Stagecoach 400 Race Report
By Matteo Pistono
The Stagecoach 400 is a multi-day bike packing route through three distinct biomes of Southern California; alpine forested mountains, desolate desert, and the Pacific coast with its shore and canyons. The route stitches together single track, jeep roads, and tarmac and follows different historical stagecoach routes from the early 19th and 20th centuries. The 400-mile route was crafted by Brendan Collier of The Hub Cyclery in Idyllwild. It debuted as an unsupported race in March 2012. What does “unsupported” mean? Collier was very clear in pre-race communication “Pedal the entire route, under your own power, using no outside assistance or prearranged support.” Stop at gas stations for chips and coke? That’s ok. Have your husband or wife meet you with fresh baked cookies? That’s a no.
I recently relocated to Encinitas with my wife and knew the Stagecoach 400 would be an excellent way to connect with fellow bike packers, and to experience the dirt and backroads of my new home region. I also knew this race would be a challenge like I had not ever met before.
The Grand Depart for the 2019 edition was from the USS Midway in San Diego on April 12. A mix of roadies in spandex, mountain bikers sporting lumberjack plaid, tattooed hipsters with flat pedals, and nervous-looking folks like myself wondering if we made the right decision to be here. I had bikepacked before on the East Coast and Rocky Mountains, but had never raced nor tried such a challenging route that promised nearly 28,000 feet of climbing in the 400 miles. An older gentleman next to me had sushi rolls strapped to his handlebar bag and didn’t seem at all nervous. He gave me a fist pump and said, “Just keep pedaling”.
Day 1 San Diego – Aqua Caliente
103 miles, 11 hours 37 minutes ride time, 8773 feet climbed
The group of 77 Stagecoachers rolled on tarmac and bike paths northeast, leaving the Pacific coast. Soon we began climbing steep dirt through Chula Vista. Friendship began forming up the smooth dust of Sloan Canyon. Those who were racing to win were off the front never to be seen again. I approached the Stagecoach with the motivation to finish it within four days. Most Stagecoachers rode on 27.5” or 29” wheels with some variation of a mountain bike set-up, many with front or full suspension. I was on a fully rigid drop-bar Salsa Cutthroat with Maxxis Ikon 29x2.2 tires. I rolled out of San Diego with Bart of the Gravelstoke Development Team. We were separated early from another Gravelstoke teammate, Shelly, who is a four-time finisher of race. We didn’t know if she was ahead or behind us, so we just kept to our own pace.
After twenty miles we stopped along the route to check on a Colorado rider who was stung in the eyelid by a bee. Another Stagecoacher ripped his tire’s sidewall a few miles before. Another was cussing at his gearing selection and told us he was bailing at the next town.
Before noon we ate a Subway panini and gas station snacks in Alpine. From there we headed towards the biggest climb of day, the 7-mile East Mesa fire road. Steep with boulders, this was the first of many miles of hike-a-bike during the Stagecoach. I was thinking I should have packed lighter as I pushed my 55 pounds of bike and gear, including 9 pounds of water.
Dark clouds rolled in at dusk and when the skies opened, the temperature dropped into the 40s. We pedaled into the driving rain with our bike lights illuminating the path. We eventually stopped at the top of Pioneer Mail to pull out warmer layers before we descended on fast single track. Merino leggings, capilene base layer, gilet, Houdini wind jacket, and Puffball jacket - I put on every layer I had packed, thanks to Patagonia Cardiff-by-the-Sea who were supporting my Stagecoach efforts.
Soon we turned into Oriflamme Canyon. The technical descent was jarring. This five-mile gully of soft-ball size boulders and ruts wreaked havoc on Bart’s 45 mm tires resulting in multiple flats. Though my own wheel set-up was up for the job, I realized later the mistake of neglecting to deflate my own tires. Oriflamme put the hurt on my sit bones, resulting in ping-pong ball size swelling. Any enthusiasm I’d had was crushed in that canyon. We limped to the General Store at Aqua Caliente. Eight other riders bivyed on the cement porch and dusty parking lot. Some were just taking dirt naps for an hour or two before pushing on - they were racing. I was wondering how I was going to continue the next day.
This desert outpost is said to be haunted by ghosts, the aftermath of a bloody exchange from a stagecoach robbery a hundred years ago that left four men dead. A ghost in the form of a white horse is seen here occasionally. The cocktail of CBD gummies and ibuprofen numbed me from experiencing any paranormal activity.
Day 2 Aqua Caliente – Bailey’s Cabin
80.5 miles, 10 hours 15 minutes riding time, 2,182 feet climbed
Fellow Stagecoachers were coming and going throughout the night. I didn’t sleep deeply as I heard the fixing of bikes, unfastening of velcro, muffled voices, gravel under foot, and other sounds of setting up or breaking camp. I was up at sunrise and mixed some chocolate milk powder and coffee sachet in my water bottle. Bart decided not to continue. He had brought a knife to a gun fight—his gravel bike with 700 x 42mm would not have made it far in the desert.
