Monday, December 30, 2013

Seven Days on Snow

There's been no shortage of activity on snow during this holiday visit to Michigan. Conditions weren't particularly stellar, but I've gotten some great skis and rides in, seven days in a row, all on snow.

Sunday I hit my favorite trail to ski, the VASA trail near Traverse City. The outer loop is a continuous 25km ribbon through state forest. It is a one-way trail with no road crossings. You just get on it and go. Has a great wilderness vibe to it. The trail is maintained and groomed by volunteers. Grooming is always impeccable.

I had great reservations committing to the drive up. It was very warm earlier in the weekend, and the temp was still falling. I would try Crystal Mtn first, an alpine/Nordic resort. If that didn't pan out, I'd head up further to VASA. What caused me consternation was this from VASA the evening before:

Gary will be watching the temperatures overnight to determine the best time to groom tomorrow. He will wait until the temperatures drop below freezing before he heads out onto the trail. He will probably use the snowmobile and Tidd Tech or Ginzu since the trail needs more time to set up before we take out the LMC. I will send out an update after he gets started.

Today’s groom was completed with the Tidd Tech because of the temperature at the start of the groom (31), and the forecast. Unfortunately I was unable to completely erase the Fatbike tracks on the 11 and 25K loops. They were much deeper than normal because of the recent snow that was not completely packed yet and the warmer temperatures overnight.

So if Crystal Mtn didn't pan out, I was looking at frozen-in fat bike tracks at VASA. I don't want to go into a rant right now about what I think of bikes on trails groomed for skate and classic Nordic skiing. If fat bikes are so cool to ride in snow, why-oh-why is the local MTB community lobbying to ride 10ft wide groomed ski trails?? I think it is a trend that will see bikes on most public lands groomed ski trails in the next year or two. I'll rant on this topic later.

So 2hrs into my drive up, I call Crystal Mtn. They weren't grooming, snow still too wet, but temp now falling to 25F. Argh! Their morning report said "epic conditions." Epically icy? No way was I going to skate on icy ruts left over from the previous day's slushy conditions. So VASA it would have to be.

Roads got heinously bad. The temp dropped from 40F to 15F in one hour, and it was still drizzling out. Black ice everywhere. When I got to the VASA trailhead, there were only 20 cars or so there. I feared an ice skating rink. Talking to a woman who had already gone out, she said they did get out with the snowmobile to rough it up some. Hmmm, that could still suck.

Heading out on the 25k loop, I had trouble keeping my skis under me. The first kilometer is always like that, two-way, access to all distance options, so very high usage. There was deep cover. I brought my race skis with nice sharp edges, which helped. Once on the outer 25k one-way loop, conditions improved a lot.

There are a couple bypass-able sections of the 25k loop, marked as black diamond. They are wicked climby. The descents were polished smooth, frozen hard, with black ice building on them for good measure. Needless to say, I found them frightful.

The second bypass-able section was not groomed that morning. That was the most terrifying 2km of skate skiing I've ever done. Too icy to walk down, zero control of speed and direction skiing down. Could have bushwhacked I suppose, but I took great risk by death wedging my way down each plummet.

Back on the main loop, things were good again. There were lengthy sections that were just awesome. Crispy corduroy that afforded good control. You could free skate at 20-25kph. I finished the 25km loop in about 90 minutes, grabbed another water bottle, and went out for the 11k loop.

At least the drizzle turned over to light snow at this point, and I didn't have to keep stopping to chisel ice off my glasses. On the way back to the trailhead, I hit the 5km trail, which I don't think I've ever skied before. It was in mint condition, no ice at all. It is easily the most fun section of trail there, being narrower with lots of long, twisty descending.

I did not notice any detracting fat bike tracks. Perhaps the morning groom helped fill them in some more. Fat biking the VASA trail is on a trial basis, and a point of contact is given for trail users to share their comments. I was thinking oh yeah, if the trail was trashed when it was too soft to ride, they'll be hearing from me. The MTB community is supposed to police themselves to ensure this doesn't happen.  Was pretty relieved to see the trail in great shape.

I finished with 42.5km in 2.7hrs with 3700ft of climbing, a great skate for sure. That makes almost 150km of skating in a five day window, probably a new record for me. Should make a great base for hitting some of the longer, steeper climbs back in New England.

Monday I hit the very first trail I mountain biked on back in 1996. It had seen sufficient traffic when it was soft, then froze up solid when it got cold again, to ride it with 2" studded tires. It is the Yankee Springs MTB loop, a 13mi singletrack loop that carves through eskers, surprisingly hilly.

There still a pretty good snow base there, so the trail was an 8" wide ribbon, bowl shaped in the bottom, which required considerable focus to stay in the rut. Else you'd quickly find yourself without a bike under you.

The Pines section.

The ice storm damage was extensive. Kudos to the crew that clear all the debris so quickly, including large trees. There was a lot of ice on the trail that had fallen from the trees during the thaw. It made for a crunchy, noisy surface and required a bit of work in areas. I thought at first maybe I could bang out two laps in 2.5hrs or so, but no way, not even close. I really needed a rest day, so I backed down to a semi-recovery pace.

Great esker ridgeline riding here, with long, flowy descents.

One lap was more than enough. I logged 13.4mi (no wheel sensor) in 2hrs.  It is interesting to note that I can ski about 50% faster than bike on almost identical conditions. Just one more reason why I find skating on snow more fun than biking on snow. Enjoying it while we got it.

Friday, December 27, 2013

P2P Ride

You've probably heard of the Brewery to Brewery ride in New England, but I have a Pier to Pier ride in west Michigan I like to do. It follows about seven miles of pristine Lake Michigan shoreline from the Holland pier to the Saugatuck pier. It is hit or miss whether I can ride it over the holiday break with 2" studded tires. Sometimes it hasn't been cold enough to freeze up. Other times the snow is way too deep. A couple of times it was perfect: sand, buffed smooth by waves, frozen solid with no snow, rides like pavement. Today was a mixed bag.

We've gotten several inches more snow since I checked the beach out a few days ago.  We've also had high winds, which tend to sweep the snow off the beach. Wind can pile ice up on the beach too. What was there today was a bit of everything: glare ice, loose sand, deep snow, and slabs of ice. The chunky ice was particularly challenging. Have you ridden talus out west? Try riding talus made out of ice. Tires go where they want.

A fat bike would have faired a little better in some spots. Studs were extremely helpful. I still managed to hit the deck once while riding. My hardest crash was when I stopped to take a photo. The beach sloped steeply to the water with snow covering shiny ice. I was bouncing off my ass before I could even react. Oh yeah, that made my glutes tenderized from 72km of skiing the previous two days feel great.

I backtracked halfway to Holland along the beach to a public access point at Laketown Park. The stairs on beach side of dune were useable, but not the back side which was several feet deep snow. I bushwhacked, then realized that layer of ice was under thick snow pack. It occurred to me I could trigger a slide and go for a ride. I chose to slide on my ass with bike down a portion of the dune.

Even the roads and bike paths to and from the beach were pretty tough riding. Towns here don't bother bringing the plows out for just a few inches of new snow. I was riding on snow and ice about 98% of the time.  I finished with 20.5mi in 2.7hrs moving time. Pretty decent ride, a few short hike-a-bike sections, but hardly a recovery ride my body really needed.

Big Red lighthouse on Holland pier. Even scored first tracks.

Ice piled up far out into the lake.

Looking north along beach. Sun peeking through perma-gloom.

Near Saugatuck looking north.

Saugatuck pier.

This photo cost me a wipeout.

