Thursday, November 27, 2014

Single Speed Mountain Biking: My New Favorite Thing

The Picture does not do the gradient of the climb any justice, however it was a beautiful autumn day here in Texas.

No shocks, no gears, no clipless pedals, no carbon. "What are you thinking..." some might say, bewildered that I would find such enjoyment out of this bike setup. As backwards and pain inflicting as it seems to want to ride a single speed mountain bike, it really isn't, my single speed has actually become one of my favorite bikes. Despite not having the benefit of granny gears and suspension, after a month of riding this way I honestly do not miss those perceived advantages. Today I did an 18 mile mountain bike ride and experienced no pain whatsoever afterwards. I chose Northshore Trail, located in Grapevine, Texas which is the hardest trail in my surrounding area. I wanted to see if a single speed bicycle could stack up to the most monstrous climbs and rock gardens that I could throw at it. Surprisingly, I did a lot less walking than I was planning on doing. This bike could climb straight up a rock face with enough inertia and was only impeded by the most impassible boulders on the trail. When my friend Levi warned me about the obstacle trail simply known as "the wall" and hoped that I could get up it, I was able to roll up and over the 8 foot plus precipice when I came across it (Levi did not make it up "the wall" as he later told me).

My friend Levi
I was a cold morning when we started out on our ride. When I got out of bed, the temperature read 35 degrees Fahrenheit on my phone and when we got to the trail it must have been just about 10 degrees warmer. Despite being conditioned to the cold through mountain biking during the week as I normally do,  we were both short of breath and had to stop for some breaks during the first few miles of the ride, until our bodies and lungs acclimated to the cold temperature.

The west side of the trail is notorious for having an expert level of difficulty with the last 3 miles being a one way track and basically a playground for trials riders. We were able to complete most of the loop with the exception of those 3 miles and our total came to about 18 miles for the ride. The eastward side of the trail is smooth, winding and sloping singletrack with creek crossings, bridges and small rock gardens scattered throughout. At the end of the trail going east is Rockledge Park, a once public park that has now become a campsite. It lines the shore of the lake and the view is fantastic. Out of all Dallas and Fort Worth area trails, this is the most beautiful trail as well as the most challenging. 

At the easternmost end of the trail, at the campsite known as Rockledge Park.

Will this be the only mountain bike that I ride? No, and I will still use my geared mountain bikes whenever I can. However, for my needs I foresee my single speed being my go to, main mountain bike that I will be doing most of my riding on. With the high maintenance my suspension bikes demand a single speed bike is a welcome change. I added a few videos of me riding my single speed mountain bike through this trail from Levi's Helmet cam. They're not the best quality and are only 30 second clips, so my apologies in advance. Check them out, and stay tuned for more adventurous riding!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Mountain Biking in Texas: Erwin Park, Mckinney

Erwin Park Trail: The place where locals ride.

The trail isn't the most technical trail in north Texas, but is challenging enough on my 90's rigid
mountain bike.

Past the northern suburbs of the city of Dallas and Tarrant county, mountain biking options are few and far in between. Erwin Park has been around since the 90's and it's the go to place for local Collin county mountain biking scene.  About 8 miles long, this trail is known to have lots of tree roots that can frustrate many  a newcomer who come and ride it. It is not the fastest flowing trail in DFW, nor is it the most challenging. In spite of this it is challenging enough to keep intermediate riders on their toes and boasts a variety of obstacles that are both natural and manmade. There are no rock gardens at Erwin and only one huge drop that would require a bicycle with suspension (there is a detour on the trail for this drop, so it's not necessary to cross it and can be avoided all together). A rigid bicycle of good quality should be able to handle anything this trail throws at it, although a front suspension will take the edge off the bumpy surfaces and the many tree roots that are scattered along it.

Erwin Park is a short distance from home and can be ridden in about one hour. It's not an all day sort of trail, but it's short enough where I can now go mountain biking a few times during the week in between the things that I have to do. As winter draws near, the days get shorter and daylight runs out. It can be frustrating and dangerous riding at night on the roads in this cold weather. Although not as cold as many states in the Northeast, Texas is a very windy state. When cold fronts come through, 20 and even 30 mile an hour winds can be expected, which will drop the wind chill factor by over 10 degrees. A bright sunny day can be freezing and a cloudy day can be much warmer. It's one of the few places that I know of where someone can freeze while getting a tan. It's nice to have a local trail in the woods where I can escape of the chilly plains winds that are so common around this time of year. The tradeoff of course is riding shorter distances and a slight loss of form during the winter months, but anything beats being on the stationary bike or trainer. 

