Wednesday, August 19, 2015

No-mind Mountain Biking

I've been meditating again lately.

I did it for years back in the 90s and early 2000s, then got distracted. It's great to be back. When I sit down for a morning meditation, I feel oddly like I do before I climb on my mountain bike at the trailhead: a sense of anticipation. "Let's see what this brings!" I look forward to the challenge of allowing discomfort or relaxation or numbness to arise and pass, without shooting off into worries about the day, or thoughts of when this will be over. 

Full awareness is one of those undersold treasures of life: It doesn't cost a penny, yet even a drop of it enriches my life immensely.

One of the places it does that is on the trail. It's long been fashionable in mountain biking circles to talk about the Zen of riding. For me, that's more than a metaphor. Let’s look at a ride at my local haunt after work recently:

Swooping through a turn I used to skid through on the brakes, my heightened alertness allows me to notice my center of gravity shift slightly forward to stay over the bottom bracket. I press my feet into the pedals at the apex of the turn, and  feel the weight coming off my hands just a tad, the tires sinking into the dirt, and the front wheel adjusting its turn angle minutely in each part of the turn. Best of all, none of this is calculated; it just happens—again and again, turn after turn. I feel like I’m surfing. Because my mind isn't clouded with worry about my abilities, I swoosh over rocks and roots I used to walk around.

As a beginner, I've absorbed many technique tutorials that sometimes when I ride, my mind is like a swarm of gnats. Those well-meaning guides can make a simple sweeping turn into brain surgery. In those precious moments when my mind is off-duty and I'm tuned into my body, that turn becomes a sensual experience. My body teaches itself what it needs to cooperate with the bike, with the terrain, with gravity. All those elements become a river, flowing smoothly downhill.

Is this refreshing emptiness of mind a benefit of riding so much that the complex parts of technique come together on their own? Or has this leap come from my increase in awareness off the bike? There's no answer in that chicken-and-egg question, and I'm not asking. I'm too absorbed in the moment -- this rock to hop, this slight dip to pump, this opening of the trail at the bottom of the hill, where I zoom out into the clearing and let out a whoop, exhilarated and rested at the same time.

Tomorrow morning will find me sitting in my room, marinating in the silence, letting go into the adventure.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Backdoor Wild

On a weekend camping trip 1.5 hours from our house
I’ve been reading a bit of Alastair Humphreys’ wonderful blog today, and thinking about wildness.

Humphries is a professional adventurer with all kinds of major expeditions under his belt, including cycling around the world and sailing solo across the Atlantic. After writing and talking about these for a few years, he realized that most of the people who loved his work never got to do the grand adventures he specialized in. So he changed career directions, and started undertaking what he calls microadventures: small escapes not far from where you live. They don’t cost much, don’t require much time off, and are scalable to one’s skills and fitness. He says this idea has really taken off with his readers.

After perusing his thoughts this morning, I did a few hours of work, changed, and rode off to the local trail I use for quick weekday morning rides. It’s just a mile or two from my door. I adore this trail, almost too much. Sometimes I have to avoid riding it for a week or two, because I get tired of it. I know where every rock and root is. Today was my first time back after such a break.

It was a sunny, humid day, but not overbearing; just enough to create that deep summer feeling. I was sore and tired from recent hard rides, so I decided to take it easy up the climbs. Moving slower and breathing easier, I was able to notice that the light is changing as we move into August, becoming more stark and silvery, a little taste of the amazing autumn light in New England. Ferns were dark green, lush, and thick throughout the lower, parkland portions of the reservation.

At the top of the trail, resisting the thought that I “should” pedal through and start the descent right away (the tough-guy thing to do), I dismounted, leaned the bike against a tree, and took a few minutes to open my senses and take in what Momma Nature had laid out for me this morning. A woodpecker was taking single, isolated whacks at a tree not too far away. Odd—they’re usually fast as jackhammers. The water in the vernal pool far below the trail was scant, dark with tannins, and green with seepage from soaked vegetation. Late summer was showing off everywhere I looked.

I asked myself, as I took in the deep colors and soft sounds, how much farther away from civilization I’d need to be to feel satisfied at that moment. The answer, at that moment, was “I’m satisfied here and now.”

