Knee Injury!


Its been nearly a year now since I suffered a catastrophic knee injury where I tore all the ligaments in my knee (except the PCL), both menisci, and a tibial plateau fracture in a skiing accident. Well, more like I got hit in the air by a snowboarder. I am hoping to write a story about the recovery at some point in the near future. While recovering, I have turned my attentions to whitewater kayaking and playing the ukulele amongst other things.

I am currently at about 60-70% of normal so it will be a while before I battle back to ultra-endurance racing shape, but I am back on the bike, surfboard, and even skis and training hard-so stay tuned.


Oregon 24 (solo)

Finished 2nd place in the Oregon 24 in a tough, extremely dusty race in Bend, Oregon on my Chumba Stella Ti.  The IPA’s and soak in the hot tub at McMenamin’s afterward were definitely the highlight of this race.

Comstock Epic 550 2016

This story was also published on


I know Neil already wrote a report from the winner’s perspective of the Comstock Epic 550 for 2016. This report is what it was like for those of us in Neil’s dust. It’s a true tale of two races.

It had been a while since I’d done a multiday bikepacking race. After getting 1st Place Rookie (the category for first timers on the course) in the 2014 Trans North Georgia, I spent a year living in Ecuador where I raced a lot of endurance races and did a lot of exploratory bikepacking expeditions (stay tuned for some stories to come about that). I then moved to China where I spent some time bikepacking in Kham Tibet. By the time I moved back to the States in late 2015, I had more or less missed the season. I also began my first faculty position at a university in the PNW at that time, so my training over the winter and spring was not what it should have been. All of this lack of preparation gave me a nagging sense of doubt whether I could really even ride 550 miles across the Great Basin Desert, crossing over 15 mountain ranges, much less race across it. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to bike unsupported across the most remote, sparsely populated area in the contiguous United States.

It was a long drive from Yakima WA down to Reno, but I was excited to return to the area as I had spent 5 years in the Reno-Tahoe area and it was good to be back. I arrived in Reno late Wednesday night and spent a nice evening prepping my bike and having a great last meal with friends. Thursday morning, I left my friend’s house at 6am to bike across town to the pick-up site for the shuttle to the start point of the race on the Utah-Nevada border. It was really fun riding with other  racers across the great state of Nevada, though I definitely felt even more nervous since everyone seemed to know each other and had been racing a lot of ultra-endurance races  this last year or so. While I was busy traveling for research and teaching (and to be honest, skiing more than training on the bike over the winter!), it sounded like a lot of these guys were training like machines. Oh well I told myself, its more about the adventure than the race!

After a pit stop at Middlegate, site of a former brothel turned bar n grill and motel in the middle of nowhere (this was actually mile 362 of the race and our first provisions for over 250 miles on the course!). We made it to the Border Inn on the Utah border late afternoon, just in time to gorge on greasy bar food and have a beer (no IPA though so I was bummed!).

The race started at 6am Friday am if memory serves, and after a quick group picture, we were off. We all hung together more or less for the first couple miles on pavement, but once we hit dirt, 5 of us broke into a lead pack, and shortly thereafter I fell behind Neil, Kurt Sandiforth, and Blake Bockius. Those guys were hammering a pace I knew I couldn’t keep for 24 hours, much less the amount of time it would take us to cross the state. I can suffer with the best of them, but not sure I could handle trying to race neck and neck for that kind of distance, so I was all too happy to drop back. Isaac Chilton must have had the same idea, and we started keeping pace together.

We hit the first of 15 mountain ranges and the ascent didn’t feel that bad-it was nice and gradual and the wind hadn’t begun to pick up yet. After the climb we had a nice fast descent on dirt before hitting Hwy 50 for another couple of miles. We quickly turned off the highway and hit what would turn out to be the worst sand of the race. At the time I didn’t know it, so I became a bit more apprehensive. Its easy to rationalize these type of races by looking at the stats. I convinced myself it would be “easy” since there was so much doubletrack and only ~36,000ft of elevation gain. The stats didn’t really describe the reality of this course which I found out rather quickly. I told myself, you can do this Al, just keep on pedaling.

As bad as the sand was, at least we were protected from the wind by the towering mountain range that lay ahead. After finally pushing through the sand trap, the climb over mountain range number 2 felt like a nice stroll on a rails-to-trails. We dropped down the other side and hit a campground where we could fill our bottles. We were right at the 50 mile mark at this point-sweet I thought, only 500 miles to go! It should have been a fast leisurely descent from the campground to the valley below, but by this point, the wind had picked up and we had to pedal downhill. The winds were really disheartening- I knew we would be traveling West the entire time, so we would have a headwind every afternoon at the least. The course took a southwesterly directions for about 30 miles which was the exact direction of the wind. So what should have been a cruiser flat section became a headwind sufferfest.

We finally hit the mountains after crossing the desert plain, and the uphill was a welcome relief from the wind. The 3rd mountain range involved a pretty long and steep climb to the pass, but since it was blocking the wind, I wasn’t complaining. I got ahead of Isaac a bit on the uphill, but he destroyed me on the descent. We would continue like this for the next little while.

After mountain range 3 you hit your last town/resupply for 250 miles in Preston NV. That’s a long haul with no services in a desolate area with next to no water and even fewer people. Being a pretty steady eater, I had packed about 9000 calories worth of food for this section, though I calculated I would need more along the lines of 16,000 calories. Knowing this, Isaac and I ate a huge diner meal, and I downed about a gallon of water and even some soda, something I rarely drink. By this time, Zak Tourville caught up to us and we all rolled out together at dusk. The winds, though still heavy, were starting to die down by this point, so we could almost relax and enjoy ourselves. Despite the headwinds, we were actually making really good time and keeping a fast pace for bikepacking race standards. I guess the pace was a bit fast for Zak and he opted to fall back after about three hours together. Isaac and I pushed on ahead, trying to make it over mountain range #4 before resting bit. This mountain range actually had some of the most difficult terrain yet, with a lot of washed out, rocky doubletrack. It might’ve been easy in the daylight, but was super difficult with my headlamp running at about 150 lumens. After several hours we made it over the mountains and wasted a bit of time trying to find the water source.

Water scarcity is a major crux of this race. It could be downright deadly not to refill at every possible opportunity, so although I had a fairly full drom and bottle, I drank my fill and refilled my reservoirs to capacity. We pushed on, but by about 3am I knew I need to get off the bike for a bit and opted to rest for 1-2 hours. I had planned on sleeping for a maximum of 2 hours per 22 hours of riding, so I was right on track. Isaac didn’t bring enough gear to sleep comfortably in the cold so he pushed on. I hoped I would catch up to him since we were going to continue crossing through some extremely remote, lonely country.

I rolled out my emergency bivy sack, which is pretty much a glorified trash bag and passed out immediately. The alarm sounded painfully 1.5 hours later and I drug myself out of the bag (I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag so I was pretty cold) and got back on the bike as quickly as possible. It took me quite a while to warm up in the chilly desert pre-dawn. The sun finally crested behind me to reveal ominously gray skies and lenticular clouds. I knew at that point I would get some weather that day.

