Category Archives: Biking

Riding the Lithium Trail

I rode Lithium yesterday, a challenging single track just off the Teton Pass in Wyoming. Challenging enough that most mentions of it come with a warning to stay away unless your life insurance is up-to-date. It’s just across the pass from a large ski area, so just imagine a steep ski slope without the groomed runs and without any trees removed. To get there, you have to climb about 1000 feet over 2 or 3 miles, which doesn’t sound like much, except you’re starting at over 7000 feet. By the time you climb the first quarter mile, you’re struggling just to find something to breathe. I’ve been less out-of-breath sprinting up Mt. Tam.

When you reach the summit, there’s a panoramic view over Jackson Hole, and over the steep drop that makes you reconsider whether this is really where you want to be. To create the Lithium trail, someone basically carved the straightest line down the face of the mountain, adding in jumps, boulder drop-offs and pitched turns just to keep it interesting.

Riding, for me, is a metaphor for business. I learn a lot about harnessing my energy, managing risk and taking challenges head on. A trail like Lithium pushes the top of my skill level, and it challenges me in ways that remind me of launching a startup. Lots of people will warn you off, which means you have to embrace things that many people find too risky to consider, and a lot of the time you’re simply on your own. You have to face challenges that you’re not at all sure you can handle, so you have to trust yourself to plow ahead and use what you know to survive. Most of all, you have to know when to back off, when you’re in over your head and need to find another way forward. A twenty-foot drop off a boulder will remind you of that.

And when you do crash and burn, you have to get back on and ride without losing your confidence. There’s still a lot of trail left to ride.

Commit. Launch. Land.

Whenever I’m under pressure I go mountain biking. The combination of physical, technical and psychological challenge involved in climbing steep fire roads and bombing down treacherous single-track clears my head like nothing else. And any time I stop for a breather, I’m looking out over redwood forests and alpine lakes.

The greater the pressure, the tougher the trails I ride. The toughest is a trail I can’t name, but it’s on the back side of a mountain called Loma Alta. It’s some of the steepest and most technical single track around, and it can eat you alive. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve fallen there. Once I separated my shoulder on a stretch of trail that’s little more than a stream of small boulders. Once I broke my helmet after pitching over the handlebars on a root. And once, I got parallel gashes all the way up my back after flipping over and sliding through a rock garden. It’s a lot of fun.

The point of riding trails like this is to constantly face your fears, and to be reminded that no matter how skilled you are, you always have to bring your best game. The moment you get complacent is the moment you lose.

So I returned to this trail a couple of days ago feeling the need to burn off some pressure. Before you even get to the scary parts you have to earn it. It’s a 1500 foot climb to the top over two and a half miles of steep fire road. In the burning sun. With a headwind. You really have to qualify for the opportunity to break your neck.

After dropping into the single track on the back side, it only took a few minutes to come face to face with one of the technical challenges that always makes my heart stop. I mean, there are boulders to climb, there are fallen redwoods to power over, but this is a meat grinder. Imagine riding down a steep trail that loops in and out of trees along the side of a steep embankment above a creek. You’re going about 12-18 miles and hour, and as you come out of a turn and drop down a steep stretch, you come to a huge tree root across the trail. On the other side of the root, there’s a drop off, maybe 2 feet down. As you approach the root, you can’t see the landing, and you’re going pretty fast. When the landing finally comes into view, you’re right on the verge of launching, and it looks like death. Immediately below the drop off is a large and jagged rock, so if you panic and hit the breaks you’re screwed. In order to clear the rock, you have to launch yourself forward, but the right landing point is about a six-inch-wide strip of trail that immediately plows into a rut of loose dirt and gravel on the edge of the embankment. If you miss, you’re going over the side, 20 feet or so down to the creek.

So the long and the short of this exercise? You have to commit, you have to launch, and you have no room for error when you land. Sure, you could get off your bike and walk it past the challenge, and that may be better than breaking your arm, but then what’s the point in coming here?

On this ride, I nailed it. And I went bombing on down the trail swearing like a sailor who just cheated death.

