CategoriesFitnessGear

Bike Gear I’ll Never Buy Again

The Specialized Comp shoe looks good, but has room for improvement.
The Specialized Comp shoe looks good, but has room for improvement.

Sometimes, I cross the fine line between brilliant bargain hunter and mere low-rent cheapskate. And it usually happens with mountain bike products. Here’s my list of mountain bike gear that’s burned me the worst.

Specialized Shoes
After 10 years with a pair of Sidi Dominator 3 mountain bike shoes, it was time to get a new pair. I was hoping for a bargain, so I picked up a pair of Specialized Comp bike shoes. You can read my full review for all the dirt. Bottom line? Weak ratchets and a plastic-like feel that never seemed to mold to my foot like the Sidi Dominator 3.

You could say I saved $60 by buying the Specialized Comp bike shoes. But I think I set $140 on fire when I should’ve just bought the updated Sidi Dominator 4 in the first place.

 

Stay away from Clarks Skeletal disc brakes.
Stay away from Clarks Skeletal disc brakes.

Clarks Brakes
I was skeptical of disc brakes at first, and I whinged when I had to bring home a bike that had the Hayes Nine hydraulic disc brake. My skepticism didn’t last but a ride.

When it came time to slowly gather parts for a new bike, I realized that hydraulic disc brakes are a big chunk of change to buy separately  Then I heard about a special deal on Clarks Skeletal disc brakes. There wasn’t much buzz about them – kind of like when I bought my first Santa Cruz Heckler way back in the pre-Superlight days. This was another chance to lead the way in finding something new!

Um, no. The Clarks Skeletal brake levers rattle like skeletons shagging on a harpsichord. Their stopping power is far below the generations-old Hayes 9 brakes, and far inferior to the Avid Elixir 5 brakes on my Santa Cruz Superlight. Never again.

Cytomax
For years, Cytomax kept my soreness and dehydration at bay. I loved the tropical fruit flavor. It was my gold standard.

A little more than a year ago, I picked up a new can of Cytomax. Mixed a bottle, froze it, hit the trails and took a drink. And nearly spit it right back out. Something tasted weird. And not in a way I could tolerate. Well, it turns out that Champion Nutrition added the sweetener Stevia to the ingredients. Sure, it’s plant based -- but I’m suspicious of low-cal sweeteners. Mind you, I didn’t know about the switch when I drank it. I detected the off flavor, researched and found out about the Stevia switch. So, see ya, Cytomax. These days, I’m in the middle of experimenting with Gu Brew, Nuun (bring back my cola flavor!) and Skratch Labs.

MagicShine Lights

For awhile, the MagicShine lights were THE hot pick for bargain hunters. Cue a battery recall, and everything just went down the crapper. The main MagicShine dudes, Geomangear.com, even went out of business. Look, I’m convinced light systems are overpriced. But even at the low prices of the MagicShine racer’s specials, they were still more TragicShine (or MagicShite?) than MagicShine. I hate to say it, but you have to lay out cash for good lights. And if you mountain bike at night, you need something you can count on. Nightrider, Lupine … stick with the big guys like them.

 

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CategoriesAdventuresFitness

Scottsdale’s New Mountain Biking Trails – First Impression

This pretty spot is, unfortunately, a dead end in the trails "redesigned" by the City of Scottsdale.
This pretty spot is, unfortunately, a dead end in the trails “redesigned” by the City of Scottsdale.

I’m not used to being confused while mountain biking near the Pima & Dynamite trails in Scottsdale. But today? Flumoxed, mixed up, mystified. Like “watching Vanilla Sky” puzzled.

I mean, these are the Pima & Dynamite trails, but not as local mountain bikers know them. It’s almost like Disney’s Imagineers came out, erased the existing trails … and then slapped up their own vision of what mountain bike trails should be.

But nope, it’s not Disney: It’s the city of Scottsdale. I read about the new trails on a divisive thread on mtbr.com. I kind of forgot about the thread. Then I blunder across an unfamiliar trail and think, “oooooh, yeah …” I see a lot of interesting things on this ride. The biggest impressions, though, are the thoughtless destruction of existing mountain biking trails – and new trails built with no thought for flow or logical direction.

A case study in the wrong way to close a trail. Way to go, Scottsdale!
A case study in the wrong way to close a trail. Way to go, Scottsdale!

