Friday, August 30, 2013

A week in Maine

I was away for a week recently, spending some time with my family in Maine. No - no biking this time, but I did have a chance to visit the Sunrise Trail. It's a dirt/gravel path, about 137km (85mi) long, that stretches from Washington Junction near Ellsworth all the way to Ayers Junction in Pembroke. The trail is built in place of the former railway and except cyclists, it is often used by ATVs and horseback riders. It would be fun to ride the full length of this trail some day. That could be an easy ride since the trail on its full length looks pretty much like this:
Sunrise River Trail in Machias - light gravel and dust for 85 miles.

Another place I also visited this year was president's F.D. Roosevelt's summer home on Campobello Island in Canada. It looks like either the president or his children enjoyed riding bicycles as well.
Roosevelt's bicycles on Campobello Island.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A weekend ride to Auburndale

Last weekend I took a short ride to West Newton and Auburndale. I used to work in this area a few years ago so it was nice to visit familiar places. What I didn't know though, was that the Auburndale Park has a nice (although short) bike trail with some picturesque views of the Charles River.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A longer way home - Concord/Lincoln dirt trails

Yesterday, I decided that it was time to explore some more paths in my neighborhood. I left my office in Burlington and took a long way home - through some dirt trails in Concord and Lincoln. The first one was the Katahdin Woods - a forested area located between the I-95 and the Hanscom AFB. The entrance to the trail is located just left of the Hartwell Ave (travelling west) once you cross the little bridge over Kiln Brook. The path is hidden in the forest but it quickly leads into a large opening with power lines above. Unfortunately, here is where it ends. The map is misleading. It shows the trail following the power lines and eventually ending at Wood St. And I believe that this is how the trail looks in winter when abundant flora is asleep. In August however, the trail looks like this:
Can you see the trail here?

The path is simply so heavily overgrown that there is no way to ride a bike there. I tried and eventually gave up, founding a way through someone's back yard to Patterson Rd, abandoning the trail. Some grass plants and bushes were taller than my bike and I picked up so much of that green crap with cranks, spokes and derailleurs that in the end my bike looked like wearing a Ghillie suit.

The first trail didn't work so I took the familiar Battle Road Trail west, towards Concord, then Walden St and crossed Concord Turnpike. Here is where I found the entrance to the network of trails surrounding Walden Pond.
 Trail markers at Walden Pond.

The trail is well-marked as "Emerson-Thoreau Amble" and it is easy to follow around the pond. Paths are wide and very passable, even on slimmer 700x35c tires. They are fun to ride once we get to the western tip of the pond. Here is where we have to cross this obstacle:

The tracks are in use and there is no official crossing at all so you are passing these on your own risk. Watch for trains! Once I did that and turned around I noticed a sign on a tree.

Well, thank you. How about a warning on the other side of the tracks? Frankly, the sign is there probably only because someone could ride his/her bike directly under the coming train. It says "no bikes" and not "no trespassing", after all.

I continued south and merged with Old Concord Rd eventually. From there, I crossed Concord Rd and found the entrance to the next trail - the Codman Forest. The entrance is a bit hidden. The easiest way to find it is to look for the yellow, triangular road sign - "warning: pedestrians" with a small sign "church".
The beginning of Codman Forest Trail.

The trail is nice and easy to ride but once it crosses the little bridge over railway tracks it quickly becomes a network of narrower paths deep in the forest. Here is where I lost my sense of direction and by dead reckoning, I ended up at MackIntosh Lane instead of going further north. I continued on Lincoln Rd and Bedford Rd north to find the beginning of the next trail.
The Codman Forest Trail is even marked as a bike path - in places.

This one was really hidden. When you ride north on Bedford Rd and once you pass Silver Birch Ln on your right, keep looking for a small sign "Conservatory Land Lincoln", a mailbox next to someone's driveway and a very narrow and somewhat overgrown path just to the left of it. This is where the next trail begins.
The red signs says "no hunting". There is also a tiny orange sign with a crossed bike on it but I decided to ignore it.

The trail was a bit tricky to navigate between fallen trees but it quickly entered an open farm field (Ricci Field). I looked around and noticed several dark silhouettes next to the forest line - pigs. Dark brown pigs running in the wild. I guess someone is trying to make jamon iberico in Massachusetts.
Dark brown pigs in the wild. I was a bit too far to take a better picture.

