How I Tripled My Mountain Bike Mileage in 2017

Everyone is busy, but Ray found a way to triple his mountain bike mileage. Learn how to find more time for mountain biking.

Photo: Erik Proano

Find that Fifth Truck

One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes was called “The Bottle Deposit.” Newman, upon discovering that bottles deposited for recycling in Michigan are worth 10 cents, but only five cents in New York, naively asks Kramer why they don’t just truck their bottles to Michigan for double the refund.

“Doesn’t work,” says Kramer, who has been trying to crack the conundrum for years. “You overload your inventory and blow your margins on gasoline.”

“You’ve tried it?” asks Newman.

“Oh yeah, every which way. I’ve crunched the numbers. Drove me crazy,” explains Kramer with great certitude and resignation.

Mail carrier Newman doesn’t give up, however. After several days of serious contemplation, he realizes that on Mother’s Day (“The mother of all mail days!”), the postal service runs extra mail trucks to Saginaw, Michigan. “If history is any guide,” Newman proclaims to Kramer, a few bags of mail will spillover into a fifth truck in the run up to the holiday. Newman and Kramer have their free and nearly-empty truck. Mystery solved. Load up those bottles!

Photo: Grumman LLV photographed in USA. All rights released.

Of course, it is Seinfeld, so everything quickly falls apart, but the point is they found a completely insane, yet creative and somehow workable solution.

Mountain biking is no different.

I love to ride. But, like “The Bottle Deposit,” sometimes, no matter how long and hard I’ve “crunched the numbers,” there is never enough time, or money, or rest, or whatever, to get it done. But then boom, I discover that fifth mail truck, and find more time to mountain bike.

Lessons from bike commuting

During 2015 and 2016 I rode my commuter bike three or four days a week from Gilbert, Arizona to the bus stop in Mesa, and then took the bus to Phoenix for work. Eventually, I ended up doing this, as well as riding significantly further (16 miles one-way) to the light rail station at Arizona State University in Tempe on Fridays. On the way home I bused and biked. This resulted in me biking about 30 miles a week on the streets. Of course that ride to Tempe required planning ahead (getting up very early, riding with a light in the winter, having clothes at work, and cleaning up there.) I also rode my commuter bike for fun on the weekends by myself or with family. And, when I could, I mountain biked with friends, too.

I bought this Trek mountain bike back in 2005 and converted it to a commuter bike a couple years later. Who knew that it would be the secret to getting me on the trail more often. Photo: By Ray Southwick.

Like many of you, my primary obstacle to mountain biking is finding the time to ride. A typical mountain bike ride for me was on a Saturday, with friends, during the fall or winter, when the weather was the nicest. It usually took an hour to drive to the trail and back, and I would be on the pedals for a couple of hours riding 10 or 12 miles. This was, of course, extremely enjoyable, but with two young kids, and a predictably hectic life, it was tough to justify doing rhia more than once or twice a month when it wasn’t hot. On occasion, even that was causing a little stress at home. Consequently, in 2016 I completed just 13 such mountain bike rides.

Fifth Truck found

By March 2017, I was beginning to tire of my commuting patterns. I started just waking up really early and riding my commuter bike on the canals around my house, coming home to shower before heading to work. I kept biking to Tempe every week, too. But, I wanted more of a challenge. Then it occurred to me: why not just mountain bike before work? I already had the logistics down. This was my Fifth Truck. I’d finally found it!

Early morning mountain biking in Phoenix

If there’s a place more conducive to riding early in the morning than the Phoenix Metro area, I don’t know where it might be. Phoenix is sunny almost all the time, our “cold” is actually pretty warm (compared to, well, anywhere else), and there are trails everywhere. That being said, there are some important things I learned about mountain biking before work, plus some side benefits I hadn’t initially considered.

Photo: Ray Southwick

1. Wake up insanely early

I work at 7:45 a.m. That means for me to get an hour or hour and a half ride in, I have to wake up at 4:30am. I won’t kid you, waking up that early was difficult at first. I found that getting up early several days in a row really helped, as did going to bed early, too. Setting a pattern allowed me to get enough sleep that night before the ride.

2. Be prepared

On the mornings I mountain bike before work, I wake up, put on my bike clothes, put my bike on my bike rack, and drive to the trail. Anything besides that is done in the days preceding the ride. Everything has to be ready. Every minute counts.

