The Magic of Mapping and Mountains
It wasn’t that long ago our tribe divided into two distinct groups, you were either a “roadie” or “dirt.” rider. You were either shaving your legs, analyzing your power numbers and shopping for the latest carbon hoops, or you were installing CushCore, triple checking your shock rebound and trying to figure out the best place to stash your puncture bacon. You were either road pavement or you hunted hero dirt.
Of course, there has always been a third little-known subset of cyclists we mostly thought of as outcasts, weirdos or whack-a-doodles. These riders went in search of the craptastic, remote “roads”, sleeping on the side of the road and fitting tires on their jalopy-like bicycle which were much bigger than what the roadies would approve of and much smaller than any “real” mtb rider would be willing to ride.
Well, those so-called cyclists have now come out of the shadows and found they are part of a popular movement known as adventure riding or gravel riding. And the gravel riding community has grown to include an ever growing gravel race scene. They are no longer lurking in the shadows, but they have become the popular kids.
And that is the long gravel road version of our introduction to Jen Brecheen and her husband, Kali Sales Manager, Eric. The Brecheen's have been searching out adventure rides and little known gravel roads since well before the current trend road onto the scene.
How do you define yourself as a cyclist, especially in relationship to the gravel trend?
Jen: First off, I don't shave my legs either. (Haha. It’s not necessary to publish this fact.) I guess I define myself as an enthusiast when it comes to cycling, not as a hardcore racer. I’m more of an adventure traveller or rider. I did bike commute to work, pre-COVID, but I also love getting out on my bike on the weekends to explore. I was never much of a road rider. I became a road rider primarily to stay in shape through the winter for mountain biking. I love the new gravel trend, especially as an adventure rider. Gravel allows me to combine both road and mountain cycling, and opens up so many more bike adventure opportunities.
Tell us a little about your bicycle resume.
Jen: My adventure travels actually started back in the early 90's with multi-night bike camping trips into Henry Coe State Park on mountain bikes. I later realized that I can take this love of bike travel out onto the open road. This led to multiple bike camping trips down the Pacific Coast Highway, and eventually to a 10-day trip down Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. I was getting hooked. The true adventure began in 2007, when I took a month off of work to go bike travelling through Vietnam. I had read, "Catfish and Mandala," and just had to go check out Vietnam. I had never been to Asia, and this trip is what has since spurred a lifestyle of bike travelling. I spent the year, 2010-2011, travelling by bike through six countries in Asia, then again for a year and a half, from 2015-2017, travelling through nine countries in Asia and Central Asia.
Asia was chosen as a destination because of my love of being in the high mountains, but also because of the people and the cultures. The thing I learned while travelling through Asia is just how warm and friendly the people are. The riding was sometimes tough, the weather could change in a blink-of-an-eye, and border crossings were not always easy, but I felt the people were always there to help if needed, no matter how freaky I may have appeared with my loaded bicycle.
Do you have any big plans for 2021?
Jen: Yep, big bike travel plans were made for leaving in June this year, this time being away for two years This trip was already being planned as soon as I returned from my travels in 2017. It was to take me through the Americas, starting in North America. The routes include the Oregon Timber Trail, the Great Divide Trail, and making my way south to the tip of South America. It's easy to stay motivated, because bike travel is so rewarding and I love the adventure. For me, it's the only way to travel if you really want to see the world. This is why it’s become a lifestyle.
I'd like to say that the plan will stay the same once the pandemic is brought under control, but the reality and the questions I ask myself are "what countries will be open, will it be safe, and will I feel welcome." I'm keeping my mind open, and know that the possibility of being able to travel internationally may not happen, so it may turn into a bike travel adventure throughout the United States.
What are the hardest parts of this type of traveling?
Jen: Of course, there are things that are missed, like the comforts of home, family and friends. But those feelings are always going to be there when bike travelling. There is really nothing I find difficult about travelling by bike, because this is a choice I have made. I'm having a ton of fun, seeing some very cool places, but the reality is that it's not super easy. When I'm travelling I'm living day-by-day, trying to meet basic needs of shelter, food and water, and safety.
What are the Top 5 destinations on your wishlist:
Jen: South America, Scandinavia, Canada, Japan and Taiwan
Eric you don’t shave your legs and you don’t seem to be overly obsessed with your high speed rebound, can you tell us a little bit about how you define yourself as a cyclist and how you feel about the new gravel trend.