The pigs seemed very friendly as once they noticed me, they all started running in my direction. Perhaps they thought I had food with me. I decided to quickly ride away since I didn't want to risk a close encounter with a hundreds-of-kilograms-heavy pig. Plus, it was time to ride back home. The moon showed up in the sky.

I followed the path to Mill St and then took the narrow trail just opposite Oakdale Ln. This took me across a baseball field to Minuteman High School. My plan was to find the beginning of the trail leading through Cranberry Hill and Hobbs Brook Reservation but this didn't work out as expected. The trail was gated and so overgrown that I couldn't locate the path at all. I decided to take Marrett St around and head towards Hayden Woods in Lexington, just north of Rt2. I found the beginning of the trail at the end of Munroe Rd but it was way too dark already to ride there in the deep forest.

Instead, I went north, took Grassland St and Brookside Ave to get on the trails along Beaver Brook. These turned out to be passable in general, although some sections were heavily overgrown and I had some problems navigating there in darkness. I had my lights on but the path was so narrow in places that lights didn't illuminate the path well, just grass around it. I finally made it through and found my way to Minuteman Bikeway.

To sum up:
Katahdin Woods Trails - avoid like hell, impassable, unless you have a pedal-powered machete in front of your bike,
Battle Road Trail - pleasure to ride on, wide and safe,
Walden Pond Trails - can be hilly and challenging in places but passable, wide, partially marked on trees,
Codman Forest Trails - passable, wide with some narrow sections, few markers, multiple narrower trails in deep forest,
Ricci Field Trail - passable, pretty easy to navigate,
Hayden Woods - unknown, need to explore in daylight,
Beaver Brook Trails - difficult to pass due to some overgrown sections. The part of the trail that runs along Bacon St is most accessible.

Map of all trails.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Costly mistakes - your worst (and best) bike-related purchases

We all make mistakes. When it comes to bicycles, this trial and error process is even more evident. It is unlikely that you will love the first bike you own. Adjusting to the bike, finding a comfortable position, realizing what type of riding you want to do - it all takes time. Sometimes you buy a bike thinking about it as the best bike in the world, only to realize later that it is much less perfect than you originally imagined. It lacks some features, it is uncomfortable, it is difficult to ride. Then, once you keep riding, gain experience, you learn what makes you happy and comfortable on your bike.

I have been in such situation relatively recently. When I bought my Lemond Poprad, I quickly realized that this was the best bike I ever owned. And it is still true. However, after I started to ride longer and longer distances, I learned that the bike was far from being perfect. I started looking for some ways to improve it. First, I replaced the saddle with Selle An-Atomica Titanico and so far I can tell that this was one of the BEST bike-related purchases ever. Pain in the rear end was finally gone. The front end was still a bit of a problem but after replacing the stem and handlebars with Salsa Cowbell, I am a happier man again.
Bontrager Race All-Weather Hardcase 700c 23mm tires - don't bother.

The bike came with off-road 700x35c tires and since I wanted something faster to easier roll on the pavement I bought 700x23c tires - Bontrager Race All-Weather Hardcase. And this clearly was one of the WORST purchases ever. The tires are quite terrible. Very rigid - resulting in harsh ride, stiff, not folding, heavy (390g ea. vs 300g for my "heavy" off-road" tires!) and if that's not enough - they sit so tight on the rim that I need multiple tire levers to remove them. I guess there is only one positive thing of these tires - they are thick, so it is difficult to get a flat. But this wouldn't change my verdict - I would never buy them again.

At some point I also found myself in the situation when traveling by bike with a tiny frame bag just didn't work too well. I needed something larger. I searched through multiple handlebar bags options but nearly all of them look too retro and plain ugly to be considered. Then I looked at the saddlebags but the situation here wasn't much better either. I ended up buying a rear rack - a lightweight Tubus Fly, and strapping a small stuff bag with some bungee cords. This worked quite well but I missed the ease of simply opening a bag to get the stuff inside. Removing the cords to get to the bag and reinstalling everything was just not the best solution. Tubus Fly - being a very nice rack, didn't really work for me so buying it was probably a BAD decision.
My bike with a nearly fully-stuffed Pika saddlebag.

