December 31, 2010

Blitzed by the Blizzard

Mom: Stop that! Don't do their job!
In this case, "they" would be the snow-clearing dudes who were yet to appear, more than 30 hours after the Blizzard of 2010 dumped more than 30 inches of snow on us. The fierce winds had created drifts taller than me. Needless to say, the snow crews were pretty busy. I was thoroughly bored and longing for some exercise. I shoveled a narrow path down the driveway to the street, and dug out the mailbox.
Sister-in-law's mom: Stop that! I can get the car out!
Sure, but the softening patches of ice on the driveway will freeze solid overnight and be just as treacherous tomorrow.
Uncle (and his next-door neighbor, in harmony): Stop that!
I don't want you to do that. It will melt!
Yes, it will melt. Eventually.

When you cross the threshold into your eighties, do they hand you a script? Is there a prohibition against graciously accepting the help of the next generation?

The most effective response, I have learned, is simply to turn my back and tune out the tirade. As my brother later remarked, they do not understand that I am in better shape than they were at any point in their lives.

My Christmas holiday visit was unexpectedly extended by the storm, which would have been classified as a Category 2 hurricane in a different season. A state of emergency was declared, thousands of flights were canceled, at least five state highways were closed (unplowed) for several days, and the Post Office stopped delivering mail.

The airports were jammed with stranded travelers and Continental Airlines would not answer the phone. They are not accountable for the weather, but they are responsible for how they cope with the aftermath. Grade: F-

At least I was comfortable and merely inconvenienced, staying with family. Five days after my flight was canceled, I rescued myself with a one-way ticket on a different airline.

There's no place like home, there's no place like home ...

December 11, 2010

Into the Mist(ic)

Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly
We were too far inland to smell the sea, but we certainly did feel the sky. It was neither cold nor rainy, but wet without any doubt. I was coated with grime before I arrived at the official starting point and then astonished that five intrepid riders showed up for our ambitious climb-fest in spite of the weather.

Confidentially, I had been hoping for rain; when my ride co-leader originally suggested this route, my eyebrows went up. "We could always make Reynolds optional," I proposed. As we started up Mt. Umunhum today, one of the guys asked "Are you really going up Reynolds, too?" Yup. Three hill climbs, each with an average grade hovering around 10%. For me, two additional hills riding to the start and back home. Sounds crazy? [Okay, it probably is crazy.] By the time I would load the bike into the car, drive to the start, unload and set up the bike ... trust me, it is faster just to ride the bike.

Slugs were the only creatures climbing Hicks more slowly than I was today. I respectfully avoided them. Three deer crossed in front of me; the last, a young buck, lingered in the middle of the road to study me. "What sort of weakling is that?," he must have wondered. Labored breathing, moving so slowly, separated from its pack.

Thirty-three miles, 3,635 feet of climbing through the clouds.What a view.

December 4, 2010

Touch of Color

All the hills are brown
and the sky is gray.
I've been for a ride
on a winter's day.
Judging by the radar map this morning, I would have stayed home (warm and dry). Technology is not always the best thing. A ride partner willing to goad you onto the bike can be better.

The rain did start coming down just before he arrived, but it was insincere. Undeterred, we headed for the hills.

It has been three weeks since I was last on the bike, but I did surprisingly well. Realizing that I should be cross-training in practice, rather than in theory, I signed up for the Concept 2 Holiday Challenge. To date, I've rowed 35,130 meters. Given my performance on the bike today, that has indeed paid off.

We climbed 1,675 feet over 15.9 miles, with views of steep forested canyons and Santa Clara Valley in the distance. Not to mention the usual quail and one flock of wild turkeys. Only a few cyclists, though; the hard-core who pay little heed to weather forecasts.

November 25, 2010

Traditions

With snow at the summit of Mt. Hamilton, this year I broke with tradition. In each of the preceding four years, I have finished off the Low-Key Hillclimb season with a hundred or so kindred spirits by charging up the mountain on Thanksgiving morning. Expecting to be slower this year, I was not eager to push myself to the max for more than two hours; instead, I planned to get an earlier start and then to assist at the top.

Regrettably, common sense took hold when I saw that the high temperature at the summit on Wednesday was 28F. Sure, I could send extra layers to the top to stay warm after the climb, but it would be impractical to carry all that gear back down on the bike.

Honestly, I can climb Mt. Hamilton whenever I want.

