2 Years later: Better Ride Camp review

It has been over two years since I took Gene Hamilton’s Better Ride camp, and over time, it has proven to be one of the most valuable upgrades I have ever purchased.  (KS dropper post comes close).

Success at this camp, or any learning experience, is a matter of staying humble, and keeping an open mind; as well as understanding that the primary benefit comes after the camp, from practicing the drills. There isn’t any secret trick, like wiggling your left eyebrow to clear 40’ doubles, or wiggling your pinkie finger to clean techy climbs.

After taking several other skills camps for biking, and skiing, I have come to appreciate the structure, and progression of Better Ride camps. While going back to very fundamental elements of bike control I thought I had long since mastered was frustrating at first, it gave me a more complete understanding of how my bike works, and how my input affects it, that other camps have not matched.

 

While the health benefits of mountain biking are well known, there is also a risk of certain side effects developing which may need treatment. Most of us are familiar with the wide array of grips, gels, avant garde saddles, and underwear designed to combat various of these maladies.

Rarely discussed openly, Upgradeitis, or UGI is an almost unavoidably endemic condition of cycling. UGI can be most succinctly described as an uncontrollable craving for new bike parts The technological innovations that come out every year (or sooner) certainly are a driving factor in the silent proliferation of UGI. In advanced cases, it can result in individuals changing out entire bike builds to match a newly released part. Its onset can be sudden or gradual, but research shows that individuals with frequent access to high speed internet connections and predisposed weakness for shiny, gadgety technology are at the highest risk.

UGI can be an especially crippling condition when a rider has reached a plateau in skill level and bike parts are in disrepair. Frustrated with an ill-performing bike, and lackluster skills, the tendency is to blame disappointment with riding on worn out bike parts rather than a worn-out rider.

Early this spring, I found myself at such a crossroads. I hadn’t ridden for several months, and didn’t look forward to the embarrassing learning curve I knew was coming. On the other hand, nearly everything on my bike was haggard and worn out: The fork needed new seals and oil, the drivetrain had been flogged far beyond any normal call of duty, and the mish mash of recycled brake components decelerated the bike in only the vaguest and most finicky of fashions.

The price of the Better Ride Camp would have gone a long ways towards refreshing my bike and giving me that instant “better rider” rider feel we all crave. But I had been through the cycle of Upgradeitis several times already and knew the new bike parts I craved would break down over time, and contribute little to making me a genuinely better rider. I decided it was time break the cycle of UGI and invest in myself rather than my bike.

I am not gonna lie, at first I was disappointed. Practicing drills in an empty parking lot was not quite as exciting as opening a fresh-from- shipping smelling new box of the latest two wheeled technological wonderment. The repetition of basic principles I had picked up on my own seemed a bit underwhelming:  Look ahead, keep low, look where you want to go. Very basic stuff, going back to when I was first learning to balance on two wheels. But the drills paired with Gene’s explanations gave me a new focus and understanding of how these skills work together. Once I began to understand this, my riding improved dramatically. Seeing my wheelies improve immediately was almost enough by itself to justify the cost of the camp; wheelies are something that has been on my “I need to get better at this list” since my first black and gold Huffy BMX bike at five years old.

By the second day, we got out onto the trail and began to implement some of the skills we had learned by sessioning a set of sweeping corners. For a moment, I thought we had gone off the deep end of bogusness when Gene wrapped up the session by having us take a run through while singing our favorite happy song at the top of our lungs. The surreal thing is that it worked. I took off singing  “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” at full late-night karaoke volume, ripping corners with a grin, unconsciously implementing the skills we had been practicing.

Day three we saw even more trail time and got to play around on some ledges and sandstone features. I hadn’t noticed a say, Danny Macaskill level of improvement in my riding, but I found myself riding more composed and in control; in a more pro-active manner than simply hanging on and seeing what happens. At the end of the camp, Gene reminded us the real benefit doesn’t come from the first three days of learning, but in continuing to practice the drills on a regular basis.

I found a parking lot to practice my figure 8 drills in, weaving up and down the empty parking spaces. It is a Zen practice of sort, emptying your mind and focusing on the bike beneath you, feeling for feedback through the tires, handlebars, pedals; asphalt surfing, carving turns to perfection between the yellow lines. Even if my bike is out of sorts, it only needs to perform the most rudimentary of rolling and stopping functions to be able to practice the drills and improve my riding. These drills have also been great for spicing up boring sections of trail into learning opportunities, practicing vision exercises, honing my wheelies and manuals, concentrating on my cornering form.

Progression in my mind had largely been defined by catching bigger air, but the cornering skills I learned in Gene Hamilton’s camp have opened up a whole new world of progression by maximizing one’s cornering speed through proper technique. Being able to corner faster and with more control sets me up better for those jumps I love so much.

A few weeks after camp, our crew was building the new PBR trail at 18 Rd.  Taking evening laps on the iconic trails in the area, I was astonished at the speed I was able to carry through the myraid corner combinations of Prime Cut (downhill flow is sweet!), and remain in calm and in control on the steep descents of Joe’s Ridge. In all other respects, my bike was the same as before: puking oil out the fork seals, jamming up on shifting, brakes questionable as ever. I was the difference, the factor driving my bike down the trail with more speed and control than I had ever experienced. Channeling my urge to upgrade my bike into upgrading my own skill levels, I had become a genuinely better rider.

