Be careful what you wish for. I’ve been told that many times in my life, but certain instances ring truer than others....
Photography and video by Marc Gasch
Words by Clayton Wangbichler
TAHOE RIM TRAIL
Pushing the Limits of a Gravel Bike
When I crossed paths with Marc Gasch at Eurobike last fall, I briefly mentioned an idea stemming from a combination of his current role as an XPDTN3 explorer and our past experiences mountain biking together. I can’t remember if I mentioned the idea solely to strike up conversation or to create a lofty goal around an idea that I assumed would never really come to pass. Either way, my mouth acted more quickly than my legs could deliver: “I have an idea for the ultimate XPDTN3 trip.”It took only a few sentences. No drawn-out explanation or pulling of arms. I didn’t need to convince him to fly in from Spain and go out on a limb in the hope that this trip would be worth it. I was uncertain of what I was promising, but he was immediately certain it would be more than we were looking for. He was right.
The Tahoe Rim Trail is exactly what its name suggests. It circumnavigates the deep blue water of Lake Tahoe, with – you guessed it – only half of the trail actually legal to bikes. The trip around Lake Tahoe therefore becomes a mission of riding as much trail as possible, while happily settling for some of the most beautiful sections of pavement in the world to tie it all together. I’ve lived in the Tahoe region of the Sierra Nevada for a few years now and have spent countless summer days completing various sections of the Rim Trail on my mountain bike. All my day trips on these trails have been single-bottle rides with 140+mm of front and rear suspension to keep the ride excessively plush and tamable.
These prior experiences were the biggest reference for our trip and helped define why we were out there – to test the limits of what a high-end, carbon, aero gravel bike is capable of when faced with trails generally more suited for a mountain bike. We mounted up some tubeless WTB Ranger 2.0 knobby tires on a set of WTB Ci24 carbon rims and agreed, yes…that’ll be good enough! The usual “bright and early” is how we planned to start pedaling each morning. The first day didn’t roll out as planned... We started late from the Brockway Summit trailhead, yet did so with haste. We spent the first hours of the day figuring out how best to combine our mountain bike skills with the speedy efficiency of a carbon gravel bike that specializes in going slow faster. We cranked through the smooth flats, with immovable masses of granite speckling the trails and keeping our speed in check.
The climb up to the wilderness boundary (yes, we’ll get to that) raced by, while we focused on honing our abilities to ride drop bar bikes on such technical terrain. Once we reached the top and finally took in our surroundings, we received our first view of Lake Tahoe’s entirety and with it, our first complete understanding of what we were getting ourselves into. The miles were no longer just a number in an email; the climbs and descents were no longer just a line on a GPS track. They were right in front of us. In one panoramic view, we saw the peaks we would reach before lunch, the ones that would slow us from reaching dinner, the seemingly endless descent on the other side of the lake, and the climbs that would surely have our legs feeling like jelly on the last day.
The view of the challenge ahead instantly made us more conscious of time. We continued pedaling up through rich dirt, decomposing trees, patches of previous snowfall and technical sections we would never have the satisfaction of completing. Upon reaching the top of the climb, the wilderness boundary hit us with the “No Bikes” sign that typically signifies the turnaround point for the daily mountain biker. Not today. We dismounted and walked our bikes, accepting that it’s simply the way it goes. Sure, it hurt walking beside our bikes on such an incredible section of trail, but we happily chose the serenity and beauty of the trail over the frustration of detouring around it on the pavement below.
At the Mount Rose Highway intersection, the bike ban was lifted and we enjoyed a well-deserved descent at a more exciting pace. Loose sandy trail weaved between massive boulders, and the ride became a game of floating through corners and attempting two-wheel drifts. The mountain bikers in us were grinning. We reached the intersection with the Flume Trail and had to make a choice. Once used to transport logs down to the lake, the Flume closely parallels the Rim Trail but delivers views more picturesque than any other trail section in the area.
