Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Return to Mountain Biking

I gave up mountain biking for several years. Part of it was my move to Munich (and subsequent move back) drove me to simplify the bike load and reduce me to one single bike and one tandem.The other thing was that I really enjoyed doing road cycling a lot more: there's nothing like being able to ride out your front door and being able to roll for 4-7 hours and come back without getting into a car.

But I could feel myself getting stale. While I could still easily ride unpaved fire roads and my road bike still had more off-road miles than most mountain bikes, I had reached a plateau, not being able to pick off the more technical sections of dirt Alpine, for instance. Between that and the grin on my face from the Santa Cruz factory demo, I decided to look into getting a mountain bike.

When I first bought my MB-3 in 1994, Pardo's advice was, "Mountain Biking is the process of throwing your bike off a cliff very slowly, with you on it, so there's no point getting a bike that's too good." With that in mind, I set my budget low, and went to see what I could get. Disappointingly enough, most bikes in the sub-thousand dollar range weighed in the same as my 1993 Bridgestone MB-3. Apparently all the weight savings from aluminum frames, etc., had gone into bigger wheels, disc brakes, and suspension.

The one brand that stood out for value was Airborne Bicycles. Their $830 Seeker had components that looked to be very well thought out, and weighed in around 28 pounds (the same as my 1993 Bridgestone). I tried to buy one from the catory, but they were out of stock, and didn't expect to have any back until Spring. If I lived anywhere but California, that would be acceptable. But I live in Silicon Valley, and even in winter (maybe even especially in winter), mountain biking here is still good. In winter, sometimes the temperature drops enough that road biking is annoying, while mountain biking with its lower speeds is a good substitute.

I looked on eBay, and found a Seeker my size that was in decent condition for about $200 less than what I would have paid for new (which after tax would have been around $900), and proceeded to buy it. The bike came with the deraileur hanger bent during shipping, courtesy of Fedex ground, but it was a relatively cheap fix. As a precaution, I sent e-mail to Airborne Bicycles asking to buy a spare deraileur hanger, and they sent me a new one --- for free, despite my not being the original owner of the bike. This is customer service well beyond what I expect from a cut-rate mail order shop, so I think I can whole-heartedly recommend Airborne's bikes.

The first ride I took it was up Charcoal road (which isn't a paved road at all, but is single track for much of it).
The ride confirmed my worst fears: I was woefully out of mountain biking shape. Stuff that I used to just ride over or through with aplomb I now felt nervous about, even occasionally just giving up and walking my bike. Nevertheless, stream crossings, acing a difficult section on the trail and climbing hard put a big smile on my face. The bike was clearly capable of far more than I was capable of. What blew my mind was how fast the descents were: bigger wheels and a capable front fork suspension definitely make descending fast dirt paths a quick and satisfying experience. The disc brakes were more of a mixed bag: they always stopped me even after a stream crossing, which wasn't always the case with rim brakes, but like any other disc brakes I'd ever encountered, the rotor would warp, though not badly enough to make any annoying noises, just enough to annoy me whenever I looked at it closely. I have no idea whether it's because the bike has the lowest end hydraulic brakes available, or whether it doesn't matter what I get, those brake rotors are just going to warp no matter what.
What I'm rediscovering is that mountain biking requires much more anaerobic capacity than road biking (especially road touring) does. There are many sections where you just need a big spurt of power to get over the obstacle, but when combined with the necessary technical handling skills required I would just fall over at a critical section. As they say, "If you ain't hiking, you ain't mountain biking."
For my next ride, I decided that I'd drive to the start instead of biking over. El Corte Madera State Park is a mountain biker's haven, and I remember several technical sections that featured multiple steep drops that scared me back when I was on an MB-3. 
With some experience under me and equipment that was technically advanced by about 20 years, the technical stuff was actually comparatively easier than I remembered. What I was surprised by was that the park had been renovated in several places, and there were now trails that I didn't recognize any more. And once again, the climbs did me in, which I don't remember being that difficult when I was riding the MB-3 oh so many years ago. What's really cool about doing this in late fall/early winter is that you run into practically nobody on the trails. No trail conflict, no shouting "10 behind me", just the rustle of the leaves under your tires and perhaps the sound of your heart pounding in your ears.
One thing that I quickly realized was that what works for other mountain bikers definitely won't work for me: riding with my Geiger-rig backpack placed too much of a load on my shoulders and back for long rides, and made me feel slow and heavy. Unfortunately, water bottles tend to get their nozzles filled with mud on off-road rides (or worse, horse poo if you ride on trails shared with equestrains). I'll experiment with some capped water bottles to see how that goes.
It's going to take a while to get good at this, but whatever else I can say about it, it's definitely going to banish any staleness I'd been starting to feel on the bike.
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