Michelle and I were taking the dog for a walk the other day when we stumbled across the most random thing hanging in a tree.
Surprise! Someone had ruined their bike tire and felt the best place to hang it was in a tree. When we saw this I had a mix of different emotions. Clearly, I was shocked to see a tire hanging in a tree (it would be weird to expect a tire in a tree). But, then I my feelings were bouncing back and forth between ‘this looks kind of cool’ to ‘why the heck would you leave your tire in the woods!’ Michelle and I tend to get a little cranky when we see people leaving trash or broken parts in the wood.
This simple line sounds horrible to anybody outside the mountain biking community, but for anyone who’s ever gotten on a bike before they know the truth. Getting dropped is fantastic. The term getting dropped means that you rode with someone who was faster and/or more skilled than you. In layman’s terms it means ‘you ate their dust.’
And today, it happened to me. My buddy and me paid a visit to some trails here in the Raleigh area to get an early Saturday morning ride in for Easter. This was my first time riding with him, but I knew from earlier conversations that his skills on a bike were well beyond my own and I was looking forward to the challenge of keeping up.
Needless to say, the ride did not disappoint. When the ride first started I did an okay job of keeping up with him. The technical sections of the trail were within my comfort zone, but as our ride and fatigue progressed the technical sections became increasingly difficult. Well, they became increasingly difficult for me as my buddy was able to easily ride over everything. Leaving me far behind.
But, that’s the point of getting dropped. It forces you to find the limits of your comfort zone and then expand it. You don’t want to be seen walking up that climb, so you dig deeper and pedal harder to reach the top that hill. The fear of being dropped causes you ride the brake less on the downhill or through those corners as you chase a dream of keeping up with those in front.
The desire to not be dropped forces you to become a better rider. You start practicing missing skills or improving endurance by adding an extra bike commute into work to increase your time in the saddle. Throughout the week memories of being dropped on the last ride haunt you, making you hunger for the next trip. The next trip where instead of getting dropped, you plan to do the dropping.
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Unfortunately, I didn’t take the GoPro out on this ride so there are no pictures available. Which I think begs the question: Does the ride even count?
It certainly did not feel like spring when I left the house this morning. My weather app listed the temperature at 34 degrees Fahrenheit, and it definitely felt that cold! But, after an insane couple of weeks I needed to get my bike out on the trail and blow off some steam before presenting at my group meeting. So, I made sure to bundle up and head for the trusted and true Lake Crabtree trail system.
After arriving at the trail head, I took off down the trail chasing the local KOM (King of the Mountain) time and my hands were instantly reminded about the cold (I should have worn heavier gloves!). I have just started tracking my rides using the Strava app and there’s no better motivator to help you push your limits then chasing a KOM. (It also helps if you need to get off the trail quickly, it would be a shame if I was late to my own presentation). Unfortunately, I am still a long way off from being a legitimate contender to this mountain (about 6 minutes to be exact), but I can still dream of distant glory.
When I first entered the trail system, I scared about 5 blue herons into flight. They love to land and hang out right on the edge of the lake by the trail. I will admit, one of my favorite things to watch is when these birds decide to take flight. On the ride back in I discovered that these beautiful birds had returned to their spots, so this time I stopped to snap a couple of photos. The green of the brush in lower right of the photo certainly provides a sharp contrast to the surrounding browns.
After stopping to take some photos I had to try and get some classic ‘bike on the trail’ pics. First, I tried playing around with it near some brush with the lake in the background. Using a center-focus filter I tried to white out the edges to draw your focus towards the water. Did it work?
After using the brush for framing, I had to go for the more traditional picture with Lake Crabtree in the backdrop. This time you can really see the green of the grass indicating that spring is finally starting to get here!
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I am constantly amazed at my bike’s ability to instantly reduce my stress levels from 1,000 to almost zero. There’s something magical about the sensation of flying down singletrack, hopping logs, and narrowly dodging trees. It creates a peaceful serenity where the only sounds you hear is the wind, the noises of your bike, and even traffic from I-40. It provides an instant escape from whatever worries are occupying my mind. Even pausing on the trail to take some photos is enjoyable (it actually helps me to pause and appreciate the surrounding scenery).
