Vermont Mountain Bike Festival at Sugarbush

[Also on with some extra photos.]

Every few years, VMBA moves the Vermont Mountain Bike Festival to a new location highlight the riding in different parts of the state.  After three years at Ascutney, the Mt. Ellen ski resort became home for the festival with the Mad River Riders chapter hosting.  Since my first time attending several years ago, this festival has become one of the highlights of my summer.  The riding and laid back vibe of the whole thing is just awesome.


I haven’t ridden in the Mad River valley in over 20 years.  It used to be a regular thing for me back in the mid-90s when we were all poaching single-track under the radar.  That is, until some things went south with a couple of land owners… but that is the reason why VMBA and the many chapters around the state exist.  Cooperation between riders, trail builders and the land owners.  Regardless, I certainly wasn’t going to pass up a chance to return to take in some of that great terrain.

When I arrived late Friday afternoon the parking and camping areas were already filling up.  For whatever reason, there were already more people here than I saw in previous years.  I quickly picked out a spot to camp for the night and headed up the hill to register for the weekend.  They even had some very cool new T-shirts for the event this year.

A full schedule for the weekend.

Once registered, I organized my stuff a bit and then connected with fellow Kingdom “fast old guy” Derek for a quick evening ride.    We pedaled up German Flats Road and jumped onto the trails to follow the well-marked demo loop.  It was the perfect length for an evening ride.  With the warm, humid weather I worked up a light sweat before we left the pavement.  On the trail, I was quickly reminded how good the rooty, rocky single-track in the valley is.  We had a nice undulating ride down Sugar Run and Catamount.  After carving through some switchbacks, we dropped out onto German Flats Road.  From there, we climbed back up to the Mt. Ellen base lodge area.  A nice end to my day and a great start to the weekend.

Riding always brings out my appetite unlike anything else.  I embarked on a quest for food before returning to set up my camp site.  In the end, I settled down in my hammock to watch the sky light up with the arcs from a line of thunderstorms passing just to our north.  The show was awesome and I drifted off… until I was awaken by the rumble of a much closer oncoming storm.  I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag and made a mad dash for the car just seconds before the deluge unleashed.  I hid out there for about an hour until the storm had passed.

Post storm quiet.

All of the nasty weather had cleared out by Saturday morning and everyone seemed ready to ride.  After a pancake breakfast (with real syrup), I was also itching for some single-track.  I waffled a little between the “epic” ride and the “classics” but  I ended up taking the option for more distance.  There would be no shuttle bus ride on this one.  We rode down to the trailhead just below the access road and started climbing up the stuff I had descended the previous night.  Then we climbed some more.  After that, we really got into climbing.  It was really fun stuff in spite of all the vertical gain.  The Mad River Valley has some of the most interesting and technically challenging terrain of any place I’ve ridden.  I never tire of it.

Signing up for rides.

With the climb up Techie behind us, the group descended Maple Twist followed by Enchanted Forest.  We looped around on several more trails in that area:  Cyclone Connector, Clinic, GS and probably some others.  There was so much good riding that it is nearly impossible to describe adequately.  There was tight stuff, wet, mossy ledge, rock drops, roots – an almost constant challenge every where we rode.  It has to be ridden to truly appreciated.    Our group held together pretty well through all this.  We finished out our time on this side of the valley with a long descent down Cyclone and Revolution to Lareau Farm.

The shuttles were popular for avoiding the two mile climb back up the road to the festival.

At the farm we regrouped and topped off our water supply for the remainder of the ride.  We also had a handful opt for the shuttle ride back up to the base lodge.  The rest of our group continued on.


We rode along the river path and through the village to Center Fayston Road.  As we turned onto the dirt road one, of the ride leaders informed us that we’d be climbing for about 20 minutes.  He wasn’t kidding.  We climbed up Gumball and Old Center Fayston back to the road.  At this point, I was starting to feel a little bit shaky.  I had been questioning whether or not I had eaten enough for the ride, and it was becoming apparent that I hadn’t.  I peeled off from the group and rode back down into town retracing our path back to Lareau Farm.  Riding 20+ miles in this part of the state is nothing like the same mileage at Kingdom Trails.  It felt like twice the distance.

A brief, but intense evening shower made things interesting.

After a post-ride jump in the river and change of clothes, it felt good to be clean and dry again.  Saturday evening always has a fun agenda at the VMBA festival, starting with the BBQ.  As people were starting to gather, another storm was imminent with dark clouds rolling over the tops of the mountains.  I had never seen a faster breakdown of the vendor tents at any event.  Only a handful were battling the strong wind gusts that preceded the rain.  There were several rides still out on the trails and the folks had some interesting stories to tell when they returned.  The BBQ was moved inside the base lodge which seemed to work out pretty well.  Fortunately, the storm cleared out just as most had finished eating.  The evening “bike olympics” and other games went on as planned.

