Sunday, November 27, 2011

OD on Trail Riding

When was the last time we had a Thanksgiving weekend like this one? Four straight days of mild temps and sun. I hit trails all four days, including Willowdale, FOMBA, Seavey Hill and the Blackstone River Valley.

Early Thanksgiving Day morning, I hit Willowdale State Forest for a little pre-burn fun. The doubletrack was pretty wet, but most of the singletrack drained out nicely from heavy rain over two previous days. Many riders were out. The first few bridges I hit were deadly. Frosty or black ice. I walked a few.

The annual Turkey Burner fun ride on Friday was a hoot. Hooked up with three others for three hours of root sliding craziness. The FOMBA crew nicely cleared the trails from the October snowstorm damage, but rain midweek compounded the challenge FOMBA's roots already impose. I cleaned the longest trail, 3+ mile Fireline, but didn't fare nearly so well on others. After completing the singletrack, I split off solo for a fast lap around Tower Hill pond.

Lake Massabesic at the start of the FOMBA Turkey Burner

Saturday I headed up to Bath, Maine with my wife. What is in Bath, you may ask? Bath Cycle & Ski, also known as Bikeman on the web. Bath is one of a few local retailers of snow bikes, or affectionately called fat bikes. I do enough winter riding to warrant getting a fat bike. I plan to dabble in winter triathlons too, where you run, bike and ski on snow. 2" wide studded tires might work well for typical Weston boiler plate conditions, but not Gunstock packed powder. I love riding snowmobile trails too. It takes just-right conditions to enjoy riding the sled trails with studs, usually a freeze after a thaw to set up the base. But with a fat bike, almost any sled trail conditions are fair game. The 4" wide tires provide considerable float on loose snow.

My visit to Bath was exploratory. I have never touched a fat bike. I wanted to see first hand the components, feel the heft of the bike (35+ pounds!), and get my numerous questions answered. This is way easier to do looking at a bike than talking over the phone.

I was targeting a Carver Ti frame built up with a Salsa Mukluk build kit. Bath had only one Carver frame left, a 20" frame. It's top tube length suggested it was a tad big for me. Zach at Bath put a fork in the frame with a couple fat wheels to let me assess the standover height. It seemed marginal. The Carver frame came with a $700 premium over the Salsa bike with identical low-end build kit. I'd want to get this frame size thing right, as a Ti frame is not what I would want to upgrade down the road. I had an action to check stand over clearance on my other hardtails later at home. If the 20" Carver frame was similar, I'd go with it. Bath would hold it for me until the end of the day.

A bike shop that sells snow bikes would naturally carry winter cycling shoes too. They had Lake's, Shimano's and Louis Garneau's on hand. They even had my size in all of them! I was totally impressed. I had my eye on the Loui Garneau's.  They looked slick. The fit was good. The uppers were very supple. Almost too supple. If I stretched the upper cuff, I could see light through it. Definitely not waterproof. Then I tried the Shimano's. They went on like a well broken in glove. The fit was perfect. They felt a little bulkier but had much more insulating material than the Garneau's. The Shimano's use Gortex, so at least the lower portion would be waterproof. Then I tried the Lake's.  They felt like an XC ski boot. Tall, very rigid, but probably the most waterproof and warmest. I didn't like how bulky they felt. All the shoes were SPD compatible. I went with the Shimano's. With free shipping, I could avoid the Maine sales tax. I should have them on Monday or Tuesday.

You can't visit coastal Maine without stopping for local seafood. Cathy and I stopped at Maxwell's in downtown Bath for lunch. Cathy ordered Haddock and I got a shrimp and scallop platter. It was wicked gooooood.

Back at home, I was dismayed to see the standover of my hardtails to be much lower than the Carver frame. Bath Cycle could not give me an expected date when smaller Ti frames would come in. Davis Carver, the guru behind Carver bikes, is on vacation for a couple weeks. I didn't want to risk getting shut out of a fat bike this season, so I went with the Salsa Mukluk 3. They had only one medium left in stock, which should be an ideal size for me. They will build and ship it on Monday. I'm selling our tandem to make room for the new bike if anybody is interested. We've ridden it less than 100 miles this year.

Saturday evening I had just enough daylight left to get in a quick trail ride from my house. I made it a bike-run-core workout brick. 67 minute ride in the woods, 4 mile run, 60 push-ups (two blocks of 30) and 100 sit-ups left me pretty ragged that night.  Next week my ankle should be good for full normal activity. Hope we get some more snow.

