Mixed Terrain Mapping: Michele Smith
By Jenny Wojewoda
My first "mixed terrain" ride was several years ago. On my first road bike. The mid reach caliper brakes allowed for my then boyfriend, now husband, to fit a pair of skinny cyclocross all-arounders on my wheels. He wanted to show me what I had missed a few weeks back, when our inspired local shop, Ride Studio Cafe, had offered the first of their Honey 100 Rides (so named for the brand of steel bike sold at the shop and made a few towns over by Seven Cycles). I had wanted to go, but not having a 'cross bike, or having ever done this sort of thing, I was intimidated. I'd get stuck with flats and other mechanicals. I'd get dropped by the many 'cross racers showing up to do this kind of ride.
What is "mixed terrain"?
Essentially, it is tying together all of the various riding surfaces you can think of: pavement, dirt roads, cobblestones, gravel paths, bike paths, urban parks and playgrounds, old abandoned rail beds, carriage roads, jeep tracks, smooth single-track, stairs(!), bridges of varying widths and states-of-repair, etc. You ride all of these things, point-to-point, riding what you can, walking where that makes sense. You can do it on a mountain bike or a modified road bike as I did at first, but a dedicated 'cross bike or gravel bike with disc brakes and wider, knobby tires strikes the best mix. Rolling faster on the pavement sectors but giving you clearance, cushioning, and stopping power in the woods.
Michele Smith is one of those true masters of mixed terrain mapping, and is also a mentor and friend.
I first met Michele Smith on a group ride from Ride Studio Cafe in Lexington. It was just the Sunday Coffee Ride, a relatively mellow, short social ride, but I was a bit in awe. I knew she was one of the legendary mainstays of the local cyclocross scene. Michele was coming off a winter off season where she wasn't riding at all, but doing cross-country skiing as cross training. I was impressed by how strong she rode that day, with literally no rides under her belt in months. We would later be on the Ride Studio Cafe X-Team together. And now she is my teammate on HUP United.
I recently sat down to talk with Michele about how she got into mixed terrain riding and mapping routes ….
JW: Tell me about how you got into the practice of creating your own mixed terrain routes.
MS: Roughly four years ago, I created the first Lion of Burlington. This was a few months after I rode the Ronde de Rosey, after having ridden and been inspired by similar mixed terrain rides like Diverged (created by Ride Studio Cafe) and Waffle Cross (curated by Andy Huff out of Wheelworks in Belmont). Also, Kurt Johnson and Michael Good's event, the Amazing Bike Race, which started at the old Cycle Loft location in Burlington and every 15 miles out of 60, riders would have to solve a puzzle or do some sort of random physical challenge.
The idea of mixed terrain (as you and I both know, but was new to me then) was the concept of linking together relatively easy MTB trails and roads, hitting multiple trail networks connected via side streets and paths. Meaning you could hit multiple (even many multiple) trail networks and conservation areas in a single ride. The Lion of Burlington was inspired by these other mixed terrain events that I rode, but I created it, and ran it from my house in Burlington, for my team, HUP United. Chip Baker gave the ride its name, for the two Chinese Lions in front of our house. The ride has become an annual event for HUP United and friends.
JW: What features make a mixed terrain route memorable to you--worth doing, repeating and sharing?
MS: You want a good mix of somewhat easy single track and longer, again fairly non-technical double-track or rail beds. A nice mix of roads and woods, so that the route doesn't get monotonous. I like to bring riders through trails and byways not far from their houses. In Greater Boston, this is more possible than most local riders expect, even cyclists who have been living here for years. I like to introduce people to their surroundings in a way that they might not have noticed before: man-made features like water towers and bridges, for example.
One of my recent favorites is a highway underpass beneath I-93 that feels like a Roman amphitheater. It's amazing to get that kind of scale and feeling on a ride in your local woods, but it happens around here more than you would think.
JW: Do you ever use paper maps or atlases? What online mapping programs and features do you use?
MS: No, I've never used paper maps for creating mixed terrain routes. My go-to program for mapping is Ride with GPS using the the Open Street Maps (OSM) function. OSM has, I would estimate, about 90-95% of the local trails. Back when I was doing the first and second edition of the Lion of Burlington, I wasn't aware of OSM, if it was even available at that time (Matt Roy would later introduce me), and so I had to remember sectors and trailheads from other people's rides, whether I was on the rides, or from people's Strava tracks.
If it was something I saw on Strava, I would drive past the trailhead with the kids in car, in between appointments and check it out. I'd later use Ride with GPS to create a file, but without OSM I had to hand-draw the route using landmarks and the shape of the rider's breadcrumb trail.
JW: Do you go out and test your routes before sharing them or making them part of an event? Do you make notes--in your head--or some other way? Do you venture off track and off trail? Off map and GPS?
