Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cyclocross Season Opener

Lots of rain made a muddy course.

All 90-something photos I took of the B-race can be found here
Did I say it was muddy? Normally ridable sections of flat grass were making my rear wheel spin out like a stuck tractor. 

All told I rode the course pretty good, but a few of the leaders lapped me near the end and I got to see even better lines through the muck. Always learning. 

Amid my nearby competitors, my weakness was the muddy run-up and subsequent climb. I could not do this as fast as I wanted---namely, as fast as others around me. However, I seemed to make this up on other parts of the course, most notably on the second run-up and fast descent, and the final set of barriers where I routinely reeled guys in. For example, on next to last lap, one of the guys that I yo-yoed with early on re-appeared within range. I played it smart in the middle of the race and recovered enough to floor it on the last lap. Judiciously, I reeled him in foot by foot. After the second run-up to remount and fast descent, I hit the gas hard on the back stretch. After the final technical corner I put the heart rate to the red-zone, and bore down. I put a safe gap on the guy chasing me, and came in hot on the barriers. All the mud was clogging my pedals. I was hoping for a clean remount... and nailed it! I passed three guys including my yo-yo partner while each were hopping on their bikes. I wound up the pedals more, heart screaming, banked the corner going into the straightaway and accelerated to the line, a full 100 foot gap on my rivals. Ahhh the triumph! Well, not really. It's just fun to play around. I'm hoping my effort will get me squarely in the middle of the pack (update: I was 21st out of 52 Masters-A finishers---60th percentile---so I did better than my intuition, but still in the middle).

Go home to lattes and a homemade apple galette. Contrary to popular belief, you can make a better latte without a special machine. While your stovetop Italian espresso maker is heating, put some milk in a pan and whisk to near boiling. The foam you get from this easy technique is as robust as from the steamer arm of a mega million-dollar espresso maker. And don't be an ass and use whole milk for crying out loud ;-). The pan technique also adds a bit of caramel to the flavoring that you won't get with steam.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Salsa El Mariachi Review

The updated Salsa El Mariachi became available in August 2010. I purchased mine as soon as I could. This review applies to the 2011 and 2012 models, being that they are exactly the same except the paint job. Since I bought it, I've ridden it on rocky and rooty tech fests of Eastern Ontario; huge never-ending high mountain climbing of Utah's Wasach range and the Utah southern red rock plateaus; and the perfect roller coaster singletrack of Paul's Dirty Enduro 100k. Overall I am quite pleased with the bike. However, the bike has taken some getting used to, which I'll detail in what follows.

The loose stuff of the high Wasatch---lots of climbing, lots of descending. The steel platform is good for all-day abuse. 

In this picture: pedal grinding 3000' on ATV track in the southern Wasatch plateau (ride detailed here), mostly a seated climb over bumpy double track, with short steep pitches requiring quick of out-of-saddle bursts. The steel makes for an efficient spin, allowing comfortable saddled climbing. As a reward, I'll eventually circle round and descend on the ridge in the background of the picture---a nice thirty miler in the middle of nowhere save a friendly vaquero I met along the way. 

With that for inspiration, lets hash out the technical aspects of the bike:

When considering steel 29er single speed frame choices, I was debating between the El Mar and the Niner SIR. The main factor in choosing the Salsa was the simple chain tensioning mechanism. 

The eccentric rotating bottom bracket (EBB) shell of the SIR seems to have changed every one or two years. To me, this says that Niner has not found an optimal, hassle-free design. Their latest proprietariy EBB looked interesting, but it requires teflon tape for the friction fit, and changing gear ratios looked like a hassle. Beyond that, EBBs always seem to creak after a while, and all that flex in the BB housing will likely cause premature BB wear. Of course, this is speculation, but my previous Gary Fisher Rig's EBB shell, which was a solid one-piece aluminium unit, went through BBs all the time. The Niner EBB was a two piece cup system that looks like a long-term disaster waiting to happen. Conversely, the Salsa El Mar 2010 re-design switched away from an EBB design to the "rocker" design seen above. The largest forces on the frame occur at the BB intersection. Putting additional strain, friction, and creaking by introducing an EBB shell in that location seems like a terrible idea. 

The rocker design solves a few problems with dropout tensioners, namely how to have the disk brake still line up with the rotor after adjusting the chain tension. By having the disk brake mount attached to the rocker, the brake is always where it should be. Other tensioning designs are out there that accomplish the same feat, but they are way more expensive. For further musings, check out Guitar Ted's discussion of chain tensioning mechs here and here.

How is the rocker chain tensioning system? Hassle free. On the first few rides, the drive-side bolt shifted a bit, making the rear wheel askew. I think this occurred because the set screws had not fully seated into the seatstay bases. After the first few rides I loosened the bolts, and adjusted the set screws a bit more to re-align the wheel but also to compensate the new chain stretch. After three tries the screws seated and it has not budged with 200 hard miles on it. Hassle free.