What did work was Pika (I plan a separate review - stay tuned) - a large, elongated saddlebag by Revelate Designs, designed to be used unsupported - attached to saddle rails and a seatpost. Pika is large enough to fit all the stuff I would need on a longer, self-supported ride, yet still compact and lightweight to be unnoticeable when riding.

The next item that left me very mixed feelings were Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires. After I manage to ruin two of these within the first few days of riding, I decided that they just won't work for my style of riding. And not just that - I just can't afford replacing a $62 tire that often. Just like in case of the Tubus rack, these tires are great and work flawlessly on paved road, but they are not good for me. I need something more durable for road-to-trail riding and while Marathons roll beautifully on asphalt, their sidewalls are much too fragile on rough trails.

On a positive side, I love my Planet Bike Blaze 2-Watt light. I needed some kind of front light for those situations when I return home from a ride at dusk. Investing in a generator light just didn't make sense. I don't ride in darkness often enough to justify the cost. The Blaze 2-Watt costs only $60 (you can even get it cheaper) - much less than any generator system but offers a very good performance. In high beam mode, I can ride at about 30km/h (18mph) on a pitch black paved road comfortably. Two AA Eneloop batteries last easily 3.5hrs in high beam mode, before requiring a recharge. Surely, there are more powerful and even longer lasting lights on market. But for this price, the Blaze 2-Watt is simply an amazing deal.

Yes, we all make mistakes. And that's OK, as long as we learn from them.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Wayland-Weston Rail Trail

I have been exploring areas north and west of my home in Arlington recently, but today, I decided to go a bit more south and visit an abandoned railway tracks connecting Wayland through Weston towards Waltham.

It is not an official bike path so I wasn't expecting it to be mobbed with Sunday bikers, dog walkers and stroller moms. In fact, the abandoned railway tracks were, indeed... very abandoned. But let me start from the beginning.
I left my workplace in Burlington and rode southwest towards Hanscom AFB. There is no direct route through the base, unless you happen to have a security clearance. Since I wasn't planning on being shot by riding straight through the security checkpoint, I had to take Wood St around the base. This put me conveniently at the Battle Road Trail towards Concord. Interestingly, this was the first time I rode this trail in this direction (west). It surely looks quite different from this perspective. First of all, something I didn't think about before, if you ride it west, it's mostly downhill. The slope is subtle but you do go much faster and as a result - it is more fun to ride.

After reaching Concord I turned south to take Concord St/Rt126 to Wayland. Once I passed a red brick library building on my left, the forest opened leaving space for high voltage power lines. These lines run along the entire Rail Trail and this is where I left the beaten path and entered the unknown.
You can easily tell that no trail ran on these tracks in a long time.

Since the entire Rail Trail runs along (and sometimes over) abandoned rail tracks, it is leveled and flat. But it doesn't mean it's easy to ride. First of all, it's very narrow, second, it's quite overgrown and there are sections where you can easily lose the path. But the biggest problem is that it's so bumpy. My 32mm wide tires were clearly a wrong choice there. In fact, my whole bike was not a good choice for this trail. You may find it quite pleasantly rideable on a lightweight mountain bike with a suspension fork, but a 700c wheels and skinny tires are not your best friend there. Let's just say that after completing the trail I felt well-shaken. Not stirred.
Abandoned railway station at Church St in Weston.

The section between the Church St in Weston and Rt117 in Waltham was the easiest and smoothest to ride. It is also the most interesting one. Instead of just staring at ruined tracks and power lines, there are some swampy areas on both sides of the trail and an abandoned railway bridge at the end.
After completing the trail, I started moving north again. I decided to take another trail through the Prospect Hill Park in Waltham. Well, this happened to be a mistake. The trail is nice and rideable, but I think I just have to stop using the Schwalbe Marathon Supreme tires for this kind of riding. For getting to the trail on paved roads, these tires are fantastic. But once on the trail, they just don't work. With my luck, I killed the second Marathon tire within the last few weeks. This time, the front one. Prospect Hill trails are very rocky in places and one of those rocks cut the sidewall of the tire opened. I managed to fix it by replacing the tube and patching the sidewall with a small sheet of sandpaper I had in my patch kit. It worked! I decided that I was adventurous enough on this ride and with limping front tire I head back home. No more forest trails today. Changing tires with swarms of mosquitoes around me is not my favorite thing.