Mountain Biking at an Advanced Age

There’s a nifty event coming up in Austin in a few weeks. It’s called the “Big Southie,” and is an unsupported mountain bike ride consisting of three different loops on the myriad of bike trails in the south part of town.

I’m going to ride it. Not the whole thing, but parts of it. So when I saw that a pre-ride of the route was planned for Sunday, I decided to join in.

The pre-ride was just the north loop, and would cover about 17 miles. This is described as the “most technical” of the three loops. “Technical,” in mountain bike talk, means you have to bounce over lots of rocks. I figured if I was part of a group covering some trails that I have not yet ridden, I’d be okay — even though I’m not very good at negotiating rocks.

We started within a few minutes of the scheduled 9 a.m. departure. The ride leader was looking for someone to serve as the “sweep,” or last rider in the group, and I said that since I was probably the slowest rider there, I would do it. We started on a paved multi-use trail at a local park, and right away I had to push it to stay with the group. These were some serious mountain bikers, some of whom I had seen before on other outings.

Just over a mile from the start, they veered off a familiar path onto a trail that I never knew existed. It was a different way to get to the Mopac Expressway, which we would cross under. But not on a road. We would cross under it on a rough trail. It was really quite fun, because we first crossed under the southbound lanes of the expressway, and then rode between the two divisions of the road for some time — about 12 feet below the road surface, so traffic didn’t even know we were there. Eventually, we crossed under the northbound lanes, and the trail started living up to its “technical” billing.

I’m not at the point where I blast over rocks, especially loose ones like we were dealing with. At one point, the trail turned abruptly up, and I had to downshift to the small chainring and stand on the pedals to keep my forward momentum going. Just then, the front tire hit a rock that was larger than most around it, and the bike jarred to a halt. I had to jump quickly to keep from being thrown onto the bed of rocks. While I wrestled the bike up the rest of the hill, the group had disappeared into the woods and underbrush ahead.

I pedaled hard on the trail, and soon came upon one of the bikers, who had held back to wait for me. That’s the way it would be for the next 10-15 minutes: I’d fall back, and someone would stay back to wait.

We reached the Sunset Valley trails, a nice network of trails in the town of Sunset Valley, which is completely surrounded by Austin. Now, I could stay with the group. But they were headed toward another bit of “technical” stuff — a trail I had tried to ride about a month ago, and that proved too risky for me. I let one of the riders know that I was turning back, and wished them all a nice ride.

Heading back through Sunset Valley, I decided to take some of the branch trails I’d never been on before. One was quite nice. Twisty singletrack, into and out of woods and prairie. Eventually, I reached a point where it climbed a hill steep enough that steps had been built into it. Clearly, I was off the part of the trail used for biking. But I carried the bike up the steps (the rustic kind made of logs and mud), and reached an overlook.

I learned that this spot is called Crystal Mountain. It's hardly a mountain, but does offer a nice view.

I learned that this spot is called Crystal Mountain. It’s hardly a mountain, but does offer a nice view.

The sign said I was in a nature and conservation area, and sure enough, I had blundered onto a trail where bikes are not allowed. I walked the bike down the hill, and picked up the trail I had taken into this spot. This time, I decided I’d had enough exploring for the day, and headed home.

I have enjoyed mountain biking since I started doing it last April, but I think I’m getting cautious in my old age. (A friend once told me I’m just getting wiser.) The rough stuff other riders attacked were the kinds of terrain I like to avoid — or at least tackle at a slower, more exploratory pace than we rode this day. But they’re about 30 years or more younger than I am, and I’m not sure I’ll ever ramp up to their level of expertise that navigating over rough ground.

I’ll continue to ride the mountain bike, but at my age, I’ll ride on my terms.

Starting the New Year with a Pfsst!

Finally got a break from the cold, rainy weather that started 2015, and I was anxious to get out on the bike Saturday. My wife had already done her ride for the day, and I was moving too slow to go with her. Once I finally did get saddled up, she was back, showered, and already hard at work in our home office.

