Now Improved With Actual Trails and Riding!
Yep. Not much of either in that last post. In my weak defense, I had finished up that section of the post kinda late, and in my haste to shut things down and turn things off, had quickly clicked on the “Save” button only to realize my mouse had fallen across the “Publish” button. Zapperooni! The webbernet had thrown it out there for all to see.
Oh well. It was getting long enough that I probably would have ended up chopping it in half anyway. But, still, thanks for coming back to read this. Well get to the trails this time, honest…
With freshly charged batteries, a correctly sized innertube and a saddle adjusted for proper height, I rolled out to the trails of China Camp. It’s a bit of pavement away, and while swerving periodically to avoid what seemed to be more frequent piles of broken glass than normal, I began to enjoy the light buzzing of the Michelin knibblies and fell into a decent pedaling rhythm. I also realized that my saddle tilt adjustment was not right.
Now, this one I’d kinda seen coming. As mentioned yesterday, the saddle and seatpost came directly from the now-departed Poprad parts box. To start, the shape of the Selle San Something saddle would be at best a bit unfamiliar - we’d last known one another in that special way about two years ago. Had I gained a little weight? Could I get away with the old bib shorts or would I need something new to spice things up? Were my ischial protruberances ready, or had they become entranced forever by the lure of the Brooksian breatheability and completely formed cradling? I’d gone to leather saddles. Could I ever go back?
Leaving these ponderables unresolved, I considered questions of angle. Since the Poprad had different frame angles, it was not suprising that it felt as if I was sliding off the back of the saddle. In short, there was a strong possibility for constant tweaking throughout the ride. It was very tempting to pull over, whip out the hex wrench and move things around. But, honestly, by this time I was more in a mood for riding than more wrenching.
Besides, I had a plan. Odd questions about my relationship with the saddle aside, I wanted to distill the saddle questions into discrete variables. So, I kept riding.
The other thing was that I hadn’t ridden the Hilsen since the aborted mixed-terrain ride back in July, when I ganked the wheel good and proper (and, for those of you who missed it, there’s a video). In my experience, nothing feels quite as odd as a bicycle you haven’t ridden in a while. As I buzzed down the road, it seemed like the front wheel was further out than I remembered it (since it couldn’t be that I’d mostly ridden it with fenders…). The handlebars felt wide (my Quickbeam and Dawes both have narrower bars), and things felt “weird” when I rose out of the saddle on a short climb.
Again, this was to be expected. Most of my bikes ride differently from one another - certainly most are set up with significantly different purposes in mind. The trails were a bit closer, so I kept riding.
On the way there, I kept myself entertained by watching the parade of bikes heading to and from the trailhead. Most - well, all - of them were affixed to roof or tail racks on the various motor vehicles which rolled past. Judging by the impressive linkages and shock absorbing systems, hydroformed tube sections and big honkin’ knobby tires, the trails ahead were highly technical. Or, these folks were seriously over-insulated.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think that suspension gives more people better control, and probably makes it easier for a new rider to deal with getting bumped around on the trails. When I got my first suspension mountain bike - that would be front-suspension - I used to aim at every rock and imperfection in the trail, laughing out loud at how it ate the bump right up. Of course, that was a Judy fork - all righteous 63 mm of travel worth - and well before I got very good at stripping it for cleaning, repeated cartridge replacement and frequent bushing work.
To take this editorial diversion a little further - I’m glad that I began riding mountain bikes when I did; when suspension was fat tires and padded grips. After a while of beating the crap out of my more-youthful-than-today body, some electro-spark of self-preservation coaxed me into learning to ride light, to trust the momentum of the bike and the body as two different yet complimentary forces, understanding that you don’t ride on the bike, but rather over it.
It also means I can’t get decent air to save my life. But, I digress.
Anyway, about this time I’d arrived to the trails. Playing a bit with position, I had come to the conclusion that the angle of the saddle probably wasn’t quite as important as the fore-aft adjustment. So, I’d work on that one first.
Rolling past the Park entrance where everyone seems to park, I eased up and over the paved crest and reached the gated entrance to the group picnic area. The Hilsen reacted to actual dust under its tires with nary a snort, and we continued up to the tables. I doffed my pack and pulled out the allen wrench, loosened the clamp and slid the saddle about a half inch back. That seemed to take care of my position over the pedals, and my hips felt a bit more open as I cruised around the area. Yay.
The tilt took a couple of ride/adjust cycles. I remembered that this particular saddle had to look like it was slightly nose down, as the shell and padding flexed a bit when weighted. But, by the time the trails were ready to climb, it felt like things were pretty dialed in. It looks kind of wrong in the photo, but when I put my meaty butt on that skimpy saddle, it works.
The last few times I’d been up on these trails, it had been on the MB-Singlespeed. Riding the Hilsen was both easier and harder, the former having to do with the multitude of gearing options, the latter more to do with the lack of cush when compared to a 2.25″ round profile knobbie tire. On the singlespeed, you can more or less point it in the general direction and stomp. By this time of the year, the trial surface is a fine powder, and sharp rocks are pretty much everywhere. Even uphill, your line has to be very specific. Especially if one has only one spare tube on board.
My plan was to climb seated up the first pitch. Riding singlespeed and fixed had reawakened my habit of standing while climbing. I’m maybe 4 stone too heavy to make that an optimum use of the mechanism, so I kept myself seated and found a gear that might work.
