July 31, 2010

Trees, Glorious Trees

Another fine day in the redwood forest. Along the way, we shared curvy Kings Mountain Road with what appeared to be a local chapter of the BMW Club. One M3 was stranded on Skyline, more or less off the road (but blocking half of the intersection), hood raised and all four shiny tailpipes silenced. Should you find yourself in a similar situation one day, do turn on your emergency flashers.

It seemed that Kings Mountain was exacting its toll today. On the way down, I passed a motorcyclist walking his machine down the hill. "Wish it had pedals," he remarked.

Bracketed by these breakdowns, we enjoyed our up-and-down day in the trees. My hands started going numb as I descended Star Hill—not from gripping the brakes, but from the chill. I have enjoyed this cool summer.

Waiting for my ride buddies before descending Kings Mountain, I watched a timid Jaguar make the turn from Skyline. By the time we were ready to roll, I had forgotten the sedan ... until I caught him, never taking his foot off his brakes. Descending at his speed was painful, and inhaling goodness-knows-what from his brake pads was unhealthy. Since it was not safe to pass him, I pulled off the road to grow some space between us.

Pausing to regroup at the base of Kings, I smiled when I saw the guys from Plus 3 Network approaching. My Plus 3 vest not only kept me warm today, it earned me three high-fives as they cruised past. "Looks great on you!," one shouted. Orange, yes.

July 24, 2010

The Hamilton Habit

Such an inviting plaza for a summer picnic, don't you think? It happens to be on top of a mountain ...

Having convinced two riding buddies that half is not enough, we rolled out early to climb up to the starting point for today's club ride—which was scheduled to cover only the upper half of Mt. Hamilton. It must be a cool summer if this registers as an appealing ride in late July.

Curiously, the temperature was warmer on the upper slopes. Warm enough to put my ride buddies into some difficulty, I would later learn. Merrily pedaling ahead, exchanging greetings with the many riders who passed me, I was oblivious to their discomfort. [Some friend, I am!]

I arrived at the sharpest, steepest hairpin near the top at just the right moment for a little drama. Two motorcyclists passed me on the approach, and as the second one entered the steep curve, he stalled his bike and went down. The only real injury was to his pride, and likely some regrets about fresh scratches on his BMW. I rounded the corner as he extricated himself from his machine and began the struggle to set it right. In this, I could be of no use; a larger cyclist behind me did stop to lend some muscle to the effort. Raising that beast from a flat surface would be hard enough—now imagine what was required to push it upright with all that weight downhill from the wheels.

Once everyone had recovered at the top, I led off down the hill. The car that was preparing to leave the observatory at the same time caught me only after I stopped to wait for my ride buddies at the base of the first descent. With all the gravel I had noticed in the corners, I took it easy. [Honest. One cyclist even passed me.] On the way up, one of the riders in our group had caught me on this last ascent. "I was behind you," he said, "and I was sure I would catch you on the descent, but I couldn't." Shaking his head, he added: "I thought I was a good descender."

July 17, 2010

Laughing Crows

They were laughing at me, I am sure of it, those crows. Cackling at the cyclist on the steep bit of San Benancio Road, moving so slowly she could not outrun the buzzing horsefly orbiting her head.

I chose a distant club ride today to explore some new territory. As we met more cyclists traveling toward us, it was clear that we were taking the more difficult approach. But that was okay, we would climb the hill from both directions.

San Benancio Canyon is Steinbeck country—mostly sprawling ranches, with bits of suburbia on the fringe near the highway. Turkey vultures, lots of quail, and a red-tailed hawk were among my wildlife sightings for the day. From the sun-baked summit, I eyed the cool fog bank hanging over Monterey with envy.

Splat! A large insect hit one lens of my sunglasses with enough force to leave, shall we say, residue. [Not because I was moving so fast at the time—the unfortunate victim was.]

All in all, a nice road if you find yourself in that neighborhood, but a bit far off the beaten track to venture for such a short ride (20 miles).

July 11, 2010

Dicey Descending

This is a blind curve. What you cannot see around this bend is dangerous—the grade drops steeply into an immediate hairpin turn that hooks left.

The extra orange sign was placed to warn cyclists participating in a charity ride to slow down; normally, on this curve, it is just you and your best judgment.
Tip #1: If you cannot see around the bend, be prepared to stop.
You normally brake to reduce your speed before heading into a curve; be especially cautious when you cannot see what surprise might be lurking around the bend.

What is wrong with this picture?


