Beach, Sand and Mountain bikes

Went to the beach this past week to enjoy the sun, sand and gentle ocean waves. Did all of it…except the waves weren’t quite as gentle as we had hoped. Oh well, it’s still the ocean, and that’s all good. We took our mountain bikes because we thought we would ride several times. Alas, they sat there all week with nary a glance until Friday. Finally, we worked up the gumption to go for a ride, and am I ever glad we did. There’s a local trail system to which we had never, ever previously paid attention. However, the thought of enduring long, almost entirely flat, boring, road bike rides with plenty of wind to add to the discomfort was just too much for me. Along this particular section of road, there’s nothing for the eye to enjoy. It’s either a landscape speckled with beach homes of every sort, or it’s walls of coast pine trees and only a smattering of a bay here or there. Oh…and depending on the time of day, cars – lots and lots of them. ::yawn::

So now, you can see why the thought of riding that – a busy, landscape devoid of a lovely view for longer than a few seconds here and there – was markedly unpleasant. Well, we didn’t want to not ride all week, at least we thought we wouldn’t. So, what else is there? Bring our mountain bikes? Is there a even trail down there within reasonable distance? Hmmm, we remembered seeing a state park of some sort, but did they allow mountain bikes? Turns out, they do! Ah hah, that’s it! Let’s bring our mountain bikes, and check out those trails.

It wasn’t until we were down there that we both unspokenly thought about the sand those trails must have. Hmmm, riding through the sand seemed unpleasant. It’s hard enough to walk through beach sand. Could you imagine riding in it? Maybe not.

Besides, we’ve had plenty of life stresses and little time to decompress. Our schedules are such that we’re both constantly moving. Something is on the schedule pretty much every day of the week, mostly several things on several of those days. So, it was a delight to sit our carcasses on the beach, bake and do nothing, just because we could. Frankly, I had no guilt at all about not riding until Thursday night when the thoughts and realization begin to hit home at vacation is about to end and have we “done” everything we wanted, yet? Perhaps not.

We woke up Friday still not sure we were going to ride until we opened the blinds to look outside. “Hey! From where did all these clouds come?” That’s not exactly sit-n-bake-on-the-beach weather. We paused and looked at each other. “Want to go riding?” After all, cloudy weather at the beach is about perfect for riding. You’re not getting baked on the bike!

And so it was.

Since the trailhead was only a few miles from where we were staying, we decided to ride there and back. Our vehicle could stay where it was.

We dodged in and out of the beach traffic and arrived at the park. There was a gravel road going in from the sign and at some point, we expected to find a parking area with a sign showing the trails. Except, the gravel road went on for ages until we came to an intersection of gravel and dirt roads. Okay, where to now, since there still weren’t any signs? That way. I pointed in a particular direction. On and on, the gravel road went. Really? Is this all there is for riding? While it was nice not to compete with cars for riding space, it wasn’t “doing it” for either of us. Till finally! We came upon a posted display showing a map…alas without the “you are here” arrow. We saw the actual trails, and they were distinguished by colored markings. (There are yellow, orange and red trails.) Without knowing where we were on the map for sure [but had some guesses], we weren’t sure which trail to take. We decided to opt for a certain direction of the red and orange trail (where they were overlapping). Finally! We were on singletrack and meandering through the woods and wilderness. Sure, the gravel road was going through the wilderness, but it’s just not same. Being on the road seems somehow removed from the wilderness. You’re not a part of it. You’re on a very defined, “man’s stamp” going through it but definitely not in it. Riding the singletrack, you’re in the wilderness. You’re now a part of it. You can even pretend you are taking well-worn trails that certain animals use.

Taking the singletrack, though, also meant the ground changed. So, welcome to riding in the sand.

At first, riding in the sand was easy. This part of the trail seemed well used and was hard packed. I know. That seems like an oxymoron. How on earth do you “hard-pack” sand? ::shrug:: I don’t know, but it was. It wasn’t too much different from riding on dirt, except that was about to change.

As we wandered further into the woods, the trail changed to that of less use, and we were greeted by the “squishier” sand. Both my husband and I were on our full suspension bikes and had locked out the rear suspension for riding on the main roads over to the park. After we arrived, we did not change that setting and saw no reason, thus far, to do so. After all, we’re not hitting huge rock gardens or big roots. Granted, the gravel isn’t exactly smooth, but it’s also not creating big enough hits to engage the rear suspension, either.

Before we entered the state park, my husband had given me some tips on dealing with riding in the sand, which was to empty the weight off my saddle when hitting a squishy part of sand. Otherwise, my front wheel would simply be pushed off in a different direction than I cared to go. I followed that advice, at first. Then, I got to thinking about the physics of this situation. It seemed to me that if I engage the rear suspension, again, that it would swallow up some of the motion and therefore, I wouldn’t have to come off my saddle so much. It seemed to me that it would make riding through it a little easier. What have I got to lose? So, I engaged it. Sure enough, riding in the sand became much easier! I started going faster, and my husband was beginning to wonder what had just made me a “star” at riding in the sand? Normally, he’s much faster than I am, as he should be. He’s much stronger than I am and has several years on me for mountain biking experience. I still consider myself a “relative newbie” because I have so much to learn and experience. At first, he simply thought it was because of our weight difference–that his greater weight was making it harder. No honey, that’s not it.

