A Beginner Mountain Bike Clinic

As you know, I’ve been thrashing around on my mountain bike a bit this year. Nothing fancy, but mostly finding some decent singletrack trails surprisingly close to home.

But it has become apparent to me that my lack of technique is preventing me from riding the way I’d like to. So when I saw a notice that the Austin Ridge Riders mountain bike club was hosting a beginner’s clinic before their Sunday morning ride, I signed up.

I’ve had good luck with clinics before. When I started road biking years ago, I attended one, and was very pleased with what I took away from it. I was hoping for similar results here.

The clinic was at Walnut Creek Park, one of Austin’s top mountain biking destinations. I hadn’t been there before, because it’s in far north Austin, and I live on the far southwest side of town. So, I was looking forward to getting out on the trails at the park.

It's still early, and riders are already signing in for the skills clinic.

It’s still early, and riders are already signing in for the skills clinic.

After signing in, and paying my membership dues for the Ridge Riders, I joined about eight others at a nearby outdoor basketball course for some quick drills.

The instructor had only an hour before the group ride began, so he drilled us on only a few skills. First, we practiced the “attack” position. On a flat basketball court, it was easy, although as we made pass after pass by the instructor, he called out little adjustments we needed to make. My back wasn’t flat enough.

Shameless pirating of a picture shamelessly copied from a book. But it's a good example of what we were striving for.

Shameless pirating of a picture someone shamelessly copied from a book. But it’s a good example of what we were striving for.

Then, we did some cornering drills which were essentially the same as turning a road bike. Lean, look ahead in the turn.

Finally, we jumped curbs, just to see how much travel we had built in with our arms bent about 90 degrees in the attack position. It does make rolling up over an abrupt obstacle like a curb an easy task.

But just like that, it was over, and we met the rest of the riders for the Sunday trip on Walnut Creek’s trails. The ride was divided into three groups: advanced, intermediate, and beginner. Each would travel the same basic route through the park, the main difference being the amount of distance traveled. The advanced group expected to get about 18 miles in, while the beginners were looking at eight to 10.

Some of the beginners had been on the ride before. One guy lived only a block from the park, and rides it frequently, but still classifies himself as a beginner. Yours truly is something less than a beginner.

I gotta say, these are some nice trails. But they’re also tricky. As I told the woman who was sweep for our group, “Every turn is new to me,” since I had never been here before. Some of the trails are notable for tight, twisty turns that keep speeds way down. It was pretty easy to smack into the trees that hugged the narrow path.

A "whoop-de-doo" on a narrow trail.

A “whoop-de-doo” on a narrow trail.

A rider has just cleared a small jump and is ready for the next turn.

A rider has just cleared a small jump and is ready for the next turn.

Other trails were rocky. Nothing I hadn’t seen before elsewhere; it’s just that these went on a lot longer. I forced myself to maintain the “attack” position as much as possible, and it saved my bacon a couple of times. If I hadn’t had my weight back, I could easily have endoed when a tight turn led into a quick drop.

But at one point, not even the attack position would have worked for me. We came to a steep drop of about 15 feet down a rocky trough. One by one, riders stopped, looked the situation over, then propelled themselves over the edge and own. One woman thought better of it, and walked her bike down the hill. I think I waited too long at the top, letting some others go on ahead of me, and by the time it was my turn, I had talked myself out of it. I walked, too.

By this time, the morning was heating up, and I was feeling the effects of forgetting my sunscreen. We stopped at a road crossing, and the ride leader explained some upcoming trails, but said we could get to the parking lot via a short uphill section. I opted for the latter. I was pooped. Climbing abrupt rises in a super low gear is done easily on a mountain bike, but it still takes a lot of effort, and I was panting for breath at the top of most of the hills.

When I checked Strava at the parking lot, I was astounded to see we had gone only 6.8 miles! They were the toughest 6.8 miles I’ve ever ridden.

A screen shot from Strava shows that we used most of the trails in the park.

A screen shot from Strava shows that we used most of the trails in the park.

