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.