Experimental music, photography, and adventures

Pre-Breakdown Fiasco

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

On Sunday, some mountain biking buddies and I set out on a ride that was intended to be this year’s “Pre-Breakdown Shakedown,” in the spirit of last year’s ride which we gave the same name. Last year’s “Shakedown” was a long mountain bike ride we did in preparation for the Brown County Breakdown, my favorite ride of the year involving rides through Brown County State Park and Hoosier National Forest of 35, 50, 62, 75, and 100 miles. We were going to do roughly the same route as last year, the Nebo Ridge Trail plus Hickory Ridge trails 18, 19, and 20. I took a $2 Goodwill film camera, since my camera is still in the shop.

We decided on an early start, due to various scheduling concerns. Now, I’m not a morning person, but I truly enjoyed being up and about, and had a beautiful, foggy drive to the trail. I saw a couple of turkeys along the way. Sarah made me a big breakfast before I left, and I took plenty of coffee with me, arriving at the trailhead highly caffeinated. I was riding with Dave and DJ, both of whom I’ve ridden with before, and Jason, who I had not met prior to this ride.

One thing I love about Nebo Ridge is its location. It’s about an hour from where I live, so it’s not convenient, butiIt is incredibly remote and beautiful. The last sign of civilization you see is the tiny town of Story, IN, which is home to the Story Inn, a local art shop, and about two dozen citizens. After that, you pass a few homes and farms and then the road becomes gravel and crosses a couple of one-lane bridges. Then, you park and ride into the woods. There are no services here — no bathrooms, no water, no electricity, no cell phone reception, for the most part. You have to carry all the food, water, tools, and supplies you might need. I try to be well prepared. This satellite map should give you an idea of just how remote this is (the trailhead is about in the middle of the map).

The ride started well enough. I had a slow leak in my rear tire, but decided I could make it. I had only lost a few PSI overnight, so it wasn’t too bad. I was also testing a new saddle, so this was truly to be a shakedown.

We started the long climb at the beginning of Nebo Ridge, and I hoped my caffeine buzz would last at least until the top of the hill. The ride starts with 1.25 or 1.5 miles of climbing that takes 10-15 solid minutes. None of it is particularly steep, but it’s a rough trail surface, with lots of rocks, roots, erosion, and of course horse droppings to navigate. There’s no chance to warm up, you are thrown immediately into a long climb. It was made more difficult by the fact that there were a lot of sticks, logs, and even whole trees that had been blown down in the strong winds a week before, remnants of Ike that made their way all the way up from Texas to Indiana.

Somewhere during the climb, Dave got some thorns stuck in his front tire. He removed them, and it seemed to be holding air, so we continued riding. We had some conversation going for a while, but at some point drifted off into just riding. Partially, we were riding too hard to talk, and partially, we were mesmerized by the forest — or at least I was. The quiet ride was interrupted only by the occasional gun blast (apparently, squirrel hunting season has started) and sticks breaking under our tires as we rode.

Fortunately, that first climb is the hardest part of the whole trail, but it’s followed by some big rolling hills. You drop down into a valley, climb up a steep hill, and repeat the whole process, 7 times. Momentum helps some, but one climb is very steep and I even ended up walking part of it. In my defense, my new saddle still wasn’t dialed in and I was in a situation where I had to choose between keeping my weight on the saddle (thereby popping a wheelie and losing my line) or standing (and having my rear wheel spin out). I chose the former, and once I lost my line, I was through. I walked the rest of the hill. Everyone else made it, putting me to shame. However, I hopped back on the bike and resumed riding.

Nebo has such a different feel from the pristine, well-designed, pruned trails at Brown County State Park. It’s shared with horses, fraught with erosion, and covered in loose rocks and dust. It’s much more raw; Mother Nature has had her way with it, and in my view it’s a wonderful thing. I love the Brown County trails, but this just feels more real.

