Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A December River Rondo

In the middle of a lay-low, stay-at-home vacation week, characterized mainly by 50-degree rainy days, we finally got a three-hour window of dry skies today. I saddled up the Pivot and nosed around the dirt, sand, and muddy clay track between the nearby Connecticut River and the farmfields that line it.

Through the lens, I began to see moody compositions arranged just for me in a subtle solstice palette, instead of dreary weather. The more I shot, the more I saw, and the further I sank into a familiar, lank comfort with the land.

Ripping can be fun, but December is for browsing.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

48 Hours of Wendell-bury

Just back from a full weekend of December bike-tripping in the hills of Shutesbury and Wendell, Mass. My first time traveling on a bicycle since 1980—believe it.

See the discussion here about whether this was bikepacking or touring or bike-tripping or bike-cabining -- and whether it matters. (Hint: Doesn't matter).

Despite following the advice of a lot of ultralight travelers out there, my beloved Salsa Vaya ended up feeling very heavy indeed on some of the ridiculously muddy, rocky steeps on the way up to Shutesbury. However, I'm pleased overall with the ease and convenience of packing the (borrowed) panniers and handlebar bag, and the Vaya was extremely stable and well-mannered on its first loaded touring jaunt.  Extra-wide 45 mm Vee tires helped with the copious double-track and primitive roads we were unable to pass up.

I booked a small cabin at Temenos, a longstanding retreat center in Shutesbury on the former site of a hotel that offered 19th century visitors restorative dips in the nearby mineral springs. The center is at very tippy-top of Mount Mineral, at the end of a rugged and ridiculously steep dirt driveway off a dirt road.

We stayed in the small, comfortable Mu cabin (named for the ancient Zen concept of "neither one nor many").

Proof of the eponymous iron and manganese in the mountain is in the color (and taste) of the waters drawn from the large hand-pump. I'm betting my red blood cell count is up after this weekend.

After dark, the cabin is lit by kerosene lamp, and heated by a small (but very efficient) wood stove. I spent the first night alone, planning our route and dreaming of the riding to come.

Friends Will and Josh arrived the following morning, and we headed out for the meat of the trip: an attempt to hook up as much gravel as possible from our cabin door. It was an easy search: there's a large network of dirt roads throughout Shutesbury, which we sampled to get warmed up. After, we headed north to Wendell State Forest, a place I've lovingly explored with my Vaya before; we tried out new dirt on the north end of the park this time, then gradually wended our way back toward Shutesbury. We had a genuine bluebird day, sunny and nearly 50 degrees on December 5(!).

We hauled our carcasses back up the mountain just as it was turning dark, fired up the wood stove and got dinner going. Liberal overeating and libations soon followed, and Josh instigated a game of poker for matchstick stakes. Will burned the first batch of popcorn (then mastered the rest like a boss). Yours truly? I won all the matchsticks. Just ask the boys.

This morning, we slept in, ate, and cleaned the cabin to a sparkle. We loaded up, posed for the requisite heroic team photo, then rode our loaded bikes like rocket sleds down the mountain. There's no way I remember as many downhills on Friday as there appeared to be uphills today, but when all's said, I'm warm and funk-free in my house tonight, summing up this delightful adventure for you, dear reader.

Six weeks ago, the whole idea seemed like it might be a bit too much effort to be worth it. And, as usual, the reservations, coordination, and packing were, indeed, burdensome. However—as always—the rewards were manifold. The stories alone were worth the price of entry, and will oft be exaggerated around campfires in the future.

As we said when we raised our glasses at the end of a hard day yesterday: Here's to bikes in the woods!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Salsa Chowchippers: 30-mile review

It seems bike guys can't resist scatalogical animal humor
In the four years I've owned my beloved Salsa Vaya, I've had three different handlebars on it, and none of them felt exactly right. The  Ritchey Biomax it came with (used) were inexplicably swept back, and Salsa Woodchippers—as rad as they looked—were flaired too wide for comfort. When Salsa brought out their Bell Lap, I switched to those and stuck with them. They were perfect on the hoods, but the drops were too deep and I rarely went low on them.

I stopped by Hampshire Bicycle Exchange this month to order the Salsa Cowbell—the bars which took the place of the Bell Laps in the Salsa catalog, and since have become popular cyclocross and gravel bars. However, Paul at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange tipped me off to Salsa's newest gravel-oriented bar: The Cowchipper. As you can guess from the clever name, they're meant to slot in between the Woodchipper, with its crazily flared and spread-eagled drops, and the Cowbell's more narrow and sedate profile. 

Image © 2015, Salsa Cycles
I did my research and the few reviews online were strong, so I placed an order. Last week, Will Sytsma, friend and Bike Exchange owner, installed and wrapped the bars for me. He even gave me trade-in value on my Bell Laps.

A "flare" for rough surfaces
Moss-green tape will call just a flicker of attention to these unusual bars
I took the rig out yesterday and rode it on my favorite nearby gravel-and-trail testing grounds, and then today for a longer jaunt in the hills and swamps of Shutesbury and Wendell, MA. I rode every surface: primitive roads that really called for full-suspension, lots of gravel and dirt roads, a smidge of tarmac, and a few miles of trail. (Yes: it was a heavenly ride.)

