Sunday, November 30, 2014

What My Mountain Bike Taught Me About Life

If a bike falls in the woods...
Little did I suspect when I bought my Salsa Mukluk in January of this year—and later converted it to a rigid 29er and then a fat-front mountain bike -- that it was destined to teach me as much about how to live life as about how to ride bikes.

At the time, it was alien to me, this feeling of teetering off on two wheels down trails I might hesitate to essay in hiking boots. Being a roadie for thirty-plus years, biking meant smooth speed, the feeling of flying while still on the ground. The most technical I ever got was leaning the bike, not my body, into a turn on a fast, winding descent. 

Variable traction, sizable obstacles, branches flying at my head? These were not part of my picture. Mountain bikes, to me, were inelegant. Lumbering, steampunk contraptions, elaborately contrived to navigate places bicycles just weren't meant to go in the first place.

When I first rode the fabled Earl's Trails in Amherst, Mass., however, all that went out the window. This was fun, with a capital F! I was riding not by the forest, I was in it, right amongst the breathing trees and living soil. And the challenge! No longer did I need to ride for five hours through five towns to feel I'd actually accomplished something. A couple hours straight up and down the side of a mountain was plenty.

My lust for this new challenge knew no bounds. Starting at 50, though, meant there were few peers who would take me under their wing. People my age who were mountain biking had been doing so for decades. The beginners were mostly 20- and 30-somethings, who made up for lack of skills with the innate strength and grace of youth. I couldn't keep up with them, either -- though that hasn't stopped me from trying. 

Most of what I learned, I picked up through sheer diligence, or that failsafe library of the people: the Internet. Here are some lessons that have accrued as I've gone from rank novice to almost-skilled beginner. 

Where you look is where you go. 

This most familiar rule reflects the Karate Kid nature of so many mountain bike skills. When riding any trail I don't know by heart, I have to be constantly aware of my focus, which can be quite meditative in its own way. If I'm navigating a narrow, off-camber section with a steep drop on the outside edge, it simply becomes urgent. 

The act of forcibly turning my gaze and attitude away from the drop and toward the bend in the trail, repeated over and over as I meet new obstacles, seems to me as much about personal growth as about skill-building. Who wouldn't want to take a more constructive focus into their daily life?

The tighter you grab, the less control you have.

Really, it's amazing to me that a school of Zen hasn't grown up around this sport—some monastery in a remote mountain fastness of Tibet, replete with a garage full of tools, tubes, and grease-stained rags. Unlike road biking, so many off-road skills are counterintuitive.

Flying down a boudler-strewn descent, every brain cell wants to cinch up my arm muscles to brace me for the next impact. (Especially on a rigid bike like mine.) Locked elbows, hands, and wrists, however, will lead to dangerous rebounds off of obstacles, and will eventually twist my front wheel perpendicular to my path, sending me flying over the bars or skidding off the trail into a tree. Over time, I'm learning to keep a loose-but-sure grip on the bars, with deeply bent, flexy elbows absorbing most of the shock. It's amazing how the front wheel will find its own path through rock gardens when I use my hands only to keep it from the most extreme angles.

Speed is not always your friend. 

The popular idea that "faster equals more flow" is perpetuated by young riders, who can afford to crash--financially, physically, and temporally. This is one case in which intuition can be your friend.

Sometimes a little more speed will, indeed, get me over the scary obstacles just down the trail, and certainly, braking out of fear is usually a mistake. But you have to learn the limits of your bike and your skills. Often, scrubbing speed and proceding carefully over slippery roots or a craggy rock garden is best. 

I like to focus on momentum more than speed. If I shift up or gently squeeze the rear brake, and pedal so as to constantly apply moderate power, I can usually make it all the way through a sketchy patch with little trouble, and more control than if I'd tried to bomb it.

Speed can also be just plain dangerous. My motto, oft repeated to myself on gnarly descents, is, "Don't ride faster than you can see." If the jarring of the front wheel means that my glasses are doing a flamenco dance on my nose, I can't see the what's coming up. We all know what comes after that.

Which leads to the next axiom:

You have to go slow to go fast.

Yup, another "wax on, wax off" moment. Slowing into a turn to accelerate out of it, dealing with craggy rock gardens at the pace that's right for you; these will help you stay upright. 

Upright is faster than not upright.

Not only are you slower if you fall a lot -- that's obvious. You're also slower if you simply get off-course a lot by blazing into sharp turns and correcting too late, or if you have to dab your foot every few minutes. Staying upright isn't as sexy as "ripping" a trail (a phrase I have very mixed feelings about) but you may very well beat your more impulsive friends to the next intersection. 

