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!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Salsa Mukluk as a Rigid 29er: The Ups and Downs


It's been nearly four months since Will Sytsma (owner of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange, in Amherst, MA) built a sleek pair of custom 29er wheels for my Salsa Mukluk (which I reported on here). The main reason I've posted so infrequently since then is that I've been out riding the dickens out of them, and having a blast learning to mountain bike.

It's been a gorgeous summer here in New England, and I've been riding a lot on local trail systems large and small, buff and rugged. Here are some of the conclusions I've drawn from the experience.

First, the rigidity: It's wonderful! And... it sucks.

It's wonderful that I have a quality 26-pound, 29-inch mountain bike; it climbs really nicely and the only real limiter is in my lungs, not my legs. It's wonderful when I stand and stomp, and the bike takes off like a rocket. When I lean into a turn, nothing—I mean nothing—flexes. It's wonderful that I got all of this for a mere five or so hundred dollars for the extra wheels and tires.


It sucks when I go over endless tall roots or "bony" (boulder-ridden) trails; my wrists, hands, shoulders, and neck have taken quite the beating this summer. (Though the recent addition of ergonomic grips has helped a bit.) It sucks when I'm climbing for my life, hit a switchback, and my path is obstructed by obstacles; where a suspended bike might allow me to just roll over what's in the way, with this bike, I have to pick a line right at the least opportune moment, when most of the weight's on the back tire, I'm going 2 mph, and I'm already deep into a turn.

I'm a beginning mountain biker and I've been watching how-to videos, sessioning trails, and practicing skills in my backyard for months. As my abilities develop, I've been able to lessen the impact of each of these problems, and I've really enjoyed the ease and pride that come with the achievements. But when push comes to shove, I'm 50 years old, and my body won't take the beating forever. As I get better, I ride more advanced trails, and, around New England, that means a lot of rugged stuff.

That's not changing until the next ice age, which, by all indications, is quite some time off.


This report might be very different if I'd written it about a more forgiving, all-steel bike. My frame is aluminum, famous for its stiffness and harshness. (The fork is Salsa's Enabler, which is steel.) The custom wheels had to be dishless (because they're built on wider-that-usual hubs to fit the fat bike dropouts), which means they, too, are extra stiff.

The geometry of the bike does help a little with the rigidity problems. This isn't your typical 29er -- not even a typical fully-rigid one. It's a fat bike, built for absurdly wide wheels and unbeatable stability on soft or slippery surfaces. Which means that the wheelbase is long, the head tube angle is a bit slacker than usual, and the chainstays are way out there in la-la land. But in the end, the aluminum wins out, because it doesn't flex much no matter how long it is. The long stays and wheelbase do make handling stable—but that can also mean sluggish, especially in moments when I really need a quick response (as on the switchbacky climbs).

One possible bonus to the 29er Mukluk set-up is that the stiffness and lightness of this bike (when viewed separate from the handling drawbacks) help a lot when I'm going straight up. Climbing is fast and made a bit less stressful by the super-low 22 x 36 lowest gear (suited to fatter tires and wheels).

In summary:

Am I glad I had the wheels built? You bet. Have I learned more by learning to mountain bike on a set-up that will feed back every tiny decision I make? Certainly. So let's be honest: with all the limitations, I've had more fun than should be legal on this version of the Muk. (The respect and interest it gets at the trailhead doesn't hurt either; I've not seen one other 29er-converted fat bike all season.)

In the end, two facts sum up my rigid 29er Mukluk experience: (1) I've been shopping for a purpose-built mountain bike for a month now; it would be full-suspension if I could afford a decent one, but will likely end up being a hardtail. I'm so looking forward to seeing how that suspension fork eases my riding experience. (Much more on that bike when it comes to fruition.) (2) Once I do find that bike, I really hope I don't have to sell the Mukluk to afford it. I want to keep it, along with both fat and 29er wheel sets, because (apart from the many ridiculous joys of riding fat) there are certain extra-buff trails around here I'm always going to love ripping up on my unique, light, and stiff 29er.





Monday, August 4, 2014

A Weekend at Mohawk Trail State Forest

Mrs V and I packed the micro-SUV (that is to say, the Toyota Corolla) to the gills on Friday and motored northwest for a weekend of camping at Mohawk Trail State Forest. Charlemont and Hawley, which encompass a good part of the park, might not be as celebrated as their noted neighbors, North Adams and Williamstown, but this area is equally beautiful in a different way. Steep, tall hills intimately folded about the beguiling Deerfield River create alluring vistas and rewarding hikes.

I'd reserved a site in the park's car-free area, which entailed hauling our car-load of camping stuff down a steep hill (and back up on Sunday) in two loads with a cart the park provides. It was worth it, though -- the car-free area was occupied by like-minded campers who were quiet and respectful in a friendly way. To top it off, our site was at the very end of the car-free area, a huge spit of land with the Cold River (a Deerfield tributary) rolling by just down a hill at the edge of our site.




