Cool Day at Waldo

Mark suggested a ride today, a stellar idea. The trails were perfect – Nicely packed and no mud. The temps were in the 50s and it was just cool enough to be perfectly comfortable. This, the second ride of the season, felt better than the first. The first ride is too much about gauging my fitness, while the second ride begins the settling-in process.

I’d watched a couple of GMBN videos since riding on Wednesday, a good way to remind myself of basics forgotten over the winter. Just not stopping pedaling is one, and something obvious that I in fact need to improve. Two other techniques came back easier though – getting off the saddle on descents, and, also on descents, dropping my heels so the bounces drive my feet tighter to the pedals and effectively drive the bike tighter to the ground. The ride was both more controlled and faster from remembering these techniques.

Mark and I stopped and talked to several people, and we cleared one tree off Purple, so what’s usually a one hour ride took two.

That was just fine.

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I Didn’t Completely Suck

DST kicked in on Sunday and yesterday was warm and dry. Consequently, last night was the first mountain bike ride of the year, and really, the first time I’d been on a bike outside since December. Meeting up with 4 friends at Waldo, we headed into the woods.

I had to argue to take the lanterne rouge, but not only was I the slowest rider of the bunch, I was still recovering from two weeks of bronchitis. The likliehood of coughing up a lung forcing me to abandon the ride after the first hill was in the front of my mind. Surprisingly though, apart from some minor soreness, my bronchia behaved themselves.

On the first ride of the season, even with doubtful lung capacity, I made it up the climb on Red without putting down a foot. The main thing I noticed was some hesitency that kept me from cleaning stuff I’d been cleaning two months ago. That’ll pass.

What was amazing was Eric on his singlespeed. The man is an athlete par excellance!

The parking lot beer afterward was a wonderful thing. An early evening beer on a great spring day with a wood frogs serenade, a full moon on the rise, and four friends fresh off a shared adventure is hard to beat.

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Trail Work

I got to spend a few hours yesterday with Paula, Mark, Scott, and Kevin working on the trails at Waldo. We had a good couple of hours re-routing some sections and armoring or draining a few muddy spots. Some of it was rethinking hasty decisions made hot on the heels of the 100 mph straight-line winds that tore the place up on May 15, 2018. In other cases, ten years of use had worn the trail to the point it needed a rest.

Like most trail days, the work was fun, and hanging in the woods with some friends was fun, and in the end the park will ride better, so everyone can have more fun.

That said, I’m not sure why it’s the same dozen people who show up for work days when hundreds ride in the park.

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The Man Who Knew Too Little

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Praise Bike!

After he gets through some hard terrain, my friend Chris sometimes talks to his bike like it’s animate. “Good Bike! Well done, Bike.”

It makes sense to me because it isn’t the conscious mind that gets you through the gnar.

One of the challenges to mtbing is ignoring the ground under your front wheel, particularly when it’s gnarly ground. That’s where instinct says to look, but if you do, the next rock in line will throw you over the bars like a ju jitsu black belt. You have to be looking two seconds up the trail, planning and deciding your line, your gearing, your body position.

And then you have to trust your body and your bike to execute the plan because your eyes and mind are already two seconds up the trail from where your wheels are.

That two seconds after my conscious mind delegates all the functions that matter to my muscles or to some other part of my mind or to my bike fascinates me.

It’s the key to mtbing.

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One Gear Harder

Only three weeks ago, I wrote about returning to more gravel riding to improve my mtbing. Now, that’s a little ironic because 6 years ago, I started mtbing to improve my gravel riding. It seems that both the latter and the former work; as if the two kinds of riding are complimentary. Because of what I’ve learned on the trails, my gravel bike has navigated some pretty sketchy terrain. And yesterday’s Waldo ride gave evidence that just a few weeks of pushing myself up some hard hills had improved my strength noticeably.

While I’m not back to where I was three years ago, I rode well yesterday. There’s the climb on Red before the power lines that begins with a rocky turn to a stone wall crossing, continues up over more rocky ground between two closely spaced trees, and finishes up with a rooty chicane between two more neighborly trees and a couple of boulders. I’ve only cleaned it a couple of times in the past two years. Yesterday, I resisted the urge to drop down a gear, pushing one that felt slightly uncomfortable at the get-go. The second my rear wheel cleared the stone wall though, I knew the gear was right. The rest of the climb took looking up and gritting down just a bit.

Then there was the first rock garden on Purple. It’s not the gnarliest rock garden in Waldo, but the gnarliest one is only uber-gnarly going up. Going down it’s no big deal. But the first rock garden, well, it’s tough in both directions. We hit it from the fire road side, the same way as usual.

On the approach, Roadie Me and MTBMe had their usual argument about gear choice. MTBMe won and RoadieMe slunk off to sulk.

I hit the rocks one gear harder than seemed comfortable and rolled right over the first 15 feet. The next 15 feet is a crux spot. The best line is the higher line, but it’s a little off camber, and, if you go too high you risk striking your left pedal. But staying high maintains speed and lines you up better for the rocks to come. Trusting my bike, I hit the high line in a high gear and came out perfectly.

Next comes a bump and a small drop – Nothing smooth here, just flattish, jaggy rocks with a narrow passage at the crest that’s defined by a tree on the right and a rocky bank on the left. You have to begin gearing down here though, because immediately after the drop comes a left-turning, rocky, rooty, steep climb. If I’m not in my bottom gear right away, I’m either jamming my derailleur trying to get down, or I don’t make the climb. There’s not much more than 10 feet between the crest of the bump and the bottom of the climb to gear down.