It was one of those rare days when the view extends from San Francisco to the north, clear to the snow-capped peaks of the Sierras in the east. Having spent most of my life in colder climes, it was easy for me to dress for success. With the thermometer climbing slightly above the freezing mark, I didn't even need to tap into my bottle of hot chocolate.

As a volunteer, I stood in the enviable position to witness the first guys crossing the line: Irish hillclimb champion Ryan Sherlock, with three-time Olympian and former Mt. Hamilton champion Eric Wohlberg close on his wheel.

All of this may sound like a strange approach to Thanksgiving, what with most of the country traveling far and wide to celebrate with family; my tradition is to be less traditional. [Although, my all-time favorite was watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, eye-level with the giant balloons, from a hotel balcony on Broadway. It was cold that day, too.]

Envying all the jubilant cyclists at the top of the mountain, I longed to fit some physical activity into my day. In this crowd, one need not look far to find a co-conspirator; a friend was eager to hike after our volunteer duties were done. Some passing hikers alerted us to a bobcat and a mountain lion in the vicinity; birds were abundant, but the only traces of the cats we saw were their tracks.

I finished the day happily tired and sore, though also sad not to have tackled the climb. But another Bay Area tradition is little more than a month away: Mt. Hamilton on New Year's Day. At my own comfortable pace.

November 20, 2010

Preserve and Protect

When the Ranger pulled out her digital camera and started snapping photos, well, a certain song came to mind. It is, after all, nearly Thanksgiving.

I mean, with the rare sight of all those colorful Lycra-clad bodies on such a gloomy day, maybe our ranger just wanted an image she could admire forever?

But there was another possibility, one much closer to those immortal twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us. Preserved in some file somewhere will be a photo of a volunteer shivering behind a video tripod, sleet bouncing off her rain jacket as she recorded the finishing time of each rider.

The third Ranger truck arrived with lights flashing and siren wailing. As it turns out, a fourth Ranger truck waited at the base of the hill.

I mean, what better way to spend a cold, wet morning than haranguing a bunch of cyclists who harmed no one as they climbed up a (paved) road to nowhere in the rain? We are not the vandals they normally chase away; those prefer the cover of night and have the sense to stay warm and dry on a day like this.

Every hiker, every cyclist, in the Bay Area looks forward to the day when the top of Mt. Umunhum is reopened to the public.

Perhaps the organization should consider a new name at the same time: Midpeninsula Regional Closed Space District.

November 13, 2010

A Peak Experience

Saturday morning found me in an unusual position, test driving a strangely familiar vehicle on a route I planned to bike in the afternoon. With too much traffic on the highway, I checked with my official escort: Would a spin around the reservoir be okay? Sure, wherever you want to go.

Now here is one interesting, potentially scary, job: sit in the passenger seat of a fabulously powerful car with some random driver at the wheel. Prerequisite? Nerves of steel.

While most people I know would do almost anything for the opportunity to get behind the wheel, this random driver hesitated. It would be intimidating enough just to drive the beast. Add to that, being accompanied by a guy who really knows how to drive it. And did I mention the videocam?

See what I mean? No pressure.

As I stepped out of the car, someone asked “So, how was it?” One of the guys laughed: “She's smiling.”

The afternoon involved carbon fiber too, but of the two-wheeled variety and propelled by my rather pathetic human engine. A colleague visiting from the east coast was eager for a local bike ride, so long as I promised not to beat him up “too badly.” With limited time, I led him to the reservoir and beyond, through the redwoods to the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I am not sure he will forgive my legendary ability to underestimate distance. [We're almost there, probably two miles to the top.] But after gliding back down through the redwoods, I can tell you this: He was smiling.

Which brings to mind a morning conversation in the car, about passion. Driving. Cycling. Life well-lived.

November 7, 2010

It's All Relative

Some family members came out for a few days, and I packed as much fun as I could into their brief visit.
We toured the Monterey Bay Aquarium and took in the sunset at Carmel Beach.
We sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and then hiked above it in the Marin Headlands.
We toured the Jelly Belly factory and sampled beans in various stages of production, starting with a most unexpected flavor (sweet potato).

On a handsome and assertive Arabian, I did my best to follow our guide along a hilly trail.
We clambered over shoreline rocks to explore the natural tide pools.
I had a blast. Maybe the family did, too.

October 30, 2010

Done with Dunne

Ah, the nuances of Bay Area micro-climates. The short drive to the start of today's Low-Key Hillclimb was dry ... mostly. The live radar map showed a distinct lack of precipitation in the area.

