May 22, 2010

Eagle Eyes

The crisp morning air suggested this would be a lovely fall day ... except that we are really nearing the end of the month of May. The outside temperature was less than 43F when I started getting ready for today's biking adventure. I dug out my wool jersey and some full-length tights, and never regretted my choice.

Our route passed the base of Sierra Road ... that was so three days ago. Today we tackled Old Calaveras Road on the way to Calaveras Road proper. After the brutal start of Old Calaveras, the vaunted Calaveras "wall" was a piece of cake.

Much to our surprise, we rolled onto the course of a bike race as we neared Sunol. This brought to mind a comical video from a few years back, in which a bunch of racers rolled out of a rental truck onto a bike path. They would charge down the path at full speed to stage a finish just behind some innocent (and confused) recreational rider who would be hailed as the race winner.

Today we encountered the Calaveras Individual Time Trial, and it was a humbling experience to be out there with the athletes in full time trial regalia—aero helmets, skinsuits, full disc wheels. No surprises about being overtaken with the trademark sound of those machines at full power (whomp whomp whomp). I spotted three racers I knew and had a chance to chat while our group took a break in Sunol.

On our return trip, we had some good luck and found one of the resident bald eagles perched on the tower above its nest. I was not hauling five pounds of camera gear on my back today, but the nest is clearly visible in the photo above. And if you look closely, you will find one distinctive white-headed bird, too.

May 19, 2010

Anticlimax on Sierra

I merged into the morning commute on Highway 17, but the office was not my destination today. There was something unusual about this traffic pattern ... a string of white rental vans ... ooh, it's the fleet supporting the Amgen Tour of California, heading over the hill from Santa Cruz! I tucked in behind #6 until they all ended up in the wrong lane; they would have done better to follow me, but how could they know?

Our paths diverged when they headed for downtown San José; I was headed to stake out some turf along Sierra Road.

I started my ascent less than a minute before they released the local field competing in the San Jose Cycling Classic KOM Ride. After passing a few who had stopped along the side of the road, I realized that I might have finished well today; but I was more relieved not to be racing it. Instead, I was pedaling at a leisurely pace (with five or more pounds of camera gear in my backpack).

Cyclists rarely use the words "leisurely" and "Sierra Road" in the same sentence. As I worked my way up the hill, I was buoyed by the cheers of spectators already lining the road. My regrets about suffering up Sierra rapidly evaporated once I rolled across the King-of-the-Mountain line at the top. Four and a half miles, 1,830 feet of climbing, some 524 calories burned. I surveyed the crowd for familiar faces before dropping down to an uphill stretch just below the summit, where I joined a couple of friends who had claimed the same spot I chose last year.

Much to our surprise, a group of breakaway riders had already established a gap of three and a half minutes by the time the pros came around the bend. A few of them would hang on to that lead until the closing minutes of the race, when the teams of the sprinters would advance to turn the spotlight on their men.

The peloton was essentially intact when the riders passed us. This made for a rather anticlimactic viewing experience, with the startling exception of being eye-to-eye with Lance Armstrong as he passed less than a foot away from me. The racers were not racing, which I am sure was the strategic thing to do so early in the stage. For race leader Dave Zabriskie, the Garmin team was setting the tempo at the front—probably at least twice the speed I can generate on that stretch of road. Looking at their faces, it was gratifying to see some discomfort nonetheless.

And then ... they were gone. A handful of stragglers were off the back, mixing it up with the team cars. The broom wagon passed, I chatted with some more friends until the crowd dispersed, and coasted back down the hill to join a party at the home of some club members who live near the base of the climb. Their hospitality has become an annual tradition for this race, and while I would regret missing the party, next year I may seek a place closer to a finish line, where the riders should be more strung out.

May 16, 2010

Fifteen Pies

There are many metrics by which to measure a fun bicycle outing, and I learned a new one today. Fifteen pies. That is the answer to the question: How many pies are consumed by a hungry horde of cyclists, per hour? In this case, we sampled petite wedges of the fine apple pies at Gizdich Ranch—the better to leave room for luscious crêpes, turned right out of the pan onto our plates. This year, I had enough patience to avoid burning my fingers in my eagerness to devour my treat.