When I was a kid going biking or hiking wasn’t a specific hobby (at least where I grew up it wasn’t), they were both just activities that you did. If you were bored, you went for a walk in the woods or you grabbed your bike and started pedaling done the road. There was never a set distance I was trying to hit or a specific mountain to conquer. You simply stepped outside and enjoyed what nature had to offer. If it was mundane, you created something magnificent.
The smallest hills were transformed into mountains, the dirt road became a 100 mile race track. As a child I didn’t have to seek out adventures, they just happened. I made life an adventure. But, then you begin to grow older and the nameless activities of youth begin collecting labels. Once an activity has a label, the sense of wonder and adventure associated with it is lost. Why? Because labels have definitions and expectations, and if those expectations are not met then you did not truly experience that activity.
I first became aware of this fact after moving to North Carolina. Hiking and camping in NC is more than just a past time, it is a religion. A faithful following. You are supposed to dress a certain way, carry the correct gear, and use the appropriate labels. If you say hiking you better be climbing a mountain; otherwise, you are only going for a ‘walk in the woods.’ If you go camping make sure to specify if it’s car camping, backpacking, or in a camper. Keeping track of your sense of adventure can be easily lost amidst these labels.
That is why I purposefully force myself to seek the natural beauty, wonder, and amazement in my everyday surroundings. You can’t always climb a mountain, but that shouldn’t stop you from going on a hike. You can’t always ride your bike on epic downhill, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pretend that you do. Sometimes, you just need to get out side for the simple joy of being amidst nature.
Athena and I tried to do this yesterday. We went out and created our own mini-adventure in our own backyard. Using the right angle and some clever filters even a simple game of fetch can become rather stunning.
Of course, you can’t play fetch without teasing your dog some as well. Thanks to GoPro’s Time Lapse feature I was able to capture this epic shot.
After a competitive game of fetch, I felt inspired to take Athena out on the trail. I had recently watched Seth, from Seth’s Bike Hacks, attempt to transform his French Bulldog, drama, into a trail dog and was wanting to test Athena’s trail mettle. Athena has pretty good sprinting capabilities, but for anything longer than a mile she simply doesn’t have the ability to hang. Luckily, the ride around our lake is slightly shorter than a mile. She certainly did enjoy the short ride and run around the lake.
There was one point while we were playing with the GoPro and searching for that perfect angle that I decided to work on my bunny hopping skills. The mythical bunny hop has eluded me for years, but every once in awhile I try to attempt it. This time I decided that hopping, or in this case running over, my GoPro would be a good idea. I may have failed at clearing my camera, but I got this awesome photo from the attempt. It almost looks like I am atop the world here…almost.
Finally, Athena and I went and rode on some super secret trails that crisscross the woods behind our apartment. Once again experimenting with lighting and angles gave me a pretty cool picture.
Overall, our mini-adventure Sunday behind the apartment was quite spectacular. It certainly was enough to wear the dog out for the remainder of the day.
Recently, I decided to take some time and reflect upon the direction my personal and professional life have been going. Occasionally, I like to sit down and write out a list of some of my short- and long-term goals. If I get lucky and save the list of goals from the last time this happened I can even compare to evaluate my personal growth.
During my most recent analysis, I realized that I was very happy with the amount of riding and writing that I have been doing, lately. When I started this blog, the goal was to help increase my creative writing by adding a constant motivating source (i.e. Publish blog posts to keep my content updated). But, something else happened along the way as well: It inspired me to start documenting my mountain bike adventures (such as rides to Tsali Rec, CNF Forest, and, Lake Crabtree).
From these rides and experiences I quickly discovered that I was lacking in some very essentials skills as a mountain bike rider. I needed to learn how to work on my bike. This realization became very apparent after my ride at the Tsali Rec trail system last October when I experienced my first flat. Since I had never had a flat before, I never thought to carry a spare tube or pump when I went riding. Luckily, my tube popped only a mile from the trail head, so Michelle and I had very short walk back to the car.