As the saying goes, you had to be there.

There, it was decidedly moist. You might think the turn-out for a late-season hill climb in iffy weather would be low. You might think that, and you would be wrong. Some ninety-seven riders headed up a slippery road into the clouds. Cyclists are a hardy bunch.

Last Thursday night, as I watched a Major League pitcher cede the mound in the second game of the World Series [he had a blister on his finger], I thought of the guy who broke his collarbone [in two places] in a crash on the first day of the Tour de France some years back. He got back on the bike, and kept riding. Over the next three weeks, day after day, he kept riding [and even won a stage of the race]. Cyclists are a hardy bunch. Not to mention stubborn and perhaps a bit loony.

October 9, 2010

Riding with Levi

Who needs a travel alarm, when you can count on some fellow traveler to set off his car alarm at 5:20 a.m.? I am sure that everyone in our little motel building appreciated his ineptitude, not to mention the residents of the neighboring apartment complex.

Given the apocalyptic warnings of insufficient parking at the starting location for Levi's second annual King Ridge GranFondo, my ride buddy and I biked to the start. After that nice 3.5 mile warm-up, we settled into our place near the front ... of the back of the pack. With approximately 6,000 registered riders, this would be the largest cycling event in which either of us had participated.

Sensibly, they stage the riders from fastest to slowest. Regrettably, that means some cyclists with good bike handling skills are mixing it up at the back with those whose skills are, shall we say, a bit dodgy. After an electric rendition of the national anthem, with a helicopter hovering overhead, the familiar voice of the announcer from the Amgen Tour of California coached us through the mass start. Packed like sardines on wheels, we started inching forward at 8:00 a.m.; we crossed the starting line at 8:15—and there were hundreds more behind us.

Roads were closed for us throughout Santa Rosa. Six thousand cyclists take up a lot of space, and they gave us both sides of the road. When we transitioned to sharing the road with the motoring public, we found officers controlling every intersection. In that sense, this was one safe ride.

I lost my ride buddy around mile two, as I picked my way forward through gaps in the sea of riders. The three routes (Gran, Medio, Piccolo) diverge in Occidental. After leaving the first rest stop, I had the road to myself for miles.

Apparently that first stop was meant for the Piccolo riders, but without route sheets or clear guidance, many of us made the stop. That spot has served as a rest stop for the Wine Country Century, so it seemed natural to stop there. I arrived before the main crush; by the time I departed, they seemed pretty overwhelmed.

As with any organized ride, people sign up for a variety of reasons. Some hope for a chance to hang tight with Levi and his crew. Some hope for a chance just to see Levi. I longed to ride the Medio route because it follows much of the same course used for years by the first day of the classic Waves to Wine event. I suspect I was not the only Medio rider with that agenda; I saw one woman sporting the beautiful Champagne Club jersey from 2004. Sadly, Waves to Wine moved away from this route after 2006. Unlike that foggy day, today the coast was clear.

I had considered wearing that very jersey for old times' sake, but opted instead for a badge of honor—my Death Ride jersey. Unlike Waves to Wine, the GranFondo's Medio route heads up a steep climb on the return to Santa Rosa: Coleman Valley Road. I may be slow, but I can climb and I want some respect. I was anxious to reach the hill ahead of the crowds, after hearing hair-raising stories of unprepared riders stopping at random in the middle of the road to dismount (and walk).

By this point, the crowds were thinner, and—as one cyclist wryly observed—so were the riders. As I reached the base of the climb, I asked a passing century rider how long it was. "A mile and a half," he replied. Oh, not so bad. The narrow road was not too crowded; I chided one wobbly warrior to pick a direction, right or left, before I could safely pass her. The number of riders was about evenly matched with the number of walkers. The grade was steady, averaging 10%.

Those who were climbing were strong, which incited me to ride at a faster pace. A thin climber in a BMC racing kit encouraged me:
If you can do the Death Ride, you can get up this hill.
With my heart rate at 186 bpm, I pulled off into a shady nook about halfway up the climb. Lowering my heart rate allowed me to spin up the second half of the climb and enjoy the view. On the descent, I was particularly respectful on a sharp hairpin set up with an opposing wall of hay bales. This was one safe ride.

I was just about to leave the final rest stop, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but Levi Leipheimer himself. He graciously mingled and posed for photos with us, asking if we were having a good time. Back on the road, his posse passed me on a slight uphill grade, which subverted any chance that I might tack on to the back for a spell.