Bike Olympics
Crash and burn on a 12″ bike.

Sunday was another beautiful day.  There were still quite a few guided rides available, but I was able to connect with my friend Dave for our own tour. He made a point of getting me out on some of the trails that I missed on Saturday.  We climbed up German Flats Road arriving at the trail head just as a shuttle bus was unloading.  We could have ridden the shuttle, but why do less riding?  Dave led me back up Techy and then to Ridgie, Pusherman, High Plum and Plum Line.  Ridgie and Pusherman felt like we were riding miles away from civilization.  Super fun terrain.  High Plum was a fairly amazing, narrow path cut into the side of a steep hillside.  Some of the trail features had some potential failures of pretty high consequences.  It was definitely one to keep you on your toes and picking your line very carefully. The remainder of Plum Line was just plain fun with seemingly endless series of drops and short, punchy climbs as it worked its way down to the river valley.  I was pretty spent at this point and decided to head back up for some lunch.  It was a great way to end the weekend for me.  Dave and I haven’t ridden those trails together in over 20 years.


A final long ride was the perfect ending to a great weekend.  I grabbed a burrito on the way out of town for a late lunch and then took a short swim before driving home.  I have to admit that I was initially disappointed that we wouldn’t be returning to Ascutney this year but things turned out well enough that I’ll be glad to come back next summer.  In spite of some weather that could have ruined things, the event turned out really well.

Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports was at the festival showing us some of their bikes.
Technical climbs!
The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources was there answering questions.


NEMBAfest 2016

“You couldn’t ask for a better weekend.”  That’s the phrase I heard numerous times over the three days of NEMBAfest.   The weather was truly exceptional and bikes were everywhere.  In spite of all the rain we had during the prior week, the trails were dry, even a little dusty in places.  We had all the makings of the biggest bike party of the year.

The expo area and nice, white, fluffy clouds.

The good weather had another side effect – it drew people out of the woodwork. NEMBAfest has been hosted at Kingdom Trails for five years now, and this was the biggest one I’ve seen.  I heard that somewhere around 1200 people preregistered, and who knows how many decided to show up and register because of the perfect forecast.  Let’s just say that there were clearly more people than last year.

As in previous years, our family got involved with volunteering to help out with the family camping area.  My daughter and I also put in some time leading or sweeping a few of the group rides.  Being involved, even just as a volunteer, opens your eyes to all the little details that have to come together for an event to run smoothly.  There are a lot of them.  While there might have been some snags behind the scenes, everything appeared to run like a well-oiled machine.

Marshmallows too!

I was originally going to be leading the advanced night ride Friday evening, but readjusted to my new assignment taking out a large “inter-mellow” ride.   Thirty-two riders showed up with headlights, ready to pedal around in the dark Vermont woods.  In spite of my reputation, everyone seemed to have a good time.  It was really cool to look over my shoulder and see the glimmer of headlights scattered all through the woods.  It gives an odd perspective of the trails I ride regularly.  Thanks to Tim from NEMBA for showing us their 2nd man drop technique – it made keeping our large group manageable on the ride.  Also, a huge thanks to a guy named Mike for stepping up to be the sweep for our group.  I owe you one.

Just a few of my Friday night ride followers.  Awesome group.

The next day started out a bit more laid back with a nice morning ride with my wife.  When you have kids, you savor the moments when you can get out together as a couple just to do something fun.  The cool morning was great for riding and the trails weren’t yet busy with groups of bikers.

Old Webs in the morning.

Later that day I joined the NEMBA Racing team ride.  I’ve not been on the team for a few years now, but it was great to get out and pedal around with the group of guys that I used to race with. In previous years, I had been the one to lead the team on a large loop around the trail network.  Kevin set the route this year and he didn’t disappoint.  With the inevitable group ride attrition, we eventually were left with our core riders from several years back: myself, Shawn, Kevin, Shaun and Andrew.  Whenever Shawn (a.k.a. “Ride Bully”) joins a ride, I know how things are going to go; neither of us do well at self-regulating our desire to go faster.   I had a blast even if I was pretty much spent after our ride.  This has always been a highlight of NEMBAfest for me.

NEMBA Racing: Turning NEMBAfest into a suffer-fest.  Well, not really; we did have fun.

