August 30, 2009

Able Was I

I have been fortunate to have had few encounters with aggressive drivers; today was not one of those days. Traveling south on Highway 9 in Ben Lomond to return to the park where we started our ride, I approached an intersection with deep sand and gravel in my path. What to do? With a steady flow of traffic in the narrow lane to my left and no room to maneuver, I calculated that I could ride through it. Just as I entered the intersection and the first patch of debris, the driver behind me gunned his engine and squealed into the right-hand turn in front of me, losing traction in the sand. The car was old, small, and yellow. A word describing the driver of said car starts with an "a" (hint: I'm not thinking "aggressive"). I stayed upright and lived to cycle another day. Peace and love to you too, bud, here in the harmonic center of hippie-dom in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I have a fellow cyclist to thank for the high point of my day. Waiting at the base of Alba for the rest of our group to descend, a racer from the San Jose Bike Club rounded the corner to start the climb. As he did, he called out: "Going up?" I replied: "Already been." I knew he was talking to me, because there was nobody else around. And that means, despite being decked out in my recreational club jersey, I somehow looked not only capable of climbing Alba, but worthy of consideration as a climbing partner. Or maybe it means he was nearsighted.

A friendly driver paused at the stop sign to give me an update on the group. "They're a ways back, maybe two-thirds down." I'd had a lovely, somewhat conservative descent (being unfamiliar with the road, but knowing that it would end abruptly at this stop sign, after a blind curve). A small pickup truck had come into view behind me just as the road got twisty and technical. I dropped him in the blink of an eye; he caught up only after I'd stopped at the bottom. That's the way I like it.

Alba loomed large for me this morning. From Roads to Ride (South) by Petersen and Kluge:
This is one of the most difficult short climbs in the Santa Cruz Mountains. ... Descending Alba Rd. isn't great fun, but rather a matter of constantly arresting your speed and looking forward to the bottom.
It's number 76 on a list of the 100 Toughest USA Road Bike Climbs, according to John Summerson (The Complete Guide to Climbing by Bike).

On our club's scale of 3 to 6, Alba is a 6. Our group included five women, four of whom have mountain bike gearing on their road bikes. Uh, guess which one does not? And where were all our able, hard-bodied men this morning?

We arrived at the base of Alba together; our leader wanted to re-group before heading up. I needed not to stop, before I lost my nerve.

I learned a valuable life lesson years ago, the first time I stood at the top of the Cirque at Snowbird and looked down. More or less, straight down. Double Black Diamond. Free fall. I was balancing on a pair of skis between some jagged rocks on a ridge line at 11,000 feet and my heart was in my throat. I wasn't going first, no, not me, no way, no how. The longer I stood there watching the first woman in our group as she repeatedly toppled over below us, the higher my anxiety rose. Somehow, I had to point my skis down the hill. Terrified, I eased into the first turn, and stopped. I was upright. Okay, another turn. Still upright. Maybe I could link two turns together? Soon I was a third of the way down. Near the bottom, my skier extraordinaire friend Dave passed me. He knew there was only one way that I could be at that particular spot on the mountain. "No more blue trails for YOU," he shouted as he flew by.

I'd heard that Alba is really steep at the bottom, and the published profiles showed that it gets really steep again near the top. In the middle, it's merely steep. I made steady progress up the hill, waiting for it to get worse. When the grade relented after the first half mile, I realized it wasn't going to get worse. The grade is uneven, but the steeper bits are short. With apologies to Sheryl Crow, "This ain't no Country View." If Alba is a "6," Country View is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a 6.

August 29, 2009

Low-Power Mode

You know it is going to be a hot day when, stopped at the first traffic light a few hundred yards from the start, a rivulet of sweat runs down your calf from the slight skin-on-skin contact in the crook of your knee, and it's only 9 a.m. After climbing some hills on the suburban fringes of San Jose with friends, I returned home to sprawl under a ceiling fan and switched myself into low-power mode. Not quite, but nearly, napping in the triple-digit heat.