Eric: I’ve never identified myself as any particular type of rider. I’ve been riding for a while and different styles of riding call to me as bikes evolve and offer different options for riding. Currently I’m having fun on my Ibis Ripley, Salsa Warbird, Surly Troll and Raleigh Redux Ebike. The gravel trend has resulted in amazing bikes being developed which are perfectly suited for having a blast. Gravel bikes are just o.k. on the road and just o.k. in the dirt which makes them perfect in my opinion.
You have traveled extensively on two wheels, can you share a little bit of you cycling resume. We would love to understand where you have been, why you chose those destinations and the things you learned while traveling that you didn’t expect.
Eric: My wife and I have spent time traveling back roads and mountain ranges by bike, including a couple of year-long plus trips. These have included weeks or months in India, SE Asia, China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Nepal.
We chose these destinations because we knew they’d be physically and mentally challenging and because they would require self-sufficiency, resilience and creativity.
We’ve learned that a trip is more than the time you spend. Even though the trips are a year or more long, the preparation to pull them off spans several years. These are big projects that keep us out of trouble, for the most part, and make us feel like we’re adding challenge and variety to our lives. We’ve adopted alpinist Mark Twight’s simple and relevant motto: “it doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun”
We know you had a big trip planned just before the outbreak of the pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit about the trip you had to cancel and how you are doing with staying motivated. And will you return to the same plan after we find our way out of these times.
Eric: Ha. In fact we’d been planning a trip for four years, we had resigned from our companies, and we were ready to start riding at the beginning of June 2020 just as Covid hit. We’ll give it another try next spring and the rough plan is to ride the Oregon Timber trail, Great Divide route from Canada to Mexico, the mountains of South America and then Nepal into the Indian Himalayas. We begin our trips with loose itineraries based on mountain riding seasons, then adjust as we go. We’ve become good at changing plans on-the-fly, so this pause is like any other inconvenience you might encounter during an involved project.
Our employers are rad and have created positions that keep us busy while we wait. A big “thank you” to Kali and 280 Group. Besides work, we’re staying active and sneaking in some overnight and multi-day bike trips.
What is the hardest part of being on the road, on your bicycle and away from the comforts of home?
Eric: We miss family, friends, and the sense of community we have at home, but we’ve found ways to stay connected when we’re far away. Our definition of “hard” has changed over the years. The hard stuff on a bike trip comes and goes, but we’ve discovered that the challenging times end up being the most impactful. Also, many hardships and discomfort become normal, so it no longer stands out as hard.
Do you have a story where things went a little off the rails on one of your trips? A story about when your beautiful relationship turned a little less so? A time when you kind of wished you were traveling alone?
Eric: We started a year-long trip, with a 5-month route through the Indian Himalayas. The first 14,000’ pass was still closed, so we explored high villages and side routes for a month until it opened and then we crossed over.
After crossing to the next valley, we set up camp and cooked dinner as the rain turned to snow. The late season storm stalled, dumped snow, and kept us tent bound for two days as we feared the crackling avalanches might reach our tent. We shoveled with a fender day and night to keep the tent from being buried and started to wonder if we were properly prepared or was the situation going to get serious.
We didn’t know how long we’d be stuck and struggled to keep our minds focused on doing what needed to be done: shovel, hydrate, eat, stay dry, stay warm. Nights were the hardest because the avalanches sounded closer and someone had to be awake at all times. The shoveling needed to be done by headlamp. Eventually we woke up to a clear day, post-holed to a village down the valley, and waited for several days for the snow to thaw, so we could recover our gear. We held it together pretty well and we pedaled off into some of the best terrain we’d ever ridden.
Oh, and there was that time when Jen crawled out of the tent on her hands and knees and threw up in front of some Indian officers stationed at a high military base. But, we’ll save that one for another time.
Can you give us the Top 5 destinations still on the Eric Brecheen travel wishlist?
Eric: We have no plans beyond the pending trip which will change as we ride. For example, we never even considered riding in China when we went on a whim in 2010. We’ve now peddled seven months through the country and would go back in an instant. We will continue to search out the amazing routes through the mountains and on the back roads of the world.