Frozen Trails Finally

I finally got back out on my mountain bike this morning, for the first time in about a month. My last ride was not all that enjoyable, because the trails were such a muddy mess. I try to avoid riding through mud, both to keep it off my bike, and to avoid damaging the trails. As a result, it seemed like I was doing as much walking as riding that day, which really takes away most of the fun, because you can’t get into that awesome zen state of mind that you get on a long, uninterrupted trail ride.

Different story this morning. In the winter, when I wake up, my usual routine is to check the temperature. So often this winter, the forecast has predicted a dip into the mid 20s, but I’ve woken up only to find it never dropped below freezing. Today was the opposite. I initially didn’t think it was going to get cold enough, but I woke up to a very solid 26º. I checked the hourly readings, and found that it fell below freezing around 11pm, and stayed there all night. A perfect recipe for frozen trails!! With mild conditions predicted for the rest of the week, I figured today was the day to get reacquainted with the MTB.

I hit the trails a little after 7 this morning. Conditions were just about perfect. It was mild enough to be comfortable, but cold enough that the trails were frozen mostly solid. None of the streams were frozen, so I had no issues with footing on the crossings (I know I could just power right through the streams, but I still think it’s better for the bike to walk it). I’m happy I didn’t wait too long to get out. There were lots and lots of sections of thick mud with deep tire ruts and footprints. When frozen, you can just ride right over them. It makes for a rough ride in places, but it’s far better than slogging through mud. As I write this at about 11:00am, the temperature has crept above freezing, and I suspect the window has closed. On several occasions this past month, I’ve been tempted to head out despite marginal temperature conditions. Based on today’s ride, I’m glad I held off, and will wait for conditions like this before I go out again. I’m hoping the second half of January brings some colder mornings with it.

In spite of my rustiness, I think I rode pretty well this morning. I rode sections of Morning Choice, Rockburn Branch, and Ridge Extension (Captain John Smith) in Howard County; and “Gunned”, Soapstone, “Starstruck”, and Soapstone Reroute/Bull Run in Baltimore County. Out of all my various modes of exercise, mountain biking is the one most likely to get me winded. Lately, I’ve been reading “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art”, and working on applying some of the techniques while exercising. Today was my first opportunity to do this while mountain biking, and I think it helped me power up some ascents with which I’ve struggled in the past. One of these is “Water Bars”, a steep climb up from the Avalon day-use area that joins the trail network on the Howard County side of the park. One of my goals is to make it all the way up this ascent without stepping off the bike. I’ve come close, but the rocky stretch near the top has always tripped me up. Today, I got a little hung up on one of the trail’s namesake water bars about halfway up, but was able to power through the rocky section for the first time ever. I still got pretty winded at the top, but recovered fairly quickly. I think I’m making progress. I just need the weather to cooperate so that I can get more practice now!

Biking Hiking Work

Winter Routine

We’re coming up on a year since everything shut down in mid-March 2020, so this is the first January that I’ve been full-time working from home. For most of 2020, my morning routine several days a week was to take long bike rides before work. I would get out of the house at around 6:30am and ride for anywhere from 2 to 2.5 hours. I kind of suspected that the routine might change a bit come winter, and indeed, it has.

The first big change was in October, when I bought an under-desk treadmill. I had been considering getting one of these for a couple of years. I had been using a standing desk regularly at work, but quickly found that static standing didn’t work for me for long periods of time. I had to be moving around. While standing, I constantly found myself pacing around the office, wandering around the hall outside my office, etc. On the other hand, I could hike for hours and hours on end with minimal breaks. So, I figured that if there was a way to walk while working, I’d be able to stay on my feet and out of the chair for longer periods of time.

When the pandemic hit and I started working from home full-time, I found myself getting less exercise. My biking mileage didn’t drop, but it was all concentrated in the morning, vs. a morning and afternoon commute each day. On top of that, I found that I wasn’t getting out for afternoon walks as I used to do regularly at work, and with meetings shifting to Zoom/Webex, I wasn’t getting free exercise from walking between buildings for meetings, either. I needed something to fill the gap, and a treadmill seemed like the perfect answer: I could work and exercise at the same time. The treadmill has lived up to my expectations — I walk on it anywhere from 2 to 4 hours a day, and my average daily step count on work days has ballooned from under 10k to over 20k.

I kind of expected my biking mileage to drop in the winter, and it has, but not for the reasons I initially thought. I figured the cold temperatures would limit me to shorter rides, but so far, this has been another of Maryland’s famous warm, wet winters, and we haven’t really had a true cold snap yet. In actuality, running, hiking, and climbing have been reducing the frequency of my rides. Could be worse, I suppose. It will be interesting to see how my routine is affected if we ever get a true cold spell, or a significant snowstorm, but I’m not holding my breath for either of those things to happen this year.


