Solace

I hadn’t been on a road bike in quite a while, and it was good to take one out again, even if it wasn’t geared quite to my liking. I had been camping all summer with my fatbike in tow, so this last trip up north I threw my commuter on the rack for a change of pace.

Commuter spec is typically whatever you find in a drawer, which is befitting this Salsa Casseroll – a frame I found for $250 on a forum, paired with some old cyclocross 1×10 running gear. A Thorne 44t chainring on a CX70 crankset, an Ultegra 11-28 cassette, and the requisite 6700 accompaniments. It’s a setup I use around town to get to work, but had yet to be particularly adventurous with.

Camping only two miles down the road from one of the north country’s many fabled passages – Tripoli Road – the decision was made. I’d never seen this road in my years of riding up here, so whether or not I was geared for the task made little difference.

Tripoli opens as a beautiful, flowing road with modest grades. It is serene and exactly a place to be at 7am on a summer weekday morning. There’s no one here yet, except you. I absolutely took that in. I can’t remember the last time I was on a bike and just used it to escape. You forget just how therapeutic these experiences are. The sound of nothing but natural ambiance, and a squeaky left SPD.

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In the time I’ve spent aboard the Casseroll, it has been pleasing in terms of ride quality. I’ve never found it heavy, or heavy feeling for that matter. My carbon frames have never felt particularly substantial – they’ve been hollow feeling and uninteresting – so even for a lower spec cro-moly frame and fork, this Salsa defies expectations. It is a lively climber. It’s not a particularly “quick” feeling bike, which could be my only reservation. Whatever.

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I knew this road would turn to dirt at some point, and my concern was whether or not I had the tires for this ride. I questioned repeatedly if these 25mm Continental 4 Seasons at 80psi would be adequate, and reminded myself over and over that I spent many years riding 23mm tires at 120psi on these roads when I first started, and that I’m still alive. If I could ride such an inadequate spec up and down six gaps, I’d probably survive the day with something slightly more forgiving.

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Having no sense of where the climb ended, I climbed. My sometimes terrible instincts told me that as the grade picked up and became unforgiving, the summit was near. At least today, those instincts would prove correct. 44×28 was a bit of a workout over the final few miles of this road, but staying seated kept the rear tire in contact with the earth, and we had a healthy 45 minute sustained climb in the bag before breakfast.

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It’s always fun to determine what fraction of the time you spent climbing it will take to descend. The condition of the dirt and the width of my tires would dictate that pace, which was generally spirited, until it wasn’t and I pinch flatted.

HED Belgium rims are so easy to work with. Rather than turning a tire change into a stress fest, you can take your time, push the bead back on without a tire lever, and return to business with confidence.

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It’s a short road, but more time and planning could have meant a great loop up and over Tripoli to Waterville Valley; an excursion I look forward to, and wish I had made time for. When I’m traveling with my family, I never make it about bike rides, so I’m generally just finding saddle time and stumbling into something.

I have several great “road” bikes right now, but can’t seem to find the right one. This Casseroll is not far off, but really needs two chainrings. Pretty cheap to remedy that, but it also lacks disc brakes, which I really appreciate descending mountains with.  My Crux has such brakes, but that bike is geared with a 40t single front chainring, and despite deep carbon wheels, just never seems fast to me, as road rides on that bike are entirely high cadence. I still hold onto my Van Dessel Rivet, which is light as a feather, but is very stiff and won’t take a tire larger than certain species of 25mm. I think I’m after a cross bike with a big ring, but I fear that isn’t really a thing. I’ll spend the summer sorting it out.

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Pats Peak

I decided I would enter the Cat 2 single speed field at Pats Peak a few weeks before the Washington practice ride.  I had never ridden a bike here, but on paper it looked like the kind of brutally difficult effort I needed to put in the bank.

Also bear in mind that I just purchased a fantastic full suspension mountain bike this year.  For reasons I still do not understand, I opted not to race that bike, deciding instead that I would try to turn one gear up the side of a ski mountain for two hours.

