Thursday, January 03, 2008

Bicycle Memories, Part 10; Yanking and Banking

For a time, my bike trail just about became my entire life (a bug's life?). If I had a spare couple of hours I was out on it, either extending the course or just riding on it. My obsession was to finish it and make it perfect, and by the end of April ‘92, as far as I was concerned, it very nearly was.

One of the most interesting terrain features that made my single-track trail near “perfect” lay behind the base lake shoppette area. That was where a stream wound its way toward its drainage point into the base lake. This was the same water course that originated several hundred meters back into the woods at the artesian well part of the farmstead ruins I describe in Part 8.

Putting to good use that stream bed and its steep 4 to 5 foot high clay banks, I designed the track to follow the creek and crisscross it at six points. In some places the banks were almost sheer, forcing a rider to be absolutely committed in order to negotiate a successful traverse. A half-hearted attempt normally resulted in wet feet or a thorough soaking when bike and rider rolled back or crashed down into the water.

During the creek bed build I still wasn’t entirely sure what a mountain bike could do in terms of riding potential. I sort of learned about mechanical capability, and more importantly, my own abilities as a rider, as I went along. It was trial by fire. Still, I didn’t want to install a technical area that was virtually impossible to navigate, but at several of the crossings and jumps I went ahead and set up what I at first considered near unfeasible situations just the same. I don’t know what got into me, but I figured too easy was too lame.

The funny thing is, no matter how difficult each creek crossing seemed at first, within a few attempts I’d figure it out. All I needed was just one success, even if I managed it by accident, or should I say, over the course of several accidents; but once I did it once, I had it figured from there. Usually it was a question of more speed, or just a matter of pulling up on the handlebars and shifting my weight, or all of the above. Every specific challenge area required a different sequence of riding events; some happening so quickly that they were more simultaneous than sequential.

Two of the stream crossings are better described as jumps. As I approached the bank of each I stood up to speed up and mentally screamed, “Charge!” There were various sized rocks down in the water and they shifted to new positions every time I rolled across and over them. Charging off the 4-foot stream bank I pulled the front wheel up and shifted all my weight over the back wheel. In my mind I visualized the front wheel as weightless, for even a moment’s lack of concentration could cause it to catch a rock or refuse to properly bounce up and over a hidden obstacle. If the front wheel stopped that meant going over the handlebars—not a good thing since it almost always hurt to do that. From experience, it wasn’t the flight that hurt, it was the landing. And yes, I managed to do that more than a few times.

Surviving the excitement of launching off a muddy bank and a splash landing into the middle of a foot-deep stream was only half the battle. After the rolling splashdown into the water it was crucial that all speed be maintained, not only to keep the bicycle rolling over the rocks and through the muck, but momentum was absolutely necessary to pop back up the opposite bank. Getting up the far bank was actually the hardest part of a crossing; it wouldn’t normally cause injury to screw it up, but that’s usually where failure lurked. And for me, success vs. failure meant keeping both feet in the pedal stirrups and off the ground, as even a momentary ground touch was forbidden. The way I saw it, if one foot touched the ground—failure! Besides, a foot off a pedal meant there was no pedaling going on, and that meant there was no steam to crank the back wheel up and over the far bank.

Here’s a test for folks who have never tried to ride a single-track off-road trail on a mountain bike. Take a guess as to which part of the body is under the most strain while riding a mountain bike on a rough-and-wild single-track trail. So, what’s your guess—the legs right? Well they ARE probably the first thing that comes to mind to someone not familiar with the sport. Of course, the legs are certainly very involved, notably the fore thighs and calf muscles, but on my puny body, it was the hands and forearms that took the brunt of such rides.

Compared to riding MBs, street riding requires very little hand and forearm power; I mean, you can even let them dangle over the handlebars on long smooth stretches of asphalt. Not so with technical off-road riding where hands, wrists and forearms never stop squeezing and yanking metal. On a steep rocky downhill stretch the hands are kept in a virtual death grip or risk having the handlebars wrench free, the result being a messy pileup. Uphills are just as exacting on the hands, requiring their extreme use as the rider pulls roughly against the handlebars while seeking leverage for each pumping thigh. And finally, on a single-track like mine, where trees, limbs, and boulders passed just scant inches on either side of the handgrips, the hands and forearms never stopped violently yanking and banking, all while smacking gear levers and squeezing brake handles.