I figured I’d start the new year with one of my most frequent rides, about an hour and a half through the neighborhood. The bike was performing well. It shifted silently and rolled smoothly. On this sunny, 55-degree (12C) afternoon, I saw a number of other bikers, but no one I knew.

I turned south to go to a hilly subdivision. While climbing an easy hill toward a highway that I had to cross, I became aware of a click from the rear wheel. It came regularly, with every revolution. Oh, great! Another broken spoke!

I stopped the bike and spun the rear wheel. No broken spoke, but the click was still there. I slowed the wheel and located the problem. A staple had punctured the tire, and its trailing end was catching the seat stay with every turn.

Hm. I was a little over two miles from home, and the staple seemed to be holding air in the tire. At least, it hadn’t gone flat yet. I seriously considered trying to make the return trip with the staple in the tire. But then, I had a change of heart, and pulled the staple out.

Pfsst! The tire flattened out immediately. Okay. I carried the bike up onto an adjacent sidewalk and started to work. The spare tube I carried was a patched tube, and I always wonder if the patch will hold. In addition, I had abandoned my trusty Road Morph pump awhile ago (I still have it — I just don’t carry it with me anymore) and I had one CO2 cartridge and a valve chuck. I had to get it right the first time. My track record in this area is pretty dismal.

But it worked! The tire filled, and it held. As I put the wheel back on the bike, a couple pulled up and offered to help.

“it’s all done,” I said.

“All done?” asked the man, who was about my age. “Fan-tastic! Our timing is perfect!” We chatted for awhile, but his wife wanted to move on, so we said our goodbyes.

I headed straight home, not willing to trust the replacement tube any further. So, my first ride of 2015 was a whopping 10.7 miles — a little less than half of what I’d planned. But there was a silver lining. It seems that Strava wipes the slate clean at the beginning of the year. The hill I was climbing when I hit the staple is a Strava segment — and I got a King of the Mountain! Of course, my time on that segment was 16 seconds slower than my best time on it in 2014, but hey — it’s good to be king.

Making It Up As I Go Along

I got the bike back from the shop a few days ago, and things are better. Not 100 percent better, but I can shift much smoother than before.

I park my bike in the garage, along the left wall. It’s right next to my car. Apparently, I smacked the derailleur with the car door when I opened it a couple of weeks ago, and it knocked the derailleur off kilter. The bike mechanic pointed it out to me when I picked up the bike, and he said he bent the derailleur back. So now I can shift from the small to the  big ring. There’s a little bit of clatter, but I’ve found that if I concentrate on easing up my pedal pressure, I can make a smooth shift with no noise.

I practiced that on Sunday’s ride, because I missed the club ride departure by a few minutes. And since this was an ad hoc ride, separate from the main ride that left an hour earlier, they weren’t going to decide where to go until they all got together. So I would be guessing which way they headed if I decided to try to catch them.

Instead, I set off on my own, with only a vague idea of where I would go. Perhaps I would make a Convict Hill run. I haven’t done any hill work for over a month, and I can tell. Maybe I’d head south and go to Buda on my own. Or maybe I’d head east, and think about a run to Creedmoor.

But the weather didn’t make a long ride particularly palatable. It was 49 or 50 degrees (10C), overcast and damp, but little wind to speak of. Let’s do about an hour and call it a day.

Going east on Davis Lane, there’s been some road construction. The road narrows to two lanes, unmarked, no shoulder, and fairly rough. But they’ve been building a new section of Davis, that would curve to the left a bit, and meet up with the Davis Lane extension where it crosses Brodie. Before, we had to take the little two-lane to Brodie, and then do a left turn followed by a right turn to pick up Davis again.

Well, son of a gun, the work on Davis is finished! It stays a four-lane road with a nice bike lane on each side. I picked up speed as I reached the curve, and enjoyed the smooth surface. I hadn’t planned to keep going east on Davis, but what the heck?

