Sunday, September 29, 2013

Will the Vermont 50 MTB and Running Race go the Way of Leadville?

I first fell in love with the Vermont 50 MTB race way back in 2000, my first Expert category race. I raced VT50 in 2000/2001, before becoming mostly a roadie for a while. I never gave up on long dirt races. I raced Battenkill many times, as well as the 100km Ironcross CX race with over 7000ft of climbing. I came back to the VT50 in 2009, the year of the deluge of Biblical proportions. I was sidelined in 2010 with a fractured ankle and hit the VT50 again in 2011 in greasy conditions. The event was due for a pristine day, having so many nasty days over the past several years. And a fabulous day it was Sunday...

I forgot to book a room early and was relegated to the Super 8 in White River Junction. My room was grade level, and the exterior door was literally less than 10ft from where cars drive in off US-5. US-5 itself was less than 50ft from my door.  Retiring for the night before the race, I began to wonder if cars in Vermont were required to have exhaust systems. My room seemed to be a resonant cavity for noisy exhaust systems. I brought my white noise machine, turned it to maximum, which must have been 160dB sound pressure level (louder than jet engines). The cars still kept me awake most of the night. I worried I would not hear the two alarm clocks or wakeup call over my noise machine, which I sat on the bed right next to me.  I did manage a few brief snippets of sleep before my 4:30am alarm went off.

In 20 minutes, I made coffee, ate, kitted up and took care of business (disappointing performance).  It was wicked foggy out. Even though I was on the road early, I still worried about getting there in time. Sometimes traffic backs way up at the venue. Worries were allayed upon getting there.

I do not warm up for endurance events. It is still pitch back out at the 6am start anyway, and cold. I had two long layers on up top, shivering at pre-race meeting and staging. I knew in a few minutes into the race, we'd be climbing steeply. I didn't want to have to mess with dropping clothes later in the race, so I pitched my long layers just before we went off.

If I had a goal for this race, it was to break 5hrs. The last couple times gave challenging conditions. In fact, only four people broke 5hrs in 2009. The fields today were perhaps the most stacked I've ever seen at this event. A very large number of top-10 overall finishers from year's past were present, as well as many contenders in each age group. Ted King was here again, third year in a row. He's dominated the race the last two years. I caught up with Ted heading back to the cars Saturday evening at bib pick-up and asked if the four hour barrier was getting broken this year. He came close last year. Ted said "we'll see." Then he quipped, "I hope so, because I need to get back to Gloucester for the [UCI] race." I wasn't sure if that meant he was racing or spectating. I didn't dare ask.

My wave went off at 6:05am. I had a little nickel battery light on my bar. It was ok noodling around in the parking lot, but useless on the road going 30mph while shivering. There were many very bright lights in the field. Invariably, they'd get behind me and all I could see is my pitch black shadow.

We turned uphill into the woods. My glasses immediately fogged over. So now I had a useless light, riding in blackness, foggy, with fogged over glasses. I was blind as a bat. It sucked hard. The downhills were the most frightful ever. I'd basically just follow a stream of fuzzy bright spots ahead of me and hoped there was nothing like roots and rocks in the trail (there were). This went on for the first 40 minutes or so, when it started to become bright enough to see without a light in the woods. I still had the problem of glasses perpetually fogging over. I'd pass riders on the climb, only to have them and then some pass me on the descent because I could not see. I was going backwards. I can't see well enough off-road without my glasses, so taking them off was not an option. Eventually I resorted to constantly wiping them inside and out, which I hate doing, because it leaves them all streaked up and scratches them.

With some light and ability to see, I stopped hemorrhaging places and was able to actually start racing. One thing I focused on was to stand while climbing whenever possible. I theorized that maybe this would delay onset of hamstring cramping, as when you come up and over the pedals, it is almost all quads.

Upon summiting Garvin Hill, the view was heavenly. The valley was still cloaked in fog, so there was a sea of silver below, now that the sun had risen.  You almost hate to fly over the summit with such a grand view.

The next hour or two of the race was a blur. Seemed like we were going up 95% of the time. No rest for the weary! I stuck to my plan of climbing out of the saddle as much as possible, sometimes for several minutes at a time. I was feeling pretty good and not straining myself. There were a couple really steep, short sections where I chose to dismount, so I could walk while kicking me knees back to relax and stretch the hamstrings. This felt good. Instead of going 3mph on the bike, I was going 2.5mph walking, but for only a minute.

I started noticing an inordinate number of flats during the race. I think there were two factors behind this. One was the course was fast. Fast means bombable descents, which increases risk of pinch flats. Nearly all of the flats were pinch flats, talking with people after the race. Now tubeless tires are supposed to be nearly immune to pinch flatting, and almost everybody runs tubeless these days, so what gives? Well, there's a trend to race the lightest, skimpiest tires. I can only speculate the reasoning that goes into this. It might go something like this. A heavier tire is slower. Slower means I have no chance at glory. A lighter tire is faster. I have a small chance at glory if I don't flat. And if I flat, I can just chalk up a poor result to "I flatted."

