May 30, 2012

Simply Sheldon

I do remember this spot. I stopped here the last time I climbed this hill, and I confess it was not just to admire the view across the valley.

The road, quite steep at this point, bends sharply to the left and continues sharply upward. I was teetering on the brink of stalling when one of the strong riders in the group chose to demonstrate his hill-climbing prowess by repeating the steep segment, effectively blocking my precarious ascent by riding across my path. I stopped.

It was a friendly group, with a few Wednesday night regulars and a couple of unfamiliar faces. Not the most coordinated crowd, though—especially one woman who paid no heed to calls of "Car back!" and persisted in riding alongside her partner, blocking traffic. The more direct "Single up!" seemed to get her attention.

Another pleasant little after-work ride, offering 1,640 feet of climbing over some 18 miles. Warm enough for shorts, with the half-full moon casting some bonus light to ease the after-dinner ride home.

May 26, 2012

The Drip Zone

My car offered the first warning of the day when the heater kicked on, automatically. A rare cold front passed through the area yesterday, lingering long enough to give us a taste of winter on this Memorial Day weekend. Cycling up the east side of the ridge, it is easy to know when you pass under the tallest redwoods: the pavement is wet beneath them. On the west side the entire roadway was slick, and we rode through the occasional downpour wherever the trees excelled at collecting (and dispensing) the fog.

The temperature dipped to 44 degrees F. My brake levers were cold; so were my fingers and toes. The slippery (and frigid) descent of West Old La Honda demanded so much caution that the climb back up seemed quicker. (I am sure it also helped that we were generating heat instead of battling wind chill.) With such low visibility, riding through the forest was positively spooky—gnarled limbs and rock slides and eerie animal noises (oh my!).

Why would anyone head for the hills on such a day? Ah, well, we were committed: my ride partner and I were leading this one for the club. As for the three riders who joined us ... their motivation remains a mystery. [A long, flat ride that stayed in the valley attracted a sizable crowd of sensible people.]

Forty-two miles, 3,990 feet of climbing. Having just cleaned and lubed my bike last weekend, it is already time to lather-rinse-repeat. [After a nice mug of steaming hot chocolate, methinks.]

May 23, 2012

Bunch o' Bumps

We set out to explore some dead-end roads in the neighborhood tonight. I have cycled past each one more times than I can remember, never choosing to make the turn. Where might they lead? Too steep to climb? Too short to be interesting?

A bemused homeowner, pulling out of his driveway near the base of the first significant climb, encouraged us. "That's quite a hill, up there," he said. "That's what we've heard," I replied.

He was right. Still, upon reaching the end of the road, some of us could not resist the temptation to climb just a little bit higher ... the attainable summit beckoned from a short side street. [Extra credit.]

The steepest pitch presented a grade approaching 15%—tough enough, but also short. We climbed some 1,885 feet over 17 miles; five summits on a fine spring evening.

Lately, the spin class at work has been setting up their cycles outdoors. Out of the saddle, straining at the pedals, the instructor shouting "You're almost to the top of the hill!"

No, you're not. You are on a stationary bike, facing an office building, with your back to the view of some real hills. So sad.

May 21, 2012

Timing is Everything

Homeward bound, I pedaled for more than 46 minutes straight, without a need to unclip and plant my feet on the pavement. The challenge: flow with the traffic, and calculate whether the best approach for a given traffic signal is to accelerate or slow down. Luck helps.

My evening commute starts out on a trail, near the spot where Stevens Creek flows into San Francisco Bay. Not a big fan of biking on trails, it is expedient to follow this one over a wide swath of expressway, light rail, and Caltrain tracks before veering off onto surface streets. In the morning, I use even less of the trail.

Hungry for some variety this morning, I decided to pick up the trail where it begins. In theory, this could be a quicker route to work: no traffic signals, no stop signs, no cross traffic. In practice, it added time—and distance—when compared with my tried-and-true route.

It seemed pleasant enough on Bike to Work Day, when we guide our little pack of commuters to the head of the trail. But then, we reach that point somewhat later in the morning than my normal routine dictates. And that makes all the difference.

Getting to the trail involved multiple violations of one of my cardinal rules for a suitable morning route:
Avoid schools.
Riding through largely residential neighborhoods, I found myself immersed in the morning chaos for three different schools. Distracted parents in minivans and SUVs, driving every which way. Crossing guards blocking traffic. Gridlocked right-turning vehicles. The only feasible escape? Move out into the lane and pass them on the left.