My Saturday started with the most egregious telemarketing call yet. When telemarketers call, my habit is to answer the phone, set it down, and hang up after they eventually drop the call. This one, however, begged for some interaction.
Hello, may I speak with ...
Who's calling?
[My bank]
Is there a problem with my account?
Oh no, ma'am ...
It is 7:40 A.M.
And I am on the Do Not Call List.
Do Not Call Here. Ever. Again.
Yes, I suppose the Do-Not-Call-List does not apply when it is your bank calling. It is I who will be calling the bank, on Monday morning.

When I stopped to take the photo above, I didn't notice the hawk that must have been perched nearby until it took flight and scolded me with its distinctive, eerie cry. Given the heat, we scaled our ride back from five hills to three, 31 miles for the day. Top speed: 44.4 mph, on a wide thoroughfare with little traffic and creamy-smooth pavement. Well worth the climb.

August 22, 2009

Uncharted Territory

With so many intrepid cyclists exploring every possible uphill in the Bay Area, it seems improbable that one might discover a new climb. Imagine my surprise to be introduced to a challenging and apparently unfamiliar road last week. Impressions of a road's grade from the seat of a car can be misleading; the only sure way to know is to get on the bike and head for the top. It didn't look impossible.

Our club rates hills on a subjective scale from 3 to 6, where "3" is noticeably uphill and "6" means I need lower gears than I have. My sense was that this new hill could be a 6. Or a 5. Probably not a 4, but I certainly wouldn't complain if it turned out that way.

I persuaded some friends and my regular ride partner to go exploring with me. Our 40-mile menu included a few of the club's 3-rated hills along the way to today's featured special, Country View Drive. As soon as we rounded the corner, there were a few [unprintable] exclamations of, er, delight.
I am totally in the wrong gear!

This is definitely not a "3"!
Four out of the five of us made it to the summit. The fifth was running low on water and looks forward to returning on a cooler day.

The vote at the top: one hypoxic abstention, two for "6," and a "5" from the Canadian judge. The grade of the climb is uneven, and interrupted by two descents. Factoring out that half mile or so, we climbed 710 feet over about 1.3 miles. Including a brief scenic detour on a steep side street, and those two intervening climbs on the way down, we used less than two miles of pavement to climb 930 feet.

If you haven't done something like this on a bicycle, let me explain that this is hard. Really hard. It hurts. On the steepest section, I sustained an average heart rate of 182 beats per minute for more than five minutes to generate a forward pace of 4.1 mph (i.e., to stay upright).

At the end of the day, everyone was still talking to me. Even before we played in the fountain.

August 15, 2009

Social Climbing

Today was the club's annual Ice Cream Social, conveniently celebrated about five miles from home. Translation: Find some hills and earn those calories.

I have been itching to head up Hicks, the hard way, and eager to explore Mt. Umunhum Road. The latter is an out-and-back that I do not feel comfortable riding alone. The former is, well, just plain hard - physically and mentally. Before today I had only climbed it non-stop on one occasion.

The weather did not disappoint: hot enough to make Hicks harder. I am a seated climber, and the grade is steep enough that I lifted my front wheel off the pavement a few times as I pulled on the handlebars. When I started to feel sorry for myself, I pushed those thoughts out of my head and focused on turning the pedals instead of stopping for a break.

Non-stop, for the second time in my life. My power-to-weight ratio has clearly improved.

Mt. Umunhum Road is no picnic, but after Hicks it seems ... merely uphill. I continued for a stretch beyond the first gate, but turned around to re-join my ride partner before reaching gate number two.

Did I earn my chocolate ice cream? Beyond any doubt.

August 14, 2009

Driving Range

No offense, but I have to admit that I don't "get" golf. I did spend today on a golf course, and it did involve driving: in two fundamentally heretical ways. The first involved driving exotic cars onto the greens. The second involved driving exotic cars ... period. Our guess was that 10% or fewer of the owners actually drive their machines, which is the real heresy.

Nine Lamborghinis, all in a row ... you do the math. There were many more, including a tractor and an LM002. But not nearly as many as there were Ferarris, which overflowed their (larger) assigned area into two additional spillover sectors. To the early birds go the prime exhibition spots.