Part way up sand dune at Laketown Park.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Is there such thing as too much snow for a Nordic skier?

In gloomy, snowy W. Michigan for several days. The sun doesn't shine here much in the winter, as cold Canadian air scoops up a lot of moisture from Lake Michigan, makes perpetual clouds, which dump perpetual snow along the lakeshore. Great if you're a Nordic skier, but sometimes it can keep snowing, and snowing, and snowing, and you never end up with that magical transformed sugar granular base that ski skiers crave.

Christmas morning I had a chance to get out for a long skate. Of course, the lake effect machine was in full force. The good news was I wouldn't have to drive far at all to ski. The bad news was I would likely have to suffer through another powdery slog. Great workout, but you can't really work on technique, like V2 and balance, some of my weaknesses. There's just not enough glide in dense, high moisture content powder to allow me to effectively V2.

I headed up to Pigeon Creek, a municipal park just north of my hometown Holland. The county grooms the trail network there for classic and skate skiing. There are no trail fees. They groom with snowmobiles but have pretty nice equipment and do a good job. Even on Christmas morning with snow coming down, the groomer was out. I would have been screwed otherwise. The terrain is pretty flat, min to max elevation change of just 30ft or so. Should be great for banging out 50k easily in under 3hrs, right? Yeah, right...

There were only a handful of cars there. Pretty much had the trails to myself. It snowed about 2" in the first hour. I got there just as the groomer finished with skate lanes, and in an hour, you couldn't tell. At least I lucked out with timing.

This was groomed less than an hour earlier. Slow, but pretty, eh?

There's probably less than 10km of trail there groomed for skate. Doesn't get too repetitious, as there are two nice loops on each side of the road. I did not have to take my skis off to cross the paved road. In fact, I thought how much faster it would be if I just skated on the road. The cars were doing a nice job packing the snow down. But it is a main county road with fast traffic on it.

Action selfies on skis are hard. Barely had time to turn around before shutter went.

I finished with 32km in about 2.5hrs. I kept getting slower and slower as the snow got deeper and deeper and I got tired.

Christmas Eve I got in a shorty ride out to "Big Red" and back. Wanted to check the beach out. My mom's friend, who lives on the big lake says she sees riders on fat bikes all the time, any season of the year. I like riding the beach with studs after it freezes up.

Not an ocean port. Heading to beech along the Holland channel.

Tuesday would have been a great day to ride pier to pier (Holland to Saugatuck). Mostly ice with windswept snow here and there. I rode only a mile on the beach.  A little work, but totally doable with 2" studded tires and still have fun. Probably won't happen this visit though. The lake effect machine is supposed to run all week and by now there is probably a lot of snow on the beach. A fat bike might still be doable, but if we get a few inches every day, that too will be more work than it is worth.  Looks like a week of skiing for me.

Not the ocean. Pretty high ice piles building out into the lake already. Can ride
8 miles south to Saugatuck channel, mostly along undeveloped beach.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

600 Hours

That is the number of aerobic activity hours I like to achieve in a given year. It is not a hard requirement, and I certainly can't pin any performance measures on it. 600 hours of activity seems to be what it takes for me to maintain my sanity. Addiction? Perhaps. I can think of far worse things to be addicted to.

This weekend I reached 600 hours of activity for the year. What is included in these 600 hours? Anything that raises my heart and respiration rates. It does not include stretching, situps/pushups, that sort of thing. Here's a breakdown of my hours for the year.

Half of my hours were spent on the mountain bike riding trails. Trail riding has always been my core passion. Road hours continue to diminish. Nothing beats "roadie fitness," but I'm finding the roads increasingly hostile around here. I've had too many close calls this year, two of them deliberate, one of them involving police, that I just don't enjoy riding on the road that much anymore. Every time I go out, I have this nagging worry that this could be my last bike ride ever.

As much as I like skiing, you'd think it would be more than 10% of my hours. But you can do it for only a few months out of the year, and it is hard for me to ski midweek. I can't just go out the front door of the office with skis and take off like I can running or cycling.

Running hours dropped this year, and they could go to zero next year. I have nagging problems with my left knee, and running seems to exacerbate things. It is pain behind the kneecap, which could be classic runner's knee. Pain quickly subsides if I back off on activity for a few days. Training weeks with a couple runs and punishing rides or skis can make something even as simple as stairs uncomfortable. Not a good situation, and maybe time to get things checked out.

I've been keeping a training log since 2002. Since then, I've captured about 7500 hours of aerobic activity. My average is 626hrs per year, with a standard deviation of 43hrs. My lowest year was 552hrs when I broke my ankle in 2010. Highest was 708hrs in 2003. I was almost a pure roadie back then, so that was mostly hours on a road bike. Wonder if I'll reach elite status in four more years with 10,000hrs of practice? Ha-ha.

So how well did these 600 hours serve me in 2013? Pretty good, I'd say. I posted my fastest time up Mt Washington ever and finished the Vermont 50 mile MTB race with a personal fastest. That pretty much brackets both ends of the spectrum, a one hour and a four-plus hour event. Both were pretty satisfying events for me, at 50+ years old.

One goal that I had to let go was running my fastest 5km race. I had a goal of 17:30, which is quite sporty for an old guy, and quite doable with just a couple hours running training per week I think. I learned last year that my high aerobic capacity carries over quite nicely to short running events. But alas, the knee issues, and getting too greedy by wanting Mt Washington and 5k PR in the same month. I jettisoned the running ambitions and focused on biking for several weeks leading up to Mt Washington in August. It paid off.

What's in store for 2014? Hard to say. I really don't start years with lofty goals anymore, other than ride and ski lots, stay healthy, be happy. This weekend is a prime example of why New England is such a great place to live. Ski local trails, ride dirt on the Cape. Best of both worlds.

Windblown Nordic Center, New Ipswich, NH, December 20, 2013. Foot base.

Trail of Tears ride, West Barnstable, MA, December 21, 2013. No snow in sight 2hrs away.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How's that fat bike working out for ya?

It used to be that cyclists lamented the snow and skiers got all giddy. These lines of demarcation are getting a bit blurred now. Many mountain bikers are picking up "fat bikes," bicycles with super wide tires for riding in snow.  Apparently, the fat bike Kool-Aid tastes even better than the singlespeed Kool-Aid from many years ago, as the fat bike tipping point came quicker and market saturation will be reached sooner.

I owned a Surly Pugsley for a year or so.  I'd probably still own it if the wide Q-factor didn't muck with my knees so badly. I rode the Pugsley very little on non-snowy terrain. I did get out in powder and snowmobile trails several times. My experience led me to conclude that there is a fairly narrow range of conditions where only a fat bike will work. Deep new powder, no bike works. Hard packed trails, a regular mountain bike works. These conditions represent conditions most likely to be encountered over the course of a season. In between these two, a fat bike often may marginally work, with intensive effort and focus on keep it going. Best bet for fat bike riding is on snowmobile and groomed cross-country ski trails.

So I got to thinking. Would I rather skinny ski or fat bike on snow? I started considering the pro's and con's of each activity. There are many points to consider.

Pay to Play

Generally, most mountain bikers don't pay to ride their bikes on trails. There are a couple popular fee based areas in New England, such as Kingdom Trails and Millstone. But there is a good chance most mountain bikers have free trails close to their home. Skate skiers usually have to pay a trail fee to ski, especially in the northeast. It costs money to groom trails with equipment. Skiers most likely have to drive to groomed trail systems too. In the Midwest, where I'm originally from, there are many free places to ski. Tax dollars are often used to groom trails, no different than say plowing streets.

