Posted by: Mark | 4 August, 2015

Vermont MTB Festival 2015

[Also posted on MTBVT.com]

View from the trails.  (Photo by Dawn Blanchard)

View from the trails. (Photo by Dawn Blanchard)

The Vermont Mountain Bike Festival is one of those events that I look forward to all year long.  A weekend of camping, great riding, good food and hanging out with friends is hard to beat.  I was unable to go last summer, so I had built up even more anticipation for getting down to Ascutney again.  Especially since this would be the last year it would be held there for a while as VMBA moves the festival around the state.  The riding there was so good last time, I really didn’t want to miss it again.

We tend to travel to events like this as a family.  We arrived on Friday afternoon to setup camp and hang out a little.  I thought I might catch the first round of rides but I was a little late for that.  Along with some friends, my wife and daughter went out together for the first novice ride that evening.   They seemed to have had a really good time hitting some of the trails around the Mile Long Field, finishing up with Hayride – a nice swooping ride through the field.

Sunset.

Friday night sunset.

A little while after they returned from their ride, I went out to join the night ride scheduled for that evening.  The sun was just setting as a handful of us started our winding climb into the woods.  It didn’t take long under the thick canopy of summer leaves for us to need our headlights.  We did a nice little loop around the side of the mountain.  We also came out of the woods at the top of the Hayride trail.  The sky was just light enough to see the bats dancing around overhead chasing Vermont’s never-ending natural resource: bugs.  We cruised down the field and then worked our way back to the camping at the old Ascutney base lodge parking area.

Part of our night ride crew.

Part of our night ride crew.

Saturday started out with a little threat of rain, but that quickly burned off and blue skies soon prevailed.  I signed up for “The Works” ride: a meandering tour of the Ascutney mountain trails.  Stan, our ride leader, was on a fully rigid single-speed bike; I had a feeling this was going to be good.  I thought he looked familiar and eventually figured out that I had ridden with him the last time I was there.  The group started out quite large for an advanced ride with nearly forty people showing up, but that quickly broke up into two groups as we started climbing.  Fortunately, there were enough ride leaders to adapt to the change.

We worked our way up and over to the West Windsor town forest trails where we spent the bulk of the time on our ride. I’d love to give a play by play of all the terrain we covered, but I was mostly in tent caterpillar mode following Stan’s wheel.  Getting into the details would take up too many paragraphs and would fall far short in conveying how much fun I had.  Some of the trails were familiar and others were quite new to me.  The terrain on the mountain is an awesome mix of technical challenge and pure flowing joy.  There’s nothing boring to be found anywhere.

Stan, our ride leader, cornering on the Grassy Knoll.

Stan, our ride leader, cornering on the Grassy Knoll.

We crossed back over to the main mountain area by taking the Last Mile trail.  This gave me momentary Vermont 50 flashbacks.  I quickly recovered from the sudden anxiety attack when I realized that I wasn’t bonking, in pain or otherwise hating my bicycle; and I was able to continue to ride, enjoying the experience.  We finished up the ride by climbing up the recently built 42nd Street and descending Broadway, a trail even more recently cut.  Very nice work by Jim Lyall and STAB.

While I was out riding, my wife went to the women’s skills clinic.  Being relatively new to mountain biking, she really enjoyed the clinic.  The women in the group had a pretty wide range of experience, from those who had only ridden off-road a few times to some who were just looking to improve an already existing skill set.  Everyone seemed to be accommodated by the women instructors.  Some of the more experienced participants even chipped in to help or encourage the newer riders.  There was a lot of information to take in, but she came away with quite a bit that she felt would be helpful.

Dave! on the Grassy Knoll.

Dave! on the Grassy Knoll.

I returned from the morning ride a little bit later than I had planned.  I ate a quick lunch and then met my friend Dave.  Not getting enough riding in that morning, we opted to head out again for the afternoon with our own group of two.   We hit much of what I had ridden that morning, but in the opposite direction.  Along the way, we got slightly lost and worked in a few new trails as a result.  We met a couple, both wearing NEMBA Racing team jerseys, who had a trail map.  Dave and I mooched a look at their trail map more than once trying to figure out where we were and how to get to where we wanted to be.   We crossed paths a couple of more times before heading back to eat.

The bike olympics.

The Bike Olympics.