Now I understand UGI from a new perspective. Having experienced a significant increase in my riding ability while rocking the same worn out componentry, “upgrading” has taken on a new meaning.

The skills & drills I learned in the Better Ride camp has been the upgrade that keeps upgrading. After seven years of riding in the Grand Valley, I finally was able to clean the drop in to the Horsethief Bench trail. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of riding the trails off the Loma exit, the Horsetheif Bench drop in is a chunk-gnar-tastic ledgy bit of technical riding that sees hundreds of riders a year walk down it. Being able to clean this rite-of-passage section on my bike, worth less than the wheelsets of many bikes carried down it, makes me grateful to have broken the cycle of UGI.

Knowing how to fix your ride is akin to knowing how to fix your bike. Instead of just throwing money at the problem, you are able to diagnose it. Now when I find my riding getting sloppy and out of focus, I have a checklist I can run through to bring my riding back under control. My bike still has its fair share of parts that need replaced, but now that I have the knowledge, drills, and experience from Gene’s camp, I can continue to upgrade my riding level, which is the ultimate upgrade.

 

Good times in the Golden State

This year was the first time in my life that I was excited for winter. Last winter set the hook when I experienced the magic of powder, and realized what I’d been missing out on all these years of cursing the darkest, and coldest of seasons. With a second-hand snowboard, boots of like origin, and clearance rack down coat, I was cheering on every flake of snow with all the zeal of the newly converted.

Doing a little exploring around Rifle, I found a sweet spot up the Beaver Creek drainage, on the northeastern flank of Grand Mesa where I could stomp up in my snowshoes for a few turns before dropping into the trees, and realizing I really didn’t remember how to turn on a snowboard that well at all. But it was good times all the same, being out and exploring in what felt like a whole new world.

In order to maximize my snow sliding fun, I took advantage of Powderhorn’s awesome deal for first timers: Three days of lessons & rentals, and a season pass for $320. Just as  ski lessons were wrapping up, the people I have been working for in Rifle during the off season asked me to help them with their move to Fallbrook, CA. Two weeks was the estimated time.

Two weeks has turned into over a month. The house on 5 acres of fruit trees, and flowers they purchased had not seen much maintenance in the last 5 years, and there was a lot of catching up to do.  In the meantime, I’ve built about 1500′ of trail in the decomposed granite hillside orchard & flower farm.

It is a rich & tremendous source of irony for me to consider all the years I have dreamed of escaping winter to a sunny & mild climate with my bikes in tow, and when it finally comes to pass, I am jealous of the snow Colorado has been getting… C’est la vie.

Riding my bike instead of my snowboard isn’t the most difficult adjustment I’ve had to make in life. Adjusting to riding the loose marbles over hardpack granite SoCal trails wasn’t quite so easy though. My first few rides were sketchy, skaty affairs, and to be true, much of them still are. I’ve just gotten a little more used to the notion of pinballing down between chapparral thickets and granite chunk. The downhill trails here are steep, rich with braking bumps, chunky rocks, and switchback turns. Maynard, my beer-guzzling, straight line pinning, Wisconsite riding buddy,  would love it here.

Victor at Spank turned me on to the  Gravity Pirates, a SoCal-based DH/FR group.  Gravity Pirates has given network and structure to the otherwise underground community of gravity-focused riders through their online forum, skills clinics, and bike park project at Mt. Waterman. Gravity Pirates upholds the no-dig, no-ride ethos by requiring that anyone who wants to become a member dig on a trail project before being eligible as a full-fledged Gravity Pirate.  This helps ensure that folks follow the other cardinal GP rule: Dead men tell no trails. The intense regulatory environment of Southern California shoves the vast majority of gravity trails into a grey area of access, vulnerable to loose lips disease. The Gravity Pirates forum provides a secure place to share information about these trails, organize shuttle rides & dig days.

One of things I was most stoked about as being a GP member was the chance to attend their skills and setup clinic at the trails off Ted Williams Parkway in Poway, CA. The clinics covered jumping, cornering, line selection, taught by members of the Gravity Pirates race team, and suspension setup, courtesy of Steve Delacruz, and Carol Gibbs of Garageworks Suspension. While I didn’t feel I gained much from the riding clinics, the knowledge Steve, and Carol were dishing out in the suspension clinic was well worth the $50 cost of the day.

Greg Lambert came out to snap pics, including this one of me thinking, “Oh God, I’m about to case really hard…”

My favorite day with the Gravity Pirates was going to see the San Diego Supercross, something long on my bucket list. To make the day even better, we kicked it off with a ride session at the Ellsworth factory facility, home to some of the most beautifully sculpted jump trails I have seen outside of certain private Ranch above Grand Junction, CO.

One of the fun things about going to the Supercross race with the GP guys was that it was the first time I’ve ever been to a sporting event with a group, and actually been able to talk about what was going on. I was almost as fascinated by the building as the racing. But the racing was exciting enough that I didn’t get pictures.

I always build in curves….

Southern California has more of these Toyota mini dualies rolling around than I’ve seen anywhere else. I want one of these platforms to put on extended cab, and flatbed, then add 4×4, and dual t-cases. Ultimate mini farm truck!

On my way up the coast to see my sister in San Francisco, I saw the exit for Aptos. Since I had a bit of time to kill, I rolled off the freeway into downtown Aptos to check out the dirt jumps. Practically every third mountain bike movie made in the past five years has a scene from the Post Office dirt jumps. As a builder, and a rider, it was something I had to see, even though these jumps are over my head (literally, and figuratively).