After strolling around at Concorso Italiano to check out hundreds of fabulous cars (you'd think they were a dime-a-dozen, or something), we found a shady spot where we could comfortably enjoy some people-watching. As we watched a guy entertaining two blondes near the shiny black car, I joked that he must be claiming the car as his own. This led instantly to a bet that I wouldn't stroll down the hill, key in hand, and nonchalantly raise the carbon-fiber rear panel to expose the engine. Guess who won that bet. [Admittedly, only after being goaded mercilessly for a solid 20 minutes. The release lever is where?]

A long day in the company of fine fast cars can have only one natural conclusion. Our drive passed through some areas dense with smoke from the Lockheed fire burning in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which had sent ash raining down far south onto the cars in Monterey. The drifting plume was visible above the Calero Reservoir, at sunset.

August 8, 2009

Blue Balls

With public art as playful as this, who couldn't forgive calling this "Blue Balls" Park? For the record, the official name is Anna Jean Cummings Park.

My ride partner suggested that we preview a route we plan to lead for the club next month, and so we headed into the redwood forest on a sort of junior Santa Cruz Mountains Challenge.

Up Old Santa Cruz Highway. Down Soquel-San Jose Road. One of my favorite descents - no need to touch your brakes unless you catch a car. Up Rodeo Gulch. Down Branciforte. Up Granite Creek. Down (and up) Bean Creek. There's a beautiful road, lulling you along through the redwoods until ... wham! It gets steep enough to hurt, signaling that you have almost reached the end. And finally, the pièce de résistance: Up Mountain Charlie Road.

The last time we led a group up Mountain Charlie, two of the riders thought the day's 45-mile route was a tad short and planned to extend it. By the time they reached the top, they had changed their minds.

Did I ride hard, or take it easy? I had a good time climbing Mountain Charlie. (There's a sentence I never thought I would write). I was riding without stats today (unthinkable!). My Polar receiver's battery was almost fully drained by the time I noticed, last weekend; hopefully the service center will return it next week. MyTracks balked and could not be coaxed to record any data. Just pedal. And breathe.

August 1, 2009

Misty Marin

My real cycling education commenced in the summer of 2003, on the back seat of a recumbent tandem. One of the most important lessons I learned was:
If the bicycle starts making an unusual noise, stop immediately and identify the cause.
This likely saved us from an unfortunate crash on the Tour of Napa in 2004, when a thump thump thump from the rear wheel signaled the imminent failure of the rim, which was separating at the weld.

A natural corollary to the above maxim might be:
If something feels unusual, stop immediately and identify the cause.
In retrospect, it is obvious that the slippery feeling on my right pedal meant that my cleat was no longer in a fixed position on the sole of my shoe. I was enjoying the scenery and my cycling companions; rather than inspect my shoe, I chose to ignore the unusual sensation.

Around mile 48, the vivid blue reflection of a pond compelled me to stop for a photo. I frowned as I yanked my foot out of that right pedal. Remounting the bike and continuing uphill, I could not clip in. I pulled into a farm driveway and, finally, looked at my shoe. The cleat was dangling by one bolt.

I backtracked to look for the wayward bolt, but it was likely lost on the road long before I stopped to snap that photo. With more than 50 (hilly) miles ahead, it seemed that my ride was over. Now, where was that red Porsche convertible SAG vehicle I had seen earlier in the day?

Luckily, I was within a mile of rest stop #2, and it wasn't that challenging to get there under my own power. There, the Wheel Peddler saved my ride. He was busy lacing spokes into a wheel for another rider, but promptly provided a suitable replacement bolt (and refused payment). Should you have the opportunity, give this guy some business.

The weather was perfect (thanks to the cool fog), the route was beautiful, and the ride was well-supported by the Marin Cyclists. I am always tense about riding on Highway 1, but perhaps the fog kept the tourists away. On that seven-mile stretch, we encountered only a handful of cars.

Our group of five hung together pretty well - largely because the two guys were willing to ride at a more relaxed pace, or wait for us. I was surprised to run into several people I know, including one colleague from work who was riding her first century. Congratulations, Maire!

I averaged 13.2 mph over 106 miles with 6,400 feet of climbing - not bad. A few people were surprised that I was riding a century just three weeks after the Death Ride, but honestly, I felt fine. In the end, I even tackled the steepest climb of the day: a nasty-but-short wall back to the hotel, where I had left my car. [Initial segment: 21% grade, average 16.6%. Ow.]