A month from now, a new bridge promises to extend the trail to the town on the opposite side of the freeway—obviating the need to navigate this messy maze. It is safe to say that I will not pass this way again.

May 20, 2012

Strawberry Fields Forever

Just when you think you have seen it all, some new stupid human trick packs a surprise.

Soquel Avenue is four lanes; much of it, a boulevard. A couple of miles from the end of today's ride, I was attentively approaching an intersection in the bike lane. The signal had just turned green, and the cars were starting to roll. This is a perfect set-up for the dreaded right-hook crash: without signaling, a driver suddenly turns right in front of you.

Two motorcycles were also approaching, and saw no reason to slow their pace. One veered left, splitting the left-most lane to pass the cars. The other veered right, splitting the bike lane with me. Nothing about that maneuver was legal. There was no time to panic; he was gone in a flash.

That moment aside, it was a day of uncommon beauty. Nothing marred the saturated blue of the sky—no fog, no cloud, not even a contrail.

I started out with some friends who planned to ride only part of the the 100km route, and later caught up with another friend at the final rest stop. Notable riders along the way:
  • A guy on a large-wheeled unicycle, holding a cell phone to his left ear and chatting away. I guess if you are coordinated enough to ride a unicycle, you are coordinated enough to ride a unicycle, talk on a cell phone, and probably chew gum at the same time.
  • A group of five women wearing jerseys that featured purple peaks and flowers across the front. Posing for a photo, they formed a mountain range.
  • A rider stopped under the redwoods along Hazel Dell Road, re-inserting his seat post ... with no saddle attached. There is a story there, and it is not a happy one.
On the way to lunch, I flew past a few riders on a nice downhill. I do not understand why it is even possible for me to pass other riders who are tucked into their most aerodynamic posture on the bike, but ...
I pass them, nonetheless.

Climbing into the park for lunch, one rode up to me. "How fast were you going?" he asked. I checked my bike computer and gave him the answer. [44 mph.] His girlfriend rode up, saying "She's not the one who passed us." [No one passed me. Mystery woman was, therefore, faster than the speed of light.] "She was wearing gray shorts." [Have you ever seen gray shorts, apart from the Radio Shack kit?] Whatever. I have nothing to prove; I just happen to go downhill fast.

The end-of-ride meal was served about five miles before the actual end of the ride, and it is not to be missed—for that is where we gorge ourselves on the ride's eponymous strawberries (and chocolate ganache). The cruel joke was this: They eliminated the Tustin Grade, but Aptos High School is set high on a hill. Two steep climbs separated us from the food; many cyclists dismounted and walked. With any luck, I consumed fewer calories than the 2100 I burned today ... but, maybe not. A bit more climbing than the old route—overall, 3400 feet and 65 miles.

Plenty of time to get home, cleaned up, and then wow the neighbors with the best way to check out the solar eclipse (sans l'équipement spécial): Shadows.

May 16, 2012


The Question: Would you like to climb it?
Correct Response: No, I hardly would.
That's Harwood.

Some people head home from work to kick back in front of the television.

Others head home from work to kick the heart rate up to 184 bpm on a steep hill.

For nearly half a mile, the average gradient on Harwood is 12.9%—with some significantly steeper sections. Pass through a gate, continue steeply uphill, pass through another gate, continue steeply uphill ... This is how to travel a short distance (1.2 miles) and fit in a good climb (some 500 feet). How economical!

Along the way, we persuaded a solo rider to fall in with our group. A strong guy, he passed me with confidence as we started the climb. When we reached Really Steep Part No. 2, he zigged (but did not zag) across the road. Once. Then he got off the bike and walked. [We really know how to treat a guest!]

Much to the confusion (and amusement) of the group, I covered an extra mile when I blew past a turn on the return route. Off the front, descending at roughly 30 mph, the closest rider in my wake shouted ... something ... which must have been "You missed the turn!" The group was confused, wondering if I decided to add another hill. And later amused, because this is my own neighborhood.

They waited, patiently, for me to sort it out and re-join them—at the dear cost of a delayed dinner. The hallmark of true friendship!