In a crowd of 6,000, I really did not expect to cross paths with anyone I knew. As I rolled across the finish line, I was astonished and pleased to be cheered by another ride buddy who had to sit out this event. I re-connected with my morning ride partner and devoured a heaping plate of chicken-and-shrimp paella. On the way back to our motel, we made one more stop: to admire the brand-new Cyclisk, one day before its official dedication.

Still feeling the aftermath of the cold virus that sidelined me for the past few weeks, I suffered less than I expected. I managed to average 12.7 mph over 60 miles, with a paltry 3,180 feet of climbing.

October 2, 2010

And, They're Off!

Photo by Alison Chaiken
Fall is here, and with it, the start of the Low-Key Hillclimb season. You have been training, right?

Well, maybe you have. I, on the other hand, have been more relaxed about my cycling this year. I thought about charging up Montebello Road today, at close to my maximum capacity for close to an hour. I know how that feels.

Then I signed up ... as a volunteer. Oh, what a noble sacrifice!

After a chilly summer, fall has brought warm weather. I was sweating in the bright sunshine, and I was standing still. [So glad I wasn't charging up the hill.]

The sight of 100+ cyclists, clad in bright Lycra, swarming all over the top of Montebello was something to behold. I was busy collecting finishing times as riders crossed the line, no time for photos.

With our top three endurance cyclists sitting out, there was uncertainty at the finish line about whether anyone was still climbing after the one-hour mark. (There were two.)

By the time we were done, I was longing for a nap. My first cold of the season has really set me back, but still ... all I did today was stand around.

Good thing I didn't try to charge up the hill.

September 18, 2010

Skies of Blue, Where Are You?

Mr. Blue Sky
Please tell us why
You had to hide away
For so long
Where did we go wrong?
We headed for Hollister, inland, away from the coastal gloom. Surely we could find some sunshine there?

Not on the northwestern segment of Cienega Road. Still, I preferred today's cool temperatures to last September's scorching 100+ degrees on this route.

Back on my own bicycle, my ride partner asked if it felt any different. Reflexively, I responded "No." After all, I have spent thousands of hours and put more than 10,000 miles on this bicycle. How could a single 100-mile ride on a demo bike affect the feel of my own machine?

But it did. I felt as though I could not fully extend my legs. Was my saddle too low? No, the height of my seatpost was unchanged. I felt as though I wanted to be pedaling a larger circle. Did the longer cranks on the demo bike make that much of a difference? 2.5 millimeters? I rode that bicycle for less than eight hours. Uh-oh ...

We enjoyed the usual wildlife along the way. Several types of hawks soaring overhead. Treacherous ground squirrels. [Note to hawks ...] The graceful young buck who crossed the road in front of us, easily clearing the barbed wire fences that keep the cattle at bay. Skydivers (a different variety of wild life).

By the time we reached Quien Sabe Road, the marine layer was only visible above the western hills. Today's route varied slightly from last year's, with a little more climbing and distance—yet, I rode it faster (11.8 vs. 11.1 mph) and at a lower average heart rate. What a difference 30 degrees makes.

September 12, 2010

Nothing to See Here

The fog was so thick that droplets condensed and fell from the visor on my helmet. Another rider pointed out that he might as well be riding the rollers and staring at the gray wall in his garage, the view was the same. Mother Nature didn't get the memo to turn off the fog machine on Saturday, when packs of cyclists headed down the coast in the seventh annual Best Buddies Hearst Castle Challenge.

Repeating this ride for the fourth year in a row, I fully appreciate what a fluke it was to have clear weather on my first ride in 2007. But it is a great cause and a challenging, well-supported ride, so I keep returning. Maybe we will get to enjoy the view next year ...

We start the century by heading east on Carmel Valley Road, making a u-turn through the tunnel at Robinson Canyon Road to head west to the coast. Our pace car this year was a white Audi R8 convertible, which led some of my fellow cyclists to speculate whether it was possible for that vehicle to run at a mere 15 miles per hour. When the driver reached the tunnel, he knew what was required. The incomparable sound of a 10-cylinder Lamborghini engine at play is a fine way to start the day.

At the first rest stop, a tall cyclist was blocking access to the food as he distractedly munched away. Eventually, he realized that he should move—and lo and behold, it was Anthony Shriver himself, founder and chairman of Best Buddies International.

