TRUE GRIT. LOOSE GRAVEL. Where the road ends, gravel begins. Pacific Atlantic Cycling (PAC) Tour Inaugural Gravel Camp 2018
Upon completing Paris-Brest-Paris in 2015, I joined the Ultramarathon Cycling Association (UMCA). My goal was to learn about additional cycling opportunities that would push my boundaries. In 2016 and 2017, I completed the UMCA Year Rounder Challenge which entails completing a 100 mile ride each month for a year. I heard about the McSweeney Women’s Scholarship honoring UMCA member Anne Marie McSweeney, who loved cycling and sharing her experiences with others.
As I was researching the award, I learned that she convinced a group of five women to sign up for PAC (Pacific Atlantic Cycling) Tour Women’s Week. Anne was a woman who was extremely enthusiastic about cycling and empowered many others by sharing her “joy of life” and her passion for cycling. In 2006, at the age of 45 years old, Anne Marie passed away when her car collided with an RV in Klamath Falls, Oregon. In honor of Anne Marie and to promote long-distance cycling, UMCA developed a scholarship fund in her name. The fund provides a one-week PAC Tour cycling training camp partial scholarship to a female cyclist each year. I was honored to learn I was selected to receive the Anne Marie McSweeney Scholarship in 2018. As a result, I attended the 2018 inaugural PAC Gravel and Road Tour.
WHAT IS PAC TOUR? PAC Tour (Pacific-Atlantic-Cycling Tour) was started in 1985 by cross country record holders Susan Notorangelo and Lon Haldeman to offer long distance cyclists the ultimate cycling vacation. And those of you who follow RAAM (Race Across America) know what legends in cycling that both Susan and Lon are. In 1982, Lon won the first RAAM (9 days, 20 hours) and then again in 1983 (10 days, 20 hours). In 1983, Susan set Paris-Brest-Paris record at 54 hours and won RAAM in 1985 (10 days,14 hours) and 1989 (9 days, 9 hours). In 1986, Susan and Lon set the Transcontinental Tandem record from L.A. to N.Y. in 9 days, 20 hours.
There are many tours offered by PAC Tours each year and they vary depending on the year. In 2018, the following tours are offered: Historical Hotels, Century Week, Chiricahua, Mountain Tour, Gravel and Road Tour, Route 66 Tour, Northern Transcontinental and Lakes and Seaway NY. Other years have offered: Southern Transcontinental, Vermont, Ridge of the Rockies, Tour of the Canyons, Pacific Crest Tour, Eastern Mountains and Ghana Bike Tour. Additionally, in the true spirit of giving back, they also have been going to Peru since 1999 building schools, supporting orphanages and supplying books. They support projects they have direct contact with and personally scout the needs of the project. They purchase the materials in person and they deliver the materials in person via First Presbyterian Church Global Outreach.
The costs are variable depending on the tour and participants in each tour, with ranges between $1,395 to $3,500, up to $7,500 for one of their Transcontinental tours. If you investigate other tours offered like Trek or Backcountry, the prices offered by PAC Tour are relatively lower. The following is included with each tour: motels, breakfast, lunch, all snackstops, beginning and ending banquets, gear shuttle, technical support, sag service, preparation guidelines, E-newsletter, PAC Tour jersey, T-shirt, large gearbag and support from the most experienced long distance cycling staff in the world.
Interesting to note that I had met both Lon and Susan back in 2014. When I attended my first La Vuelta Puerto Rico (LVPR), I had the opportunity to meet them at the Captain’s Dinner before the event. Additionally, we all rode in the same peloton and enjoyed the festivities in Cabo Rojo as you can see…
I also rode with Lon again in the Spring of 2015 as I began doing my brevets to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris with the Great Lakes Randonneurs. Both Lon and his daughter, Rebecca, rode the 200k and 300k Audax Club Parisean brevets that spring with the Great Lakes Randonneurs.