Captured in their natural habitat
In general, the bars deliver handsomely on their promise.

They're very comfortable and the wide drops do, indeed, provide very useful leverage on choppy surfaces. They're also great for grabbing on the super-steeps to get power from the glutes and keep the front end down. I've been wanting bars with a short drop forever (these are 116 millimeters, just a hair deeper than the hyper-shallow Woodchippers), because my lower back just isn't that flexible, and these seem to provide about the right amount. The curves of the hooks and angle of the lower extensions fit my large hands just like gloves; I found a delightful variety of places to rest down there. 

As with any bar, it's a bit tricky finding the perfect place to secure the hoods: high enough to provide a natural wrist angle when on top, but low enough that at least your index fingers can cover the brakes on crazy descents in the hooks. This balance is made a bit easier by the shallow drop. I don't even have to jam my hands all the way forward to scrub a little speed. 

The benefits of the very wide flare became obvious as soon as I turn down the trailheads that proliferate beside gravel roads. Neither bike nor bars were made for single track, as my middle-aged neck and elbows are reminding me tonight. But I just couldn't resist—especially once I found that I was more agile on the trails than I've ever been on this bike. 

But it's on the gravel that these bars shine. Comfortable on the hoods and restful and stable in the drops, I could see racking up some long, dusty miles with them. I could be wrong, but the width of the drops (especially on the straight rearward extensions) seemed to absorb some of the ever-present chatter.

I look forward to putting more miles on these, and will check in about them when I do. 

#     #     #

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Just Strap Some Stuff to a Bike and Go

Away back in 1980,  I lashed a sleeping bag and some clothes to my boat-anchor Japanese bicycle and followed my American Youth Hostels trip leader (barely older than the pubescent punks in his wake) over the length and breadth of New England. I liked it enought that, the next year, I rode the northern Pacific Coast the same way. In those Jurassic days, few Americans knew about this thing we called bike touring.

The author in July 1980, somewhere off the Pacific Coast Highway
Fast forward 35 years. After decades off the bike, I came to my senses and spent the last nine years buying and riding every kind of bicycle I could get my hands on. I've ridden on everything from glorious mountain roads to overgrown, unrecognizable double-track, to buff and sinuous mountain trails. All along I wondered if I would, at some point, return to the touring fold. People were certainly still doing it. Mostly very young people…

I looked at the pictures and thought, "Who would want to load a beautiful bike down with 40 pounds of luggage? It's so much more beautiful and spritely without it."

Then about five years ago, the young'ns started crowing about this new thing called "bikepacking." I guess it started out with someone piling a bunch of stuff on their bike—this time, a mountain bike—and riding it into the woods to sleep. While there, you could build a dangerously large fire, have a libation or two, and maybe listen to the owls hooting.

Hmm. Touring in the woods? Interesting.

These folk were folding in the ultra-light ethos of modern backpackers (another ancient pursuit overhauled for the 21st century). Also, moving the weight lower and more in line with the frame. This started to look like a solution for the elephantine nature of touring bikes.

Bikepacking setup  © 2010 The Lazy Rando Blog
Bikepackers also (being busy trying to keep their jobs in an overcompetitive, anemic economy) were very short on time. So they were going out for overnights, or weekend outings, and inventing cute names for them like the s24o and the microadventure. This meant you could pack less than ever on the bike—maybe even leaving it a little bit fun to ride.

My defenses were crumbling.

Finally, a couple weeks ago, I stumbled on this:
Heck, in India I met a Spanish guy who had cycled from Spain (over 15,000km) on a twenty-five dollar used bicycle which he had bought ten years before, and he couldn’t have been happier. If he isn’t proof that any bike will work, I don’t know what is […] The hardest part is taking that first step out of the door to leave, once you have left, the rest comes naturally […] Go out and try it. If you don’t have bike bags, don’t worry about it, just strap your backpack or a duffle bag to the back of your bike and head off for the weekend straight from your front door. 
I'm not too ossified to admit that this twenty-year-old young lady fired me up like a camp stove with this post. It was the last push I needed. I picked a weekend and started thinking creatively about how I could get a bona fide adventure in.

Where to stay? Too chilly for camping this time of year (for my blood), so my thoughts turned to the various cabin locations I've been researching in the area. I decided I could a) sleep warmer and b) haul less stuff if I went that route. I booked a lovely hut pretty far into the woods, with a wood stove, no running water or electricity, and well out of cell phone range -- but also less than a two-hour ride from my front door. Perfecto.

I'll ride up there Friday afternoon, fire up the wood stove and store up a bunch of water from the well. Then I'll make dinner and libations, and settle beside the fire with a book. In the morning, my friend Will, owner of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange in Amherst, MA, is going to join me for the second and third day. We'll spend the long middle day exploring all the dirt we can find, and return to town the following morning.

But wait! I don't have all those fancy bikepacking bags! 

Well, duh. I have a Salsa Vaya, a bike built for dirt road touring. It's got a rack and fender system perfect for commuting. Maybe I won't look like the trendy photos all over the bike blogs these days... but they Vaya been secretly pining to be returned to its natural habitat. What I do have is a huge, waterproof commuting pannier and a big ol' daypack: that ought to fit everything I need and then some. It'll be awkward and a little gooberish, but, yeah… whatever. I'll be riding a bike in the woods! Who cares if it's a little off-balance? 

