Friday, March 20, 2009

Suburban Sprawl Crawl

Say what you will about suburban sprawl—the increased traffic, heightened stress, commuting pollution, low-density land use and the sedentary lifestyle it promotes. All true to a certain extent. As a mountain biker, though, I have learned to like it. Bring on the sprawl.

I live in the Sierra Foothills and drive a LONG way to work in Sacramento. Yeah, I’m a horrible person. I have personally killed a polar bear and a few penguins due to my ice-cap-melting, fossil-fuel-emitting ways. My sincerest apologies to my furred and feathered friends.

I used to live much closer to work and less than a mile from Sacramento’s American River Bike Trail. It was only a 10-minute drive to work, and I deemed it "too close" to commute by bike. The meager training miles, a little over 100 per week, weren’t worth the wrinkled clothes, shower supplies, and extra time required. Plus, who would want to ride a dorky bike with a rack and fenders on it? I’m a BIKE RACER, man.

Fast forward six years, and I would love to have the opportunity to commute 10 miles to work on a dorky bike with a rack and fenders. Sign me up. Unfortunately, it took living 40 minutes from work to realize it.

Still, I do what I can. I work a 4-10 schedule to eliminate one day’s driving. I ride to the grocery or hardware store when I can. Occasionally I do ride home from work, and it saves my wife and I one car trip and the world a couple gallons of burned fuel. It’s a 35-45 mile ride depending on my route. The shortest route has the busiest roads; the quieter the route, the longer the ride. To date I have ridden both to and from work exactly once. Eighty miles with a 10-hour work day in the middle was just too much—16 hours in total.

I spent the better part of three years grumbling about living in the boonies. My close, convenient, safe bike trail was long gone. No longer could I roll out for a ride after work and shut my brain off. I was now riding on narrow roads with horrible surfaces, up and down incessant hills, and trying to coexist with intolerant drivers. I hated riding around my new home. I gave up on riding a road bike and used a cyclocross bike for a while. It was good, but not great. It wasn’t until I built up a 29er that things got interesting.

I built up a Karate Monkey in 2004 and it immediately became my go-to bike. The bike isn’t great at any one thing, except if you count its versatility. It’s no road bike, but unlike a 26" bike, it rolls quite well on the pavement. The stiff fork is kind of harsh on rough trails, but again, with the big wheels it’s tolerable. It steers slowly in tight singletrack, but it’s manageable. Still, I immediately loved the Karate Monkey. Something about the bike led to slowing down, looking around and exploring.

So instead of leaving on rides with a definite route in mind, I started hunting. I would pick an area to scour, ride down old roads, look for dead ends, rail road tracks and creeks—all the places trails are typically built. I would scan Google Earth and look for areas that might hide trails. I trolled web sites. I asked kids with mud on their faces. You know what I found? Dirt. Sweet, sweet dirt. Lots of it. All around me.

The area where I live would best be described as the beginning of the rural foothills. Narrow roads, acreage, ranches, livestock and wineries are the norm. The roads would be nice to ride on if they were quiet, but they are not. They are patrolled by ranchers in old trucks, soccer moms in huge SUVs, rich kids in daddy’s Benz, and white-knuckled commuters speeding towards their evening martini. Just to the west of us is more suburban, and the roads mostly have—get this—BIKE LANES. This is where I ride the most now.

The developers along the Highway 50 corridor have left quite a bit of open space around the homes. In this space are paved trails, crushed granite fitness paths, gravel access roads and even some singletrack. They are sometimes hard to see if you aren’t looking for them. Often there will only be a small entrance between a couple houses or a slight parting of the trees. I rode by what has become one of my favorite local trails for YEARS without ever seeing the entrance.

Now I can piece together long rides from home that avoid major roads by using these hidden gems. I can commute home from work by mountain bike and see very few cars.

So while I can’t do a pub crawl on my hipster fixed gear like my urban friends, I can do something they can’t. I do the suburban sprawl crawl. I get my dirt jones anytime I want. Right from my house.

Long live the suburbs.


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