While I can understand this reasoning, I have a hard time subscribing to it. Maybe it is my conservative nature. As an engineer, I design margin into systems I design. I want some margin in the tires I ride.  Out of five VT50 races now, I haven't flatted, and the first two were before tubeless days.  I guess I value consistency more than an occasional exceptional result. Not that I can produce an exceptional result in a race like this anyway...

A week before the race I mounted Geax AKA TnT tires on my 29er hardtail. Those were by far the biggest SOB tires I've ever worked with. I've read some people give up mounting them to Stan's rims. I almost did. I broke both Park Teflon coated steel tire levers getting both beads over the rim!. I resorted to a f'n screwdriver! This chewed my rims up.  Then they would not inflate with 125psi compressor. I spent 15 minutes each, losing much of the Stan's sealant in the process, to get the beads to seat. If I flatted in the race, I'd never get those off with my plastic levers. The good thing is the sidewalls felt pretty beefy. They weighed >700g each, so they out to be sturdy, right? Dave Penney has had these on his new 29er rigid for a while now, and they roll incredibly fast on hard pack. He'd coast away from me while I was drafting him down hill.

At the Greenall's food stop, I swapped Camelbak's. I had about 70oz in my starter Camelbak and nearly emptied it. I had maybe 60oz in my second Camelbak. I mixed a moderate amount of electrolytes with my Gatorade. I ate a fair amount to this point, stuff I brought with me from the start.

The last 20 miles packed a lot of singletrack. In fact, it was almost all singletrack. There were lengthy sections I don't recall ever seeing in a VT50 race. Others said the same thing. I was running my Garmin 500 without a wheel sensor, so I wasn't sure how far we yet had to go. I figured it was going to be tight to finish in under 5hrs, as my average speed had dropped to less than 10mph.

Most notable during this race was I passed the 3hr mark with nary a cramping twinge. Hmm, will they come in a single, massive volley? I pressed on, standing on climbs when I could. I was hanging with the same group of guys for quite a while now, so my pace was holding steady as best I could tell. Normally my pacing falls off a cliff at this point in the race when cramping starts.

Four hours comes and goes, still no cramping. I was now in record territory, as I've never gone this far into a race without cramping. What was behind this? Was I going to finish with zero cramping? I was pretty stoked.

After some pretty sweet but challenging ledgy riding, I finally crossed over Rt 44. This meant the final climb of the race was at hand and the race would be over soon. It was also evident I would finish well under 5hrs if I didn't do something stupid. I was still feeling strong. I questioned why I didn't go harder earlier in the race.

Hitting the contouring singletrack on the mid flanks of Mt Ascutney was sweet. The work was done.  I just had to not die on the off-camber, grassy plummet to the finish line. The sweeping turns with dew still on the grass beg for spectacular wash-outs.

I crossed the line in 4:41:58, crushing my previous best of 5:02 from 2000. This might have netted fifth place in my age category.  The 2013 course is much more technical than the 2000 course too, which had very little singletrack. I was pretty psyched. PR on Mt Washington last month, now a PR finishing time in the VT50. No doubt a record number of people were going to finish under 5hrs this year. Only 4 finished sub-5hr in 2009. In fact, three people even broke the four hour barrier! Ted King just finished under 4hrs in 3rd place, with local strongman Mike Barton taking the win in 3:55. Just crazy.

The crowd building at the finishing area

So I can claim a second PR in this race. I never cramped. Thinking about this a bit, I can only speculate the reasons why. Have I really cracked the cramping demon nut (yeah, that can be taken a couple ways)? At risk of making a long post even longer, here's a few things I've been focusing on:
  1. Limit caffeine intake before and during race. My worst cramping episodes were after consuming caffeinated gels and blocks. Caffeine can exacerbate cramping.
  2. Add generous amount of electrolytes to drink mix. I've done this in the past, and by itself has done nothing.
  3. Getting serious about stretching hamstrings. I've been doing the doorway stretch regularly now for about a year and have made considerable progress in how far I can stretch a leg back. A Hill Junkie reader suggested this one a while back.
  4. Stretching my hamstrings good before the race. Don't think I've done this before. I also stretched them during the race by dismounting a couple times to walk BEFORE cramping started.
  5. Week out west one week before race. Did huge amount of daily climbing. A lot of conditioning. Plus this summer, I've done more 40-60 mile mountain bike rides locally than ever.
  6. Standing while climbing at least 500% more than I have in the past. This one might be a biggie. Won't know until I repeat it a few more times.
In wrapping up, I need to address the question posed in the title of this post. Will the VT50 go the way of Leadville? Leadville started out as a grass-roots running race, then added MTB. Top pro's started showing up, then everybody had to do Leadville. Now there is a whole qualifier series just to get in. Race fees are ridiculously steep too. I got into Leadville in 2010 through the lottery system but had to abandon after I broke my ankle early in the season. It was on my bucket list at one time, but my desire to do it has diminished.

