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Mongolia


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We were 14 miles into our 15 mile backpacking trip around Pyramid Peak when I started crying because my feet hurt so badly. Which was ironic, because neither an Ironman nor the toughest cycling races in the gravel scene have brought me to tears. Turns out a short jaunt in the woods is all that it takes. Each step on the rocky terrain sent pain searing through my toes and the soles of my feet. I continued hobbling down the mountain, wincing in pain. Then my mind went back two months earlier to a bike ride I did with eleven girls from Arvaikheer, Mongolia. I thought about those girls and saw each of their faces, I took a deep breath, wiped my tears and kept moving. I guess that’s when I realized I have a story to tell, a story about how much 130 girls and two weeks in Mongolia meant to me.
You see, I tend to think I’m pretty tough, though I don’t think the local cycling community gives me enough credit, because I’m not gifted with speed. I still have a sense of pride when I think about the fact that I’ve ridden my bike 207 miles, without aide stations or course markings. I’ve done a solo bikepacking trip, and continue to set goals like I’ve got something to prove when it comes to grit and determination. The thing is though, eleven middle school girls from Mongolia showed me that I’m not so tough at all, and quite frankly toughness isn’t about the miles you ride, or how fast you ride them. In early June 2018 I gave 130 girls bikes on behalf of 88bikes and in return, they gave me perspective. I know the bikes won’t last forever, especially not against the harsh Mongolian terrain, but the perspective they gave me will be with me for the rest of my life. In a way I feel a bit of shame about that, which is why its been so hard to put it down on paper, but stories aren’t stories at all if they aren’t shared.
88bikes typically endows bicycles to girls that are survivors or at risk of human-trafficking. Usually in Southeast Asia, where human-trafficking is an epidemic and getting around on a bicycle is a way of life. That made our trip to Mongolia unique in and of itself. Seven years ago, Dan Austin, the founder of 88bikes went to Mongolia with his brother before he’d really found his niche with trafficking survivors in Cambodia. He did a small endowment with a Peace Corp volunteer in the tiny town of Arvaikheer, Mongolia. Fast forward to 2017 and a Peace Corp volunteer with the current cohort contacted Dan asking if 88bikes would come back for another project. The town had just finished some welding classes, in which some young adults welded bike racks to put around town. They were all eager to fill the racks with shiny new bikes. With Dan’s busy schedule and young daughter a trip to Mongolia wasn’t in the cards for him, but by June 2018 Ryan and I with our Roca Roja bicycles and $10,000 of cash in tow were on an Boeing Economy 777 headed to Mongolia.
While human-trafficking exists in Mongolia (like everywhere else), the girls receiving bikes on this endowment were orphans and survivors of domestic violence. They were all from small villages in Ovorkhangi, Mongolia. This state in central Mongolia sits between the Gobi desert to the south and the mountainous forests of Northern Mongolia. Like most of the country herding is a way of life and the nomadic culture is alive and well. Ryan’s blog posts can give you a sense of our experience in central Mongolia, but what the nomadic culture means for the families and girls living on the steppe is that in order for parents to make a living and children to get and education, the children end up raising themselves. Parents follow their herds to green pastures while children live together in soums (villages) so they can go to school. As many as eight kids live together in a ger. Gers, known as yurts in America, are basically a round canvas tent. Perhaps 10-20 feet in diameter – with twin beds along the perimeter and a wood burning stove in the center. There is no plumbing, no kitchen, no computer and no central air. In winters the temperature reaches zero degrees celsius and Mongolian children keep their gers warm by burning cow dung or unrefined coal in the stove. In the summer sandstorms blow dust and sand into the gers and it is a constant battle to keep the ger clean.
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So while the parents are raising their livestock in the country-side, young girls are raising other young children in the villages. The villages, while small are vast, which means lots of walking to get to and from school, to and from the market and to and from any extra curricular activities. The ironic part about the girls staying back in the villages to get an education is that there are limited jobs in the countryside. Arvaikheer was one of the larger towns, because it is a state capital, however with a population comparable to Anthem (a community in north Phoenix) its not like there is a booming economy with a vibrant job market. What is education without opportunity?
There is one city in Mongolia that has a modern economy and a well educated workforce, but its overcrowded, polluted and depressing compared to the beautiful Mongolian steppe. It seems one of the saddest facts of life is that unemployment and poverty lead to alcohol abuse, and alcohol abuse leads to domestic violence. In 2009 the World Health Organization reported that alcohol abuse could be Mongolia’s biggest stumbling block to economic and social progress. While Ryan and I only ran into a few drunk men in Mongolia, we saw the evidence. We saw it in grocery stores filled with candy and alcohol, vegetables were rare and fruit was non-existent. We saw it when we passed men on the street corners in the middle of the work day. We saw it riding our bikes through the steppe where we had to worry about slicing a tire on glass shards from broken vodka bottles. And we saw it on the women and girl’s faces, bruises hidden by large sunglasses and eyes averted in shame.
So, that’s the backdrop of the story. The setting, or my perception of it, for 130 girls in rural Mongolia. The backdrop is not their story though. They each have their own story, a story that evolves and changes each day. I’d be lying if I told you I knew much about any of the girls lives, the language barrier was difficult and with very few English speakers in Arvaikheer conversation was minimal. But as I tried to talk to each of the 130 bike recipients during the endowment I saw a resoluteness and strength in their eyes. It couldn’t be hidden. I also saw excitement, joy and gratitude. I’m not sure if there is a word for punctuality in Mongolia, everything runs a different time schedule. However, on the day of the endowment girls were waiting at the town square for us before 6 AM. When Ryan and I walked up they excitedly ran toward us, eagerly waiting to receive their new bicycles. When all the bikes were handed out and the girls rode around the square their serious stares were softened by smiles and laughter. It was a sweet juxtaposition.