How about tire clearance? Great. I have Maxxis Ardent 2.4s currently (big tires), and I've also had Continental Mountain King 2.4s, both on a Stan's ZTR-Arch rim. With either tire, in the full forward position there is still about 1/4 inch clearance on either side. So mud clearance is great. On past ride in Utah, a section of clay mud riding clogged up my buddies geared Yeti 26er bike pretty good with 2.1 Race Kings, while I kept on trucking...

How about price? The secondary factor for me in choosing the El Mar was the price differential; while the SIR has a lighter frame build with Reynolds 853 compared to the Salsa's Sanko, the SIR was more expensive by 300 dollars. I paid 650 CAD for the Salsa, and yes, I'm sure its a slightly heavier frame than the SIR. However, while Reynolds 853 is lighter, it has a reputation of being absurdly flexy and and ride quality suffers, particularly if you are a bigger rider.

Frame geometry? In terms of basic fit, I'm 6'-even with a long torso and shorter legs and arms. I got the 20" large frame. I figure my long torso and short arms cancel each other and make me "normal." My only point of reference for a 29er was my previous Gary Fisher Rig. I loved the way my old bike rode mostly, but the steering felt a bit sluggish, and banked cornering was never its strong suit. I always figured it was a 29er thing, that the long wheelbase was never going to turn on a dime. However, the El Mar is about 1cm shorter in the effective top tube, and this makes the steering more agile. I am happy now. It should be noted that I am using my old rebuilt Reba fork on it with the old-style 38mm offset. A bigger offset on a newer fork (44mm is what I think the rigid companion fork Salsa makes for the El Mar) should make the steering even more snappy, but what I have is fine for me now.

However, the biggest difference between the GF Rig and the El Mar is the BB drop: 50mm on the Rig, and 60 on the El Mar, but it seems even further down to me. Note that the 50mm number is a fiction, because the Rig's EBB dictates there are usually two BB position options to pick, one above 50 and one below. For the technical rocky trails of the South March Highlands, I used to rotate the EBB of my GF Rig to the "up" position to add more pedal clearance to ride obstacles. Hence, with the El Mar, I deal with pedal strike issues. There are many short bursty climbs that are a crap shoot on the El Mar. A pedal strike will stop you cold. Now don't get me wrong, the 60mm drop is very conventional for 29ers, with many brands going even lower to 70mm---Niner and Vassago! If the El Mar were any lower it would make technical East Coast riding very hard. Although out West in Utah, where the smoother flowing trails abound, I never had a problem with pedal strikes. But if you have to hammer through a rock garden, the low BB adds new factors to the equation: you have to time each pedal stroke to get through.

The lower BB has distinct advantages however. First, you can have a more upright riding stance where you are more between the wheels rather than on top of them. Most importantly, it allows for better banked cornering: The lower your feet are, the better control you have over the the angle at which you bank the bike. Contrary to popular belief, reducing your center of gravity by 1 cm is a miniscule change, since your CG is way up in your abdomen (the percent change is less than 1%), hence, CG does not play a huge role in why BB height is important for cornering (see Dave Moulton's blog post on this). At Paul's Dirty Enduro, I really felt the increased cornering stability when transitioning from leaning one way to another on the arcing singletrack course. Many people describe a low-BB bike as if it is "riding on rails." I agree.

This bike is steel. Steel is soft, flexy, and oh so comfy to ride. On mildly bumpy trails, you can stay in your saddle and pedal more efficiently without killing your arse. On dirt roads in the west I found this particularly nice. For traction issues, steel is nice for reducing some tire slipping torquing and maintaining traction. I really feel the difference between the aluminium Rig versus the steel El Mar. Although, steel can feel like a wet noodle when you really have to hammer. There is a detectable wind-up in the steel frame as one accelerates really hard. For east coast tech riding I've found I have to time my accelerations slightly sooner in order to get the right torque to the wheels in time to ride over all those rock obstacles.

I hope this post helps anybody thinking about the El Mariachi, or basic 29er geometry questions. If you liked this discussion, feel free to leave a comment. Put in your 2 cents.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Paul's Dirty Enduro 2010

Singlespeed is fun to ride but it's not that hard.