One of the things I really like about the festival is that everything stops for the Saturday evening BBQ and games.  After eating, there was a bike limbo, slow bike race, and the “bike olympics” – a short race over an obstacle course (including water balloon pelting) on 12″ wheeled bikes.  The industry isn’t likely to latch on to that wheel size as the next big thing, but maybe 12″+?  Who knows?

The Saturday evening games at sunset.

The Saturday evening games at sunset.

Slow racing.  The girl on the right had her trackstand technique down.

Slow racing. The girl on the right had her trackstand technique down.

The winning toss.

The winning toss.

For me, the highlight of the evening was the Huffy toss:  bike snobbery at its best.  The kids were first to try their hand at tossing a small bicycle made of the lowest grade steel known to man.  I’m pretty sure my full size 29+ rig is lighter than that little bike.  I was the first one up in the adult competition and set the mark with my underhanded sling technique.  There were many attempts at spinning the bike discus style – some of which seemed quite dangerous for any nearby spectators.  One toss looked like it would have won, but was disqualified because of stepping well over the line.  In the end, my toss stood, but victory by technical fault.  I got to keep the bike as my prize for winning.

The Trophy!

The Trophy!

Sunday morning was another beautiful day and the trails in “Joe’s Jungle” were calling me.  I’ve ridden the trails on the mountain a few times, but what I was looking forward to this year was getting out on the trails on the other side of the valley.  These are off the official map but I’ve been told by several people that they were really good.  My legs were definitely a bit heavy from all the riding the day before and there was plenty of climbing in store.  At least with all that climbing comes a boat load of great descending.  With all the looping around we did, I didn’t really know where I was at any given point, but I wasn’t too concerned either.

Every group ride has to have at least one mechanical.  It's like a rule.

Every group ride has to have at least one mechanical. It’s like a rule.

We wandered all around the woods in West Windsor following mile after mile of great singletrack.   Near the end, we stopped at  Joe’s house where we cooled off with the garden hose and his wife had some tasty cookies for us to munch on.  Gary, one of the leaders for this ride, decided to take those of us who wanted more speed out for a hammer for the remaining couple of miles of the ride.  That was a blast.  There was still more riding to be had, but I needed to get back to my family before they packed up the camper and left without me, so I pedaled back to Ascutney with a couple of others from our group.

On the way home, we stopped at the Ascutney State Park.  My wife and daughter got in one last ride out on the Swoops and Loops trails.  They’ve built what might be the best beginner-oriented trails I’ve seen.  It’s definitely approachable to a less experienced rider, but still interesting to ride.  It was a nice way to close out the weekend.

Mother and daughter finish up the Swoops and Loops trails.

Mother and daughter finish up the Swoops and Loops trails.

It was one of those weekends I didn’t want to end.  I thoroughly enjoyed the festival.   Not only is the riding great, but the atmosphere has a cool, laid-back feel.  It has a good family atmosphere that’s not an afterthought.  While it’s nice meeting new people, it seemed like half the people there were familiar faces. VMBA and all the local members did an excellent job putting things together.

Looking over the map, I realized that there are still quite a few trails that I haven’t ridden and still many more that are not on the map.  STAB has done an outstanding job with building a great trail network and there seems to be more in store in the future.  It’s definitely one to visit and keep your eye on.  I need to make the time to get back down there to ride, even without the festival.

Early Saturday morning.

Early Saturday morning.

There's a trail here and it's actually quite fun.

There’s a trail here and it’s actually quite fun.

Jim and others check out the ride schedule.

Jim and others check out the ride schedule.

Leader of the night ride.

Leader of the night ride.

Camping is incomplete without a campfire.

Camping is incomplete without a campfire.

Mt. Ascutney

Mt. Ascutney

Posted by: Mark | 30 July, 2015

Review: O.W.L. Energy Bars

[Reposted from MTBVT.com]owlbarOne of the many things that makes Vermont so great to live in is the abundance of small, local businesses who make great food or beverages.  I could fill pages with various examples, but, specifically, there are a surprising number of options for locally made energy bars: Garuka BarsMonkeychew, and Battenkill Brittle.  I may write a bit on these at some point, but I’m wanted to focus on my personal favorite, O.W.L. energy bars (O.W.L. = Original, Wholesome, Local).

I first got a taste of an OWL bar while at the VMBA festival at Ascutney a couple of years ago.  The owners were there with some free samples for anyone at the festival to try.  Their bars made a pretty good impression on me and the owners were genuinely nice people to talk with.