Neil had warned me that the forecast was calling for nasty weather in central NV on Saturday afternoon so his plan was to hammer until he got over Ophir pass (the high point of the race at about 10,500ft) in an effort to beat the weather rolling in. I knew I couldn’t make it 360 miles that quickly so I resigned myself to whatever the weather gods brought on. I figured, it’s the desert, how bad can it be? I would find out shortly.

The next few valleys and mountain ranges were both stunningly beautiful and hauntingly stark. I didn’t see any signs of life for mile after mile. The only wildlife I saw in Antelope Valley was dead livestock and antelope skeletons. This was a forbidding place. There is absolutely no water here. Fortunately, the NV Department of Wildlife puts out “desert watering stations” that are fenced off to keep livestock out, but antelope and other desert critters (including silly, intrepid bikepack racers) are able to access the water. After skimming a bit of pond scum off the top, the water was actually quite drinkable after treating with chlorine tabs.

Though I was definitely feeling like I had ridden 250+ miles, I was thoroughly enjoying the raw beauty of the land and relishing the solitude. My mind started to wander a bit and I swore I saw Isaac just ahead of me. I called out to him and tried to chase him down for what felt like hours before realizing it had probably been a figment of my wandering imagination. I finally hit the next watering point, this time a foul sulfur smelling hot spring. I filled my drom with piping hot water that smelled like rotten eggs, but was pleasantly surprised that after the gas escaped, and the water cooled, it was quite delicious!! I guess this is the artesian well water rich folks pay exorbitant sums to drink. Ha I thought, all I had to do was bike several hundred miles into the desert and I could drink it for free-suckers! As you can tell, my mind may have been slipping a bit at this point.

I rolled on and came across an old homestead. I thought about stopping for a bit as I saw the ominous clouds ahead but tried to push on. Not even 5 minutes later, the heavens seemed to burst and I was caught in a deluge of rain. I turned around and hammered back to the homestead where I could at least change into my rain gear with some protection from the elements. I was hoping the weather would pass quickly but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere despite the wind, so I hopped back on the bike, suited up in my raingear and suffered through the storm for the next several hours.

The rain came in squalls, then would let up a bit, before blasting me again. I was wondering if I had it in me to continue in these conditions. One advantage of this race is that it’s actually almost as hard to pull out of as it is to just continue on. I think it was something like a 100 mile ride to the closest real town with supplies/services from this point. I decided I would get over Ophir Pass, the crux of the race that night regardless of the weather. I didn’t realize just how bad it would get.

After crossing yet another mountain range (I was beginning to lose track of how many at this point), I had to cross a seemingly endless desert valley. From the east side of the valley, it actually looked like I would hit the Toiyabe Range in no time, but scale is really tricky out here-the Toiyabe mountains average over 10,000ft, so these towering peaks made the valley look small, when in reality it was probably something like 20 miles wide!

I pedaled for what felt like forever, and actually hit a welcome couple of miles of pavement that felt effortless after the difficult terrain the course had taken us through. I was proud of myself for averaging over 15mph on pavement despite having ridden for 300 miles at this point. I pulled off the pavement at the small dirt road that leads to Ophir Canyon then up to the pass at 10,500ft. The weather actually cleared at this point so I ate some food in preparation for the 5500’ climb in under 9 miles I had to tackle. Assuming the doubletrack was similar to that which I’d already crossed, I figured I would be over the pass in a couple hours and be able to roll into Middlegate at mile 362 (or close to it) by 3am or so. Boy was I wrong.

Very quickly the doubletrack turned into an unrideable, steep, rocky mess that weaved its way up the Ophir Creek drainage by crossing the stream every few hundred feet. The stream crossings were actually the most rideable part of this section, at least in these wet muddy conditions. As I paralleled the creek, I swore I heard some folks talking on the other side of the creek, but I later realized it was just the gurgling sounds of the stream. I was starting to worry about my mental state a bit. But, I thought to myself, “at least it isn’t raining.” That changed rather quickly and I spent the next couple of hours trying to push and pull my bike up the impossibly steep, rocky track in a downpour. I thought, it can’t get any worse than this. It can. The rocks I had been complaining about turned to mud so slippery that I couldn’t make upward progress, not matter what I tried. Instead I had to get off the track and thrash my way through thick brush while carrying my bike up the steep slope. To say this part sucked would be a serious understatement.

But even that misery can’t compare to what it was like when the rain switched to snow and I approached the top of the pass. Before getting serious about cycling a few years ago, I had spent over a decade climbing mountains and guiding all over the world, so I’m no stranger to mountain weather. But, I’m usually well prepared for anything I might face in the high mountains. Bikepack racing is different. You cover so much ground that you might experience valley heat and mountain snow within a few hours. You are also racing so you have to try to balance safety gear/clothing/etc. with weight if you hope to compete. Because of my mountaineering experience, I had brought just enough clothing to survive freezing conditions, but I realized I couldn’t last the night up there in a serious blizzard with gale force winds and blinding snow, accumulating quickly. I knew I had two options at this point, either dropping all the way back down to the previous valley, or pushing up over the pass and dropping several thousand feet down the other side until the snow switched back to rain.

Being stubborn as a mule, I opted for the latter. In hindsight, it was heuristic hubris and perhaps a bit of delusion at that point, but I reasoned that there is nothing the mountains can throw at me that I couldn’t survive. So I pushed on. It got worse and worse as I ascended until I finally approached the pass. My heart sank as I realized forward progress was blocked by an overhanging cornice of snow. I would have to traverse the steep snow slopes below the cornice and look for a way over. This was doubly hard since I couldn’t see more than a few feet and bike shoes weren’t made for kicking steps in hardpack snow and ice. In these conditions, my mountaineering sense and abilities were being thoroughly tested and I felt like I was in a dangerous situation. My shoes were barely getting purchase in the steep snow traverses and I was carrying my fully loaded bike. A slip wouldn’t have been deadly but it would’ve hurt. I was actually really worried about the guys coming up behind me in this blizzard-it would have been deadly to anyone without serious mountaineering experience-and that is not an exaggeration. I just hoped no one else with perhaps less mountaineering experience would put themselves in this situation.

Had it not been for the gpx track on my gps screen, I would have never found my way over. I could barely tell up from down in this whiteout. Aside from the few footsteps Neil and the Comstock 300 mile racers ahead of me had kicked in the snow during the day before the blizzard hit, there was no indication of a path over the snow cornice. Even these steps were quickly covered in a blanket of fresh snow. Finally, miraculously, I found a way up and over the pass, and after a while, was able to mount my bike and begin the descent. It was still snowing, and the track had become a river, literally, but I was getting seriously hypothermic so I had to ride down as quickly as possible. Confusion set in, and I tried to fight it as I descended what was actually pretty difficult riding (or at least it felt that way in these conditions). The snow turned to slush then to rain as I lost elevation until I was finally back in the desert. I could actually see some lights off in the distance, so I decided I would try to make it to those lights and ask for help.

I kept riding, and the lights didn’t seem to get any closer. I was at my wits end by this point and figured I was confused enough that I could have been imagining those lights or they could’ve been stars. I decided the best thing to do would be to crawl into my emergency bivy sack. I dismounted my bike and could barely remove my hands from the brakes and grips. My hands were so frozen I couldn’t open my seatpost bag. I had to use my teeth to get the clips open, which was quite gross since the bag was covered in a thick layer of mud with the consistency of peanut butter. Blah. I wrangled my bivy sack out, crawled in it, and shivered for the next 4-5 hours. I was in a daze, not sure if I was asleep or awake-cold was my only sensation. I had decided I would pull out of the race. I had just been through too much that night to continue. Since I was calling it quits, I had no qualms about spending some extra time in the bivy sack.

