Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Check That One Off the List

This winter has been primarily about fat bike riding. Sure, there have been a few good days of riding the roads as well as some good fun spent on the skinny skis but because of the weather, the go to activity has been to ride the Charge Cooker Maxi on the local sled trails. We have had great fun doing it and have had the opportunity to see some really neat things. Throughout the winter, I have been trying to pull together some good quality routes. It is hard, partially due to the nature of snowmobile trails. The well organized trails of Western Maine tend to be corridors and connectors which are more often routes than short, concise loops. What loop trails there are, or can be easily strung together, tend to be an order of magnitude greater than is easily attainable on the fat bike.

Ready to start the day's adventure.
I've come to realize and accept that the fat bikes are pigs. They are big, heavy and slow. Even with good trail conditions, you can only plan on about 10 mph average. That means that the range on the bikes isn't exactly what a normal MTB is and is less than half that of a road bike. Unfortunately, that doesn't leave you with all that big a ride that you can tackle on the short winter days let alone after work. That said, our crew has been hitting some good 30 and 40 milers, which translate to 3.5 - 5 hrs out on the trail.

All winter I have been looking to do an epic but local loop, one that I had done a number of times on sleds, years ago. Cathy and I basically did the same loop, albeit on forest roads some of which were also season snowmobile trail, last summer on CX bikes. It was a great loop taking us through some remote areas of State and National Forest. However, this loop had thus fat eluded me. Cathy wasn't convinced that it was the right scope for her and frankly, I wasn't sure about the scope either. You see, I wasn't certain exactly how long it was. I knew that it was somewhere between 50 and 80 miles though, which is a pretty big discrepancy. Beyond a few climbs that I was very familiar with on the route, I was also uncertain just how much vertical there was. So you can see why I'd been somewhat reluctant to jump in.

This past week the conditions had been good to very good and I'd told myself that come Wednesday, I would set out early solo for an attempt. We got in a good night ride Tuesday that did another local loop of a little over 25 miles. This took us 3 hours and we were cold by the end, but had a great ride on a great evening. Come Wednesday AM though I was waffling. It was cold and there were wolves. I rationalized that I would do and easy recovery ride, get some plumbing done to help out some friends and then do a nice easy recovery ride later on. I'd then be all set to go for a bid on Thursday. One thing led to another and we ended up at the Sunday River Brewery for half price happy hour. We were chatting with the owner and the limited production Mollyockett Imperial IPA they had on tap was flowing. When you are talking with the owner it seems the bar tender, a nice guy who we also know, never lets the empty glass linger. Four 8% ABV (alcohol by volume) pints later and I was a mess. Cathy drove me home and I basically went to bed.

As a complete aside, I found this neat explanation of why Canadian beer is no higher in alcohol content than it's Southern brethren. It was simply that Canada and the rest of the world used the ABV measure while the US used to use ABW (alcohol by weight) which is only 0.79336 of ABV. For the most part, the ABW is no longer used and a Canadian Budweiser is the same as a US Budweiser.

So Thursday morning I got up and was feeling a little bit worse for the weather. Stupid cheap beer night. Dehydrated and starved for quality sleep I rationalized was not the best way to start a fully day of hard riding so with my tail between my legs, I painted the spare bedroom. Doing chores is almost as good as riding and is a great excuse, playing the responsibility card. So that is what I did. Thursday evening I was feeling a little guilty so took of at 4PM for a hard solo effort. This ended up being a great ride and did a fine job of crushing me physically.

Friday I'd planned to go finish up the plumbing I was doing for friends by replacing the old leaking stop valve with a new ball valve. This took a little longer than expected, of course, trying to break the old stuff apart and tie in new components. It is like trying to fit that new SRAM Red yaw 11spd front derailleur onto the old SRAM Apex 10spd bike. The overall function is primarily the same but the workings and adjustment are just a little bit off. I finally got in though and either hot or cold water could now flow through the sillcock, making for some powerful degreasing and deicing. After I finished, Don and I discussed riding plans. We'd already planned to go to Great Glen that evening for free fat tire riding on the trails there but when I mentioned we'd decided not to drive to KT Saturday he asked about a big ride. Big ride? Really? Game on.

Rolling along.
So we decided to go for it, or at least make the attempt at the Evergreen Valley Loop, the loop I've been speaking of. This loop travels to Gilead, ME and up over Evan's Notch. It then descends down the back side into NH and then climbs up over another ridge to Evergreen Valley, an old abandoned alpine ski area. From there it travels up and around various features making it's way to Crocker Pond and eventually out to Songo Pond and the first roadway in a very long time. Then on to Bethel.

