Monday, September 30, 2013

The Forest Shortcut

Downhill Lake
"You'll not find much there!" 

I am intensely focused on picking and consuming blackberries at the edge of the woods and the elderly voice behind my shoulder startles me. The man, in his 80s, leans on a walking stick and shakes his head sadly. 

"Two ladies just come through with big buckets you see. Took every last one so they did."  

The blackberries had indeed been suspiciously sparse that evening. But I could still find those juicy few that evaded the buckets, some high up, others hidden deep in the hedge. Quickly I grab a couple and reach my hand out to the man - nearly tripping over my bike in the process, which I forget I am still straddling. He shuffles toward me and critically inspects, then accepts my offering. 

In the lingering twilight, we now stand side by side facing the hedge. I scan the vines for remaining berries, then point to them so that he can pluck them himself. He is smiling now, satisfied, although still shaking his head and muttering "buckets" under his breath, in disbelief over the ladies' behaviour. 

"You get all sorts coming through here." 

You do get all sorts coming through here - most recently, me. There is a forest and a series of smaller wooded clusters that start down the road, stretching along the side of the mountain. What started out as a shortcut home soon turned into dedicated rides with deliberate detours. And so within a week's time I went from "not needing" a mountain bike, to suddenly being unable to imagine myself without one. 

The local forest is like an amusement park, where you get to select your desired level of difficulty or excitement. There are tame trails, with only some mud and loose gravel to challenge you. There are steep up and down stretches with tight turns, the surface all slippery rock with sleek autumn leaves strewn on top for good measure. There are marshy parts. There are flights of uneven stone steps carved into cliffs god knows how long ago and now crumpling. There are lakeside singletrack loops requiring precise control and a bit of luck to not end up in the water. Choose your adventure. 

In many ways, I feel like I'm back to where I started when I was first writing this blog: out of my element, hardly knowing how to ride the bike I am on, and understanding very little about it. Once again, my cycling style is a two-wheel equivalent of a stroll. "Shredding" I am not. But oh my god, I can ride through a proper forest, and it is gorgeous here, and I feel like an explorer in a new land on an indestructible all-terrain monster of a vehicle that is also silent and pleasant and moves at just the right speed, and I'm so happy to be on it. Am I "mountain biking" or just riding through the woods? Honestly, it doesn't matter. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Blue Skies from Pain

What is it like to ride here? I never quite know what to say. Because, you see, it is so distinct, and at the same time it is more about a feeling than about the landscape or the weather or the road conditions. If I close my eyes and try to evoke the experience of it, the thing that comes to mind is tunnels. The winding narrow farm roads with their tall hedges form a maze at the edge of the Sperrin mountains, and navigating through it - always climbing or descending, always either going around a bend or just about to - is a unique form of meditation. There is a pressure and an intense concentration to it, and at the same time a release and a complete lack of focus. 

The back roads here have some peculiarities, and one of them is the reverse dip. The road is convex, with the center forming a ridge and the sides sloping down toward the gutters. I have heard several explanations for why this is so. One is that the roads were made this way to begin with, to facilitate drainage. Another is that heavy farm machinery has deformed the surface over the years. Whatever the reason, one soon learns to keep off that central ridge - in particular while descending. The ridge is wide enough for a tire, but there is something wrong there - a slickness, or maybe some Twilight Zone force - that makes the bike behave unpredictably should you allow it to drift to the center of the road while cornering sloppily. This adds an extra layer of excitement to the already wild descents. 

One of the things I love about Northern Ireland is the weather. People laugh when I tell them this, but I am not joking. Both physically and mentally I thrive in these damp, chilly, overcast conditions, under these temperamental skies. When I cycle over the mountain with the dark clouds so low I can almost touch them, and the mist so palpable the moisture gathers on my face, I can feel my mind emptied and my emotional palate cleansed and my limbs gone weightless and free. The road and I dip and rise and twist together, maybe even breathe together. Everything is at peace with everything else as I float, painlessly, through and over and under it all. None of this happens in the sunshine. It just doesn't. And so on warm sunny days I will, more likely than not, have a rest from the bike. 

