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.


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. 


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

Intentions to develop further official trails do exist, but 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, and the Salsa Bearpaw fork is aluminum, too. 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. You can't get a much stiffer bike.

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 built for 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 help a lot when I'm going straight up. Climbing is fast and made a bit less stressful by the low 22 x 34 lowest gear (suited to heavier 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 on my unique, light, 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.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Northeast Kingdom and Kingdom Trails: Bike Heaven

Ever had one of those outdoors trips that leave you pie-eyed, exhausted, and exhilarated by the end of the weekend? Did you return dutifully to home and work, only to end up wandering dreamily about town, replaying glorious memories of days just passed?

Well, friend, I just had me that kind of a weekend.

*     *     *

Back in February, when I turned 50, I spent a few weeks casting about for a proper way to commemorate the occasion. Fifty years seemed too much of an achievement, too dizzying a precipice, to go without a real humdinger of a celebration.

Many dried-out magic markers and mind-maps later, I settled on cooking up a trip for me and some good friends, people I knew would have the right spirit for such an undertaking. I wanted to keep it within New England so everyone could drive. I wanted it to involve as much biking as possible. And I didn't want to tour; I wanted a beautiful and reliable base camp for us to return to every night, where we could smear ourselves with bear fat, dance in loincloths by the firelight, and tell stories of glory and danger from the hunt.

As the weeks dwindled, one and then another of the three friends I was expecting had to excuse themselves. It was a bit of a let-down to realize that, after all that dreaming and planning, it would just be my friend Todd and me having the actual adventure. However, I've ridden enough with Todd to know that he's a perfect partner for such outings, and I was still pretty darn stoked the week leading up to the trip.

Last Thursday -- four and a half months after my birthday -- I packed up the micro-SUV (my trusty Corolla) with tent, food, sleeping bag, and all the camping accoutrements, strapped the road and mountain bike on the back, pointed it all north, and put a brick on the accelerator. Destination: Vermont's fabled Northeast Kingdom.

Our goal was to ride the famed Kingdom Trails mountain bike park as much as possible, and also to get a couple road rides in the beateous countryside. As it turned out, we did all that and more

I'd booked us a gorgeous campsite at Brighton State Park, a little parcel about 25 minutes north of Burke, home of the Kingdom Trails. When I arrived at the campground, I could hardly believe the beauty.

The sites project out over a beautiful pond, with peaks in the background

A short path from the campsite leads down to water's edge
Todd arrived, and, after setting up camp, we set out on a short ride to get a little dirt road action in before starting the fire for dinner.

Dirt road junkies will find heaven in northeasternVermont
Friday turned out to be a perfect summer day, with cool breezes, temps in the 70s, and blue skies. We were eager to get down to Kingdom Trails and find out what the fuss was all about. The morning was spent on the lower part of Darling Hill, reminding our legs what this mountain biking thing was all about; we enjoyed these trails a lot, and even ended up repeating one of them (Beat Bog) for fun. It was the first time I'd ridden in a purpose-built mountain bike park, and it was strange and wonderful, as if someone had built a candy store in the middle of the woods. So much fun to be had, how do we choose trails? The folks at the check-in office had been very helpful with that.

Around noon, we broke for a sizable lunch, knowing that our bigger challenge lay ahead of us. As we worked on our sandwiches, we struck up a conversation with Bennet and Nathan, two very nice young guys from the West Coast who are traveling the country for nearly five months, going from one infamous adventure site to the next. California, Utah, Colorado, the South -- you name it, they've been there (or are headed there). To top it all off, they're getting college credit for this, since they're majoring in outdoor leadership and have helped to develop their own program. Smart guys, indeed!

As we saddled up for our afternoon ride, they asked for info about our campground and I gave them our site number, assuming we'd never see them again.

Up and up we headed, for the higher trails on the Darling Hill side of the park (the Burke Mountain side is more for the downhill crowd, definitely not our thing). Thence, we dove down the twisty, switchbacky routes that seem to be Kingdom Trails' trademark, my rigid fork registering every lovely root along the way. The registration gal had boasted about how smooth the trails were, but I have to say, even the Pioneer Valley back home in Western Mass has smoother trails than this. Maybe she rides full suspension?