The sun finally crested the mountains and began to warm the bivy sack. After a few minutes in the sun, I was still shivering but finally able to pull myself out of the bag. In the light of day, myself and my equipment were a rather disgusting sight to behold. Everything was caked with a thick layer of peanut butter mud. Mud had even made it into my chamois-at least I hoped it was mud (just kidding!). I scraped things off the best I could and hoped that my bike would be rideable. I recalled what Blake Bockius had told me after encountering mud like this in last year’s race. The mud, which is full of small rocks and pebbles actually chewed through his carbon fork as his mud caked wheel spun round and round. He ended up having to throw it away after the race! Luckily I was on a Ti bike with a burly Fox fork so didn’t have to worry about that, but I was pleasantly surprised that my drivetrain was still functioning.

Still planning to pull out of the race, I hopped on my bike and headed toward Middlegate about 50 miles away. I was still on the race course since Middlegate was the closest place with services. The sun began to warm my chilled core and my spirits began to lift. I was definitely feeling destroyed after the previous night, but started to rationalize finishing the race. I had never pulled out of an endurance race before, and I knew I would regret doing so now, no matter what I had been through the night before. And besides, the sun was out and it was only a matter of time before I would be warm again. “Yes!” I told myself, “you’re gonna do this”. “Buck up princess”. “Don’t be such a wuss”. “No need to call the wah-mbulance”.

Just as I was warming up from a combination of sun and the climb over yet another mountain range, the clouds came back in. As I descended down from the pass (I had lost track of mountain ranges by this point-it was probably #8 or so), I hit another headwind near the ghosttown of Ione, NV. At least it wasn’t raining yet as I made my way across an expansive desert plain toward the final mountain range between me and the first services in 250 miles.

I had expected the flats on this race to be cruiser, but with the now muddy roads and the steep headwinds slowing my progress, they became slow and grueling. Still, there is a stark beauty to these wild places that I tend to find inspiring where some might find it boring or empty or wasteland. So I took comfort in the splendor of my surroundings rather than focusing on my discomfort and pushed my way through to Middlegate. I got hit by a few brief rainstorms along the way, but fortunately just as the heavens broke yet again and sheets of rain began, I was pulling into the station.

The timing was great-I was really happy not be out in that weather and figured it would quickly pass. I also had to deal with my SPOT beacon issue. I hadn’t been showing up on the map for the entire race up to this point so I called Trackleaders and we spent about an hour and half trying to resolve the issue. We finally figured it out but I had wasted a lot of time by this point. I was still in the race, but not really racing anymore thinking I was in 5th place, so I wasn’t too worried about it. It was also still pouring rain-so I dawdled a bit more re-organizing and cleaning my gear and throwing away food that had been destroyed by rain and mud. After ~2 hours in Middlegate with no sign of the weather abating, I donned my rain gear and hopped on my bike in the downpour. I was soaked to the core in minutes, but was actually glad that the rain was washing off my bike and clothes. I was on the longest paved section of the race, about 20 miles on Hwy 50. It was actually quite scary as the speed limit is 70mph and trucks were buffeting me with wet blasts as they whizzed past.

As I cruised down the highway I noticed that my gpx track was about to end near the highway turn off. I was totally bummed. After just dealing with a tech issue for two hours, now this-wtf? It was my first time using a Garmin Etrex, which unbeknownst to me, cuts off the end portion of your track when you exceed 5000points. I hadn’t noticed this before now, and was unsure how I could continue without a track. I had printed some very small maps for emergencies, but it would have been impossible to navigate off of them and still maintain a decent pace. Frantically I pulled over behind the guard rail on Hwy 50 and thankfully had cell service. I couldn’t find Trevor the race organizer’s number but Blake had sent his phone number to all the racers in an email thread so I called him. He informed me that all the guys in front of me had dropped out for one reason or another except for Neil. That put me in 2nd place! He also informed me that no one behind had made it over the pass in the blizzard. A couple racers had tried, but wisely backed off. One of the racers even had to use his SPOT beacon to call for a rescue. None of this news surprised me in the slightest. I was just glad no one was hurt. Blake relayed my dilemma to Trevor and I soon received a call and he kindly agreed to meet me in the middle of the desert near Fallon NV after I had crossed the salt flat (playa). What a nice guy. The rain actually let up at this point and I was treated to some much needed sunshine. I proceeded with gusto from here.

I definitely wasted a lot of time trying to find my way through the playa without a gpx track. I was also sinking pretty deep into the salt pan due to the big downpour. Like many things in this race, it just wasn’t going well for me. But hey, I was in 2nd, which with Neil in the race, felt like 1st to me! It helped keep me going. I met Trevor on a dirt road after finally crossing the big salt playa and we quickly loaded the final 2 segments on my Etrex-I’ll never make that mistake again! Armed with the gpx, the navigating became much easier. I cruised the next 20 miles or so into Fallon and hit the Dairy Queen, the closest food source to the race course. I ordered 4 burgers and a couple orders of fries. I ate 2 of burgers and the fries and packed the other two for the night. As I was leaving and really charismatic guy came up to me and asked me what I was doing. He said, “Man, when I saw you, I knew you weren’t just biking down the block! I had to come ask what you were doing.” He was pretty blown away by the idea of racing across the desert and cheered me on as I pulled out of the DQ parking lot.

The light was fading at this point, and I turned on my lights just as I was getting off of the improved roads and back to desert doubletrack. The track through the next section was fairly pleasant, but the dark desolation allowed my mind to wander and play tricks on me. I rolled through a pack of desert foxes, but later I was unsure if I had really seen them. I then saw strange lights making impossible patterns in the sky. I thought how cliché, UFO’s in the middle of the desert. But I saw it again and it seemed so close I actually ducked down while riding my bike, thinking it was about to swoop over me. In my delirium, I thought wow, UFOs are real, but being a skeptical scientist, I couldn’t believe my own eyes and worried that I was in shape than I thought and was hallucinating. I gnawed on these thoughts for the next hour (or two? time was kind of blending that evening) until I solved the mystery.

I saw the lights again but this time I was close enough to make sense of what was going on. There was a road high up on the mountain side across the valley that must have had a couple of switchbacks, causing the light to have erratic patterns. I had been so far way earlier that the two headlights blended into one. The valley was so devoid of light other than the stars, and the air so absolutely clear in this incredibly arid section of desert, that it really had seemed like a UFO. I can now empathize with those that think they saw something in the desert, but I’m also even more skeptical now of their accounts.

At around 3 or 4am I made it Fort Churchill State Park. I had thought about sleeping in the bathroom there, but there were bright lights I couldn’t turn off, so I instead hid behind the welcome sign (which also served as a wind block) and crawled into my bivy sack. I slept about 1.5 hours and got on my way just before sun up. The next section was pretty nasty washboard dirt road and was rather unpleasant all around. I rolled past a decapitated jackrabbit and thought, what kind of sicko would do such a thing? Well, later I would find out that one of the Comstock 300 racers actually hit the poor bunny at night. He said it darted out of nowhere and its head went right into his spokes, and its head snapped right off. How crazy is that?

