Wednesday, November 18, 2015

MTB Vallee Bras-du-Nord

In mid-August a large group of us from the Ottawa area finally coordinated a much-anticipated weekend trip to the impressive Vallee Bras-du-Nord trail centre. Located about 45 minutes west of Quebec City, VBN has, in only a few years, risen from undeveloped obscurity to become a premiere riding destination in the north-east. What's made this possible is a savvy partnership with the Kingdom Trails Association in Vermont to tap trail design and management expertise. Equally important, they've also bagged some $900,000 of investment to build over 100km of cross-country oriented single track and other tourist infrastructure in the area. For the riders in my posse it all added up to FUN.

The VBN website has good information about activities in the area and fantastic pics and videos, but is a little lacking in practical info for first-time visitors. So I'm going to focus on a few things that should make a weekend trip to VBN a lot easier to figure out.

Getting there

We drove from Ottawa which is about 5 hours west of St. Raymond. This meant getting past the traffic mess that is Montreal. Autoroute 50 through Gatineau and over the top of Montreal is an excellent way to bypass the mess. Highly recommended.

Where to stay

St. Raymond is the main town in the area and the most convenient base for riding. The VBN website lists several options (mostly B&Bs or small inns) and many of these are well suited to contain bikers. However, things book up fast on weekends. The best option seems to be the Hotel Roquemont on the edge of town, right at the trailhead of one of the two main trail networks in the area. It contains an information centre where you can buy trail passes and, more importantly, a very good brew-pub restaurant. Across the parking lot is a bike rental centre sponsored by Rocky Mountain where you can also buy spare parts, get your bike serviced, and change into riding clothes. There's lots of parking and a free bike wash. Even if you don't stay here, this is a good starting point for your first rides in the area.

We were unable to reserve accommodation in St. Raymond and ended up renting a house in a hamlet on Route 367 about 10 minutes northwest of town. It was spartan but clean and affordable, and included WiFi and a fully stocked kitchen and two fridges so we could cook our own meals. This is a great option for larger groups although it does mean driving for 20 minutes or so to reach the trails.

Below is the view from the patio of our rental house. Right behind the trees is a rails-to-trails path that appears to be part of the popular Route Verte network. Although we didn't explore this trail, we did see many road-oriented riders on it--especially on the section that passes through St. Raymond.

Where to ride

We were fortunate to have a local contact--the awesome Paul--who knew the trails intimately and directed us on a good exploration of the riding options. Here's the itinerary we followed for a 3-day long weekend. Refer to the official trail map (copies available at the information centre and online) for details.

Day 1
Since we drove down in the morning, we only had half a day to ride. After getting lunch and passes at the Hotel Roquemont, we hit the trails of the St. Raymond sector right out of the hotel parking lot. These consisted of flowy, switchbacked routes over predominantly sandy ground through pine and hardwood forest backing onto a ski hill. Unfortunately it was pouring rain, but the excellent drainage of the soil meant that traction was good and mud minimal. Lots of roots in places and some fast, narrow downhills with tight corners, jumps, and whoops kept us both exhilarated and exhausted. This area makes a good warm-up and introduction to the area. We ended up riding a few sections several times before winding our way back to the parking lot, tuckered out from having to climb back up the ski hill several times on each loop.

Day 2
For us, the real gem of the area is the trail network at Shannahan Sector. Compared to the rolling countryside around St. Raymond, the land at Shannahan rises dramatically into a glacial valleys with bare cliffs, steep hillsides, and dense mixed pine and hardwood forest. It looks a lot like parts of Alaska and really makes you feel like you've traveled somewhere special, far from home.

Considerable investment has gone into developing the welcome centre at the Shanahan trailhead. Here you'll find ample parking and access to myriad other activities, including kayaking and canoeing on the river nearby, and Via Ferrata on the cliff looming over the parking lot. The area is popular with families but not crowded. There's also the option here to rent a yurt for accommodation, complete with a hand-pulled cart to bring all your stuff into the woods.

We started with a few warm-up loops on the machine-built trails immediately after the suspension bridge (isn't that an awesome bridge!?). These roll over packed sandy soil and make a fine introduction to the flavour of the area.

