Navigating Narrowback

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Harrisonburg has no shortage of bike trails and good riding roads. As a cyclist, I like to take advantage of them whenever I can. The Narrowback Trail in outer Rockingham County is one of the newer options for mountain bikers, and had been on my to-do list for a while.

The weather in Harrisonburg at the beginning of 2013 had been unpredictable and cold for weeks, so when “The Weather Channel” forecasted a high of 55 one Friday, I jumped at the chance. I loaded up my gear, donned my bike pants (referred to by my family as “man-capris”) and set course for the trailhead, about a 30-minute drive from JMU’s campus.

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There are two players in this adventure. The man: your humble author, aged 21 and a bike enthusiast who spent the preceding several months sidelined due to jammed schedules, poor weather and illness. The bike: a 2007 Specialized Hardrock Sport, plucked off of Craigslist for $240 three years ago, looking a bit worse for wear after a hard six years of life.

A close call with some mud in the parking area suggests that the mountains have not had a chance to dry out as much as the city has. Undeterred, I boost the bike off of the car.  The Hardrock is your basic hardtail mountain bike, with shocks in the front but not the back. This particular example carries the wear and tear from two years of college commuter duty, plus multiple rides in both Washington D.C. and Michigan.

Unfortunately, at the time of the Narrowback conquest, the bike also carries scars from being crashed by my roommate a month earlier. After the accident it still seems roadworthy, but I’m hoping there are no hidden surprises.

The trail starts out on the gravel road, and for the first half mile, it’s smooth sailing. The trail then heads off into the woods and steeply uphill. This is when I encounter the mud for the first time. In spin classes, “thick mud” seems to be in every instructor’s vocabulary for how much resistance to apply to your bike during a given segment of the class, but actually fighting mud in the real world while going uphill is something else all together.

I begin to have regrets for being out of shape, already feeling worn out, and not even up the first hill yet. The first hill crests into a shale pit, one of the main geographic features of the trail. Whereas most of the woods are a uniform tan color thanks to the fallen leaves, the shale pit has yellowness to it, giving the impression that its been stripped of all of the vegetation. It looks like it would make a decent movie stand in for planet Venus.

I push on into the woods, rolling along at a decent pace as the trail gets narrower and narrower. As the hills get steeper the Hardrock’s chain starts to grind, straining on the gears. Maybe the accident did more than initially met my eye.

I pause once I reach the four-way intersection at the top of the ridge to snap a few photos. To the naked eye, there is a decent view of Harrisonburg and Dayton, although the barren trees obscure much of it when I attempt to document the scene.

According to the trail description, the ridgeline is “flowing” and “sometimes rocky.” “Sometimes” may be an understatement. To me, the rocks appear to be fairly consistent and quite substantial. In an effort to smooth out the ride, I dial down the preload on the Hardrock’s front shocks, hoping to loosen them up. As I bounce further along the ridgeline, it becomes obvious that rather than loosening up and cushioning the ride, the shocks have, in fact, seized. Oh, dear.  I mentally add another item to the growing list of things on the bike that need attention. Still, despite the equipment failures, there’s no turning back now.

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The views from the ridgeline are decent, although broken up by the trees. The rocks continue for almost three miles before dropping off the top of the ridge. The change in the landscape is  remarkable: one second, slow going over rocks, the next, smooth downhill dirt trail only interrupted by the occasional mud puddle. This is more suitable given the current conditions of both the bike and myself.

We dart down the mountain at a rapid pace, only disturbed by the now-wet brakes, which wail despondently. Unfortunately, this portion of the trail ends abruptly at the fire road, which normally would be quite navigable, but at the moment has become exceptionally soft and squishy, almost like riding on a mattress . Forward momentum is severely affected by the fact that I am sinking into the road as I go.

The route map indicates that the road is three miles of rolling terrain. For the first few hill climbs, I’m fine; not quite as  at ease as I was on the dirt trail, but making good progress. Then slogging through the mud really starts to become work. and my pace begins to slow.

The hills and rocks have also taken a toll on the bike’s drivetrain, which now upshifts and downshifts at will and interprets the inputs of the gear shifters as mere suggestions. At one point, the cables become gummed with mud and the indicator jams on second gear. One hill later, it frees itself, just in time for the turn off the fire road and more rocks.

The climb from the fire road back up to the ridge is steep. Very steep. The rocks, having possibly been forced out of their natural habitat by the construction of the fire road, have all migrated here. I make it about halfway back to the ridge before my legs give out. I dismount and hike the rest of the way back up to the top in shame. Once I reach the ridge, it’s the home stretch and all downhill from here.

The trail from the ridge to the parking area is much more direct than the ascent through the shale pit, but there’s a reason the directions don’t send you up the mountain this way. For a large part, it’s arrow straight, and steeply sloped. Navigating it isn’t physically challenging but requires a decent amount of mental concentration to avoid obstacles.

By now, I’m muddy enough that I don’t bother to avoid the shallower mud spots anymore. The trail has just started to level out, and I’ve started to relax, when I round a bend and see the creek that I have to cross.

When the route description said creek, I assumed it meant a token amount of water running over some rocks. What I confront instead is a 5-foot wide, 2-foot deep body of water. I sit for a minute and ponder over the day and age that we live in; one that requires us to carry so many electronic gizmos on us at all times.

Had roughly $350 worth of technology not been at stake, I would have proceeded to splash gleefully through the deep part of the creek with reckless abandon. Now, I must find another way across. Hiking upstream reveals shallower water. I lower the bike in from the steep bank, climb on, and pedal slowly across. After fording the creek, the going is easy — a quick zip downhill, across a bridge and the truck is in sight. Sitting on the back seat is my prize for finishing: two Capri Suns.

Bottom line: Narrowback should not be taken lightly. It may be only 9 miles, but those miles can be intense, especially if soggy. Also, the equipment you choose makes a difference. I think that with new front shocks and a properly adjusted chain, the Hardrock would be perfectly capable, although something with a full suspension would likely be even better. I definitely plan to go back, but first I think I need a trip to the bike shop. And UREC. Definitely UREC.