Promoting the bicycling lifestyle in The Buckeye State
You can go back to Day 1 of this trip report if you haven’t read it already.
Brent and I arose from our tents not long after sunrise, packed our gear back up, and had some breakfast. I ate a bagel with Nutella, some dried fruit, and instant coffee. We got pedaling around 8:00am, I believe about an hour earlier than our start the first day.
We turned right out of the access road for the Tomahawk Creek Campground, looking for the blue markings where the High Country Pathway crossed. We didn’t see any marks before we came to Spring Lake Road, so apparently, we missed the trail. We decided to just head south on Spring Lake Road, since it paralleled the Pathway. About a mile later on this dirt and sand road, we finally picked up the trail markings again, and the Pathway actually followed this road for a short stretch. The sand got deep enough to be unrideable in one brief spot, and then turned back into the woods.
The Pathway went through one or two clearcut fields; sometimes the lack of features on these sections can make the trail even more difficult to follow.
There were one or two road crossings, and we came to a section of Pathway that was the most unrideable as we had seen so far–downed logs, dirt mounds, and severe overgrowth. We could see that a dirt road more or less paralleled the trail a dozen or so yards to our left, so we bush-whacked our way over to the road and proceeded to pedal happily unfettered. Since it appeared that we’d be doing more riding out in the open today, I stopped to apply some sunscreen to my face and ears.
We took out the map to see if you could figure out which road we were on, and what our next course of action should be. Many of the undeveloped roads in the area are not signed, and there are logging and maintenance roads that aren’t on the map, so it can be tricky. The rising sun was at our backs as we rode, so we figured we were heading west, more or less, and we concluded that we were on Clay Pit Road, which would lead us to State Route 33 again. This road had some long, rolling hills with some loose sand; I had to walk up one of the hills after getting bogged down in the sand at the bottom of it.
We reached M-33 and turned left (south). Not long after that, we saw a sign for the junction of Clay Pit Road, so the road we were on before was actually NOT Clay Pit Road, but another unnamed, unmapped road. We ended up in the same place as we had intended, though, so no harm done.
We had noticed another side road on the map called Tower Road, and off in the distance to the southeast, we could see a radio tower that appeared to be several hundred feet high, so it was obvious where Tower Road went.
This section of M-33 did not have a wide shoulder like the section we rode the briefly the day before. As we rode down the right half of the lane, Brent was a little spooked by the numerous large logging trucks that zoomed past us. I guess I just didn’t think about them enough to be bothered; I was just glad to be pedaling along at a good clip.
We went on for a few miles until we got to Clear Lake State Park, and turned right (west) onto County Road 622 along the south side of the lake. This paved road wound through a residential area until it turned to gravel, and then joined up with the Pathway.
The Pathway soon left the gravel road and turned back into the woods. The trail finally became much more rideable again, other than one brief stretch through a low marsh area where it crossed Van Helen Creek. There were a couple of steep but do-able climbs as the trail left the creek valley, including one past the Pug Lakes area.
We rode through a couple more clear-cut fields. One was especially rough, as whatever machinery was used left deep, soft furrows in the earth that went across the direction of the Pathway, making riding across them impossible. The Pathway followed alongside the three sparse trees shown on the right side of the picture:
We continued through more wooded sections, mostly rideable with a few short, steep climbs. We were getting closer to Rattlesnake Hill, which, from our pre-trip research, seemed to be the most notorious climb on the Pathway. Along the way, we pedaled up the side of one large mound, and were rewarded with a smooth, flowing descent down the other side that was probably the most fun and true singletrack experience on the whole Pathway. We ended up at a road crossing, at the intersection of Rouse Road and an unnamed service road, which I dubbed “Rattlesnake Junction.”
We proceeded on the Pathway, and soon were pedaling up some switchbacks, which eventually became a steep climb straight up the fall line. I managed to keep pedaling until I reached the peak, and for a short time was proud of myself for having pedaled all the way up Rattlesnake Hill.
We stopped for a while for a lunch break on the peak. I ate my last bagel with some pepperoni. It was a nice shady area, but there wasn’t much of a view, as it was blocked by surrounding trees.
This is where having studied the contour lines on the map more carefully would have paid off. It turns out, we were NOT on Rattlesnake Hill. We dropped down a very nice descent from this hill, and at the very bottom, there was a small sandy patch, with a downed sapling across it, which sucked all of my momentum. As the trail immediately turned steeply upward again, it was at this point that we realized that THIS was Rattlesnake Hill. I didn’t have the energy nor the will to attempt to pedal all the way again, so I stepped off the bike and trudged up sheepishly.
There is a bench at the top of Rattlesnake Hill, and the view is much more memorable. It is much more open and exposed to the sun, however, so at least I was comforted in believing that at least the “false” Rattlesnake Hill was a better place to stop for lunch.
The descent off of Rattlesnake Hill was a little rough; it looked like the trail had recently been re-routed, and the new trail was not yet very well-established. I didn’t bomb down, but just took it easy to stay in one piece. Not long after that, the Pathway re-joined County Road 622. We decided we had enough trail experience for a while, and stayed on the road to try to cover a big stretch of ground more quickly.
The road was the usual dirt, gravel, and sand. The sand was a little thick in spots, but never so much so that we couldn’t keep pedaling. It felt good to be pedaling along at a good, steady pace, but it was hotter out on the open road, and the sun reflected off of the sand, making me fell like I was getting double exposure. County Road 622 ends at Black River Road, which we took north until it intersected the Pathway again. There were a handful of residential houses on both roads; the people in them must really enjoy living off the beaten path.
We followed the Pathway (alternating between rideable trail and unrideable wooden bridges again) until it met Chandler Dam Road. We turned right (east) here to follow the road into the Town Corner Lake Campground in order to top off our hydration packs. Standing at the well, a guy came over from his RV parked at the adjacent site. He was wearing a mountain bike-related t-shirt, so he apparently recognized us as fellow adventurers. He was from Kalkaska, and told us about trails and events in the area that he recommended we try out someday. He mentioned that he had biked the Pathway in the past; I asked if he would do it again. He chuckled and said, “I think you’ve answered your own question.”
We headed back west on Chandler Dam Road until it ended at Tin Shanty Road. We intended to follow this north until it crossed Sturgeon Valley Road, but again, with scant road signage, we ended up going all the way to Hardwood Lake Road. This goes west until it joins Twin Lakes Road, which shortly brought us to the park headquarters and our car, for a total of 40 miles ridden for the day. We enjoyed an impromptu post-tour celebration.
I would conclude that the High Country Pathway of Michigan is a worthy challenge for any mountain biker looking for a unique backcountry adventure that can be completed in a couple of days. It’s an ideal testing-ground if, like Brent and I, you’re preparing for a longer off-road tour, such as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. However, being that it’s not what the average mountain biker would call a “pure” riding experience, I would not say that it’s a trail that needs to be on every mountain biker’s “bucket list.”
Despite the couple of minor unplanned detours that we had, navigation of the Pathway is pretty straightforward. A GPS and/or compass may have helped a little, but the average person should be able to find their way around the Pathway using the map and common sense.
We were amazed that we suffered no flat tires, especially after having ridden (or pushed) through so many overgrown weeds, many of which were thorny branches. However, I later found at home the next day that both of my tires were flat, so that would have been something to deal with had I been on the trail a third day. I would recommend either tire liners, sealant, tubeless systems, or whatever your preferred combination of puncture-protection technologies is.
Similarly, we were amazed that neither of us suffered poison ivy; not long into the first day, we gave up trying to avoid it as we pedaled through the weeds. To avoid both the poison ivy and just plain being cut up by the weeds, I’d recommend long sleeves and some type of long pants or tights. As I mentioned before, the insects were not as bad as we had feared, but the dry weather may have given us better than typical luck in this regard.
Because of the rough and less-developed nature of the trail surface, a full-suspension bike would be ideal for traveling the Pathway most efficiently. However, I am still quite happy with the performance of my rigid Salsa Fargo, and wouldn’t hesitate to keep using it for other similar adventures.
There are couple of things that I learned from this trip that might influence further refining of my bike-packing setup (see Day 1 for the details). The slight changes I made to my cooking and eating gear for this trip really helped create the extra space I needed for food in the frame bag. Eliminating a lot of extra clothing saved me both space and weight on this trip, but I’ll still need to account for that on a longer trip through more varied weather, such as the Great Divide.