Wild is where you find it. In the right frame of mind, I’ve found it in a vestpocket park in Manhattan. Don’t get me wrong; all kinds of great benefits come from creating a novel-length packing list and launching off to parts untouched by humans. But many of those boons can be had, in smaller but much more frequent doses, a mile or two from my house.

Maybe yours, too.
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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Five Ways to Have Fun with Unfit Riders

I'm not a fast or skilled bike rider, either on road or trail. Over the years, I've been slowly making peace with this. But sometimes, those who are quick and deft seem determined to rub it in my face with their cheerful competence.

As if it weren't annoying enough to ride with people who are way fitter, and, in mountain biking, way more graceful that you, those people often have an uncanny talent for saying and doing insulting things. My theory is that people who are naturally talented are blessed with a blissful ignorance of what it means to struggle on a bike. They usually make miserable teachers and coaches, because they have no idea what they're doing that makes them so phenomenal. As the old saying goes, "Those who can't do, teach"—because they put long hours of practice and thought into whatever small advantage have.

If you're one of those talented folks, well, I'm just so happy for you! To reward you for your undeserved, inborn specialness, I'm offering up a few ways you can add to your fun when you're out there with a lesser rider. All of the following have happened to me at least once:
  • Take them to a technically demanding trail, and then assure them that, despite their dire misgivings, they can handle it. As reassurance and a way to question their courage, mention the 73-year-old grandmother who regularly rides that trail—on a rigid singlespeed. Be assertive; sometimes, healthy, rational fear can be difficult to overcome. I ended up with a bruised femur this way, a bunch of years back.
  • When they balk at riding a feature you just sailed over, say, "Wow, I thought I was the one who had trouble with that kind of thing!" A rider once said this to me on our very first ride together.
  • Invite them for their first road ride with you and a friend, and then take off out of sight with your friends when they lag a bit. For extra credit, fall into your habitual paceline with your friend, and then just roll out again without a word when they finally catch up with you at the intersection where you're waiting for them. 
  • When they're suffering like a dog on a long, steep climb, get to the top ahead of them—and then sail back down and ride up again, right next to them, chatting away, and asking questions they can't answer in their hypoxic state. If they say they're about to vomit, it's especially helpful to ask, "Do you have that metallic taste in the back of your throat?"
  • If they get a flat, grab the pump out of their hands and loudly announce, "I have tons of experience with flats, it'll be faster for the group if I do this." For bonus points, neglect to center the brakes on their road bike after you re-mount the wheel. What hijinx! They'll puzzle over their abysmal fitness while trying to keep up with the group, only to find out later that their brakes were dragging.
There are so many more ways to have fun with your unfit friends. Feel free to post them here and share!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

One More Version of the Mukluk: Hardtail 29er

I guess you could say that I backed my way into this whole mountain biking thing.

Two Januaries ago, I test-rode a Salsa Mukluk fat bike, and had so much fun, I bought the thing within the week. I spent that winter floating on snowmo trails in the beautiful farm country I call home.

Toward the spring of 2014, I had Will Systsma at Hampshire Bicycle Exchange build me a pair of dishless 29er wheels on extra-wide hubs, to fit the Mukluk frame. I wandered out on the fine single-track of Western mass and spent the summer trying to learn how to mountain bike with a very rigid bike (like, with an aluminum frame and fork and super-stiff wheels):
 Late in the season, I threw on the fat front wheel to minimize some of the New England trail abuse and keep the light front end down on climbs. This was quite a fun iteration, allowing me to carve and bomb trails with a little more authority. I also loved the double-takes it got at the trail-head:
Fat-front Mukluk
As this spring was approaching, I had the shop order and mount a 100mm Rockshox Bluto fork, the first suspension fork manufactured especially for fat bikes. We mounted the non-fat wheels with it, and for the last month, since the trails started drying, I've been riding a hard-tail 29er:
A very wide stance for the stanchions
Most experienced riders have probably done that whole sequence of wheels in a very different order, but two things have always been true of yours truly: 1) I'm either late or early to every fad; and 2) I never, ever do things the easy way.