Yesterday was such a day, and in the morning I was walking home along a footpath through a wheat field at the back of the village. In the distance a tractor circled. Moving slowly and with an air of purpose, it gobbled up loose piles of hay, spitting out perfect round bales. The farmer was literally making hay while the sun shone, and maybe it was the scorching 20°C heat gone to my head after a week of bleak winter weather, but this realisation hit me so profoundly that I had to sit down to really take it in. I leaned my back against one of the hay bales, which was heavy and enormous and rough-textured. Then I went on a mountain bike ride through the forest, seeking shade and that soothing feeling I get from a place where everything is covered in moss. 

On an overcast day, sometimes the sky will be dark down low, with patches of bright blue peeking out up higher. One afternoon I was pedaling up a tedious climb through a tunnel-like road and, about 6 miles in, just when I thought it was over I went around yet another bend only to find that the pitch grew steeper still. As I felt the intense pain in my legs, I looked up over the wall-like hedge and was blinded by a bright cerulean opening in the cloud cover. A light at the end of the tunnel. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Cyclist's Dwelling

Bike in da House
When I talk to cyclists who have recently moved or are looking to move house, most admit that bikes influence the location and layout criteria for their new place. Usually this admission is made sheepishly, with some embarrassment that cycling plays such a prominent role in their lives. Me, I don't bother to be embarrassed anymore. Cycling is not the most important thing in my life, but it is up there. It is also more intertwined with the other important things now than it was before. And it is crucial to my sanity. It follows that any place I live must be bicycling friendly.

As far as location, this can mean different things for different types of cyclists. For some it means being in the middle of a city with good bicycle infrastructure. For others it means being close to good roadcycling - hilly country roads, or networks of dirt roads, or mountain bike trails. For others still the ideal cycling location is climate dependent. And for others, it's dependent on proximity to clubs, races, randonneuring groups, "cycle chic" get-togethers, or other types of cycling-specific communities. Of all these things, for me it is easy access to good back roads and dirt roads that is on top of the list. While I love a city with good infrastructure and loved living in Vienna for that reason, I know that I can also function without it with fairly little stress. And while I appreciate a close-knit cycling community, at heart I am a loner and do just as well on my own. But when it comes to access to open roads, it's more than a matter of liking it or appreciating it, it is a matter of needing it. Living on the edge of town in Boston (rather than deeper in the city) is wonderful, because it allows for easy escape from the congested urban tangle. And living in rural Northern Ireland is a dream, because a network of country roads starts straight out the front door. I would not do well living in an area without easy access to good roadcycling.

As far as the layout of a house or apartment, I am pretty easy: I like a ground floor entrance for dragging my bike out the door. While I joke about having a farm with a bike shed, in reality I am quite content to cram my bikes into a small apartment space. But I do want to be able to roll my bikes out the door with the minimum amount of stairs and narrow hallways. As it is, I am covered in bruises from the narrow hallways in my current place - never failing to hit myself on the shin with a pedal or on the thigh with a brake lever whilst getting my bike out the door. 

For someone who loves bicycles, I am unusually indifferent to "bicycle art" - cycling themed photos, paintings, sculptures, housewares and such. But I do tend to have bike parts and tools lying around in a way that they become integrated into the very fabric of the house. After two weeks in my current place, my roadbike looks wonderfully at home leaning against the book case. And the random bike parts scattered throughout look natural mixed with the household objects and appliances. It's funny, because I only have one bike in the house right now (okay, and one more out on the porch), but somehow the place still has that "bikes live here and they are important" feel to it.

Grabbing Desdemona, I roll her out the door, and - cursing affectionately as I bang my ankle lightly on the derailleur - I pedal away and head for the hills, thankful for the quiet, cloudy Sunday morning, for the emerald green sea, and for the warm tiny place that awaits me and my bike upon our return.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

NFS Chainlube: Rain or Shine

NFS Chain Lube/ VS Still Life
2,000 miles. That's about how long it took for my chain to need lubricating again after I applied this stuff earlier in the summer. I should specify that all of those miles were done in "4 seasons in a day" Northern Ireland, a good percentage of them in overshoe-worthy rain over gritty, filthy, crumply chipseal farm roads. 

In the past several years I have used a number of chain lubricants, pretty much the usual suspects you'll see in bike shops. Most of them have worked splendidly in good weather, and anywhere from decently to poorly in bad weather and gritty road conditions. What makes the NFS Chainlube stand out for me, is that it truly excels at the latter. Not only does it take longer to wear off in the rain, but it somehow attracts less grit and sand than the Other Brands I've used.