However rooty the trails, they are laid out in such a pleasing manner that we had no complaints. Swoopy, challenging, but not insane, we more than once let out the childish whoops that are the sure sign of a good riding area.

The climb from the river basin on the far side of Darling Hill back up to the peak was brutal, with sections ranging from 15 to even 30 per cent in grade. The reward, however, is so spectacular, it was more than worth the effort: Heaven's Bench.

Burke Mountain from Heaven's Bench
At this point, we'd already far exceeded my record for distance and elevation in the mountains. Since the descent back to town started with a 40% grade (yes, you read that right), I was instantly put on alert that I couldn't let exhaustion blur my nascent skills. I spent the first part of the descent talking out loud to myself, trying to keep sharp. Once we hit Widowmaker, however, the fun took over, and (as happened a few times that day) I suddenly became a better rider, just because the trail was so enjoyable I just had to let go and trust the bike and my body.

We finished the day with 17 miles, no injuries or even dangerous moments, and more joy than I've ever had in one day on a bike.

Ice cream? Of course. A splash in the cold river running behind the town bike shop? You bet! After a stop at camp to shower and change, we headed into Island Pond for burgers. Here are a few shots from this exremely scenic little burg, which is being kept up admirably:

Back at the campground, Todd had just built the fire and I was finishing up a call to Mrs. V., when who should arrive at our virtual doorstep but Nathan and Bennet, in the flesh. We were delighted, and, in response to their shy inquiry, insisted they spend the night at our campsite. We talked into the night of fabulous adventures (no bearfat or dancing about the fire, unfortunately), and Todd and I were deeply impressed with the passion, intelligence, and unstoppable optimism of  these two young fellows. They infused our tired souls with much-needed zest, and we drifted off to sleep with visions of future adventures dancing in our heads.

It was one of the best days of outdoor fun in my life, and I'll remember it forever.

Saturday, the young men left early, and Todd and I struggled to saddle up for a road ride. We were tired from all of Friday's shenanigans! Saddle up we did, however, to head west on Route 105. What looked to be flat-to-rolling on my iPhone, however, turned out to have a few more feet of up and down than expected. However, we were surrounded by miles of low-lying fish and wildlife refuge, which was refreshing and lovely. The hills in the distance were a dramatic border to the picture.

We made it over the New Hampshire line, our stated goal, and searched in vain for decent food in a town so small, one-pony would be the most accurate description.

The best part about North Statford, NH, was the view coming in to town

On the way back, we just about lay down and went to sleep on the side of the road. Only the mosquitoes saved us from being found late in the day, dehydrated and mumbling something about Clif Bars. We got back on the bike, somehow found a rhythm, and formed an efficient paceline of two, actually motoring back to camp in good time. I think I just needed those five mosquito-infested minutes to digest the packaged cheese from the North Stratford Gas Mart.

The rest of the day went quickly, and all too soon, Todd was packed and on his way back to family and home. I stayed Saturday night on my own, reading, resting, and retelling adventures to Mrs. V by phone. Sunday morning, I was up and out early. I stopped in Burke on my way south and got a good breakfast and a bucket-load of coffee. I was envious of all the riders suited up for a day's adventure, and toyed with the idea of one more ride. It wasn't just the fact that -- disappointingly -- there are no public trails in Burke, and I didn't want to pay another $15 for an hour's ride. Over the years, I've learned to make my break early on the final day. Lingering is never as good as it sounds.

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Despite the setback of losing two key guys for the trip, Todd and I managed to have the time of our lives in the Kingdom, and were making plans for a return before the weekend was half-over. I strongly recommend these highly-touted trails and this lovely part of scenic and rugged New England.

More importantly, please don't sit around jealously staring at other people's adventure blogs. Let them be a guide to you, just as Bennet and Nathan inspired us. I had plenty of reasons not to chance such an ambitious trip this year, and other reasons along the way to give up (just four weeks ago, my knees were killing me, but I persisted in my already-long search and, in the nick of time, found an ace physical therapist who got me fixed up in no time). 

