Thursday, October 07, 2010

Mountain Biking: My New (Crazy?) Hobby

By Dave Armstrong (10-7-10)

Here I go again with one of my new interests. I had never done this before, but now at age 52 (with the usual aches and pains and a generally bad back), I decided to follow my daredevilish urges (combined with my usual near-fanatical love of nature). I had no idea what it was like till my 13 year-old son Matthew and I decided yesterday (a gorgeous fall day: about 70 degrees and sunny) to traverse the Pontiac Lake State Recreation mountain bike trail [see second web page, too] in Oakland County, about 35 miles north of Detroit.

It's considered one of the very best mountain bike trails in Michigan, and in the top 100 for the whole country. It's 11 miles long, and almost all hills, except for the occasional relatively level stretch. What was amazing to both of us was how difficult it was. We went in understanding that it was an "easy-to-intermediate" trail, but it is actually, I later learned, considered intermediate to advanced skill level.

The work involved in uphill climbing sections is a given. I understood that going in (and as a longtime backpacker and hiker I know all about it). But that was the least of the problem. On downhill stretches, there were (especially in the first five miles) literally many hundreds (if not thousands) of large rocks and tree roots crossing the path, as one is going downhill at great speed.

Apparently experienced mountain bikers just go right over them (or perhaps they try to jump over with at least the front wheel). I can't imagine that, but I'm just a rookie at it; what do I know? It seems to be the case. If so, that would be quite a "rocky" ride -- literally! I've been used to riding ten-speeds for years, and avoiding bumps, let alone pineapple-sized rocks (whole collections of 'em!) and tree roots sticking four inches out of the ground. Maybe it is just a matter of adjusting to the different philosophy of biking involved (cruising over any terrain rather than sticking to always-smooth paths). One might describe it as a cross between going cross-country in a tank, and a rollercoaster.

Besides these hazards, there are the usual trees close to the trail, loose gravel, sand, drop-offs, dips, small pits, and otherwise uneven trail sections. But the downhills with all the obstructions were wild and crazy. I couldn't bring myself to hit these obstacles at full speed. It was completely counter-intuitive to me. Nor did my son ever try to do it. So we were braking a lot and even walking through some of the rougher parts. I wound up walking up all the major uphill portions. My thighs (and heart and lungs) weren't up to that, and I was trying to conserve my energy: not knowing what was still to come up ahead.

In the first rough five-mile section, I actually had three accidents. In the first I sort of lost control and hit some loose gravel, and was trying to avoid both a tree and a drop-off. I went flying off to the right of my bike onto the trail, and scraped my right calf pretty good (but no bleeding) The next two had to do with over-braking. I had real good brakes and so I was using them in all the "crazy" debris-ridden sections. But the trouble was that I could stop (or almost stop) the bike but I couldn't stop myself. I kept goin'! The laws of physics . . .

So, in the second incident I literally went flying over the handlebars (which I had never done in my entire life). Somehow I didn't get too hurt again: only scraping my inner thigh and injuring the lower part of my right hand a bit (I thought it might have been a minor sprain, but it seems not, today). In the third accident I went flying off to the left of my bike this time: happily into a nice little bed of hay that felt just like a mattress, landing flat on my back. That caused no further injury (except maybe to my pride). My son cracked up, seeing me lying there, all sprawled out.

At that point I had some understandable anxiety and wondered if I should have walked some trail instead of doing this "madness." It became a psychological thing of getting back on the bike and overcoming the fear of having had three accidents ("what if I hit a tree next time?"). But I toughed it out (I've never been much of a quitter). We had little choice, anyway, as it was a one-way loop trail. Eventually the trail became a lot smoother overall; not nearly as rugged, and became more enjoyable than "anxious" and frustrating.

There were great hills and curves (some with banks: my favorite parts). When the trail was smooth it was tremendous fun. The downhills were generally very fast and usually with a curve, too. One must watch the trail every second, and a twisty curve (or loose sand or gravel or root or rock) could land one smack dab in the middle of a tree, with just a glance to one side or the other (the scenery was gorgeous: lakes, some fall color, marshes, meadows, lots of woods, one spectacular panoramic view, and hilly terrain everywhere).

Whew! Besides my other injuries, I got blisters on both thumbs and a slightly turned right ankle. I got my shoelace caught in the chain one time, taking out about 8 inches!

This activity is not for the faint of heart, believe me (nor for anyone who cannot react and make decisions lightning quick). If anyone wants to try it, be aware of what is entailed. If this trail is typical, you are in for one huge adventure, with lots of thrills and carnival ride-like sensations. For my money, I don't mind the downhills (I wasn't scared of speed itself) or even the uphills, but the constant rocks and tree roots took the fun out of it when they "wrecked" the downhills.

I will seek out smoother bike trails and try to avoid the "rocky" ones in the future. I guess my preference is sort of in-between conventional paved bike paths and mountain biking. I like a path without any obstructions (as much as possible) but I also like the adventurous nature and more "wilderness" aspects of mountain biking (akin to backcountry hiking but with the thrill of speed). I'll have to be selective, and learn as much as I can about particular trails before I set out again.

I found a very well-filmed video overview of the trail at You Tube. It gives a decent overall picture, though it doesn't adequately convey the speed and challenges of the downhills or difficulty of the climbs (just turn the music down if you don't care for it).

