Seven days of dirt

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The only antidote to working seven days a week is riding seven days a week.  Of course, you can imagine the resultant sleep schedule, especially as days grow longer than eighteen hours, technically.  On a clear night, the sky never goes completely dark.  On one night after work, I rode laps around the network of trails at Kincaid with some friends. As they turned towards home, I pointed my tires towards the beach to revive a smoldering campfire.  Out of my framepack I revealed a pack of sausages, buns, a bunch of carrots, and a small brick of cheese.  Lael rode out the Coastal Trail after work– after midnight– for a late evening dinner.  We enjoyed a never-ending twilight until turning home past 3 AM.  This is summer in Alaska.

This past week, I’ve chased trails every night of the week.  The riding is different and fun.  Dirt is different than snow.  Everyone I know was riding trails for the first time last week, except I was riding for the second, third, fourth…

Thanks to everyone who joined me last week, including Kevin, Lucas, Rob, Ryan, Henna, Jeff, Dan, Abe, Hobbs, Clint, Daniel, Brian, Charlie, and of course, Lael.  May the season be rocky and rooty for all.

Kevin is especially committed to riding.  We partnered on several rides to the Campbell Tract, Kincaid, and the Kepler-Bradley trails in the valley.  He’s putting some serious work on his new All City Macho Man Disc cross bike.  

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If only so I don’t forget what a great week it has been, and what great fun can be found in town, here is a quick tour of the local trails and characters.

 

Day 1: Work to Campbell Creek Trail, Campbell Tract trails, and home; with Kevin Murphy

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Day 2: Work to Coastal Trail, Kincaid STA trails (round and round and round), home via Raspberry and C Street; with Kevin, Abe and Hobbs

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Day 3: Work to meet at Tastee Freeze for ice cream cone, to Kincaid STA trails (round and round and round), to the Bluff Trail, then home via Middle Earth and the Coastal Trail; with Kevin, Rob, and Ryan (Abe, Hobbs, Erin; Clint and Laura on the trail)

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Day 4: Work to Kincaid STA trails (round and round and round), then home via Raspberry and C Street; with Dan Bailey

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Day 5: Work to Kincaid STA trails (round and round and round), then down the Bluff Trail to the beach at midnight to revive a smoldering fire, roast hot dogs and drink beers with Lael until 3AM, home via Coastal Trail; with Jeff and Henna, Lael meets after work past midnight, walks through intertidal waters to find me

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Day 6: Work to Coastal Trail to Kincaid STA trails (round and round and round), then home via Raspberry and C Street to Campbell Creek Trail, swimming in Campbell Creek; with Lucas O’Loughlin

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Day 7: Work, then catch a ride out to Kepler-Bradley Trails in Palmer to ride melange of trails amongst kettle lakes and glacial moraines, including buff flow trail, rooty singletrack, and wide XC ski trail; with Kevin Murphy, Charlie, Brian, and Daniel  

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Anyone planning to come up to Anchorage for Singlespeed World Championships (SSWC) in July?  The event will be held out at Kincaid, which hosts miles of fun trail and epic in-town scenery.

Anyone looking for a 19″ (Large) Mukluk near Anchorage?  It’ll be for sale next week.

TMV: Wissembourg to Saverne

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The Traversée du Massif Vosgien connects the forested Vosges Mountains of Alsace from north to south.  The Vosges are an understated range with few rocky exposures– they are the French mirror of the Black Forest of Germany, which is found just on the other side of the Rhine River.  The TMV has been in existence since 2004-2005, when it was officially mapped and signed by the Alsacian Chapter of the French Federation of Cycletourists (FFCT).  It claims over 400km of trail and 8000m of climbing, favoring the east side of the mountains and the intermontane zone along the eastern flank where most Alsacian wines are produced, between the Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin regions.  Compared to American dirt touring routes, the TMV offers riding similar to the Great Divide Route, with climbs as much as 800m (2500+ft) and a highly rideable dirt surface.  Maps and trailside signage serve to make navigation simple.  Resupply is simple, and available daily.  The route includes only about 10% pavement– little enough not to bother the dirt lover– and big climbs with grades and surfaces manageable enough to be inclusive of any athletic rider.  The TMV balances physical challenges with accessibility.  Also within range of many bike-friendly TER Alsace train stations (regional ‘slow’ trains accept bikes at no cost) and several major cities (Strasbourg, Colmar, Mulhouse, Basel), and short enough to be done in a week, the TMV will likely gain popularity as more French (and German, Swiss, and Belgian) riders become wise to the pleasures of dirt touring.