Dirt jumping is something I suck at. The sight of steep lips with unforgiving gaps between take off and landing generally make for a heavy, leaden feeling in the pit of my stomach. Yet the feeling of flying on a bike is one of the sweetest I know; one of the other great ones is overcoming one’s fears, and becoming able to do something you once deemed impossible for yourself.

Through the sort of word-of-mouth connections that happen after spending some time in a community, I found out about a set of dirt jumps in Fallbrook that had been adopted by a BMX dude. Since the 500 lb spring on my Cove is quite stiff for my weight, and I have my Totem Solo Air pumped up the match, the STD doesn’t do half bad at dirt jumping, and I’m grateful for the squish when I come up short.

The dirt was spectacular when I got back from SF, and I worked with Devin at the Fallbrook dirt jumps on a bowl to step down line we’ve been scoping for awhile. Dirt boner nugs meant the building went with aplomb, and we were able to get a project cranked out in one good day of digging v. the several we thought it was going to take us.

 

 

It’s Uphill Both Ways: A ride not to do

One of my first purchases after moving to Colorado was a DeLorme Gazetter. For those not familiar with the red bound book o’ maps, it breaks our lovely state down into a series of maps replete with topographical lines, backroad routes, and meandering trails. I have whiled away many an hour poring over my Gazetter, penciling in possible loops, and daydreaming of exploring forgotten routes.

Being a singletrack snob, anything labeled as “pack trail” immediately leapt to my attention. Way up on the Grand Mesa, roughly south of the tiny ranching town of Collbran lies a route I traced out with my trusty #2 several years ago. I would look at it every time I opened to page 44, and wonder just what this High Trail to Silver Spruce loop would be like. In my mind, I imagined it as the perfect backcountry mountain bike loop: a mellow climb, a ripping descent, and a healthy smattering of good ol’ trail riding thrown in to round out the mix; all on all-but forgotten singletrack, weaving a dark line of loamy harmony through green meadows and tall trees.

Last weekend I had the chance to explore this route with my co-worker Dave and some buddies of his, Mike, and Brad who were out to escape the Front Range madness for the wide-open spaces of the Western Slope. Looking over my well-worn map, and the pencil-traced route in a large but cozy cabin, my heart sank a little when his father-in-law, who hunts the area often, answered the question, “Is this singletrack?” with a finger sweeping over the map, “Oh no, these are all ATV trails up here.”

As a kid, ATV’s were one of my first fascinations. On a kindergarten survey, my answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was “Professsional 3 wheeler racer.” About the time I reached 1st grade production of 3 wheelers ceased, and my dreams of racing an ATC 250R for Team Honda began to crumble. By high school, motorcycles were my passion, but it was moving away to college that brought me into the world of mountain bikes; a pragmatic acknowledgement that I couldn’t bring my CR250 into my dorm room. By the time I moved to Colorado, my singletrack snobbery was beginning to develop, and was accelerated by the ethos preached in the local riding community to “keep singletrack single.”

ATVer’s have a had time grasping the sense of moral indignation mountain bikers feel when they find a favorite section of singletrack has ballooned into XXL double track. In the mind of ATVer’s they are doing the same thing as mountain bikers – enjoying the great outdoors, only with a much greater degree of common sense. Why would anyone pedal their legs off to give their ass a ride when one could be comfortably resting a camo’ed beer belly on a long-range gas tank, and simply pushing a throttle for forward locomotion?

Such was the clustering whirl of thoughts in my head when we arrived at the trailhead, a  wide, well-worn double track heading up into the aspens. I couldn’t help but wonder what the original pack  trail was like before it became ATV-sized, and in my mind saw a cowboy on his horse, with a pack mule following behind as they descended through the open meadow between dark stands of spruce into the aspens below. (My most idyllic images of trails are always downhill). But the further I pushed my singlespeed up the loose, rocky course, my sense of loss & indignation faded. Even if it were preserved as singletrack, it was still too steep and fall line to be sustainable, or enjoyable. Even the hammerhead and carbon fiber 29er’ rider found themselves pushing up several sections.

So that was the first uphill.

Continuing past this crest, we found ourselves in a broad land of open meadows and dense spruce thickets that called to mind the tiaga of the Far North. The grade here was much more mellow, though the various mudholes we encountered along the way were not. While mudholes are great & obvious joy to ATV’ers, we found ourselves skirting through the soggy meadows, trying to avoid ruts hidden in the thick grass, left by less sporting quad riders attempting to avoid a mud bath.

As we began to drop down the eastern side of the High Trail, premonitions of a less-than pleasant ride began to settle in. For one, we had no map. Instead we were relying on NASCAR navigation to complete our loop: just keep turning left until we got to the finish. At our first rest break, Dave was dismayed to realize that he had forgotten to refill his pack, and was heading out on our unknown epic with approximately 12 oz of water and half a granola bar. I had at least filled up with water, and packed a few snacks, but utterly neglected to bring any extra layers or rain gear. Mike had been more conscientious about packing and planning, while Brad was relying on his jersey pockets, and the packs of others to carry his essentials.

