Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Look to This Day

As I said yesterday, I think the Salsa Vaya is my kind of bike. Today, I headed off for some reconn on a small area in the north of Amherst that I'd recently been told hides some short but lovely trails. Indeed they do -- flat, smooth, well-maintained, and scenic. The pleasure the Vaya allowed was riding up there on the road, then nosing off into the woods until I ran out of trail, then turning on to a gravel road and sniffing around for another trail, and so on. I've never seen a bike more perfectly suited to this kind of advenutre.
Scenes from a Tuesday morning well spent:

Memorial stone in Mill River Recreation Area

Mill River riffle

More Mill River trail

Presumably the site of the old mill

I even covered a snippet of the famed Robert Frost Trail (Puffer's Pond on left)

I think the Vaya wanted a souvenir of this lovely jaunt

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Fling Forgiven

Well, when you're pushing 50, these things happen.

We've all heard about the guy who runs out and buys the bright red sports car to compensate for his fading manhood. As for me, I bought a mountain bike. Like, with about 15 minutes of forethought.

I was gonna test ride it -- really, seriously! But this mysterious other buyer was circling around, and my friend selling the bike said I might want to move fast. I figured, what the hey! So I have almost no idea what to do with it. I want to learn more about single-track riding. It's a gorgeous bike. I'll grow into it.

I was wrong.

I rode that stunning beauty four times, and never once had a really good time. It was like being on someone else's bike. The 700c wheels -- my norm -- felt huge with those fat tires sitting on them. I couldn't really get over very much that I couldn't get over with the much narrower tires on my beloved, fully rigid Vaya. Between all that air in the tires and the suspension fork, I just couldn't feel the surface of the trails or roads, which led to worse handling, not better.

Maybe it's just too advanced a bike for me, or maybe I need a 26er; my friends who race say that smaller wheels allow them to pick their way through the rocks, roots, and tight turns of New England more nimbly. Or maybe I just wasn't built for mountain bikes.

Saturday, after another frustrating ride, I called the shop and asked my pal if he'd take the Mariachi back as a straight trade for the Vaya I had swapped. He was very understanding, and to my great relief, said simply, "Sure!"

It's good to have that bike back in the stable where it belongs. I plan to lay slightly fatter rubber on it, maybe 40 or 43 mm, so I can reel in those those nasty gravel and washed-out fire roads a bit more handily. But nothing like the 2.2" tires on the Mariachi. Beasts, they were.

I grew up a road rider, and perhaps I'll always be defined by that provenance. But that doesn't mean I don't like to get dirty. Salsa's Web site says of the Vaya, "Designed to take on any surface that someone might consider a road." In the end, that might neatly describe yours truly, as well.

Monday, August 15, 2011

I've Been Turned

Well, the dirt-loving virus that took hold of me when I bought my Salsa Vaya has completed its hijacking of my brain and legs: Yesterday, in a feverish haze no doubt brought on by too much time on single-track (or too many blows to the head falling off of single-track)...

...I purchased a mountain bike.

To be specific, a Salsa El Mariachi, with 29-inch wheels, a metallic-flaked dark charcoal and ruby-red paint job, classy components, tubeless-ready rims, and snappy WTB Bronson 2.2-inch tires.

I'm both thrilled and nervous. Will I like real mountain biking as much as I think? Did I give away that beautiful root-beer-brown Vaya in vain?

I managed a straight trade for the Vaya (also a Salsa), a bike that I am certainly grieving today. If I could have kept both, I surely would have. The Vaya is a solid, lovely bike, well-built to its purposes, but those main functions -- touring/commuting or gravel-grinding -- aren't things I can do enough of around here to justify keeping such a nice bike in the stable. My master plan includes a separate treasonous act: trading in my racy Cannondale for a slightly more comfortable but still-swift bike, which would handle both pavement and gravel, and be more forgiving of my middle-aged back on longer rides. At that point, I'll be able to do single-track and rougher fire roads/double-track on the 29er, and longer gravel and road rides on the road bike. (I sure wish I had the scratch to keep all the beauties that have passed through my clutches.)