14" total at the state line. Is that fat bikeable?

So how do singletrack trails for fat bikes get groomed? Mostly by hikers and snowshoers. Fat bikers form a big contingent of this group, anxious to get their favorite trail packed down enough to ride after a big snow dump. So what happens when a second big snow dump comes along before your trail becomes packed enough? You keep packing! I've never snowshoed, but I have no doubt it is great exercise. Mountain bikers are building creative human powered grooming equipment too, like the converted dolly below. Anything that gets people moving outside is fine in my book.

The Bully's groomer. I'd be wrecked pulling that one mile in 14" of snow. But I'm no Bully.

Cost of Entry

At first, fat bikes were relatively cheap. They used steel frames and little was done to trim weight. Then they started catching on, with a whole market building up around them. You can now buy carbon and titanium fat bikes at well over $5000. Cost of entry is much lower though. There are entry level models for under $1000. A comparable level skate ski setup (skis, bindings and poles) will run you about $400. Top of the line race skis run about $600-700 with bindings.


Fat bikes entail no more maintenance that other bicycles, unless you ride them on salty roads. Then maintenance sky rockets. Riding on snow is usually quite clean. Skiing can be low maintenance too, but avid skiers obsess over waxing. They may wax every time going out on skis, choosing the optimal wax for the conditions. This is imperative for classic technique skiers that don't use waxless skis, but less imperative for skate skiers. I do wax my skis after a long ski session. It does increase the enjoyment factor if you have better glide. The difference can be more pronounced than riding in soft grass vs. pavement. For casual skiing and training, inexpensive paraffin waxes are used. It may take 20 minutes to wax a pair.


I doubt anybody will disagree that both cycling and skiing are superb, low impact forms of aerobic exercise. For the full-time cyclists, continuing to ride all winter may contribute to imbalances that cycling seems to create in our bodies. I believe there is considerable value to cross training, breaking the pattern, to restore some balance in the body. Fat bikers that help groom their own trails no doubt get in cross training efforts by snowshoeing or towing grooming sleds.

Skiing, on the other hand, is entirely different. Half or more of energy expenditure is through the upper body. Compared to cycling, skiing is weight bearing and uses all of your major muscle groups. Skiing has the capacity to tax your cardio system much harder than cycling can. It is a great way to maintain or even improve your cardio capacity over the winter without using the same, small set of muscles you use on the bike.


I've known cyclists that burn out well before the summer is over. I think massive indoor trainer hours over the winter contribute to this. By doing something different over the winter, such as skiing, you break up the monotony of doing the same thing over and over and over. You give your mind a new challenge to tackle, something that requires much more finesse to do properly. It breaks you out of the physical routine you've been in for many months.

There is something unique about skiing, particularly skate skiing, that I've heard other biker/skiers mention. It is meditative. Sure, riding a bike can put you in a meditative state too, but skiing takes it to a whole other level. It has to do with the pendulum rhythm, push, glide...., push, glide...... It is hypnotic. You don't get this pronounced rhythm on a bike. It is a steady spin. Running too, it's not there. The turn-over is too fast in running.

It is the combination of doing something physically different with my body for part of the year with the hypnotic state it induces that draws me to skate skiing on snow. I'd much rather ski snow than bike snow. It is a unique experience. I can ride my bike almost any time throughout the year, but I can ski for only a small part of the year.

Marginally groomed at Waterville on Wednesday, but endorphin buzzed achieved that would be
hard to beat on a bike. Brett on Livermore Rd.

Hopefully the awesome start to the season continues. I've already skied more times on natural snow before Christmas than any other season since I got hooked on this sport. Looking forward to the Weston Tuesday night "Worlds" races to start after the first of the year.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


Three ski-bike weekends in a row, woo-hoo! These efforts do come with a cost, however, especially this weekend. Friday Brett and I headed up to Trapp Family Lodge for a skate ski. Long haul, but reports were coming in that they had the most terrain open and best conditions. Of course, lake effect snow was still peeling off Lake Ontario and made driving there and back suck.

Skate conditions weren't bad, but far from the "awesome" we were baited with. Trapp had most of the outer perimeter open. This meant a thousand foot climb if heading straight out that way. Nothing like getting your suffer on right from the go.  The temp was barely into the double digits, and the windchill was likely sub-zero. You almost had to head right for the nearest climb to not freeze up immediately.

With light snow falling and soft surface, crazy kilojoule expenditure was needed to just crawl up the mountain. We were going so slow that my GPS, with custom 0.5mph auto-pause setting, kept thinking I was not moving. Yet I was cross-eyed from going so anaerobic. I need to start getting intensity back into my routine after a four month hiatus, but this was just plain suffering. Brett and I both got a little bitchy, especially after the snowmobile grooming wasn't really wide enough to effectively skate on some of the 20+ percent grade sections.

The descent on Haul Rd hurt just as bad in an entirely different way. Freeze your face off. We were soaking wet from climbing for 30 minutes, then bomb down at maybe -10F windchill. Enough to make you black out from brain freeze. There was no way we were getting in a 30+km skate in these conditions. In an hour, we were both slowing down. That's when the cold can set in so quickly.

When heading back toward the lodge, we noted one of the big cats had groomed the race loop. The freshly minted corduroy actually skied quite nice, better than the snowmobile groomed terrain that had much more time to set up.

It was nice to ski on natural snow cover so early in the season. Even though there were a few thin spots, I never felt my skis hit anything. With the pending storm, it's looking like we could have a long ski season. I'm sure the fat bikers (the bikes, usually not the riders) are rejoicing. I'd much rather shift the emphasis to something different for a few months and ski the white stuff rather than pack it down with tires.

So was it worth heading up to Trapp?

  • 6hrs round trip time in the car
  • Barely escaped multi-car crash coming back through Manchester
  • $42 gas, $23 trail pass, $3 tolls
  • ~0F windchill, sandpaper snow
  • Skiing cross-eyed for 2.1hrs: priceless

I'd do it again. There was no place closer to get that kind of a workout. The toughest 50k ski race in the country is only a month away, and I plan to do the Lake Placid Loppet this year as a qualifier for the American Berkie.

The skies opened up a bit just as we were leaving. Otherwise it snowed lightly the whole time.

Saturday I hooked up with the NEBC gang in Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsboro state forest for a crusty snow trail ride. Anthony from Cycle Loft was there with a few fat bikes for the guys to try out. There were all manner of other kinds of bikes there, from rigid 26" singlespeed, 29" hardtail and dualies with studded and non-studded tires. Guess which bike ruled?

I felt like I had a touch of death kitting up for the ride. I was grateful for Paul letting me know about it, but regretting saying I would be there. Plus it was +8F at my house (sensor sheltered under our deck). I had several miles of road to get there, almost all downhill. I was going to freeze my face off again.

+4F. How my ride started out.

My left knee was in a wicked funk. I ran hard on Tuesday and again on Thursday. I nearly tripped on Thursday, tweaking something in a knee that has been giving me on and off grief all year. The cold wasn't helping matters. Bombing down Dracut Rd at 25mph, right out of the house, sucked donkey balls. The pharmacy sign at the bottom said +4F. That's about -16C for my friends to the north. The ride was supposed to begin at 9:30am SHARP, so I timed things precisely to get to the trailhead parking lot then. I didn't want to wait around and freeze. I got there with a minute and a half to spare. Were they ready to roll? Noooooo!

