October 13, 2014

Coco & Co.

If you live in Arizona, don't wash you car near the end of the first week in October. Why? The last four years the AES Coconino 250 was held a strong storm rolled through the state in the days leading up to the race. This year was no exception.

The past couple of months have been a bit crazy for us normally dry desert dwellers as huge storm after huge storm lay waste to our beloved desert trails. The Coco is held in northern AZ and tends to hold up better to unfavorable weather with one exception: sticky taffy-like death mud!! Bleh. Nothing will grind your ride to a halt faster. So, a watchful eye was cast on the local radar the day before the start. We initially thought we dodged a bullet, but in the wee hours almost 3/4" of rain fell on the piece of trail we needed to stay dry. The powers that be granted a detour and the event would start as scheduled.
A very fitting name to start/end this loop.
This event kicks off the AES season after a few months hiatus during the summer. It's billed as a bikepacking stage race. 4 days, 250 miles and a boatload of climbing - some of which is actually on your bike!! The real appeal for most riders is the time clock stops each night at camp. There is no set start time each day, just pack up and go when you're ready. For someone like myself, who typically finishes these things near the back of the pack, it's nice to hang out, share trail stories and upcoming strategies with the fast guys/gals.

Day 1: Flagstaff to Sedona Overlook

By the time I showed up at The Place, all the riders had departed. I ordered a hearty french toast & bacon breakfast to get me going. Caroline & Carlos appeared briefly, then they too took to the trail.

I think I got rolling around 8:30a under cool sunny skies. A short stint on pavement, then down to the Flagstaff Urban Trail System (FUTS) and onto the Arizona Trail (AZT). I hadn't reached the Fisher Point junction when I came across Carlos as he was putting a tube in. It would eventually spell the end of his ride, way too early. He's had a tough go of it lately in these bigger events, it'll turn around for him soon.
A couple miles of forest roads eventually morph into this.
One of these days I'm gong to camp in this walled side canyon.
It didn't take long for things to get steep.
Ray in business mode catching me after a 30 minute head start.
Ray and I hike-a-biked (HAB) for a bit constantly monitoring the trail condition. We figured we could make it to Marshal Lake with a good idea of what to expect on Anderson Mesa. The mesa is where the majority of the sticky mud resides. As we crested the initial HAB there was a 10 foot patch of the goop, simply nasty stuff sticking to everything. I pretty much knew right there we'd be bailing at Marshal Lake.

We briefly considered exiting the trail a bit early because there is a mile swath of mud before some gravel covers the trail into Marshal Lake. There's also some really nice singletrack beforehand, so we pressed on.
Into the muck we go, trying all the tricks of the trade - front wheel raised here.
The trail looked dry, but don't be fooled. It was glue. Front tire blending in well picking up pine cones, sticks & rocks!!
The gravel brought relief even if we were pelted by rocks until the clay fell off.
Ray met up with Artec at Marshal Lake as I stopped to snap some pics. A minute later Devon rode up and we rode together down the detour on Lake Mary rd.

There were three options to rejoin the route. The consensus was to skip the first intersection based on last year's continued mud slog. There were conflicting reports of the second entry at Wiemer Springs. Devon eventually pulled away from me on the paved climbs and I opted to take the third entry at FR240.
Devon cruising by Upper Lake Mary.
The detour meant one thing for certain, day 1 was going to be quick!! I climbed up FR240 and took a break for lunch. I was only sitting there for a few minutes when Ray & Artec came riding up the road surprised to see me. They took the second entry and said the trail was fine. I was bummed for skipping it since it is a fun section of trail.
Ahhh, perfect.
Devon rode by, then Caroline came up as I finished lunch.
Jones Tank and a bit of drizzle - which I wasn't planning on. It didn't last luckily.
I continued my forest road pedaling through a course change from two years ago. I thought it was a change for the better. Up ahead Caroline had stopped to find Seron replacing his front brake pads. Ride 'em till they break, that's my motto. Just always have a spare set to toss in.