Near the bottom of the first descent, Dave endoed in a section of loose babyheads (which I blamed on a stem too long and bars too narrow), resulting in severe bruising on his thigh and thumb. Fortunately, it wasn’t enough to be debilitating, but certainly added to the gravity of the situation as we ate our peanut butter & honey sandwiches, and contemplated the remainder of the ride. We felt fairly certain that it was all downhill (or at least mostly) from this point out, so we decided to press on.

The following section was the most rewarding: grades none too steep, mellow rollers to catch a little air, and the first fallen gold of aspen leaves sprinkled like God’s confetti on the trail. I am not sure what to attribute it to, but there is something singularly thrilling about riding over aspen leaves in the fall; one cannot help but be overtaken by giddiness and joy, even on the most non-descript of trails.

Our NASCAR navigation worked like a charm, and we soon found ourselves at the intersection of the Silver Spruce trail, which would lead us back to the truck. It was obvious that at least a moderate amount of climbing would be involved to complete our loop, but the appearance of a low-lying pass nestled amongst the aspens gave us hope for a pleasant, relatively painless return.

Have you ever spent an unpleasant and fitful night where you keep waking up to the same nightmare, over and over again? Such was this ride, only there was no fluffing the pillow, rolling over and falling back asleep. Every time it appeared we were about summit, the trail would turn upwards again. It became a maddening rhythm, seeing blue skies shining through the trees on our right, the trail appearing to be heading for the crest, then it would turn to the left, and continue uphill. Occasionally, there would be a short, steep downhill with pleasantly railing turns carved out by ATV’s, then the trail would head upwards again. This continued for hours, long past the point where my legs were capable of turning over the 30/18 gearing on the mud-packed tires of my singlespeed, reducing me to pushing up the mellowest of grades. The pattern became heartbreaking: no matter how reasonable & logical it seemed to my trailbuilding instincts  that the trail should flatten out, if not start heading downhill, the sickening conclusion forced itself on me that if there were any terrain above the trail I was pushing my bike, the trail would always turn up, never down.

With darkness falling fast upon us, and physical and mental reserves fading with the light, we finally came to an open-topped summit where we could see the road below, and the trail descending. Too tired to whoop for joy, we carefully picked our way down amongst the loose rocks and ruts, not trusting in our tired bodies to avoid disaster. Reaching the bottom of the valley, we ran into a fenceline, and true to form, the trail turned right, and we began climbing (or rather pushing) back up the same ridgeline. A helpless fury at the idiocy of this route blistered my soul when we topped out, and I could look over the valley to the open meadow we had just descended from.

Normally such experiences ignite a resolve to come back and find a more sensible route, but this expedition of idiocy left me so charred that I decided this route was best left to the Texas wheelchairs. We passed by many of them on our loop, parked off to the side of the trail, backcountry access for Coors Light sportsmen. At this point in my ride, I found myself accepting the fact ATV’s owned this trail. It was simply too long, too steep, too uphill to be any fun on a bicycle, no matter whether it was double track or singletrack.

Dusk was morphing into darkness by the time we made it back to the truck, with barely enough light to see to load our bikes. The good news of our extra long-ride is that it had given the beer plenty of time to chill. With deft, eager hands, we cracked open bottles of Dos Equis Amber. I don’t always drink Dos Equis, but that particular beer was one of the tastiest I have ever had in my life. Stay thirsty for adventure, my friends.

15 years of Christmas in one shiny blue frame

I just ordered up a new bike, a Cove STD, my first new bike in 15 years.  My last new mountain bike was my first mountain bike, a 1998 Schwinn Moab, on closeout special to make way for the blingy new 9 speed models. Motorcycles were my first love in life, the Moab was acceptance of the fact I wouldn’t be able to smuggle my CR 250 into my dorm room.

At that time, no one was arguing about wheel sizes, mountain bike magazines were filled with handy tips about how to shave off a few grams by cutting off the bottom of your seatpost, and how to cut down your handlebar, shoving the brake levers and shifters almost up against the stem, necessitating the addition of bar ends. Freeriding was a fringe fad, the 1.95/2.1 tire combo was still considered a hot setup, and Mountain Bike magazine was somberly advising, “no grown man needs a fork with more than 100mm of travel, and 100mm was considered a short stem.

As mountain bikes became more a part of my life, my attention shifted from California gram counters, to Canadians not afraid to push pounds. While the California companies who claimed to have invented mountain biking were busy calculating grams and pondering ano color schemes, the boys up on the Shore were busy givin’ ‘er; exploring steep, rocky trails far removed from the fireroads and smooth singletrack of sunny Cali. The bikes that came from the North Shore were motivated first by the question of “does it work?” not “how much does it weigh?” Riding a Cove G-Spot last year, I was struck by the fact that though it wasn’t of the trendiest geometry, it had a magical connectedness that made me want to keep riding, and never give it back.

At Winter Park a few weeks ago, I had the chance to demo the next bike up in the Cove’s travel range, the STD. Like the G-Spot, it doesn’t have the latest geometry numbers; the top tube is too short, the bottom bracket is too high, the chainstays are too long. It even has (gasp!) 26” wheels! But riding the STD back to back with the Kona Entrouage, a veritable flagship of progressive geometry, I was surprised at how much more lively & playful the STD felt in comparison to the Entourage. Not that the Entourage was particularly sluggish, but the Cove moved in an intuitive way that the Kona did not, and I found it easier to control in the air.  It underscores the fact that a bike’s ride is a matter in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Seeing the shiny new blue frame on the wall at Grassroots is like 15 years of Christmases and birthdays come all at once. Since my original Schwinn purchase, all of my bikes have been second-hand (if not more) deals, pieced together from parts of old ones, a few new bits added here and there, but mostly I’ve been like an Amish orphange for abandonded bikes: “Use it up, use it out, make it do, or do without.” Lately though, my fleet has been running mighty close to to the “used up” side of things. I considered refreshing the stable with a round of new parts, but I’ve had a growing itch to explore the realm of big mountain riding, and none of my bikes are quite up to the task.

