crash?) something had to change. My knees hurt so much. I didn’t know if I could keep on pedaling. Heck, I had even started walking for stretches. To attempt some relief I did a trailside pants change. Fleece-lined pants off, fleece shorts off, (keeping on bike shorts and wool long johns), I pulled on fleece-lined leggings with the fleece shorts back over top. Hopefully the stretchier fabric would give my knees a break. As I was making this change, a runner was approaching. I asked if he had any pain relievers. It was still 13 miles to Birchwood, which would be the next town with a store for me to buy my own. In the state I was in, I wouldn’t make it those miles. Fortunately, he did! My trail angel was Alex and those Ibuprofen were so, so appreciated.

    Andy and the dogs met me at Ed’s Pit Stop in Birchwood and it was nice to see them and pet the puppies. I snagged some Tylenol, a hot cheese burger and some caffeinated bubbly water. I still had plenty of snacks in my bags, but nothing sounded good at that point. Except bubbly water. I really wanted bubbly water.

    Usually at some point in a ride, I just want to be finished. During this race, that point came in Birchwood. I had to cover 16.5 miles on painful knees and I wanted it done in 2 hours. In normal times that seems reasonable. But I had 144 miles on my legs already and the temperature was in the single digits. Perhaps with the “get it done” determination the miles would pass quickly So off I went, boosted by dog pets and a gas station cheeseburger.

    When you’re doing an ultra, or maybe anything difficult, it’s important to be your own best friend. I was not a good best friend to myself on this stretch of the course on the way out, so maybe for the return leg I could be a better friend. Alas, the best friend in my head decided it was time to sing “Here Comes Santa Claus” over and over. I hated her. Please, think of another song, any song. My brain could not think of the words to any other songs. Have I even heard other songs before? This dreariness was broken by catching up to runners on their homestretch. And what was most certainly not a hallucination, SIX (!) horse-drawn buggies. I stared in amazement. I was caught staring in amazement by a buggy driver and we exchanged waves.

    Delighted I kept pushing the pedals. Seeing and overtaking runners and dodging wayward sleds, I made the left turn onto the Wild Rivers Trail that would take me to Rice Lake. The scenery looked familiar from 2 years ago, but not from the day before. It was too dark and I was too in my own head. The sun had begun its descent and I was almost done. In the distance I saw a bright orange dot, would that be Andy in his hunting jacket? The dot seemed small and far away, but gave me something to focus on. A few more choruses of Santa watching you when you sleep .. and it was Andy! The end was in sight!

    I finished the Tuscobia 160 in 33 hours and 1 minute. I was the second of the two women that finished the 160 on bike. Only one other woman finished the 160, and she was on foot. Overall I’m really proud of finishing despite being grumpy, in pain, and only having the one song in my head. The finish rate for all 3 disciplines and both distances was 47%. Going at my own pace and taking a nap were what really helped me. Being able to dry out clothes, switch base layers, and having plenty of warm layers were also key to managing the cold.

    I wouldn’t be able to go on adventures such as this without the support of my husband Andy, he helps make sure I do my workouts and picks up my slack at home. Otso has been a fantastic sponsor and makes sure my bike works smoothly. In late 2021 I started working with Kate Coward at Full Potential Coaching and I’ve made a lot of gains! Having someone who understands what winter ultras are all about makes the coaching incredibly focused. Finally, I appreciate the cheers and support from my teammates on Corpse Whale Racing. Our Team Mascot, Gnarly, led the way for the whole race.

    A smiling cyclist and her husband stand behind her fully-loaded bikepacking bike at the finish line of the Tuscobia 160.