It was early so the three of us made a short detour to Munds Park for a re-supply (read: beer). It was interesting riding on the shoulder of I-17 for a bit as big rigs flew by at 75+ mph. At least it's a huge smooth shoulder.
Plenty of room for a few brews.
Munds Canyon from the freeway.
A bike legal portion of interstate.
We made it back on route at Schnebly Hill rd, which has a couple of sneaky climbs on it, then veered off onto the Hot Loop towards camp 1. I'm not sure why it's called the Hot Loop, perhaps the Slow Bumpy Tech Loop would be more appropriate. To say the least it's a rugged 4x4 jeep road that doesn't get used a whole bunch, well, unless you're hauling a bbq grill & port-o-potty!! Yeah, those two items were dragged up this road just before we arrived!! Someone was going to have a blast that night.
Seron & Caroline on Schnebly Hill rd.
Fantastic turnout & great group to hang with!! L-R: Phil, Ben, Caroline, Brian, Artec, Jason, Ray(green socks), Nancy, Jeff, Devon, Seron & Brad. Not pictured: Chris, Mike & another Bryan who thru-rode the route.
What a view!! We get to camp here, watch the sunset and peer out at camp 2 atop Mingus Mtn in the distance.
The sunset delivered.
Red Rock Chica even made a visit, but lost her ID on the donkey ride up.
Note: I was trying out a few new gear items on this ride.
  • A Revelate gas tank, no surprise there, solid quality work just bigger than my other feedbag. 
  • A pair of goosedown booties for sleeping. My feet always get cold, so on a recommendation from Nancy I bought a pair with 100% over stuffing. They are super light, pack down to nothing and kept my feet comfortable both nights out.
  • A new charger for my Garmin Edge 705. A PowerMonkey Explorer battery charger with solar backup.
  • A cool little piece of bike bling, a StemCAPtain thermometer.
Camp wound down fairly early, GPS being charged, lights of Sedona below, lights in the heavens above. Sleep was good.

Day 2: Sedona to Mingus Mtn.

I began stirring before daybreak, but couldn't get going because all my stuff was soaked from the morning dew!! The first rider left camp in the darkness while the others began to stir. I finally got going, packed up my wet sleeping bag (I opted to leave the tent in the car) and was rolling down Munds Wagon trail by 6:30a.

Last time I did this loop we had to adjust the course to start/finish in Sedona which meant for me, a descent in the dark!! This time was much more pleasant. As with most riding in Sedona, you're going to work for it. Plenty of short dismounts, steep grunts up, techy drops, tight twisty turns all surrounded by an otherworldly landscape. It really is a special place to ride, just be prepared to go slower than normal.
Devon catching me at a Schnebly crossing.
Hard to imagine wagons ever going down this trail.
Small patches of slickrock to enjoy.
The famed exit of Hangover trail, I still need to check that one out!!
Early morning rays basking the red rocks.
I made it down to the Circle K in a little over an hour and grabbed some breakfast. A few other riders were there as well preparing for our ride to the next re-supply over in Cottonwood.

The PowerMonkey worked as advertised charging up my GPS. It was now time to test out the solar panels, I'd velcro the flip-phone looking panels to the top of my pack and re-charge the battery during the day while I rode. I would think AZ is a prime location for such a device with our abundance of clear blue skies.
Broken Arrow trail leads up to Chicken Point, a popular destination for the Pink Jeep Tours.
A small Chapel on the Rocks can be seen in the center from the Templeton trail.
Up close & personal with Cathedral Rock.
While cruising along on Templeton there was a couple out hiking a few feet above the trail with their dog. The guy yelled down to me as I passed below: 'Hardtail for life!!'. People are funny. I got a kick out of it, 'Hell yeah man!!'
Lush valley at Red Rock Crossing.
Refreshing waters of Oak Creek.
I was creeping along through Sedona ticking down the miles to the Red Rock Crossing visitor center and the exit of town. I started my descent to Oak Creek on a cool section of trail that has some ledgy tech features while it doubles back on itself through a series of switchbacks. Of course as I dropped in four hikers were around the first bend all staring at me in disbelief as I negotiated down the rocks. I kept thinking, don't screw this up!! I managed to clean all the obstacles and as I disappeared from view came to a super tight lefthand switchback that I had to walk - at least they didn't see that!! :)
This is the section of trail from the 2012 version.
I had been leapfrogging with Ben most of the morning and we soon met up with Chris at the visitor center. The three of us would spend most of the day near each other up to camp 2.