I should note that I am generally not big on bicycle chain maintenance. I don't go by any kind of schedule and only oil my chain when it starts making noise. In stretches of good weather, it can be a long time before a chain needs re-lubricating. The trouble is my penchant for cycling in bad weather. There have been times I've ridden in conditions where my chain has needed maintenance after a single sub-100K ride. That has not happened since I switched to the NFS Chainlube. This product goes on light, and fairly little of it is needed. This, in combination with how long it lasts, makes a $15 bottle go a long way.

NixFricShun Chainlube (NFS for short) is a product brought to you by the framebuilder-oriented cycling forum Velocipede Salon and it comes with a backstory. It's a fine story, but I won't focus on it here, because I feel it muddies the point. Point being, that this chainlube does not need a story, cause, or hip affiliation to help sell it. Though initially I bought this product to support Velocipede Salon, once I used it I became a convert. Then I bought a couple more bottles to give as gifts, and the cyclists I've given them to have become converts as well. Rain or shine, with an emphasis on the former, for me this stuff has gone the extra mile.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Driving As a Cyclist

Pickup Truck Reflections
Until last week I had not been behind the wheel of a car since 2007. But I knew this day would come - the day I would want to drive again. 

Over my years as a driver, the cars I've owned have always had automatic transmission - I never learned how to drive manual. When I mention this to an Irish friend, he shakes his head and roars with laughter. "Automatic!" He says it as if the word itself, used in relation to cars, is amusing in its absurdity. "Automatic?! Okay, so you never learned to drive properly in the first place. Well come on - I'll learn ya!"

And just like that, I am in the driver's seat. I feel ready for this, looking forward not only to being behind the wheel after such a long time, but specifically to trying the manual gear-shifting. And the funny thing is - this enthusiasm comes from being a cyclist, not in spite of it. 

The 8 mile stretch of Benone Beach is like an unpaved extension of the road. Cautiously I maneuver the rickety Saab along the sand, my left hand on the gear shift knob, my senses heightened, trying to listen to the engine's sounds and feel the give in the clutch.

Things do not go as badly as I thought they might. I am not stalling out. I press the correct pedals. My hand is getting used to the positions of the gears, so that I can shift without looking. Operating the gear box makes sense, having gotten used to the concept and feel of gears on the bike. When the gear is too high, the car makes a straining noise - not unlike a cyclist grinding along at a painfully low cadence. When the gear is too low, the car feels as if it is spinning out, unable to pick up speed efficiently. It is not a perfect analogy by any means, but it is just enough to make sense. And I can feel that with some practice this will become intuitive.

I think of driving now differently than I did 5 years ago. Cycling is a very physical activity, and it has made me more viscerally aware of the mechanics involved in operating a vehicle. I think of driving as a serious skill, rather than a perfunctory action. When in the passenger's seat I now find myself more aware of the driver's technique and degree of control under different road surface conditions and speeds. Having worked so hard to learn how to handle my bike on winding mountain roads, I appreciate the handling skills involved in operating all vehicles - be they motorcycles, tractors or cars. Some of the people I know here are extremely skilled drivers, and I must admit that riding with them is exciting. I am impressed with the smoothness and precision with which they operate their complicated, heavy 4-wheel motorised vehicles. And if I do drive myself, I aspire to aim for the same degree of proficiency.

Monday, September 16, 2013

No Ride Too Short?

Ready to Ride
You know how these things go. You get ready for a ride. You get dressed, fill the water bottles, top up the air in your tires, stuff your phone, money and snacks into your pockets, drag your bike outside. 

You're excited, because maybe it's been a while. Like maybe you've had the flu and moved house all in the same week. Like maybe life has been nothing but chaos, and your lungs have been filled with fluid, and you've been lying on the couch in a bleak coastal village in Northern Ireland with the wind howling outside, wondering what will become of you now and weeping into your mug of Ovaltine whilst watching that trippy advert of hedgehogs enjoying a pizza on Sky TV (they took medication to manage their lactose intolerance, and now they are so happy, so happy). And you've been missing your bike with a feverish madness, running your fingers along its sleek top tube with longing on your way from sofa to bathroom and back. 

But those dark times are in the past now. Because you're finally feeling good and you've managed to get it together to make time for this ride, and you're ready to go. You've maneuvered your bike through the maze of tiny rooms and awkward doorways and narrow hallways in your new dwelling (which is the antithesis of open-concept in design - a fact you normally love, except when it comes to getting the bike out of the house). And now finally, finally you get out the door and set off.