I registered day of, and in the process caught a glimpse of the entry list.  It was only going to be three racers, and immediately I get that pit in my stomach.  It’s the feeling of “just don’t screw this up”.

At the starting line, I’m not feeling too encouraged.  Both of these guys have been racing a lot this year, and I on the other hand, have not.  In fact, my only mountain bike race in the last four years was a month ago.  So right away things are not stacking up for me.  But it’s of no consequence really.  All I need to do is finish this race and not embarrass myself.

We take off, and I the guy who I am certain will win this race takes off as expected.  The other guy I am very close to, and because I am turning 40 this year I do this “cagey mind game thing” where “I try to intimidate him”.  What this really means is I burn half of everything that I have blowing past him, thinking it will demoralize him and he will immediately give up.  That obviously does not materialize and within a few minutes he is safely past me and I am about to begin some time alone.

Pats Peak is a fucking terrible place to race a bike, at least if your bike doesn’t shift.  It is a never ending circuit of switching back and climbing, which is precisely what anyone signing up to race on a ski mountain should expect.  There was some riding, yes, but in large part, it was walking.  Lots and lots and lots of walking.  Too muddy, too technical, too steep, there was always a reason prohibiting you from spending more than a few minutes at a time actually pedaling.

The first of two laps was about an hour of this, with me never ever having sight of the other two racers.  I was firmly resigned to my third place position.  The only other racer I had contact with was a woman who had already finished, but was looking for some extra time on course because her event was cut short.  She would ride nearly everything I could not, on account of having a properly equipped bicycle.

About halfway up the mountain on my second lap, I’m in an actual “riding section” that traverses the face of the hill.  I have a bottle in my right hand, and my left is on the handlebar.  For some reason I am going a little too fast, so I grab some brake, which you’ll realize is going to be the front brake.  I immediately eject myself off the bike and through the tape into the tall grass.  As I collect myself on the ground, something has put a nasty gash in my inner thigh.  Great. This is fun.

I get back on and venture ahead, getting to a point where I just need this thing to be done.  I’m really not sure what kind of training value I’m getting out of this endeavor, as it is primarily hiking.  My energy feels pretty good, but it’s kind of useless.  Also my Garmin is now hanging by a thread, having been damaged in the crash, and it’s a constant distraction.

I finally get into the woods near the summit, where we’ll do a little more fucking around before we actually start to descend the trail system to the finish.  I’ve had enough of looking at this Garmin dangling from my handlebar, so I stop and remove it, stuffing it in my back pocket.  I’m tired of wondering if I’ll lose it, so this is strangely liberating.

Before I get going again I scan the area, and I think I see another racer well in the distance through the forest.  The switch flips and I start to give it a little bit of hell, wondering if just maybe it’s one of the guys from my field.  After a chunk of time, sure enough – I think it’s the second place racer I lined up with.  We come into a densely forested section that neither of us can ride, and I start to get that feeling.  The feeling that it’s time to race.

As we forge ahead on foot, he comes to a stop, and I pass him.  His seat and seatpost are absent from his bike, and I offer a word of sympathy before jumping back on and hammering away.  He immediately remounts, and here we are.  Two miles to go, and the podium is no longer decided – there’s going to be a fight.

I am drilling it.  I have never, ever taken so many chances on this bike in my life.  I am certain I will flat out the way I’m riding.  The tires are all over the place, washing out.  The other racer is right behind me, countering everything I throw at him.  But the one thing I can do, that he can’t, is sit.  And when I sit, I absolutely wring myself out, knowing it’s something he won’t be able to do.  I try to imagine how annoyed I would be in a particular section if I couldn’t sit, and then I sit and mash the fucking pedals with everything I have.

In a few minutes time I’m gapping him, and everything is becoming a blur.  I’m riding the same sections that I saw on the first lap, but completely differently.  They’re nothing but in the way of me getting to the end of this race in second place.

