Dawn came far earlier than I expected, or could deal with. My tent began to glow green with the first rays of light and my response was to roll onto my side and throw my arm over my face. The air that was sucked into my sleeping bag when I did this was cold enough to chill a cocktail; it was too flippin’ cold to get out of my sleeping bag. This was a perfect example of why I did very little winter camping, why I didn’t like it. It was a variety of discomfort that, for me, had no selling point.
I napped again briefly and I know this because I dreamt a friend got the all clear from work and wife to join us on this tour. In the dream he and I had ridden together on the previous day’s ride.
Western Spirit is known for serving good food. It might be cooked on a propane stove or over an open fire, but the portions are plentiful enough for a whole cycling team and the flavors rich as the nice part of town. Day Two’s breakfast consisted of yogurt, muesli, French toast with real maple syrup and, of course, bacon. Bacon is to mountain biking what Congress is to impasse. I was still chilled enough that the thought of sitting down to eat made me feel even colder, so I stood as I chowed the steaming food.
I broke camp quickly and while others were still getting ready, I pulled out my 4G modem and laptop to attempt a post. While I was able to get a signal, my browser couldn’t load a single page. Three bars be damned; the signal was as anemic as a jockey.
The riding. Where do I begin? The day was up and down, over and over. We’d gain 300 feet and then lose 500, then gain 300 again. Most of the trail was exposed, cliffside singletrack. Screwing up wasn’t suggested. If you were lucky, you’d ride some scree before dropping into the Slurpee-cold river. If you were less lucky, you’d have the opportunity to Pachinko off a bunch of trees before crashing onto a huge chunk of granite at the edge of the Umpqua.
I’d been waiting for Wendy, her husband Don, and our guide John at a photo spot I’d found. When the wait for them to arrive stretched to 20 minutes I began to experience some concern for them. And while John is a trained EMT, and Don is a firefighter, I knew if something had gone wrong, an extra warm body never hurts.
I began to ride back along our trail. Eventually, I rounded a bend and saw Wendy pushing her bike ahead of Don and John.
I exclaimed, “Aha! There you are!” but even as I said that, I could see a spot of blood above Wendy’s lip. It was obvious from the look on her face she’d taken a digger, and my demeanor wasn’t helping. I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. Later, at camp, I’d learn about her fall.
We crossed two roads that day. The episodes were so brief that it’s hard to remember. My memory of the day is dominated by views of a granite face—usually on my left—and a clif with a drop of anywhere from 20 to more than 100 feet to my right. I definitely tempered my descending. There were some very tight left-hand bends that I didn’t want to risk overshooting.
Water was also an ever-present feature for the ride. We’d hit stretches of mud or water would stream down moss-covered rock faces. And then there were the waterfalls feeding even more water into the Umpqua. The combination of mud and granite reminded me of my time in New England and riding places like Mount Tom (before it became illegal). I recall nasty crashes when my tires would slide around on the chunks of granite in the trail. Well times change. On a trail bike with five inches of travel, I could roll through that stuff with something not quite the same as ease, but at least with an understanding that it was possible.
The landscape was impressive on both macro and micro scales. The waterfalls could wow you into stopping. And my companions on the tour had to detour into the river for a dip at least once a day, and that doesn’t even count going for a swim upon reaching camp. I confess that I wasn’t quite as game. They scampered through undergrowth to get to the river I had trouble navigating in my mountain bike shoes.
And then there were those sublime, unexpected moments. I recall stopping once to take a drink and grab a gel—and let my quads recover—when I gradually noticed the sound of water dripping. I could hear water dripping over the sound of the river passing just yards away. I turned only to see water sluicing through moss as if it were being sprayed from a shower head 20 feet above. I couldn’t see where the water came from, but its passage was constant, a vertical stream.
The trail was never straight for more than 20 or 30 feet and never level for any more than that. In aggregate, it was the sort of brain-flaring bliss that caused us to fall in love with mountain biking in the first place. Pumping my way through some loamy but firm soil in humid but cool conditions with no bright sunlight to break through the forest was an experience of such sublime euphoria that the handful of really dicey spots where the trail was almost unforgivably narrow and accompanied by substantial drops, I had no qualms about stopping and hiking the bike through. The other stuff was so good, that a little touch of caution was no loss whatsoever.
There comes a point in every tour where I have to take inventory of my body. Actually, there are two points where I have to do this, depending on the length of the trip. The first comes after three days of riding. I think most every tour I’ve ever been on I rode the first day like it was a thrash-fest group ride. I ride the second day like I’ve done a thrash-fest the day before, which is to say, nearly as hard as I’m able, given my recovery.
