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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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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