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  • Writer's pictureKelsey Urban

Reflections from the Road

Updated: Apr 19, 2021

How I balance professional bike training and honor the pace of van life.

For the past seven years, I’ve been pursuing cross country mountain bike racing. This means that half the year is spent living out of a suitcase, sleeping in a different bed every third night, and packing and unpacking my bike over and over again.

Vanlife, Cross country mountain bike racing

With my college graduation looming in spring of 2020, and friends tossing out various city names, I started doing the math. I knew I would be working part time along with racing, but I was having an increasingly hard time justifying paying a monthly rent for a place I would only live in part time. Somehow, I managed to convince my dad to build a van out with me.

The Build

After scouring the internet for half a year, we finally found a good deal in Virginia. Amidst COVID, we left the house for the first time in 3 months and boarded a plane to grab LJ, or La Jefe. LJ’s first trip with us consisted of 4,000 miles through Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Arizona and finally back home to California, checking off a good list of new states for me, my dad and LJ. She's an empty cargo van so I slept in a hammock strung across the interior, my dad on a sleeping pad below me.

Ford Econoline

Despite warnings of the grueling process, when we got home, building still seemed glamorous. We didn’t know that from May to September, not only would LJ rule our daytime hours, but also post sundown. We would fall asleep thinking of LJ, dreaming, visualizing, but mostly stirred awake at 1 a.m. to problem-solve how to cut the fan in or how to build the windowsill at an angle.

Van building

We planned to be done in August but as things go, our plan was not exactly on track. Even with extending our deadline to September, there was no possible way we could be done without help. My best friend, uncle, and mom all stepped up to help. I kept catching my mouth slightly open, watching as more people gave up hour after hour, day after day, to help build me a home.

On September 4th, we had no choice but to be done. I was racing that weekend for the first time since March with a long drive in front of me. We were exhausted from working 6 days a week from eight to five, squeezing in training till dark, and then waking up and doing it all over again.

Van life

We had planned to spend the day mostly moving into the van and leaving midday, but instead, spent the day installing the cabinet, frantically trying to get the sink to stop leaking and the batteries back up and running. We had long since accepted a whole cabinet would be missing for the foreseeable future/until I made it back to California.

We were all dead on our feet, more than just a little brain fried, and eye glazed, but pulling out of the driveway at 11pm to drive an hour or two. I was filled with gratitude, wonder and privilege for the time my loved ones gave up to make this happen for me.

The Road

Although I like to think I know myself pretty well, there was always a chance that after pouring in a year to the build process, I would hit the road only to decide that the van really wasn’t working for me. Maybe it would be too small, or I’d be nervous sleeping alone at night, or I’d get fed up with laundromats. Only time would tell.

Van life

After racing that first weekend, Oregon was hit with some big wildfires. I spent the next week and a half driving out to Colorado, stopping in Idaho and Utah. It was the roughest week in the van to date. I was 100% spent from so much time in the red zone during the building process and trying to juggle getting to elevation as soon as possible with still getting high quality training on the way. Halfway through my first ride, I got an amber alert that the area I was in was getting evacuated. So began the next week: I would drive for several hours every day, crossing state lines, still being chased by thick smoke, while trying to time stopping with the best AQI which often meant pulling over on the side of a highway just in time to get in some intervals before dark.

It felt like a miracle to be able to shower and curl up in bed, but I was too maxed out to be able to fully revel in my newly found freedom. By the time I got to Colorado for the big stage race I had been planning on hitting, I was more or less sleepwalking.

Mountain bike racing

Since racing had been almost totally cancelled for 2020, this was my first opportunity to race since March. It didn’t even feel like an option to walk away from the opportunity. I had been training my booty off all year, watching races fall away from the calendar week by week. However, in graduating, I had also promised myself a slower chapter. One where I listened more, honored my body and mornings where I sipped my coffee, meditated and then sat there a while more, no alarm, no 1.5 minute showers, no eating while walking, no hyper-awareness of minutes. LJ was supposed to represent that transition, a permanent home and therefore, the closest tie to restructuring my normal to be more grounded. It meant it was time to appreciate another silver lining of COVID, take this time to rest and come back to 2021 readier than ever.

Once I granted myself that, I found a lot more peace. After Colorado Springs, I spent two weeks in Crested Butte hiking and biking with my boyfriend for my first mountain fall, a long weekend in Durango with sunrise and sunset hikes, 3 weeks in Denver visiting my best friends from college as a late graduation celebration, and two weeks ago, I made it to Austin for the winter and some early season racing.

The Gear

Vanlife and mountain bike racing

I’m now entering my fourth month of living exclusively in the van. It is true that sometimes it does feel a little small (only when I have to pull out all three bikes to reach something in storage), and some parking lots do make me aware of my status as single lady, but on the plus side, I actually like the laundromat. All in all, the challenges have quickly been outweighed by the freedom and dare I say it, comfort of LJ.

Of course, it doesn’t even feel fair to say that I live in my van because it really is a full home that just happens to be on wheels. I have solar, I can run a blender (100W), my instapot, cook, wash dishes, shower, sleep in a real bed.

Van life dinner

Some of my favorite pieces of gear are of course, my bikes. I have the Specialized Epic Full Suspension, Specialized Epic Hardtail and the Specialized Aethos road bike, which all fit in nicely under my bed! The passenger chair swivels to make my kitchen a living room and really opens up the living space. My Truckfridge fridge which is 65L so it can fit many many snacks instead of having to cram one or two days of groceries into a tiny fridge, my Strawfoot window covers which are magnetic and super easy to take up and down, a mini vacuum and dust brush to help clean up all the dirt that ends up in the van, and my adjustable dumbbells and bands so I can get in a good strength workout anywhere. Last but not least, my second 360 swivel fan for good air flow. My favorite extra, highly unnecessary features that make LJ feel more like a home are my tile backsplash, a salt lamp, and an essential oil diffuser.

Van life, sunset

Perhaps the most dire warnings I got about van life was how often I was going to be woken up in the middle of the night. Whenever available, I use BLM land to camp on, usually found by websites like that show map boundaries. However, when I’m in a city, that’s not really an option. I’m learning what types of parking lots are more lenient if I’m in a place with less green space (auto shops, 24/7 gyms, Walmart, etc.) I feel like writing this will probably jinx me, but I’ve been super lucky to have had no midnight wake up calls so far. I’ve had a couple people stop by in the morning and ask me not to spend a night somewhere again, which is super respectful and appreciated.

If I lived in an era pre gps computers I don’t know how I could manage pulling into a place for one night, finding a 45-mile ride the next morning and getting in not only good training, but also not getting lost. Without technology, training would be much harder to manage on the road and would require a lot more planning on my end but apps like Strava and Trailforks make my life 100 times easier and allow me to explore with so much more freedom.

Mountain bike racing

I’ve spent some time this past year thinking about what it means to call a place home, striving to be intentional about building space, habits and lifestyle post-graduation. So much of what I am aspiring to be is pretty far from what the past couple years have looked like for me, a pace of lifestyle that isn’t built around optimization and efficiency but around presence and time to appreciate the little things, like morning light or an evening with nowhere to go. I have a lot to learn around balancing goals alongside groundedness and peace but I can’t wait to keep building towards a better understanding of this with LJ.

Mountain biking

All photos courtesy of Kelsey Urban.

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