In a recent interview, father of hellbiking Roman Dial said ( to paraphrase) that he became interested in wilderness biking because walking was too simple. Off trails, cycling punishes poor route choices, while the speed and effort differences between good walking and bad walking terrain are exponentially less. This is why the 1997 Nat Geo article will remain one of the most staggering, nigh uncomprehensible, and influential wilderness trips of all time. Since my own mountain biking career petered out into hobbyhood a decade ago, I’ve been in denial about Roman’s insight, and semi-intentionally avoided reckoning with what it would mean to embrace what hellbiking would mean in the lower 48. A lot of this is logistical; it being difficult to find public lands where biking is legal off official routes. Some of it had to do with equipment; full fat bikes are great, but they’re often overkill for wild terrain and almost always too heavy for the extensive pushing and carrying. But most of it was my reluctance to go all in on the ambiguity, on potentially handicapping myself massively on a route, and having an extensive learning curve before mistakes and failing ceased to be the default.
After building my new bike, and frankly after doing almost everything I ever care to do in backpacking over the past decade, I had no tenable excuses left, and no choice but to dive in.
The route was a version of one I’d been thinking about for years and years, so naturally with being new to the intricacies and having lots of guesses invested, lots went wrong. For the first time since 2006, when we moved to Arizona, I ran out of both tubes and patches on a ride, and limped down the final hill stopping to pump up both tired every quarter mile. So duh: if you ride in cactus country you need tubeless tires with an excessive amount of sealant inside. I shouldn’t have had to learn that one again. I was also surprised to find the big river still frozen over. Not solid, but far to thoroughly to paddle, and far too slushy to walk across. This both made the full loop impossible, and robbed my bail option, which would have been really nice when I got into the cottonwood bottoms already dangerously low on tubes. Lastly, and most significantly for the future, I learned that overall moisture levels will in the future be vital for viable passage. The wash riding here will be exceptional, when things are either dry or frozen and the gumbo is locked away. As it was experience let me keep my drivetrain intact and derailleur hanger on the bike, but only just, there being about a dozen instances when a little more pedal pressure would have brought on terminal chainsuck, derailleur dismemberment, or both.
But the deertrack and cowtrack and especially elktrack was sublime, especially that elk trail which hammered across a skinny ridgetop and surfed sandy rollers all the way down to the wash, each dip somehow just on the edge of butt to tire rideable. The Marin, newly outfitted with 3 inch tires, performed perfectly, and when I can fix my technical mistakes and misunderestimation of the conditions, I could not be more excited to get back out there.