July 26, 2009

Stanford History Tour

The bicycle is the ideal vehicle for exploring the Stanford University campus, and today I joined two alums on a short history tour. We visited the resting place of the university's namesake, Leland Stanford Jr., and his parents; compared the inner quad to photos of buildings that collapsed during the 1906 earthquake; and visited the archaeological site of the original gymnasium, also a casualty of The Great Quake. I learned about the Burghers of Calais when we visited the Rodin sculptures, and one alum learned about the cactus garden she had never before visited. Did I mention how large the campus is? Having been schooled on urban campuses, I remember my first impression of Stanford many years ago: It looked like a country club, and I marveled that students could stay focused on their studies.

A ride just isn't complete without some significant hill climbing, and so we ascended a pair of them before meandering around the campus. Reaching a top speed of 47 mph on the descent suggests that one of these hills was, shall we say, steep.

July 25, 2009

Trains, Planes, and Bicycles

Seven riders joined us for today's excursion, one of my favorite local adventures. Our trip started with a train ride to San Francisco. Years ago, I had an aunt and uncle who would head for their Florida vacation on the Auto Train. You guessed it: the car gets loaded onto the train and travels with you. On this coast, Caltrain offers at least one bicycle car on every train. Some transit officials scoff at providing this service - please note that more cyclists boarded the 3:21 p.m. train in Palo Alto this afternoon than passengers on foot.

Having disembarked at the southern edge of San Francisco, we quickly fled the urban outskirts to climb San Bruno Mountain. This being summertime, the top was dipped in fog this morning. It was neither cold nor windy, so we lingered while the sun teased us with glimpses of blue sky, but we were ultimately denied our views of the Pacific, San Francisco, and the bay. Our route headed east to the sunny shoreline of San Franciso Bay as we returned south.

Trains, sure; but what about these planes, you say? Ah, well, our route happens to pass through San Francisco International airport. This sounds intimidating, so I try to keep that a surprise for the riders who join us. It really is an easy ride, and with any luck we pass the end of the runways just as some jumbo jet starts accelerating for take-off. [Have you noticed this fondness I have for big engines and fast speeds?]

During lunch at Coyote Point, we gazed wistfully at the Mountain (now in the clear), and tried identifying the airliners approaching SFO to land. The windsurfers were out, but the most unusual sight included a crowd on the shore bearing witness to a Pentecostal baptism in the bay. Expect the unexpected.

July 20, 2009

It's Just a Car

A mini-van pulls into the turnout along the Avenue of the Giants, and we hear an adolescent male voice:
Whoa, take a picture of that!
That was not the towering behemoth of a tree, of which there were many awe-inspiring specimens in sight. That was a rather uncommon automobile.

With no biking plans for the weekend, how could I pass up another opportunity for a road trip on four wheels? Destination north, away from the baking Bay Area.

At first sight of the shiny black car last Friday, one of my friends asked:
Can I take out a life insurance policy on you?
But as the car's owner is prone to remark,
It's just a car.
Well, yes. And no.

It's not the average car that induces a guy in a pick-up truck to pull a screeching u-turn and jump out (in his socks) for a close look after spotting it in his rear view mirror. We were admiring the trees.

And I can't say that I have ever had another driver pull alongside and roll down the window so his passenger could lean across and snap a photo. The flash went off; I wonder how that turned out? I smiled and waved.

A car is meant to be driven, and this car is rarely meant to be driven on the shortest path between two points. A navigation system turns out to be unexpectedly useful for spotting the most exquisitely twisted route in the vicinity.

Sitting in the passenger seat does not feel like I'm just along for the ride. It has been a surprisingly intimate experience. Is it because I'm so low to the ground, and the road is in my face? Is it the way it handles, or because I anticipate how the driver will take every curve?

Being a passenger feels almost like driving the car.

Did I drive the car?

Well, what do you think?

July 13, 2009


Flashback to August 25, 2002: Long before I became an active cyclist, a friend suggested we sign up for the Tour of Napa Valley. Ride on the road? With cars? And hills? Apprehensive, but conceding that there might be safety in numbers, I agreed.

We hauled ourselves around a short loop (35 miles?) on our sturdy Trek hybrids; still uncomfortable with my clipless pedals, I recall toppling over at a stop sign. Of course, this event included more challenging routes, and thus we were lost in a sea of colorful jerseys at the end-of-ride barbecue.

There were some jerseys that really stood out, though. The ones emblazoned with skeletons. Skeletons? Was it some sort of cult? These dudes were scary. They were skin-and-bones thin. The jerseys commemorated something called The Death Ride, which covered 129 miles over five mountain passes in the Sierras with more than 15,000 feet of climbing. In one day. That's not humanly possible, is it? These guys were monsters.