May 12, 2012

Both Sides, Now

It seems that I have inadvertently signed up for the Hamilton-of-the-Month club. January, February, April, and now May (sadly, I did miss out in March).

Wildflowers are still blooming, but the hills are fading from emerald to olive on their way to dry summer golden. Time passed quickly, as a friend and former colleague unexpectedly appeared and was content to match my pace and chat. Not having biked to the top in 20 years, he had forgotten the stunning views. I had forgotten that he had studied geology; he opened my eyes to the significance of the sheer rock faces.

As the first descent approached, I apologized in advance. "You know what happens next," I said. "Go," he replied, "this is your specialty." Resuming our conversation after he caught me on the uphill, he followed up with "You're so smooth, the best descender I have ever seen (at the amateur level)."

Today's "Free Lunch" ride is an annual tradition, wherein our intrepid ride leader hauls sandwiches (and more) to the top on a trailer attached to his bike. And yes, even with my 20-minute head start, he still passed me on the way up. This is one strong guy ... Sixty-five riders showed up, and every one of us got something to eat.

My goal today was to reach the summit twice: first, the front side (approaching from San Jose), and then the back side (approaching from the San Antonio Valley). Soon, the back side will bake dry and present a formidably hot challenge. After a brief pause for more water and a snack, I flew down to the turnaound point at Isabel Creek.

What a different world, back there! Fields, foothills, canyons, and mountain ridges as far as the eye can see. A robust breeze kept me cool, and I delighted in the isolation. A few riders were climbing out as I descended, but I would not see more of the group (descending) until I was nearly halfway back up the mountain.

I startled a jackrabbit, and paused at will to enjoy the sights: flowers, distant ridges, a handsome (but dead?) garter snake, a fabled roadside spring. I was pleasantly surprised to make it back to the top before the lunch crew departed, and was lucky to enjoy the last strawberry with some cake and whipped cream. Top that!

Some 7,100 feet of climbing over about 51 miles, same route as last year.

June is but a few weeks away.

May 10, 2012

You Can Ride Your Bike to Work

Time for that annual May tradition, leading co-workers to the office on Bike to Work Day. After all, simply riding my bike to work is no special achievement. Getting a small crowd to work, safely and smoothly? That is a worthy challenge.

This year my co-conspirator and I offered separate starting locations, converging at our rendezvous point with perfect synchronicity. Other riders fell in with our group along the way, knowing our route in advance. True to Silicon valley, technology played a successful supporting role as we invited our riders to track us with Google Latitude.

A flat tire put us a bit behind schedule, but we still managed to sweep up a third small group that wanted our leadership. With that, our ranks had swollen to 32 riders (rather more than I co-lead on a typical club ride)!

We swarmed a couple of Energizer stations in search of sustenance, and left one dad (biking his daughters to school) speechless.
You're all going to the same place? To work?
The prize for Most Creative goes to the company that set up an impromptu "feed zone" (strategically placed along a well-traveled route), where they skillfully handed bright drawstring bags to passing riders, stocked with goodies ... and a list of open positions they seek to fill.

Our record-breaking morning crowd was followed by a smaller, but still record-breaking evening crowd: six riders accepted my offer to lead them back home. We paused to wave at the drivers stuck in the traffic jam on the freeway below us. When one rider fell victim to a flat tire near the end of the ride, everyone readily agreed to circle back and stay together. What a fine group of people!

I always enjoy biking to work, and (almost) always enjoy biking back home. What I love most about this day is proving, to so many less experienced riders, that
You can ride your bike to work!

For the day, 44 miles and 1000 feet of climbing.

May 6, 2012

Active Adults

In the home stretch for today's ride, we passed a van emblazoned "Moraga Movers, Activities for Adults 55+." They did not seem to be shuttling cyclists home from the Grizzly Peak Century, though. [Not my tribe.]

The stars finally aligned for me to tackle this ride. I was pretty new to cycling the first time a friend suggested riding Grizzly Peak. How many miles?! How many feet of climbing?! She was a weaker rider than I was, and I knew I was not ready. A few years later, illness nixed my first attempt, rain washed out my second ... third time's the charm?

A guy in a colorful Voler jacket failed to unclip at the first traffic signal and toppled over. [We have all been there.] No lasting wounds, other than to his pride. I was relieved that I had stopped behind him; this is not something I would expect to see on a ride of this intensity, and I wondered how he would get through the day.