I haven't had a ton of experience with suspension forks, so if you've come here for a comparative statement about the Bluto versus your Reba or Fox Float 32, you should Google that, and satisfy your soul. (Spoiler alert: The comparisons are mostly complimentary, with a minority complaining about flex in the Bluto's long, skinny legs.) Speaking for myself, with some time to tinker with the sometimes-contradictory functions of air pressure, rebound, and compression, I've begun to figure out how this newfangled suspension-fork thingy helps stuff like turning, rough terrain riding, and so forth.

There are some oddities to this set-up; after all, we're talking about a converted fat bike here. First, the Mukluk's 68.5 degree head tube angle is slacker than most 29er hardtails (and a lot of full-sus bikes); combine that with the long wheel base, and the bike is squarely in the trail-bike geometry range, but without the usual rear shock. This relaxed front end makes me feel confident attacking rocks and logs, although I do get a lot of saddle bucking from the rigid back as a result.

The relaxed head tube angle also means that I have to get lower and lean the bike more for turns. Tight New England switchbacks, in particular, are a challenge; the bike has an tangential tendency that I'm still learning to correct, via extra leaning and hip twisting. By comparison, when I rode the ridiculously fun and agile Jamis Dragon Pro last fall—a bike with 20 mm more travel up front, but a way shorter wheelbase and chain stays, and, of course, smaller wheels (27.5 inches) I found, even with my beginner skills, that I could telepathically weave through narrow chicanes and switchbacks.
2014 Jamis Dragon Pro
Finally, I'm not experienced enough to judge the nuances of how the stiff, dishless rear wheel, in combination with the stiff aluminum chainstays, affect handling. I'm guessing they provide a lot of support for standing and hammering on the pedals, but might make choppy terrain a little less forgiving than would, for example, a steel hardtail with a standard-dish wheel.

These quirks aside (and what bike doesn't have its trade-offs?) I'm having a blast on the new set-up, and my riding is improving. I may still be in the market for an affordable dual-suspension bike (because my middle-aged body and modest athletic talent will make the most of it) but for the non, I'm happily reeling in the learning and the miles on my unique Mukluk hardtail. Look for me out there, and, as always, get out and ride!
Making the most of a new fork and a sloppy early spring

Thursday, May 7, 2015

St. George: Mountain Biking in Paradise

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to go and do my favorite thing in the world in my favorite place in the world: I went mountain biking in southern Utah.

Mrs. V and I were visiting her parents in St. George, which is fast emerging as a competitor with Moab for the United States Mecca for mountain biking. Before arriving, I found a local store to rent a bike from, and researched good beginner trails. There are so many systems in the St. George area, it was hard to choose.

After a day spent catching up with friends and family in the Salt Lake area, Mrs. V and I got in the rental car and drove from the massive alpine mountain ranges of northern Utah to the unearthly desert paradise of the south.

I only get to this part of the world every five or ten years, but as soon as I see the cliffs turning to red rock, I get high as a kite. I have the overpowering feeling that I’ve transcended to a higher plane.

When we arrived at my in-laws' house in St. George, I couldn't believe my eyes: a huge network of unmarked trails ran right out their back door, a latticework of options that stretched out to sun-baked, red-rock mesas in the distanceThe region seems to have alluring trailheads like this every few miles. To drive around there is to be constantly nettled by the itch to get out there.

I rudely took my leave and shot over to the bike store and picked up my 2015 Specialized Camber Comp—a full-suspension, 110 mm travel 29er that walks the line between cross-country and trail bike. Since I spent my whole first year of mountain biking on a rigid bike, and just upgraded to a hard-tail a month ago, this was a major upgrade for me and I couldn't wait to set it up and fool around on it.

My last mountain biking experience in this part of the world turned out pretty sadly -- I’d never ridden a mountain bike before, and an exuberant friend talked me into starting on the famed Slickrock trail in Moab. I crashed badly, bruised my hip bone, and was off the bike for weeks. Though I have more trail experience now, I still had fears about transferring my newbie New England MTB skills to the Southwest. They proved unfounded. Partly due to the confidence-inspiring bike (about which, more below), and partly because I stuck to basic trails, I didn’t have one close call the whole trip.