I finally hit the Maverick’s gas station in Dayton NV. This is the Shangri-La of gas stations. I couldn’t believe the selection of calorie dense breakfast sandwiches, donuts, you name it. I got four sausage egg biscuits and ate all but one, then got a few more with bacon. I think altogether I ate 4 sandwiches and got 4 for the road.  I also got a couple of maple bars which didn’t last two long in my bike bags. After Dayton, I made the rather unpleasant 2000’+ paved climb up to Virginia City. VC is a really neat place and it had really grown up since I had moved away from the area 5 years before. When I left, they had maintained the Old West frontier feel with just an old saloon and couple of eatieres. Now it had everything- fine dining, breweries, fitness centers, and even open air tourist trollies. The town has reinvented itself and is probably more profitable now than it was during the gold rush. Since I had eaten my bodyweight in junk food, I didn’t need to stop here so I rolled straight through. At the edge of town the route takes you right back onto rough double track as you climb up to the higher peaks of the Virginia Mountain Range. It was a beautiful day with amazing weather, but at this point, I just wanted to be finished, and knew I still had to tackle the final mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, to get to Lake Tahoe and the CA border.

At the top of the pass in the Virginia Range, I thought it would be cruiser downhill all the way to Carson City, but the route takes you up one pass after another before you finally hit Washoe Lake, thousands of feet below. Like everything in this race, it was taking longer than expected. From Washoe, I had actually ridden the section to Carson City, so it was nice be on familiar terrain. I soon hit a greenway that went past a community college. Unfortunately there was no cafeteria, but there were vending machines so I stocked up on a few snacks to prepare for the 10,000ft of climbing involved in the last 35-40 miles of the course.

I had been dealing with horrific saddle sores since the blizzard and rain storms in Central NV. By this point after being wet then dry, wet then dry, they become open flesh wounds that would adhere to my chamois, then get ripped open every time I changed position. I feel like I’m fairly pain tolerant, but these were so bad I would actually get nauseous or woozy every time it happened or when a sore would touch the saddle. This made riding incredibly unpleasant and awkward. I had to sit on the very nose of the saddle. My hands were in pretty bad shape too, as were my feet. As I was walking up a section of singletrack my shoes felt like they had small sticks or pebbles in them. I took them off and dumped them out, but there wasn’t much debris in them. Huh I thought, better check my socks. I took my socks off and noticed the pads of my feet had separated from my feet so I was actually stepping on folds of thick foot skin. Gross! I almost threw up just from the thought/site of it!

“Buck up sweetheart” I told myself. Pain is temporary. Suffering is optional. Usually this kind of self-flagellation does the trick but my body was starting to mutiny. Every step or pedal stroke began to take serious effort and concentration just to go on. To make things worse, the wind had picked up and was getting ruthless as I climbed in elevation. I was trying to negotiate a switchback and a blast of wind actually knocked me off the trail and tumbled into manzanita bushes, sharp rocks, and logs. It was a pretty bad fall, but could have been worse. It took me a while to collect myself and crawl back up to the trail. Finally I hit tree line which offered some shelter. But then the course dropped back down another 1000-2000ft before climbing again. Ugh. No mas por favor!!

The final couple thousand feet to Spooner Summit really tested my mettle. I was tantalizingly close, but every inch felt so difficult at this point. I began to worry I would have to stop again and rest which would mean finishing the dark or the next day. I didn’t know if my mind could keep forcing my body to go on. I took it step by step, pedal stroke by pedal stroke. Somehow I managed to make it to the top of Spooner Summit and was back on terra familiar. The last section of trail was the famed Flume Trail which I had ridden a few times before. I knew I had a nasty steep climb up to the start of the Flume, which would be hard, but I knew I could do it. I got weepy knowing that the race was almost over. My adrenalin began to leave my body. I was a mess.

I had to walk an embarrassing amount of the climb up to the Flume, but I made it. I was then re-energized by the beauty of Lake Tahoe and the fun singletrack riding. The Flume went smoothly, then I dropped down to the lake itself near Incline Village. From here I had one last climb to the casinos at Crystal Bay on the NV-CA border where my friend Cheryl was waiting to pick me up. I was so destroyed I could barely ride up this mellow paved climb, but I managed it somehow and finally saw Cheryl waiting for me at the Border. I’ve definitely never been happier to get off the bike.

After some sleep and time to heal, I was able to process and appreciate just what an amazing area we had ridden through. There are few places in the lower 48 with such sparse population. There are more mountain ranges in NV than any other state. NV is not a wasteland, its absolute natural treasure. I only wish I had explored more of it when I lived there instead of spending all my time in the Sierras. Would I do the race again, not sure. Am I glad I did it, a resounding yes.



i-NATURE: Indigenous iNtegration of Aquatic sciences and Traditional-Ecological-Knowledge for Undergraduate culturally Responsive Education (an NSF I-USE funded program)

After racing at WEMBO, I worked at a feverish pace to submit my first institutional level National Science Foundation Grant. Miraculously, I was funded and have since embarked on journey to get more underrepresented minority students involved in Science and higher education.

Learn more about the project here:

Students are motivated and empowered by contributing to the solution of problems faced by their community. They can see how their science degrees can transform not only their lives, but also have a great impact in the economy of the region and the protection of the environment where they live. In this regard, the i-NATURE project-, place-based curriculum that includes extensive applied research experience on local problems will be definitively transformative and have lasting influence on both student and community. i-NATURE seeks to create a new model for STEM curriculum that can provide a seamless transition from high school through graduate school to the STEM workforce. i-NATURE is an innovative and novel approach to STEM curriculum building for four reasons:

(i) the uniqueness of the tribal influence of the program through partnerships with the Yakama Nation and Salish Kootenai College, which could serve as a model for recruitment and retention of Native American students in STEM for other institutions,

(ii) the development of a regional partnership with graduate institutions Oregon State University (OSU) and University of Idaho (UI), the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), and the Spokane Tribe of Indians,

(iii) the hands-on, data driven, project-based curriculum, which will better prepare students for success in the STEM workforce and graduate career paths, and

(iv) the place-based educational immersion of students in the local heritage, culture, and landscapes as a foundation for the study of science and math.

The primary objective of i-NATURE is to create a culturally relevant, learner centered, project based curriculum that will better attract and retain students, and particularly AI/AN students. The components of this model include: (i) an Experiential, Place-Based Learning Model with an emphasis on understanding, analysis, and communication of local environmental issues, (ii) Intergenerational Mentoring, and (iii) Indigenous Research Internships. The second objective of i-NATURE is to develop a Regional Partnership to create a program uniquely tailored for underrepresented minority success in STEM.


WEMBO 2015

Its been a while since I’ve updated my blog, partially because I was submitting content to Bikepacker Magazine, and partly because my new life as a professor is busier than my grad student/athlete life. But I’d like to try to catch the blog up in to real time. After Tibet, I began my Faculty position at Heritage University in Toppenish Washington and began my new life in the PNW. I love my position and the area-its been rewarding in so many ways.
In my first semester as a faculty member, Heritage University let me take time off to compete at the World 24 Hour Solo Championship Race in Weaverville, California on Chumba Stella Titanium. It wasn’t my favorite race course ever but it was great to get to meet and ride against the best of the best.




