During the winter, my buddy Morgan got it in his head that we should do a mountain bike bikepacking trip over spring break. With unpredictable spring weather in the Northeast, he looked south. And east. And that’s how we ended up in California attempting the Stagecoach 400 route.
Now before I begin, I should make it clear that the official Stagecoach 400 is a self-supported, endurance mountain bike race of just under 400 miles through the California mountains and desert for people who are certifiably insane and inhumanly strong. It’s held in March each year starting in Idyllwild, California and is the brainchild of Brendan Collier and Mary Metcalf-Collier.
Being mere mortals, we were not doing the Stagecoach 400 but instead planning to simply follow the route of the race. And while the competitive finishers complete the course in about 3 days, our goal was to do it in 7 days, with a stretch goal of 6.
None of us knew what we were getting into.
We arrived in San Diego around 9pm, which felt like midnight to us. The plan was to assemble our bikes then ride out in the morning. Since the route is a big loop, we were going to start and end in San Diego instead of Idyllwild. I think we finished assembling our bikes around midnight and got to bed around 1am, or what felt like 4am.
Day 1 – La Mesa to Oakzanita RV Campground
Four of us came out for the ride – Pete, Morgan, Tom, and Me (L-R). We were feeling a little goofy after such little sleep and with such a big undertaking ahead of us. Morgan and Pete had done a few multi-day road bike trips, and I’ve ridden around Lake Michigan (17 days), but Tom hadn’t done any multi-day tours and none of us had done anything like this on mountain bikes.
The route didn’t pass exactly by the house we were staying at so Morgan created a pretty good 10mi section to catch us onto the trail. After an 8am breakfast burrito just down the street from the house and me forgetting my backpack (not a good omen) we hit the road and pretty soon the trails.
Day 1 started great with beautiful singletrack along the Sweetwater Reservoir. I broke a chain in the first half of the day, and we had stopped multiple times to readjust the bags and gear that we had never ridden with before.
As you can see from the elevation profile above, day 1 was a 57 mile uphill slog. I’m used to riding hills, and in fact I really enjoy climbing on my bike!, but none of us realized just how difficult 7,000ft+ over 50 miles on fully loaded mountain bikes would be. Especially with 75% of the route unpaved. (Editor’s note: This does not instead mean smooth dirt; more on this later.)
For perspective, my favorite ‘hilly’ ride around Boston is 112 miles round trip, and barely 6,000ft of elevation gain – so double the distance with less climbing, and all on road. And that already makes for a long day.
Some of the riding was great. All of it was beautiful.
The photo above is from the base of a 6 mile climb heading out of a Native American reservation. We got chased down the road by two giant dogs but I made sure to be in the front. After all, you don’t have to outride the dogs, just the people behind you!
Frustratingly, there was also a lot of not-riding this day. It would become a theme for the trip.
Either the route would be too steep, or be too rocky, or be too sandy, or be a combination of any number of those, and we found ourselves hiking rather than biking for quite a few miles.
We had lunch in the town of Alpine and tried to take stock of it all. By that point we had ridden just 39 miles but were already exhausted from the heat, the hills, and the lack of sleep. Members of the team were contemplating whether they could or would even continue with the ride. After a lot of cold sodas though it was decided that we would call ahead and book a site at Oakzanita Springs RV Campground. They had a hot tub and we’d wait until then to make a decision about tomorrow. Plus, only 18 miles to go, right?
It took us almost 4 hours to go those final 18 miles. Our day started at 8am and finished at our campsite some 11.5 hours later, riding (ha! also walking) the last 60 minutes through a nature preserve and along a windy mountain road in the dark. By the time we set up our tents, cooked dinner, and took a dip in the hot tub it was 9.30pm and we were cooked.
A 385mi trip over 7 days requires a minimum of 55 miles per day. Over 6 days, it’s 64. On our first and freshest day we had just barely covered the necessary minimum miles and were setting ourselves up with no room for error later in the trip if we were to maintain the distance needed each day. Nevertheless, we hoped a good night’s sleep and the hot showers would be enough to set us right and we endeavored to push on for the next day. The elevation profile said it was to be overall a downhill day so we figured on it being much easier.
We were wrong.