A Date with the Pines: Tales from the 2023 Pinyons and Pines
Earlier this month, heavy rain and long stretches of bike-destroying mud made for harsh conditions at the 2023 Pinyons and Pines event in Arizona. With help from our friend Wyatt Spalding and some of the other riders, we put together a pair of post-ride stories from the 300 and 500-mile routes and a reflection from organizer Dana Ernst. Find a look at the event here…
A Mostly Rideable 300-Miles
I recently participated in Pinyons and Pines, an event based out of Flagstaff, Arizona, with 300 or 500-mile options organized by Dana Ernst and Dylan Turner. I’m relatively new to bikepacking, and this was only my second bikepacking race. My first attempt was the Smoke and Fire 400, where I scratched due to a mechanical.
I came into Pinyons and Pines looking for redemption and with a determination to finish. I was also attracted to this race by the chance to experience new terrain and the surrounding community. I’d hoped the spots saved for historically underrepresented groups meant there would be more women on this course which turned out to be true—I believe there were 19 women/non-binary out there! And I had no idea how hard my determination to finish would be tested. Many things went right, but so many more went wrong. The one thing that was consistent was taking each “wrong” as a challenge and coming up with a plan to solve it and continue on.
I rolled out of Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution at 6 a.m. with about 60 other riders. Shortly after the neutral rollout ended, I found myself alone on singletrack. It was immediately clear that biking in unfamiliar territory would be its own challenge, as I made my first wrong turn shortly after leaving Flagstaff. This pattern continued through much of the ride as I semi-successfully followed the arrow on my Garmin. Once I was back on track, I intentionally fell to the back of the pack. I wanted to ride my own race rather than pushing myself and trying to keep up with faster riders early in the course.
For the first day, I didn’t let myself check Trackleaders, so I could focus on my own ride. I found myself surprised by the amount of singletrack that day, but I was prepared with a full-suspension bike and a Rogue Panda Ripsey seatpack that allowed me to use my dropper. Day one traveled through a variety of terrain, from the 360-degree views on Casner Mountain to a flat desert gravel grind and some fun singletrack winding into Cottonwood. I spent much of the day alone, enjoying the chance to see Arizona from the saddle.
The major challenges came when a thunderstorm hit shortly before the first resupply town of Cottonwood. I threw on my rain gear but felt like I had jumped in a river. There was so much water on the trail that I couldn’t see the ground. In spite of this, I was enjoying the descent when I found myself going over the handlebars with the bike landing on top of me. I quickly assessed that the only thing damaged was my confidence. After taking a few minutes to collect myself, I cautiously continued, only to find that it had stopped raining, and I was completely out of water. It would be two hours before I stumbled upon the glorious sight of a vending machine with water shortly before Cottonwood.
When I finally arrived in Cottonwood, I made quick stops at Verde Valley Bicycle Company to clean my bike and at Maverick for pizza and a burrito to-go. Next up was a 5,000-foot climb up Mingus Mountain. It was a consistent but uneventful climb until around 9 p.m. when my bike halted to a complete stop while I was pedaling. Upon investigation, I found my back axle had unscrewed itself and jammed. The wheel was also dislodged, and the entire back tire was unmovable. I spent 1.5 hours working the axle back out and reassembling the wheel. Exhausted but happy to have a working bike, I decided to camp. I was disappointed that I couldn’t cover as many miles as I hoped on the first day but happy I’d fixed my own mechanical.
The incredible views continued on day two as I finished climbing and descending Mingus. I rolled into Camp Verde just in time for lunch. I hit McDonald’s for a McFlurry and Chicken Nuggets, Camp Verde bike shop to get the back wheel inspected and a quick tuneup, Maverick for more burritos, and Walgreens to buy a new battery pack (I lost mine somewhere on Mingus). Shortly after rolling out of town, the next thunderstorm hit. After riding in the rain for a couple of hours, I saw a text from race director Dana instructing riders to skip the AZT section due to mud. I was nowhere near the AZT, so I continued, as the gravel road I was on was still rideable. However, I soon found that my phone was waterlogged and unable to charge. I was almost to Lake Mary Road when my headlight and phone died at the same time. I stopped early to sleep again to allow the headlamp to charge and the phone to dry out. I was disappointed that I didn’t make my goal again; this ride was going slower than expected.
