Fire Road Tested, or How I Spent My Super Bowl Sunday

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North America » United States » Virginia » Harrisonburg
February 6th 2007
Published: February 7th 2007
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Just Chillin'Just Chillin'Just Chillin'

Team Tripower, all bundled up...
“How cold is it?” a kid asked his riding buddy, a thermometer the size of an oversized lollipop pinned to the back of his schoolbag,


“What?? It’s colder than that!”

“Dude, it says forty. Course, it said forty in the valley, too. It’s been saying forty all day long.”

Another voice chimed in, commenting in cold irony, “I think your thermometer's frozen.”

It was definitely colder than forty degrees fahrenheit. I had left my bike computer with thermometer at home on my touring bike, but having grown up in Northern Vermont, I could safely say that it was not only cold, but wicked cold by the time that we hit the ridgeline and the wind hit us. And wicked cold is a lot closer to Zero than it is forty.

I had been itching to go on a long mountain bike ride. Having safely completed twelve hundred kilometer road rides, I could reasonably consider myself an experienced rider. So why then did a twenty five mile ride up a middling mountain excite me? Because it was off road.

After busting the headset on a decade-old rigid steel bike at the Tidewater Mountain Bike Championships, I cleaned out the garage and sold a bunch of dusty stuff on eBay until I had enough money for a new mountain bike. I didn’t want to spend a whole bunch of time maintaining a whole new bike, and I didn’t want to spend my trail time shifting. I also wanted something that would compliment my novice trail skills. So I bought a Gary Fisher Rig from East Coast Bikes, attracted to the twenty-nine inch wheels that would let me roll over stuff easier, the mechanical disc brakes for the reliability and simplicity, and the eccentric bottom bracket for easy chain tensioning. With a new Brooks Conquest sprung leather saddle, Ergon Pro paddle grips and Crank Brothers Candy pedals (all of which worked with the black & gray color scheme of my Rig), I had an elegantly simple ride. And by the end of the ride my pain-free wrists, feet and back validated my aftermarket upgrades, thank you very much.

So I made plans to drive up in our new Honda Element with Sally and Mike from Team Tripower. They’re part of the regular Monday/Wednesday Norfolk gang that usually also includes Liz, Tim, Bill and myself. Half

That's Thomas Jenkins, president of the Shenandoah Mountain Bike Club on the left.
past five on Saturday morning found Mike and I struggling to install a third bike tray and cram three mountain bikes onto the truck roof. (Lesson Learned: Leave roof rack configuration research for sunlit leisure time, not predawn parking lots with the clock ticking.) After mucking about in the cold for almost an hour I smacked my head and simply stowed one of the Element’s rear seats against the wall of the truck. (The Honda Element is chock-full of solid, simple design like that!) We slid Mike’s bike right in and were off, speeding past more than a few troopers on our way west.

No one really wants to start on time for the Super Bowl ride, so even after driving for four hours we still beat out Liz and the Tripower guys who had stayed just down the road at Wintergreen. The community center parking lot was buzzing with preparation and friendly greetings as riders bundled themselves into one more layer, just in case. I spied a handful of other singlespeeders, and called out to one, “What gear are you pushing there?”

“34x16. How ‘bout you?”
“Well, I guess you’ll be spinning while I’m mashing.”

A few minutes later a couple dozen riders from Harrisonburg passed by on the road and most of the parking lot crowd cleared out. The ride started out easy enough, offering me the opportunity to warm up. When the climbing really started I found myself forced by my gear choice to take off up the hill, “Sorry guys,” I called, “I gotta go- one gear, you know.”

So for a mile or two I felt invincible, passing packs of riders while I pushed my single gear at a steady pace. But soon enough the ever-steeper grade and frosty air triggered my asthma. I ran through all my old mental and breathing exercises, but I was still wheezing my way up the mountain. I pulled my scarf up over my nose, but couldn’t figure out a way to breathe warmer air without fogging up my sunglasses, so I ditched my sunglasses. Up ahead I saw one of the other singlespeeders stopped for a breather, so I figured screw it, why not, and did the same. After a minute I resumed my climb and passed a group of chatting locals, casually spinning up the hill in their granny gears,

“How much farther?” I panted,

“Oh, you’re about a quarter of the way there.” One guy replied from underneath his balaclava. Incredulity must have been etched all over my face because he added, “What, do you think I’m joking?”

Shortly after that I panted to a halt again, looked up the hill and, taking another cue from a singlespeeder up ahead, began walking my bike up the hill. But after making around a curve and realizing that the grade was not going to let up any time sooner I flipped my bike over and swapped out my 20T rear cog for the 23T that I had stashed in my bag, just in case. Sure enough, a couple of the Tripower guys passed me while I was tightening down the bigger cog and suggested that I try a derailleur…Soon enough though I was riding again, mostly without any wheezing.

I made it to what felt like the top of the mountain, judging by the stumpy trees around us and the fact that everyone was off their bikes. Figuring that the descent was imminent, I swapped rear cogs again, restoring the 20T. But it turned out that we were only at the end of the pavement, and there were at least three more miles of fire road to the top of Flagpole Knob. By that point most of the road was covered in snow- hardpacked snow, and the hissing of dozens of tires being brought down to lower pressure could be heard before we started up for the top.

