Lands of Lost Borders – A Journey on the Silk Road

We are lucky. We know it. All day, every day, we work with people on bikes they will do amazing things with, and sometimes, as we found out recently, they’ll even write books about those things.

Longtime followers of this blog will possibly remember the Cycling Silk Project, undertaken by Kate Harris and Melissa Yule in 2011, when, in their own words they, “lurched off the European shore of Istanbul, Turkey with overburdened bikes and quaking legs. Just a few days ago, in late October, we pedaled into Leh, a small city barnacled onto the Himalayan mountains in northern India. In the months between, we consumed roughly 10,000 packs of instant noodles to fuel nearly 10,000 km of riding, polishing our souls on roads rough as pumice on this pilgrimage to the Silk Road’s wildest mountains and deserts.”

We got a copy of the book in the mail recently, and it was nice to walk back down memory lane and hear an expanded version of a story we followed closely as it was going on. We were enormously proud to build the bikes Kate and Mel rode, a pair of Expat S off-road touring machines. These bikes played into our thinking as we evolved designs of the early Evergreens, so they, and this project, were highly inspiring and influential for us.

The book is available now.  We recommend it highly.

Going to the Woods

7050643843_401b3e8d9c_zWe’ve already talked about Going Up, Going Far and Going Fast.  Going to the Woods is another thing we like to do, riding the jeep tracks and trails that crisscross our New England forests. We design bikes to go there in a few different ways.

Two crucial variables for any woods-oriented bikes are traction and speed. How will we keep the wheels on the ground, and how fast do we want them to move? Suspension is an option with our classic NE hardtail mountain bikes, the Solas and 622M SLX. They’re built to be fast over chattery, heavily-rooted ground and to climb the short, steep pitches we find all over. The Ti chainstays on these bikes act as de facto suspension systems, effectively keep the rear tire planted on the ground and rolling forward. For dirt road bikes, we can narrow the tires and build around a rigid fork, which will speed things up on less technical terrain.

b9325f7471c811e19e4a12313813ffc0_7Another key question is, how much ground are we trying to cover? Are typical rides of approximately the same length, as with a cross country race bike, or do they vary wildly, with marathon trail sessions coming as often as possible. Those two bikes differ geometrically, one built for agility and speed, the other for comfort and stability. We can build them as traditional trail bikes, or with rack mounts for bike-packing. Geometries can get more relaxed or more aggressive.

We also send our Evergreens and Expats to the trees. The Evergreens are designed to tackle mixed-terrain, some road, some dirt. The Expats are touring bikes. As with the other types of bikes we design, finding the balance points is key to delivering the right bike. Going to the Woods can add as many or more different variables than the bikes we’ve discussed in previous pieces, so working through all the basic questions is integral to the process.



Going Far

Last week we talked about Going Up, the process of designing a climbing bike. This week we look at what goes into a long distance bike, which might be a century bike, a touring bike or might be a full-blown randonneuring machine. We build these on our Axiom platform or our Expat platform typically, but as with everything we do, it’s custom, so the features are more important than the model name.

four-season-expat-slThese sorts of bikes usually have comfort as their primary design goal. Performance remains important, so drivetrain stiffness is still desirable, but one of the keys to performing over long distances and after many, many hours in the saddle is comfort.

Comfort in this regard isn’t just about how the rider feels in the moment, but how fresh he or she can remain. Muscles that have not been pummeled by an overly stiff frame for eight hours are better able to sustain effort in the 9th and 10th hours of pedaling. There is the next day to consider as well. On multi-day tours, the need to wake up in the morning rested and recovered can be the difference between fun and misery.

randoNightTitanium is a particularly good material for long distance bikes, and our ability to refine this tubing for the individual rider means we can keep those riders fresh and comfortable according to their own preferences. The tube butting process consists of removing material along the length of the tube to make it strategically compliant. The more aggressively the tubes are butted, the more compliant the frame becomes, the better it soaks up chatter and impacts from the road. Steel also shares these properties, just at a slightly greater weight.

As with the climbing bike we discussed last week, there are a number of factors to balance, comfort and performance being the most obvious. Stability and handling are also critical to a good long distance bike, a more relaxed geometry, a longer wheelbase. You want to be able to ride hands free to rest hands and shoulders. You want good handling at low speed, even carrying a load, which brings us to features and options.

Touring bikes used to have cantilever brakes as a default, because they let you run a wider tire with a fender, but the advent of better medium reach fork/brake combinations and disc brakes have radically improved braking performance and given riders more options for bike set up. The touring triple has given way to the compact double crank, with wide range cassette to achieve the same gearing ratios. Rack and fender mounts are very popular on long distance bikes too, as are our custom racks, which can be built to fit the specific bags, panniers and lighting systems you want to run. Dyno hubs and front facing light mounts keep riders going into the night.

