May 31, 2009

Traveling Light

After picking up some "essential personal items," I found a flyer on my car from a local psychic offering one free phone consultation. Maybe she can tell me where my bag is? Continental Airlines has no idea.

Familiar with those nearly indestructible bar-coded tags the airlines attach to your luggage? They scan those tags and know the location of your bag at all times, just like FedEx, right? Ha! Pure fantasy. When pressed, a Continental representative revealed that they scan the tags at random, or only when "headquarters" tells them to scan an entire flight.

Despite checking in 101 minutes before the scheduled departure of my direct flight from San Francisco to Newark, paying $15 for the privilege of flying with my bag in the cargo hold, and confirming that the tag attached to my bag was correct, I left the airport in New Jersey empty-handed.

I once traveled for a month on an itinerary that involved multiple airlines and so many segments that the booking agent interrupted me to ask if I would ever return home. Newark - Chicago - San Francisco - Honolulu - Kauai - Honolulu - Salt Lake City - San Diego - Denver - Phoenix - and finally, Newark. For this combination of business and pleasure, I traveled with four pieces of luggage: two carry-on bags and two checked bags. Nothing was lost.

Even before I had a reason to study the fine print on the claim form, I raised my eyebrows at the woman on the airport shuttle who bragged about stowing her laptop in her checked bag (so she wouldn't have to juggle her laptop, shoes, and plastic bag of liquids at the security checkpoint). At the time, I thought about how easily the laptop could be removed in transit. Now I know that if the airline loses your bag, forget about it. They will not reimburse you for a laptop, or essentially anything else of value, should your luggage disappear. Anything worth $100 or more (e.g., your suitcase)? Hope you saved your receipt.

So, my plight could have been worse - I pack my electronics in my carry-on bag. In these days of heightened security, I avoid putting anything with wires or batteries in my checked bag to reduce the likelihood that the TSA will find a reason to rifle through my belongings.

Traveling to a special event? Be sure you arrive more than a day early, because the airline won't reimburse you for anything more than basic toiletries and undergarments for the first 24 hours. If you shop carefully, the next day's allowance might just buy you a pair of shoes.

On the bright side, I won't be paying that $15 fee on my return trip.

May 24, 2009

Gloomy Sunday

If they call it stormy Monday, then today was gloomy Sunday. Or maybe it's a new plot to drive the cyclists out of Woodside, since the skies were clear just south of town.

I met up with some friends for a casual ride from Palo Alto, heading north. Our route included CaƱada Road, a portion of which is closed to vehicles once a week for Bicycle Sunday. Joggers, rollerbladers, racers, recreational cyclists, kids on tricycles and tiny little bicycles - all turn out to take over the wide, smooth pavement and gentle rolling hills along Upper Crystal Springs Reservoir. I am always amused by the people who continue to ride on the shoulder, despite the road closure. Take the lane, it's yours for a day!

It was quite a bit chillier than we had anticipated, and as we ventured further north the clouds were low enough to sprinkle us. Two friends turned back, and my ride buddy suggested we divert to Burlingame for a bakery treat and follow an easterly route back along the bay, searching for sunshine.

Alas, no cake for us. We didn't get very far before my freehub balked and refused, intermittently, to freewheel. Coasting downhill, it was rather exciting to have the chain (now slack) slip off the big chainring in front, with the rest of the chain clattering onto the chainstay. While the bicycle is rideable, controlling it is a bit tricky. If the chain pops off toward the crankarm, it can get tangled and snap. If it goes slack and gets caught in the wheel, the bicycle will come to an abrupt stop, with even more damage to the equipment (and me). To keep some tension on the chain, I had to keep the pedals turning, and if my cadence wasn't "just right" for a particular gearing the chain would go slack anyway.

The bike already had a service appointment scheduled for tomorrow, and my plan was to drop it off after today's ride. One more kink for the mechanics to investigate.

May 23, 2009

Tortoises Climbing Harwood

The first hill on today's route was the steepest, with the grade of one section averaging 13.1% for 640 meters (okay, okay, four tenths of a mile). Harwood is a residential street with lots of "view properties," and I can only imagine that the locals think we're a bunch of loonies for riding up there. It wasn't as grueling as I remembered it, which is a sign that I am getting stronger. I averaged 4.1 mph on the steep bit, and believe me, I am capable of staying upright at lower speeds.

