That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
These were the words going through my head yesterday as I, for the second time in six months, attempted to ride my Ariel Elite on a 15 mile mostly single track trail around Applegate Lake outside the small rural town of Ruch in southern Oregon.Truly, if you are an adrenaline junkie, mountain biking tops any theme park or horror movie devised.
I found out about this trail last winter as I was looking for rides and trails in my area. I’d happened into my local bike shop to purchase a few necessities, bike pumps and gloves, I believe. (Just an aside, everything cycle I’ve ever read or heard, from amateurs to racing pros, say connect with your local bike shop because they are a valuable source of information and help. It’s true. Don’t be shy about this if you’re new to the sport.) Anyway, the mechanic who usually assists me was there and we began talking. He told us of the New Year’s Day Ride Around Applegate Lake. Apparently there are trails that wind all the way around the lake which are perfect for mountain biking. He suggested we start at the parking lot and instead of riding downhill across the dam and starting on the other side, which is the way most cyclists do this route, it might be easiest for us if we rode counterclockwise around the lake. He informed us that there’s a short distance of shale and a bit of a climb at the beginning, but then the rest of the ride is fairly uneventful. (I later found out that this guy rides downhill like a maniac and lives to tell about it.)
So one cold winter day in December, just after Christmas, Larry, my beau, and I strapped the bikes on the rack and headed to the lake, completely ignorant of the meaning of the term “single track”. We were so blissfully ignorant of the adventures, thrills and sheer terror that lie ahead. As fate, or if you believe, God, would have it we arrived at the lake and began unloading our bikes at the same time another biker was unloading his. We knew he knew more about this than we did, because, well, it was pretty obvious from the fact that he had the shoes.
We struck up a conversation, asked him what he knew about the lake and so on. He told us he was planning to ride clockwise around the lake. We told him we were beginners and it had been suggested that we start counterclockwise. “Really?” he seemed surprised. “I wouldn’t do that if you’ve never been on this trail before.”
Looking back, I think this is when we should have been alarmed.
Instead, we optimistically ventured ahead. In the end, we did decide to tackle the trail the traditional way, because our new friend offered to guide us around for a bit and get us onto the correct path. We are to this day grateful he was there at just the right time to help us, because we are convinced that had we ventured out on our own something dire might have happened. It so happened that day, that we made it completely around the entire lake with the help of our guide who so graciously gave up his day to escort us and teach us a few technical things about riding single track and using our new bikes. It took us six hours.
I forgot to get pictures of the entire episode. I just had to go back for the photo op.
So yesterday, this time with the addition of my son and his garage sale pink bike, borrowing his sister’s helmet, we ventured forth again and this time we rode counterclockwise. We completed the trail in half the time it took us before, this time without a guide. Our skills have definitely improved, but I’m not sure it is any easier riding this trail this direction even if it was dry weather. For one thing, going counter clockwise you get a big climb and the tricky shale with the steep drop off out of the way early, but then you hit the nasty switchbacks with rock and water while you’re climbing again at the end, when you’re most fatigued.
If you go the other way, you get the switchbacks out of the way, but you have a mile or two long steep climb at the end when you are most tired. As for the dry vs. wet issue, both have their advantages and drawbacks. Pick your poison. For the intermediate or expert rider, all this is inconsequential, but for the noob like me, this is something to consider. As it was, I ended up attempting a turn and missing it, taking a spill and landing on my back wheel. The wheel was so badly bent during that episode that I am now without wheels until the shop can order in a new one. (This, by the way, makes a great case for learning some basic bike mechanic skills, because I later found out that I could have done that work myself, or with the help of a friend, for far less than I’m going to pay my shop to do it. Live and learn.)
Considering that last spill was into a bed of thorns and boulders, I’m glad I walked away from it without any broken bones. “What doesn’t kill you…”
At the end of the day, I have to evaluate the trail this way: Yes, it is great fun. It is a beautiful and scenic ride, but parts of it are not for beginners unless they go escorted with a more experienced rider. There are just some things a person needs to know about climbing, taking switchbacks and gearing that make the difference on a mountain trail, especially if you are in the 45+ category, which Larry and I are. My son, who has some trail experience, powered through all of this and only came off his bike three times the whole day and more of that is due to his crummy bike than his ability.
At one point during the most demanding part of the trail, I looked back at Larry and he said, “I’m not sure this is worth it. This is so much work. That road bike is looking awfully good right now.” I suppose he’s right on some levels, but while I might not be attacking those boulder-laden switchbacks anytime soon, I enjoyed that just a little too much to give up on it now. I just might be hooked.
Besides, I forgot to get pictures of the rock-strewn switchbacks.