Sunday, September 23, 2012

Waterton Canyon family ride

The girls at the Waterton Canyon trailhead.
We went out on a grand family outing today, lasting much of the day. This ride was originally slated to happen yesterday, but a few things cropped up to delay it until today. Apart from the fact that it takes roughly the same amount of preparation for a ride like this as it did for the D-Day invasion of Europe, we missed certain windows of opportunity associated with nap time.

In any case, we were all loaded for this morning, and got to the trailhead at a good time, for us that is. However, the little issue of one of my crank arms nearly falling off almost resulted in disaster. I had decided to ride my single-speed Surly Cross-Check, and in preparation the previous day I'd swapped some 130 BCD cranks with a 46 tooth ring for some 110/74 BCD cranks with a 34 tooth ring. This was something that I'd been meaning to do for some time, but the prospect of towing a trailer uphill for several miles spurred me to action. Yet, apparently I had insufficiently tightened the non-drive side crank arm bolt, and the damn thing decided to mutiny on me after a few hundred yards. After a hurried trip to a bike shop for a wrench and a crank arm bolt, while I left girls temporarily stranded on the trail to have lunch, everything was once again in order. Off we went.
The shades are for speed.

My bean green, single-speed Surly Cross-Check as the tractor towing the Burley trailer.
Note the custom cowboy shirt sun shade. 
During the heat of the day, the shade of the canyon was refreshingly cool. We took our time, which, as anyone with kids will know is the only really viable plan of action, and stopped whenever we felt it necessary. It's a slight, but consistently uphill ride all the way to Strontia Springs Dam, and I new that maintaining positive morale among the ranks was essential if we had any chance of going all the way. Luckily, spirits remained high and muscles held out. It didn't hurt that the scenery was terrific and a light, pleasant breeze was working in our favor. The miles rolled by under our tires.
Rolling past ancient rock.

The Cross-Check tugging the trailer under a full head of steam.

Waterton Canyon is idyllic this time of year.
We had a bit more extended break at the bridge, where we snacked some more (thanks for the gingerbread, Oma), threw a few rocks in the water, and took some photos. It's easy to get used to being out of town with some dirt beneath our feet.
The convoy taking a break.

A rare photo of the whole crew captured in one shot.

Me and the girls. I'm happily Semi-Rad today, and actually living up to it.
For what it's worth, I'm definitely in favor of doing over watching.

This can be taken at face value.

The girls. Yes, we're living the dream.
We made it to the top with everyone still smiling, with the exception of the baby who was happily snoozing away. It seems like she's always slept a bit better with a little bit of jostling, whether in a stroller or in the bike trailer. Big sister showed her climbing prowess by sprinting the last several hundred meters just before we stopped for a little rest at the turnaround spot near the dam. Then she got off her bike and climbed any rock she could find. This girl is a climbing fiend.
The whole crew assembled in the complimentary self-portrait mirror thoughtfully installed along the trail. 

A friendly little flying beetle of some sort. Can you I.D. it Tarik?

A couple of sisters having a good time.

Getting down the fundamentals of drinking out of a bike bottle.

Boulder, conquered.

The girls in front of the Strontia Springs Dam.
On the way back down, we got to enjoy the fruits of our labors, alternating between coasting and pedaling for miles. Initially, big sister sought out any ruts or washboards she could find, because as she noted, "I like the bumps." After a while, she concentrated on speed, finding the smoothest parts of the gravel road. She also discovered the 'aero' position by crouching behind her handlebars. I must say that she can scrunch down into a pretty small profile; not much of a target for the wind to hit.  She really cooked up some speed.

Speed demons.

Just when you're least expecting it... 

...she springs into attack mode.
The views along the canyon continued to be impressive, even more so into the late afternoon. A few clouds moved in and diffused the light in ways that neither my camera nor limited photographic talent could capture. When we were most of the way down, we encountered a small group of bighorn sheep grazing along the banks of the South Platte River. A little further down, we saw several mule deer crossing ahead of us.
It's hard to top views like this...

...or this.

This sheep was sporting a radio collar.

They seemed not to be concerned with the human users of the trail.

On the other hand, the deer remained more aloof.
By the time we got back to the trailhead, we had logged about 12 miles. This was a milestone ride for a lot of reasons. It was little sister's first trail ride and longest ride ever. It was her's longest ride while riding on her own bike. It was Julie's longest ride in probably about 10 years. In addition, she also acknowledged that it wouldn't be bad to have a bike with fatter tires for these types of rides, so I may have a to put together a mountain bike for her.

As for me, it was my first ride in which I packed up the whole family in the van to go to a trailhead, as opposed to just leaving our house on bikes. Ordinarily, I am not strongly in favor of driving somewhere to ride. However, in the end, driving was worth it. We've got great places to ride immediately adjacent to our neighborhood, but it wouldn't have been feasible to leave from our house on bikes and get to Waterton Canyon. Perhaps in a few years things will be different. In the mean time, I foresee quite a few more rides like this one, where we are able to explore more of the family friendly trails in our part of the world.