Some of the gang just before heading out

It wasn't too bad though. Seemed a little warmer there than up at my house, and there was no wind. Heading into the woods, I was experiencing whiplash riding at the back of the group. I wonder how many of them did a two hour time-trial the day before? I had nothing in my legs, and the new Kenda Klondike tires I just mounted were pretty squirrelly in the crusty snow. Seems the rounded profile likes to plow in a bit. I think they will work great for icy snow machine trails though, the primary reason I bought them. A quick scan of the tires after the ride didn't show any missing studs, despite almost no road break-in period and riding a lot of rocky terrain. That is a big plus for these cheap tires. They are beastly heavy, at just over 1500g each, with 400 studs per tire.






The fat bike guys were able to haul ass in those conditions. Had it been packed down a bit firmer, I think a 29er would have been the best bike. Studs weren't really necessary. There was very little ice. So you'd think Gene on the rigid 26" singlespeed would have been in a world of difficulty, but no. He schooled everybody on that thing. Or so I was told. I was so far back I missed much of the action.

We bombed around for about 2hrs, hitting almost all of the cool singletrack. We hit three sections of tail I've never been on. It was great to get a local trail ride in before the storm. Could be my last local singletrack ride for a long time. I was glad when it was done though, so I could begin the uphill slog back home. Scored another 3hrs of aerobic activity. Sunday's activity looks like a shovel fest.

Friday, December 13, 2013


Back in 2001, my second full year of MTB racing, I had a mishap at the All Out in Moody Park race. It was wet that year and there were many treacherous root sections. One was down a steep bank to a skinny bridge across a stream. I was in a solid podium position and fighting hard to hold my second place position. I was lapping many sport riders, sometimes at scary speed differentials. This particular bridge crossing pretty much required you to commit once going over the lip and down the roots. To stop was to crash.

Well, wouldn't you know, a female racer was stopped on the narrow bridge as I came flying over the drop. There was nothing I could do. My body slammed down hard on the bridge, which was a bit of a ladder bridge made with small diameter tree sections for cross members. There were a number of cut off branch nubs protruding. One laid my arm open. Much cussing ensued as I assessed the bodily damage and lost a podium position. The girl apologized profusely, but it wasn't her fault at all. I felt bad that she felt she caused my crash.

So why do I share this story now? Last weekend I witness an almost identical mishap. Shortly after Dave, Soups and I started our ride at Bear Brook, we encountered a convoy of ATVs. It was part of a Toys-for-Tots charity ride.  They were heading down 1 Mile Rd, adjacent to the singletrack we were on. The first few ATVs were travelling at ridiculous speed, maybe even getting air where you would think it would be impossible. These things looked like dune buggies with roll cages and side-by-side seating.  There was snow cover too, making the marked ATV route somewhat glazed over with traffic.

As we approach the doubletrack ATV route from the side, the next ATV driver saw us and slowed to a stop. Maybe she did this out of courtesy, maybe she thought we weren't going to stop, who knows. But the guy behind her was either going too fast or not paying close attention or both and ended up in a pickle. He wasn't going to stop in time on the icy trail. He lost control and slammed right into a large hardwood tree. It looked pretty horrific, with his vehicle and body bouncing off pretty hard. Several others from the convoy stopped and ran up to help, telling him to not get up as he writhed in pain. Eventually he took his helmet off, got up and hobbled around. He didn't seem seriously hurt and had lots of help on hand. We continued on our ride.

Even though it wasn't an ATV race, it was spooky similar to my mishap more than 12 years earlier, something I had long forgotten until seeing this mishap play out before my eyes. The injured ATV rider didn't blame the woman who stopped in front of him, and I didn't hear anybody blame the cyclists for being out there. Shit happens in competition or when bravado is involved. Self preservation instincts are suppressed, risks go up. How many times have you been riding with a group, whether it be Tuesday Night Worlds on the road or through technical terrain in the woods, where you struggle mightily to not get dropped?  Risk vs. reward. Sometimes we make silly choices.  We own the outcomes of the choices we make.

Sunday, December 8, 2013


It's that time of year where I morph from cyclist to skier. I dabble a little with running too, in hopes of reversing low bone density. This week I ran and skied two times each, leaving only three days for the bike, one of which was a recovery spin.

The Nordic ski season is on a trend of starting earlier each season, thanks to climate change. That's right. Because natural snow is becoming less reliable these days, many Nordic ski centers have invested in snow making equipment. Rikert, Craftsbury, Waterville Valley, Great Glen and Weston Ski Track are just a few. Rikert and Craftsbury are full-up Nordic ski centers that are serious about putting Nordic skiers on snow early. Rikert just installed a huge snow making system and is closer to my house than Craftsbury. It only needs to get cold at night to start the season.

The last two weekends have been solid ski-bike weekends. Ski hard on Saturday, bike in damaged state on Sunday. Last week Saturday Rikert had perfect conditions on mix of man-made and natural snow. It looked like mid-winter there. They had only 2.5km open, but it was perfect for getting the snow feel back in the legs. Rollerskis on pavement cannot emulate snow feel. The hills jacked the heart rate up on the climbs and allowed practicing turns on the descents.  I got in a solid 33km workout, one of my best season opener skates.

Thanksgiving weekend skiing at Rikert. Doesn't get any better.

Wide FIS race course trails.

The following day, Sunday, was frigid. Isaac was looking to do a local three hour ride. Working all of the new NEMBA built singletrack in Merrimack and Amherst into a super-loop would fit the bill. We parked at the Horse Hill trail head and started by bombing down Amherst Rd to the Grater Woods Preserve. Talk about ice cream headache! The ground was frozen hard as concrete. I love riding when conditions are like that. Just have to watch out for errant patches of ice. We covered 27 miles with 2600ft of climbing. A two day one-two punch for me.

Isaac on Greens Pond Connector Trail by Wasserman Park.

Loop Trail in Horse Hill. Seems blue bird sky days are always bitter cold.

This past weekend was a near repeat of last weekend: ski Rikert on Saturday, ride with Soups and Isaac on Sunday. After the warm, rainy spell, Rikert was not nearly as pristine as the week before. They barely kept their man-made base. They churned up a nice sugar granular with the Piston Bully, but over a hundred high school kids doing drills with their coaches there all morning scraped things down to ice in many spots. I got held up a lot in the first hour, slow conga lines going up the climb, obstacle course on the descent. Things thinned out after an hour and I got some good laps in before two more bus loads of kids came. Despite some frustration with congestion and sketchy conditions, I got in a pretty brutal workout with 36km and 3600ft vertical skied.

Not quite like a week earlier at Rikert.

For the Sunday ride, I met Isaac and Soups at Bear Brook. Since most of Vermont and New Hampshire had no snow on the ground, I expected Bear Brook State Park to be bare too. It wasn't. Not a biggie. It was an inch of very cold, dry snow that didn't impact traction much at all (except that one time I hit a patch of black ice on granite!). Plan was to do a full perimeter loop, hitting all the NEMBA built trail with an out and back to Fort Mountain along the way.

Isaac exiting Big Bear Trail

I hadn't ridden up Fort Mtn in a few years. Soups had never been up it. The day was overcast, but I still hoped for a decent view. From the rocky outcropping up top, you have about a 300 degree panoramic view to the east, north and west. Only the communication towers block the view to the south. The Presidential Mountains were visible. Not sure how far away they are from there, maybe 100 miles? The descent was a white knuckle affair on white powder. The service road to the summit exceeds 20% grade over long stretches, even peaking out at 25% on one section. Simply brutal to climb in snow, but we all cleaned it.

Summit of Fort Mountain. Presidentials in background.