Planned departure time was 9AM and we planned for a 10 hour day. This meant packing food and water as well as extra gear. The temperature to start was going to be cold so we ran flat pedals and wore winter boots. Frozen feet in the literal, middle of nowhere with no way out is no place to be. I took a packable down hooded jacket, just in case, as well as a wind vest and wind jacket for riding. Extra mittens, liner gloves and chemical warmers as well as a hat and balaclava and of course, lights. Honestly, we planned for the worst. We were heading into the remote wilderness in single digit temps and understood that it was not a joke. At 9AM the temperature was 2 degrees above up from 6 below. We delayed until 9:30AM at which point it was 3 degrees and the sun was starting to show.

Not a great start to a long day.
It was cold at first but within minutes I'd warmed and shortly there after I had to strip the down off. We started getting into a rhythm and were moving well. I could feel the cumulative week's efforts though and was working a bit harder and filling more uncomfortable than I'd have liked at that point. Almost immediately when we settled in for the first longer, 10 minute climb, Don's chain snapped. Luckily I had the tools and we were in an open sunny spot. A quick fix and we were off again. The next sections after the climb and descent were long rolling wide open pipe line. Great trail with some good vistas of the craggy Maine mountainsides.

Soon we were at Bog Road which meant the start of the first big grunt climb and the second 10 minute or so effort. I'd never ridden up but knew from riding down that it was tough with some very steep 20 plus percent pitches. I struggled with traction and fell off on one of the pitches. Don was already off and walking behind me. We got going again and I slipped again on the next steep incline while Don kept moving. We chose to run high pressure in the hoped that it would minimize effort on the long, primarily hard-pack, ride. For the most part the bikes were rolling well, certainly easier than with very low pressures, required for very soft conditions. The down side was that the increases pressure coupled with firm conditions beat you up. In terms of the flat pedals, they had been little if any detriment I would say, that is until we got to the super steep climbs. These require a perfectly smooth pedal stroke to maintain traction. This is more of a challenge with the flat pedals for sure.

We made good time working the flat and fast rollers through the evergreen and deciduous forests that parallel RT2 to Gilead. From there it was all up to Evan's Notch. The plan was to take the side trail that ascends about 2/3 of the way up the RT113 notch road which,  while more rolling up, was more scenic than the gated RT113 sled trail route directly over the notch. This proved to be a challenging choice. The ups were far more plentiful and far steeper than I recalled and the trail while firm, was laden with chunky frozen crust making forward progress tedious, tiring and uncomfortable. I'd describe it like riding crushed rock gravel on a normal MTB. You can do it but it's hard and not much fun. All told this section translated to a solid 30 minute climbing effort, our first but not last of the day.

Eventually we topped out and started the long fast descent down to RT113, which was very bittersweet. I say that because we were descending only to have to ascend again, albeit a different peak. In review of the route later, this trail gained an extra 500' of vertical over RT113. Bonus! As we hit RT113 we took a moment to drink a bit and prepare mentally for the long steady climb ahead of us.

At the top of Evan's Notch, soaked but glad to be done.
This climb up to the top of the notch starts slight but ramps up. Conditions were pretty good but well traveled and the trail was crowned, meaning that you had to keep on top of the traction. As the trail pitched, the pace declined and the suffering went into overdrive. The full backpack was wearing hard on my lower back, when coupled with the efforts being expended. I couldn't get comfortable and was constantly switching around. I'd stripped down to a base layer and a thermal jersey with a wind vest over the top yet sweat was streaming off my nose as I peered down at the snow below my front tire in a death gaze. This was a bad sign. What seemed like an eternity of slogging along eventually brought us to the familiar summit and lookout. This was our second 30 minute climb of the day.

Notch lookout.
The descent was screaming fast and incredibly long. If you have ever climbed the back side of the notch you will understand how steep it is. We got to the bottom and my hat that I had under my helmet had frozen solid. I was pretty cold in general as I'd not put a jacket on over the summit. We stopped at the bottom for the first real food break of the day. We were only at mile 30 or so and it already was proving to be a tough ride. As we ate and drank I threw the down on to warm up. The sun was now obscured by overcast and it looked like it could snow. We did not stop long though and were off again, heading toward Evergreen Valley.

Within a few miles we hit a steep section of side mountain trail. It marched along up with some short steep punches that were barely manageable. This ended up being a 20 minute climb effort which would culminate in a fast descent that would give way immediately to another 10 minute ascent. From there we descended into Evergreen Valley, by the old ski area and were off to what I hoped would be some flatter terrain. I was soon treated with another 10 minute ascent followed by a quick descent and another 10 minute ascent. Are you seeing a pattern here? When reviewing the profile of the ride it is pretty jagged indeed and though the climbs are fairly short length wise, the fact that they are on snow and we are riding fat bikes makes them much longer time wise than one would expect.