Let's start with the guy on the left. He is on the wrong side of the double yellow line. [Did I mention that this is a blind curve?]
Tip #2: Stay in your lane.
Why do you suppose he is over the double yellow line? Perhaps he noticed that the other three riders are not skilled descenders, and he wanted to pass them.
Tip #3: Do not pass on a blind curve.
Even if you can stay in your lane. You do not know what you will find around the bend. If you need to veer suddenly to your right, you will endanger the cyclists you just passed by cutting them off. If you need to veer left and there is oncoming traffic ... well, enough said.

Next, let's consider his position on the bicycle. His bike is tilted into the turn—in this case, to the right. That is good. His feet are level, with pedals at the 9:00 and 3:00 positions. That is less good. I saw this on every mountain bike heading into that curve. A mountain-biking friend tells me that this is proper mountain-biking technique, to avoid clipping a pedal on a rock, tree root, or other miscellaneous obstacle on the trail. I am not a mountain biker, and this cyclist is riding a road bike on a road.

What is the stable position on the bike, when cornering? [Hint: Did I mention that the other three cyclists are not skilled descenders?]
Tip #4: Lean your bike into the curve, with your leading (inside) knee up and your weight planted firmly on the extended (outside) leg, pedals at 12:00 and 6:00.
Your body should be nearly upright, with the bike tilted underneath you. Like the pros in this photo I snapped during the last San Francisco Grand Prix,

cyclists on our local curve need the same good form:

Think: Right turn, right knee up. Left turn, left knee up. [If you tend to confuse "right" and "left," come up with your own mantra.]

Maybe these were lucky shots, and I just happened to catch the riders' legs at a particular moment during the pedal stroke? Nope. They were all coasting downhill.

In the second photo at the top, three riders have positioned their legs exactly opposite of where they should be. What could go wrong? Well, as the bike rounds the bend and naturally tilts into the turn, they risk clipping the inside pedal (extended leg) on the pavement and crashing. Notice their upright posture. With their weight distributed through the extended leg beneath them they risk toppling over as the bike tilts. I can only imagine how unbalanced this must feel; I am not about to give it a try.

What about lane position? That guy in the blue jersey is in the middle of the road, and the guy in the white jersey is right next to the double yellow line. Shouldn't they keep as far to the right as possible, like the guy in the first photo above?

By "taking the lane," they are more visible to traffic approaching from behind, and they send a clear message: It is not safe to pass us on this curve. There is no room to share the lane; you would squeeze us off the road. [They are really taking a good line through the curve, but let's call that an advanced topic.]
Bonus Tip #5: Descend at your own pace.
Your skills may not match those of the rider ahead of you; don't give chase. If you are less skilled, you risk losing control of your bicycle.
Bonus Tip #6: Before the curve, slow to a comfortable speed you are willing to carry through the curve.
You want to roll through the curve; if you grip your brakes and your wheels lock up, they are not rotating and you will skid (or worse).
Bonus Tip #7: Look where you want to go.
Your visual system is powerful. Your body will follow where your eyes are tracking. If you look at the edge of the road, guess where you will end up?

Water Boys

This was the third year that the LIVESTRONG Challenge rolled through San José, but the first time that I chose to support the event as a volunteer. It takes a good cause to rouse me from bed on a Sunday morning at 4:30 AM, to report for duty downtown at an hour when I am usually still sound asleep (even on a weekday).

The organization understands the value of recruiting volunteers from the local bike clubs—we know the terrain and the route well. As we assembled for our briefing, there were so many familiar faces that we joked about who would lead the ride today. We were released a few seconds ahead of the first participants, and for the first couple of miles we enjoyed a dream ride as we were paced by official vehicles through deserted city streets in a rolling road closure.

Despite following a shortcut to reach our assigned posts ahead of the pack, I was passed by the elite riders as I ascended the first real climb of the day. I positioned myself just above a tricky downhill curve on the course, where I would repeatedly warn riders "Sharp turn ahead!" My approach was effective—none of our riders crashed. [I heard that one of the elite riders ahead of us went down. They should know better.]

With the responsibility to watch 1,000 or more riders head into this familiar curve, I recognized a valuable opportunity to capture images of cornering technique on a bicycle. Whenever there was a sufficient break in the stream of riders heading downhill, I would point my camera at the haphazard descenders.

By the time the last of the 50-milers straggled by, I was so far behind the last 65-mile rider that I would never catch up to finish my job for the day as a riding course marshal. Arriving at the next rest stop as they were packing everything away, I stuffed my pockets with energy bars and accepted a ride forward to the next stop.

