Posted by: Mark | 1 September, 2015

TVR 2015

Treasure Valley Rally - the T-shirt. Angry rodents rule!

Treasure Valley Rally – the T-shirt.
Angry rodents rule!

For some reason, my daughter loves the course at Treasure Valley Rally.  That’s surprising because it’s probably not the easiest course around. We’ve done this race for the last five years and will probably keep coming back for more.  Why?  I’m not sure.  Probably because it is actually fun to ride even though it is demanding terrain.  It’s good enough to get me to temporarily suspend my retired racing status once a year.

Last time around, we both rode our fat bikes at TVR.  This year, we both rode our Carvers.  Emma rode the frame she won here last year.   I wanted to give my 29+ tires a shot at dealing with the rock gardens and test out the new Magnum fork.

Conditions seemed to be much drier this year.  On the drive down, I noticed that most of the rivers and brooks in the area were quite low…at least we wouldn’t end up all muddy.  The day was turning out sunny and the forecast was for nice warm temperatures in the lower 80s.  Perfect racing weather in my book.

I joined the Expert Vet. 2 class on the line this year. There was some discussion about keeping the race to a “gentleman’s pace” but that pretty much went out the window as soon as we left the line.  I quickly drifted to the back of the pack – which was my expectation and plan.  I’ve been riding quite a bit this summer, but not training at all.  Based on my times from Strava over the past few months, I knew that I wasn’t anywhere near as strong as I’ve been in the past.  Given that, my plan was to hold my place toward the back and see who I could pick off later in the race.  It was a good plan, but things were not going to work out that way.

The first couple of miles of the course are generally up hill.  Not severe, but you’re definitely climbing.  I knew by the time we hit the singletrack section of the climb up toward Sampson’s Pebble that I was riding over my head.  I was going to need to back off the pace a bit or blow up well before the finish.  TVR has always been a race that plays to my strengths and having to resign myself to a slow pace is more than just a little difficult to accept.  Regardless, I decided that I could still enjoy the course and maybe gain some places later in the race.



Crossing over the top of the climb at The Pebble, I started the descent into the extra-credit, bonus, mega- technical loop.  I can ride the rock gardens pretty well and figured this would be an opportunity to gain some ground on the competition.  I wasn’t very far down the hill when my front wheel started to take on a mushy feel.  The mushy feel quickly became a floppy feel.  Flat tire.  I should have known.  I love my 29+ rig, but the typical 10-12psi I run in the tires was a really bad idea on this course.  I pulled the bike off the side of the trail and began the process of replacing the tube.  This is never an easy task when my manual dexterity is hampered by the adrenaline and time pressure I get early on in a race.  If that wasn’t bad enough, I couldn’t get the tire off the rim.  Usually, I can break the bead and just roll one side of the tire off the rim with my bare hands, but not this time.  Frustration built as I tried to find my tire levers somewhere in my hydration pack.  My Osprey pack has many little pockets all over the outside as well as the interior where my tire levers might be, but weren’t.  Eventually, I did find them and was able to pry the bead off the rim.  All the while, everyone was passing me.  Everyone.  I had no idea that there were that many people on the course behind me.  It felt like more people than I had seen queued up at the start.  I managed to get the tubes swapped and put my bike back together and then  I cleaned up all the junk I’d dumped out of my bag hunting for tire levers. (More people passed by).  I finished off by pumping up the front tire with quite a bit more air this time.  I was determined not to get another pinch flat.  Twelve minutes wasted.

Now began the process of regaining my position at the end of the expert field, instead of the end of the entire field.  I picked off several riders over the remainder of the technical loop.  On the climb back up to The Pebble, I thought the front tire felt a bit softer than I’d like.  I stopped to put some more air in, just to be sure.

The course

The course from my Strava data.

From The Pebble, I started the long meandering descent.  I quickly became aware that I’d overdone it with the tire pressure.  With both tires overinflated, the bike was rattling and bouncing around like a basketball.  I thought that maybe I just needed to adjust to the difference in handling.  I was getting knocked around like a pinball on all the rocks.  Toward the end of the lap, I knew that this wasn’t working.  I was way more beat up that I ought to be at that point.  I decided that I’d drop a little air pressure out next time I got up to the Pebble.  I still wasn’t anywhere near the other riders from the expert field.