Words can't describe my disorientation when I enter my garage and spy that broad-shouldered draft horse leaning against the wall. I'm used to a featherweight thoroughbred with wafer-thin tires. It's a weird thrill -- sort of like the day I bought my Ford Bronco when I moved to the mountains of New Mexico years ago, after having driven only economy cars to that point.

I'm really looking forward to taking the Mariachi out on the trails I've already mastered (and, especially, the ones I've almost mastered) on the Vaya, to experience the difference between riding dirt on a modestly-geared touring bike with cyclocross tires and drop handlebars, and on a wide-bar bike with monster-truck wheels, a classy suspension fork, and silky-smooth disc brakes.

I suspect some of you old (uh, I mean old-school) mountain bikers out there are cringing at the idea of a 293er, thinking "When I was starting out, the wheels were the size of a silver dollar, and you could have put Action Jackson on my saddle and he would have reached the pedals! Harrumph!" Well, have mercy on me. I'm a 47-year-old rank beginner to this discipline. I have the most grown-up job I've ever held, a terrific marriage, a new house, and kids in the not-too-distant future. To top it all off, it's not like I'm starting off with a bumper crop of athletic talent. In short, I need my energy and body intact at the end of the weekend. My impression has been that 29ers make mountain biking a little easier (or a lot, depending on who you ask), especially on the rooty, rocky, narrow trails of Olde New England.

Besides, this is a looker, with an outstanding reputation, and made by a small, still-funky company run by people who really ride and love bikes. What's more, the guy who sold me the Vaya was looking to get rid of the Mariachi right at the moment I was considering 29ers -- it was another one of those "right place, right time, right bike" deals I seem to have a knack for.

So rejoice for me. And then hook me up with some beginner's trails, because I can't seem to find any around here, and I'm tired of falling on my popo.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Wendell State Forest: A Land Apart

Dear Pioneer Valley nature lovers who haven't been to Wendell Sate Forest: You are missing a gem, and it's right under your nose.

I spent two hours surfing the double-track up there on Saturday, and I'm not sure I've seen a prettier patch of land in our corner of Olde New England.

There are many miles of NEMBA-groomed single-track here, but I can't vouch for it, because, as rugged as the Vaya is for a road bike, it was barely tough enough to withstand some of the two-track. I didn't get pictures of the truly rough stuff in the first mile or two of Jerusalem Road; I was too busy puffing and sweating over the jagged, closely-spaced, shark-tooth rollers. More than gravel, the roads there are lined with stones, ranging from marble- to golf ball-size. Not great for maintaining control on steep downhills with narrow tires and drop bars. Eventually, death-grip braking on the descents, with my popo hanging out over my rear tire, became as tiring (and tiresome) as the constant climbs, and I sought out friendlier terrain.

Below are scenes from Brook, Wickett Pond, Carlton and Dirth Roads; more rolling in feel, yet with enough zingers to keep the quads softened and the esprit challenged.

Trust me: mere snapshots from a cell phone won't do justice to the back-of-beyond peace and spiritual vibe out there. I saw not one other human being the entire morning (other than a grounds guy on a bush trimmer giving the roads a haircut). Nor biker, nor hiker, nor vehicle humming, on a lovely morning in August.

While I was delighted with the solitude, I also felt a twinge of worry. Don't give the State House reason to cut back on funds for this remarkable treasure folks. It took me 25 minutes to drive there from my front door; load up the bike and just go. It's a win-win.

Strange Gods

August 2011 -- Expeditions into the hills of Amherst, though strenuous, have borne fruit. Stumbled upon unspoiled evidence of a race bearing the runic moniker of MTBers. The stone likeness below was erected beside a mountain trail -- mysteriously, not used for transport to other important locations or for the bearing of goods. Purpose of trail still to be determined. Apparently, this primitive, perplexing people worshiped a deity not recorded in other annals of the time.