FORMAT OF GRAVEL WEEK: The format for the Gravel and Road Tour week of Desert Camp included 6 days of riding for a total of 270 total miles (150 gravel) with the following schedule:
Monday: 4/2/18 Tucson to Sonoita 61 miles (30 gravel)
Tuesday: 4/3/18 Sonoita to Patagonia 42 miles (25 gravel)
Wednesday: 4/4/18 Patagonia Nogales Loop 43 miles (23 gravel)
Thursday: 4/5/18 Patagonia to Mexico Loop 48 miles (39 gravel)
Friday: 4/6/18 Patagonia to Green Valley 44 miles (28 gravel)
Saturday: 4/7/18 Green Valley to Tucson 32 miles (no gravel)
ARRIVAL IN TUSCON/SHIPPING BIKE TO CAMP: The Friday before camp, I left Chicago via ORD and flew into Tucson Airport. I elected not to travel with my bike but used BikeFlights.com to ship my bike from Wheel Werks in Crystal Lake, Illinois to Arizona Cyclist. I dropped my Surley Moonlander Fat Tire Bike to Wheel Werks a week before to have them box up my bike and tires. I then opened an account with BikeFlights. The cost to ship my bike one way was $68.00 plus $2500 insurance, which totaled $100 one way. This was a seamless process and I would highly recommend it to anyone who would like to travel with their bike. BikeFlights.com uses FedEx and UPS to ship bikes both domestically and internationally. You can track the shipment of your bike throughout the entire process.
When I arrived at my destination, I found some local places to take in the culture and searched for a good local Mexican restaurant. I started my morning with a nice Cubano coffee from Raging Sage Coffee in downtown Tuscan and then headed to have breakfast at Teresa’s Mosaic Café. This restaurant was featured on Food Network and Travel Channel for their Huevos Rancheros. It was delicious! The homemade ranchero salsa was authentic and the Horchata made the meal. The tortillas are homemade on the premises while you wait. This place was quite a gem! I highly recommend it if you are ever in Tuscon.
After breakfast, I headed to Arizona Cyclist to pick up Big Mama (aka my Surley Moonlander). She was all ready for our adventure ahead. I then headed back to the hotel to get my gear ready for the week ahead. My bike and gear were ready although my body was not quite ready. Unfortunately, I had to nurse a left ankle peroneal tendonitis that flared up that week, so I spent the rest of the evening doing some ice baths and leg elevation. Nevertheless, I was optimistic I was going to be able to ride.
SUNDAY, APRIL 1ST: EASTER AND CHECK INTO PAC TOUR:
I woke up and headed to 10 miles south of Tucson to the Mission San Xavier del Bac for Easter mass. Built in 1797, it is the oldest European structure in Arizona. The Mission is quite amazing and is known as one of the finest examples of Spanish Colonial architecture in the US. I then headed back to the hotel to keep icing my ankle and elevating it before check in for the tour in the late afternoon. I was excited to meet the rest of the riders and crew.
There were a total of 10 people in our tour: 4 crew members and 6 riders. The crew members consisted of Lon, Susan, Lara S. from Ely, Minnesota and Steve W from Amston, Connecticut. Then the riders were: Marcy A from Santa Fe, New Mexico; John E from Denver, Colorado; Byron G from Niles, IL; Morgan, M from Scottsdale, AZ; Geoff S from Arlington, Massachusetts. I was the PAC Tour virgin in the group. Many have been on several PAC Tours and their enjoyment and return to PAC tour is a testament to the high quality of these tours. We all went for dinner on Easter Sunday to a Chinese restaurant to get to know one another more. I could tell it was going to be a great adventure already!
STRUCTURE/FORMAT WITH PAC TOURS: Typically each day ran the same. Breakfast in the lobby, either provided by PAC Tour or by the hotel. Afterwards you would prepare you bike and drinks outside where the PAC Tour trailers were parked. If we were not staying at the respective hotel the next evening, gear bags would be placed outside the trailer by a pre-determined time. Cue sheets and route maps were provided for each day with excellent detailed instructions. They even had the grade of gravel on the cue sheets, delineating the type of gravel encountered. The grades run from 1, 2, 3, 4. Chip seal/pavement being #4 , soft sand being #1, pack cinder/dirt road #3, rough pavement #3-4 and gravel #2.