At the second rest stop, a chatty guy on an ElliptiGO raced to a stop. His legs were amazing, nothing but skin stretched taut over a perfect musculature. Was this the power of the ElliptiGO? Uh, not entirely. I would later discover that he was no ordinary athlete, but none other than Ultramarathonman himself, Dean Karnazes.

My next brush with celebrity was a chance to pace for awhile with another respected Bay Area athlete, the weather anchor for the San Francisco CBS affiliate, Roberta Gonzales. She was completely charming, just another cyclist for the day, repeating the ride for the fifth time.

The new twist for me this year was the uncommon privilege to test ride a fabulous S-Works Amira bicycle for the entire length of the course. Thank you, Specialized!

I thought it would be fun to broadcast my location in real time on Saturday, but abandoned that idea when I realized that there would be no cell phone coverage south of Big Sur until we reached the outskirts of San Simeon. I did bring along a spare battery for my Android phone, though, which allowed me to run MyTracks long enough to capture the entire route. Unlike a woeful fellow cyclist, whose iPhone battery ran out of juice in less than five hours. Since he can't swap out the battery on an iPhone, I told him the solution was obvious. Ride faster. He thanked me with a playful slap on the shoulder.

The evening festivities included a bountiful barbecue and an engaging concert by Natasha Bedingfield. Fundraising is becoming a competitive sport in and of itself, which is all good news for this charitable cause. Seventeen riders raised more funds than I did, which earned me the yellow number "18" as one of the top 25 fundraisers this year. Following the concert, I was shuttled up to Hearst Castle to enjoy the final celebration of the day.

Above the marine layer on the Enchanted Hill, the skies were clear for stargazing as I soothed my tired muscles in the chilly spring water of the Neptune Pool. For that, I willingly traded my wool sweater and jacket for a bathing suit. There is nothing like the privilege to swim in that pool.

Thanks to the many friends who supported my ride for Best Buddies in 2010!

I Am Specialized

This story is more hard-core bicycle-centric than most. [You have been warned.]

When shopping for a car, or a bicycle for that matter, you are well-advised to take it for a test drive. You want to put the vehicle through its paces and see how it handles, but such opportunities are rare (and regrettably all-too-brief).

Imagine your good fortune if someone were to hand you the keys [so to speak], point you at a famously scenic, undulating road and say: I'll be waiting for you at the other end [100 miles away].

Such was my good fortune on Saturday, when Specialized—the official bicycle sponsor of the Best Buddies Hearst Castle Challenge—extended me the offer to test ride the bicycle of my choice down the Pacific Coast Highway, from Carmel Valley to San Simeon.

Did they really mean "the bicycle of my choice?" After all, my bicycle is pretty nice; it would not be interesting to downgrade. "How about the S-Works Amira?," I asked. "We will have it waiting for you," they replied.

The S-Works Amira is Specialized's hottest women's road racing machine.

To put this in perspective for the non-cyclist who might still be reading this post, let's say my current bicycle is equivalent to, for example, a BMW. It is well-built, high-end, sporty, and pretty fast—but it's not an M-series. The S-Works Amira is a Superleggera [as in, Lamborghini]. It is constructed almost entirely of carbon fiber, outfitted with top-of-the line components.

In other words, unless a particular bicycle part really needs to be made of metal, make it out of carbon fiber instead. The handlebars? Carbon fiber. The crank arms? Carbon fiber. Even the wheel rims are carbon fiber, with an alloy strip for braking. The saddle is mounted on hollow titanium rails. The end product is a bicycle that weighs less than 15 pounds.

My current bicycle is also pretty light, with a carbon fiber frame; it weighs in around 20 pounds. When I bought it a few years ago, I was accustomed to a hefty steel-frame hybrid. That is a fine utility vehicle, but not well-suited to keeping up with my road biking compatriots on the hills. The first time I lifted a carbon fiber bicycle in a shop, I nearly flipped it over my shoulder. I was totally unprepared for how lightweight it would be. The S-Works Amira is stunningly lighter.

Was I really going to hop on a totally unfamiliar bicycle and go for a 100-mile ride? Some would call this a crazy idea. An ill-fitting bicycle is a source of guaranteed misery: soreness, pulled muscles, inflamed joints. Some would call it risky: the handling characteristics would be different. I was apprehensive about moving from my triple chainring set to a compact double. I compared the gear ratios, and tried to convince myself that I would still be able to propel myself up the pair of hills at mile 75 on the route. They are not steep, but with more than 5,200 feet of climbing in my legs at that point, I would be grateful to spin a lower gear up those climbs (1,100 feet over 4 miles).