Davis has a nifty hill that that point, and the road reverts to two lanes. On Sunday morning, there’s not much traffic, so I can labor my way up the hill without worrying about blocking cars. Less than a mile farther on, Davis bends to the left again. It’s always been that way, and for some reason, it stops in the middle of a residential area. If you want to continue east, you go straight on another two-lane, make a right angle left turn, then another hard right, and you’re back on Davis again.

The Davis Hill from Google Street View. It's a lot steeper than the camera shot makes it look.

The Davis Hill from Google Street View. It’s a lot steeper than the camera shot makes it look.

Well, that’s fixed, too. Davis now goes through all the way to where we used to take that right turn. Again, it’s wide, with a bike lane. There’s a traffic circle at the end — traffic circles are all the rage here in new subdivisions, even though Americans can’t seem to figure out how to negotiate them — and then we’re back to our familiar old route to the east.

But I turned and started exploring some side streets I’d never been on. This is a newer subdivision, right in the middle of the city. A traffic circle at almost every intersection(!). I rode around here for awhile, then headed my way back west — but on a different collection of streets.

By now, I was adjusted to the temperature and felt comfortable. The rest of the morning ride went much the same. I turned off on a new, previously un-traveled road whenever the mood hit me. Although I was in familiar areas, I was on unfamiliar streets. On a bike, you just see more of your surroundings than if you whiz by in a car, and you cover far more ground than you would if running.

After about two hours of this, I headed home. I’d hoped to hit 30 miles, but Strava says I topped out at 28.4. Still, I had a lot of fun just making it up as I rode along. One of these days, I’ll do it again.

Avoiding the Mud

A beautiful fall day. It’s hard to imagine that on November 30, the temperature reached 80 degrees (26C). Who wouldn’t go biking in that weather? I sure would.

For the second ride in a row, I took out my mountain bike. Usually, Sundays are reserved for longish rides on the road bike, but it’s been giving me problems in the shifting department lately, and I’ll have to take it to my mechanic. So, the mountain bike it would be.

That raised a new concern — the condition of the trails. We had two solid days of rain a week ago, which was a blessing for our drought-afflicted area. But the ground became saturated, and standing water in the area has just begun to disappear. The best mountain biking trail close by — Slaughter Creek Trail — remains closed because of some muddy spots. I figured I would head to my go-to trail, because odds were better that it would be usable.

My go-to trail is Dick Nichols Park. It’s a good-sized metropolitan park, a little over a mile from home. To get there, I can take some trails through the neighborhood that I discovered during my mountain biking epiphany over the summer. One little loop of about seven-tenths of a mile winds sometimes rocky singletrack through woods. It looked okay, so I set out on it.

It was mostly okay. I hit a patch of deep mud that was only about five feet long, but required some powerful pedaling to keep from bogging down. That clogged the tread of my tires with heavy, wet mud, that got thrown against the bike frame and me as we kept on. But when I hit another dry and rocky stretch, a lot of the mud fell off.

I continued on to Dick Nichols Park, dodging dog walkers along a wide part of the trail that is dedicated to multiple use. In the park, a paved walk winds in a wide circle around the park, and although I have to ride it a ways, I can jump off and take some of the unmarked trails that have popped up there.

One leads north, where it exits the park at a local library. This is a particularly enjoyable path, because it’s got a couple of nice features — an abrupt hill that leads around a small pond. Near the pond, a sign explains its role in the ecology of the area. Our recent rains have been great for the pond. I’ve never seen it as high as it was today.

Along my route is this huge spreading live oak that is dubbed "The Learning Tree," because it can shelter an entire class of school children (Note the tables). The trail heading past the tree was damp, but not muddy.

Along my route is this huge spreading live oak that is dubbed “The Learning Tree,” because it can shelter an entire class of school children (Note the tables). The trail heading past the tree was damp, but not muddy.

The trail along here is hard-packed earth, and it might have been damp, but it wasn’t muddy at all. Back in the park proper, I took some more unmarked trails through the woods, and found that spots in the shade — in almost constant shade — were still a bit muddy. In most cases, I could stay right at the edge of the path and miss the bad stuff.