I recently purchased a Nikon S32 point and shoot camera for my off road bike rides. I wanted something other than my phone where I could take pictures and video of  the things that I saw on my mountain biking trips. Here's a few snapshots and videos from my ride at Erwin Park.

The area around the trail still reminds me that I'm still in Texas.

If you're new into mountain biking, or just new to the DFW area, you should definitely give Erwin Park a try. Stay tune for more video clips and photography articles of places to ride that make North Texas a great destination for any kind of cyclist. Please subscribe to my posts for future write ups.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Cycling Home From Siberia: A Book Review of a Great Adventure

Photo courtesy of

With an Arctic cold front blasting through Texas right about now, what better time than now to do a book review about riding a bicycle through really cold places such as Siberia and Tibet. This book will motivate it's readers to grab their winter gear and harden up on their bicycles as they read the account of riding through sub-zero temperatures and rugged landscapes. This has to be one of my all time favorite reads, as it combines my love for cycling and travel into one ultimate adventure. In the following review I will do my best to summarize this book as objectively and accurately as I can.

The book begins in Magadan, a coastal town on the edge of Russia around September of 2004. Ten years the author's junior, at the time I had graduated high school that year and I was on my first fall semester in college. Rob Lilwall was already a college professor and an accomplished book salesman when he began his journey. What was originally planned as a one year journey through Siberia ended up in a three year tour of southeast Asia, the Pacific, Australia, India and the Middle East. The author goes into vivid detail describing the weather, majestic climbs and descending valleys as well as the hospitality of strangers, many of little means living in the developing world. What makes this book so great is the vivid imagery that the author uses to describe the people and landscapes. The author also makes us aware that although performing an incredible feat by cycling through most of the world, he is also human and at times struggles with inner conflicts. At the start of the journey his lack of confidence and insecurities glaringly show, but in the end his travels have made him a braver, experienced and more self-reliant person. The key to his success in his travels was that wherever he went, he made himself a likable guy. Every time he would go into a different country for example, he would translate a letter in the language of that country explaining why he was cycling around the world. Most people who read the letter were all too happy to give him a place to stay. 

The author also includes some short essays about religion in his book. He expresses his own views at times about his faith and has made an effort throughout his life to develop a moral compass, something that is severely lacking in today's society. Although he found a girlfriend throughout his journey, he strongly believed that relations before marriage were wrong and was able to keep the relationship going for the next two years until he returned to England and married her. That mirrors my own views that I personally have had about this subject throughout my life. The author also makes a distinction between those to practice the faith and those who give it a bad name. The author gives the example of how much of the debased entertainment made by hollywood is seen by foreigners to be coming from Christian people, under the assumption that all Westerners are religious and Christian and would practice what is on TV. Although a man of strong convictions, the author gives the impression that even he does not have a complete picture of everything involving his faith. Through his own account, he describes how rival churches in Papua New Guinea, although each professing to believe in the Bible, have intimidated and even killed each other seeing the other as competition for recruiting members. The bible defines Jesus's disciples as having love for one another (John 13:35). That means true Christians will not go to war against one another and will treat each other the same everywhere in the world.

Although the author credits and to some extent emphasizes the hospitality of Churches for giving him a place to stay, he was also taken in by many people who did not share his beliefs as many believed in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or whatever the predominant religion of the region was. It may have been the regional customs of hospitality and a sense of doing the right thing or simply human decency that motivated many of the author's hosts to take him in for the night rather than a shared religious belief. The author also recurrently mentions the church-backed aid organization that he is raising funds for to help needy children throughout the world. Although  there is no doubt the author has a strong and sincere desire to help others, that is not the be all end all expression of the Christian faith. Jesus also gave us the commandment to preach the good news and to make disciples of people of all nations (Matthew 24:14, 28:19). Those who go from door to door the way Jesus did and observing this commandment can be considered among those who practice true Christianity. Rather than focusing on the door to door ministry, many mainstream religions that call themselves Christian think they can achieve this by converting members through aid in developing countries, hence coining the phrase "Rice Christians". However, those who study the Bible know that the desire to serve God comes from the heart and not for personal gain. Those would be the talking points that I would engage the author with if I were to meet him in person. The author's efforts to practice Christianity are laudable and are better than most, however I have to respectfully disagree on more than one of the subjects he brought up in his book. I will have to say he took an objective approach in expressing his views and I was neither offended nor uncomfortable in reading his book. The mention of his faith and beliefs were inconsequential to the rest of the story. However, as a man of faith myself, I have to clear the air about this subject since I am recommending this book by reviewing it and would like to share the discrepancies that I found with readers of my blog. In conclusion, the religious views expressed in the book should be looked at as reference material only.*

