Sometimes it *is* the bike, not the rider

Many of us have heard the phrase “it’s not the bike, it’s the rider.” So you find yourself pushing hard on every ride – and still getting dropped. Or the ever-present complaining about the bike being the reason a rider fails to perform.

While most of the time, it is the rider’s abilities that directly contribute to the enjoyment or success of a ride – but sometimes, it is totally the bike’s fault. The right bike can make or break a ride.


My first bike as an adult was a mountain-style hybrid that I never ended up riding much, followed by a comfort hybrid – designed for slow-speed cruising, not crushing double-digit rides. It was very heavy and sluggish with an extremely upright riding position – basically turning me into a wind-sail anytime I rode down a hill.

I pushed myself so hard on that bike, so confused as to why I was being passed on the bike trail by people on bikes with drop bars. All bikes are equal, right? I just need to work harder and get faster. Spoiler – the minute I bought a mid-level road bike, I immediately improved my ability to ride longer with less fatigue.


The reality is, many entry-level bikes serve to get us out there – but then do little to keep us moving forward efficiently. Sometimes entry-level bikes are overbuilt and generally heavier than their higher-level brethren. The bike can withstand a beating, but that’s why it’s holding *you* back.

Like most people, I use the equipment I have to do the adventures I want, generally using the wrong bike for the wrong purposes. It stems from a lack of discretionary funds, not hubris or elite level ability that seeks a new challenge. To be sure though, watching somebody rock a gravel grinder on a bike with a front basket while wearing Tevas, jorts, and a tie-dye muscle shirt is hilarious.

Yesterday I drove to a friend’s neighborhood to do a gravel ride. It snowed earlier in the week – heavy, wet snow that further saturated the already oversaturated earth – so the roads were going to be muddy and slushy. This is not optimal for the road bike that I have MacGuyver’d to be a gravel bike.

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(Although – praise Panaracer GravelKing SKs for being offered in sub-30mm tire width.)

So I decided to ride my hardtail mountain bike. It’s cutting-edge stock 2012 entry-level components (although I replaced the brakes and the quick-releases because they failed at various points).  It’s an aluminum 29er … but it’s heavy. Really heavy. It’s not built for speed or efficiency.

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Once again I am reminded of just how heavy and inefficient this bike is by trying desperately to keep up with my friends, who are also riding their mountain bikes on the dirt roads.

To be fair, I also haven’t ridden my bike in about six weeks due to a combination of life, work, weather, health, and trail maintenance projects. My October Strava stats were kindof hilarious.

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mentally insert the emojii for fire here

The power transfer is practically non-existent, like pouring my energy into a black hole. I have a triple crankset, yet on the road never seemed to find a good gear for keeping up without feeling like I was pushing against a brick wall.  To cap it all off, the bike is set up with flat pedals instead of SPDs because I was too lazy to swap them out before the ride.

Contrast with purchasing a pre-loved 2015 full-sus trail bike for when I want to hit the woods – and things that used to be a chore are now routine and even fun. The bike isn’t actively working against me, which my hardtail does. But it certainly would have worked against me on the road had I opted for it instead, including locking out both suspensions, because even though it’s lighter than my hardtail, it’s still a mountain bike on the road.

The right bike for the ride can make or break your enjoyment.

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this bike is amazing and has helped me feel more confident on the trails

Some of the roads warranted the extra width of my 2.25″ tires, but many were either paved or more tacky than muddy. I found myself wondering if actually getting a gravel or drop-bar mountain bike might be something to consider. Something to bridge the gap of a road bike fitted with slightly-knobby tires and a full-on mountain bike.

But that’s not currently on the agenda after 18 months of unemployment that destroyed our savings and retirement savings. We have other, more pressing projects deserving of our remaining reserves.

We finished the ride in surprisingly good time (a little less than 3 hours for a little over 30 miles) and everyone really took turns hanging back with me to chat and enjoy the ride. It felt really good to be back out turning the pedals, but also reminded me of why I hate riding that bike so much. It sucks my will to ride.


