Wednesday, November 14, 2018

From where I sit: Late addendum.

After riding everyone else's idea of bicycle nirvana for the last month and leaving my own bike hanging forlorn all that time, the last 2 nights I've plucked my dream machine off the hook and gotten reacquainted with it.

2 glorious, golden hour, AHA-I-remember-why-I-love-29+FS-so damn-much rides.

Testing gee-whiz carbon spaceships with all sorts of buttons, bells, and whistles is awesome and all that, but g'damn am I glad to be back home.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Monday, November 12, 2018

From where I sit: 2019 bike testing.

Simple fact: Bicycles have never been better than they are today.

As far as categories of bikes for riding off-road, we used to break things into XC, Trials, and DH.  Before that you either had a mountain bike (and used it for, um, everything) or you didn't.  Nowadays there are additional categories for Trail, All Mountain, and Enduro, plus Slopestyle and Dirt Jump.  Where do those fit in, how do they apply to you, and which bike should be chosen for each?  Further muddying the waters there are subcategories such as Downcountry, Cross Stuntry, even (swear to god...) SlopeDuro.

To the end of answering that question for myself I used to attend the annual bike industry trade show every fall.  Or at least once they started to have an on-dirt demo where you could actually ride different bikes, on dirt, and feel the nuances of each.  Eventually that demo became crazy crowded, such that you'd spend more of the day waiting for a specific bike to become available than you would riding.  Sometimes you'd never get a chance to swing a leg over that bike.  Eventually I stopped going because I wasn't getting to actually ride the bikes I was going there to ride.

There are lots of other demo events these days, most of which seem to be afflicted with similar crowding issues, or they're held at places that can handle crowds but you still can't get the bikes you want.  Or you finally get the bike you want but the trails are so milquetoast that you can't learn much about it.  The last demo event I attended featured manufacturer's reps whom insisted on cramming their hastily assembled propaganda ("this layup is unparalleled in it's ability to be laterally stiff yet vertically compliant...") down your throat one-on-one while slooooowly installing your pedals and ostensibly tweaking the suspension to suit you.

For these and other reasons I haven't attended a demo event for a few years.  But an opportunity presented itself this fall -- fell into my lap you might say -- which I simply couldn't refuse.  Outside Magazine holds an annual event where they test and review 50 of the most highly desired bikes (roughly split half road and half mountain) in an effort to pin down some of the nuances, pick their favorites, and then write about the nuances of the favorites so that their readers can better make their own buying (or not) decisions.  This year's test was going to happen in my backyard, on trails that I've been riding and maintaining for better than two decades.  Pretty sweet, right?

It gets better.  The test bikes were shipped to my shop in advance so that I could unbox, assemble, debug, and test ride them before the real test even started.  How many times does an opportunity like that present itself?  Never.  Well, for me, once -- and this was it.  I took full advantage, riding at lunch or after work (sometimes both) for a few weeks straight, to the extent that when the test actually, finally began my legs were already fried.  First world problems!

The results of the testing are not mine to share.  The details on several of the bikes are actually still under embargo for a month or more, so although I wrote individual reviews for 20+ of the mountain bikes, I'm not going to share those now, either.  Maybe later.  Instead, below I've detailed some big picture thoughts on the minutia that made itself apparent as the test proceeded.  Sort of feels like a 2019 'state of the industry', at least from where I sit.

+ + + + + + + + + 

For those of us not racing professionally, for those of us that 'just ride' with our friends, dogs, or solo, it seems the most important metric is not weight, not seat tube angle, not suspension kinematics.  The most important metric for many of us is simply how the bike makes you feel while riding, or when the ride is done.

i can't speak for others but I don't care too much about efficiency or weight on the way up as long as the bike doesn't get in my way when climbing, and as long as it also feels playful on the way back down.  Time needed to complete a loop or section is irrelevant.  I want to get outside for awhile, get some exercise, breathe fresh air, incinerate a few endorphins in a white hot fire, then return to life with a smile on my face.  Riding a lively bike that hops and pops and manuals well is the quickest way to achieve all of the above.  Riding something that's .09162% lighter or more efficient yet sacrifices liveliness and playfulness does not put a smile on my face.

I'm not sure I care about frame material anymore.  Suspension quality and tire casing construction can make a more noticeable difference in subjective feel while being much less expensive to employ.  

I definitely care about wheel size -- 29" and 29+ just roll over ledges, roots, chunk much better.  27.5" is dead to me, except for fat tires.  It was interesting to learn that 90% of the testers were in this same boat.