The VT50 sells out very quickly, both  MTB and running sections. I think Mike said there were 550 runners this year? That is just nuts. 800 MTB slots sell in about 10 minutes.  With upper tier riders joining the party, it's hard to say where things will go from here.  It is cool to participate in an event that draws talent, as long as the character of the event isn't lost.  Battenkill and Mt Washington are other events that have experienced wild success. The character of those events hasn't changed much, other than they are considerably more expensive now.  When I first did the VT50, it was a grass-rootsy thing part of the EFTA series. It still maintains much of the grass roots character. I hope that doesn't change.

The VT50 is the premier MTB racing event in New England.  It is a huge undertaking to put this event on, with police and volunteers spread out along a 50 mile course.  Mike Silverman has done an outstanding job running this event, hitting its 20th anniversary this year. It benefits a good cause, Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports.  I will surely keep coming back for end-of-season punishment.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


Does air travel suck a whole lot more than it used to? Out of two round trip itineraries on separate airlines, all four legs of the trip were screwed up. Mom's trip on Delta changed before our trip to a much earlier return flight that would have necessitated us checking out at something like 3am in Sun Valley. Took some work to return to a more reasonable return flight. I had to keep separate itineraries coordinated, as mom lives in Michigan.

Then upon checking in online for return flights, I could not check mom in. Apparently her tickets weren't properly re-issued. She had no seats. Major scare. About a half hour on the phone was needed to fix that.

Those were the easy problems. I already mentioned our issues flying out on Southwest. Our first flight out of Manchester was delayed over 2hrs, putting us in Baltimore after our connection to Salt Lake City left. We barely made that connection because it was delayed 15 minutes and we sprinted from plane to plane.

Then on return flight, Southwest did exactly the same thing to us again. They delayed our flight out of SLC by more than our layover time in Chicago. They email these things just hours before your flight. I was driving 4.5hrs to airport when I got this email. Needless to say, I went ape shit and mom got to experience a solid Hill Junkie hissy fit.

At first, Southwest said they could put us on a flight out of Chicago the next morning for no extra charge. Seriously Southwest? I spent the night in south Chicago once not knowing any better when Southwest failed me before. I was not doing that again. They then put me on hold for 10 minutes, found another way to get me to Manchester via Denver the same day.  I was relieved, but only temporarily. Before the rep could claim the seats, they were already gone. We were back to square one, spending the night somewhere not in our own bed and on our own nickel.  I became very "persistent." On hold again for another 10+ minutes, meanwhile driving 85mph on the highway in the middle of desolate nowhere, the rep came back with seats through Denver (speed limit is 80mph out here). Don't know what she had to do. Didn't ask and didn't care. I was at least grateful they could fix it. What bothers me though is how cavalier airlines have become with changing itineraries.

I think the only safe thing to do for bike trips out west these days is to book direct flights to as close as you can get to where you're going, then drive the rest of the way. That probably means using Logan more often. Manchester is only 25 minutes away and much cheaper to leave a car at, but the added stress of making connections isn't worth it. Two hour layovers aren't enough anymore.

This SLC/Jackson/Ketchum trip has certainly been one of my most stressful vacations. Between chaotic travel and unpredictable weather, I needed to ride just to undo stress.  I did ride most of the terrain I wanted to explore. Wifey and mom certainly had a good time, as their activities while I was riding were less dependent on weather. They weren't going out of their way to find snow or storms either. At least I got two bluebird sky days in Sun Valley. The trip wouldn't have felt complete without that. It is expected to hit 88F, potentially record high in SLC, as we leave. Big contrast to riding in snow a few days earlier.

No near term trips on the horizon right now. Wouldn't rule out an extended weekend solo getaway later this fall.  Have to see how a new project at work ramps up first.

Friday, September 20, 2013

An "easy" day in the valley

I had planned to do two rides that went to high elevations in Sun Valley. One was the Fourth of July loop I did in wintry conditions Wednesday, the other was a loop out to Pioneer Cabin east of town. The Bald Mountain loop on Thursday was fulfilling enough that I didn't need to start another ride on Friday with a nearly 4000ft climb that potentially entailed a lot of hike-a-bike. So I settled on some of the trails north of town that sat at lower elevations just outside the recent burn area. I figured if they didn't go too high, the climbing couldn't be too challenging, right?