As I get to the top of a small rocky rise, both of my calf muscles lock up in excruciating pain.  There is no way in hell I will stop to work that out.  I keep pedaling in this frustratingly rigid motion, as the muscles refuse to flex.  This has never, ever happened to me before but my only thought is that I will ride it out and hope they resolve.  They have no choice, because I’m not stopping.  Not now.

I charge full gas into the final technical descent, nearly eating shit at least twice over the handlebars.  I have to reign myself in, reminding myself repeatedly that I actually need to finish the race.  All of the adrenaline is firing.  I can’t see the other racer anymore, but the paranoia is too great.

Very close to the finish the trail switches back under a ski lift, and from out of nowhere come half a dozen racers directly toward me.  I have no idea what the fuck is happening, and I’m half delirious at this point, but I’m mostly confident that I’m in the right and they’re all wrong.  Either way, someone is going the wrong way.  We pass impossibly close at speed and one of them clips me in the ribs.  Somehow no one crashes.  There is some shouting among them, and it is quickly worked out that all of them took a wrong turn.  Near disaster.

Minutes later it’s the finish, and I have seized second place from the jaws of mediocrity.  I’m eight minutes behind the winner, and put seven minutes into third place.

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At the podium ceremony, I am made aware that today’s races are USAC State Championship events.  As it turns out, I’m the only one in the field who is actually from New Hampshire, and I am crowned the NH state single speed MTB champion.

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I am not interested in racing here again.

The new radness

Lynx trail (the hard way, from the pond) on a singlespeed is a goddamn pain in the ass.  The trail is a pain in the ass anyway, but having only one gear to work with ups the ante.  In spite of having to walk a number of the second-half sections and largely giving up after the trail turned right, I was still 19/82 on the Strava World Championship Measuring Stick of Who Is Awesome At Bikes.  It was part of a loop I’d love to come back and ride more than one lap of.

Even in the daytime, it is creepy to be all alone deep in the woods on Lynx.  You have to ride a lot safer when you’re by yourself, and you’re more aware than usual – like how far away from your car you are.  And you hear things, and think you see things, and wonder what you would do if you encountered a huge crazy animal.  Fortunately the only craziness I came upon was a pair of fighting turkeys.

For the first time in over four years, I actually checked the air in this fork.  I bought the bike used in 2009 and never touched the suspension, because I am highly ignorant when it comes to these things.  As it turns out, the (+) pressure was off by 75psi, and the (-) was off 100psi.  That sort of explains why I always locked it out and occasionally swapped in a carbon rigid fork.  Now it’s much better.  Combined with this new Ardent 2.4, I’m a maniac.

This tire up front inspires so much confidence that it’s outright depressing.  Now I actually drive this bike through turns, instead of slowing up and hoping the front end doesn’t wash out.  There’s really no fear of it not being able to eat anything in its way.  The only weirdness I have to better understand is that it feels like it pulls to the side during a slow climb.  It may be a function of the mass of the tire.  But it’s really insignificant in context.

I’m not sure the Ralph is a great match.  As is usually the case when you put a high traction tire on the front of a bike, the inadequacies of the rear tire become pronounced.  The RR is not awful, it’s definitely a light tire, but it’s all over the place by comparison.  I have an old Ignitor I will throw on, just to see.

I really like the weight savings of my rigid carbon fork, but even with a 2.4 up front I sincerely doubt I will ride as free and fast.  I will still try it anyway to satisfy my curiosity.

I pulled a pair of ticks off my legs.  One was pretty big (not of concern) and I don’t think had bitten yet; the other was definitely a female deer tick, the size of a sesame seed.  I coaxed that one off with a pair of tweezers; it was biting pretty good but ultimately gave up.