Taking a few days to regroup following weeks of rain, we center ourselves in Wissembourg at the start of the route, at the north end of the Vosges.  We climb into the hills every night to tuck away in the woods. Free, legal camping close to town is always a treat.  A morning descent to croissant and cafe is routine in France.  An inexpensive public pool is real special to a touring cyclist.

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Located just outside the ramparts.

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We installed new brake pads, a chain, and replaced Lael’s worn WTB Exiwolf tire while in town.  Espace Cycles in Wissembourg is one of the best mountain bike shops we have seen so far and readily supplied all of the parts that we desired, including Schwalbe tires for cheap.  A 30€ folding Schwalbe tire is a treat, considering that similar tires cost as much as $90 in the US.  With borrowed air from the shop’s compressor, tubeless touring is a breeze.  We haven’t had a single problem in two months of tubeless touring.  We have some spare sealant and tubes packed away, but haven’t had any use for it, and haven’t experienced any flats.  We’ve only used our pump a few times in two months.

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A placard near the center of town describes the trail and serves as an official start point.

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It departs, winding through historic Wissembourg, and follows a paved cycle path out of town.  Within six km, it joins a forest road and sets the tone for the remaining 400km– tranquility, with some climbing.

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Atop the first climb, we meet Gaby at his home.  He works as a mechanic at Espace Cycles and offers to lend us a hardcopy of the maps, which are currently out of print.  The complete set is available as a .pdf file online.  He and his wife Valerie lead us to a special camping place near Climbach with a fresh water source.  The site is an old chappelle, which predates Christianity in the area.  For a little guy, 26″ wheels still make sense, but 29″ wheels are starting to take off in France, even on some longer travel Cannondale models found at the shop in Wissembourg.

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The next day, despite some rain, we enjoy a diverse range of forested tracks connecting small villages.  The elevation along this part of the route ranges from 200-400m.  Still, there is plenty of climbing.

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And plenty of water.  Les sources, or public springs, are found in abundance in the Vosges.  Even when declared to be ‘not potable’, we usually fill our bottles.  All of the water is cold and beautiful.  Cemeteries are also a reliable source of water in Europe.

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Endless forest service roads are found in the area; most are closed to motorized traffic.  Mostly hardwood forests around, with interspersed conifers which favor well-drained sandy soils.

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Some roads are recovering doubletrack, on their way to becoming wide singletrack corridors.  Follow the orange signs marked TMV.  We mostly follow trailside signage, although the maps help us whenever we feel unsure about the route.

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Nearing another town we find scattered houses and farms.

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A church, mairie, école, and a bakery.  Often, a war memorial reminds of both major conflicts that affected this region in the last century.

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Some towns, especially in the Vosges, feature the ruins of ancient castles and forts.  They cannot be reached without a steep climb, ever.

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As quickly as we arrive, the trail leads out of town.  Steep climbs provide occasional challenges, although mostly the route is extremely rideable on anything from a rigid 26″ mountain bike (even a Surly LHT for example) to a full-suspension 29er or even a fatbike.  A minimum 50mm (2″) tire is recommended, especially as the northern Vosges are underlain with sandstone, thus mostly sandy roads.  Luckily, sandy soils drain well after weeks of rain.

