The whole biking phenomenon changed the way our family looked at transportation. Mandy and I biked the kids a lot of places most people wouldn’t consider. As a family we’ve biked to and from church on Sunday mornings. We’ve biked to nighttime events. We biked to the start of Stage 6 of the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge. I’ve transported Beanie to the babysitter on my way to work via the Xtracycle. We even did a short family bikepacking trip in Wyoming. I wanted to find a from-the-front-door family bike tour that was feasible. I think we would have done that in Colorado this summer, and I think in Kentucky it’s just a matter of me mapping something novel and doable.
We had this plan to do the recent Powell County Kiwanis Natural Bridge 5k at Natural Bridge State Park in the eastern end of the county. We’ve been running to get ready, and by “we” I mean Mandy. I’ve been primarily riding to condition because I’ve got these stupid mountain bike races coming up this summer.
I hatched this scheme that I would ride my bike to the starting line, run the race, and then ride away in glory and infamy. Well, that didn’t happen. A perfect storm came along and I made the executive decision not to ride to the race, but I did still tentatively plan on riding with Jeff after the race. So I hitched up The One to the undignified position of being hauled on the back of my car. First thing Saturday morning we headed up to the Skylift area where the race was staged.
Jeff’s wife was also planning on running the race. They hauled Jeff’s bike (nickname unknown) to the race and he planned, as did I, of heading straight out afterward for mountain biking glory as our respective running chicas sensibly drove home after the 5k.
However, while Mandy, Casey, and I ran the 5k, Jeff just stood on the sidelines, legs all fresh, cheering for me to RUN FASTER. Haha.
I knocked out a respectable (for me) 28:00 finish. Considering the course has one long hill and is not the zero grade I’ve been training on—and my lack of event specific training—I’m happy with that time. I was third in my age group (35-39) though I could have been second. I just didn’t realize there was another 35-39 year old ahead of me and also the guy my age directly in front of me. I decided since I’d paced the guy in front of me the whole race I wasn’t going to sprint past him at the very end and take first from him. But I should have…
They gave a medal for second and a cool trophy made by a local potter for first. I was third. Next year I’m crushing my age group…wait…next year I’ll be in the 40-44 and those other guys will still be in the 35-39. I got a chance!
Anyway, Jeff was rarin’ to go afterward. I changed into my MTBing garb in the restroom there at the putt-putt golf and we headed out for parts sort-of unknown.
I say “sort-of” because at one time they were 100% known to me. Time has passed and conditions have changed. Jeff and I had scouted the descent into Sand Lick not so long ago, and it almost crushed my soul (as if that were possible), and so I hinted at a run up Sterling Road, the east side of that same ridge that was the fun climb on my go-to bike loop from Slade years ago. I hardly had to mention it before Jefe the Jammer was like, “Let’s do it!” He didn’t know what he was getting himself in to. But I don’t think he cared either.
We pedaled easily up the Graining Block Valley along highway 11 from Slade. Once we reached the turnoff I saw evidence that Uncle Sam had been molesting his charges again…boulders and a huge berm blocked the old pull-off.
To get onto Sterling Road from the highway you first have to cross the creek, either by wading, or by walking across the old I-beam structure of a bridge that’s about fifteen feet above the shallow water. It’s plenty wide enough, but somewhat awkward whilst lugging a mountain bike. I told Jeff if he would just ride across I would immortalize him on iPhone video. He opted not to go for the fame and glory.
Once established on the west side of the Middle Fork of Red River we began tearing it up, blazing up the road toward the crest of Big Bend ridge. Well, that’s what we intended to do. Instead we spent a good long time wallowing over berm & trench barriers (tank traps) that were spaced about 100’ apart for the entire 1.5 mile section. We averaged 1.4 mph on a 6.9% grade. And it wasn’t because my 5k runnin’ behind was slowing us down thank you very much! Nope, tank traps, deadfalls and briar thickets enhanced our mountain biking experience. At one point Jeff said in reference to the popular Skullbuster area (and I totally believe him): “I’d rather be doing this than driving to Georgetown!”
The old road was so overgrown he remarked at one point: “People aren’t even walking in here.”
“Well, except for us mountain bikers,” I countered.
The summit ridge was hard won, and eventually we were cruising along Big Bend Road grinding the gravel unfettered. It had cost us a lot, and it was another cut to the heart of a once hillbilly mountain biker. While Sand Lick seems salvageable, Sterling Road is a lost cause. The damage the Forest Service wreaked in there wasn’t the killing blow, but the neglect over the past few years has made the road almost impassable with obstacles. It would take far too much to bring it back to any kind of usable condition.
However…the day was not lost.
We continued on south out of Big Bend and down from Leeco to Fixer in the Big Sinking Creek drainage. We were headed toward the Pendergrass-Murray Recreational Preserve (commonly known as the PMRP), a tract of land owned by the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition (RRGCC). I was once a member of the Coalition and had been elected to the first Climbers Advisory Council in the history of the group way back in the day.
Some climbers with a predilection to go upon two wheels had planned, designed and built a mountain bike trail near the world famous Motherlode climbing area on Bald Rock Fork. Bald Rock Fork’s confluence on Big Sinking Creek is a few miles south of where we dropped into the valley at Fixer. Jeff and I cranked on down Big Sinking until we reached the mouth of BRF and we then headed up into the heart of the Southern Region (climber parlance).
I had a general idea where the trail was. I didn’t know the exact location, but I knew the area well enough to know where it wasn’t. I found the obscure singletrack fairly easily and Jeff took the lead. It’s a good trail. Oh, it’s not built to IMBA standards, but it’s better than some other “mountain bike trails” I’ve been on in Kentucky. The only pressing criticism I have is that of maintenance/traffic. There’s at least a full fall/winter season of leaves and detritus on the bench. That’s okay; Jeff said he’d go back ASAP and rake the whole thing. I agreed an impromptu, unofficial, volunteer trail day was in order. TBA.
It’s a decent little trail. It’s not a beginner trail, but it’s not ridiculously hard either—evidenced in my being able to ride it.
After an out-and-back run we were faced with a return ride back up Big Sinking, a climb up to the ridge and then a decision: over Pilot to Jeff’s abode or down Middle Fork back to Slade and a call out for SAG?
I didn’t think I had it in me to do the double ridge crossing and traverse of Pilot Road it would take to get to Jeff’s house. I knew if I could climb out of Fixer I could coast most of the way back to Slade. I’d done it before. In my head it seemed like less miles too. But I wasn’t sure.
We parted ways at the bottom of Fixer hill, Jeff heading for home and me heading back to Slade for a rendezvous with my SAG crew. Fixer Hill?
Hey! I’d be getting a Strava segment I’d not expected at the least.
The finish to our 35 mile epic was bittersweet. I was stoked to see a new trail, but bummed that an old classic was destroyed for no good reason.