Promoting the bicycling lifestyle in The Buckeye State
Category Archives: Mountain Biking
Should you ride your bike to the mountain bike trailhead?
The short answer is, yes.
Of course, as a driver and cyclist who promotes using your “car less,” I think you should pedal to the mountain bike trail whenever it’s possible and practical. Obvious situations where it’s not practical include “destination” mountain bike trails that are dozens, or even hundreds, of miles away from home.
Deciding when to ride to your local trail can involve a complicated combination of factors. The first time I rode from home to the trail was in the summer of 2010. I had just built a new 29er mountain bike, and was eager to do some exploring in my neighborhood and on some local trails.
At this point in history, the only truly “local” mountain bike trail was in the Cleveland Metroparks Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation (OECR). There was West Branch State Park, a 45-minute drive away; Vulture’s Knob and Mohican State Park, both over an hour drive away; or Reagan Park, local if you happened to live in Medina.
I saddled up and headed out from my then-home in Twinsburg, made my way up to Alexander Road, then west to where it meets the Towpath Trail, then headed north up to OECR. It was about 16 miles before I reached the mountain bike trailhead. Maybe it was the mid-summer heat and humidity bearing down, maybe it was pushing my knobby tires on pavement most of the way, but by then, I wasn’t much in the mood the tackle singletrack. I did one obligatory lap of the 2.5-mile trail, then made the slog back home, resigning myself to not doing that kind of adventure again any time soon.
Fast forward to 2017, and the local singletrack options have exploded. The singletrack in the Cleveland Metroparks Bedford Reservation is a short 3.5-mile ride from my current home. The East Rim Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is literally on my way to work. The Hampton Hills Mountain Bike Area in the Summit Metro Parks is just south of work, and a short detour off of both the Towpath Trail and the Bike & Hike Trail. The Royalview Trail in the Cleveland Metroparks Mill Stream Run Reservation is a short 30-minute drive away.
There’s a group of local riders who, for the past couple of years, planned a day-long ride of over 100 miles that connects all of these local trails. They call it the “Solstice Ride,” since they plan it on or near the longest day of the year to maximize available daylight. On my bucket list for one of these years…
When I was looking to do some exploring and trail-riding on a cold fall day last Wednesday, most of the local mountain bike trails were closed. However, old reliable OECR is almost always open, so I hopped on the Surly Ogre to make my way up there. Sagamore Road is a nice low-traffic back road that takes you from the eastern side of the Cuyahoga Valley down to the Towpath Trail, near the Frazee House Trailhead.
It ended up being 13 miles from home to the trailhead. The trail was in perfect shape. After my first lap, I still felt I had some trail legs left in me, so I did a second lap, which meant that would push me up over the 30-mile total mark by the time I got back home. Not bad for a cold fall day. And sometimes, when you hit a brick wall on some activity, some day, some way, you come back to it to turn it into a positive experience.
Took a road trip to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Memorial Day to ride some of the local streets, bike paths, and mountain bike trails, including the South Side, Schenley Park, Squirrel Hill, Frick Park, Highland Park, and Lawrenceville. Stopped for lunch at Pamela’s Diner in Squirrel Hill, beers at The Church Brew Works, and dinner at the Double Wide Grill. The also included the North Shore and downtown, but the battery in my Garmin Virb camera quit in Lawrenceville.
I ride the Twinsburg City Park Loop when I want to squeeze in a quick ride close to home. It’s good on just about any kind of bike–cyclocross, hybrid, mountain, or in this case, my Salsa Mukluk snow bike.
I started at the corner of Glenwood and Gary drives. The snow in the wooded sections of the Old Hickory Trail was perfect; deep enough to get good traction, but light and fluffy enough to keep a brisk pace, with some previous hiking tracks providing somewhat of a packed base. The paved trail along the Officer Joshua T. Miktarian Memorial Parkway was completely un-plowed and un-tracked, which made it virtually impassable, so I had to jump on the road for that part. The Center Valley Park Trail was plowed, which made the going there quick and easy.
I only saw one other person during the ride, a guy on showshoes, who you’ll see briefly in the video.
A 5-second time-lapse video of riding my Salsa Mukluk 2 fat bike in the snow at the Bedford Singletrack in the Cleveland Metroparks Bedford Reservation. Only about 3 miles of riding, on the Parallel Universe 1 Trail, last section of the Friendship Trail, Moore Trail, and Volunteer Spirit Trail.
