Bike Intelligencer » Road Trips All bike, all the time Mon, 20 Jul 2015 21:20:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Bike Intelligencer Ride Classics: Pot Peak — Not what you might be thinking Sun, 03 Jan 2010 18:33:08 +0000 In which our intrepid duo climbs the world’s longest, most boring fire road, traverses the Talus Field From Hell, and finishes in complete darkness, riding by Braille. Was this fun or what?! This btw concludes our holiday “classics” series. Happy 2010, ride safe out there!

Still basking in Sun Valley’s halo, Jim Lyon and I headed off for another multi-day adventure, this time in the Washington high country. Neither of us had ever done the Devils Backbone-Pot Peak epic, so we pointed Moby Dick toward Chelan and cruised on over. Before leaving I did a search on my BBTC [Note: Now Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance] database, dating back to the late 1990s, for tips on the ride. I was surprised to find almost no references. Jeff Mack did a partial stab last year, but this obviously is not among the club’s more popular excursions.

We got what I thought was an early start, but it took us four and a half hours to get to the Snowberry campground and mount our bikes. It was a late start, but Zilly puts the ride at between 6 and 10 hours. As long as we were on the short side, we’d finish before dark.

[Before I go further, I’d like to thank all the BBTC (Now Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance) folks who responded to my wife’s plaintive pleas for information by phone and e-mail. I have a pact with Cecile: I can pretty much go anywhere as long as I report back in after the ride. Not all post-ride environments offer cell or phone service, however, in which case Itry to remember to alert her that I won’t be able to follow the drill. In this instance, I dropped the ball. I didn’t realize how far from anything civilized we would be.

When it got late and Cecile still hadn’t heard from me, she went to code orange. I have the BBTC Web site and Yahoo! address on our bulletin board for her to check in an emergency. She started clicking away and soon had talked to half a dozen or more regulars, who thankfully reassured her that Jim and I were probably OK. Art was most helpful, telling Cecile that Jim and I had “done a lot more dangerous rides than Devils Backbone.” While this led afterwards to cross examination worthy of a John Grisham novel, it was definitely the right thing to say at the time. I should apologize for any inconvenience to club members – since obviously we’re both fine – but by the same token am encouraged that the unintentional triggering of the system worked so well. Talk about having our back! You can’t do better than the BBTC.]

The big loop begins with a long, 13-mile fire-road climb of around 4,000 feet elevation gain. That’s right, 13 miles of dirt road. Zilly suggests at least a partial shuttle, but as regular readers of these missives know I hate shuttles. Although on the long side, the ride up seemed innocuous enough on the map, and fire roads by nature aren’t all that challenging. By mile seven, however, I was beginning to question the wisdom of the long slog. Unlike most fire roads, this one had virtually no level, or “rest,” sections. It was unrelentingly up. Not steep, really, just unremitting. Think five continuous rides up Tiger and you have an idea (except that Tiger, like most normal fire roads, does provide some respite sections). [Note: What were we THINKING??]

On top of it all, I was feeling pretty lousy with some bug. I’d just found out that a good friend, spending the summer in Colorado, had contracted West Nile virus. Although Washington’s mosquitoes have been blessedly light in a lot of areas, I usually get bit once or twice at campgrounds. Factor that in with my advanced hypochondria and you can see where my fatigued imagination was taking me. Jim was having a better time and asked me at one point what I’d had for breakfast. It so happens that I’d eaten a crumpet with jam that morning, which is more than I usually do. A big breakfast fan, Jim is trying to convert me over, as have innumerable other friends and loved ones through the years. I may be coming around – burning 4,000 or so calories in a day might require more than a fruit drink or muffin at the onset. What do you think? Possible?

The road might be more tolerable if there were any distractions to recommend it. Unfortunately much of the route is lined with the blackened skeletons of burned-out pine, left over from the Tyee Creek fire nearly a decade ago. The area, dry as soda crackers and about as thrilling, is not coming back all that quickly. Thankfully it wasn’t too hot. There was, however, a smoky haze settling over the ridge. We were later told it was drift from the B.C. forest fire, but it seemed to have come from the southwest, around Wenatchee.

At one point a carful of tourists – not sure what else to call them – came driving down the road, having started on the Entiat side. I asked what brought them up. “Just out to see the sights,” the driver said. “Oh yeah,” I said, gesturing at the expanse of burned trees and barren terrain, “It’s really spectacular country up here, isn’t it?” They oohed and ahhed, failing to catch my admittedly cleverless sarcasm.

Jim was cruising up ahead, but not enjoying it any more than I. At one point he got a flat — even after changing it we were at a loss how — and we got to commiserate on the ungodly climb. The only possible payoff for this pummeling would be a ripping downhill, as promised by Zilly’s review.

Finally, after a brief downhill run where I almost crashed dizzily from whatever viral gremlin was hooky-bobbing me, we reached the Devils Backbone trailhead. It’s a marvel of understatement – ugly, really, and not at all inviting, a spine only Beelzebub could love. There was more climbing ahead, through more charred timber. To top things off, or bottom them out, the trail was in pretty sad condition – dusty and trenched-out in places. Up, up, up we went, climbing moto’d-out switchbacks, sweating like pigs and cursing our fates. After one zig-zagged section I started screaming, “Down! Down! My kingdom for a downhill!” hopeful that the MTB gods would show some mercy. The one remedial interlude was spotting a couple of mountain goats up the rockery. Dignified, proud, erect, they stood motionlessly on an outcropping, gazing toward the Entiat. We envied them their altitude, strength and splendor.

Finally we reached the top-out, or at least the first top-out, at a scenic overlook (scenic if you like looking at the spilled cargo of a gravel truck). We corkscrewed down a whole lot of rocky, pitted switchbacks, plunging at least 1,000 feet on not-all-that-pleasant singletrack. Then we had our Holy Shit moment. The trail now was redirecting us back up the ravine. This time the trail, such as it was, traversed a huge rock slide for nearly a mile. This stuff, dinosaur teeth, goatheads, Beelzebub’s toenails, whatever you want to call it, would be tough to walk on in hiking shoes. Our Sidis were sorrowfully overmatched. If indeed we were strolling on the devil’s backbone, I remarked to Jim, he was in dire need of disc surgery.

It was getting on toward 7 p.m. Fortunately, temps were staying hospitable even as the shadows began cloaking the ridge with leopard spots. I did some quick calculations: It would take us the better part of an hour to climb out of this granite hellhole, then another 45 minutes at least for the 10-mile cruise back to camp. We’d be ending in dark forest. What had we been THINKING?!

On the way up, more pike-a-bike than hike-a-bike, where you literally have to test every other footstep for stability, I thought about why I’ve mountain-biked for so long. MTB is a continuous, life-long challenge, akin to mountain climbing, where you’re always pushing toward some new, challenging test. But MTB, unlike mountain climbing, utilizes wheeled transport. The only reason for going up is coming back down. So for every ride there’s an axis to the undertaking, where challenge crosses fun. The perfect ride makes a perfect X. The further it strays from an X, to a say lazy T, the less attractive it becomes. If you’re just beating yourself about the body hour after hour, the raison d’etre gets lost.

Six hours into this colonoscopy of a ride, we had experienced plenty of pain and dread but had yet to encounter anything really approaching fun. Climbing an interminable fire road, pushing your bike up endless switchbacks, hobbling over vicious rockeries – well, you could have walked most of this and had a better time. Why bring along a bike?

At the top of the ridge, we looked back on our route for the past two hours. We could practically spit across the ravine and hit the lookout where we’d started. “This is a sorry excuse for trail-building,” Jim said. “Where are the Nepalese rope-bridge builders when you need them?”

OK, now we were ready for the downhill. Ten miles of descent, and not a moment too soon. Most of the ridge was wreathed in a shadowy smog, the combination of darkness, thermal inversion and smoke. As I stood looking out, I thought, there’s not a whole lot to recommend this place. Chelan isn’t as spiritual as the desert nor as scenic as alpine country. It’s just there, lost in the transition.

Off to the side we could see Pot Peak, aptly named. A squat uninspiring mound that, in our condition, conjured up desire for neither the herb nor the bean. And we had nowhere near enough liquid left in us to consider the third connotation.