To keep the bicycle light, I packed the bare essentials for repair in a minimalist saddle bag. Armed with the measurements from a prior bike fitting, it was easy for the mechanic to set me up on Friday afternoon. I spent a few minutes rolling around the parking lot and was relieved that it felt good to me. Game on. Then I observed that it was outfitted with road tubeless tires, and realized that I should chuck the saddle bag. If I flatted, I would have no idea how to effect a repair.

How was it? It was one sweet ride.

This game is all about power-to-weight ratio, and my engine is sadly underpowered. I am slow as molasses, but given how lazy I have been this year, I expect I would have been slower than molasses on my own bike. When I got to the lunch stop, I was feeling quite perky. The first year I did this ride, at that point I was longing for a nap and forced myself to drink a caffeinated soda to keep my engine running.

I was well into the long hill climb when I thought, wistfully, "Now is the time when I would wish for a lower gear." I dejectedly flicked at the lever, and ... shifted down. Whoa! I wasn't already in my lowest gear?! Another half mile or so, I sighed. "This is okay, but a lower gear would be nicer." I flicked at the lever, and ... shifted down. Surely now I was in my lowest gear? I could have assessed my rear wheel, but I realized that I must normally be a wimp to drop into my lowest gear at the first sign of strain. As it turned out, I had two more downshifts to play before I reached the lowest gear. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what a lightweight bicycle can do for you.

What else did I notice about the bike? The big chainring was smaller than the one on my bike (50 teeth, vs. 52), the smallest cog was the same (12 teeth). I missed the speed of my big ring. Shifting from the smaller ring to the big ring seemed a bit tricky; I found that I needed to be more deliberate about it. The cranks were 2.5mm longer than on my bike, which meant I was pedaling a larger circle. I had no discomfort while riding, but with a new soreness running down the backs of my calves and tightness in my Achilles tendons, I suspect the longer cranks worked my muscles differently. I was also startled by the sound of the wheels when cornering at speed, and I backed off. It was only then that I heard that distinctive sound of carbon rims and, without prior experience, it seemed prudent not to push the limits.

When I bought my bicycle a few years ago, my brother remarked:
You paid HOW MUCH for something you have to PEDAL?
Imagine his reaction to the S-Works Amira, more than twice the price.

Like Fabian Cancellera, I Am Specialized. For a day.

September 6, 2010

Um, Hicks

On a day when we might have lolled under a shady tree with a good book and a tall glass of iced tea, three of us set out for a short local ride. Uphill, of course. Twenty-four miles, 3,360 feet of climbing.

The temperature rose a bit higher than was forecast, which was only fitting given that we were heading for Hicks. One friend knew she had been on Hicks, but did not remember how far she had gone. "Hmm, I think you would remember." How far is it? "Trust me, that isn't what you want to know. What you want to know is that the steep part is about 3/4 of a mile long, without a break." At the top, the look on her face said it all before she spoke. See, I knew she would have remembered that climb, had she been up it before.

Not content to rest on our laurels, we continued up Mt. Umunhum. I was determined to reach the end of the public portion of the road, to see firsthand the infamous white line and threatening signs. In a few years, perhaps we will be permitted to continue to the summit.

The Mt. Umunhum veteran in our trio assured us that the climb from the gate to the white line was "easy." [Not.] In some key places, my line up the hill was prescribed for me, as I picked my way through the broken pavement and loose gravel. Maximum heart rate: 188 beats per minute.

On the steepest part of the descent, the road skirts the edge of the mountain. Even as I moderated my pace, I felt spooked when I recognized a sensation that reminded me of soaring in a hang glider.

Sadly, this particular visit will not be forgotten. Did we cross paths with the cyclist who would, shortly thereafter, tragically crash and lose his life while descending the other side of Hicks? In closing, I offer my condolences to his family and friends.

September 4, 2010

Our Labor Day

Our bike club organizes one large event each year, the Tierra Bella. It takes a lot of volunteer labor, behind the scenes and on the scene, to stage that well. Traditionally, the club thanks us with a pre-event ride and barbecue, giving us the opportunity to check out the route with snacks along the way. When that was rained out this spring, a new plan was hatched: out-of-the-area routes leading to a barbecue (and, more importantly, fresh fruit pie!) at Gizdich Ranch.

Eager to explore some hills without following the same course we had ridden last May, my ride partner and I included a loop that is part of the Strawberry Fields Forever century route. I covered 63 miles, with 4,070 feet of climbing, to earn my slice of olallieberry pie (√° la mode).

