Two Kinds of Ride

The first few times I rode a mountain bike in modern times were on Waldo’s NEMBA-built trails, with flowy turns and gentle climbs and wooden bridges. That was plenty challenging for me then, and it’s still fun. I like the park enough to have spent days building and maintaining trails there.

But I was lucky to fall in with a group of old-school New England riders, people who learned on trails that were built for either mules or hikers and not for bikes. They showed me another kind of riding at the Preserves, Haviland Hollow, Wilton Woods, and other places we aren’t supposed to be but about which no one really cares. Holy guacamole! You got your rocks – always rocks, your 50% fall-line grades, your endless climbs that leave your chest heaving and your mind wondering why you ever left your mother’s womb, your slow, twisty wends up through groves of mountain laurel on trails barely wider than the handlebars. Not much flows other than the splashy stream crossings. Not enough people go there to keep the brambles from reaching into the trails.

The first kind of ride is amusement-park fun. Sure, there’s work needed, but it feels like road riding with 80%-of-threshold high-cadence climbs and plenty of adrenaline-pumping rewards from the flowy trail layout and the fun of the bike moving under you as you dodge between trees. Like downhill skiing, it leaves you exhilarated.

The second kind of ride is more like the fun of baling hay. Not everyone thinks baling hay is fun. It’s hard. You sweat a lot and it hurts. It’s dangerous if you don’t pay attention. At the end of the ride, you’re beat-tired. You’re probably bruised and a little bloody. You know that dinner and a beer will put you asleep five minutes later. And you’re satisfied in a way John Calvin would approve.

The trend today is to build fun and flowy trails, or trails with technical sections designed to try your skills in predictable ways. No one builds mule trails anymore. But they’re out there. And as good as they are for improving fitness and skills, they’re even better for your character.

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Winter Trails

We’re in that great patch of early-winter weather when the temperatures are cold but not frigid. The trees are bare, and the trails have either been blown clear or the leaves are packed down. (I’m an agnostic regarding the controversy regarding the leaf-blowing of trails – In some cases I think it’s fine, and in others not so much. It depends on the trail design and the underlying soils. I do appreciate the safety boost of being able to see the trail on rocky descents.) It hasn’t snowed much, and what we’ve gotten has been short lived. Most years at this time, the trails are dry and hard. But this year has given us something like an inch of rain a week, so we’ve had to pick our days and our rides carefully. There’s more mud on my bike than I like to see.

Yesterday was dry enough for a good ride at Waldo despite a bit of dumbness on my part. It felt like my front tire pressure was too low. I’d pumped it up before leaving the house, so that was puzzling. The tire compressed too much on rocks, and a boulder on the first climb bounced me to the side of the trail. The first two log-overs felt harsh.

And then I realized that once again, I’d left my fork locked out from the last ride when Ben and I got rained out and returned to the parking lot via pavement. I unlocked the fork. The bike was much more compliant after that.

After avoiding it since June, I tried the new log-over on the yellow trail. Like so much in mtbing, it turned out to be not a big deal. Must keep that in mind.

Mark suggested a couple of improvements to some of the storm re-routes, just little things to improve the flow. He was right, and each would take about two minutes with a decent handsaw. But I found myself thinking of Jeff’s saying, “Improve your skills, not the trail,” and each of those two spots have forced me to work on my low-speed skills.

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Baby It’s Cold Outside

The first time I tried Jeff’s Preserves ride, I broke my wrist about halfway through. That was a year and a half ago. The second time was a year ago, and the group wanted to ride faster than I had in me, so I bailed out after a few miles and explored new terrain on my own. Since then, I’ve ignored a dozen invitations to that ride. This time though, Jeff and Ben conspired to get me out. I wanted to go anyway, and so I let them talk me into it. In truth, I appreciate their efforts.

It was 16F and sunny. The trails were clear of leaves and frozen solid. Mostly. It’s been so wet we encountered more than a few sections of mud where there was running water. And there was some ice. But with the leaves off the trees, you could see the trail well ahead and just let the ride flow.