Will I ride with this group again? Sure. Every Sunday, the club puts on a ride here. On Saturdays, they go to one of the many other spots around town. But because of the traveling distance for me, I doubt I’ll ever be a regular. And I’ll find places closer to home to work on my hesitancy about steep, rocky drops.

The Post-Ride Nap

napIt started a few years ago. I’d come home from a ride, especially one of our Sunday morning club events, shower, eat…and soon, I’d be on the bed, dead to the world.

My post-ride nap was a refreshing interlude.

Now, this from a guy who has never really napped in his life. I tend to sleep very little — maybe 5-6 hours overnight, and I can function just fine. If I ever did feel tired during the day and I made an effort to take a nap, it never worked. I just stared at the ceiling.

So when I started napping after longish bike rides, it came as a bit of a surprise to me. My wife joked that nothing would get done around the house until late in the afternoon, because I’d be conked anywhere from one to three hours. In fact, she found it a bit exasperating after awhile, because sometimes the lawn wouldn’t get mowed, or the edges wouldn’t get trimmed, or some other chore that I normally did on Sunday afternoons didn’t get done.

Of course, anyone who does nap at all is aware that you can overdo it. If I’m down for three hours in the middle of the day, I’m not one hundred percent afterwards. A little bit of drowsy clings to me. I walk through the rest of the day in a bit of a fog, and I’m not really alert until well into the evening.

But lately, my post-ride nap on Sundays has spread over all my ride days. I can do an easy 20-25 miler close to home, and I’m out. In fact, every time I ride, I can count on at least a short snooze.

Over the past two days, I sneaked in a short mountain bike ride after getting home from work. Just about an hour, on single track trails in the neighborhood. Not particularly hard work, although I know that I work twice as hard on my mountain bike as I do on my road bike. Our family routine has us watching the TV show “Jeopardy” from 4-5 p.m., then news, then some other syndicated fare. I don’t sleep through all of it, but now I’m sleeping through some of it — sitting upright in my chair in front of the TV. These naps last only 15 minutes or so, but I might get in two with some awake time in between.

Now, I look forward to my naps. Unless I’m down for a couple of hours, I wake up rested and refreshed. I know I wouldn’t be able to do that without the bike ride to prompt my body in that direction.

Do you nap sometimes, always, or never after rides?

Chip Seal

My wife and I took different routes on our Saturday bike rides, but arrived home within minutes of each other.

“They’ve chip sealed LaCrosse,” I said. “But you already knew that.”

She grimaced. “It was awful,” she said.

“Yeah,” I responded. “I had to use the sidewalk for a few hundred feet, until I got around the truck.”

“Well, my tires are wider than yours, so I could stick it out,” she said. “But it looks like I’ll have to take a different route for awhile.”

Uh oh. Bad news for bikers. Those little things sticking up in the road mark where the road will be striped, once the surface flattens out.

Uh oh. Bad news for bikers. Those little things sticking up in the road mark where the road will be striped, once the surface flattens out.

LaCrosse is an important road for bikers in our area. It’s a main artery through our subdivision, and is several miles long. In the direction we rode, it takes us to a T intersection, where we can choose our turn for different route variations. In the opposite direction, it goes to the Austin Veloway. It gets a lot of use.

The uneven chipped surface is less of a challenge for this mountain biker's wide tires.

The uneven chipped surface is less of a challenge for this mountain biker’s wide tires.

The disappointing thing is, I fail to see the need for resurfacing. The road is smooth. It has a nice marked bike lane. No potholes or gouges in the pavement for its entire length.

I checked part of the road again today, four days after the chip seal was laid down. It looks like they still have some more to do, because it’s not complete for the entire length of the road. But in the meantime, the traffic is having the desired effect. The chip seal has been tamped down, and at least where car wheels go, the road is almost smooth already.

The dreaded chip sealed surface. Loose gravel will cover the road for some time to come.

The dreaded chip sealed surface. Loose gravel will cover the road for some time to come.

