How to win the Julian Bikepack Challenge

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Last month, Miles and his riding partner McCullen became the first-ever finishers of the Julian Bikepack Challenge, an annual event that explores the immensely diverse regions of Southern California. Read on for more information on the event, a huge photoset from their journey, and a reminder that Miles is still bikepacking with strangers…

Managing the events calendar here on BIKEPACKING.com has its perks. Not only am I able to keep an eye on interesting events all over the world, I’m also able to stay up to date with local events that may be of interest to me. A few months ago, while updating our 2018-2019 listings, I fell upon the Julian Bikepack Challenge, an event that starts and finishes in Julian, California, and offers several different loop options that explore a unique geographical region of Southern California: The Beach Loop, the Mountain Loop, the Desert Loop, and the mother of all loops, which offers a taste of all three, the BFL (Big Friggin’ Loop). After reading up on the event and checking out the Julian Bikepack Challenge’s Facebook page, I was surprised to find out that no one had successfully completed the BFL. Knowing I would be heading towards the coast in the near future, I figured I would give it a shot. I didn’t care much for attempting the route solo, and a quick Instagram story resulted in a response from McCullen Murphy, a stranger at the time, and eventually evolved into a plan to meet up and race the BFL together. Keep in mind I use the term “race” very loosely here.

Julian-Bikepack-Challenge-Recap-Miles-Arbour

  • Julian-Bikepack-Challenge-Recap-Miles-Arbour
  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

This year’s event was put on by Johan Cronje, a huge fan, local rider, and finisher of all three of the original loops. In previous years, Rich Wolf, a Julian local, had been in charge of organizing the race, and can ultimately be thanked for the birth of the Julian Bikepack Challenge. New for 2017 was the addition of the BFL, a larger loop that showcases a staggering variety of terrain along gravel roads, singletrack, pavement, and equestrian trails through areas like the Volcan Mountains, Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve, Cuyamaca Mountains, Laguna Mountains, and the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. With a total distance of just under 300 miles and more than 26,000 feet of climbing, the BFL is definitely no walk in the park.

Choosing A Bike

There’s such a huge variation in terrain that choosing the right bike for the Julian Bikepack Challenge can be a daunting task. Anything from a wide-tired gravel bike to a full-suspension mountain bike could tackle the route successfully, but this year definitely proved that there is no perfect bike. McCullen opted to ride his newly acquired Surly Karate Monkey, built up around a standard 29er mountain bike wheelset, 120mm front suspension, dropper post, and kitted out with a full frame bag, saddle bag, and handlebar roll. As I had been fortunate enough to get my hands on a Bearclaw Thunderhawk to review, I approached my setup from a light and fast point of view. The fully rigid titanium gravel bike was built up with a 27.5 x 2.25″ wheelset, carbon fork, drop bars, and a SRAM 1×11 drivetrain. Rockgeist put together an ultralight bag ensemble to complement the bike’s demeanor: a small Foxglove Saddlebag, a Cuben Fiber Hybrid half frame bag, and an Animalist Sleeping Pad strapped up front with Voile straps.

Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

We had two very different setups that both had their advantages along the route. My Thunderhawk proved very capable during the ride west out of Julian and towards the coast, tackling singletrack and doubletrack sections with ease, and zipping along any paved sections we encountered. And McCullen’s hardtail setup really made sense when things started to get a bit more chunky and rough, like in the Laguna Mountains, and even more so along the long descent through Oriflamme Canyon, which leads to the Anza Borrego Desert, another area that begged for larger tires to navigate the sandy roads.

Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap

All total, there were only five riders on the route this year. McCullen and I started in Julian at 8:00 am, Rich took off a couple of hours before us, and Johan and Tryna Cronje took off from Lake Hodges a day after us. Martin Rodriguez, a first-time bikepacker, started from Lake Hodges at the official start time, and we saw traces of a skinny-tired bike for much of day two, leading up to Lake Cuyamaca. It wasn’t until we rolled into the campground at the lake that we noticed Martin, tucked away in his bivvy beside his Jamis Renegade. McCullen and I, still pretty amped from the long climb in the dark, gave Martin some space to sleep and ended up enjoying a morning chatting with him the next day. I feel like our mornings were a pretty good indicator of how seriously we were “racing” the route, and this morning was nothing different. Warm food, a few cups of coffee, some photos, and leisurely filling up water bottles in preparation for the singletrack ahead.

Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour
  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

Rich Wolf took off earlier than the official start from Julian, and ended up tackling an impressive 130 miles and 10,000’ of climbing, ending in Ramona in the early hours of day two. However, after struggling with an upset stomach, Rich decided to pull the plug. What’s even more impressive, and a proper demonstration of his dedication to the route and sport, was that Rich ended up meeting McCullen and me near Lucky 5 Ranch trailhead and joined us on the descent down into the Desert Loop. The three of us rode into the night together, lights off, our sandy path lit by the full moon the event was planned around. It was a surreal moment, and the day was topped off with a fantastic desert campout near Mine Canyon in the Pinion Mountains. Rich continued with us into Borrego Springs for breakfast, an important resupply point, and was wise enough to leave the rest of the climbing up to us. Yaqui Pass, Plum Canyon, and Rodriguez Canyon would lead us to a final climb, part hike-a-bike, to the far east side of Julian, our finish line.

Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour
  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour
  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

An Ultralight Experiment

By McCullen Murphy

“I want to go fast” were the words that accompanied Miles’ Instagram story post searching for a bikepacking companion. I generally have kept racing and bikepacking separate, but this seemed like a pretty rad opportunity to do something new. As previously stated, the term “race” is used loosely in this article, and that goes for my words as well, but this particular outing was to be a “race” of sorts… against ourselves, if nothing else.

  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour
  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour
  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

While fortune smiled upon us and we got along quickly and naturally, what I didn’t feel as immediately comfortable with was just how ultralight of a setup Miles had vowed to take with him on this outing. I mean, I think I’ve seen people bring more on long day rides. I had already put my rig on a diet when compared to my general touring setup, but after witnessing Miles’ “ultra” setup I briefly contemplated taking another inventory in the hopes of finding more to trim. Ultimately, with little time to go before departure I relegated to stick with my bantamweight setup.

Over the next four days spent riding a wildly diverse smorgasbord of California terrain, our “race” morphed into more of an experiment. Partially, one of whether or not we could finish, but also regarding which setup is ideal for this varied event. How ultralight is too ultralight? I can tell you that I was immediately thankful for the inclusion of items such as my inflatable mattress and pillow after watching Miles move in slow agony each morning after a night of writhing restlessly.

As the trip progressed, I acquired the title of “pack mule.” I may not have had much, but I still had far more than the other half of the expedition party. As pack mule, I was obliged to lend items and goods out for the betterment of both of us throughout the route. Bivvy cover on a freezing night? I got you. Sunscreen for those searing desert climbs? Have ya covered. Sealant for that torn sidewall? Yup. In the end, I was pretty pleased with what I opted for. In contrast to Miles’ setup, I see now where I could have spared a few more odds and ends in the name of minimalism, but it wouldn’t have been much without sacrificing some pretty welcome comforts. I believe this whole experiment will contribute not only to my (high questionable) future success in competitive endurance events, but also to enhancing my experience with leisure bikepacking trips as well. I now have a better understanding of what basics are required for me to enjoy long, consecutive days of riding in the backcountry, which turns out is less than I had thought I needed prior to this trip.

  • Julian Bikepack challenge Recap Miles Arbour
  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

PS: I’m thankful that we both decided to bring our cameras along. Taking pictures is just too fun. That said, if you want to eviscerate our time on the Julian Bikepack Challenge BFL route next year, just don’t bring a camera and you will undoubtedly make much better time!

In the end, McCullen and I were the only finishers of the Julian Bikepack Challenge BFL. We grossly underestimated the terrain, and therefore the overall difficulty of the route. It’s a good thing we clicked almost immediately, maintaining a healthy amount of laughter, small talk, and storytelling during our ride together. I’m certain my suffering would be have been far less tolerable alone. I would even go as far to say that this was one of the most prestigious examples of bikepacking with strangers I have had to date, and that’s no joke. What’s slightly more humorous is that we started the race alone at the Julian Pie Company in Julian, and ended the event alone in the very same spot. That’s as underground as things get these days.

  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour
  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour
  • Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

Here is a breakdown of our ride, including where we stopped, ate, and camped:

Day 1: Julian Pie Company to Del Mar Beach

  • 88.9 miles / 5,803’
  • Stop at Torrey Highlands 7-Eleven
  • Dinner at Roberto’s Taco
  • Camp by the sea

Day 2: Del Mar to Lake Cuyamaca

  • 77.6 miles / 10,606’
  • Stop at Poway 7-Eleven
  • Lunch at La Cocina in Ramona
  • Stop at Circle K in Ramona
  • Camp at Lake Cuyamaca

Day 3: Lake Cuyamaca to Anza-Borrego Desert

  • 80.1 miles / 7,026’
  • Stop at Mount Laguna Store
  • Water refill at Stagecoach RV Resort
  • Camp just East of S2 in desert

Final Day: Anza-Borrego to Julian

  • 64.2 miles / 6,629’
  • Breakfast in Borrego Springs at Red Ocotillo
  • Stop at Stagecoach RV Resort for Coke (store closed)
  • Finish at Julian Pie Company
  • Julian bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour
  • Julian bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

WRAP UP

So, how do you win the Julian Bikepack Challenge? Finish, and if you’re lucky, no one else will. That’s how. Next year, I’m predicting a few more participants will line up at the Julian Pie Company to tackle the route, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some new records set. If we’re being honest, McCullen and I set the bar pretty low for an event of this length, but we set the bar nonetheless. Someone should probably lower it a bit more in 2019. Just sayin’.

McCullen and I ended up riding 314.8 miles with 29,580 feet of climbing in 82 hours and 34 minutes.

Julian Bikepack Challenge Recap Miles Arbour

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