With fat bike season upon us and my schedule freeing up, I’m looking forward to getting out more regularly with friends to explore trails and gravel roads. See you out there!

 

The Dirty Apple Ride 2018

I am tardy on this write-up. Sorry! I’ve been busy planning my latest trail care projects. 

Gravel grinding is one of my most favorite things to do. Westchester County isn’t exactly known for its dirt roads – but we have them. Westchester Cycle Club has year-round dirt and gravel rides. Given the popularity of gravel these days, the Board decided to host a gravel event instead of the usual road ride, The Golden Apple Ride.

I was super happy to be able to be the co-Event Director for The Dirty Apple Ride.

My summer was spent developing routes that were both beautiful and challenging – but not so much that a novice gravel rider would feel they were in over their head. I came up with four roughly-concentric routes, ranging from 30 to 60 miles. My co-Event Director Christine was busy getting permits filed and posters to the various bike shops in the area. I managed our communications, online registration, and marketing. She solicited volunteers and coordinated our rest stops and food. We met up monthly, then weekly, as the date got closer.

Event Directing is a full-time job and even with most of the tasks split between us, it was still a challenge. We had a few other volunteers to help us make decisions, complete day-prior tasks, and fund the event – Bob, Bill, Rich, and Steve – as well as a slew of club members who volunteered the day of the event. We couldn’t have done this without them!

A few weeks before the ride our photographer, Dave from Kraus Grafik Services, came down to do a photo shoot of various locations along the route.

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all photos by Kraus Grafik Services

My personal favorite part of the longest route is through a county park. The gravel is chunkier and the climb is a little over 2 miles long, but you feel a million miles away from civilization (even though NYC is about 30 miles south).

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Pass between two ponds and the climb begins

The day of the ride went as well as any event can go – a few hiccups but mostly awesome. The weather was overcast but warm and it had rained the night before – perfect dirt road conditions. The general consensus, confirmed by our rider survey, was the routes were beautiful; the food plentiful; the beer deserved.

The official photo album can be found here.

I’m looking forward to Event Directing the ride again in 2019 – even though it means not getting to ride the event myself! Seeing the happy, muddy faces come back to the start was such a reward for all the time and energy Christine and I put into this event.

Watch the Dirty Apple Ride page for updates as to when the ride will be scheduled next year.

 

As always – see you on the road!

Farmer’s Daughter Gravel Grinder 2018

Everything hurts, which is why I’m signing up again next year.

Sunday night I lay down and thought “My body hurts. Everything hurts. What a great day.”

The Farmer’s Daughter Gravel Grinder is by far the hardest gravel ride I’ve done in the year or so I’ve been riding dirt roads. But it’s also one of the most interesting, scenic, and diverse rides. Organized by two mountain bikers who wanted to showcase the beauty and bounty in and around Columbia County, New York, FDGG takes you on an epic journey through peaceful farmlands, quiet forests, and some of the best hills the Taconics can throw at you.

Let’s start with – it’s been a long winter and wet spring. This week was no exception with more rainy days than not. It rained the whole day before the ride so we knew it would be a bit sloppy. The forecast for Sunday was continually changing, showing we were either going to have a really rainy day or just overcast. Most of the questions being sent to the organizers on the Facebook page were around tire choice.

In the end, I’m not sure what the best tire choice would be for 65 miles on mostly peanut butter roads, some paved, and 6 water-logged, muddy off-road/tractor road sections.

I, of course, went with my 26mm Panaracer Gravel King SKs. It was that or my mountain bike, and I didn’t feel like riding that for 65 miles.

My friend Matt rode with me, and I’m so glad he did because this year was a true test of strength, stamina, and grit.

 

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fresh as daisies

 

In the Beginning …

The first three miles of the course is on a grassy rail trail with a gentle incline and really sets the tone for the event. Fairly quickly the ride separated the speedy folks from the ones who wanted to enjoy the day.