And it seemed to. Zipped past one fellah (oh, alright, he was stopped on the side of the trail catching his breath) and caught up with a couple more (and they were pedaling). Wasn’t setting PR’s, but it felt like things were going well. By the time the trail leveled out for a bit, Hilsen had cleared its throat and stated that it liked the rough stuff.
Honestly, the only limit on C. Xavier Hilsen seemed to be the biological engine and navigational unit which was clicked into its pedals. I had a little trouble believing the tires were going to hook up here and there (remnants of running those big, meaty 559’s that had been on the MB), and my indecision negotiating a rooty, rocky chute was not the prettiest technique I ever managed. But, I stayed upright and gave myself a good talking to.
There’s a pretty steep pitch which jumps you up to the old Nike siting station on the ridge. On the singlespeed, it was a shoulder-and-carry, but today I clicked in and tried it on for size. Again, the limiting factor was not the bike. Took a couple of breather breaks on the way up, but the Hilsen climbed spectacularly well when I could keep the fuel flowing. By now, I was definitely working out of the saddle, getting used to the demands and benefits of lower gearing. Things felt solid and balanced. Well, in between periods of gasping for breath.
I even got all excited and tried running a bit. Took a photo before I did that. And, as with all photos of every incline, it looks absolutely flat. You just have to take it on faith. And if you can’t beleive that, at least enjoy the Manzanita which forms a canopy over this stretch - it’s a gorgeous place.
The only thing I noticed about the more technical bits of trail was the tendancy to scrape a pedal now and again. Now, as the Poprad was pretty low slung, I’m used to a low bottom bracket on trails. This did not seem to be as low as that one, and in some of the conditions - trying to run up out of some ruts, there more than likely would have been contact with just about any bike setup. It also improved during the ride - just a bit of reminding myself that it wasn’t mtb-type ground clearance.
For some reason I tried to commemorate the moment by taking a photo next to the Hilsen, using the self-timer function of the camera. I set it up on my backpack, hit the button, ran over to the bike and watched my (what - fifth?) pencam begin to slide down the pack and roll towards the edge of a 30 foot drop. Luckily, it stopped in time, and I figured that I was going to quit with the image obtained. I think I was starting to jump up as the camera began sliding, but trying not to knock the bike over as I moved.
Anyway. I figured that time was better spent riding.
I dropped down the old paved road, which is really only a singletrack strip of usable asphalt on a very uneven roadway surface. Heated up the brakes a bit, as it’s also pretty steep, but they had more than enough grab to keep things in control. It did get me pondering about brakes a bit, and cx-style canti’s in particular.
No matter what else, I’d probably be the only person toeing the line this CX season who was running a set of dual pivots as opposed to regular cantilever style, v-brake style or disc brakes. Up until the Hilsen, I’d only run cantilever brakes. They stop well, give massive clearance and are relatively simple to maintain. On the other hand, I’m guessing (as I’ve never designed or built a frame) that frames and forks have to be bulked up a bit to keep the posts from flexing. I’ve also found that you do have to watch how you set them up, so that you don’t find yourself with the brake levers bottomed out on the bars, hoping that someday, sometime, the bicycle you are riding will begin to slow down.
With the Silver dual pivots on the Hilsen, all of a sudden that was not an issue. It was almost the other end of the spectrum, wherein my hands were so used to giving a good grab on the brake levers that I managed to come to a near stop a couple times. Whatever else, dual pivot brakes work just-fine-thank-you with standard road levers. As tire clearance simply isn’t an issue with these brakes and this bicycle frame design, it does sorta reshape your thinking about what is possible. I would reckon they have a bit more mass than a set of canti’s, but maybe some of that is offset by using lighter tubing and no canti posts. And they sure manage to stop me when asked.
By this point, the trail manners of the bike were letting themselves be known. As with most things, it’s finer points of balance and subtle issues of leverage and position. The bike was feeling good. Really, really good.
Then it was feeling sluggish and clattery. I’d managed to tag some sharp rock directly amidships, and the resulting snake bite took the wind from my sails and the air from my back tire. Just a little reminder to those folks jumping from 2.25″ to 35 mm’s… Can’t run one like the other.
‘Twas but a minor distraction. A quick tube swap and a little extra air for good measure and the Hilsen was back on the trail. Another rider caught up to me and we duked a few times when the visibility was good. As we hit the open bits of the trail, I thought again to “nap of the earth“. My roommate in college had been an aerospace engineer, and once explained this term to me after seeing a demonstration of low level helicoptor performance. When things are going well, when the bike just seems to float over the ripples and ruts in the trail, this is the phrase I think of.
As admitted earlier, I can’t bust big air worth a damn. But, I do have a pretty good handle on this. And I’ll make that trade any day. As the visibility lessened, I throttled back and totally muffed the first two switchback turns. But it felt great when it was going good. Nothing seemed to hold back that bike except the engine.
There’s not too much left to tell other than that. The more I rode it, the better it felt. It had speed when I could muster it, felt solid and steady on a good mix of terrain, and just quietly kept asking for a little more. Nice.
Before knocking the dust off of it, I thought it would be good to get one last photo.
But, I’d bet it will get dusty again before too long.