Approximately every 2 hours there would be a rest stop where the PAC Trailer was parked and ready to take care of the riders in every way possible. Food, drinks, sunscreen, energy powder (Hammer products), cold soda, candy, fruit, beef jerky, granola, pickles, tomatoes. Once getting off your bike, you immediately head to the first stop to wash your hands before heading for the food and drink. It is very sanitary and very clean to prevent any type of cross-contamination or spread of germs-infection. At this stop there was also some commonly used products such as sunblock, salt tablets, Endurolytes, advil, etc..
PAC Tour trailers were amazing works of art and complete bike tour functionality that were designed by Lon. I learned that Lon does wood working and designed all of the trailers that they have used. It is like going to a “Container Store” full of bike supplies in a very orderly fashion that has everything you could think possible. They are prepared for anything should you have any type of mechanical or issue with your bike. The trailer was pulled by a Ford F150 Truck also with a customized hatch with a bike rack on the roof. It was quite an amazing set up. You could just see the experience that comes from doing tours since 1985 as well as being ultracyclists themselves. PAC Tours is a well oiled machine and amazing to watch. It is definitely a combination of strategy, coordination but most of all, lots of passion that bleeds through every fiber of the tour.
As the week went on, and in talking with other participants, it is clear what PAC Tours offers is unmatched in any other tour company, in the US and outside of the US. I felt blessed to be a part of this inaugural camp and to be on a PAC Tour. I have heard so much about them over the past 4 years and was so excited to be part of one now. Just take a look for yourself to see what PAC Tour magic is all about…
DAY 1 MONDAY 4/2/18: Tucson to Sonoita 61 miles (30 gravel) with 3,400 feet of climbing
Unfortunately, my left ankle tendonitis was not completely resolved so I elected to not ride the first day. I really felt my ankle needed an additional day of rest before riding, especially with the high mileage and climbing on this first day. I did not want to chance making things worse and then not being able to ride the rest of the week. So I ended helping Susan with the rest stops and then helped taking pictures on the route with Lon’s camera. I had a blast and got some great photos!
The route left Tuscon on paved roads along the San Xavier Indian Reservation. The first rest stop at mile 15.5 was among some walnut trees before riders hit the gravel and began to do some serious climbing.
The route traversed through the Coronado National Forest with nice long climbs, going from 2,450 EL at the start in Tuscon to 5,230 EL at the summit at mile 40.6.
From there, the riders faced a strong headwind into Sonoita as they went through Empire Ranch to Sonoita Inn. Empire Ranch is a working cattle ranch in southeastern Pima County, Arizona. It was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in 1976. As you can see, it was simply breathtaking and I highly recommend a visit to it if you are in this area anytime.
DAY 2 TUESDAY 4/3/18: Sonoita to Patagonia 42 miles (25 gravel) with 1,700 feet of climbing
After a restful evening in Sonita and a hearty breakfast together, we packed our bags and dropped them off on the truck for a departure time of 7:45 am. My ankle was feeling better this morning in comparison to previous days, so I elected to give it a try to ride today. My goal would be to keep a high cadence to keep any soreness of my posterior tibialis and peroneal tendons at bay. Although I was riding my Surley Moonlander (weight at 36.08 without gear/bags), the gearing allowed me to ride an easy gear with set up gearing of front chainring 36/22 and rear cassette at 13/35.
We left Sonoita (3,400 CSF) heading South into the Canelo Hills towards the Canelo Pass which is located in the Coronado National Forest. The first rest stop was at mile 15.7 in a shaded area which was very welcoming. My ankle was feeling good. I was keeping a high cadence at around 88 rpms. As we left this stop, we then began a climb which crossed the Arizona Trail several times. We reached the top of Canelo Pass at 5,246 EL (mile 20.9) . The climb to get to the pass computed at about 88 feet/per mile. You could definitely feel the burn in your quads with the loose gravel and steep inclines in this section of the day. But as challenging as the climbs were, there was also solitude admist the pain. Solitude and pain paraell in the gravel universe of cycling.