Monday, August 8, 2011

No Country for Old Men

Pondering the imponderables is just what I do, both for a living and for "fun."  Whenever my mind isn't occupied with something concrete, I launch inward, soaring ever-tighter circles on whatever updrafts I can find in that bizarre land called the Great Mystery. It's just how I'm wired.

So, late this afternoon, after yet another piece of hard news about my dad's health, I velcroed up the bike shoes and rolled out the Vaya for some local dirt: The paths of the cemetery just down the street from us.

I don't like graveyards, as a rule; they have always elicited a sullen downwardness in me. Tonight, though, it was the place to be. I found that rolling slowly up and down the swales and vales was much better than walking, standing or sitting, the three typical modes in such a haunt. I kept moving, just faster than the moist tendrils of entropy insistently trying to twine themselves around my rear spokes. That meditative speed enabled me to feel myself alive among the dead -- yet alert enough to catch, out of the corner of my eye (where all worthy revelations show up) whatever it was that called me down there today.

It became clearer than ever to me this afternoon that no one has any idea how long my old man will be hanging about this earthly veil. Being who I am, my reaction was, head for where the dead folks are.

I was the little kid who, when there was a bully lying in wait for me after school, sought him out in the hopes he would do his worst. I have always had a feisty hatred of the dread unknown. Living in fear is far worse to me than whatever punishment today might dish out.

This graveyard is pretty, really. It's small, lined with maples and oaks; there are no paved paths, only dirt. Lots of old-time gravestones from antiquity. Soft woodsy smells everywhere. The afternoon was hot and sticky, but not stifling. I let the fire of the sun bite into my skin; it's summer, I'm alive, and I didn't want to miss a fleck of sunlight, no matter the temperature.

As I circled around for the third time, I became aware of an unseen boundary forming about the cemetery, perhaps called up by my ritualistic revolutions. I was alone, and suddenly knew myself to be in a land apart, a twilight place, where colors were vivid, but also translucent, shot through with late-summer light. The air took on a gentle tension, as if a miasma were gathering. I flashed on my father telling me, on a walk a couple months ago, that he felt like he was in a different country. He was referring to the odd land of Clinicalia -- hospitals, specialists, big, loud, "imaging" machines, biopsies taken at mysterious, capricious intervals. Yet I think some part of him knew that, past the shore of that strange new territory, lurking in the dark interior, lay yet another reality altogether. I was lingering in a gateway to that farther land this afternoon, gazing past the stones, leaning on the handlebars, thinking how Dad's become the best friend I've ever had, and that, in the long view, I have nothing to complain about. I checked myself for anger, sadness, fear. They had all retreated, at least momentarily, driven back by the ghostly golden summer light, and the unquestioning, unquestionable presence of the Big What.

I moved on. Rolled a few circles about a big cross in the middle of the cemetery, where there were mysterious gifts laid out for... the Madonna? The deceased? A few rags, dirty from cleaning headstones. A muddy cloth doll. A CD, still packaged, of children's songs.

I turned to go. On the path leading to a gap in the fence, I glimpsed -- out of the corner of my eye -- a large headstone engraved with the word Joy in bold letters. I always get my insight if I go knowing that I might not.

I pedaled easily home, and joined my wife for dinner and a cheesy old movie -- a Sunday night in the land of the well.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


dear diary,

am so ashamed!!!!! spent 3 of my last five rides on singl track!! what will my group ride frends say when they see mudd on my legs?? the paint job on my newest bike is getting, like, all chuwed up from rocks or sticks or something. every day i ride up to the trailhead with my helmet pulled so lo i can't see, just in case one of my roadie frends goes by and is all, like, "doood! what is up with the baggies + t-shirt???!!!"

OMG! Who am i???