Sunday, January 18, 2009

Cold Weather mountain biking is really cool!

Today was one of those cold but clear days we get on occasion here in the SE. I had to turn my heat up in my house because it was actually cold outside. The forecast called for a low of about 12 degrees F last night, and it certainly was chilly both last night when I returned from dinner and this morning when I rolled myself out of bed. It's great to sleep in sometimes. But this blog isn't really about sleeping in or about meteorologists, it's about the bike. Unlike Lance, this one is about the bike.....or, maybe it's really about me and my bike. Yeah, that's it, a kid and his toy...

So, after sleeping in (yeah, bear with me here) and feeling super lazy, I got up and had some breakfast - a bowl of cereal! Now you might be saying to yourself, did he fire five or was it six....oh sorry, that's something Dirty Harry said, but you might really be saying to yourself who cares about a bowl of cereal?? Well, I DO! It's my first bowl of cereal in nearly 3 weeks! My mouth is finally healing up to the point that I can start back to eating real food! It tasted really good. I was very happy with this foray away from the morning yogurt I have been putting up with. Not that there's anything wrong with yogurt....

So after breakfast, I decided to jump online to see what the world has to say. Read an interesting story about the plane that landed in the Hudson River. Props (get it!) to that pilot for bringing that plane down safely. Dude's got mad skills. People calling him a hero, I'm calling him a guy with lots of flight experience who applied the lessons learned flying fighter jets and nearly 30 years of commercial airline experience. I'll call him a stud, but I won't call him a hero, he did a damn fine job of keeping those people safe, but that is what his job really is. Again, kudos to the guy for a job well done.

But this blog isn't really about airplanes or pilots or yogurt or cereal, so who cares. I do, cause I'm the guy writing this. It's fun. So, ok, let's get back on track.

After spending way too much time online, I decided to have lunch before loading up my gear. Heated up my tasty vittles that I brought home from the Bohemian last night. Chicken curry and a little slice of fish my friend Donna didn't want to take home. It was still tasty today, and now I'm ready to head out.

The big question when preparing for a cold weather ride is how much clothing to wear? Today was one of the coldest days we've had this winter, so I thought it best to layer up with all of my gear. Well, not really all of my gear, cause I wouldn't be able to move if I did that! Of course, the more I wear, the more likely I am to overheat on the long climb I knew was coming at the beginning of the ride. In the end, I added one layer to my normal winter riding layers. That means 2 layers on my legs, plus my cycling shorts underneath it all. It also meant 5 layers on my upper body plus my riding jacket (to make it six) for the start. I also threw my wind pants and an extra top layer in my pack just in case. Perhaps you can see that I don't like being cold. But, we're not here to talk about the cold or my layers...

Finally got out of the house about 1315 or so. That's 1:15pm if you're not up to speed on the 24 hour clock. Had to stop for gas on the way out and I was really surprised at how the cold bit through all of my 6 layers. For the drive up I was wearing a long sleeve fleece jacket which would be replaced by a gortex shell for the ride. No matter, standing there waiting for the tank to fill I was a little chilled. I began to think I might have to start out with the extra layers I was carrying!

The Bent Creek experimental forest - near Asheville, NC, is tucked back behind a little neighborhood that you have to drive through to get to the trailhead. As I'm driving down the road entering the forest, I pass a group of cyclists - all of these fools are wearing shorts! They probably only had a layer or two up top as well! Boy do I feel like a wimp with all my layers!! Not really, I actually don't give a rip about how many layers they're wearing, cause this isn't about them at all, it's all about the bike - you remember the bike don't you? yeah, mountain biking - that's it!

I finally arrived at the Bent Creek Experimental forest trailhead. It is a really great place to ride with about 40 miles (give or take) of trails and some killer climbing. It actually felt warmer at the trailhead than it did back in Greenville! Surprising because the trailhead is probably a couple thousand feet higher in elevation than Greenville. OK, I really don't know how much higher it is, but I was expecting it to be colder, not less cold! The decision I made was to replace the fleece jacket with the gortex shell to start.

The route I like to take starts at the Hard times trailhead. From the trailhead, you take the hardtimes connector trail up and over a hill. Now this isn't just any hill, it is steep in a few spots, and somewhat technical - let's just say it is one heck of a way to warm up! As I've grown older, I realize how important it is for me to actually do a little bit of warming up before I launch into maximum effort. With this little hill, the only way to do that is to drop all the way into Granny gear and just spin up the hill. Works pretty well, especially if there are no uber-cool mountain bike chicks that need to be impressed with my powerful (and fast) ascent of the hill (I know what you're going to say - they're really not impressed with my physical prowess, so just give it up...). So, today, although there was an uber-cool hiking chick back at the trailhead, she was well out of sight. I could just take it easy up the hill. At the top, I began to think I had the proper number of layers as I was not feeling like I would overheat.