Now I'm a veteran, with two 11-mile rides "in the can" (at two of the best trails in SE Michigan, by all reports). It was another gorgeous fall day (sunny, about 64, colors at about their peak). We have had a spectacular fall so far in Michigan, with day after day of sunny warm weather. I went alone this time.

Lakeshore Park was quite different from Pontiac Lake. It didn't have the brutal ascents that I don't care for at all, but also (as a result) not many fast and/or long downhills (a lot less elevation variation). It had far fewer rocks, which was fine with me. It did have a lot of roots, but most were quite navigable without too much of a bumpy ride: not huge monsters (Pontiac Lake) that I have no particular desire to ride over. The fun of this track was endless variety and twists and turns. It had little piles of logs here and there to ride over (like a man-made hill). I finally got up enough nerve to do one of 'em and it wasn't bad at all (a lot better than it looks). I also did a few small jumps. There were delightful little swoops, intricate, snakey rides through lovely forests, and several log bridges over a stream.

Little by little I'm gettin' the hang of it. One had to watch the trail even more carefully than usual, because it was covered with fallen leaves and hence harder to detect than the usual dirt (mountain bike trails are very narrow as it is). A pretty deer ran right in front of me at one point (my wife would have loved that!).

A really fun section near the end was a sort of mini-track (a "pump trail"): two small circular runs connected together, of pure (and easy) biking fun: hill after hill a few as high as four feet): all gravel: with no roots or rocks at all, and some very nice banks. Unfortunately I was very tired by then (almost fell off one of the small hills) so I only went around a few times.

There is one brutal descent with a quick second hill, called "The Crater." I took one look at it and decided that I was not up to it yet. The trouble was that it was very rocky going down (deliberately so: man-made piles), and it was a steep hill. I thought I had a fair chance to go flying and break my neck. I waited for several minutes, to watch someone else go down it but the ones who passed by went around it as I did.

It was nonstop adventure, just like the first time. This is what I love (though there are moments . . .). It started today literally within one minute. I hit a very large root sticking straight up (an unusual feature) and went flying forward, skinning both my knees, and scraping my calves. It was my first band-aid for a cut (left knee) that actually bled (historic first, during mountain biking). Thus began another "psychological battle." I went in there quite confident, thinking I would have no falls, after three in my first ride. But this was truly a freak occurrence, and it did turn out to be my only fall all day. I warned the next riders coming through as I put on the bandage, and one of them said he fell in the same spot yesterday (which made me feel better!).

Not that there were not risks and obstacles and challenges all day long! I had to tough it out for about a half hour: "post-fall," till I got my confidence back. The leaves could be slippery at times. I slid on them twice, but didn't lose control. The trees were often very close to the trail, and with twists and turns, they can be tricky to avoid (I was very careful of my speed for this reason). I managed to miss all of 'em, though my shoulder brushed against a tree on one occasion.

My thighs hurt a lot on the ascents, but I think I can tell that my muscles are more toned than last time. Then my right ankle started hurting (a little reminder of a minor injury from my first ride). And my right hand hurt (also a leftover from the previous ride). Then I started hitting some bumps and feeling it in my lower back (traditionally a tender spot and problem for me). Sometimes my heart would be racing and I felt I had to rest. At length I became considerably fatigued. At one point I was so tired when I got off my bike to rest, that I could hardly even walk straight.

The fatigue works on your mind almost like a fall does: you wonder if being overly tired will itself cause an accident. I had several close calls in the last few miles, but I made it: no worse for the wear. On a few occasions I sort of jumped off my bike to avoid falling off (perhaps that is an art worth mastering). I'm very tired now, but it's "good tired." I know I had a great day of outdoor adventure and fall sunshine, and a fantastic muscular and cardiovascular workout. I may go again tomorrow! Gotta see how I feel, though. I'm not gonna push it. One has to respect these trails and one's own limits.


Adomnan said...

Two of my three brothers like mountain biking. In late July I went with my brother to Mammoth Mountain, California, which is a ski resort in the winter but a mountain biking spot in the summer.

My brother rode his bike down from the summit of Mammoth Mountain (11,059 ft) to the ski village (about 8,000 ft). As for me, I just took the ski gondola up to the summit with him, enjoyed the view of the High Sierra, had lunch, read for a while, and then took the gondola back down.

A lot of the mountain bikers just bumped down the stairs from the gondola chalet on their bikes and sped down the steep and winding trail without pausing to assess where they were going. Veterans, no doubt, including the nine-year-olds.

Ted Seeber said...

Your son will never forget it. This reminds me of a cross-country ski trip my family took when I was 13- we thought it was an intermediate trail, and it looked like a choice between 2 miles and 11 miles on the map. Sure enough- the 2 miles we chose to go up was an advanced trail, and took us most of the day. Most of it side stepping up near cliffs. With daylight waning, we decided the 11 miles was safer to go back down. We skiied for several hours after dark- I thought I was going to freeze to death in exhaustion.

And that was just up to 9000 ft and back on the side of Mt. Hood.

Dave Armstrong said...

Wow. We drove all around Mt. Hood in 2008. It was gorgeous. But when we got to Mt. Rainier, the weather clouded up and we never saw it. Better luck in the Canadian Rockies after one miserable rainy night in the tent. Win a few, lose a few!

Dave Armstrong said...

I've added a description of my second mountain biking excursion (today), on 16 October, 8:15 PM EST.