It’s been over five years since the first mountain bike trail opened in the Cleveland Metroparks, and the opponents’ predictions of world chaos have not come true. The first was a short 2.5-mile loop in the Ohio & Erie Canal Reservation. Then, in June of 2012, a 10-mile double-loop Royalview Trail was created in the Mill Stream Run Reservation in Strongsville. Just this past June, the Bedford Singletrack opened up in the Bedford Reservation.
I’ve been enjoying the Bedford Singletrack since it opened, as it’s the closest mountain bike trail to where I live. It’s a short 15-to-20-minute drive, as opposed to the 45 minutes or more it takes to get to any other local trail. At about 6.5 miles from home, I had been thinking that it would be practical to ride my bike there, hit the singletrack, then ride home. This past Tuesday, I finally had the opportunity to do that.
I headed out Ravenna Road from Twinsburg, which turns into Broadway Avenue at the Summit/Cuyahoga County line and the Village of Oakwood. A paved bike path runs next to Broadway through most of the village, which makes makes this part of the ride a little more stress-free. Then, I proceeded up Broadway into the city of Bedford, and made a left onto Union Street, which intersects the paved All-Purpose Trail that runs through the Metroparks. Making a left on the APT leads you to the Egbert Picnic Shelter in the Bedford Reservation, which also serves as the main trailhead for the Bedford Singletrack. I arrived in just a little over 30 minutes.
I topped off my water bottle at the drinking fountain provided near the picnic shelter, and headed a bit further down the APT towards the singletrack. I stopped to let some air out of my tires to go from the higher pavement-level pressure down to the appropriate dirt-level pressure.
The Bedford Singletrack consists of about 10 sections of off-road trail, connected by brief sections of the All-Purpose Trail, for a total of about 10.5 miles. The singletrack is intended for mountain biking and hiking only, with mountain biking in the (roughly) clockwise direction, and hiking in the opposite direction. It also crosses the equestrian trail a few times, and runs concurrent with the equestrian trail for a short stretch.
The trail is marked with white arrows or blazes of white paint on trees. The Metroparks also provided signs to indicate the proper direction for bikers and hikers. Originally, the signs used the classic “red slash” (“NO!”) signs for bikers and hikers. So, if you were hiking and saw a sign indicating “No Hikers,” that meant that you were just hiking in the wrong direction. If you were mountain biking and saw a sign indicating “No Bikers,” that could have meant that you were on the correct trail but going in the wrong direction, but it also could have meant that you were on a bikes-prohibited trail (e.g. the equestrian trail).
This trip, I noticed that some of these signs were replaced with the symbol to indicate the preferred activity on the trail in the direction you are headed, instead of the red slash signs. Numerous psychological studies have shown that people respond better to positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement. I’m glad to see that the Cleveland Metroparks have finally realized this, and that they are taking this additional (although small) step away from being the organization of “NO” and towards being the organization of “Yes.” They still use the red slash signs to indicate that horses are not permitted on the singletrack trail, and to indicate that bikes are not permitted on most areas of the equestrian trail, which is understandable and I agree with.
I rode the Bedford Singletrack for two complete loops, then headed back towards home. Before I left the Egbert Picnic Shelter, re-filled my water bottle again, and took advantage of the bike-fix-it station provided there to pump my tires back up to pavement pressure. I carry a mini-pump with me in case of a flat tire, but having the full-size pump here made this a lot easier. The fix-it station also has a variety of tools used for most common bike repairs and adjustments, including tire levers, screwdrivers, and hex wrenches.
The Bedford Singletrack, like any trail, can be a bit of a challenge to find your way around at first, but once you ride it once or twice, you’ll get the hang of it. I put together this first-timer’s guide on my bike shop’s web site that provides a step-by-step overview of how to follow the trail in the proper direction to take in every section of the singletrack.
It’s been almost a year since my last post. I spent 2013 just trying to get in as much riding as possible between juggling work and home schedules, and did not devote time to this blog. If you follow Car Less Ohio on Facebook or Twitter, I’ve tried to keep up with news about living with less car in Ohio.
Last March, I put together a new Surly Cross-Check, and kept putting lots of miles on it. I rode two centuries in one week–the Sweet Corn Challenge in Richfield on July 28, and then the Bike MS Pedal to the Point from Brunswick to Sandusky on August 3.
The other bike project last year was converting the Salsa Fargo from its drop-bar rigid off-road touring bike configuration to a traditional hardtail mountain bike. Here’s what it looked like pre-transformation, from a ride last April:
I wanted to convert it to a hardtail for no particular reason, other than just out of curiosity to see how it would work, I needed another bike project to keep me busy (and from buying another bike), and because I always wanted a nice 29er Ti hardtail.