It is the third day of a tour when the reckoning comes. I’ll notice myself red-lining earlier in efforts, and that suggests not one, but two problems. First is the simple fact that if I’m redlining at progressively shorter intervals, I must not be recovering all that well. The second is the bigger problem of why I’m still trying to ride so hard.
This would be why writing about bike touring can be interesting. No one ever asks why you’re going hard in a race. It’s a race. You’re meant to go hard. But a bike tour makes few demands of the participant. Show up. Ride. Not much else. It’s handy if you’re a pleasant person to pass a week with, but given some of the jerks I’ve encountered on bike tours (and I know at least one of them is thinking the same about me), it’s not a requirement. What makes sense is just to have some fun riding your bike.
So why do we take a vacation that could be as easy as rolling around the block on a cruiser (okay, I’m exaggerating, but you can work with this, right?) and turning it into a daily regimen of intervals harder than our any we’d ever do at home?
The answer, for me, is a testament to the aspirational nature of cycling. Being a cyclist, despite any goals you might ever form for yourself, is a pursuit of the perfected self. Compared to you on your own two feet, rolling along on a bicycle does present a perfected you to the world. On a bike, you are more graceful, more powerful, more dynamic, hell, even more fun.
Wednesday’s ride was the longest thus far, roughly 20 miles. And it was harder than safe steel. The trail continued to hug the Umpqua River. At times we were at the river’s bank, while at other times we were hundreds of feet above it, and able to stare down at it’s black water by peering over an edge-of-the-world lookout.
Trail conditions continued to be variable. For 100 yards we’d be rolling hero dirt devoid of pine needles, whipping along at 23 mph. I found myself thinking, ‘this isn’t quite fast enough,’ when suddenly the trail would transform to a granite garden composed of chunks roughly the size of a small brick. My tendency is always to brake when I see stuff like that. It’s an old tape playing from my unsuspended 26-inch mountain bike days. I seemed to always wind up hipside when I rode through that stuff. However, on a proper trail bike, the smart move is to accelerate when you see those mini gardens. Same thing for all those 30-yard pitches of 24-percent singletrack dropping away to the river belove. Same thing. Get on the gas and let ‘er rip.
Ladies and gentlemen, I ran out of rip. And gas. The last three miles was the cyclist’s walk of shame for me. My version of the rumpled dress was the sweat streaming down my glasses. And the walk was me dismounting at the foot of every steep pitch, rather than half way up it.
So yes, that reckoning. For me the reckoning includes acknowledging that the last time my quads were this sore I was lifting weights in preparation for a full season of racing. Unfortunately, my hamstrings and glutes aren’t the least bit sore. It points to a recruitment issue (recruitment of muscles, that is) cited in a recent fitting, but it could also be that I’ve just never been able to use my hamstrings and glutes all that effectively when I’m sitting on the nose of my saddle on a trail pointing skyward at 22 percent.
Whether a trail is composed of granite, hard-pack dirt, or a bed of pine needles, it will undulate. The trails flow here, rising and falling as if they were meant to evoke some mystical quality of the earth. There have been moments in the weight and unweight on those rises and dips where the incessant I shut up and all there was was the trail and the bike, no me.
Those are the moments I live for, the reason I’m here, the reason I’ve been a cyclist for most of my life.
I realize now that even though I loved mountain biking when I did it on a hardtail 26, I really wasn’t a very good technical rider. Sure, suspension can be like adding a turbo charger to a skill set, but there were things I plainly didn’t understand about how to weight and unweight a bike on hills and in turns. Suspension is making this new repertoire of skills much easier to understand and learn; the feedback is much more immediate.
So why care about all this weighting and unweighting? What’s the bid deal about a small-scale pump track?
Of the many things we’ve learned about the flow state is that a key component to achieving flow is what’s called a “rich environment.” By rich, experts mean an environment with lots of stimuli. The idea is that the more flooded your senses are with a variety of data, the more it forces your brain to become selective about what it processes. Try reciting “The Charge of the Light Brigade” on a road descent at 45 mph. You’ll find that there will come a point when your bike eats up the road so quickly that you can barely think of the next line.
Mountain biking is great for generating flow because in addition to the left and right found on the road, you get the ups and downs of the trail and anything that changes your sense of gravity is more stimulus. In terms of challenge, three dimensions is to two dimensions what the stock market is to a lemonade stand.