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The next morning we were planning to leave on a overnight bike camp with eleven of the bike recipients. When we got to the town square the wind was howling and it started snowing. The temperature was near freezing. The girls rode up one by one with their backpacks strapped to their racks or in the baskets on the front of their bikes. The adults from the community center decided to cancel the camping trip. The upcoming week was final exams and the girls couldn’t afford to get sick by being out in this weather. The girls weren’t ready to give up and kept riding around the square. There was a lot of discussion back and forth. Ryan and I started coming up with a new plan for the next two days since we didn’t have any accommodations booked. Then the girls staged a coup d’etat. With one of the youngest as their spokeswoman they told the adults they were all prepared to ride. They had all called each other the night before and decided they would ride no matter how bad the weather was. They even came up with a backup plan since they weren’t allowed to camp. We were headed to a nearby ger camp outside of town for a day trip. The camp was only seven miles away but we had to climb rolling hills, cross sandy washes and pedal across boulder strewn pastures to get there.
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As we rode towards the ger camp it was obvious several of the girls had never ridden bikes. There were collisions and wipe outs, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone. With each fall they dusted themselves off and climbed back on the saddle. When the group got to spread out the girls leading the way would stop and wait for the others to catch up. When the wind got to strong we found boulders to hide behind. Halfway through the ride one of the adults asked the girls how they were doing. The young spokeswoman informed us that they weren’t tired, but their hands were very cold and we kept moving. When we arrived at camp we parked our bikes outside one of the gers and went inside to play games, make bracelets, drink tea and eat lunch. While we all got settled two of the girls collected cow patties in a large metal tub so we could keep the fire going. Despite the fact that we couldn’t speak their language the girls taught us how to play Shagai, a traditional game played with sheep’s ankle bones.
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A few hours later it was time to ride back. This time we had to pedal slightly uphill and into a headwind the entire way. There weren’t as many falls this time around, but there was a lot of walking and pushing of bikes. Just like on the way out if the girls got to spread out they waited for the group before continuing further. When we started getting closer to town we had to watch out for dogs. In Mongolia people keep dogs as guard dogs more than pets, and the dogs do their job well. At one point I was riding with Tseveldulam, a fourteen year old who wants to be a dancer. She was one of the strongest riders and always near the front of the group. A dog started charging toward us and she jumped off her bike and put it between her and the dog, I followed her lead and she started shouting at the dog and grabbed a baseball sized rock from the ground and raised it over her head. As soon as her arm went in the air the dog retreated and started trotting in the other direction. We got back on our bikes and kept going, Ryan joked that Tseveldulam was my body guard.
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When we got back to the town square the girls continued riding around, it seemed as if they didn’t want they day to end. The adults on the other hand were exhausted, hungry and ready to change into warmer clothes. We said our goodbyes and Ryan and I rode back to our hotel for one more night in Arvaikheer before we started riding across central Mongolia. Both Ryan and I were amazed at the tenacity that we saw in the girls throughout the course of the day. It was like the thought of giving up never crossed their minds. We even talked about how athletic some of the girls were. Three of the girls, Tseveldulam included were such strong riders. They rode their steel, single speed, city bikes through the mountainous steppe with ease. They were naturals. If I brought any of them back to a NICA race and gave them a race bike they’d win, easily. But that’s the thing, girls aren’t racing on school mountain bike teams in central Mongolia. They aren’t dreaming of becoming engineers, accountants, nutritionists or c-suite executives. They are going to school and raising other kids on the steppe. They are braving the harsh winters and battling the summer sandstorms. They are growing up to become some of the strongest young women I’ve ever met. They could change the world if they knew they could dream to. Part of me is sad when I think about that, but on the other hand there is a beauty and a freedom in life on the Mongolian steppe. It’s different than America and western society, not better, not worse just different. Despite our different language, despite the different backdrop to our stories and despite all of our other differences we shared a bike ride, and the simple and unparalleled joy that comes from riding a bike.
On our last day in the Mongolia countryside Ryan and I were walking around Tsterleg when school let out. As we walked up the sidewalk towards one of the buddhist monasteries we passed two boys and a young girl talking on the sidewalk. The girl seemed upset about some elementary school drama and pushed one of the boys off his bike. I grinned to myself and kept walking climbing to the top of the monastery. I know bikes won’t end human-trafficking, domestic violence or poverty and they won’t give anyone the eternal salvation that we all desperately need. But for some reason God gave me a love of bikes. He’s given me a bike to celebrate the good times and to cope with the bad. And I plan on sharing my love of bicycles with girls around the world for as long as I can. And with each brief conversation or shared pedal stroke I hope for three things. I hope that each girl will have a few moments of joy, despite whatever circumstances are the backdrop of her story. I hope that each girl will know she is loved. And I hope that when I ask each girl what her dream is she will be inspired to dream bigger than she ever has before.

