Sunday, March 29, 2009

First Timers

Bringing folks out for their first time in a new style of riding is a delicate matter. Winter cycling is no different. Most people tend to overdress for their first ride no matter what you tell them. They also tend to not have all the handling skill and body english that make riding on snow easier. Both of which mean they probably won't be going very fast. And when you have a large group of people who have been riding multiple times a week all winter, there is potential for frustration; unless, of course, you have a really nice guy with you. We have Zombie Jeff.

In addition to being a master mechanic (read trail bike paramedic here), Jeff is also that guy that is willing to wait for a friend who is trying to get the hang of it. I remember my first time out shuttling years ago on a seven inch full suspension freeride bike that I had just bought the week before. All my riding until that point had been road and commuting. I hadn't ever rode dirt before. I tried to get everyone else to go in front of me so I wouldn't hold anyone up as I rode my brakes all the way to the bottom of the hill. Jeff insisted on bring up the rear. I was embarrassed about how slow I was and Jeff was a consummate teacher. I remember him helping me set up my seat angle and offering me simple tips like keeping my weight back. At the end of that first ride I felt excited not only that I hadn't died, but also that I had learned something.

While every group benefits from have a few competitive guys thrown in to keep everyone challenging themselves, the value of having someone that makes sure everyone is having fun too can't be underestimated. So happy birthday Stan, I look forward to future rides.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

I get by with a little help....

....from my friends. Lots of people ask me about winter cycling "How do you do it?" Normally I have a couple of quick comments about dressing properly and bicycle preparation. Occasionally, as the case was earlier this week on the trip my wife and I took, I get someone else to do the work. Winter riding is slow; it is just the nature of the beast. However, having someone with fur dragging you along pretty much evens the score back up to summer speeds. Bikejoring is also a good way to injor yourself if you aren't careful. Unless you speak dog fluently (I still have a strong accent and I am told my grammar leaves a lot to be desired) you are bound to have issues with your co-pilot. There are lots of books out there on skijoring, which is vaguely similar, but I don't own any and haven't ever read any either. I am sure that they would be chock full of ideas to make riding with my dogs easier and less chancy, but I kind of enjoy the mystery of not knowing when they will decide to stop in the middle of the trail, causing me to take evasive maneuvers and likely end up in snow off the trail. I also enjoy the completely baffled look they give me as I lay there recovering. It’s something along the lines of "What the heck are you doing? Don't you realize we are in the middle of something here?"
More than anything winter trail riding is the perfect chance to ride with my dogs. My summer riding usually involves being near cars or high speeds and rock gardens, neither of which feel fair or safe for my dogs. It's about the only way I find enjoyable for us to both get a good work out. I know how I feel at the end of a good roll and it's usually pretty obvious that they have had fun too.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"I thought I was going to get sucked off....."

....into the deep stuff." So said the Rabbit as we were driving back to the top of Ester Dome to retrieve my vehicle. The trail today was fantabulous. Packed just hard enough that it was very fast, but with the typical soft fluffy edges that beg you to ride faster, urging you to push yourself because crashing won't hurt. Those soft fluffy edges, however, will drag you into a crash if you venture to near them. And I think it happened to most of us at least once. The big news today was that we had three people who hadn't rolled a winter downhill run yet.
All of us were wondering why we haven't been doing this for years, because it is ludicrously fun. We have shuttled this trail for years in the summer, but none of us are professionals, all of us all well past our teenage years and the rocks, trees and washouts littering the trail demand respect and a high toll for lack of it. They are sleeping beneath a deep soft layer of winter's best right now, so we'll continue to shred with total abandon for another few weeks.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fall Down, Go Boom

Sometimes you just can’t win. It was about -17°F when I headed out to work yesterday. Normally when I commute at temperatures this cold I run higher pressures so that I am not pedaling against flexing frozen sidewalls. The disadvantage of this, of course is less traction. So when I hopped my front wheel up onto a curb and realized I was going a bit too fast to get forward and get my back wheel up as well, I knew I was screwed. My rear wheel hit the curb at the wrong angle, went out from under me and down I went.

