Tuesday, November 29, 2005

When Burning the Turkey is a Good Thing...

(No pics for this one. I've managed to misplace my ELPH, and until I find it or replace it, the posts will be strictly chalk on slate. Of course, people who know me will say the camera is floating around somewhere in the back of my truck. And they're probably right.)

For the past three years, a group of us locals and not-so-locals have taken advantage of our holiday traveling to get in a little post-Thanksgiving Day ride in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, specifically at Douthat State Park, in Bath County. Dubbed the Turkey Burner Ride (TBR), the tradition is to meet in the park around 9 in the morning, pick a route from among more than 40 miles of exceptional trails, and then endeavor to burn off some excess calories by climbing up and bombing down the long and relatively steep stretches and tight switchbacks that characterize the riding in this part of the George Washington National Forest. Of course, all are encouraged to pack along some post-ride beers, just in case we burn too many calories.

For this year’s event, I decided to bring the single speed, though with the gearing pared down slightly from 32x17 to 32x18. In years past, I rode my full-suspension Aeon Isis, mostly because this was the one and only time in the year that I could justify hanging on to the squishy beast. Although the suspension made for a fun, comfortable, no concentration necessary ride, the spin-while-planted-in-the-saddle climbing method that is de rigueur for such bikes quickly drove me nuts and was at odds with my “normal” riding “style.” One ride a year on the Isis just didn't give me the chance to get used to the change. So, I decided to commit to my beloved Inbred. However, a solo ride at Douthat earlier in the year, coupled with a lingering hand injury from a recent spill at Elizabeth Furnace, convinced me that I could maintain a stronger grip on the bars and descend faster if I ditched my rigid steel fork just this once in favor of a Manitou BLACK sussy that was laying around my house, dreaming of lost dirt.

So, on the morning of Black Friday (aka Suckle At The Plastic Teat of Rampant Commercialism day), the alarm clock detonates at 7:30 with the between-frequencies chatter of competing country and gospel music stations. I slap blindly at the clock to put it out, and manage to drag my tryptophan-saturated ass out of bed to get my stuff ready. As in years past, I was spending the holiday in Covington—about 30 minutes away from Douthat—visiting with my girl's family.

I dress in the dark, then stagger out to the fridge to grab my breakfast, a cold peanut butter and banana wrap, hastily and sloppily slapped together the prior evening. As I force down the wrap, I glance out the back door window at the thermometer: 16 ° F.

Uh, yeah, nice.

Fortunately, it’s supposed to be sunny, there’s no rain in the forecast, and any lingering moisture on the trails has surely crystallized by now. Sounds like the right mix for near-perfect trail conditions.

I take my gear out to the car, fire up the engine to let it warm up, then retrieve my bike from where I'd placed it the night before—under a roof adjacent to the enclosed porch—just in case the mountains had conjured up a little surprise precipitation. The steel frame is so cold that my fingers and palms go numb as I hoist it up onto the rack on the hatchback. Securing the bike with the ratchet straps in the low temps is a game of skill and patience, but after a few minutes of fumbling, I'm all set.

Within a half hour of driving, I'm pulling into the park entrance, where an empty parking lot makes it apparent I'm the only one stupid enough to be out in the sub-20° temperature. I tuck three ones into the box slot at the empty kiosk (it's an "honor system" kinda day), pick up my parking placard, and pull into a spot. After unracking my bike and airing up the tires, I head into the ranger station in search of heat.

About fifteen minutes later, the boys start rolling in. Donny, Tim, Matt, and Will, all from Charlottesville, all in one car, followed by Jeff, from the Wintergreen Resort area, in another. I find out right away that I'm not the only one who will be pushing one gear, as Donny has brought his 1x1, clapped out with the same gear I'm running. I'm already changed, so the boys get on with it, all of us trying to best-guess how many layers we'll need. The topography of the Douthat trails is such that a rider will surely strip off at least one layer on the way up the mountain, only to put it back on again somewhere along the ridge in preparation for the constant, speed-induced chill of the multi-mile downhill. No way around it if you want to be comfortable on the ups and downs. I look at Matt. He's settled on two short-sleeve bike shirts with some arm warmers, and a pair of tights that have seen better days. Donny's outfit is almost as spartan. Apparently, insane riding styles dictate insane dress codes, or maybe it's the other way around.

We leave the warmth of the station and mill about in the parking lot, adjusting the bikes and filling the tires. Then we're off, taking the Tobacco House Ridge Trail up a short incline, then bearing left where it joins the Blue Suck Falls Trail. We roll through a couple of small creek crossings and make our way up a gradually increasing grade to the falls; Matt, Donny, Will, and Jeff in the lead, followed by me, then Tim. After only a few minutes of climbing, I'm burning up, and decide to stop and peel off a layer. Tim catches up and passes me. I hop on and give chase, standing on the pedals to gain terrain as the incline gives way to a switchback. The trail is covered in a thick blanket of loose leaves that masks the irregular surface beneath.

We cross the eponymous falls, and continue climbing on the Blue Suck Falls Trail. By this time, I've managed to catch up to Jeff, who is middle-ringing it the whole way in the saddle. It's simply a matter of physics; I'm running a larger gear and standing much of the way; if I'd had my geared bike, I wouldn't have caught even a glimpse of Jeff until the ridgetop. Of course, standing means I'm not likely to make the trip to the top without either a voluntary break or a blow-up. I stick to Jeff's rear tire for a while, huffing and puffing like a beached whale. It doesn't last long. I stop to suck some wind, and Jeff keeps right on steady peddling, disappearing around a slight bend in the trail.

