Jon's First Mountain Bike Story
Copyright © 1997 Jon Trent Adams

I bought a mountain bike recently and have proceeded to thrash myself pretty well in the San Gabriel Mountains. Mainly fire roads, but like yesterday, I went up to Mount Wilson, beginning my charge from the upper reaches of Altadena. Although it was a ten-mile, greater than ten-percent grade for most of the way, it took only about two hours. And I thought that this would be the hard part. But noooo. The guy that I was riding with thought that it would be "too cool" to go back via the Arroyo Seco, since it heads right up at Red Box, just down the road from Wilson. I allowed myself to be persuaded that this was fine, even though it was somewhere after four-thirty in the afternoon and the shadows were lengthening.

So here we go, not on a fire road this time (wide, graded, relatively even slope) but on the hiking trail that dumps out of the Arroyo right at the east parking lot of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the north end of Pasadena. I think something like eleven to twelve miles away. And that was our immediate destination.

Wow, what a ride. Flying down twelve- to thirty-inch-wide trails with whoops and gullies and washouts and yucca plants with big spiny leaves sticking right at you while you're doing ten to fifteen mph and generally hanging on for dear life is better than any roller coaster. When we were flying, we covered distance pretty fast. But there was a lot of stream crossing, rock gardens and a few pedestrians that needed to be avoided, walked or otherwise circumvented.

We finally made it to Switzer's Campground, about three miles out and down from Red Box. There, it was a pretty grueling climb over bare rock with a hundred foot drop on the left to get beyond the falls. Then we made a major mistake. We went flying down the Bear Canyon trail rather than the Arroyo Seco Trail: big trouble. Nearly forty-five minutes and several hundreds of yards of portages later, we discovered that we were in the wrong place and that it was a quarter to six.

So, along with the glycogen deprivation that I was suffering, I could add depression because I knew that whatever I had to do to get out of this would involve retracing those several hundred yards of portage through the stream and lots of uphill over really nasty bare, flaking rock, and the automatic loss of at least ninety minutes of daylight. Great. So here we are, going back up the canyon at about six pm, still having no idea where the proper turnoff is.

About halfway through our backtrack, I realize where the trail fork is: cussing and screaming, but barely able to do much of that because of exhaustion, both of us push/ride/drag our way up the rocky trail to the turnoff. And there, of course, is the cast iron pipe with the trail names marked on it. So much for our keen powers of observation.

Now the trail became a narrow goat path, still going up but not nearly as steep, rapidly climbing above the Arroyo. Soon, there were several hundred feet worth of near vertical drop on the left, a mere foot or so from my bike tread, while on the right was a near vertical cliff going up. Then there were the accursed yucca plants. Now the trail started back down, hanging on for dear life was I, trying to modulate the brakes and keep the speed down, trying to keep my eyes more than three feet ahead, realizing that darkness was quickly coming, even more so since we were in the narrow arroyo. My wrists and hands were aching constantly, and my shoulders were growing more tired by the minute attempting to take the shock of the trail.

Trail riding requires you to stay off the saddle, to flow on your calves and thighs, and of course wrists and ankles. Well, my wrists had just about had it, and my ankles weren't far behind. So climbing up off the saddle would quickly put my ankle stabilizing muscles into oscillation, which was unnerving and difficult. Makes for hard control when your balance mechanisms go out of whack.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, we reached more temperate altitudes, and the drop off was only on the order of tens of feet. The kind you might survive with just a few major internal injuries. I kept thinking about how long I would have to wait for help if I bought it out here, or if the bike bought it; these thoughts kept me from even more radical extremes.

What scenery. I wish that I had not been so pressed for time, racing against the sidereal clock as I was. Waterfalls, clear pools, beautiful glades that would be nice to rest at. But no time for that now. Onward, onward, we rode, blasting through bushes, overgrown on the trail, looking for rocks, knowing that the night vision wouldn't do much good in the darkening arroyo.

The arroyo widened a bit, signaling the first campground in a few miles. This was a heartening sight, not only to demonstrate our progress, but the last bits of illumination from the quickly deepening purple sky lifted our spirits a bit. Still, there were four or more miles to go, with only the last two miles known by previous experience.

My riding became more headlong. Thrashing through water crossings without getting off the bike, hoping that I'd picked the best path or at least a safe one, I burst into streams, kicking up roostertails of cold water, then plow on to the next crossing.

Through the lower arroyo, the path crosses the stream many times, sometimes with many cobbles and rocks, sometimes with a concrete apron. However, with the darkness nearly complete, it was hard to tell until you were upon it. Then, gradually, the trail turned to the east and began to switchback up the side of the arroyo, tightly hugging the wall. This isn't right, is it? My legs and shoulders ached. Were we on a wrong trail again?

Getting out the map, I could find no indication of a side trail branching from this part of the canyon, and the trail we were on was

too well kept to be less than official. Then my riding partner decided that the trail was climbing up and around a debris dam below. Resting for a moment, I was off again, this time very slowly, plugging up this unexpected grade, not at all sure where I was, knowing that the only way out was through the bottom of the arroyo, following the water.

The trail rounded a ridge and began to drop steeply. Fortunately for us the nearly full moon had just come into view over the east ridge, lighting the path just well enough that we could ride it. The two switchbacks were pretty hairball, though. Loose, unconsolidated material, with a dropoff into potentially nasty shrubberies.

Soon, we were into the part of the canyon that I had seen before, and although it was now night, the moon provided enough illumination that it was possible to seen ahead so long as the overgrowth wasn't there. We also picked up the semi-paved road and that made things better. My biggest problem now, besides my very deteriorated physical condition, was the rapidly deteriorating condition of my bike. The rear caliper brake had decided to jam, so that it would exert a constant pressure against the rim. This could only be released by physically pulling apart the calipers with the hand, but that required stopping the bike. And of course, as soon as the brakes were applied again, the problem returned. Also, the rear shifter was making funny noises and feeling odd. Oh great.

A little after eight pm: we emerge from the arroyo, right at the east gate to JPL. I wish I had parked my car here. There is over seven hundred feet of vertical climb to get back to the cars, most of it in the last mile. I check the calipers, to see if there is something jammed in them, but nothing is apparent. Terrific. Once more pulling the jaws apart, I try to make a conscious effort not to apply the rear brake. Since the whole of the final two-and-a-half miles is uphill, I don't worry about needing it too much.

Now we're back on paved road, me plodding along, just able to keep forward motion. Soon I make the final turn onto the Chaney Trail road; at this point I am separated by six thousand horizontal and four hundred vertical feet. Less than ten percent, you say. Well, the slope is moderately flat for about two thousand feet, then the hill becomes more than I can handle, even by weaving back and forth from shoulder to shoulder of the road. I walk.

At ten minutes to nine pm I arrive at the truck. My riding partner gets there a little before me. I ache. A seven hour ride, only two of which was spent going uphill, more or less. I say to myself, never again.

So that's what I did on Sunday.

I looked at the bike this morning and found it covered with gravel, mud, shrubberies, and other gunk. In a few days I'll take it apart, assess the damage, and clean and repair it. But I suspect that this repair will require a few days, mainly to enforce a bit of R&R. I was just looking at the map, though, and there's this nice little ride...