But I can’t say the same for the bike lane area. Bikes just don’t have enough weight to flatten the chip seal. In spots, chips pile up in the bike lane, thrown out from under passing tires. It looks like cars will have a decent road to ride on again soon, but bikes will be shuddering over a rough lane for some time to come.

The same thing happened several years ago, when the city chip sealed Escarpment, which intersects LaCrosse. Escarpment has never returned to the same level of smoothness it had before it was treated. Other arterials in the area have had the same treatment since, and they’re not pleasant to ride on.

I can see the economic argument for chip seal. It must be less costly than putting down another layer of smooth asphalt. It’s just that in a part of town where cycling is a popular pastime, one would hope another way would be found to resurface the streets.

Mid-summer Adjustments

Summer is not shaking out the way I’d planned. I’m worked roughly half days, in the mornings, and was looking forward to doing some regular riding when I got home in the afternoon.

But afternoons in Central Texas are ridiculously hot right now, and the thought of getting out on the bike when it’s 98 degrees (37C) is unappealing.

So I was glad to get Friday morning off and hit the road for the club’s weekly ride to the zoo.

What I didn’t realize is that the turnout for the ride is made up of A riders. I guess the B’s are all working or don’t want to try to keep up with the fast guys.

After about three miles, it became apparent that I would not be keeping up with them, either. I was way off the back. Luckily, I had company. My friend Rick, who had just returned from a week in Colorado where he climbed several peaks (on his bike), was ready for an easy ride. He stayed back with me.

That was good for me, but I felt bad for him. He could have kept up with the group with no trouble. But I was glad he stuck around. After 28 miles of hilly riding, I was wiped out.

Saturday, I decided to make my ride somewhat easier than normal. I opted to skip the hills I usually include there, and do a trip through the neighborhood instead. It’s easy to put together a 22, 25, 27 or more mile ride just by sticking to area streets. Not having to worry about holding anyone else up made my work easier, too.

So when Sunday came around, I had some doubts about the day’s ride. The club was taking Fitzhugh Road, which I haven’t been on for some time. The traffic on Fitzhugh, which is out in the country, has really picked up lately as more people move their residences out there. But since we planned to start the ride at 7:30 instead of the normal 8:15, I figured traffic would be lighter, so I decided to go.

My friend Maggie met me at the start. We didn’t have to worry about keeping up with the A’s, because she had some equipment adjustments to make. By the time we pulled out of the parking lot, the A’s were just dots on the horizon.

That was fine. We set our own pace. Fitzhugh is made up of roller after roller, which we fly down and labor up. An intersection about 17 miles out is a natural turnaround point for us.

Fitzhugh Road. Google Street View. (Click to enlarge.)

Fitzhugh Road. Google Street View. (Click to enlarge.)

I really felt good Sunday. The uphills didn’t sap my energy as they so often do, and as they did Friday. I reached home after the ride tired, but still alert. We beat the worst of the day’s heat, and in fact, the light wind in our faces on the return leg felt a bit cool.

I didn’t have a single Strava trophy on the route, which I figured was a good thing. It meant I didn’t push it too hard. At the same time, I noticed a marked improvement over my Friday ride. While a lot of my riding acquaintances around the country find themselves at the peak of their riding season, summer here is a time to throttle back and get ready for the bigger rides to come in fall. Based on my weekend performance, I think I’m in good shape to do that.

Getting Hot

We’ve had a real break so far this summer. It wasn’t until last week that we had our first 100 degree (38C) days of the season. We had enough rain in June that the grass in my yard is uniformly green.

These conditions are markedly different from the summers we’ve had around here in recent years. The worst was the summer of 2011, when we hit 100 nearly every day for three months straight.

The problem is, the severe drought conditions that began that year have never abated. We’re still in extreme to exceptional drought conditions. But riding has been great.

We decided to add some miles to our usual B ride, and go south to 5-Mile Dam. That’s a county park on the north edge of San Marcos, about 28 miles south of Austin. We knew the heat would be a challenge, although we weren’t expecting another 100 degree day, but things looked promising as we started off at about 8 a.m. The sky was overcast. A slight breeze cooled things a bit.