Ranging further, we then hit the stunning Chute a Gilles (known locally as Chute de Gilles because of all the times Gilles crashed on it) which passes through a waterfall.

This led on to Grand Ourse and then Petite Ourse, where there's a great place to have lunch under the bridge. No mosquitoes!

The flagship trail here is La Neilson which we saved for the afternoon. It requires a 40 minute climb up a steep gravel fire road before dipping into the woods and following a magic carpet ride of downhill XC bliss over rocks and bridges. It's a tough workout both up and down, but the stunning scenery and breathtaking flow are absolutely worth the effort. However, you've got to be on your game: this is not an easy trail and pretty much everyone wiped out at some point. In my case it was a slow-speed high-side when I came across some riders stopped on the trail and lost my balance, falling down a slope and injuring my shoulder. This section of the trail is still under development and was simply not rideable in places, especially where there was deep mud. Fortunately there's a natural bike wash on the roadside where you exit the trail. The water was potable (and delicious!), and in our case it allowed our wheels to turn again.

Ending the day with a cold beer and dip in the river was heaven.

Day 3
With everyone nursing aches and pains from the day before, we returned to Shannahan for a few hours of easy riding on the trails on the other side of the suspension bridge and to the far left. These are all textbook trails right out of the IMBA manual and lots of fun to play on. Then it was another wash in the river and time to head home.


The riding was perfect for a 29er on the more enduro end of the XC spectrum. Given all the climbing required, you will appreciate a light bike. The trails are bumpy but nothing that 4-5" of travel can't eat up. Tires like the Nobby Nic are perfect in wet conditions; a hardpack tire would be fine in drier conditions, but beware that the sand will also loosen up and require knobs. It is essential to bring chain lube and use it often--especially in wet conditions.

I was running a 32T single front ring with a standard 10-speed MTB cassette and would've appreciated having a 30T on the front to make climbing when tired a little easier. Compared to riding around Ottawa or even Kingdom Trails, I found I used the lower end of my gearing a lot more (and for longer) at VBN.


VBN is a great alternative to Kingdom Trails for Canadian riders stung by our lousy exchange rate. The St. Raymond area also has much to offer in terms of accommodation and restaurants, road riding, canoeing, and climbing. It was also tremendously popular for motorcycle touring. The people are friendly and helpful, and there was a cheery vibe especially at Shannahan. I'll be heading back next season for sure.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Last DS ride of the season - Almonte to Sharbot Lake

Two weekends ago, with temperatures in the low teens and only spotty precipitation on the radar, it was too tempting to squeeze in one last ride despite it being the first day of hunting season. Obviously the bush trails would be off the menu. However, there's no shortage of good gravel roads where you can travel safely as long as you're wearing bright colors and watch for the lines of hunters trucks and quads staging off into the woods.

The loop (GPX file here) takes a scenic route along roads and dual track, with a long section of the abandoned K&P rail bed being the most technical (and that's not technical at all). It's suitable for any size of DS bike, full knobbies not required--although they will make it easier. Total time at a leisurely pace with lunch stop in Sharbot Lake is about 5 hours.

I only made it as far as Clyde Forks before the cold started to have its way with me.

Time to pull on the rain layer of my Olympia suit. Happily (this was my first time testing the rain layer), it kept me comfortably toasty for the rest of the ride--except for the toes of my left foot, which had been soaked in a long puddle. Might have to consider some new boots for next season.

Although I've ridden the K&P many times, I'd never followed it all the way down to Sharbot Lake. This was just north of Highway 7.

Sharbot Lake was the main central point of the K&P rail line running north/south from Kingston to Renfrew, and the line running east/west between Toronto and Ottawa. It's all gone now except for this caboose and some other relics at the site where the station used to be. This place was hopping with activity in the heyday of the railway at the end of the 1800s. 

Unfortunately the caboose was closed for the season. 

The way back meandered along rural roads with lost rock farms, sweeping curves and hills, and beautiful scenery. Classic DS riding. This was an old farm along the Kingston Road.