It was cold again overnight, in the 20's in town. The temp was expected to rise rapidly into the 70's. I waited a bit for it to warm slightly. Within 30 minutes of heading out, I stripped off all the long layers.

The Chocolate Gulch loop was open and I didn't make it up that far yesterday. I gave it a go. Turns out the trail that hugs the Wood River is quite challenging. Lots of exposure on scree traverses and super steep, punchy climbs, greater than 20% grade. My legs totally rebelled.

I erroneously turned onto Trail 313, thinking it was the turn for Chocolate Gulch. I didn't have a prepared GPS track for this ride, so I was just winging it with a map. This trail was gnarly. A mis-shift resulted in a snapped chain when I was forced to shift under power. I haven't snapped a chain in about 12 years. I use Shimano chains and carry spare pins with me. No biggie, except that was a brand new drivetrain.

Back on track, I found the Chocolate Gulch loop to do nothing but climb at double-digit grades or descend at double-digit grades. This was way more work than what I signed up for. The views from crests were pretty good though.

The terrain got even steeper on Harper's. The Garmin hit 20% multiple times. So much for an "easier" last day. At the rate I was going, I would end up with more vertical than had I done the ride out to Pioneer Cabin.

The descents were turn-your-rotors-blue affairs. Fun, but you really had to stay focused. Lots of loose, rutted material to keep you alert.

I had a hard cut-off for today's ride. I fly back on Southwest on Saturday, so I needed to be back to my computer 24hrs before my flight so I didn't end up in the back row middle seat. So should I attempt to climb to the top of Eve's, or not? I rode part way up Eve's the day before, high enough to pick up the Forbidden Fruit trail.

I went for it. I thought it would all be like the lower portion. It wasn't. It got steeper as it went, grades peaking around 20% occasionally too. Most of the climbing on this ride seemed to be over 12%. I was going to come scary close to making it back in time. I kept seeing what looked like the pass, but you get there and see another wall to scale. I didn't really know what the summit elevation was, just that most locals ride this as an out and back, as the other side is a mess.

I was disappointed there was no immediate view at the 8000ft crest. Tree covered. I had no time to hunt around for one either. It was time to plummet 2000+ feet back to town. The descent was wicked crazy, marbly surface, blind turns with very steep drops to outside, and potential for other riders coming up. Several riders came down during my climb. Wicked fun though. Virtually no pedaling was needed, just lots of heavy braking.

I didn't bother with Forbidden Fruit or Shady Side this time, taking Eve's all the way down pretty much monotonically. The lower portion opens up at less insane pitch for some serious speed. At least the descent took much less time than I expected. I made it back to hotel with time to spare.

Another great ride in Sun Valley. I end up with just as much climbing as the day before.  The weather couldn't have been better. Too bad the fires took out most of the trails. I just read in the paper that the trail I most wanted to ride here, the Osberg Ridge Trail, could be closed for three years. With recent rain, there have been major erosion issues, with valleys filling with silt feet deep. I would like much to come back here, and I don't want to have to wait three years. There are hundreds of miles of trails left to explore. Here's a few photos from today's ride.

Starting out on Fox Creek Loop

Fox Creek trail along Wood River

An open spot on Chocolate Gulch loop

Descent on Chocolate Gulch

Open view on Harper's

Climbing on Adam's Gulch loop. This was stupid steep and you were sure it would let up
around each bend, but no.

Looking down Adam's Gulch loop

An old-growth specimen on Griffin Butte connector

Near the top of Eve's, looking through 2007 burn

Part way down Eve's, a lot of the upper part of this trail was exposed and loose like this.

Bottom of Eve's. Wide open speedfest here.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sun Valley it was

Ten mile singletrack climbs?


Even longer singletrack descents?


Pristine bluebird skies?


Views that rival those anywhere in the world?


I'll have to let the pictures portray today's ride. Hit some classic Sun Valley trails right from town. Deep forays into the national forest are not possible right now, unless you want to risk a $5000 fine by entering the fire closure area. But what is open is goooood!

First bit of climbing up Cold Spring Trail was this crazy steep double-track,
much of it greater than 12% grade. Climb starts at 5800ft.

Cold Spring singletrack. Gravel, often loose. Grade stayed pretty close to 8%.

No idea what this is. Almost ran over it. Look at the spike on its back end! Thing
was almost as big as my thumb. Creepy.

Looking back down Cold Spring Trail from around 8000ft.

View from Bald Mountain 9151ft summit. I believe those are the Pioneer mountains
in the background. Nearly monotonic 3350ft climb, mostly on singletrack.

Just down from the summit in slightly different direction from photo above.
Town of Ketchum in single frame. Reminiscent of views from Italian Alps.

