Bones to Blue 2023: Unfinished Singletrack Adventures in Tahoe

Well, it finally happened: I DNF’ed a bikepacking race. After eight successful finishes on various routes, it was only a matter of time. My slow-and-steady style has always carried me through, but this time Bones to Blue got the best of me. I’ll be back! In the meantime, I still learned a ton and had a very rewarding second go at this incredible route.

Bones to Blue is a singletrack-heavy 250 mile route in Tahoe with an annual grand depart. Organizer Forest has created a very satisfying, challenging, and fun route consisting of two loops: the “Bones” loop to the north and west of Truckee, and the “Blue” loop around Lake Tahoe. The event started out small and has been impacted by wildfire smoke in the past, but the last couple years have seen better conditions and a growing number of riders.

Back in 2022, fueled by a lapse in good judgment desire to dabble in a new riding style, I entered Bones to Blue feeling more than a little intimidated. I rode more miles of technical singletrack in those four days than I had in my entire life previously, excusing myself with “I’m not really a mountain biker” the entire way. I finished, and it was messy, but the trails were gorgeous and the community was welcoming as always. I’m a hiker and trail runner at heart, and rugged singletrack – though my biggest weakness on a bike – is where I feel most at home.

There’s no place more intriguing to me than the steep part of a learning curve, and Bones to Blue offered ample room for improvement. This year I found myself drawn to enter again with a slightly better setup and a little more singletrack practice. My main goal, besides having a rewarding experience and not getting hurt (spoiler alert: so much for that!) was to shave a few hours off my 2022 time.

I was on track to meet that goal for the first two days, until a crash and resulting sprained ankle took me out. But those two days were enough to learn where I stand with my fitness, skills, and setup. Perhaps most importantly, I somehow managed to experience a full measure of camaraderie and warm fuzzies from my fellow bikepackers in half the time, and went home feeling very satisfied. If I’d known I could have such a good experience from only riding half the route, maybe I wouldn’t have waited so long to scratch from a race! (Just kidding. Kind of.)

If you’re looking for detailed information about the entire route, perhaps because you’re thinking of riding it (DO IT!), see my more thorough Bones to Blue writeup from my successful finish in 2022. Roland Sturm also has a great detailed writeup on his blog from 2022, and of course the Bones to Blue website has all the GPX tracks and other details.

Ride Journal

Before the Race

Before DNF’ing the race, I also DNF’ed my warm up! (DNF stands for “did not finish,” for those unfamiliar.) To make the most of the drive and start acclimating to higher elevation, I tried to repeat what I did last year: arrive a few days early and go backpacking in Desolation Wilderness. I planned a beautiful three day backpacking route with plenty of time to relax at scenic lakes. The first night at Fontanillis Lake was gorgeous, clear and starry.

The next morning I looked forward to a leisurely breakfast at camp before hitting the trail. But when I retrieved my bear canister I was alarmed to find that the lid was badly jammed. My food was all right there in front of me, captive inside a clear canister, but I couldn’t get to it! After an hour of trying various tricks (submerging in water, bashing against rocks) I had no choice but to hike out early, and hungrily.

By the time I reached my car after ten challenging miles on an empty stomach, I felt pretty cooked. I did my best to recover with lots of rest, food, and an easy hike the next day, but it was definitely not an ideal way to rest up for a big ride! (Epilogue: I did eventually get the canister open, in warmer temperatures and after soaking the lid in water. Scratches in the threads suggest a small pebble was lodged in a bad place. Bear Vault users, I recommend checking the threads carefully before screwing on the lid!)

On Friday I drove from South Lake Tahoe to Truckee in time for the pre-race pizza and beer gathering. I love pre-race meetups; they take the intimidation out of the start line and offer a chance to get to know people of differing paces who won’t be seen again out on the course. I met some lovely people and had a good time, and left feeling excited for the next morning.

Day 1: Truckee to OTB Trail (73 miles)

We started just after sunrise and were on singletrack within a mile. I let myself fall to the back, happy to ride my own pace without any pressure. It always takes me awhile to warm up at these events, and especially at this elevation (entirely 6k+ feet) I wanted to keep my heartrate from spiking too high too soon.