I found that I really didn’t need all of the snacks and personal care items so close at hand in the top tube bag. That stuff could have easily gone in my backpack, and for the times that I needed it, it would not have been that big a deal to retrieve it from the backpack. Maybe I can find a way to better utilize this space.
The only issue I had, and it was quite a minor one, was with the two zip-lock bags containing my tools and spare parts. During the first day, I had them in the front of the seat bag, with my sleeping bag and sleeping pad in the back of the seat bag. The irregular size and shape of the tools and spare parts left voids in the space between them and the sleeping bag and pad, causing the bag to sag a bit. On the second day, I put the sleeping bag and pad in first in the front of the seat bag, and then the tools and spare parts in the back. But, this put the heavier items more towards the back of the bag, so it still sagged more than usual and I had to stop and re-cinch the straps a few times throughout the day.
Maybe I can distribute the tools and spare parts between the top tube bag and frame bag, or maybe put them in the handlebar bag, and use the top tube bag for my smartphone and digital camera. Either way, it’s a good excuse to continue planning short adventures to work these things out.
My friend Brent and I are planning to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in 2014. We wanted to do a short tour to test out our bikes and gear, as well as our mettle in handling a multi-day off-road adventure. We selected the High Country Pathway, located in the northern reaches of the Michigan lower peninsula, because it is within a reasonable drive, and we figured we could handle the 80-mile loop in two days.
The High Country Pathway is open to hikers, mountain bikers, and cross-country skiers. There are also equestrian and snowmobile trails in the region that intersect it. We referred to the trail using the abbreviation “HCP,” but locals and the trail signage refer to it as simply the “Pathway.” It spans a four-county area, mostly within the Pigeon River Country State Forest. You can order a map of the Pathway, printed on quality waterproof and tear-resistant paper, from the Pigeon River Country Association (please let me know if any links become dead).
Despite the remoteness of most of the Pathway, it’s easy to get to where you can begin your adventure. The nearest town is Vanderbilt, just off Interstate 75. Turn east on Main Street, and as you leave town, the road becomes Sturgeon Valley Road. The park headquarters is a few miles away, just up Twin Lakes Road on the left.
After a detour along the way to ride the singletrack at Fort Custer State Recreation Area, lunch and dinner stops, we arrived after dark. We set up camp at the Pigeon Bridge Campground, the camping area just before the park headquarters. There are several such campgrounds along the Pathway to provide starting and stopover points. There are no showers or electrical hookups, but there are toilets, fire rings, and wells with clean drinking water.
The Pathway runs right through this campground:
Although, it turns out we would not end up riding this particular stretch.
Checking in at the campgrounds is done on a self-registration system; only cash and checks are accepted, so remember to have some small bills on hand for correct change. As of this writing, the fee is $13 per campsite per night. In addition to camping fees, you’ll need to buy a state parks recreation pass to bring a vehicle into any Michigan state park or recreation area. You can buy one at any state park office for $8 per day or $29 per calendar year (for non-residents). Michigan residents can purchase passes when they renew their driver’s licenses. I’m guessing non-residents can order them by mail or online, but I could never locate that information on the Michigan Department of Natural Resources web site.
There was one other site occupied, by a couple in an RV. They were running a generator, which broke the silence of the otherwise isolated area, but fortunately, it didn’t run continuously, and most of the evening was spent in quiet. We hit the sack in our tents.
It had been warm most of the day, and remained relatively warm through the first part of the evening. I slept inside my sleeping bag in my shorts and t-shirt, until I woke up in the middle of the night feeling pretty cold. I got my sweatshirt out of the car, and slept comfortably again for the remainder of the evening.
In the morning, while we re-packed our tents and sleeping gear, the gentleman from the RV stopped over to say Hi and get some water from the well. He said he’d be making a pot of coffee, and apologized if his generator was disturbing. “Gotta have it for my coffee,” he said, “So I figured it was only fair if I offered some.” After I ate a bagel with Nutella for breakfast, I took my travel mug and wandered over to the RV to partake. We chatted a bit; his name was Philip, and he was from Traverse City. The women with him was actually his sister; he said he brought her out to “give her a break from her kids for a couple of days.” They planned to do some fishing later in the day.
Brent and I weren’t sure if the best course was to leave our car there at the campground, or move it somewhere else while we were out on the trail. So, we loaded our stuff back into the car, and drove up the road a bit to the park headquarters. There’s a small trail parking area right next to the headquarters building, so we decided to use that.
Brent had forgotten the car charger for his mobile phone, so it was pretty much dead at this point. He asked if he could plug in for a few minutes at the ranger station, and the ranger generously agreed. It took about 30-40 minutes for us to get our bikes set up and change into our cycling clothes, and by that time, he had a decent 40-50% charge. I had noticed the night before that my cell coverage dropped off as we left Vanderbilt, but we thought we might get occasional coverage on high ground, and he wanted to be ready to check in with his wife once in a while when possible.
In our research about the Pathway, we had read that the mosquitoes, deer ticks (carriers of Lyme disease), and other insects were particularly nasty. Brent bought some 100% Deet insect repellent; I stuck with the more innocuous Deet-free Natrapel that I already had. I applied some to the exposed area of my lower legs. Since I figured we’d be riding under tree cover for most of the day, I didn’t bother applying any sunscreen.
We finally started pedaling, some time around 9:30am if memory serves, but we weren’t really watching the clock. We joined the Pathway immediately in front of the park office. We passed a couple of backpackers almost immediately, and then rode through the Pigeon River Campground, which is located along the Pathway just northeast of the park office.
The terrain of the Pathway was mildly rolling; the climbs were not extreme. The route of the Pathway was easy to follow, marked with blue blazes painted or nailed onto trees or sign posts. The surface was pretty solid dirt most of the time, but it seemed that it didn’t get enough traffic to pack it down smoothly. To a hiker, it would seem perfectly fine, but our rigid bikes felt every minor bump and trough. At times, the path through the woods would be fairly wide open, but much of it was very overgrown with weeds. This made riding cumbersome sometimes, as it felt like we were continually bushwacking to find and follow the path of the trail. The weeds, often thorn bushes, slapped against our legs, leaving them looking like we had been attacked by feral cats. I wore long sleeves mainly to keep the sun off of my arms, and this gave me the added benefit of keeping the weeds off of my arms. Brent, in short sleeves, was not so lucky.
It didn’t take long, however, for the weeds to deposit a plethora of burrs on my gloves and sleeves:
Our first major break came about 4-1/2 miles in, on top of a hill overlooking Grass Lake, although with the tree cover, the lake itself was not visible. We took some pictures and rested a bit, marveling at our so-far slower-than expected progress.
About 5-1/2 miles in, we came to the first of only a handful of significantly steep climbs. I’m no expert at reading maps with contour lines, but I could see ahead of time that the “Devil’s Soup Bowl” would turn out to be an apt name. There was a steep, fast downhill, then the trail immediately turned steeply upward to get out of the bowl. I was able to grind it out in the granny gear on my Salsa Fargo bike, but Brent, on his singlespeed El Mariachi, had to push it up.
The Pathway continued for several miles with more of the same as before–some wide trail, some overgrown, mild ups and downs. We came across another trail feature that would bedevil us for the rest of the trip. In some low, marshy areas, wooden bridges were built to provide solid footing over the soft, muddy ground. For a hiker, again, this would be no problem, but the bridges are usually too narrow to risk trying to ride across (unless you’ve got mad trials riding skills), and also makes it very tricky to push your bike across. A bike loaded for touring is too heavy to carry for very long. I usually put the front wheel in front of me on the bridge, and held my bike so the back wheel swung out beside me over the edge of the bridge. This was tricky as well, because often the weeds were as overgrown on the bridges as they were on the other parts of the trail. Sometimes I would tilt my bike up vertically, so that I could hold the handlebars in front of me and roll it on the rear wheel as I pushed it from behind, but it got heavy after a while in this mode.
Often, the transitions from the dirt to the bridge are abrupt and not very bike-friendly, which in many cases, was what made them less rideable than they could have been, because you couldn’t get a good start. Some of the bridges are built wider and are much more rideable, but these were the exception:
There were also a couple of larger footbridges over streams and creeks, which were just barely wide enough to be rideable:
About 9-1/2 miles in, we stopped at the Pine Grove Campground to top off our hydration packs and take another short break.