Henryton Hike

I had a really fun time hiking with the family in Patapsco Valley State Park yesterday. We hiked west from Henryton Rd. on the through trail, for a total out-and-back distance of about 4 miles. I had only hiked here once before, back in 2014. It’s a very nice, less busy area of the park just east of Sykesville. We found several caches along the way, climbed a few trees, and Andrew got to do some bouldering with his new crash pad. I keep telling myself that one of these days, I’d like to through-hike the entire park from Halethorpe to Sykesville. If planned correctly, it could probably be done as a 1- or 2-night backpacking trip.

This morning, I had planned to ride my mountain bike, which I haven’t done since early December. The predicted low was 24°, but once again, the actual temperature ended up hovering within 1 or 2 degrees of freezing, so I bagged it and took a road ride instead. When I actually got outside, it seemed colder than my weather app had indicated, and I suspect the trails probably would have been OK. I saw a lot of people in the park, including several groups of mountain bikers, which is unusual for a weekday morning. I suspect things will return to normal next week, when most people will be back at work. I’m really hoping that January will bring some colder mornings that will solidly freeze the trails. In the meantime, I’m going to either have to put up with mud, or hit the pavement instead, as I did today. I ended up going about 24 miles and looping through UMBC. Not a bad ride, even if it wasn’t what I had planned.

Biking Miscellany

Boxing Day

Another Christmas has come and gone. I remember the days when the kids would get all excited and wake up early to open presents. We even have the video to prove it, which I shot on our then-state-of-the-art MiniDV video camera. Nowadays, they are nocturnal teenagers, and it’s hard just getting them out of bed. A few years back, I came to the realization that I enjoy the advent season, or the weeks leading up to Christmas, more than the day itself. This year, however, was probably the most laid-back Christmas we’ve ever had. Times sure have changed. Next year may be slightly more “normal”, but the kids aren’t getting any younger. I’ll miss those days, but I also like our new, lower-stress holiday routine — and when I’m feeling nostalgic, I can always go back and look at our old videos.

With the kids sleeping in, I considered riding yesterday morning, but decided to go today instead. The temperatures were down in the low 20s again (the freeze cycle of our flood-freeze winter), so I kept it under 20 miles, and rode a quick out-and-back to downtown Columbia to find a cache. I’ve gotten quite familiar with this route since I started riding it regularly back in the spring. I wore 3 layers on my upper body, which I think was one more than I needed, as I was sweating a little bit by about 30-45 minutes in. Interestingly enough, though, my toes never really got cold. I wore my usual waterproof Altra Lone Peaks with warming insoles, but added a second layer of socks this time. I’m not sure if the socks did the trick, or if the extra upper-body layer kept my core warmer, thus keeping my body from leeching heat from the extremities. I suspect it was a little of both. That said, sweating when it’s below freezing is not something you really want happening. I need to find the sweet spot where I don’t sweat, but my toes still stay warm. Winter riding is very much a balancing act. I’ve been doing it for 13 winters, but I still haven’t perfected it.

Biking Weather

Ice and Slop

Among many other things, 2020 has had a profound effect on my daily routine. Before this year, I almost never rode my bikes for exercise. 99 times out of 100, if I rode, it was to get to work or get home. Once in a blue moon, I would head out on a weekend morning and bike a loop around the airport. A few times a year, I’d take the bike somewhere to find caches, or to use as a shuttle for a one-way hike or paddle, but that was the exception, not the rule. Almost all of my rides were 15 miles or less. Nowadays, it’s the complete opposite. I don’t commute any more, so I bike to stay in shape. Almost all of my rides are round-trip, starting and ending at home, and most are between 20 and 30 miles. This is kind of how I envisioned life after retirement, except I’m still working.

One thing that hasn’t changed much is Maryland weather. The past few days have been wet and icy. This past Saturday, I ventured out for a ride to Odenton to find a cache. The temperatures were in the low to mid-20s, making it my coldest ride of the season thus far. While I’m no stranger to commuting in those temperatures, I don’t think I had ever taken a ride just for the heck of it when it was that cold out. Strange times indeed.

After a run on Sunday, I returned to the bike this morning. Temperatures were several degrees above freezing, with a chilly fog hanging over everything, turning most of the snow and ice into messy slush. The exception was River Road in Patapsco Valley State Park, which faces north, and was still a solid sheet of ice. The warm-ish air temperature actually made it even more slick. It kind of caught me by surprise. After 12 winters riding through there, I’m aware that it gets icy, but given that the ice storm was 5 days ago, I thought that more of it would have melted. My studded front tire got me through some of it, but I elected to walk other parts of it in the interest of staying upright. I could have ridden most if it if I had had studs on the rear wheel, but I didn’t think I would need them. Live and learn, I guess.