It sounds like I’m getting preventative antibiotics.  The issue is that it takes time to have the tick tested for Lyme, and the test is reasonably accurate but not 100%.  And it doesn’t make sense to wait and see if symptoms develop, because people present differently; not everyone gets a rash, some people never demonstrate outward signs of infection.  But if you do get Lyme, your life could suck for a while.  So prudence here is to just take the pill and not have to think about it.  I really need to be better about bug spray.  It’s still early season, but it’s not that early anymore.

Revolutionizing the Mamasita: The Finished Product

They are rad.

I don’t own a compressor (for the Stan’s setup) and really just wanted to get riding, so I stretched out some 26″ tubes the night before and used those to cheat about 100g off the pair of standard 29er tubes I had on the shelf.  The wheels themselves weigh somewhere in the mid-1700s.  29″ Crossmax wheels weigh this much, so in that regard I’m already happy.  The rim is 24mm wide with eyelets, and I opted for Sapim CX-Ray spokes, which are expensive and wicked awesome.  I now have three pairs of wheels from Revolution (road, CX, MTB) and they all have these spokes.  I figure if you’re going hand-built, why not.

The first ride was last night; about an hour and a quarter, getting tuned up for my first SS MTB race this coming Sunday.  Once I had the tire pressure worked out and the fork where I wanted it (I haven’t run a suspension fork in a while), things were really good.  A few times on FOMBA‘s flowy Woodpecker trail, I remember several situations that left me thinking “wow these are fast”.  I would punch it and the bike would just go.  This is what I was looking for.

I spent a lot of money on these wheels, but that was the idea, as I look at these as something I will have for a very long time.  Also the bike has one gear and a $17 bottom bracket so it probably all works out.

Now to tackle saddle, post, bars, stem – all of which were on the bike when I bought it; just a random collection of parts.  The stem weighs nearly half a pound and that has always driven me crazy.

Drivetrain is where I want it though.  Old, heavy, ultra-reliable.

(Catching up?  First ride, what happened, picking hubs, tires.)

Revolutionizing the Mamasita: Tires

Deciding on the hubs was time consuming, but not what I’d call super difficult.  Tires, on the other hand, were impossible.  Day after day, scouring forums and tire websites trying to figure out not only what I wanted, but more to the point, what did I want them to do.  Be racy?  Light?  Crazy traction?  Do it all?  The number of options borders on absurd, but you can NOT have everything.  I had all but settled on another pair of what I already have – Maxxis Ignitor – but I found no shortage of stories where sealant had caused unwarrantable problems.  So rather than play the odds, I went for Mr. Racing Ralph.  Everyone’s doing it.  Who cares.  This will be my first foray into tubeless, and Schwalbe seems to have their act together.  If things are super gross out there and the Ralphs don’t make sense, I’ll probably take my old wheels anyway, in which case the Ignitors will already be mounted and ready to go.

Revolutionizing the Mamasita: Hubs

Part 2 of bringing my mountain bike back to life.

Jon and I went back and forth on the hubs.  Would we go White Industries and run a freewheel, would we take the cassette route.  My STX-RC crank mated to a random square-taper bottom bracket yields a weird chainline, so cassette made sense for all-round flexibility.  I had originally ordered an American Classic singlespeed cassette hub, but the engagement was really aggravating.  It felt inconsistent and imprecise, and while I’m fairly sure my AC road wheels operated that way, we agreed it would be a bigger deal for technical single speed mountain biking.  So I went all in on the only hubs I’ll ever need in my lifetime.  When you think about it that way, it’s not so bad a decision.

Revolutionizing the Mamasita

I bought my Salsa Mamasita in 2009.  I loved that bike from the very first test ride, and in spite of us having some absolutely smashing rides, I’ve resented it ever since.

Chubbs says it’s all in the hips; I contend it’s all in the hoops.

The Mama I rode on those first few rides wore a pair of Salsa Delgado Race 29er rims; near as I can tell those were in the 455g range per hoop.  I didn’t know that level of specificity at the time, but I did know that they spun up sweetly.  I could tell the minute I got that bike out of the driveway; the way it just seemed to accelerate.  It felt like I wasn’t putting in more than I was getting back.  That shit put a smile on my face.  It’s a big reason why I ended up buying the bike.