I’ll take this opportunity now to list my gear and packing setup. What I used was a more pared-down version, with some refinements to the cooking/eating gear, of the bikepacking setup I first used on a sub 24-hour overnight last month.
- Bell Sweep helmet
- Buff bandanna
- lightweight long-sleeve jersey
- Endura Hummvee Lite 3/4 baggy shorts with snap-in liner short
- Merrell Chameleon socks
- Pearl Izumi X-Alp Seek shoes
- Giro Bravo gloves
- Road ID
Osprey Manta 25 hydration backpack:
- 3-liter water bladder
- Ibex boxer shorts
- large pack towel
- two rolls of camp towel paper
- zip-lock bag with all-purpose camp soap and small sponge
- one ActiveWipes towelette
- Princeton Tec Byte headlamp
- Seat To Summit Mosquito Head Net
- Columbia Sportswear booney hat
- Surly wool cycling cap
- small Case Logic digital camera bag for personal care items:
- camp mirror
- nail clippers with file
- travel-size deodorant
- meal-ready-to-eat (MRE) with chicken and pasta shells in tomato sauce, diced pears in heavy syrup, crackers, peanut butter, grape drink mix packet, instant coffee packet
- one packet of StarKist tuna
- two packets instant mashed potatoes
- 7-ounce packet of Sun-Maid dried fruit
- 1-pound packer of pre-sliced pepperoni
- three bagels
Revelate Designs Viscacha seat bag:
- tent poles
- Pacific Crest 40-degree synthetic down sleeping bag
- Big Agnes Insulated Air Core sleeping pad
- O2 Fluid3 hooded rain jacket stuffed into a small mesh stuff sack
- MSR MiniWorks EX water filter pump
- 2 zip-lock bags with tools and repair supplies:
- Pedro’s compact chain tool with spoke wrenches
- cable cutters
- Leatherman multi-tool
- spare brake cable
- spare derailer cable
- spare derailer hanger
- spare chain links and master links
- miscellaneous nuts, bolts, and washers, cable tips, ferrules
- Park Tool tire boots
- zip ties
- duct tape
- Tenacious repair tape
- 2-ounce bottle of Tri-Flow lube
- 2-ounce tube of Buzzy’s grease
- two shop rags
- two Gojo wipes
- spare batteries: 2032 for cyclocomputer, AA for headlight, AAA for taillight
Revelate Designs frame bag:
- two spare inner tubes
- Guyot Designs Squishy cup and bowl set
- Markill compact canister stove
- small scrubbing pad
- REI titanium cooking pot (with the above four items inside)
- small pack towel
- REI plastic mixing spoon
- Brunton titanium utensil set (knife, fork, spoon)
- small jar of Nutella
- zip-lock bag of trail mix
- basic repair kit in smaller left-side pocket:
- Slime Skabs patch kit
- IceToolz L-bend hex wrench set
- Craftsman flat/phillips convertible screwdriver
- Topeak Shuttle Lever 1.2 tire levers
- Lezyne Pressure Drive Medium mini-pump
Revelate Designs top-tube bag:
- insect repellent
- lip balm
- Clif Bar (Chocolate Brownie is my favorite flavor)
- two sample packs of Gu Chomps
- a few electrolyte drink mix tablets
- Planet Bike Blaze 2-Watt headlight
Outdoor Research 10-liter stuff sack on Salsa Anything Cage on left fork leg:
- Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent, stakes, fly, and ground cloth
Outdoor Research 10-liter stuff sack on Salsa Anything Cage on right fork leg:
- neoprene socks
- Showers Pass Storm pants
- Pearl Izumi Zephyrr shell gloves
- DeFeet DuraWool liner gloves
- SmartWool Cuffed Beanie hat
- SmartWool liner shirt
- SmartWool liner pants
Avenir Metro Mini handlebar bag:
- smartphone in waterproof case
- digital camera in zip-lock bag
- car key
- small notepad
- trail map
I didn’t get the opportunity to weigh the complete setup, but I suspect it was just a few ounces less than the full bike-packing gear setup that I broke down in an earlier post. It probably came to about 24 pounds, including the bags themselves, on a bike that comes in around 27-1/2 pounds.
The handlebar bag was a last-minute decision, because I figured I wanted to have the trail map and my digital camera close at hand at all times. I had planned to add a cable lock somewhere in the mix, but that ended up being the one item that I inevitably forgot.
I also added a bottle cage to the mount on the bottom of the down tube, just so I’d have a bottle that I could use to mix up a sports drink along the trail using one of the electrolyte tablets.
The MRE had been given to me by a friend about nine years ago; I figured this was a good opportunity to finally try it out. The tuna and potatoes were a backup in case the MRE didn’t fare so well.
I did not end up needing any of the cold- and wet-weather clothing in the one stuff sack, but it was all fairly light, and I felt better knowing that I had it in case I did need it.
I usually like to pack a pair of non-cycling shoes or sandals when I’m bike touring. No matter how comfortable my cycling shoes are, it always feels good to have something different to change into for walking around camp in the evening. To save space, however, and since it would only be for one night, I decided to let my feet rough it for this trip.
I felt like the Salsa Fargo handled well on the off-road terrain while carrying all of this gear. I was a lot more tentative than I would be compared to riding singletrack on an unloaded bike, just for the fear that something is bound to come loose if given the opportunity. But, during the few times that I did “let it all hang out” on some fast sections, the gear was none the worse for wear.
We decided to stop for lunch around the 12-mile mark. There was no distinguishing landmark at this point, other than a fallen log beside the trail that provided a convenient place to sit. I ate a bagel with Nutella, some pepperoni slices, trail mix, and dried fruit.
Around the 15-mile mark, the trail crosses Osmun Road, and here we encountered our first navigational error. Maybe where the trail continues was not marked clearly enough, or maybe we just didn’t look carefully enough, but we thought the trail continued along the road, so that’s the way we went. The road surface became very loose sand, making pedaling tough sometimes, but not quite to the point that we had to dismount and push.
We called out “Mukluk!” on these sandy stretches, continuing the tradition that we started on the trails at Fort Custer State Recreation Area the day before. We continued for a few miles, until, after not seeing any of the blue blazes for the Pathway, and presented with an unmarked fork in the road, we realized we must not be on the right track. We consulted the map, and after discussion, determined to take the right fork. This turned out to be the correct choice. It turns out, we had been riding on Duby Lake Road, and we crossed a junction with the Pathway shortly thereafter. A short time after re-joining the Pathway, we crossed the intersection for the trail spurs to Duby Lake and McLavey Lake, confirming that were were once again on the right track.
The Pathway continued much as I’ve already described–some wide-open trail, much more overgrown trail, gently rolling terrain interspersed with some short, steep climbs, and more of the narrow wooden bridges. There were a couple of areas where the Pathway crossed an open field. One in particular looked very surreal, with tall, strange-looking weeds with groups of bulbous green seeds on top; we dubbed it the “Land That Time Forgot” because of its prehistoric-looking nature. Sorry; I didn’t think to stop for a picture here.
We planned to stop for another snack break at the Canada Creek Shelter, which would have put us at the 33-mile mark for the day, out of an expected 40 miles to the Tomahawk Creek Campground. The Pathway crossed County Road 634, where we saw a sign that there was a bridge out where the Pathway crosses over the actual Canada Creek, and it advised to follow the posted detour south on 634 (a dirt and gravel road). We were getting pretty tired and hungry again, and in hindsight, we probably should have stopped here or even sooner for another break, but we decided to press on to finish the day’s ride as soon as possible.
The detour along County Road 634 dead-ended on Canada Creek Highway, another dirt and gravel road, where we turned left (east). The Pathway markers indicated that we could have picked up the trail again somewhere just before State Route 33, but we checked out the map and decided to take the most direct route to the campground. We turned right (south) onto Route 33, and less than a half-mile down the road, turned left onto the dirt and gravel Tomahawk Lake Highway, which led to the campground. We had logged a total of 37 miles for the day, but it had felt like double that.
We did the usual self-check-in at the camp site. There were only two other sites occupied that we could see, and the sites were quite spacious, which afforded the quiet and solitude that most bike-campers would hope for. I took my socks off, and clicked the liner out of my shorts and changed into the boxers; with the outer shorts and the jersey, that’s what I ate and slept in for the night.