I crash all the time; I crashed four times between Friday night and Saturday’s rides. Even though all those crashes were at speed, they were all into two feet of powder. My commuting crashes generally carry a midlevel sucktastic factor. They are always on ice, which is hard, but it has the advantage that instead of getting shredded by asphalt or dirt, you generally slide pretty well, so it’s really only the impact you have to worry about. I crash about every two months or so, and have yet to seriously injure myself. I hopped back on my bike and ignoring the shame generally associated with such an event, finished the ride to work.

When I got to work, I suddenly realized I could barely move my neck without getting shooting pains in it. I work with nurses and they noticed pretty quickly and yelled at me until I went to the ED. Several hours and a couple of x-rays later (I’d list the cost too, but I haven’t gotten the bill), the ED doctor was nice enough to confirm I had strained something and I would be fine in a couple days. I constantly tell people at the shop that studs for commuting are cheaper than a visit to the ED. I guess I need to take my own advice. It’s better than the alternative.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Disc Brakes

I was cruising some old posts the other day (about DIY wheel truing stands) and ran into a ridiculous comment that someone made about disc brakes. I'd take apart the whole thing, but instead I'll just talk about all the things that make disc brakes better than rim brakes.

First and foremost, when you use disc brakes you are not damaging anything on your bike. When you rip down on disc brake lever you are applying an mixture of metals held together with a resin (your brake pad) to a piece of steel (your rotor) that was designed solely for braking. I haven't ever seen a rotor that was worn out, but I'll keep looking. On the other hand, when you clamp down on your rim brakes, you are applying a rubber pad which may or may not be coated with whatever muck you have been riding through to you rim, which is probably made out of aluminum. Sure it is as easy to replace your pads in either system, but I have seen several wheels that needed to be replaced because the rim's braking surface was shot. If you are running expensive wheels, this is nowhere near ideal.

Second, despite what anyone has told you, properly adjusted disc brakes work better. If you need proof of this, look around at what professional cyclists use. Have you ever seen a modern downhill rig built with rim brakes? If it was all just some marketing gimmick, don't you think someone out there would stand up and build a rig with rim brakes? Trust me, someone out there would, if not for the simple fact that disc brakes actually do have more stopping power.

Hydraulic disc brakes are definitely more complex, however, they take one of the major points of failure out of braking, the cable. Cables stretch, they frey and eventually they rust or break. While hydraulic brakes have their own draw backs, I have found that a good set of hydraulic disc brakes are easier to install and properly adjust than a set of high end rim brakes. And barring crash damage to the brake line, they last longer and stay in adjustment better than a set of cable brakes (disc or rim). I have a set of Formula Oro Puros that have been on my bike for three years. I have never bled them, never replaced the pads and they are still going strong. They are by far the best part I feel I have ever bought. The most I ever have to do is a quick adjust when I swap between wheel sets, and that generally only takes a couple minutes. I can't even imagine the hassle I would be dealing with switching between 25mm and 44mm wide rims with rim brakes.

Many people claim that rim brakes are lighter than disc brakes and I have to give them that on average they are right. However, if you are willing to pay for it, there are several companies out there making very light disc brake setups. By contrast, as the rim brake market is shrinking, companies are putting less time and energy into development of lighter rim brakes. Thus, rim brakes are tending to stay the same and disc brakes are getting lighter every year. In fact, I think that if you did the numbers, you'd find that a high end set of lightweight XC style hydraulic disc brakes are about the same weight as a set of Shimano XTR rims brakes. The caveat that many people overlook is that you have to use a heavier rim with a braking surface than you do with discs.

