October 31, 2009

Uphill Finish

If you have watched any professional bike races, you have likely seen those dramatic mountain-top finishes where the cyclist is forced to run the gantlet through crowds pressing along both sides of the road. The heart is pounding, lungs are burning, legs are screaming, pedals are barely turning ... any clueless bystander could topple the racer onto the pavement.

That is what it felt like at the top of Montevina this morning on today's Low-Key Hillclimb, though of course there were fewer people and I had much more room to maneuver than the pros do. For the first 3.3 miles, Montevina presents a challenging gradient of 8.3%. When it gets steep, it is a sign that the end of the road is near. Not nearly near enough, however, as you face a stretch more than a quarter mile long at an ever-increasing gradient that averages 13.1%.

My ever-increasing heart rate averaged 180 beats per minute on that segment, for close to five minutes. At that rate, there is little blood flow allocated to the higher cognitive functions. With people and bicycles everywhere, I had no confidence that I could pedal across the line and bring my bicycle to an uphill stop without toppling over.

I dismounted and walked the last 50 yards. My speed had already dropped to 3.5 mph, so it was not as though I would lose much time. A throng of fellow Death Riders cheered me on, shouting:
This is harder than the Death Ride!
No argument there, though I had been similarly unnerved by the Brownian motion of cyclists at the top of Ebbetts Pass.

On the climb, I worked hard not to be distracted by the incredible views of the Santa Clara Valley and Monterey Bay, blanketed by fog. Even at my pace, the marine layer lingered long enough to collect some nice photos on the trip back down. I should climb this hill more often.

October 25, 2009

The Sunday Drive

When I was growing up, the Sunday drive was a major family treat. We would head out of the city, to the shore or into the countryside, and enjoy an early dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. I have happy memories of feeding the swans and watching the water wheel turn at the Old Mill Inn, of hot popovers at Patricia Murphy's. The places are long gone, but the tradition lives again.

For today's Sunday drive, I was invited to share a meandering excursion through the countryside on our way (of course) to dinner. As it turned out, I was behind the wheel on a lusciously curvy road when we spied flashing lights through the trees, around a bend. I slowed to a crawl. An officer waved me into the opposite lane, and I rolled cautiously past the line of emergency vehicles.

Being in a car that looks fast, and is fast, it is advisable not to attract any extra attention. An officer got into his car just as we passed and soon was following us. If I could have conveniently retreated to the passenger seat, I would have gladly handed back the wheel; but the road was narrow, with no place to pull aside to swap places or let the officer pass. He trailed us for miles as I [now hyper-alert] drove at or below the posted speed limit, to the stop sign at the end of the road. Needless to say, I slowed with great deliberation to an unquestionably full stop.

What's that? Is he saying something over his loudspeaker? He pulls up next to us. Is he turning left? It is a gorgeous, warm fall day, and our windows are down. I turn to face him; he has lowered his window to speak to me. With an ironic smile, he said:
You don't have to drive the speed limit.
I'm just trying to get home, too.
Yes, that's right. In a vehicle capable of traveling at more than a quarter the speed of sound, I was chided for not exceeding the speed limit.

October 24, 2009


When you reach the private gate marking the end of Soda Springs Road, you can only imagine the views hidden behind the trees at this altitude of some 3,010 feet. Lower on the mountain, you can catch the occasional sweeping vista that extends to the hills beyond San Francisco Bay.

Before you have traveled the first tenth of a mile along Soda Springs, gaze down at Alma Bridge Road more than 30 feet below. How is it possible that you have already risen so high? Prepare to suffer for the next 5.2 miles, as the gradient is remarkably steady (averaging 8.4%). To reach the top, you will ascend more than 2,300 feet.

Given that I climbed Old La Honda at the rate of 2,426 feet per hour, you can see what was in store for me on today's Low-Key Hillclimb. Soda Springs is longer and steeper - steep enough to tax my legs in addition to my cardiovascular system.

How did I do, mile by mile?
  1. 10:00 minutes, swept up in the excitement of chasing the pack.
  2. 11:20. The rider ahead of me has passed out of view.
  3. 12:25. So much for that early 10-minute pace.
  4. 12:45. Holding my own, more or less.
  5. 11:40. With descending riders cheering me on, I pick up the pace.
Sixty-two minutes and 42 seconds to cross the line. This is the price of laziness. For the past month, I have only gotten on the bike once a week. Not to discount last Sunday's cross-training expedition through the forest, I must get more exercise. The days are short, but I know how to set up the lights on my commuter bike. The mornings are cool, but I know how to dress for success. Next Saturday's climb is steeper.

