Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Frozen Water Ride

Snyder Lake Ice
With each passing ride, I discover why I'm loving this bike so takes me places I normally couldn't explore. The lack of snow this "winter" has been a blessing and curse in many ways.  I am a cross country skier and if a snow-less December had happened in previous years (it has) I'd be skulking around, depressed from a lack of kick'n and stick'n.  I realized the other day, it hasn't bothered me so much-kind of surprised me, but because the fat-bike is now in the stable, I just suit up and head out the door for the next adventure.

I frequently ride past a small made made flowage just a mile from my home.  Snyder Lake (and park) is part of the Clark County Forest and sits on the banks of Wedges Creek, which eventually empties into the Black River.  I ride the 29er on ATV trails and logging roads nearby during the warm months, a convenient change from riding singletrack at Levis Mound all the time.  Because we've had plenty of cold days, and no insulating snow, ice formed early on the water and even bridged the small rapids upstream from the lake.  Rain a week or so ago made parts of the big water unrideable slick ice, but where a skim of snow remained, it was perfect.  I found pedaling on the ice almost effortless-the flat hard surface making just a slight rumble-crunch under the big tires.  The ice allowed me to explore side creeks, although thick tag alders soon blocked my progress and shell ice finally gave way under me.
Ice Bridge & animal Stories

As I traveled upstream, I'd have to jump off the Mukluk from time to time as I hit a patch of bare problem, I just scootered across until the next patch of snow.  Water levels on the creek had been higher earlier this winter, so when I ventured deeper upstream and more rapids, I also ran into pushed up ice jams-slabs of ice cantilevered upwards- jumbled in tight high-banked corners of the stream.  These  spots were criss crossed with tracks of otters, who could scoot under the ice into open patches of water gurgling beneath my wheels.  Fisher, coyote and fox tracks also zig zagged back and forth here along with an infrequent tom turkey crossing the now frozen slush.  I love tracking, so I spent as much time as I wanted reading the stories they tell before hopping back on the bike.  The pressure of the moving water finally created a jam and enough open water to prevent travelling any further upstream...I so wanted to keep going for the creek winds on for many miles north.  I found an ice bridge to tip toe across and then up a high bank to a nearby skidder trail and back on dry oak leaves and dirt for the long ride back home.  The fat-bike and the ice I'd just ridden left me wanting more, so in the days ahead, instead of rolling down familiar singletrack, I'll search out ice, snow and sand that can take me deeper to places I've yet to explore.  Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Group Rides

The Wazoo Fat-Bike Boys
 I probably ride alone 90% of the time.  Not sure why that is....maybe a selfishness on my part to just decide it's go time, pull on the bike shorts, grab the helmet and click into my pedals.  Maybe it's part just getting out into the quiet of the forest after a full day of loud energetic students in the classroom.  It could be that riding alone also insures me of pedaling at my pace, with no fear of getting dropped or bowing out of part of a ride.  There is also a chance to "stop and smell the roses" or the ferns or snap a pic of a wolf or Fisher track-something I'm less inclined to do while group riding.  Sometimes I just want to be lazy-maybe not the correct word, but as the racing days are behind me, I don't feel the need (or pressure) to hammer out intervals, or hill repeats, or ungodly LSDs (long slow distance).  Not that I can't or don't do them sometimes, but I don't have to.  There is some freedom and relaxation in that and as I've gotten older, I think that becomes more important.

That said....the group ride can be the ticket some days.  They are especially great when you have new riders visiting "your" trail for the first time. December 26th was that chance.  I'm not supposed to be riding bikes the day after Christmas-it's not right....there should be two skinny skis under my feet-not platform pedals.  Two things have changed however-a new fat-bike in my stable of bikes and 43 degrees with sun.  My intent was to ride the Levis Mound Trail again this day and finish shooting some stills and video of the Toad Road and Northface trails.  As I pulled in, the bike rack laden vehicles and riders making last second adjustments to their fat-bikes, changed that plan. 

Some of the riders checking air pressure and donning warm riding clothes I've met once or twice along the way biking here during summer months.  With the surge in fat-bike riding, (and warmer temps) I'm sure bike racks at Levis Mound in winter months will become more common.  They invited me along saying they were "old slow guys" which, you know, because they said it -was not going to be true.  I saw it as a chance to "film" riders on our trails-a nice and different perspective from my usual solo ride views.  When leading a group-you do feel as though you need to keep the speed up-not so much a macho thing as it is just to keep a steady pace-these guys drove a long way to ride here this day.  I'm not a climber, never have been, so the quads were quivering when we reached the top of the mound.  Luckily (for me) others in our group needed to find their lungs as well.  We did the obligatory tour of the top of the mound and then I dove in behind Gary, who was riding a pugsley-I wanted to get a riders perspective of fat tires descending Toad Road, one or most technical trails and home of "Plummers Crack."  Shooting video going through the rock chute would be a hoot and good test of the bikes, as would the remainder of the screaming downhill.  As trees blurred by me, I realized group riding-especially trying to stay on someone's wheel, takes the speed up one, two or three notches.....which, thinking about it later felt really good.