View west, Uncanoonucs on left, probably Monadnock in center

Once the "bonus climb" was completed, it was nuttin' but singletrack bliss for the rest of the ride. We hit all the parts I don't normally hit when I do a 50+ mile Massabesic-Bear Brook loop, such as Bear Pond and Hedgehog Ledge.  We finished with a punishing 31 miles and 4000ft of climbing per my Garmin 705. I also ran a Garmin 500 and 510 and Soups ran his Droid app on the ride. I'll save the discussion of this comparison for a separate post.

Hemlock Trail. Pretty, eh? Other parts of the park had almost no snow.

Soups bombing down Hedgehog Ledge Trail. Tires aren't even touching and he's trying
to get one of his feet clipped in. I screamed like a girl going down this.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Those who follow me on Strava may notice I ride very little on the road lately. There are several reasons for this, I think, including some nasty encounters with motorists earlier in the season and getting a big-wheeled dualie that made it so much easier on the body to do long, rough rides off-road. Over half my "training" hours this year have been trail riding, the balance roughly split between running, skiing and road cycling.

Mountain biking is making a resurgence across the country. The national park and forest services, BLM, state and local land managers have all warmed up some to allowing greater access to trails and building new trails specifically for mountain biking. There are far more miles of singletrack in New England now than 10 years ago. Local NEMBA chapters have been particularly proactive in working with land managers.

Take Bear Brook State Park, for example. 10 years ago, the trail system there was in pretty horrible shape. There was no regular maintenance of singletrack. Many New England riders found Bear Brook uninspiring. Then NEMBA stepped up and began cleaning up existing trails and getting permission to build new trails. Suddenly, Bear Brook was on the map as a destination riding place. New trails like "Alp d'Huez" and Hemlock were instant hits. Instead of being three or four cars in the mountain biker parking lot on weekends, there were now 20 or more. I suspect now mountain bikers out-number all other day-use visitors combined. NEMBA is executing a five-year master trail plan with the park, having completed the second year now. Note all of the trails in Bear Brook are multi-user. A much broader user group than just mountain bikers benefit from our work, including hikers and equestrians.

Other success stories are where NEMBA was invited to build trails on town conservation lands. Two examples are Russell Mill in Chelmsford, MA and Horse Hill in Merrimack, NH. These parcels suffered from neglect and illegal activity, such as dumping, partying and motorized vehicle use. Again, respective NEMBA chapters, with considerable trail building expertise and large base of volunteer labor, cleaned the places up and brought healthy, sustainable activity to the parcels. Both places are now wildly popular riding destinations and are also heavily used by local residents for nature walks, taking dogs out and trail running. Everybody benefits.

Not all is rosy, however. In parts of the country where there is way more demand for trail resources than trails, user conflict persists. Marin County in California has been in a perpetual battle between users groups for more than 30 years. Mountain biking is banned on most of the singletrack trails as a result.

When the forest service solicited comments for a brand new section of continental divide singletrack to be built, the mountain biking world went into a tizzy. The new trail would replace a 32 mile section of the continental divide route that followed jeep roads in valleys with contouring singletrack at 10,000ft elevation.  This was awesome. Of course, the forest service recognized there was likely to be some contention. Hikers, on average, feel their wilderness experiences are harmed when encountering other trail users on bikes. Funny that mountain bikers don't feel that way when encountering hikers. Anyway, the forest service proposed four options, only one of which allowed cycling. Of course I wrote a letter to weigh in, citing my many trips to Colorado specifically for high alpine riding.

Some time after the public comment period ended, the forest service issued their report with a decision. Bikes would be allowed!  The decision was overwhelmingly pro-multi-user. In fact, in the report, the forest service stated:

"Most of our non-motorized volunteer groups in the area are either mountain bike clubs or multiple-use advocates; therefore, the trail should be designed to accommodate those non-motorized uses to increase the chances for sustainable construction and long-term maintenance for which the forests have neither the staffing or funding to accomplish on their own."

In other words, they basically said we can't even build this trail without the mountain biking community's help. This was so wicked awesome I wanted to know when the trail work days were going to be so I could plan a trip around it to help out. The euphoria didn't last long. Every never-heard-of hiking group acronymed up and filed appeals. The forest service was inundated with anti-mountain biking appeals. The claims were the same old BS the grey beard granola munchers have been saying for years, bikes destroy the earth, riders run over little old ladies and bike riders destroy wilderness experience for others. Interesting that I ride the very same trails to enjoy a wilderness experience. The complaints even stated that because the trail was going to contour elevation without steep ups or downs, it would be even more accessible and more popular (which is contrary to speed/erosion complaints). They claimed we already had the Monarch Crest Trail, so that should be good enough and that the view is better there anyway. So why isn't that good enough for them? How do non-mountain bikers know what is best for us?

What really irked me was the claim that 98% of forest service "trails" are open to mountain biking already. Yeah. That is the 98% that are gravel roads in valleys. Already, 100% of the best scenery is locked up with Wilderness designation. How much of that do we get to ride? A big F'n 0%. So how much of the best of the rest do we get to ride? Very little. Cyclists are banned from both the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. So that leaves tiny little bits and pieces here and there that are high quality and open to cyclists. How is that fair? I recently commented to a friend that it is time mountain bikers stage a critical mass type event to ride a banned section of trail with a couple hundred riders...

Given all the harsh criticism from the other side, the forest service caved and rescinded their decision. No explanation was given, but you can read the appeals online to gain understanding.  I suspect what could have been the crown jewel in Colorado ridge riding just slipped right through our fingers. That hurt, and I still haven't gotten over it.

We now have another trail user conflict flaring up right here in New Hampshire.  The New Hampshire Dept of Economic Development (DRED) recently proposed rule changes for horse use on state lands. Among some of the changes were cleaning up after horses and much stricter definition of which trails are permissible for horseback riding. Personally, I don't think horse shit in trails is that big of a deal. I find it ironic though, that walkers must clean up after poodles while equestrians do not have to clean up after their 100x bigger animals. The equestrian community went into an uproar over the proposed changes and started writing their representatives in state government. Understandably so, as the changes, if enforced, would decimate the riding experience on state land. It is not very practical to clean up after your animal everywhere, and permissible trail types would ban horses from all but the widest forest roads.

Then state senator Sanborn stepped into the scene, firing a return volley on behalf of the equestrian community. He's sponsoring a senate bill, SB2676, which amends RSA 216-F:2 with the following paragraph:

"Nothing shall limit the right of the public to pass over any trail in the multi-use statewide trail system for the purpose of horseback riding. Horseback riders shall be responsible for removal of horse waste from the trail head and parking areas of any park or reservation."

At first, one may think yeah, that's seems reasonable. But then you start to think about it a little. Why don't other user groups get that kind of protection. Wouldn't it be cool if state law said "Nothing shall limit the right of mountain bikers to ride any trail?" It will never happen, yet the wealthy equestrian community is now trying to get such a law passed to benefit only them that can only be to the detriment of other trail users. But this isn't what troubles the New Hampshire mountain biking community.

Bear Brook State Park is at the epicenter of this whole battle. I'm not sure what triggered the more restrictive DRED rules to begin with. I'm pretty sure it was not the mountain biking community, as we're a pretty tolerant bunch when it comes to trail use. We have to be, as we too easily end up on the raw end of access.

There are several trails in Bear Brook that NEMBA believes are not suitable for horse use. These trails are benchcut into extremely steep gradients. There is no way for two horses, or a horse and any other trail user for that matter, to safely pass each other. Yet the new bill, if passed, would grant equestrians access to trails like Hemlock, Bear Brook and Cascade. Horses can weigh well over 1000 lbs. That weight is concentrated in very small patches as a horse travels. These trails are built in sandy loam. We fear the trail could easily give way to that much concentrated weight. This could cause great harm to the rider, horse and the trail itself.