We stopped at a usual break spot by a pond, and I took the opportunity to adjust my saddle. It would take a few tries for me to get it adjusted properly, but everyone was patient. Besides, we all needed to catch our breath. Once we were past the 7 big hills (8, counting the first one), things got a lot easier, and more fun. Basically the second half of the trail is largely downhill, with lots of fun twists and turns, a few climbs, and some fun technical features: a rock garden, other rock features, a couple of dropoffs, tricky roots to wheelie over, etc. None of the features slows you down too much, though, and it’s a real roller coaster ride. I made it over the rock garden, which I have only done successfully once or twice before, and enjoyed the dropoffs more than usual.

We suddenly came to a place where a couple of trees had fallen, blocking the trail. We put our bikes on our shoulders and precariously stepped over some branches and ducked under others.

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Foreground: fallen trees. Background: trail

Dave and I stopped to put some more air in his tire — it was going flat from a thorn puncture — and DJ and Jason weren’t with us. We figured they were just a few minutes behind, and kept riding. Dave thought if he put some air in the tire, we could make it to the end of the trail before fixing the puncture.

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Dave, inflating his tire

We enjoyed the last 20 minutes or so of riding. I had forgotten how fast this trail can be — we were flying, sometimes literally. Frequently sticks would jump up as I rolled over them and bounce off my shins. Sometimes sticks would shift beneath us as we rode, and it almost felt like riding on gravel, where you have to accept some sliding around, and once you get used to it you realize you can ride faster than you’d think and your bike will roll over the loose, bumpy stuff beneath you.

We reached the end of the trail and stopped to patch Dave’s tube. I had an extra tube but Dave needed a presta valve and my tube had a schrader. I am pretty good at patching tubes by now, so I helped him with that. But the first patch didn’t take, and I peeled it off and started over again, making sure to sand down the surface a bit more.

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Reaching the end of Nebo Ridge

While I was working on this, finally DJ caught up with us. We asked what had happened, and where Jason was. He assured us that nobody was hurt, and then proceeded to tell us that Jason had gotten some debris stuck in his derailleur. Then, when he started pedalling, somehow his chain slipped off the largest cog on the cassette, doubled over itself, and got lodged between the spokes and cassette, taking four spokes out with it.

They tried and tried, but couldn’t even dislodge the chain. Jason had to walk the 4+ miles back to the trailhead, and couldn’t even push his bike, as his rear wheel wouldn’t turn. He must have lifted either the rear wheel or carried the whole bike the entire way, in biking shoes, which are horrible for hiking. But there was no other way.

This was Jason’s first time riding at Nebo Ridge, and I hoped this wouldn’t sour him on the trail. It’s a great trail, but it can also be brutal. I hope he’ll give it another shot sometime, as it’s a lot of fun when your bike isn’t destroyed.

The plan, apparently, was for DJ to meet Jason back at the parking lot. We decided to all ride back and forego the Hickory Ridge trails we had planned to ride. It seemed best to stick together as much as we could, and it seemed like riding the extra trails would be really pressing our luck.

I finished putting the second patch on Dave’s inner tube, and he put it back on the rim and pumped it up. We started down the very steep hill down to the road (we do a loop with the Nebo Ridge trail and some paved, gravel, and dirt roads that lead back to an earlier part of the trail).

Once we reached the bottom of the hill, I realized my rear tire was very low. I stopped to add some air, hoping it’d hold for the rest of the ride. We rode along the road for a while, passing some fields absolutely covered in golden flowers (goldenrod?) — I wanted to get a photo, but didn’t want to stop.

I stopped to raise my saddle and told DJ I’d catch up in a minute. Big mistake. I fixed my saddle and started riding again and my rear tire was losing air faster and faster. I had to stop and change the tube. I got out my cell phone and tried calling Dave, but I had no reception. I assumed they would figure out what happened and turn around to find me.

