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 (รก 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.