Monday, January 15, 2018

Wild Hair: Gaylord again, and gear.

Our plan to ride the Groen Preserve fell flat when we arrived to find a locked gate and a sign announcing that indeed the park was closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.  Looking closer through the gate, none of the fresh snow had yet been packed or used in any way, thus we turned and headed back to the barn and rode right down the driveway once more.

Mama Bear and Mollywollywigglepants escorted us to the gasline, but with 8 stops in 1/2 mile to retrieve her booties or dig snow out of her pads, Mama turned around early and took knucklehead with her.

Jeny and I continued around the lake, not speaking much as we rode, all attention turned outward.  Just noticing, basically: Cyan skies whipped with scud, an occasional squall of flurries then a moment of sun, a full-on whiteout complete with up-snow, and then moments later back to blue.  Dynamic.

6" of fluff deposited overnight, when it's below zero, means very dry snow.  Had that one kid not been amped to try out his new-for-christmas sled, we probably wouldn't have been riding much, or far.

Very early in the ride we found ourselves near base pressures: It was a 4-wrinkle kinda ride.  You could occasionally feel a base underneath it all but the lack of moisture to the snow meant that it just wouldn't stick together.  Like trying to make a snowball from goose feathers.  As such the low pressures gave us not just float but grip, and again we were happy to have big blocky treads.

I don't have a thermometer on my bike but there were subtle clues -- eyes watering non-stop, inability to enunciate "whitetail" or "chickadee" due to frozen face syndrome -- that today was our coldest day yet.  Probably not lower than -10 or so, but coming from daytime 50's at home this still felt foreign.

If the animals were bothered by the temps they didn't show it.  They ate casually, seemingly undisturbed by our passing.  

Come to think of it, maybe that casualness was evidence that they were cold stressed: Had it been warmer they might have spooked more easily at our passing.

  Riding in these temps can be suffered through or it can be savored.  The difference comes mainly down to the gear you use.  Volumes could be written on what works and what doesn't, and why, and for every one of those volumes there will be a handful of dissenting opinions.  Bottom line: Experiment to learn what works *for you*, where you live and ride.

It isn't my intent to write a volume here, because what works for me where I live and ride could be largely irrelevant for you in your environs.  I'll give you a head start on finding what works by saying that often you don't need much insulation because you're working hard moving those low pressure tires across the snow.  What is needed more than anything is a way to block the wind that you create, and that would otherwise be conducting heat away from your body faster than you can produce it.

To the end of blocking said wind, Jeny and I do two things consistently all winter long.  First, we use pogies whenever it's below about 15*.  I helped to design and refine this set, and Jeny likes hers so much she starts asking if she can put them on in October.  If you have chronically cold hands you need to do more than just buy those pogies -- you need to think critically about grip material (rubber is bad, cork is good, neoprene is best), brake lever material (carbon is better than metal), and gloves, all from the perspective of heat conduction.  But the pogies are the cornerstone, and will keep you warm enough that you can enjoy riding, and if you enjoy riding then you'll be motivated to fiddle with the rest to find your happy place.  

The second thing we do consistently is to wear windproof outer shells.  Some swear by their summer rain gear, others swear at it.  Some love softshell fabric, some can't fathom using it.  Again, you have to experiment.  Chances are good that you've got something around already that will work just fine.  The ability to dump heat -- via chest vents or pit zips -- is mandatory, otherwise you end up taking it off and putting it back on repeatedly depending on temps, wind, and speeds.

But that's for the top layer, because we've all got jackets.  But what about the bottoms?  

When I first started winter riding and racing ~25 years ago I couldn't find anything that worked.  Nordic ski stuff was OK if temps were fair and and wind came only from the front, but not otherwise.  Downhill ski and snowboard gear was great at blocking wind but too heavy and not well ventilated.  Various experiments with hiking pants always disappointed, as they just lack a certain substance when it's cold, snowy, and windy.

My solution was to design and (for the next 15 years) continually refine a pair of winter riding pants, based loosely around the cut of a pair of baggy snowboard pants.  Mark at FBF in CB somehow didn't throw me out on my ear for asking him to make these, and somehow he humored me when I repeatedly asked him to tweak them: Extra thickness in the knees so that I wouldn't feel the cold when kneeling while melting snow for water, integrated gaiters and fitted cuffs to keep overflow from getting into my boots, a wide-enough-to-be-comfy-for-days elasticized waist band so that I wouldn't have to fumble with zippers or buttons when it came time for a nature break.  Zippered vents in the thighs.  Integrated padding to augment my chamois.  An under-boot strap to keep them from riding up while pedaling or postholing.  Reinforced fabric in the ankle/chainring area.  And lots of pockets for the essentials.