And a short while later, you come right back. Because this ride just ain't happening. You deny it at first, even though your bike is getting blown all over the road and you see the local air field has cancelled its flights for the day. You deny it even though the skies - blue and sunny above your house - have turned black as soon as you've crossed the railroad tracks. You deny it even as large chunks of hail start to hit your helmet a minute later. You deny it and push on, determined to ride your bike on this day. Only when the wind grows so strong that you are barely moving forward and can hardly stay in your lane around the bends of the A2, do you give in all at once and admit it's over.  

Rolling up to my front door less than 30 minutes later, I ask myself this question. What constitutes the difference between a non-ride, and a very short ride? In that much-quoted tome Just Ride, Grant Petersen assures us that no ride is too short, and I find the idea inspiring. But what are we talking about here - 10 miles, 5 miles, 1.7 miles? Is it a matter of the difference between what you plan to do and what you actually do? Or is it a preparation time to riding time ratio?

Well, no matter. Because damn it, I am calling this one a ride. It was certainly short, but it had a bit of everything: climbing, descending, epic weather, ruddy cheeks, exhaustion, even a tiny patch of dirt. So why not. I will leave the big miles for next time, but for now I am just glad to be back in the saddle.

Monday, September 9, 2013

On Cycling, Clothing and Skin Sensitivities

Moore's of Coleraine
When discussing athletic cycling clothing, or even dressing for the bike in the context of utility cycling, I will occasionally mention being sensitive to certain fabrics. Because of this I get lots of questions from readers who are in the same predicament. There are those who find themselves unable to wear cycling apparel typically available in bike shops. There are also those who find that the fabric in their ordinary, everyday clothing - which was fine for driving and walking in - begins to cause problems once they start getting around by bike. Having had both experiences, here is my perspective after some years of cycling. 

Firstly we all mean something different by "sensitive." Here is what I mean by it: When I wear certain items of clothing, my skin gets easily and dramatically irritated - to the point of rashes, abrasions or even lesions forming in the course of a single bike ride - in areas where the fabric contacts my skin. This does not appear to be a chafing issue, but more like a chemical burn or allergy type of reaction. 

After nearly 5 years, I still cannot pinpoint precisely what causes it in my case. In the beginning, I believed it was "artificial fabrics" on the whole, so I tried to avoid them and wore only natural fabrics (wool, silk, etc.). But over time I learned that it is not a clearcut artificial vs natural fabrics issue. For example, I now know that I can usually wear lycra and spandex directly against my skin without any problems. My earlier assumption that I could not wear lycra was based on the fact that much of the cycling clothing casually referred to as "lycra" is in fact either partly or entirely polyester. It was the polyester I was sensitive to. This theory held true for a while, as I'd try different articles of polyester clothing and inevitably develop rashes. Even those wool/poly blends I usually cannot wear directly against my skin. Then again, one time I wore a jersey that was 100% polyester to which I had no sensitivity, even after a 60 mile ride in the summer heat and humidity. 

Point being, these things can be tricky to figure out, so don't jump to conclusions. If you are sensitive to an article of clothing, it could be the fabric, but it could also be the dye, or some surface treatment used on the fibers, or some other factor entirely, or a combination of everything - including how these things interact with your unique body chemistry, and in particular, sweat (the latter would also explain why you might be entirely fine with certain fabrics when sitting around at the office or walking to and from the car, but not once you start pedaling and working up a bit of a sweat).  

So, what do you do if you have skin sensitivity to cycling clothing? My first suggestion would be to eliminate chafing as the culprit. If your clothing is either too loose or too tight, this could cause abrasions from chafing that might be mistaken for skin sensitivity - I have seen it lots of times with local cyclists. 

Once you are certain chafing is not the issue, pay attention to the clothing labels and see whether an obvious pattern emerges. Experimenting with fabrics is expensive, but many shops' return policies now are amenable to exchanges after items have been worn. And to determine whether it is the dye or surface treatment you are sensitive to, try washing the garment before wearing it again and see what happens. I recently tried some cycling-specific trousers that gave me a rash when I first wore them, but no longer caused that reaction after I put them through the wash a couple of times based on a friend's suggestion. And finally, for what it's worth, I think avoiding artificial fabrics remains a valid tactic. 

