A couple of years of riding a 35-lb. freeride bike had left me wondering if I would ever get back to alpine epics, the kind of riding that sucked me into mountain biking 15 years ago and turned me onto the great mtb community. Don’t get me wrong, I love White Flite, my pearl Intense 6.6. It showed me a whole different way of riding a bike, gave me a whole new skill set and introduced me to a whole lot of ways to crash. But the freeride universe was wearing a bit thin. Whistler, Galbraith and the few other big-hit places have only so many trails. You can ride only so many logs, skinnies and drops (or not) before you say, OK, I get the drill. As for regular trail riding on a near-7-inch barcalounger, it’s fun going down. The other way, um, not so much!
The result is, you don’t do 6-8 hour rides with 4k or more of climbing. You might actually ride that long, but on a big bike you’re looking at shuttles, maybe chairlifts and a lot of circling, sessioning and repetitioning. And you’re always around clusters of people. Sometime this summer, while recuperating from a sore knee caused by a diversion to a truly dangerous and evil sport, tennis, I began to hanker for a return to the all-day meditational trek far from the madding crowd.
Now Palisades isn’t exactly the Chilcotins, or even Stanley. You’re going to encounter plenty of humanity at the trail heads and along the route. But it seemed like a good re-entry point for epic consciousness. I’d been away long enough that I wasn’t sure I could handle a bucket load of elevation gain. I wasn’t even sure I could ride skinny ribbons of powder and rock with precipitous drops to one side. Yeah, it might all come back to me in a flash. But closing in on 60, I might also be way over the hill, so to speak. As Turtle, another veteran of the mtb wars, recently put it to me, too many guys of a certain vintage seem to be going over to the moto set. (By the way, Bob, if you ever find me aboard some smog-belching, gear-whining, trail-trashing abomination of steel and rubber, you have permission to take me out behind the barn and shoot me.)
So I decided to do a trail I recalled as one of the “easier” epics. I called up Jim Lyon and, even though still on the mend from a shoulder injury himself, he was game.
There was just one problem. I needed a bike.
After I got White Flite I kind of forgot about the whole lightweight XC thing. The only vestige left from those days was my Turner XCE, a circa 2002 predecessor to the return of the Burner, which has now I believe morphed into the Flux. Its 4 inches of travel was once a major breakthrough. After riding almost double that, though, you can’t go home again.
Fortunately Jim had months earlier turned me onto the Ibis Mojo, a 5.5-inch, 5.75-lb. carbon-fiber sylph being produced out of Scotts Valley CA by way of Taiwan. Jim had meticulously scoped the long-trail lightweight market and settled on this one for himself. Nobody likes to be a copycat, but you have to remember that Jim, among a host of other talents, is a research librarian. Why waste precious cycles when someone else has already nailed it. I was thankful for Jim’s early notice, because it took me 3 months to get hold of one and, thanks to recent reviews, including a cover cameo in the upcoming November issue of Mountain BIke Action, the wait is expanding by the nanosecond. Swapping parts from the XCE and adding new goodies like a Pace RC41 Fighter thru-axle carbon fork, Double Ti eggbeaters and XTR cranks, I managed to get the build weight below 27 lbs. I was so proud till I checked with Jim, who was closing in on 25. Among his other many talents, Jim is a racer. He knows weenie like Lindsay Lohan knows rehab.
Thus was Team Mojo born! And what better way to test the new coalition than riding up a hellaciously steep, 6-mile gravel purgatory of a fire road? I picked Jim up in Moby, which swallowed the two bikes like a couple of Jonahs, and we headed for Corral Pass. After getting signals crossed about where we should park, we decided on the White River Trail head a bit up the road. My preference was, and will remain, parking at the Skookum trail head to put that bit of climbing at the beginning rather than end of the ride.
