Sunday, May 01, 2005

My Perfect Ride

55 degrees, sunny, breezy, threat of rain coming from the west. I'm out the door with my road bike, a couple of fig bars in my pocket, one full water bottle, an extra layer, gloves, and a wool hat in case the storm beats me home.

I glide north through the tree-lined, quiet old streets of the University district. I catch up to a mom with 1 tyke in tow and one on his own recognizance, spinning relentlessly on his tiny bike. I ring my bell, and his head perks up excitedly. I slow as he spins furiously, somehow even faster, on his little 12" wheeled bike. He keeps up for a ways and grins ear to ear. A picture of us from behind (I'm on my 25" Raleigh) would undoubtedly win something.

Still heading north, I approach the bridge over the Clark Fork River that separates me from downtown Missoula. Today the bridge is buzzing with the excitement of a just-completed parade, kicking off the International Wildlife Film Festival. Ahead in the bike lane and almost off the bridge is a downtown fixture. Moving along at twice walking pace is a cargo trike covered with reflectors, hubcaps, bicycle rims, horns, bells, streamers, generator lights, and--the crown jewel--a kite flying behind a tall pole that juts out from the rear. I know the owner from our community cycling shop, where I work one night per week, and I mention it's a nice day for kite flying. He laughs and agrees as I pass by and make a hard right then a left and stop at a light beside a neat orange Surly pulling a trailer. I complement the owner on the bike and its (knock-off) moustache bars. He seems a little surprised, but thanks me and says that they're nice for zipping around town.

We stay together for a couple of blocks and then part ways as I make another hard right onto the street that will take me up into the Rattlesnake. Under the interstate and then up a short, steep hill and my escape is nearly complete. Always quiet up here, and I have the road to myself as it gradually rises toward the snow capped peaks of the Rattlesnake Wildnerness. A bit more climbing, and I hang a right past the community harvest farm and over rushing Rattlesnake Creek via a Bike/Ped bridge that connects the west and east sides of the neighborhood. I pause to look for trout holding in the eddies and pockets edging the main flow but none today.

Now I'm back onto the main road leading toward the recreation area, and a bit of traffic spoils the silence. I continue the gradual climb, and greet mountain bikers heading for the trails of the rec area. I always appreciate seeing cyclers riding to their "real ride," instead of motoring their bikes to trailheads. I'm fortunate to have bikes that make "getting somewhere" to ride unnecessary, and I think about all of the things I would have missed driving up here.

The main road curves right, but I head straight, through a quiet neighborhood and onto a public access trail that leads to the rec area. The trail is why I'm up here today. It's a narrow dirt and gravel path, winding its way along the creek, alternating between dense trees and open grazing land. I hit the first of the steep little hills and accelerate as I shift my weight back to keep the skinny rear tire from slipping. Riding this trail on any bike would be a joy for the senses. On a road bike, though, the riding is challenging, in an exciting-but-not-death-defying way. I pick my way through a narrow wooded stretch of singeltrack as pine branches brush my shoulders and then pick a careful line through one of the few rocky stretches. I'm not the most accomplished trail rider, and I immediately pick the wrong line and hit a half-buried cabbage of a rock sqaure on. The 700x28 tires are just wide and cushy enough to allow me a few mulligans but narrow enough to remind me I blew it!

Some cyclers refer to this sort of riding as "underbiking." Riding a trail like this on a mountain bike would doubtless be boring. It's part of the reason so many current mountain bikers have to motor their bikes to remote trailheads and up ski lifts to experience the joy that comes with a challenge. On my road bike, I navigate a maze of old tree roots, corner and set up for a dry, rocky streambed ("set up" means "hesitate for a moments in panic"). I know from past experience that the apparently easier paths all end at large rocks. I gain momentum and aim for some smaller, manageable rocks. Each one slows me rapidly. I stand and power ("power" means try really hard not to fall over) through as I make the hard left and follow the trail out of the streambed. Hey, I made it! I've never made it through that stretch before without dismounting. I spin merrily through the woods, grinning ear to ear, and munch a fig bar from my pocket.

Before long, I'm in sight of the main road again. I leave the trail and greet some folks unloading their suspended mountain bikes, wide-eyed at the sight of this grinning fool bouncing off the trail on a 20 year old road bike. I swoop down the road, crossing Rattlesnake Creek again, and begin the final climb to Sawmill Gulch. The road narrows to a single lane and climbs about 300 feet over the next mile. The woods close in on either side, and I occasionally catch a glimpse of the little path through the woods that I'll follow back down in a few minutes.

Having reached the top, I pause for a drink and eat another fig bar. I struggle up the steep entrance to the little wooded path and then reach down for the drops to begin my descent. The feeling of banking down the turns of the trail is incomparable. The bike follows every contour. The trail in many places is narrower than my handlebars. I lean and duck and brake and steer and hear nothing but wind rushing past. A couple of trees have fallen across the trail from the spring winds but shouldering the bike over them is a fun change of pace, not a hassle. I surprise a few deer. Finally, the trail widens and makes a final descent to join the main Rattlesnake Trail. Here, I pass at least a dozen mountain bikes heading each direction as I pedal back to the road. I hadn't seen one bike on all of the trails I'd been on to this point.

I opt for the quick and easy paved descent back to town. My ride wasn't epic, or fast, or technical, or serious, or even hard. It was perfect.

[photo: My current Raleigh Road Bike on the bridge over Rattlesnake Creek]


Blogger Nathan said...


3:04 PM  

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