A 27.5+ hardtail with tubeless wheels and durable tires is recommended for the Baja Divide. The recent proliferation of plus bikes, which feature 3.0” wide tires, are a boon to bicycle adventurers in Baja California.
-Sandy tracks require 3.0” tires for flotation, while wide tires also provide natural suspension and necessary traction on rough terrain.
-A hardtail allows the use of a framebag and a seatpack, which are the core of modern luggage systems, both of which are limited by full-suspension designs.
-A suspension fork makes technical terrain more fun, and improves rider comfort and safety.
-Tubeless tires are required to prevent punctures in the desert.
Begin a tour of the Baja Divide with a properly tuned bike. Consider new drivetrain parts (chain, cassette, chainrings), brake pads, tires, and be sure to check all bearing systems before crossing the border. Consider applying a heavy layer of grease on all bearing surfaces including headsets, bottom brackets, and hub bearings. Relatively few repair parts are available along the route. The only modern bike shops on route are FASS Bike in Vicente Guerrero, Ressel Bikes in La Paz, and Thunders Bikes in San José del Cabo. Several smaller shops exist in Lazaro Cardeñas (San Quintin), Mulegé, Ciudad Constitución, La Paz, Los Barriles and San José del Cabo.
Lael and Alex both rode the 27.5+ Advocate Cycles Hayduke while investigating the route in 2015-16, and compared to standard 29ers and fatbikes, both said they would select the same bike again.
A little history
Twenty or thirty years ago, mountain bikes would have provided limited access to the backcountry in Baja. Rigid frames, narrow tires, and especially tubes –whose greatest weakness are cactus thorns– would have limited the scope of where a bicycle might ride in the desert. Ten years ago as fatbikes arrived on the market, the useful range of a bicycle expanded, yet the construction of early fatbikes yielded exceptionally heavy bikes which disadvantaged riders in situations where ultra-wide tires were not absolutely necessary. Tubes were still the achilles heel of the system, and until tubeless conversions and proper tubeless-ready equipment became common, taking a fatbike into the desert was about as useful as a boat full of holes. But in the last few years, tubeless wheel systems and lightweight materials and designs have made fatbikes more fun and more accessible to more riders. Then came plus bikes.
Surly released the Krampus in 2012, a bassboat green rigid steel frame with 29×3.0” tires. The Krampus rolled over everything, but much like early fatbikes, the Krampus’ weaknesses barely outshone its strengths in the eyes of many riders. While it gained a cult following, it didn’t change the game, at least not right away — it was a big bike with big wheels and in the next few years several 29+ bikes like the Krampus were released. The groundbreaking Trek Stache was the outlier, which managed to hide its gargantuan 29+ wheels with ultra-short chainstays, preserving the lively handling common on modern mountain bikes. The Stache also featured a suspension fork and tubeless ready wheels, a first in the plus bike category. But for some riders, the wheels were just too big.
In 2015-2016 the industry embraced a new plus-sized wheel– 27.5×3.0″– and a flood of 27.5+ bikes hit the market, most of them based upon a proven geometry borrowed from recent all-mountain hardtail 29ers like the Kona Honzo. This is the design we see most often today. While we recommend 27.5+ for most riders, taller and shorter riders may consider 29+ and 26+, respectively.
Rocky terrain, loose sand, and thorns make large-volume tubeless tires the most essential piece of equipment on the Baja Divide. Given our experience designing the route, with several wheel and tire sizes tested, we strongly recommend 3.0” tires in any wheel diameter, although 27.5×3.0” has recently become the preferred wheel size by the industry. Wheels must be set-up tubeless to resist thorn punctures, while the tire system should be tight fitting, allowing tires to operate at low pressures on sandy sections without risk of burping (losing a seal from the rim). DIY tubeless systems should be tested at low pressure. If the bead leaks during installation, it will likely do the same at low pressure.
With a high level of fitness and determination, the route can technically be completed on a standard mountain bike with 2.3-2.5” tires. However, this is a minimum tire size published so as not to exclude some riders from attempting the route, simply because they cannot purchase a newer bike with larger tires. However, we do not openly recommend 2.3” tires.
The Baja Divide is a very strenuous ride that requires a high level of fitness, do not underestimate the difficulty of this route.