I still have that same pair of pants and I still use them when I go to Alaska or other very cold places.  But they're heavy and bulky for the relatively warm temps of the lower 48, so I almost never use them down here.  I've often wished I had a lighter weight set of them, but it's just never seemed that important to go to the trouble to have them made.  Plus Mark would likely tell me to take a hike.

Jeny and I happened to stop into a bike shop on the first day of this trip.  I wandered around while she bought various 'ride food' snacks.  I happened onto these.  I did a doubletake, then plucked them from the rack and inspected them.  Most of the design minutiae that it took me a decade plus to figure out were incorporated in this set: Pockets, venting, cuffs, gaiters, anti-ride-up strap.  Windproof.

Long story short, I went and tried them on, then insisted that Jeny do the same.

Crazy.  Moments later we were motoring down the road with a new pair of pants each.  Considering that I probably spent an aggregate $1000 in time and labor to arrive at the set I've worn in Alaska since forever, the $175 we paid for these sets seemed a pittance.  Pocket change.  We wore them every day on this trip.  We *loved* having them, every day on this trip.  And every day I was yet more astonished that they existed at all.  Maybe they've existed for years, and I just don't go into bike shops enough?

Dunno.  I felt like I'd won the lottery when I found them.  If you ride outside in the northern hemisphere in winter, I encourage you to go find a pair.

Phew.  Lotsa gear nerding.

Jeny and I closed this loop at what felt like sunset, but was really just another squall blocking out the late afternoon sun.  Hours around the fire and in the company of family seemed especially luxuriant after having been out in the cold all day.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Wild Hair: Gaylord.

We were present for the exchange of presents and only narrowly avoided receiving one with pink pads and puppybreath.  After an enormous breakfast and way too many pokes at the piles of baked goods distributed around the house, Jeny and I suited up for a ride.

When my parents retired they moved to a cabin near Gaylord.  I spent one full summer and countless weekends at this cabin, such that I know the trails well enough to string together a number of rides.  That is to say that I know where they go, what their character is, which are heavily trafficked and which not at all.  But I've never really known names for any of them.  We refer to them by what they are -- the gasline trail, the one past grandma's house, the one that goes around the lake, through the clearcut, out to the beaver dam, etc...

In other words, this is not a "trail system" per se.  There is no parking lot, no kiosk, no dog poop bag dispenser.  No crowds.  The trails aren't on MTB Project.  And I have no intention of changing any of that -- nor would it be my place to.  We ride right out the door and in 100 yards we're in the woods, and usually have the trails to ourselves but for an occasional chance meeting with a neighbor.

Because I've spent so much time in these woods I have heaps of memories and stories from within them, triggered (as you'd expect) just by being here.  Of particular note is this grove, with a few rolling undulations beneath the close canopy.  It was here that I took my first tentative steps at learning to winter camp in an ultra-racing context.  Carry enough gear and you can stay warm in any environment, indefinitely.  But when covering ground as efficiently as possible is the goal, you have to severely limit what you can carry.  

So I'd get up at midnight, wad bag and pad under my arm, and walk the ~10 minutes to this spot.  And there I'd sleep.  Or try to.  The goal of these exercises was to sleep comfortably -- and safely -- for about 3 hours.  Just enough to rejuvenate so that I could go for another 20 or so hours before doing it again.  And again...

I didn't want to be warm enough to sleep longer as the races ran away from me.  The effort was intended to learn not how much to take, but how little I could get away with.  Recognizing and exploring that distinction consumes more time than you'd imagine when this is your chosen line of "work".  As with any test there were bound to be "learning moments".  It was the proximity of these woods to safety that allowed me to take risks and make mistakes, because if somehow I'd miscalculated I could just walk my shivering hiney home and park it next to the woodburner for a few. 

Repeat that process for a few weeks around the negative temps of a northern Michigan solstice and you'll know a thing or two about winter camping.  Then take the show on the road to Alaska, Colorado, or Minnesota -- learning yet more as you go -- and you can safely traverse lots of country with the confidence that comes from being able to sleep and wake as needed.