Then, I passed the group of shorts wearing, under-dressed fools as they were coming up the other side. They were stopped, so I know they had to be freezing...I didn't see any blue faces or anything and it appeared that their smile muscles were operational, so they must not have been bordering on hypothermia quite yet. It's just a matter of time....why am I talking about layers again???

Down the hill and cross the road and an easy climb to the north boundary road. When I got to the boundary road, I had to peel a layer. Turned out, I was wearing one too many. That's the great thing about layers - you can always peel yourself like a banana if you start to overheat. Of course, the start of the boundary road is also the start of a ~4 mile climb. I knew the blood would be flowing full force for the climb, and if I needed to, I can always re-add the layers!

Climbing up the boundary road is as close to a road bike experience you can get while on a mountain bike. It is not technical, nor is it especially steep. There are enough rocks to keep the suspension unlocked - especially if I can maintain a smooth pedaling cadence. Easy enough. My goal was to ride to the top of the climb staying in the middle ring. I'd done it several times before, but I haven't been riding as much these last few weeks, so I had to push a little. Much of the climb was spent in the big cog, but hey, I stayed on the middle ring.

About the time I arrived at five points, I caught a glimpse of another rider up in front of me. Nothing like having someone else in front of you to make you push yourself. At first I was catching him, but he was sandbagging a little and started to pull away when he realized I was back there. Nothing like having a rider come up behind you to give you a motivational push. I tried, but he slowly pulled a small gap on me. He's a strong rider, but remember, this isn't about him, it's about .....what is it about??? oh yeah, it's about cold weather mountain biking....well, this dude was a mountain biker, so maybe it is about him (a little at least).

Climbing up this last mile to the top of the climb, there are great views of the blue ridge of the Appalachian mountains. I feel really lucky to be living in this area with so many outdoor opportunities so close by.

As we approach the top of the infamous Green's Lick trail - a killer downhill trail that was made famous after National trails day last year (2008). We had over 100 people show up to make some modifications to the trail. Folks were bombing down the trail and having to be med-evac'd out of there. Not good for those of us who would like to keep this trail open! So, we put in a bunch of features to slow peeps down. It appears peeps have slowed down on the trail, reports are that the number of injuries have reduced since the modifications.

This dude - you remember the sandbagger who wasn't sandbagging anymore was still in front of me and he headed down the trail. I had considered adding another layer for the downhill, as it takes about 5-8 minutes to make this descent, then add another few minutes down the fire road to the lower sidehill trail I intended to ride. However, my ego didn't need another layer, it needed to dominate this dude on the downhill.

Off we go, ripping down the trail. He's into going up high on the berms. It actually slows him down a little - he's not really going fast enough to ride as high up on the berms as he is, so I can catch him by staying lower on the berms. There are a lot of jumps on this trail, and I'm the last guy who needs to be catching air on a bicycle. I have terrible balance when the wheels are off the ground and the last thing I need is to be med-evac'd out of there. Remember, this is why we modified the trial last year - to keep idoits like me from hurting themselves. Thankfully, these features we added do work to slow me down, but not so much to slow down the dude in front of me.

I manage to keep him in sight for the most part, but he is indeed faster than me on the final parts of the downhill. We stop for a brief chat where Green's lick meets the fire road. Seems as though he is heading the same direction I am, so we ride together. He's the district indiana jones - digging up fossils and old archeological sites for the forest service. Pretty good dude - goes by Scott. We head off down the fire road and take a right onto the lower sidehill trail. I let him go in front cause he seems to be a little stronger than me. However, I'm starting to feel my oats, and manage to stay right on his wheel along this trial - which has a lot more climbing than I remember! We chat as we ride along - mountain bikers are generally a cool lot. It's starting to look like snow with some wicked looking gray clouds coming in. Starting to feel colder....that additional layer is looking more and more appealing!!

From lower sidehill, it's a short blast down another fire road, then up yet another fire road to the upper explorer trail. He hadn't ridden this little trail before, so I lead out. It's a nice little climb with a couple of cool switchbacks finishing up with a cool downhill with lots of jumps. I show him another little blast of an uphill, and he finally recognizes this part - he has descended this trail before.

We take the short way along the pine tree trails back towards the trailhead. He's got an archeological site he needs to take a peek at while he is out, so I follow along to see the area. He stops by the side of the road - this is it! The site of an old millhouse - apparently a 2 story mill that once had a dam built up on the river. He points out the remains of the dam - also tells me there once was a whole community here with a school and houses and the mill. Wow! an impromptu history lesson. Had he not told me about it, I would have never guessed a community once existed here.

We're really close to the trailhead and he's parked in a different location so we part ways. I pull up to my car thinking I'm really glad I got out to Bent Creek today. It was an excellent day - cold weather and all those layers even. But, it's not about the layers or weather or the bike - in the end, it's all about the ride.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The First Fifty is always the hardest

Originally posted 3 January, 2009
Today I enjoyed some great fellowship with other bicyclists at the Greenville Spinner's First Fifty. This is a ride through Northern Greenville County (SC) from Furman University to Table Rock State Park (Details here ). Although I have been riding regularly lately, this ride was going to be the furthest I had ever traveled on 2 wheels (well, on 2 human powered wheels anyway!).