When is the last time you enjoyed a fresh crêpe as an essential element of sustenance on an organized bicycle ride?

Before I met up with my cycling buddies for the day, I ran across five other cyclists I knew (some faster, some slower). At the end of the day, I met yet another. Strawberry Fields Forever is that kind of ride: enjoyed by bicycle commuters, recreational cyclists, denizens of the Death Ride, and bicycle racers alike.

We negotiated some rolling hills in drizzly fog on our way to the coast and cruised through fields of strawberries, lettuce, and raspberries throughout the day. In some places the fields stretch as far as the eye can see; harvesting them, manually, seems like an impossible task. This image returns whenever I eat strawberries, these days.

Less strong this year, I dreaded the steep grade I would face on Tustin Road. Fortunately, there were few cyclists when I reached the hill, and auto traffic in the opposing lane kept people from tacking widely from side to side. Riding close to another woman traveling at my pace, the only real path was ... straight up. Highest heart rate: 187 beats per minute, yet still able to pedal. Less fit this year. At the top, one guy remarked to his companion: That was the big hill? [Sigh.]

We saw some dappled sunlight as we made our way through the primeval forest of Hazel Dell Road, shaded by towering redwoods along a creek. I was certain that the sunshine had finally dissolved the cloud layer above us, until we descended back into the gray. I did not expect that the highest point of Hazel Dell was all that high. It is a gentle climb; I had forgotten that the approach on the lower portion of Mt. Madonna Road was more challenging than Hazel Dell itself. This is not flat, chided one of my buddies. As we veered onto Hazel Dell, I pointed to the start of the real Mt. Madonna climb.

Each cyclist has his or her own breaking point. Back in the parking lot at the finish, I overheard a woman bemoaning the "three-mile climb" (Mt. Madonna/Hazel Dell). Indeed, I had passed a couple of cyclists who were done in by that climb, pausing for a break. I can climb for miles and miles ... if the grade is not too steep. Something like Tustin Road, on the other hand, approaches my breaking point.

May 13, 2010

Team Bike-to-Work Day

Today was Bike-to-Work Day in the Bay Area, and with a merry co-conspirator I led a group of co-workers on a 22-mile trek to work. It was a rousing success!

Our little peloton included some first-time bicycle commuters and a few very experienced cyclists, who graciously helped shepherd everyone along. My co-leader outfitted his bike rack with the mobile coffee-and-donuts rig featured in the photo. I tried to capture footage of coffee being dispensed on the go; sadly, my videography skills need work ... next year, a helmet-cam!

Our team swelled to two dozen riders as we meandered along the flattest, most traffic-free route I could concoct. One rider lives along the route; his family cheered our arrival as he rolled down his driveway to join us.

Our group included one woman who was so jazzed from riding with us last year that she has been riding more on her own. Success!

Another rider, reminding me about the pain I inflicted via Mountain Charlie Road last summer, forgave me and was willing to join us this morning. Success!

Along the way, one guy asked "Where does this road go? I grew up in this town, and I have never been here." Success!

Two strong riders on their own route to work made their way past us and gave me props for leading our crew. Success!

One woman told us she hasn't really ridden her bike in 20 years. Her husband made sure she had her cell phone, so he could come to her rescue. Not only did she go the full distance, she kept up a good pace. Success!

People were still smiling when we climbed off our bikes at work, and several exclaimed "I didn't expect this at all, but I feel great—and I thought I would feel pretty bad." Success!

Later, one of our new riders set up a mailing list and invited everyone to join. "Let's do this again, maybe we can ride to work together once a month." Success!

At the end of the day, five people joined me for the ride back home—another record turnout. Success!

Perfect weather, a mellow route, lots of happy camaraderie, turning people on to cycling. Unquestionable, Bike-to-Work Day success!

May 8, 2010

Room for a View

Having pedaled to the top of the highest peaks in the Bay Area counties of Santa Clara (Mt. Hamilton) and Contra Costa (Mt. Diablo), two remained to be conquered: Mt. Tamalpais (Marin) and Fremont Peak (Monterey).

