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Archive for September, 2007

5. Charlotte; 6. Chestnut Knob (South Mountains State Park)

Wednesday, September 5th, 2007

I’m still trying to wrap my head around all the things we did on our vacation, and find time to write about them. It’s just so overwhelming.

Friday evening, we arrived in Charlotte and went to dinner with my friends from college, Michael and Laurel. He is now an attorney, and she works for the Opera. We went to a Persian/Turkish restaurant and had a delicious meal. After that, we went back to Laurel’s apartment, had some drinks, and caught up on what’s been going on in each other’s lives. Sarah had never met Laurel before, and they seemed to hit it off pretty well. Among other things, we simply had to try some carbonated wine in pink cans with straws that Laurel had found somewhere. This brilliant product was apparently created by Sofia Coppola.

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A toast to the manliest drink of all time.

After being up probably far too late, we went to Michael’s apartment (which is within walking distance) to crash. We got up the next day and got some breakfast. Michael took us by the house he’s having built, and it’s obviously going to be very nice. It was cool to see it as a work in progress.

After we ate some breakfast, we headed toward South Mountains State Park for a hike. Sarah and I were a little underprepared, as we were expecting to do a fairly easy hike. Instead, we ended up hiking the Chestnut Knob trail, which ended up being the second-hardest hike on our entire trip. It’s not a terribly long hike, about two miles each way, but it’s steep most of the way and goes right up the side of the mountain. It didn’t help that it was very hot, in at least the mid-90s.

Also, Michael has always been one to walk fast, and they took off at quite an impressive pace. A little too impressive, as we didn’t feel we could sustain that pace, and prefer taking our time anyway. So, we slowed down and told them they could go ahead if they wanted to. They were cool about it, though, and slowed down to stick with us.

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Me, on the way up / The trail had a lot of wooden steps

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The first overlook on the trail

We reached one overlook and were probably halfway there at this point. Sarah wasn’t sure she could make it, but some encouraging words from me seemed to help a little bit. We got to what seemed to be the end of the trail, where there was supposed to be another overlook, but there wasn’t one. However, there was a hiker icon on a sign, so I figured we ought to continue on that section of trail. It went sharply down a rocky area for a ways, but we followed it to a rocky area you could climb out on for panoramic views. It was fantastic.

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Panoramic view from the overlook (worth viewing large)

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Sarah and me
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Never had I felt cooler than this, standing on a high rock, looking down on some other mountain ranges

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Part of the trail on the way back

It was a fantastic hike — more strenuous than we expected, and we should have brought more water and other supplies. However, it was manageable once we slowed down. I was really glad that we got to go hiking with Michael and Laurel, as it was very different from how I had interacted with them back in college. It was also a good introduction to the hiking we’d do on the rest of the trip.

Pre-Breakdown Shakedown, and other weekend rides

Tuesday, September 4th, 2007

It was a great weekend for riding. I did a 26-mile road ride Friday night on Shilo Road, didn’t ride at all on Saturday, and rode Sunday morning with Dave and Chris W, who borrowed Chris B’s bike. W did a great job (this was only his second ride, at least in recent years), didn’t wipe out once, and kept up with us pretty well. He’s a cool guy, to boot.  Dave and I rode the North Tower Loop with him, and then went out and did it again just the two of us, this time finishing it in about 50 minutes. We didn’t stop once. That’s a pretty good time for us.

The big ride of the holiday weekend, though, was Monday’s ride, which Dave dubbed the “Pre-Breakdown Shakedown” since it was a long ride in preparation for the Brown County Breakdown, which is later this month. The Breakdown (also known as The Epic) is an annual mountain biking ride with a few different mileage options. Last year, I did the 35-mile route, which is the shortest one. This year, I’m going to attempt the 62-mile (100 km) route, which in previous years has been the longest, but they’re adding a 100-mile option this year. Keep in mind that almost all of this is trail riding, which is more difficult than road riding, in my estimation by about a factor of two. You can check out the Brown County Breakdown announcement, read the excellent FAQ, or see my recap of last year’s Breakdown.