There are right ways to close mountain biking trails to be reclaimed into the natural environment. Look at the photo to see what Scottsdale did: Ripping into the earth with heavy equipment, and then peppering the trail alignment with wood, bits of cactus and whatever else happens to be around. One heavy monsoon storm, and guess where this will go? If you guessed “right into the new trail,” congratulations! You’re smarter than the Scottsdale officials who signed off on this travesty. I would bet Scottsdale didn’t get any input from the experts at the International Mountain Bicycling Association, either.

Notice the deep, sandy scree and the bike it caught? Bad trail building.
Notice the deep, sandy scree and the bike it caught? Bad trail building.

Alright, onto the second point: “Flow” is an elusive characteristic. What does it mean? Well, if you build a mountain biking (or multi-user) trail that required riders to be on their brake levers constantly, your trail doesn’t have flow. If you have so much sand that riders expect to see The Hoff sunbathing, your trail doesn’t have any flow. The new trails are wide and usually off-camber i the turns. There’s not a berm to be found. There’s too much loose scree on top that can make for some hairy situations. The only good thing? The trails have a bit more traction in many spots, which should be fairly friendly for singlespeed riders … or at least the strictly-OK singlespeeders (like me). One rider said on MTBR.com “However, I kept thinking of anti depressants when riding them. All the highs and lows are taken out.”

A mystery trail through a bunch of fox tails. Kind of cool.
A mystery trail through a bunch of fox tails. Kind of cool.

Look, building good trails is hard. I don’t have any answers. And clearly, Scottsdale doesn’t, either. The next time city officials want to build some new trails, they should look to the best trails in the region: Talk to Rand Hubbell at McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Get some input from the West Valley Trail Alliance. The city of Phoenix mountain biking trails are also far ahead of Scottsdale. These trails will never be a destination, nor sought after as a venue for mountain bike events.

In other bad news:

  • Riders can’t park along Dynamite Boulevard anymore because of the road-widening project. I parked at a Chase Bank about a mile east of Pima.
  • The trails are unsigned, so it’s hard to know where you’ll wind up.
  • The city is also splashing out on a huge trailhead with parking. Yay, more pavement!
My ride route. New bits are in the northeast. The new trailhead is the dangly bit hanging from the south.
My ride route. New bits are in the northeast. The new trailhead is the dangly bit hanging from the south. Looks like sea horse, doesn’t it?

My bottom line: The people responsible for the changes deserve a good whack upside the head with a stainless-steel soup ladle. But I’ll keep my ladle in the drawer if they at least think about getting some help before they build/modify trails without proper adult supervision.

A spy shot of the new trailhead under construction.
A spy shot of the new trailhead under construction.
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CategoriesAccommodations

Hostels – Four Reasons They’re Awesome

hostels

Anything can happen in hostels – from just a good night of sleep to waking up to a naked Dutch dude parading around.

If you’re not used to that sort of mayhem, the latter can be a bit off-putting. You might even conclude "Well, I’m never staying in a hostel, then." And your travel experience will be poorer for it.

I’m not literally talking about The Flapping Dutchman here – but the overall vibe of a hostel. Here’s what I like about hostels, and why you should make it a point to stay at one.

They’re cheap – You dropped serious scrilla on airfare. Staying in hostels is a good way to take your budget back. You’ll pay less than a hotel. And yeah, in many cases, you’ll give up some amenities and privacy. But let’s remember: You’re traveling to get out and do things, not faff about in your room.

 

hostels
Me enjoying a relaxing moment at the Skotel in New Zealand.

You’ll meet people – Hostel crowds are more gregarious than typical hotel folk. They’re often younger, too. So if you’re just venturing into travel, you’ll find people who have something in common with you. It starts to get fun when you move from town to town and start bumping into the same people. Next thing you know, you’ll be hiking together or hitting a nightspot for a drink.

They’re not as Spartan as you’d think – Some hostels are far from the glorified barracks you’ll expect. Sure, in some places, you’ll bunk 20 to a room. But there are some way sweet hostels out there – like the three-person rooms at the Skotel ski lodge in Whakapapa, New Zealand: The cozy wood rooms and sparkly bathrooms make it one of my favorite hostels ever. You’ll be surprised at the quality of other hostels like it.

They’re great for planning travel – Hostels seem very plugged into the cool places to go. Often, the staff members are extra-helpful for planning excursions, getting boarding passes and finding local places to eat and drink. I’ve always felt the service is a little less polished, yet more personal. And I’ll take genuine friendly over corporate-mandated courteous any time.

So, what are your thoughts on staying at hostels?

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CategoriesAdventuresBlogging/Writing

Tourism Versus Travel – And My Struggle to Not be a Jerk

Your backpack can be your best friend - or your worst enemy.
I like beautiful destinations – but I work for them.

