Wednesday, June 17, 2015

...In Dealing with Arizona Mud

Growing up in the Dirty South, mud, rather, "muddin'" was looked at as sport rather than obstacle.  There were bike rides through my teenage years that were purposed with finding the largest puddles we could and riding through them.  That was what big rings were for: full speed charges through puddles after rainstorms, pulling up that front wheel at top speed until it came down through the pooled water to stamp into the sticky ooze below and relieve the rear wheel of all traction duties ejecting the rider over the bars.  That was how I learned to wrench bikes in more ways than one.  The Georgia/Alabama red clay that provides the namesake of the dirty south was a source of pride amongst those who ventured outside.  I remember entering a race where lawnmower goggles were the preferred attire over sunglasses of any sort and the first downhill quickly turned into a run to the creek at the bottom for an impromptu bike wash to get things rolling again.  That clay turned into a slick peanut buttery grease that would stop tires from rolling and kill all fun in any direction.  Racers would routinely apply cooking spray to frames and tires and I even remember one spray on product ("Mudd-off" I think) that was dedicated to the task of shedding mud from bicycles.  Oh where we would be if it actually worked!  I guess I would have nothing to type about today.

Flash forward twenty years to life in the other dirty south...the southwest...home of the Basalt lava flows of the San Francisco volcanic field.  Producer of a mud far more unforgiving than anything ever witnessed in the east.  Yeah, I know, you think the southwest is a desert of endless sunny days with ridiculously warm temperatures making it uninhabitable to normal humans.  Well the third part may be true, but this year has brought about an above average rainfall for the spring leaving areas open for daytime bike adventure long into a season that most years would have left forgotten in the heat by April 1.  I was fortunate enough to receive a phone call from Will over at WTB who was en-route to a five day Coconino 250 attempt over memorial day weekend.  In that moment the wheels were set in motion for a long weekend adventure.  I wouldn't be able to make the whole 250 with the group that identified themselves as the California Camels, but it did allow for a multi day adventure ride through some new country to meet up with another steller adventure that you can read about HERE.

My ride over the weekend would be from Flagstaff to Mingus Mountain and back around Sycamore Canyon, but the early start to monsoon season left the route selection to be a touchy detail.  Rim country (referring to the Mogollon Rim of the Colorado plateau extending from central Arizona to southwest New Mexico) is a likely place to encounter the Basalt flows and the mud that they can produce, so any chance of rain when riding in this area, especially on unfamiliar roads and trails should not be taken lightly.  Descending the rim with a loaded bike is often a granny gear affair for 2000 or so vertical feet (that's right, granny gear downhill), but add some rain into the equation and prepare for a long and slippery walk for miles if you're lucky.  Choose wisely.

My route was looking good as the threatening skies kept temperatures down but never unleashed on day one.  The power line descent known locally as the Casner Route appeared from the top to be dry enough, and it held through to the bottom.  It wasn't until the next day that the signs of what could be started to appear.

This bear track on Mingus Mountain shows the grease that had since dried.  The pebbles that comprise the rest of the trail are nowhere to be seen within the track meaning they were carried off or pressed in.  The mud crack evident in the heel pad is a sure sign that life would have been miserable here under rear wheel power when the track was laid.  Other than this bit of evidence our day was again uneventful and filled with spectacular weather for late May in the high desert grasslands.  An overnight drizzle along the Verde River in Perkinsville would be cause for concern though. 

My route for day three was home following the Pines to Mines route.  If all went well it would be 70-75 miles of dirt road, mostly uphill with ~2500 feet of vertical.  No downhill fun, but a nice pedal and none too steep climbing.  I was out of camp early, bidding the sleepy Camels farewell as they dozed.  The overcast morning showed on and off drizzle.  As I steered toward the rocky climb up the western edge of the Rim, my eyes lay on the ground before me and the residual dampness of the soil below.  A freshly graded road leading toward a mining claim showed evidence of troublesome travel, but the moisture was still too low and the surface remained good.  About halfway up the rim the sandstone rocks that make the Pines to Mines downhill an abusive challenge turn to basalt, the soil to a rich rust red of decomposing iron, and though it wasn't raining presently the overnight drizzle had left its mark.  Tires start to clog, and tiny pebbles are released into chains and derailleurs.  The release of those pebbles was indicative of a mud solution still on the dry side. 