Fast forward to July 11, 2009: My wheels start rolling at 4:47 a.m., about two hours before my body normally rolls out of a bed. The parking lot is already full; I am half a mile from the official starting point. As I approach, ominous drumbeats echo from the park and I see the blinking red tail lights of my fellow early starters. My legs tell me we're already climbing and my ears tell me we are following the course of a river. Overhead, there are stars in the sky. We are heading for the first climb of the day, Monitor Pass. The 30th Annual Death Ride is underway.

I have heard a lot about this ride over the years. I have heard that I can do it, and today I am here to find out.

Unlike some, I didn't get too obsessive about my training. Lots of climbing. Lots of distance. Long rides with lots of climbing. I am slow and I know this will be a long day. Although it is not a race, riders have to meet prescribed cut-off times at checkpoints along the route to be allowed to continue.

We are riding at altitude, in the Sierra Nevada mountains. As I ascended into the Tahoe area on Friday, my car was clearly slowing on the climbs and I shifted down. On the bike, I am not struggling - but I am slower. This ride is about endurance, and I will ride it at a heart rate I know I can sustain.

The sky brightens as I begin to climb the front side of Monitor Pass, and I soon realize something that no one ever mentioned about this ride: the scenery is spectacular. The ride has an alternate, less intimidating name: The Tour of the California Alps. They're not kidding. Suffering, with a view.

It is hard to get a slot for this ride. I saw bib numbers in the single digits, and some numbers well over 3500; yet, they turn away many riders every year. I was warned that the scariest part of the ride would involve climbing while riders are descending fast in the opposite lane, but what I found most unnerving throughout the day was the congestion at the rest stops.

After refueling at the summit, I start descending the back side of Monitor Pass, and it is crowded. Slow descenders are everywhere, some hugging the center line. The solution comes to me almost immediately: Pick another good descender and follow him. The descent became smooth and fun again, with the rider ahead getting the slow folks to move to the right and leaving a clear path in his wake. Later I would hear that this is a smart tactic in the fast lane on a German autobahn.

Ascending the back side of Monitor Pass, I am spotted by a colleague from work. When he hears that this is my first Death Ride, all the nearby riders get excited.
You're doing great!
Yeah, but you started 40 minutes later than I did, and you're passing me on the second climb.
Remember, it's not a race!
[This from two riders in stylin' black-and-white Rock Racing kits.] Yeah, but I do have to make those cut-off times, and I am already running slower than I expected.

The crowd has thinned somewhat, and I am on my own as I descend the front side of Monitor. I am mindful of those still climbing; I slow and give them plenty of space, but mostly I am free to fly. With the road closed to cars, I can use all of it when no cyclists are ascending. Top speed: 49.3 miles per hour. After turning onto the (relatively) flat approach to Ebbetts Pass, another rider pulls alongside to tell me how beautiful my descent was. I smile and thank him. [I learned from the best. Thank you, Nicole Freedman.]

Still, this is a first - a total stranger sought me out to deliver such praise. Watching me climb, I am sure no one would expect to find me a noteworthy descender. When the road finally kicks uphill toward Ebbetts Pass, it is steep. The lane is full of cyclists, leaving no chance to pick the easiest grade through each switchback. Kinney Reservoir is too scenic to pass without stopping for a photo. The summit is chaotic when I reach it; to save time, I pick my way through the crowd and descend.

This was not the best choice, I would realize all too soon.

I refuel at the bottom and start climbing my fourth pass. The back side of Ebbetts is the shortest climb, but I am behind schedule. And I am not feeling well. I should have refueled at the top, to give my body some time to process the food on the descent. I finish the climb and descend toward the lunch stop without pausing at the top. Barely able to stomach the thought of food, I eat a few pretzels and orange slices. I have to keep moving or I will miss the next cut-off, yet I am not at all sure I can continue.

On the way to the final checkpoints and climb, I pass the starting point (and my car). I have backed off my pace, hoping that a more modest heart rate will facilitate digestion. (Eventually, it does.) I reach the penultimate checkpoint with more than 20 minutes to spare, but I feel awful. If I can't eat, will I bonk?

I cannot force down another drop of my trusty electrolyte drink; I pour out a bottle to refill with plain water. It isn't really hot, but I get hosed down anyway. That seems to help, and I am not giving up without a fight.

Along the way, a guy behind me announces:
We have 50 minutes to go four miles. We can do that.
Approaching the final checkpoint, the wind is gusting and dark clouds are hanging over Carson Pass. The first raindrops are falling. There are weak flashes of lightning. It was so warm at the start that I left my vest (and jacket) in the car. It has been dry for days, with no rain in the forecast; I left the free rain poncho at the cabin. I have reached the final checkpoint well before the cut-off time, and they have already given away their last trash bag. I am so close! The rain is cold. The descent will be freezing, and slippery. I want to finish.

