Wednesday, October 5, 2016

I Speed at Night

(Extra credit will be issued to those who recognized the post name as the title of a Ronnie James Dio song).

Another summer is gone, and autumn is upon us.  I don't really have a 'favorite' season, but there is so much to love about fall - the cooler temps, the color and smell of the leaves, the undergrowth dying back so that you can see the contour of the land.  But there is that one big drawback - it's dark for more than half the day.

And that drives me nuts.  I have a bag full of bright lights - and I use them - but there are just a lot of things you can't do in the dark (like paddling whitewater) and many places that you're not allowed to use in the dark.  So it gets a lot harder to get out as often as I'd like. But in Ohio most of the state parks allow night time use of the trails for legitimate park purposes, and there are some counties that allow night use of their rail trail systems, so there are some recreational possibilities still left for those of us who feel the need to get out there.

Perfect conditions for a bike ride.
Night riding is always an interesting experience, whether it's on paved trails or dirt mountain bike trails.  Familiar places look new, and a whole different world comes out after dark.  Mountain bike trails take on a whole different feel when you need to keep your speed to within your lightfall.  The daytime wildlife beds down, and the nocturnal animals come out.  And you get to experience all of it in near total solitude, since 99.9% of people think you'd have to be nuts to go out and ride at night.

Gotta watch where you ride at night - drop off ahead, trail turns right.
I have a habit of taking a rail trail ride on the Little Beaver Creek Greenway in Columbiana County every Friday after work.  During the summer it's easy to get in a 20 mile ride before it gets dark, but as fall settles in it gets to the point where I can't even get to the trail head before dusk.  So I put a bike light on my handlebars, and another on my helmet, and I head out regardless.

First tire tracks.
After sunset it seems like the rabbits love to come out and check out the grass on the shoulders of the trail.  I can see their eyes reflect the bike light, and often they just fade off into the undergrowth.  But sometimes, maybe when they're faced more directly into the light, it seems as if the light kind of freezes them, and they just sit there as I approach.  As I draw closer, and the light shines right on them, sometimes they just freak out.  It's as if they think that a predator is right on top of them, and it's time to go into emergency escape procedures, so they make these mighty leaps in random directions in an effort to get away.  It's weird, because they'll jump a yard up into the air, and as soon as they hit the ground bounce off again, but in a different direction.  If they happen to land in the brush, then they just run off.  But if they land on the trail and the light is still on them they'll jump over and over.  At that point I usually yell out 'Hey Rabbit!" and the sound seems to kind of snap them out of it and they dash off.  But it's a strange sight to see.

The paved trails also occasionally attract frogs, maybe because the pavement is still slightly warm.  And these guys just totally freeze when the light falls on them.  That means I have to keep my eyes peeled on the trail, because I'm not too fond of the idea of flattening frogs under my tires.  But it does give me a chance to get a good photo now and again.

What'choo looking at??!?
Other animals come out at night too.  Last year a coyote dashed across the trail about two feet in front of me, surprising me enough that I crashed the bike.  I hate crashing on pavement - that feeling of slamming into the ground, having my helmet bounce off the pavement, and sliding along as you slow down - I've had way more than enough of that.  But the raccoons and opossums that come out and shuffle down the trail at night are a lot less likely to surprise a rider, and can be funny as hell to watch.

Spotted his eyes reflecting my lights on Little Beaver Creek Greenway.
Mountain biking in the dark is whole 'nother thing.  Animals usually don't hang out on the dirt trails, though I do occasionally see a raccoon or opossum.  But there are other interesting things that happen out there at night.

The first thing is reflectors, usually the amber ones that come on bike pedals.  Beginner mountain bikers often don't realize that not only are these reflectors useless in the woods, but they also have a tendency to break off and end up in the undergrowth along the trail.  There they stay, hidden - until someone goes out with lights on for a night ride.  Then the lights pick them up, so every now and then an amber sparkle lets me know that another 'rookie reflector' is littering the trail.

That amber sparkle.
So I've made a game of picking them up at night.  And what's a game without rules? Rule number one is that the idea is to clean up mountain bike litter, not to ride past it, so I aim to pick up all the reflectors.  Rule number two is that I allow myself to ignore ONE reflector a night (a good rule for when you're ripping down a hill and don't want to slam on your brakes to play janitor).  Rule number three is that I can't ignore the first reflector I see - after all what if it's the only one of the night?  Usually I'm pretty slow on singletrack, and even slower at night, so it's usually not a big deal to stop for a second, pick up a reflector, and stuff it in the mesh side pocket on my pack.  Sometimes I get quite a harvest.