The main point of the Shakedown ride was to try riding on Hickory Ridge trails 18, 19, and 20, which form part of the 62-mile route and were the only sections of trail we had never ridden. It was hard to know whether we should attempt the 62-mile course, or just do the 50-mile option. Was that extra 12 miles going to be relatively easy, or would it be the most difficult part of the entire ride? We also threw in a ride on Nebo Ridge, which is also part of the Breakdown course, and brought the total mileage for Monday’s ride to about 33, including a few miles on gravel roads between some of the trails.

Initially, we were going to meet in Nashville, IN at 9:00 am, but DJ had to take his sister to the airport, so we ended up meeting at 2:00 pm instead. I was not too happy about this, really, for many reasons, and I almost didn’t even go, but I got over it and had a great time anyway.

It was about 92 degrees when we started riding at the main Nebo Ridge trailhead at 3:20 pm. Dave and I rode Nebo Ridge a couple of times this spring, and every time we ride it we appreciate it more. But recently, we heard that someone had attempted to do some maintenance on the trail, but did a horrible job and ruined our favorite part of the trail. We hadn’t ridden at Nebo Ridge since. Last week, we heard that someone fixed it, so we were curious to see what kind of shape the trail was in.

The long climb at the beginning of Nebo really got my blood pumping. There were a couple of trees down that we had to walk around, but we noted their presence so we could hopefully avoid any surprises on the way back. After a big climb, Nebo takes you through 7 descents, each followed by a hefty climb. It’s brutal, but it’s sort of like interval training. One of the climbs is particularly difficult, as it’s the longest and steepest one, and has a rough trail surface with loose rocks. Another thing about Nebo is that it’s a multi-use trail, and sees some horse traffic. That accounts for some of the adverse trail conditions, such as rough, rutted trail surfaces, loose rocks and dirt, erosion, and of course, occasional manure.
DJ had only ridden Nebo a couple of times before, and he seemed a little surprised at how difficult it was. He rode well, but those climbs really take it out of you. He was also having some trouble with his clipless pedals, as he broke a part on his right pedal. This made it difficult for him to clip in, at times.

About halfway through the trail, it changes from doubletrack to singletrack, the climbs get easier, and it gets a bit curvier in spots. You can really fly through the second half of the trail, with some really fun descents, riding on the edge of ravines, etc. The trail has great flow, with only a few sharp turns in fast sections. There’s a rock garden that I had never cleared before, but I easily cleared this time. DJ reminded me “It’s all in your head” when I expressed surprise at how easy it seemed this time around, and I think he’s basically right. I tackled it without fear and also took a little extra speed into it this time, and I think those two reasons are why I cleared it.

The trail was dustier than I’ve ever seen it yesterday. I routinely dropped back to give the dust a chance to settle after the guy in front of me. At times, I couldn’t even see the surface of the trail. This could be a problem, because there were quite a few logs to jump, and sometimes, I didn’t see them until it was almost too late. However, I am getting much better at loosening my grip on the handlebars.

When I first started mountain biking, I had a tendency to hold on tight, especially through rough sections. Many riders do this. The problem is that this doesn’t help, and what you really want to do is keep a loose grip and let the front wheel bounce over things as needed. I knew this all along, in theory, but it took me a long time to figure out how to do this without feeling like the handlebars were going to slip out of my hands. Hell, I’m still figuring it out, but the last few rides especially, I seem to have gotten really good at this. It’s fantastic, because I can just fly over many sections of trail I would have considered technical previously, simply by letting the bike do the work. I think I need a better fork to do this more effectively, but I’ve still made a vast improvement in my riding by changing my technique slightly.

The sections of trail that were ruined and subsequently repaired weren’t too bad. All that remained of the screw-ups were small piles of gravel going across the trail. In time, these will get packed down and will barely be noticeable. They were a little bit of a hazard because a couple of them slowed me down suddenly, and if you hit them the wrong way, you might wipe out. But none of us did.

Once we reached the end of Nebo, we took a break and ate some energy bars and whatnot. I drank some Gatorade, which I typically don’t take on mountain bike rides, but maybe I should. It really helped. We headed down the steep hill at the end of Nebo and rode a few miles, mostly uphill, on gravel roads to reach the Hickory Ridge Trail 19 Trailhead. The gravel road climb was pretty tiring, but we’d soon find that it was well worth it, and probably easier than doing that climbing on a trail.