I finally shared my “secret” with him and encouraged him to engage his rear suspension, too. He was reluctant and started giving several excuses of why it wouldn’t work. (I think that reluctance was simply related to a small point. After all, how could I, a person who’s still somewhat new to mountain biking and has never even ridden in the sand previously, figure out such a useful fact? Meh…it’s just that I’m something of a geek – if you hadn’t figure this out, yet – and never stop asking a certain question: “why?”) To overcome his reluctance, I had to point out an obvious fact. If the tactic didn’t work, he could simply switch back. What did he have to lose except a few feet or a few seconds of his time? He couldn’t argue with that, and his hand swept down to make the change.

We rode in silence for a while. I waited to hear some response or some sort of feedback. Alas, nothing. Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer and asked. He admitted that it did, indeed, help. So, we started motoring along a little faster.

As we went a little deeper into the woods, we forayed deeper into the loose sands. Someone had ridden the trail earlier that day because we could see the solitary tire marks. So, we followed their line as best we could. However at points, the sand was so thick; it was like trying to ride through freshly-fallen, powdered snow. Your front wheel goes sideways, and your forward momentum screeches to a crawl. At one point, I hit a spot so thick that it stopped me cold. Using cleats, I only snap in on the left pedal. On the right, I use the flat side of my dual-action pedals. However, I ended up needing to unsnap in an instant. I don’t know how I did it, but I unsnapped and managed to put both feet down together. Had it happened any other way, I would have gone over. Oh sure, it wouldn’t have hurt to hit the deck, but getting covered in sand (since I was now so sweaty) would have been extremely uncomfortable. I laughed heartily at my good fortune. We both continued to laugh several times for the remainder of our time in the woods.

After all, this is a huge modification to riding on dirt in the woods. So, the experience was so new, sometimes frustrating, and many times quite amusing. It was different, and that’s what we wanted. New experiences while riding, especially while mountain biking, make a ride that much more enjoyable…and memorable. You’re not thinking about the exercise you’re getting. You’re so wrapped up in the experience that whatever exertion it takes to accomplish the task becomes secondary. I like those kinds of rides.

Furthermore, the woods are so different than those up here in northern Georgia. The types of trees (mostly a certain type of pine), the smaller trees and bushes, the low-lying brush, the grasses–they’re all different. The insects, too–goodness, they were everywhere! I was grateful that I managed to avoid a protein snack. However, it didn’t stop the enormous grasshoppers from getting friendly and trying to get free-rides. Even the lighting is different. Most of the time, the woods are remarkably bright and open. Then, we’d come to a small area where it was so dark and compressed, you wondered if you were in the same state, much less the same park. I was loving every minute of it.

I was missing one thing, though, and that was the wildlife, the animals, themselves. We heard a few different birds but saw only glimpses of a couple of them. Other than that, the only other wildlife we saw was the glimpses of scampering, tiny lizards eager to hide from our monstrous tires. I wasn’t surprised, though, by the lack of wildlife. On the various trails I have ridden this far, I’ve noticed that trails which are also hiking trails, as these are, tend to have much fewer sightings of the animals. If you go on trails that were made for mountain bikes and the occasional hiker or trail runner is a rare sight by comparison, you’ll see not only routinely see wildlife quite often but notice that they tend not to be afraid of you as you pass by in close proximity. In fact of particular note, I’ve had more times than I can count where I passed deer who didn’t even bother to raise their heads (much less their tails) to watch me pass by on my bike. The only time I’ve seen a white tail raised up was when a mother deer was crossing the pathway with a fawn close by and the two of them were less than 10 feet from me as I was fast approaching. Even then, they stopped about 30 feet off the trail to watch me disappear around the next corner. But I digress. Back this this sandy mountain bike trail, I’m guessing that in order to see more wildlife, we’ll have to go earlier in the morning and travel to the more remote, furthest sections of the park in order to see them.

Of course, all good things must come to an end, and so, it was with the ride. The sand-swamped trails eventually transitioned to hard packed sand, then, to dirt with hard packed sand. Finally, the gravel returned, and we found ourselves at another entrance to the park further up the road from where we entered. This entrance had a true parking area and a map. That would have been nice to see before entering. Oh well, we have at least another 10, possibly 15 miles of trails to check out on our next beach trip.

Reluctant to leave the fun of the trails we had “discovered”, we rode the 5 or so miles back to our beach spot, showered off the trail dirt and headed for a windy, cloudy but a last hurrah at the beach, all the while musing about our next trip and riding through that sand and wilderness.