On a long enough timeline, every cyclist leaves the road.
I spent a lot of time trying to turn my cyclocross bike into a mountain bike, bravely and recklessly pushing where no road bike geometry should reasonably go. I crashed on single-track in Colorado, spun out my tires on the icy slopes of Mt. Greylock, and hiked with bike on shoulders to the summit of the Hurricane Mountain Road in NH.
Now, I’ve got a mountain bike, and it feels like cheating.
Aside from the identity crisis I’m having, this has truly been an eye-opening experience. Mountain bike geometry and the clearance for truly wide tires has an astronomical effect on control and handling off-road. For my first mountain bike ride, ever, I took this new steel out to the Amethyst Brook trail network, a favorite haunt of mine that sits just a mile outside my front door.
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Trail conditions varied, from un-muddy puddles over frozen hardpack to crunchy snow and ice. I saw about every condition I could think of for the season, and I did just as much technical climbing as I did descending. After something like 10,000 miles of riding on touring bikes, my bike handling skills are better than average, but the half-second of sheer gut-wrenching terror that follows a bad wheel slip is something that takes some getting used to. I pushed my speed and challenged the hardest parts of the route, but I had reservations about some of the really bad sections where trail and ephemeral stream are indistinguishable.
But honestly, how can I complain?
The weather was much better than I expected after the inch of sleet we had the previous evening. The trail was frozen solid, so I wasn’t at risk of tearing anything up with my tires. On the contrary, despite the occasional spin over wet leaves, I felt like my traction was the definition of positive. I was crawling over roots and rocks like a tank, and the confidence inspired some speedy descents down some of the steeper stuff, like the pebble-ridden log flume pictured above.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses. This brook was bone-dry in November, but snowmelt has restored the babble. I didn’t try tearing straight up it; I could criss-cross back and forth to drier ground, although I did end up submerging my rim in a few places. I was glad they built the bridges as high as they did; Amethyst Brook itself was bursting at the banks.
Overall, mountain biking felt more like a homecoming than a new activity. I’ve spent so much time braving singletrack and technical trail on my cyclocross rig, having access to the extra tire real estate and the flat bars feels like a natural extension of a skillset I’ve already been developing. There were, however, some new lessons that made themselves obvious out on the trail:
- I felt inclined to keep my weight on the back tire during slippery ascents. Too much, though, and I’d risk toppling backwards.
- I kept more pressure on the front brake than the rear on descents, modulated! Hydraulic brakes are easy to lock up, throwing me off my seat.
- A 35mm tire just can’t compare to a 2.4-inch.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my monstercross bike, and my baby isn’t going anywhere. This bike, however, just plain floats. My stable has grown to three, and steel is definitely still real.
Now I just need to name her..