We ate our dinners at the campsite picnic table. My MRE turned out to be surprisingly good; an added bonus that I wasn’t aware of until I opened it up was the self-contained chemical heating unit. I saved the instant coffee for the morning. Brent had an instant backpacker’s meal of beef chili, plus some of the tortillas and sausage that he had brought.
I heard a few mosquitoes buzzing around my ears throughout the evening, but they weren’t nearly as bad as we had expected from our pre-trip research. We never felt like we needed our head nets. Horse flies were attacking my ankles, so I applied a little more Natrapel to that area (formerly protected by my socks), and that did the trick. I’m sure that the bug population varies with the time of year and the weather, and the very dry summer that we’ve been having here in the Midwest probably helped with that.
We turned into our tents while it was still light out, and had no trouble falling asleep. We heard a storm rolling through during the night, but we weren’t sure how long it lasted. Our tents held up well and we stayed dry, and I was comfortable temperature-wise the whole evening.
My friend Brent and I were headed up to Northern Michigan to ride the High Country Pathway, and thought we’d take a side trip to check out some local singletrack along the way. We chose Fort Custer State Recreation Area just outside of Battle Creek.
We arrived at the park around noon, and stopped by the ranger’s office to purchase our recreation pass. We decided to buy an annual non-resident pass rather than a daily pass, since we could use it for this whole trip, as well as when we return to the state in November for the Iceman Cometh Challenge race. The ranger supplied us with a trail map, and gave us the lowdown on the three loop trails.
The mountain bike trails are split into three loops, identified by color on the map and on-trail markers. The Blue trail is the easiest, the Green trail is intermediate, and the Red trail is the most difficult.
We proceeded to the trail parking area, where you’ll find a changing shack, restroom, and water source. After we got into our cycling clothes and got our bikes ready, we decided to skip the Blue trail and head straight for the Green. We found the trail system to be extremely well-marked.
The only thing that confused us at first were a couple of spots along the Green trail where the trail forks into two trails, but we soon realized that these just provide alternate routes around short, more technical trail features. It’s not marked which fork is the easier or harder of the two options, but we never found either one very difficult, and the two trails merged back together very soon after.
As soon as we finished the Green trail, we hit the Red trail. The Red trail had a little more variety, climbing, and other challenges compared to the Green, but neither had any lung-busting monster climbs or any un-rideable features. The whole ride provided just enough challenge to be fun and interesting, but easy enough to provide the mindless stress-relieving ride that we came for.
My Salsa Fargo proved to as capable on this singletrack as I’ve grown to love it for. The rigid frame and fork didn’t slow me down at all on the smooth, buff trail. There were a couple of minor steps or drop-offs (maybe 6 inches tall at most) where some suspension would have helped, but these were few and far between.
Brent was on his singlespeed Salsa El Mariachi. He considered bringing his Salsa Mukluk snow bike instead, thinking that it would be ideal for handling the notoriously sandy Michigan soil. But, he decided it wasn’t worth the extra 10 pounds of bike weight. There were a few sandy patches along the trails; nothing too treacherous, though. Whenever we came across one, we’d call out “Sand!” to warn each other. Eventually, we started calling “Mukluk!” instead, both of us thinking that those were the spots where the Mukluk would be in its element.
If you’re in the Western Michigan area with a mountain bike, I’d highly recommend the trails at Fort Custer State Recreation Area. It would be worth a 2-or-3-day road trip on its own, to hit some of the other fantastic trails that Michigan has to offer. After your ride, you can refuel at Bell’s Brewery in nearby Kalamazoo, and if you’re headed further north as we were, you can also stop by Founder’s Brewing, about an hour north in Grand Rapids.
I’ve referred to the “four-county area” in my posts on Facebook and Twitter in the past. I’m referring to Cuyahoga, Summit, Portage, and Geauga Counties here in Ohio. These four counties come together in one point, similar to the “Four Corners” region out west where the states of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet.
It’s pretty easy for just about any ride I go on to take in all four counties, since I live right in the northeast corner of Summit County. In fact, I can hit all four counties with a ride of only about 5 miles right from home.
This all may only be of interest to you if you’re a geography nerd like me. There are lots of great bike routes to be found all over Northeast Ohio, but I find this area nice, because you can live close to one of the urban centers, but don’t have far to go to get to some wide-open and low-traffic rural roads.
I have a few “standard” loops I do, but I never cease to be amazed at the variety of new back roads that I come across to add a new twist to an old favorite ride.
Today, I did one of those standard loops, making my way into Aurora to catch Pioneer Trail east all the way to Garrettsville. I headed over to Hiram, then straight north on State Route 700 up to Burton. The last time I was up that way, I just headed south on Rapids Road until it dead-ended on Winchell Road, which leads back to Aurora. This time, a short couple of miles down Rapids Road, I took a right onto Stafford Road, then a left onto Valley Road, which does a very scenic jog along the shore of LaDue Reservoir.
I joined the people fishing and boating on the lake in enjoying the perfect overcast and cool summer day. Valley Road ends on Washington Street, which I took straight west through Auburn, veering off onto Bainbridge Road, through Bainbridge Township and into Solon and Cuyahoga County, completing the fourth of the today’s four-county tour, for a total of 63 miles.
I recently obtained my new hydration pack, which made me ready to start testing my plan for packing up the Salsa Fargo for light-n-fast “rack-less” touring.
Here’s a shot of the naked bike with all of the gear before packing:
The weight of the bike as shown is about 27.5 pounds. Included on the bike are:
- Cat Eye Strada Wireless cyclocomputer
- 2 Salsa Anything Cages (mounted on the fork legs)
- Planet Bike Blaze 2-watt headlight
- Planet Bike Superflash Turbo taillight
The weight of the empty bags is about 6 pounds.
Here’s a shot of everything packed and ready to ride:
Here are the details of the bags and contents:
Left unpacked are what I’d be wearing while riding:
- Endura Hummvee Lite 3/4 shorts
- Surly Wool short-sleeve jersey
- Pearl Izumi Sun Sleeves
- wool cycling socks
- cycling gloves
- Pearl Izumi X-Alp Seek shoes
- Buff bandanna
- Bell Sequence helmet
- Road ID
Revelate Designs Viscacha seat bag:
- Pacific Crest synthetic-fill 40-degree sleeping bag
- Big Agnes Diversions Insulated Air Core sleeping pad
- tent poles
- O2 Fluid3 hooded rain jacket (in a stuff sack)
- Showers Pass Storm rain pants (in a stuff sack)
- generic down jacket packed in (in a stuff sack)
Revelate Designs Gas Tank top tube bag:
- lip balm
- insect repellent
- hand sanitizer
Outdoor Research 10-liter dry sack on left fork leg:
- Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent body, fly, stakes, and ground cloth
- tent stake hammer
Outdoor Research 10-liter dry sack on right fork leg:
- REI titanium cooking pot
- Evernew titanium mug
- Snow Peak titanium bowl
- Light My Fire titanium spork
- Markill stove
- fuel canister
- REI plastic mixing spoon
- salt and pepper shaker
- small pack towel
- scrubbing pad
- waterproof matches
- fire starters
- MSR Miniworks EX water filter pump
- first aid kit
Salsa/Revelate Designs frame bag:
- 2 spare tubes
- tire levers
- patch kit
- tire boots
- hex wrench set
- multi-tip screwdriver
- Pedro’s chain tool with spoke wrenches
- Leatherman multi-tool
- cable cutter
- brake cable
- derailer cable
- spare derailer hanger
- spare small parts: bolts, nuts, washers, chain links, zip ties, cleat bolts, cable tips and ferrules
- small tube of Tri-Flow grease
- small bottle of Tri-Flow chain/component lube
- duct tape
- Tenacious tape
- 12mm coiled cable lock
- 2 Gojo wipes
- 2 shop rags
Osprey Manta 25 hydration pack:
- Large pack towel
- 2 spare pair of socks
- Ibex wool boxer shorts
- lightweight casual shorts
- lightweight long-sleeve shirt (can double as a spare bike jersey)
- SmartWool liner shirt
- SmartWool liner pants
- SmartWool Cuff Beanie
- DeFeet DuraWool liner gloves
- Neoprene socks
- Pearl Izumi Zephrr shell gloves
- Columbia Sportswear booney hat
- multi-purpose camp soap
- camp mirror
- nail clippers with nail file
- travel size deodorant
- 2 rolls backpacker’s toilet paper
- smartphone and charger
- GPS and charger
- body wipes
- spare eyeglasses
- wallet (with cash, credit/ATM cards, driver’s license, passport card)
- Princeton Tec Byte headlamp
A couple things that I’ve since thought of that are not included above, but I’ll have to find room for eventually:
- spare batteries: 2032 for cyclocomputer, AA for headlight, AAA for taillight
- small notebook and pen
- route maps
In looking at this list, as well as the photo of the unpacked gear above, it’s hard to believe that it all fit on the bike. I weighed the packed bike, and subtracting the original weight of the bike and the empty bags, it’s about 25 pounds worth of gear, not counting the clothing and other gear that I’d be wearing on my body while on the bike. That’s not too bad, considering that for normal touring with racks and roomy panniers, I’d typically have about 40 pounds of gear.