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Combs Road

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Hill and trailer

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Working on my bicycle — notice the tent in the background

I used my spare tube, but kept the punctured tube to patch later and keep as a spare. I found the thorn responsible for the puncture — still stuck in my tire — and removed it. I was a little irked that I had a flat tire, but I have gotten good enough at dealing with flats that I no longer panic when it happens, I just work on fixing the flat. It took at least 300 times pumping with my minipump to inflate the tire. Arduous, but I got it up to a decent pressure. Just as I was putting the wheel back on my bike, Dave rode up.

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Dave arrives

He asked what happened, so I told him. He said DJ went ahead to meet up with Jason, and he came back to find me. That worked for me, I was admittedly glad someone had stuck around to ride back with me. I know the way, but I’d rather ride back with Dave than on my own.

The gravel road turns to dirt and is blocked off to motorized traffic. Bikes can continue on the dirt road, which was in much better shape than the last time we rode there. There are a few gravel sections, which were really loose before, but now they are packed tightly, and it makes for much smoother riding.

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Dirt road

We stopped to rest and have a snack before the insane Combs Road climb, which has several steep sections, each followed by a dip. Each dip is welcome respite from climbing, but only a momentary rest, as the climb gets even steeper after the dips.

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Resting

Dave went first, and made it all the way up without stopping. I followed and also made it all the way up. This is one of those sections that I sometimes ride successfully and sometimes screw up, so I felt a sense of accomplishment when I reached the top.

Combs Road Climb
Combs Road climb

We had some more climbing to do to get back to the trail proper, and it was a tougher climb than I remembered, especially since it was littered with horse droppings. I had to take less-than-ideal lines several times because the horses had pooped in all the wrong spots. But I made it, without getting poop on my bike or myself. You know your ride is going well when you feel that that is an accomplishment.

Once back to the trail, we had a few ups and downs, with a couple of fun opportunities to catch some air, and then the long, bumpy descent back to the parking lot. It was relatively uneventful — which is to say, it was rough, but nobody crashed. The rocks and roots shake you violently as you ride down the hill, and impede your traction at some key moments that really test your faith in your tires. It’s fun, but harsh.

We returned to the parking lot and saw that DJ and Jason had already left. We took this as a good sign, obviously they must have found each other and gone.

All in all, this was a tough ride, but at least nobody was hurt. It was tougher on our bikes than on our bodies, although I was feeling the effects of this ride for some time afterwards, too. But despite it all, I still managed to have a good time. I almost feel guilty saying that, as I bet Jason didn’t have much fun at all. I really hope we’ll be able to get him to give it another shot, as Nebo can be a great experience, when it doesn’t completely and utterly destroy your bicycle.

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Field by the trailhead

We are planning on trying again to have a proper Shakedown ride. I’m not sure how to define that exactly, but I think it needs to be 30+ miles of trail riding. That doesn’t sound like a lot of mileage, given how much road riding I’ve been doing, but I’ve been reminded by a few recent mountain bike rides that 15 miles on a trail feels like 30-40 miles on the road. It’s more difficult and takes a lot more out of you. We have talked about possibly meeting somewhere in the Hickory Ridge trail system (which has nearly 50 miles of trails) and exploring those trails more. I hope we’re able to make that happen, as it sounds like a blast to me.

3 Responses to “Pre-Breakdown Fiasco”

  1. Jon Grinder Says:

    First off, I just saw your wedding post. Congrats, again. It looks like it was a beautiful ceremony.

    If you ever get in a situation with a stuck chain, similar to Jason’s, cut the chain (you do carry a chain tool, right?) and see if you can get more leverage to work it out. If not, cut it again, as close to the cassette as possible, so you can push the uphills and coast the downs. (I hate walking with a bike!)

  2. TJ Says:

    I like to tell myself that 1 mile on a mountain bike trail is like 7 on the road… Makes me feel better at the end of the day if I’ve only ridden 20 miles or so. I can tell people it was like riding 140 miles!

    See you at the Breakdown

  3. Dan Says:

    I love these photos. I wish there was a Photoshop or GIMP plugin that could make my digitals look like film shots. Maybe add 30 years of fading to match those old Instamatic prints in that shoebox in the back closet.

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