One of my ongoing travel problems is getting off my high horse – especially about types of travel. This writer seems to go through the same struggle:

When choosing your destination, you need to decide: are you traveling for leisure or culture? I define leisure travel as relaxed and quite a bit like home, but with either service or beauty influencing the destination (ex. beach, cruise, resort, etc). Cultural travel (my kind of travel) is where you set off in hopes to learn, truly experience and open yourself up to a whole new culture and way of life. If you’ve chosen leisure, unfortunately I will have to stop you here, because I don’t think I’ll have much to offer you as far as travel tips that you can’t easily find on some corporate-owned, high-dollar, travel website. While leisure travel is fine and there’s nothing wrong with it, I don’t have much experience sitting on my ass while locals wait on me, so I can’t really pretend to be an authority on the subject. (Emphasis mine)

"Beauty of the destination" is a huge influence on my travel destinations. You could say that Brandon argues that traveling for a destination’s beauty is inherently less valid than traveling to visit a bunch of historic museums. Or that a beach always has more intrinsic eye-candy value than a lava field. But I don’t think that’s what he means. I think he’s traveled enough that he realizes reaching beautiful destinations can involve serious work.

flam norway
Cruises are not really my bag. But … I could be kinder to those who like them.

I think he just didn’t thrust the point home all the way. What I read is that he grapples with the same thoughts about "travelers" versus "tourists" that make me act like a jerk sometimes. I’ve lost count of how many cruise ship passengers and "guided-from-arrival gate-to-wheels up" tour groups I’ve snickered at when I travel.

And I have to stop that. The travel industry is symbiotic: Every traveler of every type is part of a network that creates opportunities for us all to find the experience we seek. I’m glad not everyone wants to eat boiled silkworm larvae; watch a soccer game in a driving Icelandic rain; camp north of the Arctic Circle; or swim into a cave filled with human sacrificial remains. It would get awfully crowded, wouldn’t it?

There are people who just want to escape, clear their mind, recharge their batteries. A beach isn’t a travel destination that will make me happy. But others find solace and renewal in the sand. I get it. The way I travel can be arduous, and I understand why a glacier, a volcano or a cave isn’t a destination for everyone. And I grok why some might want a different dose.

I have no lofty goal when I travel. I just want to do something cool, something different from my everyday life. Call it whatever you choose. No matter what label you tag on me, I’ll enjoy myself doing what I like. You do the same, OK?

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CategoriesAdventuresFitnessGear

Stand Up Paddle Board Trip – New On My “To Do” List

Stand up paddle board

When I travel, I’m always on the lookout for something new to try. An excursion on a stand up paddle board is now a new item on my to-do list.

So, first off … what is a stand up paddleboard? I think of it as a surfboard that’s so stable you can stand on it – and paddle wherever you feel like going. Here’s the wikipedia definition. It’s an emerging sport that has much of what I look for: a chance to build fitness, some cool equipment and the chance to spot cool wildlife.

Let’s start with the fitness part of it. You’re standing up. You’re using your arms. And here’s a big one – water is an unstable surface. So you have to use just about every muscle in your body to stay balanced on a stand up paddle board. Remember, you can catch a wave, too – so you’ll need stability even when the water works in your favor.

Stand up paddle board, SUP

Add the paddling motion into it, and the intensity ramps right up. When you really bear down with the power, you’ll have to work your core muscles even harder to stay upright. All that adds up to nice fitness benefits – and I’ll try just about anything that promises a fun way to work off all the tasty local foods I like to sample when I travel.

Now, let’s talk about equipment. For some people, gear is a huge chunk of the stand up paddle board fun – I can say this with all the authority of 20+ years on the mountain bike. The crew at Legends SUP in Southern California knows the gear and its impact on the fun; the Legends SUP staff outfits all sorts of paddleboarders from the beginner level all the way up.

You’ll need a board and a paddle. But what else? Possibly a wetsuit, a personal flotation device and some sunscreen. I was surprised by the array of gear for different usage – you’ll see a stand-up paddle board for every application from river use to women-specific designs.

Paddleboarding at Sunset
Paddleboarding at sunset looks alright to me. (Photo credit: Rosa Say)

That leaves us with some opportunities to spot wildlife. If your travel takes you to the Monterrey, Calif., area, you’ll find places to spot a sea otter from a stand up paddle board. And sea turtles and sea lions sighting ares common in the Galapagos Islands.

I’m an Australia-phile, so I’d try a stand up paddle board next time I travel to Australia. The only thing better than spotting wildlife in Australia is managing to not get eaten by them. But just mind the advice from any locals, and you should be good to go.

