May 27, 2013

Drippity Drop

The color of the sky was Ominous Gray. I considered my options over breakfast. Rain is possible in the Bay Area in May, but the showers on the radar map were well to the north. Any rainfall would likely be brief, and light; if not, I could easily find shelter and wait for the storm to pass. Thinking back to being soaked in a downpour last fall, why would I hesitate over mere clouds this morning?

With a late start for a short ride, I opted to bike there. After we completed the second climb, our leader suggested we chase a few more hills. My fellow cyclists hemmed and hawed; today being a holiday, they had slotted this little ride ahead of their picnics and barbecues. After I cast my lot with the leader, most of the group came around. A departing rider assured us the hills ahead were less steep than the hills behind.

He was almost right. (I nearly stalled out on the last one.)

From the street, this structure looked more like some mod hotel, but we were definitely in a residential zone.

For the day, a healthy 48 miles with some 2,550 feet of climbing. On the way home, I got a little wet. Hardly worth mentioning. Really.

May 25, 2013

Biking to Sunshine

Herewith, a tour of Bay Area microclimates. First, we rolled through the dry golden hills of the peninsula on a breezy day.

Up and over the ridge, we skirted along the edge of the El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve. Wet pavement, blustery winds, and green fields were gifts from the marine layer above us.

The public segment of Bear Gulch West ends in a redwood grove. It is essential to shift into your lowest gear before you stop; the first mile of your return trip is a tad steep (12.3% grade, on average).

When I added a flower to my seat bag on Bling Your Bike at Work Day, I did not imagine how popular it would be. Even on Old La Honda Road, where cyclists often take themselves far too seriously, I caught some compliments and smiles.

The winds were fierce at a particular elevation on both sides of the ridge. I enjoyed a lovely car-free descent of Kings Mountain, with a little extra caution for unpredictable gusts.

By the time I reached the historic Woodside Store, some 31 miles into the ride, the water in my bottles was refreshingly chilled.

42 miles, 4360 feet of climbingand don't it feel good!

May 19, 2013

Grade Inflation

Over the past 10 years, I have sampled many organized rides. For some, once was enough. But year after year, I eagerly register for Strawberry Fields Forever. The first time I signed up, it rained and I skipped the event altogether. One year, it was so blistering hot I packed my bandana with ice and wore it around my neck. Another year, the cold fog drizzled and made us miserable for the first few miles.

Today, the weather was perfect. Just warm enough for the fragrance of ripe strawberries to waft across the fields.

Before meandering through the farmland of Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, our first rest stop is always hosted at Calfee Design. The airstrip must be seeing more use these days; there were new gates and signs (look both ways, indeed). When was the last time you bicycled across an active runway?

The water in the Pajaro River was beautifully clear, despite the colorful patches of growth on its surface.

The event organizers must be getting soft on us; this year, they dropped the challenging Tustin grade from the traditional route. The climb to lunch at Royal Oaks Park, however, is unavoidable. I dropped into my lowest gear and motored along, passing a few people who opted to walk. When a woman riding nearby asked me about the climb, and the rest of the route, I could tell her this was the toughest part. Based on my perceived difficulty, I told her I thought the grade was 9%-10%. At lunch, another woman insisted it was 17%. [No way.] People take great pride in the instantaneous readings of their cycling computers; unfortunately, such readings are unreliable.

You can count on seeing some unusual sights at this event. Women decked out in pink feather boas or tutus, as if they had cycled in from the Cinderella ride. One guy riding with a full-sized floor pump protruding horizontally from his backpack. As this unicyclist approached a paddock, I watched a horse saunter over to the fence for a closer look; after he passed, the horse turned tail and walked away—not the least bit interested in the recumbent.

After my hiatus from cycling in March and April, I was concerned about how I would fare on this ride; that motivated me to step up my training. A tad over 61 miles, with some 2,935 feet of climbing—at an average speed of 12.3 mph (whew, same as last year).

Oh, and that climb to lunch? Surprisingly, two-tenths of a mile averaging 13%. [It didn't feel that bad.]

May 15, 2013


Reacting to several tragic accidents on California State Highway 9 between the towns of Saratoga and Los Gatos, funds were found for critical safety improvements. Bike lanes have been in place for a couple of years; more recently, a few sidewalk segments have been introduced.

While I am happy that accommodations are being made for pedestrians, these should not come at the expense of cyclist safety. The bike lane is slowly disappearing: swallowed by the hillside in one section, obliterated by the new sidewalk in others.

More frightening than the narrowed bike lane is the new curb that separates the sidewalk from the bike lane: both are formed of black asphalt. The construction signs and cones have been gone for some time; can it be possible that they have no intention of painting the curb, or at least the sloped, leading edge of the curb at intersections? This is an accident waiting to happen. It seems just a matter of time before a cyclist runs into the curb and crashes—unable to see the curb at night, or having been intimidated to the far right of the narrow bike lane by fast-moving traffic.

Having explored the relevant section of the California Highway Design Manual, it seems clear to me that this (Class II) Bike Lane no longer complies with the standards.