October 18, 2009

Don't Fall in the Creek

Do you suppose they call it Fall Creek for the trees that fall into the creek?

Or is it named for the trees that fall across the trails?

Maybe the name celebrates the small falls cascading over rocks and logs.

It might be that Fall is the most colorful season to visit.

I cannot remember when I last ventured out on a proper hike, which means that too much time has passed. Or that I am getting forgetful. Too much time, that must be it.

Today I set out to enjoy my favorite hike in the Bay Area, a loop through the Fall Creek area of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Normally, I would not hike alone, but I have gone too long without a hike to sit at home. I figured the two cardinal rules of hiking alone must be:
  1. Don't get lost.
  2. Don't get hurt.
As you have surmised by now, I made it safely home.

What's this, a day outdoors with no biking involved? True enough. But there were steep hills to climb.

There are no facilities in this part of the park; no trail map brochures, either. Fortunately, the map and description in my guidebook offered more detail than the park's online map. Despite some less-than-useful trail markings, I completed an estimated 8.2-mile loop with minimal back-tracking. Without locking onto a GPS signal for the first hour and a half (or longer), I captured only a partial track of my route. The critical moment was deducing that what appeared to be a rain gully was, in fact, the Lost Empire trail that would lead me to the high point of the hike (literally and figuratively): the Big Ben tree, a virgin redwood.

In the aftermath of last week's storm, I did what the state budget currently does not: minor trail clean-up.

This park seems to be most popular with the locals, and few hikers venture away from the Fall Creek Trail. For most of the day, I saw and heard nothing more than splashing water, chirping birds, falling acorns, and my own footfalls as I trudged through the damp forest.

Don't get lost. Or hurt.

October 17, 2009

First Impressions

At the end of my first day of skiing, I wanted nothing more than to soak my cold, wet, tired, bruised, sore, unathletic, out-of-shape body in a hot tub for the next day ... or two. Reasoning that skiing was popular, I knew there must be something I was missing. I gave the sport a second chance, and learned how much fun it can be.

The first time I tried a Low-Key Hillclimb, I was concerned that the racing types would look at me with a mixture of disdain and pity. Nothing could be further from reality. All cyclists truly are welcome, supported with shouts of encouragement along the way and cheers at the finish.

In 2007, I rode six of the nine climbs and learned what it was like to push myself to the limit. Last year, I approached each climb with a mixture of excitement and dread. I wanted to ride, but now I fully understood what it felt like to perform at the edge. Each Saturday morning was a struggle . . . why subject myself to an hour or more of lung-searing, leg-burning agony? Each week I won [or lost, depending on one's perspective] that battle; I rode five of the eight climbs.

The gracious folks at Potrero Nuevo Farm welcomed us to assemble at the Bike Hut this morning. The Bike Hut is a local treasure that Bay Area cyclists hope to enjoy for many rides to come. Hospitality, with a sense of humor.

I was not sure how long it would take me to reach the top this morning, but I figured it would be well over an hour. Today presented the longest climb of the series so far (7.6 miles), and I doubted that I could average any speed close to 7.6 mph going uphill.

Once the back of the pack sorted itself out, I found myself in an uncommon position: bracketed by two other riders. The distance between us was somewhat elastic, but our pace was pretty constant. Until, as in the immortal words of the legendary Phil Liggett, the elastic snapped. The guy ahead of me ran out of steam. It was one of those rare moments for me, as I passed him, to experience the sensation of being in a race (as opposed to a solo time trial). The guy behind would sometimes draw near, but I held him off. The only cyclists who passed me then were the mighty specimens with chiseled calves, including one guy on a shiny Cervélo who admired my Death Ride jersey.

From Tunitas Creek, we turned onto Star Hill to head for the rudest part of the climb, the aptly named Swett. I carried what speed I could into the turn and gave it my all. (I highly recommend this approach to avoid stalling out and toppling over.) Some say that the gradient is 19%. You can see the top of this segment from the bottom without having to tilt your head back too far, but with all the debris from last week's storm you had little choice other than to follow one of the two car tire tracks straight up.