Think about whispering winds…
Think about silence…
Our lunch stop today was at mile 27 at the Vaca Ranch in Lochiel. This was one of my favorite stops on the tour, so open and majestic. This stop had us surrounded by Saddle Mountain, Red Mountain and the Bog Hole Wildlife Area.
After a nice hearty lunch, we continued on small, twisty narrow roads along Harshaw Creek into the quaint town of Patagonia. We were staying in Patagonia for the next 2 nights.
DAY 3 WEDNESDAY 4/4/18: Patagonia Nogales Loop 43 miles (23 gravel) with 3,300 feet of climbing
We headed out at 8:15 am to do a loop out to Nogales. It was nice not to have to pack up all of our gear and be settled in for a few days at the same location.
The elevation in the downtown of Patagonia was 3,800 EL. By mile 9, we had already climbed 1,150 feet (127 feet per mile of climbing.) We passed the Arizona Trail again today as well as Old Harshaw townsite ruins and hit a steep 7% climb at mile 12.0. The first rest stop was in Guajolote Flats at mile 12.5.
After this stop we then continued to climb towards the Santa Nino Ranch and reached the summit of 5,900 EL at mile 18.4. From there we began a descent with some steep 7% sections of soft sand and through a Sycamore wash. The Cattle guards were a welcome relief at times and seemed to be the smoothest portion of the route. But really, to me, gravel is definitely chicken soup for the cyclists soul.
-GRAVEL LETS YOUR SOUL SHINE THROUGH-
SEEKING BALANCE UNDER THE WIDE OPEN SKY
I felt lucky to have the good suspension of my fat tires to absorb the shock of the rocks and also give me the stability on the very sandy sections. Additionally, there were also some pretty sharp bends on the fast descent to lunch. But the large rocks, sand and fast descents were no problem for Big Mama! I was so pleased with my choice to ride this bike on this gravel tour. Although slow and heavy, I enjoyed every moment of my gravel adventure week on my Surley Moonlander with PAC Tour’s Inaugural Gravel and Road Camp.
We arrived at lunch at mile 27.5. Another exceptional lunch on the road via PAC Tour. They had definitely spoiled me. Caprese salad with a turkey sandwhich and broccoli salad sure beats PB&J. It’s hard to truly capture how special PAC Tours really are in a photo. You have to experience one to see for yourself. But to give you a taste of the body and soul of PAC Tour, take a look for yourself:
We arrived back in Patagonia for our 2nd evening. Post ride drink, shower and stretching. That evening we all went to dinner as a group to Velvet Elvis in Patagonia. The pizza was…well, very interesting for sure. Let’s just say the company was much better. It’s hard to get pizza anywhere than from my hometown of Chicago, I guess you can say I am spoiled. But in any event, I had to get my picture with Elvis to show he is still alive and kicking in Patagonia, Arizona.
DAY 4 THURSDAY 4/5/18: Patagonia to Lochiel-Mexico Loop 48 miles (39 gravel) with 2,900 feet of climbing
The 4th day of PAC Tour Desert Camp had us doing another loop out of Patagonia to Lochiel, traveling near the Mexican border. We reversed sections of the previous day’s route into Patagonia. It’s amazing how different things look in reverse. At mile 13.5 miles into the adventure, we had our first stop again at Vaca Ranch. I could not get enough of the wide open spaces, the cool breeze hitting my cheek and the sound of gravel crunching under my tire…
We left the Vaca Ranch and continued onto Lochiel, passing Lazy J-2 Ranch in expansive wide open fields with majestic rolling climbs.
FALL IN LOVE WITH TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF. MIND. BODY. SPIRIT.
SIDE NOTE: The wide open spaces rejuvenate me. It is where I find peace and solitude from the constraints of the concrete jungle of life. It nourishes me. It bathes me.