The bars only come in one flavor, but at least it’s a good one.  They have a moist, nutty flavor that’s lightly sweetened with honey.  I understand that food can be a very subjective thing since not everyone has the same tastes, but I think these have a pretty good appeal.  Everyone in our family likes them.  They’re also soft enough that taking a bite out of one is very easy. (Anyone remember trying to take a bite of a certain well known brand back in the early 90s?)  Even at winter temperatures they are manageable, even though they will firm up a little.

Regardless, the bars really do taste good without having an overbearing sweetness.  For me, if something is too sugary, it’ll taste really bad when exercising hard.  I’ve made the mistake of trying out new energy bars during races or long rides only to regret it later, primarily due to the sweetness factor.  When I’m racing or otherwise working hard, my mouth gets dry and it can be difficult to get something like that down.  These bars are moist enough to avoid that issue.

For whatever reason, I have a bit of a sensitive stomach when exercising.  Maybe that’s because I don’t have enough sense to not push myself too hard, but it’s always been an issue for me. Many of the sport drinks or bars end up making me feel sick.  Fortunately, O.W.L. bars are one of the few that have passed my personal hard-ride nausea test.

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One  bar contains just over 300 calories.  Remember, it’s an energy bar, not a low calorie diet bar.  On the plus side, those calories come from natural fruits and nuts – no corn syrup to be found anywhere in the ingredients list.  If you’re looking for a scientifically engineered, pre-digested, blood glucose infusion system, look elsewhere.  These bars are actually food, not the results of a lab experiment like some other energy sources marketed to cyclists.

They contain no eggs, dairy, or wheat for those who have issues with those foods and are also gluten free.  More important to me is the fact that they don’t contain any preservatives, artificial flavorings or other man-made chemical concoctions.  They’re just made with ingredients anyone can recognize.  Of course, if you have allergies to nuts or peanuts, you’d probably better run the other way.

O.W.L. bars come in a 2.7oz. bar or by a bag of “pellets”.  The pellets are a smaller, 100 calorie, individually packaged mini-bar that is intended to be a bit easier to eat on the fly.   At $3 for the individual bars, they’re a bit on the pricey end, as the products of many small, local food companies tend to be.  Still, they’re great to bring along on a ride, as a recovery food or whatever you happen to be doing.  For me, one of the advantages of mountain biking is that it strengthens my body; it’s nice to have something to eat that doesn’t work against that end.

The regular size vs. the pellet serving.

The regular size vs. the pellet serving.

Posted by: Mark | 20 July, 2015

Riding Florida in June

Why would anyone in their right mind go to Florida in June?  The reaction that I’ve gotten from most people in Vermont is something similar to what I would get if I told them I was going to remove my own leg with a butter knife.  Generally, Vermonters carry this understated attitude that we’re tough enough to deal with anything nature has to dish out.  Thirty degrees below zero?  No problem.  Cancel school because of a couple of inches of snow?  Don’t be a baby.  Mud, ice, wind, black flies, mosquitos, tourists… we seem to be able to put up with anything.  Except heat.  Mention temperatures over 79F and people around here seem to wilt and turn into whiners.  I’ve never seen anything like it.  Air conditioning in a Vermont summer is about as pointless as an electric blanket in Miami, yet I see homes with units installed in their windows all around the Northeast Kingdom.  Regardless, we made the trip in June despite all the well intentioned warnings about our imminent doom from the heat and humidity.

Resting.

Resting.

My family and I have visited Hanna Park during previous trips to Jacksonville, Florida and we’ve really grown to like the place.  In addition to being located directly on the beach, there is a pretty large campground, freshwater lake and quite a few miles of mountain bike trails packed into the same area.  The beach is only a few minutes walk from the campground and we all love the warm ocean water there.  At a time when the water in Vermont is still capable of creating hypothermia in minutes, it’s beautifully warm in Florida.  I also like the place because the mountain biking is surprisingly good.

The thing that is most amazing to someone from Vermont is that the trails are all basically flat as a pancake.   There actually are some minor elevation changes throughout the park, but the “climbs” are pretty much under 10 vertical feet; small enough that no change in elevation shows up on Strava or any other GPS tool.  You’d think that this would make the biking easy, and it can, but it also means that there aren’t any downhills to coast and rest on; you can keep the gas on the whole time.  This is perfect single-speed stuff.