The problem, however, is the bulk of the gear. With everything packed in as I described above, it leaves hardly any room for a food supply. The Gas Tank bag has room for a few energy bars and gels; a few small items might still be stuffed into the frame bag, and the OR dry sacks might fit a few more things.
Either way, though, I’ll have to put my gear list on a diet and make some adjustments to where stuff is packed.
I also need to think about how to plan for extended periods without a water source. Possibilities include an MSR Dromedary bag lashed to the seat bag, water bottles in the side pockets of the hydration pack, and a bottle cage mounted on the bottom of the bike’s down tube.
This past Sunday, I put this packing scheme to the test by riding it to work, and then taking it on a Sub-24-Hour Overnight trip with my friend Brent to our usual destination of West Branch State Park.
The full gear list above takes into account the full range of weather that might be encountered on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, including cold and wet. Being that it’s now July in Northeast Ohio, and there was only a small chance of rain this particular evening, I was able to ditch quite a bit of gear to free up space. I removed the down jacket, wool liner shirt and pants, wool liner gloves, wool hat, neoprene socks, shell gloves, and booney hat. I also would not be needing the water filter, since fresh water at the West Branch campground is readily available. I left out the trowel and toilet paper, since there are also restrooms. I kept the Ibex boxers, used the outer layer of the Endura shorts as my in-camp casual shorts, and packed a t-shirt to wear around the camp. I wore the same pair of socks through the whole trip. I meant to leave the rain jacket and pants behind, but only realized later at the camp site that I still had them in the seat bag.
I packed a few food items in the hydration pack. For dinner, I took a box of macaroni & cheese, packet of tuna, and a pack of instant mashed potatoes. For breakfast, I took two packets of instant oatmeal. I also took a few cookies to snack on.
On the way to work, the dry sacks on the fork came loose a bit. I stopped to tighten up the Velcro straps I was using to hold them in place, and that seemed to do the trick for the time being. Once I got to work, I found a couple of extra bungee cords and used them for extra support around the Salsa Anything Cages, just to be safe. I’ve concluded, however, that the Anything Cage works best with soft goods, like my tent on the left side. It doesn’t work so well with hard goods like my cooking gear on the right side, because this kind of stuff tends to shift around too easily, and thus the straps holding it in place come loose more easily. So this is one area where I can adjust the location of where I pack stuff.
I started thinking that I should just ditch the whole concept of bike-packing, and go back to traditional racks and panniers. Back at home a few days earlier, I weighed my panniers, front rack, and rear rack. If I used these instead of all of the frame bags, the gain in weight is about 4 pounds.
However, after getting everything situated, making the ride to West Branch, setting up camp, and then breaking down camp the next morning, I got used to the bike-packing scheme. The way I had all of the items organized lent itself quite well to easily unpacking and re-packing, and finding stuff when I needed it. I guess like any new idea, it has to grow on you a bit. I’ve already got a few ideas for changes to pare down the bulk of the gear, so stay tuned for version 2.0 of the bike-packing gear list.
Brent and I did a little route exploring on the way to West Branch. We usually hop on the Portage Bike and Hike Trail near Towners Woods park. The last time we made this trip, the trail ended near downtown Ravenna. It’s been extended since then, so it now ends on Peck Road east of town. We made a right onto Peck, then a right onto Newton Falls Road, very near where it meets the intersection of State Routes 14 and 59. Normally, one would take Rt 59 east to where it meets State Route 5, then turn right onto Rock Spring Road into West Branch State Park. The campground entrance is just past the railroad overpass bridge.
This bridge is being rebuilt, so the detour involves taking Rt 14 south for a few miles to Booth Road, which meets Rock Spring Road from the other end. Cable Line Road would provide a similar, but shorter, detour, but it, too, is closed. We decided to head up Cable Line Road anyway to see if the closed section were passable by bike or on foot.
Not quite a mile from Rt 14, we got to the closed section:
There was no gap in the guard rail to cut around, so we had to hop over and lift our bikes over. We finally saw the reason for the road closing:
As you can see, a wide section of road has washed out, leaving a chasm about 20 feet wide and 10 feet deep.
Carrying our bikes and shuffling a little at a time to avoid losing our footing, we made our way down, through, and up out of the chasm. So, Cable Line Road is passable via an extreme hike-a-bike. But, for the extra time and effort it takes, taking the Booth Road detour is a better option, which we did for the ride home on Monday morning.
The night before the race, my friend Brent was cool enough to pick me up after work to head straight down to Mohican. We decided to just grab some quick dinner at Subway on the way. We arrived and checked in at Mohican Adventures campground, and found our friend Brandon, who had already checked in and got set up at our site.
The packet pick-up was supposed to close at 7pm, but luckily, a couple of volunteers were still hanging around later at the race check-in desk, so we were able to get that out of the way and not have to worry about it in the morning. I got my number plate attached to my Mongoose Teocali Super, and gave the bike a quick once-over to make sure it was ready to ride.
The weather was predicted to be pleasant and cool for race day. That evening before, it got even cooler than expected, and I was worried that I didn’t bring enough clothes both for a night of sleeping in a tent, as well as for the race itself. We spent a little while sitting around the campfire trying to stay warm until we turned into our tents. I did shiver a bit in my sleeping bag, but still managed to get a decent amount of sleep.
In the morning, I ate of couple of bacon pancakes that I had packed up frozen the day before. Fortunately, they were just thawed out enough to eat, and wash down with some orange juice. Brent shared some of his camp coffee as well.
I put on the only cycling clothes that I had brought, which I planned based on the weather forecast: bib shorts, sleeveless liner shirt, short-sleeve jersey, SmartWool socks, Buff bandana, Sidi shoes, and full-finger gloves. I also wore my Pearl Izumi Sun Sleeves and Sun Knees, aka “arm coolers” and “knee coolers.” These have been working great for riding in warm weather to keep the sun off. Now, I hoped they were sufficient to keep the morning chill off. I also put on my jacket, figuring I could stash it in my hydration pack during the race. I stood there shivering while waiting to leave for the starting line, wishing that I had brought real arm warmers and legs warmers, and maybe even a wool jersey.
The starting line was in downtown Loudonville, and it was a short 10-minute ride there mostly along a paved bike path. Once I finally got moving, I warmed up much more than I expected, and was quite comfortable. It was a good thing that I hadn’t brought more warm clothing, because then I would have ended up over-dressed. I realized even before starting that I wouldn’t need my jacket at all. Luckily, I noticed a woman from a neighboring campsite helping her husband get ready to race, and she graciously agreed to drop my jacket off back at the campground so I wouldn’t have to carry it needlessly through the whole race.
We timed our arrival at the starting line pretty well, and only had to wait a few minutes before the starting horn. My goal for the race was just to finish in less than 8 hours, and hope to stay out of trouble and avoid mechanical issues. So, I settled into a spot about three-quarters of the way to the back of the mass starting group.
Once we were off, we headed straight through the main street of town, which as it left the downtown area, became a steep uphill, which helped to break up the pack. I passed a pretty good number of lesser climbers, plus one poor guy who was already sitting on the side of the road trying to look at some bike issue; I wonder if that was a bad sign of how the rest of his day went?
A mile or two outside of town, we turned onto a gravel road, which led to the first turn-off onto singletrack through the woods. There was were a ton of racers backed up at the entrance, and it was like a signaled freeway on-ramp. A handful of riders made their way onto the trail, the rest of us would take a few steps forward and wait some more. I finally got onto the trail after what may have been about 5 minutes or more.