3. Traffic is awesome before 5am

Traffic in Phoenix is similar to the traffic in any large city during rush hour: slow. However, before 5 am, cars are few, the lanes are many (the carpool lane is available), and I can get to the trails relatively quickly (30 or 35 minutes). This is easily twice as fast as when the freeways are clogged. The bonus is that when I’m done, I’m not that far from work. My rush hour drive is now quite brief. For me, I choose to primarily ride at South Mountain (Desert Classic) and Phoenix Mountain Preserve (Trail 100), though if I think traffic will be especially light (such as the day before or after a big holiday) I will ride out in Mesa at Usery Mountain Regional Park.

4. Fewer people on the trails at 5:30 am

Depending on where I ride, I am on the pedals somewhere between 5:20 and 5:40 in the morning. One of the benefits is that I essentially have the trails to myself. I like this idea, since I actually almost killed myself avoiding a jogger on a busy trail in 2011. Plus, it’s possible to ride faster and longer since no one is in the way.

5. More trail choices

Since I live in Gilbert, I tend to ride in Mesa a lot (Hawes and Usery,) or near Queen Creek (San Tan Regional Mountain Park). Riding Phoenix-area trails before work gives me much more variety.

6. Solo rides are faster

There are a lot of things I really like (and in some ways prefer) about riding with other people, but I ride much faster and more efficiently by myself. Without stops for chatting before, during, and after the ride, I save a ton of time – which allows me to cover more ground.

Nothing quite like mountain biking with friends. But for me to get out on the trail more often, I had to bike solo too. Photo: Shane Mosley.

7. No rest for the speedy

Since my time is rather limited, and I want to ride as much trail as possible, I try to ride without stopping for breaks. (OK, maybe just one brief break). I was amazed at how much riding I could do in just an hour or so. At first this made me pretty tired, but I quickly got used to it, and I also learned how to rest while riding (such as when I was going downhill or just simply pedaling slowly).

8. No oppressive heat

While people complain about the oppressive Arizona summer heat, there are actually many mornings where, even when it’s nearing 110 in the afternoon, it’s still 30 degrees cooler at 5:30 in the morning. Eighty degrees is pretty sweet riding weather.

9. Riding in the dark and cold can be weird

I won’t lie: dark, winter morning rides can feel a little eerie at first. I found I couldn’t see as well as during the daylight, it was rather cold (40 degrees), and hardly anyone was on the trail. But, I eventually got used to it, and my body would warm up after 15 or 20 minutes (except my toes). What freaked me out a little was seeing different wildlife. A javalina ran in front of me once, and I saw a group of five deer prance by, something I had never seen in the daylight while riding the exact same trails.

10. Ride easy, fast trails

Because I ride alone, and sometimes in the dark, I have decided to ride easy, familiar bike trails for safety reasons. I also make sure my wife knows where I am riding and keep my cell phone charged. I save unfamiliar, more technical trails for the weekends with friends.

Usery Mountain Regional Park is easy, fast, and fun. Photo: Ray Southwick.

11. Bike commuting really improves fitness

I am amazed at how commuting by bike has improved my aerobic fitness in just a couple years. I’ve only lost 5-10 pounds, but I feel so much more fit while mountain biking. I can’t really imagine doing one without the other anymore.

12. My friend Strava

Strava gives me an idea of how far and how fast I’ve ridden, what realistic goals might be for me, and what I have to do to reach those goals.

13. Increased wear and tear

It never occurred to me, but everything starts to wear out faster as mountain bike mileage increases. More tires. More chains. More cables. More tubes. (Save your tubeless testimonies–my 11-year-old bike actually prefers tubes). My suspension link broke once and it took a month to find an aftermarket one on eBay. I ended up replacing my cassette and rear derailleur, too. I also had to buy more mountain biking clothes and wash them more frequently.

14. Roll with the unexpected

Ideally, I wanted to complete 52 mountain bike rides in 2017 (or once a week.) But since I didn’t get aggressive with my plan until March, I broke my bike in September, and I got sick a few times in between, I settled for 40 rides, for a total of 500 mountain bike miles. I also ended up with an additional 1,000 commuter bike miles. I know this is far from record-setting for some, but it was quite a Fifth Truck find for me.

Your turn: what has been your Fifth Truck find?

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