The author makes us aware that his journey by bicycle wasn't some idyllic, stroll around a bucolic world, rather there were some nitty gritty and dangerous aspects about it as well. He was robbed twice, once at gunpoint and had to dodge border crossings while crossing Tibet, a country that he couldn't get a Visa to travel in and was therefore in the country illegally. He was chased by a mob of machete wielding bandits in Papua New Guinea and contracted malaria after his stay there. For those of you who like an adventure story, this book has that as well. 

In conclusion, this is a well rounded account of a world travel by bicycle and the obstacles and challenges faced by such a journey. This book answered a lot of my questions about bikepacking, world travel and what gear to carry with me if I were to go on such an expedition. I don't think that this type of adventuring is for me. Not everyone has the time or the resources that Rob Lilwall had when he made this journey. In ten years the world has also changed, and some of the countries he rode through have become more dangerous to outsiders. I would like to plan a weekend trip to a state park on bicycle one day. That is the only type of bikepacking that I can see myself doing in the near future. Maybe when my son is older we can do a father son bike tour, but definitely not on the scale of Lilwall's journey.

This was a good read and a remedy for my cabin fever. If the cold weather is bringing you down and you need some motivation to ride, definitely pick up a copy at a book store near you. 

Stay tuned for more reviews and posts and subscribe to my blog for more updates.

*Ten years ago, when I was in school, it was very common to have student theologians (Southern Baptists, never any other type of religion) visit our campus and have discussions about religion with anyone who would listen to them. The nearby church would host events in the school auditorium, often times with religious rock music inviting people to their church parties and I had to excuse myself from going to such events on many occasions. Back then school districts blurred the line between separation of church and state, something that is no longer heard of these days.  It was 2004, it was the Bush Era, and it was a bible-thumping under the guise of piety kind of time to be living in. Rob Lilwall is from that generation of theologians, that's why it doesn't bother me as much. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fat Bikes...It's what's hot right now.

Fat bikes point to the future of mountain biking

Courtesy of

After years of racing bikes being the predominant style of bicycle that has been constantly promoted to consumers, regardless of whether or not people had intentions to race, a new type of bike is making big waves in the mountain bike scene. Enter the fat bike, a bicycle that can go anywhere, do anything. We embrace it's arrival with open arms as we attempt to wrap around it's massive girth.

What makes fat bikes so special? The 4 to 5 inch tires leave a wider footprint that allows the bicycle to float over soft terrain such as snow and sand where regular tires would simply sink and become bogged down. This makes fat bikes capable of being taken off the trail to places once inaccessible to bicycles. Ever thought about riding a bicycle down the Oregon coastline? This bike can do that, and much more. The bicycle pictured above has a Rockshox Bluto fork, however a front shock is overkill for what most people will be using the bike for. The plush, wide tires offer plenty of shock absorption without the addition of a front fork. With the addition of a front fork, this bike can probably ride straight off a cliff without any problems whatsoever. 

Department stores have caught on early to the trend while most bike shops have not. You can now buy a department store, steel fat bike such as the Mongoose Beast or Mongoose Dolomite for around $200. Bike shop quality fat bikes start around $500 and up and are mostly found through online retailers. 

