To E or Not to E

The hot craze in cycling these days is the E-bike or electric motor assisted pedal bike. Naturally, we purists disdain the newbies who go sailing by us as we struggle up the grade on our “real” bikes, and take particular delight in making a display of our superior bike handling skills as we use them for slalom poles on the technical descents, though most of them stick to the wide open, dirt roads, while we favor the rutted, overgrown road less traveled.

The perils of Covid drove hordes of people from the malls and restaurants, to the great outdoors, where they behaved with city slicker naiveté. Our once pristine trails are now dotted with toilet paper, and energy bar wrappers. The narrow “singletrack” paths, so prized by the mountain bike elitist, have been widened by the clumsy maneuvers of the over-powered beginner.

E-bikes range in ability and price from a few hundred dollars, for a behemoth that weighs in at over 50 pounds, to the nimble, truly mountain-bike like Orbea that I covet, that tips the scale at under 40 pounds, costing upwards of $11,000. For a 120 pound woman, that ten+ pounds difference means I could lift the $11,000 bike onto my bike rack, over un-rideable rock gardens, and I could probably push it up trails too technical for my skill level to ride. I’ve been promising myself an E-bike when I turn 70, which is now only about a year and a half away.

The May-gray spring weather (or June gloom) as the lingering marine layer is called, has allowed us to ride the local trails longer, even though there hasn’t been enough rain to create any real traction this year. So, Sally and I headed up to the Crafton Hills Conservancy last weekend to explore some of the less frequented trails that drop off the ridge into the valley to the South. Less frequented, that is, before E-bikes made it possible for every couch potato in the county to access them.

We encountered several people walking up the fire road (a dirt road used by fire crews to combat wildfires) and a couple of groups of young people on E-bikes who breezed past us, chatting loudly over the music they were broadcasting so that everyone within a quarter of a mile was forced to listen to it. One walking couple commented with some admiration that we were climbing the hill on “real” bikes and the young woman, when learning that I was her grandmother’s age, gushed that we were an inspiration.

Our discomfort at having to ride in proximity to the great un-washed was quickly ameliorated when we began our descent of the legendary Motorcycle Trails. I can only assume that anyone who leaves toilet paper on the trail probably has other reprehensible habits. Not that I find the un-washed body nearly as offensive as the overly perfumed, which the mall crowd is prone to be. But I digress…

A few years ago, Sally and I rode these challenging trails once a week, until we knew every rut, of which there were many, every twist and off camber turn, and every lock-em-up slider descent by heart. We could navigate the nearly over-grown paths with such alacrity that better riders than we were left in the dust. One-trail wonders we were.

So, now we returned to test our aging mettle. Traversing a familiar ridge, we varied the familiar course by taking a track that followed an unfamiliar trail down a different ridge. Off in the distance, we could see that it would drop to the south side of the conservancy which would necessitate a short climb back to the car. The first couple of descents down the ridge were confidence inspiring, allowing us to gather sufficient momentum to pedal furiously up the next hill. The day was cool and we had no need to watch for snakes…or so we assumed. But the third descent proved to be a bit more exciting.

All geared up for some downhill thrills

Cautiously rolling up to the brow of the hill, we scanned the trail below. The path was maybe ten feet wide, widened by many other riders having looked for traction to the side of the original track, but there was no obvious line. Loathe to walk a single foot of hard-won elevation, I steered a course down the middle of the extremely sketchy descent. My bike was built for just such a scramble and my tires were perfectly suited to the conditions. Skidding and sliding both wheels, it was an exhilarating experience to say the least. Sally, on her worn tires, had little choice but to point her bike downhill and hope to find some semblance of traction, or otherwise, be left so far behind that the coyotes would consider her fair game. I love this woman’s courage. This is the thing bonding is made of.

As we carved flawless turns coasting down the last few hills, we marveled at the pure joy of being able to share this experience. And as we climbed the half mile back to the car, still high on the adrenaline of the thrilling descent, we agreed, “We don’t need no stinking E-bike!”

Oh, Heck Yeah!

When the winter rains come to these parts, the riding gets interesting, and by interesting, I mean breathless, heart-pounding, white-knuckled FUN!

I’d pretty much given up riding the outlaw motorcycle trails in the local conservancy, not because they are illegal, but because since I fell and sprained my ankle, I was too chicken. Oh, I’d ridden some of the less terrifying sections, but I completely avoided the section that was my nemesis and some of the more technical ones as well. But after a rain, the traction was inspiring AND I was riding with “the boys”.

We climbed Three Hawks, a popular, hiking trail that demands enough technical skill to avoid piles of dog poop while navigating steep switchbacks. Being risk adverse when it comes to such hazards, I rode with extreme caution. The trail joins a fire road which climbs gently for a few miles and offers views of the motorcycle trail (MT) which follows the hog backs of the ridge. At each saddle where the trail drops down to the road, I examined the condition of the trail, looking for ruts that would make the steep descents too perilous for my skill level. It looked mostly good.

The bottom of “Backbreaker” looked mostly good.

The first section of the MT scares me. The climb just to get to the top of Zanja Peak is leg-burning, lung-busting, heart-breaking, steep. This terrifies me worse than a dog poop slalom. If that were the only thing against it, I might climb it, but the descent down the other side is commensurately treacherous. I decided to wait at the first intersection of the road and the MT while Mike, my husband, rode that section. This meant that I had to climb the second section with no momentum to assist in the effort. Joining Mike at the crest, I panted, “Whose idea WAS this?” And then the fun began.