It is well-nigh impossible to get a great long-distance bike off the shelf. The unique attributes that keep a rider comfortable over long periods of time with the features and options and component choices that suit them make each of Seven’s “Go Far” bikes special.

One Bike (to Rule Them All)

There is a difference between a fad and a trend. A fad is an idea that pops up, becomes popular and then disappears after folks figure out it’s not as great as it first seemed. A trend is a gradual change in the way things are done. It can be hard to distinguish fads from trends. We struggle with this all the time. As builders of our own bikes, we can’t just be concerned with whether something is popular at the moment, we have to think through how to produce it, whether the resulting product is more valuable to our riders than the ones we already make, and whether developing the fixturing will be worthwhile over a period of years.

Recent seasons have  produced some interesting trends, for example the growing interest in mixed-terrain (or “gravel”) bikes and on the mountain side of things, the emergence of the 650b (or 27.5) wheel size. These are both good trends for us, because, as custom builders, we already have all the capabilities we need to produce them. What looks like fragmentation in the market, the splintering of categories, actually looks to us like a convergence of our skills with what the market wants.

So, while other bike companies scramble to bring new products to market and add pages to their brochures to cover the latest trends, we’re actually seeing a lot of our products merging together as riders get better and better at knowing exactly what they want from their bike and their riding.

Of course, we’re still building straight ahead road and mountain bikes, but we’re also building an awful lot of bikes that blur the lines between pure road and pure mountain, as riders seek one bike to meet a lot of different needs. These can be road-oriented bikes (read: drop bars) with medium-reach road calipers to fit wider tires and/or fenders, so the resulting bike can spend some time off pavement and also work as an effective commuter in bad weather, or they can be more trail oriented bikes with cyclocross forks, wide tire clearance and disc brakes. Some will take flat bars, like a traditional mountain bikes, and some will have commuter type bars, flat or sweeping, but with multiple hand positions.

We are building these One Bikes out of our Axioms, our Expats, our Evergreens and our Solas.

Over and over we see riders working on that single solution , and the bikes that come out are not only some of the most everyday useful we have produced, but also some of the most ingeniously multi-functional. They take advantage of all the things we are able to add to a frame design, all the component compatibility, to do more cool stuff on two wheels. Watch this space for two upcoming projects that will feature exactly this sort of do-everything bike.


On the Road: Zand Martin Cycling the Kazakhstani Altai

Look at a map of Central Asia and find the intersection of Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. That’s where Zand and his partner are traveling, where the dots that represent cities and towns get fewer and farther between. In this installment of Zand’s adventures Circling the Golden Mountains, they enter Kazakhstan from China.

Read about the beginning of this journey here, here, here and here. As usual, find his images and journal from the trip below:

“Can you see the bridge?” Brian shouts down to me. A moment of confusion and elation pass between us. I am on the cobble marge of the Kara Koba, washing dishes from dinner with water from the stream. It is achingly cold, running fast over a polished, rocky bed. I face upriver, and below the obscuring larch and birch, I spot a span of rusted box girder. Brian sees my face, and knows what my lightbulb expression must mean.

An hour before, we had stood at the old bridgehead and watched the track run out into space. Nearby a ford roared with the freshet, and we discussed our options for the crossing. The creeping shadow line of evening encouraged dinner, sleeping bags, and procrastination until morning. With no way across the river, we were crushed, again. Two kilometers of drifted switchbacks had filled our afternoon, depositing us on the floor of the valley wet to the waist and covered in mud. Rolling out of the snowbound forest, slush dropped from spokes and racks, and we moved into sun, leaving a postholed, pannier-plowed track behind.

Now, our deliverance appears right under our noses, and we jog up to the bridge and walk out on rough milled planks wired to ancient steel. Clear snowmelt runs below, wrapping rocks in foam and racing out of the gorge above: tomorrow’s work. The way seems clear, for this moment only, and we are giddy that another puzzle piece has reluctantly found its place.

This track, once a road, was built between 1915 – 1917 by Austro-Hungarian prisoners captured on the Eastern Front in the Great War. They toiled in these remote mountains at the edge of the Russian Empire, thousands of miles from the fighting. They cut this rough track through the mountains with shovel and pickaxe, rope and saw, bridging the Kara Koba five times in the wild gorge just upstream from us. They connected the valley of the Burkhtarma, once the northern route on the great Silk Road, with China and the basin of the Cherny (Black) Irtysh.