At 3 a.m., with a fully charged headlamp and a dry phone, I rolled out to start day three. I checked Trackleaders and was shocked to find most of the riders had scratched or taken the road back to Flagstaff as a result of the mud the day before. I knew I would eventually have to skip the AZT section due to mud, but the Mogollon Rim was ahead, which was rideable, according to Dana. I decided to follow the spirit of the course to the best of my ability, knowing that I’d figure out the exact route as I went along. All was smooth on day three until my battery packs, phone, and headphones all died. My Garmin Edge still had charge, but I was nervous about losing my backup devices. After more woody singletrack and some hike-a-bike due to downed trees, I reached a section where the trail crossed the highway and had to deviate from the course to avoid mud. I took the highway to Happy Jack Lodge, where I was able to charge my electronics. I decided to splurge on a hotel room for quality sleep.
The next morning, I rolled out at 3 a.m. again, knowing it would be my last day. I took Lake Mary Road for about 20 miles until it intersected with the AZT. The conditions looked good, so I rejoined the original course on the stretch of the AZT up to Mormon Lake. Around Mormon Lake, the AZT started to get muddy, so I bailed on an even more muddy gravel road down to Mormon Lake. I ate a hot pocket from the general store and took the road to Double Springs Campground, where I was able to rejoin the AZT. This section was a highlight of the course – the shaded woody singletrack was a welcome contrast from the pavement and gravel the day before.
When I reached the Lake Mary Country Store, it was 3 p.m., and I was close to the 300-mile mark. I had to catch a flight the next day, and I’d lost a lot of time to mechanicals, charging issues, and mud reroutes. I decided to skip the last section and route back to town on the road so I wouldn’t risk missing my flight. I finished with a total of 302 miles and 22,478 feet of climbing in 3.5 days. I celebrated by enjoying my Pizzicletta on the sidewalk.
It wasn’t the experience I thought I would have, but I successfully accomplished my goal of overcoming obstacles and riding on despite setbacks. I’m proud of sticking it out and choosing the harder path even when it was clear that the “race” was over. I’m especially thankful to race directors Dana and Dylan for all the work that went into organizing this event and helping us navigate when unexpected challenges made the original course unrideable. I am thankful for the hours I spent pedaling around Arizona on my bike. I spent most of the time alone, which forced me to maintain calmness and figure out how to solve the problem myself. These are valuable lessons I will carry on to future bikepacking events.
The Inaugural 500-Mile Route
Words by Matt Annabel (@matt.annabel)
I could see the doom building from the north as I descended out of the Bradshaw Mountains, nearly 200 miles into the 524-mile inaugural Pinyons and Pines long-course. I was trying my best to beat the rain to the little town of Mayer, but the death rattle emanating from Badger’s drive side crank arm was dampening the effort and eroding my confidence.
I rolled into Mayer with the leading edge of the storm. There should have been time to avoid a full soaking, but I made a wrong turn and got completely disoriented. The heavy drops took control of the touchscreen on my Garmin while moisture rendered my iPhone useless. After 10 minutes of riding around aimlessly—getting completely soaked in the process—I finally found the awning of the Circle K.
Looking at my phone, I saw a mission critical text from organizer Dana Ernst: “Matt, Dana here. Miles 215-256 are likely approaching death mud. This is just an educated guess based on radar. You can go check it out and assess mud. If it’s bad, you can ride on the shoulder of the interstate and then get off at the exit for Hwy 169 and easily regain route. It might be bad at that point too…” This news flattened me like a flying elbow drop from the top rope. I reeled among the discarded cigarette butts and trampled chewing gum. Thor thundered in smug self-approval.
I had a decision to make. On one hand, I was cold and wet with a broken bike, and the closest possible fix was 65 miles ahead in Camp Verde. Add to that this knowledge that 40 miles of death mud may await directly ahead. On the other hand, my wife Susan and our kids made a major sacrifice for me to be here. They’d see my choice—whether quit, fight, or something in between—and we’d all have to live with it.
