Paul Andrews

Ride Classics: Sun Valley’s Wolftone Creek

In Mountain Bike Trail Reviews, Multi-Day Trips on December 14, 2009 at 2:26 am

Note: Over the holidays the incredible news machine that is Bike Intelligencer inevitably slackens as cyclists of all bent don funny little pointed sticks or funny fat flat sticks and head for trails covered by snow.

We of course ride in snow. But we of course are nuts.

In any case, the holidays seem like a good time to run Bike Intelligencer “Classics” — that is, stories from our archives enabling readers to dream the big dreams about next spring, summer and fall. At the end of the day, all we have are our stories. If they involve bikes, they have to be good.

We’ll start with hands down the most memorable mountain bike adventure we’ve ever had, our 5-day stint in the Sun Valley-Stanley region of Idaho the summer of 2003. Because there isn’t much for the big-hit crowd in Sun Valley, it typically gets overlooked in a compendium of great MTB rides. Yet for everything BUT big hit, it’s the best place to ride phat. I took along the camcorder and helmet cam, and YouTube links are provided, but please forgive the lousy resolution. This is ancient equipment by today’s standards — the helmet cam alone took 8 AA batteries and didn’t even give TV resolution. Still, our humble package gives you an idea of the gut-sucking sweep of Idaho’s XC joys.

The Incredible Lightness of Biking

(Being the continuation of the nascent friendship of Paul and Jim, who on Day 2 decide to try not to get lost on Wolftone Creek in Sun Valley, Idaho.)

After we’d pulled into Baker City the night before, I’d called my wife to report our progress. She asked me about my ride buddy Jim Lyon. What did he do for a living? (Library/information technical services at Lynnwood High School.) Did he have a wife? (Yes, Tamara.) Any kids? (A 13-year-old son, Cedar.)

What else could I tell her about him?

“Well, I dunno,” I said lamely. “I’m just getting to know him.”

“Well, what did you talk about on the drive over?” Cecile wanted to know.

I paused for a moment. “Um, bikes,” I said.

“Bikes? You spent eight hours talking about bikes?”

“Well, there’s a lot to say about bikes,” I said. “They’re quite fascinating.”

It’s true. It was like a blood-brothers ceremony, an mtb bonding, placing pen-knife cut on cut in a secret rite. Before you can know the mountain biker, you must know the mountain biker’s bike.

Jim is into the incredible lightness of biking — a Truth tricked out with more lightweight elements than the Periodic Table. A racer, he knows all the corners to cut: Magura Marta discs, titanium bb, Eggbeater Triple-Ti pedals, Selle Italia SLR saddle. The real kicker is what must be the last ultraviolet Chris King headset left on this planet. It actually sets off his Ellsworth blue rather nicely.

I’d woken up early, around 4:20 a.m., to catch a fading glimpse of Mars’ copper brilliance before dawn. From the time I had a morning paper route as a kid, I’ve been a morning person. I get up, pop a bunch of vitamin pills and am ready to go in about 15 minutes. Over the years I’ve never met anyone with quite the a.m. pepper I have, but Jim is right up there. I can’t eat a real breakfast – never have been able to – so keep things basic: I make a fruit juice mix of protein powder, vitamin C powder and 7 gel pills (I separate the gelatin capsules and pour the contents into the juice mix), shake it all up and wash it down with another 8 multi-vitamins and supplements. I keep it all in a little clear-plastic organizer, and Jim got to calling me the pharmacist. He preferred a more conventional starter of tea and a huge bowl of cold cereal (actually he likes hot breakfasts but we were camping), but the bottom line is, breakfast was simply a necessary fueling up for the day’s adventure.

Day II found me following Jim’s instructions to Deer Creek Road south of Ketchum about 10 miles. I pointed the van onto Hwy 75 and we engaged in one of our long deconstructionist discussions about whatever topic it was: politics, mtbs, education, music. Soon I noticed we were in Hailey. Hey, wasn’t the turnoff supposed to be before now?

We’d both been keeping an eye out for the sign, but nothing had showed. We U-turned and headed back up the road a piece, only to find a quite prominent green sign indicating Deer Creek Road to the left. Apparently only one sign per turnoff is allocated in Idaho, and in this case the northbound traffic got the roll.

Deer Creek Road is pavement for awhile, then turns into washboard rougher than Grandma Pickleby’s. Moby Dick was none too happy, so I took it slow. We eventually arrived at the Wolftone Creek/Deer Creek trailhead and got ready to ride some fire road up the drainage – a term we much preferred to the ubiquitous “gulch.” Gulch just isn’t a pretty word, sounding like a cross between a winged scavenger and a bodily function, but Idahoans must love it. Sun Valley is Gulches Gone Wild.