Nomads, yaks, and butter tea: Searching for singletrack on the Roof of the World (Bikepacking Tibet)


After a challenging but wildly interesting summer in sweltering Hunan province, I finished my “Invited Faculty” tenure at Central South University of Forestry and Technology and was all set to travel by train to Sichuan Province in western China where I would begin an 800km bikepacking trip at nearly continuous elevations above 4000m.
Having spent the previous I year in Ecuador biking in the high Tropical Andes, I figured I was an expert at high elevation riding, but the next few weeks would be a true mental and physical endurance test. However, before I could begin the trip, I had to bike 20km through the traffic and choking smog across the 15 million person metropolis of Changsha, Hunan to drop my bike off at the Chinese Railway Shipping office to send it ahead of me for pick up in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan. No one spoke a word of English nor were they willing to try to use my translator phone app, so it was impossible to convey what I was trying to do.
After numerous failed attempts at communication, I decided to bumble around in the throngs of humanity at the massive Changsha Railway Station until inevitably someone would ask to take a selfie with me. I figured if their English was good enough to ask for a selfie, then they could help me ship my bike across the country. This is the degree of desperation one often encounters in China if you don’t speak Chinese. Fortunately, it worked and before long a teenage girl came up giggling and coyly asked me for my photo. I said sure, but first she had to help translate at the shipping office. We walked to the office together and with her smattering of English, we managed to fill out the necessary forms, and I hesitantly handed over my bike with the hopes of somehow finding it at the Chengdu train station 1200km away a few days later.
I then spent my last night in Changsha, and took my own train to Chengdu the following evening. I had hoped to ride one of the amazing high speed bullet trains, but they sell out quickly and so was forced to take the slow 22 hour 1200km ride across the country. The scenery was actually incredibly boring for the most part. Just small agricultural villages and the occasional sprawling metropolis that I had grown accustomed to in Central China. One of the city-states we passed through, Wuhan, has an unfathomable population approaching an estimated 40 million people! The sheer mass of humanity in China is nothing short of mind boggling. The train ride was pretty uneventful (a welcome event in China where ordering meal had often been a major operation) and I was able to get some sleep. I arrived in Chengdu late at night and had to find a hostel for the night before trying to recover my bike the next day.
Chengdu was even bigger than Changsha, though it was a much more inviting and interesting place. The city center has an incredibly modern, chic feel while some of the surrounding neighborhoods feel like you stepped into a time warp of tight pedestrian alleyways, paper lanterns, and teahouses. As with all Chinese cities, the size and density of the city was mind boggling. I managed to find a hostel after searching around with my tuk-tuk (small 3 wheel moto-taxi) driver for nearly an hour.
The next day I took a taxi to the Chendgu Western Railway Station (not to be confused with the Chengdu Railway Station!!) which is quite possibly the biggest single building I’ve ever seen. I was quickly dispirited when I saw the size of the place and settled in for an epic day of trying to locate the shipping office. It literally took me several hours just to locate the railway shipping office/warehouse. I asked numerous people and showed them my receipt, thinking mistakenly that they could surmise from the receipt that I was seeking to pick up something I had shipped, then easily point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, everyone I asked pointed me in opposing directions so I kept going in circles for hours. Just before reaching my breaking point, I noticed the Chinese character logo on the receipt matched a sign in an adjacent building and walked on over. As I approached, I miraculously saw my Chumba Stella leaning against the warehouse wall (I’m sure some of the employees had been taking it for a joy ride-I hope they had fun!). I produced my receipt and they handed the bike over. I couldn’t believe it. I figured that would be an ordeal to get them to release the bike to me, but they handed it right over- easier than ordering a meal!
I hopped on the bike and braved the Chengdu traffic and smog and managed to navigate, with difficulty, back to my hostel. The last thing I had to do that day was get my tickets for the bus up to Kangding. I quickly strapped on my #sawtoothhandlebarbag #divideframebag and #sawtoothhandlebarbag bikepacking bags from Wanderlust, loaded my stuff, and set out across town to the special bus station for trips to Kangding in Western Sichuan, which makes up part of the Kham region of the Tibetan plateau. Unfortunately there were no tickets until the next day, so I found an adjacent hostel then spent the evening riding around the city sampling the excellent spicy Sichuan cuisine and the famed Chengdu teahouses.


The next day I miraculously managed to get through bus station security with my bike and  get it loaded onto the bus with minimal grumbling from the bus driver. I was finally on my way to the Himalayas! The bus ride lasted about 7 hours as it wound its way up from the lowlands of around 500m to nearly 3000m. The drive through giant panda country is quite stunning, climbing through bamboo forests waving in the wind, past large mountain lakes, until finally reaching the Qionglai mountains of the Garze province. Despite the rugged beauty of the landscape, I was dismayed to see the rampant proliferation of dams, pipelines, and other evidence of unfettered natural resource development. I imagined there were few if any environmental safeguards involved in these efforts. I hope to return to the area one day to study the environmental impacts of these projects. But, for now, I assumed the level of development would dissipate as I traveled further west into more remote regions of the Tibetan Plateau and tried to focus on and enjoy the landscape instead of ruminating about the environmental degredation.
I arrived in Kangding and braced myself for the typical onslaught of humanity you experience in Chinese cities, and Kangding, despite being a small village (pop. ~100,000) by Chinese standards, did not disappoint. That is another marvel of China, village or bustling metropolis, there always seems to be jostling crowds, rampant honking, and a general sense of chaos and nonstop activity. After reassembling my bike, I set off to find a hostel for the night. I luckily stumbled on the lovely Zhilam hostel high up on the hillside above town where I met several western and Chinese tourists including an American owner of a bike shop in Chengdu. Wish I could remember the name of the shop, as it would be a great asset to bikepackers hoping to explore the Kham region of the Tibetan Plateau. After a pleasant evening with some Chinese speaking Argentine expats, I went to bed early, knowing I’d have a big day ahead getting to Tagong, about 120km away.



My plan had been to spend two days in Kangding to acclimate, before climbing up the 4500m pass on route to the high Tagong grassland-land of yaks, Tibetan Buddhist temples, and nomadic herders. But, I felt quite good that night and figured I was accustomed to breathe-taking altitudes after living in the Andes, so I got a pre-dawn start to begin the long climb up to the pass. Getting out of town was kind of a maze, but I finally found the muddy road under construction that lead out of town. Another interesting thing about China is that massive infrastructure are built by oceans of laborers yielding rudimentary tools. The road was going to be paved, and hundreds of villagers were mixing up the asphalt in woks and other cooking pans by the side of the road! Once I made it to the outskirts of town, I could relax and take in my surroundings. I was finally seeing glaciated Himalayan peaks, including the famed Gongga Shan, highest peak in Sichuan at around 7600m or 25000ft!


I had searched in vain for fully singletrack or unpaved routes leading up to Tagong, but instead had to settle for staying an improved road for the first 60km or so, before turning off onto a dirt track once I reached the plateau. So despite the lack of interesting biking, the yaks, stunning mountain views, prayer wheels, and other symbols of Tibet kept me entertained during the unending climb.


I finally reached the pass at about 4500m the after steadily climbing all morning up and was rewarded with the typical Tibetan adornments found across the Himalayan mountain passes.