I still didn’t make it up the steeps, but I got closer. Some miles in, Jeff suggested I lower my chest toward the bars, rather than push my weight out over the front wheel, saying that would stop the front wheel float while preserving traction. That sounded like good advice, but when I tried it on the next insane grade, I pinched a nut on the saddle and had to stop for that moment all men are familiar with.

We came to the stream crossing where I’d broken my wrist. This was the first time I’d been back there, and it all made sense. The trail rises and turns sharply right immediately after the crossing. A couple of rocks jut out of the middle of the trail. Last time, I crossed the stream, saw the rocks, hit the brakes, fell over, and landed in the stream on my outstretched hand. I heard the bone crack.

This time, the line around the rocks on the high side was obvious. None of it was a big deal. I simply hadn’t been looking far enough ahead, and didn’t have a plan for after crossing the stream.

Now we were on trails that were new to me. Probably ten miles in, my quads were starting to ask my brain, “Dude, what the fuck?” But we kept the pedals turning, and I got through some gnarly stuff, and then we hit Moosehorn, and wow! Was that a fun descent! Clear trails, great sightlines, and speed!

But I had to bail. Most of us had to bail. We had family commitments, so we left Jeff and Jay to finish the ride, and headed down Sentry Hill Road. Almost immediately a bobcat crossed in front of us. I got a brain freeze chasing Monson down the hill. And I got home in plenty of time. I rode about 18 miles out of the potential 25, the longest mtb ride of my career. Muddy, snotty, with cold and wet feet, I felt terrific.

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Thanksgiving Eve

Four of us rode back across the stream and got a little wet and cold. But riding along the edge of the field right after, we saw the full moon just risen over the ridge to the east.  We turned up the western hill on the old stage road, picking our way through the rocks and the mud before hooking back down the singletrack that wound between the hemlocks and around the unseasonably flooded vernal pool. An approaching front had clouded over the moon and everyone’s lights were on, enough to pick out the slight compaction of the leaves that differentiated the trail from the forest floor. The final descent was in full darkness, the cones of light from the LEDs on our handlebars and helmets all we could see of the steepness we were pointing our bikes down.

It was colder and at the pond, a snow squall grayed the far shore. We rode through it and up the hill to where we’d parked. Sweaty layers off, I stood for a moment bare-chested in the falling snow, letting the cold wrap my skin. When I pulled the fleece sweater over my shoulders, it felt almost like a warm embrace in a cold bed. Wool pants, a Carhart coat, and felt-packs followed. I sat on the tailgate of my truck. Chris brought a chair over, along with some Belgian-style tripels he’d made.

“They’re three years old. They might be skunked. Or they might be really good.”

The snow stopped. The moonlight turned the valley below silver. I opened a tripel. It was not skunked. It was smooth and caramelly, and the alcohol warmed my throat. Mark and Ben left to discharge pre-Thanksgiving obligations. Chris and I stayed for a second bottle, catching up on each other’s lives as wind rattled the leafless trees around us. The temperature dropped toward the promised low of 9F, and the moon-dapple on the oak and beech trunks moved and changed as clouds blew through.

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Trail Work

The Yellow trail was the last piece of Waldo still disrupted by the May storm. A lot of us put in a bunch of hours reopening the park. Some of the work was sanctioned, but I’m sure not even close to most of it. Given the circumstances, I didn’t hear many complaints. Whoever re-opened the upper end of the Red trail added two log-overs that have come to be some of my favorite features. There’s now a challenging chicane on the lower end of Red that’s really satisfying to clean. On Hunter, a tree went down and the hump between the trunk and the root ball has become an unofficial feature. The Housatonic Valley NEMBA chapter president, Paula, re-routed the lower Purple trail, turning it from a straight ride into a fun and swoopy hoot, and there’s a big log-over on the lower end of Yellow that still scares me.

Waldo is better than before.