Following Mike through the chest-high brush, the trail was rarely visible but at least I could trust that it was where I remembered it having been as indicated by Mike’s rapidly vanishing backside. All too soon, the trail, bisected by two axle-deep ruts plunged steeply back to the road. A really good rider, like Mike, would have released the brakes and allowed gravity to have its way, trusting the bike to ride the slick hump between the ruts to carry him safely to the bottom. I, being of weak faith, braked, which slid my rear wheel into the rut. I twisted my foot out of the grip of my Speedplay pedal, and dabbed my foot along the high side of the rut all the way to the bottom. “What a tourist!” I muttered to myself. And again, I had to climb the next hill with no assisting momentum. Mike was waiting at the top and kindly refrained from any disparaging comments about my lack of confidence.

The next section was my ankle-spraining nemesis. I approached the summit with some trepidation but Mike was already nearly to the bottom so I had little choice but to point the front tire down the rocky descent and keep my eyes trained as far ahead as possible. To my surprised delight, I found that there was a wide, fairly smooth (no rocks larger than a softball) rut in which I could comfortably track to the bottom. The traction was so sticky that speed control was easy peasy.

After such a boost to my confidence the subsequent hills, though steeper and probably more difficult, were only marginally thrilling until I came to the penultimate lock-em-up, slider descent to the road. I could see Mike waiting at the bottom and yelled down to him, “Where’s the line?”

He hollered back, “Follow my skid marks.” Sincerely hoping he wasn’t referring to any loss of bowel control, I let my bike roll over the lip of the granite outcrop, braking judiciously until it became obvious that braking was futile. I loosened my grip on the brakes, allowing the bike to straighten itself out, and I was instantly catapulted to warp speed. At the bottom of the short drop it was crucial to cut a quick turn to avoid running off the trail into the unknown. Self-preservation prevailed and I carved the turn and skidded breathlessly to a stop inches from Mike’s bike.

Next month I’ll be 67, but today I felt like a 10-year old.

The Joys? of Spring Mountain Biking

After an unusually wet winter, our mountain bike trails are in danger of being obliterated by grass and weeds. There are places where a cyclist can disappear entirely in weeds five feet tall. By this time of year, everything is going to seed and every kind of fox-tail, corkscrew seed, and thistle, claws at your legs as you pedal through on trails you have to simply believe are there when you can’t really see them. To add an element of suspense to the ordeal, snakes are active and invisible in the brush.

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Weedy Wash Trails

Sally and I made our way up the wash trails for several miles before we came to the realization that it really wasn’t any fun and decided to head for the Crafton Hills Conservancy trails which are cleared of brush by energetic, civic-minded folks. We were grinding our way up the trail we call Escalator, when I spotted a nice sized Diamond Back rattle snake, business end in the middle of the trail, about three feet ahead of my front tire.

Snake on Escalator
Hair Raising Encounter

Luckily, Sally was several feet behind me so I was able to stop abruptly without having her pile into me. Before I could back away, the alert creature spotted me and took a defensive stance (that would be coiled up) and rattled a stern warning. I backed away, still astraddle my bike.

Intellectually, I am not afraid of snakes. Respectful? Absolutely, but not consciously terrified. But evidently, the non-verbal part of my brain operates on a more instinctual level because I became aware of the hair on my arms standing on end like a frightened cat. We waited patiently for the snake to calm down and move on which he did within a minute or two. We watched his progress up the hill until it was safe to proceed and then realized that our trail switch backed directly across the path the snake had taken. The thought did lend wings to our pedals.

We descended the ever-exciting Motorcycle Trail, on which there was plenty of brush (it’s not a sanctioned trail) and a dearth of traction. Thankfully, it’s sufficiently steep to allow enough speed to not see any snakes that we may run over. It’s also deeply rutted which makes it riveting enough to keep one’s eyes engaged on the trail. We debated, at the top of Joint Point North whether or not to attempt the wickedly steep descent in the overgrown weeds. Finally, Sally said she would walk down to the point of no return to assess how treacherous it would be. I said the heck with that, I’m not WALKING down anything. I knew if we rode down the first fifty yards, we would ride the whole thing…and, of course, we did.

Sally led the way, picking up speed uncontrollably on the hard, dry, trail and I attempted to follow her at a more controlled pace. When my back wheel began to pass the front I realized that maybe control was overrated. By this time my bike had left the trail and was headed across country, straight down, through knee high grass, rocks, and hopefully, no snakes. Naught to be done but hang on and try to steer a course back to the trail. A rut appeared between me and my goal, forcing me to continue to boldly go where no bike had gone before. I glimpsed Sally below, off the bike in the tall weeds, before narrowing my focus to the trail which had miraculously rejoined my path.

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Joint Point North

When I joined her at the bottom of the hill, she explained that she had caught her shorts on the back of her seat and couldn’t get back to her center of gravity when the hill leveled out. Note to the uninitiated: When going down something extreme, it’s a good idea to get behind the seat to keep your center of gravity over the cranks rather than over the bars, as nobody likes to actually be thrown over the front of the bike.

Sometimes when we ride this trail, we compliment ourselves on our skill and courage. Today we were grateful for simple luck.