I had been traveling on the main “highway” that leads from Chengdu to Lhasa, which has become rite of passage for Chinese mountain bikers, so I was often in the company of numerous other cyclists. While the “highway” to Lhasa is now mostly paved, several of high passes are still muddy, rocky, rutted thoroughfares, so the route remains the province of mountain bikes, but will soon be handed over to the roadies. This will be a sad day indeed!

After the pass, I dropped down a few kilometers before turning off the main route and onto some much more enjoyable dirt roads (though at the current rate of road building in China, the road might be paved by the time of writing this!). But for now, I was glad to find some peace and solitude among the yaks, grasslands, and stunning mountain views.


I also began to pass by nomadic herder huts for the first time around this point. As I traveled through Tibet, I continually witnessed the clash between traditional Tibetan culture and rapid Chinese development. I was only a couple of kilometers from a major road and all of the development , yet these herders preserved the way of life their people had been living for generations. I sadly wondered how long they could possibly continue a nomadic lifestyle as the modern world encroaches all around them. I admit that its easy to romanticize this way of life, which is obviously not without its struggles, and development can bring many positives to these communities. I just hope a balance between tradition and development can be struck in this magical land before its too late. Sadly, after my trip, I am not very optimistic about this prospect.


After managing to buy lunch (a bowl of the ubiquitous packaged fried noodles found all over rural China) from a nomadic herder family, I passed by a few traditional Tibetan villages along a small river before coming to a massive Tibetan Bhuddist Temple.


I then began climbing my 2nd pass of the day thankfully much shorter than the first climb of the day as I was now starting to feel the altitude. At the top of the pass I was rewarded with a view of the Tagong Monastery and surrounding grassland. What a stunning area. The sun was out, I was finally in a remote land of yaks, grasslands, and mountains. This was what I had been looking for in a bikepacking journey in Tibet. And this was all on day one! I could barely contain my excitement at this point.

I rolled on past a few more small villages before reaching Tagong where I was met by some Chinese bike tourists and a group of Isreali travelers who had travelled by van via the main road from Kangding to Tagong that same day.


Although I was carrying camping gear, the proliferation of Tibetan guesthouses across the region proved to be a much better option where available. Staying in guesthouses provides income to locals and gives travelers the opportunity to interact with the community and learn about their culture. Not to mention, the interior of Tibetan homes are incredibly unique and ornate. So, if you find yourself bikepacking across Tibet, be sure to stay in the occasional home of a villager or in nomad hut or tent!


After dinner with a nice group of ladies, I turned in early for the night and set off the next morning for a 150km stretch that would involve a mix of dirt road and pavement and thousands of meters of elevation change. I stuffed myself with yak yogurt and momos, not knowing when I’d next find such a nourishing meal.


The ride from Tagong back to the Lhasa road was one of the most pleasant segments of my trip. The terrain sloped gently downhill as it wound through canyons, following the path of a beautiful crystal clear mountain stream. I passed several small temples and prayer wheels along the way, and was rewarding with nice views, before rejoining the main road to Lhasa, where the sense of peace and solitude was quickly shattered.


After a painfully long stretch of climbing on pavement, the road returned to rough dirt and large sections of road could be bypassed via singletrack. Despite climbing up to over 15000 ft, I actually enjoyed this climb. I rejoined the groups of Chinese mountain bikers as we struggled up loose rocky singletrack until the trail became unrideable, at least at those elevations, and I was happy to help my comrades with bike carrying and pushing.



We finally topped out on the pass and enjoyed some strange Chinese bike touring snacks as group after group asked for selfies and took envious pics with my bike and bikepacking bags as the bikepacking revolution hasn’t yet taken hold in China.

The route stayed high up on the plateau for a several more kilometers before dropping down nearly 2000m into a deep canyon. The landscape changed from high Tibetan grassland to pineforests and the temperature climbed dramatically. Over the past year or so I’ve ridden and bikepacked on 4 continents, yet I was still consistently blown away by the dramatic relief of the Himalayas.

I descended for what felt like hours past picturesque Tibetan villages, winding my way down another canyon to the low point of approximately 2500m!

I stopped for some snacks and to shed some layers as the temperature had grown quite hot, and a group of riders passed by and wanted to ride with me. Against my best judgement, I jumped in with them and it quickly became a Strava-esque impromptu hammerfest at race pace up a 20km steep climb to the next village at about 13,000ft where we would spend the night in guest houses. Even though I was reeling from the 130km+ I had ridden that day, I couldn’t let them best me so we all held a painfully fast pace, rolling into the guesthouses completely spent and bonked with exertion and lack of calories.tibetriders

The guesthouse was beautifully intricate, with a traditional open fire stove in the center of the room. The evening meal took hours to prepare, but was a much needed feast. After eating nearly my bodyweight in Chinese and Tibetan dishes, I climbed up to my bed, and crashed hard for the night. The next morning, after braving the rickety outhouse suspended forty feet above the open pit sewer below, I set off for another punishing day.


My goal that day was complete the 200km stretch on the Lhasa road and turn off the main road at Litang, a mid size Tibetan village at 4014m, 400 meters higher than Lhasa! I had planned to do 150-200km a day for the entire trip, which was ambitious in any mountain range, but after a couple days of managing to push that far at these elevations with one 1500-2000m climb after the other, my body was starting to feel the punishment, and I began suffering mild altitude sickness.
The day started out with a burly 2000m climb that began on pavement and transitioned over to rough doubletrack as I approached 4659m (15,285ft), the highest pass yet. At this point I was really struggling with the altitude and exertion, and my pace had slowed considerably. When I finally crested the pass, I was rewarded with stunning views of Mt. Gongga peaking above the clouds.

The next several hours were stunning, but remained at these dizzying altitudes, so I couldn’t really enjoy it as much as I might have had I been better acclimated.

One advantage of remaining on the Lhasa road was that there were always plenty of fellow bikers suffering their way up the passes right along with me which helped keep spirits high.


Climb after climb, the day wore on and I began to realize I wouldn’t make it all the way to Litang. I was really worn out, and by the time I stumbled into Honglonxiang, an unappealing town about 50km shy of my goal for the day, I don’t think I could’ve pedaled another 2km. I found an absolutely wretched little roadside inn which would be home for the night. This town really exemplified the ugly side of Tibetan occupation for me. The ramschackle buildings were a far cry from the artistic, ornate interiors of the more traditional Tibetan homes. The children in this town had only trash for toys. Despite the undeniable natural and cultural beauty of the region, I was really saddened by much that I had seen up to this point. I wearily lay down on the bed at around 4pm and remained there in a high altitude stupor until the next morning.

The next day, still exhausted and unable to acclimate (a first for me in 15+ years of high altitude climbing and now biking), I decided to only ride 50km that day to Litang and stop there for a day or two to try to recover. After a while on the mixed pavement and dirt road, I found some yak herder paths that seemed to be heading toward Litang, and decided to follow them. I was rewarded with some muddy, though enjoyable single track through unending grasslands until finally descending into Litang, birthplace of the 7th and 10th Dalai Lamas.