Most of the Flume was wide and smooth, but there were a few exposed corners and technical sections that tested our guts as much as they did our bike handling skills. Overhanging crags crowded the trail and made us highly aware of our handlebar positions, as we pedaled up the gradual climb towards Marlette Lake. We followed the shoreline of Marlette Lake on a dirt road lined with yellowing aspens and were convinced to slow it down, ride beside each other, and take advantage of a tamer section of the trip.
The descent down to Spooner Lake consisted of steep straightaways and long, swooping corners that led to heavy braking and flying gravel. We arrived at our first camp just before the sun disappeared completely, and quickly pulled out our hammocks to lounge back and recap the day. There are certainly many ways to stay in a hotel or cabin every night of the Tahoe Rim Trail trip, but we figured we’d camp the first night and treat ourselves to some creature comforts the second night. Marc was certain that a bear would get him at any moment, but it didn’t take long for him to become too tired to worry about measly predators.
Day two delivered the technical climbs and varied terrain that the Tahoe region is known for. We traversed the east-facing side of the range on the climb up to Star Lake, with views of Nevada to our left. Ponderosa, Jeffrey and sugar pines lined the trail, and we looked down upon bare valleys below. Smooth, flowy trail gave way to sections of roots, which eventually transitioned to rocky steps. “Is this trail for bikes or mountain goats?” I yelled to Marc, as we gave our best attempt at conquering each section of steps. It was well worth it, and the refreshing Star Lake was an excellent place to rest before climbing up to the moonlike terrain surrounding Freel Peak. After taking a moment to absorb the highest elevation point of our trip, 9,720 feet above sea level, we descended through alternating sections of gently rolling traverses and steep, tight turns. The loose consistency of moon dust gave way to granular sand and, eventually, packed brown dirt.
As you may recognize as a theme of this story, darkness found us an hour before we reached our planned destination. The flowing sections of singletrack down to Big Meadow seemed to be tailor-made for those who like to get lost in the dirt without the need for suspension. Long, swooping corners rolled from one end of the hillside to the next, making the most of every bit of elevation loss. Without all the rocks we had to navigate previously, this trail enabled us to fully let go of the brakes, get down on the drops and let the trees fly by.
The wind picked up and muffled my hearing, but the corners occasionally lined up so my ear was in line with Marc, and I could hear him hollering with excitement. We came to a stop, and as the sun pulled back its last rays of light, the two of us briefly reveled in our last two days of riding. Marc gazed back up the trail, leaned back with a stance of exclamation and made a grand proclamation: “By far the best length of singletrack I’ve ever ridden in my life. The ultimate experience.” With that last section of trail still on our minds, we dug the blinking rear lights out of our packs and tucked down a paved descent of Highway 89 – a streamlined approach from the tranquility of the woods to the neon lights of South Lake Tahoe.
The next morning was calm, and Lake Tahoe was the glassiest I’d ever seen it. From our lakeside cabin, we took our cups of coffee out to the shore and started our third day watching the sun rise over the lake. We were in a hurry, but for that moment, the delay was worth the future rush. We started the day at a mellow pace, and Marc explained his “diesel” method of riding – casually pedaling through a cold start, turning warmth into power and then generating that power all day. For the section between our cabin and the north end of the lake, the Tahoe Rim Trail is not open to bikes.
Luckily, the alternative was some of the most beautiful sections of paved road and bike path in the world. Among those, Emerald Bay takes the cake. The road approaching Emerald Bay was built on a narrow ridge with the bay hundreds of feet below on one side and Cascade Lake on the other. We traversed a perfect semicircle around Fannette Island, the only island in Lake Tahoe and home of the beautiful Vikingsholm Castle. Emerald Bay really is a must-see. After two days of tight singletrack speeds, it felt good to free our legs and let the diesel slowly burn all the way to the north end of the lake.
We pulled in to the Tahoe City Safeway parking lot, knowing we had four more hours of ride time ahead of us and only two hours of sunlight remaining. When counting hours in a day of bikepacking, the math never seems to add up. We’d come to recognize that as just a fact of life, rather than a misappropriation of time. With our bike lights forgotten at home (you always forget something!) and our rechargeable headlamps no longer juiced up, the situation became a bit more real.