I definitely care about tire size -- bigger and more aggressive is almost universally better for where I live and how I ride.  Anything smaller than 2.6" collects dust in my garage, and even 2.6" tires feel too small -- too harsh -- for better than half of the year.

29+ has some sort of stigma attached.  Perhaps related to the fatbikes that paved the way for them.  The lone 29+ FS bike in this test was derogatorily (if playfully?) referred to as 'the yoga ball' before anyone had even ridden it.  The metamorphosis from laughingstock to legitimate contender took but a few minutes.  The first few to ride it came back somewhat astonished: "It's *not* heavy" they said.  "It rides really light, actually", they said.  "It is so. effing. smooth!" they said.  "I had so much fun!", they said.  And after a day of this, the next day the feedback morphed to "If that bike was for sale I'd take it home with me.  Now.  Tonight".

One of the testers summed it up perhaps best with "I'm guilty of judging that book by its cover.  I was *so* wrong.  I want one now.  I want one NOW!"

Crazy, stupid, ridiculous, so-low-that-they're-unpedalable-uphill bottom bracket heights persist.  Even on bikes that are ostensibly made to be pedaled up *big* hills.  How does one do it -- climb tech trails that is?  Ratchet uphill for 2 hours straight?  

I can think of no single gear-specific parameter that has had a greater negative effect on our trails than low bottom brackets.  When people repeatedly bash their feet or chainring into rocks and ledges they think not of the welfare of the trail but that of their machine.  Bash a rock enough times and one of two things happens: Either said rock gets dislodged and removed, or if the rock is deeply embedded riders just start to go around it.  Our local trails now feature hundreds upon hundreds of go-arounds -- to the point that many of these trails are no longer singletrack so much as a series of linked figure 8's.  These same trails also now feature hundreds of holes where a rock used to be, but was ultimately dislodged by a barrage of low bottom bracket bikes.

I wasn't sure that anyone in the industry 'got it' until this test, where testers could be frequently heard discussing how some bikes -- bikes that the marketing machines have made people believe are highly desirable for tech riding -- simply could not be pedaled up anything remotely technical.  I fear that it's going to take years and years for the industry to pull its collective head out of its collective ass and slowly start to bring BB's back up into the realm of reasonable.

Shaped headset spacers.  I walked out into the shop just now and noted 4 random road bikes (all from the test) leaning against each other, not one of which could share a stem or headset spacers with any of the others.  The only big-picture benefit that I can see to designing things this way is to keep road riders tethered to a certain shop in the same way that they are tethered to prepared surfaces.  And that same lack of foresight has recently arrived in the mountain bike world, where 2 of the test bikes featured shaped HS spacers, HS bearing covers, and HS top caps.

There were two hardtails in the test.  I rode one of them, twice.  I saw each of them get ridden a total of once after that.   Perhaps this is more a testament to the corrugated, blocky nature of the local trails than anything else, but no one wanted anything to do with them -- regardless of wheel size.  I saw people reach for FS bikes that didn't fit them, or that they'd already ridden several times, rather than ride one of the hardtails.

175mm droppers are stupid.  Your butt hits the tire before your chest hits the saddle, and sometimes your saddle hits the tire as suspension compresses.  I subscribe to the 'if some is good more must be better' credo with lots of things.  Bacon and ice cream immediately come to mind.  I personally don't see much point in droppers beyond 125mm, and could happily live with 100mm.  Perhaps the best evidence for this is that almost no one runs the saddle on their DH bike 7" lower than their fully extended height.  4 to 5" is more like it.

Electronic shifting is silly.  And unreliable.  And a solution in search of a problem, creating problems all it's own.  I like progress, I like to drink kool aid, and I embrace change when it's sensible and demonstrably better than the alternative.  E-shifting simply isn't either.

Boost spacing is nice, in that at least we're all agreeing on *something* finally.  This was the first bike comparo in memory where every MTB used the same hub spacing front and rear.  Wheels were swapped between bikes, quickly and easily, for various reasons.  Different rotor sizes and cassettes/freehubs meant that not every wheelset was truly quick switch, but getting everyone on the same page with both brakes and cassettes is probably asking too much.

Crazy low out of the box cockpits.  I ride -- as do 99% of my riding partners -- with my handlebars a bit above my fully extended saddle height.  Several of the test bikes came with their steerer tubes cut so short that 1.5" to 2" below saddle height was as high as the bars could be set.  Some were so low out of the box that I was unable to test-ride them beyond a quick lap around the parking lot, where I was so uncomfortable I immediately returned the bike to the corral and chose something else.