The point of this exercise is to see if I really like this kind of thing. A bikepacking dry run, if you will. If it leaves me thirsting for more, maybe I'll get hold of some purpose-built bags and ride a fat or mountain bike next time. But if I'm not thrilled, I'll sure be happy I didn't spend $500 on the latest trend without knowing if it's really me.

Since I  got all of that mapped out, I haven't been able to think of anything else. The trip is three weeks away, and I've researched an 85% dirt route to the cabin, got a food shopping list going, as well as a long list of tweaks to the bike set-up to get through before roll-out.

And then, for even more fun, there are the shakedown rides!

Sunday morn, I strapped a simulated load to the Vaya, and took off for all of the gravel roads, double-track, and "is-this-really-a-road?" trails I could find. A few hours later, I was drinking coffee in a local breakfast place and writing down more to-do's. 

If I can't distribute the load a little more evenly for the real trip, I'll just work on my skills
You're never too old to get excited. Myself, I'm like a kid again these days, just thinking about the trip. Isn't that half of what adventures are for—the anticipation?

As the Wandering Nomads say on their blog: If your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Salsa Cycles Demo Day in the Holyoke Mountains

I headed for the hills yesterday to ride some bikes. Some SALSA bikes. Good ol' Hampshire Bicycle Exchange was hosting a demo day up in the Holyoke range, our local mini-mountains and home of Earl's Trails, the most beloved mountain biking area in the Pioneer Valley.

After the addition of my treasured Pivot Mach 429 this year, I've sworn to try to keep my collection to four machines. That didn't keep me from feeling like a kid in the proverbial candy store as I approached the Salsa tent in the parking lot of the famed Cold War-era bunker up at the Notch. I planned to ride models I'd never tried before, and that's always a thrill.

First up for me was the Beargrease, Salsa's ultralight carbon fat bike. This year's model added a Rockshox Bluto suspension fork, which was a bit of a disappointment; I had hoped to experience the fully-rigid featherweightness. Nonetheless, the bike did not disappoint.

Earl's is mostly known for flowy trails and lots of steep, short climbs, though over the years, roots have become taller and more difficult to overcome. What with leaves all down and a light rain earlier in the day making things slick, the testing ground for fat tires couldn't have been better. This Bear proved a nimble and surefooted one, both downward (though I'm finding all but the most race-oriented mountain bikes shine on the descents) and—significantly for me—the climbs. The low weight is, of course, a plus in that category. The one-by drive train (the first I've tried) is pure delight. So simple and elegant: Too hard? Shift down with right hand. Too easy? Right hand shifts up. Almost like automatic transmission. Never having to think about the compounding factor of the front rings frees you up to be present for the ride. I found the Beargrease had that magic balance of materials, geometry, and wheel size that allowed for truly intuitive riding. My mind wandered pleasantly over sections that other bikes had me struggling with.

Thoughts at the end of the ride? "If I had to own a hard-tail (a set-up I've sworn off) this would be it." Does everything a high-end 29er can -- but with more confidence and fun. It's also probably lighter than most of them. The Pepto-Bismol-to-orange-popsicle color scheme is a bit unfortunate, though.

Having jumped on the Salsa fanboy wagon upon the purchase of a 2010 Vaya (still owned and loved) I've been mighty curious to experience the bikes the company has developed since then specifically for dirt roads. Before the profusion of gravel events exploded all over the country, the Vaya was one of the first go-to bikes for that domain. The Warbird is meant to take gravel geometry to a racier place, and indeed it does. The difference between this and a purebred cyclocross race bike feel minimal to my (non-racer's) body, used as it is to the upright and relaxed Vaya.

The Bird is as stiff and light as a razor blade, but the newly designed rear triangle's Vibration Reduction System really does makes it surprisingly comfortable over the nasties, even in the aluminum version I rode (the higher end is, of course, carbon). Took it on some road-like trails behind the Notch visitors center and tried some quick turns, bumpiness, and gravel traction. It even held its own on a short section of rooty single-track, though I certainly wouldn't want to get beat up like that all day.

Final thoughts? "If some calamity destroyed my road bike and my Vaya, I'd replace them both with this bike." Maybe with a higher stem, though.

This machine was the star of the show for most riders yesterday. Although the boys in Minnesota have more recently forayed into full-suspension 650-plus territory with the new Pony Rustler, only one person at the event had ever tried such a bike, much less the full-suspension pure-fat (with four-inch tires) that the Buck represents. The reviews have been delirious, so I was eager to climb aboard.

The reps were touting it as a full-suspension mountain bike with fat tires -- not the other way around. I disagree. The Buck is a lot of bike, and handles accordingly. However, if your first priority is traction, traction, traction... you'll be in pig heaven. No kidding, it feels like you could ride up the side of a tree on this thing. In that regard, it was great fun; there's no dabbing, no moments of panic; you just ROOOOLLL. Climbs that would normally vex me because of tall, slick roots yielded meekly (well, with less strain than usual). Even with all that suspension weight and the extra rubber, climbing was surprisingly easy thanks to the greatest traction of the day. 