The main drawback of disc brakes is that they are expensive. Many people don't need the extra stopping power that they provide. You average summer commuter or pleasure rider definitely doesn't need them. But for anyone who is looking to do actual technical riding or winter riding, I think they are a must have.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

2nd Annual Ester Dome Winter Downhill

This year's EDWooD went down nicely. We had a third more riders than last year. Eventually I am sure some car company will be calling want to sponsor the ride. If you are reading this now and happened to be a advertising CEO for a major car company, you should contact me as soon as possible for early consideration.

This year was the first time (that I know of) that Pugsleys were used to rock the dome. That being the case, the non-fat tire riders had some complaints. Actually, truth be told, Super Snarsky and I are jerks. When we were standing around the shop Friday, some folks expressed interest and worry at what the trail would be like Saturday. We have had lots of snow in the past couple weeks, and there was something of a chance it would be a horrible pushfest. That being the case, SS and I decided to take it upon ourselves to preride the route (only as a favor to everyone else, we swear!) Friday night. Either that or we wanted an excuse to use the many lumens of power at our disposal, I can't quite remember. SS and I didn't get to the top until about 10pm. It was pretty cold and pretty dang dark, but the lights were out and we proceeded to crash our way down the hill. We crashed because the trail was a jumbling mess of rolling kickers with punch holes and crusty snow between. On 29er SnowCats, it required carrying a lot of speed and using a very light touch when pumping. Unfortunately, I didn't quite figure that out until I was already halfway down the trail. Which meant that most of the first half when I went to compress before an unweight, my front tire augured through the crust and I ended up not unweighting at all. We managed to make it all the way down, however, and not seriously injure ourselves.

Fast forward to Saturday, SS and I got lucky and somehow ended up with a pair of Pugsleys for the ride. As we rolled the first quarter mile, I realized that we had left huge nasty ruts the night before. It didn’t help that the temperature had dropped to something like -20°F overnight and made the ruts very crusty. This didn’t really concern me any, since I was now riding a Pugsley. However, when we stopped for the first time and waited for the folks behind us, Snarsky and I looked at each other and laughed. We stopped as soon as the first rider behind us came around the corner cursing and fighting the ruts with his much narrower wheels. We muttered assurances that it would get better (we hoped) and tried not to laugh and took off again down the hill. When everyone finally collected up at the halfway point, they still did not believe us. SS and I knew it was about to get good again, so we offered more soothing words and headed off again.

The last half of the trail rolls like it was purposely engineered for just this event. During the summer it can get boring because it’s just a long fast rollout. I generally prefer the top during the warmer months because it is much more technical. However, yesterday (and Friday night) it was awesome. Just steep enough that you can carry lots of speed without needing to lay on the brakes and completely littered with rollers, little kickers and rhythm sections. I caught air several times on Friday night with my own bike. With my borrowed steed however, I made special effort and took everything race style sucking up the terrain and keeping the wheels on the snow. The ruts were minimal since we had taken the whole section at speed the night before. Everyone arrived at the bottom in agreement. It is amazing how fast you can go when you know that you have a thick layer of snow all around you to soften any spills you may take. In fact, we’ll probably end up doing it again a couple more times before April gets here and turns the whole thing into a foul mud bog.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bicycle "Rights"

Recently I posted a rant on why I don’t like Critical Mass. It can be found here. It started a civil and interesting enough course of comment with a masser from Chicago that I thought it deserved its own post.

We have two areas to look at when we consider “bicycle rights”. One is what privileges (or rights as some people call them) are afforded to us by the laws. The second is what responsibilities fall to us as a result of those privileges.

The first area of privileges afforded to us by the laws is generally very similar to what privileges motorists are afforded. We are allowed use of roadways and expected to follow applicable traffic laws and traffic control devices. Our major drawback is that we must defer the roadway to motorists since they are generally the faster moving form of transportation. In other words, we should try to stay out of their way and the roads are primarily intended for them. The trade off for this is that if we choose, bicyclists may conduct themselves as a pedestrian, using pedestrian byways, routes and areas illegal for motorists to drive. I would say that overall we are pretty equal with motorists in this respect, however, I prefer the flexibility that being a bicyclist provides me. I can ride the shoulder of the road or choose to take walking paths or bicycle paths that motorists are not allowed. This type of flexibility actually reduces my morning commute by a considerable amount.