Although the weather was dry this day, the trails were kind of slick from the rain of the previous couple of days. In a few spots, it was thick like peanut butter. I picked my way through a couple of sketchy downhills pretty slowly and managed to keep both wheels on the ground and my feet on the pedals.
There were more sections of paved roads and gravel roads, and then more trail as we climbed a long, steep series of dirt switchbacks. At around the 5-mile mark, we joined the trail near the beginning of the Mohican State Park mountain bike trail loop. Finally familiar territory! I tried to settle into a rhythm and make some good time, but it was a challenge passing numerous other riders. There were a few rough sections that I normally clear with no problem when I ride this trail, but I got hung up now just from being caught behind other who weren’t clearing them. When I’d flail, people that I had managed to pass before passed me up again, and the whole process would start over. All part of racing; that will teach me to be more aggressive and try to keep to the front of the pack more from the start.
At the covered bridge on the road over the Mohican River, I passed a large group of riders, probably for the third time for many of them, but flailed again at the re-entry to the singletrack. Once I passed a handful more riders around the steep switchbacks climbs in this area, the pack seemed to spread out quite a bit more, and I was able to get more into my normal groove for the rest of the long climb to the top of the hill above the covered bridge.
The first aid station was located in the parking lot at the top of the hill, at the 20-mile mark, or what is normally the 15-mile mark of the state park loop. I scarfed a couple of snacks, chugged a cup of Heed drink, and topped off the water in my hydration pack. I thought I had been drinking a fair amount along the way, but was surprised when it only took about a large cupful of water to refill the pack. Mental note: drink more. I was going to use the porta-potty, but there were a couple of other guys waiting in line, so I decided it wasn’t an emergency for me.
Continuing on the state park trail, there was more passing to be done, but I found myself having to do less flailing and wasn’t getting passed by very many others. I didn’t clear the infamous steep climb at the 21-mile marker of the state park trail, so I took advantage of that opportunity to duck behind a tree for an impromptu porta-potty break. Luckily, the pale color of the result indicated that I’d been taking in sufficient fluids while riding.
I was looking forward to one of my favorite sections of the trail, around the 22-mile marker where you descend a series of fast, swoopy curves. Just after the beginning of this section, a volunteer was posted at the apex of the second of one of those curves, directing us to make a hard left off the trail. As I made this turn, I saw the horror that awaited us–The Wall–a trail of loose dirt that went straight up so steeply that, I promise you, NOBODY was pedaling it. My feet felt like bricks as I trudged up, pushing my bike at nearly a crawl. The toe spikes in my shoes came in handy to avoid slipping, and even potentially rolling back down the hill.
When I finally reached the top, the course opened up onto a gravel road. Then it led back onto a wide dirt trail that’s normally a hiking-only trail. Along a downhill section, there were wooden planks installed across the trail as water bars. With the mud and my wet tires, I knew it could mean a treacherous ride. I saw one rider walking his way down, but I determined that my mountain biking skills were up to. I took each water bar as head-on as I could, rather than at an angle, and managed to clear all but one, which was placed at a nearly impossible angle. It grabbed my rear tire and yanked it out from under me, forcing me to put a foot down almost into an unintentional split, but I managed to keep it all together otherwise, re-mount, and keep going.
The course alternated between more some paved roads, gravel roads, and dirt trails with a couple more hike-a-bike sections. The roads weren’t much relief, as they usually involved climbs that were steep enough to be just barely ride-able. At around the 28-mile mark, it started to feel like work instead of fun. I had to force the thought out of my brain that I was not even halfway done yet.
The second aid station came at the 35-mile mark, and was located at the Buckhaven Learning Center, a hunting camp. I downed some snacks, topped off the water again, and used the (thankfully) inside restroom.
The course from this point followed what looked like a dirt four-wheeler trail for a couple of miles, with a few ups and downs, but nothing too steep. Then more alternating mind-numbing steep climbs and descents on gravel and pavement. Fortunately, no particular body parts nagged me with any pain; I just struggled with overall fatigue. Pedaling the long climbs while in the saddle did make me a little more sore in that area than I usually get, but nothing too extreme. I was ready to just be done, but I just had to try not to think about how much further I had to go. I knew that my entry fee included all the Great Lakes Brewing Company beer that I could drink at the finish line, but I couldn’t even imagine myself enjoying that. All I could picture was collapsing in a heap as soon as I could after I cross the line.
Eventually, the course turned back onto some singletrack, which I surmised (correctly) was the Mohican Wilderness mountain bike trail. At first I thought, “Finally!” until I realized that I was so cooked that I had neither physical nor mental wherewithal to navigate the trail, which is considerably rougher compared to the Mohican State Park trail. I flailed and dabbed a bit, and took it slow where necessary. On two occasions, in the middle of tight hairpin turns, I miscalculated, took a bad line, and failed to recover, which sent me hard into the dirt on my face and arms.
Finally, the course opened up through some grass along the edge of a large, open field, which led to aid station number 3 at mile 58. The usual routine: eat, drink, pee; this time eat and drink a little more. The 100-mile course split off at this point. I didn’t want to head off in the wrong direction, so I asked a volunteer which way the 100k course went. He pointed out the LARGE banner indicating such just across the road.
I headed on down the road, thankfully flat for the first mile or so, but then it got back to more of the same as before–up, down, up, down. The first was Valley Stream Road, which has several “humps,” which make you think you’re done when you’re not. I passed a female racer on this climb, and the two of us ended up leap-frogging each other for much of the rest of the course.
A flat road ran alongside the Mohican River and led to State Route 3 just outside of Loudonville, the usual start/end point of the Mohican State Park trail. With 4 miles to go to the finish line, the aid station number 4 that was set up here almost seem superfluous. I almost skipped it, but stopped for a quick chug of a cup of Heed.
The course here went straight back onto the state park trail, what is usually the final mile of it, but in reverse of the usual direction. Then it turn uphill and on some unfamiliar singletrack. After a while, the singletrack started to look vaguely familiar again, and I realized that I was back on the beginning section of the state park trail, also in reverse of the usual direction. A couple of fast, presumably expert-class riders passed me in this area, but the rest of the field was so spread out that I saw no other riders for the rest of the course.
Soon I was able to see the Mohican Adventures campground, where the finish line was located. Friends who had done the race in past years had warned me about one final hike-a-bike climb up a steep dirt trail that was thrown in only about a half-mile before the finish. Turns out, this hill was removed for this year’s course, and before I knew it, the finish line was right in front of me, almost anti-climatically.
I crossed the line and a volunteer handed me an empty pint glass. I did not feel as completely spent and ready to collapse as I had expected. I set my bike down in the grass, and looked around for any familiar faces. Seeing none, I walked over the Great Lakes beer trailer and filled my glass with a Dortmunder. It was refreshing, delicious, and altogether welcome, contrary to my fears during the race. I looked around a bit more, and I asked somebody what time it was to try to get an idea of my finish time. It was 10 minutes before 3:00pm, and I figured I had been wandering around for about 10 minutes. Based on the 7:00am start time, that put me at an overall time of about 7 hours and 40 minutes, safely and happily within my goal.
I ran into Brent and Brandon, and we commiserated about our respective race experiences. I got some lunch at the barbecue buffet, which included ribs, chicken, and an assortment of sides. Brent had dinner plans at home, so we didn’t waste much more time before packing up our camping gear and hitting the road.
Checking the final results at home later, I ended up with an official time of 7:39:02, placing me at 161 out of 276 finishers (322 total if you count the DNF’s) in the Men’s Open 100k division.
I took the day off work today, ironically so that I could participate in the Bike to Work Day activities going on in downtown Cleveland. I did the same thing as last year, making the 22-mile ride up from Twinsburg to Cleveland, picking up a friend in Solon along the way.
What a difference a year has made. Last year’s event was supposed to mark the grand opening of The Bike Rack, downtown Cleveland’s new bike commuter station, but construction had been delayed, mainly due to the building having been purchased by the company also working on the new casino.
Today, The Bike Rack was open and in full swing, with many bike secured in the storage racks inside, and commuters utilizing the lockers, showers, and changing rooms.
On the way into town, we passed through the Slavic Village neighborhood, site of the ongoing construction of the new velodrome, spearheaded by Fast Track Cycling.
Also new since last year is Bike Cleveland, the region’s new unified, better-organized, and better-funded bicycle advocacy organization.