We re-grouped at the bottom with only one reported "forced dismount" story.  Some slight air pressure adjustments were made and we set off north west to Trow Mound to catch the new "Wolf Run" trail and then Sidewinder and more shooting.  By the time we had made several more ascents, my legs were toast.  Hated to admit that, but they burned in a good way and the end result is I knew I'd pushed myself a little this day-something I don't do so much when solo.  Pushed the climbs, pushed the descents, took some risks...and that's not all a bad thing. 

The fat-bike friends had one more climb in their legs (in order to fly down Cliffhanger), so I led them to their next climb and wished them well.  This had been a fun couple hours-unplanned, and it always seems those are the best rides of all.  I had a great time showing off the trails and for the first time, riding in a group of fat-bikes (there were a pair of skinny bikes along as well-man those tires look so small now!) and being in a group dynamic.  I'll still most likely keep up my quiet rides, but on this day, it was great to hear the whirl of freehubs, clicking shifters, a squeal of disks and rumble of many pairs of fat tires on frozen ground.

Monday, December 12, 2011

First Rides

I doubt I could have picked a better day to really dive into the Fat Bike scene- 27 degrees, no wind, 2-3 inches of snow, some virgin singletrack, some packed ski trail, all the while basking under a clear morning sky at my favorite trail-Levis Mound.  Oh, and atop a brand spankin new Salsa Mukluk 2!

The fat bike bug started biting over the course of the past 3 years while at Gnomefest, luckily enough to be held at my home trail.  The Gnomefesters, being friendly and unselfish, were more than happy to slip a fat bike under me for a test spin- (It’s kind of unbelievable how many Fat Bikes are along in the quiver of bikes at Gnomefest).  I never had a great chance to really test out the rides of these bikes-maybe a quick 1/2 hour or so, but I always returned smiling.  And maybe that smiling, and rumbling over, around and through everything out on the trail is what mountain biking needed to be for me again.  I just finally knew that I’d pull the trigger at some point soon and my bank account would be a bit smaller.  The Fat Bike gospel according to guys like Adam, Marty and Gomez was spoken and would soon have me swiping my card- it was time.

On one of the coldest snowy days last winter, as I was about to start a session of ski trail grooming at Levis Mound, a car pulls up, Fatback on the roof rack, with a guy quickly jumping out to ask if he could ride here.  “Ahhh, sure, but the snow is a bit deep….and please stay on the singletrack.”  I really wondered how well he’d do in these conditions-but several hours later, I noticed he’d crossed the ski trail many times while exploring the Levis and Trow Mound singletrack-very impressed!  That started my internet search, scouring all the sites, reading up on those Fatbacks, 9:Zero:7s, Mukluks and Pugsleys and this past fall, the Northpaw.  Trying to decide which bike direction to go wasn’t easy, but sometimes it’s not the bike so much but people (like always) that make the difference.  I’d met Adam while on a Sunday morning cruise at Gnomefest, and of course he, and other friends were riding fat bikes.  Adam is the bike shop guru at, “World of Bikes” in Iowa City and started counseling me on possible rides to fit my style.  

 My first winter love is cross country skiing, so although I wanted a winter ride, I also knew most of my Fat Bike riding would be in warmer months.  Fortunately, besides Levis Mound, I live a mile from the Clark County Forest and hundreds of miles of old logging roads, game trails and snowmobile routes to roll big wheels on.  So decision time-the divine blackness of the Salsa Mukluk 2 and a swap of some red Surly Rolling Darryl’s (thank you Adam), became the bike for me.  The complete build was in his shop and has a great mix of Salsa, Surly and Sram components-a good value.  In full disclosure here, I’ve mountain biked for over 25 years, I am not a fat bike expert-and have limited experience riding the big bikes and everything that rolls along with them.

Knowing these bikes are not exactly svelte and have a lot of rotating weight, I worried that it may be really slow in the handling department-a feeling that quickly disappeared as I wound thru the singletrack and navigated several snow covered bridges on the Snodgrass trail.  In fact, the neutral handling of this bike was the biggest surprise-it went where I wanted it to go.  It seemed some other bikes I’d ridden would take a little more effort to overcome the gyroscopic effect of all that rotating mass-not here.  The snow had only been packed by browsing deer, so the Larry up front and Endomorph in the rear, had to do all the packing.  I tried to adjust the tire pressure to a level that balanced snow traction and ease of rolling on any packed snow I’d find.  Adam had set up the bike with the Salsa Bend 2 bars dropped slightly down, which fit my riding position well.  I’m 6’ and the large Muk frame was a perfect fit for me-top tube and stem was a good reach and the standover, with the generous room made hopping off and on easy. 

