Off-Road Commute

On a complete impulse this morning, I decided to try out some single-track commuting for the first time ever.  I live in Elkridge, MD, and work at UMBC.  Directly between my house and work stretches the Avalon area of Patapsco State Park, which is known as one of the premier mountain biking destinations on the east coast.  So it only figures that I should try commuting through it, right?  The biggest thing holding me back from single-track commuting has always been my bike setup.  I typically ride with a rear rack and two panniers, which weighs down the back of the bike and also makes it wider.  This is fine for riding on paved roads and is also OK for unpaved fire roads.  For single-track, though, it seems like you’d want to keep the bike lighter and more maneuverable, which would favor a backpack over panniers.  For today, though, I found myself with less “stuff” to haul to work than usual, so I replaced the panniers with a smaller rack trunk, and off I went.

My house is less than a mile from the nearest entry point to the Avalon trail network.  I rode out Montgomery Rd. to Elibank Rd., turned onto Belmont Woods Rd., and followed it a short distance to the trail.  I followed this trail out to the Rockburn Branch Trail (purple blazed), which I then followed to the Ridge Trail (red/orange blazed), which took me out to River Rd. in the park.  A short ride, but enough to remind me that my off-road biking skills are very rusty.  I spent almost as much time walking the bike as riding, partly due to obstacles such as rocks and roots that I didn’t feel confident riding over.  The other big factor was all the mud from the recent rain.  My current tires have a smooth profile with some knobby tread on the sides, good for pavement, fire roads, and dry trails, but really bad in mud.  I had to be extra careful to avoid slipping in the mud, and I kept wishing I had tires with a more aggressive tread.  Fortunately, my ride was predominantly downhill.  I would have had big problems with traction going uphill.  I was also wishing I had front suspension.  There’s a really steep, rocky descent from the Rockburn Branch to the Ridge Trail, and I think I may have rattled a few teeth loose.  🙂

The other problem I had was with my Ergon grips.  I’ve mentioned before that they occasionally slip on me; on the road, it isn’t enough to be bothersome, but on single-track they were slipping all over the place.  As I mentioned before, I think preventing this is just a matter of roughing up my bars a bit to make them less slippery; this will need to become a bigger priority if I decide to ride off-road more regularly.

All this being said, it was nice to get off-road and away from traffic.  This was a nice “first stab” at commuting off-road.  If I want to do this more often, I should consider:

  1. Getting a cycling-specific backpack so I can ditch the rear rack for off-road rides;
  2. Getting a set of off-road specific tires with more aggressive tread, or limiting my off-road riding to times when the trails are dry.
  3. And if I REALLY decide to get into it, a front suspension fork would be nice, or even better, a dedicated bike for off-roading, maybe a 29er.



Today’s Ride

I got an early start on the commute this morning, so I decided to try an alternate, longer route to get from Elkridge to UMBC on the bike:

  • West on Montgomery Rd
  • Right on Rockburn Dr
  • Right on Montgomery Rd
  • Right on Kerger Rd
  • Right on Ilchester Rd
  • Left on Beechwood Rd
  • Left on Bonnie Branch Rd
  • Right on Montgomery Rd
  • Right on New Cut Rd
  • Left on College Ave/St Paul St
  • Right on Frederick Rd
  • Left on Oella Ave
  • Left onto Ellicott City Trolley Trail
  • Straight onto Edmondson Ave
  • Right on Melvin Ave
  • Left on Frederick Rd
  • Right on Mellor Ave
  • Bear right onto Hilltop Rd
  • Ride onto campus

Sort of a 1-hour tour of Elkridge, Ellicott City and Catonsville.  Total distance around 18 miles.

Almost all of my morning commutes take me through Patapsco State Park, so this was kind of a departure from the routine.  I’m looking for options for longer rides, and I wanted to see what the traffic was like on this route.  Turns out the traffic is not too bad, except for Ilchester Rd between Kerger and Landing, and Frederick Rd in Ellicott City.  But Ilchester is only busy on school days, and I’m only on Frederick Rd for about ¼ mile.  So all in all, I’d say this route is a winner.  Other observations:

  • The route has some challenging hills, but not until more than halfway in, when I’m fully warmed up.  Also the descent into the river valley on New Cut Rd. is much nicer than my usual white-knuckled descent down Ilchester Rd.
  • I swear I must have gone over at least 30 speed humps.  Next time I’m going to keep count just for kicks.  Maryland: Traffic Calming Capital of the World.
  • Not sure I’ll be riding on the Ellicott City Trolley Trail again.  Parts of it are pretty torn up by roots.  Not too road-bike-friendly.  The alternative is to take Westchester Rd, which shouldn’t be bad.

Today’s ride

It was my coldest morning commute of the year today.  14° with a wind chill of 2°.  I usually check the temperature before getting on the bike, so I can figure out what to wear.  Didn’t bother today..  already knew it was going to be cold, so I just bundled up.  In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t check, because it would have made the ride seem colder, and may have deterred me from biking at all.  Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

Stuff I wore..  Head: balaclava, helmet and Uvex glasses.  Torso: short sleeve exercise top, arm warmers, Under Armour long sleeve top, PolarTec top, outer shell.  Legs: thermal tights under cycling shorts.  Feet:  SmartWool socks, “toasty toes” chemical toe warmers, cycling shoes, slip-on toe covers, and neoprene thermal shoe boots.  Hands: thick winter gloves.