The STD carries on the same ride feel as the G-Spot – a bike that encourages you to keep riding, to keep exploring, and finding new lines. Though the high desert of Western Colorado is a different world from the steep, dark, rainy coast of North Vancouver, the loose, whooped-out moto trails, 3000’ descents, and unexplored ridgelines that surround Rifle call for a bike of similar capabilities; one in the words of The Lost Trailers,  will take everything you can throw at it,“not flinchin’ a bit, not bitin’ yer lip, not quiverin’, shiverin’, or fakin’ a limp, just spittin’ out whiskey right there in the mud, and sayin’ “Bring it on, son!”

A spectrum of shoes

Snazzy shoes at the Lunch Loops!

One of my trailbuilding compatriots made the observation, “It seems like no matter what you are doing, it comes down to shoes.” For any specialized pursuit, there is a corresponding niche of footwear, whether it be flyfishing, rock climbing, skiing, running, or mountain biking. Specialization in mountain bike shoes has largely been in the vein of stiff, shiny slippers replete with buckles, straps, and cleats as a means of attaching yourself to the bike. As platform (or flat) pedals have become a more ubiquitous choice for mountain bikers, the market for shoes designed for flat pedal riding has grown by leaps and bounds.

Teva

After over a year of almost daily wear, the Tevas are showing signs of relentless use. The fraying around the ankle can largely be attributed to the sharp edges on my Suntour Duro cranks.

Though I had been riding platform pedals for several years, it had always been on second hand shoes – Goodwill finds, or Wal Mart brand Chuck Taylor knockoffs. Last year, James Flatten hooked me up with a pair of Teva shoes through Grassroots Cycles while we were building for Singletrack Trails last year at Granby Ranch. The difference between the mtb specific Teva shoes and the clapped on Wal Mart kicks was absolutely amazing. The Chuck Taylor knockoffs I had been wearing were not much more substantial than cardboard slippers, and I had come accustomed to my feet blowing off the pedals half a dozen times on any given run. With the Links shoes, it felt like my bike gained another two inches of plush travel in comfort and control. Instead of bouncing off the pedals, my feet stayed planted, and cushioned footbed absorbed many of the shaper impacts I felt before. The hex pattern in the sole interfaces very well with the platform pedal pins.

After almost a full year of riding and near daily wear, the Teva Links are reaching the end of their useful life. While the outside construction is still holding quite solid, the shock pad in the heel has collapsed, and the ankle nub padding has ripped out. The blown ankle padding can largely be attributed to my lazy habit of slipping shoes on and off without untying the laces. As in every shoe with a cushioning heel pad I have owned, the pad eventually collapses, leaving a cavity in the heel area, and followed by an aching in my feet and knees from the awkward fit. The Tevas have gone the same route, which seems the inevitable demise of any shoe so cushy. For as haggard and clapped out as the inside of the shoe is looking, the outside has been remarkably durable. The tread has worn down, but only a small chunk has been been ripped out by pedal pins. The Ion-Mask technology that is supposed to keep the shoe’s material from absorbing water on a molecular level didn’t do much for actually keeping my feet dry, but it is worth noting that after a year of relentless trail builder bachelor use, there is no undue funk emanating from the shoes.

5.10

The righteous zebra stripes combined with the sticky Stealth rubber have made these my go-to shoes of late.

When climbing shoe company put their super-stick Stealth rubber on a pair of beefed-up skate style shoes and Sam Hill began slaying World Cup downhills in them on flat pedals, the market for platform specific shoes began to take off. This spring was my first chance to rock a pair of 5.10’s, and I was excited to try out their famous rubber on platform pedals. There have been a lot of comments that 5.10 shoes with quality platform pedals are “almost like being clipped in.” While I’m not quite certain I would go as far to say that, they do feel very solid on the pedal. Solid is definitely the overall feeling of the 5.10 Freeriders. The footbed does not have the comfort & support of the Tevas, but the fabric lining of the interior is much heavier material, like Carhartts v. yoga pants. All this contributes to the legacy of durablity 5.10s are renowned with. The heavy duty construction feel makes it more likely I will use these more as riding only shoes, compared the new cushy bedroom slipper feel of the Tevas that invite you to wear them everywhere.

Airspeed

The Airspeeds have a conservative, yet stylish look, suitable for Mormon missionary hipsters. At under $20, they also fit into the Mormon missionary budget. Ride On, Elders!

Recently I made a trip out of town, bike in tow with the idea of hitting up some trails on the way. About an hour down the road, I realized I had forgotten my new to me 5.10 riding shoes. After berating myself for overly rushed packing, I decided to see what might be available in the wondrous aisles of Wal Mart. For $19.98, I scored a pair of Airspeed skate shoes, with a promisingly sticky sole. Though I have only had a few rides on them, I am impressed so far. They are just as sticky on my Straitline pins as either the 5.10’s or Tevas, and feel quite similar on the foot to the 5.10’s, but with noticeably less insole support than either shoe. While it hasn’t been a factor on short trail rides or dirt jump sessions, I would be reluctant to take them on long, rough, rocky rides or lift served resort riding, where too much pedal sensation underfoot becomes painful rather than pleasant feedback.

