March 26, 2015

Drive the Track

Strolling back to the car, past the trailers and canopies and motorheads in the paddock, I overheard a couple of guys remarking about the “gray-haired old lady at track day.”

The paddock on a track day at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Salinas, California
There were quite a few groups at the racetrack; in our group, I was the only woman. [Whatever.] I work in high-tech, I'm used to it. The assumptions that greet gray hair are less familiar. The local grocery store started giving me the senior discount almost six years ago—which I found highly amusing, that being the year I completed all five passes in the Death Ride. (And I still don't qualify for that discount.)

The ‘A’ group (beginners) started the day with an orientation about flags and protocols, then moved to the parking lot and executed some drills. Accelerate and brake hard. Really hard. Accelerate, brake hard, and turn. Trace a tight figure-eight through a course marked by cones. Pretty impressive what the car can do, when pushed. Hard.

Our coaches drove the first two laps around the track, pointing out the flag stations and other highlights. Then we traded seats. I had made the right call two weeks ago, to bike Laguna Seca first.

At the end of the day, I told my coach I couldn't do what he did—be a passenger in a car being driven (fast) by a complete stranger who has no prior track experience.

Cars at the corkscrew, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Salinas, California
Photo credit: Dito Milian, gotbluemilk.com
Whenever you drive, there's a lot going on, and you cope without conscious thought much of the time. On the track, little is familiar: flags to understand (and watch for), passing zones and protocols, tricky curves—all that, plus the concentration needed to snake your way around the course. At whatever speed you find comfortable.

In the morning, for me, that speed was not particularly fast. When I'd get to a straight section, I was so relieved to have negotiated the previous turns without incident that I would just ... relax. I got plenty of practice doing “point-bys”—signaling to drivers behind me that they could pass.

After lunch, I was treated to a demo ride in a coach's car. It could not have been more fitting that it was a red 1990 Mazda Miata. (Until a few years ago, I owned one.) Those three laps were a rip-roaring good time. And then, I got it:

Just because I'm in a designated passing zone doesn't mean I have to surrender.

Accelerating toward the finish line, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Salinas, California
Photo credit: Dito Milian, gotbluemilk.com
On my first lap after lunch, I rounded Turn 11, downshifted, and let the car to do what it was engineered to do. [Go fast. Really fast.] “Where did my ‘A’ driver go?” laughed my coach. It was my turn to do some passing. Keeping my lead on the straights compensated for my imperfect line on the curves; by the time the others were on my tail, we were approaching Turn 11 again ... and they didn't stand a chance.

Jan and Dean, they got it.

March 21, 2015

Renegades

Purple bush lupine on the slopes of Mt. Diablo, near Danville, California
The slopes of Mount Diablo are lovely this time of year.

While it seems unthinkable not to finish the climb at the summit, my ride buddy and I had other plans. Realizing that we would pay for the full climb by struggling up Morgan Territory later, we stayed low and headed for a picnic in the charming town of Clayton.

Lizard on a fence post along Ygnacio Canal Trail, Walnut Creek, California
The bike trail was a new wrinkle on this route, and a most welcome one for eliminating the first stretch of  busy Ygnacio Valley Road (where traffic streams along well above the posted limit). The shoulder is wide ... but still.

Renegades that we were, I led us off Ygnacio Valley at the earliest possible opportunity: a mellow detour through the Concord campus of Cal State East Bay, where we discovered dozens of trees blooming gloriously. Pine Hollow Road was busier than I had hoped, but still far better than the alternative.

Trees in bloom frame distant green hills, Cal State East Bay campus, Concord, California
Having lingered over lunch, it wasn't long before the fast riders from the group caught (and, of course, passed) us.

Our abbreviated route took us over 55 miles with 4,840 feet of climbing.

California poppies, trees, and green hills along Marsh Creek Road near Clayton, California
And the bike? On the steep (and twisty) descent of Morgan Territory, it dared me to go faster. And faster. It just kept picking up speed.

I blinked. And braked.

March 14, 2015

Big Game Hunting

T-Rex and dinosaur statues in the Skyland community, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Save the poodle! Save the poodle!

Even when you're biking in familiar territory, you just might learn something new. A few independent riders were climbing up the hill at the same pace as our group, and we started comparing our ride plans. “We ride up to see the dinosaurs,” they explained. Their route was similar to ours. What have we been missing?

Not only did we find the fearsome predators, we met their keepers as well. The pterodactyl was temporarily grounded, awaiting a connection to a freshly-installed post to anchor its aerial wire. The owners started their collection with the life-sized Tyrannosaurus rex about three years ago, and talked about how they decorate the creatures for holidays. Let's just say that a Christmas-season visit may be in order (though not until shopper/choppers are done fetching trees up there).

Swirl of clouds over forested hills, Highland Way, Santa Cruz Mountains, California
Returning from our extended excursion along Highland Way, a sweeping arc of high clouds caught my eye. From one vantage point, conditions were clear enough for a view of Monterey Bay glistening in the distance.

The first long ride on the new bike felt great: 40 miles with 3,460 feet of climbing. I was moving pretty fast on a familiar downhill straightaway and thought, gee, I'm not even trying. I adjusted my body to a more aerodynamic position and ... the bike jolted forward. Instantaneously. Who put a turbocharger on this thing?

Those engineers at Cervélo? They know what they're doing.

March 11, 2015

Bike the Track

No, not the velodrome; a different breed of track. For racing fast things with motors, ordinarily.

Looking down at Turn 9, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Salinas, California
One of the more unusual places to ride a bicycle in the Bay Area is a track of some renown: Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. They host a monthly Twilight Ride for bicycles, which I had decided to check out this month. The timing couldn't have been better: What could be a more fitting inaugural outing for my new ride than this?