High atop the ridge, we enjoyed multi-million dollar views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate in the early morning light. I recognized the parking lot where we celebrated the Lomas Cantadas Low-Key Hillclimb, and smiled later when I cruised past El Toyonal on a lower slope.

I was more than a little surprised when our route took us through a refinery—certainly an ironic place to be, on a bicycle.

Around mile 44, I finally met the Mighty McEwen. At the rest stop, I asked "What is the grade?" No one could answer. People shuddered, and muttered. One woman insisted it is "stand-up steep." [I am a seated climber.] At first, my ride partner could not recall the climb, having done it only last year. Had she blocked it out? I worked at calibration. Sierra Road? Montebello? Harder than Montebello, she thought; easier than Sierra, and short.

Her calibration was quite good. I measured a grade of 10.6% for a little more than half a mile. The grade is somewhat uneven, starting out sharply and then tapering somewhat. McEwen? Meh. It's a hill. On a hot day, at mile 44 (with some 2800 feet of climbing in the legs), it is a modest challenge.

The greater challenge was that, at mile 44, we had completed about half of the overall climbing. The "rollers" [ahem] along the rest of the route were extended climbs (3-5 miles apiece), with shorter downhills.

A string of riders that had passed me were still in view as I crested the next climb. I was gaining on them ... could I take them? All of them? The downhill was not steep. With a little turbo-boost kick to the pedals, I sailed past one. The pavement was smooth, the lane was wide and straight, there were no cars. Aggressively aerodynamic, I topped out at 40.9 mph and coasted past two, three, four ... all of them. "You were speedy," they chortled (when they caught me on the next uphill). Yes, I descend like a rock; unfortunately, I also climb like a rock.

For this active adult, a splendid day with her tribe: 76 miles, 5,435 feet of climbing. No people-mover van required.

May 5, 2012

For the Birds

As I was sitting down to breakfast this morning, a loud ruckus erupted outside my window. I recognized the desperate cries of a baby bird, and the angry squawking of Scrub Jays. I pulled back the curtains to check out the unfolding drama.

Hopping near the street, a pair of scrub jays was mobbing a crow, who was not giving any ground. Then I saw the sad little heap of downy gray feathers, tinged with blue, lying under the oleanders.

My breakfast could wait.

I knew these jays had nested nearby, though I never puzzled out the spot. They have been diligently scolding my (indoor-only) cat for a couple of weeks. Like the crow, they are smart; they have spied the cat in various rooms and harassed her through windows on all sides of the house.

Also like the crow, they are aggressive and will raid the nests of other birds. What goes around, comes around?

I stepped outside for a closer look. The crow winged it up to a higher perch, and the jays divided their attention: one kept after the crow, the other landed a few feet from my head and squawked incessantly.

First rule for observing wildlife: If you change the behavior of the animal, you are too close. Yes, but ... It is one thing for the crow to shadow me in the garden, swooping down to gobble the sowbugs and earwigs I unearth; it is another thing entirely to tear a juvenile bird apart. Even if it is a jay.

I turned toward the garage; I would need a shovel. Suddenly, the air exploded with the sound of wings beating into chaotic flight. I looked back to the spot where the (evidently, stunned) bird had lain, and smiled.

I returned to my breakfast. The crow, driven off by the jays, left hungry.

May 2, 2012

Kindred Climbers

I was psyched for another after-work ride last Wednesday, until I saw the first raindrops splatter the windshield on the way home. The roads were dry but the sky was threatening. Within one minute of deciding to stay indoors, the ride leader canceled; within thirty minutes, the rain came pouring down.

Better luck, this week, for a couple of short climbs with a few challenging pitches. With a name like Overlook, you might expect some nice views (and, you would be right). On the way up, I noticed this elegant little bridge for the first time. [It's private. Guess the size of the house on the other side.] We joked that they could have saved money on their security system had they opted for a drawbridge, instead.

Focusing on the uneven road surface as I descended, my peripheral vision registered ... something. A quick glance to the left confirmed it: there stood a doe, calmly watching me glide past. The vole I saw had been less fortunate; surprisingly so, given how few vehicles travel up this dead-end road.

As much as I enjoyed socializing over a warm bowl of tortilla soup on this chilly night, the real reward was the sunset that warmed my spirit.