Sunday, September 11, 2016

Mountain Biking

Does mountain biking in Chicago sound incongruous?  It shouldn’t, for in essence, mountain biking is simply biking with fatter tires than a road bike, thus allowing for travel on gravel and dirt trails in addition to pavement, and the Chicago area has numerous beautiful forest preserves with unpaved trails.  Here’s how I initially learned about the sport of mountain biking.

Our family vacation in 1987 was to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a trip that not only returned me to my beloved Colorado Rockies but also introduced me to both backpacking and mountain biking, activities that have dominated my outdoor life for the last three decades.  A 15 mile day hike from Rabbit Ears Pass, along the Continental Divide Trail, and then down to Fish Creek Falls showed me numerous campsites along the trail, triggering the urge to learn to backpack which we did as a family the following year.  And renting mountain bikes for the twenty mile ride up the gravel Buffalo Road and then down the singletrack of Spring Creek Trail (photos below) stimulated my desire to do more such biking, and in 1990 I bought my first mountain bike.  Below is young Scott biking through a stream, and the next photo shows me coming down the rutted mountain trail.

My first mountain bike was a Specialized Hard Rock model seen below as I biked in our local forest preserve, Deer Grove Woods, which was only a three mile bike ride from home.

I rode mostly it on streets at first, following the half-dozen or so routes I’d been biking for years around my Lake Zurich home. One of those routes passed alongside Cuba Marsh Forest Preserve which had a gravel trail, so one day I pedaled in and the new bike handled the gravel really well.  It was a wide trail, mainly traversing lovely open prairie but nowhere as enticing to me as the narrow forest trails I loved to hike, so I yearned for a better location to put my new mountain bike through its paces.

Each day on the way to work at Fremd High School, I drove Quentin Road through Deer Grove Forest Preserve, a forest I often hiked and whose trails I was well versed with.  One of my biking routes travelled the residential street that paralleled the forest preserve for a mile, so one day I ventured into the forest, but when the trail turned south, I went back out to the road and continued my usual route.  The joy I’d experienced in the woods remained with me all day and night, so the next day I biked that route once more, veered into the woods again, and was so enjoying the forest ride that I made the turn south and biked the entire six mile loop that followed the perimeter of the preserve.  The trail had constant twists and turns and was replete with rocks and roots and ruts, and in the western section of the preserve it was like a roller coaster with up and down hills and constant blind turns, providing a challenging workout, wondrous scenery, and wildlife sightings.  I was captivated and I shunned my normal street rides and solely biked in the woods. Twice I nearly hit deer that were on the trail browsing the bushes, as I came around blind turns. A trail reroute that was later built provided a nice single-track section seen below.

But it still wasn’t enough. Deer Grove Preserve continued on the east side of Quentin Road which was another area of familiarity since I had devised Fremd’s home cross country course there, so I biked across Quentin and explored the east side’s four miles of dirt single track. loved it too, and added it to my biking route, thus making a 16 mile route which I biked many dozens of times over the next decade-plus.

After arthritis had ended my 18 year running career, I had switched to mountain biking for aerobic exercise and to satisfy my passion for time in the woods.  I also began biking twice a week with my friends, Dave and Patti, who shared my love of exercise out in nature.  Together we explored new preserves in the five county area surrounding Chicago, discovering over 30 paved, gravel, or dirt bike trails, some with mildly challenging sections like below, where Dave helps Patti get up a tricky narrow rise.

For the last fifteen years we’ve been joined by Len and Marlene on our rides as seen below.  We even added overnight trips in Wisconsin and western Illinois to bike on trails too far away for day trips.

After retiring in 2001, I purchased a better bike, this red Haro Werks Cross Country Trails bike complete with shocks and disk brakes, and it accompanied me in my vehicle on my twice-a-year vacation trips, from Florida to Alaska and from Maine to Arizona. 

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve biked over 220 trails in 25 states, including many rugged mountain bike trails in states such as Arkansas, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Tennessee, and Florida. Particularly fun are the occasional areas set up with moguls (small bumps) as seen below. 

Two of Florida’s national forests have dedicated mountain bike trail networks. Of course there are no mountains in that state, but the rolling terrain and magnificent pine forests make for lovely riding.  The Cross Florida Greenway south of Ocala offers 50+ miles of trails (the Santos Trailhead) which I have enjoyed a dozen or more times on various trips. The trails were built and maintained by the local mountain bike club and are marked as easy, moderate, and difficult. 

I began on the easy, graduated to the moderate, and even do bits of the most difficult trails. With such extensive mileage available, I rarely encounter other riders and the feeling of solitude and quiet is glorious as I zip through the picturesque scenery of longleaf pine, spanish moss, and palmetto on dirt trails as seen below.

There is also a free ride area with this warning sign. Entrance to the area requires you to ride a 6 inch wide plank bikeway to get over the 2 foot high fencing (photos of this area are here.)