When I was learning to solo on the guitar, I had to constantly, willfully slow myself down while practicing complicated sections. It was painful speeding them up so slowly that I barely noticed the difference, but before I knew it, I could play the passage at speed, sounding like I'd been born playing it. You don't get that kind of finesse by bombing trails before you're ready. All you get is either injury, or a rush of relief that you didn't die. 

Personally, I get more satisfaction out of skillfully cleaning a section of trail at five miles an hour than I do blasting it at 15 miles an hour and barely escaping with my neck intact. 

*     *     *

Now, I wouldn't undertake to try and prove to you that I've become a more focused, relaxed, and self-assured person as a result of applying these principles every time I swing a leg over my hybrid Mukluk. But, as I see it, just writing this post is evidence that the ideas are taking root, however slowly.

That's a heck of a lot more personal growth than I could have claimed if I'd chickened out and tried to find yet another road biking challenge. 

Well, Daniel-san, I have to get back to catching flies with chopsticks. 

#     #     #

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Riding the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst

A quick, late-night photo report on a stellar ride today on single-track I'd not explored before: The Robert Frost  Trail, specifically the segment from behind Cherry Hill golf course in North Amherst to Atkins Reservoir, and back again.

I started out by climbing the long hill up the south side of the golf course, for which effort I was amply rewarded at the top.


Working my way past the back of the course and on to the RFT led me through much ruggedness. If you have full suspension, bring it. If you got no suspension (beyond a fat front tire) like me -- leave the Advil out for that night when you go to bed. You'll be aching here and there.

A long climb and some road crossing brought me to a narrow, off-camber passage up to Bridge Street, with a sparkling autumnal brook crashing down below. I walked much of this very narrow and rocky/rooty passage, and found that plenty challenging as it was. Note the thin trail at bottom right, squeezing past the tree.



Further on, and more road crossings down the trail, a picture-perfect bend in the river.


Finally -- for today, at least -- a lovely rolling section between Flat Hills and the Atkins Reservoir, worth the whole bouncy, steep trip to that point. The vista at the res was of the moody Octoberish variety .


On the return trip, I discovered a brief short cut that removed the worst of the dangerous, narrow, and stupid-steep stuff. Eight miles total, and almost 900 feet of climbing. You can bet I'll be back, as soon as possible.

In a only somewhat coincidental note, I've been reading a Frost collection this week, rediscovering the many faces of this master many think of as the avuncular rock-ribbed uncle, but who, in fact, knew as much of the dark as he did of the light that both make our home place so entrancing.

As I say to anyone who'll listen, people come from all around the world to see this area at this time of year. Get out there -- and take a few minutes at the vistas to let it soak in. 

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.

RF

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Salsa Mukluk: Now With Half the Fat!

I dutifully turned in the Jamis Dragon 650b Pro I'd been testing for my LBS a few weeks ago, and, missing the relief that front suspension brought to my wrists and shoulders, decided to give a rather odd set-up for my Salsa Mukluk a second try.

A couple months ago, I dropped a few bucks on a duplicate brake rotor, installed it on the original fat front wheel, and threw the whole deal in the front fork. This set-up is commonly referred to as fat-front (though I've resolved to come up with a more euphonious moniker -- maybe fat-head?). I think it looks wicked cool.


At the time, I gave it a go on a local trail, and was so horrified by the extra weight and slower handling that I swapped it back out after only one ride. Later, after my interval with the nicely-suspended Dragon front end, I went back to my fully-rigid Muk, and the wrist and hand stiffness returned. So, I put the fat wheel back on the front, resolving to give it a good chance this time.

After a few rides, I started to really enjoy myself. I wasn't nearly as sore as I'd been when riding the 29er front wheel in the rigid aluminum fork, and, with the deal, I gained some of the handling benefits of suspension from the big, soft tire.

The fat tire rolls over tall roots and jagged rocks that would give my 29er front wheel pause -- literally. So, when climbing, I have way fewer dead stops from hitting obstacles at awkward moments, even when handling an off-camber switchback. On sharp turns and descents, I get to trust my front tire a tremendous amount; the stock Surly Nates are heavily lugged and, of course, wide enough to save my bacon in many situations where I feared for my precious neck.


Granted, a fat tire is never going to handle as smoothly as a suspension fork, but I have a thing for trail feel; I find the constant flow of communications through my hands indispensable to safe and nimble riding (if a little exhausting after a couple hours).