As the climb wore on I felt really low on power. Maybe I wasn’t fully acclimated to the elevation, or the hungry hike out from Desolation Wilderness had depleted my legs. Or maybe I just hadn’t trained enough. Months had slipped by since my last truly challenging long days in Morocco, and perhaps my shorter rides near home hadn’t maintained as much as I’d hoped.

I took it slow, walking when needed to keep my effort level in control. Throughout this whole section I enjoyed leapfrogging with Shelly, Tanya, and Jim, thankful for the energy and good vibes they shared with me. I limped along and tried to stay fueled until finally, gradually, a bit of energy returned.

For the rest of the morning I enjoyed revisiting places I only dimly remembered from the year before: Summit Lake, the rocky mess around Castle Valley (much walking occurred there), Hole in the Ground (far less snow and downed trees than expected). I could tell my singletrack skills were a little better than last year and I was more comfortable shifting my weight around on the bike. I rode a number of places I had certainly walked the year before, but I still walked plenty.

Example of a rocky section I had to walk
Nice ridgeline riding on Hole in the Ground Trail

After a quick resupply in Soda Springs I headed off to climb Rowton Peak, leapfrogging with Jordan who was riding impressively well on his rigid drop bar bike. Then came the creepy tunnels section — I was ready with my lights this time — followed by some faster gravel road and fun flowy trail dropping into Truckee. The Beacon gas station on the corner, though small, provided everything I needed. I spent 45 minutes there resupplying, eating, and charging my phone.

I left Truckee an hour ahead of last year, happy to be starting the next section with a bit of daylight left. Sawtooth Trail was easier than I remembered, even in the dark. I powered up the gravel road climb, past where I’d slept last year, still feeling good. My goal was to start the next section of singletrack before camping, and halfway up OTB trail I found a lovely spot. My stretch goal of Watson Lake was technically in reach but I was moving less efficiently, so I decided to call it a night.

The sky was dark and clear, the air relatively warm, and shooting stars plentiful. Sleep took awhile to come, but I enjoyed the chance to be still and soak up the beautiful setting.

Day 2: OTB Trail to 3 Miles Before Kingsbury Grade (59 miles)

By first light I was on the trail again after not quite enough sleep. I had tried for 4.5 hours but only got about three. Still, it felt good to be ahead of my pace from last year, and though I had to walk a lot of the big rocky obstacles on the way to Watson Lake I felt a bit better than the day before.

Early morning views from the Tahoe Rim Trail near Watson Lake

The morning passed with a series of shorter climbs and descents along the Tahoe Tim Trail. On one of the climbs I crossed paths with Liam, who was powering up the hill and seemed to have a ton of energy. He slowed briefly to hike with me and share some stoke before zipping off ahead to an impressively efficient finish. I was feeling sluggish on the climbs but smooth on the descents, and reached Incline Village a full two hours ahead of last year.

A particularly wet section of dirt road near Incline Village

In 2022 I made the mistake of ordering a burger at a busy restaurant in Incline, which took forever and stressed me out. When I’m out bikepacking I feel like a creature of the mountains, easily overwhelmed by and uncomfortable with the bustling energy of weekend tourists. This time I went straight to the Chevron and got everything I needed there, including a full 24 hours of food since I planned to pass Tramway Market before they opened.

I felt decent on the hot road climb out of Incline, stopping periodically to douse myself with cool water from the streams beside the road. Up at the top a long section of pleasant, flat, and mostly nontechnical riding awaited on the Flume Trail. It was fun to zip along on easy terrain, and to leapfrog with Zach and Dave who were moving well. When I passed them for the last time they were dealing with a busted pedal and planning to descend to a bike shop for an emergency replacement.

Enjoying some smooth and flat miles along the Incline Flume Trail
Incredible lake views from the Tahoe Flume Trail (thanks Erica for the picture)

Erica caught me on the steep climb up to the second stretch of Flume Trail, which seemed to give us both a boost of energy. We leapfrogged a bit, took some pictures, and enjoyed the stunning views of Lake Tahoe on this scenic section. I took a break to eat “first dinner” and refill water at Marlette Lake, then cruised down to Spooner Lake and started the climb on the TRT.

