Monday, 24 May 2010

Quantum of Solstice

I've been MTB riding for exactly two years now. For the most part I've enjoyed leisurely weekend rides with good mates on my Orange hard tail - no dramas, just good fun and fitness to boot. Moving to Cali' has inspired me to be a better rider. The trails out here really deserve no less. I apsire to ride with more finesse, definitely more speed and with enough skill to elevate me above the weekend rambler level that I feel stuck at right now. I've been riding with highly skilled people, signing up for races and devouring MTB literature in the hopes that my abilities would improve. So, I'm at a point now where I know where I want to be and I know where I deffinitely am at. The problem is there's an aching chasm between the two. Each weekend spent trying to bridge it inevitably leads to swapping some DNA with the trail and nursing another harsh lesson through to the next ride. (For the record, this week's injury is nice set of bruised ribs.) Still, all I can do is learn from the mistakes and take it to the trail the next time. Oh, and keep buying new bits of body armour.

The penultimate weekend before my 33rd birthday. The weather in Marin is beautiful. Perfect conditions to hit Tamarancho for a quick spin before being introduced to pastures new - the Solstice trail. Me, Jason Spangles and my good friend Jason Rosson met up at a teeming Fairfax java hut on the sunday. Us and dozens of roadies and dirties all getting limbered up for a solid day's riding. Solstice was heavily anticipated. Jason usually rides it at night with his hardcore downhill buddies, so we knew it was going to be tough. But I looked forward to the challenge on my (still) new Nomad.

Tamarancho was its usual mix of fun and technical challenges. It was Spangles' first time riding there. He's also doing the Dirt Classic so it was good for him to get a taster for the terrain. Once we'd ridden most of the loop, we headed out along B-17 and Porcupine towards the start of the Solstice climb. Porcupine really is a great way to end a Tamarancho session. A good way to give the legs one final stretch and to warm down the bike kung fu on the lovely sweeping singletrack.

The climb to the Solstice trail head is borderline brutal. Borderline in that its very long.... veeery long, but its a constant grade. So once you find a good cadence you really have no excuses but to push on and enjoy the view. Rosson - with his single speed legs - soon left me and Spangles behind. We eventually caught him at the top. Whilst we took in the stunning Bay Area panorama, Jason - a veteran of this climb, tinkered with pixel pets on his iphone.

We'd climbed for a reason. We were about to meet that reason. Rosson is an excellent rider. And he's a good guy too. Always happy to offer advice and tips to help your skills. His best advice of the day (appart from his post ride pub suggestion) was to use speed for stability. This is advice I knew well. Coupled with confidence, speed will get you through many a sketchy moment. But its hard to apply it 100% of the time. My problem was, I decided to disregard it at the exact moment that we crossed a ditch. Target fixation, not enough momentum, thinking about what might happen instead of where I wanted to put the bike - all school boy errors which led to me falling, ribs first, into said ditch (at a -40% grade - thanks for that handy piece of info my Garmin friend.)

All this was before we'd hit the scary stuff. By now, my mettle was well and truly shaken. But we cracked on. A few stumbles and a nosebleed were had, but nothing major. The waterfall section of Solstice is where Jason's friends strap on armour. That gave me and Spangles some idea of what was to come. In truth, I wasn't really feeling it. I rode part of the steep, rutted stuff, but played it safe and walked down the really sketchy sections. It left me frustrated at myself, but keen to come back and tackle it with fresh confidence.

Its not hard to be taken out of your comfort zone in this sport. That's a big part of the appeal for me. But I need to get some confidence sessions in to up my game. Momentum and confidence. Sounds simple when you write it down, but its amazing how fragile those words become when you're poised at the top of a trail that will either lead to a huge grin or a night in A&E. For now, I'm checking out body armour online and hoping my ribs heal before the next weekend's ride.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Spangles Knows His Onions.....

Leafing through my iPhone pictures I came across these little beauties. Taken on a fairly un-blog worthy ride a couple of weeks ago up in Santa Rosa We were all set for a day's riding in the sun, but mother Annadel had other ideas and decided to turn our sunny climb into a quagmire descent. We were completely ill prepared against the cold and wet but, Jason just happened to have his onion goggles with him. After my experience at Napa a few weeks before, I'd always fancied a pair of onion goggles. I was convinced they were the perfect solution to MTB mud and rain riding ; clear eye protection with absorbant matte black sponge creating a seal against the fizzog. So we made the best of a bad ride and let Jase guinea pig them for us. Result? They don't work. Still,that shouldn't stop us from enjoying the sight of Spangles styling them out on the trail.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Henry W Coe State Park

So, I bought this book here and started ear marking trails that I want to hit over the summer. Three routes are suggested for Henry Coe state park. I picked the hardest looking one and hit the road out towards San Jose way with Jason Spangles and our rides. We didn't know exactly what to expect but felt well prepared with our guide book and route maps. The terrain was 70% single track stretching for 16.8 miles with about 3000 feet of climbing. All figures I hoped to verify on my new Garmin Edge 500. A nifty piece of kit that I paired with a heart rate monitor. The Garmin appeals to the inner Knight Rider fan who wants their bike to tell them how fast, far and high they're going - as well as giving a friendly beep when approaching cardiac arrest. After a couple of mechanical issues (notably a burst camel sack) and equipment/gadget checking, we headed out into the wilderness.