NEMBA spent hundreds of man-hours building these trails. All user groups were invited to help build these trails. To my knowledge, the equestrian community did not help at all. There were zero volunteers from that community on the work days I participated. And now they want legally protected access to ride (and destroy) the trails we worked so hard to create and maintain. That is NEMBA's rub with the new bill. It prohibits the park manager from closing any trails to horse use.

If this law passes, it could go badly for the MTB community. It could mean all new trails on state land must be designed to safely accommodate horses. Mountain bikers probably would not find these very inspiring. User conflict could go way up too, if the park gained in popularity with equestrians and more horses hit trails like Hemlock. That is by far the most popular mountain biking trail. Nobody wants a horse to get spooked in confined quarters and throw a rider. It is a long tumble down to the stream in places. That could prompt mountain bikers getting banned from the very trails we created. Don't laugh. It has happened before. When use of our national parks is going down and funding to maintain them is at an all-time low, you'd think you wouldn't want to alienate the biggest user group of our state's biggest state park by passing an unnecessary law.  Horses are banned on select trails in many places I ride, even Great Brook Farm in Carlisle, which is wildly popular with horse riders. There's no uproar over it there.  I hope our legislature realizes what they are doing when voting on this bill early next year. I plan to write my senator. Part of the reason for this blog post is to solidify my thoughts on the issue before writing.

So at concern here is only a few miles of singletrack that almost certainly will see severe damage and conflict issues if horse use goes way up. The equestrian community claims there are 100 miles of trails at Bear Brook, and the proposed DRED changes would limit them to only 10 miles of trails. The proposed senate bill would keep all 100 miles open to horses by law, including trails that were not designed for horse use. There hasn't been significant conflict on the trails to date. I think in 17 years, I've encountered horses only twice at Bear Brook. NEMBA has placed signs on Hemlock Trail stating "not recommended for horses", but they keep getting torn down. If the law does pass, the only saving grace here might be that because the NEMBA built trail is so popular with cyclists, the equestrian community may chose to ride the other 99 miles of trails in the park.

It then occurred to me. As a dominant trail user at Bear Brook, is NEMBA playing the same role as the hiking community in Colorado is playing? The hiker groups claim we should be happy with our 98% of the trails, so they alone should get the new 32 miles of world-class ridge trail.  At Bear Brook, we are telling the equestrian community they should be happy with their 97%, and the 3% of scenic, fun steep river bank trails belong to us. Is this really any different? I challenge readers to drop their biases and explain how it is different.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Not a week goes by where I'm not hit with some wacky, new diet direction. Just in the last 10-15 years, there have been many that went mainstream, like the Atkins, South Beach, Zone, Glycemic Index and Paleo. The churn never ends.

Even as a youngster in the late 1960's, I remember eggs suddenly becoming bad for you. Saturated fats followed, butter being replaced with margarine. We now know cholesterol in eggs isn't bad for you and trans-fats are far worse than saturated fat.

Then fats altogether became evil, and a diet based on high carbohydrate consumption was going to save our sorry, sedentary asses. Most readers know how well that worked out, as a couple generations are now addicted to simple calories with poor nutrient content. The pendulum swings back.

There are a whole slew of evils today, too many to stay on top of. Gluten, which has gone through rapid evolution in the last half century is now claimed to be toxic because we haven't adapted to it. GMO is especially evil, as big companies are behind modifying our foods for profit, not our health. The politicians are in cahoots with big agri-business, so it is all evil.  Then there are antibiotics and hormones used to raise meat, eggs and milk. These make it into our bodies and cause all sorts of maladies, so the story goes.

So what is the best diet? Is it even determinable? If so, what criteria do you use? Longevity? Fitness measures? Propagating the species? These measures aren't very well correlated. Optimizing one can be detrimental to another. In evolutionary terms, the best diet is one that lets one produce the most offspring. Once your children have grown and become of age, you can die. You've made your contribution to the gene pool. It is interesting to note that the underprivileged around the world often have bigger families and have limited access to what many would consider a high quality diet. In Darwinistic terms, a cheap, highly processed diet appears to be extremely successful.

People in wealthy societies no longer have to forage for food to survive. We've lost that connection. We've engineered food products that stimulate our evolved survival triggers. Carbs do wacky things in our brains. We crave them. Large carb intake lets us easily store energy for a long spell with no food intake. This goes awry when the long spell with no food intake never occurs, and the stored energy keeps packing on.

The reason I wanted to comment on this topic is this. People latch on to diet memes with religious fervor. They can't possibly know the long term effects of their dietary direction, but they are absolutely certain they are right. In my lifetime, nobody doubted fats were bad for you when I was young. It was just common knowledge, obvious, you didn't even question it. So what things today, are we as convinced are good, will be deemed evil in 25 or 40 years? You just can't know. But there will be things we'll know better on. Thus the folly of holding beliefs so tightly.

Diet proponents love touting statistics, as if they are irrefutable truth. If we eliminate X from our diet, Y lives would be saved each year. They also translate this into dollars saved, especially since our healthcare is becoming socialized.  They have studies to prove their beliefs. The thing is, studies these days can be twisted to prove just about anything you want. It's too easy to cherry pick the studies to back up the memes you became infected with.

So here's a question I cannot find answered anywhere. If people don't die or become ill because they change something in their behavior, such as diet, where is the rest of the analysis that says how they ultimately die still results a net gain? You're almost led to believing that behavior change will make you live forever, or when you do die, you'll just drop dead without warning and not cost the tax payer a cent.

My experience, seeing a number of relatives grow very old before dying, is that quality of life is often poor, and what you die from at very old age can often be much more costly and burdensome on loved ones than if you died from, say, a heart attack at a younger age.

As an engineer, I'm often required to perform a life cycle analysis of a new product. What is the cost to develop the product? Maintain it? Retire it? What is the environmental cost? We do this for products.

How about people expounding diets, exercise fads, safety requirements and anything that can impact longevity, also perform a complete life cycle analysis. Start by looking at quality of the whole life, cost of the whole life, and not just longevity. Americans live so much longer now than 200 years ago. You'd think just the opposite should be true from diet proponent rhetoric.

For a while I've toyed with trying a gluten free diet. I'm quite confident I have no gluten tolerance issues. However, there are pundits out there that say gluten can cause inflammation.  My knees don't feel as chipper as they did 10 years ago. Could going on a "low inflammation" diet improve things? Maybe riding, skiing and running 600-700 hours per year for the last 17 years is just plain catching up to my 51 year old body! I've tried some gluten free items. Cathy has baked gluten free bread. I think I'd rather gnaw on particle board than eat gluten free bread. Bread simply isn't without gluten. Same with pasta. My fear is getting suckered down this path, only to find I derive no benefit and degraded something I derive great pleasure from - eating.

No doubt some readers will disagree with me on some of these points. You may ask where I stand with some of the current trends. For one, I don't have an irrational fear of genetically modified food crops. I can see far more good ultimately coming from this than bad. Sure, there may be some hick-ups along the way, but man, it would be great if food could be produced in parts of the world where it is tough to grow food now. I fear nuclear annihilation or an engineered pathogen wiping us out far more (which I worry little about) than GMO's in my food.