Last year I’d started the climb from Spooner at dusk, but this year I had daylight until almost the very top. And yet, despite being ahead of schedule, I was really out of gas! I walked and ate and waited patiently for the evening second wind to kick in, but it barely did. Whether lack of training or depletion from my hungry hike, I’m not sure, but I wished for more energy the entire way to the Bench. Still, sunset over Lake Tahoe from the top was a worthwhile reward for all the effort.

Gorgeous sunset from the Tahoe Rim Trail between Spooner and Kingsbury

At the top I turned on my lights and was happy to start the descent before full darkness fell. I was dreading this long ten miles to Kingsbury Grade, remembering them as exhaustingly technical and slow, but the first few miles were mostly easy and flowy. When I did eventually reach the more technical part, I still had energy to navigate it. Sure, I walked a lot, but I also rode places I never would have dared to last year (thank you dropper seat post!). I felt renewed confidence as I navigated rocks in the dark on my loaded bike.

I passed the place I had bivvied last year after too much exhausted stumbling in the dark, worried I would hurt myself if I continued. This time I still had energy and happily kept going. Right around here I also passed Erica at her bivy. She was doing great and meeting all her goals, and her enthusiasm gave me a boost of energy. Zach and Dave also came flying by, hellbent on reaching Stateline in time for burgers, having managed to replace Zach’s pedal in Incline and STILL catch back up to me! Seriously impressive. This section had been lonely and anxiety-provoking for me last year, but this year it felt like a party.

I thought about pushing through Stateline, but knew my energy would fade as soon as I hit the next climb. I chose to sleep at a nice flat site about 3 miles from the Kingsbury trailhead before dropping closer to civilization. After crawling into my bivy I quickly realized my new ultralight sleeping pad was badly punctured. After a couple hours of tossing and turning, trying to pad my pelvis with my bike chamois and my shoulders with my jacket, I eventually got tired enough to fall asleep on the hard ground. Fortunately it was a ridiculously warm night — a change in the weather was clearly coming.

Day 3: To Heavenly and Back

Thanks to my flat sleeping pad it was easy to get up and moving before sunrise – I was awake anyway. Soon I was swooping down a fairly easy three miles to Kingsbury Grade. This year I filled up on water at the stream I’d foolishly skipped last year, and rolled by the closed Tramway Market and Heavenly condos in the stillness of early morning.

I was both dreading and looking forward to this next section, a long rugged climb up to Star Lake and Freel Pass. It feels very much like a hiking trail and involves a lot of walking, at least for me. There are big rocky steps to navigate; it’s a physical full-body effort. But the views are stunning and the vibe is distinctly alpine.

Starting the climb to Freel Pass under a chairlift at Heavenly Ski Resort.

While pedaling up a gradual hill I hit a relatively small rock. Nothing crazy, especially compared to the stuff I’d ridden in the dark the night before. But for some reason – I’m still not quite sure what happened – I found myself and my bike knocked to the left.

The trail contoured across a hillside with a steep downhill on the left, so I fell farther than expected before hitting the ground. My outstretched foot hit first, and even before the rest of my body landed I knew that was going to be a problem. Then my body hit and slid downhill a bit, while my bike did a somersault and nearly fell on top of me.

When we all came to a stop, I took stock. My ankle hurt quite a bit, but I could move it normally – nothing seemed broken. Most importantly, Stella (my bike) was ok. After a minute or so I realized my arm was scraped up, but the biggest concern was my ankle.

The decision to scratch came in stages. At first it seemed obvious. To push through miles of hike-a-bike on this painful ankle was surely a terrible idea! But as I sat there trying to come to terms with the decision, the pain eased. After about 20 minutes I almost couldn’t feel it. “Guess I’ll keep going!” I thought, and dusted myself off. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal after all.

But after a bit more hike-a-bike the adrenaline wore off and I started feeling my ankle again. Ahead was a long stretch, several hours at my pace, of rugged hike-a-bike up to Freel Pass. I found myself babying the ankle, which seemed weak and unstable — I had already almost rolled it again. It wasn’t bad enough to prevent me from moving forward, but at what cost? I had other plans and adventures coming up. If I forced myself to keep going and finish this ride, what would I have to give up later while dealing with a longer recovery?