Not long after this, on my way through McDonald's Corners, I hit squalls of hail and rain. Again, the Olympia suit proved its merit and I remained toasty warm. The hood feature on the rain jacket slides under the helmet and prevents cold stuff from running down your back. Very nice once you get it adjusted, although the front neck piece was a little flimsy. 

There's a secret back way out of the ghost community of Lamermoor. Two years ago I met an old woman who lives on a farm nearby. She had lots of stories to tell and I'll have to visit her again. This is one of my favorite locations. 

Now the WR's put away for the season and it's safe to go back in the bush and build trails. 

The best trail I didn't ride

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take the family on an epic tour this summer had us road-tripping down the west coast from Vancouver to the giant redwoods of Humboldt State Park in northern California. This was indeed Endor:

Pictures really don't do it justice. This was along the Avenue of the Giants, a 40km narrow road through old-growth forest with 300'+ trees. You'd want to ride this without a helmet--and slowly--to fully appreciate the view. 

Unfortunately, being bikeless (and renting was logistically not an option for me), it was pure torture to pass so many storied trail areas--particularly in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. This was an area that I'd first read about in the late 80's and have dreamed about riding in ever since.

Although there are many fine rides in the Willamette, a headline destination has to be the McKenzie River Trail. It's a 40+ km epic along the Willamette River that's often voted the best ride in North America. Best I could do was stand at the trailhead, hold my hands out like they were on bars, and run like a little kid pretending I was on a bike.

No, seriously, just look again at that buff tread. Where's the clay? The baby heads? The snot-slick roots? I tell ya, these Oregonians are SPOILED.

On to practical matters. The start of the trail is an innocuous pull-out on the side of a 2-lane secondary road. We stumbled across it by accident; there are a zillion such pull-outs and we just happened to stop here, a small dusty parking lot after a rutted dirt track up near Fish Lake (the top of the map). And it was just what I was looking for!

Lots of history too. Can't imagine taking a wagon over this. 

From the parking lot it's onto this bridge and then downhill for the next 40 km. 

Locals said it takes about 3-5 hours to ride one way (downhill) and is technical in spots--especially over the lava. 

Hmm, while that trail did look way nicer than our stuff at home, we don't get much in the way of lava. This stuff was chunky, sharp, and nasty. Guaranteed to shred tires--or bodies, if you happen to wipe out. Here's a pile of the stuff in the woods. There were flows like this all over the area. 

There's really not much in the way of local infrastructure. The area is relatively remote, with a few seasonal services and not much else. This motel and restaurant were a few minutes away from the upper trailhead, but you'd need to arrange a shuttle to either end to make a day of it practical. Hard core riders start at the bottom, ride up and then back down. I'd be into that.

Good chow here and ridiculous huge portions.

Still not convinced? Watch this:

Portland, Oregon

Spent July exploring down the west coast from Alaska to California. Unfortunately it wasn't on a bike, but we did some nice rides along the way. Portland in particular was a festival of bikes, beer, and babes like no other city on earth.

The neighborhood where we stayed was parade-central for exotic rides.

This vintage BMW was par for the course:

What kind of Honda was this? Immaculate, gorgeous!

Our hotel was next to the Ural dealership. Hipster central. 

By good fortune we were able to meet up with my stepfather Mike for a couple of days. He left in June from London, Ontario, on a motorcycle road trip up to northern Alberta, then looped down the west coast to San Diego. 22,000 km later, in mid September, he made it back home. What a trip!

Portland is at the top of the list of places to where I would seriously consider moving. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

WR250R clutch plate service

With 14,000 km of dual sport riding on my odometer (5,000 of which appeared to be vigorous by the previous owner), I was curious to see how much my clutch had worn--especially since completing 1000km of trail riding earlier this year in the Roaming Rally. Checking clutch wear on the WRR is actually pretty easy to do and only took me about 45 minutes including picture-taking. You don't even need to drain your engine oil or coolant.

The best reference is of course the shop manual. Here's my simplified version.

1. Remove the cotter pin on the back of the pivot bolt for the rear brake lever, then remove the lever.

2. Remove the three 8mm bolts that secure the black cover. Clean off the gunk that's probably accumulated under the cover and around the perimeter so there's nothing to fall inside your engine once it's open.

