Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Epic singletrack

If you're a truly passionate mountain biker, you really owe it to yourself to hit the epic singletrack opportunities in Colorado and Utah at least once in your life. It's an unforgettable experience.

In 2007, my buddy Matt Thompson and I packed two hardtails in his truck and spent a week chasing some of the best singletrack that North America has to offer. We started in the Front Range outside Denver, headed over to Crested Butte, and hit Fruita on the way to Moab.

Fruita and Moab are of course stellar--but the hidden gem in my opinion is Buffalo Creek near Pine, Colorado.

This was some of the best alpine singletrack I've ever ridden: perfectly buff trails, grip that only a tire salesman could dream of, stunning scenery, and brilliant flow.

At one point we got caught in a flash thunderstorm as we began a long, technical descent. It was one of the craziest downhills I've ever ridden, hardly able to see through the pouring rain as I skated furiously down a narrow singletrack flooded with a torrent of rainwater.

Crossing the Continental Divide brought us to the real South Park and an epic ride that started at 10,000' and only went up.

Coming down that trail I bagged an aspen at full speed and fragged my wheel. Dumb move. Fortunately I narrowly missed impaling myself horror-movie-like on a projecting stump when I face planted.

The historic town of South Park is well worth a visit while you're in the area.

And fortunately there are natural hot springs and other great sights along the way.

Crested Butte turned out to be Crested Bust. Perfect conditions on the evening we arrived, but the next day brought 15 cm of snow. So much for hitting the 401. That's for another trip. So we headed south to Gunnison where rain prevailed, and pushed on to Fruita. Ahhh... nice weather--finally!

While searching for a wheel repair in Fruita we met with Greg from DT Swiss who hooked me up with a free new rim and some other goodies for Matt. (Thanks, Greg!) The next day Greg took us for a classic loop and totally schooled both of us on his singlespeed. Turns out the sandbagger is a champion 24hr specialist and he knows every trick in the book. I was totally bagged from elevation fatigue, but even if I'd been in better shape I think Greg would've pwned us handily.

The cherry on the cake was riding Moab's Porcupine Rim in the full 50km loop right from town. Matt and I had done the ride together many years ago, but this time we were on better bikes and in much better shape. That was the fastest I'd ever ridden such technical terrain on a hardtail, just flying off stairsteps and ledges. We totally smoked groups of riders who were on full sussers. It was a truly Zen experience for both of us, and actually kind of frightening if I think about it. The thing is, on this type of terrain you really don't have time to think--you just have to DO.

That week most of our rides started in the 7000' range and went up. As I look at these pictures again, I often wonder why I don't live there, or even visit more often to benefit from all that brilliant terrain and altitude riding. Point is, you gotta take these opportunities in life to have the adventures you dream about. Maybe it's because you can't have it anytime that makes it so special.

Wilderness Tours mountain biking

One sweet ride for the self-propelled is the 30-odd km out-and-back "Rafters to Coliseum" route at Wilderness Tours in Beachburg, Ontario.

It isn't officially that long, but the route is poorly marked, the online map sucks, and I ended up playing around on some extra loops anyway because they were such a rip. Really, these days there's no excuse for poor trail marking what with GPS, Google Earth and all--especially since a paid trail pass is required ($5-10 I think). But enough griping. It's really worth a spin. When I rode it last fall I had the place to myself and the staff generously refused to accept my payment for a trail pass. Once I hit the dirt I didn't see another soul for hours.

I think one of the top Zen moments was flying through this pine stand on a smooth, gentle downhill. The light filtered softly through the treetops, somewhere a woodpecker hammered away, and there was just the zing! of tires on a bed of pine needles. I had to ride it twice just to be sure I wasn't dreaming.

There's a network of shorter loops near the Rafters lodge area that dip in and out of a broad ravine. Downhills are screaming and the uphills are equally screaming. Bring a lot of water--it gets hot, humid and dusty, and there's opportunity for a lot of steady exertion. There's also a merciful chance to rinse the sweat off in a dip at the rapids.

I rode Kenda Nevegal tires, which aren't bad considering all the slimy clay you'll encounter if you get a sprinkle. When it's dry, it's hard and fast. I also recommend bringing a slower rider for company. I saw vivid proof of bears in the area.

Folger or Bust -- following the K&P

The abandoned Kingston & Pembroke ("K&P") railway line is a great jumping-off point for some interesting trail rides west of Ottawa, including the E Trail and its numbered tributaries. Following the K&P from Sharbot Lake to Calabogie, or all the way to Renfrew is a beautiful ride--especially in late summer. There are many lakes and endless forest, so even though the line is straight and you have to pay attention to your front wheel, it's a great introduction to backcountry riding in the area.

These photos are from along the trail and a sidetrail, and in the ghost town of Folger, a whistle stop on the K&P just north of Lavant Station.

