Monday, September 09, 2019

Bicycling North Dakota's Maah Daah Hey trail with Western Spirit

Last week I bicycled most of North Dakota’s Maah Daah Hey trail. The New York Times’ John O'Connor described it in 2018 (emphases mine) ...

… One moment I was bouncing along, knee-deep in sagebrush, mind reeling from all the natural beauty zipping by, and the next I’d caught a wheel on a rock and gone sailing into that familiar somersault: butt rising from the saddle, shoulders twisting violently, hips lurching up-and-over, heels actually clicking midair, sunglasses and water bottle and half-eaten Clif Bar hurtling into the trees, the ground closing in...

… it had been my idea to cycle the Maah Daah Hey Trail, the longest and arguably most grueling single-track mountain biking route in the United States...

… I was an unlikely candidate for the trip: I had never ridden a mountain bike before, or even camped much….

I read that introduction before the ride and I scoffed. How would O'Connor  know about going OTB (over the bars) if he’d never ridden a mountain bike? And wasn’t riding a “grueling" single-track absurd for someone with no prior experience?

So of course I went OTB on my first day on the trail. Damn water break bumps, I really didn’t know how to ride them at speed. I learned.

Anyway, after doing that trail outfitter glamping style I gotta admit that while O'Connor doesn’t have the best judgment, he is pretty tough. 

I could write a lot about the experience. The crew I rode with were each worth a story of their own! Alas, I don’t have the time or talent to do that justice. Instead, since I’ll share some things I wish I’d know before the trip. 

Western Spirit

There are two full service outfitters that supply guides, food and water, and gear transportation. I used Western Spirit, but I’m told the competition is also excellent. Dakota Cyclery will do gear transportation but no longer does guiding, I think it works with both outfitters.

This was my first experience with an adventure cycling outfitter. Some things I didn’t know:

  • Our guides were superb. They were also extreme athletes, so they have different attitudes towards “steep” and “exposure” then civilians.
  • The foot is amazing — quality, quantity, variety. Our guides really knew how to cook. Probably 4000-5000 calories a day plus gel packs, snacks, bars, etc. I neither gained nor lost weight and I ate a lot.
  • I drank 4-5 Liters on a hot day and I was still behind. Have a big hydration pack and make sure you fill it. The guides expect you to know to do that.
  • Guides supply gel packs and sunscreen, but to be safe you should carry your own as well.
  • Bring your own derailleur hanger. They don’t have those for every bike. Also a replacement chain link in case the join link brakes.
  • You are expected to tip. I’m not sure how much, but on a $1200 tour 15% is about $200. The ideal is one rider collects funds and presents them as a single gift. Have cash with you.
  • One guide rides sweep and one rides truck. Unless you’re dead last you may be well ahead of the guide. Some days I had a lot of time alone on the trail.
  • You can bring a four person / family tent, it doesn’t have to be a backpacking tent.
  • We didn’t do the whole trail. We started at a camp site about 16 miles south of the Northern CCC terminus, so south of China Wall (never saw it). They did a Friday ride on a different but really excellent trail that was basically a sub for that segment.
  • My companions were older than I’d expected and they were all more skillful than me. Of our group of 7 four were over 60 including our best descender. I think mountain bikers do the Maah Daah Hey when they’ve done everything else many times and are looking for something different.

Maah Daah Hey notes

  • The trail doesn’t seem technical compared to Sedona or Moab, but it has its own challenges. There are a lot of steep climbs with marginal traction — only the super-strong and skilled can nail every one. There is exposure on loose surface tight off-camber downhill hairpin turns. There are deep ruts that suddenly appear along the trail that you don’t want to hit at speed. The working trail itself is effectively narrow, a tire worn 8” dirt path with grass alongside. You need a smooth pedal stroke and good control to avoid hitting the grass ledge along the trail.
  • Unless you’re really good you can’t look around and ride, you need to stop to take in the scenery.
  • Everyone in my group had a modern XC/Trail bike — dropper post, 1x12, tubeless, full suspension, 29” wheels, slack geometry. Everyone … except me. My bike was out of the mists of time. If you don’t have "that bike" I recommend renting from your outfitter or Dakota Cyclery.
  • Flats or Clips? Most do Clips, I did Flats because I was willing to sacrifice some climbing power for faster exits. Clips make for smoother pedaling though, and make it easier to stay on the narrow trails.
  • If it rains you are screwed. The trail has been getting more rain the past few years … which makes the landscape surprisingly green but the trail unrideable. The Bentonite soil turns to cement, only a very strong rider with lots of frame clearance can get anywhere. Rain is the achilles heel of the Maah Daah Hey. We were lucky to have only one rainy day and 2-3 h of hike-a-bike. If rain persists outfitters bail to hikes and gravel rides. It’s a risk.
  • In September there were almost no bugs at our campsites!
  • You don’t see bison. This is ranch land, bison are not welcome. You see lots of very healthy and powerful looking cows and maybe some gazelle. We heard lots of coyotes but didn’t see any.
  • We met 2-3 people total on the MDH trail over 4 days. There were hunters at the campsites; they campsites are all reachable by road.
  • We crossed the Little Missouri twice carrying our bikes, there are multiple stream crossings. Don’t try to ride across, you’ll get mud everywhere.
  • You can get lost. The trail is well marked until it isn’t. It’s good to have guides. There are one or two spots that could kill someone moving fast in the wrong direction.
  • The landscape is more diverse than I’d expected. Badlands, grasslands, even some thin forest. It really is beautiful to ride across, not least through the wide grasslands.
  • I bought inexpensive sun sleeves and a weird geeky neck/ear sun cover that fit under my bike helmet. They were great.

More updates and revisions to some … if time allows ...

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