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Evening is one of our favorite times to ride.  Mornings are reserved for coffee.  Some people tour early in the day, we prefer to ride late.

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Note, baguette protrudes from the Carradice saddlebag.  Overall, we both ride lean machines.  Framebags hide a lot of gear, even on Lael’s small frame.

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Even at the end of the day, Lael must go for a run.  As this was the 4th of July, I took the chance to prepare a special evening.  While she was gone…

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I prepare a fire for her to light.  We rarely, almost never, have fires on tour.

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Chilled some crémant Alsacien, a sparkling white wine, and a couple Alsacien beers in the source.

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Prepared a feast of sauerkraut and sausage, to be served on baguette with mustard.  This was our best effort at hot dogs and beer in Alsace.

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No fireworks.  Not bad.

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In memoriam, the cork becomes a new bar-end plug the next morning.

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The following day is our best day on the trail so far.  Smooth singletrack and wild blueberries spoil us.  Bicycle touring is not hard– not never, but not always.

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Sandstone defines the northern Vosges– the area encompassed by the Parc Naturel Régional des Vosges du Nord, from Saverne to Wissembourg along the TMV.  Sandy soils are ever-present, but rarely are they soft like beaches.  Mostly rideable hard packed surfaces are found, while pine needles and beech leaves quiet the ride.

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Many tourist offices provide resources for free, or for a small fee.  The TMV maps are out of print, but I know at least one copy exists in La Petite Pierre if you want it.  A trail map is not essential, but a regional road map would help in case you lost your way and were traveling without the official guide.

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The FFCT promotes cycling touring, and the growing sport of touring by velo tout terrain, or VTT.

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A few squishy, muddy spots make things interesting.  Mostly, very little special equipment is needed except for a big tire.  Guesthouses and hiking shelters offer an alternative to camping for some.  Camping is possible almost everywhere along the route.

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Local hiking and biking clubs maintain trills, signage, and shelters.  The number of hiking routes in the area is astounding.

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These aren’t guesthouses, but troglodytic homes restored for viewing.  For the culturally curious, there is much to do in the area.  Alsace has changed hands many time between French and German leadership over many hundreds of years, and Alsaciens maintain a strong identity despite a diverse heritage.

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For us, the riding and the camping are most important.  This is some of the best.

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Ride down to Saverne to meet Andi for a few days of riding.  The TMV is officially mapped in three sections: the northern Vosges, the piedmont, and the mountainous southern Vosges.  Leaving Saverne, we begin the Pidemont des Vosges, gaining elevation.

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GR5: Genk to Stavelot

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In the Netherlands, the GR5 was an interesting ramble through town and country.  In northern Belgium, the route frequently follows managed forest tracks and local mountain bike routes, often abandoned doubletrack.  Passing near Maastricht and Liège, the routes enters the famed Ardennes Mountains, famed for being the only mountains in Belgium.  If this were Pennsylvania, which is how it looks from squinted eyes atop a hill, we would joke that these are mere hills.  But the same is true both here and there, these are steep hills approaching 1000ft in elevation range, and after riding up and over a couple I am happy to regard them as mountains.  Finally, this is real mountain biking.  The diversity of the trail has not diminished, simply more time is spent off-pavement and even off-road– yes, there is a distinction.  Some hiking required, and many challenging ascents and technical descents, but mostly pleasant riding.  ‘Bikepacking the Ardennes’ may be a ready made route, and an instant classic.

These images are from the last three days, as hills turn to mountains.  Only 1550km to Nice.  Not sure if we are going there.  Always passing through tunnels.  

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We never leave at first light, but we ride until the last hour almost every night.  The sun retires past 10PM, lingering below the horizon for another hour.  As the days get warmer, evening becomes a nice time to ride.  

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Mornings are equally nice– cool and full of excitement for the day.  Change is the essence of this route, and scouting the next turn keeps us busy all day.  Shopping for food, picnicking, and swimming revive our muscles and our interests in riding.  Belgian beer, chocolate, and waffles keep our energy levels high for the next climb.   More than a few locals have been interested in our curious ‘touring bikes’.