I’d decided that, after the buff trails of the previous day, I would dust off my Titus titanium hardtail – I call it the Mouse, after Roaring Mouse Cycles in San Francisco, where I got it — for the Wolftone ride. Jim’s Ellsworth had a pronounced weight advantage over my full suss Turner Burner, but the “Truth” was I couldn’t keep up with Jim no matter how light I went, even on a hardtail. As it turned out, right out of the gate I was in trouble. The XTR drivetrain was acting up, kicking me out of my 2nd and 3rd cog. I could stay on the big cog (first gear) and the fourth, but nothing in between. Given all the climbing ahead, I was going to need those gears.

I started a litany of adjustments, checking first the dropout alignment. Ti doesn’t bend that easily, and it looked straight. Perhaps the rear derailleur had gotten bent, but no, it was pretty spot on. I fiddled with it just in case, but nothing worked. I then turned to the barrel adjusters, first the front, then the rear. Fine tuning helped a bit, but ultimately the problem kept recurring.

This was driving me crazy. I’m a fanatic about keeping my bikes in top running order. You don’t want to go to Sun Valley and hassle with mechanicals. What could it be?

The ride was pretty much ruined for me after that. I struggled up the hills and enjoyed the views, but when you’re missing two crucial gears it detracts from the overall experience. Fortunately much of the climb was doubletrack and I could spin or jam, depending on the incline.

After a nice stretch of singletrack, mostly downhill, we topped out on a ridge at a crossroads. One sign said Curran Gulch, the other Kinsey Creek. But as often happens with trail signs, which one pointed which way was left a little too much to the imagination. Jim scouted out a riser but reported back that it dribbled off into nothingness. We decided to follow the majority of the tracks down.

What followed was a series of whoop-de-dos and stutter bumps that got us pretty good air in places and dropped us down along a cool creek bed. Soon we hit another trail intersection and it became clear we’d come down the wrong way – on Kinsey instead of Curran. Not to worry – the majority of tracks told us we’d taken the preferred route. It had cut 2 miles or so from our overall, but as Jim put it, Hey, it’s all good.

From there it was a fairly quick jaunt back to the van. If my drivetrain hadn’t been acting up I would’ve proposed an additional loop around the north fork of Deer Creek, which would’ve put us into epic range. As it was, I wanted to get back to town and get the bike looked at. We also were due at some friends of mine’s place by 6 p.m. for a dinner invitation.

At Elephant’s Perch, Ketchum’s best bike shop, John the Wrench fiddled with the Mouse and had only marginally better luck than I at getting the gearing to take. We were both kind of scratching our heads when I mentioned that, in anticipation of the trip, I’d replaced all the cable and housing just a week or so earlier. John took another look, then exclaimed, “Wait a minute! This is brake housing!”

Whoa! I’d noticed when I put on the new housing that it was a bit flexy compared to the old, but figured the old stuff was just brittle with age. I thought back to where I’d gotten the housing, from Aurora Cycle. I’d asked for shifter, they’d given me brake. At least, I thought I’d asked for shifter. I knew I hadn’t specified brake: Since I run hydraulic brakes on all my bikes, I have no need for brake cable housing.

Still, I felt like a real idiot for not noticing. John pulled the housing and cables, replaced everything and I was good to go. He charged me all of $7.50, so I tipped him a fiver. It was worth it to me just to know what the source of the problem was. And I got another lesson in bike maintenance for the tips page.

We had a great dinner with my friends after enjoying drinks out on the patio with two other couples. They were all former Northwest airline pilots and gave us a short course on the economic woes faced by airlines – high capitalization, a hub-and-spoke system everyone hates and that doesn’t work, is wasteful and inefficient, and pricing competition that leaves no one profitable. The one airline making it, Southwest, doesn’t use hub and spoke. Business travelers have abandoned airlines because of having to fly to Charleston on the way from Seattle to Chicago, stuff like that. Man is it a mess. It makes it so the only air you want to do is on your bike.

We got back and crashed, but I slept fitfully, awakening again around 3:30 a.m. to see Mars blazing away as it approached its nearest orbit to earth in centuries. I didn’t have to worry. The next three days were going to be one big long Idah “O.” Everything was about to get better, thanks to the Lyon King.

Wolftone Creek elevation gain: 2,550 feet. Time: 3:12.

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