MS: Yeah, I do go out and test. I will email myself from my phone if there's a major edit or a new trail addition that I will want to refer back to. Otherwise, I'll just make a mental note upon riding a section and correct it upon my return home. I'll do online research in advance of my test rides. For example: I'll use assessors' maps to research whether a private road is privately maintained or privately owned. You cannot really tell on google maps or GPS. And it makes a difference in terms of whether you can be on that parcel or not. Sometimes I'll test a route by myself or will take a friend. But it has to be the kind of friend who is patient and can go the long haul. Mixed terrain riding takes a long time. Many of my routes are 40 miles plus. But since they are a mix of road and off-road, with trial and error, testing a route can take 5-6 hours.
JW: Why do you do this? Does it scratch an itch to be creative? Independent? Adventuresome? Speaking for myself, I feel like it touches upon all those things.
MS: One of the reasons is because having kids has limited the adventure in my life, good and bad. I like that can stay so close to home--never be that far away--and yet be out exploring these places that a lot of people don't go to.
I enjoy sharing and leading rides, and showing people new things. I've been to all of the conservation lands in my town and probably all the neighboring towns. Because of my collaborations with Chip, I've ridden most of the trails around his house too. He's a great intuitive rider, but not a technical mapper. I help him take his vision and turn it into something that other people can experience even if they're riding on their own, i.e., not right on Chip's wheel.
JW: What recommendations would you have for a woman getting into this who lives in another part of the country?
MS: What we have around here is possibly very unique. I wouldn't even know where to start if I lived elsewhere. I guess I would suggest looking at Heatmaps on Strava. If Heatmaps show only hiking in that area, you can probably assume it's too gnarly for CX bikes. Venturing just a little afield, I tried to create a mixed terrain route in Connecticut, where my in-laws live. Here in Greater Boston, most places where you can ride an MTB you can ride a CX bike. If not the same trails, at least in the same parcel. Not so in CT. I found it to be either super technical single track or a gravel road, so either more of an MTB ride or a gravel grind.
Another tip: never overlap start and finish. Never have the route go back on itself.
JW: You mean, like figure 8 type things?
MS: Yes, where it's not evident where you're supposed to go. You want to set up the route so that the directionals are always clear for the user. It's a bit of an acquired skill being able to look at a Garmin and navigate trails (and not crash!); no need to make it harder than it has to be.
JW: Do you ever get lost? Can you remember a time when you have? How did you get out of the situation?
MS: I've always had a terrible sense of direction.
JW: Really?!? That's the last thing I would expect of you.
MS: Well I'm from Hawaii. Getting around is easy; you have the mountain on one side and ocean on the other. Having a Garmin and access to Ride with GPS with OSM--technological crutches for my poor sense of direction--have changed the way I ride. I remember getting lost while on a road ride while I was in grad school at Tufts. I was out somewhere in Wayland and one of the signs had been turned 180 degrees, maybe due to a crash or due a prank, but it wasn't obvious that it had been meddled with, and so I followed it and got totally turned around. I ended up having to look in somebody's mailbox to get the name and address and consult the paper map to realize where I was and route myself home. I didn't ride with a cell phone back then
JW: Besides a route and a Garmin or other navigation device, what other provisions are a must for mixed terrain riding?
MS: I always carry food and drink mix, my cell phone, wallet, keys--the things you would ordinarily have on a long road ride--but also a small kit from Pale Spruce. I've mainly used it to help friends. I'd say the duct tape and the ibuprofen have been the most popular items.
JW: In addition to the Lion of Burlington, what other mixed terrain projects are you working on?
MS: For the past few years, I've been asked to help out with other people's rides and mapping, which is really very flattering. When Chip [Baker] and Rosey [Scott Rosenthal] were putting together the 2017 Ronde de Rosey, there were three different rides that Chip wanted combined into one coherent route. We used the Ronde 2016 masterfile because Chip and Rosey knew that they wanted to preserve the beginning of the ride from the previous year, and then I added the two additional route to combine. When you do this is Ride with GPS, the alternative or additional paths appear in grey. So you can see the points of intersection, and move and adjust connection points as necessary to create one cohesive, new route. Before Chip and Rosey publish the route, I'll delete the cues for turn-by-turn instruction on people's Garmins and GPS devices. Because for trail rides they are almost useless. Back in the day of Garmin 500 prevalence, they were more important, but today, most Ronde de Rosey teams of 6-8 riders will have at least 2-3 people with a Garmin 800 or higher and following the breadcrumb in the detailed map is most effective without the distracting chirping of turn-by-turn cues.
I've also been working on a route since last year that's not totally finished. I always like to have a project to work on. One ongoing project is that I want to have a route out from every direction from my house. I've been working on an adaptation of the Amazing Bike Race that went out to Harold Parker State Forest in Andover. I managed to connect up a number of shamefully maintained or not maintained trails in Tewksbury to the Merrimack River section of the Bay Circuit Trail and a new trail on the Andover-Tewksbury line. Andover is unique in its trail stewardship in that it has 4 different trail committees. I've ridden that route 4 times and I'm still working out what I want to include before releasing it as a ride.