Back on the road for a short bit to get to the second off-road section through a nature preserve. If you are not a mountain biker or cyclocross racer, this is the first sign the route isn’t for you as you are basically on single- and double-track. The rains made this section extremely muddy, and we ended up walking good portions because the mud was so rutted, slick, and deep. We were in good company though – virtually everyone around us was also walking their bikes.

 

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a portent of things to come

 

The first water stop was at a brewery around mile 16. Fueled up on maple syrup shots and pickles, skipping the whiskey-soaked Swedish Fish (which we heard were amazing). Topped off water and got back on the road. The clock indicates we’re slower than expected.

 

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hey look – more mud!

 

More beautiful dirt roads before heading into Off-Road #3 – singletrack edition. We’re yo-yo’ing with the same people and camaraderie is high. We’re getting a bit tired, but we aren’t pushing the pace terribly because conditions are pretty soul-sucking. But at least it’s not raining – just really, really soggy. Rode as much of the singletrack as possible; walked where it felt prudent. Popped out into a field with the first full rest stop at mile 27 on the other side of the field.

 

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takes your mind off the climb

 

FDGG has excellent rest stop food because it’s catered by local businesses like Bountiful Bread Bakery who had delicious sandwiches prepared. I chose the peanut butter on cranberry-walnut wheat bread; Matt chose the turkey with stuffing and cranberry spread. Refilled water, checked the time, had another cookie, then back to it.

 

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mud had been scraped off at least 3 times before this photo

 

Matt and I have ridden gravel grinders together and we both expected to be done around 3pm as a 10mph average is a good estimating target for rides with 100’/mi of climbing. As we left the rest stop, I started doing the math and said “I don’t think we’ll be done until 5pm.” Our average progressive speed, inclusive of breaks, had dipped below 8mph. But with the bulk of the ride (and the majority of the climbing) about to happen, we didn’t want to burn too many matches.

The Middle.

(There are no photos to add to this section because it’s basically a pain cave.)

The middle 20 miles has nearly half of the total climbing for the day, an endless series of rollers with a few back-to-back-to-back hills that put you squarely above 10% grade for a bit.

This is also where I had to humble myself and walk two of the steepest hills, my energy sapped from the struggle just to navigate the soggy conditions. We took a breather at the top of one particularly nasty climb and a tall guy on a Rivendell and wearing Crocs stopped too. He reminded me of one of my kids. We chatted for a few minutes, then continued on.

This is also where it began to rain, turning thick nut-butter roads into pea soup. Our bikes are so caked in mud, gears grinding in the grit. The SKs are shedding mud well, but I still find myself spinning out a few times while trying to power through thick mud. Every fishtail of my rear wheel, every slippery root or rock on the off-road sections remind me that the skills I’ve learned on a hardtail mountain bike will always serve me well in any terrain.

Mile 40 brings us to a pop-up ice cream stop catered by Cold Stone Creamery. It’s stopped raining, and we’re getting chilled, so we put on a few layers to keep warm. We’re at the final rest stop in 7 miles.

The End …

The rest stop at mile 47 is a bounty of food: bananas, PB&Js, Mexican chocolate cake, and probably more importantly, COKES. We take a little longer to enjoy full-sugar soda guilt-free, eat, and strategize our next 18 miles. We still have the last 2 off-road sections to go, including one notoriously steep grassy incline that is sure to be even soggier and slick now.

There aren’t many people around us now, and we overhear many people opt for the bailout at this point – cutting a few miles but staying exclusively on paved roads back to the start. We are not these people and soldier on.

Despite the rest and refueling, there’s simply not enough power left in my body to power up the grassy hill, so we end up walking. We get in a rhythm of riding when we can and walking when we spin out. I will note here that Matt is a beast and rode more hills than I did and I remain in awe of his power. But to be sure, we’re both hurting at this point.