Like every bike I demoed yesterday (except the Warbird), it features a one-by drive train, which was ample. A hidden benefit is the rims: their relatively skinny 80 millimeters meant that the fat tires were formed into a rounded profile. This meant that turns were fairly self-completing; lean the bike a little and the U-shaped tired just took over; the wheel wants to turn.

If you wanted to skip all that irritating skill-building and simply flatten out the rock gardens, this is the bike for you. Final thoughts? "A bit too much bike, but a load of fun."

At one point, friend Adam showed up and we wanted to ride together. All the demo bikes in my size were out on the trail, so Salsa rep Jeremy generously loaned me his bling-tastic Ti Mariachi wtih Fox fork, carbon rims, and all the other trimmings. He even changed the sag on the fork for me. Thanks, man! 

It's featherweight. It's beautiful. It descends and turns like a dream. The set-back seat post and 2.4 Ardent Jeremy had cleverly mounted on the back provided so much cush, I felt almost like I had a fat rear wheel. But when I turned it upward, I realized I still don't like hard-tails. Powering that rigid rear wheel on super-steep switchbacks with tall roots just wears me out. Summary: "This is probably the best hard-tail 29er I've ridden. But, yeah. I'm tired."

*     *     *

In recent years, it seems Salsa's line-up has been sub-dividing rather rapidly. They invent new ways to split categories: Fat bikes, then fat bikes with a carbon frame, then with front suspension, then with full suspension, and then with five-inch tires (on the Blackborow, which I didn't get to ride yesterday). 

They were one of the original bikepacking and ultra-distance mountain biking promoters on the scene, and that all started on the strength of just their redoubtable Mariachi and Fargo lines -- two clearly distinct and respected bikes. For 2016, they've added the Cutthroat (a lightweight, front suspension mountain rig slotted into the narrow space between between the Fargo and the Mariachi) and the Deadwood (an unfortunately-named 29-plus entry that basically is a Fargo with slightly fatter tires). They also list many other bikes as bikepacking-ready—even their one paved-road-only bike, the Colossal.

In the full-sus category, they list no fewer than four distinct models (though in a variety of wheel sizes). 

On the one hand, I love all this experimenting. Riding all these bikes is a grand experiment in minute differentiation. On the other, I can't help worrying that Salsa is teetering under the weight of some catalog bloat. 

They are inventive and passionate, and i adore that. I also adore simplicity, though, and doing one thing well. That's what Salsa used to represent to me. Sixteen models, many claiming they can do a little of what each of the others do, feels a bit overwhelming. The biggest pleasure of the day was realizing, as I climbed wearily into my car to head home, that I'm quite happy for the moment with my current stable. Four distinct bikes -- fat, full-sus, dirt-road, and paved road—is more than enough for the non. I hope to tweak them until they all delight me, instead of dumping them for flashier versions. The differences, when all's said and done, are not that great. A beautiful bike is a beautiful bike, even if the next-big-thing trend that gave birth to it vanished a few years ago.

*     *     *

These ruminations notwithstanding, it was a true delight to experience all these gorgeous bikes on a beautiful, moody fall day in my favorite hills., and to stand around talking geometry and tire choice with people as absurdly obsessed as I. Many thanks to the kind, helpful Salsa reps, and to Hampshire Bicycle Exchange for hosting and co-staffing the event.

I'm still a fanboy, that's for sure. Two of my four horses are Salsas. So keep doin' that mad scientist thing up there in the frozen North, boys; I'm sure I'll be bellying up to the cash register again sometime in the middle future…

All photos © Salsa Cycles, with thanks

Monday, October 12, 2015

Peak Leaf

A leisurely, perfect ride in and out of, and up and down, the nooks of Montague, MA, this afternoon. An achingly beautiful fall afternoon, 73 degress and the light everything October light wants to be.

Hilltowns visible across the hidden Connecticut River

Bookmill doing booming business down by the old mill stream

The falls of Falls Road

A waterfall discovered by riding up where no road bike had any business being

Robert Frost, thou shouldst be living at this hour

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: Pivot Mach 429 (2010)

I had every intention of spending the 2015 mountain biking season with a hardtail. I'd never even ridden a bike with any suspension at all, and thought it would be wise to start in the front and work my way back over time. 

Then I went to St. George, Utah, and rented a Specialized Camber Comp for a week, and had more fun than I'd ever had on a mountain bike. Within three days, I could ride things I never thought possible. When I got back to dear ol’ New England, I broke out the laptop and began shopping for a full-suspension bike. 

I looked at every brand on the market. They were all delicious, and ridiculously expensive. So, I turned to the last refuge of the limited budget: eBay. There I tripped over the Pivot, a company I’d barely heard of. I did some research on company guru Chris Cocalis, a bit of a Steve Jobs figure in the MTB world. He knows a lot about a lot: fabrication, engineering, drivetrain parts, framebuilding, you name it, he’s done it. He co-founded Titus, a once-fabled brand that put out highly-respected machines for the cognescenti. When he left and started Pivot, he got players like Shimano and Dave Weagle (suspension engineer extrarodnaire) to develop parts specific to Pivot's bikes. His designs have the reputation of being painstakingly crafted. The 2010 Mach 429— the bike I saw on eBay—got rave reviews everywhere I looked. 