I topped off my water & lubed my chain at the visitor center as I prepared for what lie ahead on the Lime Kiln trail.
The first mile of Lime Kiln is a swift gut punch. A pre-cursor to Mingus.
One last view of Sedona from the top.
The signs mark the end of the HAB.
Looking west. When in doubt, look for the tall cairns to guide the way.
After the HAB the trail gets much better, primitive but rideable singletrack followed by some jeep roads. This trail is notorious for goatheads & sand. So far I hadn't seen much of either.
A large group of equestrians out for a tour, one rider had been bucked off requiring an airlift out. Bad scene.
Fast doubletrack, Mingus not appearing to get any closer.
Red cliffs of west Sedona.
Fields of gold made finding the trail a bit of a challenge.
Another trail that's tough to imagine wagons on.
I crossed over this trail twice before finding it hidden in the tall grass.
Mingus finally coming into focus and with it the sand deepened.
The sand of Lime Kiln, oh the sand. Up at the Sedona camp spot the prior evening we watched a shower move across the valley floor. I noted it was a good thing, it'll help pack down the trail I said. Not sure if the rain hit this section or not, but it could have used some more!! The sand is extremely fine, almost powdery. Not a real good combo for non-fatbike tires. It was rideable, but barely. Mile after mile I became increasingly frustrated with it. I couldn't hold a line causing my front tire to constantly drift. Ben was smart, he had beefy tires built for this stuff and let out some air pressure to float over the top. To say I was thrilled to see the trail surface incorporate more limestone would be a gross understatement. The end was near and so was lunch.
Lime Kiln ends here at Dead Horse State Park in Cottonwood.
Next stop was Hog Wild BBQ where Artec was chowing down. Ben rolled through, but Chris stopped by a few minutes later. I grabbed a pulled pork sandwich, a few Coke refills, a brownie and topped off my water for the big push.

I also took this opportunity to lay out my wet sleeping bag and clothes. The sun was bright and in the mid 80's. It didn't take more than 15 minutes for everything to dry out. While eating I received a text from Seron, he was bailing due to knee issues, the 'good knee' this time. Dude can't buy a break. The good news was he found Red Rock Chica's ID on Schnebly Hill rd. She was just a bit thrilled!!
Quality stop on route.
The next order of business was a quick stop at the Maverick gas station. It's the last chance to pick up food for the next 80 miles or so. Water is limited to the Verde River crossing some 40 miles away. I was well stocked on food, so I grabbed a Gatorade, OJ, chocolate milk & cherry pie.

It was 3:30p when I departed the Maverick station. I was hopeful I would make it up to the singletrack HAB before dark. It's 9 1/2 miles up, 6 1/2 on mostly steep gravel road, then 3 miles of tough singletrack to the summit.
The first couple of miles went by easily, then the grade kicked up.
Ben, Chris & I walking good sections of the road.
Just over 2 hrs, 6 1/2 miles up and a FLAT section we can ride!!
Onto the singletrack before dark. 'Only' 2.3 miles to the top. Oof.
I was about 3/4 of a mile into the singletrack when I put my lights on. The riding portion long since gone, full HAB mode to the top. Mingus is steep and coupled with numerous large boulder step-ups it's a fantastic upper body workout if you're looking for that sort of thing. A few things work against you on this climb. For me, I had already been riding for about 12 hours, my bike was weighing in around 45lbs loaded, it was now dark and I was beginning to get hungry. My biggest miscalculation occurred here. I was about 1 1/2 miles from the top, I should have stopped and ate dinner trailside, but I tricked myself into thinking I was so close to camp it could wait. Well, I didn't arrive for another TWO hours.