The cruise down began depressingly like the walk up. Lots of switchbacks and way too much loose rock on exposed ridge. Had we been fresh, and were there plenty of daylight, it might have tweaked our skill meter. As it was, we just wanted to get it over. We needed a lot more speed if we were going to make it back before black.

The trail did straighten out after a bit, and we got to rolling. But still, things fell short of optimal. The surface was too powdery and rutted, and the brush too overgrown, to really provide the sled-run it should have. There’s a serious need for maintenance up there, particularly around the 4,500-foot level skirting Pot Peak itself. We saw one and only one set of MTB tire tracks – otherwise nothing. No footprints, no moto tires. Certainly no other people.

Ten miles is a long downhill, and toward the bottom the trail gets to moving. By then, though, it was nearly 8:30 and I could not see the trail surface. Riding by Braille, as Jim put it. I wear the darkest sunglasses I can find on sunny days – they’re prescription, and my eyes are hypersensitive to light. But I’m nearsighted, so when I took them off in the dark I couldn’t see the trail enough to give it the proper haul.

We got back just as the final glimmer of light faded from the west. In a way, we lucked out despite the wretchedness of the loop. I went back to Zilly’s description, where he states: “I guarantee that when you complete this ride, you will say it’s the best singletrack descent you’ve ever done.” I’m not a Zilly-basher. I think the guy has compiled an unbelievable body of work and respect all the hard work and detail that went into his research. And I’m certainly not going to ask for my money back on the basis on one wrong guarantee. But I can name half a dozen downhills, from Tahoe to Downieville to Big Bear to Moab to B.C. to Sun Valley, that beat this one hands down. At one point we asked ourselves what John must’ve been smoking that day. Then we remembered the name of the trail.

One thing did occur to both Jim and me: The way to salvage this ride would be an out and back. It would still give you 4k of climbing but would be trail both ways (much of it rideable on the way up) and get you the downhill for far less pointless agony.

Devils Backbone/Pot Peak elevation gain: 6,860 feet. Elapsed time, including bitching, moaning and whining: 7:42.

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Bike Intelligencer Ride Classics: North Umpqua River Trail Thu, 31 Dec 2009 10:46:29 +0000 [Note: Continuing our holiday series of Bike Intelligencer’s past Classic Epics, we hearken back to a memorable triptych in 2003 covering Mt. St. Helens’ Juniper Ridge, Oregon’s McKenzie River Trail and, further south, Oregon’s North Umpqua River Trail.]

Finally the big day was imminent. After getting back to the Smith River reservoir on the McKenzie Trail I drove back to Eugene, sat in rush hour outside of Springfield, called Mire to apologize in advance for being late, and motored down to Roseburg to find the BBTC Three relaxing in the 98-degree shade outside the Bureau of Land Management headquarters. We caravanned upriver to the Susan Creek campground and found the next-to-last spot, cramming all three vehicles into one space.

Doing the full North Umpqua trail, 70 or so miles in a single day, requires a sound body, an unstable mind and a loathed shuttle. At 5 a.m. Tuesday morning Mire tapped on my window (I sleep in the van) and it was time to roll. I had pretty much packed everything the night before and was thankful for one thing: The great white whale was staying put. We would shuttle up in Peter’s 4-by, then Anthony and Mire would run him back up at the end of the day.

Mire Levy and Anthony Cree

Mire and Anthony at the top

To complete the full ride in daylight we would have to average 7 miles an hour, which seemed doable albeit rushed. “Dude,” Preston had told me before departure, “It’s a river trail! Do it in 2 days!” For Preston anything shy of a couple of hours of hike-a-bike is a river trail, but he had a point. Just because a ride is doable doesn’t mean it should be done.

Still, it seemed worth a try. Something to tell our grandkids about. Assuming we got that far. To having grandkids, that is.

We got up to the Kelsay Valley trailhead around 8-ish and headed off. There’s something like 5,000 feet of elevation loss on the trail from head to foot, but as Nic had warned us, a 50-foot contour line can hide a lot of climbing. As with most river trails, this one was going up and down almost from the get-go. You know: plunge 100 feet, climb 85, plunge 200, climb 150. Sure you’re losing elevation. As well as energy, leg strength, peace of mind, you name it.

Within 10 minutes of the start I felt something fly into the neck of my jersey and smack me in the chest. Before I could stop, blam! Bee sting! I stopped and looked for my Ledum Palustre but then remembered I’d left it in the car. Minus points for preparation. Still, the sting wasn’t that bad, and I rode on.

Not as fast as the others, though. The polite way of describing my riding was that I hadn’t found my rhythm. Translated: My climbing sucked. Peter was way off the front. Mire and Anthony were cruising past me on the risers. I even fell once, lifting the Burner’s front end so high I rolled backward into the bushes. Plus I was acting as the group’s bug trap. I got bit by some hardshell winged carnivorous insect — not a bee but like a wasp with long deltoid carpenter-ant wings — and later swallowed something, choking while I tried to maintain contact with Anthony’s dust. Ye gods, it was going to be a long haul.

The North Umpqua is divided into multi-mile sections for point of reference and difficulty rating. The further down you go, generally the gentler it gets. But the relentless dipping and climbing continues. At one point we caught up with Gonzz the Nature Boy, cooling his rumpqua in the river. After three hours, we were just completing the aptly named Dread and Terror section, 13 miles long and rated “Difficult” (grades 15 to 20 percent, up to 30 percent, on rough surface 12 inches wide) but with spectacular falls and viewpoints along the way. Not exactly a torrid pace but hey, it was early.

Nature Boy in the North Umpqua

Gonzz cooling his rumpqua

It was time for a soak in the Umpqua Hot Springs, reachable by crossing a wooden bridge and climbing by foot (except for Peter, who rode most of it) a quarter of a mile to a sun-drenched perch above the river. At 108 degrees, the hot springs would’ve been hot in a snowstorm. In 100-degree exposed sunshine they threatened to parboil. Although we’d encountered not a soul so far on the ride, the springs were practically overrun. A guy and three gals had taken the lower tub, and another couple had the upper. The latter soon abandoned, though, leaving it to us. Mire took off her shoes and soaked her feet, exclaiming every five seconds in a manner that it was hot, really hot, yowch was it hot. I decided to do the Full Monty test and was pleasantly surprised. It felt really good…for all of 180 seconds. Then my face turned purple, my eyes rolled to the back of my head, I started to hyperventilate. So much for the soothing balm of full submersion. It was time to move on.

The quartet in the lower, roofed tub graciously offered it up, saying they’d been there half an hour already. But we had to keep on sked. It did occur to Anthony and me to wonder about their 1-on-3 versus our 3-on-1. Leave it to a BBTC ride to get the proportion exactly backwards, although as I’m sure Anthony knows Mire is worth any other 3. Later I thought, wow, it had happened once again. The Three Sisters for the second time in two days.

Peter Partel and Paul Andrews (fist raised)

The road legs were back, baby!

Peter had repaired down to the river and gone swimmin’ once again, and Mire, ever mindful of the day’s progression, warned us that if we had any hope of completing this godforsaken enterprise we needed to get going and spend an average of just 10 minutes per hour in any stationary format. I thanked her and we cruised back off, leaving Gonzz to play catchup. Maybe the hot springs had rejuvenated me like the books say, but finally I began to get my legs. The old bones were rolling. The risers were starting to feel doable and I felt on top of the tech sections for the first time on the ride. I felt like I was in a flashback to my callow youth of double centuries and triathlons. The road legs were back, baby!

At the same time, Anthony’s drive train was making a horrific popping sound in the smaller gears. I was worried he’d snap his chain like a stick of licorice — Anthony had been middle-ringing sections I’d had trouble climbing in my granny — but instead it was the sheer torque of The Baby Bull on his cluster that was causing the racket. Peter soon caught us and took off the front, but this time I was able to keep up. Gonzz’s penchant for stop and go was catching up to him. The next time he pulled up, I decided to keep on going. My problem is that waiting produces too much lactic acid and puts the big hurt on me for the next climb. And you know when you start feeling good you can’t afford to let it pass.

As it happened, this segment of the ride, Deer Leap, was to my mind the best from an mtb purist standpoint. Rated “Difficult,” 9.6 miles long, it climbed high, high and higher above the river through alpine conifers. At one point there was a rocky view outcropping. The river was so far below you couldn’t see it. And curiously, smoke was peeling up the gorge. Somewhere there was a danged fire!