It bugged me that the middle of the Yellow trail was still closed, so I bugged Paula to flag a re-route. She brought it downhill in a series of turns, then across the base staying mostly uphill from the wet areas. I get a kick out of trail-building. I like it nearly as much as riding the trail, and I felt privileged to have this section to work on. I walked it multiple times before lifting a tool, just letting the lay of the land sink in. I found a couple of tweaks that would move the trail a few feet laterally in the wet areas, placing it on rises that were maybe 6 in. above the original route. Six inches isn’t a lot, but it can be enough to keep your tires dry and to protect the fragile ecology of wetlands.

I spent a day cutting downed trees and clearing branches, leaf-blowing and raking, then quarrying rocks from the root balls of downed trees to armor the squishy sections. I love the smells of working in the woods; the spice from cutting a birch, even one that’s been down for 6 months, the mossy odor from rocks knocking together, the fecundity of the earth, the fall air as crisp as a Winesap apple.

I’m curious how it will hold up, how thick the brush will grow in the areas where there’s no longer a canopy of hardwoods, and whether the wet sections will need more work. I’ve ridden it four times now, three times down and one up. Each time it’s better, the earth more packed. Paula put some time in benching the upper section of the trail, and when the whole segment is properly bermed and benched, it’s going to be awesome.

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Family Bonding

Eighty percent of the way through a busy weekend, I snuck out on Sunday afternoon for a Waldo session. I rode well, cleaning everything except what I didn’t try. I PRed one segment just by hitting everything smoothly.

It felt good.

On the red trail, I ran into a group of four; two guys who might have been 40 and who might have been brothers, one kid who looked about 14, an another who was probably not 10. They were dressed in sweats and looked confused. After passing them, it dawned on me that they were likely new and maybe a little lost. I turned back and asked if they knew the yellow trail was blocked in the center.

They had just discovered that, and were turned around and not sure which way to go. I helped them out with directions, then rode on, enjoying the changes to the red trail since the May 15 storm.

They were in the parking lot when I finished, the kids in the back of a minivan with the doors open, and the men drinking beer – The family version of how so many of my rides end. We chatted and they said my directions had pointed them to the most fun part of the ride. They were in fact new to riding, and had only been to Waldo two or three times.

The smaller kid said that he fell once, having hit a tree. I asked if he got back on the bike, and when he said yes, I gave him kudos.

I so wish I’d done with my kids what those men were doing with theirs.

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Tech or Skill?

I wonder where the line is between the bike and the rider. Two years ago this month, I decided to try mountain biking. I had a bike – a 1985 fully-rigid Ross that I had bought new and had never ridden much. It surprised me how many comments that bike garnered on the trails, never having thought much about how mtbs had advanced technically.

I beat the shit out of myself on the Ross for a few months, never being quite sure whether my lack of ability or the bike’s shortcomings were more at fault for the bruise that had become my body. Before long, I bought a more modern bike, an entry-level hardtail with 650b mid-fat tires.

Immediately, I was riding better. Obviously, the bike made a difference, but in the time since, my skills have definitely improved. As I’ve gotten better, I’ve started to recognize my new bike’s shortcomings. For one, it has an exceptionally long wheelbase. That smooths out the bumps, but makes the bike less nimble and the chainring more vulnerable. On descents, there’s more up and down motion from the back than there would be with rear suspension, and more than once my center of gravity has risen higher than I’d like. On climbs, it can be hard to get far enough forward to keep the front wheel down. And the top bar is too high, making emergency dismounts harder than I’d like.

So, once again I find myself with new bike thoughts. Would I ride better on a full-squish bike with a shorter wheelbase? Probably.

But then, how much of that would be me and how much the bike? The point is for me to become a better cyclist, right? And fully mastering my hardtail is a way to do that.

But I could have said that about the Ross, too.

As my friend Dave likes to say, different questions yield different answers. So, is the point to become a better cyclist or to have fun?

I might be bike shopping this winter.

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