Biking Geocaching


Looks like we’ll be getting our first dose of wintry weather tomorrow, although the latest forecast I saw has dialed back on the snowfall totals in our area. Looks like another trademark central Maryland ice-fest. Whatever we get in the way of precipitation, it’s going to be turning colder. This morning, I was debating either running or biking, but then I remembered that there was a new cache in Catonsville, which swayed me to the latter.

We got a bunch of rain yesterday, and it dipped into the upper 20s overnight. That’s a great recipe for icy roads, so I decided I should ride with a studded front tire. It turned out to be the right move, and actually, I was kind of wishing I had studs on both wheels. I’ll swap the back wheel out before my next wintry ride. As usual, the iciest roads were in PVSP, but there was ice outside the park as well, as many roads hadn’t been salted (that will change tonight, I’m sure). This is my 10th winter riding the same set of Schwalbe Marathon Winter tires, and they are still going strong. I’m sure that one of the reasons they’ve lasted is that I have a second wheelset that I use in the winter, so I don’t have to mount and dismount the tires at the beginning and end of every season. It also makes it easy to switch back and forth between studded and regular tires during warm spells.

This morning, I covered around 23 miles. It went well, except I was reminded why I haven’t historically done much caching by bike in the cold. I was only off the bike for about 5 minutes to find the cache and sign the log, but that was enough to make me really chilly for about the next 15 minutes of the ride. I might have to get used to that, because there’s probably more winter bike caching in store for me this season.

Tomorrow, I’m hoping to get a run in, as well as a quick trip to the climbing gym, before the weather hits. I guess we’ll see if either happens.

Biking Climbing Geocaching Running

Longer than planned

With temperatures still pushing into the 60s, and Old Man Winter slated to arrive this week, I really wanted to get some outside time today. I already had a 5-mile hike planned with our Scout troop, but also wanted to get some biking in before tomorrow’s predicted washout. So, I headed out of the house in the predawn twilight and biked a loop through Columbia, Savage, and Jessup. The route took me past Lake Elkhorn, along the entire length of the Patuxent Branch Trail, through Savage, and back home via Corridor Rd and Dorsey Run Rd. I even found a couple of caches along the way. I ended up notching over 31 miles, which was more than I had planned. When I left the house, the temperature at BWI was 53°, and based on that, I decided to wear shorts. I was regretting that decision for about the first 10 miles of the ride, but things soon warmed up enough that I was comfortable.

By the time I got home, it was after 10:00, leaving me about an hour to rest before I had to round the teens up to head to PVSP Hilton Area for our troop hike. We hiked a loop that took us along Santee Branch Trail, down Vineyard Spring, west on the paved Grist Mill Trail, and up Sawmill Branch, where we rejoined Santee Branch and followed it back to the starting point. The park was (predictably) busy, with Grist Mill being the busiest of the trails we hiked — nothing like it is on weekday mornings, when it’s just me and a few regulars. Other than that, though, it was a great hike, and the other trails didn’t feel crowded at all. There’s a lot of room out there in the woods.

Based on the weather forecast, tomorrow is shaping up to be a treadmill day. I’m hoping to get a ride or two in this week, as well as a run, and maybe some climbing at the gym, but we’ll see how much of that the weather will allow.


Freeze Thaw

Last year was my first-ever experience with mountain biking in the winter. Back in the ’90s, I was a casual, weekend-only, warm-weather mountain biker. Nowadays, in Patapsco Valley State Park, it’s all about avoiding the crowds. That means riding on weekdays, usually in the morning, and often in the cold.

One of the first things I learned about mountain biking in the winter is that I stay warmer on the trails than I do on roads. My first few times out, I dressed essentially the same way I do for cold road rides, and found myself getting hot and sweaty. I’m not sure why this is, but it probably has something to do with the slower speeds involved, as well as the tree canopy and terrain, all of which combine to reduce wind chill. Mountain biking is also more like interval training than road biking. There are short stretches of heavy exertion, alternated with downhill bursts, and occasional dismounting to get around obstacles. On top of that, you have to move around on the bike a lot more to keep a stable center of gravity through technical sections. All in all, it’s a much more dynamic activity than road biking, and involves a lot more muscle groups (particularly the core muscles). The upshot of all this is that I’ve learned to dress somewhat lighter than I do when I hit the roads. Of course, the only problem there is that whenever I do hit a short stretch of pavement, I get cold really fast. I try to minimize riding on pavement when on the mountain bike, but a certain amount of it is unavoidable.