When we look at the area of responsibilities, we find that our situation is very different from that of motorist. You must pass a test and maintain your license to drive a car. There are all kinds of things that you can do that can result in the loss of your “right” to drive. Your vehicle must be maintained to a certain standard to travel the roadways, you must have working lights, pass emissions tests and register your transportation. In almost all states (I am so not a lawyer) you must have insurance on your vehicle to drive. All of these things mean that motorists are contributing financially to the system. It also makes driving more expensive than riding. That being the case I understand when someone who has passed a test to prove they can drive and know the laws, paid to get a license, paid to register a vehicle and paid to make sure that vehicle carries insurance gets preferential treatment over someone on a bicycle after an accident. I am not saying it is right, just that is understandable; they are looked at to be the responsible party.

It sucks but the last time I got hit by a motorist and provided with fake insurance information, the authorities did very little to investigate. Why? Luckily for me I wasn’t seriously injured, I didn’t have to pay to get my bike fixed. There wasn’t anything for me to recover, so they probably didn’t feel the need to investigate further. If I had been in a vehicle, I am sure several hundred dollars worth of damage (body work and paint!) would have needed to be done and I would have stood significant financial loss had the person hadn’t been found.

So my question to you cyclists out there is this: For those of you that claim to want more privileges are also prepared to deal with the additional responsibilities that will come with them? I am not. I don’t want to register my bicycles. I don’t want to have to pay more money into the pot of funds wasted yearly by unnecessary bureaucracy. I don’t want someone somewhere who doesn’t own a bike to decide for me what the adequate amount of lighting on my downhill rig should be. When you get everything you want and you either get arrested at your next Critical Mass ride because you are riding without a license, or you get ticketed for not wearing your helmet, or even because you failed to yield to a traffic control device, will you feel that you have finally succeeded?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Riding Styles

I think being proficient in several styles of riding is important. From a non-professional's prospective I think it keeps riding fresh year after year. While dedication to a single discipline would probably produce better results; that isn't a concern I have right now. Several riders have operated under such a philosophy (Brian Lopes and Cedric Gracia come to mind), and Kirt Voreis has openly advocated for it. Even specialists at the top of the game (Lance and Floyd) have been known to ride differently during the off season.

The point of all this being that if you really like cycling, but it started to get old after a bit, or it is getting old right now, I humbly suggest you buy a new bike, or, at the very least, try a new style of riding. Make sure it's a totally different bike than what you are riding right now. If your forte is spraying dirt around tight singletrack corners, grab some skinny 700s and give your local asphalt a beatdown. If you are churning out the commuter miles, grab some wide knobbies and hit the trails. If you are an endurance racer, get an urban bike, drop the seat down to the top tube and learn to manual like no other. Or, for one of my friends, if you are tearing up the park everyday and you are burnt, get outside and ride.

Any new style of riding might be just enough to make your specialty fun again. Or, you may even pick up a new favorite. If nothing else you may stop looking at guys in spandex funny (or vice versa at guys in baggies) and realize what it is that makes us all love riding so much.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


Every mountain biker knows about the Trogdor effect. We've all seen it in action, even if you didn't know it was happening or what it is properly called. You go for a group ride and you are that guy. Your chain keeps skipping around your cassette despite the fact that it was perfect last night when you did your pre-ride tune. You get a flat and CO2 inflator is hosed, or your pump head has junked out and the little plastic piece that actually makes contact with the valve has worn away to the point that it doesn't work anymore. Or you actually crash and don't notice for several hundred yards that you cracked your brake hosing and will now need to nurse you steed back home. When you get to the brake point of your ride you suddenly realize you forgot to stuff your Clif Bar in your pack.