I am so thankful to have these moments of solitude. Nature is my other mother.
It is on this day that I found myself ever so thankful for this opportunity to be with PAC Tour on their inaugural gravel camp. I recall also feeling so grateful for being a recipient of the Anne Marie McSweeney Scholarship from the Ultramarathon Cycling Association (UMCA) in 2018.
We descended into Lochiel for a break at mile 26.5. As is customary, Susan had a perfect spot under a large cottonwood tree which provided plenty of shade. In addition, a few miles after this break, we had the opportunity to pass a historical marker indicating the first Spanish traveler arriving there in 1539.
I had the chance to spend a bit of the afternoon riding with Lon and John from Denver, Colorado. Another blessing of this tour was the new friendships engendered with people from all over who have a very similar sense of adventure on the bike. PRICELESS for sure. Have I told you that PAC Tours ROCK? Yep, definitely a bucket list item if you are a cyclist who likes to push your boundaries and be around like-minded cyclists.
After our break in Lochiel, we then began to head back to Patagonia. At mile 40.5, we had lunch in Harshaw, right across the street from ghost town ruins. We then headed back to Stage Stop Inn in Patagonia for the evening.
As we got into Patagonia, I had the chance to meet a cyclist from Arizona who had just started the Arizona Trail Race that morning and was 50 miles into his ride. He had completed the 300 mile race the year before and had his sights on the 750 mile route this year. The Arizona Trail Race is an unofficial challenge that takes place every spring on the cross state Arizona Trail, and started in 2006. Two distances are available: 300 and the 750 which traverses from Mexico to Utah with a mandatory hike across the Grand Canyon. Rebecca Rusch was competing in the 300 mile race. Darn, wish I would have known that as it would have been pretty neat to greet her in the town of Patagonia!
That evening for dinner one of the participants organized a wine and cheese social at the Stage Stop Inn. We all shared our adventures of the day over some wine, cheese, chips and salsa. We talked gravel events, gearing, what we liked/disliked about our current bike set up. Additionally, we all were discussing how we would all be back for a 2nd PAC Tour Gravel camp. I know I would be back without a doubt and I would be bringing my gravel friends.
Day 5 Friday: 4/6/18 Patagonia to Green Valley 44 miles (28 gravel) with 2,500 feet of climbing
We left Patagonia heading west towards the Coronado National Forest en route to Green Valley and hit our first cattle guard right out of town. I was joking with fellow riders and Lon and Susan and told them we should rename this tour “Le Tour de Cattle Guards”.
This day was the most challenging and most technical of the entire camp. This day reminded me most of doing Dirty Kanza200 in 2016. I really enjoyed the challenges of this day, we ascended Mount Hopkins, a peak of the Santa Rita Mountain range. It is the 2nd highest peak in the Santa Rita Range and provided magnificent views as we twisted through narrow, winding roads. The main road is a twisting single lane of dirt without guardrails. Both climbing and descending required careful precision and technical skills on the loose large gravel.
This route had a section that was very remote and it seemed to be ridable by ATV’s only. From mile 3.5 on Salero Canyon Road at 3,900 elevation with a steep 10% climb, we had climbed to 4,700 elevation after just 7.8 miles, yep you could feel that climb for sure.
The first stop was at mile 13.2, we loaded up on water as the next section was very remote and it would be difficult to get help if needed. We headed on Road #143 through many rough ravines for the next 14 miles en route to Amado, Arizona.
The route on Day 5 was like a gravel cyclist’s Christmas present. It was the gravel gift that just kept on giving. We had
2 WATER CROSSINGS
A VERY NICE CLIMB THROUGH THE CORONADO NATIONAL FOREST.
NOTE: Very nice climb=a very steep hike-a-bike with a 2 mile climb to the summit.
Shout of CONGRATULATIONS to Byron G from Niles, IL who summited the climb. There were portions at 17-19% with loose gravel. I told him afterwards I wanted to film him summiting this next time. SUPER AMAZING for sure! I don’t have any data from this climb as my Garmin kept turning off as I was doing my hike-a-bike up to the top.
