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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Fun

Two years ago, I had known the DT crew would be faster than me. But what I didn’t expect was the variety of terrain we’d ride, how that would beat me up, and how much more skilled the other riders would be. Mountain bikers and cyclocross racers, they handled rocky trails and rough dirt-road descents like I didn’t know was possible.

One area in particular sticks in my mind, an old carriage road that’s steep in places and loosely graveled where it isn’t populated with boulders and baby heads exposed by frost heaving and erosion. To one side lies a steep drop. When I first rode it, I clutched the bars in fear, wobbled up the climbs, occasionally put a foot down, and came out tense and wondering why I’d just subjected myself to that on what is essentially a road bike.

Lat night, it was fun. That I’m fit enough to climb vigorously is part of it, but the real change was in bike-handling skills learned over the past two years. This difference in technique is only the basics of looking ahead, staying loose, and riding out of the saddle, but recognizing and crediting myself for the transition was a big, crunchy, carrot. Instead of enduring fear and seeking safety by riding slowly, I found both safety and fun in riding loose and quick. Nothing scared me – It was all within my abilities.

It is easy to be discouraged by the distance between better athletes’ skills and one’s own. But I’m grateful to have fallen in with a group of better riders who have helped raise me up. Sure, when their taillights disappear up a hill in front of me, it’s a reminder that they’re better climbers. When I get up that same hill without wanting to die, it’s a reminder that I’m better than I was. And when I enjoyed that old carriage road last night, it was a reminder of how much better I’ve become, and how much more fun that gives.

 

 

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Early Autumn Riding

We rode a Dirty Thirty this week whose route was similar to one we did in April. Fall is fast approaching. Leaves covered the trail in spots and our lights were on for most of the ride. It was humid, but wonderfully cool, and that Phil Ochs song rang in my head:  “The moon was a ghostly galleon set sail upon cloudy seas…”

But where I really noticed the season was in the shape I’m in. I lost a lot of conditioning during the summer of 2017, not riding much until last September because of that broken carpal bone. When I could ride decently again I only ever regained the ground I’d lost up to about the time in May when I fell and heard that ominous crack. I never hit late-season form last year, and then I slid over the winter.

Riding that DT in April hurt. It called into question why I was riding with guys who are out of my league. There were a few rides like that this year.

This week was better. This week I remembered how on those early rides I’d find myself thinking, “Fuck, we’re only half through and my quads are on a slow burn.” Those rides were done in survival mode. This week, I thought that I could maybe go a little harder than I was, that I didn’t need to pace myself as much as had become my habit. Yeah, the last two hills, Bear Burrow and Booth, were hard. But where every pedal stroke on those climbs in April had required a mental commitment, this week was different. This week, the questions weren’t whether I could do the climb, but whether I should take the inside line or the outside, whether I should stay seated or get out of the saddle.

Even better was Nettleton Hollow. That’s a favorite road; a long, gradual descent that’s not all downhill. I decided to hang with Jeff and Jay and Ben. I had to push, to ride out of the saddle now and again, to ignore some lactic acid burn. But damn, it was fun. I was putting out effort and getting speed in return. It was one of those times in cycling when the reward and the effort come at once.

I’m still riding out of my league, but it’s fun again.

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The Strava Siren’s Song

 

Saturday dawned cool and sunny, a perfect September morning. Saddling up before seven, I went out for a casual ride. Grassy Hill was a slow climb, as it usually is when it’s the first vert I hit from home. The grass in the airport hayfield soaked my feet in dew. Welton Road was a fast and easy roll. I climbed the hill on Gold Mine out of the saddle just because I liked how it felt to turn a big gear.

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Looking east to Woodbury from Gold Mine Road.

Visual magic happened on Gold Mine between Bear Burrow and Booth roads. That’s one of my favorite morning views anywhere. On Saturday, the rising sun backlit the field and the trees and made the mist shine like polished silver.

