Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Birthday Epic

Ready to head out for the ride.
It has become a sort of tradition with us that on our birthdays, or at least on my birthday and usually on Cathy's birthday as well, we do a big old bike ride. I know, big surprise and how exactly is that different from any other day you may ask? In reality, I guess that it isn't all that different.

However, this year we have the fat bikes and so we planned a big loop in the snow on them. All season I have been wanting to put together and complete some bigger, longer rides on the fat bikes. We have even done a few longer rides that covered some pretty good terrain. The only problem though, is that we are coming to realize the simple truth that fat bike miles are drastically different than miles tallied on most other bikes. It all makes sense really, huge squishy tires, a bike that weighs nearly twice as much as a normal bike. You are also riding on snow, which typically has much more rolling resistance than pavement or dirt. As best we can figure, fat bike miles are about 1.5x to MTB miles and a solid 2-2.5x to road miles. That means 10 miles on the fat bike is like 15 miles on the MTB or 20-25 on the road bike. That obviously changes with conditions but is probably pretty close. We based it mostly on a ride time/effort comparison between the three.

Getting rolling.
Weather is also a factor. It is the winter after all and this winter, is shaping up to be legitimate.We have frequently seen temperatures in the teens and single digits and have had to adjust to riding in those temperatures. It can be a challenge on a bike or in any activity where you are working hard and generate a lot of body heat. Body heat is good in that it keeps you from dying of the cold but like anything, too much of it and you start to sweat. Sweat is the bane of attempting to stay warm for extended periods of time while out in the cold. I sweat when I get working hard, a lot. Once I am up to temperature I don't need a whole lot of clothing on my torso. I certainly can't have any wind-block material that does not allow the moisture to wick away, otherwise I become a swampy mess. Once you are wet, your time is limited.

Heading back from Gilead.
There is the upperbody and torso which it is actually pretty easy to deal with. I usually wear breathable thermal fabric for a long sleeve base layer, like a Craft or Pearl Izumi and then a thicker thermal mid layer, Pearl Izumi Select Thermal jersey being my go to choice, and will go with a wind vest and a wind jacket over the top. Once I warm up, the jacket comes off. If working hard steadily the vest will also, even with temperatures down into the teens. The legs are less an issue though I have paid more attention to the lower leg/ankle area recently. I'm also thinking that having warm legs contributes to warm feet so have been opting to slightly overdress on the lower zone. I've also found the head can be key also. A thin hat under the helmet provides a ton of heat and can be removed in order to provide a huge amount of cooling, especially if you have no hair on your head, like me. This is actually the first year that I have consistently ridden and even raced some with a hat on. I think it more indicative of the weather than my balding issue.

A little icy.
Those are all pretty easy issues to deal with. The harder parts are the extremities. Hands and feet are the challenge, at least for me. I have the same problems with my hands and keep that I have with the rest of my body; when I get too warm, I sweat, a lot. No different for hands and feet except that I seem to have two temperatures for them, either they are too cold or they are too hot (also known as comfortable). When they are comfortable, they swamp up and inevitably at some point down the road, they will freeze. This is simply due to the moisture.
It has really been a battle to try and stay warm this year. Every year it seems to get worse, which probably means that every year I keep doing more damage and making it worse. I've gone a bit to extremes though, at least with the hands. For really cold days, I've switched to big huge expedition style mittens. They are bulky and make it hard to control the bike but my hands stay warm. On warmer days I will use big, heavily insulated downhill ski gloves. Overkill maybe but cold hands stink. The feet have been a bigger challenge though. This is because of the clipless pedals of course and the metal cleat heat-sink mounted to the sole. I've talked about it before so won't again. This year we have taken our warmest winter specific MTB boots, Pear Izumi GTX winter and paired them with Pearl Izumi Elite Barrier insulated overboots. This provides good protection and insulation while doing a pretty good job at handling the perspiration. At night I am good for a few hours and in the day I have made it over five hours with this setup.

Great conditions.
Speaking of over five hours and this setup, I sort of transgressed away from the actual ride that was the topic of this post. My big old fashioned Birthday epic. I've wanted to do this big huge snowmobile trail loop in Maine/New Hampshire called the Evergreen Valley loop. We have done it a number of times on sleds. It is fairly remote and hits some good scenery in the White Mountain National Forest, eventually coming up the back side of Evans Notch. It is big and it is tough. I'm not exactly sure how long it is. At first I was thinking 50 miles but in looking closer, I think it is more like 75 miles. In good conditions it would probably take 9 hours pretty much non-stop. A little too much given the time we had so that one will have to wait for another day.