Conversely, tires in excess of three inches, such as fatbikes with 4-5” tires, are not necessary for most of the route and may be more burdensome than most riders are willing to pedal across 2000 miles of desert backcountry. Some riders will appreciate the extra flotation and confidence provided by a true fatbike.
A note on tubeless
Tubeless tires are required. You cannot purchase tires tough enough to prevent tube punctures in the desert, or tubes thick enough to successfully resist the thorns common along many sections of the route. Using sealant inside of tubes is also not a reliable solution. It would be unwise to attempt some remote sections of the route without the security of a reliable tubeless wheel system. Tubeless tires and rims are becoming ubiquitous. Installation and on-trail tubeless tire management is something every cyclist should become familiar with before arriving in Baja. Select tubeless ready wheels, tough tires, and use plenty of liquid sealant.
Bring a spare tube and repair parts for tubeless tires, and do your best to avoid using your spare tube by practicing methods of tubeless tire repair to maintain a tubeless wheel system. A tubeless tire plug kit is essential for large punctures, a curved needle and thread for sidewall cuts, and a tire/tube patch kit for more substantial damage. Tire shops are common throughout Mexico and may be able to repair a tubeless tire in the event of serious tire damage, such as a large cut or hole. In this case, a tube may be required to exit the backcountry although the task of removing all thorns from a tire may be nearly impossible.
Invest in durable, high-quality, tubeless tire casings such as Maxxis EXO, Terrene Tough, WTB TCS Tough, Vittoria TNT, Specialized Grid (although the 27.5×3.0 Control casing is also durable), Surly 60tpi TR, Schwalbe Snakeskin, etc. Tires are not a place to save weight. Consider the advertised weight of a tire to estimate it’s durability in use. For instance, 27.5×3.0” tires weighing less than 900g are not likely to survive the Baja Divide.
Suspension is recommended, although many riders are likely to select rigid bikes for simplicity, lower cost, and ultimate durability. Several riders in the first season enjoyed suspension forks on rough rocky portions of the route, on fast descents, and on sections of washboard. To use a common reference point, the Baja Divide is considerably more technical and more remote than the Great Divide Route in the USA. A full-suspension bike would be fun on some sections, but may necessitate carrying food and water in a backpack.
Any stock mountain bike, plus bike, or fatbike will feature a low range of gears. However, the growth of 1×11 drivetrains has left some riders to choose between extra low gears, or gearing more suited to fast XC riding, gravel roads, and pavement. For a loaded tour on the Baja Divide with a 1x drivetrain, a 28T or 30T ring is recommended. A 28T ring with a 10-42T gear range will not leave you looking for higher gears, and the lowest combination will get plenty of use.
If using a conventional double or triple drivetrain, a 22T or 24T small chainring mated to a 34T or 36t rear cog will help with the steepest climbs.
Tool kit for Baja Divide:
Tires are the most sensitive part of the bike in Baja due to puncture and abrasion risks along the route, along with wear associated with low-pressure riding. The tool kit will focus heavily on methods to keep a tubeless interface intact. Once you put a tube in your tire, assuming you can manage to remove all the visible thorns, keep your fingers crossed and hope you have enough patches to get back to the road as there are likely to be more thorns hidden in the tire. Compressors are readily available at gas stations and tire shops in towns for tubeless re-installation.
The following is a lightweight tool kit which I’ve refined over several years, the two most important things besides the pump and the multitool are the curved needle and thread and the tire plugs, along with spare sealant. I’ve not used a tubeless patch kit yet, but plan to bring one to Baja next year, although I suspect it might be easier to have a local shop repair the tire.
-Crank Brothers M17 multitool
-4″-6″ diagonal cutters
-Lezyne HP road pump with hose
-Tire sealant 2-4oz.
-Spare derailleur hanger, tube, chain link, presta valve core (remove core with chain tool on M17)
-Tubeless tire plugs (Genuine Innovations)
-Curved needle and upholstery thread for stitching sidewall repairs
-Tube patch kit
-Presta to Schraeder valve adaptor
-McNett repair tape for air sleeping pad, tent, jacket
-Gorilla Tape or duct tape wrapped around pump
-Tire patch kit (Hutchinson Rep’air)