Bottom line: I found a way, and you can, too. Do it! These are the stories that will sustain us in our dotage!

My new motto: Own the trail, buy the bumper sticker.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Deerfield Ridge MTB Trail

This trail has a great reputation in Pioneer Valley MTB circles, but I've stayed away because I suspected that the climbing was going to be too hard on my knees, which have been ailing for months now. However, I recently hooked up with an excellent physical therapist who turned out to be just what I need (kneed?).

So, a few Sundays ago, I packed up the compact SUV (a.k.a., my Corolla) and dashed up there.

I started at the trailhead on Ridge Road in Deerfield (for directions, go here), and had just enough time to go out about 3.5 miles before turning back. The "out" was mostly climbing, some of which consisted of truly serious ramps. However, the "back" was a long, wicked-fun downhill.

The trail is luxuriously wide double-track, though liberally strewn with roots and rocks. Combined with my fully-rigid 29er set-up (see previous post about setting up my Mukluk with custom-built 29er wheels) this meant that my wrists took a real beating, despite my luxrious Maxxis Ardents (2.4" up front, 2.25" in back). Climbing is just that much harder with all the bouncing, but I guess I have to get used to it, as I've arranged a three-day Bike Camp with some friends up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont next week, and much of it will be mountain biking.

Here are some shots from the ride -- views that are truly worth the effort.

West to the Berkshires, from a rest point near the top

The distant peak with the tower on it is Greylock, highest point in Mass.

A lift that served a now-defunct ski area on the Ridge 

Riding and views well worth the 25-minute drive from the central Valley; I'll be returning to see what's over the top of that hill.

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Roaring Brook Road, Conway

I headed out Saturday morning thinking of a well-worn route up 116 North into Conway, but decided to turn off a little early onto a byway with the promising moniker of Roaring Brook Road. It did not disappoint -- nay, not in the least.

It's a long road which began with a twisting, steep climb past an impossibly perfect farm with pastures tucked into gem-like hillsides. I got to thinking the 12% grade was about steep enough, which is of course when the road turned to gravel and got really vertical. It went on for miles, lots of hair-raising sketchy descents (especially on 28c tires) and secluded hilltop pastures peeking out through New England's ghostly past.

If you like rugged adventure, go forth (or perhaps, given the holiday, I should make it, "Go 4th.").

Decked out in the national colors for the July 4th weekend (the pedals are also blue…)

Upland pasture with tiny dots for cows

Blow-down from Hurricane Albert added to the rugged goodness

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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Independence Day Reverie

Shots from a short ride yesterday -- the 4th -- up to Atkins Reservoir in the North Amherst hills.

I'm not always proud to be an American, but I try to be. When I ride in the heart of old New England, it comes naturally (pun intended). I've always felt more aligned with those rebel poets, the Transcendentalists, than any party or movement around today. The fact that I live in the very cradle of that movement is a good fit for me.

Some things about America are indelibly good: Nature. Jazz music. Revolutionary spirituality and poetry. Baseball. Vintage cars. Watermelon on a hot day.

Three cheers for the Red, White, and Blue!

Classic rolling farmland and farm animals

A poet's seat and a place to lean your bike whilst contemplating...

…the pastoral peace and beauty.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


Last night, whilst shellacking the wooden teeth before bed, I was reviewing my lovely Sunday ride in my head. The part I dwelt upon was the long stretch above the trees, wending through Wendell State Forest. I was thinking again of how wonderfully isolated I was up there. There’s a long stretch during which you can’t see a single sign of civilization. Just rolling hills covered with the forest primeval.

It occurred to me that, if I had been there later in the day and, say, broken a bone or had a catastrophic equipment failure, it would have been all on me to get bike and body to civilization. I might even have had to make camp for the night as best as possible and wait for the first car down the road in the morning. There are no houses for miles. (Yes, I ride with a cell phone – that’s part of being married, a trade-off I happily make – but there is little-to-no signal up there.)