It was getting hotter, incredibly enough, and water was starting to be an issue. I’d packed 200 ounces but was running low on the 130-oz. Platypus Big Zip bladder. I topped out on a golden-grained ridge that felt oven-blasted, so hot I could feel my temples thrombulating against my helmet lining. From there the trail began to drop somewhat, and I finally came upon a wonderful pool below a footbridge, where I quickly scrambled down some rocks to take my second dip of the day.

Wow, what a difference only 50 degrees makes…who knew?

I figured the gang would catch up to me during my interlude, but no sign of anyone. I came to a road crossing and decided to wait. I ate my lunch, two oranges and bananas, and scanned the map for the next available water station.

It took 35 minutes for Peter to show, and he had bad news. Anthony’s two small cogs were toast, bent beyond usability. I imagine Anthony simply brute-forced them on one of the interminable risers, but whatever the case, pushing tall gears had taken a toll. Anthony and Mire were packing it in. Their plan was to take the dirt road out to the highway and cruise back down to their car, meeting us at the lower trailhead for the shuttle back to camp and up to Peter’s truck.

I looked at my watch. It was 3 p.m. A successful conclusion to our epic looked in doubt. Gonzz and I would have to pick up the pace and hope the terrain became more forgiving if we were to make it back by dark. Unlike Art, I can’t ride singletrack in pitch black. Unlike Art, mere mortals also can’t.

We did all right through the next section, aided in part by a stop at Soda Springs Dam Reservoir. A woman with a terrier came out and greeted us as Peter snapped shots of a fish tank. We asked if she had some water to spare and she graciously brought out a gallon of spring water, filling my 1.5 liter and half of Peter’s bladder. What might the temperature be, we inquired. She pulled a thermostat off the porch of her trailer and we looked. It read 102. Now that was all it took: We suddenly felt quite refreshed.

By the next leg — Marsters, rated “Moderate” — things were getting grim. My legs still felt good but Gonzz was spacing out even more than when he’s bushy-tail fresh. Something else was bugging us. Marsters was rated at 3.6 miles, but by our calculations it felt more like 5 to 6. Neither of us had odometers, but there was some disconnect. It’s possible our brains were burnt, and certainly our initiative was. At any rate, our pace was slowing when by dint of terrain and elevation loss it should have been picking up.

At the end of Marsters you dump out onto the highway for 4 miles, due to forest-fire blockage from 2002. It was on the highway that I started to ponder our next move. Most of the time Peter can fry my bacon, but he was falling back even on pavement. Either we were going to have to get a miracle second wind, or forget our grand ambitions.

Just then I saw Mire and Anthony’s Subaru and knew all was right with the world. They’d managed to make radio contact with Gonzz, who was calling it quits. From that point, around 25 miles from the trail’s lower end, they could simply shuttle Peter back up to his truck at the top, while I continued on.

At this point I had one of those terrible decisions all mtb-ers face from time to time. Do I throw myself at the wall and see what cracks? Or do I bail? I did some rough calculations and figured that only a monster pace would get me back to camp by dark. Otherwise Anthony and Mire would have to come back down from the campground and pick me up, or I’d have to ride the highway in the dark about 8 miles up road.

Reason prevailed, partly because I’d promised my wife that I’d be riding with others. (Did I keep that promise on any of these epics? Please don’t ever say anything.) If I zoned out and hurt myself or got lost or whatever, my biking privileges would likely be revoked for the duration. To say nothing of inconveniencing the BBTC Three and the BLM. So I slapped the chain onto the Big Ring and tooled back on pavement in a 46-11/14. If you keep that gear at a steady 90 rpm, all old roadies know, you’ll make pretty good time. I was back to camp, about 18 miles down the highway, in around an hour.

As I write these words, I get a sinking regret that says, hey, I should’ve gone for it. But I’m also sitting on saddle sores as big as salami slices, still oozing – well, bleeding if you want to know the truth. I’d worn the wrong shorts, the kind with the fabric liner instead of the old real-chamois Pearl Izumis, and had paid the price. You sit on real chamois and even though it gets wet and slimy with your sweat, it’s slick. You don’t get the saddle sores. My butt felt like a brillo pad, and doing more riverside rollers would hardly have improved its condition.

Plus there were all the other sanity factors.

[Note: Today, six years later, I wish I’d gone for it!]

Later as we swapped war stories around the campground table, we made a vow to return to North Umpqua for another try. Camp in the middle, do a 2-dayer like Preston told us from the get-go, and enjoy the thing for all it’s worth. Umpqua is not just a human trial but one of the most magically transformative mtb rides you can do. We saw no one else, not a soul, on the trail. It’s underappreciated, underused and unrivaled.

While that’s a great plan, I’d also like to try again for a one-dayer, forgoing the rest stops and photo ops. Then I can die a happy man.

[Note: Never did. But there’s always next year!]

North Umpqua elevation (as far as I rode): 5,110 feet. Elapsed time: 10 hours.

Canticle of Epics totals (5 riding days): Elev. 27,060 feet (average 5,412, or a little more than a mile, per day). Elapsed time: 36 hrs, 5 minutes (average 7 hrs, 13 minutes per day).

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Bike Intelligencer Ride Classics: The McKenzie River Trail Wed, 30 Dec 2009 17:18:24 +0000 [Note: Continuing our holiday series of Bike Intelligencer’s past Classic Epics, we hearken back to a memorable triptych in 2003 covering Mt. St. Helens, Oregon’s McKenzie River Trail and the North Umpqua River Trail.]

Anthony, Mire, Gonzz and I had talked about doing Oregon’s legendary McKenzie River Trail after — not before — Umpqua. But life is uncertain. Better carpe limitem — to seize the trail, as Jim Lyon says. Better yet if I could cram the McKenzie in on Monday, do Umpqua Tuesday, then skeedaddle back to Seattle on Wednesday for a Microsoft briefing.

During my post-Juniper Ridge sleepover in Eugene, I talked with Mire by cell phone, and was glad I did. She suggested that I drive upriver from Eugene/Springfield about 60 miles to the Smith Reservoir, and do an out-and-back on the McKenzie’s more tech upper section. Usually you shuttle and ride the McKenzie top to bottom, around 26 miles. But I hate shuttles and in any case, with only myself on the ride…well, you do the math.

McKenzie River lava trail

Where ripping and shredding have a whole new meaning

Never having done the McKenzie before, I figured it to be a pretty tame river trail from all the publicity and tourbook talk I’d encountered over the years. But I was surprised: It’s got a lot of technical stuff, including a lava field unlike anything I’d encountered since riding the Haleakala volcano on Maui several years ago. And the sights are spectacular: a truly remarkable, glass-clear-to-the-bottom, crystalline pool that, Anthony later told me, is 60 feet deep despite looking about 3 feet shallow; a series of crashing waterfalls, and the recreational flair of Clear Lake on top. There’s also old-growth forest along the way.

At the reservoir a pickup parked alongside my van with a guy and three young women. Trail runners! They flew off before I could even say hi, but I ran into them on the way back. It was in the 90s and they were running in short shorts and jog bras, which were the only part of them working really hard. Glistening with sweat, bodies rippling, they looked like forest nymphs flitting through the Oregon grape. Maybe they were distance runners, maybe they were supermodels. Maybe I was just hallucinating from heat stroke. At the top a tourist asked me if, in my Oregon travels, I’d seen The Three Sisters yet. “Certainly,” I said. “They’re running down the trail as we speak.”

This is a well-used trail. There were scads of tourist types at the waterfalls and hardly any section felt really isolated. But I had to watch myself. My long-suffering wife and bike widow permitted me to undertake this exercise in self-infliction only on condition that I ride with others. So out there alone I took it easy, particularly on the lava fields. With no margin for error, lava is intimidating. It shreds skin like soft fruit and gouges knees and elbows like an ax blade. It can rip a sidewall to ribbons. Much of the McKenzie lava is rideable (there’s even a paved path along some sections), and maybe all of it would be with some sort of protection. I’d love to go back with light armor, especially shin pads. As it was, bare-legged and wearing only lycra, I had no interest in jeopardizing Umpqua — or my marriage — for the sake of trying to clean sections of lava. I cruised back uneventfully, and can understand why shuttlers do top to bottom. It’s a real joy ride headed down.

