Big Fat Tire: Tim McClure, nostalgia and the walk home from Great Flume trail in Breck
August 4, 2016
This past Saturday was one of those truly stunning High Country summer days: fluffy white clouds, the bluest of deep blue that you only get above 10,000 feet and temperatures that aren't too hot to make you drip with sweat, but not too cool that a breeze gives you goosebumps.
I was planning a longish ride, starting with Turks Trail and the most recent addition to the French Gulch trail system, the Wirepatch Trail, and then onto that classic love/hate climb up Little French Gulch.
Back in 1985, when I was just getting to know mountain biking and telemark skiing in the backcountry, two Breck locals, Tim McClure and Steve Field, died in an avalanche near the spot where you cross Little French Creek at the top of the climb. I almost always stop at that spot, admire the view up to Mount Guyot and think of those two. I didn't know them well, but I knew them as THE guys from the early days of mountain biking and backcountry skiing in Summit County. Far in my past, I might have made a little ganja offering to their memory. Now, with my ganja days well behind me, I just stop for a moment and think about my youth, the day they died as young men and how fleeting life can be.
After my pause, I was onto the Little French Flume, a trail I have ridden countless times. In Tim and Steve's time, the Little French Flume was very obscure: There wasn't much of a trail across the creek and sections of old galvanized pipe sat on what became the trail, which was originally built to carry water from the creek to the mines on Farncomb and Humbug hills.
Back in those days, few people knew about the trail, and even fewer used it — maybe an occasional motorcycle and a small handful of mountain bikers. The trail was much more rugged than it is now, and a couple of large trees strewn about required a portage. That kept the moto traffic down. It wasn't until the Fall Classic MTB race used the trail in 1987 that it became well-known. Today, thousands and thousands of bike tires have blown most of the loose, sharp scree off the trail, but it still has that feel, that energy that it had in the past.
OK, I'm getting carried away here. Nostalgia isn't what I had in mind when I started typing. My main destination for the day was the Great Flume Trail, which is on the opposite side of Farncomb Hill from Little French. Along with Little French, the Great Flume is one of those trails that can accurately be called a flume. Most of the trails we call flumes now are actually ditches: both served the purpose of moving water from creeks to mines, but a flume was actually a wooden trough or pipe, and a ditch was, well, a ditch. The remnants of the wooden flume structure still sit next to the trail.
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Anyway, to get to the Great Flume you have to descend about 0.5 miles on American Gulch Road, hang a right, go through the control fence, and then pedal through mine waste piles until you come to the flume itself. The trail winds at an almost level contour along the north side of Farncomb Hill and Mount Guyot (Every mining ditch and flume needed enough grade to keep water moving, but not moving so fast that it eroded the ditch or blew apart the flume). The surface ranges from fairly smooth to moderate rock gardens that require a bit of technical skill.
Along the way, I ran into several friends. We stopped and chatted. The trail is something like five miles long, so it takes a while to reach its end at the South Fork of Swan Road. Summit County Open Space has put a lot of work into the trail over the last few years: parts of the trail detoured around washouts, and some of those detours were steep enough to become eroded gullies. The county-built sustainable trail where the gullies used to be and raised the tread through the wet spots, so folks don't continually try to ride around the bog and braid the trail. Overall, though, it's still the same trail I first discovered 25 years ago.
Once you get onto the Jeep road, everything changes. The South Fork is a popular route for Jeeps and ATVs and motorcycles. As a result, the steep road can be very loose and rutted, with cantaloupe-sized cobble. While this type of riding certainly is challenging, it's not my favorite type of trail. Rocky and technical is fine, but I've just never bonded well with chewed up, loose, steep, rutted babyheads.
But, as Arlo Guthrie spoke many years ago, that's not what I came to tell you about today.
It was there that I began to notice something wasn't right with my bike. My rear tire occasionally rubbed somewhere against my frame, and the bike felt a bit squirrely — not OMG squirrely, but definitely not confidence inspiring.
At first glance, all seemed to be where it was supposed to be: My rear tire seemed to be aligned correctly. I proceeded and was met with more rubbing, more squirreliness. OK, this isn't right, I thought. Stop again, look closer.
Then, I saw it: The chainstay on the drive side had broken. I didn't see it at first because it was hidden behind the crankset.
Bummer. You're a long way from home, dude. A very long way to walk. But, the only thing to do was press on. My plans to jump on the Colorado Trail went out the door and just getting as close to home as possible took over. I kept riding, taking the easiest line possible. It wasn't easy — there was a lot of cobble-filled Jeep road to pass before Tiger Road. I expected the other chainstay to break due to the strain, which meant the whole rear end would collapse. I hoped that if that happened it would give me some warning, not leave me skinned and bleeding by the side of the road.
To my surprise, I made it all the way down to Tiger Road intact. The rear brake disc was misaligned due to the tweak in the wheel alignment. I didn't feel it much, as I was coasting down the steep parts, but, once I hit the flatter road and had to pedal, it became a drag. One pedal stroke at a time, I told myself. If it breaks completely, I'll deal with it, but keep going until it does.
Amazingly, I made it all the way home. The next day, I took it to the shop and am awaiting replacement parts. I'm not sure if it will be covered completely under warranty or if I'll have to pay a "crash replacement" cost, but, either way, I expect to be back on the bike fairly soon.
Mountain bikes are money pits — that's what I came to tell you about today. If you ride even fairly hard, you will break things. Often, they are expensive things. If you don't break things, you will wear them out. Mountain bikes up here in the Rocky Mountains live a rough life. So ride, ride hard and have fun, but keep your wallet handy.
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