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5 Steps for Endurance Nutrition


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Usually when I tell people that I am planning on doing a 24 hour race the first question they ask “Are you going to ride the entire time?”  I usually reply “that is the goal”, but their second question is either “are you crazy” or “what do you eat?”  We already know the answer to one of those…yes…so I thought I would share my nutritional strategy that has served me well over the last few years of endurance racing.  I am by no means a nutritionist or expert, however my wife and I have been going the distance since 2012 and I have learned a few things along the way.  The most certain thing I’ve learned is that nutritional plans are personal and can vary widely so I plan on giving a top-level plan while throwing in bits that have or haven’t worked well for me.

 

  1. Find Your Calorie Limits

I’ve read that most athletes can intake 200-300 calories per hour at an endurance pace.  Some people can go above that, but not me.  I aim for the 250-275 cal/hr mark when racing.  This is an important metric to find.  If you aim too low on the scale you won’t be able to replenish your glycogen stores fast enough and you’ll hit the dreaded wall.  Ideally, you’ve adapted your body to burn fat for endurance racing (a good coach can help with that and Racelab’s coaching has years of success in this arena), but even the best endurance athletes still use glycogen and need to restock the tank to avoid bonking.  If you aim too high on the scale you will end up with gastrointestinal (GI) distress.  Your gut can only process so much and if you try to force it to do more things usually don’t go well.  In order to digest more, it requires more blood flow which is diverted away from your muscles that ultimately need the oxygen rich blood.  On the extreme end you will get a backlog of calories sitting in your stomach and if it gets bad enough your body will pull in water to your gut from your muscles to flush the blockage…not pleasant.  This limit is found over time during those long training rides and races.