My shadow on the track approaching the overhead bridge before Turn 6, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Salinas, California
It was a perfect fit: the track's signature colors matched my bike (black, white, blue). I might have been the only first-timer tonight—but not the slowest. It was a pretty casual affair: pay the $10 fee, turn left, and go. The steepest climb leads to the track's famous corkscrew, a precipitous drop through a set of quick turns.

Despite pausing to snapshot the views, I was surprised at how quickly I completed the first circuit. The loop is 2.238 miles. (To be precise). Fast bike?

Straightaway leading to Turn 4, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Salinas, California
Smooth pavement, lovely curves, a steep climb, a thrilling descent ... what's not to like? I wondered if circling the same loop would become boring, but found it became more fun as I challenged myself to push harder, to take a faster line through each turn. With only about two dozen cyclists spread out over the course, it often felt like I had the place to myself.

Best lap: 10:43.
Max speed: 40.82 mph, at this spot.
Overall, 1,110 feet of climbing over 14 miles.

pep rounding Turn 11, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Salinas, California
Zoom zoom.

March 9, 2015

pep's New Ride

I've had my eye on Cervélo for a while; years, in fact. But I didn't need a new bike.

My friends with Cervélos rave about them. But there was nothing wrong with my bike.

Technology has advanced since I bought one of the very first Trek Pilot 5.2 WSD bikes. (Ten years ago.)

A new compact double offers a higher high gear, and a lower low gear, than my triple. But that drivetrain isn't offered as a standard model.

Now and then, I'd browse the Cervélo website and ... move on. Really, there was no reason to buy a new bicycle.

My first bike was a hand-me-down aqua Rollfast that my mother bought from one of her cousins. I don't know how old I was when I learned to ride it; it's full-sized and heavy, so I'm guessing I was 8 or 9. I remember my dad steadying the bike behind me till I took off. He didn't believe in training wheels.

As a teenager, 10-speed bikes were the thing. My parents bought me a new blue bike (Schwinn, probably)—with 5-speeds. My dad didn't believe in gears, either.

In grad school, I saved and invested in my first diamond frame bike, a 10-speed Raleigh in brown. The bike didn't fit—I barely cleared the top tube—but I rode it, in a busy city, without a helmet (in those days). Years later, I sold it to a friend.

In the '90s, hybrid bikes were the thing. 27 gears! Grip-shift. Full-sized wheels with knobby tires. A relaxed diamond “ladie's frame” that fit. My black Trek 720 Multitrack has seen more action than I ever imagined; it's the workhorse of my commute. To say that I have gotten my money's worth is an understatement for the ages.

By 2005, carbon fiber was the thing. I struggled up hills on my steel hybrid. The relaxed geometry of the Trek Pilot was a new thing. Even the smallest frame in the women's specific design accommodated full-sized wheels. The 5.2 WSD edition in glistening “pewter carbon” has been my main ride ever since.

Till now.

A colleague made me an offer I couldn't refuse. After upgrading to an S-series, his meticulously maintained R5 frame was sidelined. He'd sell it to me. He'd build it up with the gearing and short cranks and narrow handlebars I needed. He mounted my saddle, attached the pedals, and off I rode—full circle—on the hand-me-down of my dreams.

March 7, 2015

A Country View

View of Mt. Umunhum with California poppies in the foreground, Country View Drive, San Jose, CaliforniaDespite being a relative newcomer to the Bay Area cycling community, a few years ago I discovered a new hill to climb. And, given that I persuaded my fellow club members that it was a worthy challenge, it seems only fair that I should tackle it from time to time.

pep on the first downhill ascent on County View Drive, San Jose, California.
I confess that it's been a while. The past few years, I felt that I didn't have the legs for it. It's a beast of a climb, with two short descents that exact their toll on the return from the top. The teensy cyclist in this picture is yours truly, courtesy of my ride buddy, as I hit the bottom of that first pitch.

How steep are those descents? Steep enough to top 37 mph in less than a tenth of a mile. Sounds great for some uphill momentum on the other side, right? Alas, no ... the grade is that intense.

Looking south to the top of Country View Drive and the Santa Clara Valley, San Jose, California
But oh, the views from the top!

On the way up, I paused on the second (and longest) segment; I knew I'd have a better time if I got my heart rate down. A little bit of recovery (from 178 to 143 bpm) made all the difference. I pedaled past the spot where I normally take a break and continued straight to the top.

After exalting at the pinnacle of this success, we headed south for a picnic at Uvas Canyon County Park. The park was uncharacteristically packed, with cars queued to pay the entrance fee. [Pro tip: no fee for bicycles. But it's a bit of a climb to get there.]

At the end of the day, I was spent. 3,140 feet of climbing over 58 miles—well spent.

February 21, 2015

Keepin' Score

Metrics are everywhere. Take, for example, a simple wooden sign nailed to a utility pole at a curve along today's route:
CAR 5
POLE 17
The paint looked fresh. Odds are that the pole's count merited the latest update.

Bare trees in an orchard carpeted with blooming yellow oxalis along Eureka Canyon Road above Corralitos, CA
One rider in our group was proud to show me his bare handlebar: no bike computer, no stats. Others compete to climb more hills or cover more distance than their peers. The rider at the top of our club's leaderboard for 2014 biked more than 10,000 miles and climbed over 836,000 feet—just on club rides. He often commutes by bike, as well.

Creek flowing along Eureka Canyon Road above Corralitos, CA
We had a preview of summer at the coast today—cold and fog. Not that I'm complaining: I'm out here riding my bike through the redwood forest, while friends and family on the other coast suffer temperatures in the single digits and more snow than they'd like.

Creeks were flowing and the traffic was light.

58 miles, 4,860 feet of climbing. The fun factor is harder to measure.