I did, however, get in three adventursome rides, each delightful in its own way. The first was a shakedown sunset ride in the hills behind the house the day we arrived. It was blissful.

The first major trail I tried was Bearclaw Poppy, apparently the most popular route in the area. The trailhead was only 15 minutes from where we were staying. 

After about six miles of flowy, rolling climbing on desert terrain, interspersed with a couple of ridiculous steeps, you turn around and fly down what the locals call the Acid Drops (huge, multi-pronged drop-offs). Full suspension means never having to say, "Oh, no!" I would just pick a line, commit with full confidence, and be rewarded with stomach-heaving drops. Fun! 

From there, on to the ridiculously, absurdly, illegally fun roller-coaster BMX course close to the Bloomington trail head. 

I was laughing out loud on those flowy hillocks, just one swoop and stomach flip after another. It was like jazz on a bike. When it was done for the morning, I badly wanted to do the last part again, but age brings wisdom, and I conserved a few watts for the plentiful hiking and biking to come in the next few days.

The following day brought an extended hike in Zion National Park, a place with mythical status in my life. I spent four or five weeks there many years ago, in the summer between high school and college, conserving and blazing trail, and sleeping under the stars. It quite literally blew my mind and brought me my first tangible experience of what I would come to know as God. I left with a heavy heart, and with a touchstone I never lost. Needless to say, my return last month was a very rich experience, but that's a topic for another post. I took the photo below from a precipice about 800 feet high, floating in the middle of the canyon. If my wife and father-in-law hadn't been waiting for me, I might have stayed til sundown, dreamily soaring the canyon in my mind. Do yourself a favor and click on this one to see it full-scale. Imagine a biting desert sun, cool shade, the smell of baking minerals in the rock, and the sound of distant crow caws breaking the huge silence.

A bonus image from our hike, a couple days later, to the marvelous Kolob Arch in the northern end of the park:

The next day, I took off after breakfast for the popular Anasazi Trail in the Santa Clara River Preserve, also about 20 minutes from our door. The proximity of these major trails added to my feeling that St. George is just teeming with special rides.

"Anasazi" is the locals' name for the trail (and is the name of the native people who lived here a thousand years ago); it's technically named Tempi'po'op, reportely a Piute phrase for "rock writing." There are indeed petroglyphs there somewhere, but I didn't do quite enough research before heading out and, believe it or not, I missed them. No worries; I've seen plenty throughout the Southwest.

What I did find was a trail winding gently up to and along the rim of a mesa that looks out over an impressive canyon, and across to looming, red and brown cliffs.

I had planned a mellow ride, as I was going on a long hike with the family that afternoon and was already pretty cooked from all the travel, time-change, and loss of sleep. Getting lost put the kibosh on the mellow, adding three or four miles of up and down. I always get this fun mix of anxiety and excitement when I get lost, and truly, if you're going to get lost, this is the place to do it. 

On Anasazi, I got my first experience with full suspension in truly technical terrain. (See the rockiest part of the picture just above? That's the trail.) There's a mile or so of very slabby rock out on the mesa edge, and the Camber just rolled right over it, no matter which line I chose. I even had no fear rolling right along the cliff-edge on an off-camber section. I seriously have to get a full-suspension bike; it was like I'd won three free skill tokens in a video game.

A word or two more about the bike. I needed almost no adjustment time for the full suspension. It's not a bike with a ton of travel, and it felt natural under me. The low bottom bracket and big wheels provided confidence aplenty. The automatic sag adjustment for the shock definitely helped: I set it and forgot it. Once in a while I’d use the middle compression setting if I was headed uphill on a long, smooth stretch, but mostly, the rear took care of itself, and the confidence and handling it provided definitely raised the level of terrain I could handle. I gave it an melancholy pat as I dropped it off at the shop at the end of the trip.

Mrs. V and I were scheming ways to return to St. George next year, before my in-laws have to leave the area. I wouldn't trade New England mountain biking for the Southwest; they're both wonderful in different ways. But I know for sure I need more of that desert fix, just as soon as I can get it.

[A big shout-out of thanks to Mrs. V's wonderful parents for their hospitality—and for their understanding when I disappeared for a few hours every day.]