Our local high points are best explored in the cool-weather seasons (spring or fall), as much of the climbing will be on a roadway that clings to the edge of the mountain, well exposed to the baking sun. Spring means green hillsides and colorful blooms, like the magenta petals of these sweet peas.

From John Summerson's excellent book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike) in California, I learned that the grade gets steeper over the 10+ mile climb to the top of Fremont Peak, including a mile exceeding 10%. One memorable switchback nearly did me in. Luckily, I took a break before continuing, because the next switchback was only slightly less challenging. When I reached the parking lot at the top, my legs were toast. Evidently the quadricep muscles that were taxed by yesterday's curling session are engaged when cycling uphill.

With a pair of cycling buddies, I covered over 47 miles of unfamiliar terrain in three counties (San Benito, Santa Cruz, Monterey), ascending 3,805 feet along the way. Our excursion started with a couple of miles on the shoulder of Highway 156. This turned out to be a divided 4-lane highway with a posted speed limit of 65 mph. Being passed by semi trucks hauling tandem trailers, just a few feet away, required nerves [or some other body part] of steel. Some drivers courteously slipped into the left lane; some did not.

The rest of the ride was more bucolic, despite a few wrong turns (easily recovered, given that two of us were carrying GPS-enabled smartphones). On Fremont Peak, the summit beckoned, but we elected not to hike the final 300 feet to the top; the view was a bit hazy and one member of our trio was pressed for time. Near the base of the hill, I was momentarily mesmerized by the grasses shimmering in the afternoon breeze. The dry season is rapidly approaching; these slopes will soon turn golden.

May 7, 2010


Before the obligatory safety warnings (Ice is slippery!), our coach encouraged us to stretch. You will be sore, you will feel it in your quads. Uh oh. I have a challenging bike ride tomorrow.

During my not-so-annual physical this week, my doctor reminded me that cross-training is a Good Idea. I know that, and he knows that I know that, but do I put that into practice?

Today I was treated to a play date with some co-workers at an ice rink, doing something I never imagined I would try: curling. Maybe you watched some curling a few months ago, when it was featured at the Olympics in Vancouver. Did you think: How hard can that be, sliding a chunk of granite across the ice? You want to call this cross-training?

After some basic instruction and practice, we played three ends. A tie score seemed certain: 0-0. When you release the stone, it needs to travel a long way. It needs to stay in bounds. It needs to stop inside a circular target. The odds seemed slim indeed that any of us would accomplish this.

Ha! Not only did our team win (5-0), I managed to score a point: the greenish yellow stone on the left in the photo was my stone, which not only stayed in bounds and stopped inside the circle — it knocked a competing blue one farther out! Never mind that my stone was supposed to stop short of the circle, to serve as a "guard" stone ...

Quadriceps? Sore, in a special new way. Groin muscles? Sore, as promised. Repeatedly sliding down the ice, knees bent, furiously brushing the ice ahead of a sliding chunk of granite with a broom? Cross-training, beyond any doubt.

May 1, 2010

Off to the Races

My heart rate was elevated, my quads were burning, and I was only halfway up the infamous Cat's Hill ... on foot. I found a gap in the spectators and planted myself on the sidewalk. Two women racers walked past, rolling their bikes and commenting:
This is harder than climbing it!
During a break in the action, another woman racer clipped in and rode to the top. A local police officer gave her a surprised look, and she also remarked:
It's easier than walking.
After volunteering at the registration desk for the 37th Annual Cat's Hill Criterium, I was free to watch the final race: the field of Pro/1/2 men. It was easy to recognize these guys as they approached the registration table: musculature straight out of an anatomy textbook and veins that resemble vines snaking up their arms and legs.

Remarkably, the field mostly stays together, though the repeated circuits take their toll. Drop your chain on the hill and your race is over. One guy rolled to the side and abandoned mid-hill in the penultimate lap.

One of these days, maybe I will find out if it truly is easier to ride my bike up Cat's Hill. Or maybe I will just take their word for it.