The Middle Chainring

Even though I knew it had the potential to thrash my knees, I decided to do the Oat Hill Mine Road in the middle chainring. Of late, I have begun to create a mode of riding that is easy, low output and efficient. For some reason I decided that the 34 x 34 setup is the simplest gear to ride, though not the easiest. I had decided that this style of riding would be low output, hence walking when necessary to avoid high heart rates and anaerobic status. The middle chainring represents the middle way. It is not the fastest, it is not always the best, but most anything can be ridden in the middle chainring. Cadence can be a problem. Too slow pedaling can thrash the knees. This is overcome by limiting the amount of power applied to the pedals. This results, sometimes, in very slow speeds. Yet, at these slow speeds with constant power being torqued through the bottom bracket, obstacles roll with relative ease under the wheels. With smooth strokes, slippage is minimized on sketchy ground. Balance is the key that allows minimum waste of energy.

Austin was on hand to make the trip up to the View Rock. He started out strong and ripped up the hill. I am a slow starter and was determined to ride the entire hill in the middle ring, even though this didn’t bode well for all parts of my body. Another feature of the day was the return to retro-ware. After a couple of years of the spandex thing, I rediscovered that Ben Davis works fine for bikin’ pants, so long as the weather isn’t hot. In the summer, retro shorts easily replace the fancy six panel bikin’ gear. There is an argument for tight cloths on the road bike, but on X-country mountain bike riding, the spando factor is hardly necessary. In addition, all that chamois acts like a layer of insulation, creating more sweating than cotton does. The ass doesn’t seem to mind. It all hurts anyway.

On this November 8th, the day after the Gush/Bore presidential debacle, I was feeling very much flat. I was experiencing the blues due to the lack of progress on the part of mankind vis--vis our social status. In the richest country on the planet, working stiffs seem to have less and less of a feeling of being part of the scene. Health insurance for the rich, housing for the rich, meals at the Cordon Bleu and the rest of us eat cake. I have finally reached the age where it is official: I failed to hack it in the material world, and there is no reason to believe that things will improve. I now command enough ho-hum years to be deemed officially "feckless".

The presidential race left the mind flaccid. To hear the painfully shallow debates, to listen to nauseating political rhetoric and to watch these rich guys parade around and call each other names was more than an aging hippie could take. The hypocrisy and lying indicates that we have come a precious little way since the brief window of hope opened in the sixties. Now we have to start again. Now the tide continues to surge out to sea, out to a turbulent, unsettled ocean. Now gone is the connection to the shore, the fruits and the seeds that have grown to maturity. Rather than enjoying these fruits of our labors, we get only the grapes of wrath and a vast sea of troubles.

The ride up to the view rock was pleasant as always. The Oat Hill Mine Road is a wonderful facility to have at hand. The lower part of the trail offers easy challenges, moderate uphill climbing and scintillating views with each turn of the trail. The woods are alive with a variety of trees and bushes. Occasionally birds flutter by, startled by the approaching biker. At the Rock, Austin and Eric took the time to commune with the universe. As one sits on the rock and looks out, the world unfolds with a certain beauty. Especially during the season of fall when the grapes (of wrath) turn their beautiful fall colors. For all of the destruction and harm done to the valley by the grapes, this one moment stands out as perhaps the only redeeming value associated with grapes. Despite the popularity of the "wine country", the fact remains that it is an ecological disaster.

After deciding that I needed more time in the boonies, we parted. Austin returned to town to make his appointment with the stack-master Zach, now mostly recovered from his horrendous face plant a week earlier. I headed to the upper section. This part of the mine road requires a massive outpouring of energy to clean the dozens of trials that impede progress. The road is impassible by normal standards. The challenges are constant and frequently huge. The best bet is to walk much of the section when the energy flags. Today was such a day for me. There was no one along to impress, only myself who was not operating at full throttle.

There was also an added incentive to explore some of the backcountry. I have had an interest in certain agricultural pursuits. There are several locations behind the Palisades that have year-round water and would support a growing project. This year’s crop was a success, though I only grew one plant. It was a feasibility study that proved the efficacy of mountain bike farming. It provided a brief period of stash and offered incentive to bike into the hills.

The back country offers a real escape from the world. Once past the Holmes place, the territory takes on a remote setting. Views of civilization are no longer in sight. The sense of wilderness becomes greater as one goes deeper into the rugged countryside behind the Palisades.

Once over the top, the trail yields to more level traveling. The climbs are short and there are delightful sections of single track to process the many miles. Once past the wind cave, the stealth turn to Poke Eye camp represents the halfway point, mile-wise. Effort-wise the halfway point had been passed. I stopped at the camp to survey the area.

As I proceeded down Van Ness Creek, I looked hard for the tin-cup spring that had been illusive on the last run with Linz. Today I would find the spring and top off my water supply with this delicious water that was headed straight for the bottling plant in Calistoga.

The ride up, through the Girl Scout Camp was difficult in the middle chainring. It would have been much easier to simply drop into the 24 tooth small ring. Yet, my knees felt good, and I was curious about the notion of a single speed. All of what I had ridden so far was approachable in the middle ring, if not slow or walking in a few spots. Not using the little chainring is a sort of discipline. It is a form of frugality.

It was dark when I finally arrived at the Robert Lewis Stevenson State Park. It did not matter at this point. There was still twilight left. The six miles down the highway are easy in low light. The ride left me with a sense of accomplishment. Though it wasn’t a fast loop, it was very satisfying. It was a slight change from normal. I worried about my knees getting thrashed, yet they felt fine the next day. Who needs a little chainring anyway?

I would ride the same ride on the following day with Austin. He is one of a few Bikin' Fools who is willing to go "Adventure-mode" on a moments notice. We took our time and had a great ride across this classic loop. It is twenty miles and three thousand vertical feet of climbing. The route travels through a variety of countryside. It contains the whole gambit of the mountain bikin’ experience.

Saturday Nov. 18th proved to be another day for the Girl Scout loop. It was more Middle Chainring Training (MCT). There is a certain power band that is available in the middle chainring that is unique. It allows passage of technical areas with enhanced balance and better ‘squirtability’. (the ability to shoot forward in a dire attempt to save a heroic try on a technical section). For the (MCT) to work on slow, steep grades, one must alter the normal forces applied to the pedals. Much more lifting on the upside adds great, slow power without undo stress to the knees. More focus is placed on turning the pedals than is put towards balance and steering issues. At slow speed the most common cause of a dab is a rear wheel slippage. In the very small gears, there isn’t enough distance available to overcome the slippage in one pedal stroke. In a taller gear, the slippage will not likely occur (if at all) for the entire distance of the pedal stroke. If it does, it’s a hella good skratch…

For the entire week, I had ridden without going into the little chainring. I felt a sense of accomplishment, though it really didn't make sense all together. But the fact that one can ride successfully in several different modes gave encouragement to my thinking. After all I spent the first ten years of my MB carreer on a no-suspension, cantilever brake, steel bike. It was a dog by my standards today, yet my experiences then still rival anything I do today. "It is the ride, afterall, not the bike that makes this activity so meaningful and unique"