Back in 2013 I created a blog post titled “The Beauty of the Beast” that extolled the many benefits of old-school “mountain bikes” being repurposed into not only 2-wheeled urban assault vehicles but also as viable steeds for the burgeoning activity of bikepacking. Later I repurposed the post itself it as an article for Cycling Utah, and then again a few years later for the Utah Adventure Journal. While clearly I’ve endeavored to make my point – and likely convinced virtually no one! – a new chapter has come about that I can’t resist writing about.
For years I had a string of old school bikes that I had bought, ridden, and given away at the end of a tour. One was a KHS that I bought in a bit of a frenzy because we were on a road trip that I didn’t think would involve much riding but turned out to be longer than anticipated and I grew weary of doing short runs while Ashley did long rides, one was an XL frame that I tried to give away in Mexico but no one would actually take it: (“oooh, esta muy grande!”) and two were given to Cuban people who pretty much felt that we were sent by God for giving them our bikes.
All of the bikes I had bought and used were steel; while I had faith in the integrity of the frames, I knew that every place in the world would have someone who could weld a cracked steel frame back together, but a broken aluminum frame is….broken. Additionally, steel is a bit more forgiving than aluminum (particularly so in the typically-smaller frames that hold 26″ tire).
After that Cuba trip I bought a Fisher Gitche Gumee; a steel mountain bike from the mid-90’s, and after a good shakedown trip on a bit of the Colorado section of the Great Divide route I took it to Vietnam for our tour there. While that country definitely qualifies as a great place to leave a bicycle that will be well-used and well-loved (in fact, on that tour I met a local who had an identical bike!) I just couldn’t part with it, so I brought it home.
While it was pretty heartwarming to give the bikes to people who clearly not only liked them, they actually needed them to improve their quality of life, but…the Gitche was a little different for me. Maybe it was the fact that I had been able to find one that had hardly been ridden despite being 15 years old, maybe because I put a bit more work into it to make it just right…..but the truth is that the more I rode it the more I liked it, and just like an old coat the accumulating memories of adventures that the Gitche delivered me to were quite deep and fulfilling. I have often said that in terms of value – that is, the amount of pleasure received from a piece of gear for the amount of money spent on it – nothing comes close to the amount of fun that my $250 Gitche delivered.
After that I used it on all sorts of tours in the wilds of the Utah desert and well beyond, including our multi-thousand mile trip from Scotland to Italy in 2022 and my first true bikepack trip that was almost exclusively singletrack in the Sawatch Range of Colorado (blog posts part 1 here, part 2 here).
A couple of things had happened in the meantime. Jeff Rogers had been a longtime bike frame builder in Salt Lake City but more importantly was married to Cindy Zeigler, who has been a friend since I met her lovely family (and her cute younger sister!) in the mid-80’s when I first started visiting brother Paul in Utah. Jeff was well-known in the community as a racer and race organizer, and one of his Rogue-branded bikes actually won a national championship time trial powered by Dave Zabriskie. But tragically Jeff died on his bike at a far-too-young age, leaving Cindy with a couple of kids and…a shop full of bike pieces and parts. I offered to help Cindy sell off some of his parts – a bit of a challenge pre-Craig’s List – and as I was going through his shop I spied an unfinished frame hanging in a corner. I took it down and realized it was my size, and underneath it in a bucket was a carbon Wound Up fork. Cindy graciously gave me both, and eventually I met Joe Skrivan; a longtime frame builder who builds about a frame per year and moonlights as the headlamp developer at Black Diamond. When I proposed the concept to him he said “this may sound a bit weird, but the opportunity to finish off a dead guy’s bike is a dream come true for me.” So Joe finished it and gave it a custom paint job (steel blue fading to steel silver) and along with a “flip wheel” (a gear on each side, one side is fixed and one side freewheels) that was also in Jeff’s stash I had a fixy that was a canyon-climbing demon but I didn’t have to spin my legs off going downhill after flipping it around at the top.
The second thing was that our friend Benj had invited us to ride the Arizona Trail with him. The AZT is well known for being a challenging route that’s mostly singletrack and quite thorny, and it made me ponder the concept of getting a somewhat-dedicated bikepacking bike for both that trip and similar future events, and somehow I stumbled across a review of a Kona Unit X; a rigid steel bike with 29” wheels, clearance for biggish tubeless tires, and flat handlebars, which is what I wanted, and it was very reasonably priced at well under $2k. Though there was very little availability due to the bike industry gyrations associated with covid, one shop was advertising getting one, and it happened to be my friend Brian Blair’s shop in SoCal. He kindly agreed to put my name on it and ship it when it came, but of course wanted a bit of a commitment by me. I thought about it a lot, and when it did come in – on time – Brian asked “okay, we got it; you want it?” and I pulled the trigger. The bike was just what I wanted, and it worked great on the AZT and subsequent adventures too, including the Oregon Timber Trail.
So despite my love of the Gitche…..I went ahead and made it slightly superfluous! Which killed me. But I still used it as an around-town workhorse, and as we were looking at our potential route in Spain I realized that the Gitche was well-suited to the combination of maybe 60/40 percent paved/gravel with lightly-lugged tires, so that’s what I chose for that trip. Another few thousand miles later I found myself in Lisbon, again with the beloved Gitche Gumee in a foreign land, though to be sure a 30 year old mountain bike in a big European city doesn’t have quite the same sort of value that it does in a developing country.
However, I was going to Africa for a Zambezi river trip, and I remembered well the tales of the dire need of bikes in Africa outlined in the great book “Land Of Second Chances” . Turns out that my old pal Ken Bender was not only going to join the river trip but also planned on doing a bike tour in the area afterwards. Ken is also a retro-bike touring aficionado who most recently did a 2+ month tour of Mongolia on a comparable rig that he donated to an appreciative local at the end. So I arranged with Ken to bring my bike to meet him in Livingstone, and after our trip he would ride my bike and then leave it with a worthy recipient, while I would go home (and take my Pika Packworks bag with me as a big piece of luggage with very little in it; the first time I’ve ever answered the airport question of “is that a bicycle?” with “no”….. and actually told the truth!). So at the end of our river trip I took a deep breath and gave my beloved Gitche Gumee to Ken and flew home.
Turns out that Ken’s tour didn’t go quite as planned; the “beginning of the rainy season” doesn’t necessarily mean that it rains a little; once the rain starts it can and does rain a lot! So he got a bit rained out, quit the bike tour early, and headed elsewhere for other adventures. But as according to plan, Ken made sure that the bike was not forsaken and found a new owner who will likely ride it far more than I ever did.
Bikes in Livingstone actually have even more value than other places in Africa; the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe – the Zambezi Gorge bridge – is always clogged with trucks, and it is clear that bikes are an integral part of international trade.
And what of the aforementioned Rogers Rogue Fixy? The truth is that the Kona is pretty well set up to be a dedicated bikepacking rig with far too big/gnarly tires, I rarely ride the roads at all any more either on my 23 y/o Trek Postal Service road bike or the fixy, and I knew I’d miss the versatility and utility of The Beast! So after digging through my boxes of old parts and a couple of visits to the brand new and super awesome Salt Lake Bike Collective world headquarters downtown – where in addition to a mind-boggling array of old-but-good 26 inch mountain bikes you can also dig through their bins for pretty much any bike part ever made for very reasonable prices – the fixy has now been converted to a happily-geared bike with a rack, flat bars, and retro bar ends that will zip me to the store, to the trailhead, home from skiing (I’ve done it; not a lot….) and on the more-paved-than-gravel tours. The Beauty of the Beast!