As planned, I took a little air out of the front tire once at the top of the climb.  Not a lot.  As I made my way down the rocky sections going down toward the lake, I felt the front end of the bike squirming a little.  This caused me to slip out on a corner and hit my head pretty hard on a tree.  That hurt.  I checked the helmet for damage before continuing.  It’s funny how bikers will check their equipment before worrying about damage to their own bodies.

It wasn’t long before I had to stop and add a lot more air.  I knew that I hadn’t drained that much out.  I continued my “race” which had become more of a survival trip now.  For the remainder of the course, I would have to stop every mile or two and repeat the process of pulling out the pump, overfilling the tire, and putting the pump away.  I would lose a couple of minutes each time.  The lead women from the Sport class would catch up with me each time I finished the process.  I’m sure they got tired of my efforts to pass them only to have me stop and fall behind again.

If the slow leak wasn’t bad enough, I started to develop cramps in my feet over the last couple of miles.  This also came with hints of cramps in my calves and quads, but never full-blown cramps.  I should have been drinking earlier and more frequently, but I hadn’t.  I’ve been racing for over twenty years and I am still prone to making that mistake.  You’d think I would learn.

My love/hate relationship with rocks got the better of me by this time. Note the squishy front tire.

My love/hate relationship with rocks got the better of me by this time. Note the squishy front tire.

I was so sick of stopping to add air that I decided to just ride it out for the last mile or two.  In the past I have always loved the part of the course that rolls along the edge of the lake.  Partially because the end is so close and partially because it is fun to rip along the undulating singletrack.  The soft tire kept my speeds down and took most of the fun out of that experience.  By the time I reached the finish area, the tire was pretty squat on the ground and I was just glad to be done.  I don’t know how I placed and I’m not sure I care just yet.

My daughter Emma, on the other hand, had a pretty good race.  She pulled a finish time that was much faster than any of her previous attempts at this race.  Her default “win” got her a gift certificate.  On top of that she won $100 cash in the post-race raffle.  No wonder she likes coming back here.


Emma on the podium.

Emma on the podium.

Once again, the Team Bums folks put on a great race.  The course is challenging, but not in a miserable way.  It really tests every aspect of your riding ability.  I don’t know if there were any competing events this weekend, but the turnout was surprisingly low for some reason.  That’s a shame because this is one of the best races in New England, in my opinion.

Posted by: Mark | 19 August, 2015

Things I Don’t Miss

Racing at Catamount around 1992. (Photo by Brett Batchelder)

Racing in the grass at Catamount around 1992. (Photo by Brett Batchelder)

The bike industry seems to be in a flurry of change lately.  Some people, myself included, are getting a little fatigued with the pace of change along with the potential nightmare of incompatiblity.  There are a lot of things that seem to be in flux with the growing number of “standards” available to choose from.  Axle lengths now vary from the old 100mm front and 135 rear to “Boost”  110mm/148mm,  to the DH 150mm- and that’s without getting into fat bikes.  Three major wheel sizes with their plus permutations add to the confusion.  Bar diameters, bottom bracket widths, headsets and more all seem to be subject to redesign with compatibility off the list of considerations.

I’ve been mountain biking since 1990 and there has always been quite a bit of that change in the industry – many of which have been genuine improvements.  With that thought, here are a few, once common, things that were victims of progress.

StemQuill stems – These did the job fairly well and had the clear advantage of giving you a little bit of height adjustment.  Of course this was of no value if the stem was used as a cable stop for the front cantilever; not an uncommon setup back then.  The down side of these stems was that you’d end up having to straighten out your front end after every significant crash.  We were all well-versed in the technique of holding the front wheel between our knees while pulling on the bars to realign the stem.

Threaded headsets – Paired with a quill stem was the threaded headset.  This was the method for keeping the fork and bearings together for decades.  The situation with the lower headset race was about the same as it is now, but the upper race threaded down and was held in place with a large nut.  Generally a couple of large, thin wrenches were required to tighten the nut against the upper race.  Get things too tight and you’d end up with tight steering and eventually pitted bearing cups and races.  Ultimately, it would lead to pits that would give the feeling that you had indexed steering.  Not fun.  Get it too loose and you’ll find your fork rattling around in the head tube about halfway into a ride.  I have finished numerous rides by hand tightening the headset every half mile or so just to get home.  It also required that manufacturers create forks in specific lengths so the threads would align with the bike’s head tube length.   The modern threadless system is amazing in its simplicity and reliability in comparison.

