There are few feelings I despise more than waking up and not being able to feel my toes. Yet, that’s the ante you occasionally must up if you plan to tackle an epic.
When we woke on our second morning in Death Valley, temps were hovering in the low 20s, frost covered my sleeping bag, and the batteries on our e-mountain bikes had shut off because they, like us, aren’t fond of the cold. On the plus side, the sun would soon rise and we knew morale would spike with it. Making coffee with dawn views of the Racetrack, a phenomenon where rocks almost magically move by themselves, wasn’t bad either.
The five of us, a riffraff crew from Durango, CO, Mammoth, CA, and Jackson, WY, had come together to test a new electric bike from Specialized, the Turbo Levo SL. Long miles of washboard dirt roads, loose rocky climbs, and empty basin and range country was on the docket. The new SL weighs in at just 33 pounds, not much more than most non-electric mountain bikes, and we hoped it would be the ideal tool to unlock a new route, using the pedal-assist to get up the biggest climbs, without a huge weight penalty.
Over the course of the week we learned a lot—and probably set a world record for distance ridden on e-bikes with the power off, which I imagine we’ll hold for a while. [Spoiler alert] In the end the bikes did their job admirably, adding enough juice to climb 5,000-foot passes while meandering through the largest national park in the lower 48. Linking together a trio of resupply spots, we rode a loop that probably isn’t possible with normal pedal bikes, outside of the fittest riders in the world. Here’s how we did it.
The Place: Death Valley might not get the love that its neighbors to the west, Yosemite and Sequoia, are accustomed to, nor those to its east—Zion, Arches and the Grand Canyon—either. The relative obscurity of this hot, dry, and huge park is exactly what makes it special, though. One and a half times larger than Yellowstone, the second largest park in the lower 48, Death Valley encompasses a sprawling 3.4 million acres of desolate land, connected primarily by rugged dirt roads. The park includes the lowest elevation in the country, Badwater, at 279 feet below sea level, up to Telescope Peak, just over 11,000 feet.
The Route: We hoped to connect some of the most iconic yet undervalued and least-visited places in the park, including Saline Warm Springs, the Racetrack and Grandstand, Ubehebe Crater, Titus and Echo Canyons, Badwater Basin, Devil’s Cornfield, Mesquite Dunes, and Darwin Falls, all by bike. To do so we would need to ride over 300 miles with 30,000 feet of climbing, mostly on dirt. A few folks that had bikepacked in Death Valley before us said with very little uncertainty that we were crazy—averaging anything over 30 miles per day was hard if not impossible on these roads. And water would be almost non-existent. Despite the warning, we went for it anyway.
Starting in the northwest corner, we rode a large loop in a clockwise direction, stopping to camp each night when we had little to no energy left. To make it all possible, we stopped in Beatty, Furnace Creek, and Panamint Springs, to recharge the bikes and refill on water. At times we rode with 8 liters each, so that we could go two days sans potable water. The terrain in this corner of the country is colloquially called ‘basin and range,’ and we quickly learned why. Reaching each subsequent valley required a serious climb up a mountain pass, many of which were thousands of feet and took hours to ride up.
The Gear: The Levo SL was the crucial piece that would be nearly impossible to replace, but other items in our kit also helped us make the trip possible. We had all the normal stuff: sleeping bags, clothes, bike shoes, water bottles, headlamps, first aid kits, repair kits, spares, and lots of instant coffee, but a few things stood out from the rest. Here’s a few pieces of gear I’d highly recommend for any trip, but especially the longer and harder ones you hope to tackle.
A Primus PrimeTech stove system was a seamless way to feed a group of five, without wasting fuel or adding tons of weight. MSR Carbon Reflex 3 Tents worked perfectly for bikepacking, because they’ll stand up to a stiff wind and pack down smaller and lighter than anything I’ve tested. Crews and hydration mix from Skratch propelled us forward during the day, while the horchata-flavored recovery mix was a highlight of every night. The Topo Designs Hybrid Hoodie and Ultralight Jacket proved to be the perfect combo for riding through mixed temps and for hanging in camp, too.
A Garmin InReach Mini allowed my mom to know we were safe and relax a little. An Osprey Siskin Pack didn’t chafe or stress my back, even on the worst roads and long days It’s always worth it to have a few extra Voile Straps, to lash stuff down with ease and security. And the food. We ate mostly Patagonia Provisions meals, with some Snickers mixed in. You can’t go wrong with wild salmon and chile mango.
The Crew: The biggest variable of any expedition isn’t the weather, roads, or wildlife, but instead the attitude of the group. It’s something you can’t pack or prepare for, but ultimately can make or break a trip. And thankfully, we were stacked in spades. A bike mechanic, a professional bike racer, a semi-pro comedian, a musician, and me, a writer and sufferfest aficionado. Sometimes laughter can take you farther than anything else.
The Challenges: To be clear, none of us were sure how it was all going to work out—nor really sure of what problems we might run into along the way, that we would have to solve. Sure, we did a lot of planning in the months before our departure, but if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that all bets are off. Would we run out of a battery or water first? How would we ration the pedal assist and how would it be used most efficiently? Where would we charge in each small town? How many miles could we realistically ride each day before one of us called uncle? Would there be bike mechanic issues? Bad attitudes? Wind, cold, or snowy days in the high country?
Like any other adventure, our prep and planning would only get us so far and the rest would be left for the moment. We would have to solve a lot of this real-time, as curveballs were thrown at us.
The Lessons Learned: In the end we made it all happen, riding the full 300-plus-mile loop through twisting canyons, up big mountain passes, and some easy cruising on paved highway, too. Along the way we learned more than a few things, including the following.
When your battery runs out, just keep pedaling. Digital power is finite, analog power less so, especially if you have a lot of candy.
A mid-trip Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s is a game changer, in more ways than one. We feasted in Beatty, fueling up for the long days ahead and I’ll never forget that meal. When Google Maps, Gaia, and your bike computer all fail, just trust your gut. Old dirt roads may meander and disappear, but you can still continue on. Most importantly, share the load. We took turns breaking wind, making dinners, and route finding, which allowed all of us to conserve enough mental energy to push through. If this was all on one person, the outcome probably would have been different.
— See more recent dispatches from Cochrane, including a bike-to-ski circuit of Pacific Northwest volcanos, a look at life on an Alaskan crab boat, coverage of the Baja 1000, and the tale of an emergency canyon evacuation deep in the Mexican jungle.