Linkers abroad: Tough Bikepacking in Jalisco, Mexico February 21 2017
In February 2017, Missing Link member Marc L. and ex-Linker Owen traveled to the mountains of central Mexico with two cyclist friends from Guadalajara. Marc relays:
Everyone warned me; “Luciano likes to make people suffer. If he hasn’t actually done the route before, don’t believe anything he says.” Yet, I set out under the premise of a 50km two day dirt ride—I figure, with so little distance, how bad can it be? What I didn’t realize until we set out was that a considerable section of our ‘route’ was unknown to any of us.
We wake before dawn and pedaled to the outskirts of Guadalajara to find the bus for Mascota, a remote town 4 hours west and high in the Sierra Madre mountains. To my surprise, the bus is comfy and air-conditioned, so I manage to sleep for much of the ride before the going gets twisty and we climb into the mountains.
Mascota is paved in cobblestones, dusty and dry. Luciano, our ‘navigator’ although he has never ridden the route before, informs us that we may not find water on this trip and that we should pack enough for two days. I buy 6 liters of water, weighing my bags down more than a little. We set off down a dusty mainly-dirt road with four strips of pavement. Luciano remarks he thought this road was completely paved; a sign of things to come. We pass through the agricultural outskirts of Mascota heading directly toward the mountains.
Soon, the semi-paved road gives way to rough cobblestones and a ridiculously steep grade! I get into my lowest gear, 28-32, and attempt to ride—only to repeatedly get hung up at low speed on the large rocks which make up the road. All too soon, all four of us are walking in the hot mid-afternoon sun. After half an hour, I begin to worry about my arms giving out from pushing my fully laden bike; I certainly had not anticipated my upper-body strength (or lack thereof) as being especially important for this trip.
We take a moment to hydrate and eat. Luciano offers me a guava, and my life changes completely; I go so far as to proclaim I’d climb all we had done so far again for another delicious fruit. He gives me another and I adopt the slogan “Give me hope or give me guavas.” This came as a play on Luciano’s tendency to manage expectations by dashing any ray of hope that a climb may end or the route may become any more ride-able.
We walk for another hour. Eventually it turns to dusty hard-pack and the descent begins: this part is an absolute blast. After several miles we come to a river crossing, after which the road splits: we choose to stay in the river valley, which becomes wider and we wind our way through several small farms.
I soon find myself watching the sky turn gently pink from the porch of a locked, unoccupied farm house. My legs burn with lactic acid from the hard climb. Just before finding this abandoned rancho, our ‘road’ crossed the river 5 or 6 times, several of them deep enough that pedaling through caused my feet to go underwater. The feeling of freezing water splashing over my dusty, sunbaked legs felt like renewal. Immediately upon leaning up our bikes, I sat on the porch, looking out at the fields in the lush mountain valley while rolling out my legs with a full soda can for what feels like a glorious eternity. After feasting on nuts, canned tuna, and fruit, we pass out at 8pm.
I did this trip on my mid-90’s steel Schwinn High Planes mountain frame, built up with bits from the used-parts-bin as a no-frills bulletproof dirt touring bike. We are incredibly lucky in the States to have a glut of bikes like this easily available; most used bike shops (Missing Link included) sell similarly equipped bikes for 200-400. I went for reliability and flexibility over weight savings and modern niceties, choosing a triple crankset, 8 speed friction shifting, V brakes, a rear rack with panniers, and Kenda Nevegal tires. The bike held up perfectly—although the panniers often snagged when the going got rocky and narrow.
Owen, an ex-Linker, and Sofia rode older mountain bikes as well, while our fancy friend Luciano rode a Surly ECR with frame bags rather than panniers. We all made it, but it was clear that the ECR was definitely the most enjoyable tool for the job. I have not generally been a huge advocate of fat-tire bikes, but this trip made me understand the appeal of some extra cushion and grip for weird routes on surfaces unfriendly to bicycles. The plus-size high volume 3.0” 29r tires set up tubeless at 9psi eat cobblestones for breakfast and having weight distributed properly eased the hours of hike-a-bike that punctuated the trip.
After sleeping for 12 hours, waking occasionally to the somewhat alarming screams of a horse and some barking dogs, we set off in the morning on a very promising, easy dirt road. I immediately attempt a too-deep river crossing and soak both my socks, but otherwise the going is easy... for about 10 minutes.
The road ends between a couple houses. Only a rocky, steep footpath continues in our direction. “No, no…” Luciano shakes his head and turns back. We ask a woman at a nearby rancho for directions to San Sebastian de Oeste. She explains that the faint path over yonder is the pilgrim route and the only way forward. We have at least two hours of scrambling in store for us, plus two steep valleys with river crossings, and she promises it will be very, very difficult with bikes.
Almost immediately the footpath becomes unride-able. We descend a treacherous, narrow path to a river bridged by a couple sticks on some rocks. Climbing up the other side of the valley is an exercise in shoving my bike a few feet up the path by the bars—a motion not unlike a bench press—then scrambling up between the rocks to get next to it, and repeating.
At the next stream crossing we stop for lunch. “I think we should have gone left at that tractor yesterday.” I look at Luciano with dismay. “But the woman we asked said this was the way?” He shakes his head. “Yes, but it wasn’t supposed to be like this. We are kind of lost.”
“Lost? But we’ll get there, yeah?”
“Sure. This just isn’t the route.”
I distinctly remember him saying he didn’t know how we’d traverse this segment. “Was there actually a route?”
We set off and I promptly get a pinch flat on the front from smashing my bike against rocks repeatedly in my attempt to roll it up the ridiculous path. Moving on, we finally get to a few short segments where I can get on my bike and bounce over the scree for a few moments, only to snag my panniers on a branch or hit a rock too large to roll over.
After what feels like an eternity of ride, push, ride, the trail becomes far more manageable. We descend a glorious, mildly technical single-track for quite some distance, which eventually connects us to a dirt road. We stop again for food and I look at the hillside: our road is visible ascending as far as the eye can see up the mountain. Excellent.
We catch a break in that this climb is almost all dirt with a few short, steep cobblestone sections. Unfortunately all of us are pretty tired from the morning’s exertions and it is now the hottest part of the day. We switchback up and up, finally regrouping two hours later at the top. Ahead of us is several miles of steep descent on a cobblestone and dirt road, which for the first time on our ride is moderately trafficked. We agree to meet at the plaza in San Sebastian. I try to follow Luciano, but this is where his setup with weight balance and low-pressure fat tires gives a decisive advantage and I quickly lose sight of him.
As my hands begin to blister and my feet go numb, I finally roll into the town and find the plaza. Soon we are at a hotel, celebrating with showers and beer.
This trip was one of the most physically demanding things I’ve ever done and I would not recommend our specific route. Despite all my complaining, Luciano proved to have an excellent sense of direction and I thank him for projecting enough confidence to inspire all of us to try this untested route. Above all, the scenery was stunning and I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to get so far off the beaten path.
Thanks for reading and check back soon for local East Bay cycling routes and adventure ideas!