After setting up camp, we headed for the hills -- and how! We decided to try hiking the Indian Trail, the closest trail head in the park. Turns out it's also the steepest, scrambling and scrabbling nearly straight up for about a mile and a quarter over large boulders and huge rooty step-ups toward a supposedly rewarding look-out. We made the ridge, but it was getting late and we were pretty worn out, so turned around before the peak. 

Saturday morning, while we broke the fast, I improvised a way to heat the all-important coffee water (is there anything better than camp coffee on a chill morning in the woods?). 


We then set out for the centerpiece of the park: the Mahican-Mohawk Trail, a re-creation of an ancient foot-trail made thousands of years ago by Native Americans traveling between the Deerfield and the Hudson Rivers. The portion in the State Forest is a long, flattish meander from the park entrance (right off Route 2) along the Cold River to its junction with the Deerfield. We then followed the Deerfield closely along a dirt road/hiking trail, strolling by 18th century farm fields, idyllic shaded fishing spots, and a couple of perfect summer meadows.




At one resting place, we were startled by river tubers yelling in delight as they scooted by on the rapid current. The Deerfield is a very popular recreation river, and there are many guide companies established in the area to show visitors a good time. The hullabaloo was a bit out of sync with the peaceful vibe, but hey -- they were having a good time out in nature, and that's a good thing.


We turned back before the path turned significantly uphill toward one of the original (native-made) sections of the trail, because it looked like it climbed straight up Todd Mountain, much like the Indian Trail, but on the reverse side. We'd managed a few hundred yards of the original trail up on the ridge the day before, and decided to call that good enough. (If we had it to do over again, we'd do a short portion of some more moderate trail on Friday, and save our legs for Saturday so we could do the entire Mahican loop.)

Note that if you bring your mountain bike, you could do an easy out-and-back along the Mahican loop, or, if you're very fit and skilled, might even make it up Todd Mountain and around the whole loop.

All in all, a very rewarding visit to a glorious part of our fair state!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Grace over Grit, Every Time

A long time ago, when I was struggling to make it as a singer-songwriter in the acoustic folk world, I took a few voice lessons from a great local teacher. She was showing me ways to produce more pure sound while using less physical effort. My job was pretty much to fill my lungs and then let the air escape, freely taking shape as sound in my throat and mouth. She told me I was pushing too hard, and I made a wry comment about how familiar that message was to me. She then made a wry comment about how our least helpful patterns seem to follow us most closely into the parts of life we care most about.

In the short time I've been climbing the steep learning curve from experienced road biker to competent mountain biker, I've seen that same dynamic at play. It seems satisfying to heave body and bike over a steep, loose ramp through sheer quadriceps power, but in reality, it's wasteful. On even a moderately intense ride, I'm going to need every watt of power I can conserve, and often skill will create more speed and fun than power ever could.

At lunch today, I headed out for a neighborhood trail that features one super-steep portion which I've never managed to ride through. Feeling stronger and more confident after my personal-record ride at Kingdom Trails last weekend, I was determined to overpower it today.

Surprise! The hill won again.

I could have seen it coming. I set myself up for failure by viewing it as a competition: me versus the hill, My determination doesn't change the nature of this hill; it's steep, uneven, and features roots and rocks aplenty to slip on in the humid dampness of summer. I spun out the rear tire on a wet rock, and, of course, came to a dead stop, given the grade. Starting again wasn't an option -- too steep and loose -- so I hike-a-biked the final 30 yards.

So close!

And yet, I wasn't ashamed. Lots of people would choose to walk their bike up this hill. In the moment, I was humble enough to view this as a chance to learn, and saw that, 18 inches to the right of the fatal rock, there was an unbroken line of good dirt. "Next time," I thought.

Down the trail a ways, I reached another imposing ramp. I approached it in the tried-and-true manner, slipping forward on the saddle to keep my weight vertically aligned over the bottom bracket and evenly distributed through the wheels. But this time, I slid forward much further than usual, and found myself seated on the extreme forward edge. I hadn't even realized I could sit that far forward. And guess what? I spun up the ramp, steady and in control, no grunting or lactic acid involved.

Grace. Elegance. I felt like one of those guys in the extreme videos who make it all look so effortless.

I may be older than a lot of people who try mountain biking for the first time, but I have the benefit of having slogged through some life lessons a few hundred times already. I look for every way I can finesse my way through a fix, rather than power through. (At least on the bike; I'm working on being like this day-to-day…) The end result is that I was able last weekend to ride roughly 60% further and higher than ever before, on more technically demanding trails.

Now pass me the chopsticks, Daniel-san; there's a fly loose in the room.