What did impress me was the primo condition of the trail and the hordes of mountain bikers. For a Monday afternoon, at least. I ran into couples, trios and even a quartet, all zooming down the trail while I was meandering up. [Note: McKenzie later was named Trail of the Year by BIKE magazine.]This trail is a real multi-use gem, and people seemed inordinately friendly. Even a couple Sierra Club types, two ”senior” women (heck they were probably my age) with graying hair and walking sticks, struck up a conversation as I pedaled by. “You must be having a grand time,” one noted generously. In Cali odds are they would’ve been more grim, especially in Marin. But the mtb-ers were polite and cheerful and dispensed much positive PR.

Tamolitch Pool aka Blue Pool or Blue Hole

Tamolitch Pool: How deep did you say?

After three epics in a row that included a lot of hike-a-bike, I really appreciated the rideability of the McKenzie. This is what got me into mountain biking (from road riding) in the first place, after all. But in the quest for ever more remote and challenging routes, I’ve found myself pushing as often as riding. With the McKenzie it was all one swooshy, rollicking rail down. Highly recommended.

I’d like to return and do the whole out and back, even if, as Mire pointed out, the lower side is undistinguished buff trail. One thing is for certain, I see little appeal in shuttling and riding down — even in mid-90-degree heat. The trail is wonderful both ways.

As it was, I got back to the trailhead around 2:30 p.m., an hour later than I would’ve preferred. The BBTC Three were waiting for me in the 98-degree swelterama of Roseburg. It was time to scoot. North Umpqua was calling out our names.

Abbreviated McKenzie elev: 3,210. Elapsed time: 3:47.

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Bike Intelligencer Ride Classics: Mt. St. Helens' Juniper Ridge Tue, 29 Dec 2009 09:11:25 +0000 [Note: Continuing our holiday series of Bike Intelligencer’s past Classic Epics, we hearken back to a memorable triptych in 2003 covering Mt. St. Helens, Oregon’s McKenzie River Trail and the North Umpqua River Trail.]

After a rest day in Seattle it was time to hit the road for Mount St. Helens. I hadn’t explored this area much beyond the standard BBTC [Note: Now Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance] routes, Ape Canyon, Plains of Abraham, Smith Creek and the Lewis River treks. And to be candid, I hadn’t really wanted to. It always seemed to me too remote to be worth the 3 to 4 hour drive, even before you hit the dirt roads and feeder routes. If you’re gonna go, it’s best to plan a 3-dayer at least.

You WILL bring enough water or...

Endless singletrack from Sunrise Peak

Preston had not done his usual bang-up sales job on Juniper Creek, and there’d been quite a fall-off from the original signed-up crew. Typically Preston dryly understates the brutality factor with throwaways like, you might want to bring an extra water bottle, and there may be some climbing. Oh and don’t forget the sunscreen. Translated, this means: You will enter multi-stage dehydration unless you have adequate water; you will carry your bike up loose rocky embankments for a mile or more; you will arrive home with with full-bore melanoma unless you wear sun protection.

For the Juniper Ridge epic, though, Preston was being downright portentous. There was something about water filters… and being in shape for an 8-hour ride … and “more than average” elevation gain.

Translated: We were all going to die!

I checked the map and was somewhat relieved. That duration over that short a distance meant an average speed of around 3 mph. Heck, you can walk that fast. As it turned out, maybe not.

I probably wouldn’t have done Juniper if Armando hadn’t been signed up. He’d had his new bike for nearly a month now, and I was looking forward to swapping with him for a quick spin on the heavy metal. Plus Armando is always fun to ride with, constantly whining and making excuses while ripping and shredding far ahead of the peloton. The campsite was deserted when I got there, although Preston’s preferred slot was already taken up with his RV, followed soon after by Paul Diesner. While we did some exploring, Preston rolled up. Later Igor showed, although none of us knew it till the following morning. When Igor drove up without Armando, mumbling some apologia about missed phone calls and dropped emails, I wasn’t ready to give up. I figured Armando was already at the trailhead, jumping around in that funny spring-loaded way of his, rattling off some nonsense about what kept us so long.

On top of the world at Mt. St. Helens

The view was sweet, the wild strawberries sweeter

Juniper Ridge starts as an hour-long shuttle over 26 miles, nearly half of which is washboard dirt road. I took Preston, Paul and Igor up in Moby Dick, Preston keeping his mouth shut despite secretly wondering (I’m sure) exactly how slow this dude could actually drive. But I have to baby the van. It’s got low clearance and 2WD and isn’t happy on dirt. Hey, we were gonna get there. Anything more would be icing the cake.

We pulled into Council Lake, up around 4,200 feet, where there were screaming kids and mini-vans and lots of bikes — with kickstands. But no Armando. I’m thinking, oh God, he left without us. And we’ll never catch him. Preston was less sanguine. He was calling Armando a no-show, saying Armando had a blister on his little finger and was going to ride St. Ed’s instead.

We scampered up the fire road around 650 feet elevation gain, then jumped onto a pleasant albeit unremarkable high-country alpine trail. It was showing signs of moto fatigue but generally rideable. Preston biffed on a downhill section and offered a long explanation for the welt below his eye, but let’s face it. Preston goes over the bars for manifold reasons, all of which boil down to one thing: Too much speed.

We were moving at a pretty good clip. Then we hit Dark Meadow, a spooky-beautiful cavity with the ride’s only real creek crossing (and water stop if you’re so inclined). I ran my muddy bike wheels through the creek and Igor burst into a series of Russian expletives, saying he had to fill his water bottle there. I was thankful merely to get a jump on him, although it lasted all of 2.5 minutes. Like a camel, I was telling myself. Just make sure you finish.

Then we started climbing to Jumbo Peak, elev. 5801, and from this point on the ride along the ridge was, for me at least, largely a hike. After a truly evil ravine push we topped out, Igor exclaiming “This is BEST part of ride!” while hopping around on his bare feet looking for wild strawberries. It really was a mindbender: Four volcanic peaks (Hood, Adams, Rainier, St. Helens) in an incomparable all-points-of-the-compass view. After sitting on jagged rocks atop Miller and Jolly to get 360s, it felt weird to top out on a flat field of green. But if you really want to feel like you’re kissing the clouds, Juniper is the ride to do.

I was starting to doubt if Armando had made the ride. Surely he would have waited for us here, if anywhere. And I hadn’t seen any bike tire tracks worthy of an Ellsworth Dare. Could it be true, I wondered. Had Armando bailed on us? The prospect was truly disheartening. Heat, bugs, dust, and now, no Armando.

Then things got hard.

From Jumbo we dived down a rocky, dust-powdered zigzag, then began the slog up to Sunrise Peak, elev. 5892. Here was where I really got to hurting. I was hyperventilating, getting dizzy spells and losing my balance. I had to sit three times. Preston having put the fear of God in me, I had toted nearly 300 oz. of water along (a 130 oz bladder, another 100 oz bladder, a 1.5 liter bottle). Normally hydrating keeps my legs churning. In this case, nothing seemed to be working. By now a constant dark cloud of bugs swarmed me at every juncture. I’d been swatting them away but was too tired even for that. Every once in awhile I felt one bite, but I barely cared.

At the top of Sunrise, Igor cheerfully allowed that the trail followed the ridge to Juniper Peak, elev. 5611, and then we’d be cruising down. The next thing we knew we were rocking and rolling down a total corkscrew, a steep, dusty, switchbacked plunge where the motos had turned much of the trail into tractionless scree. Halfway down, having lost touch with everyone, I wondered if I was hallucinating and stopped to check the map. There seemed to be no turnoffs or other departure points. I guessed I was still on the right route. I had no choice.

Finally the trail dropped into a small meadow with a pond of sorts — nothing deep enough to swim in or clear enough to drink out of. WTF, I asked Igor. I thought you said it followed the ridge. “Oh, I forgot about this section,” he said. Of course, Igor wasn’t the ride leader either, so shoot me. It was at this point that Preston noted he seldom provides expectations about the trail ahead because it’s so easy to forget exactly what’s there. Then again, if it’s a Preston ride, you probably don’t want to know anyway.