Our intrepid ride leader, Marcia, is one of my personal heroes. When I grow up, I hope I will have her strength and stamina. She may be slow (her rides are titled "Tortoises Climbing Hills"), but she rides up steep stuff that I have not found the nerve to tackle.

And now a word about tires.

Our start was delayed when I noticed a rear flat tire on a fellow cyclist's bike just as we were ready to roll. Flats happen, but with a little attention I believe it is possible to minimize the number you will have to fix on the road. Here are some handy tips:
  • Stay out of the gutter, which collects thorns, broken glass, and other debris swept out of the traffic lane by cars.
  • After every ride, closely inspect your tires, remove anything that's embedded, and look for troublesome cuts. If you do this at the end of your ride, you won't be deflated at the start of your next one.
Those miniscule shards of glass you may have picked up on today's ride will be a problem on your next ride, or the one after that, as the tires keep rotating and drive them deeper through the tread. Sometimes, a thorn or tiny piece of wire will simultaneously pierce the tube and plug the hole, setting up a slow leak. Better to hear that disheartening sssss at home, as you pull it out, than to be stuck along the side of the road tomorrow.

My legs were good and the temperature was ideal, so I was hungry for some extra miles and climbing. My ride buddy agreed to join me, and we lured another rider along for a sustained climb up a nearby hill (a steady 10.5% grade from the base to the end of the road, a mile and a quarter later). On the ascent, I was impressed by the view down a precipitous canyon to my right. Note to self: stay very focused later on this curvy, technical descent.

A short ride today, 30 miles with 2,950 feet of climbing.

May 20, 2009

Ride of Silence

Tonight it was time for a somber event, the annual Ride of Silence. Around the globe, at 7:00 P.M. local time, riders set out to remember cyclists who have been killed or injured by motorists; our group included 24 people. In our thoughts were six who lost their lives in the past year, including a sixth grader who was run down on the last day of school in San Jose (Breanna Slaughter-Eck), a bicycle messenger in San Francisco (Kirk Janes), and two cyclists who were victims of drivers who hit them and drove away. Laura Casey was left lying in a Richmond street, crying out for help until her life was taken by a second driver who also fled.

Closer to home, a hit-and-run driver seriously injured Ashleigh Jackson in Saratoga just a few weeks ago. What goes through the minds of these drivers? It is beyond my comprehension. Those with such callous disregard for human life, I would lock away forever. But it is not up to me, and sadly they are not always caught.

Ghost bike along Stevens Canyon Road, Cupertino, California
We remembered Michelle Mazzei, killed in 2005 by a distracted driver in Woodside, and John Peckham, killed in 2006 by a driver who was recklessly impaired in Palo Alto. Our route led to the site of a memorial for three cyclists killed on Stevens Canyon Road: Jeff Steinwedel, by the careless driver of a gravel truck in 1996, and Kristy Gough and Matt Peterson, killed by a sheriff's deputy who apparently fell asleep at the wheel on a sunny Sunday morning last year.

I will never forget these cyclists I never knew, who lost their lives on the same roads that I ride. Twenty-four hours before the deputy smashed into Kristy, Matt, and a third cyclist (who was severely injured), I had rounded that same bend in the road. Now, whenever I approach that curve, I tense up for the familiar shiver that will run down my spine. I will never forget how heartbroken I felt, after riding with hundreds of other cyclists in the memorial for John Peckham, as I sat with my lunch in a park filled with joyful children. For taking John's life, so full of promise, there is no adequate penalty.

Every time you get behind the wheel, you are responsible for the lives of people all around you - sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. Be alert. Be patient. Be responsible. Focus on driving your vehicle. Don't yak on your cell phone. Don't drive when you're impaired. Don't drive when you're sleepy. How hard can it be?

There is so little I can do, but I can hope that when we ride in silence next year, there will be no new names on our list of remembrance. And I can never forget the people we have lost.

May 17, 2009

Mmm, Strawberries

The hallmark of the Strawberry Fields Forever ride is (you guessed it), strawberries. After passing acres of them ripening in the hot sun, we were rewarded with heaping mounds of strawberries, along with bowls of chocolate and whipped cream, at the end of the ride. I easily ate a pint of them; but that's okay, there are plenty still out there.