“Vanity, vanity, everything is vanity,” the Teacher of Ecclesiasties tells us. So let us take a moment to consider these shoes from the vanity standpoint. In this case, the flashy 5.10′s with their grey and white zebra stripe pattern win for me. I never really cared much for the purple of the Teva, though I do find myself partial the alternate grey/blue/yellow color scheme. The Airspeeds are definitely the most subdued of the three, and could be mistaken for your grandfather’s slip ons. Some people are into that, especially if it matches their sister’s jeans…

Of the three pairs of shoes, the Teva Links were by far the most comfortable. While the cushiony feel may be connected to its eventual demise, it seems a reasonable tradeoff, especially considering that the comfort directly correlates to control. This comfort, combined with the diamond shaped pockets in the tread pattern make for a grip easily on par, if not greater than the less comfortable, more durable 5.10’s. As for the Airspeeds? At $20, you can’t really consider them a waste of money, as the sticky sole adhered to the pedals just as well as either bike specific shoe, but lack the support to make them suitable for extended wear, and durablity remains to be seen. Of all three shoes, I would be most likely to buy the Tevas again, as they could well be the most comfortable shoes I have ever slipped my feet into; that carefully engineered comfort resulted in a very perceivable increase in control on the bike, and the life span is reasonable, considering how relentlessly I used them.

 

How being raised by a farmer-carpenter makes one “atheletic”

My dad, raised as an Iowa farmer, and a self-employed as a carpenter for much of his adult life, hated sports with the sort of vehemence one normally associates with jihadists for infidels, or the IRA for the English occupation. Any interest we expressed being like the other kids and playing the normal array of stick and ball sports usually elicited impassioned polemics as to the senselessness, lack of moral fiber, and unalloyed degeneracy that were the natural and unavoidable consequences of taking up such ungodly pursuits. So I didn’t play sports much as a kid. When it came time to divy up teams for gym class, I was one of the last to be chosen; the four eyed nerd waiting at the end of the line with the fat kids and the mentally handicapped. Actually, they usually got chosen before me because at least they knew which way to run with the ball.
Instead of playing sports, most of my childhood was spent in a form of indentured labor. Any of my own plans were superseded by my dad’s directive to assist him in any variety of projects, from digging footers by hand for additions, reroofing houses, or hauling hay. Little did I know at the time, but this rural raising was laying the foundations for an adult life of adventure.
This winter when I finally got around to trying out snowboarding, it was a very odd and curious thing to hear so many of my friends here in Colorado say, “Oh, you’ll pick it up no problem, since you are so athletic!” Granted, I am more active than most of the team captains from my days in the halls of the Cherryvale public school system, but I still don’t think of myself as athletic. I ride bikes, hike across unknown terrain, and move boulders simply because I find it rewarding and enjoyable, not as part of any training regimen. The health benefits of such activities are trivial side effects in comparison to the joy they bring to my soul.
As I was teaching myself how to make it down the mountain without cartwheeling into a snowball, I found several elements of my non-athletic upbringing coming into play. The feel of the board underfoot while carving a controlled turn is the same sensation as spreading sheetrock mud a drywall knife. When I found myself getting bucked by rough, bumpy snow, I reverted to the loose, flexible stability I learned loading swaying hay trailers in rough pastures. Choosing my line down the mountain required the same basic vision scanning skills as piloting a tractor and trailer through the Southeast Kansas woods.
I shared this irony with my cousin as we were riding the lifts at Snowmass on an epic spring powder day where I finally began to feel that I was in control of the board, and falling in love with the mountains and winter all over again. While I was wondering why I couldn’t have a normal, sports-filled childhood as I was digging ditches, hauling hay, and building barns, little did I know my dad was actually preparing me for an adult life of adventure. So thanks, Dad, for all the athletic training.

Starting the cycle again

Juniper branches scratch and claw at me as I drag their severed limbs away from the trail corridor. In a densely choked declivity between lichen covered boulders, I arrange the branches to lay flat as possible against the dark duff of needles, branches, and bark, and wonder how many cycles of rainstorms, erosion, and decay it will take for this collection of disparate organic material to turn into dirt.
As a trailbuilder it is our medium, the corpus of our work. Sure there are wonderful creations of wood, and signature slickrock rides, but dirt is the sine qua non of mountain biking. Cutting a trail through the landscape is akin to process of surgery & dissection, abliet with picks and McLeods. Excavating by hand through the landscape, one is exposed to a very intimate and detailed natural history of erosion, decay, and life. One sees what an incredibly slow process by which dirt is formed here in the arid mountain west.
Growing up in the fertile pastures and fields of Southeast Kansas, I took the existence of dirt and green growing things rather for granted. When I moved to the high desert of Western Colorado, it was a shock to realize that every green and growing thing existed only because someone had brought water to it. Then I began to understand the miracle of life in the desert more, and appreciate against what incredible odds it survived against, whether it be a juniper tree, a chunk of crytpogram, clump of cactus, or fragrant sage. The smallest difference, a dead juniper branch laying across a steep slope, creating a miniature terrace for rabbitbrush to take root, the shade of a boulder protecting a deep bed of moss, all random elements coming together to support life, and by their own cycle of life and death, enriching the earth for those to come after them.
And then we use it to play on. So I think about the gravity of my acts every time I prune a juniper limb to blood red purple eye, hack through the bed of rootbound organic matter that vacuum seals Wyoming rocks in place, or crush lichen covered rock into backfill, and make sure that I am doing my best in the cycle of life and death to make this world a better place for those that come after me.