When descending especially fast, straight, and rocky/rooty sections, I still get terribly blurry vision from all the jarring and bouncing, a clear disadvantage compared to a properly adjusted fork. (I try to think of this as a safety feature -- it keeps me from overdoing the speed on descents.)

The extra weight of the wheel, tire, and elephantine inner tube -- a hefty four or five pounds -- is not as much of a drag (pun intended) as I expected. A heavier front end stays down more. There are very few moments in which it bounces high off an obstacle on a steep climb and throws me off balance. Even though I'm pushing over thirty pounds up the steep New England slopes,  this increased flow on the climbs means less exhaustion overall.

Another note regarding added weight: I've explained elsewhere that I believe that the body adapts to a reasonable level of weight variation on a bicycle. On the days when I feel exhausted riding the fat-front set-up, I'd be exhausted riding anything. On the days when I'm whippy on this set-up -- I'd be whippy on anything.

Finally, why fat-front and not fully fat, as the bike was designed? Simple: I don't need the extra four or five pounds on the back during the warm months. The 2.2 Maxxis Ardent on the back is rugged enough to handle most challenges, until the snow flies. I don't mind adapting to weight if it saves my wrists, but an extra five pounds to gain maybe 15% more traction? Nah. I'll just hike-a-bike a couple more super-steep pitches.

Having a dishless 29er rear wheel custom built on a special hub for a fat bike is not for everyone (and not every fat bike will accommodate it). But if you have the scratch, or the spare parts, give it a go; you may never go back to suspension forks again.

Heck, the conversations you start at the trailhead may be worth the price of entry alone.




Monday, September 22, 2014

Jamis Dragon 650b Pro: First Impressions

My experiment with the Salsa Mukluk as a 29er has been very successful, and certainly isn't over, but as I've hinted in these pages recently, I've been hankering to try out a purpose-built mountain bike. Something a bit easier on the wrists and nimbler in the tight spaces those crazy New England mountain bikers go flying thourgh. I've been thinking about a hard-tail because a) I don't have almost no experience with suspension and wanted to keep it simple, b) I have an old-school esthetic, and c) I ain't got the scratch for a truly nice full-suspension rig. (What is up with $5,000 bicycles?)

Through the good graces of Will Sytsma at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange in Amherst, I got the chance to do an extended test ride on one of the most fabled hard-tails in the industry, though in a new incarnation.

Jamis has been making their Dragon in 26er form for over 20 years. Soulful Reynolds 853 steel --legendary for being light and stiff -- and a first-rate spec have been the main attractions all that time. Now, they've released a 650b version, a wheel-size I've been curious about. It comes with a full X9 drivetrain front-to-back, and killer Fox Float fork. And only 26 pounds! I enthusiastically signed on.

The day the bike came in, I was knocked right out by the delicious paint job:


Jamis calls it Root Beer, but they're wrong. When I got it home, Mrs. V took one look at it and nailed it: Cherry Cola. A metallic-flaked, earthy brown with deep candy-apple undertones. In fact, the whole build is drop-dead gorgeous. Many well-placed white highlights (including two white spokes on either side of each tube valve for quick trailside top-offs) balance out the classic lines.

I've taken it out about six or so times on trails from buff to gnarly. Let's talk first about the wheel size:

Part of the pleasure of the smaller wheels is the ease of lofting the front end on to obstacles large and small, and this proved very welcome here in New England. The greater maneuverability of the wheels  (and the shorter wheelbase compared to the laid-back Mukluk) also meant switchbacky descents were just killer fun. This bike is a bit more trail- than race-oriented, so the geometry is fairly slack, but it's still way more responsive than my stately Mukluk. Speeding the Dragon through S-curves, all I need do is point my chin where I want my front tire to end up, and bang! It's there. That quickly. 

Whoopee!

However, the smaller wheels did mean that I had to work harder. I learned mountain biking on a 29er, and got very used to plowing right over obstacles that give smaller wheels pause (literally). With the 650s, I need much more momentum, strength, and skill to get over those same tall roots or bulky rocks. Now, if you learned on a 26er, these babies will probably seem cushy as heck to you...


Having little experience with suspension, my opinion about the fork has to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I really like the Fox Float 32. For one thing, it's finely tune-able. I've fiddled with the rebound and three-step compression settings (Lock-out, Trail, and Descend), and have enjoyed the fine-grain differences they yield, when combined with rebound adjustments. I can give myself just a little cush with quick response, allowing me still to feel the trail -- very important to my rigid-trained brain. I suspect this fork stacks up extremely well against similarly-priced competition.