Plan A today was to tackle the 100 mile route, which climbs the Santa Cruz Mountains from the coast. The route would bring me so close to home that I've often feared that I might just head that way, which would present a problem in that my car would still be parked in Watsonville.

When the temperature in my backyard reached 97 degrees on Saturday, it seemed advisable to check the conditions on the other side of the hill. With a forecast of 75 degrees at 3 pm, Watsonville was instead baking at 90 degrees. Given Sunday's forecast for warmer temperatures, Plan B was hatched. The sensible choice was to back off and ride the 100 km route. I don't perform well in extreme heat, and given my typical pace, I would be sizzling in the wide-open fields during the hottest part of the day. Even worse, I would run the risk of finishing too late to enjoy my fair share of strawberries!

I rode most of the route with some friends who had reached the same conclusion, and met about a dozen more along the way. Overall, a much better day than I expected, with a mere 3,290 feet of climbing over 66 miles. The steep bit looks a little less daunting every year (11.5% grade for a quarter of a mile). I was grateful for the little bags of ice supplied at the lunch stop, but I never imagined that I would be happy about a headwind until our cooling offshore breeze arrived (ahead of schedule).

May 14, 2009

Bay Area Bike to Work Day

It has been a while since I checked my resting heart rate. Near the end of this morning's excursion, some riders in our group were caught behind at a long traffic light. As I waited for them, I glanced down at my receiver and saw it plummet to 59 beats per minute. While standing upright. Having just biked more than 20 miles. I never imagined that I could bike to work without breaking a sweat.

The rest of the country will celebrate Bike-to-Work Day tomorrow, but for some reason it is always held on the preceding Thursday in the Bay Area. I first tried biking to work as part of this event in 2006, and I was hooked. What better way to participate now than to lead a willing group of riders to work? Some were first timers, apprehensive about riding in traffic. Others could ride circles around us, including my ingenious co-leader - who mounts a box of donuts on his rear rack. Those with advanced skills can flip the lid and serve themselves while pedaling.
I mapped out a route with minimal climbing on wide roads with bike lanes and mellow traffic, a car-free shortcut, the new bike-ped suspension bridge, and two social stops at Energizer Stations. I was disappointed that the Cupertino stop had run out of canvas bags before we arrived, but at the same time that signaled a successful Bike-to-Work Day. There I was amused to see a guy with a disc wheel on a fixie; he didn't look the part, but . . . whatever.

By the time we arrived at the Mountain View Caltrain Station, our ranks had swollen to 14 riders. We missed all the hubbub (local news coverage), but were rewarded with our canvas goodie bags at last.

One experienced rider took me up on my offer to bike back at the end of the day, and we were both happy to pick up the pace. When I extended this offer two years ago, promising not to drop anyone, two riders joined me. Forgetting our dense population of high achievers, I was startled to learn that one guy competed in Half-Ironman triathlons and the other was a former member of the Cal Berkeley cycling team. They were gracious and didn't drop me.

May 9, 2009

One and a Half Hamiltons

Although we did have a full moon today, that is the dome of Lick Observatory rising above lupines on the hillside. It was a lovely spring day to take the advice of Eddy Merckx to heart:
Don't buy upgrades; ride up grades.
I chose a new challenge: climb Mt. Hamilton twice in one day. I didn't run out of steam or willpower, but I did run out of time. I ascended the upper segment twice and the lower section just once, with barely enough time to dash home and get cleaned up before heading to San Francisco. There I witnessed athleticism of a more artistic sort, ballerina Tina Le Blanc's farewell performance.

The evening felt more like a private party for friends and family, which explained the puzzling number of people we saw on crutches or with a soft cast on a lower leg. Injured dancers. I am in awe of their artistry and fitness, and respect their sacrifice. What appears so graceful and effortless, leaves them breathless.

The night opened with Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux. Paired with Tina was Gonzalo Garcia, whose performance was extraordinary in a very demanding piece. I often marvel at what the human body is capable of: the way the dancers move, the cyclists who climb hills twice as fast as I can, even my own capacity for propelling myself one-and-a-half times up Mt. Hamilton by rotating the pedals round and round. It wouldn't surprise me if Gonzalo could out-sprint Mark Cavendish. Dancers pitted against athletes from Cal Berkeley have actually won two out of three annual competitions.

As for me, I averaged 9.5 mph over 61 miles with 7,930 feet of climbing, enjoyed the views and wildflowers, and was ready for more.