Early Season Stoke

Saturday night I went to the Endoholics season kickoff party in Grand Junction. Social opportunities can be rather limited here in Rifle, so it seemed like a good excuse to get out of town and party down.

As per my usual, I was one of the early nerd on time kids to the party, standing in the stiff awkward pose of not knowing anyone, looking for a comfortable corner to hide myself in. But the great thing about being at a mountain bike party is that there’s always a common topic of conversation, and I was soon meeting many new fellow riding compatriots, catching up with old friends, and telling everyone the good news of Rifle. Things followed after the normal party parabola as more guests, food and libations began to flow into the Spyglass Ride Community Center. Blank had put together a highlights edit from the past season’s ride that quickly got everyone stoked on the season to come. Ruby Canyon Cycles donated several choice pieces of gear for a silent auction that raised $500 for the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Alliance.  Following the natural order of parties, people were soon standing on tables next to empty tequila bottles, delivering heartfelt encomiums of how much mountain biking means to us all.

The next morning, having limited my intake to avoid an early morning headache, I took a detour through DeBeque on my way back to Rifle. The network of moto singletrack near DeBeque has been getting a lot of attention lately, and is one of the key areas under review in the BLM’s new travel management plan. I have ridden a few segments of the 50+ miles of trail in the area (techy moves abound, but flow can be found) and was curious to see what else might be around. Though I heard a few motos out on the trails, there was still too much mud and snow on the trails for my tastes. A short distance down V.2 Rd from our usual one car parking spot, I came across a slickrock drainage that made for an ideal early season play zone. Snow on the shady side of the slickrock made a few areas off limits, but there was plenty of dry dirt and rock to make for a great afternoon of sessions. The echoes of the motos soon dispersed and I was left alone in the silence of a gathering storm to find my own lines in a playground set in the vastness of the Colorado Plateau.

Click below for a link to short iPhone video:

 

DeBeque play area

In Praise of Simple Things

Most reviews are written about the latest and greatest. The bike I’m about to review isn’t even in production any more. But having ridden it all of last season, and in various iterations before that, it is one I am very familiar with and have come to admire its simple, basic reliability. The Soul Cycles Matador is a conventional single-pivot design, billed as dual slalom/4x/compact trail bike. At the time I acquired the Matador, I was riding a second hand Uzzi VPX which had become too portly for general trail riding. The Uzzi was great when pointed down with a head of steam behind it, but uphills or even flats required a considerable amount of wattage just to keep moving. As I love my flowy jump trails, but still enjoy a good trail ride, the Matador seemed like a nice balance of compromise.

 

An early version of the Matador, minus drivetrain (a.k.a. pumptrack special) after blowing it apart in Rabbit Valley mud. That racy-looking Bontrager saddle with its speedbat wings projecting out the back tore holes in every pair of shorts or pants I rode in.

The first edition of the Matador sported a short stroke DHX air shock, which promptly blew out, resulting in a wallowing, uncontrolled ride. In search of  more controlled and reliable suspension, I picked up a Manitou Swinger 3 way coil shock on ebay for $50. It worked decently, but soon went the way of the DHX Air. Part of my reasoning in choosing the Swinger was its cheapness & availablity, as its platform damping design has fallen out of favor, but lends itself to aftermarket modification through Avalanche Downhill racing’s rebuild program. For far less than the cost of a new shock, Craig Seekins at Avalanche downhill racing rebuilt my shock with better than new internals, and customized the valving for my weight and riding style.

The Manitou Swinger 3-Way post Avalanche rebuild. Pirate flag endorsed.

This modification, along with Craig’s advice about shock tuning and limitations, made the Matador into the bike I was hoping it would be. Last summer I took it on everything from epic trail rides to dirt jumping sessions, gnarly rock garden bashing, and floating over table tops on jump trails. It would be asking too much of your credulity, dear readers, to insist that it was excellent at everything. The geometery is a bit too tight (14.5” seattube, 22.5” top tube”) to make it comfortable for extended pedaling, and the 5” of single pivot suspension is quickly overwhelmed in rock gardens and chunder. It has a bit too much squish for pumptracks, but as someone who is still learning dirt jumps, it is very forgiving when coming up short (or overshooting) landings. On lift-served jump trails such as Rain Maker at Winter Park or Vahalla at Snowmass, the Matador is completely in its element. Braking bumps can be unsettling though, and on narrower, technical trails such as at Crested Butte, holding your line requires complete, clear headed Jedi mind focus.

The Matador in its current build. The KS seatpost has given it a whole new element of trail riding aptitude.

Acknowledging the limits of the bike, I am still impressed with its solidness, versatility and reliability. In rock gardens, high speed berms and sideways landings, the bolt-together rear end with the scissors link has proven solid. Sure, I have had to tighten bolts from time to time, but most are fixed with a dab of Loc-Tite. Any bike disassembled, reassembled, and ridden hard is going to have some loose bolts.