Picking my way around frozen streams and ruts, the wind biting through my windbreaker, my feet toasty warm in my custom duct tape booties, I realized what an utterly good time I was having. There is something simply absurd and alive about going for a ride to the top of a mountain on a perfectly good day to be inside, curled up under a quilt with a good book, listless as a cat. Instead forty or fifty of us were offering up a big, loud raspberry to the cold, cold world. “Dang right I’m living and breathing, and I’ll bunny hop this little stick coming up, too!” As Opus would say from atop his daisy-covered hill, tongue stuck out to the world, “Thhwwpppt!!!”

After a few fun miles of easy climbing, we made it to the top of Flagpole Knob, where it appeared the eponymous flagpole was lying in chunks beside a firepit…Riders clustered together like penguins for warmth, paying little heed to the vista stretched out before them. Half-hearted challenges were made, “Come on man, get naked for the picture!” But no one was removing any clothing, and most people were putting on whatever extra clothing the might still have. Finally a group picture was shot, and everyone bolted for their bikes, eager to start moving and warm up.

There were three different trails down the mountain, the first of which, Red Diamond, was supposed to be the most technically challenging. The dozen or so of us from the flatlands of Virginia Beach decided not to test our skills so, and opted for an easier trail marked by a yellow “i”. Our local guide Thomas fortified us for the descent with hot cocoa that surely would have been too strong if we hadn’t been shivering in the single-digit temperatures. Initially I led down one section of trail, but when confronted with a steep, steep drop through a rock garden dominated by boulders bigger than my dog, I baled, and called from one side of the trail, “Go
Live Long & ProsperLive Long & ProsperLive Long & Prosper

Me & My New Ride. Note the stylin' custom duct tape booties!
around me!” I’m not an expert rider, at least not on the trail, and I’d rather walk to the bottom of the mountain in one piece than to be brought down in pieces. The more experienced riders headed on, while several more timid riders joined me in gently picking our way down to a less challenging section of trail.

Even though I’ve busted sixty miles per hour on paved descents, I’ve never ridden something that so consumed my attention. All of the little skills I had learned while mucking about in the swamp at Ipswich were put to the test as I carved around boulders and stumps, hopped logs and bounced off ledges. After reading about and watching pro riders descend with skill and confidence, I was doing the same, within my limits. And it was with some regret that I cleared the last tight section of trail and arrived at the fire road where Crazy, Dan, Tim and Bill were waiting.

After setting up one final photo op, I set off down the fire road and back to town. Compared to the trail, the fire road was a freeway, beaten flat and smooth, with occasional sheets of
Liz DescendsLiz DescendsLiz Descends

Coming off the trail.
ice peaking out from beneath the grey, dusty surface. But as soon as I started riding all of the muscles in my legs cramped up at once. I tried to spin through it, but it didn’t make it any better. Even though I had already eaten two bananas, I needed the third I had brought along. Unfortunately it was stashed in my Camelback, which was underneath my windbreaker. So I called ahead to Bill for him to stop, since it would only take him half a minute to get my banana out, whereas I’d have to spend four or five minutes taking my jacket, gloves & camelback off and on to get to it.

I had forgotten about the ice, though.

I had tightened up my brakes during the descent, and my rear disc brake did exactly what it was designed to do- locking up my rear wheel. In the absence of any traction on the dusty ice, my rear wheel skidded out and I found myself sliding towards Bill on my side. When I came to a stop beside him, I looked back for twenty feet on the ice that I had just swept clean. My tights and booties were a little torn, but my helmet was unmarred, and I popped back up as Bill asked, “Dude, are you alright?”

“Yeah, I need a banana.”

Bill got my banana out, marveled that I wasn’t hurt, and we resumed our return. In the parking lot we drank a few beers, joshing each other for trail flubs, and agreed to head into Luigi’s Pizza in Harrisonburg.

It was on our way out of Harrisonburg though that Sally, Mike & I had our last adventure of the day.

Following my father’s example, I had secured both bikes and one wheel atop the car to the roof rack with a cable lock, but the cable wouldn’t reach to the second front wheel, so I left it unlocked. No sooner had we gotten onto the highway than Mike looked into the rear view mirror and declared, “We just lost a wheel.”

There are more than a few stories about bikes blowing off of roof racks, which is why I always insist on locking my bike to the rack. But I screwed up with Sally’s wheel. I suspect I didn’t mount it below the safety tabs, but instead mounted it on the safety tabs. We made a U turn at the next exit, and drove back, looking for the wheel that had bounced across the highway. As the sun slipped lower in the sky we parked the car on the shoulder and walked for half a mile in each direction, looking in vain for a wheel in the weeds. Finally we made another U Turn, got back on the highway where we had lost the wheel, and saw it lying in the median, almost underneath the wheels of passing trucks. Mike pulled to a stop, I sprinted across the road, grabbed the wheel, sprinted back and spun the wheel along the way- it was still true! I handed the wheel to Sally in the back and we resumed our return to Norfolk.

Later that night, my bike stowed in the garage, and my body warmed by the shower, I slipped into bed beside Jennifer, who asked, “How was the ride?”

“It was great.”

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13


7th February 2007

supa bowl ride
Nice bike, great write up, icy cold, good riding, and good time! Wish I was there!
8th February 2007

great write up, felt like i was there, wait a minute, i was...........nice pics.........

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