But because I took the high road one gear higher at the beginning, the bike had some speed going into the bump and I was able to gear down in plenty of time.

Cleaning the top, I whooped, “Yeah!”, and coasted to a stop to wait for the group.

So, yeah, I’m pretty happy about the gravel rides.

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Jumping in the Leaves

No one else wanted to play so I went out by myself Thursday night. Rather than doing 30ish miles, I hit four hard hills in 15 miles. Around here, it’s not so much the distance as the up. One of the hills I wanted to climb was Bear Burrow, and there’s a neat little unmaintained section on Cross Brook that’s a short cut to get there.

One homeowner had blown a pile of leaves across the entry, but I’d ridden up through them from the opposite direction a week or two before with no problem. This week I hit them going down hill, buried my front wheel against an unseen branch, and executed a perfect endo – and I mean with a full 180 degree rotation to a flawless back landing – into the leaf pile.

It was actually kind of fun.

But I think I’m going to take my leaf blower over there tomorrow once things dry out a bit.

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Going from being a roadie to riding mtbs, it was natural for me to stick with clipless pedals. One platform, one pair of shoes – It all appealed to my frugal nature.

Falling over like Arte Johnson seemed natural, too.

Sure, sometimes that hurt. The time I landed on a rock with my left hip and couldn’t sleep on that side for a month. The time I heard the little carpal bone or the other time I heard one of my ribs go, “Crack!”.

It was only last winter, gun-shy from knee surgery and tired of kicking the snow out of cleat on the shoe I put down all too often that I decided to try flats.

I’m not too bright sometimes. Six years on an mtb and only now I’m riding flats. Yeah, there’s a learning curve. But the number of falls I take has declined by something like 156%. And it’s way easier to start back up on climbs and in sketchy sections when you aren’t focused on clipping in.

Frustrated by how my feet didn’t stick to the pedals in bouncy rock gardens, I did go back to clipless for a few weeks in the spring. But then I Arte-Johnsoned a couple of times, and thought, “Fuck this.”

Ben suggested new shoes. I’d been riding soft-soled 5-10s with cleats, which I figured would work fine on flats, too. But Ben said he could hear the metal of the cleats hitting my pedals. I couldn’t, but hey, old carpenters can’t hear much more than tinnitus, and nasty and blood thirsty as the pegs on my flats are, they don’t engage well with metal. So I bought a pair of 5-10 Freeriders – Oh, man, I love these shoes.

There’s a rock garden at Waldo that’s my litmus test. I’ve been killing it lately, which is way easier when I’m not scared of falling and when my feet aren’t bouncing off the pedals. When my feet do bounce around, repositioning them is a piece of cake. And I’m focusing more on my foot position, which is making me a better rider all around.

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Another Little Bit Gone

I went to a retirement party for my friend John yesterday. He owned the bike shop. While he owned it, many, many people referred to it as “my bike shop”. Finding the bike shop that fits is like finding your barber shop. It’s a personal thing. Both my barber shop and my now former bike shop are homegrown reflections of their owners. There is nothing corporate or flashy about them. You know people there. A visit is social at least as much as business. We each know where the other lives. Our numbers are in each other’s phones. We’ve broken bread, or at least uncapped bottles, together.

I suppose that describes businesses for much of human existence. It’s only recently that most people didn’t remain in the community of their birth. Two generations ago, we knew our neighbors, knew our towns, enjoyed their institutions. That’s changed at a Koyaanisqatsi pace, one that I haven’t even tried to keep up with, this blog notwithstanding.

At the party were friends of the shop, only about a third of whom I knew. That alone spoke to John’s influence given the number of times I had stopped by in the past decade. There were photos from when John and his brother first opened the shop 40 years ago; photos that could have been stills from Breaking Away. Blonde hair had become gray hair and the bikes had changed radically, but the smiles were the same.

I described the shop and the upcoming party to my friend Mark, who lives in what sounds like a suburban dead zone outside of Philly. Mark responded by saying, “The fabric of your community has actual fabric.”

It does. And although the cycling community remains, there’s a big hole where the center once was.

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Changing Fast

Last Thursday, I re-rode a route I’d ridden a week before. On it, there’s a climb up some old double-track carriage road that leads to the site of a long-gone 19th century hotel. The wheel tracks are full of baby heads and loose, round, bank-run gravel from back in the day. It’s only been since I took up mountain biking that I’ve been able to pedal my gravel bike up this.

The week before, it was still full daylight when Joe and I climbed the double track. Plenty of light filtered through the leaves on the trees to easily see the rocks and sticks and to pick out a line. At about the same time last Thursday, it was going on dusk when we climbed. Mark’s taillight killed whatever low-light vision I had and the downed leaves obscured the line. I didn’t clean it, and made a mental note to stay a lot further back from my ride partner’s LED taillight.

When Mark and I reached the apex of last Thursday’s ride a few miles further on, the sunset lingered over the hills to the west. Descending the valley to the east took us into full dark. Climbing back up, my headlight threw the gravel washboards of Holmes Road into high relief. Riding the abandoned section between Roxbury and Woodbury was an act of faith, our tires crunching leaves and twigs and bouncing over unseen rocks.

There were smells, too. The sharpness of downed leaves, the sweetness of Concord grapes, the muskiness of the donkeys in the pasture on Bacon Road.

Autumn riding just rocks.

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