Bars well below saddle height is a young persons game and sometimes an XC racer's preference.  I rode that way for better than two decades, and I have irreparable nerve damage in my neck and hands as a result.  It hurts NO ONE to leave steerer tubes a little longer on stock bikes.  Those that want a slammed position can still get it.  Those that want a more upright position won't immediately be turned off of a potential candidate.

Gearboxes are coming.  They aren't quite 'there' yet because improvements in shifting ergonomics and reductions in frictional losses still need incremental progress.  But they're already really good.  There's something about being able to take tight lines through chunky right handers without fear of ripping a $300 der off the bike.  If someone could figure out a way to run a gearbox on an FS bike and *not* need an external tensioner, I'd probably jump in right now.

Most high engagement hubs add needless noise and drag.  Easy to feel that drag when coasting -- the bike slows as though the brakes are rubbing.  Impossible not to hear the added racket, and equally impossible to converse over said racket.  I'd love for consumers to see past the marketing and arrive at some sane realization that (for starters) fast engaging hubs don't have to be noisy or draggy.  I'd also love to see people recognize that normal and even slow engaging hubs aren't a limiter in technical riding situations.  The rider is the limiter -- not the hub.

We are so lucky with rims and tires these days. 26, 27.5, 29. Skinny, medium, wide, plus, mid-fat, fat, morbidly obese, and everything in between. Carbon and aluminum. Tubeless ready as standard. Supple, high thread count, and reinforced casings with a dizzying number of tread patterns to choose from.  If you can’t find what you’re looking for within all of those, you are truly a .01%er. 

Maxxis makes fantastic tires and deserves the market domination they currently enjoy.  That said, it was also really nice to see other, smaller brands represented and ripping.

Integrated storage options are taking hold.  Anything is better than a big bulbous pack on our very sweaty backs.  Putting tools into bottle cages (on frames that are finally starting to prioritize fitting them!), pumps alongside, and tubes or tubeless plugs elsewhere is the minimum going forward.  Plus there's a whole slew of good, well designed fanny packs (Hipster satchels? European Carry-alls?!) just hitting the market.  For 5+ hour rides you're always going to need something more than the basics discussed above, but for shorter rides it's nice to ride unencumbered.

+ + + + + + +

I've only been riding bikes on dirt for 40 years, thus I still have a lot to learn.  I'm grateful to this crew for the opportunity to be so deeply immersed into bike-nerddom for a solid month this fall.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Revisiting the unexpected.

This evening after work I was looking for something non-political to read, and came across a piece about aggression and danger (toward dog mushers) on the Iditarod trail.

It put me in mind of something that happened to/near me on that trail ~10 years ago.

I wrote about it back then but for some reason it didn't resonate.  I went back and re-read it tonight and I still don't quite understand why it didn't land with more of an impact.  Too unfocused perhaps.  Too little context maybe.

Here's a cut and paste. The first few paragraphs sort of set the stage.  The middle and last several paragraphs are what's important.

+ + + + + + + 

For the first time in almost a week the temps dropped sharply overnight and although I slept great and woke comfy, stepping outside the tent made me instantly realize that I needed an extra layer NOW.

Layer added and gear stowed, the obvious benefit of the cold temps was a firm packed trail.  I was stiff and sore and didn't have much gas in the tank, but being able to pedal a bike at 7+ mph gave me a little extra oomph and I covered a few miles pretty quick.

Approaching Galena I noted a shape shuffling ahead on the trail which slowly resolved itself to be Tim Hewitt.

Tim had passed me as I slept then bivied on the river for a few hours.  His voice was cheerful but his body english was in full-on beat-down mode.  There are no words to describe the respect I have for Tim (or anyone else that has made this trip on foot).  The simple fact that every step is earned and coasting doesn't happen is a big part of it, but when you factor in that he doesn't have a bike to lean on (when riding or walking) and has to drag instead of roll his gear, you start to get a bit better appreciation.  What Tim is doing is levels harder than what I'm doing.  No comparison.

We chat briefly but Tim chills off quick and needs to keep moving, so I trot/walk to try to keep pace and chat a bit longer.  We've both been living inside of our own heads long enough that conversation is labored.  The most important of what we share is that yes, last night's aurora was indeed one of the most silently intense experiences either of us have had the luck to witness, and no, neither words, video, nor pictures could ever do it justice.  We wonder aloud how many other humans (2?  20?) in the entire Arctic witnessed what we did last night.  We smile at the idea that it may only have been us.