Litang was a true clash of cultures. The Chinese government had literally ripped up the entire town and were replacing the roads and structures with typical Chinese highrise tenement buildings and plazas. Fortunately, some of the old town remained as well as the famous Litang Monastery (Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling). The weather had turned foul and I needed to recover so instead of bivying outside of town, I found a hostel and met an incredibly interesting Japanese Photographer named Kotaro Okamoto who had spent nearly 10 years photographing the changing face of Tibet and the loss of a unique cultural heritage. Kotaro said that Tibet was unrecognizable from what it was 10 years ago, and in 10 more years, it would be just another Chinese province with some Tibetan tourist sites. This was the first town I had stayed in since Kangding that was large enough to have Wifi, but unfortunately the Chinese government was jamming all wifi signals across the plateau in an effort to control civil unrest due the Dalai Lama’s birthday a few days before.
Kotaro had been in Litang for weeks waiting for an upcoming festival and getting to know the local people. He offered to take me around the old part of town which turned out to be an amazing experience.


We walked through the ancient alleys where Yak dung patties are smeared across the walls to dry and use for fuel as we made our way up to the temple.


Along the way we met some monks that were just as interested in me as I was in them. We all took pictures of each other and Kotaro was able to translate for us as he speaks fluent Tibetan! Notice the ipad in the one of the monk’s hands!


We toured around the monastery and met some michevious young monks-to-be. As one of the boys was bowing down to worship, candy spilled out of his robes! Kids will be kids, whether Bhuddist monks or western suburbanites!

After touring the temple we made our way through the old town to the birthplace of the 7th Dalai Lama before heading to the chaos and filth of the “new town” construction zone where we found a place to eat and met young nomadic herder who was really intrigued by his own picture, as though he hadn’t seen such technology before-which very well could have been possible.

That night I was rudely awoken by Chinese police making their rounds to the local Tibetan businesses and hostels to harass the owners and ensure there were no planned acts of defiance in response to a local dissident who mysteriously died at the hands of Chinese authorities in prison that day. It was kind of a tense situation as they checked my passport, but luckily they left myself and the owners alone.
After spending most of the previous day resting and being a tourist, I had recovered from my AMS and exhaustion enough to continue on my route. The weather had turned grey and cold which was disconcerting because I would be traveling through Haizishan National Reserve that day which would be my highest sustained altitude segment of the trip. After a short flat section out of town, I began my first ascent up to a pass for the day, taking me past limestone cliffs decorated with the ubiquitous Tibetan prayer flags, banners, and other adornments before dropping down to elevations much lower than Litang. I passed a couple villages as the road meandered along the river before I caught my first glimpse of the wall of mountains I’d have to pass over to reach the next major village, Daocheng.

I began my steady ascent mid morning, and would continue ascending for the remainder of that day (and into the next) as the steep mountain roads led me to dizzying altitudes, reinvigorating my mild AMS symptoms. The scenery was beautiful but my physical condition and the looming threat of a blizzard made it hard to enjoy my surroundings.


At around 15,000 ft I climbed above treeline where the wind picked up and the temperature dropped discernibly, but I still had a lot of climbing to do. My limited and inaccurate maps also showed that once I crested the first pass, I would remain at ~16,000ft for 50-60km, making it unlikely that I’d be able to descend low enough that day to avoid freezing temperatures and blizzard conditions. I was prepared for inclement weather, but knew it would be a punishing night out in the open.

After the first pass the steady drizzle turned to a heavy wet snow and I was completely soaked despite having donned my gore-tex shell and pants. I knew I had to get out of the elements and into my bivy sack quickly or hypothermia would have become a real threat. I finally descended a bit into a small valley and dropped below snowline where I came across an abandoned nomad hut. I couldn’t believe my luck. I hadn’t passed a single structure in hours, and right at the point where I knew I’d have to suffer through a wet cold night in the bivy, lo and behold a herder hut appears!

The interior was moldy and full of refuse, but to me it felt like the Ritz Carlton. I set up my bivy inside the hut, warmed myself with some instant noodles and hot tea, then passed out for an unknown period of time. I was jolted awake by the feel of scampering feet over my face and a scratching noise on my bivy sack. In my groggy state it took me a while to register that mice were trying to invade my bivy sack. I quickly unzipped and tried to swat them off. They had chewed into most of the food I left outside my bivy sack, but luckily I salvaged enough to get me through the next day. While I was able to doze for brief periods of time for the remainder of the night, the mice attacks never really let up, so I didn’t get the restful respite I had hoped for, but at least I was warm.
The next morning the storm had passed and I lounged around the hut until the snow melted off. The riding that morning was cold but the scenery was stunning, and I was glad for the lack of precipitation. The hours rolled on and I began to wonder when I would begin descending. I was ready to get off this high plateau and warm my bones!

After a while I started to descend slightly and began noticing more and more nomad camps and vegetation until I finally began an earnest descent into a warm river valley. The river crossing was treacherous, but fortunately the sun peeked through the clouds as I made it to the other bank and was able to sit back, dry out, and enjoy the warm rays.


From there I began an even steeper, seemingly unending descent to a stunning temple perched on the side of a massive cliff.



I continued descending into a fertile valley dotted with several traditional villages, monuments, and temples, before arriving in Daocheng just before dark. Daocheng has few redeeming qualities other than an abundance of cheap hostels and food, both very welcome after the night before. If it ever was a traditional Tibetan town, no remnants of it remained. It just felt like a hectic, crowded typical Chinese town. I spent an uneventful night there, before gladly continuing on the road.

From Daocheng to Shangri-La, Yunnan, the riding was hard but uneventful. The scenery was nice and there were only a few towns on this remote stretch, but more traffic than expected despite being a rough, muddy, steep track.

At this point, I was just ready to finish the trip. Tibet was amazing in many ways, but overall the experience was somewhat disheartening. From the bikepacking perspective, dirt roads and nomad trails are being paved over at rate I wouldn’t have thought possible. I’d be surprised if there are any dirt tracks left in a few years #firstworldproblems. Moreover, although many of the local people were amazing, the evidence of cultural repression and environmental was nearly inescapable, making it difficult to feel the same sense of amazement and wonder I constantly felt in the high Andes of Ecuador. My final destination, the famed “Shangri-La” epitomized the sense of “loss” or at the very least, transformation of a unique cultural gem of the world. If this was once considered paradise, then it’s well on its way to becoming [in the words of John Milton] “paradise lost”.

From Ecuador to Patagonia to USA to China….and from Mr. to Dr. Alexiades!

The last several months have been an absolute whirlwind; my head is reeling from all the travel, work, and cycling on three different continents. Before leaving Ecuador I took a trip to Chile to visit friends and do explore a potential bikepacking route through the Lakes Region of Patagonia. I then came back to Ecuador for a bit and headed back to Tennessee to visit my folks, then drove up to New York to defend my PhD dissertation and sell my house-both of which were successful within 2 days of each other. The day after my defense I drove from Ithaca to NYC to meet the whole family, minus one sister, to celebrate the successful defense and my move to China. Two days later I was on a plane to Changsha, China where I taught Environmental Microbiology for month in June. So many experiences in such a short time, each so markedly different. I don’t know how I packed it all in…and I am still going, nonstop! At this point, I will be excited to just stay in one place for a bit and have a home. I am struggling to make sense of all these eventsand get my thoughts down, but at least I have some photo documentation of some of it where words are lacking…

My last month in Ecuador was crazy awesome as always. After some excellent bikepacking trips in the Sierra, I traveled down to Chile to visit my old friends from the Arica days. Unsurprisingly, Nico was ready with an action packed trip for me in the Central Valley region, and I also squeezed in a bikepacking trip down in the Araucania Region of Patagonia while I was there. As soon as I arrived we went straight to a carrete with a bathtub full of Heineken, partied til late, then went straight to Chacabuco for some sport climbing the next morning.