May 3, 2009

Maybe Next Year

I've heard that the Grizzly Peak Century is a scenic and challenging ride. Maybe next year.

Last year, I developed a sore throat the day before the ride and opted to stay home.

This year, I drove up to Walnut Creek despite the ominous weather forecast. Too late to cancel my motel reservation, anyway. As I loaded my bag into the car this morning at 6 a.m., I was misted by the first sprinkles of rain. Not bad, I thought; maybe it will stop. As I loaded my bike into the car, the skies opened up and drenched me.

Biking 73 miles in the rain is not my idea of a fun day. Slippery roads, flat tires, treacherous descents. I drove to Moraga to check out the start.

There was no shortage of parking, but more (fool)hardy souls in bright jackets heading out than I had expected. I ran into two racers I know from the Low-Key Hillclimbs. I told Janet she is a tougher woman than I, but she thought I might be the wiser. Jennie had raced the Cat's Hill Criterium yesterday. Nothing like a miserable day in the rain after that, eh? I'm not sure which I'd prefer, but I am sure that Jennie is a much tougher woman than I.

Being on their home turf, Plan B was to ride 30-odd miles and wind up at Peet's for some hot coffee. Luckily I had changed out of my biking clothes, or I might have been tempted to join them.

May 2, 2009

Cat's Hill Criterium

Standing on the other side of the registration booth for a bicycle race was different in a way that I didn't expect.
January 1, San Bruno Hill Climb:
This is a real race. Is it really okay for me to enter a race? Look at all these serious racers.
May 2, Cat's Hill Criterium:
Look at all these serious racers. But anybody can enter - they pay their money and they take their chances. There is an element of swagger, a sense of tossing one's hat into the ring.
One dude saunters up to register 15 minutes before the start of the Men's Pro/1/2 race, still wearing his street clothes. Just decided he had the legs for it? Spotted Jackson Stewart (BMC) wearing number 1 and thought he might beat him? (He didn't. Jackson won.)

The registration table was well-situated behind the finish line and the stage, which faces the notorious Cat's Hill (Nicholson Avenue, 23% grade). The top of the hill was not visible from my vantage point; instead, that stretch of Nicholson looks like a cliff face.

The Pro/1/2 men are the last to race around the circuit. It's a fast bunch today, completing each lap in a little over two minutes. They stop 75 minutes after they start, which translates into 35 or so trips around the course, up that brutish hill. Before the race was over, at least 40% of the field had abandoned. Some of my racer friends tell me the hill isn't the worst of it; it's the pace after you reach the top that gets you, no time to slack off. A scant two minutes later, you're doing it again. And again.

Having fulfilled my registration duties, I watched the final race. This year I planted myself near the bottom of the hill, where I could see them fly around the corner toward me at high speed, hear the gears shifting, and watch them climb out of the saddle, rocking their bikes left-right, left-right. Wow, do they fly around that corner! They threw off a draft so powerful it made the tree branches sway. Helps to carry some momentum going up that hill.

May 1, 2009

The Siren Song of the Suspension Span

Some of my Cupertino friends were dismayed when I told them that I really didn't need that fancy bike bridge being erected over Highway 280. It's not along the most direct route for me, and a nearby surface street (with bike lanes) passes safely over the freeway.

By the time the much-heralded bridge opened (yesterday afternoon), curiosity had gotten the best of me. I wanted to cross the span while it was fresh and shiny, before the graffiti vandals inevitably defile it.

Could I manage a Friday morning commute to work? Rain in the forecast. Out late on Thursday night and not enough sleep. A crick in my back. Set the alarm for an early wake-up, but expect to stay in bed.

The skies were threatening, but the streets were barely wet. With visions of the bridge dancing in my head, I headed out. The new span did not disappoint. It soars over the freeway and might be worth the slight detour for inspirational value alone. More than eight lanes of traffic below send up an impressive roar.

Surprisingly, it may also save some time by sending me on a route with fewer traffic lights and less congestion. The north end of the bridge leads to a busy thoroughfare, and it appears that a design for efficiently crossing that was not factored into this project. Unfortunate, but not insurmountable.

My return commute was more prosaic. I opted for a shuttle ride back to my home town, thus facilitating a short, 2.5-mile bike ride home. With the benefit of some good karma, the light rain turned into a downpour only after I stepped inside the house.