The trail pops up off of the river into Galena, then continues along a local ice road through town then out to the airport before resuming as a trail.  Rolling back down onto the river I expect the same soft, slow slog that I've had for the last ~week, but am pleasantly surprised to find the hardpacked trail continues.

For the next ~two hours I motor westward, comfy zipped inside my windproofs but aware of the pervasive chill caused by the negative temps as well as the sharp breeze kissing my right cheek.  The trail angles first N, then NW, and eventually veers due west.  On this last trajectory the wind is just *slightly* behind me, and the GPS reports a solid 8 mph average for over 40 minutes.  Unprecedented speed (!) since leaving Knik.

Before I can really enjoy or savor that speed, however, Bishop Rock comes into view and as I round the bend nearest to it, the low ridge along the north bank that has protected the trail from the brunt of the wind tapers down to meet the river bank.  At the exact spot where that ridge ends the trail is drifted over.  Bubbye 8 mph, hello 1.5.  Gah.

I walk through the morning, impatient longing for the firm trail goading me into trying to ride anywhere that the platform is even marginally firm.  I waste lots of energy but make no real headway other than when plodding afoot.  By early afternoon the trail is so drifted that I resign myself to walking indefinitely.

Because the main pack of the dog race is traveling down the river today, there are herds of locals out on snowmachines to spectate their passage and cheer them on.  As the afternoon winds on and more and more machines pass and engage me, it becomes clearer and clearer that spectating the race is a good excuse to tie one on.  For the most part I'm greeted and chatted up by group after group of 'happy drunks', offered sips from countless bottles or flasks, and invited to join bunches of informal gatherings along the bank, the biggest of which has congregated around a bonfire burning into the snow near the Koyukuk summer fish camp.  I laugh uncomfortably at the increasingly aggressive and derisive jokes tossed in my direction, unwilling to incite the jokers further but unable (due to my slow rate of speed) to get out of range or sight quite fast enough.

The hours pass faster with the increased anxiety.

Near sunset a snowmachine slowly catches up to me, notable because the driver lurches forward for a few seconds at a time, pauses for a few seconds and even stops, then hammers the throttle again.  Following each acceleration he slowly eases off the throttle and comes to a stop, pauses momentarily, then hammers it.  Because he is on a parallel trail I'm not terribly concerned about his erratic driving, but I *am* curious.  Just can't quite figure out what the hammer/pause/hammer routine is about.  As he pulls abreast, perhaps 40 yards to my right, I get to see and understand exactly what's happening.  The accelerations come during his awake/alert moments--his eyes are open so he punches the throttle to get himself closer to home.  Then he effectively passes out, chin bobbing down to touch his chest and hands falling from the bars into his lap.  He leans precariously, perhaps unconsciously fighting to stay upright, then his eyes open, head rolls ~upright, and he grips the bars and punches the throttle again.

This goes on for several minutes until he pulls far enough ahead that I can't hear the machine, can only see his taillight brighten each time he hits the gas.

I make a mental note to pick a protected spot when setting up camp tonight.

Sometime after full dark a machine approaches from ahead.  My headlights are both on high even though little light is needed to see the trail, and I'm relieved when it veers off the main track to pass before getting too close.  But instead of passing the driver comes to a stop and kills the engine, offering me a pull from his pint of huckleberry schnapps before the machine is completely quiet.  I hold up a hand to politely decline, he responds by taking a quick nip then stashing the bottle inside his chest pocket.  The next few minutes are spent with him talking rapidfire about whatever idea comes into his head.  He insists that all of the human powered racers have quit, frustrated by the conditions and nagging injuries.  He knows this to be true because he claims to have personally taxied Jay and Rocky "and lotsa others, ya" to the airport at Galena.  I perk up a bit at this, aware for the first time that others might be suffering or demoralized as I am.  I ask about Carl or Pete and he insists that 'they're all gone, all of 'em, you're the last one on the river...".  I'm skeptical but before I can think of a way to get verification he changes the subject to wolves.  

His tale rambles and I'm not entirely certain that I'm following all the twists and turns.  I gather loosely that a week or so ago a pack came down from the hills to the south, napping along the bank in the heat of the day then rousting themselves to cross the Yukon as the last light faded.  He and his cousin were sledding home from the nearby liquor store (a story unto itself, and the reason for the volume of traffic as well as the drivers' oft-impaired state...) when they caught sight of the trotting canines and gave chase.  As his yarn wandered on I found my heart racing, cheeks flushed, and hands tightly clenching the handlebars.  He said that they'd chased the wolves for almost a mile (no animal can outrun a snowmachine in soft snow, meaning that the wolves' hearts and lungs were probably near to exploding) before his cousin took the lead and ran over the slowest straggler.  His voice rose and his excitement was palpable as he leaned toward me to share the ultimate moment:

"We kill 'em all bro...

