A Moment

We rode eight miles of singletrack after work yesterday. It was hard because the ground was soft, and because the climbs where we rode are ridiculous and the trails are mostly rock gardens, and because we didn’t go easy. We got back to the parking lot tired and dirty and bruised and bloody. Then the camp chairs came out and Chris’s home brew came out and we sat and talked like three friends until moonrise.

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Living in New England

Roxbury snirt 2-10-18

My driveway might have been the sketchiest bit. One to two inches of solid ice filled the wheel ruts. But my bike went straight up the icy, 14% grade, with no problem. Studded snow tires work. So, yeah, I have studded snow tires on my bike. Because I don’t just reside in New England; I live here. A lot of people think our weather is shitty. It drove some good friends who recently retired to move to Florida with not a backward glance. Others plan to do the same.

I intend to die here.

Maybe it’s that I live in a small town which runs on volunteerism and agency. If you want something to happen, you get off your ass and make it so. Volunteers run the town, coach sports, douse fires, and perform CPR. We clean up trash from the roads in front of our houses. This is our town. This is my town.

But it’s also about the weather. How it affects me feels right.

We get long summer days with low humidity and clear skies and daylight until almost 9 PM. These are spectacular, although once past the solstice, also tinged with sadness as the daylight begins to wane. Summer days can also be miserably hot; days when just moving makes sweat flow and the humidity brings afternoon thunderstorms like squalls in a hurricane and rain that comes down in a waterfall.

In the fall, we have crisp, apple-orchard days that smell like harvest and trees that rival a Crayola box’s color. Somber November days follow when daylight fails and cold rain culls the remaining leaves into a sodden, brown layer of mulch. When the branches are bare, the rocky bones of the land are laid out for viewing and you can see where the little streams flow and where the old roads go. In the woods, the sour, yeasty smell of this year’s dead leaves fills your nose with the promise of next year’s growth.

Come winter, snow turns New England pure, hiding all its imperfections. And then it melts and becomes an imperfection of its own making. There are frozen days when the forest views go on into the distance and the trails ring when walked upon. As long as our summer days are, so are our below-zero nights when the air is clean and filled with stars. Snaps from tree sap turning to ice and cracking the wood of the oaks and beeches punctuates the conversation of the hungry, hunting owls. The warmth of a wood stove or of a pile of blankets is as right as the warmth of the sun on a green-grass spring day.

In February, the month of fever, we feel the daylight returning, measured at more than two minutes a day, the same rate as November stole it from us. It’s still cold, it still snows, but that winter is ending is undeniable. Maple sap flows and sugar houses steam. Later, spring becomes an easy, months-long Mardi Gras  filled with the laughter of woodpeckers bobbing through the air. Fecundity and possibility reign.

These weathers provide rhythm to life. I ride my bike in most. When it’s hot, or cold, or wet, or dark, and I ride anyway, I am of this place. I don’t get that hiding from the weather in a spin class.

 

 

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The Month of Fever

It’s been a weird weather February. Snow, rain, then yesterday, sunny and 72F. It never hits 72F in February. There was a 6 hour window of warmth, dry trails, and daylight. I hit Waldo at 4 o’clock. None of my riding partners could get free, and I can only imagine the suckage of that, so I had to ride alone.

Had. To. Ride.

Riding hard, quads burning, sweat dripping in my eyes, lungs screaming for more air. My empty  bottle fell out of its cage unnoticed and became trail swag for someone. It was glorious. I rode every singletrack at Waldo in both directions, aerobic all the way, pushing my lactate threshold again and again. Riding out, I was beat. I bashed my shoulder into a tree in the last mile, fumbled terrain I always clean. It didn’t matter. It was 72 degrees in February.

This morning, every part of me remembers yesterday.

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Yeah, Baby!

(Note: I wrote this a year ago in 2017. Not sure why I never published it then. It was a fun read for me, because I’m cleaning half the stuff I didn’t when I wrote this piece. And I’m glad there’s still stuff I don’t clean.

It was 50 degrees. Korey looked at what I was wearing and said incredulously, “Do you know where we’re going?”

