Sunday, October 26, 2014

Riding the Robert Frost Trail in Amherst

A quick, late-night photo report on a stellar ride today on single-track I'd not explored before: The Robert Frost  Trail, specifically the segment from behind Cherry Hill golf course in North Amherst to Atkins Reservoir, and back again.

I started out by climbing the long hill up the south side of the golf course, for which effort I was amply rewarded at the top.

Working my way past the back of the course and on to the RFT led me through much ruggedness. If you have full suspension, bring it. If you got no suspension (beyond a fat front tire) like me -- leave the Advil out for that night when you go to bed. You'll be aching here and there.

A long climb and some road crossing brought me to a narrow, off-camber passage up to Bridge Street, with a sparkling autumnal brook crashing down below. I walked much of this very narrow and rocky/rooty passage, and found that plenty challenging as it was. Note the thin trail at bottom right, squeezing past the tree.

Further on, and more road crossings down the trail, a picture-perfect bend in the river.

Finally -- for today, at least -- a lovely rolling section between Flat Hills and the Atkins Reservoir, worth the whole bouncy, steep trip to that point. The vista at the res was of the moody Octoberish variety .

On the return trip, I discovered a brief short cut that removed the worst of the dangerous, narrow, and stupid-steep stuff. Eight miles total, and almost 900 feet of climbing. You can bet I'll be back, as soon as possible.

In a only somewhat coincidental note, I've been reading a Frost collection this week, rediscovering the many faces of this master many think of as the avuncular rock-ribbed uncle, but who, in fact, knew as much of the dark as he did of the light that both make our home place so entrancing.

As I say to anyone who'll listen, people come from all around the world to see this area at this time of year. Get out there -- and take a few minutes at the vistas to let it soak in. 

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Salsa Mukluk: Now With Half the Fat!

I dutifully turned in the Jamis Dragon 650b Pro I'd been testing for my LBS a few weeks ago, and, missing the relief that front suspension brought to my wrists and shoulders, decided to give a rather odd set-up for my Salsa Mukluk a second try.

A couple months ago, I dropped a few bucks on a duplicate brake rotor, installed it on the original fat front wheel, and threw the whole deal in the front fork. This set-up is commonly referred to as fat-front (though I've resolved to come up with a more euphonious moniker -- maybe fat-head?). I think it looks wicked cool.

At the time, I gave it a go on a local trail, and was so horrified by the extra weight and slower handling that I swapped it back out after only one ride. Later, after my interval with the nicely-suspended Dragon front end, I went back to my fully-rigid Muk, and the wrist and hand stiffness returned. So, I put the fat wheel back on the front, resolving to give it a good chance this time.

After a few rides, I started to really enjoy myself. I wasn't nearly as sore as I'd been when riding the 29er front wheel in the rigid aluminum fork, and, with the deal, I gained some of the handling benefits of suspension from the big, soft tire.

The fat tire rolls over tall roots and jagged rocks that would give my 29er front wheel pause -- literally. So, when climbing, I have way fewer dead stops from hitting obstacles at awkward moments, even when handling an off-camber switchback. On sharp turns and descents, I get to trust my front tire a tremendous amount; the stock Surly Nates are heavily lugged and, of course, wide enough to save my bacon in many situations where I feared for my precious neck.

Granted, a fat tire is never going to handle as smoothly as a suspension fork, but I have a thing for trail feel; I find the constant flow of communications through my hands indispensable to safe and nimble riding (if a little exhausting after a couple hours).

When descending especially fast, straight, and rocky/rooty sections, I still get terribly blurry vision from all the jarring and bouncing, a clear disadvantage compared to a properly adjusted fork. (I try to think of this as a safety feature -- it keeps me from overdoing the speed on descents.)

The extra weight of the wheel, tire, and elephantine inner tube -- a hefty four or five pounds -- is not as much of a drag (pun intended) as I expected. A heavier front end stays down more. There are very few moments in which it bounces high off an obstacle on a steep climb and throws me off balance. Even though I'm pushing over thirty pounds up the steep New England slopes,  this increased flow on the climbs means less exhaustion overall.