For their achievement, the track is still called the Austrian Road. The Czech, Slovak, Austrian, and Hungarian prisoners who labored in this remote wilderness left no trace save the occasionally level path cut into the hillside and over these successive passes and gorges. They worked and died as two empires collapsed around them: their own, and that of their captors. As the storm of revolution broke in 1917, this small work gang was surely caught in the middle. Were they repatriated by Trotsky in time? Or did they join the Czechslovak Legion in its long fight from Europe to the Pacific, and race the nascent Red Army along the Trans-Siberian Railroad in armored trains bound for Vladivostok and Allied evacuation to America? No one knows.

We left China in storm and wind, hoping our way would be smoother in Kazakhstan. Things did not start well. We were held at the border for seven hours as Chinese officers looked through the photos on our cameras and the Kazakhstan guards asked us about Jessica Alba, our homes (“Please tell us one thing your state is known for.”), and our plans for their illustrious country. All this, before they informed us our visas are fake and we cannot enter the country – Kazakhstan does not issue five-year visas to Americans. Except that they do. Once the immigration office in Astana finished its three hour lunch break, they informed our erstwhile captors that the rules had changed last year, and to let us go. One would think knowing current visa rules would be a top priority for boarder guards.

We followed the border fence north. The wind hounded us until the road turned to dirt and began to climb. The thousand-foot dunes of the Ak Kum desert (‘white sands’) reflected bright sunshine behind, and as usual the land gave no shade. We sweat, and salty Rorschach lines grew on shirt and hat as sandy gravel switchbacks turned desert to steppe, then to scrub and subalpine meadow. The air cooled as the road climbed, rising 3200′ in under ten kilometers, making it a bit steeper than the Mt. Washington Autoroad with a worse surface condition. Beyond the Mramorniy Pass, we rolled over the White Pasture of Akzhailau and ascended a second pass, Tikkabak, where conifers appeared and we caught our first glimpse of mountains wreathed in snow.

In this exertion, we worried about our border permits. We had arranged for them to be processed in February, but our contacts had failed us spectacularly and only informed us a few days before we entered the border zone that we did not actually have permission to be there. Our afternoon cycling along the actual border fence was one of worry and uncertainty, but as we climbed we committed ourselves to this route; it would add 350km to go back and around the mountains. With every checkpoint, police jeep, and document request, we escaped unstopped, still, miraculously, fixed on our goal. The rangers, soldiers, police, schoolchildren, horsemen, and shopkeepers that asked us our route all nodded, some pointing back the way we had come, saying the road disappeared if we went north long enough. Beyond the great lake of Markakol, a park ranger pulled his jeep over to tell us the Austrian Road would be impassible and we wont reach the Burkhtarma. When we insist, he smiles and wishes us good luck. We have found, so far on this trip, that everyone is nearly always wrong, and the only way to know what lies ahead is to go and have a look for yourself. If there are any grains of truth in their advice, they will reveal themselves.

A kilometer later, the next bridgehead appears, with the girders swept parallel to the far shore with planks sloughed off into the current twenty feet below. The mountainsides drop to the river in mixed meadow and taiga, and we scout the left bank, sure of our forward momentum. In two hours of heavy lifting, we portage along cliff bands and over frozen avalanche debris, walking in the river when necessary. The third bridge stands, repaired at some point with sawn telephone poles still sporting their wire hangers. On bridges four and five, the planks are gone, leaving only the bent, rusted girders, and we engineer solutions our mothers are encouraged not to ask us about. In nine hours of extreme effort, we make eight kilometers.

The track is mud, rock, and snow. It rises against mountains now considering spring in carpets of wildflowers, European globe-flowers and irises purple and yellow, ruthenica and bloudowii. Snowfields beckon above forest bands, but with such a slow day, our food won’t last and we are wary of what slow, grinding hardship will present itself on the morrow. The skis stay on the bikes, but we stop from time to time and gaze up at the ridges still holding their snow, at the Sarymsaty (‘Garlic’) Ridge, and onwards to Burkitaul and Aksubas Peaks, ‘Eagle’s Eyrie’ and ‘Head of White Water’, respectively.

The land is stunning, and utterly empty in this season. There is no one in the valley of the Kara Koba, the last mountain village of a few hundred nearly two days behind. We soak in the green, white, and blue, the moisture of a clean, alpine landscape. The steppe worked us, but here, despite the absurd physicality of the travel, we are revived. Cresting our last high point the next morning, we are confronted by the valley of the Burkhtarma. This is the Burkhatskiy Pass, and, along with the Tarbagatay Ridge, marks the vague, shifting ecological boundary between Siberia and Central Asia. To the north, we see Russia and Belukha, the great glacier-clad peak at the heart of the Altai Mountains. Three thousand feet below, the valley opens and we see the arrow-straight asphalt ribbon that will connect us again with civilization.

For even more from Zand about his adventures in the Golden Mountains, the Altai, check out his blog from the trip.

Check out the bike Zand rode on the trip.