It was that last thought that convinced me to wheel my raging dumpster fire back out into the storm. Rolling out of Mayer was like being shot out of a water cannon throttled by a 40-mile-per-hour tailwind and quarter sized rain drops. The gravel roads were fully saturated. The rooster tails were all-time.
Impact came eight miles later at the left turn onto Bloody Basin Road. The sprite-driven tailwind was replaced by ghoulishly spongy uphills, most of which I now had to walk. My drive-side crank arm was steadily wiggling off its post like a dime-store crown installed by a shoddy dentist. I began to pedal only on the left for fear of losing a place to stand on the right. Mile 215 came and went without the feared death mud. A sporadic version of it would appear at mile 230. It was a slow and wet slog. Somewhere along the way, I leaned Badger up against a catclaw bush and slept for three hours on a spider-infested weed patch. It was the most comfortable part of that night.
The DEATH MUD went full caps just past Little Sycamore Creek. One revolution of the wheels meant 20 pounds of weight added to the bike. Another half revolution meant 20 more and complete immobility. The only means forward were carrying the bike or pushing it through the patchy tall grass, cactus, and catclaw along the road edge. Riding was impossible.
Clean. Carry. Roll. Curse. Repeat. I spent three and a half hours battling two and a half miles in this fashion. Around 9 a.m., the mud got dry enough to roll, then firm enough to ride. I stood on my right pedal. It went all the way to the to the ground. With great finality, the mighty Badger had been reduced to an awkward 50-pound scooter. Things looked grim in that moment. Camp Verde was 21 miles away through sun-exposed low country riddled with hidden mud traps. It was mid-morning and already quite hot. I took stock of my remaining water. Two liters. Not enough. I resigned myself to small sips and no food until my water shortage was resolved. I filled a bottle with puddle sludge just in case.
The next ten miles were almost all uphill, pushing the bike. Seth passed early on. Dylan caught me about half-way through. He was navigating a crisis of his own. We decided to stick together for a bit, our life-bond forged during that survival march out of the Agua Fria mud wallows. Heat and dehydration finally caught up with me on the long descent into Camp Verde. My scootering got wobbly. My arms and legs began to cramp. It wasn’t far now. I decided not to flinch. I didn’t drink the puddle sludge.
Instead, I beelined it for the Maverick station where I guzzled 64 ounces of root beer, and for the first time, began to consider a future past Camp Verde. It was 3 p.m. I hadn’t truly pedaled in over 24 hours, and my ponies were itching to get back to what we came for. I committed to do whatever it took to fix the bike and keep going. I called Camp Verde Bicycle, the one bike shop in town. “No cranksets in stock,” they told me. Strike one. I called all the mobile bike repair shops on the Google. “No interest,” said one. “Never heard of Camp Verde,” said another. No luck anywhere.
The moment called for a miracle maker. I thought of Greg at Verde Valley Bicycle Company in Cottonwood. I’d met him on the first day of the ride, and he struck me as person who could make unusual things happen. I called. He asked for a few minutes to problem solve. Ninety seconds later, he called back with a plan that was already in motion. His wife Kelly would drive a crankset from Cottonwood down to Camp Verde, then James, Eric, and nine-year-old Allen “the Wrench” at Camp Verde Bicycle would install it. He told me to scoot their way. I did. Two hours later, I left Camp Verde Bicycle with a fully functional steed. LEGENDS ALL!
I spoke to Susan and the kids. “Our hero.”
My shred sister Karin texted. She was just sitting down at La Casita, one block away. We shared a warrior’s feast in the twilight.
I rolled into the night with a full heart, a full belly, and both legs on full blast.
Thank you, Pinyons, but I’ve got a date with the Pines.
A Note from the Organizer
Words by Dana Ernst (@dcernst)
Mother nature came to play this year. Day two of the race dumped a lot of rain on the AZT along a section that’s notorious for “death mud.” In order to protect the trail and the integrity of bikepacking races like Pinyons and Pines, we made the call mid-race to avoid miles 219-263 and 288-295, which utilize the AZT. This decision was based on the radar, word of mouth about conditions on the course, and discussions with folks familar with the area and bikepacking races. If even one person outside of the event complained that we destroyed the AZT, it could put this event and others like it at risk.
