NJ Swamp Thing
by Brian Matula
New Jersey isn't known as a mountainbiking state, and there's no point building an offroad fixed gear if there's no place to ride. Unlike the western part of the US, NJ doesn't have great trails that stretch for miles or mountains as far as the eye can see. But we do have a few good trails, here and there. Most of them are only a few miles long, although there are some longer ones. And there are lots of woods, so the adventurous can follow paths used by deer, or even make their own.
Sadly, many trails that local riders have used for years have been discovered by hikers, dog-walkers, and town recreation commissions, all of whom like to keep out the cyclists who use them most. Environmentalists, normally thought of as friends or allies of the offroad biker, are no help either, despite the IMBA's partnering with groups in the green movement. The Sierra Club, for instance, has a policy of encouraging, wherever possible, the limitation or exclusion of bicyclists from the woods.
Nevertheless, it is still possible to find someplace to ride -- if you look hard enough. Luckily for me, there are several small trails within a few miles of my house.
My Centurion is written up elsewhere on this site, so for now I'll just say that it's a comfortable bike with 'cross tyres built on an old midrange roadframe.
My first test ride was on a trail I'd ridden frequently on my mountainbike. I was apprehensive at first, but the bike handled well in the gravel, wet mud, and grassy dirt. I actually felt it was faster than my gearie mountainbike.
The trail had been refurbished since I first began using it. Someone had put in a gravel boat ramp and thrown more gravel over the muddiest spots. Unfortunately, the result was a field of wet gravel. I felt the bike start to slip, so rather than standing up I put my weight further back on the seat and just turned the cranks over. The wheel bit, I felt it throw some gravel, but then I was off and up a short hill.
Following the Passaic River, I rode through a mess of reeds and grassy stalks taller than me, dodging -- and bumping over -- a few tree roots. The traction and constant drive of the fixed gear proved surprisingly nimble off-road. Emerging from the grass I turned and headed through the trees -- saplings mostly, a foot around, maybe less. But among them were real trees, with large roots and deadfall branches that clawed at my spokes. I thanked the kind soul upstairs who looks out for wayward bicyclists that I'd had the foresight to replace my original rear rim with a 36-spoke Mavic Open Pro.
I had to dismount twice for obstacles, ditches, and once a plank bridge some fool had built over a creek. (I recalled hopping that same creek on my BMX when I had fewer years -- and less gut -- under my belt.) I was thankful I'd built my fix on a road frame, as the Centurion was a lot easier to heft than a mountainbike.
My ride came to an end about five feet above the river, on a trail narrow enough to be called singletrack. It continued parallel with the water for a short while before moving away from it. It was getting dark and I had no lights, so, steering clear of the roots, I cut through a yard and past a fence to emergeg on a small sidestreet. The trail continued on the other side of the river and runs all the way to the next town, but the other side was usually rutted from ATV drivers and it was dark.
The next day, I went back to a set of offroad trails I'd recently discovered on a chance excursion. Sadly, the warm December had thawed the ground and thick mud, almost like quicksand, made part of the trail impassable. But I was able to test the Centurion going up and down a brief hill and some nice flattish areas, and take a few good pictures.
After that first ride, I reworked the bike a little. I swapped out the cruiser bars for drops with a Specialized 'cross lever. I planned to ride on the flats and the bends, making climbing a little easier.
The second ride was a blast. I stopped off at a Dunkin Donuts to bring my friend Patty her morning coffee as she went into work. A fellow getting out of his car saw my mud-spattered mount and said "You're a braver man than I am". One coffee for me, one for Patty. Thus fortified, I headed into the woods.
As I approached the ATV-blitzed part of the trail, I told myself "Hell with it!" and forged ahead. Resisting the road-born urge to stand on the pedals when the going got soggy, I put my weight further back on the seat and was rewarded with increased traction from the rear. The trail was narrowing, and I could see the tracks of U-turns where the ATV riders had turned back.
Undaunted, I barged through the brush. Thorny arms reached out from all sides, clawing at my helmet, my jacket, my legs. I felt them whack the spokes and it reminded me of putting playing cards in the wheels of my stingray; the same 'Thwap! Thwap!' as the angry wheel went round. The ground was muddy and I realized that I was probably within spitting distance of the Great Swamp's lovely road riding, which I knew to be just over the mountain past Long Hill Road. But right now I was lost in the woods.
The trail petered out at a creek, maybe four feet wide. Frozen over. I threw a good-sized rock at the ice and it skittered across like a hockey puck. Shouldering my bike like a cyclecrosser, I hopped across quickly, my 185 lbs causing no cracks.
A few hundred yards later, the underbrush became so dense it was impossible to ride without a machete. I went back across the creek, then turned down a deer trail. I had to smack my way through vicious briars and reeds taller than the sasquatch before I re-emerged onto the road. An elderly couple on the other side of the street looked at me warily as if I might be The Swamp Thing. My bike was so mud-spattered that it showed a uniform brownish color everywhere except for the top tube and handlebars.
After a sip of water and a well-earned smoke, I mounted up and rode off. The next town over had a bit of trail following the River. And it was calling me.