Heading back down Broadway Trail from summit to pick up the Warm Springs Trail.
Area in background burned during the month of August. Over 100,000 acres.

Warm Springs Trail, a continuous ribbon of singletrack from summit that went 12+ miles.
Surface was quite loose and chunky at times. I ran silly low pressure (15psi front?) and burped
the front tire. Might have dinged the rim too. Oops. Stan's saved the day after I got more air
in the tire.

Looking almost straight up from Warm Springs Trail to capture color saturation of sky.

Much of this area burned in 2007, probably why it didn't burn again this summer.
Fuel hasn't had time to recharge. Had this area not burned in 2007, there'd
probably be almost no open trails around Ketchum right now.

Lane's Trail in Adam's Gulch area.

Asked a cute hiker taking in the view from a picnic table at this knoll to take a picture.
On Lane's, which is on the "Sunnyside" of the Gulch.

Can't go any further into Adam's Gulch.

A trail not on the map I took down to connect with Forbidden Fruit. Some pretty sick
exposure here. Forbidden Fruit is a downhill-only trail that has numerous features
sculpted into it.

So as you can see, it was a good day to ride. I could have ridden all day but had a dinner engagement to attend. I covered 42.4mi with 5450ft of climbing in 4.6hrs moving time. Spent a little more time taking in views on this ride. Wife and mom also explored a chunk of Bald Mountain on foot, hiking approximately 1000 vertical feet to a lookout above town. One more riding day left before boxing bike up.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Idaho Boondoggle

We finally get a thunder and rain free day. But wouldn't you know it, I have to drive an hour north so I can slog through winter wonder land! Just can't win.

Anonymous Hill Junkie reader suggested I check out the Fisher Creek loop north of Ketchum, since most of the Ketchum area trails are closed due to the Beaver Creek Fire. When I researched this a bit, I found there are many epic loops in the White Clouds mountains area. A good portion of this Sawtooth National Recreation Area has been tagged as a wilderness study area several years ago. Attempts to gain wilderness designation have failed thus far. Some trails are open to motorized use, and this group has a powerful lobby. I suspect hunting is another popular use. I figured I might as well ride it while I can and bite off a big enough chunk to almost kill me.

The route I selected begins with four miles of pavement to pick up Fourth of July Rd, a 10+ mile climb on a loose gravel jeep road. At the terminus, singletrack is taken up to Fourth of July Lake. At the lake, another trail is taken that goes over a 10,000ft pass to Ants Basin. Reports suggested there'd be some hike-a-bike on this section. Then Warm Springs Trail begins a long descent to Williams Creek Trail, which climbs a bit before dropping down to car.

Reports were Williams was a hoot, all-out speedfest on buff trail. I had no intel on Warm Springs, but expected the same.  Both trails lose a lot of vertical.  I learned I need to be more careful making these assumptions, as assumptions are the basis of all good boondoggles.

I knew it got cold overnight. There was frost on the cars in town. I expected conditions to be dry but cold at higher elevations. Another big mistake. Heading over 8700ft Galena Pass on Hwy 75, I encountered snow. The temp was only 34F at 9:30am. It was still snowing! This caused me great turmoil. Do I turn around and do the ski area loop from town? There was no snow on that peak best I could tell. I had to ride over a 10,000ft pass in the White Clouds. How much snow would be on it? This would probably be my toughest ride of the trip. I didn't want it to kill me though. The loop would be hard enough without snow.

I kept driving, thinking if I ran into snow, I could at least do the shorter and lower Fisher Creek loop. I kitted up with full winter riding attire.  I had no protection for my feet, however. And for hands, I had to borrow some light duty knit gloves from my mom.

Heading up 4th of July Rd, all seemed good. I assumed all those white-capped ridges ahead of me were much higher than 10,000ft.  I kept doing it... assuming. One truck passed me on the 10+ mile gravel grind, a couple hikers I would see shortly again on the trail. About the time I reached the end of the road, I started seeing snow on the trees. SOB! This was just over 8000ft.

I headed off into the singletrack only to find it snow covered and slushy. It was extremely steep and rocky in places, making it almost impossible to keep forward momentum. I bet the hikers just ahead of me heard my frustration. I reduced tire pressure to ridiculously low. I thought this was insanity, pushing on, when I had so much higher to climb on no-doubt more challenging terrain. I caught the hikers with their friendly dogs and talked a bit. They thought going over the pass was highly suspect. So did I turn around? Nooooo.

After bearing left at 4th of July Lake, the trail kicked up at an angle that made my neck hurt to look at it. Beach ball sized rocks too, covered in snow. This totally sucked. This must be that hike-a-bike section I read about. Except now it was twice as hard trying to maintain traction. The sticky snow would pack up under my shoes until I had about five pounds under each foot.