I was getting to the point of walking the steep sections 20 steps at a time, resting for a minute, then continuing. At one point my footing slipped and my bike rolled back on me knocking me down a few feet. This trail is no joke. Another section requires you to become a human ratchet of sorts, lifting your bike up over you and climbing up to it. Good HAB shoes are a MUST.
Plenty of this. Photo by Jeff.
The summit at last. Cottonwood's lights far below.
At the top the suckfest continues as the final 1/2 mile of flat trail out to the forest road is littered with large rocks placed at just the wrong spot on the trail. I tried riding out, but after pinballing off every rock in sight I figured what was another 1/2 mile of HAB!!

As I was walking out a rider's light came up behind me, it was Chris, who mistakenly took a wrong turn onto trail 106 about a mile from the top!! Talk about the wrong place for a couple of bonus miles. To add to his navigational error, he crashed on the way back to trail 105 banging up his shoulder! We were both very glad to hit the smooth forest roads and cruise downhill to camp 2 where a fire was going and the others cheered us in.

A 14 hour day in the books, I cracked open my chocolate milk and warmed my hands by the fire. It was actually quite pleasant out compared to two years ago when it was in the upper 20's when we arrived. The milk tasted great, but kinda bloated me and I didn't feel like eating any food even though I knew I needed to. I tried waiting it out while I set up camp. I checked on the solar charger and it appeared to re-charge the battery back to 100%, so I plugged in the GPS for the night. Half an hour later I still felt the same and went to bed without eating dinner.

Day 3: Mingus to Williams

Again, the next morning a few riders were out of camp in the darkness. I got up around 6a and still wasn't feeling like a bunch of food. I skipped my oatmeal breakfast in favor of some OJ and that cherry pie. I had to eat at some point, but at least the first half of the day was primarily downhill to the Verde River some 30 miles away.

I powered up the GPS.....1/2 charge?!?! Rut-roh. I didn't bring a backup charger or cue sheets. Hmmm, did I do something wrong with the new setup? Not sure. I was hoping it would last long enough to where I could navigate myself into Williams. I set the solar panels up again planning on giving the GPS a boost during lunch/dinner. This was going to be another long tough day probably finishing in the dark.
Prescott Valley from trail 533.
The Mingus downhill is so good, it almost makes you forget how hard it was to summit. Ok, maybe not, but it sure is fun!!
The magic gate closing behind me. Yes, this route has permission to be here.
The magic gate signals the start of 50+ miles of jeep/forest roads down to the Verde River & up to the pines of the Kaibab. The gravel roads vary widely in condition from smooth to loose to HAB seemingly changing around every turn. After passing about 10 No Trespassing signs over the first few miles I came to a low locked gate. A clean & jerk of the bike brought me to a more wide open scene above Prescott Valley.
The route firmly pointed north offering views of both Bill Williams mtn on the left and Humphrey's Peak to the right.
Beautiful morning for a bike ride. 
The finish line can almost be seen from here, but that's another day away.
Fast, free, easy miles on a 9 mile descent on Perkinsville rd.
Crossing the Verde River, low point of the day at 3800'.
Down at the Verde I found a nice shade spot up against a tree, kicked off the shoes and finally ate a real meal. I also gave the GPS a power boost while I ate. It was only 10:15a, I was pleased with my progress so far as I was practically at the halfway point for the day. The bad news? The second half of the day was almost all uphill. And rough. Down went pizza, pickles, avacado, salmon jerky, orange slices, etc. It was glorious. I filtered some water and pedaled away after a much needed hour break.
The initial climb out of the river basin is a bit of work, but the grade flattens nicely.
Mingus already becoming a distant memory.
I peeled off Perkinsville rd towards Sand Flat on FR354, a secondary jeep road, i.e. worse road conditions. I was bouncing along the rubbly path waiting to see the slice of road that cuts up the side of the mountain. It was a checkpoint of sorts, a bit of HAB but also signaling a more rapid rise in elevation = closer to the pines!