Picked up off the trail, and headed to the recycling bin.
Something else I've noticed when mountain biking at night, and it's kind of weird...  Not much else besides pedal reflectors really picks up the light at night.  Very occasionally I'll get a quick flash of white light reflecting from a tiny shard of glass, but that's about it.  But recently I noticed that there were other small reflections that I was seeing, tiny rainbow colored lights that often reflected my lights for more than just the split second that glass shards typically do. Once I consciously realized that I was seeing these reflections, I started to think about them.  It seemed odd that they didn't reflect just in a flash - if it were flecks of mica or something you would expect that flash as the light hit the flat surface.  And the rainbow color - sometimes red/orange, sometimes blue/purple - what could be the reason for that?  Finally I realized what the cause was.

That's right...
Spiders.  Wolf spiders, on the trail hunting for supper.  Their eyes pick up the light, and reflect it back in rainbow colors.  So when I ride down the trail at night and come across an area where I see a couple dozen tiny rainbow reflections I know I'm in a spider hunting grounds.  Their eyes are tiny, so the reflections only are visible from about 10 feet away, and will disappear if they run off.  But every now and then I'll pick up a reflection from further away, one that will first reflect as red, then cycle through yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple as I approach.  That means it's a BIG wolf spider, and he's sitting in the trail watching as I ride up on him.  These guys are fair game, and if they happen to get run over I'm not going to lose any sleep over it!  (By the way I tried repeatedly to get a photo of one of these reflections, but cell phone cameras just aren't good enough.)

No reflections from these guys eyes!  Salamander on West Branch State Park mtb trail.
There is one night riding experience that is something totally different.  It can only happen after the leaves have come off the trees, and only when there's a clear sky and a bright moon.  And that is the no-lights night ride.  If you give your eyes time to adjust and let your night vision come in, it is absolutely amazing how well you can see by just moonlight.  Every fall I watch the moon phases and the weather, waiting for that combination that will give the right conditions.  Last year I rode 20 miles on Little Beaver Creek Greenway with the lights turned off, and the year before I rode the whole lake side trail system at West Branch with no lights.  The soft silver shine of the moon gives everything a slightly different tone, contrasting sharply with the black shadows of the trees.  It's bright enough that every bump, every rock, every leaf is illuminated and after a short time to get used to it I find myself moving quicker and quicker, flying through the night woods.  The feeling is one of pure exhilaration, of being a part of the night time world, and not just a visitor with a bright light.  It's as if it allows me to be, just for a short time, something more, and something less as well, than a human visitor to the woods. It's one of my favorite things about fall riding, and I'm already getting excited about the prospect of experiencing it again in a month or two.

I'm going to finish up this post with a short gallery of night riding pictures from the last couple of years.
Sunset fades over West Branch Reservoir on the drive into the trails.
On the return leg of a Little Beaver Creek Greenway ride. That downed tree wasn't there on the way out.

Twilight over the lake, but black as night in the woods.

Riding up to the tunnel mouth on Sandy Creek Trail, with the reflectors inside visible.

Night riding in the a snow squall.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Mountain biking around the northern Allegheny National Forest

Thirty years ago, when I started to devote less time to keeping local taverns solvent and more time to getting outside and seeing what happens there, I didn't really know that many places to go for outdoor adventures.  So I started looking at maps, and seeing as this was pre-internet that meant good old Delorme Gazetteer atlases.  It didn't take long before I realized that in our part of the country the only really big chunk of forest that was open to the public was Allegheny National Forest, in northwest Pennsylvania.

Our campsite in the ANF over Memorial Day weekend this year.

It wasn't exactly in my back yard, as it takes almost two hours for me to get to even the closest boundary.  But there was a LOT of woods.  And a couple of nice, big rivers, along with lots of smaller creeks, and about a million miles of trails and gravel roads.  It's where I took the things I learned in Boy Scouts and made them part of a comfortable back country skill set.  From campground camping to winter backpacking, it was where I finally learned how to relax and be at home in the forest.  When I started kayaking it was the Clarion River that I spent hours of time on, learning how to control a boat in current.  And when I moved up to whitewater I returned again, this time to the small creeks, where heavy thunderstorms transformed them from quiet brooks to roaring rapids.