Korey and at Chris were in shorts. I was overdressed, but damn, it’s February. In New England. The leg-warmers came off and we headed out to the mud of River Road. A quarter of a mile on, we ducked onto a trail, up and over a rise and a rock garden and then down a steep, rocky bit. It’s wet and I’m nervous. Keep my weight back, relax, look ahead, ride it out.

We hit some fast and twisty rollers next, roll down and up a gully, and then dismount to carry our bikes up the stairs to the narrow truss bridge, all twisted laterally from the floods a couple of years back. Across the river, we walk some rocks and then mount up, riding the old rail bed for half a mile or so, legs cold from puddle splash.

It’s coming. I know it. We turn off the old train bed, almost back parallel to it, and hit the wall. I’m not warmed up. No one is. My friends clean the pitch, but I spin out at the bottom and trot up. (2018 – Still not cleaning this – It’s a goal) The grade lessens. I remount, start spinning. Almost make the top, but I’m in too low a gear and a big rock stops me. How the hell do you get over a big rock in the middle of a climb? (2018 – Clean this) I wonder. I know, speed. Korey and Chris are out of sight over the top. It flattens and I ride hard to catch them, lungs burning.

Downhill now. Remember what Jeff said. Relax. Trust your bike. Look ahead. Don’t look at your wheel. If an obstacle is at your wheel, it’s too late anyway. Trail. Trail. Where’s the trail? There. Korey and Chris are waiting for me. Down the old log road, through rocks furry with moss. Plan your line, I think. Roll, bump, back wheel bounce. I’m through. Let it roll down to the hayfield. I blow the big stream crossing, but now I see the line is between the rocks and not to the side. Next time. (2018 – Clean it)

Catch up, dart through the stone wall, cross the stream; pedal, pedal, pedal, don’t lose momentum. And here it comes. The real climb. It’s insanely steep. Not even Korey cleans it. Chris tries hard though, his breathing sounding like a rutting buck. (2018 – Still no)

Over the top, across the charcoal mound left from when colliers used to burn piles of wood to make charcoal for the iron furnace, through the laurels and over the stream. I hit it too slow. Stop in the middle, my left foot in the water. Fuck me. Waddle out, clip in, pedal. New bike. Trust the bike. And now we’re out on Weller’s Bridge. Turning around on the pavement, we head back the way we came. Trails look completely different depending on the direction you ride them.

I nail the stream crossing this time, but only make it part way up the next climb. (2018 – Clean it sometimes) Then a quick left onto what I think of as the Laurel Trail. It’s a short, technical climb that I walk up, to a serpentine trail that slots through a grove of laurels with almost no room for a bike. (2018 – Clean it) Ride, ride, ride. Can’t see my boys. Hill. Trail. Where’s the damn trail? There it is. Center my weight. Pedalpedalpedal. And spin out. Damn. (2018 – Clean it) Trotting again, then I’m rolling the rock ledge on top, onto another old log road, or maybe it’s the same one. I don’t know. We never ride it through, stopping at one point and reversing. (2018 – Rode it out last fall) Korey and Chris are waiting for me, and it’s back through the laurels. I clean the trail. Never did that before. Sweet!

Down the big hill that Chris rutted up, across the little stream cleanly, back through the stone wall. Zig. Zag. Fast. Coming back, I clean the big stream crossing. First time. I whoop. Chris hollers back, “That sounded like a fucking whale breaching!”

We slow through the hayfield, chat a little about bikes, and we’re going up the log road. I follow Chris’s line, give him shit about how bad it is, and then make it uphill though most of the rock garden. The spot I don’t clean, Chris misses too. I don’t feel so bad. (2018 – Spent half an hour sessioning this last fall. Still not cleaning it.) We ride on. I stop to pull a stick out of my wheel, clip in, pedal. Hill. Where’s the trail? There’s the trail. Steep. Center my weight. Pedalpedalpedal. Damn! I’m up the steep part. Lungs on fire, I pick a line through some rocks to finish the climb and I’m over. Riding down now, I drop easily over the rock that stopped me coming in and it’s down the first big hill. I give the bike her lead. Yeah, I’m thinking of my bike as a she now. Picking a good line, we pick up speed. The back wheel slips out on a curve, just a little, just enough to caution me because next comes the really steep part but there’s a great run out at the bottom and no rocks and then I’m back on the rail bed and riding out.