A local bike shop was at the event with an assortment of commuter-oriented accessories for sale. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society had a table set up to promote their local Bike MS Pedal to the Point fundraising ride, with help from National Bike MS Sponsor Raleigh Bicycles.
Cleveland may have quite a bit farther to go until it becomes a cycling haven like Portland, Minneapolis, or Davis. It would be nice to be able to say we’re there NOW, but someday, it will be even nicer to be able to look back and say, “I was there to see it happen; I was there to help make it happen.”
The other day, I made a sort-of last-minute decision to sign up for the Mohican 100K mountain bike race, so today I took the opportunity to test how prepared I am for it physically and mentally by doing two laps of the 25-mile Mohican State Park mountain bike trail.
My mountain bike was still caked with mud from my ride at West Branch State Park a week ago. I had been wanting to clean and tune it up, but had not been able to make the time since then. When I arrived at the Mohican parking lot, I gave it a quick rub-down with a rag to get the major chunks of mud off, and lubed the chain. Both the front and rear disc rotors had gotten a little bent from my flailing in the rock gardens at West Branch. I spun the front wheel a few times to identify the main bent area, and trued it back with my bare fingers good enough that it spun quietly. I did the same with the rear rotor; it still rubbed a little, but it was ride-able.
I kept a good pace for the first lap, not trying to set a record, but quick and steady. The only incident of the day came when I was still pretty fresh, about 6 miles in during a relatively easy section of trail. I split-second lapse of attention caused me to clip my handlebar on a tree. It yanked by wheel sideways, sending me into a Superman fall, following by the bike flying and landing on top of me. I took some impact on my head and right shoulder, giving me flashbacks to a rail-trail in Idaho. Fortunately, most of the impact went to my right forearm, leaving a new bruise and scab on top of the old bruise and scab (more by-products of the aforementioned West Branch rock gardens). The impact was also enough to knock my stem off-kilter and my seat angle tilted way too forward, so I had to spend about 20 minutes on the trail fishing out my multi-tool, and then re-adjusting everything.
I rode a little tentatively for a mile or two following the crash, but got back into the groove after shaking the cobwebs off and getting my nerve back.
I finished the first lap in about two and three-quarter hours (not counting repair time), a typical respectable time for me. I stopped by my car to scarf down a bagel with peanut butter and chug a bottle of Gatorade. This would have been a potential time to decide “Heck with it, I should quit while I’m ahead,” but I didn’t let the thought even enter my mind, trying to keep myself in the “failure is not an option” mindset that I’d need for race day. Only after I started pedaling toward the trailhead for the second lap did it briefly occur to me, “What the heck am I doing?”
Despite the tendency for physical fatigue to cause you to be more likely to make mental mistakes, the second lap passed without any crashes or other incidents. My legs got tired, my feet and back got a little sore, but nothing unexpected. I had to use my granny gear more often than usual, and dab a foot as I failed to clear some of the switchbacks and steep climbs as well as I usually can. I stopped at the 15-mile mark (the second time around) to down a Clif bar for more re-fueling.
I tried to conserve the water in my 2-liter hydration pack so that I’d have enough to last for the whole ride, since there isn’t really a practical place to refill along the trail. Conventional wisdom says that if you’re hydrating enough during physical activity, you should be urinating frequently, and it should be clear or mostly clear. I only stopped to relieve myself once during the whole ride, at about the 16-mile mark of the second lap, and it looked the color of stale Mountain Dew, which probably was not a good sign. I don’t expect this to be as much of an issue during the race, though, as I’ll be able to take advantage of the aid stations for fluid and snacks.
I finished the second lap in a little over 3 hours. I felt pretty beat up, tired, and stiff, but felt like I put in a respectable effort. Despite the parking-lot tune-up, my bike performed admirably. I’m told by race veterans that if you can handle two laps of the 25-mile state park trail, the 100K (62-mile) race course should feel easier. Stayed tuned in a few weeks for a report from the actual race…
After my long road test of last Tuesday, I was itchin’ the hit some singletrack. I talked to my friend and co-worker Justin, and he had never been to the mountain bike trail at the Cleveland Metroparks‘ Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation. I had been there twice before, but it’s been almost two years, so even though it’s a pretty short 2.5-mile loop, it’s not a long drive away, so I figured it was worth the trip. We headed up there last Thursday morning.
I arrived a little earlier than planned, so I did the 1/2-mile beginner loop on my own a couple of times to warm up until Justin arrived. The two of us hit the beginner loop, then moved on to the intermediate loop. We weren’t disappointed. The trail was in fantastic shape–smooth and dry; not a single patch of mud. The folks from the Metroparks and the Cleveland Area Mountain Bike Association are doing a great job of maintaining this trail.
Near the beginning of the intermediate loop is a climb that’s a bit more of a kicker than I remembered. The rest of the trail has a series of short, undulating ups and downs, a few hairpin turns, and a couple of rough rock and root gardens. What this course lacks in size it makes up for with challenges good enough for any local off-road riders to get their singletrack fix without having to head too far out of the city.
After a second lap on the intermediate loop, Justin suggested we head down to his home turf, to the mountain bike trails at Reagan Park in Medina. Although it felt against my “car less” sensibilities to do even more driving in order to do more pedaling, I had the whole day with no other obligations to worry about, so I figured what the heck, variety is the spice of life.
We hit a few brief rain showers during the drive down to Medina, but the sun was back out by the time we reached the parking area at the Huffman Park soccer fields. The trail was none the worse for wear; smooth and dry. There were a couple of very isolated mud patches, but nothing to worry about.
The Reagan Park trail system is made up of four major sections, with a couple of connector trails. For some reason, I always get confused trying to follow the suggested route to connect all of the trails. I finally realized this time around that the key is, “Don’t over-think it.” Just follow the signs, and trust that they’ll lead you the right way to hit all the trails. You’ll double-back a couple of times on trail that you’ve already hit, but it’s only for brief periods to get to the next section.
My Mongoose Teocali Super mountain bike came with Kenda ExCavator 26×2.1 tires. Some of my riding buddies have suggested that these tires have too aggressive of a tread for my needs, and I could use something lighter. At 640 grams each, they’re no pigs, and I’ve found that they performed adequately for me. However, before riding the bike for the first time this season, I decided to try some different tires, just for the sake of trying something different.
I’ve had a pair of Continental Slash ProTection 26×2.3 tires around for the past couple of years. It’s a discontinued model, so when they started being offered at blowout prices, I decided to pick up a pair just to have as a backup set if needed. Now seemed like a good excuse to give them a try. They’re pretty comparable to the Kendas at 660 grams each, but with an even more aggressive tread–a fairly square profile with tall side knobs. Continental tires tend to run a bit narrower than labeled, so to the naked eye they appeared about the same width as the Kenda ExCavators when mounted on my wheels.
I’ve never been really picky about tires. I recall reading tire reviews in the past, and often the authors complain that when tires have tall knobs, they can feel the tire squirming too much underneath them. I always read that with a bit of skepticism, thinking, “They can’t possibly really feel that.” But, as it turns out, I could. The steering of the bike felt kinda squirrely, and I felt like I was about to wash out in sharp curves more often than usual.
To be fair, this tire is billed as a rough and wet conditions tire, and I’m sure it would perform great in those conditions. I’ll put them away until I head to Pennsylvania or West Virginia, but for typical Ohio trails (when they’re in permissible-to-ride condition), they are, indeed, TOO aggressive.
Having another free day yesteday, with a good weather forecast, it was the perfect chance to head down to my favorite trail, the mountain bike loop at Mohican State Park. The night before, I pulled another spare set of tires out of the archives.
The trail, as usual, was in excellent shape. Huge thanks, as always, go out to the Mohican/Malabar Bike Club for creating and maintaining such a fantastic trail. I finished the 25-mile loop in what I believe is a personal best time–2 hours and 38 minutes, which does not include a very brief stop at the 15-mile rest area to down a pack of Gu.
Part of the credit for the good ride goes to those other new tires I mentioned. The tires are Slime SRT XC 26×2.00. I picked these tires up a few years ago when one local branch of a national big-box sporting goods chain was having a store closing clearance sale. At $5 each, it was a deal I couldn’t pass up.