Then when I started mountain biking I went back to the maps again, looking for the places in the ANF where I would be able to do this new form of deep woods recreation.  Unfortunately I was disappointed to learn that there were remarkably few legal options for mountain bikers, with almost all of the established hiking trails closed off to bicycles. So as I began ranging out from my home area looking for new and interesting trails to ride I didn't see any need to spend much time looking in that particular area.

Well, the situation has changed.  Thanks to a few small groups of dedicated riders and local advocates, there are now several options for riding, with more new trails on the horizon.  There are the two old school ANF trails that remained open for biking - Tanbark Trail and the Morrison/Rimrock Trail loops.  And there are trails in the Allegheny State Park, just north of New York state line, plus another NY trail system at Harris Hill Extension Forest.  But the big news is the beginning of the Trails at Jake's Rocks, an extensive network of over 40 miles of trails planned to be built along the south side of Kinzua Reservoir, just east of Warren.  It was a long and difficult process to get this project going, but this month they're having a grand opening ceremony for the first ten miles or so of trails.

So when it turned out that I had a whole Saturday to myself, with nothing to do but whatever I wanted, I loaded up the bike, my gear, and a whole lot of water and made the drive northwest from Warren, Ohio to Warren, Pennsylvania.  It was a pleasant cruise through the back roads of western Pennsylvania, and a couple of hours later I was motoring up a forest service road to the highlands of the Jake's Rocks area.

Without a real map or knowledge of the trail I parked at the picnic parking area, where I saw a fresh new trail leading off into the woods.  There were only a few cars in the area, and I didn't see any other signs of mountain bikers, despite the nearly perfect weather.  After gearing up I took off down the trail to explore.

The new trail I rode made a loop around the top of the plateau, with only mild hills of short duration, and a couple of nice views of the reservoir far below.  It appeared to be mostly a machine built trail, with the typical wide tread.  The machine operators had created a mostly smooth tread, with nearly all of the rocks removed and placed off the edges of trail.  They definitely made the most of the gradient, with lots of grade reversals, and created what is mostly a very flowy, fast trail.  They spent a lot of effort on creating positive drainage paths at nearly every dip in the trail, which hopefully will mean that the trail will handle water well and be rideable soon after rain events.

New mtb trail at Jake's Rocks.
And the trail was truly fun to ride.  It was designed to be fast, so that you can get the most out of your downhill gradient.  Many of the curves were banked - not quite a berm, but still enough to let you carry through with more speed. I rode the loop in the counter-clockwise direction, and there were a couple of extended fast and flowy sections that had me grinning ear to ear.

Fast and flowing singletrack.

New trail with hand built tech feature on the side.
Of course every trail is going to be different, and they don't all have the same characteristics.  Here you gain flow and speed, but you give up technical features on the tread.  If you look at the tread in the photos notice that you don't see hardly any roots - one of the characteristics that many machine made trails share.  Of course over time there will be some compaction and erosion of the soil, and some roots will begin to emerge.  And there are places where there are some nice rock features, obviously hand built to add interest and technical challenges to the trail.

Hand built section between the boulders.

Another section of hand laid stone tread.
There were a couple of surprises on the trail as well.  Along Jake's Rocks Road there are several dispersed campsites - these are free primitive campsites alongside the road, with no support facilities.  The loop crosses Jake's Rocks Road right where two of these sites are located, so that you could come and camp for free - and get to your ride on the trail right from your campsite!  I was also surprised to see so much sand in the soil, with a few places actually being deep, soft sand.  Another surprise was a nice stretch of bare bedrock in one area, complete with a brass USGS survey marker.

Bedrock trail, with USGS marker in left foreground.

One other thing to keep in mind about the Trails at Jake's Rocks - the proposed trail system is supposed to be something like 40 miles, and is supposed to reach from route 59 down by the reservoir, up the 'Elbow' about 700 feet to the top of the plateau, then extend across the highlands and back down to Dewdrop Campground, and then all the way down to Kiasutha Campground:

That means that there will end up being a wide variety of trail types and difficulties.  Undoubtedly there will be some trails that are more difficult technically, as well as some steep downhill sections that will only appeal to the more expert riders.  As the trail system develops it will be able to draw a wider group of riders, with trails appealing to all skill levels.  I'm looking forward to watching this project develop over the next few years, and hope that the trails live up to their potential and provide the area with a decent economic boost.