I kept the Truvativ Stylo crankset and SRAM X-Gen front derailer. I had a pair of SRAM X.7 trigger shifters and an X.9 rear derailer in the parts bin.
The only major acquisition necessary was a fork. I opted for the X-Fusion Slide RL 29, mainly because it was cheap enough for what I knew would be a temporary project. I’m not picky when it comes to suspension setup, and the less dials and knobs to fiddle with, the better. It’s got a lockout knob and rebound adjustment, which is enough for me. The travel can be set to 80, 100, or 120mm; I set it to 80 to match what the Fargo frame is designed for.
Oh, and although it wasn’t necessary, I picked up a pair of Shimano Deore XT hydraulic brakes on impulse when I saw them on sale. I did the derailer cable housing in blue to further the blue bling look with most of the other components.
I kept my Thomson seatpost on it at first. but later swapped to the Salsa Shaft post. When I bought this frame three years ago, I was on the fence between a Medium and Large. After test-riding both, I settled on the Medium, because the Large, although it would have worked, gave me that feeling like I was riding on a scaffolding. I’ve been happy with my choice of the Medium, and I think that works best in drop-bar mode, but I found that in hardtail/flat-bar mode, the Large would probably be better. So, the Salsa Shaft seatpost compensated for this, as its greater setback stretched out the cockpit the way I needed it.
I switched my saddle to a WTB Silverado, which I had picked up on the cheap at FrostBike. I’ve got a plethora of WTB saddles; they’ve been my favorite for years. The models range from the Laser V, Speed V, ProGel, Rocket V, whatever. I couldnt’ tell you the difference between them all; they are pretty much the same to me.
Here it is heading off to one of our first rides, at Mohican State Park:
That’s a Thomson stem and a Soma Odin handlebar. The bike rode pretty well, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with the feel of the cockpit, so I swapped to the more upright Salsa stem that I originally had on the bike, which necessitated a 31.8 handlebar, which I happened to have around in a Salsa flat bar. That provided the sweet spot, which was confirmed during a ride at the local Royalview Trail in the Cleveland Metroparks:
And later at Quail Hollow State Park:
I took it for a spin around West Branch State Park at some point, too, but didn’t get a photo.
The tires initially were Schwalbe Racing Ralphs, which I had also used for off-road riding when the bike still had drop bars, including at the 2012 Iceman Cometh Challenge. I never really got completely taken by these tires. I like the tread pattern, but they always felt too hard. It became apparent right away that the minimum recommended pressure of 35psi was WAY too high, so I dropped them to about 27. That felt pretty good, but it seemed dangerously close to pinch-flat territory. I know, the solution to that is to go tubeless, but I have not made that technological leap yet. I switched to a pair of WTB Nano tires that I had also picked up at FrostBike, and these are the cat’s meow.
So, you’re wondering, how did this beast ride? To make a long story short, it’s a short-travel hardtail, so it rides like, well, a short-travel hardtail. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; I cut my mountain biking teeth on a short-travel hardtail. The suspension fork is just enough to take the edge off, but you’ve still got to ride with finesse and pick your lines carefully.
The WTB Silverado saddle worked pretty well for me. I thought it would take more getting used to, because it’s harder than my other WTB saddles, but it turns out that wasn’t a bad thing.
I felt like I was coming close to pedal strikes when going through rock gardens more often than I should have. My initial theory was that this was because of the Fargo’s lower bottom bracket compared to a regular mountain bike. I compared it to a no-name 29er that I’m using as my commuter bike, and the Fargo’s bottom bracket was actually about a centimeter higher, so there goes that theory. However, the other bike was measured with a rigid fork, so the measurement may be meaningless. Or, the pedal strikes could be because the Fargo’s longer wheelbase makes it more likely to “hit bottom” when rolling over obstacles. Or maybe it was all in my head.
Anyway, the bike was more than capable of handling whatever Royalview, Quail, and Mohican had to throw at it. The smoother sections of West Branch were manageable, but the rock gardens got a little dicey. I was going to ride it at the ’13 Iceman race, but at the last minute decided to go back to my trusty Mongoose Teocali Super dually.
Late in 2013, I began the process of migrating the Fargo back to its old drop-bar self. The bar, of course, is the Salsa Woodchipper. Back on went the Shimano Deore XT rear derailer, bar-end shifters, WTB Laser/Rocket/Speed V saddle, and rigid steel fork.