Sometimes the Trogdor factor shows itself in other ways. You try a strange setup with your drivetrain and your cassette actually eats your freehub body. Or you fall over on your bicycle at five miles per hour and when you stand up you find your front wheel has exploded like you just overshot a landing and ate a forty footer. Or you are JRA (just riding along) and your rear derailleur explodes into pieces like it was hit by a very talented sniper.

Some of us have had weeks like that; some of us have had months. All you can really do is pray that next week you’ll get to call someone else Trogdor and point.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

And the winner is....

Big congratulations are in order for Jeff Oatley, who finished first today in the annual Iditarod Trail Invitational. Beyond being a complete freak of nature built for punishing endurance races, Jeff is also a genuinely nice guy who always has time and a good word for other cyclists. He finished the 350 mile race to McGrath in 5 days, 19 hours and 34 minutes. That's incredible considering there were places on the course with waist deep snow.

Friday, March 6, 2009

A tie goes to the cyclist.

Today was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the wind was blowing and the temperature hovered around 15°F. Sadly we received large amounts of snow this week. Earlier in the week we hit a high mark for most snow received in 24 hours (in the last eight years I believe). Last night we probably hit that mark again. That, combined with the pretty strong winds today, let me know that any attempt at a ride was going to turn into a pushfest. Luckily I have good friends to guilt me into such bad ideas.

We made it across the parking lot fine; I believe it was plowed early this morning. That's about were the riding ended for me. I fell or dismounted about four times during the hundred foot section to the trailhead. Everyone (including the three Pugsleys) started pushing. By the time we made it another hundred feet down the trail, I looked like this. Notice the waist deep (actually a couple inches above my waist) snow. Also there is the awesome fact that you can see my helmet vents are plugged with crash snow. As we continued our walk with bikes, I remember hearing "maybe it will be better when we get to the main trail." I distinctly remember thinking that it would, in fact, be worse since it was more exposed to the wind and would likely be drifted over.

When we arrived at the main trail, I got to be right. It also turned me into that horrible guy on a ride. A fell into a string of expletives and declared I was heading back. Jeff shamed me into pushing my bike more, which was great, because I would have missed the funnest non-riding bike adventure I have ever had. The beginning of the main trail runs through a series of gravel pits. Many of the hills are currently monoliths of snow begging to be done something with. So since their was no riding to be had, we decided to climb them. Which meant carrying your bike if you planned to try riding down them. Which is why CD looked like this when he got to the top of the hill.

And why he looked like this headed back up the hill to retrieve his bike after an awesome slow motion crash. Honestly if you ever get the chance to go out with a group of people with bikes in weather like this and find a decent slope, be thankful. Because people crashing horrendously into soft fluffy powder is what it is all about. Paul had the best crash of the day by far. It was a full on, over the handlebars at speed faceplant with no attempt to stop himself whatsoever. Sadly I only got the aftermath of him tumbling down the hill. It's really awesome when you don't have to ask someone if they are alright after a crash because they stand up and start laughing really hard.

After the hill we looked around and realized that we were close enough to the road that it might be easier to try and blaze a trail to it rather than pushing back the way we came. Blazing a trail involved wading through waist deep snow again so our retreat looked something like this.

All in all we were out for an hour and a half or so and probably cover all of two miles. But we had fun. Probably almost as much as we would have had if we could have actually rode.
In other cycling news the people that do this kind of thing seriously are still at it. This years Iditarod Trail Invitational started last week and it looks like the 350 mile version may be finished tomorrow by Fairbank's very own Jeff Oatley.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Rant

It came to me last night that I need to be angrier. At least here. What about cycling makes me angry? Besides the French, I couldn't immediately come up with anything. Then it hit me, one of the few cycling subjects (besides the French) that will get me steamed. Critical Mass.

I have browsed a few websites, seen a few gatherings (here in Fairbanks only, I must admit) and come to one conclusion. In general, Critical Mass lends itself to lawless mob type actions and is itself a danger to myself and cyclists everywhere. While I understand that at the heart of their beliefs is the desire to promote bicycle advocacy, their leaderless and aimless movement actually seems to work against that desire. It is rare that great things are accomplished without some sort of leadership, bicycle advocacy really isn't special in that regard.