The X9 shifting is the best I've experienced on a mountain bike -- swift and positive, even with tension on the chain. It's been a pleasure. The handsome white section on the rear derailleur neatly ties in the white bands on the paint frame and the white fork stanchions. I'll say it again: This bike is esthetically flawless.

A few quibbles with the stock set-up:

I found the stock tires -- 2.2-inch Geax Saguaros  -- good enough on very buff terrain, but not great for more typcial Western Mass trails, crowded as they are with damp roots or marbly gravel. The center knobs are not very bulky, and, even tubeless, the Saguaros lost their grip more than my beloved Maxxis Ardents on my Mukluk. With that said, I know a rider in this area with more skills and strength than me who finds them more than good enough.

The Ritchey Trail handlebars are handsome and have a nice sweep. They're also quite wide: at 755 mm, they provide a ton of leverage through hardened ruts or rock gardens. They're also occasionally too expansive for the many sapling squeezes in Western Mass, and -- in combo with the 100 mm Trail stem --  flatten my back and thrust my head further over the bars than I care for. However, a simple stem replacement and hacksaw to the bar ends can fix this problem.

In sum:

This is a gorgeous and flawlessly functioning bicycle. I'm hesitant to say any more than that, because  the qualms I have about it have more to do with me as a rider than the bike per se. If you are a true intermediate-or-above rider, or are used to smaller wheels, or live somewhere with mostly buff trails, you're going to flat-out fall in love with this slick piece of steel.

(A word to the wise: My test ride period is over, and the bike is back on the sales floor at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange for a smokin' price. It's a 17-inch model. 'Nuff said.)


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

New Trail on Mt. Warner in Hadley


Pioneer Valley mountain bikers (and hikers) should know about the lovely new trail that's sprung up on Mt. Warner in North Hadley over the last year.  If you like the buff, flowy nature of Earl's Trails, there's a pleasant surprise waiting for you on this scenic hillside.

Mt. Warner is well-known amongst locals as the easy-to-spot high point in Hadley, one of the lowest-lying Pioneer Valley towns. There's some evidence that so-called Paleo-Indians were there as long ago as 10,000 BC, and that the more recent Norwottuck tribe hunted there quite a bit. Later settlers left behind two handsome artesian wells in remote places on the hill.

For almost as long, locals have made other kinds of use of the hillside: hiking, cross-country skiing, hunting, and, yes, mountain biking. However, the property was all private, and usage rights were contentious and unclear.  Trails consisted either of neglected cart and jeep trails, or unmarked, complex spur trails.

In 2009, The Trustees of Reservations, a venerable Massachusetts organization dedicated to preserving local places of natural beauty, acquired 156 acres (amid a larger protected area of about 500 acres, including neighboring Lake Warner) and set about to preserve and develop it for wise and enjoyable outdoor usage. Within the last year, Pioneer Valley director Josh Knox and a varied team of staffers and volunteers (recently including me!) have developed a lovely two-mile trail, mostly new but incorporating existing paths where possible.

I've been riding this yellow-blazed Salamander Loop Trail trail for months now, and believe it compares quite favorably to some of the best riding in the Valley

When taken clockwise, climbing is moderate, though fairly sustained through the middle third of the trail. When you top out at the site of a former fire tower, take a moment to pause at this cool, refreshing spot, listening for birds and local fauna. Then tighten your shoes, because next comes a delightful half-mile or so of swoopy descent, including switchbacks just tight enough to be scary if you bomb them, and simply fun if you don't. The last third of a mile, like the first portion of the trail, rolls gently through open trees, separated by swaths of dark-green ferns, and shot through with beams of sunlight on a clear day.

Intentions to develop further official trails do exist, but are currently in conceptual stage only.

Though all are welcome to ride or hike the trail now -- I met four first-timers there just this past Sunday afternoon -- the reservation will open officially on Saturday, October 18, 2014, with a ribbon cutting and guided hike at 10:30 a.m., followed by food and festivities at the popular North Hadley Sugar Shack, just around the corner from the Reservation. For more info, go here.

Finding the trailhead is a bit subtle right now, as road signage is still in the works. Simply put, look for an unmarked gravel driveway on the north side of Mt. Warner Road, half-way up the hill from where the road branches off of Route 47. This driveway leads to a nice, new gravel parking lot.

Get out there and have fun -- fall is here and the air is crisp!