  1. Variety Is the Spice of Life

In parallel to Step 1 it’s important to find what products you like and work well with your stomach.  Do you prefer solid food, or do you prefer drink mixes with calories?  Those long training rides are great to experiment and find what works.  Be sure to find a variety of things that both you and your stomach enjoy.  One of my first endurance races I only took one flavor of GU to take every half hour.  Mid-way through the race I couldn’t stand the thought of eating another one, it was a miserable experience, even though my stomach had no issues.  Thankfully that was a relatively short race.  And don’t be shy about trying real foods.  I found I enjoy a mix of real food in addition to the sports specific drink mixes and gels like CarboRocket, HumaGels, and others especially for really long races.  When looking at foods from the market aim for high glycemic index foods like rice, potatoes, raisins and even bacon.  Protein sources should be kept to a minimal, although the really long races a bit of protein can help, but don’t overdo it on the bacon.  The high glycemic foods are much easier on your body to convert to sugars and to replenish your glycogen stores.  Things I personally like to eat include ProBars, Fig Newtons, Nutter Butters, and blueberry rice cakes from Skratch Labs.  These all work well with my gut and help keep the engine going.

  1. Read the Labels and Do Your Research

I’ve heard it said garbage in equals garbage out so be sure to watch what you eat and try to eat clean.  I don’t follow that as well as I should, but for nutrition during racing I do pay closer attention, especially since I learned the hard way.  I’ve always been told that electrolytes are important so I started using First Endurance EFS drink mix.  I chose it for the higher calorie content but also for its high electrolyte content.  I figured more is better so why not.  All my longer training rides went well using it, but my longest ride was around 6 hours.  When I did my first 10 hour race I used EFS primarily and things went well, till right after the race when I was running to the port-o-john.  After some research, I found out the high magnesium levels in the mix can act like a laxative.  Not a pleasant experience but it taught me to do my research and pay attention to what and how much I consume during races…more isn’t always better when it comes to electrolytes.  So it’s important to understand what ingredients are in products and how they can impact your performance.

  1. Form a Plan

Having a plan is important when it comes to racing.  Proper nutrition strategy will play a big role in your results.  I try to simplify the plan as much as possible.  For lap based races I break it down to what I need to consume per lap.  For 24 hours in the Old Pueblo I kept it very simple with one bottle of CarboRocket and one pre-packaged snack bag of food (cookies, gel, rice cake, etc).  Not only is it simple it allows you to easily track your consumption and if you are diverting from the plan.  For races with one big loop or point-to-point style races it’s a bit more difficult to keep it simple.  For these style races I recommend setting pre-planned nutritional goals between the aid stations, like 2 bottles between aid station 1 & 2.  These races take a bit more mental effort to track your progress, so I usually tape the aid station mileage marker notes to my bars.  I also tend to carry a few extra calories with me just in case my pace falls off the mark.  If the race allows it drop bag services can really help, use them.

  1. Be Flexible

Having a good plan is important,but it’s more important to be able to adapt when needed.  Don’t be so chained to your plan that you stick to it no matter what, even if your race has changed.  What if the race day temperatures are going to be high?  It would be wise to back off the calorie consumption rate a bit.  Because more bloodflow is required for maintaining your body temperature which leaves less resources for your digestive system to function properly.  Racing is also unpredictable so you need to be prepared to handle nutritional changes based on your effort.  If the pace is higher than you expected be sure to dial back your intake.  Cramming in the same number of calories in a shorter time you may overload your stomach and cause GI issues.  Learning how to adjust takes time and experience.  If something didn’t work out quite right make a note of it and readjust the plan you made in Step 4.  I am always adjusting and trying new things and keeping the things that work.