Eureka Canyon Road has been in poor condition for years. One option would be to fix it, but perhaps the county exhausted its road maintenance budget rebuilding the segment that slid out a few years ago. Instead, they have erected permanent "Rough Road" signs at both ends of the road. The conditions make for a treacherous descent on a bicycle, so I was surprised to see a few riders on their way down. Maybe if you are the type of rider who never releases the brakes on a descent? Broken pavement ... potholes ... poor visibility in patchy sunlight under the towering trees ... deep piles of loose gravel. Climb it to savor the views, descend at your peril.

September 1, 2010

Rush Hour

On a hot summer night, would you ... oops, that's a Meat Loaf moment. Start over.

On a hot summer night, where would you rather be? In fairness, it was 7 p.m. and the traffic on the freeway below was easing. Still, I had the better view.

With my annual charity ride (a century) only 10 days away, it was high time to stifle the excuses and fit some bike commuting into my week. My slothfulness will exact a toll this year, given that there have been precious few weeks where I have managed to bike more than 50 miles.

Commuting is a commitment: 40 miles round trip, with 415 feet of climbing in the morning and 605 feet on the return. I was not too far off my pace, averaging 14.1 mph on the way to work and 12.8 mph on the way home. Pathetic, I know.

Maybe 100 miles this week? Last week, 129 miles. The previous week? Zero. Two out of three ain't bad.

August 28, 2010

Jill's Ride

It is still summertime—I checked the calendar. The water in my bottle at the end of a 60-mile bike ride should not be colder than when I started out (but it was).

As soon as I learned of this opportunity to support a worthy local organization, I signed up. Jill's Ride for Hope was a grass-roots, lightly-supported cycling event to benefit CASSY, a non-profit counseling service.

I did not know Jill, a high school student who took leave of the world in March 2009, but I find it heartbreaking enough just looking at her photo. CASSY has been there for her friends and family, and today's ride ended at a newly-created memorial garden on the grounds of the high school. There, benches have been set to remember students we have lost.

The 60-mile route was pretty challenging—climbing Highway 9 to the summit from Saratoga, then looping around to descend Bear Creek Road to Boulder Creek and climbing back up the other side of Highway 9 (by the end of the day, 5,715 feet of climbing). When I rode the Sequoia Century last year, I still faced more than 60 miles (and some significant climbing) after completing that loop. I have not been training hard this year, but I knew I could do it.

The marine layer was not a factor today, but it was surprisingly windy (and cold!) approaching the summit. I was mindful of the extra challenge of braking with numb fingers on the descent. Surprised to find it warmer in Boulder Creek, on the return climb I took refuge off the road in a grove of redwoods to peel off my jacket.

And then ... oh, how I know that sound.

What came into view first was the Gallardo, top down, plastered with logos from head to tail. Many similarly-adorned vehicles would follow—some Porsches and BMWs, a Mercedes, and an impressive array of Lamborghinis: Gallardos and Murcielagos in black, yellow, red, and orange. Fortunately for all concerned, the cars were descending and the cyclists were climbing. Many of the drivers were taking some liberties with the center line when the curves were clear. [Ahem.]

Dropping down the other side, I enjoyed a smooth descent unimpeded by vehicles until I reached the line-up at the traffic light controlling that pesky single-lane stretch. Along the way, it seems that I might have exceeded the speed limit. Just a little bit. [Ahem.]

I considered taking the most direct route back to the high school rather than following the circuitous "official" route ... but hey, what's one more gratuitous hill among friends?

Back at the school, the party was in full swing. I cherish living in a small town, with a community that rallies to support a cause. Trader Joe's donated cookies. Someone baked brownies. The Lions Club managed the barbecue and served us on plates that were actually Frisbees. The band was surprisingly good. The local merchants were so generous with schwag for the riders that I felt guilty. All I did was go for a nice bike ride, and I was sent home with a card for a free burger at Main Street Burgers. A card for a free pizza at Willow Street. A bean-shaped tin of ... you guessed it, Jelly Bellies from Party Beans.

And a photo of a beautiful young woman named Jill, whom I never met but will not soon forget.

August 22, 2010

What Goes Around

The Tour of Napa Valley was my very first organized bike event, back in 2002. I was not in shape, riding my trusty old steel frame hybrid bicycle, and unprepared. I did have bike shorts, but I was so cold at the start I layered the event t-shirt on top of whatever else I had chosen to wear that day. At the end of the day, surrounded by real cyclists, it was the skinny guys in the Death Ride jerseys that made the greatest impression on me.

