Monday, April 23, 2012

Oak Mountain

I first visited Oak Mountain in either 1999 or 2000 and it was the first actual mountain that I ever rode my bike on. My brother and Kirk and I stopped by on the way up to Tsali from New Orleans around Mardi Gras that year. If you live in South Louisiana, after 15 years of Mardi Gras, you tend to want to get out of town. That year, we did and it was one of the best road trips of all time. Oak Mountain left an indelible impression and when I moved to Atlanta, one of the things I was looking forward to was living within a few hours drive.

Since then, I've outgrown a lot of trails that once seemed epic but not Oak Mountain and in fact, the trail itself has only gotten better and more fun. Sadly, it's been a while since I've ridden there, but during that time 6 or 8 miles of new trail have been built and I've just been waiting for the right chance to check it out. Friday night my brother texted me and I was in before I'd read the entire message.

As an added bonus, Mark Baldwin would be joining us.


I haven't ridden with Mark in probably as long as it's been since I rode at Oak Mountain. He used to hammer me into the ground and he and John would hammer each other pretty hard too. He's been sort-of road-only for a while now though and only recently got back on the mountain bike. To celebrate his return, he bought a new bike and was a little surprised to see how much the world has changed since his last one - 29" wheels, 21mm rims, 2x10 drivetrain, pressed-in bottom brackets, large diameter stems, tubeless, 100mm forks...

Now, if only I could join the modern world too. Come on, big money! I guess though, even if I'm riding yesterday's hardware, I can at least ride modern trails.

We met in Douglasville, jumped in John's truck, grabbed some Wendy's, proceeded to Alabama and got into the ride with all available haste.



Most of the "new" trail is on the north side of the lake and they even built a new bridge to get you over the spillway.

 New Bridge

So, now, instead of riding down the road between the parking lot and the old trailhead, you rip flowing IMBA singletrack between the parking lot and the old trailhead. It's a lot of fun, but it actually goes by kind of quickly.

I must be doing something right fitness-wise though because even after we got on the classic trail, it seemed to go by pretty quickly too.

I was having a little trouble though. I don't know if it's all the road riding I've been doing, or all the longer mountain bike rides, but I noticed that I was having trouble twisting around through technical terrain. If I'd see a twisty spot ahead that I needed to shift my body around to be able to hold speed through, I'd half-consciously stop pedaling and drop speed rather than shifting around. It was intuitive though and I remember feeling satisfied that I'd done the efficient thing each time, but we weren't going to ride for 6 hours, we would probably only do two laps, at most, so I didn't really need to conserve. It turned out to be a very hard habit to break, and try as I might, I was only limitedly successful. I'm going to have to work on that. I should at least be able to turn it on and off.

The climb up the big fire road went quicker than I ever remember. I had momentum, even when it was steep. I love when that happens - when something that used to be a major challenge becomes comfortable. Awesome.

Baldwin did get past me for a few seconds in the steepest section, but only for a little while. I'd forgotten about that too. I usually ride by myself or in a friendly group, but with John and Mark it's always a bit of a race, or at least there's always that element of friendly competition. It's just how they ride. I miss that and it was great to get to do it again.

At the top of the fire road there was another "new-to-me" trail off to the right - Boulder Ridge.

 New Trail

John had ridden it once already and indicated that it was a lot like the Pinhoti on Dug Gap.

I'm not sure that's completely accurate, but it's probably the most accurate short-description once can give. The trail is relatively flat but it's punctuated with boulder crawls of varying degrees. The first one, in that direction, actually gave me the most difficulty. It didn't look all that difficult but getting into it, it became confusing enough that I failed to climb it twice. The trail in general is flatter than the on up on Dug Gap Mountain, and you're not perpetually picking through minefields, but when you do get into the rock gardens on Boulder Ridge, they feel very similar.

Somewhere in there, I realized... I've either been on the road, ploughing through sand or pushing through overgrown bayou country for a while now. I'd almost forgotten about rock crawling as even being an aspect of mountain biking at all and it was really, really great to do some.

 Mark on New Trail

We took a wrong turn once, ended up on the Orange hiking trail and had to backtrack for a few hundred yards, but by-and-large it was easy to see where we needed to go and there appeared to be "more-brave" and "less-brave" lines through and around most of the rocks. I tried to take the more-brave lines, but a few of them required committing to something without being able to see what you were committing to and I'm almost never down for that. Now that I've examined them though, I think I'll be confident enough to try some of lines I skipped next time.

Boulder Ridge was awesome. I highly recommend it.

We all cleaned Blood Rock and the BUMP trail was as rocky and fun as ever. I tried punching it on the longer climb in Johnson's Mountain but I ended up fading before the top. Dangit, I'm not there yet. Maybe in a month.

There has always been one section of Oak Mountain that I have always hated. When you'd get out of Johnson's Mountain and cross this little road, you had to climb up over ledge after ledge through the one rutted out section on the whole loop, and it always sucked. Somebody rerouted it a while back though and it's really worn in now. Ahhh. People complain about dumbing down the trail sometimes but I'm going to go ahead now and pre-emptively call out anyone that complains about that section for posturing.

The big loop is sort of a lasso now. You go out on the Lake Trail, pick up the classic loop, then eventually take another new section back to the Lake Trail and then backtrack to the lot for a mile or so. The whole thing is right at 21 miles and it's great in every way that mountain biking can be. Every variety of terrain is represented, as is every type of trail, with varying levels of difficulty. The scenery is beautiful and there's even a view from Boulder Ridge now.

In a word: satisfying.

The only thing that wasn't so satisfying was how late in the day it was getting. We'd gotten a late start because my nephew had a baseball game and though we had daylight for another lap, it wouldn't have been all that responsible to actually do another one. The classic loop up there usually took 1:20-1:40 depending on conditions and who you were riding with, but with all the new miles, and especially with the boulder crawling, it had taken us well over two hours. Another full lap would have been even slower and we just didn't have time for that. We ended up riding another 10 or so by doing the Lake Trail then taking the road up to Johnson's Mountain. It was still pretty good.

When we got back to the lot, there was a huge crew of folks sitting around in camping chairs at the other end with a yard sale of gear scattered around them. Looking at it reminded me of that first trip we'd taken back in '99. We'd wanted to sit around for a while after the ride but our chairs were at the bottom of the trunk and we had to dig just about everything else out to get to them. The spot next to where we parked looked like our trunk had exploded into it. I had a photo of it once. Ha. I wonder where that photo went.

The ride was awesome but it didn't go entirely unpunished. My right knee started itching, and wouldn't you know it...

 First Tick This Year

Yes. The first tick of the year.

Dangit, I'd almost forgotten about those.

Yay. Ticks.

I sent that photo to Tim on the drive back but I don't think he was amused.

We ate some mexican food at the Margarita Grill and it would have been great except that they put queso sauce on my enchiladas even after the guy told me it would be chili sauce, and then when he took it back to change it, they just lightly scraped about 1/3rd of the queso off and then covered that with chili sauce. Aaaaaaah!!! I don't really hate queso, but I really don't like it either. The chicken and rice were really good though so I'll definitely go back but I'll also have to make triple sure that the waiter understands, don't put any queso anywhere near my plate!

There were some dudes playing some acoustic classic rock right behind us too and they were really good. I was almost disappointed that we couldn't just hang out for a while but we really needed to go.

I think the last race of the Chainbuster series is at Oak Mountain again this year, or at least one of the races is. That'll probably be the next time I ride there and I already can't wait.

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