We continue on the roads to the final off-road segment and stop to decide if we want to ride the soggy, grassy loop through a field. We made it this far, I’m not throwing in the towel yet – so in we go. The mowed path goes down, down, down, and then turned sharply right and UP. Hopped off and walked – there was simply no traction on the water-logged grass. Took a short singletrack loop up to a gazebo for a short break to take in the incredible views. We’re 60 miles in and closing in on 5pm. Matt and I are both exhausted.

 

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Drinking in the views at mile 60

 

The last few miles are downhill, as any difficult ride should be. We roll into the finish, and people are still milling around, the band is still playing, and there is plenty of hot food and cold beverages waiting for us. Nearly 8.5 hours after we started, we were finally done. And we are far from the last people to roll in.

 

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well deserved tacos

 

Probably the best part of this ride is the organizers did not pressure anyone to be done by a specific time so they could clean up and go home. They built an incredibly challenging and beautiful route that was meant to be savored. And then let those of us who wanted to finish despite incredibly challenging conditions do so.

We cleaned up, we hosed off our bikes, we said “great ride!” and headed back to our homes tired but accomplished.

Which brings us to …

the opening statement about everything hurting. It hurt to lay down. Ever fiber of my body held the dull ache of full depletion. I haven’t been this wrecked from a ride in a long time – a sign of a really good time.

At the end of the ride I wasn’t sure I’d want to do this ride again but here we are, just a few days later, and I’m thinking … if the conditions are drier next year, I’ll be there and so should you.

The nerdy details were logged on Strava.

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Muddy Onion Spring Classic 2018

Last year I did my first gravel grinder, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Dirt and gravel roads are some of the quietest, most scenic ways to see an area by bicycle. And yes, they often have hills that challenge your mind and body to just. Get. To. The. Top. one pedal stroke at a time.

When Onion River Sports closed last year, the fate of the event was in limbo – but fortunately, a group of former employees decided the show must go on! If you’ve ever doubted what a small band of committed people can accomplish, look no further than this year’s Muddy Onion.

The route was revamped. The rest stops streamlined. The hospitality still off the charts.

Whereas last year we had perfect sunny, dry conditions – this year was almost the total opposite. Winter didn’t start relinquishing control until just a few weeks before the ride. It has been raining more than it’s been dry and sunny, and the roads and trails are in a nearly perpetual state of mud. Lots of people opted for mountain bikes and fat bikes this year over gravel or cross bikes.

Tire Selection

Let’s take a moment to talk about what everyone seemed to be talking about leading up to the event: tire choice.

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Mud2 clearance is “tight”

Last year I threw on 30mm Michelin Mud2s, which are excellent mud tires but sadly do not provide enough clearance on my Salsa Colossal to be used in truly muddy conditions.

After extensive online research (because apparently, no one makes mud tires narrower than 32mm generally), I asked my local shop to order Panaracer GravelKing SK 26s for me.

This was a flawless choice for this year’s conditions, ranging from wet sand to wet hardpack to full-on mud-pits conveniently located at the bottom of every really nice descent. The tires tracked beautifully in suboptimal conditions and were fast-rolling on paved sections.

 

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26mm tires and traction for days

To be sure though – no tire will save you if you can’t handle your bike when it’s sliding in a few different directions. Pro tip: mountain biking on a hardtail will give you the skills needed to improve handling on the road too.

The Ride

Vermont is blessed with an abundance of dirt roads and beautiful scenery – and the Muddy Onion gives you an opportunity to experience both. The first 5 miles still trend up, and by the rest stop at mile 10, we had climbed over 1,300′ while passing family farms, open fields, and taking in views of the Green Mountains.

