The Mountain Bike Life

Father Winter has almost found his way out of the mid-Atlantic as we’ve seen in the last few days with temperatures steadily in to the 60’s.  It’s already the middle of March and I’ve been on maybe TWO MTB rides in the calendar year.  It’s not necessarily the cold that bothers me, no.  I rode well into December.  It’s all the moisture that keeps the trails soft as Play-Doh and makes the trails both dangerous and susceptible to erosion.  I went to a Specialized demo three weeks ago and wiped out on a very expensive carbon hardtail, dented my helmet and suffered some excruciating pelvic pain.  Wet logs and roots are no match for a grippy tire.

A typical Richmond trail.

Last week brought us some great riding weather and the absence of rainfall made the trails perfect to ride.  The trails surrounding the city I call home are some of the most fun single track in the state.  Not only fun, but convenient.  The James River Park system connects a series of five or more trails in rapid succession with almost zero time spent on asphalt.  It really is a remarkable thing that some of us take for granted.  That is, until we visit out of town trail systems.   I wanted to take this opportunity to take the readers on a texto-visual journey from my front door to the top of the Forest Hill trail and back.

As soon as I’m geared up and inflated I ride right out my front door, down the steps and into the streets of the Museum District.  A Richmond Fan neighborhood centered around the two museums in the area.  I ride south, no more than a mile, until I roll under the bell tower at the Carillon and in to the head of the first trail, Dogwood Dell.

Dogwood Dell in the winter
DD is a short, breezy loop, perfect for beginners and for experienced riders to regain their motor skills and balance after a long layoff.  A small loop, less than a mile, offers some blood pumping climbs, short descents with hang-time possibilities and a tiny rock garden to make sure your fork hasn’t lost air pressure over the winter.  (It probably has, get it checked!)
After a loop through the Dell you are spat out right at the mouth of the Maymont park section of Northbank Trail.  From here you have two options.  You can take the bridge across the James River and go right into the most technical trail of the JRPS, the Buttermilk Trail, or you can go ride in to the Northbank Trail.  I usually take the easier route with the latter, although you’re immediately met with the steepest climb of the day, the Maymont climb of death.  After a quarter mile romp along the fence that lines the park, you’re tasked with a steep climb.  About 100ft of elevation in less than a tenth of a mile.  When I first started riding these trails, I didn’t think people actually did this climb.  The climb starts immediately following a 90 degree turn on a wooden walkway, so there’s no option for building speed.  Pump, pump, pump and you’re met with another 90 degree turn.  Then it shoots you out onto dirt, rocks and roots as it sidewinds all the way to the top.  It’s tough, and on a single speed 29er I feel completely badass and wiped out if I can make it without a foot down.  At my fitness level the climb isn’t as daunting anymore but the technical ability to climb over and around rocks and awkward roots while steering your way through hairpin turns is truly a skill.  At my peak form I can nail this 8 times out of 10, but that is months away.
When you reach the top, your legs are screaming and hopefully you haven’t ripped your handlebars off.  You’re shot out onto a short ride down a paved road to the re-entrance of Northbank Trail.  As its namesake tells,  the trail lays on the north banks of the James River.  It’s an intermediate level trail with plenty of climbing, rocky descents, banked turns, natural obstacles and more.  It’s a good test of your skill and a great time-trial trail for experts.  There’s plenty of opportunity to get hurt, and it’s easy to become overconfident with speed.  The east end of the trail throws a very steep, climb over a rock garden and an equally challenging descent down the other side.  Either way you attack it, it’s challenging and dangerous.  I’ve wiped out going down and it’s nothing but thorn bushes on each side.  Northbank Trail is great.  There are plenty of steep ravines you want to avoid, but all in all, it’s an everyman’s trail and takes about fifteen to twenty minutes to blast through.

Underneath the bridge to Bell Isle
The trail shoots you out past the Hollywood Cemetery and onto the footbridge across the river to Belle Isle.  There are two mini trail systems on Belle Isle and a skills course built by the city.  I like to start off heading left of the footbridge and onto a quick and easy singletrack that’s usually filled with dog walkers but adds a bit of length to the day.  It forks at the end where you can head to the skills course and have a bit of fun on some BMX style speed bumps or you can test your luck on an extremely challenging rock garden.  As a hardtail owner, I’ve never been able to, nor seen anyone complete this thing.  It’s huge and dangerous and awesome.  One day…
You have two options here.  You can turn left and head straight to Buttermilk Trail or go straight and climb the Belle Isle hills.  There’s a maze of singletrack going up the hill to the top of Belle Isle, which provides a great view of the river and the city at the top.  There are plenty of obstacles, roots, downed trees, windy rock gardens and some short, steep climbs and descents.  It’s a great little system and adds a couple miles to your ride.  Not much danger here and plenty of hikers to get in your way, but the view at the top is worth it.