...all of 'em!

You shoulda seen it!  Shoulda been there!

Beautiful--jus' las' week...".

Unable to contain my anger and confusion I stomp away as fast as I can.  Hyperventilating, incapable of rational thought, increasingly afraid of how I might react if forced to listen to any more.

Some time later, deep into the evening, I walk along exhausted from the plodding but equally spent from the uncomfortable realizations I've come to.  Modern Alaska natives face an uphill battle in so many directions, constantly battling unemployment, alcoholism and errant substance abuse, as well as maddeningly conflicting pulls from their rapidly fading subsistence past and a far more compelling and exciting modern present.  Nothing in their feast-or-famine past has taught them how to cope with unrestricted access to booze, nor have they any reason to heed the sobriety warnings of the non-native teachers (read: outsiders) that have seen the big picture.  

If his tale is to be believed I can only guess that it is no longer an uncommon story.  While I want to take the easy, obvious route of condemning him for his actions, ultimately I cannot bring myself to pass judgement.  I'm human too, and there's no guarantee that, when faced with his reality, I'd choose any more wisely.  

(Required reading for an inside, in-depth and shocking-but-not-for-the-reasons-you'd-expect view of the modern Alaskan native's conundrum: Seth Kantner's "Ordinary Wolves").

Over the last hour of walking I head due south, following the main, broad channel of the Yukon toward Nulato.  Lacking energy to posthole the bike ~1/2 mile off the river and up the bank into the protection of trees, I pluck one of every ten Iditarod trail stakes and stash them on the Snoots' rear rack.  After a few miles of this I have a sizable hoard.  I drag the bike ~30 yards off the main trail, then use the stakes to form a stockade of reflective-topped "X's" in the snow, inside of which I erect the tent.  As I'm kicking in the tent anchors a pack of 4 machines roars up.  They slow enough to shout unintelligibly in my direction, one of them lobbing a can of Keystone at my feet.  Two teenage girls, holding tight to the drivers in front of them, giggle uncontrollably as the machines race away.

Supper is a somber and anxious inhalation of hot but tasteless freeze dried goop.  I quench the stove, click off the light, then burrow into the bag.

The night passes as a series of brief, anxious 'sleep' episodes, each abruptly ended by the imagined scream of approaching snowmachines.  In reality not a single machine passed in the night.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Last bit o' Lava.

A few months ago I shared a final trip report compilation from an adventure that happened back in 2011.

Said trip involved 3 good friends, an expansive chunk of wild Alaskan coastline, fatbikes, packrafts, and one massive pile of randomness.

Links to every aspect of the TR and video were shared here:

There's a lot to be read and digested there when you have the time.

One member of the trip -- Brian Blair -- arrived fashionably late to join the rest of us, and had some, uh, interesting experiences in trying to connect with us mid-route.  I've poked him several times to write up something about what he experienced, but he has yet to do it.

I was recently alerted to the fact that he'd done an interview on a podcast, where several of those stories were shared.

Find it here:

Be forewarned that there is lots of tittering and fanboysim at that link, but the stories are worth it regardless.

Thanks for checking in.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Remnants of Rosa.

Hurricane dregs spun up into the mountains last week, dropping huge quantities of moisture on us at a time of year that is normally scary dry.  No one within my earshot was heard complaining -- we need(ed) it desperately.

We managed one last alpine color ride before said moisture arrived.  Post-Rosa there is now snow on our favorite alpine rides -- too much for MTB's, not enough (yet!) for fatbikes.   We've happily moved lower to appreciate both flamboyant desert foliage and flooding desert rivers.



Thanks for checkin' in.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

This matters.

My friend Dan Ransom got to spend some time in the Arctic Refuge this past summer.

He made a video -- indeed a statement -- out of what he experienced up there.

Conservationists have won the fight to keep oil drilling out of the Arctic Refuge more than 50 times. But in conservation, you only get to lose once.

Many more details here.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A ride, recently: Wandering.

"Black Elk says it is in the dark world among the many changing shadows that men get lost.  Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while.  Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain.  An inheritance of wonder and nothing more."