The SRT stands for Standard Rim Tubeless. The tire is like a tubular tire, but with a bead that works on any standard hooked rim. Of course, it’s also pre-filled with Slime’s neon green sealant. The idea was that you could get the benefits of tubeless tire technology, without the hassles of needing tubeless-compatible rims, special rim strips and valves, bead seating problems, etc. This XC version of the tire has a semi-aggressive tread that hits the sweet spot between too smooth and too knobby–perfect for dry, fast trail conditions. It’s a similar tread to something like the Geax Saguaro or WTB ExiWolf. I think they also made a version with a more aggressive freeride/downhill tread, and maybe a slick version, too.
I had these tires on an older mountain bike that I used for just kicking around the neighborhood a couple years back, but this was my first real ride using them on singletrack.
That “just right” tread performed perfectly on the buff singletrack of Mohican. It didn’t hold me back on the smooth stuff, and had enough grip to hold the line on curves and whenever the trail turned a little rough or uphill. I ran them at 35psi. By the end of the ride, I thought maybe I could drop them by 2-3psi; not for lack of traction, but just to soften the ride up a tad. The tires weigh 860 grams each. Compared to the Kenda ExCavators and Conti Slashes, there’s a pretty much negligible weight difference (20-40 grams) if you add in the 180-gram weight of a typical 26-inch presta valve tube.
Unfortunately, these tires are one of the best products that you can’t buy, unless you can find a shop or online dealer that has some way old stock still sitting around. I talked to the folks from Slime a few years ago at one of the bike trade shows. They said that they didn’t give up on the idea because it didn’t work well; the feedback they got from other users was as good as what I experienced yesterday.
The problem is that many mountain bikers are very particular about their tires. With the dozens of tire manufacturers providing literally hundreds of choices of sizes and tread patterns, there is plenty of supply out there to satisfied the varied tastes of all of those riders. Slime felt it would be impossible for them to come up with enough different variations of their tires to meet that demand.
I’m lucky and glad that I grabbed these tires when I had the chance. During whatever (hopefully long) life that I get out of them, they’ll be my go-to tires for riding my go-to trails.
This is the fourth part of my ongoing review of my Salsa Fargo bicycle. To recap, in Part 1, I talked about my initial impressions based on a couple of short-to-medium road rides and commuting. In Part 2, I compared the Fargo to a traditional full-suspension mountain bike on singletrack rides. In Part 3, I put the Fargo to the test for loaded touring on a Sub 24-Hour Overnight (S24O).
I’ve done a pretty fair amount of road and mixed-surface riding on the Fargo since then. In fact, I find that the Fargo has become my go-to bike for most long and short road rides, just because it’s so much fun to ride.
The longest ride was a century I did with the Akron Bike Club on Sept. 11 of last year, the Circle Cleveland Ride, or their version of the Emerald Necklace Tour that the circles through and around Cleveland using mostly the parkways of the Cleveland Metroparks system. Most of the other folks were on regular road bikes. The ride started out with a several-mile climb out of the Cuyahoga Valley from the Brecksville Reservation. I still had the Fargo set up in fully-loaded touring mode, with front and rear racks, and full-coverage fenders, so I was at a significant disadvantage whenever the road turned uphill due to so much extra weight. It wasn’t so hard, though, holding my own in a paceline on flat land.
All of this has had me thinking, with the question of whether the Fargo is “one bike to rule them all,” how would it hold up in a head-to-head showdown against a pure shave-my-legs-and-go-fast road bike? So, I planned a test ride similar to the way I did the Singletrack Showdown for Part 2, with alternating laps on a short, repeatable loop course.
My road bike is pretty typical of the style–traditional flat-top-tube frame geometry, carbon fork, mixed Shimano Ultegra/Dura-Ace drive train. Gearing is a standard road double (53/39 chainrings) up front, with an 11-27 cassette on the back. The tires are Continental Grand Prix 4-Season 700×23.
I normally use Speedplay road pedals on this bike, and Crank Brothers Egg Beaters or Candy pedals on all of my other bikes. For today, I swapped a pair of Egg Beaters onto my road bike so that I would not have to change shoes as I changed bikes for each lap.
The task the night before was to configure the Fargo in basic “just go for a ride” mode–removing all of the touring/bikepacking gear I’ve been trying out recently. Off came the frame pack and oversize seat bag, off came the fork-mounted bottle cages. On went the bottle cages in the usual positions in the main frame triangle.
I chose to use a pair of Serfas Drifter 700×32 tires on the Fargo, mainly because that’s what I happened to have around that would work. I wanted to use something comparable to a road bike tire, but a 32mm wide tire was about as narrow as I felt comfortable using safely on the wide-profile Salsa Semi 29er Disc rims. I probably could have gotten away with something like a 700×28 tire; I did have a spare Continental Ultra Gatorskin in that size, but only one. I’ve used the Serfas Drifters for long road rides on my cyclocross bike in the past, and they roll surprisingly well. Plus, I figured it was a good compromise between using something “roadie” and keeping the Fargo true to its fat-tire character.
Weight for the Fargo with this setup was 27 pounds, 8 ounces. The weight for the road bike was 20 pounds, 5 ounces. Note that these are not stripped-down “cheater” weights; these are the full real-world ready-to-ride weights, which includes pedals, bottle cages, mini-pump, and small seat bag with spare tube, patch kit, tire levers, and multi-tool. I did not include water bottles in the weight; for the test, I used the same brand and model of bottle on each bike (one each of a Camelback Podium and Podium Chill on each bike).
Choosing a test course was a no-brainer; those of us who live in or near the Cuyahoga Valley have been riding what we call the “Valley Loop” for years as a quick test-ride or pre-work/post-work spin whenever the time doesn’t allow for something longer. It’s an 18-mile loop with a few rolling hills, and one somewhat significant climb near the end:
- Start in Peninsula at the corner of Main St/State Route 303 and S Locust St.
- Turn RIGHT onto S Locust St.
- Road becomes Akron-Peninsula Rd.
- Road becomes North Portage Path.
- Turn RIGHT onto Merriman Rd.
- Road becomes Riverview Rd.
- Turn RIGHT onto Main St/State Route 303.
- End in Peninsula at the corner of Main St/State Route 303 and S Locust St.
If you’re interested in seeing a map and elevation profile, leave a comment and I’ll email you a .GPX file.
I did four laps, starting on the road bike for the first lap and switching to the Fargo on the second and fourth laps. I tracked myself using both my on-bike computer and my smartphone using the Strava Cycling app. The distance for each lap came up at 17.7 miles on both devices. Here are the results:
|1||Road||53:36 / 53:26||19.9 / 19.9||33.6 / 32.7|
|2||Fargo||58:02 / 58:15||18.2 / 18.3||30.4 / 31|
|3||Road||56:02 / 56:15||18.9 / 18.9||30.5 / 30.1|
|4||Fargo||59:44 / 1:00:19||17.7 / 17.6||30.4 / 30.8|
Times listed are for time in motion, not total elapsed time.
As you can see, I was slightly slower on the Fargo compared to the road bike. It would be hard to say for certain, but I think that most of the difference came from the overall weight difference, with the wider tires playing a much smaller factor. Of course, if I were to switch to a narrower road bike tire, that would reduce some of the weight difference as well. I could feel the weight effect at the beginning of any uphill stretch on the Fargo, when the additional weight made it a little more noticeable when gravity started to suck my momentum out a little bit sooner compared to on the road bike.
Theoretically, the more upright geometry of the Fargo made me less aerodynamic, but whenever I felt this came into play on descents or into the wind, I could hunker down in the drops and bend down lower over the stem to make up the difference.
Ideally, if I really had to use the Fargo as my full-time road bike, I could have chosen rims with a narrower profile that would be more amenable to swapping on a skinny road tire. I could always get a second set of disc-compatible 29er wheels and just swap wheel sets on and off the bike as needed.
My conclusion is that you wouldn’t want to use the Fargo for road racing, but the difference in on-road performance is negligible enough that you wouldn’t notice it on your average B-level club ride. The difference would be even less if you were to compare it to entry-level road bikes, where the weight difference would be even less.
This test confirms the characterization of the Fargo that I’ve been finding all along: that it’s as close as you’ll ever find to a true jack-of-all-trades bicycle. It would be perfect to take on a cycling vacation–use a pair of fat, comfy slick tires to ride fully-loaded to your destination. If you want to check out some local singletrack, swap on a pair of knobbies. Want to join the local hammerheads on a road circuit? Switch on a pair of narrow slick tires and never look back.