This is a sponsored post. All opinions and thoughts on the sport of stand up paddleboarding are my own. 

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CategoriesAdventuresFitness

Arizona Mountain Bike Trail Profile: FINS

FINS scenery, mountain bike trail
A look at the Fantasy Island North Singletrack terrain.

I hate comparing anything to Fight Club – especially a mountain bike trail. But I have no choice with the Fantasy Island North Singletrack, aka FINS, which is a great Arizona mountain bike trail.

I first wrote about FINS for Mountain Flyer magazine back in 2009. During my first ride there, I met a couple of other riders. Turns out, they were two of the two trail-building honchos responsible for the network. Read the story for the history – I’d rather focus on the here and now. I’ll just say our conversation spawned the story for Mountain Flyer. I’ve often wondered if they still would’ve agreed to the interview in retrospect: I’ve heard little from them since. So there’s not much talking about Fantasy Island North Singletrack outside the trail builders and local riders. Even the website for the group responsible is … um, a bit inscrutable.

This past weekend, I checked out what’s happened since my last visit when it totaled about 12 miles. The answer? Plenty! Here are my takeaways for anyone who wonders about an overlooked mountain bike trail.

FINS Trailhead, mountain bike trail
The FINS FINS Trailhead – be sure to drop some bucks into the kitty!

FINS is Built for Bikes

Horses aren’t allowed on Fantasy Island North Singletrack. Hikers? Yes, but there are certain trails the builders request that hikers avoid. What we have here are twisty, turny, windy trails. Don’t shut your brain off. Brake before the turns, check yo’self and all that – the next corner or dip is never far away.

All this adds up to a mountain bike trail that’s made for mountain biking. There’s always something happening, and never a dull stretch of trail.

Something for Every Skill Level

Let’s say you’re not a mountain biker yet. But you plan to buy a mountain bike after work and hit the trail tomorrow. If you live near Fantasy Island North Singletrack, you can go from “barely able to stay upright” to “total badass.” There are smooth, groomed places to get your flow on without taxing your skills or legs. And then there are steep, nasty climbs. Bermed corners. Jumps. Steep descents with tight switchbacks. Even a freakin’ mountain bike teeter-totter! And when you can clean the entire mountain bike trail, get a singlespeed and repeat.

FINS Boneyard, mountain bike trail
“I’ve got a bone to pick with you!”

One Feature Needed

I spent a few hours trying to ride as many Fantasy Island North Singletrack trails as possible, with few repeats. I was able to put in about 17 miles, though I probably could’ve gotten another four miles.

I did more backtracking than I’d prefer. If it’s even remotely possible, I’d love to see an outside loop running 12-15 miles added to the mountain bike trail network. Not easy, I know. But worth considering.

More From These Geniuses

This is a quality mountain bike trail network, not only in fun factor – they appear to be sustainable, too. I admit that some of the steep, switchbacked sections will probably need careful maintenance.

But the rest? So well done. I saw little in the way of erosion. If I were a public land manager interested in improving the trails I manage, I would contact the Fantasy Island North Singletrack crew and hook them up with a paid gig.

FINS from North Star, mountain bike trail
North Star is the high point of FINS.

There is serious knowledge in these trails – just witness the awesomeness of Kimurel’s Hurl, two-tenths of a mile of mountain bike bobsledding! (Check the video and watch for Suicide Squirrel.) McDowell Mountain Regional Park officials have publicly mentioned a flow trail – well, I’d say the FINS team could nail it On.The.Head. Sign ’em up! And if I managed Estrella Mountain Regional Park, I’d pay them good money to work some magic on the currently tragic, sand-choked, no-flow-havin’ mess called the Competitive Track.

An elevation profile and my GPS tracks, mountain bike trail
An elevation profile and my GPS tracks.

Pitch in

Some people who care have swung their shovels and other implements to make this mountain bike trail what it is. They even provide printed maps, as if the permanent maps posted throughout the trail network aren’t enough. Don’t live in the neighborhood? Too strapped for time? Pitch a few bucks into the handy cash receptacle at the trailhead. They deserve it.

The Maricopa County Parks system charges $6 per carload to enter and use the trails. Make of that what you will.

How to Get to Fantasy Island North Singletrack: Go south on Estrella Mountain Parkway from Interstate 10. Continue until you enter the Estrella Mountain Ranch community, and watch for Westar Drive. Head west, and park at either Westar Elementary School (NOT during school hours) or at the trailhead less than a mile up the road.

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