The K&P is pretty good gravel overall, if narrow and potholed in places. A road-oriented dualsport tire is fine as long as you don't go too fast, and you avoid riding early season (lots of ice remains in the shade) or when its wet (some mud and minor gravelly stream crossings that look worse than they are). If you have knobbies, I highly recommend the side trail cutoff just north of the old railway bridge about 3km south of Clyde Forks. Watch the trestle crossing because the planks are parallel to travel and spaced to catch motorcycle tires. The cutoff ascends a sandy hill (seen in the pic looking back to the K&P), then the trail becomes a loose dual track with lots of ups and downs. It's some wicked riding for a dualsport and not at all recommended for street-oriented tires. Trail pass and maps are advised--you're really in the sticks out there.

This whole area saw its heydays start around 1880 with the coming of the railway to support the square timber industry and the discovery of iron and other minerals in the area. In fact, near Lavant Station in 1881, a community called "Iron City" was surveyed to support two local iron mines and a copper mine. Lavant Station once hosted a sawmill, hotels, and a post office. It's hard to imagine now that 130 years ago a few hundred people lived in town out here and this was one of the up-and-coming frontier towns. By 1911 it was all ghost town, and in the 1950's a lot of the old structures burned in a massive bush fire. One of my maps shows a possible location for the iron mine. I'm going to see if I can find it.

For a great read about the history of the area, I recommend the fascinating book "Whiskey & Wickedness - No. 3" by Larry Cotton (www.whiskyandwickedness.com).

This way to the Abyss

C'mon, isn't that just a challenge for you to explore? :-)

This is on the 4C Concession between the Clayton Road and Old Union Hall Road, just west of Almonte, Ontario. The trail looks like a beaut from here, but just go a little further and...

Just past where I took this shot I successfully traversed the most humongous mudpit through a swamp that I've ever attempted. No joke, it was about 15 feet long and about 18-24" deep of soupy, deeply rutted muck. I was in well over my hubs, my feet were submerged, and I had just the Kenda 270's on F&R. Given all the riding I've done since, I can't believe I made it through this swamp in one go without dumping, stalling, or even putting my feet down. If I'd dumped, I doubt I would've been able to pull out my bike by myself. I was so stoked after getting through I completely forgot to take a picture. Sorry! I'll go back and take a shot of how it looks dry sometime.

Heartbreak lodge

These are the remains of a log cabin on a backroad off a backroad off a backroad near the virtual ghost town of McLean, south-west of Sharbot Lake. The logs themselves are long since gone, but you can see their impressions in the poured cement that remains from where a farmer once probably tried to shore-up and weatherproof the structure.

The cabin overlooks a swampy pond and overgrown pasture that even now has striking primitive beauty. Of course, there must've been unimaginable hardship eking out a living here as a rock farmer, barely surviving the long winters only to be tormented by clouds of bugs during planting and calving season.

On the bike are Kenda 270 front and rear tires. I don't recommend the front at all for loose gravel roads--too slippery--and is all but useless in the mud. Rear is good.

In the dry sack are tools and tire repair kit. I haven't flatted yet, but I've learned how to remove and replace both front and rear tires in case I ever do. The tricks are soapy water to lube the tire, at least one long tire iron, and patience.

I also ride with a Camelback. If you don't have one, I recommend it highly so you can sip water easily and often.

Tires for dual-sport

There's endless discussion online about what tires work best for dual-sport. Of course, what works best for you depends on your bike, your riding skills and style, terrain--and, ultimately--budget.

I'm a bit of a cheap bastard for my KLR (hey, it's about having fun--not worrying endlessly about keeping chrome polished!), so I'm not going to mount rubber that's a sizeable proportion of the value of my bike. And the reality is, family and work commitments restrict me to being mainly a weekend warrior. So my choice of tires may not be the "best" in terms of available performance, but overall I've found them to be a good compromise for gravel roads, the occasional rock garden, and muddy ATV trails.

I've settled on a Kenda K270 for the rear and a Pirelli MT21 for the front, and heavy-duty inner tubes in both. I ordered my tires from www.aviciouscycle.ca where I've had great service. I had K270 on the front and rear previously, and while the rear is fine I have to say the front is pretty lousy on fire roads. The MT21 really bites into the dirt, improves control on rutted terrain (the bike actually goes where you point it) and gives a much more predictable wash-out in cornering. The rear is knobby enough to get you through the mud if you're careful, but it's still not so knobby that you scrub it down on a 100+ km ride to and from the dirt. In fact, I got about 7000 km out of my last K270 rear, where I was about 80/20 road/dirt. I'm not accelerating hard though, so that helps extend their life. So does proper air pressure.

How do they ride on the road? Well, it takes some getting used to the sideways "walking" feeling of the knobs when you corner hard--especially on pavement. I learned to get used to that by doing hours of figure-8's in a parking lot. Now I feel much more confident on the dirt.

