Brian Mulder’s Battleworn Ventana El Gordo
Wondering what it takes to forgo the majority of your earthly possessions for two years and ride the length of South America? We caught up with San Francisco-based architect Brian Mulder and checked out his patinaed, battleworn Ventana el Gordo, complete with Rohloff Speedhub, Gates belt drive, and SON dynamo hub… We asked him what he learned after riding from Patagonia to Colombia, how his gear fared, and pressed him for a few highlights from his journey…
Back in 2011, Joe Cruz blazed a trail through much of South America on a Surly Pugsley, a bike considered a real oddity at the time – especially for long distance touring. Over the ensuing years, there’s been a burgeoning band of trans-continental riders choosing fat and plus bikes as their exploratory vehicles of choice, enticed by the promise of tackling backcountry terrain – like timelost singletrack, Inca trails, sandy deserts, and coastal beaches – overlooked by more traditional tourers.
One such rider is Brian Mulder, an architect based in San Francisco, who escaped the rat race for two years on the open road. I was fortunate to run into Brian in 2016, camping with him on Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, and later sharing a few small segments of his mammoth fat bike ride. A year later, he’s home once more, back to work… and the South American dust has finally settled…
What lured you into the idea of riding a fat bike across South America?
Originally I was planning to take a leisurely five months to run the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. I mentioned it to my buddy TC and he turned me onto the blog While Out Riding. Next thing I know, I’m all in on South America, spending nights combing through other travel blogs and getting Cycle Monkey to build up El Gordo.
What was your biking background prior to the trip?
Just road touring. My brother and I rode Adventure Cycling Association’s route from Vancouver to San Francisco when I was in high school in the late ‘80’s and then we followed with ACA’s Northern Tier route in the summer of ‘93. After that I did a solo road tour from Phoenix to Nashville right before I went to Architecture school.
But while I was not a rookie to bike touring, I was definitely a rookie when it came to bikepacking. I’m kind of a kook in the sense that I don’t really geek out on bottom brackets and tube angles. I just love the freedom and simplicity that touring on two wheels allows.
Aside from riding, I long distance run too. I haven’t lost my virginity yet on a hundo – just slogged out a bunch of 50 milers and watched the sunrise over Mont Blanc on a 100k suffer fest.
How long did your journey take… and can you outline the rough route that you took? Did you keep a tab on the distance and money you spent?
I was out for almost two years. I rode the Divide in the US, then flew to Cuenca, Ecuador for a month of Spanish language immersion, and then flew down to Bariloche, Argentina. Mike Howarth recommended riding south first to Ushuaia and then taking a bus back to the start and riding north. Definitely sage advice from a wind-battered veteran. The total squiggly line was about 15,000 miles, not including some bonus miles I did in New Mexico and California while delaying my return to San Francisco…
I definitely didn’t dirt-bag it like some of the others I met, as I gave myself the budget to eat well and stay in some hostels along the way. My outlays were way less in Bolivia/Peru but I did have a couple of expensive gear re-supplies, after a bed bug infestation in an Argentian dorm. I probably could have stayed out another year if I had the fortitude of my bike touring buddy Marco who survived on instant mashed potatoes. And my Cliff bar and Kombucha addictions in the US weren’t cheap.
Choosing highlights from such a long journey can’t be easy… but still, I’m going to press you for a few…
Tough one, tough one. Each country had their own highlight reel but in terms of pure riding Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador for sure in South America. In the US, no question, New Mexico.
Boliva was spectacular. The Lagunas Route was one of the first moments where I felt the remoteness and rawness of South America. The Salars were mind bending and I feel really fortunate to have done La Gira de Sur Yungas since the culture, food, and spirit of the people were so different from the riding on the altiplano.
In Peru the Ruta de Las Tres Cordilleras coupled with the Peru Divide were simply fantastic. I’ve never spent that much time at altitude and the enormous valleys were just incredible. I’m very thankful for being able to tackle the Santa Cruz trek in the Cordillera Blanca and the nearby Huayhuash loop as well.
Ecuador was a hidden gem. The riding was much better than I originally expected. Beta testing the TEMBR and Los Tres Volcanes were definite highlights. And, I should have been doing pushups all through Peru in preparation for Joe Cruz’s ‘7’ on the Inca Trail and those Dammer ditch hike-a-bikes.