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We share the route with a few others, including farmers, cattle, cars, hikers; nettles, raspberry brambles, deer ticks, tall grasses, overgrown trees, mud, rock, roots; and very infrequently, other cyclists.

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The Ardennes are wonderful.  Growing up in rural New York, I hunger for these kinds of landscapes.  Touring in the Rockies the past few summers and living in New Mexico, I had forgotten about humidity altogether.  Mud and nettles; rocks and steeps; cities and steps all got together. 

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Many stone buildings do not have provisions for exterior plumbing, which can make it hard to find unattended water sources.  Cemeteries are a safe bet.  In the mountains, streams are always found in the valleys.

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Camping has almost never been easier.  Much of the trail passes through public forests.  A bench, like a picnic table, is a nice feature.

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In 2009, the GR5 marked its 50th anniversary.  

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Here, our descent to Stavelot–  a half-day in the life of a GR5 thru-biker.

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 A tunnel completes the route to town.  Both natural and manufactured features make the GR routes exceptional.  The footpath shares this tunnel with a small stream.

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Riding south, hoping to reach Luxembourg City this weekend.  A friend from Tacoma performs with The Paperboys at midnight on Saturday.  

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Correspondence: Notes on a Stealth Fatty

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Hmmm, how long has it been, only a few weeks since I picked up the necromancer pug but it’s been an honest blast. I genuinely feel these bikes should be the absolute standard for off-roading, be it touring or park ratting. The bike is really well balanced and carries it’s weight well when riding technical single track and has stunning stability on “off the back of the saddle” descents. There’s definitely a re-learning curve with accepting the tire pressures that get the most out of the bike.  The psi’s are definitely different in regard to what you are riding.  This brings me to the tubeless.

Jeff and Nick, thanks. Y’all did a stunning job. I’ve ridden this bike with absolute negligence and disregard with no burps or flats. Really, I’ve riddled the tires with a whole lot of goatheads and ridden it damned hard on and off road at 2psi, and the tires are still attached to the rims. Which does pose a complication as the larry is a liability. It’s been hot and tacky out and i’ve really been pushing the bike on the local trail systems– the Larry really will break loose. The nate is stunning, the Larry, it’s gotta, gunna go eventually. I hope before me, ha ha.

I just wanted to let y’all know how much I appreciate the effort 2 wheel drive put into getting me on this bike. I dig it. I’ve attached some pics documenting some of the finer moments since getting the pugs.

-jmg

Jeremy is “over the handlebars for New Mexico”, which is our way of saying that he likes it here and he goes over the bars a lot.  A recent transplant from Texas and everywhere, he makes the most of this rugged and beautiful state and rides like it doesn’t hurt when you crash.  I wonder if Jeremy has really ridden down to 2psi?  He’s a little guy and when the snow is soft it’s easy to let it all out, so it’s possible, but 4psi may be more likely.  Hey Jeremy, I’ve got an extra Nate tire if you stop through ABQ sometime soon.

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Photos: Cass Gilbert and Jeremy Gray

Also, check out my “Fatbiking Micro-Adventure in New Mexico” on the Adventure Cycling Blog, and my older post about commuting and touring on a fatbike.

Exploring White Mesa

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Gary Blakley has been riding here for decades.  Spinal ridges and a rocky white mesa are a bike playground unlike anywhere else, except Moab.  In the appropriate season, the deserts of New Mexico present opportunities unknown to riders in temperate, forested regions.  Since Gary’s time on a 1987 MB-1 with drops, the White Mesa mountain bike trails have been developed by the Bureau of Land Management.  The trails are well defined, signed, and fun– except that every time we ride there someone goes over the bars.