But the wheels had issues; nothing tragic, just irritating.  One or both of them had some minor hops, and the seller (also a shop owner) agreed to have them trued.  After a painful amount of waiting (weeks), some determination was made that the hops could not be cured, and he offered to rebuild the wheels altogether.  Sounded like a good plan to me.  I let him go about the task and picked them up some amount of time (weeks) later.

My first ride on those wheels was rather unforgettable.

Sheer disappointment.

These did not feel like they did before.  They were a chore.  Laced to the same White Industries hubs, the rims looked pretty much the same – what the hell was going on?  Why do these feel like riding through quicksand now?

Different rims.

It seems someone made a decision to use Salsa Semi rims for the rebuild.  While they looked similar to the Delgados, they ring in at 570g.  We’re talking a quarter pound difference per wheel, at a point on a wheel where weight is the most perceptible.  Certainly to me anyway.  I knew immediately something was off, and now I was stuck with it.  That was my mentality anyway.  It had been such a battle just getting the wheels taken care of in the first place, I just wanted to ride.

So I did; for years I rode them, but I never really had that feeling of euphoria again.  Every now and then when I hop on, I still disappoint myself when the bike doesn’t take off like it did that day in March.  That sounds a little insane, but I remember what that was like, even three years later.  That day was like the rebirth of mountain biking for me, and it’s a fairly permanent memory.

Probably two seasons ago now, I cut the rear shifter cable and ran the bike singlespeed.  That was some serious shit.  There’s nothing like the feeling of accomplishment you get from killing something you didn’t think you could on one gear.  It’s a whole other experience, building up momentum and just leveling climbs because you have to.  Last year, I found the Mama’s magic gear, and at this point I’ve got the hub spaced out with a bulletproof 32×19 setup.  I’ve tried, and I can’t throw it.  This is good.  I could race this.

But not with these wheels.  I don’t want to.  If we’re going to do this, I want my old bike back.

So I’m collaborating with Jon at Revolution Wheelworks.  He’s cooking me up something off-menu that’s more than worthy.  In a few weeks, hopefully I’ll be able to show them to you.

Something I tend to do a lot with this kind of stuff is just suffer along.  Just deal with things that bug me, and then seasons pass and nothing changes.  If you have the means to change it, what a waste of time.  None of us are guaranteed anything; a lot of people will say “someday I’ll do this, someday I’ll do that” but no one really knows what the hell that really means.  It’s a pacification mechanism used to rationalize complacency.  Fuck that shit.  You could cross the street an hour from now and get clipped by some airhead on cellphone and never ride a bike again.  How’s your someday looking now?  You have to enjoy this stuff while you can.  Whatever it takes to get you there.

A Fine 29

Last night was only my third ride at Bear Brook on my Salsa Mamasita. A quick-handling 29er is where it’s at ladies and gentlemen.

I can’t begin to explain the sense of supreme confidence instilled by a set of wheels that, on paper, really shouldn’t impart that much of a difference over traditional hoops. The sense of roaring along the road with markedly less effort. The simple fact that every climb seems to take less time as you incrementally cover more ground. And the lines. If your chosen line is interrupted, there is usually little consequence. Momentum. Probably the 29’s greatest asset. Several times last night I would stray off line through some technical section of trail, only to say “aw…..f*ck it”, take a little off the front wheel, and just power through whatever was now in my way. Line it up, let it go, and we’ll make it, one way or another.

What’s to get used to? Well at slow speed up a steep section, you’ve got a bigger wheel to cut back and forth when the going gets dicey. You adapt to it, because your whole life you’ve been riding what now feel like tiny kiddie wheels. And you welcome the adaptation, because you get so much back in return that it’s almost ridiculous and unfair to your 559mm-clad compatriots.

Hopefully we get up to the Kingdom Trails before the snow flies. I can’t wait to see what this thing can do up there.