Nice stretch of trail to Evergreen Valley.

We finally got a bit of a reprieve and got a nice long down followed by a moderately rolling section of trail. That reprieve was soon revoked though and we started trudging up. Yes, we were in full death march by this point. About 10 minutes into the twisty climb Don exclaims that he thinks we are near the top and that this is the last real climb before Crocker Pond. I take it with a grain of salt and keep pressing on, up the trail. I soon realize that what I had taken as Don trying to comfort me with optimism is as much him optimistically trying to comfort himself. While struggling myself, I'd continually asked how he was doing throughout the day to which he would confidently answer back good. I'd taken this to mean he was in way better shape than me, which brought me some concern. You never want to be that guy, the one who ends up dragging others down, the weakest link. It became evident another 10 minutes up the trail, when I could see Don struggling a ways back from me now, that he was in the same dark place as I. Another 10 minutes later, we finally crested the climb, 30 minutes from when we started, and then began the descent which this time really was the last part of the trail toward Crocker Pond.

Final break.
Crocker Pond really isn't much of a pond. It is more like a swamp. Regardless it marked an important way-point in the ride. Unfortunately, the signs were all wrong in terms of proclaimed distances. They said 6 miles back to Evergreen Valley when it was actually more like 18 miles back and claimed 18 miles to Bethel. There are of course multiple ways to get to Bethel so we knew that was relative. At this point we again ate most of the remainder of the food and drank hardily. We also changed what clothing we could and bundled up for the last leg of the adventure.

The last section was pretty much heads down trying to get home. There was some really nice trail but also a few steep sections and you guessed it, a couple more 10 minute climbs. I'm not sure exactly how many of these we ended up with but I can tell you, they added up. Where we ride usually in MA, there are not a ton of 10 minute steady climbs. In order to get multiples you have to do hill repeats on the few that you can find of that length. This was not the problem today and there was no need for repeating anything. Eventually we made it to the gas line, a different section but the same line we'd done much earlier in the day and on to Songo Pond and RT5. From there it was the horse and the barn. The last steep grunt up led to a gentle down and we were at Vernon Street. We had quietly decided earlier to forgo 4 Corners and the brutal climb to the top of the trail above Irish Neighborhood. Instead we spun the road for a few miles and then jumped back onto the trail at Rabbit Road.

This sums it up.
This is the most familiar stretch of trail there is as I ride it most every day. Trail 113N to Bethel. On the second rise of the trail we peaked over 7000' of elevation for the day according to the Garmin 500. I was good with that. Yes, had we done the extra 5 miles from Four Corners with that climb and the Irish Neighborhood climb we would have been over 8000' on the day but honestly, I'm not certain that I could have done it. I was that far gone, really. Death stare and drool.

We hit the house and dropped the bikes. Cathy came out to greet us and Don's family arrived as well, almost if perfectly orchestrated. There was food and drink and warm, so inside we went to begin the long recovery process.

All through the day I reflected on the exploits of the adventure racers and friend Alec who did the Arrowhead 135 mile and Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 mile races this year. I can not begin to fathom that effort or that suffering based on what I'd encountered that relatively short 7 hours on the bike. My back was a mess and I wanted nor could stand any more. Incredible amounts of respect. I clearly thought I was stronger than I really am.

In the end, days after, I am still tired and my back is still tweaked. It is true that I've not spent this much time on the bike very often in recent years. I did one 7 hour ride last summer and once in the spring  but it had been years since the time before that. I used to do it frequently. I'm guessing the key is to do it more often, if you plan to do it more often. No secret there. Probably doing lots of really intense 45 minute races doesn't really prepare on well for the endurance events. Honestly, I used to be built for that stuff but have spent the last 5 years adapting to the former.

I learned a bunch and realized even more. Heat management is really, really hard when it is cold out and you are doing hard efforts. Backpacks suck for riding bikes. Flat pedals are great for downs and flat sections but make ups more taxing and wear tough on the knees when laying down power but are still better than frozen feet. Staying hydrated is really hard when it is cold and your water constantly freezes.

Many thanks to Don for agreed to be partner to the adventure.It was a good time, in hindsight, but I'm not really certain that I ever want to do it again. Those endless climbs at 2.3mph are still etched too firmly in mind.


rick is! said...

yikes. nice one. i've been wanting to venture into the 50 mile range with my snow bike but have only gone 32 so far. kudos!

mkr said...

Thanks. Funny how it is a whole different ball game on the fat bike. So much depends on conditions and terrain of course. Loose hill climbs are literally as slow as you can go to maintain traction. Hoping to try a little longer but flatter loop this winter.

rick is! said...

my last couple of rides (25 and 31) have averaged over 11.5 mph. the conditions are crazy good but deteriorating quickly with the warmer weather...