Why MTBing Rocks

I didn’t quite feel like riding yesterday, but convinced myself to run to Waldo for a quick perimeter loop. I cleaned the skinny and the new log-overs on Red. I bobbled but then clawed my way up the new and rocky chicane around where the 3-foot oak landed dead in the trail last May. I climbed Purple from the lake and twisted past that damn tree with no hint of trouble. Two years ago, I sessioned that spot about 15 times before making it once. I still didn’t make it up the rock garden on that trail, but I got further than ever. I’ll get it this year – I know how. 

Riding my cross bike in Hidden Valley last week I did a couple of dry, but off-camber and brushy ride-arounds, when in the past I’d have muscled through the mud instead. Maybe. Encountering a ten or twelve inch tree down on the trail, Ben dared me to hop it. Approaching slowly, I popped the front wheel over, then did “the move” to bring the back wheel along. A year ago, no. Climbing lightly out to the parking lot, I remembered my first time there three years ago when everyone else’s tail lights disappeared from view as I walked from fear of the rocks. 

If I’d been road riding instead, I’d have been wondering whether I sucked worse on this or that hill than I did last year at this time.

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Heart of Darkness

Lower Paugussett State Park is a mythical place. I’d heard the terrain was insane. I’d heard the trails were not marked well. And I’d heard that if you got through the gnarl, there was a bootleg trail network built by some guy named Kurtz.

Mark lives across the street from the entrance. He’s ridden a bit of it, and wants to get permission to develop the trails. Ben and I rode with him yesterday to explore for that purpose, and maybe to find Kurtz’s trails. We hoped to run into him, to get to know what he knows about the woods here. 

The road in is half a mile of badly maintained dirt that dead-ends in a parking lot. It sees so little use that I found two pop-tops from 1970s beer cans on the ground. From there we fired-roaded it until a trail presented itself. We crossed a stream, a gas pipeline, climbed some, dismounted to get under windfalls, and came out in a cul de sac.

Reversing course, we crossed the road we came in on. And then we climbed through classic New England rocks and laurels and scrub. We walked a lot too, since that’s what the trail was made for. We came down stuff that rivaled Haviland Hollow. We trusted our bikes to get us through the angular rocks. We followed other fire roads. We got our feet wet in multiple streams. Or maybe it was the same stream in different places.

We had no idea.

But we felt like we had to be nearing Kurtz’s trails. And then, when we were at our go-back point, we came to a T. There they were. Clearly leaf blown. Clearly laid out for mtbs. Right or left? Either way looked fine, but left took us back toward the cars.

We went left, and it wasn’t a hundred yards before we realized the trail flowed the other way. But it was still pretty rideable. If we were better, it would have been very rideable. We talked about how the good riders we know would eat this shit for breakfast. Mark fumbled a switchback, rolled down the hill in a somersault, and leaped to his feet with a flourish.

We pushed on until the trail looped back away from the cars, and then, conceding to adulthood, we bushwhacked out. In the parking lot with some Hull’s Export in our bellies, Ben brought up Kurtz’s Strava tracks.

Holy shit! We just touched the south end of that system. Kurtz has miles of trails in there.

The horror…

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Traipsing Tracey

Byrd’s Hill Road in Pawling is hard. It’s about a mile long and dirt and leg-shatteringly, life-choice-questioningly steep near the top. I couldn’t get up it last Thursday without stopping to drop my heart rate below, I don’t know – 300 or so. The dirt was soft, and it’s early season, and I’d just come from Tracey Road.

Tracey Road is one of the few segments around that I have a top ten Strava time on. That time, I did its 1.8 miles of dirt in 6:21. Not bad for a former fat guy. Thursday night, it took me more than 20 minutes. The fast time, the road was firm. Last time, less so.

I’d been warned. “Tracey can be soft this time of the year.”

How bad could that be?

Turning off Quaker Hill, Tracey wasn’t bad. For the first quarter mile. Then it got softer. Then came the sign: No Maintenance Nov. 15 – April 15.

Two wheel tracks were down to the dirt in some spots. The center was comprised of several inches of rotten ice. In the wheel tracks, my 38mm tires sank in sometimes deeper than the rims. In the rotten ice, countersteering was next to impossible and the bike tracked where the front wheel wanted to go. My tracks looked like they’d been made by a drunk. I had to pedal in my lowest gear to move at all. On the descents, I unclipped one foot for safety, and constantly fought the desire to tense up by reminding myself to relax and stay loose.

Going down didn’t seem too likely, but I thought about what might happen if I did, and if I got hurt. No one would drive down this road tonight. Maybe there was cell service. Maybe I’d be the idiot cyclist who died of exposure on Tracey Road.

And then I got to the end of the unmaintained section. The road ahead was brown, potholed dirt and gravel. A car was parked at the end of the road with its window down. The smell from the driver’s cigarette was noticeable 100 feet away. He probably thought I was a fool coming down the ice and snow of Tracey on what looks to most people like a road bike. And I thought he was a fool for smoking, and it made me happy to be in good enough shape to have ridden the shit I just rode and to finish it in front of him.

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Rockhouse Cherry

NEMBA put in a new trail system not far from me. With a big, potentially season-ending snow storm forecast, a ride was in order. I thought there were about 5 miles of flowey, mellow trails there, and that the pack would be me and three other B-groupers. And that was true. It also turned out that there was another 5 miles of pretty technical trail I didn’t know about, and three A-groupers I wasn’t expecting. But, mtbers all, these A-groupers are great guys who definitely enhanced the ride.

The trails were mostly perfect, freshly built and frozen hard except for one section of about 50 yards along an old wood road that was frozen wet ground, rutty and hoar-frosty and a little bit muddy. All work and no play. “Jesus Christ!,” I said, about halfway through. “Who the hell thought this trail was a good idea?” And then I looked up to see two hikers laughing at me as I pedaled through the shit.

Chris had to abandon early on, which sucked. We hadn’t ridden together much this year and I missed that. But, a stripped freehub is of no use in the woods, and he had to hike his bike out. Fortunately, he was only a mile or so in.

I rode the technical side a lot better than I would have a year ago, getting up some things I didn’t think I would, realizing how I should have gotten up some other bits, and nailing the rocky descents, with fun outweighing fear.

Toward the end, I was feeling cooked. Expecting only an hour’s ride, I had no trail food. Mark was hurting worse though, bringing up the rear. Jeff, ever the mentor, hung back to encourage him. I heard them climbing behind me, Jeff chattering away, and Mark providing one syllable answers. I’ve been in exactly that situation myself many times.

The last half mile was pretty mellow, and we strung out according to our ability or energy level. My quads were burning just a bit as I pushed up the last little grade to the parking area, an example of absolutely perfect timing.

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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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