Now, risk is certainly not why I went out there. There are many reasons—the simple pleasure of time on the bike, there’s the hard effort of the steep grades, the fabulous view, and, of course, the solitude. Pehaps the most important ingredient was that I decided to explore a new area. I did get lost for a bit, but, even though that gets frustrating after a while, I believe it only adds to the goodness.

And yet the risk undoubtedly was an element. That “back-of-beyond” feeling. Relying on yourself alone.

It's the way you feel when you're backpacking miles from the nearest road. It’s why randonneurs ride unsupported. It’s the principle of the thing: Bust a spoke? Bent your derailleur into a pretzel? You're on yer own, friend. Better know how to jury-rig something to get you to cell-phone coverage. Or, if you're not up to the repair, you'd better be ready for an adventure, of the type you didn't bargain for.

With luck, that just means discovering, by staggering synchronicity, one more guardian angel walking the earth, who picks you up in her/his car, tells you a fascinating life story you otherwise would have never heard, and drops you off where you can be collected by a friend or loved one. I’ve had my share of these saviors, and I still savor the stories.

I’m hoping I still have credits for a few more of those. Because the whole point here is that (to cash in on a cliche) you just never know. You have to be as prepared as possible, but life is infinitely variable.

May this edgy mystery send a pleasant yet cautionary jolt down your spine the next time you throw your leg over the saddle.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

We Are the 99% of the Talent Pool

If you're an outdoors nut (and you must be some kind of nut if you're reading this blog) you know can't go online these days without being bombarded by at least five links a day to mind-blowing extreme videos. Mountain bikers riding down a ten-inch-wide mountain goat trail on a 25% grade in Italy, which no one in their right mind would even hike up. People racing the Iditarod trail on fat bikes in sub-zero weather. Some dude in Wisconsin pulling an overnighter in a hammock on the top of a flagpole he rode up.  (Did I have you going on that one?)

Every time I open Facebook or my feed-reader and find one of those links, I think, "Ooo, pretty pictures of fun stuff," and my finger clicks before I know it... like the proverbial lab rat.

Suddenly, I'm immersed in the quest of some scraggly dude I never heard of, pedaling across Mongolia eating only native plants. (Some other scraggly dude crossed Mongolia last year with a bag-full of Clif Bars, and, like, carrying food is so 20th century.) There's a long shot of him proceeding at an ant's pace over a dirt road stretching to the infiinite horizon over the barren steppes. The frigid sun glints off the camera lens. Sparse guitar licks echo with loneliness.

The guy must be some kind of monk, or insane asylum escapee. What a hero! Extreme privation! YES!

I start wondering if I could close my business for a couple months, beg off from family duties, stuff some home-grown vegetables and a flask of well-water into my handlebar bag, and ride straight to Hudson Bay.

Maybe I could stay a couple months up there, just long enough to see the Northern Lights. Just me. Yeah, that sounds perfect. Well -- I'd take my solar iPhone charger, of course. I mean, I gotta make an edit, dude; the sponsors ain't gonna pay me just to dive head-first off the grid, and besides, I have to show off my new 30-gram tripod and iOS 7 editing suite, and seriously? I'll need something to do on those 18-hour summer days.

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These extreme dudes, God bless 'em. I like watching their vids, because, actually, they're inspiring and a little shocking.

Yet what I say is, we are the heroes. The middle-of-the-roaders, who who force ourselves to actually finish the dishes, get little Emma to and from her soccer game, hand in that work assignment—so we can leave for our ride (now shortened from two hours to one) unburdened by nagging guilt. We are the ones who ride through pain and nasty weather, not because we're paid to, but because it matters so crazy much to us.

It's time that we normals, who keep the bike industry rolling, become the laureates in the beautiful videos, the stunning advertising photos, and the industry Web sites.

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

New 29er Wheels for the Salsa Mukluk

While life, in it's manifold manifestations, has kept me from these pages lately, gentle reader, it has not -- I repeat, not -- kept me from fun on the bike. 