With a 410 mm Thomson seatpost, I was able to get enough leg extension to make for reasonable efficiency in seated pedaling, but the KS remote adjust seatpost is a bit shorter, and compromises seated pedaling. James Wilson of Mtb Strength Training Systems advocates riding with the seat low to develop core strength and bike handling skills, so now I just think of how much more of a badass I am going to be with all the standing pedaling I do on the Matador.

The clean, simple design allows a wide variety of potential configurations. It was designed to run either 24” or 26” wheels, and given the amount of clearance it has  with 26” wheels, it is safe to bet one could fit 650b in there as well.

Another simple, unique features of the Matador is how the rear triangle bolts together. This makes for great traveling bike setup. Instead of having to deal with a bike box and oversize luggage fees, I simply bought the largest suitcase I could find at Ross, disassambled the Matador and stuffed it in.

Soul Cycles has a new design in the works, the Analog, which appears to everything I would wish for to make the Matador a more well-rounded trail bike: longer seattube, longer toptube, 1.5 headtube to fit any fork & headset combo you like, ISCG tabs for a chainguide, and a smidge more travel (140mm v. 130mm), and multiple options for rear axles and shock position.

The Gumption Wagon gets new shoes

Over the past year, I have dumped quite a bit of money into the Gumption Wagon, having the good folks at 4 Play Offroad install a Trail Gear lift kit, hi steer set up, and dual transfer cases. While the mechanical underpinnings of my 4Runner are solid, the rubber connecting it to the road has been anything but. For the 4 years I have been piloting the Gumption Wagon across Colorado and beyond, the tires and wheels have always been sub par. The first set featured a bent wheel (in one of my least favorite wheel styles) and unevenly worn tread.

The Gumption Wagon in an early explore on the north side of the Grand Hogback.

Two years ago, I purchased a second hand set set of shiny wheels from mountain biking bad ass Ross Schnell through a random craigslist ad. The wheels were certainly a style upgrade, but the tires were a significant size downgrade. And if you live in Rifle, CO, putting smaller tires on your vehicle is certain to get you a lot of suspicious stares.

The Gumption Wagon, pre-op at 4Play Offroad, with embarrassingly undersized tires.

Financing the mechanical work and upgrades drained my budget to the point I wasn’t able to afford tires that would really round out the build. Lance was able to scrounge up a well-used set of 35″ BFG mud terrains that held air, but the cracked and bulging carcasses made for an unnerving wobble at anything above 35 mph.

I was finally able to afford a new set of 35×12.50×15′s  for the Gumption Wagon, and decided to pick the cool new kid on the block, the General Grabbers with their attention-grabbing red-lettered sidewalls, suitable for rednecks & the KJV. The blocky parallellogram tread pattern has definite desert racing roots, and I was a little concerned about how they might handle the snow and ice of Colorado compared to the more elaborately siped and shaped lugs of most modern mud terrain tires. I’m not much of one for hardcore mudding, but I do live by the Dirt Every Day principle, so as soon as I had them mounted up, I headed out to some of my regular off road routes to see how they fared in the mud, snow, and slop that make up Western Colorado winters. I was stoked to discover that they handled the meltslop of local two tracks with aplomb, tracking well even in 2wd, and cleaning out very admirably. Admirably enough to move fender flares up on my priority list… I didn’t get stuck messing around in 2wd until I came to a steep, snow covered climb that I spun out on while putting my way up. Simply shifting into 4wd, the Grabbers dug in and I made it to the top with no puckering slides or undue wheel spinning.

I detected a definite increase in top end speed due to the red lettering.

 

Deceptively simple, desert racer cool.

Though the tread pattern looks simple at first, there is quite a bit going on in these basic shapes. It almost appears as an illusion of curvature or perspective, the but the channels between the the tread blocks actually change width, tapering in a very flattened ellipse shape, being narrower at the edges of the tread and wider in the center. The larger center blocks also have chamfered edges, effectively increasing the volume of the center channel. This is what General calls their “strake & chamfer” design. The chamfered-off edge combined with the strake pockets in the tread blocks effectively increases their off-road traction while delivering a very smooth and quiet ride on the road – no more than an aggressive all terrain tire.

 

The Gumption Wagon lookin’ good in new sneaks!

These tires made the Gumption Wagon drive like it was 20 years newer. All the work that 4Play had done installing the high steer set up and front end alignment had been masked by horrible tires I had been running before. Taking my hands off the wheel simply was not an option, now it tracks true down the road with no hint of wobble, shimmy, or drift. The subdued road noise is a welcome civility in the poorly insulated Wagon cockpit, and as an added bonus, it drives around corners much more smoothly without the awkward, hopping, chirping dance I had become accustomed to with driving a spooled rear axle.

Between the much more civilized pavement ride and enhanced off-road performance of the General Grabbers, I have fallen in love with the Gumption Wagon all over again, and am finally able to reap the benefits of all the work 4Play has done on it. 4Play Offroad was able to offer a price very competitive with any internet deal you might scrounge up for a set of new tires, especially when shipping and mounting and balancing prices are figured in. The support and knowledge I get when dealing with 4Play gives me a peace of mind when making major purchases for my 4Runner that cannot be had by internet scrounging. GIve 4Play a call at 970-625-2300 to see what they can do to put a little more Gumption in your Wagon.