The room is dark, the blankets are warm, and beyond the noise of the fan there is utter silence. Lost somewhere deep in a dream, I am in my happy place. Then, the silence is broken by an orchestra of cellos whose rifts of chords resonate across the room, whose harmonics perturb the peace of my slumber. My hand darts out from underneath the covers and silences my phone, I bury my face deeper into the covers and begin to fade back to sleep.
But, my mind can no longer return to the peaceful tranquility of before and asks the question, “Why did I set my alarm so early?” This question fades from memory as I close my eyes, letting the dark surround me, and the warm blankets engulf me; I am on the verge of sleep when I remember: It’s Friday. It’s FRIDAY! Suddenly, the lethargy of sleep is gone, replaced by a new energy, a new yearning. A yearning for the woods, to be outside. A yearning to ride the dirt track and fly between the trees. A yearning to free my caged Giant and let his rubber Talons shred the local singletrack. My heart is crying out for my Friday morning ride!
This crescendo in energy is short-lived as I brave the freezing atmosphere outside of my bed. My first mission of the day, prepare a morning cup of Joe. But, this isn’t just any Folger’s “get you through the work week” coffee; no, this is the “it’s finally Friday so you splurged on the good stuff” coffee. Maybe the two taste the same and the difference is entirely in my head, but using the good stuff always tricks me into believing that mornings are enjoyable.
As the coffee drips and French roast permeates the air I begin breakfast: a fried egg with some toast. With each sip of coffee and bite of food my resolve to ride grows stronger, the initial excitement returning. But outside the sky is dark and the morning temp is only 30-something degrees. Is this too cold?
Such a difficult question shouldn’t be tackled lightly. I’ll answer after my dog’s morning walk. But, we already know the answer before the walk. Yes, it is way too cold outside and yes, I’m going to ride anyways.
I am now pulling up to the Lake County Crabtree trailhead. When you visit Crabtree there are two trailheads you can use; one is the main entrance and then there is the “secret” entrance. The main entrance is the official drive to the county park, but you have to navigate speed bumps to use it (and for me it would also mean having to use I-40 during rush hour traffic). Then there is the “secret” entrance located in a crossroads between Crabtree, Umstead Park, and a connecting greenway. When you pull up on a hot summer day there will be cars lining both sides of the streets, but if you try to sneak in an early-bird special ride on a frigid NC winter day, the trail will be basically empty. Today is one of those rare empty trail days.
The Crabtree trail system is one of my favorite trails in the Triangle area. Maybe, it’s because TORC (Triangle Off-Road Cyclists) does such an amazing job of trail maintenance, maybe it’s because this is where my buddy Matt got me back on my bike after two years of not riding, or maybe because it’s just a short commute to this trail. Either way, this trail has become a personal favorite place to ride when I feel the need to hit the dirt. No matter the reason, there’s something special about this trail system.
Overall, these trails are a pretty easy ride. There’s minimal climbing, some good natural flow, and occasionally an obstacle or two to ride. When you first roll in there’s a good scenic overlook of the lake and the trail initially rides along the shorelines edge. Then there comes the first fork and you have to decide: Right or Left? A left turn keeps you along the lake and the novice rider might think this is the best option with the best views. But, the experienced trail goer will tell you go right, save the lake views for the end when you need the extra motivation to reach the end (besides, going right saves the downhill for the end and going left turns a downhill into a climb).
Choosing the path to the right, I begin churning the pedals searching for that perfect cadence. The trees soon fly by and the scenery becomes a blur. My bike begins to fly down the trail and the first major turn comes into sight. Hitting the bend, I fight the temptation to lock the brakes and bring control to the turn; allowing gravity and momentum to pull the bike and me through the curve. Soon, I’m rolling on a slight decline and looking ahead, I see it. The back section of the trails with the serpentine section of mini-berms. In this spot, I always get some speed, but today is different. Today, my bike has been cruising; today, I’ll seek my limitations. I really start pedaling, putting all my weight into my flats and shifting to a higher and higher gear.
I can feel it now. I’m almost there, a speed well beyond my turning comfort zone. A speed that well exceeds my norm, and then I see him. A fellow rider, from the trailhead, is at the start of the serpentine and I am quickly gaining. My stomach lurches, my spirits fade as I reach towards the brake lever, preparing to slow down and give up this glorious speed. But, then he pulls off to the side and waves me by. Somehow, he knew that today world records were being broken, that new mountains were being conquered, and that I was racing Giants.
The first turn arrives and I shift my pedals, attempting to balance the corner like the YouTube videos show. Feather the brake into the turn, let go of the brake during. Keep the outside foot down so that momentum holds you to the wall and keep the inside foot high so that you can lean the bike. Avoid the brake and let momentum do the work. It seems to work, for the first bend, and I come out to the next straight with no speed lost.
But, the second bend is sharper and the gravel less packed. Still, I begin churning my legs, building up that speed. I hit the bend and feel the gravel starting to give, slowly the bike attempts to slide out from under me and just as I reach the cusp of losing the turn, I’m back into another straight away with the bike upright. Minimal speed lost. Reaching the end of the serpentine I can feel the adrenaline pumping and my legs shaking. That was the fastest I had ever ridden that section.
After the serpentine the trail hits another fork (the Crabtree trails are full of splits and loops, making it very easy to ride any distance that you want). Do I go right or do I go left? A right will take me to the back loop and a left begins the ride back to the trailhead. The time is 8:15 AM, I better head back towards the trailhead. Besides, there’s still two more sections I want to session.
Whenever I ride Crabtree there are two sections for me that are pretty difficult. Both segments I can ride down; the challenge is in climbing these areas. The first section is a rolling drop into a banked turn that naturally gives speed. First, I try to power up the climb, and my front tire hits the root too hard, stopping me. Then, on try number two, I pop the front tire over, but have too much weight on the rear tire, which becomes deadlocked when I hit the root. Giving it a third attempt, I believe I have finally figured it out and manage to pop the front tire and lift my butt from the seat. This time the rear wheel still spins, but now there isn’t enough force holding it to the ground and it just spins over the root, stalling in place. Three tries, three fails. I’ll have to conquer this climb next time.
The next spot is a short, steep climb. This climb would be easy if the ground were dirt, but the climb is covered in roots from the bottom to the top. Speed can help you go down, allowing you to just roll over the tops. Even going slow, you can ride it all the way down as you fall into every gap between the roots. But, climbing up? I still don’t know how. After a quick, failed ride up and a bumpy ride downm I continue my ride back towards the trailhead.
Before leaving Crabtree, I have to pay a visit to the skills section. Most of the obstacles here I have completed, but there is one that always gives me trouble: A bending skinny with a drop at the end. This obstacle and I go to war every time I ride at Crabtree; last time it won by bending my rear derailleur. But, this Friday morning I took revenge by successfully overcoming this hurdle!
My trail ride is over; my Friday morning escape is complete. Now, I feel the rush of time as I hurriedly load the bike and drive for the house. There will be just enough time for some breakfast and a shower before I leave for school. I look back at the trail longingly, already wanting to unload my hardtail so that I may ride amidst the trees while racing my shadow. But adulthood is waiting and I must heed its call. Today, I’ll sit through group meetings taunted by daydreams of singletrack waiting to be ridden on next Friday’s morning ride.
This essay was a runner up entry in the #TrailTales contest.