Adventure Ride

Some pretty big stuff has happened since I last wrote an entry, but for now I’m going to step back to recap a fun ride that I did just before winter hit here.

There’s a great and eclectic group of people that I’ve connected with through the local bike shop, Vermont Bicycle Shop, who are part of the shop’s “adventure club.” It’s not exactly a team, and not exactly a club in the traditional sense, and not exactly anything else.  It’s a somewhat loose collection of people, most of whom hang around the shop fairly frequently, who get together and go on halfway madcap rides that deliberately seek out challenging, weird or nonsensical destinations and routes. The one thing I’ve seen that this ragtag band of cyclists (in the broadest of definitions) all have in common is that bikes are an extension of their identity in one way or another.  Lots of people enjoy cycling; for these folks, the line of distinction between themselves and the bicycle is hard to find.  

I’m the only triathlete in the group, and one of the few with a roadie background, so I amicably bear the brunt of a lot of jokes about aerodynamics and fancy equipment.  I don’t mind.  It’s always good to receive perspective from others, and there’s plenty of opportunity for me to jovially strike back when the mood is right.  

The ride of the day was to be a gravel ride, on dirt roads with quality ranging from “maintained” to what’s known around here as “Class IV.”  To normal people, a Class IV road is something you would normally only see on the Discovery Channel or if you got lost in the woods.  Usually just a vestige of the past and only technically a road, they are swaths of relatively clear space cutting through the remote Vermont forests, littered with rocky glacial remains and leading to places only the hardiest of folk will ever see. To adventure bikers, it just means ‘fun.’

The group gathered at my house, as it was the ideal starting point for this particular loop.  That gave everyone plenty of opportunity to make fun of my brand new Bont triathlon shoes, which I had just gotten fitted since literally tearing the soles off my ancient pair of Garneaus.  Considering it was about 35 deg. F and these shoes are basically open-air slabs of carbon with velcro straps on top (they don’t even have a tongue), they were definitely an unusual choice for the day. They were my only choice, though, apart from putting platform pedals on my bike and wearing hiking boots.  I was too excited to try them out to miss the chance, so I doubled up my socks and stuck some plastic baggies over my toes in between and let the ribbing fly.

We set out, starting on dirt roads and heading further away from civilization as we went.  One of us realized he had a soft tire, but luckily we were riding right by his house so he stopped to swap out his bike (the N+1 rule is widely followed in this group.  I’m an outlier, having a mere two bicycles in my possession). No big deal, and we continued onward.

Some of my favorite parts of the day were when we paused to regroup, and found ourselves in a serene section of the forest, where nobody was around, but there were quiet signs of life if you knew where to look.  A farmer’s field, just through the treeline.  The peripheral lines of a sugarbush down the hill. An abandoned cabin by a pond, once idyllic, now forgotten and reclaimed by the encroaching wilderness.  Artwork on an old barn.

These are the moments that give ‘adventure biking’ its definition for me, personally.  But everyone has their own ideas of what it means, which is part of why it’s such an interesting thing to do.

Our first Class IV section was traversed with great enjoyment, and spilled us back out onto a dive-bombing gravel road that intersected suddenly with a main asphalt town highway.  Brakes were vigorously applied.  Luckily, none failed.

From there, a decision was to be had. Do we continue on the planned route, or do we diverge back into the woods to tackle a serious Class IV section that promised adventure of the hardiest sort, an incredibly technical downhill on terrain that could only be called a ‘road’ if you squinted real hard, were slightly drunk and had never seen a river before?  I had the suspicion that this was the plan of the ride’s organizer (shop owner and mechanic Darren) all along, and that he lured everyone in with the relatively sane route in order to spring the change of tack on them at the fateful moment of divergence.  It wasn’t a far stretch with this group; the decision was all but foregone.  Plus, Darren brought snacks.  So off we went.  To adventure!

Getting to the challenging bit required some more climbing on dirt roads, which was fine by me.  I love climbing, and I love doing it on dirt roads, now that I’m the proud owner of an Orbea Terra, which is basically a carbon frame road bike with almost-all-terrain tires.  I felt great and looked forward to every foot we went up.  

Back into the woods we went, and the challenge was suddenly upon us.  Photographs and videos unfortunately can’t do it justice, and my phone died from the cold before I made it to the bottom, which is where the better perspective would have been provided.  But picture a steep hill in the forest.  Now, make it twice as steep.  Now, rake out all the trees in an 10-foot-wide swath, straight down the hill.  Then erode it with wind and particularly water for about 100 years.  Find all the boulders and rocks under the soil that you can, and leave them there.  Call it a “Class IV” road.  Now get on your bike.

Those riding fat bikes were the only ones to make it down successfully.  The more experienced riders on gravel bikes generally made it about halfway.  Darren made it ¾ of the way down, displaying excellent bike handling skills, but then missed a line and over he went.  He was certain he’d cracked his frame and damaged his drive train because he landed right on a boulder, but he miraculously evaded consequences.

For my part, I stopped about halfway down and walked.  I knew there was no way I was going to survive the descent without falling, and I didn’t want to break anything – on myself or my bike.  What I hadn’t accounted for was my shoes.  Walking down a mostly-dry glacial riverbed meant I was slipping and stumbling off boulders with every step.  Not exactly the surface a pair of triathlon shoes were meant to walk on.  After I got home later, I photographed the bottoms of my brand new babies and sent the picture to Darren in horror, asking if I had just ruined everything.  Luckily the damage is largely cosmetic.  But I’ll be re-thinking my footwear choices for this kind of ride in the future for sure.

Once we all made it down, across an intersecting stream bed and up a hill on the other side, it was back out onto gravel roads and onward to home.  We had all met a challenge together, survived it and had a blast doing it.  Exactly what an adventure ride is meant to be.

Old Bike New Bike

My trusty steed of 17 years was acting funny in the shifters the other day so I took it into the shop. I was on my way to my swim workout when my mechanic sent me a message:

The front derailleur mount tab thing had split and was about ready to let the derailleur just fall off my bike. That explained why I was having trouble shifting into my big ring all of a sudden.

There was some consideration of whether it could be welded somehow or ground down and replaced by a clamp style derailleur, but at the end of the day it was just another step in a downward spiral that had been going on for a while. The bike was showing its age. It was getting less and less worth it to invest repair money in. I had been planning on getting a new ride next year; this just moved up the timetable.

I talked over options and was eventually convinced to test ride an Orbea Terra, which is technically a cross bike kind of, but has road bike geometry. So it’s a road bike you can put wider tires on. Which is a big advantage where I live because the roads aren’t great, and being able to ride on gravel opens up a lot more options.

I was concerned that it might be a slower solution. I am not objectively that concerned with speed but I didn’t want to feel like I was downgrading my ride, or riding a mountain bike.

I took the bike out for a spin of about 20 miles, with about 1600 ft of elevation, and was pleasantly surprised by the results. My average was great, easily comparable to my old road bike, if not faster, and I hit a max speed of 47 mph, which was perhaps my fastest descent all year — and I barely noticed.

The wide tires make for a really comfortable, stable ride, but don’t seem to sacrifice much speed at all, surprisingly. And it’s a carbon frame, so climbing felt light and strong. The gearing is different and will take some getting used to but I already like it a lot. I felt fast on the hills, both up and down.

Best of all, come race time I can put 25mm tires on it and I’ll be good to go.

I had been feeling pretty sad about losing my old friend. But things are looking up. And bonus points: I think my old ride should still be useful as an indoor trainer bike.