I remember my friend Tammy's words to her brother last year. I realize they must have been at this same checkpoint when the hail started falling, and he wanted to throw in the towel.
Look at it this way. You can either do 9 miles now, or 129 miles next year.
I pull up my arm warmers and head up the hill. With little hope, I ask some spectators cheering us from an SUV if they might happen to have a rain poncho.
No, but I have a trash bag!
She jumps out of the car and helps me don it with all the speed of a pro mechanic in the Tour de France. Elated by her enthusiasm and my blessed layer of white plastic, I begin to believe that I really will make it up that fifth pass! A big guy trailing me tells me that I am his inspiration; he has seen me on and off all day. The rain shower passes and we are rewarded with a brilliant rainbow so wide I couldn't capture the whole arc in a single frame. I start to feel hungry again.

And then . . . I made it! I finished all five passes! I really did it!

It was cold and windy atop Carson Pass, but I was determined to visit the ice cream truck anyway. I signed the poster (another tradition I hadn't heard about) and flew back down the hill. The trash bag impaired my aerodynamics and the crosswinds made the descent challenging, but we were supposed to be off the course by 8 p.m. I managed to accelerate to 50.3 mph and get back to the park at 7:55 p.m. I collected my 5-pass finisher pin, ran into some friends, had dinner (they were still serving! yay!), and more ice cream. Having burned some 5500 calories, I was still calorie-negative for the day.

More climbing, more miles, than I have ever done in one day. More than I once imagined possible.

Climbing well is all about power-to-weight ratio, and my engine is undersized.

On Sunday, I celebrated with the ultimate recovery ride.

Think ... more carbon fiber.

And ... a really big engine.

A friend of mine picked up his new car on Friday and was eager for some quality driving. We headed for the south shore of Lake Tahoe and carved a scenic loop past Mono Lake into Nevada, along the Walker River to Walker Lake, returning over Monitor Pass and then up Ebbetts to Kinney Reservoir and the summit for good measure. That rocket-engine-inside-a-slick-car-body accelerates like nothing else. But I can still outrun it on a twisty descent.

July 4, 2009

Celebrating Independence Day

The early cyclist gets the pancakes. Our club's annual Fourth of July Pancake Breakfast started at 8 a.m. Needless to say, I was not signing up for one of the pre-breakfast rides; riding to the start was good enough for me.

But not good enough for pancakes, which had vanished by the time I arrived at 9:00 a.m. Sigh. I felt sorry for any riders who planned to skip the pancakes and just join one of the later rides, as we rolled out half an hour ahead of schedule.

I'm not shy about drafting a skilled cyclist when I can manage to stay on his wheel. But what is it with strong cyclists drafting weaker ones? Inspired by what little I saw of the Tour de France Prologue before I left home, I was pushing a good pace on the way to breakfast and attracted a wheelsucker. The last time this happened, I was leading the group and couldn't adopt my usual tactic: slow my pace enough to annoy the guy and induce him to pass me. On the Wildflower Century, this maneuver led to an amicable partnership that moved both of us briskly through 10 or more miles of headwind. This morning it had the expected effect—he passed me and sped off. Seriously, would you draft a woman with sparkly stars and streamers fluttering from her saddle?

We had quite a crowd (40 or more) for our post-breakfast sortie into the hills above Los Gatos. Our route explored Overlook Road, which (as you might expect) overlooks the valley. Nice climb, but hazy views today. Most of us decked out in red-white-and-blue, we were quite a sight as we scrambled out of the way for the hilltop resident who arrived home. The guests are here, let's get this party started!

July 3, 2009

Faster than Some

Slower than most.

The fast riders agreed to back off to a more social pace today, which meant that I successfully hung with them for miles on the flats. Once we hit the rollers, however, it was game over. Another woman fell out of sight behind me, and we had already opened a gap early on the slowest riders. Which meant that I was out there in the middle, somewhere, enjoying the day. Along the way, a pack of motorcyclists waited for us to turn in front of them. They would soon pass us; I would bet there were a hundred of them, we had never seen so many in one group. One guy was spotted in full leathers, but these were not Harleys. Think Vespa.

I rode to the start in San Jose, and then we were off to Morgan Hill, past the Calero and Chesbro reservoirs, for two modest climbs. Our route approached these from their easier flanks, so I was momentarily puzzled when three of the fast guys caught up with me at the second summit. They had added a small climbing diversion, which must have been quite challenging if that delayed them enough to fall behind me. Or perhaps they'd done our little climbs twice, besides.

On the return, a route sheet error sent me the wrong way in San Jose's unfamiliar suburban sprawl. After mixing it up with shopping mall traffic for a mile or so, I surmised that I was meant to head in the opposite direction. Today's ride was something of a fundraiser for the club's team riding in next weekend's LiveStrong Challenge, and our hosts were sponsoring a barbecue. I managed to roll in just in time to eat.

61 miles, 1,575 feet of climbing for the day.