Sarah and Tom Swallow joined us on a custom two and a half week loop in northern Baja California this past month, including several segments of the Baja Divide route and other classic rides through the region. We crossed the border at Tijuana and they finished their ride with a few days in San Felipe on the coastline of the Sea of Cortez, taking a series of buses back to Mexicali and Tijuana. They will both be joining the group start on January 2, 2017 and learned some valuable lessons in their first few weeks in Baja. Although both Tom and Sarah are experienced riders and bikepackers– including their groundbreaking off-pavement TAT ride across the country–riding in Baja required a little recalibration.
For more discussion about the Baja Divide route check in to the new Baja Divide Facebook group.
Where did you ride in Baja?
Sarah: We rode from San Diego to Tijuana and Tecate. From Tecate we rode the Baja Divide route for a while until we split off to ride to Laguna Hanson. We rejoined the route again outside Ojos Negros, followed it to Ejido Uruapan and took an alternate route down the coast all the way to Vicente Guerrero. From Vicente Guerrero we rode to San Quintin, scouting a new singletrack addition to the Baja Divide, and then back to Vicente Guerrero where we followed the Baja Divide route backwards through the mountains to Rancho El Coyote where we parted ways with Nick and Lael. We continued our ride to San Felipe via Mike’s Sky Ranch.
Favorite ride or section of the trip?
Sarah: It’s funny how the hardest rides can sometimes be your most favorite. My favorite rides were riding from Ojos Negros to Ejido Uruapan to Ejido Erendira; riding into the mountains to Rancho Meling from Vicente Guerrero; and riding across a dried up lake bed from the mountains to San Felipe.
Tom: We had intended to take a shoreline section of road from Punta China southward but had to find an inland alternative because of an impassable private property situation. The improvised route started with a real blood pumper of a climb and a little walk for me. Once we reached the high ground we could see faint doubletrack winding all the way back to the ocean’s edge. Baja is full of rewarding tough stuff.
Hardest ride of your trip?
Sarah: There were three really challenging sections that stand out to me. The route we took from Ejido Uruapan to the Ejido Erendira, most of which isn’t on the Baja Divide route. The Baja Divide section we rode backwards from Vicente Guerrero to Rancho Meling, and lastly, the ride from El Coyote to Mike’s Sky Ranch, also not on the Baja Divide. The reason these sections were exceptionally difficult for me were because of the large size of the rocks in the road, steep hills, washed out conditions from water creating ruts, and damage caused by motor-vehicles creating many awkward off camber sections. A lot of very strenuous riding!
Tom: We rode to Rancho Meling after a couple easy days of tacos and hotel life in Vicente Guerrero and the terrain between had me walking a bit. It was beautiful, it was steep, it was sandy, and I thought the route would kill me and then it was over and there was a hot shower and good food. The route runs the opposite direction, which should be easier, but that day made me question my bike setup.
Describe your wheel and tire system (tire size and model, tubeless features, etc.). Did it work well for you?
Sarah: I was riding Specialized Ground Control 27.5 x 3.0” tires mounted to 29mm (internal diameter) Specialized Traverse wheels, set up tubeless with Specialized tubeless rim tape and Orange Seal sealant. The tubeless system worked flawlessly during our time there, even when we were riding and camping in some areas with a lot of cacti. When our tires do get thorns we leave them in as they keep the hole plugged until they naturally fall out or break off.
Coming from riding a 38mm rim (internal diameter) to a narrower 29mm rim, I really did not feel like I had the same amount of control and confidence on a lot of the technical riding, specifically the descending in Baja. Baja has a lot of slick rock surface (a lot like Moab) covered with a thin layer of sand (like cat litter). I definitely felt that if I had a beefier tire up front and a wider rim I would have had more grip and control on that surface.
Tom: Specialized Ground Control 27.5×3.0″ front and rear with 6oz Orange Seal per tire on Roval Traverse 2Bliss wheels (29mm internal diameter). I’ve had good luck with these tires regarding flats and punctures. I assumed the route would be a little more dirt road cruising, so we had the big volume of the 3.0″ tires on a lighter narrower wheelset, which yields a fairly fast rolling and forgiving ride at the expense of total tire footprint. Footprint is key for easy riding in Baja. Soft terrain, from cat litter to moondust, requires more attention and input [with narrower rims and tires). I like to relax and goof off when I ride, especially if there’s a lot of tough pedaling along the way, so I’ve switched to Specialized Purgatory 27.5×3.0″ tires front and rear and a wider 38mm Roval Fattie SL wheelset. The Purgatory tire has more “edge” feel when cornering, more tread, and they’re tough. Bigger float, better grip, more fun.