I hop back on, and at some point, I see up ahead that the leading four riders are stopped, waiting on me and Tim before tackling the next upward leg. I join them, swallow some GU, and tell them to go on, since I have no problem taking another quick break until Tim arrives. Snow covers the ground just off the trail, waiting for the afternoon sun and the modest chance it offers to join the trickling creeks that bisect the valleys below. I don't really have time to get cold, because it isn't long before Tim rolls up. His breathing seems steady and he looks to be climbing strong, with little apparent effort. We hang out a minute or two, discussing the climb thus far, the weather, and how we feel. I've ridden with Tim only once before, last year on this very occasion, and I remember that he made an effort then to pace my slow ass so I wouldn't be the last one to the top. This really paid off when I broke a spoke, since he hung around while I wrapped it and adjusted my rear brake, bullshitting with me the rest of the way up to take my mind off the occasional and unwelcome rubbing of the warped rim on the brake pads. Helluva nice guy, to say the least.

We mount up again, and it isn't long before we more or less reach the top, traveling along on the Middle Mountain Trail. Eventually, we find our way to the Salt Stump Trail. Tim and I exchange places and begin the first real descent behind the others. Pounding down the narrow ribbon of trail, slicing through puffs of dry leaves like thick brown smoke that open and close around each passing rider, I'm digging the suspension fork as it effortlessly corrects for the hidden bad lines I seem to be "finding" beneath the litter. I let it all hang out, ignoring the exposure on one side, and catching up to Tim only at those points where I would be slowing down if I knew better. Tim knows the trails, and I use him like a traffic cone time and again, rushing up until I see him scrubbing speed for a hidden switchback, then following suit. It's a strategy that let's me relax, lay off the brakes, and really enjoy the speed for long stretches. There are times when the leaves are so thick on the off-camber path that none of us knows if we are on the trail proper or riding somewhere inches above or below it; we simply carve through short sections of what seems like the route until we are a bit more sure of our placement.

From the Salt Stump Trail, we head right onto the Pine Tree Trail to take on another long downhill that gets us out of the saddle and using our legs and arms like living coils and struts to guide our bikes along swatches of frozen earth and loose shale barely wider than the footprint of our tires. There are scattered mini-drops that let us get some nice air at speed before touching down again. The thrill of the descent is more than enough to make us forget the climb and the cold, and the adrenaline-fueled exhiliration lingers on in our minds and bodies long after the wheels have reached stasis, like the vestiges of some fantastic, psychotropic drug. It's a fix of sorts, the reason we showed up.

The Pine Tree Trail is the last arc of a jagged, misshapen loop that brings us back to the Blue Suck Falls Trail. Soon we are forced to dismount to hike the bikes over a rocky section that is all but impassable for anyone who isn't a solid trials rider with a pair of brassies to back it up. It's a short break, but just enough to spoil the descent a bit. We hop back on, and bang down the remaining stretch that is rockier than the rest of the loop.

At some point along the remaining half mile to the parking lot, I notice a distinct and very unsettling thunk coming from the front of my bike. Remembering that I threw the fork on late Wednesday night before my trip without a test ride, I'm figuring it's either loose in the headset or else it's low on air. Caution gets the better of me, and I stop to check it out. It's not the fork, but the hub, jiggling around in the lawyers tabs during this last part of the ride like a can of paint in a mixer. It's the result of a skewer that has worked itself loose. I had this problem once before on my Karate Monkey, using the same skewer, a Ringle. Nice-looking, light, but there's a reason Shimano skewers enjoy a better reputation, and it ain't all marketing. I tighten up the errant skewer, make a note to switch it to some other bike that's not running discs to see if that makes a difference, then throw a leg over the bike to catch up with the others in the parking lot.

We dismount and grab a drink before heading into the ranger station to discuss the possibility of getting in some more riding. We've rung up somewhere around twelve miles at this point, and I'm thinking about another six; specifically, the six of Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout that's sitting all alone in a paper bag in the backseat of the car, chilled perfectly by the icy embrace of Lady Nature and pining for a little company. In the end, only Matt and Will decide to continue on riding; the rest of us rack up the bikes and head down to the Stony Run parking area to throw down a few and reminisce about the day's ride. It's a good time, what mountain biking is all about. It's still as cold as the proverbial witch's teat, but the sky is clear, the sun is beaming, and the stout tastes so fine I can almost forgive Jeff for bringing Heineken. Until next year...


gmr2048 said...

another great write-up, man. were it not for the fact my lungs aren't burst, i am breathing normally, i am warm, and i am not drinking a beer, i almost thought i was there.

iconoclasst said...


You need to work a little harder on that beer thing though!

And speaking of burst lungs, cold temps, and beer, there is another WUSS road ride on the horizon for December; I'll send ya the email.

Lee said...

Great write up. Jeff and John invited me along for this one, since i too stay in Wintergreen for the holiday. I decided to stick around a little closer and hang out with my son. I did a bunch of road riding over the weekend though, unfortunately it was alone. Just not the same...

iconoclasst said...

Lee, thanks, and worry not, John didn't make it either, which meant that, aside from missing his obvious personal contribution to the group dynamic, we wouldn't be availing ourselves of the 60 Minute IPA he planned to bring. A shame, but since his daughter had a case of pink eye, perhaps he needed it more.

There's always next year...and plenty of room!