Further up, the trail became mostly rideable, probably all rideable had there not been snow and I had fresher legs. But the altitude and fatigue from recent days was kicking my ass. I thought the snow would have gotten much deeper as I climbed, but it stayed a fairly consistent two inches. I was quite relieved to reach the pass, with the questionable skies still holding.

The view from there was worth it. That is why I wanted to do this loop. It is also why groups want to protect this area with wilderness designation. How I was getting down from there into Ants Basin freaked me out. Nothing but snow covered scree.

I walked the first few switchbacks to get a feel for stability of the loose rock and traction I could get with snow on it. What would happen is the sticky snow would clump up under my rear tire and I'd started skidding. Freaked me out on such a steep side slope.

Reaching the bottom of Ants Basin, the trail was sometimes hard to follow with the snow. Cairns were placed to help in some spots. Heading into the Born Lakes area, route following became very difficult and treacherous. There was more climbing and hike-a-bike than I would have liked. Very chunky terrain.

I finally found the Warm Springs Trail. I got ready to bomb down for the next 9-10 miles. You know those trails you like, where everything is buffed out, smooth, bermed, where you just flow without pedaling? Well, Warm Springs is not like that. It is the antithesis of that. The trail crossed many rock slides, streams and erosion channels. It was constant work and required total focus, lest you go over the bars. This ride was clearly going deep into death march territory.

It took me an eternity to reach the Williams Creek connector. There were some deep stream crossings there. No way to keep feet dry. Snow melt streams are cold, and the air was cold. I was so glad I was able to keep my feet mostly dry to this point.

Heading up Williams, I bonked. Super hard. Guess I brought four hours of food along for a five hour ride. I could barely turn my lowest gear on 3% grade. How long does an easy 3mi climb take going 3mph? Yeah, it totally sucked. I wanted a mountain lion to put me out of my misery. At least the trail here was super buff, except I was going the wrong way, UP!

All climbs come to an end. The narrow buff trail continued down the other side. This trail is used by trail bikes too. The soil holds up well to the abuse. There was minimal rutting. After 4.5hrs of miserable hard work, I finally got some flowy descending that Sun Valley is famous for. Of course, it ended all too soon.  There was a pesky climb right at the bottom that made me want to chuck my bike over the edge and walk back. Legs just refused to turn over the pedals any longer.

I got back to the car with 39mi, 5000ft in almost 5hrs moving time on the Garmin. That's a pretty slow average, but I'm was surprised it wasn't even slower with all the hike-a-bike in there. Would I do this exact ride again? Donno. On warmer, dry day, with one or more others? Maybe. Very glad to do it though. I had a nearly four hour block in there where I neither saw nor heard another human being. How cool is that? Definitely a wilderness feel to this one. In hind sight, I probably should've waited a day to do this one, as the snow would have been gone.

Part way up 4th of July Rd, looking down (west).

Further up 4th of July Rd, looking up (east). Much of this area burned in 2005 I believe.

Just off the jeep road. Not what I wanted to ride on my visit to Sun Valley.

10,000ft pass between 4th of July basin and Ants Basin. Took over 2hrs to get up here.

Ants  Basin from the pass. Warm Springs Trail drops in the tree line on far side.

Singletrack in Ants Basin. Hard to follow at times. Great scenery in 360 degrees.

The trail crosses this scree field. Can you find it? It sucked.

The bigger of the Born Lakes. Pretty, eh?

Warm Springs Trail, half way down. A rare, buff section.

Bottom of Warm Springs Trail in the meadow. This wasn't bad riding.

Heading up Williams Creek Trail. It was all buff like this. Too bad my legs went AWOL.
Almost back to car along Hwy 75. Snow was melting quickly on the peaks.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Snow King Mountain

After a one day break from riding, I managed to squeeze a shortened ride in without getting too wet on Tuesday. So far, we are five for five days of rain. This doesn't mean every day has been a wash out. Far from it. It just means we had to juggle activities and durations around the daily threat of storms this funky weather pattern is still producing.

Tuesday I did a ride right from Jackson on Snow King Mountain trails. I managed to score a late checkout from the hotel so I could get a proper shower before heading over to Sun Valley later in the day. This still meant I had to start wicked early. Just as well, as there was a 30% chance of thunderstorms. Each day has been 30% or greater, and every day we at least hear thunder somewhere during the day. The women were heading into Grand Teton National Park for a short hike up to Taggart Lake.