Sensing a total-package opportunity at bargain-basement prices, I pressed "go" on PayPal, and in a week, I was drooling all over the electric blue paint job and matching spokes (and headset spacers, and hubs, and valve covers; Pivot sweats the details).

Right out of the box, the bike was exciting: gorgeous, well-balanced, responsive. 

Beyond that, it took a while to get the Pivot dialed in. All the bells and whistles on the suspension (especially the adjustable 95 to 120 mm Fox TALAS fork) were a bit much at the start. After a few weeks of fiddling, I got close enough on all counts that the bike began to feel like “home.” Since then, I've fallen more in love with the bike with every ride. My other bikes are feeling very neglected.

Pivot especially prides itself on the lateral stiffness of its machines, thanks in large part to their custom DW Link pivot (bearing Dave Weagle’s initials, of course). The bike is, indeed, stiff as a board laterally. I rode fully rigid all last year, and I know how responsive a mountain bike can feel; locked out, this bike nearly equals that feeling. It seems like all of my effort goes directly into the wheels.

Yet the suspension and overall ride is sublime. Dialed in, it gives me confidence in turns and reasonable comfort over tough obstacles. It has simply intuitive response, and rarely breaks away when I don't want it to, but I can flick the bike more or less as I wish. As an old roadie, I appreciate a suspension system that disappears underneath me, leaving me feeling confident and absorbed in the ride.

Of course, no suspension system is perfect, and I have a few niggles. The TALAS has a reputation for being harsh in small-bump scenarios, and I’ve found that many one-inch roots in rapid succession do yield harshness. In an ideal world, I'd have a straight-up 120 mm Fox fork. I only use the 95 mm setting for long climbs with lots of tight squeezes. Combined with the steep head tube angle, I find steep descents at that setting too dicey. I generally leave it at 120, where it's easy to loft the front wheel over obstacles, yet isn't hard to keep grounded on the steeps. What with the generally short climbs in the Northeast, I don't like reaching down to the fork crown to change the suspension every time the trail turns up or down (especially in addition to adjusting front and rear suspension).

As for the shock, the only adjustment I fiddled with much after getting sag set up is the ProPedal knob. This changes how open the shock is when the ProPedal is on—from fairly stiff to fairly cushy. Though it's true that more efficient pedaling generally brings a harsher ride, I find little compromise in the middle of the three settings. It works so well in so many situations, I often leave it there after a climb, unless the descent will be long and hairy. One less lever to worry about is a big plus.

I don't know if they were original, but the Specialized Captain 2.0 tires the Pivot came with broke away on nearly any challenging terrain, even set up tubeless. It didn’t take long to decide to mount my sweetheart tires from last year’s fully-rigid escapade—Maxxis Ardents (2.4” front and 2.25” back). Suffice to say, I still adore them. The Ardents handle nearly everything with aplomb. If I know the trail will be relatively buff, I’ll bump ‘em up to 30-plus psi; I find them plenty fast in that scenario. 

With pedals and a bottle cage, the bike weighed in at my LBS at 28 pounds, not bad for such a smooth ride, though not the lightest for a cross-country bike at the heady 2010 sticker price of $4250.00. I’m fine with the weight; first of all, it climbs so responsively that I almost don’t feel it. Also, I recently did a couple of runs with the Mach on a fancy bike park downhill trail, and felt confident enough to get air over and over. The solidity of the bike added to my confidence.

Contributing to overall lightness are the 680-millimeter Syntace carbon bars, which sit comfortably between all-mountain-ripper and sapling-squeezer widths. The carbon portions of the DW Link help out, too, and you can subtract a few grams for the unbelievably smooth XTR shifters. Other high-end spec includes Hope Tech brakes and Industry 9 hubs and spokes. If you don't know about these companies, it's worth doing a little research. 

I don’t know if there are many versions of the early Mach 429 on the market, so I can only hope this review will be informative to those considering other years, or even a current model. The closest bike Pivot currently makes is the Mach 429 Trail, with 120-130 mm of travel, a Boost 148 rear hub, and full carbon frame. Anyone who can take a trail bike to its limits should take seriously the claims in the video on this page.

If you're considering a Pivot, know this: I’m falling more and more in love every day with a five-year-old model… which is easily that much ahead of its time.

Maybe Chris Cocalis really is that mad genius in a castle tower on a stormy night...

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

No-mind Mountain Biking

I've been meditating again lately.

I did it for years back in the 90s and early 2000s, then got distracted. It's great to be back. When I sit down for a morning meditation, I feel oddly like I do before I climb on my mountain bike at the trailhead: a sense of anticipation. "Let's see what this brings!" I look forward to the challenge of allowing discomfort or relaxation or numbness to arise and pass, without shooting off into worries about the day, or thoughts of when this will be over. 

Full awareness is one of those undersold treasures of life: It doesn't cost a penny, yet even a drop of it enriches my life immensely.