Even though I was pretty well thrashed, my day wasn’t over.  I was scheduled to lead another night ride on Saturday.  Like Friday night, we had a good turnout with around 18 riders putting on headlights to extend the day with some more riding.  My daughter, Emma, filled in as sweep for the ride.  The sun was just at the horizon when we hit the trails; and it didn’t seem dark enough for headlights to be necessary.  That was true right up until we got under the thick canopy of the woods.  Someone in the group had a blinding, mega-bright headlamp on for the ride, and  I think it might have left a slight suntan on the backs of my legs.  Many people in my group rides mentioned that this was their first time visiting Kingdom Trails.  It was interesting to hear the first time impressions of an area that I am so familiar with.  It made me realize that I often take the good riding I have in my back yard for granted.

I started the day on Sunday running sweep for a small advanced group ride.  I was clearly losing some steam at this point so riding at the back was a perfect fit.  Our group was small enough that a sweep wasn’t really necessary, but I was glad to get out on the bike one more time.  I did get to meet some new people on the ride, including another semi-local from the Mad River valley and a photographer visiting from Australia.  I think he wins the prize for being the visitor from the longest distance.

There was no shortage of riding opportunities.

For the remainder of Sunday, I mostly poked around at the Expo checking out the vendors and demo bikes.  There were so many bikes available to try out that you could spend the entire weekend just riding different demo bikes.  It was interesting to note how many “plus” size bikes were out there.  They were all over the place.  From talking with some of the vendors, their plus demo bikes were in highest demand.  That’s something I can understand being on my third season riding on 29+ wheels.

Demo bikes came in all shapes and sizes.

I flagrantly ignored my better judgement by taking out a demo bike from Pivot.  This was seriously sowing the seeds of discontent.  They had a Mach 429 paired up with a set of 27.5 plus wheels.  The flotation of the 2.8″ tires was slightly less than what I am used to with 29×3″ tires, but the overall ride of the bike was amazing.  I take back just about everything I’ve ever said about full suspension bikes.  If this frame could accommodate full width 3″ tires I’d seriously think about getting one.  Yes, you heard that right.  If you know me at all, you now know it’s time to put your affairs in order as the end of the world can’t be far off.

Mike Stedley making the difficult look easy.

We hung around to catch the final trials show with Mike Stedley and then packed up for home.  It’s surprisingly difficult to put into words all that made up the weekend.  More than just great riding, there were times catching up with old friends and acquaintances, hanging around the campfire, eating a long needed post-ride meal or simply enjoying the quiet of the early morning.  I ended the weekend sore, tired and more than just a little bit dehydrated.  It was great!  Now I’m looking forward to the VMBA festival next month.

Lots of smiles.
The schedule of events.
The calm of the family camping area early Friday morning.


Bike Noises

I’ve never thought of myself as being neurotic or OCD in any real manner.  Generally speaking, I can pretty much accept or ignore a lot of things that seem to bother others.  In fact, I’m quite adept at filtering out most everything around me, especially when taking notice would require that I take some kind of action to address the source of the issue.  This is probably most evident when dealing with my autos.  Is the “check engine” light on?  I’m okay with that.  In fact, that light has been on for about five years straight.  I change my oil twice a year – whether it needs it or not.  Rust, rattles, squeaks, leaks and most other issues can readily be accepted and adapted to as a new level of normal.  Don’t buy a used car from me;  you’ve been warned.

In contrast to my normal modes of operation, all that seems to go out the window once I get on my bike.  My bike is supposed to be a silent, smoothly operating tool of riding efficiency.  I will pull things apart, clean and lube them just to make sure they are at their optimum.  My rims are pretty much true to within fractions of a millimeter, even now that I’m running disc brakes.  I could probably have saved myself thousands of dollars over the years if I treated my cars with the same care and concern.  Too bad I hate cars.

I used to do this when solving problems at the board.
A sound less bothersome than my bike.

This spring, I noticed that my bike had developed a very annoying creaking sound while climbing.  You might not think of this as much of a problem, but I would notice it all the time – even when climbing on rough terrain.  It only takes a very slight motion between two metal surfaces to create a surprisingly audible noise.  Everything can feel completely tight, but the combined stresses of putting your body’s weight into the bike can bring out a ping or creaking sound.   There only needs to be the most subtle amount of play to make a noise that will get on my nerves.

Unfortunately, the noise proved not to be transient.  It persisted and actually grew worse over the following weeks.  My focus was distracted by my constant analysis of the source.  Was it my seatpost?  No, it was there while climbing out of the saddle.  Chainrings?  It didn’t seem to be there when I backpedalled, but that’s not always conclusive.  It would almost go away while spinning on the pavement… almost.  My rides soon turned into diagnostic sessions.