Mountain bike tires are a whole different matter. I ride Kenda Nevegals... the rubber is super grippy on slimy granite and they aren't so deep that they clog up with our regional clay. I've tried tons of tires on my mountain bikes and these are by far the best overall tire for Eastern Ontario so far.

It irks me that my mountain bike tires cost about $60 each, which is more than a rear K270 for my motorcycle. And I get way less life out of a bicycle tire.

Easy in...

The Arcol Road in Lanark County is just one route into an area densely filled will hundreds of kilometres of trail-riding opportunities. However, it's an area that now requires a trail pass ("Gold Pass", see thetrail.ca).

While this stretch of the road is pretty smooth, it can quickly devolve into rutted dual-track and giant mudpits if you explore of the main route a bit. Be prepared to get dirty!

No speeding!

This is another stretch of the "E" trail in Lanark County, showing typical trail conditions in some areas. Although it may look a bit frightening if you're a roadie or new to dual-sport riding, it's actually quite rideable on bikes like a BMW 650GS with stock tires--if you take it slow. There's a bit of mud but it's not the sticky, sucking stuff that buries you up to your hubs (although there is that too).

Despite the remoteness of this location it's amazing how much traffic it sees. The occasional pickup bounces by and there are often quads racing by. If you break down, there's a good chance someone can give you a ride out of banjo-picking country--but don't count in it. You need to be self-sufficient out here and don't count on your cell phone working.

Need for speed

Just to show I'm not totally a motorhead, here's my time-trial rig. Going fast under your own steam a few times a week is great therapy for my day job in a cubicle. It's also great conditioning for trail riding, when you need to be able to toss around a heavy KLR on rocky roads for hours on end.

Cater to your stomach

One of my cycling buddies is Ken Harper, Executive Chef and proprietor of ChopChop Catering. Ken's a budding road rider out in the gorgeous banjo-picking country we call home. As an accomplished, thoughtful and well-travelled chef he never fails to impress with excellent food and astounding tales of world travel. I encourage you to give him a call if you're looking to impress a crowd with a special dinner.

Eastern Ontario trail network

The "E" trail in Eastern Ontario is one of the main backcountry routes through some spectacular scenery. Judging by all the signs that have appeared along the trail this spring, you now need a trail pass to access this route without risking a fine. Whatever; I got the pass ("Gold Pass", $149--see thetrail.ca or pick one up at Carson's in Perth) so now I ride guilt-free. :-)

Here's a pic of the typical terrain. Knobbies highly recommended but not entirely necessary unless you're on a heavy bike or are comfortable sliding around on gravel dual-track. Bathing suit a nice accessory--there are many clear lakes to jump into on hot days.


There's a wealth of interesting dualsport riding near my small town of Almonte, in Eastern Ontario. In this blog I'll share some of my riding experiences in and around Lanark County so you can see what there is to explore here.

Although this blog is ostensibly about dualsport motorcycling, in fact I'm addicted to pretty much any form of two-wheeled fun. That includes bicycling--either road riding or mountain biking. Both motorized and self-propelled cycling offer unique opportunities to explore and enjoy the backcountry. I like bicycling because it's quiet, great exercise, and let's you see all kinds of details about your surroundings. I like motorcycling because it extends my range and gets me into areas where it would be impractical for me to ride my bike. So I'll cover both forms of two-wheeled fun here, because I find them complementary and fun.

On to my motorbike (for now).

I ride a 2002 KLR 650. It's an ugly warthog, but the perfect bush tool for out here. I've looked at a lot of other rides and keep coming back to this thing. My upgrades are progressive fork springs, Arrowhead doohickey (highly recommended: I've done three KLRs and two doos were snapped, with one ready to break), Moose skid plate, Maier handguards, upgraded subframe bolts, IMS moto pegs, T-junctions carb breather, and Kenda 270 tire on the rear with Pirelli MT21 knobby on the front and heavy duty tubes. The tire combo is a good compromise out here and I recommend it highly. Actually, all the upgrades have saved my bacon at some point and I wouldn't consider anything less as a starting point for riding the backcountry here.

To get the most out of trail opportunities in Eastern Ontario, I recommend getting an ATV trail pass. Look for "The Gold Pass", which costs $149 for a year and gives access to an amazing network of snowmobile and ATV trails across the province. While I regret all the increased regulation on pretty much aspect of our lives these days, I understand the need for a trail pass and support the efforts of the thetrail.ca, the body that has taken on the role of developing and promoting responsible trail networks and usage across Ontario.

One of my personal projects over the past couple of years has been putting together a trail ride from Almonte to Bon Echo Provincial Park. I've done all but a small section of it, either on foot/bike/motorbike. Of course, it's not just about the riding; I'm also quite interested in the local history, so finding and exploring pioneer trails and ghost towns is all part of the experience.

I'll cover some of my routes in followup posts. If you want to join me, drop me a line and let's arrange something.