Even though my first spin on a mountain bike occurred at the ripe old age of 25, let me make one thing clear: I’ve always been a mountain biker. Oh, there were several other bikes in my life before I bought my first cheap, heavy mountain bike back in 1987. There were several models of the Schwinn Stingray (or cheaper knock-offs). And then there was my final bike before adulthood: a cheap, ugly, dark brown, Sears-brand ten-speed, back when easy cycling for the masses for some odd reason mimicked European road racing. But even though I put thousands of miles on that wannabe road bike, I was never a road biker.
If you take away two things from the above paragraph, they should be:
- “I’ve always been a mountain biker.”
- Repeated use of the word “cheap”.
So how, at age 51, did I end up with a road bike? It was only after great internal struggle. In the end, I sold my soul to the devil for a cheap-ass road bike (hereafter referred to as “C.A.R.B.”) and embarked on The Great Road Bike Experiment of 2013.
There’s danger on roads. When I hear about friends and friends of friends who are road or mountain bikers getting seriously injured or killed, there is a common thread amongst all the horror stories: they were all out riding n the roads.
For a short time, I road my mountain bike to work. 6.5 miles down hill in the morning, then a 6.5 mile grind uphill after work. It wasn’t a lot of miles, but an interesting thing happened: after doing it for about 10 days, my pants started to fall off if I wasn’t wearing a belt. Biking to work was good for me, and good for the environment.
My magical weight loss & earth-saving program was short-lived. I quickly realized how dangerous it was out there on the roads. The last straw came while driving my car to work one morning and seeing a coworker sitting on the side of the road, being attended to by paramedics, blood gushing from large gashes on his face, his mangled bike lying next to him. Cars – 1, Bikes – 0.
Almost two decades later, with even more cars on the road, the last thing on my mind was road biking. But my friend Mike found a way to make it work: the river trails. In Southern California, we have a series of paved bike paths that follow along channelized rivers such as the Los Angeles River, the San Gabriel River, and the Santa Ana River. They let you stay off roads but still get your road bike thing on. The only thing Mike ever has to worry about is dodging homeless people/meth addicts/gang bangers, and an occasional run-in with overzealous members of the law enforcement community. But any of those potential hazards is a better option that being plowed into the pavement by a 12-ton SUV piloted by a soccer mom on her cell phone.
Clem and I had only ridden together a few times over the years–in fact, we rode our mountain bikes together on what had until recently been my longest ride, a 21-mile grind at elevation in the Eastern Sierra. As time progressed, Clem was looking for a more user-friendly bike to accommodate his, how shall I say this, “decreasingly youthful” body. He retired his trusty Marin full suspension mountain bike and settled on a recumbent trike.
A recumbent. All I could think of was this George Carlin quote:
“What’s with these recumbent bicycles? Listen, buddy, if you wanna take a nap, lie down. If you wanna ride a bike, buy a f#*%^* bicycle!”
Clem wanted to test his recumbent on the Santa Ana River Trail (SART) and hooked up with a couple of recumbent riders. He invited me along. I was reluctant, as it wasn’t really my thing. But I went along for the ride–on my 29er mountain bike with a knobby 2.4 inch tire on the front and an almost-as-knobby 2.2 inch tire on the back. Not exactly the ideal setup for long, easy miles on pavement. But it’s what I had.
“On your left!”
We heard that a lot that day, as we rode from Corona north to San Bernardino, then turned around and went back to Corona. After 39.1 miles and a little under five hours of slowly plodding along the trail, we were done. It was the longest ride I had ever done in my life, but far from the most strenuous. More than anything, my ass was sore. Five hours is a long time to be sitting on a skinny little bike seat, no mater how “ergonomic” and “prostate-friendly” it is.
A couple months later, Clem invited me once again, this time to do the lower section of the Santa Ana River Trail from Yorba Linda to Huntington Beach. We stopped for a nice lunch in Newport Beach, then headed back, completing the 45 miles in 5 hours and 10 minutes. My ass was once again sore, and that night I had dreams of a lycra-clad army chanting “On your left!” as they marched their way to the sea.
What, I imagined, must it be like to fly down the river trail on skinny tires? With my mountain bike-trained leg muscles, could I possibly keep up with these guys and gals? The curiosity was killing me.
Also, at 51 I was still mountain biking. Would I be able to continue until 60? 65? 70? At some point, it seemed that mountain biking would be less feasible. The what? Retire to the couch and a sedentary lifestyle of a large gut and clogged arteries? Or might road biking on the river trails possibly a future phase of my active lifestyle?
So I took the plunge. I ordered my C.A.R.B.
The idea behind the C.A.R.B. was that I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something that I might give up quickly. I knew too many people who had decided on a whim that they wanted to try something new, dropped thousands of dollars to gear up, and quickly realized it wasn’t for them. Better to lose a hundred or so dollars on a failed experiment that thousands.
The C.A.R.B. arrived on December 4th, just three days after ordering it–and a full week before I expected it. After assembling it, I added a water bottle cage, an underseat pack to hold my tools and a spare tube, better (and even thinner) tires, strapless toe clips (because I’m old school like that), slime tubes (because I’m a mountain biker), and aerobars/triathalon bars (because, in the words of Ricky Bobby, “I wanna go fast.”).
Total investment: about $400. If the experiment turned out to be a failure, I could sell the bike for at least a couple hundred, or as my son said, just give it to a friend who needs a bike and be happy with that.
I’d give the experiment a month, then decide if this was something that was going to be part of my life, or if some luck friend would be the recipient of an almost-new bike.