As we rode poor Jeny had to listen to me breathlessly recount the sundry highs and lows of these experiments.  I don't think I crossed the line into mansplaining (she probably disagrees...), but I'm certain that I at least feathered that line and gave her more winter-camping-mistake-minutia than she'd ever have the bandwidth for or interest in.

As seen from the seats of our bikes, and viewed against the perspective of 21 years of living there, this winter seemed downright normal in the northern lower peninsula.  Cold enough.  Snow sufficient for the slednecks to get out and romp , but not so much that the deer couldn't find browse.  Just the right amount for us, if we let almost all of the air out of our tires.

With the entire family back at the cabin our goal wasn't to go for an epic so much as just stretch our legs and get some fresh air before diving back into family time.  So after a lap around the lake then out around grandma's house we returned on the gasline, stopping repeatedly to marvel at the honey winter light, listen to the LGB's flitting and twittering invisibly in the trees, and to simply feel the diamond dust infused air being pulled into our lungs.  

After a week on the road we finally got to slow down and embrace one place, and sleep in the same bed for a few nights.  And that place just happened to be home.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Wild Hair: Marquette.

Our post-ride and post-pizza drive from Hancock to Marquette was notable primarily because the snow stopped falling somewhere near L'Anse, allowing me to slightly relax the white-knuckles from the wheel.  Waking the next morning in downtown Marquette the temps were still crisp, but there was one heckuva lot less snow on the ground relative to the past few days.

That lack of snow made plain the obvious and unsurprising difference between snowbiking (low pressures, slow speeds, lots of groveling followed by lots of walking) and mountain biking on snow.  Today, on the NTN North Trails, we did nothing but the latter -- hauling ass, cornering hard, pounding up the short stinger climbs, grinning ear to ear.  This was attributable mostly to the quantity of snow -- Marquette had very little compared to Maasto Hiihto -- but also to the amount of traffic out packing the trails down.  

Shortly after we started our ride we both stopped and pumped our tires to pavement pressure -- at least 10psi -- and never once thought about pressures the rest of the day.

At home in Colorado, and specifically in our backyard, these sorts of conditions simply don't happen. Thus we ride 5" tires -- often at pressures so low that no gauge can read them -- and we simply accept that in order to ride the snow that price must be paid.

Marquette's North trail system transits between two reservoirs and largely parallels the Dead River or the penstock that contains much of said river's flow.  There are multiple trailheads and road crossings, all in close proximity to town and various neighborhoods.  In that way it reminded me of Sedona: You were never far from access, and hikers were on every inch of the trail system as nothing was truly remote.  If you think about that fact in the context of packing or grooming snow, you realize that hikers are doing a lot of the heavy lifting in keeping the snow packed immediately after and between storms.  Which means you get fewer down days.

On the Farley hardtail I'd been riding the framebag was big enough to swallow a tube, pump, nano-puff jacket, some snacks, and, um, my DSLR with (usually) a 28-200 attached.  By contrast, the FS sled Jeny was piloting had a much smaller framebag, which she augmented with this slick little Revelate seatbag.  Nano puffy, dry hat and a spare pair o' gloves inside and waiting.

Zipping through trees never gets old for us desert dwellers.

m r ducks.

Jeny and I have ridden thousands and thousands of miles together all around the west.  Jeny hadn't ridden in the midwest before, whereas this is where I learned to ride.  Certain habits came back unconsciously -- like deliberately not shifting and just powering up the climbs in whatever gear I happened to be in.  If you live here, you get it, and you do it too.

At home in CO where the climbs can last for hours, that strategy just doesn't work: You blow your wad and there's still a few thousand vert above.  Thus it was new to Jeny, and fun to watch her adapt to a style and way of thinking/riding that was utterly foreign to her.

Now that winter trails are getting heavily used (and/or packed) and ice is part of the equation, studs seem mandatory to keep us upright. I knew that we'd need studs on this trip, thus we both started with studded B Fat Gnarwhals. I am totally and completely sold on them after this trip.  

The 4.5" Gnarwhals are just as fast rolling (if not faster) than my all-time-favorite Bud/Lou, and every bit as good in deep, soft fluff. But then with studs installed they take it to the next level. I never once wished for anything different.

I'll do a post-trip gear wrap-up where I talk more specifically about wheels and tires, and why B Fat makes so much more sense than 26" for midwestern winter riding.

It's not often you get to use the word 'carapace'...

Penstock was one of the more memorable trails in this system, featuring a steep, switchbacking climb, some excellent views, and direct connection to some of the other great trails -- like the engaging Blue Heron and super scenic BLP Rocks.