One inch headsets – Mountain bikes initially borrowed the one inch standard from road bikes.  This was adequate at the time, but looks utterly ridiculous by today’s standards.  There was a lot of force being directed though a pretty small area at a critical location on the bicycle.  I prefer the added strength and security of 1.5″ tapered headsets.

Adjustable cup bottom brackets – The advent of cartridge bearings, whether used in a traditional square-taper bottom bracket or the newer external bearing type, is a massive improvement in reliability.  The old system required pin spanner, a notched wrench-like tool and a large thin wrench.  It was a game of getting the tension on the bearings just right.  If you rode in wet conditions very often they required quite a bit of maintenance.  It was ugly.

IMG_4065Rim brakes – I was going to just mention cantilever brakes here, but all forms of rim brakes are better left in the past, at least for mountain biking.  Cantilever brakes were especially difficult to adjust because the clamping system allowed for free, unlimited adjustment in every plane.  You really needed four hands to do the adjustment correctly.  Even then, it was a challenge to get both brake pads aligned exactly the same.  Once the pads were aligned there was also the challenge of getting the bridge cable adjusted or the positioning of the pull cable hook.  I actually became quite good at adjusting cantilevers so that I could get stopping power at least as good as a set of V-brakes.  V-brakes were a giant leap forward in braking over cantis, but they still had some lesser challenges with pad alignment.  Both systems demanded that the wheel be absolutely true.  A warp or hop of over a millimeter could affect braking.  With disc brakes, I don’t think anyone gives a thought to the adjustment of their rims the way we used to back then.  The worst part was when a spoke broke out on the trail, leaving you with a wheel that would rub the brake pad on at least one side every single rotation.  Do enough damage and the wheel wouldn’t be able to spin at all without releasing the brakes entirely.  Even when everything was working properly, you were still dragging your braking surfaces through every mud hole and stream crossing.  There is no comparison at all in the stopping power we have with modern disc brakes.  This may be the single biggest improvement made since I started riding.

Semi-slick Tires – I don’t know who the genius was that decided that it would be a good idea to make mountain bike tires more like road bikes, but this was stupid if you rode your bike anywhere other than a well-packed race course.  It’s such an unusual coincidence that this useless trend seemed to emerge shortly after NORBA was swallowed up by USA Cycling.  You can connect those dots yourself.  I’m glad to see the trend it toward bigger rubber in general and especially the advent of plus-size wheels.

Narrow bars – This was something of a fad, but it had a pretty long life in the 90s.  It wasn’t enough that bars would come in 23″ lengths; we would pull out the pipe cutters and drop an inch or more off each end.  Sometimes this would leave just enough room for the grips, brakes and shifters on the bar and nothing else.  Not long after this trend took hold, people started clamping bar ends to the ends of their already-too-narrow bars, further crowding the cockpit.  I’m not convinced that 800mm bars are advantageous, but they make a whole lot more sense than going super narrow when you’re riding rugged terrain.

Freewheels – Before cassettes were introduced, your cogs were secured to the hub in a cluster that threaded on.  Every pedal stroke worked to tighten these threads and make the cogs more securely fastened to the hub.  The down side was when things wore out and the cogs had to be removed.  This required astronomical forces to be applied to the freewheel using a little, wimpy pin spanner tool.  It was often very frustrating.

Going fast on 1991 technology.

Going fast on 1991 technology. (Check out those bars!)

Fully rigid frames – This is one I have mixed feelings about.  There’s nothing quite as precise as the steering of a nice steel fork.  I’m also partial to the direct power transfer of a hard-tail.  Even so, there’s little question that both front and rear suspension have provided a huge improvement in the ride quality of modern bikes.  You can always opt to stay rigid, but I wouldn’t want to see the squishy option go away.

Honorable mention – Elastomer suspension, toe clips, four-finger brake levers, and bar ends.

There were many other technologies that have come and gone over the years for one reason or another.  Modern bikes have come a long way from when the sport started.  Many ideas, good and bad, were laid to rest so that better ones could take their place.  These were just the most obvious ones that I could recall.  I’m sure long time shop mechanics and riders could add some more things to this list and might even debate the ones I have here.  What did I miss?

Posted by: Mark | 4 August, 2015

Vermont MTB Festival 2015

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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.


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

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