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More of the South Loop

Coming from the northeast, the vegetation is also pretty interesting.  The trails wind through a dense, semi-tropical undergrowth.  It makes the woods in New England look big and open in comparison.  The canopy of palms and deciduous trees provide shade like the New England forest, but at the ground level it’s crazy. It has a bit of a surreal sensation with palm fronds all over the place, Spanish moss hanging from the tree limbs, and huge tree trunks sprawling up to the green cover above. It really has the appearance that you’re cutting through the jungle even though civilization starts just outside the gate.

just a little undergrowth!

just a little undergrowth! (find the owl)

The trails in Hanna park can be broken down into three main loops:

E line – The E Line trail(s) are found to the north of the main access road to the park.  There are a few options here that vary from the main loop.  This area is the technical middle ground in my mind: a little more challenging than the South Loop but not nearly as tight and demanding as the Z Loop.  For some reason, the way the trail winds around left me a little directionally disoriented.  It took me a few times around this loop to get a real feeling about where I was.  I eventually figured it all out to the point where I could just cruise the loop and know which turns to take.

South Loop –  All of the bike trails in the park have a pretty nice flow to them but the South Loop is probably the most fluid of them all.  Overall, the trail is pretty smooth and very fast as it takes a full loop around the outer edges of the park.  It’s not entirely without any technical challenge with some tight turns, narrow gaps, and frequent rooty sections, but there’s very little in the terrain that will slow you down.  The corners take nice wide arcs and have built up small, natural berms from traffic over the years.  I got into this loop as a way to open up the throttle and rip.  Seriously fun to ride.

Some narrow spots in the south loop.

Some narrow spots in the south loop.

Z trail –  This trail is among the tightest singletrack that I’ve ridden anywhere and, by far, my favorite.  While it can easily be ridden in a relatively moderate manner, it’s best when done at speed.  The frequent direction changes and narrow paths between trees impose restraint.  It ends up being an exercise in power and bike handling.  Accelerate.  Brake. Corner.  Repeat these steps over and over.  A couple of laps on this trail would give my legs that tired, rubbery feeling.  The Z Trail also has an alternate line cut on the northeast portion of its loop, but there was very little sign that it has been used at all.  I’m not sure why that is, because it had a pretty good feel to it.  If it were just cleaned up and some of the brush cut back it would just as much fun to ride as the rest of the trail.

Z Trail junction

Z Trail junction

The park designates the direction that the trails are ridden in.  This is a good thing because without it there would be some serious injuries happening from head-on collisions.  Most of the corners are completely blind and can be ridden at high velocity.  It would be nearly impossible for two riders coming toward each other at speed to be able to react in time to avoid each other.   The other benefit of this imposed direction is that the park swaps it daily.  Riding in the opposite direction can give you the feeling that you’re riding a new trail.  Doing this is almost like doubling the available mileage.

The one downside I found to riding in this part of the country is spiders.  Every night these big, nasty, creepy-crawly spiders spin large webs that span the trails.  Their webs are made up of thick strands that have the elasticity and strength of lightweight fishing line.  There were a few mornings where I was the first person out on the trails for that day and I returned from my ride with my helmet coated in webs.  The spiders themselves often ended up on my arms, chest or head but they will abandon ship as soon as they realize that they’re on you.  Of course, this means that they’ll crawl around until they find a way off, which isn’t my favorite sensation.  I would often wait until later in the morning to start my ride, hoping that someone else has gone through to clear out the webs before me.  Sometimes that worked, but not always.

What the spiders really looked like.

What the spiders really looked like.

As I was warned, Florida was a bit warm in June.  But, it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.  Seriously.  Never been so drenched in sweat from riding my bike.  By the end of any ride, literally, every thing on my body was dripping from sweat.  I could squeeze my shirt or shorts and they would stream sweat on the ground.  It was awesome.  My bike was spattered all over the bars, stem and frame.  I was slightly dehydrated for days in spite of drinking water constantly.  I didn’t really recover until I returned to Vermont.

Lots of sweat.

Lots of sweat on the downtube.

One of the cool things about riding in a new place is meeting new people.  Everyone I talked with was pretty friendly and all had suggestions about where else to ride in the region.  It seems that there’s definitely more to explore in the long run.  We’ll see.  After a couple of weeks in the area we had to pack up and head back north.  During the time we were in Florida we had seven inches of rain and two frosts back home.  No regrets on missing part of my Vermont summer.

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I sometimes steal KOMs here, but not this trip.

 

 

 

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