Defining Expectations: CNF MTB Ride

I never leave for the trail head with the expectation of having an average ride or to be an average mountain bike rider. When I load my bike onto the carrier and start driving towards some singletrack, I pack up with the expectation that I will be the next RedBull Rampage God of mountain biking, king of the downhill! Sometimes when I get out on the trails I even manage to trick myself into believing these daydreams as I conquer new skill sections, shred through downhills, and occasionally manage to get air off a jump. But, then there are rides like the one Michelle and I went on last week at the Carolina North Forest (CNF) Trail system which remind you of reality.

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My perception of hitting this jump was ‘Man I am getting some serious air!’ The reality was only getting off the ground by a few inches.

We had decided earlier in the week that we both needed to get our bikes out and go for a ride. Sunday was supposed to be a beautiful sunny day with highs in the 70’s (it actually managed to break 80 for the day, talk about a warm February!) We talked about visiting the trusted and true trail systems of Harris Lake or Lake Crabtee, but I wanted to ride a new area this weekend. There are plenty of mountain bike trails in the Triangle, so I went to trianglemtb.com and started looking at our options. We have lived in Raleigh for two years now, but haven’t made a visit to Chapel Hill yet, so I started looking for trails in this direction. After a quick Google maps search we picked the CNF system.

Anyone who has ever gone on a mountain biking adventure knows there is a good amount of uncertainty in visiting a new trail system. First, there is the problem of finding the trail. Sometimes the trailhead is clearly marked and even has an official address and then there are the trailheads that don’t officially exist in Google. The CNF trailhead was the latter. Google Maps got us almost all the way to trail system taking us to the Smith Middle School, which was just a mile or two from the unofficial trailhead at Seawell Elementary School. Luckily, we were able to consult the TriangleMTB website to locate the actual trailhead from the middle school.

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An opportunity to race my shadow

The next problem that any seasoned rider will tell you about riding a new trail is interpreting the trail’s difficulty level. Whenever I visit a website providing reviews about a trail system I have noticed that every trail has a unique rating for each individual person. Person A will tell you that this is the hardest trail they have ever ridden, while person B will say the intermediate ranking should really be a beginner ranking. And, everyone always complains about roots.

Michelle and I immediately noticed that the CNF trail system is extremely rooty. There were literally roots everywhere! While I love the technical challenge of riding over roots and improving my overall MTB skills, I also love flowy trail systems that allow you to gain speed and zip between the trees. The high number of roots at CNF prevented me from gathering speed on the downhills (they kept knocking me off course) and made even the smallest climbs a major pain. In conclusion, roots will today and forever always suck. To add another layer of difficulty, the forest floor was bedded in dead pine needles that provided zero traction. Between roots and pine needles the overall flow of the trails were seriously impacted.

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Classic bike photo on the trail

Finally, the last concern you have when visiting a new trail system is about the trail markings. How easy will it be to get back to the trailhead? Most of the trails I have ridden this hasn’t been too big of an issue as they have been loops. Which means that as long as I keep right (or left) and stay on the path I will eventually make it home. However, there are some systems where the amount of crisscrossing trails make it extremely difficult to navigate. The CNF trails are one of these systems. As we were riding we kept getting confused as we would arrive at an intersection with three different branches and no signs indicating which trail to take. This made navigating the trails extremely difficult. It basically felt like we were trying to escape from a labyrinth.

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I thought the framing of this log with Michelle on the trail was pretty cool!

The problems of finding the trailhead, riding over roots, or even escaping the labyrinth of the woods are all part of the thrill of mountain biking. These challenges do little to hinder one’s ability to ride like a RedBull rampager. But, what does limit a person’s riding adventure is the individual rider. In this case, Michelle and I fell a long way from King’s and Queen’s of Downhill and landed squarely in the awkward Bambi category.

First, we just struggled. We struggled with roots, rocks, and pine needles sending us off course resulting in collisions with trees. But, mostly we just struggled with general clumsiness and ineptness. The prime example being that we stopped at one intersection to determine which direction to go. Michelle had stopped next to me and as I was dismounting my bike I kicked her bike knocking it over! Naturally, this sent her for a spill and resulted in me receiving a very angry glare. If that scowl at the end doesn’t say love, I don’t know what does (see sequence below).

My joy at her fall was short lived as I then proceeded to fall myself! The fall I suffered resulted in a very bruised ego as I was tripped by the air! (Literally, nothing physically happened to trip me other than I stepped backwards and then started falling.) As I fell, my bike went down and Michelle’s smoldering glare turned into a triumphant shout of “Ha! Karma [explicit]!” (see the sequence of my fall below)

Though our first ride on the CNF trails wasn’t quite as awesome as we had expected, we still had an amazing adventure and had a fun time in the woods. At the end of the day, that is the most important part about mountain biking: Having good adventures and fun. Finally, here are three take away lessons from our CNF adventure

1. Know how to use your GoPro

We started the ride and I kept pressing the wrong buttons on my GoPro. You would think that by now I could operate the thing.

2. Derailleurs are hard

Michelle accidentally started out the ride with her front derailleur on the third gear ring (aka the hardest gear to pedal in). She rode a quarter mile of the trail this way and was pretty exhausted afterwards. Make sure you are shifting to the right gears to give yourself the most enjoyable ride possible.

3. Print a Map

If the local trail website says to print a map before riding, you should probably do it. This would have made navigation a whole lot easier.

What lessons have you learned from you hiking or mountain biking adventures? What rides failed to meet your expectations? What odds have you overcome to make a mountain bike adventure epic? Please comment below.

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No matter the trail system you ride, mountain biking should always be about having fun!
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7 thoughts on “Defining Expectations: CNF MTB Ride

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