Another torturous climb, again undetectable on the contour map, and finally we were at Juniper Peak. As hammered as we were, the two Pauls discussed a fire-road drop to save us time and energy. But first we had to do a 3-mile section of singletrack to the fire road.

Whoa! What a revelation! This, yes this, was the best part of the ride! Classic rambling, shunting and thrashing downhill singletrack, and the first time on the ride that I really got any speed up. By the intersection with the road both Pauls were refreshed and ready to do the final drop down Tongue Mountain Trail. There’s still a climb, around 500 feet, and the switchbacks are pretty gnarly going down. Plus the setting sun produced a strobe effect on the ferns and underbrush lining the trail, so you couldn’t always see where you were going. But it hardly mattered. The trailhead, food, drink and salvation lay just 6.2 miles down.

As many epics as I’ve done, in a dozen states over a dozen years, Juniper ranks with the toughest. I was wasted but glad, because I knew I’d need the verts for the North Umpqua ramalamadingdong the day after next. Juniper has everything – killer views, varied terrain, monster climbs, exposed ridges, swoopy singletrack. There’s a tad too much hiking in proportion to overall mileage, but you know at the end you’ve achieved a life event. A great ride, yes. Only one thing could have made it a better ride: the hyperkinetic presence of Armando and his new bike. I promised myself not to relent on my journalistic investigative skills till I had determined why El Malo had stayed home. [Note: Never did.]

Preston had talked about doing a Tumwater Canyon Death March the next day, and I was tempted to go along just to see how far I could get on an out-and-back. But the Umpqua was calling, so I begged off, driving out to I-5 and down to Eugene. I got in mid-afternoon feeling better than I would have expected. Umpqua wasn’t till Tuesday and this was only Sunday. Already I was starting to itch to get back on the pedals. Now where was that map of the McKenzie River Trail?

Juniper Ridge: Elev. 4620. Elapsed time (for me, the last guy in by a fair bit) 8:45. Deduct an hour for the other guys.

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What Happens in Moab Day 7: White Rim and it's a wrap! Mon, 28 Dec 2009 10:45:21 +0000 [Note: When the holidays slow news down, we reach into Santa’s bag of tricks for a hearkening back to our favorite rides. This week we’re featuring a 2004 expedition to Moab, Utah, America’s mountain biking mecca and an international magnet for mountain bikers everywhere.]

Planning our trip to Moab, Jim and I had talked about doing White Rim in a day. It’s about 100 miles on the full loop, but mostly fire-road flat. Doable, yes. But we’d have to get as early a start as possible, and it would be a long, grind-it-out day. Chances were it wasn’t in the cards this time around.

We checked with Poison Spider, where a wrench told us to take it out to Musselman Arch and see where we were. The arch is a great gathering place and turnaround point if you’re so inclined. So that was the plan.

We debarked from the tourist-packed Island in the Sky Visitor Center parking lot. You descend fairly gradually down toward the valley floor, where signs direct you to Moab and the prosaically named Potash, a town built around whatever commercial value potash has.There are big ugly holding ponds which have to be toxic as all getout, especially threatening to the Colorado River.

A “fat tire century” ride would’ve been a nice physical challenge, but I’m glad we didn’t do it first time out. White Rim has amazing vistas, strange and ponderous rock formations, perilous outcroppings and all manner of geologic wonderment even for Moab, and to put your head down into the wind and just spin would be a tragic missed opportunity. There are viewpoints around every corner and sometimes you just want to stand or sit and soak it all in.

There were a number of tour groups out. These are sagged expeditions that do the Rim in 3 or 4 days, camping out along the way. At the Arch a woman pulled up with no rear brake and a pretty spotty front one. They’d tried to do an adjustment on the ride but nobody knew Hayes discs and they’d messed it up pretty bad. I’m not much of a mechanic but when it comes to Hayes I’ve suffered through enough “episodes” to at least keep myself from making any problem worse. So I agreed to have a look.

The first thing they’d done was to back out the little 2mm lever bolts. This had the effect of running the levers all the way to the bar, as though she’d lost pressure altogether. I tamped down the bolts and she now had stopping power. Too much stopping power. The calipers were out of alignment and the pads were giving her constant brake rub.

It can drive a sane man loco trying to adjust Hayes calipers. I generally back off both mounting bolts till the caliper is loose at each end. Then I eyeball the rotor-pad clearance and tamp down the lower bolt, not tightening it all the way but getting it firm. I realign the pad clearance and gently tighten the upper bolt, spinning the wheel to ensure rotor clearance. If everything’s going right and Irish luck is with me, I can continue to wrench down the bolt all the way and the rotor won’t scrape. Once the upper bolt is tightened I do the same to the lower (by upper I mean closer to the rim, lower closer to the hub, if that’s any help).

People often say you need business cards or whatever with Hayes to do any realigning. Not true, in my experience. If the brakes are set up right in the first place, the issue tends to be a goofed-up attempt at realignment. You can use business cards to assist but if you’ve watched Scott at the Downhill Zone realign a Hayes you know that with experience all you need is a clear eye and steady hand.

Anyway, after 15 minutes of tinkering she was good to go. She asked if she could give me anything for my trouble and I said she already had: My good deed for the day.

Musselman Arch is a narrow, three-to-four foot wide rock bridge crossing maybe 50 feet over a sheer precipice. It’d be nothing at all to walk without the yawning valley below, but something about a 500-foot drop gives one a second thought or two. I get vertigo and never did walk it, but Jason and Jim went over it without blinking. Jim even stopped my heart by tripping on the thing – check out the video!

Some day I’d like to do the whole Rim. Two days would be enough, I’d think. My motto – “It’s all about the ride” – doesn’t quite apply to White Rim. There it’s more about the vibe.

The next day was Sunday and time to pack up and head back to Salt Lake for the flight back. Jason, Jim and I pitched the bikes into the van and jammed across the flats. It was the first off-weather day we’d had since the day we arrived. We even ran into rain on the approach to Salt Lake City. But the clouds eventually parted and the flight back went fine.

Often I end a mountain biking trip thinking not about the rides I did but the ones that got away. If only I’d had another day or two I could’ve done this or that. It’s been equally true on past Moab excursions. But this time around I felt like I’d gotten my fill. Sure there are rides I haven’t done yet in Moab. Sure I’d like to go back. But eight straight days of ride, ride, ride…well, that’s plenty for mortal man on the road away from home. Thanks to Jim and Jason and Chance and JP for the great times and eternal memories, and let’s do it again as soon as we can!

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What Happens in Moab Day 6: Moab Race Loop (Jacob's Ladder) Sun, 27 Dec 2009 10:34:59 +0000 [Note: When the holidays slow news down, we reach into Santa’s bag of tricks for a hearkening back to our favorite rides. This week we’re featuring a 2004 expedition to Moab, Utah, America’s mountain biking mecca and an international magnet for mountain bikers everywhere.]

You might think that after riding 32-plus miles and climbing 4,000-plus feet on Porcupine Rim, a rest day was in order. But this is Moab, we’re here for only eight days, we can rest when we’re dead and besides, there’s a loop with the word “race” in it still awaiting our inspection.

The 26-mile Spring Race Loop has been around for awhile but I’d never dreamed of doing it. The high point, literally and figuratively, is Amasa Back. So why not just do Amasa and leave it at that? You can look out from Amasa and see a sizeable portion of the race course on the valley floor, and in the heat of the day it looks like something hospitable only to Ali Baba and his 40 thieves. Whenever I’d asked about it on previous rides I got blank stares.

But the word “race” is like waving a checkered flag at Jim Lyon. And this being his first trip there, he didn’t know enough yet to know that in Moab, “race” has its own idiosyncratic definition.

The route starts from the Amasa parking lot but instead of picking up the trail heads out Kane Creek Road toward Hurrah Pass. The road climbs and drops, and then you take a right turn and start the climb up a long winding 4WD road to the pass. There is some spectacular stark wind-sculpted scenery but the riding itself is fairly routine.

For some reason riding Moab always brings to mind the Meat Puppets song, covered by Kurt Cobain and Nirvana in their Unplugged concert, called “Plateau.” “Ain’t nothin’ on top but a bucket and a mop and an illustrated book about birds.” On Hurrah Pass there ain’t even a bucket or a mop, but the same point certainly applies.