What did you use for navigation?
Sarah: A Garmin 1000 loaded with the E32 Cartografia basemaps of Mexico, and the National Geographic Baja North paper map.
Tom: Followed Nick, Lael, and Sarah. I do have a Garmin Edge Touring if I end up by myself.
Sarah: Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid XL (pyramid tent)
Tom: Tents be damned. It’s really nice in Baja. In our pre-run of the route we saw enough rain and dew that it did make sense to have a shelter, but we only saw the north end of things. There are little crawly things and our tent has no floor and no bug net but I never had a problem with pests. We have a Mountain Laurel DuoMid XL, but if it’s going to be clear and seems like a dry place with good A.M. sun, then it’s going to be an under the stars no-tent night. I will have a 30 degree “mummy” bag, ground cloth, lightweight down puffy jacket with a hood, wool tights, and a soft hat to keep me warm at night. Comfortable sleep is important, but I try to keep it light. [I think Tom is saying that he would like to sleep out under the stars more, and will adjust his gear to suit this goal.]
What will you do differently when you return in January?
Tom: No water filter, warmer sleeping bag, puffy jacket with a hood. Wider rims, more tread. Bigger seat pack, no backpack.
Sarah: I feel very lucky for the opportunity and the time to make the following changes before the Baja Divide group start on January 2.
Sleep System: Tom and I were trying the Thermarest Vela HD Double Quilt (rated down to 45 degrees for men and 35 degrees for women) with the Down Coupler and found that it was not warm enough most nights and did not protect well enough from the wind. We’re switching back to mummy sleeping bags [Mont-Bell Down Hugger 800 #3] rated down to 30 degrees which we feel will keep us warm enough coupled with our pyramid tent in the coldest and wettest conditions, yet offer enough comfort to sleep tent free under the stars on clear nights.
Bike: I’m going to switch to a men’s frame [Specialized Fuse] so that I can run a larger frame bag [Revelate Designs Ranger], and switch to a rigid seat post with a Revelate Designs Pika seatbag instead of using my dropper post and Porcelain Rocket Charlene bag. I want to eliminate the need for my backpack and distribute the weight on my bike more evenly so that my bike rides as optimally as possible on technical terrain. The reason I have run the dropper in the past is for more comfort and control on long 12+ mile gravel descents. The descending in Baja is short and steep and the dropper’s benefit does not outweigh the sacrificed carrying capacity of a standard seat bag in this case.
Wheels and Tires: I’m switching back to 38mm rims and a beefier, Specialized Purgatory, front tire. [The Purgatory features a more aggressive tread pattern, and also a slightly more durable casing)
Water Filter: We brought a water filter and never used it in three weeks. We will not be bringing it in January. We had enough water capacity on our bikes to carry the water we needed for long stretches and water purification systems are in almost every store.
What surprised you most about riding in Baja?
Tom: Starting in Tijuana was a culture shock. I don’t live under a rock but it took me weeks to adjust. I had to figure out what foods made me happy and remember enough basic Spanish to ask for water and get around.
The route is not just a flat and smooth dirt route by the beach. From what I have seen so far, it’s a good balanced life on the route. Do some work, get a reward. Get bored with something, things change nicely. Can’t wait to go back.
Sarah: What surprised me the most about Baja was how chilly and wet it was at night in the northern peninsula when we were there. I was also very surprised by how technically challenging the terrain was.
I feel like we ate better than we ever had on previous tours in the states due to the surprising availability of fresh vegetables, tortillas, and bagged refried beans.
Anything else you would like to share?
Sarah: I think that this ride, due to its length and difficulty necessitates the most comfortable and maneuverable bike set-up as possible. The goal is to have fun riding your bike and not fight it the whole time. I’m giving up a few extra things I normally like to carry for the benefit of having the lightest set-up I can manage so I can carry enough food and water and still enjoy the ride.
Despite the challenge the riding is a lot of fun and ensures that you will make the memories that count!
The best fish tacos we had during the whole trip were in Vicente Guerrero!
Tom: I assumed it would be warmer and mostly just sandy road cruising. The terrain changes mile by mile and has its share of challenges. Roads can be rough, dusty, soft, muddy, steep, and rocky. Just keep going.