Here On Planet Granite

Cross-country: White Mountains, New Hampshire

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Cathedral Ledge

On the brink: edging along Cathedral Ledge

Kayakers scout rapids, climbers scout routes, and telemark skiers scout lines. Mountain bikers rely on momentum. Or at least that's what I tell myself as I drop off a muddy knob roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle into a shallow stream of algae-slick babyheads three-quarters of the way up the Dickey Notch Trail. You know babyheads, the small, round granite boulders that litter trails throughout New Hampshire but are most prevalent in White Mountain National Forest, where I'm riding right now. Dry babyheads are no problem; a standard suspension fork will gobble them up like butter ("buttah" to a Yankee). Wet babyheads, though, are a big problem, especially when you hit them with momentum.

I should have scouted. My front tire slips off the first greasy skull, turns sideways, and wedges itself under the jawbone of greasy-skull number two, instantly terminating my bike's momentum. My motion, however, continues. I gracefully breaststroke over the bars, click effortlessly out of my pedals, and auger my face and shoulders into the mud of the opposite bank—a process referred to in mountain-biking circles as "taking a soil sample."

With blackflies feasting on the back of my neck, and the bones in my shoulders slowly squirming back into their sockets, I realize why I love riding in the Whites: It's a constant challenge. Wide-open Western terrain allows riders to take their eyes off the trail and gaze dreamily at wildflower meadows. Try that in the dense hardwood forests of central New Hampshire's White Mountains and you'll be gazing dreamily under heavy anesthesia at the surgeon trying to salvage what's left of your spleen. (Two local off-roading brothers I know have broken six collarbones between them.) It's the only place I've ridden where it's common to crash on the way up; climbs are relentless white-knuckle grunts up loose pitches spiderwebbed with roots that never seem to dry. If your front tire isn't perfectly square when you hit one, you'll go down mousetrap-fast. Descents tend to track straight down because New Hampshire soil is so rock-infested that it's nearly impossible to carve switchbacks into the hills.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that there are 700 miles of bikeable trails in this 1,250-square-mile backcountry, part of a massive system of single- and doubletracks between Plymouth to the southwest and Conway to the northeast. But the best rides in the forest are in the Pemigewasset Ranger District just north of Plymouth. Short sections of dirt roads connect trails that usually wind through notches, New England­speak for narrow valleys or passes. And even though this wooded nexus is just two hours north of Boston, seeing any people at all among the white pine, paper birch, and sugar maple is a rarity. Hikers prefer the steep, open granite of the higher peaks, terrain that mountain bikers usually avoid because it involves long hike-a-bike sections.

A word of caution: Ridge rides that gain elevation rapidly tend to be extremely technical and grueling. A seven-mile loop on such terrain may take as long as two hours and always leaves one bruised, bloodied, and bonked. It's such a rugged topography that equestrians generally don't bother. "You could probably pack a horse in," a friend once explained to me, "but you'll pack out the meat."

Prostrate among the babyheads, feeling as though my meat is already half-packed, I crawl to my knees and drag my bike out of the ditch. Within ten revolutions, momentum returns and carries me, dependably, on up the trail. Maybe I'll try a different line tomorrow.

The Dirt: The regional Forest Service (603-536-3373), which oversees WMNF, welcomes mountain bikers, and even produces a map of the Pemigewasset's most popular rides ($4; 603-744-9165), including the Dickey Notch Trail. Parking passes are required at WMNF trailheads: $7 buys a seven-day pass; $20 covers your car for the year. Order one a few weeks before you go, or stop in any U.S. Forest Service office and buy one.

Cannondale F900 SX

VITALS: $2,700; 800-245-3872;
WEIGHT: 3.8 pounds frame, 25.4 pounds complete
FRAME: Butted, oversize aluminum tubes
FORK: Long-travel single-sided Lefty DLR (100mm of travel)
COMPONENT HIGHLIGHTS: Coda Expert Disc Brakes for antilock, wet-weather stopping THE RIDE: If you aren't keen on getting eaten alive on tight root-and-rock-infested East Coast singletrack, you'll want a hardtail with short overall measurements for quick steering and a high bottom bracket to clear all those bony obstacles. The F900 SX fits the bill. But what's with that freaky fork? Conventional long-travel shocks would be the last thing you'd want here because they're heavy and they pogo on climbs. The Lefty is a long-travel design that works, saving weight by amputating a leg and fighting pogo with a lockout lever that you can turn while riding. Lock the suspension for climbing, open it for descending, or leave it half-cocked for rollercoastering. The F900 SX also has a suspension seatpost, which helps you stay seated on technical climbs.


VITALS: $2,800 (frame only); 423-238-5530;
WEIGHT: 3.1 pounds
FRAME: Rare, light, and strong 6AL/4V titanium tubes
FORK: Featherweight, air-sprung RockShox SID SL Race (63 or 80mm of travel)
THE RIDE: Titanium has a dirty little secret, and it is this: The stuff can act seriously spongy when you pour on the power. To eliminate any frame flex in their new Tanasi, the Ti-meisters at Litespeed have transformed its round tubes into laterally stronger shapes—squarish for the downtube and decagonal for the seat tube. This is no small achievement considering that those tubes are a 6AL/4V alloy, which is stronger and lighter than the 3AL/2.5V stock used in "cheap" Ti bikes but very difficult to manipulate. Litespeed's own little secret is "cold-working" the tubes—carving and cutting them at temperatures that are far below normal, eliminating the use of excessive heat, which weakens the metal. So much painstaking work results in a frame that won't cower under hard pedaling yet that maintains titanium's trademark comfort. All of which makes the Tanasi easily worth the extra two grand. Right, honey? —ANDREW JUSKAITIS