After my ride at Jake's Rocks I took a break to rehydrate and eat, and then drove back down to Warren and followed route 62 up across the New York state line to another mountain bike trail system at Harris Hill Extension Forest, just west of the tiny town of Ellington.  About an hour north of Warren, this place has a very remote feel but lacks the dramatic terrain of Jake's Rocks.  A group of dedicated riders has been building trails here for a couple of years, and they've managed to create a good sized trail system on a relatively small piece of land.  I'd been reading about this system for a while, and was eager to see how it felt.

Looking down from the top of Harris Hill towards Ellington.

I was the only rider there that afternoon, and left a roadside parking lot to traverse a flat path back to the trail head area.  Entering the woods on a trail named 'Humpty Dumpty' was a stunning difference when compared to the trails that I'd just ridden.  Where the Jake's Rocks trails were machine made, with the relatively straight, wide tread that requires, here they had all the characteristics of classic hand made cross country singletrack.  The trail turned and twisted, passing between trees too close to ever allow a trail building machine to get through.  As I rode I often had to adjust my line to avoid a shoulder crunch on a tree as I navigated my way.  The tread was alive with the natural features of the forest - the network of roots was a constant reminder to keep my eyes open, while the tread climbed up and over small earth hummocks that would have been obliterated by machine built trail techniques.  It had the intimate feeling of a rake and ride trail, where the trail lays lightly on the terrain.  Where the new trail at Jake's Rocks felt almost like a road cut through the woods, with the rocks and vegetation pushed to the edges, here the trail felt like it was a part of the forest, almost like a game trail.

Humpty Dumpty Trail at Harris Hill Extension Forest, NY

And it was a great cross country mountain bike ride.  This is really the kind of trail that I started on, and have grown to love.  The game here, at least for me, is not speed but rather the challenge of being able to keep going over a continuously changing series of terrain conditions - all while traveling through the beautiful Allegheny mountain scenery.  The only problem I had was low energy levels - it made me wish I'd hit Harris Hill first and then headed down to Jake's Rocks for the end of the day ride.

Classic XC mtb trails at Harris Hill Extension Forest.
I didn't get to ride nearly all the trails, but with names like Lungbuster, Goatboy, and Bedlam I know there are plenty of challenges that remain for me to explore the next time I visit - and I guarantee that there will be a second visit.  These guys have done themselves proud, and created a true gem of real traditional XC mountain biking.  

More HHE. Notice the Indian Pipes growing at the base of the tree.
How do the two trail systems compare?  In my opinion, they're both really good although they are almost polar opposites.  The machine made trail at Jake's Rocks is fast and fun, something that will have a lot of appeal for younger riders.  The more traditional trails at Harris Hill will appeal to people with a bit of experience who crave a technical challenge when they ride.  Both systems are located in beautifully scenic ecosystems, though they once again are very different from each other.  I'm not quite conceited enough to start assigning grades to either trail system, but I will say that they both have their own attraction and either would give an intermediate mountain bike rider a great day on the bike.  I can only hope next time I'm in the area with a bike that I have at least a couple of days to explore, so that I can see a bit more of each one!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

New Experiences

It's been over two months since my last blog post.  It seems to me that I'm getting to the point where I'm going over the same ground, writing about rides in the same places, and posting pictures that aren't much different than what I've posted before.  That lack of fresh experiences to talk about has made me feel as if I don't really need to re-write the same stories over and over again, and as a result the blog posts get farther and farther apart.

This seems to be the way that life goes though - as you get older the range of things that you are comfortable doing gets more well defined, and your choices get made from a smaller set of options.  This doesn't have to be totally a bad thing, as the lessons you've learned from past experiences let you rule out re-trying things that didn't live up to your expectations, or even turned out to be truly unpleasant.  But there is a negative aspect as well, since it seems that your 'field of vision' when considering your options becomes narrower and narrower, and truly new experiences become further and further apart.

But sometimes new experiences kind of sneak up on you, and without making an actual decision to try something different you can find yourself in a situation that was totally unexpected - sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.