My second bet was a smaller loop, one that we had done at least the bulk of in the past. This loop headed North/West on snowmobile trail that skirts RT2 and the Eastern side of the Androscoggin River from Bethel to Gilead. Usually good trail with some good views of the river. Luckily a recon the night before showed the trail to be well traveled and packed. From Gilead we would cross the river and RT2 and take sled trail which follows RT2 back toward Bethel. This trail has had much recent improvement making it flatter but still has a couple of very steep climbs and descents. Once almost back to Bethel we would follow Flat Road onto the gas line and cross over RT35 at Songo Pond to Vernon Street and up into Greenwood the back way, coming out at Irish Neighborhood and then over Rabbit Road and back home. All of this was on snowmobile trail of course. A good loop, all on stuff that we had ridden before and all close to home, relatively.

Nice scenery.
That is what Cathy and I set out at 9:15AM Friday to do. The weather was cool and windy but not extreme. We also had a nice sun that made it seem warmer than it actually was. Early on we found that conditions were good in that they were firm in most spots and there was little sled traffic that morning to chew the top surface of frozen granular. This made conditions very good, but not ideal. Ideal is freshly groomed and then a warm freeze cycle, making the trail like concrete, literally, smooth and ultra fast but not icy. Those conditions give a 10 or even 11mph average ride. These conditions, while the really good and the norm, yield an 8 - 9mph average ride. There is something demoralizing as a cyclist about doing sub 10mph average rides, especially when they are long ride. It does scary things with the math.

My hope was to make it to Gilead in an hour. I'm not smart and I can't do long math. We make it to Gilead in like a half hour on the road bikes. OK, maybe 35 minutes. It is 12 miles. We have never done a 12mph average fat bike ride. Why did I think we would start an epic at a record pace? Optimistic maybe. Needless to say, an hour and half and some really good trail culminating in some really steep grunt climbs that we couldn't quite make and we crossed the river and RT2 in Gilead.

Nice bridge crossing.
The next stretch was mostly new trail for us given the changes. The old trail was brutal with huge ups followed by huge downs. With the conditions I knew many of those climbs would be more than we could manage, meaning we had to push the bikes up over.  Luckily with the re-routes post RT2 expansion the trail actually followed just off RT2 for a good ways. We face a couple shorter steep climbs but they were manageable. Out behind the Federal land that the military uses as a training camp we started to get into the rollers and soon we stood facing the biggest challenge so far. The climb was not long, about 1/4 mile but it climbed 250' in that length. Trail conditions were good and solid affording good traction. For the most part it was doable, in the smallest gear spinning slow steady circles with your weight way back on the tail of the saddle to maintain traction. I got messed up once but managed to get moving again and make my way slowly over the top.

Expanses and backdrops.
We were rewarded with an awesome if a little scary downhill bringing us to some flatter sections trail. Still most of the conditions were good to very good and the going was steady. We were making pretty good time with an average speed of just about 9mph, putting this solidly on the better side of good conditions. Next up was the gas line which was barren and windswept but gave some neat views and perspectives and was hard and fast. Amazing how what seemed so short on a sled could feel so long on a bicycle. These straight, flat and fast sections with great visibility are the ones where on a sled you would peg it and be running literally 100mph. A few miles go by pretty quickly at that speed. At 11mph, not much. Still, good going and before long we were back in the woods and then down to RT35 at Songo Pond.

Nice trail.
At this point we were starting to wear a bit. We hit a couple of punchy little climbs and then some more really nice trail that brought us down and across Vernon Street. The biggest climb of the day was just ahead and I had to admit that I was getting tired. Conditions while good, were taxing. Constant, steady, high power was necessary to maintain forward momentum. I'd say that we were past endurance and into tempo on the power scale, much of the day. We had done this climb before this year and it hurt. In good conditions, it hurt a lot. In rough conditions, it hurt a lot mentally as well as physically. Just before we started the climb we had sled traffic go up the trail. This made for some loose granular on some steep sections of trail which translates to barely able to maintain traction. This was the longest, slowest slog of the day. It involved criss-crossing the trail looking for purchase, for a full mile. I'm pretty sure it took over 20 minutes to get to the top and when we did, we were just about done.

Almost home.
From there it was a long down slope followed by a fast steep downhill. There had been enough sled traffic by that point that the trail was loose and hard to manage, adding insult by having to pedal hard to go downhill. We finally made it out and Cathy opted for a small shortcut that avoided a short section of super steep ups and a longer gentle down. Again, hard going. We regrouped at Rabbit Road and made the slow trek the final few miles home, sore and exhausted.

Food and a hot shower and then we met up with friends at the Bethel Inn for happy hour followed by cake from our favorite bakery, Concord Teacakes (which I picked up myself and felt like a big loser asking them to write 'Happy Birthday Mike' on) and dinner at our place.

An excellent day and a wonderful Birthday. The best one ever, so far.

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