I arrived at Furman University's PAC building parking area about 20 minutes before the ride started. The weather was foggy and cool. It was tough trying to decide how much clothing to wear, as of course, I'm going to be working up a sweat once I start pedaling! I decided to layer up as I HATE being cold!

I got signed in and we had the safety briefing and off we went. We followed the roads through Furman's beautiful campus, intermixed with the local YMCA's Resolution Run half Marathon. I was a little concerned about us being mixed in with the runners, as those folks are going for time, we're (supposedly) just out for a tour.

We got clear of the campus and the runners, and I was trying to get into my groove. This put me in the front 1/3rd or so of all the riders (G-ville Spinners report something close to 175 riders). I caught a real break as we approached a stop light - it was changing to red, and I was just lucky enough to be the last bike through. This kept me in the lead group.

I heard later that there was a group of 6 riders being chased by 3 riders then the massive peleton I had hooked up with - we initially had about 50 riders (give or take - I'm trying to keep up, not count the riders!;). As the miles came on, riders started dropping off. I was able to hang on the tail end, but it was touch and go for a while. I began to get my second wind at about 13 miles. By this time our peleton had dropped to maybe 20 riders. We were moving at a pretty good pace, and other riders (hanging out at the back of this group) mentioned that as well. We lost a rider here and there, but to my surprise, I was feeling well and was managing to keep with the group. Still at the back though.

We crossed Hwy 11 at about mile 21 - our peleton now down to 15 or so. This put us into a hilly section that started breaking up our little peleton further. From Table Rock Road, we got back out onto Hwy 11 for a couple of miles before our break / turn-around point at Lake Olenoy. There was a nice downhill before spitting us back onto Hwy 11, so I managed to make up a little distance on the lead riders from what was our little peleton. I pushed as hard as I could, and managed to bring another guy along with me in an attempt to reel this little group back in. He did a great job pulling us up a hill, and I took over for the downhill on the other side. We thought we'd catch those guys, but alas, we were maybe 20 seconds behind them coming into the break area. While not earth shattering, I had clocked an average of 18.5mph for the 29.5 miles. I'm pleased with that result.

I scarfed down a couple of yogurts, a chocolate pudding and a gel pack, stripped off a layer of clothing (the sun was now out and it was feeling pretty warm!). I wasn't sure who I might link up with on the way out, but I looked up and saw a small group of guys who had been in the group I had been traveling with up to that point. I rushed to hook up with them for the ride out.

Heading out of the break area we had formed as a group of about 5 and as we travelled Hwy 11 towards our turnoff, four other guys joined up in our group. We had a nice little pace line going and it was working pretty well. Everyone took a turn out front - some stronger than others pulled for a greater distance. It is really fun to ride inches from the rider in front and all I see when I check my helmet mounted mirror is the head and shoulders of the rider behind. Great Rush!

Before we made our turn, we picked up another rider in our little group - this now made us 10 strong. As we turned off of Hwy 11, we caught a glimpse of the Land Rover team out for a training ride. We pushed ourselves (or I should say the guys leading our group pushed all of us) and we managed to catch this Land Rover Team. We rode with them for a while. There was a bunch of those guys - we must have now had 25 or so bikes in our little peleton.

We had a great pace line going and our average speed was increasing ever so slowly. The Land Rover team turned right when we turned left on Hwy 288. Somewhere along Hwy 288 (~mile 40 or so?) we started dropping people - including me (I thought). This is where I started getting cramps in my quads (first time ever for that!). I managed to stay at the back of what was now 6 riders until mile 46 or so. At that point, I knew I was done, so I just dropped to the small ring and tried to keep spinning for the remainder. The 5 (or so) guys remaining from our original 10 kept moving at a good clip although I think they dropped slightly from the pace we had been running. I'm sure they finished strong.

The last 10 miles were mostly a battle to keep the cramps at bay. I was mostly by myself. One of our original 10 (who had gottten caught at a traffic light just after we left Hwy 288) caught and passed me - kudos to that guy! I passed one other rider before I made it back onto Furman's campus.

I pulled in with an average speed of 17.7mph - again, not earth shattering, but respectable based on my riding level. Obviously, I was well off the pace for that last 10 miles or so. I'll need to re-evaluate my hydration and nutrition before the next ride.

One thing I can say in my own defense - I had surgery last monday and have not really been able to eat solid food since then. This definitely held me back a bit today

Overall, it was a great ride. After packing up my bike and getting changed out of my wet riding clothes, I immediately stopped at the nearest McDonalds and treated myself to a large chocolate milkshake. I think that made the day complete!

Jonathan Pait who has his own cycling blog saw my original comments on this ride on the Spinner's yahoo group. He has published a copy of this on his website: The Fabulous First Fifty.