The Outsider: Full rigid, Penn Gulch and a season in the saddle (column)
It wasn’t the kind of ride I expected, not at all, and I felt every last bump on that trail before it literally turned into a creekbed.
I’ll explain: Earlier this summer, my co-worker, Austyn, and I headed out to Boreas Pass for a video preview of the Penn Gulch Grind, a classic route in the Summit Mountain Challenge MTB series. Since last season, the two of us have met at least once a week from late May to early October for a morning of “work” on our mountain bikes — as in we strap GoPros to our chests with embarrassing mounts, Wonder Bra-style, and ride local trails to give folks a taste of singletrack, YouTube-style. It’s all in the name of the Summit County Bike Guide, which now has more than 50 video guides for trails across the county. In the history of original Summit Daily video content, that’s only eclipsed by Z Griff and On The Hill with 150-plus (!) edits. End shameless promotion.
Anyway, neither of us had been on the full Penn Gulch Grind course before. Sure, we’d been on sections of it, like the grind up Bakers Tank singletrack and the lower stretches of Blue River Trail, but we had no idea what to expect in the middle when we turned onto the trail this race is named after. Along with GoPros and cameras, we pack a sense of adventure (aka make s*** up as we go along) every time we head out for a trail guide. I moved to Summit from the Vail area about two years ago, and this video project has been my introduction to the majority of trails I now ride and enjoy. Pretty cool.
To make matters worse, someone stole my Yeti SB75 a week before the ride and I was fresh out of cross-country bikes. Austyn’s husband came to the rescue with a relic from mountain-biking past: a full-rigid Klein Attitude, 10 speed, with old-school Avid rim brakes and a relatively new Shimano Deore rear derailleur. It also came with clips. Say what you will, but to me, riding with clips is like riding in a straight jacket, or maybe getting smothered by a clingy ex. And yes, it’s because I’m bad with both (and I assume I’d suck at the straight jacket thing).
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After grinding our way up Bakers Tank we dropped onto Boreas Pass Road and started looking at Indiana Creek Road, the Jeep double-track that descends into Penn Gulch. It’s about 2 miles up the road from the tank, and after taking one wrong turn (who knew there were so many private homes off Boreas?) we dropped onto the rocky, rutted trail.
To make things interesting, we rode the route right around the time monsoon season arrived in mid-July. June had been hot, hot, hot (not to mention dry) and those first few rainstorms gutted everything. The ride up Bakers Tank was muddy — it was also beautiful, what with the lush carpet of wildflowers and undergrowth reappearing — and the early descent on Indiana Creek was pockmarked with puddles.
But man, the rocks murdered me. Mobbing down babyhead Jeep road on a full suspension is one thing, but clattering down slick, slippery boulders on that Klein full-rigid was brutal. I have a newfound respect for all the OG mountain bikers around town who fell in love with the sport in the days before suspension. It’s like the difference between a ’90s Burton Custom complete and a modern snowboard setup. Technology has made life pretty easy on us young punks.
To make matters just weird, the Jeep road neither of us had ridden before turned into a creek — a literal creek. If I had read Westy’s directions more closely on the Mav Sports website, I would have known that this is totally normal for the Penn Gulch grind. Just ride through the creek for a few hundred yards and then ditch out on the singletrack when it finally appears in the thick, cavern-like shrubs on both sides of the road-slash-creek.
Austyn, who probably thought I missed a turn somewhere, started slowing down in front of me — her full-suspension Yeti looked like so much comfortable fun on the descent — and I knew I’d lose the momentum I needed to make that full-rigid plow through the creekbed. I went to kick my left foot out of the clip and got stuck, of course, just as the boulders got bigger. The front fork jarred and dipped and rose and dipped once more before it came to a stop in about 9 or 10 inches of water, where I managed to avoid an endo by finally getting both feet unclipped. So much for kicking my left foot to the dry patch I aimed for — both shoes went straight into the water. (All of this is on unedited video that will never see the light of day…unless we make a blooper reel.)
We reached the road on the edge of the Illinois Gulch neighborhood and had a good laugh about the whole thing. Oh, and to make matters frustrating, the SLR camera I brought for the day decided to stop working after just two photos. (A week and one new battery later it worked just fine. Whatever.) Our rides usually take 30 to 40 minutes longer than average because of all the “work” we do — work like taking photos of pretty things and cursing at the GoPro battery life — but this one took an hour longer. Austyn went straight to the Breck community center on French Street, where she finished the day typing away in a conference room still wearing her bike gear, and I went home to dread an afternoon at the computer after a morning with no suspension. Let’s put it this way: I didn’t sit in the saddle much during the ride, even on the uphills, but my a** still hurt. I just don’t have the titanium sit bones of a hardened road biker.
That ride was easily one of the strangest and best I took this summer, and I look forward to actually competing in the race one of these years. Maybe by then my full-suspension Yeti will reappear (but I doubt it). I hope you enjoyed this year’s bike guide in print and online. We had a blast making the videos and I hope folks had a blast watching them. Until next May, enjoy.
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