06 August 2008

we have some seriously f*cking gnarly trails right here in Oakland

  • Aug 6, 2008

we have some seriously f*cking gnarly trails right here in Oakland

It was many years ago when I last rode a mountain bike on a trail.

I had this heavy old Fuji that folded in half, weighed about 50lbs, had a 5 speed freewheel and friction thumb shifters. For those that don't know bikes, that means it was a pretty crappy bike.
But, I had really nice tires on it, and it is just amazing the crud you can ride over with fat knobbies.

But then I moved into an RV, there was only room for one bike, and I took my more versatile road touring bike. The mnt. bike went up on the wall in the garage in Mom's house.
Before long I moved out of the area, then out of the state, and clear across the country. The bike hung upside down, its tires sad with nostalgia of mud. We had once encountered a small stream at about 15mph, and before I had a chance to even get scared (nevermind brake) we were already over and past it. Now, without me, they did nothing but than lose air molecules, one by one.

I came back, eventually, to CA. I took the mountain bike with me to Burning Man.
One night, I parked it outside next to my RV. Someone came by and claimed it. I suppose the idea is, in a semi-anarchistic gifting culture, no one can lay claim to property, and so this wasn't so much theft as involuntary sharing.

I decided that next time I wanted to get a half-way decent mountain bike. Which meant that for years and years, I had none at all, because there was always more important things to spend money on.

Many years passed.

I became a hauler. You wouldn't believe the things I get paid to pick up from people. My TV, DVD, VCR, RePlay, CD changer, sofa, scanner/printer... these are all things I was paid to take away. I have had several bikes, but none were quite right, and they passed through my hands to new owners.

And one day, just last week, I ended up with a mountain bike, and this one I kept.

I was a little disappointed at first when I looked it up and found out how cheap it was when it was new. A bit heavy for the frame size. Cheap forks without much rebound damping. Low end Shimano components.

On the other hand, the frame is far too small for me, which has the advantage of making it lighter (plus plenty of standover height, and a short wheelbase for maneuverability).
The fork has a huge range of easily adjustable preload, changing it from very soft and cushy to stiff while retaining small bump sensitivity.
And, working as a bike mechanic for the past couple years, I recognize that while the shifters are a decade old and were cheap back then, they actually stand the test of time, and this particular design fails less often than many newer and more expensive ones. Just like every other of the same model I've come across, they still shift as crisp and precise as a new set.
Its about half the weight of the bike lost to Burning Man, and its the first bike I've owned with any suspension fork at all.  Took it to work in order to tweak it a little, upgrade a few components, barends, clipless pedals.  Sure is nice working in a bikeshop!
I would normally fit a 16 or 17" frame, and this being a 12.5" frame, I had the seatpost way past the limit mark - the point at which if you bring it any higher there's a good chance it will break off sooner or later, and it was still too low.
I found an old extra long seatpost in the scrap metal bin.  All of the grippy teeth  were worn away to nothing.  I took about half an hour to file new teeth into the post. No decent bikeshop should be without several types of file.
Today was the first day on which I had no work, and nothing planned.
Time to try it out in its natural environment.
The preparation took longer than I had expected.  Stripped the lights and old speedometer bracket.  Pulled the road slicks it came with and tossed on the set of knobbies.  Couldn't find my multi-tool, borrowed the one in the motorcycle.  Had to switch the pump from presta to schrader - but the schrader was broken, had to find the other pump, and switch the parts. Pump the tubes back up - 40PSI; better for traction. Search for trails online.
Load the bike into the truck - it seems wrong to drive in order to ride a bike; but that is a BIG hill on the way to the nearest trail.  Besides, the truck runs on recycled vegetable oil, so I guess its ok.
First thing, I lowered the preload a little.  Started riding, came across a small set of stairs...
W  O  W  ! !
That was soooooo smooth.  It was like a ramp it was so smooth.  Stairs?  what stairs?  I just rode over a speed bump.  No, less than that.  It was like a gentle decline.  For the first time in my life I actually understand why they've put suspension forks on every mountain bike for the past couple decades.
I had to turn around.  I wonder... I rode right back toward the little set of steps.  hopped the first two steps like a curb, and rode up the third, and, yes, it worked, I didn't fall, didn't stop.
Did I just ride up a set of stairs?  I didn't think that was possible.  The trails were awaiting just a few hundred feet away, but I had to ride up and down several sets of stairs first.  How did I go this long without owning a mountain bike?
Ok.  And I'm off.  Long paved up hill.  Creaky cranks.  Rather hot.  And nobody to be seen or heard in any direction.  Riding aimlessly, came across the visitors center, picked up a map, and found where the dirt trails were.
And then, at long last, the real fun began.
I used to ride in the EBRPD parks, mostly Wildcat and Tilden.  I thought there was no legal singletrack in the east bay.  Oh but there is.  We have some seriously fucking gnarly singletrack right here in Oakland.  It wasn't long before I dropped the tire pressure to about 25.  Steep technical rocky ascents, so steep that leaning back a tiny bit the front wheel would leave the ground, leaning forward the back would lose traction.  The fork and fat tires ate bumps like a prisoners last meal, the short wheelbase gave me the sharp handling I had predicted, and the cheap shifters and derailleurs were more responsive at both low speeds and under full pedal pressure than the fancy expensive 105 set on my carbon road bike.
None of this was enough to compensate for lack of skill, however, and I still ended up walking a couple hills.
The park is simply gorgeous.  If I knew anything about plants, I would describe it, but I don't, so you will just have to think of forests you've been in and use your imagination.  Warm day, shady trees all around.  Animals scampering below the brush, always just out of sight.  On occasion hikers, dog walkers, one other cyclist (she was kinda' cute!), but mostly just me, the bike, and the trail.  Silent but for the creaky cranks, and my occasional exclamations (!). Quite a few trail intersections aren't marked, so I ended up back tracking a few times, and wondering if I was somewhere where I shouldn't be (they wouldn't let bikes on a trail this narrow and full of obstacles, would they?)
For some reason all of the most technical sections ended up being uphills for me.  I kept considering going back just to ride them, but I was out to explore, and I don't like to go the way I came if I can loop.  Now and then I would cross trails I recognized.  And then...
This side trail would have been challenging to walk down.  It was steep.  It was full of rocks.  It was filled with deep water channels.  And to prevent erosion, every few feet there were wooden blocks buried which created one foot sheer drop offs.  This would make for enough of a challenge, but the trail also wandered to and fro.  And the plant life crept in on both sides thick and scratchy severely limiting the lines that could be taken.