Another note regarding added weight: I've explained elsewhere that I believe that the body adapts to a reasonable level of weight variation on a bicycle. On the days when I feel exhausted riding the fat-front set-up, I'd be exhausted riding anything. On the days when I'm whippy on this set-up -- I'd be whippy on anything.

Finally, why fat-front and not fully fat, as the bike was designed? Simple: I don't need the extra four or five pounds on the back during the warm months. The 2.2 Maxxis Ardent on the back is rugged enough to handle most challenges, until the snow flies. I don't mind adapting to weight if it saves my wrists, but an extra five pounds to gain maybe 15% more traction? Nah. I'll just hike-a-bike a couple more super-steep pitches.

Having a dishless 29er rear wheel custom built on a special hub for a fat bike is not for everyone (and not every fat bike will accommodate it). But if you have the scratch, or the spare parts, give it a go; you may never go back to suspension forks again.

Heck, the conversations you start at the trailhead may be worth the price of entry alone.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Jamis Dragon 650b Pro: First Impressions

My experiment with the Salsa Mukluk as a 29er has been very successful, and certainly isn't over, but as I've hinted in these pages recently, I've been hankering to try out a purpose-built mountain bike. Something a bit easier on the wrists and nimbler in the tight spaces those crazy New England mountain bikers go flying thourgh. I've been thinking about a hard-tail because a) I don't have almost no experience with suspension and wanted to keep it simple, b) I have an old-school esthetic, and c) I ain't got the scratch for a truly nice full-suspension rig. (What is up with $5,000 bicycles?)

Through the good graces of Will Sytsma at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange in Amherst, I got the chance to do an extended test ride on one of the most fabled hard-tails in the industry, though in a new incarnation.

Jamis has been making their Dragon in 26er form for over 20 years. Soulful Reynolds 853 steel --legendary for being light and stiff -- and a first-rate spec have been the main attractions all that time. Now, they've released a 650b version, a wheel-size I've been curious about. It comes with a full X9 drivetrain front-to-back, and killer Fox Float fork. And only 26 pounds! I enthusiastically signed on.

The day the bike came in, I was knocked right out by the delicious paint job:

Jamis calls it Root Beer, but they're wrong. When I got it home, Mrs. V took one look at it and nailed it: Cherry Cola. A metallic-flaked, earthy brown with deep candy-apple undertones. In fact, the whole build is drop-dead gorgeous. Many well-placed white highlights (including two white spokes on either side of each tube valve for quick trailside top-offs) balance out the classic lines.

I've taken it out about six or so times on trails from buff to gnarly. Let's talk first about the wheel size:

Part of the pleasure of the smaller wheels is the ease of lofting the front end on to obstacles large and small, and this proved very welcome here in New England. The greater maneuverability of the wheels  (and the shorter wheelbase compared to the laid-back Mukluk) also meant switchbacky descents were just killer fun. This bike is a bit more trail- than race-oriented, so the geometry is fairly slack, but it's still way more responsive than my stately Mukluk. Speeding the Dragon through S-curves, all I need do is point my chin where I want my front tire to end up, and bang! It's there. That quickly. 


However, the smaller wheels did mean that I had to work harder. I learned mountain biking on a 29er, and got very used to plowing right over obstacles that give smaller wheels pause (literally). With the 650s, I need much more momentum, strength, and skill to get over those same tall roots or bulky rocks. Now, if you learned on a 26er, these babies will probably seem cushy as heck to you...

Having little experience with suspension, my opinion about the fork has to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I really like the Fox Float 32. For one thing, it's finely tune-able. I've fiddled with the rebound and three-step compression settings (Lock-out, Trail, and Descend), and have enjoyed the fine-grain differences they yield, when combined with rebound adjustments. I can give myself just a little cush with quick response, allowing me still to feel the trail -- very important to my rigid-trained brain. I suspect this fork stacks up extremely well against similarly-priced competition.

The X9 shifting is the best I've experienced on a mountain bike -- swift and positive, even with tension on the chain. It's been a pleasure. The handsome white section on the rear derailleur neatly ties in the white bands on the paint frame and the white fork stanchions. I'll say it again: This bike is esthetically flawless.