I sat down, took off both shoes, and saw the beginnings of swelling. A couple of backpackers came by and looked at me quizzically, but didn’t say anything. I realized that if I kept going and it got worse I’d be stuck in a hard-to-reach place with no road access and no choice but to push through. I had already finished the route once before, had already learned a lot this year, and wasn’t vying for any particularly significant position in the pack. The urge to take good care of my body won out.

In all the races I’ve entered and finished, I’ve never had a plan for transportation in case of a scratch. Hitchhiking and public transit are always options, as they are when touring, and anything is possible with a bit of time and money. But this time I got incredibly lucky: my dad happened to be in the area. Within an hour I had worked my way back down to the nearest trailhead, where he picked me up. By afternoon he had dropped me back at my car in Truckee. Thanks Dad!!

Post-Scratch

By the time I got back to my car, my ankle was swollen and stiff. I was actually glad, as it reassured me that quitting was the right decision. I was relieved to not be hiking over Freel Pass in this condition, and also relieved to not be up there in the thunderstorm that was rolling through. I was bummed to have dropped out, especially while meeting my goals, but I felt surprisingly at peace with the decision.

In a weird way I’m almost proud! In mountain biking, as in skiing, I’ve been told “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough.” I’m one of those people who doesn’t fall very often, but I certainly pushed my comfort zone on this ride. Now I just need to learn how to fall better…

That evening in Truckee I had a wonderful time hanging out with Forest and Spencer, whose rides also didn’t go as planned despite solid efforts, and Forest’s wife Annie who plays a huge role in both the logistics and heart of the event. There’s nothing like sharing stories and talking bikes, adventures, and life with others who understand the appeal of this crazy activity. Despite not finishing I left Tahoe with the same sense of community and connection I always enjoy at bikepacking events and races.

“If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough.”

Gear and Bike

I rode Bones to Blue on Stella in hardtail mode, same as last year. You can find more detail about my original setup in my 2022 ride report, if that’s of interest. This year I made a few changes in an effort to lighten my load and ride better on singletrack. Two days was plenty of time to test out these changes and I’m happy to say they were all improvements.

Dropper seat post: BIG IMPROVEMENT! Last year’s Bones to Blue inspired me to finally spring for a dropper post from OneUp Components. This was my first time bikepacking with a dropper and it made a BIG difference in what I was able to ride versus having to get off and walk. Surprisingly (I’m 5’5″ and ride a small 29er) there is still enough room for my little Revelate Vole seat bag when I position the Wolf Tooth Valais in the right place.

Wider tires: This year I ran 29×2.4″ Maxxis Rekon tires, a noticeable improvement over last year’s 29×2.25″ Vittoria Mezcals.

Bigger backpack: I upgraded from an old running vest to an Osprey Salida 12 backpack to hold my water, some food, and part of my sleep kit. This allowed me to keep the bike lighter for hike-a-bike and technical handling, which was noticeably helpful. I thought the backpack might be uncomfortable on long days but I actually didn’t mind it.

Smaller handlebar bag: Last year I had problems with my handlebar bag rubbing my front tire when the suspension fork was fully compressed. I recently noticed that ultralight backpacking gear maker Mountain Laurel Designs has entered the bikepacking space, and I sprung for their very nice little Ultra X dry bag in size small. So far I like it a lot.

Stiffer flat shoes: I run flat pedals for technical rides like this, and last year I wore an old pair of very flexy X-Alp Launch shoes that were comfy but didn’t feel very powerful. This year I tried putting the rubber inserts back into a pair of clipless-compatible Pearl Izumi X-Alp Canyon shoes (review here), transforming them into flats. It was the perfect compromise: comfy enough for hiking and stiff enough for pedaling.

Ultralight sleeping pad: I recently snagged a torso-length Therm-a-Rest UberLite pad at a great price, lightly used. The concept worked out great — very lightweight and packable — but the pad sprung a leak after night 1, leaving me sleeping on the ground for night 2. I’ve patched it and will give it another chance, but I worry it may not be durable enough for the long haul.

Last year, 2022, was my first time loading a hardtail for bikepacking.
This year in 2023, traveling a bit lighter and with more stuff in a backpack

Training and Fitness

Though I only finished half the route, that’s all it took to feel very clear about where I stand relative to last year: I’m less well-trained, but my bike handling skills are better.

