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Desert Trip with a Klunker Bike

    Last year I burned all my paid time-off by working at a bike shop. Yep, when my real job had no work for me I would leave and go help out a business that was slammed. But, instead of just letting me get a short check that week, my corporate overlords would suck away my vacation time to make full 40 hour weeks. So there was no vacation in 2020...or was it all a vacation?, it almost didn’t seem like a real year.

     But 2021 is different, and my wife is a wonderful planner. I love that she plans, because I rarely do. Live life in the moment I say. That’s why I once tried to pull off the side of the road in White Ranch and camp with a girl camper. Then in the middle of the night a police loudspeaker was blasting across the hillside.       “Attention illegal campers! Return to your vehicle immediately or face severe consequences!” When we hiked back to the car he asked, “Did you have a campfire?” I said, “No.” He said, “I don’t believe you, take me up to where you camped and show me.” So I had to hike back to the campsite with the cop and show him there was no fire. With no place else to go I took the girl camper to Red Rocks amphitheater and we watched the sunrise. Now she owns the best coffee shop in Estes Park, so it all worked out.

    But my wife plans ahead, she has campsites lined up for us all across the Southwest. For the next two weeks we will be traveling in our new camper van #vanlife. We hadn’t planned on getting into #vanlife, but the opportunity was sprung upon us one night in December. The hospital my wife works at was thinning it’s herd of vehicles and it notified the employees first that vehicles would be put up for auction. They were selling a couple of plow trucks and a 15 passenger van that had been used to transport adult daycare patients. So we bid until we won, then I spent the next five months turning a passenger van into a cargo van, then turning a cargo van into a camper van. Some people dedicate their entire blog to building their camper van. I’m dedicating this paragraph to it.

a van down by the river

    Along the way I bought a cool six-bike rack for the van. This gives me the hope that one day I could actually take 5 riding buddies on an epic mountain biking adventure. And I also hope to do some epic family mountain bike adventures, just not this trip. Limited supplies and a high demand for bikes has lead to a record year for bike theft. I heard horror stories of bike racks being cleaned out in Safeway parking lots. When you consider the cordless dremel tool for cutting locks and cables I can see how bikes would disappear quick. Especially in a mecca like Moab.

    So all the nice bikes are safe at home. Instead I found some cheap cruiser bikes and made them into klunkers. A klunker is a cruiser bike with all the fenders stripped off. Coincidentally, klunkers are the ancestors of the modern mountain bike. In the early 70’s in places like Marin County, California and Crested Butte, Colorado, riders first experimented with off-road cycling. Road bikes wouldn’t survive the abuse of rough dirt roads, so mt bike pioneers turned to the fat tired cruisers that had been popular in the 1950’s. 

    These single speed bikes used a durable frame design known as the cantilever. Knobby tires were fitted to the wide 26” rims and the only brake was a kick back coaster brake on the rear wheel. Various handlebar designs can be used from mustache drop bars to low risers similar to modern mt bike bars. My bike had pretty wide and dumb apehanger style bars on it originally and I swapped them out for a more classic swept back set.

    It was these klunker bikes that people raced down the rutted fire roads of Mount Tamalpais in a race that came to be known as the Repack. So-called because after a long downhill run the grease in the rear hub would be boiling out and the hub would need a repack. In a case of simultaneous evolution Crested Buttians were making mt bike history while defending their town pride.

    On one historic summer in 1976, a group of dirt bike riders rode from Aspen over Pearl Pass and into the town of Crested Butte. This was the first time this had happened since dirt bikes were  kind of a new thing. The Aspenites whooped it up in CB and bragged of their epic journey to the eye rolling locals. Eye rolling was also a new thing at the time. 

     The CB locals were not about to be outdone by their somewhat wealthier neighbors from across the mountains. Unfortunately none of them owned dirt bikes. So they built themselves some Klunkers. Then these longhaired, grungy locals pushed their 50 lb bikes up the steep mountain pass. 

   From the top of the pass, they roared down into Aspen and tore the place up, making mt bike history and securing their status as the most bad-ass mountain folk. But the point is, they did it on klunkers.