Currently, we fly under the radar and abide by rules concerning “events” under 75 people. We opted to play it safe and not risk the potential for damage. This decision is likely unpopular for some folks, but we stand by it. We weren’t terribly concerned about riders mucking around in the mud on dirt roads. Riding around in the rain and mud isn’t very enjoyable, but we didn’t have any apprehension about most of the rest of the course.
Once the decision to modify the route was made, we did our best to notify all of the short course riders that were spread out over 100 miles of the course. We sent a text message to every rider on the short course, an email to all the riders, and posted on social media. It took a while, but eventually the word got out. Thankfully, it was pretty easy to bypass miles 219-263 by utilizing Lake Mary Road. This potential detour was relayed to riders several days in advance when the weather forecast looked pretty grim. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an easy to implement detour to bypass miles 288-295.
Riders were instructed to do one of the following:
- Hunker down for a while and hope things dry out.
- If they were already on the AZT, get to Lake Mary Road Pavement at their earliest convenience and perhaps just stay on pavement the rest of the way to Flagstaff, depending on how conditions evolved.
- For riders who were currently in the Mogollon Rim area (roughly miles 175-219), they could either ride Hwy 87 to Lake Mary Road or attempt to cut across on FS 211 after crossing Hwy 87.
- For riders who had not made it to the Mogollon Rim yet, they could decide what they thought was best and try to make an enjoyable ride out of it.
Unfortunately, the timing of these events had a significant impact on the outcome of the race. The three leaders (Jacob Miller, Stephen Scherle, and Jesse Reeves) were already in the midst of riding the AZT. The gaps between these riders were pretty significant, and we are confident that if the shit hadn’t hit the fan, Jacob Miller, Stephen Scherle, and Jesse Reeves would have finished first, second, and third, respectively. The hope was to get all three to follow the same route back to town, but alas that isn’t how things transpired. Jacob opted to rejoin the route at mile 263.5 and followed Wiemer Springs Road all the way back to Lake Mary Road.
In hindsight, I wish I would have initially encouraged all three riders to do this. I was in the midst of responding to numerous messages, attempting to give beta to folks out in the storm, and by the time I realized what route Jacob was taking, it didn’t leave much time to get the word out to Stephen and Jesse. I attempted to contact them, but they were likely out of cell range or just had their heads down and were trying to make it back to town. In the end, Stephen made it to the finish first, but Jacob followed more of the course and rode significantly more miles with quite a bit more climbing. Jesse followed the same route as Stephen.
Meanwhile, the next group of riders, which contained the top four women, was about to enter the section of the AZT we were concerned about. At this time, it’s likely that a few of them had not gotten the word on the upcoming conditions. I exchanged several text messages with Sam McLaughlin. He indicated that conditions didn’t look too bad at the beginning of the AZT section. I figured this would be the case based on the soil in the area. I told him I trusted his judgment and to do what he thought was best. He and the lead pink dots (Lilly Hacker, Claire Burke, Leigh Bowe, and Liz Sampey) all opted to give it a go. Eventually, all of them were confronted with the notorious Northern Arizona death mud and turned around. The top five pink dots opted to pull the plug at that point and got a ride back to Flagstaff.
One regret I have is not more clearly communicating to the rest of the folks out on course that they were encouraged to give the lollipop on the Mogollon Rim a shot. I knew that this section of the course had not received as much rain and I had no concerns about folks riding on potentially muddy roads.
By the end of day two, the short course turned into the “choose your own adventure” edition of Pinyons and Pines. As time went on, things dried out and conditions improved. This meant that riders near the back of the pack were able to ride more and more of the intended course. Instead of listing finish times for folks like we have in the past, we will attempt to summarize who rode what version of a loop.
The long course riders also had to battle the weather with a massive storm bombarding them in the Bradshaw Mountains near Prescott. Day three required many miles of walking in death mud to reach Camp Verde. All of the riders that finished the long course are tough as nails. Learn more about the event here.
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