I rolled out at 7:30am. It was cold, 40's probably. That necessitated some longer layers. A little bit of trail behind town connected me to a paved bike path that took me several miles south to the Game Creek trailhead. Game Creek started out double track, then whittled down to singletrack. I was uber paranoid riding up this so early in the morning. The sun hadn't even broken over the mountains yet. It was quiet, nobody else out there, and I wasn't making any noise. Had no idea how many bear were in this area. The trail along the creak meandered through dense brush. You'd slam right into a bear around the constant blind corners if one were in the trail. I almost did this once and didn't need to repeat it. The only wildlife I saw was a coyote who was curiously interested in me.

When I got up to the burn area on West Game Creek Trail, things open up a bit and I felt more at ease. The climbing got stupid steep near the top, probably over 20%. With my tired legs and altitude, I relented on the last steep pitch and pushed it.

The sky was mostly bluebird thus far. It looked like I was finally going to get the weather I expected for the whole trip. Cruising along at 7500-8000ft on Wilson Canyon Trail was sweet. More work was needed to bring me up to the peak you see from town with the communication towers on it. The view did not disappoint. Birds eye of Jackson and complete panorama of the Tetons. The air was the clearest yet of our trip.

I dropped down to Jose's Ridge Trail, which offers more open views of the horizon before free-falling back to town. This was another one of those death-grip on the brakes kind of descents for me. I probably went slower going down than I did climbing up to 8000ft. I wussed out on a couple switchbacks.  I'd probably clean them all giving it a second go. That was an awful way to give up about 1500ft of vertical. I bet my rotors would have been glowing had it been dark out.

Sink or Swim Trail was taken across the lower flanks of the Snow King ski area. This had some pretty punchy climbs in it as it contoured around 6500ft. I had originally planned to go back up and over to descend Game Creek and pop out at Cache Creek, but I needed to be back by noon. So I picked up Hagen Trail that stayed much lower and headed up one side of Cache Creek.

It seemed in less than five minutes, the sky went from bluebird to dark gray with thunder booming in the canyon. WTF! How does this happen? I was glad I was doing a shortened ride, but now I may have to shorten it even further. I heard thunder and saw lightning in three different directions, west, east and north. I thought surely this would close in on me.

I hit the end of Hagen, crossed over Cache Creek, then began heading back towards town on Putt Putt Trail. Lightning was getting too close for comfort as I began climbing more, hitting exposed areas, and not immediately descending toward town. Not what I expected. I thought seriously about just taking the doubletrack that closely follows Cache Creek back into town, and just maybe I wouldn't trash my bike some more. But no, I had to ride the incredible, canyon hugging singletrack that permeated the area. It was a surreal experience, hearing the thunder booming all around me, yet hauling ass on still dry singletrack that drops a thousand feet in several miles. It started to rain just as I reached the edge of town and pavement. Boy that was close. I did not want to put a muddy bike in the car again. I managed to stay dry even.

I finished with 33.7mi, 4300ft in 3.7hrs on the Garmin. This ride took more out of me than it should have. Not good, with a couple of the biggest rides of the trip planned in Sun Valley in the next couple of days. Here's a few photo's from today's ride.

Heading up Game Creek Trail before sun came over the mountains.

Up top on West Game Creek Trail.

From saddle above Snow King ski area looking south over Wilson Canyon Trail.

From peak above Snow Kind ski area looking over Jackson at the Grand Tetons. This
peak is at 8000ft, town at 6200ft, and Grand Teton at 13,770ft.

Self portrait on Jose's Trail with Teton Range in background.

More of Jose's Ridge Trail. There were chunky sections to keep you on your toes.

One of many switchbacks on Jose's.

Heading up Cache Creek on Hagen Trail. Clouds building.

Heading back to town on Putt Putt Trail. Clouds on left producing lightning. The women
hiked where the darkest clouds are. I hoped they finished before this brewed up (they did).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Black Canyon - Phillips Ridge double loop

Saturday's ride was a spanker and left me in shambles on Sunday. I had planned two big back-to-back days before taking a day off to tour Yellowstone. The forecast for Sunday was marginally improved with 40% chance of afternoon thunderstorms. An early start was mandatory.

A little data mining on Strava and other sources led me to the Teton Pass area just west of Jackson, Wyoming. Riding those parts without shuttling is not for sissies. Big vertical.  There are several Downhill runs from Teton Pass, downhill with a capital D, as in body armor highly recommended. I wanted nothing to do with that. These can easily be shuttled from Teton Pass. There was another trail down that required more climbing to access from the pass. This was the Black Canyon Trail from the Mt Elly summit. Nice view, less insane descent, with stiff 3000ft climb to earn it. My deal exactly.

The second half of the ride entailed climbing most of the way back up Teton Pass on the closed Old Teton Pass Rd to pick up the Phillips Ridge Trail. I knew this trail had a lot of switchbacks on the descent, but I had no idea how sweet it would be...