A few quibbles with the stock set-up:

I found the stock tires -- 2.2-inch Geax Saguaros  -- good enough on very buff terrain, but not great for more typcial Western Mass trails, crowded as they are with damp roots or marbly gravel. The center knobs are not very bulky, and, even tubeless, the Saguaros lost their grip more than my beloved Maxxis Ardents on my Mukluk. With that said, I know a rider in this area with more skills and strength than me who finds them more than good enough.

The Ritchey Trail handlebars are handsome and have a nice sweep. They're also quite wide: at 755 mm, they provide a ton of leverage through hardened ruts or rock gardens. They're also occasionally too expansive for the many sapling squeezes in Western Mass, and -- in combo with the 100 mm Trail stem --  flatten my back and thrust my head further over the bars than I care for. However, a simple stem replacement and hacksaw to the bar ends can fix this problem.

In sum:

This is a gorgeous and flawlessly functioning bicycle. I'm hesitant to say any more than that, because  the qualms I have about it have more to do with me as a rider than the bike per se. If you are a true intermediate-or-above rider, or are used to smaller wheels, or live somewhere with mostly buff trails, you're going to flat-out fall in love with this slick piece of steel.

(A word to the wise: My test ride period is over, and the bike is back on the sales floor at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange for a smokin' price. It's a 17-inch model. 'Nuff said.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

New Trail on Mt. Warner in Hadley

Pioneer Valley mountain bikers (and hikers) should know about the lovely new trail that's sprung up on Mt. Warner in North Hadley over the last year.  If you like the buff, flowy nature of Earl's Trails, there's a pleasant surprise waiting for you on this scenic hillside.

Mt. Warner is well-known amongst locals as the easy-to-spot high point in Hadley, one of the lowest-lying Pioneer Valley towns. There's some evidence that so-called Paleo-Indians were there as long ago as 10,000 BC, and that the more recent Norwottuck tribe hunted there quite a bit. Later settlers left behind two handsome artesian wells in remote places on the hill.

For almost as long, locals have made other kinds of use of the hillside: hiking, cross-country skiing, hunting, and, yes, mountain biking. However, the property was all private, and usage rights were contentious and unclear.  Trails consisted either of neglected cart and jeep trails, or unmarked, complex spur trails.

In 2009, The Trustees of Reservations, a venerable Massachusetts organization dedicated to preserving local places of natural beauty, acquired 156 acres (amid a larger protected area of about 500 acres, including neighboring Lake Warner) and set about to preserve and develop it for wise and enjoyable outdoor usage. Within the last year, Pioneer Valley director Josh Knox and a varied team of staffers and volunteers (recently including me!) have developed a lovely two-mile trail, mostly new but incorporating existing paths where possible.

I've been riding this yellow-blazed Salamander Loop Trail trail for months now, and believe it compares quite favorably to some of the best riding in the Valley

When taken clockwise, climbing is moderate, though fairly sustained through the middle third of the trail. When you top out at the site of a former fire tower, take a moment to pause at this cool, refreshing spot, listening for birds and local fauna. Then tighten your shoes, because next comes a delightful half-mile or so of swoopy descent, including switchbacks just tight enough to be scary if you bomb them, and simply fun if you don't. The last third of a mile, like the first portion of the trail, rolls gently through open trees, separated by swaths of dark-green ferns, and shot through with beams of sunlight on a clear day.

Intentions to develop further official trails do exist, but are currently in conceptual stage only.

Though all are welcome to ride or hike the trail now -- I met four first-timers there just this past Sunday afternoon -- the reservation will open officially on Saturday, October 18, 2014, with a ribbon cutting and guided hike at 10:30 a.m., followed by food and festivities at the popular North Hadley Sugar Shack, just around the corner from the Reservation. For more info, go here.

Finding the trailhead is a bit subtle right now, as road signage is still in the works. Simply put, look for an unmarked gravel driveway on the north side of Mt. Warner Road, half-way up the hill from where the road branches off of Route 47. This driveway leads to a nice, new gravel parking lot.