Both Nebo Ridge and Hickory Ridge are multi-use trail in the Hoosier National Forest. Nebo is more traveled and sees more bike traffic, whereas Hickory Ridge, as I understand it, sees more horse traffic. Hickory Ridge is a 46-mile trail system, but with many more groomed, bicycle-only trails in the area, a lot of people never make it out to Hickory Ridge. Based on what we saw, it didn’t seem like the Hickory Ridge trails had seen much traffic at all, as they were fairly overgrown, with debris and downed logs over the trail. In some places, the dust was ground almost to sand; other sections were pock-marked and rough from hooves. Still, even if they were more rugged, they were overall very rideable, with only one hike-a-bike section that was too chewed up by erosion and horse traffic to ride.

Trail 19 took us through a few descents and climbs, but nothing too intense. Then, we took a gravel road over to Trail 18. I really got to feeling like we were in the middle of nowhere at this point, with no cars or other people visible or audible for many miles. There were numerous campsites available, but all of them were vacant. You can also camp along the trails in the National Forest, but nobody was doing that, either. On the other hand, if people had been camping over the weekend, they probably would have left by that point, anyway.

The portion of Trail 18 that we rode was an absolute blast. It had several long downhill runs, some with switchbacks in them. There was some erosion, but it actually helped, as it allowed us to use the rutted trails as banked turns. I was flying down a huge hill, with Dave kicking up dust in front of me — rays of sun filtered through the trees, penetrating and illuminating the dust in diverging line patterns while more dust swirled upwards. I picked up more speed, wove through a curvy section of trail and continued the descent into the ravine. I saw the trail curve suddenly to the left and slowed down a bit, aware that the loose soil could mean washing out. But I was in control, and swooped around to the left. The trail dropped down more, went into a hairpin switchback. I modulated my brakes and threw my weight into the turn, then descending a few more feet into a creek crossing. I cleared the creek, but soon after had to stop as the trail up the other side of the ravine became a chewed-up, loose, rocky, eroded mess. We waited a minute or two for DJ, yelling warnings about the turn and switchback to him. He cleared them, and we carried our bikes out of the ravine.

There, we picked up Trail 20, which took us into an awesome clearing, and we almost lost the trail under prematurely-fallen leaves, but we managed to follow it nonetheless. The trail doubled back and took us through a beautiful pine forest, the soft needles a welcome change from the harder, bumpier trail surfaces we’d been on for most of the ride. Then, the trail unceremoniously dumped us back onto the gravel road we had climbed earlier.

We rode back toward Combs Road. When riding Nebo, you can do it as an out-and-back (which I prefer, generally), or you can take gravel roads for several miles, and then go through what used to be some jeep roads, climb a big hill, and then rejoin the Nebo Ridge trail for a couple more miles back to the parking lot. We took Combs Road this time, in part for the sake of time, and in part because we were getting plenty of trail miles in anyway, and this way was easier. Combs Road goes on for longer than I remembered, and there are a couple of climbs in there, but they are manageable.

Once you reach the end of the jeep roads, there’s a hell of a climb to reconnect with the trail. It climbs steeply, has a small dip, climbs steeply, has another small dip, etc. I had never conquered this hill before, but I did this time. In fact, we all made it up without stopping.

After that, we had a few small descents and climbs, where we had to look out for the trees that got in our way earlier. We went around those on foot and continued riding. Finally, we rode down the long descent back to the trailhead. It’s a tricky descent, bumpy with a lot of roots, and the trail winds quite a bit during this section. Still, we all made it down without incident and exchanged high fives once we reached the parking lot. We had ridden about 33 miles in 3:45. It doesn’t sound impressive if you’re used to road riding, but given the rugged trails we rode on, I think it’s great. It was an epic ride. Dave got some Stella Artois beer out of the cooler in his truck, and I have to say, that may have been the most refreshing beer I ever had. A good end to a great ride.

This ride really left me wanting to explore more of the Hickory Ridge trails; hopefully we can do that sometime soon. I also feel pretty confident that I can do the 62-mile course at this year’s Breakdown. The good thing is, I can see how I feel at the end of Nebo Ridge, and if I feel good, I can continue into Hickory Ridge. If I’m running out of energy, I can head back toward Brown County State Park. But I felt surprisingly good throughout this ride — not once did it take on a “death march” feeling, as some rides do, where you can barely keep pedaling, but you do it anyway just to get back. The whole ride was enjoyable.

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