I lingered there for a few minutes, then turned my attention to Booth Road. I felt good. The ride had been mellow so far; so far I had accomplished my goal of answering Pat’s question, “Don’t you ever just go on a bike ride for its own sake?”

But it was cool. The roads were in “hero dirt” condition.

The Strava segment called.

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Booth Road coming up. The Sirens singing from just around the corner.

I clipped in and rolled fast onto Booth Road, pushing up the initial shallow grade until my thighs burned. The wet spot in the right wheel track was still soft, so I rode the left around it, then dodged back to the right in case of oncoming traffic at the bend. The descent I counted on to give my quads a break began. Because of the great condition of the road I cut corners across the gravelly center with confidence, and carried good speed into the sharp climb at the end. Not long ago, I walked this climb. Saturday, I took the steeper, inside line up, out of the saddle and loving the feeling of watts pouring out of my legs and heart.

I owed for that though, and the nausea hit just beyond the crest. The segment turns north there onto Dorothy Diebold for the final quarter mile, but it’s flat for a bit before the last three bumps. Deep breaths. Suck in air, blow out CO2. Calm the system on the flat before the bumps. One hurt. Two started the tingling in my thighs and arms. Three had me wanting to hurl, but then I was over it. Finish strong – fifty yards to go, no coasting yet.

And then I’m off the segment and coasting on the pavement of Painter Hill. A hundred yards up and the nausea is gone. A hundred yards back to ride Dorothy Diebold toward home and the cardio is normal. I was pretty sure I PRed the segment, or at least it would be my second fastest time.

When I checked Strava later, I’d cut 30 seconds off my fastest previous time, down to 4:44. Even better, it was the 5th best overall time for the segment; One of my best ever. I beat out several riders I know to be stronger than me. But Strava segments, especially on dirt, don’t always go to the stronger rider. Saturday, I had the hat trick of perfect weather, perfect dirt, and late-season form. Plus, I had the inclination to go for it. And lest I get too full of myself, the KOM holder, my buddy Jeff, has an order-of-magnitude full-minute of time on me.

Still, pretty good for a fat guy four days past his 57th birthday.

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Ah, Fall

After the Labor Day Roast at Rockland, this weekend’s cloud cover and highs in the 60s felt invigorating. I rode both days. Saturday’s solo 18 mile graveller was quiet. In an hour and a half, I saw 10 cars, 11 motorcycles, 3 bikes, 4 pedestrians, and 3 dogs. Sex Life, the trail between Battle Swamp and Judd’s Bridge, was still slimy from the week’s rain, so I didn’t mind slowing down to move sticks off the path. Another set of tracks looked like someone had come up the hill earlier. I wondered if I knew the rider. Probably. Not a lot of people ride there.

Sunday, I did a group mtb ride, hitting Waldo with Ben and 3 guys who are newer to the game than I am. One of them, Matt, was used to riding the flowy trails in Utah and he was despairing of rocky, east-coast mountain biking. He loved Waldo.

I felt loose and relaxed in the cool air, and the trails flowed whoopingly. I only bobbled one tech, the rooty, rocky chicane between the trees on Red that has skeeved me out for two years. Going back and sessioning that is on my list. Late season strength and lower tire pressure now that I’m riding tubeless are both helping. Nonetheless it felt like other things were coming together as well.  I’m riding out of the saddle more and experiencing how much better that position allows the bike to move and be moved underneath me. The ride is smoother and turning is more certain, adding to my fun and confidence. Related to that, I’m working on the timing and mechanics of the front-wheel pop followed by the forward leap to clear obstacles. The results are small but encouraging, and I do wonder if a bike with a shorter wheelbase would handle that better.

N + 1….

It’s a good place to be heading into the fall. Last year, losing most of the summer to the broken wrist left me nervous about riding as well as out of shape. The year before was my first as an mtber. I think that this autumn is going to be fun.