One thing I’ve discovered about riding a mountain bike: When you’re on a trail, it dares you to go fast. I pushed a little too hard for a little too long, and had to stop for a breather. It takes twice the effort to pedal a mountain bike as a road bike, and on a day like this, maybe even more. For me, an hour and a half on the mountain bike is a great workout. I knew I could count on a good night’s sleep after this jaunt.

The bike got a much-needed bath after I got home. Looking pretty spiffy, now.

The bike got a much-needed bath after I got home. Looking pretty spiffy, now.

I headed home, happy that I was able to get in a couple of good rides over the weekend, and looking forward to the end of the semester at the university — when I’ll once again try to ride every day. That never happens, but I can dream, can’t I?

Recruiting New Riders

For some time, several of us in the club have been conducting “B”-level rides. That is, we’re not as fast as most of the folks who show up for the Sunday club ride, and it’s no fun being left behind.

Trouble is, we have a very small B group. Most often, the only ones to show up for the B ride are my pal Maggie and me. So Maggie got an idea: Why not schedule a “beginner” ride for people who we know are reading the club emails on our Yahoo group, but who for whatever reason don’t come out to rid with us?

She did one a month ago, and got my wife and one other person to join her. We haven’t seen or heard from the other person since. But not one to be deterred, Maggie posted another “beginner” ride for this weekend.

Lo and behold, she got a bite! A woman messaged back that she and her husband would come out.

We were concerned that Sunday’s chilly morning temperatures would scare them off, but at 8 a.m., two new faces rode into the parking lot at Starbucks. Diane and Mike are older riders, closer in age to me than Maggie, and they ride a lot — hardly what you would call “beginners.” But they had the impression that our club’s average speed is in the 16-18 mph range, and they’re not fast.

We assured them that we’re not fast, either. We asked about their riding habits, and it turns out they ride a lot of the routes we do on our club rides. Maggie’s thoughts of doing a simple neighborhood ride were dumped for something more interesting.

“How are you on hills?” I asked.

“Okay,” they said.

I suggested doing the Zoo Ride. It’s hilly, but the hills aren’t killers, and it’s a little shorter than most of our routes, so if the hills do tire a rider out, the suffering is not prolonged.

We started off. The pace was leisurely as we wound our way through the twisty Granada Hills subdivision, and stayed leisurely when we got to Circle Drive, where the club ride usually picks up speed. The sweeping downhill to the dead end near the zoo was fun, but then we had to climb out of it.

Deer can often be seen in the large yards during the early morning.

Deer can often be seen in the large yards during the early morning.

Mike rides a Novara Randonee touring bike with a triple chainring. “It can climb walls,” he said.

Diane’s bike is a Specialized, similar to my own. It has a compact double. While Mike spun at more than one pedal turn for every rotation of the wheel, Diane gamely pushed her way up the hill. We made it to the top, and stopped to rest.

“That’s the end of the hill,” I told Diane. “Until the next one.”

We take a two-lane road for about a mile and half that is most notable for the amount of traffic on a quiet Sunday morning. Cars and trucks have to slow to our speed before they can pass, because the small hills and gentle curves of the road can hide oncoming vehicles. When we got through it, I assured them that we had just completed the diciest part of the ride. They were relieved.

But then came the biggest hill of the ride. It’s on Southwest Parkway, and for years was my nemesis. I can ride it well now, and I swung around Maggie to attack the hill. (Got a Strava PR on it!) Then I waited at the top for the others to catch up.

“From here, we have a choice,” said Maggie. “We can continue on to Travis Country and ride some more hills, or we can turn at William Cannon Road and head back.”

They were all for heading back.

That meant the day’s ride was about five miles shorter than it would have been, but was still a great way to spend a cool fall morning. We stopped back at Starbuck’s for coffees and conversation.

Mike, Maggie, and Diane (and a blur from my hand -- I'm a lousy photographer) as we unwind after the ride.

Mike, Maggie, and Diane (and a blur from my hand — I’m a lousy photographer) as we unwind after the ride.