As a postscript, after we got home, we encountered another milestone. Lil' sis did a number of perfect, stiff as a board, Marine Corps pushups and seemingly tried to figure out how to coordinate her arms and legs in a locomotive motion. She is likely only a short time away from crawling. We're simultaneously excited and frantic about the prospect of a self-mobile baby in our not yet fully baby-proofed house.
This kid will be crawling in no time.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A little taste of the Colorado Trail

Today, I did a series of things that I don't ordinarily do. I carved out a couple of hours, donned some spandex, and went on a recreational mountain bike ride. I didn't have my backpack office with me, nor did I have a kid or dog in accompaniment. It was just me, 52 ounces of water, a tool kit and a bike.

The venue was Waterton Canyon, gateway to the Colorado Trail. Waterton Canyon is a popular non-motorized recreation area southwest of the city, near Chatfield Reservoir, and is at the nexus of two trails. The Highline Canal Trail begins here and meanders toward the city. The Colorado Trail also begins here, rambling off road some 500 miles, over mountains, valleys and streams before reaching Durango at the other end.

The pastoral character of the Highline Canal Trail is shared by the first six miles of the Colorado Trail (otherwise known as the CT). The CT starts as a well maintained, gently upward sloping gravel road, very lightly trafficked by a few maintenance trucks, and much more frequented by runners, walkers, fishers, photographers, and bicyclists of all types. The scenery in the canyon is rugged yet serene, and picturesque in any direction.

During this initial section, the CT route runs parallel to the South Platte River, which, along with the reservoirs it feeds, is one of the major sources of water for the Denver metro area. Denver Water maintains the gravel road and the canyon itself, at least until it reaches the Strontia Springs reservoir.

Within the first couple of miles, the CT enters the Pike National Forest. Earlier this summer, a number of forest fires appeared in many places in Colorado, including in the vicinity of Waterton Canyon. The acute heat and drought this year has desiccated much of this already fairly arid region. However, the day's temperatures in the low 70s F, coupled with heavy rains earlier this week, have given the canyon and surrounding hillsides a comfortably damp feel.

The terrain would seem to be a perfect place to bring a dog for a walk or a ride, but they are not allowed. The reason why is here:

Bighorn Sheep and other wild animals inhabit the area, and they have a hard enough time as it is without having to worry about being herded by errant dogs. Tough luck, Scout.

Encountering wild animals larger than squirrels seems a little foreign in modern life, yet there's nothing quite like it. Perhaps excitement at being close to a large, wild animal remains hardwired into our brains after thousands of generations. Seeking out animals for food and/or muscle power was a necessary survival skill. In any case, riding past a docile bighorn sheep is memorable, though I am not dumb enough to attempt to get any closer.

Past the sheep, the trail continued to slowly climb up the canyon. I paused to take a photo of myself using a convex mirror posted at the apex of a sharp turn. I'm wearing a 15-year old Voodoo Cycles jersey and bibs that were torn on a ride in Moab 9 years ago and later repaired, because they were the first items I could find. Like I said before, I don't wear spandex bike-specific clothing all that much anymore.

In short order, the Strontia Springs Dam came into view. Just off the trail here is an area equipped with nice picnic facilities for those who mark this as their turn around point. Nearby is the tidy house and lawn of a lucky caretaker of the area. In all, it's a very pleasant spot, but my objective lies ahead.

Past Strontia Springs Dam, the gravel road gives way to single track, and the character of the CT changes considerably. The upward angle increases, and the surface becomes more uneven. This is also where the real fun starts.

The first mile or so past the dam is loaded with switchbacks, winding through dense trees and scattered boulders up the side of a mountain. This was the first real mountain bike ride that I've taken in quite a while, and I felt it. Within minutes, I was sweating out the gravy of my decadent suburban lifestyle. Droplets rolled off my head and streamed down the lenses of my glasses, stinging my eyes as I labored up the hill.

For those of you who are still reading this and are somewhat familiar with my blog, you may have noticed that for this ride, I'm on an unfamiliar bike. You may have even been keeping track in your head. Let's see... It's got fat tubes; too fat to be steel. It has not only front, but rear suspension, and count 'em 7...8...9 gears on the cassette. Hold on, those don't look like top-mount thumbshifters in friction mode. Oh, and where's the bell? Hey, what gives?!?