After a week at work I always look forward to getting out for my customary Friday night bike ride on the Little Beaver Creek Greenway.  It isn't my local trail, but with a 40 minute drive I can be at the Leetonia trail head, and unlike most of the other trails in our area they allow night riding.  The trail only gets light use, and has a few mild grades and curves along the old railroad grade above the creek for 10 miles, so it's perfect for getting in an easy after work ride in an uncrowded wooded & rural setting.  I've been riding here almost every week for a couple of years, and have come to know the trail and it's surroundings pretty well.

Little Beaver Creek Greenway, Ohio

In June there was a full moon on the summer solstice, but I was too busy to get out to see it. However the next evening I was free, so I headed out to the Leetonia trail head in the evening for a night ride under the full moon.  I've been on many full moon rides, including mountain bike rides, and really enjoy being able to ride at night with only the moonlight illuminating the way.  It's amazing how well you can see as your eyes adjust to the lower light levels.

I got to the trail head not long after sunset, as the light was starting to fade from the sky. By the time I was ready to ride the evening dark was setting in, and I mounted my bike light on the handlebars.  I looked around for the moon before setting off, but it wasn't visible.  The sky was still showing enough light that as I rode off there was no problem seeing the trail.  As I rode slowly on down the trail my eyes further adapted to the low light level and I was able to easily move down the empty trail as it left the active rail corridor and headed across a mile of swamp.  I continued along the trail as night fully fell, but the sky still had a soft glow of light illuminating the surroundings.  This is something I've experienced before, but I've always enjoyed being outdoors at night and I was having a great time slowly riding into the developing dark.

The lightning bugs took their cue from the setting of the sun, and as I rode out of the swamp they started to flash, their pale green lights calling out to the others of their kind, sending messages of early summer firefly romance.  What started as a few widely separated flickers started to intensify as more and more joined in.

Coming out of the trailside treeline at a corn field I coasted to a stop.  The treeline and ground around me were now pitch black, with the softer grey of the sky filled with stars above.  And now their were lightning bugs everywhere.  They filled the air with soft flares of light, and clung to the tall grass growing along the edge of the corn field.  Thousands upon thousands of fireflies moved quietly over the corn, sending out their individual patterns of light.  The dark treeline along the edge of the trail was a glittering fabric of pure black and pale green.  Looking further back, along the far edge of the field, I realized that the whole woods as far as I could see was softly glowing with these momentary bursts of light.  In all directions I was surrounded by a pale cloud of flashing light.  Everywhere I looked there were lightning bugs flickering, with hundreds and hundreds lighting up every second.

I stood there astride my bike with my jaw hanging open.  Even though I'd spent a large portion of my life out in the woods and fields, this was something new to me.  I felt total amazement at what I was seeing, and then the realization that it had been a long, long time since I'd seen something new and unexpected enough to give me that feeling. Sweeping my gaze around the surreal landscape I tried to soak it all in, to commit the scene to memory, to try and capture that feeling of stunned surprise.  It was almost overwhelming.

Finally I managed to get my feet back on the pedals and slowly resumed my ride.  Not far ahead the pale grey of the trail disappeared into the dark of the treeline as the trail entered the woods again.  Here the trees blocked out the soft glow of the sky and the view was almost totally black.

But tonight the darkness wasn't quite total.  There were thousands of lightning bugs along the trail, slowly pulsing with light.  And the ones that were within a couple of inches of the ground actually gave off enough light that I could see the trail in brief flashes as I slowly rode along.  It was mesmerizing, watching for the tiny flash and the vague illumination on the trail. My entire field of vision now was black - with a continuous wash of dim green lights sparkling in every direction.

After about a half hour I noticed that there were less and less lightning bugs in the area.  Either they had begun to disperse, or I'd ridden out of the area where they were the densest.  I switched on my light, picked up my speed to normal cruising, and headed on down the trail for the remainder of the ride.  And it turned out that the only time I saw the moon that night was at the area near the parking lot, where the hills to my southeast weren't obscuring it.

Over the next couple of days I thought quite a bit about the experience, and how it felt so unusual to have something new and unexpected like that happen.  When my wife said that she had four days off over the weekend in a couple of weeks to help friends with a big graduation party out of town, I thought that it was time to get out of my comfort zone and try something else new.

Last year I made a pair of bicycle panniers to fit over the racks on the back of my and my son's bikes.  We'd planned on a bike trip in West Virginia last August, but a car accident two days before forced my to cancel the whole trip.  So the gear was packed away, waiting for another opportunity.  And rather than wait for some perfect time I decided it was time to do it now.