We told them to watch the club’s message board for posts about future B rides, since they would fit in just fine. They’re busy next weekend, but with any luck, our Sunday B rides will be more than just Maggie and me.

Two State Parks — Two Different Rides

I’m a member of a Meetup group, the Austin Mountain Bikers. Earlier this week, I got a message from them that an interpretive mountain bike ride would take place at Bastrop State Park in Bastrop, Texas, about 25 miles east of Austin. We would be led by a park ranger on trails that are normally closed to the public. Sign me up.

Maggie had the same idea, so we loaded the bikes onto the SUV and set out for Bastrop. The park and the area are known for the “Lost Pines” — a substantial acreage of loblolly pines that somehow detached from the piney woods of East Texas. it’s the farthest west stand of loblollies in the United States. In 2011, the area — including most of Bastrop State Park — was devastated by a forest fire. Most of the pines are gone, but the park is starting to come back. For naturalists, it’s a gold mine of information about regeneration.

In all, about 13 riders turned out. Rangers Mick and Cullen told us that we wouldn’t be pounding along rough singletrack — instead, we’d be stopping a lot to hear about different aspects of the area. A few riders apparently hadn’t realized that when they signed up, and there was a little grumbling, but Mick pointed out that there’s a lot of mountain biking in the area, including nearby Buescher State Park.

Rangers Cullen (center left) and Mick (far right) herd the cats at the beginning of the ride.

Rangers Cullen (center left) and Mick (far right) herd the cats at the beginning of the ride. (Click all pix to embiggen.)

The ride was along a grassy truck path, the grass beaten down by park maintenance vehicles. Most of it wasn’t technically challenging, but we did have a nice longish downhill through some rocks that made riders pay attention, and a tough climb near the end of the ride.

Maggie and I both enjoyed the many stops to find out about the challenges facing the park. The area where we rode was outside the park proper — it had recently been acquired by the state, but not added to the park yet. Mick pointed out the damage being done by feral pigs, which had not been a factor in the park before the fire. He said a lot of the native predators like coyotes and bobcats fled the fire, and never returned.

Ranger Cullen displays the decomposing head of a deer found along the trail. A nice set of antlers, but this being a state park, they must be left here.

Ranger Cullen displays the decomposing head of a deer found along the trail. A nice set of antlers, but this being a state park, they must be left here.

Ranger Mick points out damage done by feral hogs.

Ranger Mick points out damage done by feral hogs.

We also stopped at an abandoned town site. Yewpon, Texas, existed from about 1902 to 1918. The only signs remaining are the town’s cistern and a mound that shows where the steps to the post office used to be.

Ranger Mick answers a question from Maggie at the remains of the town cistern in what used to be Yewpon, Texas.

Ranger Mick answers a question from Maggie at the remains of the town cistern in what used to be Yewpon, Texas.

Pines thrive in sandy soil, and we were caught unaware by the depth of sand in some of the tracks we rode. A few riders lost control and had to stop to regroup. In some of the more densely forested areas of the ride, we could see evidence that the forest is regenerating.

A new pine pokes up through the ground near some trunks of trees that had been damaged in the fire.

A new pine pokes up through the ground near some trunks of trees that had been damaged in the fire.

 

A nice-sized King Snake basks on a rock next to a creek. Snakes like this are vital to culling the mice in the park, which increased exponentially when natural predators left after the fire.

A nice-sized King Snake basks on a rock next to a creek. Snakes like this are vital to culling the mice in the park, which increased exponentially when natural predators left after the fire.

 

Even with the large stands of ruined trees, majestic pines still populate parts of the park.

Even with the large stands of ruined trees, majestic pines still populate parts of the park.

After the short ride — only about 4.1 miles (Mick said he eliminated some of the planned ride because of impassable conditions) — we decided to go on to Buescher (BISH-er) State Park, a few miles east. We drove the well-known Park Road 1C, which dips and twists for miles between the two parks, and I remembered how I had tackled the tough hills during my MS150 ride back in 2009.

