Thursday, November 1, 2012

Early Autumn = Epic Rides

Early autumn is a time for change in West Virginia.  The leaves begin changing colors, while the temperatures and humidity levels reach pleasantly comfortable levels.  For a cyclist, autumn is that time of transition between the road/mountain bike seasons and cyclocross season.  The four to six weeks when bicycle rides focus less on training and more on leisurely rides that remind us of why we became interested in cycling…before the interest in competitive cycling. 

For myself, early autumn has become the time of year when I search for that ‘epic’ ride of the year.  The one ride, or weekend of riding, in which I get to travel to try new mountain bike trails or ride scenic roadways.  This may involve a relatively local destination in WV, a weekend trip to Asheville and Bryson City, NC, or a cross-country journey to Fruita, CO or Moab, UT. 

Trying not to fall off the mountain
 during a Honey Stinger Waffle break
This year, I would join Travis, Joe, Stew, and Dave for a revisit to the North Fork Trail between Franklin, WV and Seneca Rocks, WV.  The trail known to many as the Gnarly North Fork traverses the ridge of North Mountain for 24 miles with more than 4800ft of climbing over alternating sections of smooth and flowy to rocky and don’t-fall-to-your-right-off-camber singletrack.  The main attractions of this trail, other than the trail itself, are the many scenic overlooks of Germany Valley, Spruce Knob (WV’s highest point) and Sceneca Rocks that it offers throughout the ride. 

Our previous ride two years ago was epic enough to justify another trip.  Then, the sky was clear and sunny, the temperature began in the 30’s and reached the 60’s, and the leaves were in full color. This year the conditions would only be slightly different... according to  The forecast for that area of the state called for temps in the 30’s that were to reach the low 50’s and a chance of rain in the early afternoon

Shuttle was set.  Everyone was dressed to ride.  Tires were properly inflated. And, our camelbaks were filled with water, food, and lighter layers of clothing for when the weather gets warmer.  That was the first mistake…well, responding to Travis’s facebook trip invitation may have been the first mistake.  But, for today my first mistake would be the decision to dress moderately warm and shed layers in anticipation for the afternoon warmth.  .   (Side note:  don’t trust any weather forecast for elevations above 3000ft) 

So, I’m clipped into the pedals and ready to ride just as the first snowflakes begin to fall.  That’s right, snowflakes on October 8th.  No problem.  “They won’t last when the temps get warmer” I thought as we began to roll out.  Two miles into the ride, I’m finally warm with feeling back to my fingertips when we suffer the first mechanical of the day.  Thanks to a thorn, Travis was forced to resort to use a back-up tube in the rear tire and the rest of us resorted to a few jokes at his expense. 

Joe Sheets on ridge of North Mountain
Rolling on and snowfall getting heavier, the first sighting of wildlife—deer with antlers ‘as wide as handlebars’ would help us forget about being pressed for time due to available daylight and back to enjoying the trail.    We reach our first overlook several miles in with an anticipation of some great scenic view of the valley.  However, all one could see was a wall of falling snow.  The only bright leaf color to be seen was straight below us over the rocky ledge of the ridge.  No reason to stop at any other overlooks now.

Trailside repair with small parts and cold fingers
A few miles later, we were making great time, moving faster along the ridge than we had two years earlier.  The snow was beginning to stick to the ground.  But, the trail was really fast, particularly the downhills.  Occasionally, I’d get tossed from the bike or forced to dab through the off camber rock gardens.  Then, we suffered our second mechanical of the day.   You would expect something common, another flat, a broken chain, or a problem shifting.  But, Joe would have a screw fall out of the derailleur hanger on his Cannondale Flash 29er.  A possible fix with a small zip tie? Maybe.  Or, a conversion to single speed? After several attempts to cannibalize replacement screws from other parts of the bike, a small screw was removed from the little plastic ring that holds the brake line to the body of the Lefty fork.

After a few more miles of climbing we reached the dirt road that comes up the eastern side of the mountain near Smoke Hole.   I followed the road over the ridge with a slight hope that it would offer a view of the snow-covered valley, when a camouflaged figure appeared from the tree line.  A friendly greeting would hopefully settle any frustrations that this hunter would have with us potentially invading his hunt.  However, he was a squatter of sorts who had lost his job and home and had been living with his wife in the woods for a month now in a tent made from tree branches and an old plastic tarp.  A few minutes of listening to his down-on-luck situation, we realized we had neither seen nor heard anything from his wife except a rustling in the tent.  Then, he invited us to stay for lunch…a gesture that raises concern for anyone familiar to Looney Tune cartoons.  Either he is a generous sole willing to provide us what little he had for some company…or, we would be his lunch.
Dave Burns and myself wondering 'is this guy for real?'

So, a quick good-bye to this gentleman would send us on a high-speed descent on a dirt road with snow stinging our faces and other exposed skin.  For the next couple of miles, I would realize that now matter how miserable the riding conditions were, things could be worse.  I was pretty lucky to be able wake from a warm home, brave the elements for a little outdoor recreation, instead of living day to day in these conditions without a home or job. 

At our halfway mark, the singletrack would alternate from fast downhills to steep climbs until we reached the final peak.  From there the riding became much more technical with steep drops, challenging pine and laurel root and rock gardens, and narrow twists and turns.  Joe and Travis would impress the rest of us with their technical riding skills and dramatic crashes into the laurels lining the trail. 

Cold, soaked and eager to return to the truck, we would hit the most enjoyable section of the ride through fast switchback over loose shale as the snow changed over to rain.  Once at the truck and a quick change to dry, but not nearly warm enough clothes, we would begin our dinner with appetizers of cold Dunkin Donuts and Coca Cola as we headed to the Front Porch restaurant for some hot chocolate and 4 large pizzas, and a recap of an epic ride.
Lots of pizza and almost too tired to eat

Thanks to ABRA and all of our wonderful sponsors for a great road race series.  Thanks to JR Petsko for scheduling month off between the road and cyclocross seasons to fill with some not-for-series-points epic rides.  And, thanks to Travis Olsen for the ride and post-ride photos.