A Blank Canvas: Searching out the Stagecoach 400
We sent photographer Evan Christenson out to cover the recent 380-mile Stagecoach 400 bikepacking race in Southern California, and he sent along this spectacular photo gallery and unconventional race report. Find his highly personal and gripping reportage here…
I froze when Ken started throwing up. A slight panic. A tickle in my throat and a rumble in my gut. Some would call me a sympathetic puker. I’d just call myself squeamish, so I simply walked away. But as I strolled through the isles of quinoa and oat milk at the local organic grocery store, I thought of all the times I’ve been helped by strangers when in a pinch. I walked back a few minutes later and found Ken holding his half-eaten, half-melted pint of Ben & Jerry’s with one hand, his helmet with the other, leaning forcefully into the trash can and still vomiting.
That was this time last year, and I’d returned from the Baja Divide only a few days prior. I was still in a Baja daze, taking two showers a day, sometimes three, just for the heck of it. Grandma and I went for groceries when I happened upon Ken sitting in the shade eating his ice cream, a fancy mountain bike with bikepacking bags strapped to it sitting by his side. He told me he was following the Stagecoach 400, a bikepacking race that circumnavigated my childhood home, though one I knew little about at the time.
He was another victim struggling with the relentless heat the race is famous for. I waited for him to quit vomiting, threw his bike in my truck, told Grandma it would be ok, and drove Ken to a nearby spot to camp for the night. “I just need to sleep this one off,” he reassured me. I left him there feeling proud at having paid it forward, curious about the whole event, and believing he’d be better off tomorrow. He was kicked out by police that night.
The Stagecoach 400 is a roughly 380-mile bruiser of a bikepacking course that was created by Brendan Collier and Mary Metcalf in 2012. It combines everything I love about my hometown into one dusty, beautiful package. It flows from the small mountain town of Idyllwild into the green rolling hills of Warner Springs, the gravel paradise of Black Canyon, the coastal riding on the Pacific Coast Highway, through downtown and its cultural mess, past my house, up toward the nearly 6,000-foot Mount Laguna, down into the rugged Anza Borrego desert through canyons and oases, and ultimately back to Idyllwild.
The route traverses neighborhoods I grew up in and roads I cut my teeth training on. I’ve never pedaled the route in its entirety, but I’ve ridden something like 70% of it just by leaving my driveway. So, when the Grand Depart came around this year and I was no longer lost in my Baja daze, I offered to cover it. I left Grandma at home this time and got ready to cover my first bikepacking race by drawing up a shot list from memory and loading up my truck.
I set out to intercept the riders at my favorite places along the route. The areas I think reflect the beauty of San Diego at its best and give perspective to the shocking diversity waiting to be experienced within a two-day ride from the city center. I spent a lot of time on new and old roads, standing on the side and waiting for movement in the distance. It was a great excuse to poke around new places, and, through this experience, I discovered several locations I’ll need to return to.
While waiting around, I met interesting characters, each archetypal of San Diego in their unique way. I met Ian in Ramona, a conspiracy theorist eager to talk about Area 51 and waiting for his wife’s shamanist ritual to commence. He helped me fix my propane tank and offered me magic mushrooms from his trunk. Later, while downtown and waiting for riders, I met two intriguing homeless men. The first was Carlos, half Mexican, half Irish, with striking blue eyes and a deep bubbly laugh. He is “habitually homeless” and has spent 30 years on the streets of Barrio Logan. The other man, Ahmad, was a former heavy machinery operator who’d immigrated to the US and was proud of his Punjabi history. He said he’s endured a series of unfortunate circumstances and has been on the streets for a while. They were both so open and kind, and Ahmad repeatedly mentioned how he believes in karma and better days ahead. They had harrowing stories of life in the neighborhood I’d always found beautiful and experienced differently.
The next day, I met a racer who’d been in the same area the previous night and needed to find a place to sleep. He bivvied on the steps of a coffee shop, just a few blocks away from where Carlos and Ahmad slept. I was struck by how tangential their lives were. Carlos, standing in the shade, spent the day collecting cans and eyeing his belongings in the bushes across the road. He seemed worn down by the years of unpredictability living on the streets. He leaves a mannequin under his blankets so no one steals his stuff, and he first started talking to me to ensure that I wasn’t going to make the same moves a man had tried the previous day. Ahmad carries a small backpack during the day, leaving his stuff hidden beneath the bridge. “I don’t want to look homeless,” he said, folding up his sign and putting it in his backpack. The two looked exhausted, with small scars on their faces, matted hair, and stiff joints. The “refreshing” minimalism I love so much about the road has led to lives of suspicion and depreciation for these men. More than anything, the time I spent waiting for riders to pass served as a stark reminder of the privilege we all enjoy to be able to seek out discomfort, intentionally choose minimalism, and to be transitive where we want, however we want—not as dictated by the streets.