We got to a trailhead, and took off into the woods. This turned out to be a great singletrack. It was a little bit sandy, often hard-packed, sometimes rocky, but not with the difficult rock gardens we deal with around home. Although the area is quite hilly, the track doesn’t put the rider in any jeopardy, and we were treated to some fun, twisty downhills, some steep uphills, and constantly changing terrain. No pictures for this section — we were too busy having fun riding to stop.

So, a good, if not long, morning of mountain biking. We’ll be returning to Buescher State Park for some more time on the trails. As for Bastrop, Ranger Mick said there would be more interpretive bike rides like today’s in the future. If you’re interested, keep an eye on the park’s website.

Carnival of Animals

We decided it was time to head for Dripping Springs for Sunday’s ride. It’s been months since we were out there, and I had trouble figuring out why, since it’s my favorite place around here to ride.

None of the other B riders joined us, although in fairness, this was the day of the Livestrong ride in Austin, and I knew they were going to have a large field for that. We saw only a few other riders, all near the beginning of our ride.

Several miles into the ride, we rounded a bend and Maggie called out, “Turkeys!” There was a big one on the left side of the road, and another not too far behind. Then we saw another, and another. In all, a gaggle a rafter of eight turkeys scurried behind some nearby bushes to get out of our sight. Maggie speculated that the first one we saw was a male, and the rest were his harem. I had no idea if turkeys collected harems or not.

The turkey sighting was unexpected, and welcome. Several times, I’ve rounded that same bend to come upon a small herd of cattle right along both sides of the road. The turkeys caused a lot less consternation than the bovines would.

As we pedaled easily along the country road, we chatted about all manner of things. Maggie is usually alert to animal sightings, and she pointed out a red-capped finch on a telephone pole. But then, as she looked away, a nice whitetail buck jumped across the road ahead of us and disappeared into the underbrush. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen her miss an animal sighting.

We decided to take the Mount Sharp Road route. The roads south of Dripping Springs offer a variety of route options, and Mt. Sharp is the longest of these. Maggie had only ridden in this area once before, so she was open to going a little farther. Of course, Mt. Sharp is also the hilliest route, so we were going to be in for some work.

We passed a few really nice specimens of longhorn cattle, with impressive spans of horns. Try as she might, Maggie couldn’t get any of them to look our way. They were too busy grazing to pay us any attention.

At the intersection of Mt. Sharp and Jacob’s Well Roads, we stopped for a short rest. This would be our turnaround, because Jacob’s Well gets busy as it approaches the community of Wimberly. I’ve always gotten a kick out of a telephone pole with directional markers for various houses and ranches.

signs

The only problem with stopping where we did is that once we turn around, we have several hills to climb in rapid succession. It’s tough to get any kind of momentum in this area, and I slowed us some more, when I saw some llamas behind a fence. (Click to enlarge.)

llamas

They were curious, and ambled over to the fence when I stopped to fish out my phone with its camera. Besides these two, several others grazed under some trees off in the distance. They posed for some pictures, and when I put the phone back in my pocket, they turned and walked back to the rest of the herd.

Maggie didn’t realize that I had stopped for pictures, and I had to hustle to catch up to her. I rounded a 90-degree left turn and saw her at the top of a hill. By the time I caught her, she was looking off to the left. “Look at the antelopes!” she said, and sure enough, a herd of about 20 was moving away from us. Apparently, they had been down by the fence close to the road. Maggie speculated that they belonged to an exotic game ranch. We have some around here, although there were no signs along the road that indicated this might be one of them.

On the way home, Maggie looked up turkeys on her phone. Males will gather a harem, but that’s in the spring, during breeding season. It’s likely the turkeys we saw were all of the same sex, since they segregate themselves by sex the rest of the year.

All in all, a successful ride. We rode where the deer and the antelope play (couldn’t resist), and saw llamas and longhorns to boot. Our slowish 12.2 mph average speed over the 36 miles reflected our take it easy attitude this day, but it was still enough to send me to a nap once I got home.