The views over the James are always worth it
Once you’ve trounced Belle Isle you hop across an old wooden footbridge that always sounds like it’s going to explode and right into Buttermilk east.  You have two options.  For those crunched on time, you can breeze right down a gravel fire road skip this section altogether, or you can dismount, climb a winding staircase and remount at the top.  Buttermilk east is short, but offers some very tough challenges that, even at my peak, I cannot tackle.  Luckily, heading east to west, you’re mostly descending.  There are still plenty of opportunities to go end over end and a novice rider should probably dismount on a couple of the trickier parts.  You’re almost inverted at one point and as a guy with a fear of heights, it scares me every time.  You’ve just got to blast through!
Buttermilk east ends after about 15 minutes and you’re presented with two options once again.  You can breeze right across the parking lot and in to Buttermilk west, but those who aren’t on a time crunch can ride directly across the street to the mouth of the Forest Hill loop.  
Forest Hill is one of my favorite loops in the city.  It’s challenging, fun, fast, technical and downright beautiful to ride through.  You can hit this trail clockwise or counter-clockwise.  Mouth of the trail is the same either way and each direction is different enough to keep things entertaining all season long.  I tend to start counter-clockwise which throws a long, somewhat of a sleeper of a climb.  Along Forest Hill you’ll encounter just about every type of riding that the area has to offer.  Even a couple opportunities for some air.  There are staircases to blow up or down, sidewinding hairpin descents, short, steep climbs, and some really technical, root infested sections, one of which throws me off my single speed almost every time.  
After about half an hour of Forest Hill you’re back where you started in between Buttermilk east and west.  Now it’s time to tame the west, the most technical trail of the JRPS.  
Buttermilk is a killer trail in every sense.  A twisty, technical single track with sections that took me months to conquer.  There are wet, slippery, creek beds, steep rock gardens, technical climbs marred by large rocks and awkward turns that require you to lean underneath trees while simultaneously avoiding sharp rocks that protrude from the side.  It’s got everything the area has to offer and it’s got it to an extreme degree.  There are very few sections here where you’re allowed to relax and just glide through.  The western tail of the trail has a narrow, rocky descent with little room for error or you’ll take a tumble.  If you’re doing the trails in the opposite direction, that climb will make every new rider jump right off their bike and hike up.

If you fall, save yourself, not your bike.  That’s my wheel.
Typically the most challenging parts of Buttermilk west tends to be the creek beds.  There are three of them, and each one is very different.  The 2nd bed is longer and flatter, but the rocks are larger and always wet.  There is absolutely nothing flat to ride on, you have to just sit down and keep pedaling.  You’re bike will do the rest.  The other two creek beds are easier to tackle if you just plow through them, but most new riders are hesitant and unsure of their grip while on smooth wet rocks.  I don’t blame them.  I’ve eaten it pretty hard here and there is no safe way to fall. 
Once you climb out of buttermilk you’ll hit the nickel bridge which takes you back across the river James to Dogwood Dell.  I usually do another lap of the Dell and exit the trail at the top, where I entered in the beginning of this ride.  From there, it’s an easy mile back to my door and a vanilla protein shake.

Taking a break outside Dogwood Dell
You won’t find any great downhill trails here, or very many high speed trails.  It’s typically all very technical single track where you’re averaging 7-12mph.  It’s challenging and rewarding.  Daunting and exciting.  Dangerous and exhilarating.  The best part however, is that it’s so damn convenient.  No loading up the truck and driving to the trail head.  No spinning out on pavement while you connect trail systems.  It all lines up so damn well and you don’t notice it until you’ve ventured out to ride other systems.  
None of these trails are ever boring for a single minute and after a couple solid years of riding them, there are still obstacles I haven’t conquered, and I love that.  It’s a challenge every time I ride and the folks that cultivate, maintain and rebuild these trails do such a good job, I wish I could high five them every time I pass by.  Richmond rules cycling and it’s really a gem of a city to be in.  
Come on over and lets ride.
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