 

 

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Hot at Rockland

Arriving in the parking lot at 9, it was already warm. When the fast guys started showing up, I knew I was in over my head. On the first climb, pushing myself to just below nausea, I got dropped. This was not the hill I wished to die on. Trying to keep up would be futile, would probably lead me to crash, and would take away from their fun. I did catch up with Ben, or rather, he waited for me, and I said I was going to bail on the group. He was thinking the same and I was more than glad for the companionship.

Catching up at a trail junction, we said our goodbyes. No one tried to talk us into staying. We rode on, and Ben and I each PRed a number of segments, so we were pushing, but three hours later the fast guys came out of the woods just a few minutes after us, having ridden 13 miles to our 11.

I’m sure I would have died.

Ben and I had a good, fun, hard ride. I learned. Paying attention to the fundamentals paid off. Rockland has a bunch of tight turns. Slow-speed balance isn’t my strong suit, and I’d be teetering through an acute turn, weaving my bars between trees, then look to where I wanted to be, the pedals would turn, and the bike would go there. That’s almost magical. It feels wonderful.

Other twisty situations were on climbs. I fight a fundamental laziness. If it looks physically hard, my impulse is to say “Fuck it,” then get off the bike and walk. I’m saving energy for what? I don’t know. But I overcame that voice, powering up chicanes through acres of laurel thickets. My thighs burned, but so what?

Other times I screwed up, but began to understand how. Getting over big rocks on climbs is a struggle. Time and again, I’d get my front wheel onto the rock, and then try to pedal over it rather than thrusting my body forward. That would jam the pedal against the rock and jack the back wheel off the ground, relieving me of any motive force and stopping progress dead. I need to session this skill.

Riding in 90 F temps took a toll. I sucked my Camelbak dry half an hour from the lot. My legs felt weaker and my reaction and planning abilities were declining. I stopped figuring out how to ride challenges and began worrying about crashing on them. I walked the final rock garden, one I’d cleaned the last time, because I didn’t trust myself.

In the car, I had two bottles. One was insulated and filled with iced Gatorade. The other was just water. I poured half the water over my head, then drank the other half before changing into dry clothes. A river or a lake would have been welcome. I sucked down the Gatorade. A mile out of the lot, I passed a convenience store, turned around, pulled in and bought a big, ice-cold, sugary Powerade.

Not a bad Labor Day.

 

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Hot, Slow, and Buggy

It didn’t feel bad when I left the house to ride the trails at the pond – hot and humid, to be sure, but bearable. I didn’t consider how well the forest would hold the humidity. Within the first mile, I’d sweated through my clothes. By the second hill, my heart-rate was through the roof and the blood was pounding in my head, forecasting a two-Treximet migraine later that night. More than once, my back wheel spun out on condensation-slick rocks. I stopped even trying to get up the tougher hills, opting to walk the bike and save something for the next day’s planned 30 miler.

Although I wasn’t loving the conditions, the mosquitoes were. If I stopped, their buzzing sounded like the special effects in a jungle-survival movie. With one particularly well-aimed slap, I killed four at once. It was only when I stopped that they descended, so much of the ride was a balancing act between surviving the heat and humidity and evading the mosquitoes.

Still, I pedaled through to Minor Bridge. Riding back, I was shot and my skills were at an ebb. In the shadow of the hill, the flat light made it hard to pick out lines. Coming around the corner into the first descent I buried my front wheel against a rock and launched over the bars, landing on my shoulder, hip, and leg. The bike was fine and I came away with minor scrapes and bruises. Mainly it was a caution to pay very close attention for the rest of the ride.

I opted for the easy way out, riding through the hayfield and down to the railbed rather than climbing the hill again. At the car, I traded my empty Camelback for my backpack, which contained a towel and water shoes, then rode the quarter mile down to the swimming hole. Wading in felt incredible, and my first shallow dive into the Shepaug must have left an epic cloud of mud, sweat, and mosquito parts.

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