Some of us can wear anything on the bike and don't see what the problem is. Others are frustrated by wasting money on clothing that irritates. Hopefully over time we figure out what works for us and what doesn't. In the meantime, there is always the second hand market - and trading clothing with friends!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Danny Boy

From Glen to Glen
When we moved to the US in the early '90s, I promptly started junior high school in a small New England town. The first thing I remember about walking into the classroom, was the shock of green cardboard shamrocks strung up all over the walls and a large banner declaring "Erin Go Bragh." (That's not how you spell it, a friend from Cork would later wrinkle her nose. But never mind.) Our teacher was fiercely Irish, as were at least half of the students. Second or third generation mainly, and, truth be told, most of them ethnically mixed. But Irish identities had a way of dominating in those days - when the economic boom had not yet hit the Emerald Isle, when South Boston still had romantic notoriety, and when House of Pain's Jump Around played several times a day on MTV. Most chose to express this identity through visual iconology: shamrocks, leprechauns, bright kelly green, friendship rings, and abundant use of faux-celtic fonts. But soon fate brought the opportunity to also express it musically.

In those days, our school had a rather famous a cappella choir, led by our passionate and popular music teacher, Mr. McKenna. It wasn't just anyone who could join this elite group. There were limited spots. The annual tryouts involved weeks of preparation from hopefuls and bitter tears from those who did not make it. But those of us who made it... my goodness, we felt special. In the mornings, we went to choir practice instead of home room. We wore beautiful uniforms. We stood side by side, in a tight formation on metal risers. Labeled a strong Soprano, I still remember my place: 3rd row, 5th from the right. Our choir recorded albums. Our choir preformed in competitions and won. Once a year we even travelled to compete in the national finals, inevitably returning with medals.

We were one of the best, Mr. McKenna would tell us, again and again, beaming at our fresh-scrubbed teenage faces, our teary eyes and our chapped lips from hours of singing. And we were one of the best because we worked at it. Because we rehearsed until each piece was perfect. And if it wasn't perfect (his face would turn serious now, almost stormy), we did not perform it. Not at a local Christmas concert, and certainly not at competition. Was that understood by each and every one of us? It was.

The national finals happened in May. Competing choirs would select their performance pieces in September, then spend the entire school year rehearsing them. The year I entered the 8th grade, Mr. McKenna gathered us to announce the competition selection with an air of festivity: For our main piece, we would be singing Danny Boy. As he distributed the sheet music, it was clear that the piece was very, very dear to him.

With tears in his eyes, Mr. McKenna talked about Ireland. How beautiful it was and how special his visit there with his wife and children had been - a place where his great grandfather had once lived and farmed. Later, as we struggled with the song, he talked about visualising the glens and imagining Danny Boy's plight. We tried our best, although most of us did not know what glens were exactly.

It was a beautiful, but complicated piece. Or maybe the arrangement Mr. McKenna had chosen was complicated, his judgment clouded by a reverence for the song's Irishness. Overly nuanced harmonies, notes held too long for our young lungs, sharp transitions from low notes to high. We were a good choir, but we were amateurs. We were a motivated bunch of kids, but we only had so much energy to give, after our classes and homework and turbulent teenage love-lives.

In fairness, we were doing fine with Danny Boy. We were getting there. But for Mr. McKenna's liking, we were not getting there fast enough. So he panicked, and he pushed us. With passionate pep talks and hours of extra rehearsals, he pushed and he pushed. He pushed until the melody of Danny Boy began to sound like nails against a chalkboard to our ears. He pushed until the lyrics lost all meaning and each repetition felt like a seizure-induced loop. He pushed until, instead of inspiring a breakthrough, Mr. McKenna broke our spirits.

Having come down with the flu, I did not join the choir in that year's finals. I did not witness the mass hysteria and weeping after, for the first time in its 12 year history, our choir failed to earn a medal at the competition. I only saw my peers' dejected faces when they returned home empty handed. I only saw the careless wrinkles in their uniforms at our next local performance and the way they slouched on the risers, with Mr. McKenna not bothering to chide us for either transgression.

We never talked about it. But deep down we all connected our choir's fall from grace with this attempt at a perfect rendition of Danny Boy. The piece was simply too personal, too precious for Mr. McKenna; he gave in to the rawness of his emotions and lost perspective. The following year, when I was already in high school, we heard that Mr. McKenna stepped down as music teacher and moved away. We were told he had health problems, and there were whispers of a nervous breakdown. It was not until years later that we learned he divorced his wife of 30 years and married one of his former students (by then a high school graduate, aged 19), which prompted parents to call for his resignation.