Separate from the main trail system, rough jeep trails and faint singletrack lead to another world known as The Moon.  Underlain with bright white gypsum, the area is part of an active mine, and adjacent to the mining operation are hummocks of crusted white sediment.  These features are nature’s dirt jump track– traction is good, transitions are smooth and the landscape is wide open.  Play is inevitable.

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Leaving from the trailhead, follow the ridgeline along the aptly named Dragon’s Back trail.

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The spine of the dragon, looking north toward the western end of the Jemez Mountains.

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This short steep cliff blocks our passage, for a moment.  Teamwork gets us up; the reward is a fast descent off the north end of the ridge.

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Working together.

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An old cabin slowly melts into the desert off the north end of the trail system.

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This part of New Mexico has a relatively mild climate, so this place will do just fine.  Gary suggests a few improvements.

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Our bikes speak of a broad range of approaches.  Like a touring bike or a road bike, a bicycle only becomes a mountain bike when it is out riding in the mountains, or in the hills or the meadows, deserts or forests.  For this reason, I prefer the term all-terrain bike, or ATB.  In various modes, any of these bikes would be fine on the road, on tour, or on dirt tracks.  Gary’s custom steel AMPeirce is thoughtfully built for comfort and utility on trails.  Come spring, it will serve as a touring bike for a time.  As planned, it may be for a very long time.

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Patti’s bike is also custom fabricated by Andy Peirce outside of Del Norte, CO.  The bike fits more comfortably than any bike she has owned, and uses neutral stem and seatpost positions.  She has recently converted to On-One Mary bars, and loves them.

Gary and Patti have hosted passing cyclists on the Great Divide Route in Del Norte for years.  This summer, they rode north on the Divide from their home in Colorado to Banff, AB.  Leaving this spring, they plan to spend over a year cycling the world.

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Lael’s Raleigh XXIX has become a favorite of all the bikes she has ridden.  It felt like a lot of bike when she transitioned from the small wheels of the Hooligan this summer, but now she rips.

The Hooligan will soon be back from storage.  Some simple modifications are planned, including a more upright bar and some larger tires.  I’ve ordered a Velo Orange Tourist bar, which features generous rise and sweep to allow a more upright riding position.  Some voluminous 20×2.125″ Kenda K-Rad tires will conquer both paved and unpaved commutes in town, and are well priced.  Right in the city, Albuquerque has some historic irrigation ditches with dirt levees which are a blast to ride, and less than a quarter-mile from our house some mellow singletrack trails wind along the river.  Lael loves gold things, especially her Marys.

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This bike needs no introduction.  The Carradice saddlebag has been removed and may spend some time on the new VO Campeur when I complete the build this week.  For a time, I will have two bikes allowing me to refine each to a more specific purpose.  The fenders will soon be removed, and the Pugsley will become a dedicated ATB.  I may consider building some 29″ wheels at some point to continue my experiments from this spring.  The new 29×3.0″ Knard tires designed for the Krampus will fit the frame nicely.

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Jeremy is traveling through town and has several interesting bikes in his possession.  The design of this Laguna Mountaineer is representative of mid-80′s mountain bikes like my High Sierra or Stumpjumper.  High quality 120tpi 2.35″ Kenda Small Block Eights are the heart of the ride.  The basket is the soul.

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Also in his traveling stable, Jeremy has a Rivendell Hunqapillar with drop bars and 2.2″ Geax AKA tires.  I intend to spend some time riding it to develop the idea of my ideal dirt road tourer.  Groundwater seepage is rich with minerals, and crystallizes as snowy salts at the surface.

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We aren’t in Texas anymore.  A 34T chainring is a little steep on some hills.

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Given the color, some iron may also be present.

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In search of The Moon, we leave the signed trails behind.  In a rare instance, this actually looks steeper than it it.  Still, it was too steep to ride and at least one rider (with a wire basket) flipped over the bars.

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The faint trail disappears into a narrow drainage.

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Sandy doubletrack…

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…to The Moon!  Linger and play.

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And as the sun falls, we spin back to the start.  Riding in circles isn’t all bad.

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