3. Remove the 8mm bolts that secure the clutch cover. Then pry off the cover using a fat screwdriver levered behind the little tab at 3 o'clock. Set aside the cover where it won't get contaminated with grit. Now you can see the clutch assembly. 

4. Remove the 10mm silver nut and washer in the centre of the clutch. Note that the clutch actuating rod it's threaded onto spins freely. You may need to hold it in place with a Phillips screwdriver to loosen the nut.

5. Remove the five bolts that cover the clutch springs using either a Phillips screwdriver or 10mm socket.

6. Remove the clutch basket cover and check the outer flange for uneven or excessive wear. It should be shiny and fairly smooth.

7. Slide off the friction plates (7) and metal disks (6), and inspect them for any obvious damage, contamination, or wear. The OEM friction plates use a standard cork wear material.  

8. Using calipers, measure the thickness of the each friction plate across the cork at four locations 90ยบ around the circle. They are fine if 2.90 - 3.10 mm thick. They should be replaced if 2.80 mm or thinner. Happily, all of mine were in the range of 2.95 - 3.10 mm. If you choose to install new cork-based friction plates, be sure to first soak them in clean engine oil before installing them. The cork needs to be saturated with oil or you risk damaging the plates. 

9. Check the metal friction plates for wear or warping. These are unlikely to wear significantly before the cork plates, and it's unlikely you need to replace them. However, the manual recommends checking to see if they are warped by laying them on a reference flat surface. If you can slide a 0.1 mm feeler gauge under a raised area, the plate should be replaced. Since I don't have a reference flat, I just stacked the metal disks together and looked for gaps between them while rotating the disks 90 degrees against each other. No gaps, so probably fine.

10. Check the length of the clutch springs. The spec is 41.20 mm and they should be replaced if 39.14 mm or less. All of mine were in spec. 

11. Now you can put stuff back together, simply reversing the steps above. When you install the clutch springs, first wind them finger tight in a star pattern, then tighten to 8 N-m using a torque wrench. 

12. Install the washer and nut finger-tight onto the centre actuator rod. You may need to use a Phillips screwdriver to keep the rod from spinning. Adjusting the rod (which governs the clutch actuation point on the lever) is simple: turn it clockwise until you feel resistance, then back it off about 1/16 of a turn. Hold it in place with the screwdriver then tighten the nut against it with a 10 mm box wrench. Test it by actuating the clutch lever. If you've tightened the rod too much, the clutch won't fully let out as needed to give the maximum friction provided by the springs. But if you leave the rod too loose, the clutch won't pull in until partway through the lever travel or won't pull in at all. It just takes a few minutes of playing with it to see the adjustment range. Once you're satisfied, tighten the nut to 8 N-m. Beware that using a socket on a torque wrench may mess up your adjustment unless you can somehow use a screwdriver to keep the rod from turning. In the end I just tightened the nut with the box wrench. 8 N-m is not a lot of force -- go easy! 

13.  Install the clutch cover and finger-tighten tighten the bolts in a criss-cross pattern. Then tighten them to 10 N-m, also in a cross-cross pattern. A few of my bolts were corroded so first I wire-brushed them and then gave them a shot of Rock-and-Roll ceramic anti-sieze.

14. Install the black plastic cover and tighten the bolts to 10 N-m. 

15. Lube and install the brake lever. 

So that's it! Fortunately I don't have to replace my clutch friction plates or springs. I called my local Yamaha dealer for pricing (C$) on OEM parts:
  • Steel plates (x6), $13.99 each
  • Cork friction plates (x7), $16.99 each
  • Springs (x5), $4.99 each
Total would've been $225 plus tax!

Aftermarket options were hard to find in Canada. I couldn't find an EBC friction plate kit for the WRR, but there were some options from Barrett and one other company that I can't recall at Canada's Motorcycle. Opinions on various forums range from use the OEM, to good results with EBC, to don't use carbon fibre (gums up your oil), to good results with Kevlar (although it may be too grabby for trail use). 

I also looked at pimping my ride with a Rekluse clutch but they don't make one for the WRR. If they did, it would likely be in the $1000 range by the time I landed it in Canada.