 

Here are my go-to nutritional plans for different durations:

0-2 Hr race

Water only with a gel or two to provide some quick sugar.  You should enter the race properly hydrated and fueled and you should only require minimal calories during the race to get you to the finish.

2-6 Hr Race

~250 calories per hour from liquid nutrition, no solid food.  I prefer CarboRocket Half Evil (especially the Black Cherry flavor…try it just trust me).

6+ Hr Race

~150 calories per hour from liquid nutrition (CarboRocket) and

~100 calories per hour from solid food (cookies, rice cakes, ProBars, etc).  I like to add in solid food during the long races for variety as well as a small source of protein (but not too much).

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Fat Biking in Alaska


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Fat Bike (noun): An off-road bike with wide tires allowing for maximum traction and float over all types of terrain including but not limited to sand, riverbeds, mud, rocks and snow.  In other words, it’s a bike that lets you go where no one else can go while having a ton of fun in the process.

Nowadays Fat Bikes are pretty mainstream, however, back in 2014 when they were just starting to  reach beyond their fringe followers Ryan and I had the to opportunity to ride Fat Bikes in the low tide zones of Resurrection Bay, near Seward Alaska.  We went on a ride with Karl from Seward Bike Tours and had a blast.  So many things about our trip to Alaska changed me, but this ride definitely rekindled my affection for off road cycling and had me jump head first into fat biking!  Take a look…

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5 Reasons to add Sea Otter Classic to your Annual Race Calendar


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Ryan and I recently got back from our first trip to Sea Otter Classic, a cycling festival, expo and race put on each year in Monterey, California.  We had a blast and look forward to returning in the future, here are the top 5 reasons you should consider attending next year!

 

  1. Monterey, California

The location of Sea Otter classic is reason enough to make the trip.  Monterey is on a beautiful peninsula on California’s rugged central coast.  There are endless activities and attractions in the area and the landscape is unreal.  Even the views from the Laguna Seca Raceway parking lot were beautiful and calming.  Not to mention the weather in April is typically 62 degrees and partly cloudy with a slight chance of rain, ideal racing conditions!

 

  1. Racing, racing and more racing

Sea Otter puts on a race for every type of cycling discipline you can imagine.  From downhill, to road and cross country mountain biking, there is a race for everyone.  The races are well organized and have great courses.  The caliber of competition is also a notch up from most local races, participating in a race at Sea Otter gives you a chance to see how you stack up against cyclists from all over the country.  Here are some of my favorite photos Ryan snapped during my race.

 

  1. Free Swag

I am normally not a big expo fan, at most expos I end up coming home with useless wristbands and cheap pens. Sea Otter, however, has what should be considered the gold standard for all expos.  We got a ton of awesome swag (Pactimo t-shirts, a Pactimo bag, a Liv Giant trucker hat, Thule socks, Salsa coozies, a Subaru buff, Hand Up gloves, beer, tons of stickers…) and it was all free!  We also got to talk with reps from some of our favorite companies.  The awesome folks at Pactimo chatted with us about our team’s custom kits, which they have been making for years, and I got to introduce Ryan to Pep (Cori), the amazing Salsa rep, that recently helped me get my new Salsa Cutthroat.

 

  1. Trials Demos

Throughout the weekend, trials demos are put on by some of the best known names in sport, such as Danny MacAskil and Ryan Leech.  I’m sure you have seen their videos on social media, I I have never really understood why people spend so much time watching these videos, but after watching the demo in person I was blown away.  I was in awe the entire time we were watching Ryan Leech and inspired to work harder at improving my bike handling.

 

  1. The Pro Cyclocross Race

This race, will by far, be the most entertaining cycling race you have ever witnessed.  Heck, it may be the most entertaining 45 minutes of your year. Watching a peleton of cyclists barrel into gravel pits like a freight train and hearing the outrageous one liners from the announcers, ‘she’s knocking on his door like a bill collector!’, will have you smiling for the entire race.

So mark your calendars, Sea Otter 2017 is April 20 – 23!

 

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Where my girls at? A first hand look at women in cycling.