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After climbing, Nico saw me off to Patagonia in style with a couple Chilean cervezas!


I took an overnight bus to Curacautin, near Parque Nacional Conguillio where I would begin my 250km bikepacking trip across backroads and trails in the Patagonian Andes to finish in Pucon on the banks of the stunning Lago Villarica. The scenery was beautiful, passing through lava fields, Araucania forests changing into Fall colors, small Maupuche villages, and glaciated volcanoes. Unfortunately, low clouds kept the high mountains from view most of the time. The trip went remarkably fast-I had planned on 4 days, but finished in 2 because the dirt roads where in good shape and the climbs were tame by Ecuador standards. Overall, it was a rather peaceful backcountry bikepack stroll through a beautiful area, but it couldn’t compete with the world-class bikepacking routes we’d been doing in Ecuador.

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After the Patagonia trip, I came back to Santiago and explored the singletrack in the Metro area. Found some awesome trails right in the city!

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That weekend, Nico, some of his friends, and I went on a high mountain trek up to a glacier to check out some potential routes on a 6000m peak they are planning to climb this December.

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After climbing up to the glacier, we headed back to Santiago, and had one last party before I flew back to Quito for my last few weeks in Ecuador. I took full advantage of those last few weeks with night race down into the Pululahua Crater and back up

A hike-a-bike up to Rucu Pichincha via Las Antenas (brutal!) followed by an amazing 7000′ descent on a downhill track.

And an awesome 90km, 3000m (10000ft) ascent farewell bike ride with my good friends Daniel Martin and Rodrigo Sanchez on an old endurance course called Vuelta a Nono. Great views

great friends, and even an Andean condor or two thrown in for good measure.

After several farewell gatherings and shorter, less epic rides, I reluctantly packed up my stuff and flew back to the USA. Despite going through a divorce during my time in Ecuador, it was  a truly unforgettable experience. I will never forget the great friends I made there, the magical landscapes and cultures, my research, and of course the epic backcountry bike rides and races I undertook all over the country. Ecuador, like Chile, now holds a special place in my heart and psyche. I can’t wait to get back.

Apparently fate didn’t want me to leave Ecuador as my flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems so I ended up having to spend the night at La Mariscal Airport in Quito.

I flew into Knoxville TN and spent a pleasant week with my parents before driving up to Ithaca, NY to defend my PhD at Cornell University. It was an insane week and I ended up sleeping on the floor of my office each night I was there, but at the end of the week I successfully defended, and left town early the next morning as Dr. A Alexiades (not to be confused with Dr. V Alexiades, my dad who is also a PhD). Although I made some nice friends in Ithaca and the PhD experience was invaluable at Cornell, I never really felt at home there and was glad to be moving on.

I had to start work in Changsha China just a few days after my defense (what was I thinking taking on so much!!) so I drove down to Jersey City to meet up with most of my family (minus one sister) and celebrate the successful (though admittedly painful) defense and completion of my PhD. I still didn’t feel like I was finished since I had some revisions to do on the dissertation, but it was great to see my family again before moving to China.

After a couple days of respite in the city, I flew to Changsha via La Guardia-Detroit-Shanghai-Changsha. It was a brutally long and uncomfortable flight full of delays, lines, and the typical headaches of flying with a bike. My feet swelled up so much on the 15 hour Detroit-Shanghai leg of the trip that I couldn’t put on my shoes when we landed. I arrived in Changsha in the middle of the night, but fortunately Mr. Xiong (aka Bear) was there to pick me up as I would’ve never found my way to the University on my own.

A couple days later I started teaching two sections of Environmental Microbiology to 60 sophomore Env. Sci. majors at the Central South University of Forestry and Technology in Changsha, capital city of the Hunan Province. The English language ability of my students ranged from reasonably competent to non-existent, but fortunately their knowledge of Microbiology was well beyond that of a senior microbiology major in the USA, so the course ended up being mostly an english language class. I did notice that my students had an exceptional ability to memorize facts, but really struggled with more complex tasks and critical thinking. I was also really surprised by the immaturity displayed in the classroom. I think this was due to the interactive learning style I used-they simply aren’t used to working in groups and completing tasks and activities in class, so rather than focus on the task at hand, they assumed it was playtime. I was definitely not expecting to have to be a disciplinarian in a university class.

Over the past 12 years I’ve traveled to 50+ countries and lived in 8 countries, but I still experiences culture shock in China. Everything is strangely familiar, yet strikingly different than western countries. Changsha is a city of 15+ million people so it has all the commercialism and hustle and bustle of major metropolitan area, but the food, customs, language, air pollution, and population density were like nothing I remotely imagined. In many ways, Changsha made NYC feel like a sleepy country village.

It took me a while to get used to the staring and gawking, but after a while you just stop noticing it. Still, I often felt like a caged monkey there for the amusement of passersby. My students were lovely though-very hard working and generous. For my first week, they took me out nearly every night and wouldn’t let me pay for a thing.

During my month in Changsha, I was super busy with work, but still trained as much as possible. Unfortunately due to the air pollution and oppressive heat and humidity (temperatures ranged from high 90’s to low 100’s and the region is more humid than Florida or Louisiana!) often made it difficult/unpleasant/unhealthy to train outside. I ended up paying top dollar for a gym membership that filtered the indoor air and had spin classes. The spin classes in China are hilarious and brutal. They don’t use AC or fans and the rooms are small so a fog of human sweat quickly envelops the room. I wish I had filmed one of these classes. The music was some ultra poppy electronica that the whole class dances along to in unison, all the while spinning hard on their bikes. The temperature was probably over 100 and everyone has a huge puddle of sweat at the base of their bikes. I always felt like I was going to pass out by the end of them, more from the heat and humidity than exertion. Good fun!

There were many days that were supposed to be “sunny” but the smog was so thick it looked like a cloudy day. It was the odd day that the sun broke through the pollution and blue sky was even rarer. That said, I met some really nice mountain bikers (one of the guys races for Giant China) that showed me some really nice local trails. None of them spoke  a word of english and my chinese was so bad they couldn’t understand me, but somehow we managed.

The best riding in Changsha China, should you ever find yourself there, is on Yue Lu mountain just west of the Xianjiang River and quite close to the heart of the massive metropolis. There is actually some killer singletrack if you happen to have a dry day with little smog. Most of the riders are heavy smokers and pretty slow, but the two racers I rode with were absolute hammerheads, especially on climbs, and kamikaze warriors on the descents. Though friendly, I think we were semi-racing each other for the pride of our country’s and sponsors as we were all beaten and bloodied by the end of the 115 degrees F day.

After a month of teaching, culture shock, constant sweating, and training  hard both indoors and out, I submitted my course grades and packed up for a 3 week bikepacking trip across the Garze region of Tibet. I hope to post a write up of that trip soon.