An older couple came down the road in an ATV and stopped. They mentioned a couple up ahead had been lifted off route and driven into Williams. I tried to get a description thinking it may be Jeff & Nancy, which would be very unlike them. They couldn't confirm, but who else would be out here riding bikepacking rigs? Turns out it was a couple from Ft. Collins touring the route and I had met the guy during the AZT300 a couple years ago, small world. The ATV couple asked me a few times if I had been through the area and was I prepared for the rugged terrain. I think I put them more at ease for my safety when I described the upcoming route. They generously took my trash and offered a splash of water. My temp gauge had been reading around 80º since the Verde.
Trudging up the HAB section above some mine tailings. FR354 below.
Mile after mile of this keeps you busy.
One out of three isn't bad, it definitely is Western.
Snack break on a retaining wall. Solar panels soaking up the sunshine.
My progress was slow & steady as I made the final climb to the pines. Chris had just past by me and was riding well, I was looking forward to the fast smooth forest roads of the Kaibab. Much to my surprise when I crossed that line in the dirt to silky smoothness I couldn't shift out of my little ring on my front derailleur!! At least I could still shift the rear gears. It was a bit strange, but I pedaled in 1-7 barely holding a 12 mph average on the flats.

I tried multiple times & different gear combos to shift the front, but the lever was seized up solid. Nothing seemed to be physically binding the derailleur either. It just wouldn't go and I didn't want to force it and not be able to ride at all.
Interstate of dirt.
The climb up to the pines took a lot out of me as I knew I was still paying the caloric price from Mingus. My pace had considerably dropped off as the hours passed and I was beginning to dread Bill Williams (BW) Mtn. I really thought I'd be able to crest the mountain by sunset when I left the Verde, but now I was just going to make the turnoff to the Benham trail by sunset.

I stopped for an early lite dinner and was 75% certain at that point about skipping BW mountain. The GPS was on low battery now, so I gave it one last boost from the PowerMonkey.  I rejoined Perkinsville rd. for the remaining miles on the day.
BW mtn doesn't look so daunting from here.
I have to admit I had a bit of an internal struggle when I approached the turnoff for the Benham trail leading up BW mtn. I'm fairly certain if I hadn't already completed the loop 2 years ago I would have turned left onto the trail. Based on my current condition and will power it would have taken me at least 4 hours to complete the loop. The first mile is fairly easy, then the pitch angles to the sky for 3 miles of HAB. At the top? No reward, only steep awkward switchbacks. It really was an easy decision to roll on past. Four miles on downhill pavement stood between me and a good meal and restful night. Plus, no need for lights. As it was, Devon was already in town and secured a motel room for us and Caroline. The GPS made it to the motel as well with power!!
A bustling Sunday evening in Williams.
Ray and a few others had already eaten, but we rounded up Jeff & Nancy to join the three of us for some Mexican grub. I did my best to re-stock my calorie levels. Devon & I crammed our leftovers into a tortilla for trail burritos the next day...brilliant!

At the motel I realized I forgot my plug charger for the Garmin at home, so my only option was to fully charge the PowerMonkey and hope I'd wake up sometime during the night to swap it out to charge the GPS. Amazingly, I woke up around 2a and made the switch.

