Tuesday, August 11, 2009


The bummer end to my Indie Series mountain bike racing season has me scrambling to look for something else to finish off the racing year. (Since my DNF at White River garnered me only 1 point, I ended up 8th in the season-long series.) A couple possibilities are the Capitol Forest Classic (www.capitolforest.com/races2009) on September 20, and Winthrop's Fall Bike Festival (http://www.mvsta.com/) Oct. 2 to 4. The cross-country race is Sunday, the 4th. Capitol State Forest got me a-thinkin' about the Seattle Times story I wrote five years ago about mountain biking there with Gary Klein of Klein bikes fame and a bunch of other fine Southwest Washington folks.

Here then, for your enjoyment, is that story:

Southwest Washington's working forests are fertile ground for the knobby-tire set
It's rained much of the weekend, and as we barrel down a wooded tube of muck in Capitol State Forest, splashing through puddles and mud holes 30 feet long, I, oddly enough, find myself contemplating a bisque. A lovely seafood bisque. Perhaps with some basil, garlic, shredded crabmeat and those little shrimp. Yum.

I've got bisque on the brain not just because I'm hungry — it's almost 5 p.m. and we've been mountain biking off and on since 8 a.m. — but because Capitol's clay-rich soil has a reddish tint. Add rain and this Mount Molly Loop trail we're on becomes a slippery, snaking trough of what looks like a thick, creamy red soup. Yum-yum. Except, as I'm finding out again and again, it doesn't taste like bisque. The mud has worked its way through each Lycra layer and polypro piece I'm wearing, saturating every square millimeter of my person (too much information, I know), including the inside of my nostrils and no matter how tight-lipped I am, my mouth. Yuck.
When the four of us stop to regroup, it looks like we've spent the last half-hour hurling ladles of soup at each other. Our faces are speckled with dirty dots — Capitol Forest freckles, I'll call them.

"We're in the stomach of the cow here, boys," says Brian Mahon, 47, an upbeat, tireless rider and talker, who's responsible for today's ride. "It's warm and dreary and wet."
Mahon's marathon
Capitol State Forest is a huge, 90,000-acre public-access playground crisscrossed with hundreds of miles of multi-use trails about 10 miles southwest of Olympia. We're on the fourth and final stage of what I'm calling the Tour de Mahon, fun places where Mahon and his friends mountain bike in Southwest Washington. Mahon, who's a physician's assistant in Castle Rock, about 50 miles north of Portland, calls himself the unofficial trail ambassador of this region.
"Everything down here from I-5 to the coast is my domain," he says, laughing.
Mahon and I began the day near his home with an hour-long ride on private land. One of his neighbors owns a several-hundred-acre private tree farm and lets Mahon — and Mahon only — ride there so long as he does so responsibly.
"It's my own private Idaho," Mahon must've said half a dozen times as we pedaled a mix of forest, clear-cut, and old logging roads, chased by Starry, his black Lab-German shepherd mix.
From there, we met up with several of Mahon's riding buddies at a couple places called Stella Ridge and Growler's Gulch, near Longview and Castle Rock, respectively. They're private land owned by Weyerhaeuser on which non-motorized public use — mountain bikes, horseback riding, hiking — is allowed.
Finally, we ended the Tour de Mahon about 50 miles north of Castle Rock at Capitol State Forest, public land on which everything from motorcycling to ATV riding to mountain biking is allowed. As I'm finding out today, motorized use and rain equals mud.
There's method to Mahon's four-rides-in-one-day madness: to show off the variety of riding in Southwest Washington. And also that the best places to pedal are the vast networks of trails that he and his like-minded friends have created for themselves on private and corporate-owned land that allows public access.

No knuckleheads allowed
"I'm going to try it, Gramps!" says 14-year-old Ryan Handy, eyeing a skinny 285-foot bridge of fallen cedar logs that have been placed end-to-end and which, to an adolescent, appear just itching to be ridden.
"Go for it, Ry-meister!" cheers 54-year-old Ken Roberts, who's Handy's grandfather.

It's stage 2 of the Tour de Mahon, and six of us are riding the Lower Carpal Tunnel Trail at Stella Ridge. On his heavy-duty Cannondale mountain bike, a dual-suspension rig that looks like a motorcycle that's had its engine ripped off, Handy hops onto the foot-high stump holding up one end of the bridge and carefully maneuvers along the 10-inch-wide planks. From time to time, he leans a knee or hip out to the side to maintain his balance; it looks like an invisible something is trying to push him off his bike.
"Way to go, Ry-meister," shouts Roberts.
It's not a big drop if Handy does fall — there are stretches where the planks are on the ground — but it's a fun obstacle (for 14-year-olds) nonetheless. Handy named it "285" because that's how many feet long it is.
Unlike other mountain-bike hotspots where manmade ramps, teeter-totters, and skinny elevated bridges 20 feet high are the rage — and a boon to local orthopedic surgeons — Stella's tricks are au naturel. Roberts, Handy, Mahon and fellow riders Bob Keeney and Jim LeMonds (mountain-bike mutts, they call themselves), who've built most of these trails, will move a downed log here and there to make for a fun trick, or lean an old stump against a rock, but they use no power tools to cut wood or nails to hold things together.