Don't be swayed to and fro by every "new diet revelation" that permeates the media. It will be bullshit a few years from now anyway. Make your diet as diverse as possible. Exclude nothing that people have been eating for thousands of years.  This includes all kinds of plants and animals, including eggs and milk.  Humans can survive, even thrive, on the most diverse food sources, better than virtually any mammal in existence. How many animals can switch between pure carnivore and pure herbivore?  Humans can.  You'd be hard pressed to eat too much of anything diet pundits claim is "bad" for you if you eat different kinds of things each meal and each day.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Tour de Amherst

I had epic rides in central Pennsylvania planned for Monday-Wednesday. A winter storm that is bearing down on the northeast for Tuesday and Wednesday thwarted my ambitions. Three full days of riding were planned, hitting Raystown Lake and two days around State College, where many big races are held. I may well be locked out until another year now.

I have use-it-or-lose-it floating holidays to burn before December 19. I didn't want to waste a 14 hour round trip to PA for one day of riding on Monday. So I went to Strava and started exploring for something more local-ish. Hmm, what New England area is under-represented in my off-road riding? Much of central and western Mass is. I hadn't been to the Holyoke range in while. Quite techy material there though. I was thinking of a more endurance/over-distance type ride.

A loop popped up nearby in Amherst. I knew there was riding around there and I had never been to the college town.  A loop several have done, including riders I know, was labeled as "epic." My typical weekend trail rides have been in the 40-60 mile range this summer, so I was wondering how a 35 mile ride could be epic. I grabbed the track, made a few tweaks to it, and loaded it into the Garmin 705.

It was even colder getting up on Monday than it was on Sunday. Dang. At least the wind died down some. Might as well start getting acclimated to the ski season while still on the bike. Nothing like a good freezer burn to the lungs first thing in the morning. At least it got above 20F by the time I got to the trailhead in Amherst.

I had no idea what kind of trails the route followed. Zero intel. Turns out it follows bits of the Robert Frost and M&M trails and whole bunches of logging roads, ATV tracks and forest service roads. I was a bit dismayed heading to Amherst to see a pretty good dusting of snow on the ground. That over oak leaves ought to prove interesting.

Oak leaves on smooth granite. At least I was going up.

Heading out, the route goes into an immediate 700ft climb. Some of it was super chunky at 20% grade. Yeah, that seared my lungs alright. The steeper bits of the descent where somewhat terrifying. Oak leaves covered chunder, which is unpredictable even when you can see it. Then mix a little snow in with the leaves, well, I might as well have been on a toboggan.  My reward for all the hard work was achie wrists from death gripping the brakes. This would repeat over and over.

Forest service road through Rattlesnake Gutter, a scenic gorge through the mountains

The route had a pretty remote vibe to it. I had big blocks of time where I encountered no one. Never saw any hunters, which surprised me.  The climb up Mt Toby was the high point of the ride for me, literally and figuratively.  A well maintained forest service road led to the fire tower up top. There was a view from the tower, but I chickened out climbing to the top of it. The steps appeared a little too weathered for my liking.

View north from part way up the fire tower on Mt Toby

View from a ledge above Rt 116 in Sunderland

The five mile descent from Mt Toby was quite good too. The first half was more leaves over chunder death grip braking, but the bottom half was more like a jeep road run-out. A short climb at the 26 mile mark pretty near killed me. I cleaned it, but just barely for like five minutes straight. I was shot after that.

The track I grabbed from Strava was from a Garmin 500 and of very poor quality. This proved frustrating numerous times. I'd be riding along, 200ft, 300ft, sometimes maybe more than 400ft off the track, following the only trail or road in the area. Then I'd come to a split and had no idea which way to go, as the track I was following was junk. I'd pick one, and after several hundred feet I could begin to see if it was right or wrong. Too often I picked the wrong way.

I had hoped to add Sugarloaf Mtn and the Deerfield Ridge across the Connecticut River to the ride, but my progress was pretty pathetic up to this point. I'll have to wait for a non-leafy day for that. For D2R2 riders, the Deerfield ridge is that tall, long ridge line you see across the parking cornfields to the east. A trail runs across the top of the ridge.

Stream crossing on M&M trail

Late in the ride I hit another piece of the Robert Frost trail. It went up on a rocky ridge and went up and down fall lines. A couple pitches were even challenging hike-a-bikes. Mentally, I was ready to be done with the ride. Then it occurred to me, I grabbed a Garmin 500 track, and Strava recalculates distance with these devices. The actual distance might be much longer than 35 miles and I might have twice as far to go to get back than I think I do. Ugh!

The route passed through many parcels of land, some state, a lot of local conservation land, and some private. There were random sections of honest singletrack sprinkled throughout, but it was mostly wider tracks used by ATVs, forest access or logging. Quite often a single track was beat down on the wider trails.

It was good to close the loop a couple miles or so out from the car, as I knew it was all downhill from there.  I finished with 39mi, 6200ft of climbing, in 4.7hrs moving time.  I expected about an hour less moving time. This ride beat me to a pulp despite riding my sofa bike. Some of that is probably due to apprehension on the leafy, sketchy descents. I'd probably do this loop again, before leaf drop, and after a long dry spell. I suspect many sections are susceptible to muddiness. On Monday, the ground, and even some stream crossings, were frozen solid.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Speciousness of Strava Segments

Many a mountain biker, trail runner or other off-road enthusiast has grumbled about the accuracy of Strava segments. Strava too often will miss the start of a segment you "know" you KOM'd. Circuitous segments are prone to being truncated, where a complete chunk of distance (and time) gets conveniently omitted from oblivious KOM takers. And most offensive is Strava depriving almost everyone that ventures off road of 10% or more of their hard-earned distance. What's up with this?

I will attempt to explain what is going on. I will start out by stating much of it is not Strava's fault. There are a plethora of devices out there, and many have suspect accuracy at best. Strava attempts to keep the playing field as fair as possible, which invariable leads to at least some users being penalized while not rejecting other users outright.

Just in the last few years, there's been an explosion of devices the athletic community uses to log route, distance, energy expenditure and more. First there were GPS devices using the original US military constellation of satellites. Then there were smart phones, using hybrid positioning from dumbed-down GPS receivers and triangulation off base stations. Now we have GLONASS, Russia's satellite positioning system that most new smart phones and GPS devices are compatible with.

For sensors that work with GPS enabled devices, we have heart-rate monitors, altimeters, speed and cadence sensors of all sorts, many types of power meters for bicycles, foot pods for runners and much more. These sensors link up via a variety of wireless interfaces, but Ant+ Sport and Bluetooth are the dominant ones.

So now Strava is faced with a hugely diverse source of data streamed up to its servers. In a single workout, there can be several redundant, conflicting sources of data. Should strava use the device's barometric altimeter for elevation data, satellite derived elevation, or calculate it from scratch from the GPS track? What about power? Power can be measured by a power meter or calculated on climbs. Then there is distance. A wheel sensor can count exact number of wheel revolutions, while distance can also be calculated from GPS Lat/Lon data points.

The question here is, what is truth? Absolute truth is unknowable. There are only degrees of trust, or goodness in the collected data. I'm going to focus on distance here, as power and elevation are topics that each require separate deep dives.

When GPSs were first used as cycle computers, off-road riders were dismayed with the distance accuracy. You compared the distance from a wired cycle computer that you hadn't yet removed with that which the GPS measured, and the GPS was 10%, sometimes 20% or even more short. WTF?! Well, there's a lot going when measuring your drunken-ant meandering with satellites whizzing by at 9000 mph, 12,000 miles up. There's noisiness in the data, and a lot of averaging is going on. Some of your little squiggles look like noise and get averaged out. That is where you get gypped. The system was never designed to produce the kind of accuracy needed to resolve tracks like these with $200 devices on your bike.