I kept pretty warm with the above.  My hands and wrists were a little sweaty at the end.  This was the first time I tried the chemical toe warmers, and they worked pretty well, that is to say, my toes weren’t numb at the end, unlike the last time I rode when it was south of 20 degrees.  My face got a little cold when riding into the wind, but not unbearably so.

20° seems to be the magic ice-in-the-water-bottle cutoff temperature.  I’ve had ice on both my sub-20 rides, but never anything when it’s 20 or above.

Last but not least..  I’d recommend staying away from the “Zero Xposur” brand.  They make various kinds of winter outerwear.  I’ve had the zipper break on a winter coat, and the stitching is coming apart on a pair of heavy gloves, both after relatively light and infrequent use.  Might just be a coincidence, but I’m going to be avoiding them in the future.

Aargh, I hate winter

Forces of nature are conspiring to keep me off my bike lately.

I managed to bike to work twice last week in spite of the big ice storm that hit the Baltimore/Washington area.  Then I went out for a quick 20-miler this past Sunday, and promptly broke a spoke on my back wheel.  This was the third broken spoke for me since last fall.  The first, I replaced myself.  After the second, I dropped the wheel off at the bike shop.  They replaced the spoke, trued my wheel up and informed me that my rim was bent and this likely wouldn’t be the end of my problem.  Sure enough, they were right.

So…  the bike spent Monday and Tuesday in the shop getting a wheel rebuild with a new rim and spokes.  Naturally, the weather both days would have been fine for bike commuting, if I had had a working bike.  Tuesday evening I bring the bike home from the shop, anxious to ride in this morning.  And of course, this morning I wake up to a “surprise” 2-inch snowfall.  Bummer.

The snow prompted UMBC to delay opening till 10am (caution on their part because of all the bad press they got after the ice storm, I guess).  By 9:45, conditions had improved to the point where I probably could have biked in, but I had a 10am meeting scheduled, which didn’t leave me enough time.  So I drove in, and found out the meeting had been cancelled.  And now it’s beautiful out.  A Murphy’s Law day if there ever was one.

It looks like the snow is out of the forecast for awhile, but tomorrow is going to be arctic with a high of 28 and a wind chill of probably half that.  Damned if that’s going to stop me, though. 🙂

Back on the bike after ice storm

I rode my bike to work today for the first time since the ice storm that hit the Baltimore/Washington area this past Tuesday and Wednesday.  My usual commute takes me through Elkridge, Relay, and Arbutus, MD, including a short trip through the Patapsco State Park Avalon Area.  Today, the roads were fine for the most part, actually a little drier and less salt-strewn than I expected.  The park, however, was still a massive sheet of ice, and being that I was on a road bike with skinny non-ice-friendly tires, I skipped the park and did a short detour onto U.S. 1 instead.  Biking on U.S. 1 is never my first choice, but it was only 1/4 mile on a stretch that has adequate shoulders.  All the same, it was the first time I had ever biked this stretch, and fortunately it wasn’t too bad (aided, I’m sure, by the fact that it was 9:30am and traffic was thinning out).  Nice to know that I have this option available in the future on days when the park is impassable.

The roads weren’t too bad on the UMBC campus (my destination) either, other than maybe a little more salt than the county roads.  The sidewalks were passable.  On the roads they use what appears to be the same salt the county uses, but for the sidewalks they use this weird white foamy-pellety stuff that sticks to shoes and tires, and gets tracked all over the place inside the buildings.  Thanks to full fenders, my bike stayed pretty clean for the entire ride, until the very end when I rode on the sidewalk.  Now the tires are covered with this crap, and I’m sure there’s a long trail of it leading from the front door to my office suite.  (Update — apparently this is Calcium Chloride, and come to think of it, it looks suspiciously similar to the Calcium Chloride “Hardness Plus” pellets I put in my swimming pool.  Wonder if it’s cheaper per pound…)

The ride home should be interesting.  It’s sunny right now, but apparently it’s supposed to cloud up through the afternoon and there’s a chance of snow showers.  We’ll see how it goes.

The Joys of Winter Biking

Took my first fall of 2009 yesterday.  We were coming off two straight days of rain, it was 7:45am and the temperature was right around freezing.  All of that adds up to (you guessed it) ice on the road.  Most of the roads were treated and in pretty good shape, but in my infinite wisdom I decided to extend the ride with a lap through the State Park.  And in the park, the roads were..  not good.  Long story short, I was coming down a hill, braking a bit, hit a previously-unseen patch of black ice, and the bike promptly came out from under me.

Falls happen so quickly and suddenly that it’s often hard to tell right away what happened and if there’s been any damage.  Sometimes it doesn’t become apparent until you try to get back on the bike and resume the ride.  In my case, I ended up completely undamaged (yay for slippery ice and multiple layers of winter clothing) but my front wheel was knocked out of true.  Turned out to be a loose spoke.  A quick twist with a spoke wrench got me back on the road.  I also had to re-position my front fender, which I did after the ride.  So apparently my front wheel must have taken some kind of impact, although the fall was so smooth that it’s hard to picture how it could have happened.

I guess I should count myself lucky that this was such an easy fall and it happened in the park where there’s no traffic.  It’s been north of 20 years since I last did any regular riding in the winter, but this was enough to remind me of the perils of icy roads..