On a whim, Sunday I headed south to Blackstone Heritage State Park near Milford Mass to ride. I scavenged several MTB tracks from Garmin Connect to put a ride together.  I knew very little about the area, other than some recent comments raving about the singletrack on Goat Hill. That, and a bill before the US senate that could make the park a national park soon. That could end most mountain biking there.

I was pissed to find my tracks wouldn't display on my GPS when I got there. I had no map, just a vague recollection of where some of the trails were. I sensed a lot of aimless wandering was in store.

Brushed out buff singletrack on Goat Hill

The loop on Goat hill wasn't hard to find. In short, this trail is as good as it gets. I'd say in my New England top five good. The trail stewards had blown the whole thing clear of leaves, and it was dry. This was completely the opposite of riding FOMBA a few days earlier. The total loop went about five miles as it meandered up and over Goat Hill and back, around, through and over giant glacial erratics. Finding the other trails was much more difficult. I completely missed out on the miles and miles of trails on West Hill. Next time. I still managed to cover 30+ miles in 3.3hrs, although with a bit more pavement in there than I would have liked.  Going back to work on Monday will keep me from overdosing on singletrack.

Lookout Rock overlooking the Blackstone River Valley. Superb
riding exists on ridgelines on either side of the valley.


CB2 said...

You already bought one so I guess this is moot; have you ever just tried really fat tires, like 2.4", for snow riding? One of my friends had a Surly Pugsley for a few years and found it wasn't much better in the snow than a regular bike with wide tires, and if I couldn't ride it, neither could he. He sold it because it just wasn't very versatile. I think you need a very specific snow condition for them to really excel. But I guess if you have room in you garage / bike room...

Alby King said...

If a bicycle with 2.4" tires is just as capable as a bike with 3.8" tires you're doing it wrong. Below 5 psi is where it's at. At that pressure the contact patch is bigger than your feet. Maybe a snow ride is in store this season for demonstration purposes. Or even a quick trundle through the local sand pits. I find the snowbike to be *more* versatile than any of my other bikes. A bit slow - but very capable. I was at Massabesic on Friday too - sporting the snowbike :) It's more funner.

Greg said...

Idea for you: winter hillclimb up the Moosilauke carriage road. IIRC, snowmobiles pack it out up to the stone barrier near the summit. It has been skied and sledded on in the past (, so why not ridden?

Hill Junkie said...

I find riding 2.1" Nokian or 2.25" regular knobbies in loose snow to be very frustrating most of the time. I can't imagine going 0.3" or 0.15" wider will make much difference. I've been following an Alaskan blogger for a long time now and have garnered a good deal about the advantages of 4" tires at sub-10psi pressure. Hope I'm not disappointed.

Greg - you know, I just may give Moosilauke a try. There are sections over 20% grade, and hefting a 35lb bike up that will be a real chore. At least all the chunky rock sections will be covered.

CB2 said...

I feel like I insulted Alby's wife...
Maybe I just have mad snow skillz;-)

A snow bike will be more capable in snow, but depending on the snow it might not be that much more.
A Nokian 2.1 is a heavy tire with a small volume casing. Good on ice, not so much on snow.
Something like an Ardent 2.4 (29"), or a Mutanoraptor 2.4 (26") is much more voluptuous.

Alby King said...

Ya see Charlie, part of the reason snowbikes were developed was to give heavy folk a chance to float atop soft terrain as well as not so heavy folk. It's like comparing apples and pumpkins. Or something.

I would like to see a true snow-race. With the recent boost in popularity there should be a greater chance of that. I'm thinking Hodges Damn... Flattish and groomed by lotsa sleds.

Hill Junkie said...

Snow race? Count me in!

rick is! said...

they used to have a snow race in upstate vermont (newport I think) called the winter xc. a figure 8 ice crit on saturday night followed by a 30 mile snowmobile trail ride on sunday. best combined time won. I did it on my salsa el mariachi with rampage 2.35 and it was a frustrating ordeal. it was only through pure pig headedness that I managed a third place overall behind two snow bikes. (it was still a blast though!)

I ride tons in the winter and can attest that a fat xc bike can work in a lot of conditions but it's always a bit a crap shoot whether the conditions will be favorable or not. with a snow bike, winter riding is almost always better unless there is ice and then it's scary as shit. my mukluk is my go to bike all winter long.