Day 4: Williams to Flagstaff

Caroline was out of the motel early, sometime around 6a. Devon & I left just before 7a, headed over to Circle K to grab some water and a banana. We then bee-lined it to McD's for some breakfast as Jeff & Nancy were heading out. We left McD's at 7:15a and as I left the parking lot a pickup pulled in with the passenger shouting 'Coconino 250!!' I gave 'em a thumbs up as I hit the road.
For a small town Williams is pretty cool.
Devon fueled and ready to rock.
Devon slowly pulled away from me as I spun my little ring in the cool morning air. It was 39º at the start. I'd only catch glimpses of his neon jacket as we made our way through the myriad forest roads.
The toughest part of the morning wasn't the cold, it was the bright sun shining directly in my eyes making the road difficult to see.
Ahh, Sycamore Canyon, aka Suck-a-more or Sick-of-more Canyon.
I took my first swig of Circle K water as I neared Sycamore Rim...bleh!! What the...I was the proud owner of 100oz of ice cold soda water!! I must've hit the wrong lever at the dispenser. Once my mind accepted what I had to drink it wasn't all that bad, just kept me burping a bit. :)
At least there were some good views.
6 miles long, 4 of them fairly frustrating.
Just like the Rainbow Rim, just not as dramatic and 10x the suck factor.
The backend of the trail was much better.
If it wasn't this, it was reminiscent of what we missed on Anderson Mesa - post-holed clay.
Cool lillypond before one final HAB to the exit.
I was now out on the flats leading back up to I-40 where a Texaco station awaited in Parks. It's near the halfway point and a fine opportunity to swap out my water & eat lunch.
Wide open cruising, just wished I had my middle ring!
Crossing I-40 west of Flagstaff.
Look who I found at the Texaco, Devon, Nancy & Jeff.
It was nice to see some familiar faces at the Texaco. I snagged my burrito and pulled a coke from my pack and subsequently had it spew all over me. I guess the Sycamore Rim trail and miles of washboarded roads really shook it up!! Lunch was great, soda water swapped out and coke spray cleaned off my legs, I was ready to go. Devon had already left and I was a few minutes ahead of the dynamic duo.
Hunphrey's Peak starting to get closer.
A nice climb leading away from Parks got the legs warmed up again. On the backside the dirt turned to pavement on a long gradual downhill back towards I-40. For some reason I decided to try my front shifter again...BOOM!! It worked!! Nice & smooth like nothing ever happened, wtf? I instantly gained 5-6mph and took off down the road.

Back on dirt, the forest roads wind around a bit as they snake towards Wing mtn. I knew there was a stiff HAB at the top and was ready to put it behind me. It's funny how certain jeep roads simply go straight up the side of a mountain. Jeff, Nancy and I all regrouped at the top.
Jeff must be glad the really steep stuff is over.
At the top of Wing mtn the jeep road finally gave way to a series of moto trails. At first they are a bit steep with some ruts/rocks, but that too fades away and what follows is pure high speed banked turn bliss. A few uphills keep your speed in check, but otherwise it's a great downhill thrill ride to US180.
Wing mtn moto trail.
Enjoying a fantastic day in the pines.
This section was a highlight of the trail.
The motos know how to maximize their turns, Jeff reaping the rewards.
We turned off onto FR151 for the final climb of the route where we'd rejoin the AZT up near aspen corner. I mentioned to Jeff & Nancy that I'd be stopping for a snack along the way knowing full well they'd be out in front of me. We also planned a post-ride celebration meal in Flagstaff. They took off and I followed suit up the well maintained and well traveled dirt road.
Making my way up FR151. Photo by Jeff.
FR151 is a rather nice climb.
Entering the golden land of the aspen near our turnoff.
I finished off my burrito & gatorade while soaking up the forest aroma. October is a wonderful month in Arizona, all parts of the state are fair game for outdoor recreation. A granny gear induced climb ensued and I was happy to clean the entire section up to the AZT even if it was at a snails pace.
Rejoining the AZT. Also the beginning of a 5+ mile downhill.
Golden stand near Alfa Fia tank.
For all the brutality this route dishes out, the last 15 miles reminds you why you do these events.The AZT into Flagstaff is a true masterpiece, good flow, just enough tech to keep things interesting and long enough to make you wonder if it will ever end.
Rock & tree lined trail on the descent.
A long XC approach to the Shultz Creek TH.
I was meandering along a well contoured stretch of trail as a young mother was taking her daughter out for a ride. The girl looked to be about 4 on a little 16" bike with a smile a mile wide, her mom asked me if I was doing the Coco250, when I said yes, she threw me a high five as I rode by. The word on this ride is out. It was a cool way to end. A few minutes later I dumped out onto the gravel cul-de-sac ending my time. A few miles on the FUTS and I was back at The Place where it all began four days earlier.
Final piece of trail.
Humphrey's Peak already seems far away.
Made it to Flagstaff with daylight to spare.
The FUTS had me a bit disorientated in town.
Jeff & Nancy had finished about 15 minutes ahead of me. We agreed on pizza & beer to celebrate. What a route it is.

Check out Ray's recap and Jeff's too, both great reads.

*Official times have been posted*
My route. CW direction from the upper right.
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