From Hurrah you get to rocket down the road to Jackson Hole. On the way I ran into a guy in a pickup who said there was water at his camel ranch that we were welcome to. I thought he was a local pulling my leg, but you get down on the valley floor and there it is: Camelot (camel lot). With real live camels! There’s also a sign pointing out, “Cold Water,” but it was yet another mild 75-degree day in Moab and we all had plenty of reserve.

Some sandy washes and rocky climbs punctuate the ride across the valley floor, but it’s still all doubletrack. At one point I heard some hollering from high above along Amasa Back. There were three ant-like MTBers hooting and waving their arms. I waved back and shot some video. All the times I’ve been on Amasa, I’ve never seen riders down on the valley floor. So I guess we made their day.

The real interesting part, if you can call it that, on the Loop is the rock climb up the Sisyphian-like Jacob’s Ladder to Amasa. It’s just a big huge long pile of big huge rubble. It’s not rideable. Hell, it’s barely walkable. At some points you lose the route altogether. You have to carry your bike most of the way, and at intervals hoist it up over six-foot boulders. Jim scampered up the thing like a spider, but I felt sorry for Chance, carrying a 35-pound Heckler up this stuff. Toward the end Jim came down and grabbed the Heckler, and Chance took my Turner. Sometimes being the last one up has its advantages.

It’s hard to imagine anyone racing up something like this. I’m not sure what to compare it to, because no trail would be built along a line like this. There are short little sections up by Cle Elum and Winthrop that are similar, and if you’ve done Devil’s Backbone by Chelan you’ve walked across a boulder field evoking something of Moab. But anything else is so much shorter and fleeting, the only way to know what Jacob’s Ladder is like is to do it yourself.

Once the climb was over we stood up there looking out, not quite believing what we’d done. I hoped for some riders down below to video, but nada. Nothin’ down there but the camels and the sand.

From the top you simply ride the Amasa route back. Amasa is fun but way too short. We’d done the ride two days earlier with Jean-Pierre on board as well, and what Chance pointed out this time around was how much the Porc Rim epic had improved our handling skills. Ledgy and droppy stuff we were slowing down for the first time on Amasa we just rode right through this time, and a lot faster. And we were picking the tougher lines.

That’s one great thing about Moab. One week of riding there elevates your skills a notch or three, and you return doing things on Northwest trails that had intimidated you before. In a few weeks the Moab polish wears off, but you never come back from there without a few new tricks in your bladder pack.

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What Happens in Moab Day 5: Porcupine Rim Sat, 26 Dec 2009 10:24:28 +0000 [Note: When the holidays slow news down, we reach into Santa’s bag of tricks for a hearkening back to our favorite rides. This week we’re featuring a 2004 expedition to Moab, Utah, America’s mountain biking mecca and an international magnet for mountain bikers everywhere.]

Porcupine Rim ranks second, behind the Tahoe Rim Trail, as my favorite ride anywhere. No matter how often I do it, I want to go right back the next day and try all those places I didn’t ride quite the way I wanted. If I lived in Moab, I’d be riding up on the danged thing every day. I mean, I love Tiger Mountain and all the Cascades rides we have in summer here. But for grandeur, technical challenge, endurance, speed and just plain fun, Porc Rim is in a class all its own.

I like doing it as a loop, admittedly not the preferred method. Most people are going to shuttle up Sand Flats Road to the trailhead, then ride down to the river, where another shuttle vehicle awaits. I like doing the ride as a loop from town. Yes the road climb up is a chore. And boring. Often there’s a headwind. But we’re talking process here, earning your verts, paying your dues. Heck, folks, it’s even paved now. The first times I rode it back in the ‘90s it was dirt and gravel most of the way. As for the river side at the end, yeah you’re whacked by then. But it’s a fairly gradual grade back up toward town. By the end of the day you’ve chalked up epic numbers, more than 5 hours on the bike and 4,000 feet of climbing. You feel like you’ve accomplished something.

I’d tried to talk Jason into doing the loop, but he was having none of it. He wasn’t big on doing Porc Rim anyway, so we waited till he left town for his grandmother’s funeral. Jean-Pierre was back with his family, so it was just Chance Richie, Jim Lyon and myself. No problem: We had lots of company on the trail.

It can get dastardly hot and dry up on the Rim, but the weather continued to bless us. One year I went through a 130-ounce bladder and was still dehydrated. I used only about half of my regular 100-oz. bladder this time. After the road ride up the trail bullets down a bit, deceiving you into thinking you’ve crested and can cruise the rest of the way. Uh-uh. There’s a lot of climbing left, much of it up risers and ledges and rockeries and whatnot. It’s all rideable, at least certain lines are, but even so you need some kick in your quads to get up and over the tough bits.

When you do top out at the Rim, you have one of the unutterably magnificent promontories the sport of mountain biking provides. Usually lots of other folks are gathered as well, doing lunch breaks and talking mtb. We ran into a group of big boingers, no one under 6 inches, about to head down the first bombing run. One guy was riding a Banshee, the Canadian outfit that makes among the toughest and heaviest and best-named bikes out there. My favorite is the Banshee Scream. Or maybe the Morphine. Anyway, he was on the “cross-country” model, the less spiky-named Chapparal, on which he proudly proclaimed he’d gotten the weight down under 40 pounds. It was brand new and he said he’d gotten a deal because he worked in a bike shop in town. His other job was in a restaurant. “I wait tables so I can afford to work in a bike shop” was the way he put it.

He was no Tinkerbell either. I wouldn’t want to get in his way on the downslope.

As gnarly as the Porc Rim climb is, the really rough part is the long descent back to the river. You can plain rip along numerous sections, but you can also get going too fast for your own good. And your equipment really takes a beating. Still, there’s nothing else quite like Porc Rim’s descent. Amasa Back offers a taste, but it’s much shorter and lacks the extended straightaways.

There are lots of drops on the descent which you can do or ride around, but the killer is a 5-footer at the end of a long bombing run. “Now that – that’s a commitment,” as Jim put it. I’ve seen guys ride off it, but you know what? That was several years ago, and they were on hardtails and a couple of what would today be considered “soft tails” – 2 to 3 inches of rear travel. Even with today’s big-drop bikes I see fewer riders doing that one — why is that?

One problem is that it’s usually wickedly windy at the big drop. The other is that it comes up on you fast and your instinct is to bear to the right and slope down it, not go off the front. By the time you reconsider at the foot of the drop, your momentum is gone and you’re starting to think a little too much. What I always think is, “Do I wanna try this, or do I wanna be 100 percent sure I’ll ride tomorrow?”

This time out the wind was whipping things around pretty hard and we bagged on it. I thought for sure the long-travel gang ahead of us would’ve gone off it, but there were no tracks below. Even with 8 or 9 inches, that thing is a commitment. And this may get at the point Craig McKinnon and others have made on the BBTC list: Big-hit bikes do little to enhance actual riding skills.

Following one long rip Jim stopped with that look on his face again. This time he’d lost a retainer from his brake lever, rendering it inoperable. So we did the funny penguin-walkaround thing, tiny little steps with our heads cocked. Miraculously, Jim found the barrel which, inserted, gave him back lever action. But the bolt was nowhere to be found.

We weren’t going to flag down any jeepers up on this section like we did on Poison Spider. And Jim runs Magura Marta brakes, so it was unlikely we’d find anyone with spare parts. Jim could continue with one brake, but on the hairball sections of the lower trail you really want both brakes. The solution: Duct tape. I always carry a few inches of the stuff in my bladder pack. Jim borrowed a slice, taped in the barrel, and we were good to go.

The ride along the river is almost as harrowing in spots as Portal. I rode more than I usually do, but not all of it. It’s a joy just to stop and take in the view every so often. You want to be able to call that slide back up in the camera of your mind.

Porc Rim always seems to serve up an unusually high percentage of bike Bettys, and toward the lower section we caught up with a number of them. Repeatedly Chance drew more than just passing interest, leading me to nickname him Chance Romance. He’s a happily married guy, but out on the trail they don’t know that. Jim’s married too, but on our first day out, up on Slickrock Trail, he mentioned to a group of riders that he was a Slickrock virgin. “We L-O-V-E our virgins in Utah!” one of the women riders responded — quite enthusiastically.