The other thing I learned about is the strange phenomenon known as the “freeze thaw cycle” that affects the trails during the colder months. Overnight and in the morning, the trails are frozen, which makes for fantastic riding conditions. However, once the sun warms the ground above freezing, all of the moisture thaws out, and the trails turn into a muddy mess. This was a constant problem when I was commuting by MTB. The morning commutes would be total frozen awesomeness, but my afternoon rides would be mud baths. There were a lot of days where I rode home on roads, in the interest of staying off the trails. Of course, with my current work-from-home situation, this is not really a problem — I just stick to riding in the mornings.

We’re just now starting to get into the freeze-thaw cycle for the winter of 2020-2021. This morning, with the temperatures hovering right around freezing, the exposed trails were frozen, but the trails deeper in the woods were still thawed and a bit soupy in places. Trail conditions have been less than ideal lately because of our extremely wet fall weather, so I’m counting the days ’til the overnight temperatures fall down to the low-to-mid 20s, which will freeze everything up really nicely for my morning rides.



I bought my first mountain bike in 1994. Actually, it was the first bike I ever bought for myself, having cut my teeth on 10-speed beaters provided by my parents. I rode it off-road for awhile in the 1990s, and it sat neglected for most of the 2000s. In 2010, I fixed it up to use for winter commuting, replacing the old, blown air/oil suspension fork with a rigid front fork. However, that pretty much meant the end of the bike’s days as an off-road, single-track bike.

For awhile, I didn’t miss mountain biking, until a few years back, when I started hiking to and from work. From where I live, it’s about a 5 mile hike, about 90% of which is in Patapsco Valley State Park. Problem was, it took me 90 minutes each way, and I didn’t have 3 hours to spend commuting every day. As a result, it became a once-a-week thing, and most other days, I took to the roads on my bike, amongst the ever-worsening rush hour traffic.

PVSP is one of the premier mountain biking areas in the region, and during my hikes, I would always see MTB riders. Eventually, I got to thinking that if I bought a new mountain bike, I could use it to commute on the same trails I was hiking. It would be faster, so I could do it more often, which would mean less time spent on congested roads. In late 2019, I finally took the plunge.

It was a bit of a learning curve picking mountain biking back up after 20 years. It’s a completely different skill set from road biking, particularly when riding steep, technical trails like those in PVSP. But, I soon got into a pretty good routine commuting back and forth from work on single track. Then, COVID hit, and as with everything else, it shook up my mountain biking routine. Now that I’m working from home, I’m not using my bikes for commuting any more, and that includes the MTB. There’s less traffic on the roads, making road biking on weekdays (at least temporarily) more palatable than in recent years. It’s also been a very wet year, and the trails have been muddier than usual. All of this has meant less mountain biking this year than I had planned, though I still try to get out once a week or so. I’ll usually try to wait until 48 to 72 hours after it has rained (tough to do this year), and then I’ll ride a 10-to-15-mile loop before work.

One thing I will say about mountain biking is that, while harder to master than road biking, it is fun. There’s nothing like the thrill of a fun, fast descent, and a long ride on a flowy trail brings on a zen feeling that’s kind of like a runner’s high. You don’t really get that on the road, and it’s been a nice outlet this year. I’m glad I bought the bike when I did, and am looking forward to some point in the future when I can use it for commuting again.


Morning Ride

Today, I rode to UMBC and back for a second consecutive morning, and was happy to have no bike-related issues this time around. After yesterday’s adventures, my front tire now has a new tube. When I get around to it, I’ll find and patch the leak in the old tube, and it’ll become my spare. Today, I headed out past Rockburn Branch Park and into Patapsco Valley State Park via Ilchester Rd, Beechwood Rd, and Bonnie Branch Rd. Bonnie Branch was shut down for a couple of months this past summer due to flood damage, and today was the first time I rode it after it reopened. Not too much has changed, other than some pavement and guard rail repairs. I suspect that a lot of repairs were made that aren’t readily visible, though.

UMBC ended all in-person instruction as of Thanksgiving, and sent all of the students home. The campus is really quiet these days, kind of like it was during the stay-at-home order — no one around except groundskeepers and bus drivers. We are living in strange times.

I headed home via my usual route through Relay and PVSP, and when all was said and done, I had logged about 24 miles — not too bad for a chilly morning. The temperature was in the upper 30s most of the time, with overcast skies and a stiff breeze. I wore a wool t-shirt base layer, long sleeve jersey, windbreaker, cycling pants, wool socks, Altra Lone Peak waterproof hiking shoes, and Gore-Tex cycling gloves, and was reasonably comfortable the entire time I was out. It’s going to get more interesting when the temperature starts dropping below freezing. In normal times, I try to keep my rides to about an hour in those conditions, which is easy to do when I’m splitting my rides into a morning and evening commute. I’m not sure my current routine of 2- to 2.5-hour round trip rides in the mornings is going to work when it starts getting really cold. We’ll see.