New for this iteration were Cane Creek brake levers. I’ve used these levers for years on my Surly Long Haul Trucker touring bike. I like the shape; they are more like modern STI levers and provide a more flat transition from the top of the bar to the hoods. However, these are road levers, which meant I had to switch to road disc brakes. This involved a four-way swap between the Fargo, another of my bikes, and two of my girlfriend’s bikes (the details of which I won’t bore you with), but I now sport Avid BB7 road brakes on the Fargo, as opposed to its original Avid BB7 mountain brakes. The Serfas Drifter 9er tires went back on, along with a Thomson stem and seatpost. My original Thomson stem was a zero-offset model, but a few months back I traded it to a co-worker for the setback model that came on his new Salsa El Mariachi. He felt he needed to be a little less stretched out, and we’ll see how being a little more stretched out works for me.
The other change was that I gave up my Lizard Skins DSP bar tape (which has become my favorite bar tape the past few years) to try out the new ESI RCT silicone bar tape. ESI’s silicone grips have been a favorite among some mountain bikers I know (I have not tried them), and I was checking out their new bar tape at Interbike in September 2013, so I thought I’d give it a go. I kept with the blue theme on the bar tape, as well as the brake and derailer housing.
The new brake levers allowed me to experiment with the angle of my Woodchipper bars a little more. I was able to have them not turned quite so far upward as I did before, which makes reaching down for the bar-end shifters a lot easier. Before, the ends of the drops were parallel to my down tube; now, they are parallel to my top tube.
Here it is on the first ride of the 2014 season, out on a shortened version of the Sunny Lake Loop:
(Yes, that’s a Salsa Minimalist rack on the front.)
It was good to be back on the Fargo in its any-road/any-trail setup. The BB7 road brakes stopped just as strong and sure as the BB7 mountain brakes. The brake levers, it turned out, were a little too high, as might be apparent in the photo. They were a bit hard to reach when I was riding in the drops. When I got home, I turned the bars down a bit. I think this might do the trick without having to re-wrap the bars to re-position the levers, but only another ride will tell for sure.
The fall cycling season is typically capped off with my traditional trip up to Northern Michigan for the Iceman Cometh Challenge mountain bike race. Brent and I headed out early Friday morning for what was to be a re-run of the first day of our Michigan trip back in August–drive to Fort Custer Recreation Area outside of Battle Creek to ride the buff singletrack there, head over the Kalamazoo for lunch at Bell’s Brewery, head up to Grand Rapids for a quick refreshment at Founder’s Brewing, then continue north to join the main festivities.
I decided to ride on my Salsa Fargo this year. I’ve given it a good workout on lots of singletrack the past two seasons, but this was its first race experience.
We woke up to some rain and wet snow in Traverse City on Saturday morning, but when we drove to the start in Kalkaska, it remained somewhat cold but sunny and dry. Brent took off in Wave 12 at 9:33am, and I followed soon after at 9:36am.
After a tough race here in 2010, I felt I had to redeem myself and turn in a good performance in 2011. This year, I didn’t feel I had anything to prove. I just wanted to have a good ride and a good time and race my own race. I felt I prepared well for the day’s conditions, with my SmartWool Cuff Beanie under my helmet, DeFeet DuraWool liner gloves under regular short-finder cycling gloves, SmartWool liner shirt, long-sleeve Century Cycles wool jersey, Ibex wool bib knickers, my new Surly Chainsaw tall wool socks, and Lake MX-100 cycling boots. I had on my Pearl Izumi Elite Barrier Convertible Jacket for the start, but I ended up pulling over about 5 miles into the race and stuffing it into my jersey pocket. I was completely comfortable for the rest of the race.
The Fargo performed well on the course. The rigid fork didn’t feel like it beat me up as much as my rigid setup did back in 2010, and being able to ride in the drops to power through the dirt and gravel road sections was a huge benefit. As I’ve mentioned before, the bike climbs like a billy goat; among the many short, steep climbs on the course, I only had to dismount on one of them, and that was due to a flubbed shift.
About halfway through the race as we approached Traverse City, we got into the snow zone, which made some of the course a little more soft and squishy than usual, but the firm Michigan mud was nothing compared to the sloppy Ohio mud.
I did the usual leap-frogging against the same handful of recognizable riders throughout the race.
The course ended up as the longest ever, about 30.5 miles, so times were a little longer than usual. I ended up at 2 hours, 31 minutes, and 7 seconds, about a third of the way down from the leader within my age group, so I was satisfied with that.
On our way home on Sunday, we stopped to ride the Potowatomi Trail at Pinckney State Recreation Area, followed by post-ride dinner at the new Grizzly Peak Brewing Company in nearby Ann Arbor; about as perfect a combination of biking and beer that you’ll find anywhere in the world.
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.