I set an easy pace, figuring we’d need to save something for the trip back. But by the time we reached 5-Mile Dam park, things were heating up. I wanted to get a picture of the dam on the Blanco River. We rode up to the spot in the road where we could see the dam, and I was shocked.

While Austin had some decent rains the previous week, the Hill Country got nearly nothing. The Blanco was dry. I’ve never seen the dam in this situation before.

Five-Mile Dam. I'm used to seeing water here, if not pouring over the dam, at least flowing. Dry is an understatement. (Click pix to enlarge.)

Five-Mile Dam. I’m used to seeing water here, if not pouring over the dam, at least flowing. Dry is an understatement. (Click pix to enlarge.)

Looking back upstream. Water is ponding in some spots, and a few people are even trying for fish. Still quite picturesque.

Looking back upstream. Water is ponding in some spots, and a few people are even trying for fish. Still quite picturesque.

But the pavilion at the park was still serving up cold, cold water from its fountains, and we refilled our water bottles, grateful for the break.

I figured to take an easy pace on the return, since the day was warming rapidly. What I hadn’t considered was that the pavement radiated the heat back in our faces — and with a tailwind coming back, we were much warmer than we would normally be.

The heat took all the starch out of me. I trailed by an increasing margin, and only stop lights and passing trains were able to let me catch up. Our rest stops became more frequent — every five miles or so — always under the shade of a spreading tree. It was slow going.

Clearly, our mild summer has been great for biking, but not so great for conditioning. It looks like our mild weather is over for the time being, and our typical summertime heat is settling in for the long haul. I can see I’ve got some hot riding ahead.

Natural Selection

We were thundering down a semi-rural road on our weekly ride. The road was deserted, for a change no cars or trucks were on hand to buzz us.

Off in the distance, we saw a bicyclist turn to cross the road at a right angle. Although the road was empty, traffic does travel fast: 55-60 mph, and sometimes faster. It’s a two-land road with no shoulder. We thought the cyclist was putting herself in some danger.

But she got to the opposite side of the road, and as we got closer, we could see she had taken out her phone, and was using it to take a picture of something.

Just before we pulled even with her, she put the phone away, got back on the bike, and started pedaling in the same direction as we were going — without checking to see if any traffic was coming up behind her. (We were — she never knew we were there, until we passed.)

“Not only that, but did you notice she had both earbuds in her ears?” asked Maggie from behind me.

“Yeah,” I answered. “Earbuds, and no check on traffic before getting back on the road.”

Maggie smirked. “She’s making it easy for natural selection to weed out the stupid ones.”

Road Bikers vs. Mountain Bikers

mtbA couple of weeks ago, I mentioned a conversation we had while on a mountain bike ride. Another mountain biker had stopped to chat with us, and we talked for a good 15 minutes before he moved on.

“That’s why I like mountain bikers,” said my friend Maggie. “They’re more sociable than road bikers.”

Are they?

The club we’re in is a road biking club, although some of the members mountain bike, too. We never organize any mountain bike rides to supplement the road biking we do during the week. Some of the mountain bikers will put together an ad hoc ride among themselves, but there won’t be a general call to the membership to join a mountain bike ride.

Meanwhile, because of our weekly road bike rides, a large social circle has developed. Many of us see each other outside of riding activities, and many have developed close friendships.

But Maggie maintains that mountain bikers are friendlier. She’s gone so far as to say road bikers are “elitist.”

In her experience, mountain bikers are more willing to talk with new riders about the sport, more willing to offer advice and coaching, and generally nicer to be around.

I’ll echo her comment about them being more willing to share information. Earlier this year, I headed out to a trail I hadn’t used before. At the trailhead, I wasn’t sure which way to go.

I asked a mountain biker nearby. He looked like he had a lot of trail miles under his belt.

Instead of the expected, “That way,” and a point to the start, he told me of the protocols on that trail, what to watch for, and offered some encouragement.

Okay, so that shows that I’ve been lucky enough to meet some nice folks who happen to mountain bike.

As a group, though, are they more sociable? What do you think?