As the race unfolded, I refreshed the tracker, rushed around, and tried to eat enough during the whole circus. I went into this experience ambivalent about bikepacking racing, writing it off as too extreme and removed from the world I wanted to interact with. But the racers I met were mostly quick to chat, to crack a beer, to pose for a picture, to laugh. I haven’t been riding these past few months, and my soul has gone quiet in the downtime. But it woke up this weekend as I was running down hills and chasing photos, shooting abandoned wrecks, endlessly fist-bumping, and enjoying all those warm smiles and sticky hugs.
The energy was palpable at the finish line as I waited for dots on the screen to be converted into actual humans. A bikepacking race, like any long ride, is a blank canvas to paint. And with the palette of tones from San Diego, the dusty browns and yellows of the desert, the aquas of the ocean, the pines and the oaks, there’s plenty to abstract. I was worried everyone would be face down, teeth grit, and blowing past me and whatever it is. But what I saw was joy. Stoke. Racers applauding each other. This challenge was so daunting that everyone getting through it was better than none. It mashes people together and creates a kind of community in the process. And isn’t that why we’re all here?
The stand-out character from this year’s roster—and the only one not from the US—was Xavier Chiriboga Cordovez, a 39-year-old cheesemaker and farmer from Ecuador. Xavier’s path to the starting line of the Stagecoach 400 began years ago when Cale Wenthur, a San Diego native and previous Stagecoach 400 finisher, went on a spontaneous mountain bike trip to Ecuador. They met while waiting for customs, both pushing bike boxes through the line.
Xavier offered Cale a place to stay and to show him around Ecuador. The pair became close friends, and this year, Cale returned the favor, encouraging Xavier to race in the process. Xavier is not a bikepacker by trade; he’s a champion cattle penner on horseback. Last year, he entered his first bikepacking race, the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Race, where he raced an old mountain bike with a shower curtain for a frame bag and won by a day and a half.
Upon his arrival in the US, Cale and Xavier set out to build a new, faster bike so he could be more competitive. They ordered a $399 Chinese open-mold carbon frame, installed a knock-off drivetrain from Ltwoo, plus knock-off cranks, brakes, pedals, and cockpit, put Cale’s bags on it, and he rode it twice before the race started. A friend was nice enough to donate a fork, and Cale got Hunt to sponsor him a set of wheels.
Xavier set out without ever having used a Wahoo for directions, without ever seeing most of the roads, and pushed a pace no one could believe. He didn’t sleep for the 37 hours his effort took. He crashed while trying to figure out how to charge the Wahoo and blasted through the desert section in the hottest part of the day. It was Xavier’s first time in a desert, too. He broke the previous course record by more than two hours.
The women’s race was much more competitive. While Xavier rode his own race so fast that all that was left to do was wonder if he could hold on, Scotti Lechuga and Jaimie Lusk went down to the wire. I shared a burger with Jaimie on night one. She was laughing about how absurd this sport is, sunscreen caked in her hair and salt all over her face. Jaimie is tough, but Scotti, a former road pro, set out fast and never looked back. Scotti dealt with heatstroke on the final night and puked for hours. As she slept it off, Jaimie closed the gap. At the finish, we refreshed the tracker like mad and wondered who would arrive first. Scotti pulled it together in the morning and finished two hours faster than the previous FKT, with Jaimie just 30 minutes behind her. Both incredible efforts.
My first bikepacking race, experienced from the seat of my truck, was more inspiring than defeating. I left Idyllwild exhausted myself but inspired to do more riding. Most of all, I gleaned excitement from everyone out there racing. From those at the back still racing their own races and dealing with the rain. From Xavier and Scotti, with their sweaty hugs, bloody noses, and relentless smiles. “What a route,” they both puffed, and what a route indeed. What a wild sport. What a great weekend. And what a city.
Editor’s Note: There were too many outstanding photos in Evan’s set from the Stagecoach 400 to fit here. To cap it off, here’s a gallery of 18 more amazing shots that he captured along the way:
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