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Recently, I decided to spontaneously take up Cyclocross, it has been a blast and I plan to write more about it in a future post. I got involved in cross very quickly, I went from watching my first race, to buying a State single speed cross bike and competing in three races in a matter of two weeks.  If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is.  It should also be noted that my cycling experience has been limited to the road & long distance triathlons.  So I’m pretty decent at riding in a straight line for a very, very long time, but riding for thirty minutes with my heart rate pegged on varying terrain, all while dodging obstacles and other riders is a tad bit outside of my comfort zone.  Nevertheless, it looked fun and I dove in head first.

Preparing for my first race I was a bit nervous.  I quickly realized there aren’t many females that participate in this sport and there are even fewer females racing on single speeds.  I was excited at the opportunity to get on the podium as long as I was able to finish in one piece.  I used this as motivation to stay the course and show up at my first race in early December.  The race was fun, and even though I finished dead last and got lapped multiple times I was still the second female finisher for single speeders!  After the race, I happily thought a call up to the podium awaited me.  Well, it turns out there were no awards for women’s single speed, since single speed was a mixed category for the AZCross series.  Due to this technicality I decided to sign up for the Women’s CAT 4 division for the following race, but I would be racing on my single speed so the odds were stacked against me.  The race was fun and I managed not to finish last, but still didn’t make it to the podium.

On the last race of the season, only two short weeks after my first weekend of racing, I was happy that I had actually made some improvements.  I worked on some of my skills, did a few crazy workouts and faced my fear of technical descents (I repeatedly attempted to ride down a loose steep hill until I got down the stupid thing without dismounting).  All of this paid off and I placed 3rd in the Women’s CAT 4 State Championship race, and wasn’t last in the women’s single speed division (there were 3 females and I took 2nd).  By this time I knew that there would not be awards for female single speeders, so before the race myself and the other single speed ladies agreed to take our own podium photos.  All of this might make me sound a little podium obsessed, but there is something to be said about celebrating achievements amongst the other competitors, after all this is a race we signed up for!

Cross season ended as quickly as it came and I am excited to actually train and improve next year.  However, my observation on the lack of female representation really got me curious on women’s participation in cycling.  After doing triathlons for several years I am used to training and racing in a male dominated sport, but there is still a substantial female presence in the triathlon community.  Why were there so few women at the cyclocross races?  I wondered if it was just cyclocross or cycling in general.  Cycling is the weakest link in my triathlon, but is this how all women felt?  I started to do some research and I was more and more intrigued and fascinated with each article that I read.

I learned that my perception was true; very few women compete in cycling events in Arizona, especially when compared to running, swimming and triathlon.  Additionally, the low participation rates are not unique to the Grand Canyon State, but similar to the United States as a whole.  While females are biking more in places like Denmark and Germany, the fact is that women in the US are underrepresented in the cycling industry and less likely to ride bikes for recreation or cycle competitively than their male peers.

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I’m not sure I believe that women need to represent 50% of the cycling community or that more girls should  dream of becoming bike mechanics when they grow up, that’s certainly not something I ever aspired to, but I do think there is room for improvement.  I’ve often heard men complaining about women specific runs or triathlons, but there’s a reason for those races and the numbers speak for themselves.  Not to mention that the race organizers and governing bodies of sports will only profit from increasing female participation.  It is nice to see companies (Giant) and athletes (Marianne Vos & Helen Wyman) taking action to promote women’s cycling.  With brands such as Liv, social initiatives like Strongher and equal pay outs for pro women we are starting to see progress in women’s cycling and I hope it continues.  Perhaps a few years from now the AZCross series will have a Women’s Single Speed division!

 

 

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Geocaching at the Sears Kay Ruins


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Last weekend Ryan and I went on our first geocaching adventure and enjoyed a short hike at the Sears Kay Ruins.  We had both heard about geocaching before, but learned more about it when we bought our new GPS for our recent bikepacking trip.  The GPS had a geocache setting so we started researching to see what this geocaching was all about.  When Ryan stumbled across the geocaching website (more…)