After that ride I started carrying a tube with me (I am still looking for a good spare portable pump though. Any thoughts about CO2 cartridges vs hand-pumps?). But, beyond thinking about what tools I needed to carry to become a self-sufficient mountain biker on the trail, I wanted to learn the ins and outs of maintenance for my mountain bike.
Fast forward several months after my blown tire experience and I had been hitting the local trails pretty heavily when my brakes began screeching. Besides the clear annoyance such a noise brings to my ride (and the rides of my fellow trail users), this potentially indicates a possible problem with my braking system. I could have dirt between my pads and rotors, my pads are worn out, or a bent rotor.
For a moment I thought about going to the bike mechanic and dropping my bike off, the Easy option. A couple of days, the problem would be totally fixed. But, that wouldn’t help me reach my goal and settling for easy didn’t taste so well after reading Greg Heil’s article, Stop Asking for Easy: A Manifesto for Doing Hard Things Voluntarily.Between Greg’s motivational words and the desire to save some money while learning a new skill I dove into the challenge head first.
After a thorough cleaning of my bike, I decided to start by replacing my pads (cheapest item and most likely worn out) and replaced my brake cables as well (they were getting a little old and a friend suggested replacing them anyways). Surprisingly, replacing the cables and pads was extremely easy. Pop stuff in, pull stuff out, and cut the extra. The hardest part was realigning the caliper after inserting the new pads so that there was minimal resistance (rotor grinding against the pad when the brake lever isn’t depressed). The alignment took me forever! Mostly, because I was a dunce and didn’t understand what bolt to loosen and tighten to adjust the caliper position. Naturally, I ended up loosening and adjusting every bolt until I discovered what each individual bolt’s purpose was on my braking system. I can safely say that I now know my caliper system forwards, backwards, and even sideways!
Since replacing my pads I have taken my bike out on several more rides. My maintenance fix appears to have helped (at least the front doesn’t screech anymore!), but my back brakes still yells like a banshee. Hopefully, after a few more rides this will go away once the new pads are fully broken in.
Taking the extra time to work on my bike instead of going to the shop was extremely rewarding. I learned that even a computational chemist has the ability to fix things with his hands (after working with a keyboard all day it is nice to know I can do physical work as well) and I now know more about my bike and braking system than I originally expected. Replacing brake cables and brake pads may not sound like a giant step, but it certainly is a baby-step towards becoming a more self-sufficient mountain bike rider.
What challenging bike maintenance problems have you faced? Any suggestions on a portable bike pump to carry? How have you stopped your disc brakes from screeching down the trail?
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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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.
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.
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.
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).
Kicking Michelle’s bike
The angry glare (or is it love?)
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)
I trip and fall over air
My poor bike!
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.
My last two mountain bike rides have had plenty of sunlight which resulted in a couple of opportunities for me to race my shadow while on the trails (Lake Crabtree County Park and the Carolina North Forest Trail system). It also inspired a little poem below. I hope you enjoy!
I see you there, stretching across the ground
Only a few yards ahead, but forever out of reach
The harder I work and the more effort I exert,
So you do too. Grinding away, as much as I do.
While the sun is out, you are too
Sometimes you are ahead (with the sun on our backs)
Sometimes you are behind (when we face the sun)
But, you are never ahead or behind, by very much
However, when the sun goes down or hides behind a cloud
Last week I posted a short write up about a morning ride I took at Lake Crabtree County Park. That post included some still shots from my ride, but I had not taken the time to edit any of the video footage yet. Yesterday, I finally had some time to sit down to edit and combine the clips into a short video. I hope you enjoy it.