So my 15 year old son, Ken, and I decided to take off for a 4 day bike tour along the paved trails of the Allegheny River and surrounding areas.  We'd done a couple of overnighters on the bike before, but this was the first real test of the pannier system and the first multi-day trip where we'd actually travel more than 5 miles.

Ken ready to take off for our first overnighter with the new gear last summer.

Back country camp 1 mile from the trailhead at Kennerdell Tract, Pennsylvania.

As the weekend approached and the weather forecast started to come into focus, there was reason for some concern.  Temps for the trip were forecast to be well above 90 during the day.  That heat would make it a challenge for anyone, with the effort required to pedal a 90 pound loaded bike and to keep hydrated.  But for me it would be an even tougher problem. When I get my metabolism fired up in hot temperatures I 'perspire freely' - that is I sweat like a lawn sprinkler.  I've learned how to deal with it for the most part, but for an extended period in the heat with limited amounts of fluids and limited resupply points I was fairly concerned.  But nothing is without risks, so we decided to deal with it as well as we could and headed out.

Fully loaded bikes resting along the Allegheny River Trail, Pennsylvania.

Our trip was along the Allegheny River Trail in western Pennsylvania, with a side trip planned on Sandy Creek Trail.  With the temperatures peaking above 95 degrees on Saturday and Sunday we didn't try to push for big miles, but instead rode slowly for short distances between breaks in the shade to rehydrate.

Ken resting alongside the trail, waiting for Dad to stop taking pictures.
We had to pass through 2 old tunnels, each over a half mile long.  Feeling the temperatures drop from the mid-90's to the lower 60's in the matter of a few seconds was almost a shock to the system, but once we were inside it was such a treat that we hardly wanted to leave.  We even talked about getting our seats off the bikes and taking a little break inside, but figured we might scare other riders if we started hanging around in the dark.

Ken waits outside the Kennerdell Tunnel.
I'm glad to say that the equipment all worked well, and there were no surprises in that part of the trip.  The racks and panniers worked great for the most part, though there may be a few possible tweaks that would make things a bit easier.  The scenery was great, the trail was mostly in fantastic condition, and we were able to deal with the few unexpected occurrences with no problems.

Old RR culvert visible from the trail.
But the problem that did require some adjustment was the heat.  We ended up riding shorter miles than we had planned, which was just fine with both of us. And we changed from a four day trip to a three day trip as the heat, combined with dehydration, took it's toll on me.  But the good thing was that we were able to recognize the problem and deal with it in a well thought out manner.  Even so I spent the day after we got home laid out, drinking prodigious amounts of water as I recovered from what was guessed to be borderline heat exhaustion.  Ken was fine of course, having the stamina and strength of a young bull.

We both had a good time, and learned quite a bit on how to make it easier next time.  And there will definitely be a next time, when it will be cooler and we can enjoy the riding more.  It was great to try something new, to get out of my comfort zone, and take a few chances.  That is something that I need to keep in mind, and try to bring back to my life in a bigger way.  I may be getting older, but it turns out that isn't a good reason to stop trying new things.

It makes me wonder what it would take to ride across the country.

Monday, April 25, 2016

So, you're going to start riding a bike...

With spring finally showing it's face it seems like a lot of people are considering getting out and getting on a bike.  While many of these folks are seasoned riders, there seem to be quite a few people that I know that are getting back to riding a bike after giving it up since they were kids.

Since I'm an experienced ('experienced' means I've spent a lot of time on a bike, not to be confused with 'expert') bicyclist I thought I'd take a little bit of time and write down a few thoughts for people who are getting familiar with riding again, especially those who are getting into mountain biking.

There are a lot of different opinions on bikes - and I am not an equipment kind of guy, so I don't have much to add.  As far as advice on buying a bike I have one major point - buy from a reputable local bike shop.  For God's sake do not buy a Walmart/Target bike - please, just don't do it.  Go to a local shop, tell the person there what you want to do on your bike, and let them guide you towards the right bike.  If you can, try to compare a couple of shops.  Stick with your budget and don't get talked into a really expensive bike right off the bat.  If you're starting in mtb you should be able to get a 26" hardtail for less than $800.  This will not be a top of the line bike, but should be perfectly adequate for a new cross country mountain bike rider.