I rode solo down Vallecito Creek to Arroyo Diablo. Stark and desolate and beautiful in the morning light, the only movement were lizards and big-eared jack rabbits I rustled from the fan palm and pinyon pine. The route continued down Fish Creek, tumbleweeds blowing across the trail, and followed bone dry creek beds, jeep roads, and single track. It wound its way through sandstone caves formed by centuries of wind.
In this section of the Anza-Borrego desert, whenever the Stagecoach route used jeep roads, the washboard started. I could barely sit in the saddle because of pain on my sit bones. It wasn’t long before a negative thought loop began repeating in my head about quitting the race. My attention bounced between the pain and strategies to leave the race early. The only thing that broke the cycle were occasional auditory hallucinations - sometimes the sound free-wheel hub, and other times my own dog’s barking.
I had loaded up on water fully in Agua Caliente, 3-liter bladder in my frame pack and two 20 oz. bottles, and had finished it completely by the time I was spit out at the Iron Door Saloon, an old-time dive bar in Ocotillo Wells. The bar had just opened at 11:30 am and the jukebox was playing “Pour Some Sugar On Me” by Def Leppard and the beer was already flowing. The walls and ceiling were covered with nailed dollar bills and bras. I ordered a frozen pizza and downed a Coca-Cola. One of the motorcyclists at the bar asked me, “Why in the Sam Hill would anyone be in the desert on a pedal bike?” I wasn’t much for conversation.
Other Stagecoachers arrived and departed across the street at the convenience store. They grabbed whatever food or drink they could find and continued. I ate half the pizza and wrapped three pieces in tin foil and put them in my bike bag for later. The next 25 miles was solo rolling on Hwy 78 tarmac. The temperature was nearing 100 degrees. I thought about how drastic and quickly my landscape, both physically and mentally, had shifted in the last 36 hours.
The pizza and caffeine had done me well and kept me pedaling on the highway, but I was thinking that I might call it quits in Borrego Springs. In the town, I found a handful of racers at the Mexican café, Los Jilbertos, and spirits were all around low. Options were being discussed - hotel rooms, Airbnb, quitting, various ointments, wife or husband SOS pick-up, possibly tequila. Nobody was talking about continuing to ride even though there was still four hours of daylight left. Everyone was cooked. But still, in the desert, quitting has its logistical challenges. I ordered a quesadilla and horchata.
It wasn’t long before Gravelstoke teammates Shelly and Tanya arrived at Los Jilbertos. They were in super high spirits. “Matteo, go buy a Tecate tall boy and burrito and get ready to roll. It’s only 20 miles to Bailey’s Cabin where we’ll celebrate with a campfire,” Shelly told me.
I questioned the wisdom in continuing but Shelly’s stoke pushed me along. The tall boy fit in my water bottle holder and the burrito was squished next to my bike tools. Back on the bike, I read the Stagecoach cue sheet, “Pavement ends. Sand begins. Life is questionable. Dig deep.”
Riding with Shelly and Tanya elevated my spirits as we cruised down serpentine sandy roads and entered into Middle Willows, a two-mile riparian zone with 15-foot-high willows that are impenetrable, save the cave-like tunnel where we enter pushing our bikes. In some years, I was told, this section was rideable. Not this year - we dragged our bikes into the jungle of willows in ankle deep water for two hours. Shelly reminded me halfway through this section that the Stagecoach organizers had warned, “Do not attempt Middle Willow at night.” When there were openings in the willow canopy, we could see stars above us.
Exiting the swamp and willows, we could sense that Bailey’s Cabin was only a few miles away. However, the heavy rains and flooding in the last months had rendered this area unrideable. For the next 3 hours, we pushed our bikes in 8-inch deep sand and chunky boulders, average speed was 2 miles per hour, slower than walking.
At mile 178, we eventually arrived at Bailey’s Cabin, an old cattle runner’s outpost. I’m sure a few stagecoach bandits have counted their cash haul inside here. The cabin had a good roof, functional shutters, wood burning stove, two metal cots, and several bats. Tanya and Shelly threw their pads and sleeping bags on the rusty cots and I set up my tarp tent a stone’s throw away under blooming flame-tipped ocotillo. We were too tired to collect wood for a campfire but the burrito and beer were worth their weight.
Day 3 – Bailey’s Cabin – Idyllwild
37 miles, 5 hours 45 minutes riding time, 4,130 feet climbed
At first light, I ate the dive bar pizza for breakfast along with my chocolate milk powder. The thought loop of quitting the Stagecoach was severed overnight—there was no choice at this point. “Everything is temporary” I thought to myself. It became my mantra for the rest of the ride. All the sensations in the body - good or painful - are temporary. Moods too, come and go like clouds. Everything is temporary.
I took extra time in the morning to maintain my drivetrain. While I was lubing my chain and pulling out weeds from the brakes, Shelly brought me a small bottle of tequila and said it was more effective than brushing your teeth. I would believe anything she said at this point.