One of the places it does that is on the trail. It's long been fashionable in mountain biking circles to talk about the Zen of riding. For me, that's more than a metaphor. Let’s look at a ride at my local haunt after work recently:

Swooping through a turn I used to skid through on the brakes, my heightened alertness allows me to notice my center of gravity shift slightly forward to stay over the bottom bracket. I press my feet into the pedals at the apex of the turn, and  feel the weight coming off my hands just a tad, the tires sinking into the dirt, and the front wheel adjusting its turn angle minutely in each part of the turn. Best of all, none of this is calculated; it just happens—again and again, turn after turn. I feel like I’m surfing. Because my mind isn't clouded with worry about my abilities, I swoosh over rocks and roots I used to walk around.

As a beginner, I've absorbed many technique tutorials that sometimes when I ride, my mind is like a swarm of gnats. Those well-meaning guides can make a simple sweeping turn into brain surgery. In those precious moments when my mind is off-duty and I'm tuned into my body, that turn becomes a sensual experience. My body teaches itself what it needs to cooperate with the bike, with the terrain, with gravity. All those elements become a river, flowing smoothly downhill.

Is this refreshing emptiness of mind a benefit of riding so much that the complex parts of technique come together on their own? Or has this leap come from my increase in awareness off the bike? There's no answer in that chicken-and-egg question, and I'm not asking. I'm too absorbed in the moment -- this rock to hop, this slight dip to pump, this opening of the trail at the bottom of the hill, where I zoom out into the clearing and let out a whoop, exhilarated and rested at the same time.

Tomorrow morning will find me sitting in my room, marinating in the silence, letting go into the adventure.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Backdoor Wild

On a weekend camping trip 1.5 hours from our house
I’ve been reading a bit of Alastair Humphreys’ wonderful blog today, and thinking about wildness.

Humphries is a professional adventurer with all kinds of major expeditions under his belt, including cycling around the world and sailing solo across the Atlantic. After writing and talking about these for a few years, he realized that most of the people who loved his work never got to do the grand adventures he specialized in. So he changed career directions, and started undertaking what he calls microadventures: small escapes not far from where you live. They don’t cost much, don’t require much time off, and are scalable to one’s skills and fitness. He says this idea has really taken off with his readers.

After perusing his thoughts this morning, I did a few hours of work, changed, and rode off to the local trail I use for quick weekday morning rides. It’s just a mile or two from my door. I adore this trail, almost too much. Sometimes I have to avoid riding it for a week or two, because I get tired of it. I know where every rock and root is. Today was my first time back after such a break.

It was a sunny, humid day, but not overbearing; just enough to create that deep summer feeling. I was sore and tired from recent hard rides, so I decided to take it easy up the climbs. Moving slower and breathing easier, I was able to notice that the light is changing as we move into August, becoming more stark and silvery, a little taste of the amazing autumn light in New England. Ferns were dark green, lush, and thick throughout the lower, parkland portions of the reservation.

At the top of the trail, resisting the thought that I “should” pedal through and start the descent right away (the tough-guy thing to do), I dismounted, leaned the bike against a tree, and took a few minutes to open my senses and take in what Momma Nature had laid out for me this morning. A woodpecker was taking single, isolated whacks at a tree not too far away. Odd—they’re usually fast as jackhammers. The water in the vernal pool far below the trail was scant, dark with tannins, and green with seepage from soaked vegetation. Late summer was showing off everywhere I looked.

I asked myself, as I took in the deep colors and soft sounds, how much farther away from civilization I’d need to be to feel satisfied at that moment. The answer, at that moment, was “I’m satisfied here and now.”

Wild is where you find it. In the right frame of mind, I’ve found it in a vestpocket park in Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong; all kinds of great benefits come from creating a novel-length packing list and launching off to parts untouched by humans. But many of those boons can be had, in smaller but much more frequent doses, a mile or two from my house.

Maybe yours, too.
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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Five Ways to Have Fun with Unfit Riders

I'm not as fast or skilled a bike rider as I'd like to be. Over the years, I've been slowly making peace with this. But sometimes, those who are quick and deft seem determined to rub it in my face with their cheerful competence.

As if it weren't annoying enough to ride with people who are way fitter and more graceful than you, they often have an uncanny talent for saying and doing insulting things. My theory is that people who are naturally talented are blessed with a blissful ignorance of what it means to struggle on a bike. They usually make miserable teachers and coaches, because they have no idea what they're doing that makes them phenomenal. As the old saying goes, "Those who can't do, teach"—because they put long hours of practice and thought into whatever small advantage have.

If you're one of those talented folks, well, I'm just so happy for you! To reward you for your undeserved, inborn specialness, I'm offering up a few ways you can add to your fun when you're out there with a lesser rider. All of the following have happened to me at least once:
  • Take them to a technically demanding trail, and then assure them that, despite their dire misgivings, they can handle it. As reassurance and a way to question their courage, mention the 73-year-old grandmother who regularly rides that trail—on a rigid singlespeed. Be assertive; sometimes, healthy, rational fear can be difficult to overcome. I ended up with a nearly broken leg this way, a bunch of years back.
  • When they balk at riding a feature you just sailed over, say, "Wow, I thought I was the one who had trouble with that kind of thing!" 
  • Invite them for their first road ride with you and a friend, and then take off out of sight with your friends when they lag a bit. For extra credit, fall into your habitual paceline with your friend, and then just roll out again without a word the moment they finally catch up with you at the intersection where you're waiting. 
  • When they're suffering like a dog on a long, steep climb, get to the top ahead of them—and then sail back down and ride up again, right next to them, chatting away, and asking questions they can't answer in their hypoxic state. If they say they're about to vomit, it's especially helpful to ask, "Do you have that metallic taste in the back of your throat?"
  • If they get a flat, grab the pump out of their hands and loudly announce, "I have tons of experience with flats, it'll be faster for the group if I do this." For bonus points, neglect to center the brakes on their road bike after you re-mount the wheel. What hijinx! They'll puzzle over their abysmal fitness while trying to keep up with the group, only to find out later that their brakes were dragging.
There are so many more ways to have fun with your unfit friends. Feel free to post them here and share!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