If you had suggested that I would reach a top speed of 22.1 mph from a standing start, while heading up Tunitas Creek Road, I would have called you crazy. If you had suggested that I would find a place to shift into my largest gear while climbing Tunitas Creek Road, I would have given you a hearty laugh. Yet, today I did both of those things, averaging almost 7.5 mph to arrive at Skyline in 61:04.

This year, excitement has vanquished the dread. Each Saturday morning, I am eager for the challenge. I will never be fast, but I am having a blast.

October 15, 2009

On Thin Ice

I have pedaled more than 3,500 miles by bicycle this year. Recently, a stunned coworker said "I haven't driven that many miles."

My recreational rides may not be thoroughly green, as they often entail driving myself and my bicycle to some starting location, but a rough tally of my bicycle commutes surprised me: more than 1,200 miles so far in 2009.

I rarely drive to the office. When first presented with the option of taking a shuttle to work, I was unsure. Conform to a regular, rigid schedule? Not one of my strengths ... until I experienced how stress-free a rush hour commute is when you leave the driving to someone else. Not to mention the joy of a fast trip in the carpool lane, and fewer dollars converted to carbon monoxide in the process.

When it is not feasible to bike, I take advantage of the shuttle. The benefits of not driving are so substantial that I learned to schedule around this. Without a little forethought, it is easy to "need" your car every day.

I confess that I am not a purist; without apology, I indulge in some decidedly un-green activities. We all do. But whatever your feelings on the topic of climate change, it can't hurt to reduce your impact on the planet.

Blog Action Day 2009

October 10, 2009

Without Mercy

This graph expresses the highlight of my Low-Key day, setting a personal record on our renowned local benchmark climb, Old La Honda Road. My official time was 31:54.

The diagonal line represents the climb, with a gradient averaging 7.3%. The grade looks constant, but note the bumpy line at the bottom of the graph. That line represents my speed; for the most part, if my speed goes up, the slope has gotten flatter.

Finally, there is the relatively steady horizontal line at the top. That would be my heart rate, which climbed above 170 beats per minute after the first 35 seconds and averaged 177 for the duration of this exercise.

Like most Bay Area cyclists, I know this climb well. I know that I am stronger than the last time I charged up this hill. I knew that the rush of competition would make me go faster. I believed I could push myself very hard and make it to the top without fading. No mercy, today. I would glance at my heart rate monitor from time to time: 177, 180 beats per minute. Was my pace slowing? No. Well, no reason to back off, then.

When I reached the edge of the rough pavement near the top of the climb, I knew the end was near. I glanced down at my time ... I was close to finishing under 32 minutes! I accelerated ... I could hear the finish line ... the mailboxes were in sight. I crossed the line with six seconds to spare. Now you understand that final upward blip in speed (and heart rate) at the end of the graph.

Today I shaved two minutes, eleven seconds from my previous best time, and it was worth every heartbeat. All 5,646 of them (give or take).

October 3, 2009

Why I Climb

My top five reasons for bicycling up hills:
  1. The descent.
  2. The view.
  3. Chocolate.
  4. Fitness.
  5. The pain subsides at the top.
Today was the opening of the Low-Key Hillclimb season, which means that Reason #5 was necessarily promoted to Reason #1.

There is really nothing like charging up a hill in a pack of fast cyclists to test one's limits on a bicycle. Last year, many of us were caught in the rain; this year, the weather was sunny and cool. Last year, I was hurting and miserable; this year, well, I was just hurting.

I love the spirit of Low-Key: friendly, fun, full of good humor and encouragement. We are all out there mixing it up together: commuters, recreational riders, and racers from the local clubs. Road bikes, mountain bikes, an electrified recumbent, and a fixie (whose rider leaves most of us in the dust). Men and women of all ages. It's an open field.

When my Five-Pass Finisher jersey arrived yesterday, I took it as a sign. There could be no more fitting debut than this. I wore it with pride, and set a new personal best time on Montebello: 54:43, almost one minute faster than my best time in 2007, and at a lower average heart rate (173 vs. 177 bpm). Could I have pushed harder today? No, I am pretty confident that I gave it what I had.

I wasn't the last cyclist up the hill. Not ready to retire, just yet.