What other gear are you going to NEED to start riding?  Two items - helmet and gloves.  Of course you can spend a thousand dollars on neat new Lycra bike jerseys and shorts, with matching socks etc.  But what you really need is a helmet (for all singletrack mountain bike rides) and padded bike gloves.  A small backpack is nice for carrying water and snacks, and as you get more involved in riding you can pack first aid kits, spare tubes and tire pump, bike tools, lights etc.  But when you start - helmet and gloves.

If you haven't been on a bike in years (or even decades) it can take a while to get back into the swing of riding.  I started again in my mid 40's after not riding more than 20 miles a year for two decades.  It took me a while to get my leg muscles toned up so that it wasn't so hard to pedal.  If you're in the same situation consider getting used to riding by putting some in some miles on bike trails, or low traffic paved roads.  This way you can focus on the first requirement - getting your leg muscles ready to move you and the bike for an extended period of time  - without having to worry about picking up new skills like riding over roots and rocks.

Another thing if you haven't ridden for a while - shifting a drivetrain with 24, 27 or 30 gears might take a while to get used to.  If this is an issue for you try this: set your front derailleur in the appropriate position and just leave it there, adjusting your gears only with the rear derailleur until you get comfortable with shifting.  If you're on flat pavement set the front derailleur on the biggest ring, if there are some mild hills or wind try the middle ring.  Save the small ring for hills and rough terrain.  As you ride more, shifting will become second nature, and you'll be running through the range of front and rear gears without even thinking about it.

So now you're out riding on your new bike, and it's a lot of fun.  The wind is in your face, you're picking up the shifting concept and you can put down some miles.  But by the end of the first ride your butt is killing you.  There are a couple of things to know about this.  First - your rear end will get used to riding a bike after a while.  Second - you can adjust the position of your seat to make it more comfortable, all it takes is a hex key. Third - you can change your seat to something more comfortable than the stock seat that came with your bike (try a slightly wider seat with gel or memory foam, and check out one with the relief cutout in the center).  And fourth - riding your bike on the pavement is different than riding a mountain bike on singletrack (i.e. dirt trails).  On pavement you pretty much stay seated, not changing position but instead cranking out the miles.  But when you're riding on singletrack you're far more dynamic in your position - moving forward or backward, and often standing out of the seat.  Riding like this is way easier on your rear end than pavement riding.  So do not despair if you get sore at first, this can be dealt with.

And you can start picking up the skills you'll need to get on dirt while riding around your neighborhood.  Practice getting out of the saddle - standing up while coasting, and then while pedaling.  When you're comfortable doing this try riding with your weight shifted back, so that you're butt is hanging off the back of the seat a bit.  This is the technique you'll use to keep from going forward over the bars when descending steep bits of trail.  You can try riding off curbs while out of the seat to start getting the feel for what a small drop feels like.  Once you can do that, try riding up a curb at a slow rate of speed - approach while out of the seat, pre-load your front shock by quickly shifting your weight forward, and then pull back up on the bars as the shock bounces back and unweight your front wheel so that it can get up and over the curb.  Check out Youtube - there are many, many videos on there that can help new riders develop specific skills, where you can see it done right, in slow motion, over and over again.

Your first ride on singletrack - an incredible experience for most.  Try to find out where the beginner level trails are in your area - do not try to start on something advanced and technical, because that takes a good deal of skills you aren't likely to have.  Instead look for trails with not many hills, and not huge amounts of rocks or roots.  And don't try to do a ten mile trail the first time out - it's probably going to be way harder than you thought, and a couple of miles may be more than enough.  If you can get an experienced rider to go with you that's probably a good idea.  They can point out areas that are going to require specific skills or help guide you away from more hazardous features.  Watch how they deal with riding over roots and shifting to get up sudden hills, and remember to try and practice that when riding around your neighborhood or on your next singletrack ride.

Once you get that bare minimum of skills needed to make it at least partway around your local trail, what do you do to be able to ride like a pro?  Watching videos can give you some ideas, but the only way to get good is to spend time in the saddle.  Try to ride a couple of times a week if you can, or get out and build leg and cardio vascular strength with pavement rides until you can get back on the dirt.  Nothing makes a better rider like getting in three riding sessions a week for a summer.  You won't believe the difference at the end of a couple of months.

