The Stagecoach 400 is touted as California’s longest mountain bike ride, but that hardly covers it. Gnarly, followed by your choice of expletives, is how it’s often described by people who know or have ridden the route. If you’re looking for a pilgrimage to offer sacrifice to the SoCal mountain bike spirits in the form of pain and suffering, in exchange for the beauty of the mountains, coast, and desert, this is your ticket. This route, just like all of the others in our sport, is gaining popularity by the minute. Every year, an ever-increasing group of riders show up to race, ride, or try the route. This year, route “non-organizer” Meg Knobel capped the ride around 75 riders to minimize the impact.
The route starts and ends in the picturesque town of Idyllwild, about 5,400 feet above sea level. I rolled up to the pre-ride meeting the night before the grand depart and was in shock over how many people had showed up. I munched on cold pizza and said hello to some of the veterans just before Meg delivered the speech, reminding us all that this was a self-supported ride — we’d pedal the entire route under our own power, with no prearranged support.
The race started the next morning beneath the flagpole in the center of town. At 8 a.m., standing under the flagpole, I kept thinking it sounded like we were all in for a good old-fashioned ass-whooping.
The pack started out rolling hard and fast, despite the heat, but I held to one of my old mantras, ride your own ride. With my choice of bike this year, I planned on being slower on the pavement, but ripping dirt and hoping that the full suspension would allow for a more comfortable and ultimately faster ride.
By early afternoon the temperature was cooking, sweat and sunblock stinging my eyes, one of those days where you can feel the sun actually baking your skin, and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to follow my water plan. I’d need to conserve and resupply more often.
It’s a long ride from Idyllwild to the coast, 130 miles, mostly downhill, but by the time you get there, you’ve already gained about 10,000 feet of elevation. I met up with Tim Tait for the second time that day, around Mission Bay in San Diego. We chatted and rode along the coast in the middle of the night, aware that Jeff Sumsion was somewhere up front, and we were just behind.
Tim and I parted ways in the suburbs of San Diego, where he stopped for some rest, and I decided to keep pedaling through the night – either choice is a gamble. The night air felt cool and refreshing against my skin and I savored adding layers. It was after 1 a.m. when I caught up to Jeff, who was done for the day. I kept on and got into the zone with some fun nighttime singletrack riding. Then the second wave of climbing kicked off. Exhausted, I stopped before the hike-a-bike section for a 10-minute nap, knowing Tim and Marilyn Rayner were knocking on my door. With that in mind, it wasn’t the soundest sleep. It was 4 a.m. and today would be all about climbing.
The heat was blazing while I fought my way up the Laguna Mountains, but I could see the Borrego Desert in the distance, which was going to be the real fight. My Wahoo read 101°F as I hit the sand, and I decided not to look at it for the rest of the day.
Biking through that area feels like something out of Mad Max, nothing around but jacked up Jeeps and lots of sand. The sand is everywhere – in your mouth, eyes, shoes, and caked into your sunscreen. I rode up on some trail angels and route founder, Brendan Collier, who tossed me a few Starburst to munch while I pedaled.
After I finally got through the sand and hit the highway, I checked Trackleaders. Tim was gaining on me. I decided to push past my critical resupply of Ocotillo Wells and try to get to Borrego Springs before the 10 p.m. cutoff time for the burrito shop. But there was a massive headwind hitting me as the sun set, and I was about to miss my only chance at getting food. I stood on the pedals and pushed with everything I had.
Tim caught me on the stretch of highway just after the headwind morphed again into a sidewind, wanting to know what the hell I was doing pushing that hard. One word was all it took for him to understand: burritos.
We rolled into the shop together and feasted. “You know, I think we can wrap this thing up in under 48,” Tim said around a bite of burrito. “I think we can too,” I replied. And in that moment, the Great Borrego Burrito Truce of 2021 was forged. Why not pull of a dual win and have fun doing it?
We slogged it out through the next stretch of sand and wind and then hit the willows. Basically, a creek with a tunnel of willows and reeds and somehow also a “trail.” On the Stagecoach 400, if you get tired of the terrain, just keep moving and it’ll change.
We spent the next few hours getting beaten by the headwinds and the sand as we slipped along the jeep roads, sometimes walking and sometimes pedaling. We wanted that sub-48hr finish, but the desert had other plans. It offered up a consolation prize as we rode out, though – one of the most breathtaking sunrises I’d ever seen, the San Jacinto Mountains ahead and the desert below. There was no place I’d rather have been right at that moment, riding my bike, with a new friend in the mountains, out way past my bedtime.
2021 Stagecoach 400 Top Finishers
Overall (and all men):
1st. Tim Tait & Gregg Dunham (49:29 finished together)
3rd. Bear Stillwagon (52:36)
1st. Brie Hevener (82:51)
2nd. Nikki Navio (84:25)
3rd. Robyn Blackfelner & Meg Knobel (87:22 finished together)
Find an additional recap of the 2021 Stagecoach 400 by Matteo Pistono over at GravelStoke.com.
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