The sun was just coming up over Coyote Canyon as we broke camp. After five miles of pedaling up an arid wash, we were once again off the bike. Shelly and Tanya sang country western songs as we pushed our rigs up very steep, rocky terrain. One step at a time. Just keep moving. Near midday we crested the edge of Coyote Canyon and rolled onto Terwilliger highway towards Anza. Having gained 1,500 feet in elevation, the super bloom of desert lilies, yellow peppergrass, and perish poppies carpeted the mountainsides.
We stopped at a RV camping market where we feasted on pizza pockets and Dolly Madison donuts and took the pause to charge our headlights. There were other Stagecoachers resting and a sense of camaraderie was felt in our shared discomfort and knowing we weren’t quite halfway through the race. A group of eight of us continued together and headed north towards in the direction of snow-capped peaks and the high western slope of the San Jacinto mountain range. Chilly air blew down from the pine trees and craggy granite as we pace lined into a block headwind onto Hwy 74, eventually climbing Keen summit to Idyllwild. It was a short mileage day and we agreed to stay in Idyllwild to try to have a bit more rest. We planned to meet the following morning and I rode solo to the state park and set up camp among the tall pine and incense cedars. Sitting by the campfire I tried unsuccessfully to dry my bibs and sock before climbing into my sleeping bag.
Day 4 Idyllwild – Escondido
100.8 miles, 10 hours 40 minutes riding time, 8,146 feet climbed
I hustled to pack my bike bags in the morning as I knew my first cup of hot coffee awaited at our meeting place in the center of town. The temperature had dropped to freezing during the night and I was ready for some warm food. First round at the coffee shop: café latte, bagel and cream cheese, slice of banana bread, yogurt and granola. While I waited for the others to arrive, I cleaned my drivetrain and after that, I was ready for round two of breakfast. Muffin, another piece of banana bread, and espresso.
Tanya, Shelly and I discussed the plan for the day with Scott, the Colorado rider who had recovered from the bee sting, and a father-daughter duo, Herm and Carrie. We decided we’d ride together to the finish. Any egos had long since been surrendered. We all knew we’d be stronger as a group. After the chilly descent away from Tahquitz Peak, we tackled Thomas Mountain’s flowy dirt doubletrack.
We stopped for a Dairy Queen blizzard at noon at a highway intersection before returning to undulating dirt roads in scenes right out of Breaking Bad. “Weed and meth? Hell yeah, them are big business out here,” I was told by the gas station attendant earlier in the day. Surely this would have been the worst place on the Stagecoach route to have a bike mechanical issue as there were pit bulls at nearly every trailer and house we passed.
The cue sheet told us that at mile 256 we were entering “The Land of 1000 False Summits” and that we would be cursing the name of the route designer. The name was apt. We climbed, then climbed, and then climbed some more on smooth but increasingly steep dirt roads and occasional single-track. Shelly told us that a someone had commented on her Facebook page, “It’s all downhill from Idyllwild.” We had a good laugh and kept pedaling towards Warner Springs. We ate a lunch of yogurt and chips at a Chevron station and discussed if we would continue to Escondido, another 3-4 four hours, or if we’d pull off and camp at Lake Henshaw. Shelly was keen to push on and proposed that we stay at The Ranch at Bandy Canyon. Hot showers and pillows were a good incentive to cover more ground.
Scott pulled the group in a strong headwind on pavement before we turned up the 11% Mesa Grande Road. The descent at sunset into the first stretch of Black Canyon - 8 miles of fast gravel - was magical. We road through perfume waves of orange blossoms, night queen and eucalyptus in the canyon. Eventually we turned off the road and our headlights showed us the single-track for the next hour and half of riding to The Ranch in Bandy Canyon. The big effort from Idyllwild to Escondido was worth it.
Day 5 Escondido – San Diego
65.7 miles, 6 hours 22 minutes riding time, 3,317 feet climbed
Our group, 6 strong, pedaled along the old Ramona-San Diego stagecoach route. Knowing it was the home stretch, there was a light vibe. We had a breakfast of muffins and coffee at the first gas station after Bandy Canyon. The trails around Lake Hodges and the dirt path of San Dieguito Park are our local trails and Herm was stoked to lead the pack. The mustard and cacti flowers were popping as we road through Rancho Santa Fe, pass the Del Mar Horse park and polo grounds, and onto the Pacific Ocean view at mile 350.
We stopped for lunch at a sandwich shop in Del Mar before dropping onto the beach at low tide and road from Torrey Pines to La Jolla via Black’s Beach. A lot of high fives along the beach on our home stretch. The payment for the beach joy ride was a 27% paved pitch canyon back to the main road heading south to San Diego. The final push was through beach neighborhoods on bike paths with only one significant incline, Hill Street, that I was happy to ascend like a paper-boy.
My wife, Monica (and our dog) along with friends and family of the other riders, greeted us at the USS Midway. Michael, another Gravelstoke teammate, brought a bottle of whiskey for us all to toast our efforts and friendships forged on two wheels.
We finished the Stagecoach 400 in 4 days and 9 hours.
Thanks to Patagonia Cardiff for the gear and provisions, Tart Tent for the demo tent, and Gravelstoke for the team camaraderie.