I first bought my mountain bike in May 2013 and it has easily been one of the best purchases of my entire life. This one simple purchase has lead to countless adventures, meeting new friends, and has even become a shared hobby between my wife and me. Even more importantly, mountain biking (and hiking) is a great way to explore the state (such as a visit to Occoneechee Mountain), country, or world that you live in. Since Michelle and I have moved to North Carolina we have been able to visit multiple trails around us in the Triangle area (Harris Lake, Lake Crabtree, Legend Park) in addition to several adventures in the western part of the state (riding Rocky Knob Park and Tsali Recreation Area). We even had the opportunity to experience a winter wonderland bike ride after a North Carolina ice storm!
But, more importantly mountain biking is a great way for me to exit the city and reacquaint myself with nature. When I reach the trailhead and unload my bike from the car I leave behind deadlines, news headlines, and general stress. Once I start down that trail, there’s just me, my bike, and my ability to navigate the lay of the land. Luckily, I am blessed to be able to sneak out most Friday mornings for a ride at Lake Crabtree County Park before work. Here are some of the shots from this past Friday morning ride using a GoPro Hero+. The temperature was 38 degrees Fahrenheit and the ride started at 7:30 AM.
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The segment shown above is one of my favorite areas to ride at Crabtree! There is just enough of a decline slope here to give you some speed and the low berms give the trail a little added difficulty.
I came across this mini-drop that seemed like a good spot to session (work on my technical trail skills). When I was setting up the camera I had no idea that the colors would have this much contrast.
The image on the left represents my constant failure to conquer this one section of the trail. There’s an uphill root section that creates a series of large trail obstructions. So far, I can only ride down them and I am still searching for the best line to ride up this section. Shown on the right is a cool image of the sun coming through the trees.
I recognize that a photo of a bench seems random (and it is); I just really love benches. No real reason why, I just like the concept of benches with beautiful scenic overlooks.
This may be my favorite photo from my morning ride. The sun hit me just right and I felt like I was racing my shadow for the entire stretch back to the trailhead (my shadow always had a slight lead on me and I was never quite able to catch up).
The list can go on-and-on. Some of us will succeed at meeting our resolutions and others will fall well short, but the important thing is that we will all attempt to better ourselves in some way. One of the resolutions I made in 2016 was to start riding my trail bucket list.
What is a trail bucket list? Well, a trail bucket list is a list of your favorite mountain biking (or hiking) trails that you want to visit and explore. When I first started riding my Giant Talon 29er in Michigan there was one king trail that I always wanted to visit: Copper Harbor. However, before I could ever ride this epic trail I moved from Michigan to Illinois. And all I had left was a mountain of regret and dreams of missed opportunities.
After Illinois, I moved across the country to North Carolina and discovered a new epic trail to dream about: Tsali Recreational Area. According to the Singletracks website, Tsali has been voted as one of the Top 5 trails to ride in the country and is located near Bryson City, NC. After growing up in Michigan and missing a chance to ride Copper Harbor, I knew that I couldn’t let Tsali become another missed opportunity. I couldn’t have another someday trail left unrdidden.
Michelle and I executed a trip to Bryson City, NC last October to visit the Great Smokey Mountains, take in the beauty of the fall foliage of western North Carolina, and shred some of the most epic singletrack NC has to offer. Tsali did not disappoint. The trail had amazing flow, a good balance between climbs and flowing downhill, beautiful scenery along Lake Fontana, and a great mountain biking lesson (always carry a small air-pump and spare tube; thank you to Tsali Cycles for helping to get me back on the trail).
Riding the Tsali Recreation Area was a great opportunity to scratch a dream trail off my trail bucket list, but more importantly it took me to a new area of North Carolina and gave Michelle and I a lifetime of memories. I can’t wait to see what adventures unfold throughout 2017 as we continue to tackle the trails on our bucket list.
What trails are on your trail-bucket list? What trail is your Copper Harbor (a missed adventure)?
Some of the targeted mountain biking areas on my trail bucket list:
Mountain Bike in Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado
Trails around Charlotte and Asheville, NC
MTB the Triangle (Harris Lake, Crabtree, RTP Trails, San Lee, etc.)