Since the invention of the mountain bike, people have wanted a bicycle that could test the limits of what is possible. However, the industry focused more on how to ride over terrain faster than seeking to test the limits of where a bicycle could be ridden. This bicycle may finally be the answer to that long awaited expectation. This is the biggest trend, as well as the only trend, happening in the world of bicycles at this time. Brick and mortar retailers need to zero in on this opportunity and stock as many of these bikes on their shelves as they can possibly fit in their stores. Forget 27.5 bikes, forget fixies. There is a downward trend of new bicycles being sold because there is simply no new interest to buy the same kinds of bikes that have always been around, maybe with a few tweaks but nonetheless the same candy with a different wrapper. This bike is a different thing altogether. I'm going to save up to buy one of these soon, and the sticker shock isn't going to deter me this time. I have personally not been as excited about a new type of bicycle hitting the market as I have been about the fat bike.  This bike, when purchased will complete my stable and may end up replacing my full suspension mountain bike. So stay tuned for a future review and keep subscribing to my blog for more posts.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The 29er becomes a teenager

Are 29er's now "new school"?

According to self proclaimed bicycle historians and fad bloggers, the concept of a 29er bicycle had existed for a really long time. Apparently since the 80's, some custom builders and European bicycle manufacturers wanted to get away from 26" wheels as the standard for mountain bikes. Prior to 2007, I don't remember ever seeing a 29er mountain bike. It was that year that I walked into an independently owned bicycle store (otherwise known as local bike shop, or LBS) for the first time and picked up Gary Fisher's catalog of bicycles for that year. That is when I learned that such a thing as 29ers even existed. Gary Fisher claimed that the "Genesis geometry" on these new bicycles improved riding characteristics such as handling, rolling resistance and overall speed. I was intrigued and always wanted to try one out but the sticker shock always turned me away from committing to buying one until very recently.  

Lately I have been writing articles on mountain biking with an emphasis on 26 inch "old school" mountain bikes. But it recently dawned on me that the 29er mountain bike isn't the new kid on the block anymore. It has been around for a while now, seven years since I first came across one and thirteen years since Gary Fisher made the first commercially available 29er in 2001.  From the standpoint of someone who got into mountain biking in the Aughts it is now understandable why 29 inch mountain bikes and not 26 inch mountain bikes have become the new norm. It stands to reason that if 29ers have been around for about thirteen years that replacement parts and tires could and should be found anywhere in the world, at least in westernized countries. It would be interesting to find out if anyone has ever toured around the world on a 29er and has had their bicycle break down on them in order to prove this theory. 

Last week I bought my first 29er mountain bike. It's an awesome steel, single speed and rigid beast of a bike. I took it to my local mountain bike trail and now it is the funnest off road bicycle that I own. I believe that the claims of speed and stability that 29er bikes are alleged to have are true. On the rooty parts of the trails, my wheels did not sink in between the gaps of the roots. Rather my wheels seem to hover over everything; roots, log piles, bridges, rock gardens, etc. The bottom bracket clearance on this bike is insane. I smash my pedals hard, and frequently damage my pedals mountain biking when I take sharp turns or don't go over obstacles with the right foot technique. This bike allows me to pedal straight through anything without stopping.

So are there any disadvantages to 29er bicycles? There are disadvantages, many which are well documented, about having a bicycle with a larger wheel size. First of all, turning is not as fast as on a 26" mountain bike. A skilled rider can still turn around obstacles fast while riding a 29er but the rider loses the ability to take tight corners at speed like on a 26er. Being that my 29er is a single speed, popping a wheelie takes massive amounts of effort, whereas it only takes a flick of the wrist to lift up the front wheel on the 26 inch bike. These are the only two disadvantages of 29er bikes to 26 inch bicycles that are worth noting. The rest is pure preference and aesthetics. Riding a 29er bike is simply "different" than riding a 26er. There is no better or worse riding style. The two can't be compared against each other properly because they are simply not the same kind of bike. It's like trying to compare a cyclocross bike to a fat bike. 

My conclusion about the 29er to 26er debate, after having ridden a 29er, is this: For trick riding, trials riding, downhill, freeride or anything that involves doing wheelies, jumps, or having precision control, go 26. For riding fast off road, plowing through otherwise technical sections of the trail and for overall efficiency, go 29. For cross country, enduro and all traditional mountain biking racing events, do both. The 29er may be "just another wheel size". It may, if people allow it to, mark the end of the 26" wheeled mountain bike. Some people will always have to bunny hop over something on their bike. They will always go for the bike that suits their riding style best. Whatever your riding style is, pick the bike that works the best for you. There is no wrong choice.

Stay tuned for more informative posts.