After assembling my C.A.R.B. and installing the modest upgrades, I was ready to take it for a spin. Just a short one around the block, to see what this was all about. And I almost didn’t make it out of the driveway.
I mounted the skinny little excuse for a bike and started to roll down the driveway. After just a few feet, I turned the handlebars hard right to steer into the street. The handlebars went right. And the front tire stayed straight.
Ah, yes, I had neglected to tighten the stem while assembling and tuning the bike.
Luckily I wasn’t traveling too fast, and was able to jump off the bike, pull out an Allen wrench, tighten the stem, and get back on the road in less than a minute.
Then the real fun began.
The skinny tires and lack of any suspension meant that every little bump, crack, or pebble was jarring. Incredibly uncomfortable compared to fat mountain bike tires with suspension. On the road bike I really had to spend a lot more time looking for and avoiding micro-sized imperfections, whereas on the mountain bike I just had to be aware of the larger obstacles.
Oh, and the brakes: they totally sucked. Guess I was spoiled by my hydraulic discs.
A few days later, after a few adjustments, I set out on my second ride It was still a “shakedown” ride, but I wanted to actually put a few miles on the C.A.R.B. I headed down the dedicated bike lanes over to Cloverhill, a steep pavement climb that really tested me on my bulky mountain bikes, and pretty easily set a new Personal Record on the climb–which was completely unexpected given the gearing on the C.A.R.B.
Turning to head down the steep road I had just climbed, I quickly became terrified. These skinny little pieces of rubber, less than an inch across, seemed like a death which compared to what I was used to. And my maximum speed was only 26.2 miles per hour.
In the end, the ride was just 5.3 miles total, with about 650 feet f elevation gain. But the shakedown was now complete. Time for something a little longer.
I decided to head back up the Coverhill climb to push really hard and set a new Personal record–which I did, but just by a few seconds–then headed down to Greenspot road to ride the dedicated bike lanes where many road bikers train. I turned around where the bike lane runs out. Coasting fast downhill on the glory ride home, two cross-fitters were jogging in the bike lane. I looked behind me and a car was coming, but it was far enough back that there was enough time for me to swerve around the selfish crossfitters. Between the traffic and the people, my brain forgot to keep a close eye on the road surface, and suddenly, BANG! Flop flop flop. Less that 15 miles on the bike, and I had already completely destroyed it in a pothole.
Pulling over to the sidewalk, I saw the the tire was flat, but there was no damage to the rim (or anything else). As I took apart the bike to patch the flat, it started to rain lightly. I fixed everything as fast as I could, which was hard with frozen fingers on an unfamiliar bike, then pumped up the tire and it held. Off again quickly, and a half mile later, flop flop flop…the patch had not held. Pumped it up again quickly, ad this time made it only about 100 yards before the flop flop flop signaled total failure.
As I contemplated taking it apart and trying another patch, it started to rain harder. I gave up. I ended up walking the bike home the last half mile rather than try to patch the tube again in the rain. I got home tired, wet, exhausted, and pretty frustrated with the whole road riding experience. It was finitely one of the low points of my long, relatively hassle-free biking career. But I did manage to ride 10 miles with almost 1,100 feet of elevation gain. Not a bad ride, all things considered.
A few days later, after fixing the double puncture from the pinch flat (correctly this time), I was finally ready. Time to get off the damn roads and use the C.A.R.B. for its intended purpose–long rides on the river trail.
Unfamiliar with the best place to start on the north end of the Santa Ana River Trail, I went commando and parked illegally in front of a business near where the trail intersects Mt. Vernon Avenue. Other than that inconvenience, it was a good ride of 20.6 miles–uneventful, thankfully, and most notable for what I didn’t hear once in 20.6 miles:
“On your left!”
After working a little bit on the brake lever positioning on the C.A.R.B., I headed back to the Santa Ana River Trail for a a lightly longer, but faster ride.
The first 10 miles flew by, in 33:30. That’s 3:33 minute miles. In a one mile stretch my GPS analysis shows that I averaged 19.3 mph. I was pretty happy with that.
It was all going great until about 8.5 miles in, when the wind started. Then at about 12 miles in I passed a controlled burn on the side of the trail. With my asthma, smoke does to my lungs. This wasn’t looking good.
When I finally turned around, the wind was worse, but it had effectively dissipated most of the smoke. So I just hunkered down and got it done. The last 5 miles was a little painful.
Twice I hit detritus on the trail pretty hard and thought “here we go, a blowout”. But nothing ever came of it.
In the end, I covered 27.3 miles in about 1 hour and 45 minutes. Even without the wind, I would have been very happy with that time.
“Needles! Come here Needles! Come on boy! Come here Needles!”
You just can’t make this shit up.
After two weekend shakedown rides on the Santa Ana River Trail, it was time to see if I could work some quick mid-week rides into my work schedule.
We have a small but nice gym here at work. I used it quite a bit many years ago, but eventually stopped because I’d rather be outside…
But they have showers there.
After a little over 80 miles on the C.A.R.B, I’m finally starting to get the hang of it. It’s not what I would call “fun”–not at all, at least compared to mountain biking. But it sure as hell beats sitting on the couch eating doughnuts and watching Jerry Springer. After all, it gets me some exercise outside–not in pristine wilderness, but in the sun. And it’s definitely making me a stronger mountain biker.
I don’t know how long this fad will last. Will I give it up in a few months, or take the plunge and upgrade to a much better bike?
Only time and a few hundred more miles will tell. But one thing’s for certain:
I’m still a mountain biker.
Always have been.
Always will be.
Thank you, C.A.R.B.
You’re teaching me a lot.
P.S. Your brakes still suck.