While not on the bike, I would pull things apart to see if I could correct the source of the noise.  I spent an evening pulling off my cranks and bottom bracket.  I removed the bottom bracket  from the frame.  I scrubbed the frame threads out with a brush and cleaned the entire bottom bracket assembly.  Everything was re-lubed and the threads wrapped in plumber’s tape before reassembly.  I took apart my chainrings, cleaning every surface meticulously.  The chainring bolts were cleansed and a thin layer of anti-seize compound applied to them.  I regreased all of the crank arm surfaces according to specs.  I even removed the pedals and gave their threads the same type of treatment.

Where's Waldo? I don't know, but he's easier to find than a elusive bicycle noise.
Where’s Waldo? I don’t know, but he’s easier to find than an elusive bicycle noise.

I actually enjoy this process as long as I’m not feeling pressured to complete the job with a limited amount of time.  There’s something very relaxing about putting on some good music and working with my hands.  Building wheels has the same kind of feeling to it.  When it’s all done, there’s a real sense of satisfaction in having a well functioning bike as a result of my efforts.

I was actually looking forward to my next ride since I was pretty confident that I must have addressed the squeaking with all of that work.  I hit the trails after work the next day… ARG!!!  The noise was still with me.  There didn’t appear to be any change at all.  Now I was left with the task of trying to enjoy the ride while the bike was continually distracting me with an irrepressible sound.  More analysis ensued.  Could I induce some creaking by torquing on the bars?  Was it related to leaning the bike?  I checked the quick releases to make sure that there wasn’t any extra play that could be creating the sounds.  All my tests were inconclusive.  It was hard to tell exactly where the squeaking was coming from but it seemed to be coming from the front end of the bike.  At least it seemed that way, but I know that sound can resonate through a bicycle frame in strange ways.

I took out the tools again.  The bars were removed from the bike and the stem removed from the steerer tube.  I also disassembled the headset for good measure.  The steerer assembly received the same treatment as my cranks – thoroughly cleaned and well lubed as appropriate.  I wasn’t sure what I was looking for so I attacked everything I could remove.

On my return to the trail, I was again disappointed.  I might have been starting to obsess about this a bit.  I gave more attention to the relentless creaking noise as I rode.  It even seemed to be there when I was descending.  That was odd.  It also seemed to confirm the idea that it wasn’t caused by my drivetrain.

Looks rather squeaky.
These look rather squeaky.

With my mind now fully preoccupied with the quest to eliminate this creaking sound, I turned to the wisdom of the internet.  It’s usually a pretty sad state of affairs when I have to go looking for help.  It’s like stopping the car to ask for directions – an open admission of defeat.  Likewise, I keep my owners manuals hidden in a drawer for such dire occasions.  Generally, the internet is more full of opinion than facts, and I think most of us know how much opinions are worth.  Still, there are a lot of good mechanics out there that will respond to questions on various discussion boards.  So, after reading through many, many recommendations to do the same things that I’ve already done (and some that shouldn’t be done), I did stumble across a few ideas that I hadn’t explored.  In particular, it seems that sometimes the headset bearing races can creak inside the cups or the cups can shift ever so slightly if there’s a tiny imperfection between the surfaces of the frame and the cups.

I thought that might be a direction to pursue.  Unfortunately, the bearings on my headset aren’t replaceable without sending them back to the manufacturer.  Maybe something was wrong with them.  They have at least 3 more years under their warranty (thanks Chris King) but I wasn’t about to go without my bike for the few weeks it would take for them to be shipped out, get serviced, shipped and then reassembled.  I wasn’t about to let that happen during the prime riding of the summer months.  Not a chance.

just dumber
Not quite the most annoying sound in the world.

So I opted to install a new headset.  Yes, I was that bothered by the creaking.  I was a little reluctant at first, but it was the logical next step in my crusade to eliminate the world’s most irritating noise. So, lacking a proper headset press, I dragged my bike down to the shop and left it with them to do a professional install.

I picked the bike up after work later in the week.  I went out for a ride that same afternoon and found true bliss.  Elation.   Nirvana.  Whatever it was, it didn’t make creaking noises.  The only sound I could hear over my breathing was the sound of root and rock impacts echoing in my tires. It was truly a wonderful thing.  I climbed seated in near silence.  I stood up, mashing the pedals and pulling on the bars without a peep from the bike.  I lost myself in almost two hours of squeak-free riding that afternoon.

I’ve since found that the problem was in the cup/frame interface, not the bearings of the original headset.  I could correct the problem with it by applying some Loc-tite 640 to the cups when installing.  Maybe I’ll do that some time in the future, but, for now, my neurosis has been subdued.


NOTE: After taking several months off, I think I’m back at this.


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.

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?

Vermont MTB Festival 2015

[Also posted on]

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

Review: O.W.L. Energy Bars

[Reposted from]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.


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.