Yep, we all do it.  Thanks for the reminder.

As the fun, fast, hardpacked trail just kept coming, it occurred to me to be appreciative for 4 things, in no real order:

1. 27.5 x 4.5" tires
2. Big honkin' well-supported tread blocks
3. Sipes and studs
4. Reliable, hassle-free tubeless rims and tires.

OK, so maybe that's more than four.  Add 'em up however you want.

Trails like these with conditions like this don't really require a fatbike, and don't really favor any specific geometry other than whatever you're used to.  I can't think of any particular moment when I was grateful to have suspension on this ride, although I did use the dropper a surprising number of times.

Nope, what mattered was being able to lay down a bit of horsepower and have the tires stick to the ground in so doing.  And then to be able to let off the brakes and carve, slide, drift the corners predictably.

Unintentional groomers.

As we wrapped up our tour of the North Trail system, both flying and shelled at the same time, we briefly considered heading over to sample the South trails, too.  The realization that it was Christmas Eve and family was a mere 4 hours away had us heaving gear wholesale into the van and then hightailing it across the straits to spend time with the trolls.

Thanks for checkin' in.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Wild Hair: Maasto Hiihto.

The Upper Peninsula and especially the Keweenaw have held a special place in my head and heart since probably before I can remember.  To a kid growing up near Detroit in the '70's, both were representative of wildness, wilderness -- in ways that were collectively inspiring and terrifying.  Two traverses of Isle Royale by foot and canoe, eating whatever we could hook and going hungry otherwise, could safely be said to have hooked me on minimalist wilderness travel from my pre-teen years, and I haven't been able to loose that hook yet.

Not that I'm really trying.

Then, just after college, I met some friends that were doing interesting things in the Keweenaw, and happily slipped into their vortex as they brushed out glades on Mt. Bohemia, then skinned and skied the copious lake-effect snow all winter.  This was a decade+ before the lifts went in, and Steve, Brian, Red, and others had the place more or less to themselves.  It's different now.  For that and other reasons Jeny and I opted to leave skis at home on this trip, but I couldn't pass within spitting distance of the Keweenaw and not have us poke our noses in.

An unremarkable crossing of the lift bridge brought us to Hancock, whence we immediately ascended into a blistering whiteout.  Snow came in sideways on the wind, slowing Clifford to a tentative crawl as the road and all visible navigational aids vanished.  We crept gingerly into an empty parking lot, understanding intuitively that the trails were probably softer than ideal, and everyone else was doing something more apropos on such a day.  Not having the luxury of waiting a day to ride, we added extra windproofs and stuck lights onto bikes, anticipating that the soft conditions would probably keep us out longer than we had daylight for.  Somehow the snow stopped within moments of leaving the trailhead, but the ceiling remained at treetop level for the duration.

We were down to minimal pressures within minutes, but psyched to realize that the trails had a solid base underneath the fluff, allowing us to ride with effort, but not having to walk.

We'd end up seeing a dozen+ people out on the trails, most skiing, a few riding, and at least two ripping around on various grooming contraptions, rolling and packing the new snow for our use and enjoyment.

It wasn't.

Once we had blood flowing and layering right, the temps seemed just fine and all attention was focused externally, enjoying sinuous trail weaving through low-angle winter light in the boreal forest.

Although internet maps showed the location of several fatbike specific trails within this system, the maps on the ground did not.  Eventually we were pointed their way and spent a chunk of the afternoon ripping up and down these twisty roller coasters.  They reminded me of some of the Hillside trails in Anchorage, and were clearly used year-round.

As the light waned we somewhat reluctantly worked our way back out, never quite getting the view of the canal that we'd hoped for, but climbing and descending some bonus hills while trying.

Not surprisingly we ended up closing the loop after dark.  There's a certain feel that comes with being out after everyone else isn't -- sort of makes you feel like you're stealing a march, getting bonus miles or something.  Or at least extracting your money's worth from the day, and then some.

This was our first extended ride of the trip, but the accumulated driven mileage and attendant travel details (sleeping in a new bed every night, strange sounds waking us up, bad food and too much of it) had us both feeling a bit beat down.

We knew it wasn't the Maasto Hiihto trails that made us feel so.  They were exquisite -- another gem to be visited in the future, and a place that the locals are incredibly lucky to have out the back door.

We found pizza, root beer, and baked goods in Houghton, then slowly ambled through the storm to Marquette.

Thanks for checkin' in.