Besides great handling, the bike climbed well-granted, I needed those low end gears (my legs have been “off” for a while) to get up to the overlooks at Levis.  Some of the trails ascending can be very technical and rocky, and now snow covered, so to give the bike a fair shake, I wanted to ride those the most.  Toad Road, on the north side of the mound, had the deepest snow (with just a huge wolf track to pack things down) but settling into a spin in the granny got me to the top.  I was able to cruise the singletrack around the top of the mound with ease, exploring the overlooks-some with snow, some blown down to the sandstone-didn’t matter, the bike rode it all well.  We had just completed a new trail off the top of the mound this fall-“Corkscrew” and that also made my list of must-ride-to-test-bike descents. It was fresh snow, very steep at the top, some rocky drops and then swoopy contours as it nears the bottom.  Dropping off the rim, the bike quickly picked up speed, but just feathering the excellent Avid BB-7 disks kept things very controllable.  The Muk flowed thru the rocky drops easily and the settled into the lower part of the trail-some pedaling required though the deeper snow.  A bit less air in the tires would have helped control downhill off camber cornering but I’m still on the learning curve there.  Big smiles when the trail dumped me out on the ski trail below.

Since I groom the ski trails here, I gave myself permission, for testing purposes only, to take a spin on the packed surface to reach another singletrack.  “Okay, so this is easy”….and turning around, the big footprint of the tires barely left an impression-I can’t wait to get on some sno-mo trails this winter!  Some hunters had taken a deer out on the ski trail, so I followed their drag and then hit the last section of skinny trail- Lower Hermosa (AKA “Beer Run” as riders blast out the flowiness to the trailhead).  This had been packed by two fat bikes the previous week, so I could really keep my speed up…as long as I stayed in their tracks.  The bike felt great and soon I forgot I was on anything other than a mountain bike on a trail…as it should be.

The great thing about riding this time of year, and on this kind of bike, is that the riding experience is so different and the trails are all new again.  For me, on my home trails, that difference can rejuvenate riding.   My thoughts were not that I was riding a fat bike, but rather I was just riding-riding anywhere I wanted really.  The Mukluk was better than I’d hoped on this first ride-great handling, quality components, and stellar looks.  Just one concern-that my skis may get just a bit jealous if the bike gets more snow time than they do this winter.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Winter Wonderland Hunt

I've never seen snow like this-it was almost fake in it's Winter Wonderland over-the-top snow flocking.  Even clothes lines were piled 3" high with clinging whiteness.  Every possible twig, branch, and blade of swamp grass were coated with snow, changing in one day a wet soggy landscape into something we'd see in a snow globe.  I loved it.

Rewind 48 hours.  I had made the trek down to LaCrosse to take delivery of a new bike-not just any old bike, (and in my racing years, that was every year!) but a "Fat Bike"....a really fat bike.  Needless to say, it will extend my riding and smile when I'm out in the county forest this winter... but that story is for another post.  The forecast started a week ago-"Winter Weather Advisory" and I'm usually pretty pessimistic about what the TV weather man has to say, so not worried about my travel.  Besides,  I had just a few overnight hours to wait before I had a chance to muzzleloader hunt the famous St. Joseph Ridge, south east of La Crosse and the bike would just have to wait.

The Muzzleloader hunt was a last minute plan that fell into place when I needed to make the trip to LaCrosse.  My good friend Kirk guided me on his father in laws property high up on the ridge- land that he's told me about and I would love a chance to hunt.  The rain and snow forecast didn't deter us and we set out up icy hwy 33 to "The Ridge."  Long story short....we made our way in the dark to a ridge side ground stand and spent the next several hours watching squirrels.  Fog and rain would move in and out and it looked like that would be the only thing moving (which ended up being true).  Later,  a few push drives produced nothing, so we fired off the load (to help dry the gun), wiped and oiled the smoke pole down and called it a day. 

Heading back from LaCrosse in pelting rain, the prospects for an additional hunt were slim.  The rain gave way to snow exactly one mile north of Sparta and stayed with me the rest of the drive home.  As the day wore on, the ground and trees became more and more coated and I began to think maybe chasing rooster pheasants may work out instead.  It would give Molly another chance to hunt after this long gun season layover.  The following day, after giving the deer hunt another try (no luck) the lab and I headed over to try our luck on birds.  I figured we at least would see pheasant tracks and know if they were around.  That was the plan.  The 40 minute drive was just an amazing scene-snow on everything and bending trees to the ground.  The large blocks of tall grass we hunt were plastered to the ground and even though Molly nose checked hundreds of spots, all we put up that day was one grouse-no roosters to be found.  Oh, Molly did bring me a pheasant wing-freshly chewed on by some thankful coyote I'd imagine.  Either way, we had a nice long hilly hike back to the truck and just appreciated another chance to load the double up and hunt.  The hunting with Molly will soon give way to cross country ski season, a bittersweet thought, for it's been a great fall for her, but for the moment I'll just savor the cold air and the new landscape before me ready to be discovered all over again.