This race is the best experience on a bike that a human can have. This is why IMBA has designated Paul's as an "Epic Ride." Now I'm from the mountain west. I've ridden in Fruita, Moab, and the mountains of Utah and Idaho. Sorry to say, the stuff I've ridden there is truly transcendent and usually beats the tar out of riding in Ontario. However, the riding at Paul's is something beyond all of that. While there are no breathtaking canyon or mountain vistas, the arcing trail of Paul's resembles a roller coaster for 100k. Kinetically, the bike, body, and trail meld. Perfect-length climbs lead to flowing descents. Over 100k, the course builds drama. For me, its a four-act play:

The first 40k act is a brawl. No time to rest, just fight in the west forest. The second act, the north and north-east forests, are a time to collect, enjoy the natural beauty, and conserve. By the north east aid station (4th I think) one starts to think about upping the speed a bit. By then you are digging into the bottom 1/3 of your energy reserves. You know bonk town is off in the distance. The challenge is to tune your efforts so bonk town comes just as you cross the finish. As you travel south on the east part of the course, the fatigue sets in, but the arcing turns and ups and downs require full attention. It is here that time can be made if you can keep your momentum, ride the logs, and bank all the S-curves like you are riding on rails!

The last act is electric, and for me, roughly starts on the only long straight fire-road on the course, located in the south central region. This road has a series of straightforward hills. If you have the legs you can keep the pressure on and ride hard. If not, you will cramp up and have to walk. Several times on this death march I had to stop briefly and pull out my bag of E-load tablets and eat a whole gob of them to fight the cramps. Luckily it worked, but not everyone was so lucky. At the end of the road, there is a 90-degree left turn to a large and steep hill. As I crested the hill, there lay another rider splayed on the ground massaging his pained left leg. Race carnage! It was a triumph for me to ride this hill because last year I had to stumble-bonk-walk all the way up it.

The denouement of the course---where a close race can be won or lost---is the "never ending climb." The climb is not hard per-se, but builds in intensity over the course of 5 minutes. Going too hard at the bottom is tempting, but you need to save it. At the foot of the climb I was fully recovered and ticking by at 140 bpm. Every minute the angle increased and I'd up the heart 10 bpm. Legs aching, heart pounding, I crested the top at 190, but with no visible struggle. I tried to keep each peddle stroke smooth, my back and shoulders relaxed, no huge gyrations back and forth. I kept trying to visualize Shleck or Contador's climbing, trying to model their cool collectedness.

The accumulated efforts of 100k and over 7000 feet of climbing lead to the festive atmosphere of the finish. Feeling absolutely ecstatic I sprinted to the line at top speed, locked the rear brake and laid down a huge power slide. Like a track stand at 20 mph, I was able to tilt the bike to and fro, modulating my balance as I came to a stop. I had much to be happy with. I knocked off more than an hour from my race time from last year. I didn't win any medals or impress anybody---my 7.5 hour finish put me squarely mid-pack overall, and 4th in the singlespeed category (out of 5 riders) and 20 minutes from a singlespeed podium finish. Next year I'll try for another half-hour time reduction. Course times were fast this year, with 4 riders pulling sub-six-hour times on the course, including Ottawa's own Matt Surch of Tall Tree Cycles, who came in second overall. Congrats Matt! Impressive!

At the finish I drank coffee and watched other Ottawa riders I knew come in:

Matt of Rated M Biking. The smile says Matt had fun. I only met Matt for the first time on the trail. He was looking for his friends. I asked him what his friends look like and he described a green 29er rider. I said "do you mean Rob, I know Rob." What a coincidence. This further affirms that Ottawa riders are the friendliest, most social riders around.

I saw Heather ripping it up on the course early on. Still smiling...

Mary Ann, Rob's sister, was glad it was over. Rob is the disembodied coffee cup.

I also saw some cool bikes. This guy went 60k on a Pugsley!

I would take this bike off some sweet jumps.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dawn Patrol

Dawn Patrol: In surfing, skiing, or mountain biking the act of arriving at your location at, or before, sunrise to surf, ski or bike before the crowds, school or work.

I always say "yes" anytime someone asks me if I want to get up early to go ride/ski. Its really easy, you just say "yes" and when the alarm goes off you feel obligated to get up because you don't want to let yer bros down.

No I did not get up at 4 AM, so it was not a true dawn patrol, but it was in that spirit. It reminded me of my Utah Dawn Patrols: driving with my coffee mug in the wee hours to cut a few skin tracks to powder stashes as the sun rises, then get to work. Instead of a fresh powder dump of lake effect snow, I watched the fog roll off the Ottawa river as I drove up to the South March Highlands. Beautiful.

Rob and Heather---instigators of the Dawn Patrol---getting one more MTB ride in before Paul's Dirty Enduro

Rob with his game face. Rob was the smartest in the group. He put coffee in his water bottle. You see, Rob works with computers, so he knows about coffee. It was cold enough that I never drank any water. Kicking back and sipping some java would have been nice while watching the obstacle riding.

Heather rode every obstacle she could find. Crushing it.

Monday, September 13, 2010


When the weather gets shitty, its a good day to dust off the cross bike.

Yep. No dust there.