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the better conditions encountered

The middle 17 miles looped us up to Mirror Lake and the tiny towns that dot Vermont. Screaming downhill to flat lake-side roads that provide an air conditioning effect – not much needed when it’s barely 60*F out! I had pulled off my arm warmers sometime in the first 10 miles, and I certainly wished I had them on as we passed the lake. We passed through beautifully dense pine forest, the scent of pine filling the air. Coming into the final rest stop with around 3,000′ of climbing under our legs.

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Class 4 means Quality

The final 10 miles feature that last few hundred feet of climbing and the last 4 miles trending DOWN and the welcome sight of getting back to Montpelier after 37 miles, 3,650′ of climbing, and a whole lot of dirty fun.

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at the rest stop

Racked the bikes and enjoyed the post-ride BBQ and beverages before getting cleaned up and heading back into town for a coffee at Capitol Grounds Cafe/802 Coffee and purchases at the state store. Sadly, no one at the store knew the whereabouts of Richard. Richard was our superlative Southern Gentleman/MOT clerk last year, and we were hoping to see him again this year.

(I’d love to know how much the Muddy Onion, a smaller gravel event, brings Montpelier in tourism dollars: in accommodations, food, and other purchases. I drive 5 hours each way and purchase gas, stay in a hotel, eat at local restaurants, and make purchases while visiting. Bikes Mean Business!)

Conclusion

The Muddy Onion has once again proven gravel grinders don’t have to be gratuitous sufferfests or hike-a-bike. With an enjoyable route that features stunning scenery and quiet backroads, none of the hills were insurmountable despite providing a truly meaningful challenge (although let’s be real, this year’s peanut butter-like conditions made the steepest of hills that much more challenging).

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this. all. day.

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Thank you Onion River Outdoors for another spectacular event. See you next year!!

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See you on the muddy roads!

 

 

Muddy Onion Spring Classic 2017

Let’s talk about Vermont, gravel grinding, and the truly great weekend I had with my dear women friends (and Matt) at the Muddy Onion Spring Classic.

I am blessed to have friends who don’t hesitate to text me “Hey, wanna do this ride?” The answer is usually “YES.” So we secured a cheap hotel room and made our plans for a weekend of gravel magic.

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at the starting line, fresh as daisies

The Muddy Onion Spring Classic is a ridiculously fun ride on lightly traveled dirt and gravel roads in north-central Vermont, hosted by Onion River Sports. Starting in the state capitol, Montpelier, the ride has more elevation gain than linear distance which is made abundantly clear over the first 5 miles. Several climbs topped out in the upper-teens for grade percentage.

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gorgeous scenery along quiet dirt roads

The weather couldn’t have been more perfect – mid-to-upper 60s, partly sunny, and fast dirt. Very few sloppy spots on the road made for quick riding.

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still smiling, even though we’re climbing

 

The first rest stop was about 13 miles (and 1500′ of gain)  in and well stocked with chocolate-covered bacon, shots of local maple syrup, pickles, protein bars … and PBR. Water for your bottles was courtesy of the spigot on the side of the house.

It’s like being a kid again, out exploring dirt roads and having a blast.

The second rest stop was 26 miles (and 3200′ of gain) in – more maple syrup shots, more pickles, more chocolate-covered bacon, water from a hose … and fried PB& J sandwiches. We loaded up on electrolytes – only 4 more miles of climbing before the 4 mile descent into town.

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8 miles to go, only 4 more miles of climbing! 

 

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just keep spinning … 

We finished in a little over 4 hours of total time, around 3.25 hours of actual riding time, and 3900′ of climbing over 35 miles. Partook of the post-ride BBQ (veggie burgers or grilled chicken; potato chips; local craft beer, soda, and seltzer) before riding our bikes back up the hill to the hotel to get cleaned up.

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Grabbed a coffee at Capitol Grounds Cafe and then a case of local craft beer at the state store before heading home.

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If you enjoy riding bikes with really cool people, along quiet dirt roads with spectacular views, and you don’t mind a little climbing along the way … the Muddy Onion is a great choice for a challenging event!

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See you on the road!