Saturday, February 5, 2011

August Arctic Valley Ride

Just outside of Anchorage is a ski area called "Arctic Valley".  The road to Arctic Valley is a winding gravel road that technically is a part of Ft. Richardson, the Army post at Anchorage.  While Ft. Rich proper is a closed base, the road to Arctic Valley is open to the public.  In the summer, Arctic Valley is a popular spot for hiking and picking berries, like cranberries and blueberries.  It was also the first gravel road I took my V-Strom on.  Unfortunately, when I first tried to ride up Arctic Valley, there was still snow on the road a couple of miles from the top.  So, in August, I decided to ride the valley again :)

The day I rode back up to Arctic Valley, the skies were grey and weepy.  I couldn't decide if it was a light rain or a heavy mist, but whichever name you choose to assign to the precipitation, the result on the road was the same: it was very, very wet.  Up to this point, I had pretty much avoided muddy roads, but after 5,000 or so miles this season, my confidence was relatively high, so I pointed the V-Strom up the mountain, and gave a twist to the throttle.

All in all, I was quite happy with the V-Strom's handling on the wet gravel road.  While the stock Bridgestone TrailWing tires didn't feel quite as secure on the mud and gravel as they did on asphalt, the grip was surprisingly similar to what I had experienced on dry gravel: a little squirrely, but not too bad.  Just as on dry gravel and dirt, I stood up on the foot pegs and reduced speed a bit.  I had long ago discovered that decoupling my backside from the bike seems to have an immediate, dramatic and positive effect on bike stability when riding off pavement -- I think I tend to unconsciously overcompensate for every little wriggle of the bike on gravel, making the bike feel less stable than it really is.  When I stand up, those small oscillations are damped by my knees and ankles, and consequently, the bike "feels" more stable.  Whatever the cause, I can comfortably ride about 5MPH faster on gravel when I'm standing than when I'm sitting.

As for the ride itself...well, I love the mountains, and Arctic Valley is no exception.  At the bottom of the hill, just past the Ft. Rich golf course, I noticed a car in the oncoming lane had stopped, and the occupants were peering into the woods that lined the north-east side of the road.  I slowed down, trying to see what they were looking at, and was rewarded by the flash of a bear butt (not a "bare" butt, lol) as a small black bear, startled by the sound of my V-twin engine, disappeared into the woods.  I kicked myself for not having my Oregon Scientific camera, which is semi-permanently mounted on my handlebars, running at the time, but truthfully, I suspect the bear would have been out of the field of view, anyway.  I felt bad about scaring the bear (and ruining the encounter for the occupants of the car), but a stock Wee-Strom is pretty quiet, so I don't know what more I could have done.  I rode very carefully the rest of the trip, watching for bear and moose on the side of the road since both are quite common in this area, but there were no more to be seen.

A mile or so further up the road, I pulled over into a scenic overlook that overlooks Ft. Rich, Elmendorf AFB and Anchorage, and lowered the pressure in my tires a bit.  I typically run at 33-37 PSI on asphalt, but I've found that dropping pressure to about 25 PSI improves the feel of the bike on gravel.
As I lowered the tire pressure and snapped a few obligatory photos of the bike and of the view from the overlook, I was attacked by an angry swarm of hungry no-see-ums.  There are many things I love about Alaska, but the insect life is not one of them. Despite my best attempts to shoo the voracious little monsters away, several still found there way inside my motorcycle helmet, so I quickly jumped back on the bike and rocketed away in an attempt to flush the pests out with a 30 MPH breeze.  Unfortunately, that meant that I had to keep my faceshield open, and did I mention that it was raining?  I had a choice: tiny flying bugs buzzing about my face and ears, or stinging 30MPH rain drops in my eyes.  I chose the rain :)

Another couple of miles later, I reached the parking lot at the end of the road, and stopped to snap a few more pictures before riding back down the mountain.  As I had noticed on my early season trip up the mountain, riding down was a bit more intimidating than riding up the gravel road.

First of all, when riding uphill, if you find you are going a little fast, all you need to do is roll off the throttle a bit, and gravity will take care of the rest.  While the DL650 has remarkably good compression braking (allowing the rider to use the same technique when riding downhill), the effects of rolling off the throttle while riding downhill are subtly -- but critically -- different than when riding uphill.  If you determine that you need to slow down when riding uphill, rolling off the  throttle increases the friction available for cornering because you are no longer using a portion of your friction to propel you up the mountain.  When riding downhill, reducing the throttle (and therefore using engine compression to brake) decreases the amount of friction available for cornering because some of the friction is now being used to slow the bike against the pull of gravity.

At any rate, the V-Strom was sure-footed as ever, lending confidence to what suddenly appeared to be a much steeper downhill grade than the uphill grade I had just ridden a few minutes ago -- even though they were the exact same road :)  Approximately fifteen minutes later, I was west-bound on the Glen Highway, returning home after a fun hour or so playing in the Chugach Mountains.

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