Continuing along the route, I monitored the riders I caught for signs of trouble. Throughout the day, I was fortunate not to face any serious incidents. There were riders whose legs seized up with cramps, in need of some electrolytes. There were riders who were fatigued, not having trained adequately; those I met needed only some encouragement and advice to sustain them up the next hill and on to the finish. I was surprised to learn how many people traveled from afar to do this ride. I was inspired by a cancer survivor from Toronto who was working hard to complete the 50-mile route. I was proud to ride alongside a woman from Idaho, riding 50 miles alone—the longest distance she had ever attempted. When she crossed the finish line, I was there to give her a high-five.

The two longer routes include a serious challenge: climbing Metcalf Road. Rumor had it that when he rode the inaugural San José LIVESTRONG Challenge in 2008, Lance Armstrong was "impressed" with Metcalf. As one of the century riders passed me on the hill, I remarked that this was the second time I had climbed Metcalf this year, and that was one time too many. "Or two," he replied.

This ascent was memorable, not only for the cheering section or the guy belting out his improvised tune about the hill, but especially for the water boys. A couple of moms set up along the roadside under beach umbrellas with their sons—armed with Super Soakers. Loading up as we approached, if you agreed to get wet they would enthusiastically take aim. Sheer brilliance! I am not sure who had more fun with this, the riders or the boys. Farther up the hill, a guy with a bucket of ice water wrung out a huge sponge over my head. Climbing Metcalf will never be this good ... well, until next year. Boys, I'm counting on you!

July 10, 2010

Into the Woods

With plans to ride on Sunday, I expected to designate Saturday as a rest day. But with my Sunday route uncertain, I was loath to squander such prime cycling weather. Most conveniently, a club ride was scheduled to cover some favorite terrain in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Given that the starting point was close to home, I was able to catch the finish of Stage 7 of the Tour de France for inspiration before setting out with our little group.

First stop: Wrights Station, which lives on only in the history books. Remnants of the town are long gone, and what remains of the railroad tunnel is barely visible from the road. The road is not in the best condition and quite steep; it is one of my least favorite descents. It has been a while since I last visited here, and the climb seemed much easier than I remembered.

We dropped down over the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains, but not wanting to descend all the way to the coast, three of us split off from the rest of the group before wending our way back up through the redwood forest. On a decidedly uphill stretch, a local resident smiled and shook her head. I don't know how you guys do it!

July 5, 2010

One Cool Canyon

What better way to start a holiday morning than to get up and out on the bike early? With the promise of another hot day ahead, a short ride into a cool canyon was enticing.

Highway 9 has recently been repaved from Los Gatos to Saratoga, and never so traffic-free as on this holiday morning. I rode to the starting point and joined the group as we headed for the leafy shade of Stevens Canyon. We proceeded ever-so-slightly uphill to the end of the paved road, then headed back down for some fun on a pair of short, friendly climbs.

On my way back, I tried the service at the new bike shop in town, Mike's Bikes. They were cheerful and helpful, confirming my suspicion that my bike was due for a new chain. Twenty minutes later, a happy customer rolled out of the shop with a much happier drive train, to celebrate with lunch in the park.

July 3, 2010

Blazing Saddles

Before I had traveled two blocks from home, I was passed by another cyclist. Once I was warmed up, I was surprised to pass him and open up a substantial gap, although he was a big guy, riding in casual attire and without a helmet. He must have felt compelled to catch me; when we met at a traffic light, he was out of breath. His eyes grew wide when he learned that I would be riding from San José to Morgan Hill, and back. After pancakes, of course—I was on my way to our club's traditional Independence Day breakfast. With the promise of pancakes ahead and a flat route, I averaged 17 mph.

The club had a record turnout: nearly 200 members, many bedecked in red, white, and blue. Post-pancakes, there were many rides from which to choose. This year, I had been convinced to co-lead one. A dozen riders headed out with us into the dry, rolling hills on our trip to Uvas Canyon County Park. We warned them that we had carelessly underestimated the mileage [by a whopping 35%], but they simply shrugged. A hardy bunch, many had ridden to the start that morning, like me.

The route itself was a success. Being mostly unfamiliar with the area, I relied on a combination of satellite map imagery and Streetview to choose roads with bike lanes, find controlled intersections for left turns, and confirm a pass-through blocked to vehicular traffic.

With the hills and heat, needless to say I did not average 17 mph throughout the day. I was happy to enjoy the redwoods and cool shade at the park, and delighted to find the rest of the group waiting for the last of us in the shade of a giant eucalyptus tree on the return route. Miraculously, despite the tire-softening heat and the usual abundance of broken glass in the bike lanes of San José, we got through the day without a single flat.

At the end of the ride, wilting in the heat and caked with sunscreen, salt, and grime, I returned home at a snail's pace. Sixty-seven miles, a modest 2,130 feet of climbing, some 2400 Calories burned.