Getting out onto the road brought back lots of memories. The IMBA epic with the BBTC gang a few years ago. Running into a Japanese scavenger with huge bags of $150-a-pound mushrooms (see the Aug. 20 New Yorker for fascinating piece on this crowd). Marveling at Loomis motoring up that nasty riser before the Rainier breakout. Discovering cell coverage at the Ranger Creek lean-to. Jack Tomkinson and friends, riding mountain tandem(!) around the rocky promontories above the air strip. Trying to keep up with Mire on the rippers down Palisades. Grooving on Preston’s artful negotiation of the killer switchbacks near bottom. And the mountain, always the mountain. It’s looked progressively more anemic over the years, what with global warming and winter depradation, but there’s lots of snow still left this time around and its magnificence and splendor remain in full glory.
We weren’t five minutes up the grade before two lads in a 4-by PU drove up alongside and said hi. “It’s a long way up!” they warned us. “Hop in the back, we’ll save you the trouble.”
It may be a sign of advancing age, or maybe senility, that I actually considered the offer. Corral Pass is a nasty, relentless, gravel-toothed, dust-choked grunt made all the more unbearable by constant switchbacks that you always hope are the last one, only to be cruelly disillusioned with each turn. And, at least till you near the top, the grade never lets go.
But I asked myself, sheesh, if I shuttle up am I really marking a return to epic riding? From Noble Knob the ride is pretty much all downhill. I’d get back to Moby having barely raised a sweat. We explained we needed the training and thanked them for their generosity. But I had to wonder as they motored off if we’d made a serious mistake.
The next thing I realized was that I’d forgotten to pump up my tires. Corral Pass is bad enough on full inflation, but slack rubber turns ineluctable pain into outright masochism. I stopped to add some air with my Crank Bros. dual-action pump and promptly pulled the stem out of my rear tube valve. Good Lord. It’d been long enough since I had a flat that I’d forgotten you have to disengage the pump head before you pop it off the valve. I swapped out my tube, noting ruefully that I was carrying a 2.50-rated “extra phat” freeride spare to replace my 90-gram “superlite” tube. Oh well, what’s another quarter pound when you’re having fun!
The rest of the ride up was pretty much pedal pushing, with a couple of breaks on pretense of adjusting my saddle height or fiddling with my shock. Jim was kind and understanding and thankfully did nearly all the talking, as I could only muster wheezes and moans. We got caught up on politics, music, current events and the meaning of life, all of which we can discuss segueing to and from an infinite number of mtb topics. The one consolation was the absolutely perfect weather. Sunny but cool with a slight breeze. If anything can make Corral Pass even less joyous, it’s broiling summer heat up the long grind.
I’ve been more tired at the top than this time around. But then again, I used to ride Corral Pass at full bore, what I thought of as “scampering” up the hill. The downside of a 35-lb. bike is that you don’t do the long climbs. But there’s an upside, too, which is that the heavy metal makes a 26-lb. bike seem like riding on air. As Jim put it, White Flite is like weight training. Checking the stopwatch, though, I realized I’d lost a lot of zip from the layoff. Oh well, speed is overrated (going up anyway!).
At the parking lot we ran into a couple grizzled hikers who seemed pretty fascinated with our plastic steeds. They were headed to the Knob. Pretty soon up roared a couple of mtb-laden vehicles and out jumped a gang in downhill regalia, full-faced helmets and pads. It’s interesting to note that all the other riders we ran into this day were shuttlers. I can remember when things were just the opposite, but times change.
At the top I once again tried to divine the mysteries of the RP23 rear shock, with its cheeseball levers, dials and settings. Do you think a company could make a $400 shock with a trace of design intuition? After consulting with Jim and doing some ad hoc testing, we decided that flipping the blue lever left meant the shock was engaged (full travel). We headed up the familiar trail, passing dogs and hikers and those funny little ground squirrels, or maybe they were chipmunks. Whatever.
I soon realized that I was pretty shaky on the Mojo. An XC bike steers a lot quicker than a boinger, it has a lot less rolling momentum, you don’t use your body weight as much for handling, and on and on. I felt like I was on rollerblades for the first time. Adding to its twitchiness were my new rotors and pads, making Hayes’ usual grabbiness more like returning back to Vs. After clipping more than a few rocks and roots and struggling to make the bike go where I wanted, I realized I’d just have to take it a lot slower than past rides. This is harder than it sounds, because your mind and muscles remember a ride like Palisades and want to do what they did before, irrespective of your comfort level. But the views were just as awe-inspiring and we were both reveling in the psychology of high-country rolling. Plus the trail was in stellar condition, tacky and only marginally dusty in places.