Feeling good. I rode that better than ever before. We drink a beer or two in the parking lot, but it’s colder now and even Chris’s propane heater doesn’t compete with the call of home and dinner.

 

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The Mountain Biking Uncertainty Theory

I paid a social call this week to one of my two bike shops. Greg, the owner, and I were talking about how in New England, trail features often change radically over short distances. It’s a climb. Now a rock garden. Here’s a skinny. Get across that stone wall. Descent. Turn. Log pile. And that’s the first mile. He said that when he’d ridden in Moab, it was boring.

Wait – What? I’ve never ridden in Moab. I’ve hiked and rafted there. It’s stunningly beautiful, and I love visiting. I’ve never ridden there though, and I very much want to. Or I did. Now it’s boring?

When I mentioned Greg’s comment to my wife, and how I thought there might be truth in it, she looked at me like I was crazy. I think she thinks that I shortchange the beauty of wild places by using them as playgrounds.

She asked, “Don’t you ever just take a leisurely bike ride?”

I thought for a second and said, “Not really.”

I think mountain biking happens on a continuum. On one side is pure fun. The other side is the beauty of the place. Each locale demands an assessment – Adrenaline or serenity? It’s parallel to Heisenberg’s uncertainty theory – You can know where you are or you can know how fast you’re going: Pick one. You can take in the views, or you can ride hard: Pick one.

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Winter Optimism

I like riding with Chris. He’s better than me, patient, shares my nihilistic sense of humor, and he brews damn good beer. Plus, no sunshine patriot or summer soldier, he’s willing to give the trails a try in the winter. Which is what we did the other day. We’d had snow, then rain that washed it away, and then cold air which lured us with the promise of frozen ground. Add in a sunny afternoon with temps in the 20s, which was to be followed by several days of weather best described as “shite”, and we had to give it a go.

We took the back door into the preserves, a trail almost no one except a few mtbers seems to know exists. We encountered a little ice right away, enough maybe to turn less optimistic people back, but not us. It was only a quarter of a mile farther in, and significantly downhill, when I started thinking we were in trouble. Sliding sideways into the weeds along a level, but off-camber section of trail is what clued me in. The further we went, the more ice we found. On the west side of the Shepaug, the rocks at the end of the bridge were covered with ice. That’s hike-a-bike territory in June. Wearing bike shoes with hard plastic soles, we had no hope of safely getting across that 30 feet of ground. We turned back.

Because it had a sunnier exposure, we thought we’d be able to ride more and walk less by taking the regular hiking path out. Nope. We did get to ride down one steep chute, and that was fun, but we had to dismount and clamber down the bottom few feet, counting on hemlock roots sticking half an inch or less above the ice for traction. While holding our bikes. Even though they were ice-covered, we rode the level areas okay, but the two rocky scrambles were sketchy as hell. I wouldn’t have been comfortable on them with hiking boots, never mind cycling shoes and hauling a bike.

But, we made it. At the end, we road across a snow covered field around the pond, and then up the short gravel road to the parking lot. Where, despite our low miles, we celebrated with a beer.

Last night, I rode my trainer for an hour. Our hike-a-bike was much more fun.

 

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Look Up, Ride It Out

I think it may be that simple. I hit the trails twice this week and both days got through some shit for the first time. It’s the steeper climbs that get me, and at least to some degree, I think that’s because it’s so easy to look down at the front wheel rather than up the trail. Then when the wheel hits an obstacle, that’s the focus and all momentum dies.

This week, I focused ahead more than I ever had. And when something slowed down on a climb, I got out of the saddle and torqued the pedals. That got me up one hill for the first time, got me clean through one rock garden for the first time, and opened my eyes. Looking forward to the next Preserves ride – That 47% grade pitch is going to be mine this year.

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