There were evenings after long rides where overused muscles in my forearms would for hours involuntarily spasm, flutter and jerk. And once my course was finished and I rode it almost everyday for hours at a time the muscle shudders and contractions became permanent. I suffered with them even years after I stopped the exertion of single-track riding. Strange to think that it is the hands and forearms that suffer the most while doing such a thing that would cause most to think of the legs first. Then again, maybe I should qualify that assertion, as perhaps applying only to wimpy old me. I say that because I am not the typical athletic type—never have been, since I wasn’t lucky enough to be born with a robust frame or good strength.

The weird thing about me is that I was an athlete with the bone structure of a slight teenage girl. With thin ankles and wrists, I learned that no amount of strength training can do much about that deficiency. I did as much as I could to strengthen tendons and muscles, but there’s only so much one can do. In fact, all my successes in athletics, and I’ve had quite a few over the years, were more due to heart and will than to physiology. Well, to God's credit I was also blessed with a fair amount of natural timing and good hand eye coordination. I also had good muscle memory capacity. All of which proves I suppose that the race is not always won by those with size and power.

Just the same, I always thought if I just worked harder than everyone else that I could overcome my body’s genetic shortcomings. I would do stupid things (in retrospect) like run 10 miles up and down hills with 50 pounds of weight on my back, pump out hundreds of chin-ups, and lift weights until my hands lost their grip. The idea was that by doing such things to physiological failure that I would build strength and endurance, and that’s exactly what happened for a few years anyway. Unfortunately, it only worked for the relative short-term. Alas, once I hit my 40’s, instead of making my tendons and ligaments strong I developed tendonitis in several key leg, arm and shoulder areas, along with bad systemic osteoarthritis in every weight bearing joint in my body. But that’s the misery of 2008; let’s get back to the joy of 1992.

By the time I finished the trail, its full circuitous measurement was just over three miles. I used a bicycle odometer to exactly gauge the distance. My fastest time to successful completion was just under 20 minutes, success defined as riding start to start without once having to touch a foot on the ground. Without worrying about that I could hammer through it in just over 16 minutes, which sounds slow until you figure that almost half of the trail ran straight up and down some very steep hills.

Ah heck, this is getting too long again…. Stand by for part 11 of my Bicycle Memories.



At 3:33 AM, Blogger Hope said...

I am sorry to hear about your friend being sick, Phil. I understand the worry and anxiety that comes from going through a diagnosis. Please tell him he's in my prayers. Will you do that for me?

At 12:35 PM, Blogger PhilippinesPhil said...

Sure, I'm sure he'll appreciate it. He's a retired special forces operative, as tough as they come, but he's already attempted to "end it all" at least once, and very nearly did it. He was found in the nick of time.

At 12:48 AM, Blogger Ed Abbey said...

I guessed the right answer so I guess I can consider myself a mountain biker... at least once upon a time.

I remember going to a ski resort in the off season to bike once. At the end of the day, my arms and shoulders killed me while my legs still had some power. Of course the invention of front suspension really helped out on the hard downhills but like you said, you still need some strength for the uphills that suspension can't help.

At 5:07 AM, Blogger Amadeo said...

The weird thing about me is that I was an athlete with the bone structure of a slight teenage girl. With thin ankles and wrists, I learned that no amount of strength training can do much about that deficiency..

I can almost hear myself when you begin describing your physique. Growing up I had tried whatever was available to us to improve physique (especially upper body definition and strength) – chinning bar, free weights, and punching bags. But no dice, my chest is still very flat and arms still scrawny, and upper body strength is still below par.

Surprisingly my 3 sons who are all at least an inch shorter are very well-built, physically at least – huge chests and flat bellies, and broad shoulders They do visit gyms regularly.

The question I ask myself is whether a so-so physique can be developed decently, after all my kids all grew up skinny and small-boned, too.

At 2:22 PM, Blogger PhilippinesPhil said...

Eveyone's body is different and develops differently. In my case, I think it has something to do with small bones and hormones levels. I have to say I am not completely without the ability to get a "pump." My chest and arms muscle up, but not nearly what other fellas get with just half the effort, and I lose the results very quickly as well. The good thing is, with age, I really don't care any more!

At 4:12 PM, Blogger Hope said...

lip hanging out...came looking for anew'll be back...

At 6:02 PM, Blogger PhilippinesPhil said...

oops, sorry; in the middle of a home improvement project... I'll get back on it though, ...

At 7:19 PM, Blogger Hope said...

You are forgiven!! :)

At 7:12 PM, Blogger Hope said...

hey Phil-- how's your friend doing? Is he is better spirits?

At 7:19 PM, Blogger PhilippinesPhil said...

Well Hope, he's okay for now. As for me, that's another story, but we persist, or try to...


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