But this is what I came here for, isn't it?  I won't claim I wasn't scared.  This bike took a staircase like it was a wheelchair ramp.  Its got decent brakes (well, in front, but those are the ones that matter).  I can just try to go slow.  It would take a better writer than myself to put into words that section of trail.  I can describe the feeling though.  Equal parts terror and fun.  Like the first roller coaster that goes upside down that you go on when you're 9 and finally tall enough.  Like racing a small car on the freeway at 90mph in medium dense traffic.  Like technical downhill mountain biking when you have almost no experience at it.  My heart rate and breathing were as high from the downhill as they had been from the uphills earlier.  I don't think I have had so much fun since I worked at the carnival.
Over the drop-offs the front end went so low I had to barely brake to keep from going endo, and compensating with rear brake just had me sliding around - not the best thing when going an inch off the chosen line could mean a big heap of human/bicycle on the rocks and leaving a good portion of my blood behind to nourish the creeping plant life.  After the first time the backwheel actually lifted about 2 feet in the air upon landing I stopped to lower the seatpost a few inches.
After that, (and some time to try to relax and compose) I started to get a feel for it, and go quicker.  I tried jumping a dropoff to stay level... this was the closest I came to actually crashing, and I can not say quite how I recovered.  I decided not to try that again. And yet, just a few dozen feet later the rocks and channels diminished, the trail straightened out, and I found myself able to pick up a lot of speed... except for those erosion berms.  I tried to jump another afterall, and landed straight and level, and after two more it was easy, and I just went faster and faster, jumping down each berm as easy as I'd hop a curb on my commuter bike, and just as I am ready to melt in flying mechanical ecstasy, the trail and I meet up with the main loop, and I slide to a dramatic stop.
A quick check of the map, and some time to catch my breath and stop grinning like a lunatic, commenting out loud to nobody about how unbelievably amazing this all is, and how I can't believe I actually just did that, and that I did it without needing an airlift, or even a bandaid; and I'm ready to follow the loop back toward the staging area.  I'm riding alongside a hill on a trail about 1 foot wide, I wonder how we would pass each other if another cyclist happened to be going the other way, watching for the trail I need to turn off on and - huh?  A street?
I am lost and disoriented.  This makes no sense at all.  I check my map.  I check it again.  I don't know where I am or how I got there.  I turn around.  This is not even a tiny bit upsetting, because it just means I get to ride longer.  Eventually I realize I had been holding the map upside down compared to the world, and I'm actually not that far off from where I should be at all.  Then there is a low bent tree crossing the trail so low I have to get off the saddle, duck as low as I can, and just barely fit through the gap.  The trees back away, and I am riding through a meadow with tall grass.  I am riding through rolling hills.  For 30 seconds, maybe a little more, a dragonfly paced me precisely.  I would look down the trail to see where I was going, and then I would turn my head to the left, and there, right beside me, the dragon fly matched my speed, matched the slight turns in the trail.  It all happened so fast, or I might have gotten its number, and it would have been my new dragon fly friend.  It was not to be.
Then a downhill though the shady trees, smooth and fast, but had to keep glasses on despite the shade and mouth closed despite breathing hard, else swallow a vast number of tiny flys.  I realize that tiny flys are both low in fat and high in protein, but I am a vegetarian, and as such I am just not comfortable with that.
This is not exactly the end of the story, but the last leg of the return trip was not so exciting as the rest.  So I will leave you here with this advice:
go buy a mountain bike!

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