One More Version of the Mukluk: Hardtail 29er

I guess you could say that I backed my way into this whole mountain biking thing.

Two Januaries ago, I test-rode a Salsa Mukluk fat bike, and had so much fun, I bought the thing within the week. I spent that winter floating on snowmo trails in the beautiful farm country I call home.

Toward the spring of 2014, I had Will Systsma at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange build me a pair of dishless 29er wheels on extra-wide hubs, to fit the Mukluk frame. I wandered out on the fine single-track of Western mass and spent the summer trying to learn how to mountain bike with a very rigid bike (like, with an aluminum frame and fork and super-stiff wheels):
 Late in the season, I threw on the fat front wheel to minimize some of the New England trail abuse and keep the light front end down on climbs. This was quite a fun iteration, allowing me to carve and bomb trails with a little more authority. I also loved the double-takes it got at the trail-head:
Fat-front Mukluk
As this spring was approaching, I had the shop order and mount a 100mm Rockshox Bluto fork, the first suspension fork manufactured especially for fat bikes. We mounted the non-fat wheels with it, and for the last month, since the trails started drying, I've been riding a hard-tail 29er:
A very wide stance for the stanchions
Most experienced riders have probably done that whole sequence of wheels in a very different order, but two things have always been true of yours truly: 1) I'm either late or early to every fad; and 2) I never, ever do things the easy way.

I haven't had a ton of experience with suspension forks, so if you've come here for a comparative statement about the Bluto versus your Reba or Fox Float 32, you should Google that, and satisfy your soul. (Spoiler alert: The comparisons are mostly complimentary, with a minority complaining about flex in the Bluto's long, skinny legs.) Speaking for myself, with some time to tinker with the sometimes-contradictory functions of air pressure, rebound, and compression, I've begun to figure out how this newfangled suspension-fork thingy helps stuff like turning, rough terrain riding, and so forth.

There are some oddities to this set-up; after all, we're talking about a converted fat bike here. First, the Mukluk's 68.5 degree head tube angle is slacker than most 29er hardtails (and a lot of full-sus bikes); combine that with the long wheel base, and the bike is squarely in the trail-bike geometry range, but without the usual rear shock. This relaxed front end makes me feel confident attacking rocks and logs, although I do get a lot of saddle bucking from the rigid back as a result.

The relaxed head tube angle also means that I have to get lower and lean the bike more for turns. Tight New England switchbacks, in particular, are a challenge; the bike has an tangential tendency that I'm still learning to correct, via extra leaning and hip twisting. By comparison, when I rode the ridiculously fun and agile Jamis Dragon Pro last fall—a bike with 20 mm more travel up front, but a way shorter wheelbase and chain stays, and, of course, smaller wheels (27.5 inches) I found, even with my beginner skills, that I could telepathically weave through narrow chicanes and switchbacks.
2014 Jamis Dragon Pro
Finally, I'm not experienced enough to judge the nuances of how the stiff, dishless rear wheel, in combination with the stiff aluminum chainstays, affect handling. I'm guessing they provide a lot of support for standing and hammering on the pedals, but might make choppy terrain a little less forgiving than would, for example, a steel hardtail with a standard-dish wheel.

These quirks aside (and what bike doesn't have its trade-offs?) I'm having a blast on the new set-up, and my riding is improving. I may still be in the market for an affordable dual-suspension bike (because my middle-aged body and modest athletic talent will make the most of it) but for the non, I'm happily reeling in the learning and the miles on my unique Mukluk hardtail. Look for me out there, and, as always, get out and ride!
Making the most of a new fork and a sloppy early spring

Thursday, May 7, 2015

St. George: Mountain Biking in Paradise

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to go and do my favorite thing in the world in my favorite place in the world: I went mountain biking in southern Utah.

Mrs. V and I were visiting her parents in St. George, which is fast emerging as a competitor with Moab for the United States Mecca for mountain biking. Before arriving, I found a local store to rent a bike from, and researched good beginner trails. There are so many systems in the St. George area, it was hard to choose.

After a day spent catching up with friends and family in the Salt Lake area, Mrs. V and I got in the rental car and drove from the massive alpine mountain ranges of northern Utah to the unearthly desert paradise of the south.

I only get to this part of the world every five or ten years, but as soon as I see the cliffs turning to red rock, I get high as a kite. I have the overpowering feeling that I’ve transcended to a higher plane.