I have not thought about any of this in years. But I think about it now, in the mornings, as I lock up my bike in the town center of Limavady, Northern Ireland. There is a contemporary sculpture next to the cafe where I like to work. It is vaguely glen-shaped, in an abstract sort of way, and engraved with the lyrics to Danny Boy. Across the street is the colourful Corner Bar, its walls painted with murals containing more references to the song. And a helpful inscription explains the connection: "It was in Limavady that the famous melody 'Danny Boy' was noted down by Jane Ross from a tune played by a blind street fiddler named Jimmy McCurry." The original name of the melody was actually Londonderry Air, written by Englishman Frederic Weatherly. But never mind. It's been 20 years since I sang Danny Boy and I still remember the lyrics.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Mountain Bikes... Approaching the Beast

Carrera Kraken Mountain Bike
Of all the lakes in the vicinity, I had to fall in love with the one on top of a mountain, accessible only via a steep rough gravel road. I have been up there in a car with friends a few times now. But what I really want is to be able to go on my own - ideally without motorised help. My tentative plan was to ride up the paved part of the mountain on my roadbike, then hike the remaining 2 miles up the gravel lake road - either leaving my bike hidden in the woods below or dragging it along. 

"Or..." said my friend Keith, "I can lend you my mountain bike, and you can ride all the way up through the woods."

Quickly I began to mutter something about it being too much trouble, but Keith saw right through that and laughed. "No it's not, we ride the same size bike. Lower the saddle and off you go." 

Damn. Quick, say something to make this sound like a bad idea, I thought. But I could come up with nothing, other than the truth - that I feared the mountain bike. That I would rather sit through a root canal than have to ride one 6 miles up a winding forest path with 1,500 feet of climbing, and then - gulp! - back down. 

Carrera Kraken Mountain Bike
But I said none of these things. And two days later I found this propped against the side of the house when I came home. 

So... Oh my God, I don't know where to start. Beefy aluminum frame, suspension fork, 2" knobby tires, narrow straight handlebars, disc brakes, and a drivetrain with a triple crankset and thumb shifters. The bike is a Carrera Kraken - an inhouse brand of the UK department store Halfords. However, this is not a "department store bike," as the concept is known in the US. According to locals in the know, Halfords actually sells very decent quality budget road and mountain bikes. Keith's bike is a good few years old and everything is a little rusty - though it all works fine.

Carrera Kraken Mountain Bike
The bike is a Small (16" frame with a 56mm virtual top tube) and the fit feels pretty good to me. I wouldn't mind it if the handlebars were a tad lower, but what do I know about mountain bike sizing (how upright are you supposed to be?).

What took the most getting used to was the super-high bottom bracket. I kept playing around with the saddle height and it took me a while to set it properly; I couldn't believe how high I had to make it in order to get good leg extension. Being on the bike felt a little strange at first as well - so high off the ground! The disc brakes are insanely grippy, especially the front, but modulating them became intuitive with some practice. Slowly, the fear began to turn to curiosity.

Carrera Kraken Mountain Bike
I spent an easy afternoon with the bike, just trying to get to know it and get comfortable with the idea of riding it. There is a back road with some steep pitches just outside my door, as well as woodsy stretches of dirt, gravel and grass I could try. Skeptical that on a bike this beastly-looking I could handle the long steep climb up to the lake, one thing I wanted to do was see how it went uphill. As it turned out, not bad - even on pavement, with those knobby tires. The gearing is low enough to climb a fairly steep pitch seated, so I don't have to worry about stalling out. Standing up on the pedals feels different than on a roadbike - like I have to heave myself forward more forcefully to get my butt off the saddle - but once I got used to it, it was fine. And descending felt much, much nicer and less scary than I anticipated - the bike has an easy, tame feel to it when going around bends.

So... I think I am ready to try riding this thing to the lake and back. The path through the woods is winding dirt for the first part (with roots and things, but nothing too bad), then loose rough chunky gravel for the final stretch. There is nothing technical there, so if I can take 6 miles of straight climbing on a mountain bike and then not get scared and do anything stupid on the descent, I should be fine. And look: I will be using this bike for transportation to the lake, not for "mountain biking" as such, so please don't think this is the beginning of an interest in mountain bikes. I mean, that would be crazy.