Some of the obstacles inside the area are easy and fun like this, but huge moguls and even jumps of 20+ feet down from cliff faces are available to the bold and experienced. I've ridden the tamer sections but leave the others for the younger riders (I'm in my 70s now.)

Another Florida trailhead I keep returning to is outside Tampa, the Flatwoods Wilderness Trail, which offers a 7 mile paved loop, a 15 mile mountain bike trail loop, and various other dirt paths to explore. Below are two photos...

Arkansas' Ozark National Forest is another place I mountain biked, though this is the only photo I have...

The trails out west have magnificent scenic value as seen here on the Buena Vista Trail near Show Low in Arizona's White Mountains...

...and they far more rugged as seen here. This downhill is comprised of large embedded boulders, and fortunately I had approached it slowly from above, spotted the dangerous descent in time to stop. My bike is near the top where I placed it as I scouted the downhill and decided to walk my bike over the rocks and down the hill.  I quickly learned that walking the bike isn’t wimpy, is quite often intelligent, and should simply be viewed as “cross training.”  

Here's another downhill I encountered...

A brief downpour hit just after I took these photos and the red dirt became mud, creating a slippery, messy problem. I waited out the brief storm, and when it was done and I began biking, my bike quickly accumulated two inches of mud everywhere and after reaching my van, I had to use a self-service car wash bay in Show Low to pressure wash the bike clean!

Arizona's Apaches-Sitreaves National Forest offers the Ghost of the Coyote Trail, a 13 mile loop through pinyon and juniper woodlands on old logging roads at an altitude of 6600 feet. It is rated as moderate and was a nice scenic ride...

...with the only problem I encountered caused by a bull that was defending his cows and must have seen me as a rival, because he came ofter me. Fortunately I was able to bike faster than he could run!

Page, Arizona, the location of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, sits atop a mesa, and 20 feet or so below its rim is an 11 mile mountain bike trail loop (the Rim View Trail) that provides wondrous panoramic views of the dam, the lake, and the Navajo Reservation. The trail is red dirt and has sections referred to as “technical” which translates to “possess some biking skills, be exceedingly careful, go slowly, and pay attention!”  In 2010, my third time riding the trail, I did all those things except the last one. As I neared the end of one of the technical segments, I must have lost my concentration enjoying the scenery because I found myself on the ground, atop the bike, and with minor bleeding on my tummy, both arms, and both shins. 

I remained on the earth for a minute or so to let my heart slow down and to catch my breath, then stood to see if my body would follow.  It did, though pain and blood did too. I walked around a bit to shake off the after-effects and paused to enjoy the scenery (notice the road far below and beyond it the canyon and a bit of the lake in the upper right.)  My embarrassment at having crashed for the first time in years exceeded the pain my body felt.  After five minutes or so, the bleeding had stopped and I washed out the wounds with my water bottle and a bandana, straightened the handlebars, put the chain back on the front sprocket, and continued on slowly, testing myself and the bike. I discovered I was in better shape than the bike. The sprockets, chain, and wheels operated fine, but the front disk brake rotor was bent and making noise as it rubbed the brake caliper with each revolution, so I only biked a few more miles of the loop until I reached an exit point and then headed the several miles back to my motel.

My first thoughts were of what an idiot I was!  The next day I was starting an Elderhostel rafting/hiking program, and the week after was the culmination of the trip -- a Sierra Club service project featuring 100 miles of whitewater rafting on the Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park as we removed invasive Tamarisk trees from campsites. Why was I endangering my participation in these two adventurous and expensive programs by engaging in dangerous mountain biking? A serious injury could have ended my vacation, or even worse, sent me to the hospital.  What a dummy!  But fortunately, though sore and bruised for the next few days, I was able to fully participate in both programs.

Here are a few other sections of the trail...

In conclusion, I am often asked which is my favorite of the 220+ trails I’ve biked so far?  Easy! The Hiawatha Trail on the border of Montana and Idaho through the Bitterroot Mountains on the old Milwaukee Road’s famed “Route of the Hiawatha” which takes bikers over  seven trestles and through ten tunnels, the longest of which is 1.7 miles in length without any lights. The views of the Bitterroot Mountains as you circle around the valley are extraordinary as seen here...

...and the tunnels and trestles add elements you rarely find on bike trails...

After 13 years use and over 30,000 miles, the Haro bike was worn out and in constant need of servicing, so I replaced it with this Trek Series 4500 mountain bike with front shocks and hydraulic disc brakes.

There are those who proclaim biking to be a young person’s sport. I exclaim loudly, “No way!” I am about to turn 71 and over the last ten years I have averaged 2600 miles of biking, predominantly off pavement and nearly all off roads.  So I shall continue biking as long as I am able, and I loudly and proudly exclaim, “Happy trails to all!”

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