    So there I was riding my klunker on a sweet trail in Moab called Deadman’s. I was staying at an RV park east of town and close to a trail network called Bar M trails. I chose to ride in traditional riding attire of cutoff jeans, sandals and a button up shirt. I rode in mid afternoon when it was unseasonably hot for June. I lathered on the sunscreen and brought plenty of water, but still I think my brain got a little cooked. I figured I had to know what real desert riding was like. 

    To ride a klunker I had to tweak my skill set a little bit. Probably the biggest change is the lack of a freewheel. It’s easy to forget how often we back pedal on a modern bike. Whether you are setting up for a little drop or tackling a climbing obstacle, we often reposition our pedals by taking a half crank backwards. This can either put your feet in attack position with your dominant foot forward. Or, set you up for a power stroke. But a coaster brake only allows a very short range of motion. You can back pedal a little, maybe a few degrees,  then anything beyond that will engage the brake. 

    Other differences were the lack of a front brake, a rigid frame and fork and a single speed. I did have a super cushy seat though. And I brought a portable speaker to crank out some Peter Tosh tunes.

     I hopped on a paved bike path that started right at my camp and would have wound all the way into the town of Moab. I passed some life size dinosaurs while my knobby tires hummed along on the pavement. Once the path cut away from the road, the traffic noise died away and I started to feel the majesty of the desert. The sun was beating down, but a gentle breeze kept me comfortable. Just then, my spider senses started tingling and I knew that some singletrack was near. 

    Off in the distance I caught a flash of some mountain bikers as they rounded a corner and disappeared. I veered off the bike path and followed a set of double tracks toward the rocks. I arrived at a clearly marked trail, so I ducked in to see how the klunker would do. I know Moab is famous for its slickrock, and these trails had a bit of it. Up on the rock the trail is easily defined by blue paint marks. I got out of the saddle and guided the klunker along the smooth grippy rock, just me and Peter Tosh alone in the desert.

    The trail flowed along with rolling climbs and descents. I remembered very quickly that I was no longer rocking tubeless tires. This made me adjust my lines a bit to avoid snake bites. I had a tube, pump and 15 mm wrench needed to change a flat, but only one.

    Once I was off the slickrock the trail transitioned into something I enjoy even more and that’s hard desert clay. This is what I was hoping to find and these trails delivered. I dropped off Deadman’s and onto Sidewinder. Stretched out before me I could see a long run of hard red clay shaped into a fast straight luge run. I gave the klunker a few pedal strokes and let gravity do the rest. The clay was so smooth and fast I really didn’t feel like I was missing out on a fully rigid bike. Here and there I definitely noticed some big ‘ol kickers and I had to pass them by. I was already taking this department store bike way past it’s intended use. But the klunker did great. I reached the bottom of Sidewinder and then I cranked it back to the top. The buttery smoothness of the clay even made the climbing easy. My biggest challenge was the cheap grips spinning  freely in my hands and trying to slide off.

    Before heading back I spotted another loop called Rusty Spur and popped in to check it out. I clattered through some scattered rocks with my chain clanging against the chain guard. My speaker almost bounced out of my pouch. Then ahead of me I spotted the group of four riders I had seen earlier. As I approached I turned down my music and gave a friendly greeting. They were trying to huddle into a selfie photo, so I offered to give them a real picture.

    I flicked my kickstand out and walked over to take the pic. They may have been tourists like myself, or they could have been locals, they knew the trails really well, at least the girl I talked to did. Either way I hope I projected a fair amount of absurdity into their ride. They were modern mountain bikers, and I was a long haired dude in sandals and cut offs riding a Walmart klunker bike on a legit Moab trail.

    I’m not going to get all purist and start riding a hardtail again. Hell, I’m thinking about my Jeffsy right now. Honestly I’m thinking how glad I am that the Jeffsy is safe at home, waiting for me. But there was something really fun about mountain biking on the original mountain bike.  Something simple yet capable, ok, barely capable. I pushed it a few times uphill. But, it definitely made me smile while I was riding, and you could do a lot worse than that.




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