When we arrived at my in-laws' house in St. George, I couldn't believe my eyes: a huge network of unmarked trails ran right out their back door, a latticework of options that stretched out to sun-baked, red-rock mesas in the distanceThe region seems to have alluring trailheads like this every few miles. To drive around there is to be constantly nettled by the itch to get out there.

I rudely took my leave and shot over to the bike store and picked up my 2015 Specialized Camber Comp—a full-suspension, 110 mm travel 29er that walks the line between cross-country and trail bike. Since I spent my whole first year of mountain biking on a rigid bike, and just upgraded to a hard-tail a month ago, this was a major upgrade for me and I couldn't wait to set it up and fool around on it.

My last mountain biking experience in this part of the world turned out pretty sadly -- I’d never ridden a mountain bike before, and an exuberant friend talked me into starting on the famed Slickrock trail in Moab. I crashed badly, bruised my hip bone, and was off the bike for weeks. Though I have more trail experience now, I still had fears about transferring my newbie New England MTB skills to the Southwest. They proved unfounded. Partly due to the confidence-inspiring bike (about which, more below), and partly because I stuck to basic trails, I didn’t have one close call the whole trip.

I did, however, get in three adventursome rides, each delightful in its own way. The first was a shakedown sunset ride in the hills behind the house the day we arrived. It was blissful.

The first major trail I tried was Bearclaw Poppy, apparently the most popular route in the area. The trailhead was only 15 minutes from where we were staying. 

After about six miles of flowy, rolling climbing on desert terrain, interspersed with a couple of ridiculous steeps, you turn around and fly down what the locals call the Acid Drops (huge, multi-pronged drop-offs). Full suspension means never having to say, "Oh, no!" I would just pick a line, commit with full confidence, and be rewarded with stomach-heaving drops. Fun! 

From there, on to the ridiculously, absurdly, illegally fun roller-coaster BMX course close to the Bloomington trail head. 

I was laughing out loud on those flowy hillocks, just one swoop and stomach flip after another. It was like jazz on a bike. When it was done for the morning, I badly wanted to do the last part again, but age brings wisdom, and I conserved a few watts for the plentiful hiking and biking to come in the next few days.

The following day brought an extended hike in Zion National Park, a place with mythical status in my life. I spent four or five weeks there many years ago, in the summer between high school and college, conserving and blazing trail, and sleeping under the stars. It quite literally blew my mind and brought me my first tangible experience of what I would come to know as God. I left with a heavy heart, and with a touchstone I never lost. Needless to say, my return last month was a very rich experience, but that's a topic for another post. I took the photo below from a precipice about 800 feet high, floating in the middle of the canyon. If my wife and father-in-law hadn't been waiting for me, I might have stayed til sundown, dreamily soaring the canyon in my mind. Do yourself a favor and click on this one to see it full-scale. Imagine a biting desert sun, cool shade, the smell of baking minerals in the rock, and the sound of distant crow caws breaking the huge silence.

A bonus image from our hike, a couple days later, to the marvelous Kolob Arch in the northern end of the park:

The next day, I took off after breakfast for the popular Anasazi Trail in the Santa Clara River Preserve, also about 20 minutes from our door. The proximity of these major trails added to my feeling that St. George is just teeming with special rides.

"Anasazi" is the locals' name for the trail (and is the name of the native people who lived here a thousand years ago); it's technically named Tempi'po'op, reportely a Piute phrase for "rock writing." There are indeed petroglyphs there somewhere, but I didn't do quite enough research before heading out and, believe it or not, I missed them. No worries; I've seen plenty throughout the Southwest.

What I did find was a trail winding gently up to and along the rim of a mesa that looks out over an impressive canyon, and across to looming, red and brown cliffs.

I had planned a mellow ride, as I was going on a long hike with the family that afternoon and was already pretty cooked from all the travel, time-change, and loss of sleep. Getting lost put the kibosh on the mellow, adding three or four miles of up and down. I always get this fun mix of anxiety and excitement when I get lost, and truly, if you're going to get lost, this is the place to do it. 

On Anasazi, I got my first experience with full suspension in truly technical terrain. (See the rockiest part of the picture just above? That's the trail.) There's a mile or so of very slabby rock out on the mesa edge, and the Camber just rolled right over it, no matter which line I chose. I even had no fear rolling right along the cliff-edge on an off-camber section. I seriously have to get a full-suspension bike; it was like I'd won three free skill tokens in a video game.

A word or two more about the bike. I needed almost no adjustment time for the full suspension. It's not a bike with a ton of travel, and it felt natural under me. The low bottom bracket and big wheels provided confidence aplenty. The automatic sag adjustment for the shock definitely helped: I set it and forgot it. Once in a while I’d use the middle compression setting if I was headed uphill on a long, smooth stretch, but mostly, the rear took care of itself, and the confidence and handling it provided definitely raised the level of terrain I could handle. I gave it an melancholy pat as I dropped it off at the shop at the end of the trip.

Mrs. V and I were scheming ways to return to St. George next year, before my in-laws have to leave the area. I wouldn't trade New England mountain biking for the Southwest; they're both wonderful in different ways. But I know for sure I need more of that desert fix, just as soon as I can get it.

[A big shout-out of thanks to Mrs. V's wonderful parents for their hospitality—and for their understanding when I disappeared for a few hours every day.]