As with all summits and climbs, the reward is the downhill. This one was EPIC for sure. It was a fast descent with no guardrail and loose gravel. I was glad to have my disc breaks and the traction of my Surley Big Larry 4.8 tires to provide me with traction needed for stability.
The descent from the summit was breathtaking. Take a gander for yourself…
What an amazing climb to the summit. And the descent was mind blowing as well. About a mile into my descent down, I was able to see 3 Javelina’s cross the road in front of me. They are in the family of wild boars/pigs and have long, sharp canine teeth that protrude from their jaw about an inch. Glad to stay clear of them. We don’t have those in Illinois.
It took me about 5 hours to get to the lunch stop on Hopkinsville Road at mile 26.0. It was slow moving with the terrain as well as time to stop to soak in all of the scenery. You only go around in this thing called life once, so stop to smell the roses.
After lunch, we headed on pavement into Green Valley via the Anza Trail. This trail included a mix of limestone gravel and crossing some dry sandy washes. Our overnight stay in Green Valley was at the Best Western Motel.
DAY 6 SATURDAY 4/7/18: Green Valley to Tucson 32 miles (no gravel) with 1,500 feet of climbing
In lieu of riding the last day, which was strictly pavement, I decided to send everyone off and then head back to Tucson by car to drop off Big Mama off at Arizona Cyclist. With flying home the next am, I was short on time to both ride and get this drop off done. The bike closed at 2:00 pm. I arrived at Arizona Cyclist in ample time to drop the bike off and then headed back to the hotel to greet the riders as they arrived.
I spent the my last afternoon in Arizona assisting the PAC Tour team in breaking down their trailers and support vehicles. That evening all of us went to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant to celebrate a great week together. We returned to the hotel for the ice-cream social that Lon and Susan put together, which included a power point cued to music of our week together. We all shared our favorite memories of the week. A perfect ending to a perfect week with PAC Tour.
And that’s a wrap on PAC Tour’s inaugural Gravel and Road Week 2018. I appreciate this opportunity to share my experience as a first time attendee with PAC Tour.
REFLECTING ON PAC TOUR GRAVEL CAMP 2018:
It’s been almost six weeks since I finished my first PAC Tour . I am looking forward to returning to share the gravel road with the PAC team and crew. I was extremely impressed with the level of support, coordination, logistics and service provided to me and all of the attendees of the inaugural Gravel and Road Desert Camp 2018. The PAC Tour website states they cater to “Exceptional Cyclists”. It was very clear to me that Lon and Susan are exceptional individuals, both on and off of the bike. I could see and feel that they embody excellence, have a strong passion for what they do and place high value on service to others.
As I watched them work throughout the week, I kept coming back to the book Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf which details one’s journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. I also was thinking of John C. Maxwell and one of his quotes in Today Matter’s when he stated, “Success is when I add value to myself. Significance is when I add value to others.” The value that PAC Tour has added to the cycling community since 1985 is exponential and transformative. I challenge you to look into what PAC Tours can offer you as a cyclist and what PAC Tours does to serve better the whole of humanity by embodying growth, responsibly and love. I saw this first hand in my week with PAC Tour.
Without any hesitation, I strongly recommend PAC Tours. If you are interested in any of their tours, check out their website and photos to their previous tours. For more photos of the Gravel and Road Camp, please check this link for more official PAC photos.
Moreover, I would like to thank both PAC Tour and Ultramarathon Cycling Association (UMCA) for providing me the opportunity to be a receipient of the McSweeney Women’s Scholarship. Like Anne Marie, I love cycling and sharing my experiences with others. I look forward to continuing her vision by empowering others to push the boundaries of what is possible. I hope by sharing my experience you will be inspired to try something new on the bike this Summer. Simply love what you do and do what you love, whatever that may be…
And, as always, remember to PEDAL, SMILE, REPEAT…
As they say in France, “Bonne route”
Paris Brest Paris Ancienne 2015, #T073