Now, I'll start this record by stating that the book has the whole route arse backwards. I'm relatively new to mountain biking Norcal style, so I'm by no means an expert, but I always thought single track was fun to ride DOWN and fire road was bearable to ride UP...... Not according to our trusty route master book. Unfortunately, for all its sophisticated GPS intel, my Garmin couldn't warn us of this. Our fate was set. And so it was, in the baking Californian heat - with compromised water supply - we rode into Henry Coe to tackle its 70% worth of uphill single track.

Now, don't get me wrong, Henry Coe is a great place to spend the weekend. It has beautiful lakes and epic vista views..... But these days I only care about "epic" when it's in the same sentence as "trail". The single track climb was relentless and frustrating. We both found it hard to keep a steady cadence and kept getting outwitted by soul sapping steep ascents and devilish switchbacks. Once you finally reach the top (after several false summits) you have a few reasonable downhill sections, but its mainly just fire road. A good place to practice some bike skills, and for me to allow my new avids to break in, but not enough grin factor to make you forget about the heavy slogg getting there.

Still, it was good training for Downieville (our route was slightly longer than the book's 16.8 miles - we were closer to 22 miles.) AND we managed to avoid the parks famous inhabitants - Tarantulas! ...... Glad I knew about those fellas AFTER I sprawled about in the long grass trying to get cool pictures for this feckin' blog!

I rounded the weekend off with a short loop around Tamarancho. We have the dirt classic coming up very soon so I wanted to work on my switchback and technical skills. Tamarancho has some outstanding terrain. The single track really is quite amazing and its very easy to be whisked along and forget how demanding it is. Well, on this day I was reminded with a bump. Towards the end of the ride I lost concentration - and a lot of elbow skin - to another lesson learned : keep your weight balanced and centred and focus on the trail. Oh, and if you have elbow pads - they're really no use sitting in the car......

Monday, 3 May 2010

Weapon of Choice

So, May started off the way any birthday month should start - the purchase of a new ride! I've spent the past year researching what full suss' bike to get. I looked at the Yeti 575, a couple of Treks, the Blur.... all sensible XC bikes that would serve my purposes adequately. However I'd always get drawn back to the Santa Cruz Nomad. Something about it made me want to ride it. The raking head angle, burly frame and graceful geometry arcs just look great. I've tried to justify the choice to myself and others by saying things like "the 6 inch travel will give me confidence to ride harder and faster.. blah de blah" but the simple truth is, I think it's one hell of a sexy looking piece of hardware. And I wanted it.

I picked it up from the Family Cycle Centre in Santa Cruz. A very nice, and knowledgeable bunch of folks. I chose the X9 build kit with a couple of upgrades. I flirted with the idea of the new carbon frame, but decided to rein in my spending. The SRAM X9 build on the aluminium frame isn't exactly featherweight, but I'm used to heaving my cromo steel Orange up slopes so I figured it'd be ok. I went for a Chris King headset and the Fox DHX 5.0 air shock. I also chose the Lyric solo air fork option. Powdercoat black. Crank Brothers Acid pedals and, to top it all off, a Gravity Dropper Classic seatpost.

The Nomad's maiden ride was to be at China Camp state park in Marin. A favourite playground of mine full of nice, sweeping single track and some decent, rutted downhill. There's also a cheeky selection of near vertical drops next to the rocket launch pad to test your mettle kung fu (which we did - all of them - with the Nomad barely hitting the full 6 inches of it's silky smooth compression.)

It's going to take me a while to dial the Nomad in. I need to get used to the feel of full suspension and longer travel before I can tune it to perfection. But I'm totally smitten. Racing down twisty-turny singletrack, is a dream like waltz. Every subtle shift is transmitted through the geometry allowing for tiny balance corrections to be dialed back in. However, when things get sketchy, you can use the Nomad's as a brutal, blunt instrument to carve through and sort it itself out to safety. Both these qualities instill an enormous sense of confidence both in the bike and the trail. I've never ridden as well or with as much enjoyment as I did the first time I took this elegant brute out. Roll on the weekend!