New Mexico. Green chiles, miles of dirt roads and those skies… those New Mexican skies.
High times? Low times? How did you fare on such a long solo tour? Were you ever lonely?
A buddy asked me when I got back what the best part was. Simply put, I didn’t have one negative or complaint laden conversation the entire time. Everyone I meet, both in passing and people with whom I shared riding time, were so grateful to be experiencing the beauty of South America and the simplicity of the journey. Two wheels have a way of connecting you with what’s important in life.
I’m pretty independent, so the prospect of doing a long tour solo never really crossed my mind when I was planning it. I knew if I waited to ride with someone else it would likely not happen.
Colombia was the first time I felt lonely after being completely solo from Huaraz, in Central Peru. Plus, I was such a spoiled brat from a nearly continuous stretch of dirt from Bolivia on, that the road miles in Colombia felt like a bit of a slog.
Favorite country? Anywhere you’d return to and explore further?
Peru. Those Sublimes (the omnipresent, Peruvian chocolate of choice stockpiled by every bike tourer) are hard to beat. Bolivia was a super close second but that Bolivian ‘tuna’ was damn dreadful.
I’d definitely ride the Salars again and southeastern Peru looks like there are some great circuits out of Arequipa. I also wish I had seen more of the Atacama Desert in Chile. I like the remote spots. They make you feel alive.
How did you bikepacking setup change over time?
I was kind of soft when I left and was carrying too much stuff. I didn’t have jeans or anything, but I always had an ’emergency’ day of food with me, which was ridiculous. Running out of food in the US and Chile/Argentina would have been nearly impossible.
I didn’t transition to a pure bikepacking set up until northern Bolivia. Getting a prototype Porcelain Rocket Mr Fusion XL monster saddlebag was a game changer. I wish I had ridden without a rack and panniers the whole time. Ditching them didn’t impact my tomato carrying capacity one bit (editor’s note: in long distance bikepacking circles, Brian was known for the number of unblemished tomatoes he magicked out of his bags).
In hindsight, I would have definitely upsized my frame so I could run a bigger frame bag. My triangle was way too small, and my bag could have been about two inches wider without any impact. Rookie move.
I guess gear failures are inevitable over such a long journey. Any to report?
Surprisingly none, which sounds really hard to believe. Other than a wonky light, el Gordo was bombproof. I ran 65mm rims so my wheels were super strong and my SON dynamo hub didn’t have any issues.
Non-bike related, I would opt for a different tent next time around. I had a Big Agnes Platinum UL2, which I later swapped out for a UL1 in Cusco. Weight wise, they were excellent and BA makes great gear, but the Patagonian winds ate me alive a few times, leading to bent poles. Also, the zippers are not set up for year + journeys. If I were to do a multi-year trip again, I’d likely splurge for a Hyperlite Ultamid 2.
BIKE BUILD HIGHLIGHTS
- Frame and Fork: Ventana El Gordo
- Handlebar: Jones Loop H-bar
- Stem: Thomson
- Seatpost: Thomson
- Saddle: Selle Anatomica
- Pedals: Race Face AEffect
- Crank Arm Set: Race Face
- Chain: Gates CDX Belt
- Shifter: Rohloff
- Brakes: Paul levers with Avid BB7s
- Rear Wheel: Rohloff Speedhub XL with Surly Marge Lites
- Front Wheel: SON 28 dynamo hub with Surly Marge Lites
- Tires: Various – Surly Knard, Maxxis Mammoth, 45nrth Husker Du
The 21st century bike tourer tends to pack a small arsenal of electronic gadgetry. What did you carry that needed charging and how did you navigate?
The first trip my brother and I did we didn’t even have cell phones. This time around it seemed like a large portion of my bike weight was dedicated to electronics.
I carried an iPhone 4, a MacBook 11” Air, an Olympus OMD EM5 Micro 4/3 camera, a Garmin Oregon 600 GPS, and a rechargeable headlamp. I intended to charge everything off the hub, supplementing this when I found wall plugs as needed. Unfortunately, it turned out the GPS didn’t charge well off the hub, because it cycles on and off as the voltage changes, which was pretty annoying. I bought a cache battery in Argentina, which worked much better. I kept that charged off my hub and then used it as night in my tent to top up my GPS.