In any case, with Chance you’re always making new friends. I’d never ridden with him and was worried that Jim’s, Jason’s and my radical politics would put off a Texan Navy officer, but we never missed a beat. If you ever run into him on a ride, be sure to say hello. He’s on the shiny new Santa Cruz Heckler in candy apple red.

Back in town I hung out at Poison Spider bikes while Jim tracked down replacement hardware for his brake. There was a gnarly old guy with a bike-bus, a long trailer packed high with his life’s belongings, and two pretty tired dogs. I’d seen pictures of him around, and he’s in one of the guidebooks as well. “We used to cover 100 miles a day,” he said, nodding toward the pooches, which by the way were equipped with their own saddle packs. “Now we do 100 a week.” Hey, the journey is the reward. That’s what I always feel like after the Porcupine Rim loop.

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What Happens in Moab, Day 4: Sovereign Trail Thu, 24 Dec 2009 10:15:37 +0000 [Note: When the holidays slow news down, we reach into Santa’s bag of tricks for a hearkening back to our favorite rides. This week we’re featuring a 2004 expedition to Moab, Utah, America’s mountain biking mecca and an international magnet for mountain bikers everywhere.]

The Sovereign Trail

When we picked up our bikes at Poison Spider Bicycles, I’d noticed on the guide rack a new map called the “Sovereign Trail System.” I got to chatting with one of the wrenches, who said it was well worth the trip out, and made a mental note to follow up. In plotting a week’s rides in Moab, every day’s decision affects every day after that. I was thinking latter week, but when Jim got stirred up after his Moab Rim encounter, he was ready to rock the next day.

One good reason to jump on Sovereign was that by Tuesday we had our full complement of riders: Jim, Jason, Chance Richie, Jean-Pierre Chamberland and myself. Chance had rolled into town the day before while we were up on the Rim. I was expecting him to show any minute when a guy appeared with a wife and kid in tow, saying how eager he was to ride with us.

Man, I had no idea what was up. Chance (whom I’d not met) I knew was married — but he hadn’t mentioned any kids. And I certainly hadn’t counted on any of our party staying with their wife and kid. The condo wasn’t suitably equipped.

I was doing these mental gyrations and mumbling things like, “Glad to meet you” and “Great you could come” when finally I had to lay it out. “Um, were we expecting you?” I asked. Jim thankfully jumped in and mentioned that this was Jean-Pierre, who’d messaged earlier about hooking up with us on a family vacation trip bringing him through Moab. I hadn’t gotten any such message. The wonders of spam filtering: block the mail you want while letting the gunk flow through.

So then, after we’d sorted it all out, Chance walks in beaming like Jack Nicholson in “Easy Rider.” I had to laugh at my earlier flummox. Chance is a strapping good ol’ Texas boy, while Jean-Pierre is a compact French-Canadian. Even in the wee hours after a few too many at the local pub, you’d never get the two confused.

The next day was going to be our only chance to all ride together. Jason had unfortunately gotten word of his grandmother’s death and was having to depart the following day for her funeral. He’d be returning on Friday, but by then both Jean-Pierre and Chance would be gone. What better opportunity than brand-new singletrack for Team Moab to break in?

Sovereign is a pretty good drive north of town off the main highway. You turn right (east) at Willow Spring Road, open a gate and close it behind you, then drive in a couple of miles to a parking lot on the left by a pump house. You ride some jeep road up from the parking area and the trailhead is well-marked.

Sovereign comprises two sets of singletrack, and the southern one (the first you do) is the better. Ride the second – a full loop – if you have time and energy, but don’t do it first or you’ll get misled. The first trail is well-marked, well-designed and well-constructed. The second seems like an afterthought, a hodgepodge slapped together just to add miles.

Jason remarked that the first section was a bit reminiscent of Gooseberry Mesa down by Zion. There’s a lot of ledge-type riding, slickrock mixed in with sandy trail, all pretty exposed. Gooseberry may have slightly more vegetation. It reminded me also of Cottonwood Valley outside of Vegas, although Sovereign doesn’t have the extended roller-coaster rips of Cottonwood. Still, this is true singletrack unlike anything else you find around Moab. It’s well worth checking out, but keep in mind this is high desert. The earlier in the day the better.

Despite Gonzz’s meteorological trepidations back in January, we were having absolutely dynamite weather. After Saturday’s overcast and wind we’d seen nothing but sun, in the mid-70s. We were comfortably warm, not hot. You couldn’t ask for better Moab riding weather – any hotter and we would’ve worried about dehydration.

Climbing one riser I went over backwards after kicking out a rock and not being able to unclip from my Eggs. The sand gets into the cleats and frictions everything up. I scratched my forearm but it looked worse than it was. Jason had a couple of tire problems, pinch-flatting and then, incredibly, blowing out the sidewall of a Panaracer he’d bought two days earlier. Desert rock can be jagged and sharp, but Jason’s problem was strictly a manufacturing defect.

It was a great day to all be together. We found several rest points with sweeping views of bluish-green escarpments jutting from the desert. There were lots of riders out, mostly on the first section.

Not knowing what we know now, we automatically went ahead with the second loop. It had a lot of pushing up really rocky trails, and unrideable sandy sections, and it just wasn’t very interesting. Then there’s the long ride back on really sandy jeep road. I was more tired psychologically at the end than physically.

It probably would’ve been more fun to just head back the way we came out on the initial six-mile-or-so section. But now we know. As it stands, I hope they (the state, BLM and a group called Ride with Respect) continue to develop the system with more singletrack.

(Note: In the Sovereign Trail video, the soundtrack is by the Urban Bushmen. Which happens to be ride leader Jim Lyon’s band, and he’s featured on lead vocal.)

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What Happens In Moab Day 3: Moab Rim Wed, 23 Dec 2009 10:27:10 +0000 [Note: When the holidays slow news down, we reach into Santa’s bag of tricks for a hearkening back to our favorite rides. This week we’re featuring a 2004 expedition to Moab, Utah, America’s mountain biking mecca and an international magnet for mountain bikers everywhere.]

Moab Rim

What happens in Moab, in case it’s not blindingly clear by now, does not stay in Moab. My Turner XCE still has traces of red dust, which I hope will remain there through the summer. The frame also sports my mascot kokopelli and Poison Spider stickers, but the dust makes it truly organic. I’ve also got a kokopelli ring, two t-shirts, a baseball cap and various other remembrances, including these musings. Fortunately, what happens in Moab does not need to stay in Moab either…most of the time.

For some reason this trip I packed my digital camcorder. I’ve had the thing for several years now, but it’s a brick (nearly 2 lbs.) and doing video on a ride is even more logistically obnoxious than snapping photos. I remember after getting the camcorder being all hot to shoot MTB rides. After a couple attempts the camcorder went back to the shelf, and I haven’t really done much with video since.

The problem with video is that it slows you way down. You have to mentally compose the sequence, think through subject, framing, panning, length and other considerations, and do it all before the actual set-up so you have enough time to get it right. In the meantime, you’re hardly focused on riding. So the quality of the ride experience suffers. And anyone who knows me knows I like to say how it’s all about the ride.

I’d been to Moab enough, and knew that because it was Jim Lyon’s first time we’d have to do the usual routes, that I figured what the heck. Let’s focus on getting some video this time around, and if the riding suffers, at least it’ll be just a one-off disappointment.

I didn’t have a helmet cam, and in some ways am glad. We’ve all seen endless sequences of riders’ backsides along miles of singletrack. Two things are going on here. The helmet cam makes for monotonous composition. And the rider wants to enjoy the ride rather than concentrate on movie-making.

But with a helmet cam you never quite know what you’re getting, and even if it’s spot on you’re getting minute after minute of pretty much the same thing. With video you just can’t do that. The viewer’s attention span isn’t that elastic. Besides, a helmet cam severely limits framing and content. You can’t pan, you can’t do overall shots. You pretty much only see riders’ butts on the trail ahead.

Without a helmet cam, though, you have to pack your camcorder in your bladder pack and dismount, get it out, turn it on, etc. etc., every time you shoot. And all this slows you way down. It also tries your co-riders’ patience. When Jim suggested at one juncture on the 26-mile Race Loop that I was holding things up, I offered that perhaps he wouldn’t want to see the video. That’s pretty much the tradeoff in a nutshell. I was forever holding up the ride. But if you want the footage you have to pay the piper.