Last year I had already finished two races in the months before Bones to Blue, so my endurance training was on point. This year my last long challenging days were in Morocco back in April, and since then more time had slipped by than I realized. I thought I’d been making up for it with more frequent short rides in the steep hills around my new home, but apparently there’s no substitute for long days on a loaded bike. I felt this as a lack of power on the climbs and less resilience in my legs, a missing second wind despite good fueling and conservative pacing.

Coming from near sea level, altitude is always a factor for me, and I really felt it this time. Above about 7000 feet I just couldn’t keep my effort level sustainable and often had to walk the climbs. More fitness would have helped, but it’s also a common pattern for me on day one of hard rides at elevation and I usually just need to work through it.

There’s also the unknown factor of my hungry hike out of Desolation Wilderness two days before the start, when I couldn’t get my bear canister open. I’ll never know how much that depleted my reserves, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my body was still recovering from that when I started Bones to Blue.

One really encouraging improvement from last year: my bike handling skills! Last year’s Bones to Blue was one of my first rides ever on a bike with any suspension; I barely knew what to do with it. I haven’t improved as much as I’d hoped — many local trails were closed all winter due to storm damage — but I’ve been riding trails more often and it’s definitely helped. I still walked a lot in Bones to Blue, but I rode many obstacles I had walked last year and felt faster and more flowy on the easy sections. As a result, I had a lot more fun! My new dropper seat post undoubtedly helped, but I like to think my practice did too.

In Conclusion

As I write this a few days after returning home, my ankle is making good progress. There is still some swelling and bruising, but it only hurts at the end ranges of motion. My arm is still pretty raw but getting better. I’ve been sleeping and eating lots, surprised to find that recovery from half the event feels almost the same as if I’d ridden the whole thing.

If I were to try this route again – and I hope I will – I would use the exact same bike and gear setup. I would try to do more long loaded rides closer to the event date, and ride more singletrack throughout the year (should be easier now that I live closer to some good trails). I might stop my tradition of backpacking in Desolation Wilderness beforehand, as it took too much out of me this year. And, of course, I would try not to crash and get injured!

Big thanks to Forest for such a thoughtfully designed route and well-organized event, to Forest and Annie for making Truckee feel like home, and to everyone I crossed paths with for sharing your energy and enthusiasm out there. Some amazing stuff happened at the front of the pack that I can barely wrap my head around, including Jeff Kerkove and Corrie Smith both setting new course records and a number of other impressive finishes. Congratulations to all who finished or attempted this beast of a ride! It’s a special event for sure, and I have a feeling this won’t be my last encounter with Bones to Blue…

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About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve traveled over 19,000 miles by bike and still can’t stop planning my next ride (and helping you plan yours). Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more about me here.

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    2 thoughts on “Bones to Blue 2023: Unfinished Singletrack Adventures in Tahoe”

    1. Hello Alissa. Sorry to hear about your mishap but it sounds like your experience riding single track gave you more confidence this year, which must be encouraging for future rides. I think confidence and risk go hand in hand and it’s a fine line. You worry about a fall that could injure a shoulder, arm, or hand and require rehab for however long but you are out in the hills on a bike!
      Are you still using the Revelate Design handlebar harness for the Ultra X dry bag? You seem to manage your cockpit and cables without any sort of bar extension. I wonder in a bikes initial build if cable length is a factor in allowing gear to be managed around the bars and cables without issues. I see that your forks are free of cages. Do you setup your bike different between races and casual bikepacking? Thanks again.

      Reply
      • Thanks John, those are good points. Yes, I’m using the Revelate harness in this setup. I wondered if it would still work for such a small diameter dry bag, but it did great (just some extra-long strap ends to deal with). It keeps the bags off my cables well enough, though I have reinforced a few areas with electrical tape where I see potential for rubbing. Chumba is very bikepacking-focused so I wouldn’t be surprised if they set up the cables and hoses with bar bags in mind.

        Fork: Absolutely, on more casual rides and/or longer between resupplies I need to use fork cages. I’ve actually never done this on my suspension fork, because Bones to Blue is the only time I’ve ever bikepacked with it! My carbon fork has mounts for cages already, but I hear careful application of hose clamps and electrical tape can work for suspension forks.

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