A lot of people use the smartphone app Gaia GPS these days. But for me, I really liked the convenience of navigating from a dedicated GPS on the fly and not having to stop to pull my phone out of my pocket. In hindsight, I should have made a tether between the GPS and the handlebars to prevent rocky descent ejections. As a result, my GPS is now held together with Gorilla Tape.
I used Garmin’s Basecamp with the Open Source Mtb maps, which I then loaded them onto my Garmin. From Peru north I used RideWithGPS. The maps were slightly better with RWGPS but one thing I liked about Basecamp, was that I could load a route without needing any WiFi. It came in handy a few times when something went haywire with my route, and I had to redo it roadside.
Is there anything you’d do differently next time? How about a favorite piece of kit?
As much as I enjoyed it, I would probably not go full fat again. Riding the infamously sandy and corrugated Lagunas route with 4in tires was pretty damn nice, but other than that, a 27.5+ would have been the perfect rig and taken the sting out of a few of those long road mile stretches. In terms of how best to carry gear, a relatively minimal bikepacking setup is definitely the way to go for South America.
I really liked my Paul Love Levers. I finally relented and took my buddy Tim’s advice and added them onto my build. They were appreciated every day. Super nice.
We know Rohloff internally geared hubs are nigh on indestructible, with a stellar reputation amongst long-distance tourers. Gates belt drives aren’t quite as popular yet. How did yours fare?
I’m slightly torn on the belt drive, but only because there are no replacement parts available without negotiating the hassle of customs in South America. I was lucky and my friend Sonia came to Cusco just as my front and rear rings were getting toothy. That was about the halfway mark and the first time I had to replace anything .
I think the notion that the belt is completely maintenance free is a bit of a misnomer and depends on the terrain. For road riding you really don’t have to do anything. But in Bolivia and Peru the belt was constantly covered in dust, so I started to oil it from time to time and clean it with water, or it tended to squeak.
Unless I was sure I was going to be somewhere without visitors for the entire trip, I would do a belt drive again. The weight of an extra belt is negligible (which you need to carry), and for the most part, it’s as close to maintenance free as you can get.
Plus the locals got all jazzed when they noticed it on El Gordo. “Mire la banda. Que es eso!”
Any advice for someone thinking of making the big break, selling up, and travelling the world on two wheels?
Long distance bike trips are such a fantastic way to see the culture and geography of a country. For me, the biggest part of the journey was not about hitting all the hotspots (Mount Fitzroy, the Bolivian Salars, the Divide…) but about the squiggly line that connected all those places, the interaction with fellow cyclists and, most importantly, the locals I met.
Traveling on two wheels makes you vulnerable in a very good way. People aren’t threatened when you arrive in their town, as they intuitively understand the dedication it took to get there. They’re always fascinated by your journey – especially when you’re a gringo on a fat bike. The bike offers you an immediate doorway to a deeper connection with people that is hard to find otherwise. And stripping your belongings down to the essentials makes you appreciate how little we need and how one’s sense of happiness and self has nothing to do with the accumulation of things.”
How’s life back behind a desk… any future travel plans?
Stacking up the nickels and being back in one place on the PBD is nice, but every time I see @trientrapt’s photos of Kyrgyzstan it makes me sad…
The next big two-wheeled journey may not be for several years, but there’s definitely another long bike trip in my future. I’ve also got an itch to do a long run still. I was fortunate enough to run the last few miles through SF with cross country runner @rickeygates. Seeing him hit the Pacific at Ocean Beach after crossing the country and Dave Chamberlain’s Hug Run are both super inspiring.
Anyone you’d like to thank?
You and Mike Howarth were huge inspirations for me as were Dirt Dot Kurt and Joe Cruz. The Peru Divide that Neil and Harriet Pike mapped out through Peru is such a fantastic route and the journeys the Dammer’s continue to put up are so good. It’s been great to see bikepacking progress as much over the last few years.
And of course my family – they could not have been more supportive of my decision to step away from the hustle and wander the dusty roads of South America.