You all know I spent the winter sneaking out for fat bike adventures on the new Mukluk (and, if not, go to the links in the right-hand column of this page to catch up). As the weather warmed, I got to thinking about how Salsa built the Muks so they could take 29-inch mountain bike wheels as well as the monstrous ones that come stock.

Since I'd originally planned on buying a mountain bike before I fell in love with the Muk, the idea really appealed to me. Friend Will Sytsma, over at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange in Amherst,  put his mind to it and eventually found me a great deal on a sexy pair of Sunringle Inferno rims. He also nabbed a Salsa 2 rear hub and a Salsa 3 front, and began lacing them up for me. In no time, I had a pair of all-jet-black Systma Originals, and they looked pistol-hot.

Sytsma originals...
As is my wont, I did endless research online regarding the best tire solution. My needs were well-defined: I wanted the best tread and rubber compound for New England's rooty, rocky, hard-pack mix, and I wanted to go tubeless to add extra cush on what was to be a fully-rigid mountain bike. Even with the 3.8" Surly Nates, the Muk puts my wrists through the wringer on anything but the smoothest snow.

I settled on what seems to be the hot new tire on the block, the Maxxis Ardent, 2.4" up front and 2.25" in back. When I finally got hold of a pair last Friday (which was no mean feat) I ran over the the Bike Exchange and watched mechanic Alex mount them up.

Mmmm… new tiiiiiires...
The 2.25 hopped on the rim like it was eager to go out and rip the trails. The 2.4, however, was more truculent. After much failed experimentation and frantic pumping, I exhorted Alex to mount the thing with a tube, which I'll use until Will can get a Stan's tubeless rim strip in stock. The thinner Stan's rim tape was just not getting the job done.

Bubbles aren't good when you're testing the seal on a tubeless set-up
Alex puts the finishing touches on what amounts to a hot new mountain bike
On Saturday, as soon as I could fake finishing household chores and convince the tolerant Mrs. V to let me go, I threw the bike on the rack and headed for Earl's Trails in Amherst, my local playground at the foot of the Holyoke moutains. (Did you know they're the only East-West-oriented mountain range in the Eastern United States?)

New wheel and a favorite trailhead on a Saturday morn… Life is good.
The first thing I noticed was how ridiculously light the bike felt. Just lifting it off the car rack was a different experience. Yet the tires, while much smaller than the 3.8s, provided a surprising amount of impact absorption. The Sytsma wheels are wonderfully stiff, and, along with the aluminum frame on the Muk, ensure that every watt I apply to the pedals translates into forward motion.

On flat-to-rolling terrain, this means that I want to stand up and hammer, because the response is so quick. On climbs, the benefits of the lighter rig are tangible. To be honest, there is a slight cost in losing the huge rubber of the Nates, because the latter simply roll right over the rooty, rocky inclines of Western Mass without a moment's thought. I'm going to have to learn a lot about picking climbing lines. All told, though, the 29er Muk will almost certainly out-climb the fat version by a mile, because of the weight difference. I laughed aloud when I picked up a Nate-equipped Surly wheel in one hand, and one of the new Sunringles shod with an Ardent in the other. Rock versus feather.

The new set-up at a picturesque spot near the high point of the day
Of course, there's a real price to pay for lightness of the bike. One reason it's so light is the lack of suspension fork, which means that my wrists felt mighty abused at the end of a mere 1.5 hour ride. However, I have a number of fixes in mind for that: 1) learn to pick better lines on descents, 2) keep elbows and arms looser, 3) perhaps a shorter stem to keep a little more weight off the hands on descents, and 4) get slightly more absorbent handlebar grips, 5) and new gloves with fresh cushioning in the palms. Finally, perhaps most important of all: 6) go tubeless in the front. Five or so fewer pounds of pressure in the 2.4 should significantly ease things for the wrists, and increase traction.

In the meantime, I had the biggest blast Saturday I've had on a bike since I first climbed on the Muk for my fateful test-ride. I climbed way higher than I have before, descended more nimbly, and flicked on the afterburners on nearly every flat section, just to feel the acceleration. More good things to come from this package, without a doubt!

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