We took a lunch break at the viewpoint of Rainier, but funny thing. When we went back to our bikes, I was about to mount up when Jim said, “Um, that’s my bike.” There are drawbacks to riding “team builds.” Jim does have the flashy red Martas while I’m standard issue Hayes. I have my own set of Martas on order, but they’ll be gold. Just so we can tell the bikes apart. Jim always has clever names for things and christened his ride “Mojito,” the diminutive of Mojo that also refers to a wicked Cuban cocktail. After some deliberation I decided on the African relative “Juju.”
We did the switchbacks down from Noble Knob, kerbumped the rocky ravine, rode back up to the Ranger Creek Y (almost taking that tempting, but wrong, right fork at the top) and soon enough found ourselves at the lean-to. I had no desire to call anyone, in fact the mere thought seemed curiously alien. This was taking me back, recharging my mtb batteries, transporting me to a hallowed time and place. Wow. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it all.
It was on the final run down Palisades, after the next-to-last promontory, that the real redux kicked in. It felt so great to have mile after mile of singletrack with endless flow, where you didn’t have to focus every scintilla of your being on rockface plunges or shaky teeters or some mossy obstacle, where it wasn’t all about avoiding peril or pushing your skills, where you could just float on and enter a different dimension of being. By now the brakes had burned in and I was adapting to the featherweight of Juju. “To me this is what mountain biking is all about,” Jim said during a break. “Getting totally lost in the ride.”
Eventually we hit the Palisades endgame, the switchbacked, rock-walled drainage where you have to carry your bike down the ladder and maneuver around all manner of roots and rocks. I thought about how on the IMBA ride, with the national coordinators in tow, BBTCers discussed rerouting this section into something cool, and how there was a lot of stroking of chins and nodding of heads, and how nothing has been done since. Then I thought about how much time I’d be willing to put into such a project when I could be out riding instead, and I understood why.
The rest of the ride, White River trail, is mostly uphill but in a rolling kind of way. Some folks bail and ride the pavement back to Buck Creek parking lot, but no matter how trashed I feel I can’t pass up singletrack. At one point Jim stopped and said, “You’re gonna hate me for the rest of your life.” Turns out we’d had the shock switched off the entire way down. Now “off” with the RP23 means ProPedal, which is really just a threshold level to prevent bob. So the shocks were still marginally active. But it would’ve been a whole lot nicer to have the full travel, especially on the root and water-bar jumps near the lower trail. Thinking back, though, I figured out where we went wrong. At elevation, air shocks tighten up from higher pressure. There’s a good chance that the ProPedal and “off” settings were nearly identical up near Noble Knob. At any rate, now we knew. Lever right is full travel. Left is ProPedal. Number “1” is softest, “3” is firmest. Half an inch of sag, four clicks on red for rebound and you’re good to go!
We ran into a couple of shuttlers heading to their car, and later the gravity gang we’d seen at the top. They’d come down something, maybe Deep Creek, and were riding back to their base pickup. I dunno. Add together the drive up Corral Pass twice and back down once, and you could walk those bikes to the top and save yourself some time.
Jim and I said hi but, as is often the case with downhillers, they ignored our hellos. Maybe they look at XCers and think wuss. Maybe all the gear cuts them off from communicating with the outside world. Maybe they just aren’t sociable types. But if they’re passing judgment, it’s the wrong strategy. I allowed as how they may feel defensive, knowing that we earned our verts while they were carpetbagging XC turf. Whatever, it’s sad karma when we’re all in this dirt bag together.
The tableau did remind me, though, of how segmented mountain biking has become. Juju is a whole different ballgame from White Flite. Downhilling is a whole other proposition. Here’s what I think. Riding the shuttles and lifts, that’s downhilling. Riding the chutes ‘n ladders, that’s freeriding.
But riding the trails for the sheer joy of being in nature, feeling the sun on your face and wind on your skin, and finding yourself in a land far, far way — that is what you call mountain biking.