I parked in Wilson to begin my 3000ft climb at pretty much 10% steady grade. This kicked my ass after the previous day's epic, on a dualie with 15 pounds of water, food and foul weather gear. At least the first couple thousand feet were paved. I wasn't 45 minutes into the climb when it started raining. Not again! I'm sure some of the nearby walkers heard my frustration. I zip-locked the camera (had my good one this time) and put the Goretex rain shell on. Funny how the sun can be out and it suddenly starts raining. But this quickly subsided.

At Teton Pass, I picked up the Mt Elly trail. Double track at first, then narrow benchcut singletrack into the side of very steep terrain. This felt a lot like climbing away from Monarch Pass on the Monarch Crest Trail. I reached the summit about the same time a local woman hiking with her lab-mix did. She too was an avid mountain biker and shared some of her favorite area rides. Wish I had a week to ride here.

The Black Canyon descent was a white knuckle affair. Extremely steep always, narrow, rutted, and constantly turning. I could never let my speed run out for fear of catching the edge of the rut or over cooking a turn. My wrist and triceps began to scream after a few minutes. I also wondered if my brakes would overheat and fade on me.

About two thirds of the way down, following closely to the stream, I pondered what would happen if I careened into a bear in this gully. While pondering that thought, I nearly broad-sided a moose with calf! Scared the willies out of me. I stopped, maybe no more than 30ft away with the calf tucking in very close to its mother. I was in a stare-down with cow moose with calf, a very dangerous situation. I learned Alaskans fear moose far more than bear when I visited there a few years back. I very slowly got off my bike, backed up without turning my back, keeping my bike in between me and moose. When I got a safe distance back, I pulled the camera out. By then the moose started to move off the trail.

That left my heart beating a few beats faster. The trail had some pretty rough sections toward the bottom, where it was less steep and much faster. It crossed the stream several times too. I lost nearly 3000ft in a crazy short distance. I pedaled no more than 20 seconds the whole way down.

I climbed about 1000ft back up the paved Old Teton Pass Rd to a connector trail that went over to the north side of Hwy 22 to pick up the Phillips Ridge Trail. I made a huge navigational blunder here. I assumed there would be only one trail with the word Phillips in the name, so when I saw a sign that simply said Phillips, I took it. It deviated a little from my intended track, which I thought would rejoin my route. Cool, I was on singletrack sooner.

The trail I was on started deviating a lot from my intended route. Soon I realized I climbed much more than I had planned, and there was now a huge canyon between me and Phillips Ridge, which I could see in the distance. Son of a bitch! The sky was growing darker by the minute too. The trail I went out on turned out to be Phillips Pass trail, which I later learned isn't even open to bikes. Nice riding, but not where I needed to go. I had forgotten my map, which might have helped prevent this half-hour boondoggle.

Back on track, I began climbing up to Phillips Ridge. It started to rain. The crown jewel of today's ride was the descent off Phillips Ridge, and now I was looking at two days in a row with a multi-thousand foot descent in treacherous wet conditions. Had I not made the error, I might have cleared the ridge before the rain moved in. You could see a heavy squall moving in across the Teton Valley. Camera went back in the bag, shell went back on body.

It never rained hard, just enough to grease up the rocks and roots on the ridge. The rain obscured what no doubt was a fabulous view from the ridge too. However, as I began the descent down innumerable switchbacks, the trail dried up. The rain never quite reached that area. Now this was descending. I could let me speed run out in between switchbacks.

The Phillips Ridge descent was an engineering marvel. I've never seen so much sculpting in one trail before. I think there were upwards of a hundred big bermed turns. The trail traversed talus fields several times too. Tons of rock were moved to "pave" a surface though these otherwise completely unrideable areas. The trail snaked around for almost 10 miles, losing 2000ft, before bottoming out. Phillips Ridge comes really close to being my all-time favorite descent. I'd love to do it a second time, now that I know what to expect.

A couple miles of pavement took me back to the car in Wilson. The sky turned dark again. This time I didn't escape so easily. It poured mightily. At least I was on pavement. The bike actually got cleaner than before I started the ride. It was still a mess from Saturday's ride. I finished with 34mi, 5800ft in 4.3hrs on the Garmin. A satisfying ride for sure. That tallied up almost 10 hours of hard riding in two days. Here's a few photos from Sunday's ride.

Looking back down on Teton valley from Teton Pass

Looking down Mt Elly trail towards Teton Pass. Has some Monarch Crest vibe to it.

Self portrait on Mt Elly, trying to not fall over waiting for camera.

Looking down Black Canyon Trail towards Teton valley.

Mama and baby moose. They were on switch back as I came barreling down.

On Phillips Ridge just before rain squall hit.

Phillips Ridge, looking north-easterly over valley.

Phillips Ridge descent, showing some armoring. Slippery wet rocks initially.

Phillips Ridge berm, one of dozens just like it.