Course Recon - Red Wing's Memorial Trail, Crap Rock, and Listening to Stairway to Heaven

6:03 AM

I was 12 years old, tired of practicing Bach’s Inventions for my piano teacher, and desperately looking for something fun to play.  Before my lesson at Schmidt Music one Thursday evening, I shyly sidled up to the counter at the store and asked, “Do you have sheet music for Stairway to Heaven?” not knowing that is was, by then, one of the most established clichés of a crap rock song ever recorded.  Seriously.  I thought I was the only person in the world who knew about Stairway. 


There it goes - up and up and up
Fast forward…um…several years and I am once again face-to-face with Stairway to Heaven, but this time it is a rock strewn, technical uphill that kicks my ass every lap on Red Wing’s Memorial Trail.

Trail section names are a confusing business around here.  You generally have no idea what inspired the moniker for that particular portion of the trail.  Ape Hanger?  Gets Tight?  Dream II?  Who knows where these came from.  Red Wing’s Memorial Trail has sections named after classic rock songs: All Along the Watchtower, Radar Love, Southern Cross, and the aforementioned Stairway.  Unfortunately, this means you are likely to be cruising the course whilst humming a horrible song.  Just this past Sunday I spent two hours with Clapton’s “Layla” stuck in my brain, when I would much prefer a good punk rock song to bang about with. 

But back to the trail – we made the trek down with a few teammates to check out the next Minnesota Mountain Bike Series course.  It is definitely worth the hour’s drive south of the cities to ride this trail, as it presents an awesome loop of well maintained single-track, some excellent downhill sections (including a dedicated downhill course), and enough technical elements to keep even the expert mountain biker in our group entertained. 

Rocks, rocks, and more rocks
And then I get to Stairway.  Pictures don’t do it justice, in my opinion.  You enter through a sharp right turn that takes you directly into a steep, extended climb that goes straight up the bluff.  On top of this you throw rocks, roots, more rocks, and oh yeah, more loose rocks.  This hill challenges me because it goes right for my technical weak-spot: balancing and using body English through a feature.  A typical experience on Stairway begins with me entering the turn with too little speed, rear wheel spinning randomly, front wheel popping up, and ends with an awkward fall (hopefully) in the grass, but usually on top of one of those pointy rocks.

I don’t have what the Spouse calls the video game mentality.  Last year when we spent the weekend riding Memorial, he announced he wouldn’t leave until he had ridden the entire hill.  And he didn’t.  Me?  I made a good 5 – 10 attempts before getting frustrated, declaring the hill stupid, and heading off to have more fun on other parts of the trail. 

On Sunday, however, he and I headed back to Stairway for more practice.  The stars were perfectly aligned – the Spouse was in the advice-giving mood, and I was open and ready to listen.  Rather than just going up the hill again and again hoping for a random success, we took a look at what I was doing and compared it to what the Spouse was doing. 

I’d love to say that this lovely story ended with me successfully riding Stairway, but it didn’t.  The damn hill actually gets steeper and rockier at the top.  But I was able to identify specifically what I need to do to take some of the randomness out of my attempts:

The Spouse making it look easy...
  1. Relax the arms.  I have a tendency to try to use my arms to pull myself up a hill.  This, of course, means my front wheel is constantly popping up.  To keep the wheel down and rolling, my arms need to be loose and relaxed.
  2. Let the front wheel find its own way.  I used to be convinced that there was an ideal line that would take me up Stairway if I could only find it.  As a consequence, I would fight my bike and try to steer where I wanted to go rather than let it find its own way.  Last year I learned in cross that you ride sand by letting the front wheel pick the line – same goes for extended technical climbs like this.
  3. Get low and get forward.  Mastering the 26er is going to make me a much better bike handler because I have to move all around the cockpit in response to various features.  With climbing I need to get my torso low, low, low.  Basically kiss the handlebars.  I also need to get more forward on the tip of the seat to balance over the bottom bracket – providing stability and a grounded rear wheel.
So, no complete ascent of Stairway yet, but I did get farther than ever before – and with more confidence! 

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