We could have called it a day. I could have shamefully called a buddy to bail us out. We could have been back at my house enjoying warm showers and celebratory beers within the hour. But we were committed. We didn’t spend three days pushing it just to claim we “nearly” made it around the lake. We needed to continue, and we needed light. The $12 solution: two plastic flashlights, the heaviest D batteries available, the time-tested reliability of Duck Tape and a few more Slim Jims for good measure. Thanks, Safeway. As expected, Marc balked at my choice of fuel and placed his faith in some lesser, yet healthier, form of nutrition.
The trail ascended rapidly from Tahoe City and delivered, without a doubt, the rockiest corridors of granite on the entire trip. It may not have had the high-consequence channels and boulder drops of the South Lake trails, but this section gave us an endless onslaught of rocks with no reprieve. This is noted without complaint, as it is what made the ride unique. I had previously ridden this section of trail many times on my mountain bike and always seemed able to carry a conversation through it.
This time, on gravel bikes, there was a greater need for precise line choices, and the trail required our full attention through an entrancing series of unique obstacles. Toaster-size rocks with pointy edges filled the trail, and we pedaled on a nonstop bed of instability. Slowing the pace would have been the safe way to go, but we continued at a quick clip and trusted in the tubeless benefits of our WTB Ranger 2.0 tires. We pulled through each new corner, creating a cloud of lingering dust as we pedaled in setting sun. Call it cheesy, but I swear it was the exact scene photographers must look for to get those postcard shots that inspire a need to simply go. We reached the point of the evening when our bodies felt like jelly from head to toe and the first half of every pedal stroke was powered simply by body weight.
We pushed 30 minutes past the point of needing lights but reluctantly stopped to rig up our different versions of an illuminating contraption. Marc took the better approach of taping his flashlight to his helmet. I went with the considerably less functional method of taping mine to my handlebars. We took a moment to laugh at the decisions that got us here, then realized our conversation was simply delaying the inevitable. We had two long hours ahead of us, but we were stoked to enjoy the trail with the certainty that we were the only ones out there.
There are two roles in the night ride situation we found ourselves in. The rider in front forges forward into the dark, guided by the combination of their best judgment and the shadow variances created by their tiny light. Deep shadows translate to deeper holes, and softer shadows equate to rideable terrain. The leader must blaze the trail. Tail gunning, the second rider must follow hot on the lead’s wheel and trust in their line choice. If they fall behind too much, the floating decomposed granite dust will create a blinding wall reflecting their flashlight.
These moments are when the thrill and excitement of bikepacking really set in. The darkness may have taken away our lake views and ability to ride to our full potential, but we were out there doing it. Finishing the job simply required turning the pedals and keeping the unexpected obstacles to a minimum. For those who haven’t dabbled in bikepacking, I assure you that this is when all of the preparation and commitment seem worth it. Rolling through the dark without a care in the world for anything outside of the light tunnel in front of you. Except the bears, of course, which Marc made sure I knew were still on his mind.
After three days and 147 miles, we were done. No injuries, no mechanicals, no flats, no regrets. I collapsed on the roadside pull-off where we first began, and Marc somehow had the energy to reach out for a high-five. We’d ridden the Tahoe Rim Trail on drop bar bikes, and it felt oh so painfully satisfying. What shareable wisdom did we gain from our experience? For one, don’t forget your riding lights. Additionally, it’s always a plus to pack a powerful headlamp that runs on replaceable batteries.
This trip also showed us that it’s likely more appropriate to take four to five days, rather than three, to circumnavigate Lake Tahoe on as much singletrack as possible. We didn’t break ourselves doing it in three days, but a longer timeframe would have allowed us to stop and smell the pines a bit more. Lastly, this ride is not for the faint of heart nor the easily discouraged. By no means are Marc and I masterful riders, but we’ve spent a good amount of years chasing dreamy singletrack, and the Tahoe Rim Trail definitely put our skills to the test on drop bar bikes
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