Monday, July 11, 2011

Wendell State Forest: Getting Hooked on Dual Suspension

It's Wendell, Not Wendal.
Wendell State Forest in Massachusetts is much like her hot sister Leominster.  Rocky, hilly, wild and large.

Why the people of the Commonwealth chose to name her after an annoying Arrested Development song is beyond me. 

"I've never lost
a mustache contest."
 Okay, so “Mr. Wendal” is spelled differently, but that doesn’t stop it from violating  entering my brain every time I hear the park’s name.  And thanks to the magic of the internet, it’s now your turn: unless of course you’ve never heard it... in which case I highly recommend that you don’t listen to it.  Ever.   (Did I really spend a whole paragraph on that stupid song?)

Wendell State Forest, which really shares its name with the nearby town,  owes its name to Boston judge Oliver Wendell, who was the great grandfather to the famous Supreme Court jurist, and mustache master Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.   But you don't have to be a fan of mustaches, or moral skepticism to appreciate this Wendell.

No rocks or wolves in these trail names!
This view looks better when your vision isn't
blurry from climbing up here on your bike.
I made my first visit to Wendell State Forest last summer on a hot, humid day.  I spent most of that day in the north-western part of the park hiding in the trees from the hot sun.  I could tell from that visit Wendell was pretty hilly, almost as rocky as Leominster, and just about as easy to get lost in.  Despite exploring for a couple hours, I hit less than half of what was available.

So the recent adventure series ride sponsored by NEMBA presented a perfect opportunity for a guided tour of the park.  In addition to marked loops, there was BBQ and a grassy beach area for swimming.  To top it off, two companies, GT and Felt offered demos.

Demos are really a double edged sword.  On the one hand you get to test a new bike.  On the other, they are like "free samples" from drug dealers.  The best advice is to find out how much the bike costs before you get on it, so you can squash any dreams of owning it before they grab hold.  Unfortunately I didn't follow my own advice.

I test rode both the 2011 GT Sensor 1.0, as well as Felt's 2011 Virtue Expert, both full-suspension bikes.   In the interest of full disclosure, I am an amateur when it comes to rating bikes. I've still never ridden a 29" bike, and my rides on these two demos were the first time I had ever been on a dual suspension bike.  So it would be hard for me to compare these to anything other than my trusty Novara Aspen (a/k/a "the REI special") and my Lightspeed Obed, which are both hardtails.   I have been told that some dual suspension bikes "bob" when pedaling hard uphill and therefore lose some of their climbing effectiveness.  I found that neither of these bikes had any significant loss of power, and in fact, the rear suspension assisted climbing on rocky trails as I was better able to maintain tire contact with the ground while climbing over rocks, logs and the bodies of downed riders.  This  improvement was slight, but perceptible nonetheless.
The Felt Virtue Expert relaxing on a park bench.

Both bikes shined, however, on the rocky downhill sections.  I found myself intentionally running over bumps, and even seeking out drops so that I could feel the cushioned landing on the dual suspension.  Both bikes were a vast improvement over hard tailing down a technical trail.  (Gee, big surprise!)  

While I generally liked both bikes, I was much more comfortable with the geometry of the Felt Virtue. This may be because it is closer to what I am used to, but on the Sensor I felt like I had a higher center of gravity and therefore less stability and confidence (even after lowering the seat).  Again, this could be due to an incorrect setup or simply a personal preference.  I was also impressed by how smoothly, quietly, and yet responsively the Virtue rode.  There was one section where I sailed silently through a pine glen.  The feeling of quietly weaving through the trees reminded me of deep powder skiing in a solitary glade.  

Just be clear: I'm officially sold on the dual suspension.

"Remember me?  No? Must be all
the brain damage you got falling off me."
Both bikes are made primarily of aluminum, however the Virtue Expert has a carbon rear triangle.  Felt does offer a Sport version which is made entirely of aluminum and has less expensive components. GT also offers less expensive versions of the Sensor, all they way down to the 4.0, which features Shimmano Alivio components.  It is rumored that there was a 5.0 that was pulled from the market that used components exclusively from 1970's bigwheels.

Both reps were helpful and informative, answering all my stupid questions without laughing and pointing.  The Felt rep, Bob, from Bicycles Unlimited, is based out of Greenfield, MA and organizes rides for both road and mountain biking. He's probably a good guy to know if you live in the area.

Red = Beginner Loop
Blue = Intermediate Loop
Black = Hero Loop
As for the trails at Wendell, they were excellent.  There is much more flowy singletrack than Leominster and there is also a fair amount of technical challenge. Where the challenges at Leominster arise mostly from untamed rocky trails, there are a number of technical challenges at Wendell which are man-made, or "man-improved".  I saw a number of large rocks with rock "ramps" built up against them to assist climbing and descent.  It was obvious on most trails that a fair amount of work had been done to prepare them for the event.  Other trails, in contrast, were newly built, and somewhat hard to follow without signage.  Most trails don't have names, but my favorites: the Nipmuc trail (near Baker Road), and Moose Tracks (near Darmon Camp Road) have prominent signs.  (Even though they aren't named on the map?)

NEMBA used the loops shown on the map to the left.  I recommend taking the blue loop starting across the driveway from the main entrance building and running south.  There is some excellent technical singletrack that runs mostly downhill with a few short climbs.  If you follow this to Carlton Road, then head out around Wickett Pond, you will likely have a little bit of walking on the roughest part of the trail, but the views, and far side of the pond are worth it.  You can then come back toward the main parking area on the newest singletrack that runs between Ruggles Pond and Wickett Pond Road.  After passing through the parking area again, you can head to the northern section of the park running north of Wickett Pond Road, along Baker and then out to Damon Camp Road.  Be sure to hit the Nipmuc and Moose Tracks when you're out on this part of the trail.  There are two steep rocky descents on the way back, one just after the scenic vista, which is followed by a hair raising ride along the top of a steep cliff.

In all, the trails are well worth the trip from Boston, and with some additional signage and traffic, could rival the best that Kingdom Trails has to offer.  (Okay maybe I'm getting carried away.)  Best of all, the pond makes a nice end to a long hot day.

Even though you missed this one, there are other NEMBA Adventure Series Rides, scheduled for Bradbury Mountain in Maine (one of my favorites), Cockaponset in Connecticut (say that five times fast), and other great locales.  In fact, if you don't own a mountain bike you could probably have a decent summer of mountain biking by simply trying out the demos at the various events.  Even if you're not a cheap bastard trying to demo your way through summer, I highly recommend checking out the Adventure Series events to get a guided tour of some of the best mountain biking locales in New England.

But please, for the sake of your bank account, be sure to check out the price of that demo for a dose of reality before you take it out for a spin.

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