Hard Times A'Comin' : Reflections on a hard-earned year aboard the Serpentine Carbon X
Loren from Astral Wheels reached out last Winter asking if I’ve been riding lately. Wanted someone to test some burly carbon rims for him. With no racing, my riding had wavered. It’s hard to get out in the Willamette Valley swamp when there's little incentive to train. Not that I’m much of a competitive racer anymore. I suppose it’s kinda like that catchy Toby Keith song about growing older, As good as I Once Was. So I was excited for the assignment, the job. It’s hard to be your best self if you don’t have to. Not that I ain’t had plenty of that this past year. I’ve been riding bareback with the cowboys and cowgirls down at the emergency department. I can’t complain. Been plenty to get out of bed for this past year which seems to keep giving. Can’t say it ain’t been hard at times. But then again, I ride for Team S&M. I like doing it the hard way.
Well, I pulled the wheels out of the box. Loren warned me they weren’t light. But he didn’t tell me they weren’t heavy either. They looked stout. I couldn’t stop smiling. Nobody’s ever given me a 2k wheelset with the the task of destructing. Yes, I would be as good as I once was… maybe a few times with these carbon beauts.
I slapped the carbon hoops on my hardtail, leaned it against my crappy ’89 daily driver, stood back and grinned. I chuckle when my bikes are more expensive than my truck. But then again, the truck’s been a reliable clunker for 32 years. Its safety features are outdated, so I get a little nervous driving the I5 gauntlet to work. But there’s something about being a little nervous when I’m driving. It’s like fully committing down my favorite trails. I’m completely tuned in and it feels safer. Well, it feels more normal. It’s stimulating. I’m less likely to make stupid mistakes when I’m attacking the trail than when I’m descending casually or defensively. At least that’s what I tell myself when my truck’s rattling down the highway at 70 mph. And, I can’t help from smiling when passing newer cars or taking on the challenge of navigating traffic lights and congestion with my under-gunned clunker that’s almost as old as I. There’s something to say about it’s resiliency.
Well, I guess that’s why I like hardtails too. They last. They don’t go out of style as fast as their cousin dually. They have less moving parts and crevices to collect grit. They’re easer to clean so they and its parts last longer. I’ve been riding a Carbon Honzo for the past 7 years. It may be my favorite sled of all time. Its been on multi-day tours, road rides, and I can out-descend most any hooligan on my local trails with it. It’s kinda like that truck of mine. Figuring out how to float over the chunky rocks, roots and steep shoots without that modern squish makes me smile. It’s not about being better or worse. It’s about figuring out that with just the right moves, it can and will.
Some chase the POW during the winter months. But I’m a valley boy from the dank Willamette drainage that’s also the mold capital of the world. Winters are my favorite hardtail condition. The speeds are slower, the elements are uncomfortable, and it’s a mess. And if you like Frank and Beans from the show Go Dog Go like my son Walt does, “messes are the best.” Every ride ends with a bike wash. But as long as there’s a beefy tire up front, the dirt surfing is exhilarating. The hardtail feels every bump and slip. The feedback is instantaneous, enabling maximal potential for riding loose and yet just tight enough. My favorite winter tire is a Maxxis Minion up front and a Minion SS in the rear. It’s business in the front for steering traction and a party in the back with side nubs that only hook up when you're sideways. Suppose it’s also my tire combo because I couldn’t find anything better in the shed, but it’s still a party.
It shouldn’t be a surprise my favorite trail is one that’s stood the test of time, South Side Slip. You won’t find it on any trail maps. But any Corvallis Cowtown local can point you in its direction. It starts with a drop-in that gets you up to speed a little too fast before a hard left turn. It’s gotta steep rock garden that I used to wear knee pads on. Every winter the monsoon changes a bolder creek bed that can buck you harder than a bronco. The dips and chicanes are littered with roots. Half way down is a rollable drop and several log rolls that look like trial moves. Just when you think it can’t get any better, you hit a mini booter to splash some flare in the air. It’s one of the OG Mac trails that few can ride. It’s only three minutes, but it’s got all the elements. It’s got enough new flow moves to keep your speed up and yet the old school break chatter descents are still alive and well 30 years later. But it’s just a trail.
I mostly ride bikes to flush my swollen legs and mind after spending all day tripping on my laces while trying to help lead the busiest emergency department between Seattle and the Bay area. The pandemic and politics have been tough on the psyche. A year ago, staff worried they were gonna die coming to work. Doctors were dressed in bunny suits. Masks became the toilet paper shortage. Some hid their fears and others were forced to shed tears. But all showed up. It’s easy to be tough when you stand outside. But the hair on your skin stands a little taller when the door shuts behind you, and it’s just you and the patient who’s dying from some mysterious virus.
And now there are 70 patients in our emergency lobby. Patients line the hallways and fill every nook and cranny. The hospital is full and we’re boarding admitted patients in our department, crippling our ability to care for the other 320 emergency patients that day. The weight of managing patients lives and wellbeing gets heavy when the support feels insufficient. The staff keep getting pushed harder, further, and faster. I dress up like the artist Prince or a creepy serial killer to squeeze out a laugh. But I can’t help being my worst self at times, falling short of what’s needed, arguing with the teammate who just wants more help.
At night my mind races. I get out of bed, pace the kitchen, looking for something that might settle my stomach and ease that anxious low blood sugar feeling. I sit outside on the cool concrete steps, hoping the chill will derail the steam train running through my brain while searching for stars in the sugar gum maples. I think I’ll try lying next to my 3-year-old. I wrap him up against me. He reaches his hand to make sure I’m still there, touching my face which he says is “crunchy like a carrot.” Maybe it’s ill of me to lean on my 3-year-old for relief. To burden him with my anxiety. But I need to fall asleep, or I’ll be in no shape to take on the task of keeping the emergency staff positive and fighting as a team. So they can lean on each other to be their best selves. There’s help coming with travelers and new hires, but until then we’re digging deeper. It seems we haven’t stopped digging deep since this thing all started a year and a half ago. It’s like we’re in the break of a road race that’s fading. We look at each other to see who’s gonna pull through next. We’ve been out front for hours, days, months, years? The stress tears at your capacity to empathize. You can only absorb so many cries for help without an answer before you start crying yourself.
After work I go home to my pregnant wife who’s in her office working since 6AM. She doesn’t stop until 630PM, takes a dinner break, and then she's back for evening meetings from 830 until 11….12… I don’t really know. I’m asleep with Walt in my arms, trying to keep my mind from circling the drain. I need to ride my bike but the baby’s due any moment. The harder it is, the harder you have to love. And if it’s love we seek, then I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I’ve been riding the Astral Carbon Serpentines for the past seven months. I smashed them all Winter on my hardtail and then swapped them onto my Process 134 for Spring and Summer. I’ve rimmed out, pinched flatted, and cased them more times than I can count on my fingers and toes. Rocks, roots, drops, loam, and slop. I ain’t had to touch a spoke to re-true them. I even cracked my frame trying to destroy them. There’s some resiliency built into these rims. I’ve got a feeling they’ll stand the test of time like all my other favorites. After all, it’s not about avoiding conflict to stay alive. It’s about living as hard as you can and striving to increase your capacity to endure conflict. Cheers to more hard times a coming.
Words and photos by Sean Babcock.