The chain was only a few rides old, but it rusted from a season in the basement. Lots of oil, and massage, and hard riding got it going.

I was much happier than this picture implies. I hit the Dow's lake run-up like seven or eight times and felt loose. No struggle. On the run-up there were some nordic skate skiers out training for the upcoming Winter. They thought I was weird, but they didn't have any skis on. This cross season will be a good one. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Timpanogos trails, Boulder Mountain, and Hell's Backbone Grill

My time in Utah was filled with lots of new riding. Every time I rode this trip I explored something new.

As usual I sought out new sections of the Great Western Trail. This trail weaves through the heart of the mountain west, and through my whole life of riding. Many of my western adventures include a section of the GWT. Ticking off a new section of this trail is a time-honoured tradition for me when I come to Utah. 

This is nice single track off of Mt. Timpanogos above Orem, UT. After riding these trails for many days, I embarked with friends on a ill-fated tour in which the plan was to go south on the Great Western Trail and other roads down to Boulder, Utah. Things did not work out but it was really fun anyhow. You can read and look at pictures of it here.

After our failure to launch, my friends skiWill and Ben camped north of Joe's Valley reservoir in a high mountain valley where we rode for an afternoon:

After riding some casual single track and seeing up close the Southern Skyline drive section again (the far ridge in the above picture), we were more psyched than ever to come back next year for a real bid on the Trans Utah route.

A few days later my wife and I and baby went down to southern Utah to the Escalante area, where I got to recon more of the GWT. 

The trail reached to the high mountain of Boulder Top, which reaches upwards 10,000+ feet. The trail I chose turned gamey and I played around in this meadow. 

I returned down in time for reservations at Hell's Backbone Grill, which is the best restaurant on the planet, and even better because it is perched on the cusp of the Escalante Grand Staircase, which is varied echelon of tan, to brick, to deep red sandstones carved from the Escalante river. The Family and I camped and hiked there for several days and escaped to this dream world. Its difficult to express how great this place is, but here is picture:

 We saw many (50 or so) bike tourists who were linking up Capitol Reef National park, Boulder mountain, and the Escalante. I envied them so, and my wife and I vowed to go on a tour with Imogen as soon as we are able.

The restaurant sources much of its meat from local ranchers, and vegetables from its own organic farm that's just down the road. I ordered the pork chop with stonefruit barbecue sauce---the best porkchop I've ever had. For desert I had the bread pudding made with molasses bread and apricots.

The right wrong turn on the Great Western Trail

I have a multi-year continuing obsession with a theoretical Trans-Utah north-to-south bikepacking route from the Salt Lake area down to the Boulder mountain area in southern Utah. The theoretical route follows more or less the Great Western Trail. In past years my friends Ben and skiWill and I have done various sections of the route, from the northern Wasatch range (here), the Southern Skyline drive section, and the Fish Lake region.  I had big plans this year of actually completing it all. However, trivial and not-so-trivial things conspired to derail those plans.

 The trivial derailment was that we took a wrong turn on a section in which we did not have a map. This section was the very first bit of our route, coming out of Utah valley on Hobble Creek road. What's more, we screwed ourselves on the very first turn, which routed us north rather than south. After climbing 3000 feet on four-wheel-drive road, I discovered our error when the next supposed turn-off at 13 miles was not where I had planned. That's when we figured we were screwed and we rode into town after 55 miles of riding.

If the trivial problem did not get us, the not-so-trivial problems would have. One is that we were three people with vastly different paces on different grades. We all traded places who was fastest at different sections, but the overall pace was only as fast as the slowest rider. The second was that I was not acclimated as well as in previous years. Third was our lack of planning (read: no map). This was a failure on my part mostly, but Ben and skiWill helped by trusting me. Why such bad planning? Well, I had a paper revision that I submitted hours before I left for this trip. I had no time to get a detailed map purchased and studied in time so I went on some scribbled notes, but I did not write down all forest service road numbers for the route. skiWill has a bad case of grad school, so he's no good. And Ben? Ben goes on adventures like this every weekend I imagine, so he did not care at all what actually happened.

And that was just fine, because the day of riding we did have was excellent. We attacked the non-route with reckless abandon with smiles the whole way. Here are some pictures.

So for next year, if the stars align, I'd like to do things differently. First is to get a GPS. Second is to do it with full touring gear, so I have all the food I need and don't have to rely on shuttles or caches and go at my own pace. This is a better self-supported style, and as a bonus, when things don't go as planned I/we can stop and rest were we feel like, not where the car is. Third is to do it with gears, so I can realistically haul all the touring gear I need. Fourth is to get all my work done long before I start and go backpacking at 10000 feet for a few days to get completely acclimated. I'm sure Ben and skiWill have their own take on how to do it. Next year, hopefully, we can figure out a real plan.

Here's to next year!