"What gets people in trouble in these places is when they think they have carte blanche and they start building structures and turning it into the X-Games," Mahon says. "All it takes is one knucklehead getting hurt doing some crazy stunt and that shuts it down for all of us."

In riding these private forests, Mahon and company adhere to what they call the FM4 rules — no fires, no metal, no manmade materials, no motors, no MedEvacs. (A couple of these are posted on the Weyerhaeuser sign at the Stella Ridge entrance.) When building trails, they don't just fire up the chainsaw and blaze trail through the forest. Mostly it's a matter of cutting some downed limbs and branches with a pair of clippers and letting old game trails, cat tracks and rail beds re-emerge as they're pedaled over repeatedly.

"I call us the corps of discovery," Mahon says. "Though after a long day of riding we sometimes feel like the corpses of discovery."

Between Stella Ridge and Growler's Gulch, the mutts say they have more than 50 miles of ridable trails. Countless loops, cloverleafs and intestine-like trails through deep, dark woods and open clear-cuts with spectacular vistas. There's everything from wide, mellow logging roads to winding, challenging singletrack through stumps so close you can barely fit a bike between them.
And because no motorized vehicles are allowed on the trails, they remain surprisingly mud-free. We're riding on a Sunday after a downpour-laden Saturday and there's hardly a speck of mud to be found. Which brings us back to Capitol State Forest.

In a rut? That's good
"Ride the rut," Gary Klein says after watching me skid sideways and tip over into a trough of muddy red soup on Capitol's Mount Molly Loop. Klein lives in Chehalis and has joined us for the Capitol Forest stage of the tour. "When you stay in the rut, you're already at the lowest point, so there's nothing for you to fall in to."

The ruts are deep gouges from motorcycles and ATVs, which are allowed on this trail from April through October. Though your natural inclination is to want to stay out of the ruts, gravity and the mud pull you in and when you fight it, you fall. At least I do.

But Klein is a graduate of M.I.T. and the guy who started Klein Bikes, which he sold to Trek in 1995. So when it comes to biking, I think he knows what he's talking about. If he tells me to ride the rut, I'm going to ride the rut. I do — embracing that which I dread — and as we bomb down this slippery hill, I stay upright and in the process gather an alarming amount of speed. Luckily, the borrowed Klein I'm riding has disc brakes, which, even in this muck and mire, can stop on a dime.

It's certainly fun riding but the conditions — the mud and the ruts — are dictating the experience and I feel more like I'm reacting than riding. Perhaps I'm just not hard-core. I find myself longing for the trails back at Stella Ridge, Gobbler's Gulch and even Mahon's private Idaho.

Trails there seem to head off in all directions and there's more a sense of exploratory fun — "What's around the next bend?" — as opposed to, "Man, I sure hope I don't fall." And the fact that the mountain-bike mutts themselves created many of the trails adds to the appeal.
We end the Tour de Mahon as Mahon ends all rides — by breaking out the cupcakes. But not just any cupcakes.

"After a ride, Hostess cupcakes are the food of the gods," Mahon says, tossing each of us a plastic-wrapped, cream-filled belly bomb.

Not bad, I think, taking a bite. Not exactly seafood bisque, but it'll do.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham-based freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at mikemcquaide@comcast.net.

Mountain-biking in Southwest Washington
Getting there

Mount Molly Loop at Capitol State Forest: Take I-5 to Exit 95, about 10 miles south of Olympia. Go west on Maytown Road for 3.6 miles through Littlerock. Turn right on Waddell Creek Road and follow for 3.6 miles to C-Line Road. Go left and follow for 3.3 miles to a wide parking area on the left just before a T-intersection. Pedal the gravel road to the right for about a half-mile to the signed Mount Molly Loop trail on the left.

"Mountain Bike! Southwest Washington: A Guide to Trails & Adventure" by John Zilly (Sasquatch Books) provides trail descriptions for mountain-bike routes in Southwest Washington including Capitol State Forest.
Mountain-bike clubs
These groups offer information and camaraderie as well as organized rides to places such as Capitol State Forest:
Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club, Seattle www.bbtc.org/
Single Track Mind Cycling Club, Milton www.stmcc.org/
Capital Bicycling Club, Olympia www.capitalbicycleclub.org/

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