Get out there and have fun -- fall is here and the air is crisp!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Salsa Mukluk as a Rigid 29er: The Ups and Downs

It's been nearly four months since Will Sytsma (owner of Hampshire Bicycle Exchange, in Amherst, MA) built a sleek pair of custom 29er wheels for my Salsa Mukluk (which I reported on here). The main reason I've posted so infrequently since then is that I've been out riding the dickens out of them, and having a blast learning to mountain bike.

It's been a gorgeous summer here in New England, and I've been riding a lot on local trail systems large and small, buff and rugged. Here are some of the conclusions I've drawn from the experience.

First, the rigidity: It's wonderful! And... it sucks.

It's wonderful that I have a quality 26-pound, 29-inch mountain bike; it climbs really nicely and the only real limiter is in my lungs, not my legs. It's wonderful when I stand and stomp, and the bike takes off like a rocket. When I lean into a turn, nothing—I mean nothing—flexes. It's wonderful that I got all of this for a mere five or so hundred dollars for the extra wheels and tires.

It sucks when I go over endless tall roots or "bony" (boulder-ridden) trails; my wrists, hands, shoulders, and neck have taken quite the beating this summer. (Though the recent addition of ergonomic grips has helped a bit.) It sucks when I'm climbing for my life, hit a switchback, and my path is obstructed by obstacles; where a suspended bike might allow me to just roll over what's in the way, with this bike, I have to pick a line right at the least opportune moment, when most of the weight's on the back tire, I'm going 2 mph, and I'm already deep into a turn.

I'm a beginning mountain biker and I've been watching how-to videos, sessioning trails, and practicing skills in my backyard for months. As my abilities develop, I've been able to lessen the impact of each of these problems, and I've really enjoyed the ease and pride that come with the achievements. But when push comes to shove, I'm 50 years old, and my body won't take the beating forever. As I get better, I ride more advanced trails, and, around New England, that means a lot of rugged stuff.

That's not changing until the next ice age, which, by all indications, is quite some time off.

This report might be very different if I'd written it about a more forgiving, all-steel bike. My frame is aluminum, famous for its stiffness and harshness, and the Salsa Bearpaw fork is aluminum, too. The custom wheels had to be dishless (because they're built on wider-that-usual hubs to fit the fat bike dropouts), which means they, too, are extra stiff. You can't get a much stiffer bike.

The geometry of the bike does help a little with the rigidity problems. This isn't your typical 29er -- not even a typical fully-rigid one. It's built for unbeatable stability on soft or slippery surfaces, which means that the wheelbase is long, the head tube angle is a bit slacker than usual, and the chainstays are way out there in la-la land. But in the end, the aluminum wins out, because it doesn't flex much no matter how long it is. The long stays and wheelbase do make handling stable—but that can also mean sluggish, especially in moments when I really need a quick response (as on the switchbacky climbs).

One possible bonus to the 29er Mukluk set-up is that the stiffness and lightness help a lot when I'm going straight up. Climbing is fast and made a bit less stressful by the low 22 x 34 lowest gear (suited to heavier tires and wheels).

In summary:

Am I glad I had the wheels built? You bet. Have I learned more by learning to mountain bike on a set-up that will feed back every tiny decision I make? Certainly. So let's be honest: with all the limitations, I've had more fun than should be legal on this version of the Muk. (The respect and interest it gets at the trailhead doesn't hurt either; I've not seen one other 29er-converted fat bike all season.)

In the end, two facts sum up my rigid 29er Mukluk experience: (1) I've been shopping for a purpose-built mountain bike for a month now; it would be full-suspension if I could afford a decent one, but will likely end up being a hardtail. I'm so looking forward to seeing how that suspension fork eases my riding experience. (Much more on that bike when it comes to fruition.) (2) Once I do find that bike, I really hope I don't have to sell the Mukluk to afford it. I want to keep it, along with both fat and 29er wheel sets, because (apart from the many ridiculous joys of riding fat) there are certain extra-buff trails around here I'm always going to love ripping on my unique, light, stiff 29er.