The people I have seen show up for Critical Mass events are not folks that I generally see riding elsewhere in Fairbanks. In fact, the only time I see most of them on bikes is at one of their gatherings. That being said their equipment (read bicycles here) are generally to be ashamed of. Please don't think me a bike snob. I rocked a Trek 4300 for the first couple winters I rode because it was what I could afford at the time. Realistically it is still all I can afford, but an addiction is an addiction. I had a less expensive bike that was well maintained, because I relied on it. The bikes I have seen here at Critical Mass rides are suspect to say the least. Which leads me to wonder, why are you advocating cyclists rights if you don't even love your own bicycle enough to maintain it? If you are reading all this and steamed because you are actually a person who shows up to these things and rides the rest of the year as well, please feel free to drop by the shop and introduce yourself and tell me what exactly it is that I am missing.

The worst thing by far, in my opinion, about Critical Mass is their tendency to block traffic, often illegally. It doesn't take any sort of special education to tell you that this will piss off motorists. For those of you that don't know, there are basically two kinds of motorists, those that hate bicycles, and those that are indifferent. My guess is that every Critical Mass gathering successfully converts X number of indifferent motorists into motorists who hate bicycles. X is a number based population size of your town, size of the ride, and the number of fixed gear single speeds contained in the group. I don't have the formula totally worked out yet, but you get the picture. That being said, Critical Mass folks are offered a certain amount of protection riding on a Friday with big group during rush hour evening traffic. It is protection that I don't have early in the morning on a Wednesday in January when I am riding to work.

In short, Critical Mass folks, I think your tactics suck. I wish you would just stop it. I know you really don't care what anyone thinks (which is strange, because that is kind of the opposite of advocacy), but if you insist on having your silly rides and want to keep me happy, please feel free to show up at my house any given morning and ride with me into work. It will make me lots less nervous about unexpectedly finding out which motorists out there you have pissed off in the past.

On Google, attention spans, and mountain biking.

Google is great. Assuming that something exists on the Internet and isn't password protected, Google will find it for you. Although if you are not specific enough, Google may find a lot of things for you, things you don’t need. We are used to scrolling through hundreds of results and just picking and choosing what we want. We are over stimulated. We think we just need the highlight reels without placing any of it in context. Who cares who won the game? Did you see the ridiculous, crushing hit in the 2nd quarter? We want spectacular highlights without context.

This is why I love mountain biking. It’s hard to not take a ride in context. One section of the trail may be your favorite, but you usually can’t get there without riding the rest of the trail. In fact trails often get better as they collect context. You may end up liking a section of trail because although it tried to kill you at some point, you can now clean it with the greatest of ease. There are not the words for a ride on a familiar favorite trail on a perfect day with great friends. On a ride by yourself, a familiar trail can be the difference between loneliness and solitude.

Monday, March 2, 2009

2nd Annual E.D. W.D.

Pronounced "Ed Wood", this year will be the second annual Ester Dome Winter Downhill gathering to slay a summer trail favorite on bikes for the first time of the year. Bring your weapon of choice to the top of Ester Dome on 14 March 09 at Noon. Take Ester Dome Road all the way to the top and take a left at the Y. Rigid rides through DH sleds welcome. I do recommend leaving your suspension at home if it's nice, it is probable that you'll blow your seals. Think of this as a gravity assisted way to rail your winterbike/commuter the way you've wanted to all winter while trudging along your daily commute.
We had a measly three riders for this last year, but it was completely awesome. Temperatures around 5°F and a wonderful packed trail with lots of fluff on the sides just waiting to be crashed into. I recommend windproof clothing and a full face helmet as it is easy to maintain a lot of speed with the right conditions.

If you have any questions, contact Jeff at Beaver Sports or leave them here as a comment and I'll answer them.