Now introduce wheel sensors. In an attempt to address these shortcomings, a wheel sensor can send revolution data to the GPS device. This gets you back into the realm of 1% accuracy, as the GPS now replaces its rounded off drunken ant distance with accumulated ticks of the wheel sensor. Here's what a track data point looks like in my Garmin 705 .TCX file. The HTML tags have been removed because I didn't want to escape character all of them:

              LatitudeDegrees 42.6560440
              LongitudeDegrees -70.9937590
            AltitudeMeters 30.1330000
            DistanceMeters 81905.5625000
            SensorState Present
The DistanceMeters tag value normally gets calculated by the GPS receiver based on how much distance was traversed since the last track point. But when a wheel sensor is present, Garmin replaces the distance value with data derived from the sensor. My newer Garmin 500 produces a slightly different .TCX entry. It omits the SensorState tag and adds an extensions tag with other info.

Strava can chose to accept the distance data in the .TCX file or calculate its own from the position data. But what is truth here? I've seen some badly buggered up track files from smart phones and cheap GPS units. In those cases, distance data is almost certainly more accurate. That creates a data fusion problem, however. If the track is messed up, how do you assign good distance data to obviously flawed track data?  This is where Strava makes a judgement call.  From Strava's knowledge base, we have this revelation:

"Also during the upload process, the Strava uploader detects any outlier GPS data that may be present in your file - this includes inaccurate GPS points and data that is clearly inconsistent within the file. This bad data detection is an effort to improve the quality of uploaded data on Strava, and does solve many issues with GPS inconsistencies. If, and only if, outlier/bad GPS data is detected, the distance calculation will be reprocessed automatically based on your GPS coordinates (see "GPS-based, Strava post-upload approach" below).  This reprocessed distance can differ from the distance data originally reported by the Garmin device, especially if a speed sensor is present (see "How to gather distance data" below). To request that your distance be reverted to what your Garmin device reports, please submit a new support ticket, titled "Revert Distance" and include the relevant activity URLs where you would like the distance to be reverted."

I highlighted in red the key statements here. In other words, Strava knows best. I find it odd that Strava always deems my Garmin 500 distance as bad, while my Garmin 705 distance is always accepted. I note that my 705 produces considerably more accurate tracks than my 500. This is especially noticeable when doing laps, or riding both sides of a road in a given ride. Lap points fall right on top of each other, while riding both sides of a road my points stay clearly segregated to each side of the road. Look at an iPhone track in these cases, and points will be meandering all over the place. I believe the 705 is still the best cycling GPS Garmin has produced to date. None of the newer offerings produce as clean of tracks.

My 500, while producing cleaner tracks than an iPhone or Android Strava app, does frequently produce outlier points. For this reason, I believe Strava rejects its distance numbers. Strava seems to be agnostic to where distance came from, whether satellite based or wheel sensor based. If the GPS track is suspect, distance is gone, and Strava recomputes it from scratch using "cleaned up" GPS data. In this case, you totally lose on distance, even though your distance data was probably better than 1% accurate. I sometimes wonder if Strava just blanket rejects Garmin 500 distance data because the 500 produces questionable quality track data most of the time. I don't think Strava has ever accepted my 500 distance data, even when the track looked perfect. Then one time Strava accepted my 705 distance data, even though I had an obviously wrong wheel calibration setting. The track was clean though. Go figure.

Next I'll present a couple case studies. The first is from our Merrimack 50 ride a couple weeks ago. Ten Strava users road up a trail called Pipeline and back down again. This is a perfect case study, as these 10 tracks were on identical conditions on the same day. Things like tree and cloud cover can adversely affect GPS accuracy. Of the 10 rides, there was diversity in GPS units, from smart phones to 500's to my trusty 705.

The red track up and down Pipeline Trail is from my Garmin Edge 705. Luke recorded the yellow track with his iPhone Strava app. We both used wheel sensors with our respective devices. Note the red 705 trackpoints going out and back almost lie on top of each other. The repeatability of my 705 is excellent, something I notice lacking in Garmin's later offerings. The yellow iPhone track is of dubious quality upon inspection. Assuming Luke wasn't just free-ride meandering through the forest, there is considerable error between the two tracks here, more than 100ft difference in many places.

When we look at the distance Strava gives Luke and I on the descent, Luke gets 0.63 miles, I get 0.80 miles. Luke is appears to be getting robbed 21% just in this segment. But there's more. Strava lops off the first three turns at the top of the segment, so he loses some of that distance right there. Luke's iPhone position is off here, and because the trail loops back on itself, Strava doesn't have Luke starting the segment until he is clear of the uncertainty circle that Strava puts around each segment start and end point. I do not know how big these are, no doubt a highly kept secret. Strava doesn't need anybody looking behind the curtains to see how much dirty laundry there is back there.

Not that a distance error by itself does not impact leaderboard accuracy in itself. Only time traversing the segement matters. To get accurate time, the GPS (and Strava) must accurately time stop the start and stop points.  Distance in the middle can be rounded away, it won't affect the clock.

As you can see, there are multiple sources of inaccuracy in Strava segments. Segments can be poorly defined, in that GPS devices do not have enough position fidelity to prevent short-circuiting portions of a segment. This is primarily a problem off-road, whether cycling, skiing, running, or especially a cyclocross course. But there are also problems on the road, where sometimes your GPS track never passes through that start or finish uncertainty circle and you end up killing yourself for nothing going for that KOM. And what if the segment creator used an iPhone that recorded a crappy track that day? Then many people with good tracks might never score in that segment. I believe Strava should restrict which devices can be used for creating new segments.

Strava's knowledge base added this excerpt on iPhones and Android Apps:

"When mobile data is synced with our servers from the iPhone or Android App, Strava runs a GPS-based distance calculation on the GPS coordinates, as we do not currently gather data from a speed/cadence sensor from the Strava App."
I wonder if that has anything to do with the track accuracy of these devices... It seems to me there would be a way to at least salvage the sensor data and give the rider credit for her distance. This can be remedied. If Strava can't figure it out, perhaps they should hire me to fix it.

Here's a second case study. Last weekend we did a 50 mile trail ride through Willowdale. I brought my Garmin 705 again, and to prove my suspicions, I also brought my Garmin 500. Both used a wheel calibration of 2278mm and were synced up to the wheel sensor. As you can see from the photo below, the two agree on distance and time to within a fraction of a percent of each other. The wheel distance data is placed in the .TCX file, which I uploaded from both units to Strava (actually, I used Garmin Training Center to convert the 500 .FIT file to a .TCX file).

What do you think was the result? Strava used my 705 distance and threw away my 500 distance! It was the same distance from the same ride from the same wheel sensor! Because Strava doesn't let you upload duplicate workouts anymore (I had to load one, delete it, then load the other), I put Strava screenshots below for comparison, the 705 first, 500 second.

Strava shorts me over 10% on distance even though I used a wheel sensor with the 500. I may send Strava a link to this post to see what gives, if this might be fixed anytime soon. I really can see what in the 500 track would cause Strava to reject my devices recorded distance data.

On a side note, another thing I notice is Strava always uses my 500 barometric altimeter data, while Strava always recomputes my 705 elevation data, just the opposite of distance! This is maddening.

Hopefully your head didn't exploded with too many details and you made it this far.  I'd like to pick up a GLONASS enabled GPS in the near future to see if that can fix some of the accuracy problems. My 705 isn't going to last forever. Water readily finds its way into the unit when it gets wet now. More to follow...