The voice of (in)experience

Tom and I went mountain biking yesterday on an abandoned gravel road, now known as the Granite Creek Road/Trail, where we saw a bobcat on May 4. It has views of lush green valleys and a variety of types of forest, from recent clearcuts to dark older growth with nothing but ferns and fallen logs under the trees. At the end of one branch of the road is a trail into a bowl-shaped, forested valley with a creek running through it, and a view of a pair of small lakes (Granite Lakes) far below in the bottom of the bowl. We didn’t get that far on our hike last month but we got there yesterday, in spite of some pretty strenuous challenges on and off the bikes. I’m so worn out today that I’m just sort of lolling around. Plus I donated blood this morning so I feel I have more of an excuse to move slowly.

Granite Creek Road goes uphill for at least six miles, not too steeply in most places, and crosses many little streams and one rushing, boulder-filled creek (Granite Creek). The bridge over the creek was built with enormous old-growth logs that you can see if you bushwhack down to the water’s edge. We did that last time, when we were hiking without the bikes. We wanted to use the bikes yesterday to save time on the long hike and see the lakes.

We did save about an hour each way, but then we started having a lot of problems with losing traction on the gravel. This was especially bad for me because my bike isn’t really a mountain bike to begin with, and I recently put slick and narrow city tires on it. My bike is a three-year-old Bianchi Volpe, which is a road/off-road hybrid style originally designed for Cyclocross off-road racing. Based on my experience yesterday, I can’t imagine racing this bike off-road. I spent so much time getting off and back on, trying to get traction, wrestling the bike to stay under me and go where I wanted, that I got way more tired than I would have from simply riding up a long hill. I might have done slightly better with knobby tires and straight handlebars, but even Tom on his knobby mountain bike had trouble with the loose gravel. Often we’d walk a while then just as we thought the terrain looked good to ride, we’d see that we were about to come to another stream running across the road. Some of those we could ride through, some were too rocky or rutted for our level of inexperience.

We dropped the bikes about two-thirds of the way up because we were pushing more than riding, and walked the rest of the way to the view of the lakes where we ate our lunch at 4:00. (Boy, were we hungry by then!) The narrower trail continues down another mile or so to a larger lake, Thompson Lake, which we couldn’t see from where we were. It’s always fun to cross over a ridge or hilltop and hike down into a valley or bowl, because the feel of the woods usually changes quite a bit. It gets quieter and darker and the views are shorter so you feel like you’ve made a discovery.

On the way down, it got chilly for a while and we put on our jackets, until we started sweating again trying to maneuver the bikes. Speaking for myself, anyway. With my bike’s downhill posture and drop handlebars, I was petrified. I wore my arms out by both gripping the brakes and by using my arms to hold my weight farther back on the seat than was natural. At times, I couldn’t even get enough traction to stop the bike right away, so then I would get off and walk. The options seemed to be (1) walk (2) grip the brakes and skid downhill until spilling (3) let off the brakes and fly over rocks until spilling painfully.

There were enough stretches, especially lower down, where we could ride so that we did save a lot of time. I’m not sure whether saving the time was worth the effort involved in riding, though I’m glad we challenged ourselves and tried something new. On our other visit, when we just hiked, we talked to one mountain biker who said he’d been on that trail a half a dozen times. If he’d had to push his bike and then abandon it as we had, surely he would have said so? Or maybe he was able to ride it. Maybe the gravel was packed better a month ago. Maybe it’s possible to be skilled enough to ride in that steep gravel. Who knows?

What we learned: The degree of steepness isn’t the only thing that can make a bike climb difficult, that it’s easier to lose traction than we thought it would be, and that pushing a bike and mounting and dismounting on uneven ground are very energy-draining exercises.

When we got to the bottom, instead of immediately loading the bikes in the car, we rode on the truly packed, beautifully flat gravel and dirt road that runs along the Snoqualmie River under the trees. It was evening and the air was so sweet that we could have kept going in spite of our tiredness.

Sometime we’ll go back and ride to the end of that road. I want to scout for places where I could get the car close enough to the riverbank to load some river rocks for the yard. (Does anybody local have any secret places to pick up river rocks? I only want six or eight nice round flat ones. I don’t want to take them from state parks or other places where it might be frowned upon. I am a polite Seattle rule-follower. I like driftwood too, which seems hard to find in legal spots.)

After we were finally done riding our bikes, we ate at Ken’s Restaurant in the truckers’ plaza at Exit 34 off of I-90. That place has the best hot chocolate we’ve ever had.