Day Three was slated for Moab Rim. I had wanted the day before to try for a jumbo combo of Poison Spider/Portal and Moab Rim in a day. It’s certainly doable, although Jim’s mechanical problem on Poison Spider had killed our chances. Jim, by the way, was made whole on a visit to Moab bike shops after Portal. First we hit Poison Spider, who suggested Dreamride. In the little incestuous world of MTB and Moab, Dreamride is Lee Bridgers’ local tour company. Bridgers, the Edward Abbey of mountain biking (actually, Bridgers is a cult unto himself, but that’s another story) and a great raconteur and writer, is the guy you’ll find on the Web denouncing the ruination of Moab by crust-busting tourists. Mountain bikers included, unfortunately.

In any case, it turns out Dreamride, a big Ellsworth supporter over the years, has switched to Ventana and doesn’t carry Ellsworth stuff any more. The reasons for the switch also would take another story, but it meant Jim was coming up dry in his quest for a new pivot bolt. Not to worry. We cruised by Moab Cyclery and noted a fleet of Truths and Ids out front. One used gold medium Id, fully tricked, was going for the drop-dead asking price of $2,750. It’d been ridden once. We all offered each other various rationalizations for an impulse buy, but better sense prevailed. Jim picked himself up a new bolt and was soon good to go.

Moab Rim, after the initial killer climb, is a fairly straightforward out and back to Hidden Valley (for some reason I always want to call it Heavenly Valley, but I think that’s because of the petroglyphs above it). A lot of slickrock, some sand (more sand if you take the gulley way back), and heavenly singletrack through the valley. But it’s all too short. The view from the Rim is soulful, as long as you ignore the chairlift, but Portal’s is better and neither can touch Porcupine Rim. The other thing going for Moab Rim is the petroglyphs. It gives you pause to think about how well they’ve stood up against the forces of time, and how much they communicate despite their first-glance crudeness.

We hit Hidden Valley a little early for the wildflowers, which are truly splendid. But the singletrack was its wonderful flowing, sashaying self. If it were only about 12 to 15 miles longer it’d be a world-class destination. As it is, it’s a testament to Moab’s lamentable dearth of singletrack, and a reminder of why we all love Washington State.

I’ll never ride Moab Rim without revisiting an incident Lenny and I witnessed a few years back. We were resting at the spot where the double-track curls around before hitting the final trail ascent when we heard something that sounded like screams, but not the panicked kind. Atop a pedestal rock toward the glyph walls we could see their source. Two women, assisted by apparatus we could only guess at, were intimately involved, to the point they didn’t really care who might be within shouting distance. I’ve run into occasional in flagrante delicto on the trails, but this had to be the most public I’d ever encountered. Later Lenny and I saw them trail-running through Hidden Valley, apparently heading home down over the cliff side. They had big smiles on their face. We thought about saying, “Hi again!”

Nothing quite that audacious happened this time out. (The aforementioned Lee Bridgers has a whole chapter on outdoor encounters in his Falcon guide to Moab rides, one of the best tour books ever written imho.) We ran into some Canadians – they were all over Moab, as they always are – and assorted other riders, especially on the climb from the trailhead. The locals are putting in a lot of singletrack between the lift and the climb/downhill. Well, a lot for Moab anyway. Jason took a tumble on the screaming descent, which I captured on video. Note the accompanying Midnight Oil soundtrack lyric, a line that had reverberated the day before when we read the Portal sign about three riders plunging to their deaths: “It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” (Adapted from the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.)

We did derive one great nugget from a conversation up on the Rim. A rider we encountered told us about a new trail north of town, almost all of it desert singletrack. Jim’s ears really perked up at that one. After three days of mostly bare rock and jeep road, we were ready for some trail-thrashing.

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Ride Classics: What Happens in Moab Mon, 21 Dec 2009 16:21:14 +0000 [Note: When the holidays slow news down, we reach into Santa’s bag of tricks for a hearkening back to our favorite rides. This week we’re featuring a 2004 expedition to Moab, Utah, America’s mountain biking mecca and an international magnet for mountain bikers everywhere.]

What Happens in Moab: Getting Oriented

When Jim Lyon first broached the subject last fall of going to Moab in the spring of 2004, I was less than eager. The last couple of times I’d been to Moab had fallen short of expectations. You get locked into a way of doing things and I felt I’d been just going through the motions. After half a dozen visits to Moab over the past decade I thought I’d been there and done that. This psychological block may be what Bob Bournique is getting at with his challenge for us all to do new trails this season.

But one thing about riding with the Lyon King – you learn to expect the unexpected. This time around, eight days from April 10 through 18, 2004, just about nothing happened according to plan. Which was good. Well, in most cases it was good.

Jim posted the ride early on the BBTC [Note: Now Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance] calendar but we didn’t get too many takers. I had talked with Gonzz and Art and others in January about the ride’s timing, explaining that Jim was locked into the April dates because of his teaching schedule and spring break. They were adamant that April was too early. It might be wet, it might be cold. Those are relative terms in Moab compared to Seattle, but in any case Jim and I both checked with the locals and found that weather is entirely unpredictable from April through May. Last spring the BBTC gathering ran the gamut from cold and windy to sunny and warm, and that went into the first week of May.

Jim had never been to Moab and this was the only time he could go. I told him I was in. We’d have to take our chances – with the weather, and with club signups.

When Gonzz posted his ride timed a couple weeks after ours, suggesting that our trip was far likelier to encounter inclement cold and wet, I figured we were really sunk. What Seattle MTBer wants to go all the way to Moab just to get rained on? Hey, we can do that at home…for free!

As it turned out, Jason Klecker, Chance Richie and Jean-Pierre Chamberland hopped aboard as well. We could’ve used a couple more, but we didn’t suffer from lack of numbers. Meanwhile, Gonzz’s ride piled up the signees.

We flew in to Salt Lake City early on Saturday the 10th and, while waiting for Jason to arrive on a separate later flight, killed a couple of hours in town. Mormonville was the longest two hours we spent on the entire trip. Enough said.

We picked Jason up in our rental van and headed off. It’s a four-hour trip on the map; we made it in under three and a half. By the time we’d picked up our bikes at Poison Spider Bicycles, which will hold UPS’d bikes and even assemble them at your behest for a small fee, we still had plenty of time for a ride up to Slickrock from town.

I’m not a huge fan of the Slickrock Trail. You have to do it if you’re in Moab, of course. But it’s a lot of ups and downs, stops and starts, with hardly any speed till the latter sections. It’s like riding in a glorified skateboard park. And it was a bit brisk up there, with stiff winds cutting the chilly temps even further. I liked being able to loosen up after the plane and drive but was looking forward to some real riding.

What really made that first day in my view was the final spasm of Jeep Safari. The annual festival draws jeepers from all over the place to Moab, and it’s a real hoot. They tool around half-crazed and full-on drunk. One kid who couldn’t have met his teenage years yet was carrying a case of beer on one of those little ATV 4-wheelers. Cops were everywhere and the route from downtown up to Slickrock was in total gridlock. Traffic jams in Moab. Ya gotta see ‘em to believe ‘em.

The townspeople don’t particularly like jeepers, and the irresponsible ones are tough on the terrain and tougher on the social graces. But I’ve never had a problem with jeepers. They seem to respect mountain bikers, and most of them are good ol’ boys soon to join the endangered species list as gas prices climb into the stratosphere. Still, I was glad they would be clearing out the next day. Moab was just too congested for comfort.

We got back to the condo we’d rented – room No. 1 at the Westwood Guest House — and began setting up. The caretaker had told me the room would sleep 8. But they’d have to be pretty intimate — there were only 5 beds. In any case the three of us (Chance arriving two days later and JP staying with his family) were plenty comfortable. We went shopping and discovered that Jason was the carnivore of our group. After a long philippic from me on the multiple hazards of red meat, Jim dubbed Jason “Mad Cow Klecker.” Jason remained unfazed, devouring a variety of choice cuts at dinner, lunch and even breakfast during our Moab sojourn.

Day 1 ended cool and gray but rainless at least. I was beginning to wonder if Gonzz, the self-anointed club meteorologist, the Jeff Renner of MTB, had known what he was talking about. Oh well. We were prepared for anything Moab would throw at us. At least, that’s what we thought.

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