Good luck to all the aspiring mountain bikers out there.  It's a great way to get fit, lose weight, and spend time in the great outdoors.

Friday, January 29, 2016

A Different Winter

Looking back, it seems that I missed posting in December - and if I don't hurry up I'll miss January as well.  Not that it would be a significant missing link in my riveting history, but I do like to take a look back every now and again to see what I've been up to.

But I should take a minute to talk about my progress in getting more fit, since I'm at nearly the one year anniversary of re-setting my goals last February.  In that year I've lost 25 pounds and established a much healthier diet by largely excluding foods containing processed sugar.  I've pushed my exercise program further than before, logging more miles than ever and adding a semi-regular weight program.  And, joy of joys, I managed to avoid gaining weight during the "Fat Holiday Season" between Halloween and Christmas (last year I gained over 10 pounds).  I'd still like to lose a bit more weight, but as long as I keep my calorie count honest and exercise several times a week I think I'll be able to continue with slow progress.

Our extended autumn weather continued well into December, with only the slightest hint of snow and unusually warm temperatures.  And I certainly took advantage of the conditions to get out as much as I could manage, with over 150 bicycling miles in November, and over 250 in December.  Thanks to this strong finish to the year I racked up over 1700 miles in 2015.  Now I've set my sights on trying to get in over 2000 miles in 2016 - and I've got a strong start with nearly 200 miles so far this January.

November gave us some excellent weather for mountain biking, and I managed to get in 12 rides on dirt, covering a bunch of the local trails.  The majority of my riding was at West Branch State Park, but I also got a ride in on the excellent new East Rim Trail at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, as well as Quail Hollow State Park, Beaver Creek State Park, and North Road Nature Preserve.

West Branch State Park mtb trails in November.
West Branch Reservoir at sunset from the trails.
Lots of night riding during the short days.
Amazing berms and jumps at the new East Rim Trail.
Trail work time at North Road Nature Preserve.
More West Branch trails.
West Branch after the snow.

I spent some time out on the trails at North Road Nature Preserve, doing some much needed maintenance as well as pushing to close our final gap.  There was also a good deal of clean up needed after the electric and gas line right of ways were re-trimmed.  Hopefully we'll be able to get in a bunch more work this off season so we can FINALLY get the last phase of trail finished this year.

New trail armoring at North Road Nature Preserve, trying to close the gap!
Right of way trimming debris.
Of course the majority of the miles I ride are on pavement, mostly on rail trails.  And I managed to get in a LOT of miles in the last couple of months, spread out across several trails.  All these extra miles are great for my legs, and for my cardio as well.  And of course burning that many calories can only help with my fitness goals.

Western Reserve Greenway Trail under heavy leaves.
Little Beaver Creek Greenway in the snow.
Portage Hike and Bike Trail last weekend.
Thanks to the milder temperatures and a massive amount of rain in late December I even managed to get in a nice whitewater kayak trip.  After it rained I loaded up all my gear, and my wife and I headed over to the Allegheny gorge area to check out what was running.   Turned out that EVERYTHING was running, and it was all too high for a mild mannered paddler like me.  But I came back two days later and managed to get in a nice run on Scrubgrass Creek.  This is a beautiful, safe, easily accessed run near Kennerdell, PA that has become one of my favorite easy whitewater runs in the area.

Scrubgrass Creek near the put-in.
One of the other things I've been doing is learning to use a new video production software.  So I've been taking a lot of new footage, as well as using old footage, to make some new videos.  Here's a link to the one for the Scrubgrass Creek trip:

Scrubgrass Creek trip

Let me say that I have no illusions about the "gnarliness" of the whitewater I paddle.  I know it's easy class II, the type of stuff that serious whitewater paddlers wouldn't even cross the road to paddle.  But for me it's become about having a good time without the stress and strain of pushing your limits.  So I'm just fine with Scrubgrass Creek as a destination.

As far as videos go, I've put together a couple of mtb compilation videos - just to practice what I'm learning on the software.  These mtb videos are on a par with the whitewater video above - no serious rider would ever consider this to be great riding, but I'm having fun without having to worry about breaking any more bones!  Anyway, here are the two videos I put together.

Hope you enjoy the videos, as well as the photos.

Right now I'm thinking about tonight's snow ride on the Little Beaver Creek Greenway - it's going to be fun!  Bring on the winter!