Add a bit more water and those pebbles serve as a binding agent for more mud.  Below the mud is showing enough moisture to stick to itself, but has somehow released from the tire (not common).  It was enough to stop movement and force a get-off, thus clogging my shoes with the same sticky clod.  At its worst imagine your wheels becoming a cinnamon roll of mud and rock.  Conditions here change literally by the minute, but if this area had seen real precipition, I would have no doubt been pushing a very slow and heavy bike, or maybe a sled (pushing the sled is what happens when both wheels lock up and the bike+mud must be pushed along on the skids).  Out here mud clearance is only a matter of the recipe.  No matter how much is built into a bike frame or fork it will be thwarted by the right conditions.  The only measure that can be taken is knowing when to stop before the mess takes hold.  Walking can sometimes save your drivetrain, especially if grass grows off to the side, but the best plan is avoidance entirely.

Memorial Day for me did not present this option; I was to be back on the job on Tuesday.  Fortunately the mud up the rim was short lived and rapid travel resumed atop the plateau.  Ominous clouds loomed around the San Francisco peaks obscuring them from sight, though it was sunny west of Sycamore Canyon.  I never got rained on, save for a drizzle coming around Sycamore Rim trail.  The mud started here, but by the end of the four mile stretch of singletrack, the sun had come out and the trail was rideable again.  I found myself under a power line that runs directly east/west along the southern boundary of the Navajo Army Depot, and here began the mud.  I fell immediately into the commitment trap as skiers call it.  The intended route of unimproved dirt roads proved immediately impassible.  The mud was in full slick status in lanes of travel, unrideable, and sticky at the edges collecting all vegetation and debris surrounding a tire track.  The two track following the power line was muddy but passable, and the decision to keep moving along this route seemed obvious in rising panic of dwindling daylight.  Walking the power line hills would be slow, but the urgency of the situation forced movement.  In retrospect a route north around the Depot would have been the wise choice, utilizing improved roads, but I had not been stopped along the power lines.  Three hours of daylight, twenty miles to good dirt. There was no option for rescue; no one could get there.

The hikes up reminded me of my fire line days; power line cuts make good fire breaks.  The downhills were rideable, speeding travel.  The hills increased in length and steepness as I came up to Volunteer Canyon.  Cresting the last hill before the canyon left a dismal sight of the next power pole over half a mile away.  The bottom of Volunteer canyon was several hundred cliffed out feet below; the sun in the tree tops to the west.  I decided to backtrack.  I needed to get to a known spot on the map before darkness set in.  A singletrack heading directly south was indicated on the map near my position.  I found it with a little searching around, the stacked ancient and rotting timber over the rolling topography revealed the rail grade heading south.  Though not rideable, the travel would be the best of the troublesome situation.  Unimpeded walking would lead me back to the impassible roads of my intended route initially.  The gain in eastward mileage through my detour offered no improvement in road condition.  It was dusk.  I knew what I had to do.  Fifteen more miles of hiking and riding, all of it adjacent to the road.  The amount of moisture fallen that day was one for the records.  The roads were left as a slick that would remain overnight leaving the grass and needle cast to the side as the only means of travel.  Water puddled into a shallow lake between patches of grass in the open meadow offering the bike a short reprieve from some of the mud.  Travel would continue in this manner for the next two hours until the improved gravel of Woody Mountain Road was under rubber.  I pulled the plug a little before 10:00 pm, calling for a ride when I reached pavement.  15 hours of travel time.  Over 80 miles covered.  Worst day ever in the saddle in over 21 years of doing this.  Saved by a rail grade.

The detriment of a day like this to a multi-day route is fairly obvious.  A drivetrain that emerges from a day looking like this takes hours to revive, requiring a full disassembly, and tools that are rarely available in the field.  While waiting out the mud may not always be the best option I would believe the time component to be nearly equal to that of the required bike service.  Of course that excludes weathering a multi-day storm.  The best option in dealing with a situation is careful route planning when travels show signs of turning.  Carry a map and understand the road travel grades in selecting a route.  Improved dirt roads offer a graveled surface that will likely rise above troublesome mud.  Unimproved roads may be smooth but will travel whatever geology the earth's surface may offer.  Avoid the basalt layers in the rain.  Beware aware of Juniper areas when storm clouds are present in Northern Arizona.  Choose wisely.  Walking in the grass before your bike clogs up with mud can save a major headache down the road.  Recognize the situation; pressing on will not change the weather, but traveling cautiously with regards to road surface when mud gets bad could ensure speedier travel later on because you saved your bike.  Clean out your tires before they clog up your frame and drivetrain.  A piece of stiff fencing wire does wonders at this.  Clogged pedal cleats are way more favorable than clogged chain and derailleurs, just as a 60 pound bike is better than a 100 pounder.  It will be slow; it will be miserable; it will come to a memorable end.