Well, I have to admit to to you, diligent and sharp-eyed reader, that I have once again fallen off the wagon and secretly acquired another bike. It's a 2006 Specialized Stumpjumper FSR. I've actually had this bike for a few months now, but I couldn't quite face up to it to you, my loyal followers.
2006 Stumpjumper FSR
As it happened, this new bike found me during the time after which I'd ordered my Pugsley, but before it arrived. I say it found me, because it did. One day on the way to work, I rode down a street that I don't ordinarily take, and there it was, leaning against a tree at a yard sale. Now, I don't ordinarily even stop at yard sales, but this one had a couple of bikes, various tools, fishing equipment, and even some competition type go-carts. Most of the items were very testosterone laden, if you will.

The short story is that the husband of the woman who was running the yard sale had passed away a couple of years ago, and she was finally cleaning out the garage. Much of the other items were selling briskly, but there was not much interest in the Stumpjumper, a higher dollar item than typical yard sale bike fare. Another reason for minimal interest was that the tires were low, the front wheel was installed slightly askew making the brake rotor squawk if it was moved, and there was a little play in the rear shock. I made the assessment that none of the problems were serious, and that it might be fun to have a full-suspension mountain bike again. Shortly thereafter, I was towing it home on the Big Dummy, along with a nearly new Bell helmet and Pearl Izumi riding shoes that fit me well. I also ended up with a cheap one-person tent and a bench grinder.

As you might image, I had to engage in all sorts of wrangling of logic in order to justify the arrival of two bikes into the fold within the space of a week. I soon had the mechanical issues squared away, and started to rediscover suspension-enhanced riding, albeit on urban trails.

Back to the main story. This was my first real off road ride on the Stumpjumper, and once the going got more challenging, it was easy to see the advantages inherent in its design and construction.
The Stumpjumper has lockout mechanisms front and rear, which I had engaged for most of the time on the gravel road. I kept the lockout engaged for a while climbing the rocky single track, but found that I could actually climb better with the fork set to active and the rear suspension set to 'Propedal', which enables the suspension action, but at a firm compression rate.

This version of the Stumpjumper was a fairly modest model in 2006, but it's a good quality and well designed bike, and I'll have to say that I'm very impressed with the ride. I own several mountain bikes, but most are 20 or more years old, and none of them have any suspension. Even judging by what was available in 2006, a lot had changed since my first experiences with nascent Rock Shox and Manitou forks in the early '90s, and my early generation Specialized Ground Control FSR that I bought in 1997.

This full-suspension Stumpjumper not only weighs about the same as my much vaunted and rigid 1990 Bridgestone MB-1, but it is a much more capable machine for the purpose of trail riding. Even in my short experience with the bike, I have ridden surfaces and grades that I wouldn't have been able to before. I don't yet know if this bike will be with me for the long term, but riding it is a valuable rediscovery for me that the best mountain bikes are not necessarily just those from the increasingly distant past.
The fork lockout is the blue ring on the right stanchion. 
The rear lockout is the blue lever on the bottom of the shock.
The bike has 120 mm of travel, front and rear.
This rough section at the corner of a switchback is steeper than it looks. I rode it a few times, primarily in the astonishment that I actually could. 
There must be something to these newfangled suspension bikes. When I was on the single track segment of the CT, I saw three other bicyclists, of which two were riding full-suspension Stumpjumpers. However, all three were on 29-inch wheels, so it would appear that I'm still lagging in that department. I don't know that I'll become a strong convert to suspended mountain biking, but it is a lot of fun.

Eventually my efforts paid off, as the sun radiantly emerged from the trees at the top of the climb, at a place known as Lenny's Rest, in remembrance of a young hiker. Reading the plaque on the bench made me think about how the bike that I was riding, as well as the helmet and shoes I was wearing, were previously piloted by someone who is no longer with us. Although I knew neither Lenny, nor the original owner of the Stumpjumper, it doesn't take much to realize that life is fleeting and we should appreciate what time we get. I'm satisfied to know that it is likely my bikes may someday be ridden by someone else in much the same manner.

On the other side of the mountain, the southern exposure made for an entirely different feel. It instantly became noticeably warmer and drier, and the shady canopy of trees was gone. The angle of the slope also favored my direction of travel, and in minutes I had traveled far down the trail. I had hoped to be able to make it to the creek lurking somewhere at the bottom, but I realized that all this descending only meant more ascending on the way back, and my available time was starting to run out. I made do without reaching the stream, even though I knew I had to be close. Next ride I hope to have more time and maybe even some camping equipment with me to capitalize on what Gypsy Nick says are some good camping spots nearby.

After I made my turnaround, I climbed back up to Lenny's Rest and began the descent back toward Waterton Canyon. Where I had crawled on the way up, I was now flying on the way down. The Stumpjumper's suspension ate up everything in its path. This bike is a true joy to ride at speed over rocks, roots, and ruts. Some sections of the trail, cushioned with pine needles and painted with sunbeams, were ethereal.

Back on the gravel, the world opened up again. I shifted into the big ring and the miles rolled by, as the landscape changed around every bend. Even before I made it to the bottom, I started planning for the next ride.