How Social Media Almost Killed Me

I’m an avid mountain biker. Instead of going to the gym, I ride trails. The last time I bought a bike, I built it up piece by piece, meticulously researching every part on the internet. It took me three months to figure out exactly what I wanted, and I read hundreds of pages of blogs, forums and product reviews. This, in fact, was one of my seminal experiences in social media marketing, when I realized first-hand how much control businesses have lost over their brands.

Among the many dozens of web sites I visited, the hundreds of pages I read, the countless dialogs I had on message boards, I almost never visited the web sites of product manufacturers. I didn’t care what they had to say. I didn’t want to hear how they were positioning their new bike, or get spun on their latest technology boondoggle. Anything I wanted to know about bikes I wanted to hear from other riders. Who would trust a company that had just dumped $3M into their latest product upgrade to give you an honest assessment of the product’s weaknesses? I’d rather hear from 20 people who bought the product and can tell me why it sucks. The only information I wanted from a manufacturer was product specs. What are the measurements of a large frame? What’s the diameter of the head tube?

IntenseI wound up building my dream bike and becoming an big believer in the power of social media to transform consumer behavior. Researching products before making a purchase decision is perhaps the most powerful way the internet and social media will reshape commerce. But it can also have its drawbacks if you’re not careful.

Recently I’ve found myself in need of new tires. It’s been an especially dry spring and the trails have become hard, loose and treacherous. Although I’m an avid rider, I’m not really a gear geek. I’m not one those people that’s constantly buying the latest new thing and putting it on my bike. Once I buy or build a bike, I tend to ride it until it’s completely destroyed and then I move on. When it came time to buy new tires, I hadn’t tried every tread pattern or developed any loyalty to a particular brand. So I fell back on my trusted advisor, the Internet. And that’s when I got screwed.

When I went online, I found great deals on tires from a brand I’ve already used, Wilderness Trail Bikes. One tire in particular sounded good for hard, dry conditions, a tire called the Velociraptor. So I went to the product review sites, and low and behold there were 450 reviews for the Velociraptor, rendering an average score of 4.14 out of 5 stars. Impressive. I played out my usual tactic of reading a lot of negative reviews to hear what might go wrong, but the metrics were overwhelmingly positive. So I bought my new tires and put them on my bike.

First ride out, the front tires felt a little loose compared to my old tires. Everything was a little twitchy. I chalked it up to breaking in the new tread and started pushing it harder. And then I ate it. It wasn’t even a tight turn or anything technical. I was just cruising along a straight line of single track and I felt the front wheel slip out. My center of gravity collapsed and then I was ripping through the rocks and dirt on my side. No major damage, just a wide and bloody stripe of trail rash from my ankle to my shoulder.

So I finished my ride and stopped by my local bike shop to talk with one of their mechanics. I walked in and said I needed some insight about tires, and the guy takes one look at my arms and legs, looks at the front tire and just shakes his head. "What are doing with that on your bike? That’s outdated technology." And then he proceeds to point out all the things that have been improved in the years since that tire was invented. In fact, the tire I had replaced with the Velocirapter had been much better, which is why it suddenly felt so uncontrollable. So how did I get steered so wrong by trusting the Internet?

It turns out, if I’d paid more attention to all the tire reviews, they were years old. The site didn’t make that obvious, and honestly I didn’t really think about it. A tire’s a tire, right? But even though there’s much better technology available, Wilderness Trail Bikes is still making bank selling their highly rated and outdated tires at fire sale prices. Not only did that cost me the price of the tire, which I immediately replaced with an up-to-date Kenda Nevegal, but it cost me a lot of skin and pain–and I consider myself lucky.

Social Media is a phenomenal tool for consumers. But it’s not idiot proof. It puts you in the position of being able to learn from the experiences of hundreds of others, which doesn’t exactly make you an expert. The problem is what you don’t know that you don’t know. And that could actually kill you. At the end of the day, I’m still grateful that I can walk into my local bike shop and talk to an expert. Now I wish I’d started there in the first place.

Oh, and I won’t buy another Wilderness Trail Bikes tire. They got me once. Never again.

Update: Okay. I’ve talked to a bunch of tire experts who agree with my assessment of the Velociraptor, but not with my conclusion that I shouldn’t buy another Wilderness Trail Bikes tire. They do make some great tires. I’ll just say their marketing–especially educating buyers about making the right tire choice–could be significantly improved.