Today it seemed only fitting that I should wear mine. As I was climbing Ink Grade, a guy in some team kit passed and gave me props. "Child's play for a Death Rider," he called out. It was a nice, steady climb that reminded me of our local Old Santa Cruz Highway. Turns out my hill sense was right on: OSCH climbs 1210 feet over 4.5 miles, and Ink Grade reportedly ascends 1110 feet over the same distance. I was surprised at the number of people who were walking up the hill. I made a point of asking each one if he or she was okay. I worried about one woman who failed to answer me, until the third time when I insisted "I need to hear yes."

The highlight of the ride for one friend is the Ben & Jerry's ice cream at the end. [I was delighted they were dishing out my favorite, Phish Food.] The highlight of the ride for me is a fabulous five-mile descent on smooth pavement. On the approach, I reluctantly touched the brakes when I saw a patrol car ... but on the long descent, I was free to roll.

I started out with about a dozen friends; the faster half of the group was soon out of sight. I had failed to connect with two friends at the start, but had a chance to chat when our paths crossed at the first two rest stops. Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to a Starbucks on the long drive home and spotted their car in the parking lot!

I will remember 2010 as The Year of the Feather. I still have a small spotted one from a woodpecker tucked into my saddle bag, and I collected a turkey feather on a previous ride. This fine specimen was shed by a hawk, I believe.

The downside of cycling in the wine country is, as you might guess, people touring wineries and driving. It is not a good mix; the safest finish is an early one, so the metric route is the only viable choice for a slow poke like me.

August 13, 2010

Exotica

I never imagined I would find a place to park this car where it would hardly be noticed. A place where ... well, it just blends in.

The hard-core enthusiasts stake out their turf early. The sky was barely light and the fog was misting low when one guy strategically planted his tripod to capture the cars streaming into the Laguna Seca Golf Ranch for the 25th anniversary Concorso Italiano.

Was it the same guy on that same corner in the evening, waiting for the last cars to stream back out? I patiently waited my turn at the traffic light, no cutting into the flow by turning right-on-red, even though ... well, I could have. Green light. Pause. Turn. Accelerate. Smile.

So many people. So many cars. So many great photo opportunities. Somehow I failed to shoot a single proper Alfa Romeo, the only other Italian marque I once had a chance to drive. The Ferraris were staged with precision, carefully spaced with marks on the grass.
What is that F50 doing here?
These are the F40s, he has to move!
Inevitably, there would be an announcement like this one:
We have a report that a vehicle is blocking a roadway.
It is a Lincoln Navigator.
You need to move your car, or ...
Complete the sentence, you know the drill. It will be towed, right? No.
... it will be set on fire.
At the end of the day, one of my friends asked me which car was my favorite. "It is so hard to choose," I replied.

I thought of the jaunty Fiat Jolly, with its wicker seats and ball-trimmed canvas roof.

The light blue Bianchina, rolling in again this year with three guys and their picnic—including their umbrella, table, and chairs.

The classic exotics, lovingly restored.

The cars that are driven, for that is why the cars were made.

The answer, of course, is obvious.
The one that I drove home.

August 1, 2010

Cookies 'n Cream

Enough with images of California's rolling golden hills, towering trees, sparkling blue water. It's all just too scenic. As you can see, this was a very serious ride.

Serious enough to wake up early on a Sunday morning and roll out for a 42-mile excursion over some local hills. I was a little apprehensive, because despite the "social" pace advertised for today's ride, I expected to be the laggard. But the hills were so familiar, it would be okay if they had to drop me. [They didn't.]

I nearly talked myself out of climbing Sanborn Road, but I tackled it. I nearly talked myself out of climbing Sixth Street to Oak, but I made it all the way to the gates of the cemetery. Surprisingly, the greatest punishment was dished out on some residential back road we followed to avoid Highway 9. That little hors catégorie gem made my legs burn! Normally I just slow to a near-stall, but this was so short and steep that I think my heart rate did not have time to become the limiting factor.

Our group did so well that we were the first to arrive at the club's annual Ice Cream Social party. We pitched in where we could, and mostly tried to stay out of the way of the selfless volunteers dishing out the ice cream. With one final hill between the party and home, with any luck I was calorie-neutral for the day. If not ... well, I can live with that.