The speed limit on this section of the highway is 40 mph or less; Section 301.2 states that the minimum width of the bike lane should be four feet. The width can be reduced to three feet if there is an adjacent concrete curb and gutter. There is certainly no gutter (which would effectively widen the available lane for bikes), so the bike lane should still be four feet wide. [It is not.]

The speed limit is 45 mph on the section of road where the hillside is overtaking the bike lane; per Section 301.2, the minimum width of the bike lane there should be six feet (!). [I assure you that you will not need a measuring tape to see that it is not.]

Of course, I am not a highway design engineer, so what do I know?

May 12, 2013

The Music Man

Some of my fellow cyclists find their rides more enjoyable with a soundtrack, and might pedal with earphones and an MP3 source. [One earphone is legal; two are not.] I prefer the natural sounds around me, which included some lovely mockingbird solos today. Or I can tap into the vast trove of songs in my memory bank.

On most of my recent commute rides, the refrain of one song was (inexplicably) stuck on replay in my head. I do not own a copy, and I could not name the artist. Something about rain in Africa, and things we never had. I don't even like the song. Eventually, I managed to displace it.

I headed for a short club ride this morning, certain that we would have a nice little group. Little, indeed—just two of us, plus our leader. The other rider's bike was set up with a tablet computer mounted on his handlebars and a small loudspeaker fitted in one of his water bottle cages. We enjoyed some Vivaldi before an abrupt switch to 80's pop (Eye of the Tiger).

Unlike the songs in my head, which can loop indefinitely, a real song plays for a few minutes. A fast beat can encourage you to ride with a faster cadence, but I actually found the music disheartening: as each song ended, I was reminded that I had not traveled very far in the interim.

I climbed the hills without stopping. [I wanted to stop. I kept going.] A little over 17 miles, with 1440 feet of climbing, before the day heated up.

As we parted ways at the end of the ride, guess which song was blaring from the other bike?

Africa. [By Toto.]

May 9, 2013

It's Bike to Work Day!

I started the morning with some safety basics: give each other space, call out when stopping, and don't take chances with traffic signals. If some of us don't make it across an intersection, I will stop and wait. I promised not to lose anyone, but handed out route sheets just in case. One rider was wearing her helmet backward. [No wonder it felt weird!]

At the halfway point, there was no shortage of enthusiasm. [Or was it a coffeecake high?]

When you can bike to work on any ordinary day, what could be extraordinary about some official Bike to Work Day?

Let me count the ways.

Fourteen smiling co-workers ready for me to lead them to the office at 7:00 a.m. (20 miles).

Ten riders who had never biked to the office before today. (A few rented bikes for the occasion!)

Thirteen-plus riders added en route.

Twenty-seven (or more) smiling co-workers delivered safely to the office.

One piece of Hobee's coffee cake (thank you, Cupertino Energizer Station).

One chocolate-dipped doughnut (courtesy of my co-leader's bike-mounted Energizer Station).

One flat tire (on the rear wheel of my very capable co-leader's bike). [We left him, and the doughnuts, behind. He caught up.]

One huge festival of cycling at our workplace. Massages, foam rollers, and mats for stretching. Bicycle-powered blenders (smoothies). Food. Schwag. Bike mechanics for minor repairs. Booths to recruit riders for local charity rides (including, of course, Best Buddies).

Two bicycle-powered carnival rides.

Three smiling co-workers ready at 5:00 p.m. for me to lead them back home.

Forty-two miles, 855 feet of climbing, and more than 1100 kcal burned.

My energized riders make Bike to Work Day extraordinary for me.

May 6, 2013

Monday Monday

Monday morning: Do people forget how to drive after taking a weekend off? Like the guy on my left, who accelerated only to brake hard (in surrender) as he pulled even with me. By gosh by golly, a bicycle can descend a hill at the speed limit and the right place to change lanes is behind it. [Just like a car.]

The rest of my ride to work was less eventful. I like it that way.

A lucky green signal at a major intersection afforded me the chance to route through a local park. I paused to smile at two pairs of ducks and their broods. The pesky Canada geese were nowhere in sight, but they are still resident.

I dawdled on the way home. It was the headwind, I tell you. Another routing variation took me over a freeway on a neglected bike/pedestrian bridge, littered with fallen leaves, trash, and blotted-out graffiti. It would make sense to use this bridge regularly, but I prefer to avoid it. If it were my neighborhood, I would take a broom to it.

Completing four consecutive round-trip commutes (interrupted by a weekend), I was curious about my average speed (mph).

Day 113.111.5
Day 213.912.8
Day 312.810.8
Day 413.010.5

I am pretty consistent in the morning; the air is still and, after the initial climbs, my route is principally downhill. Which means, of course, that the return route is ... uphill. Not to mention, into the wind.

Trading my steel bike, with its rack and pack, for my unladen carbon frame on Day 2 made quite a difference—especially in the uphill direction.

Weight matters. Even for slowpokes, like me.

May 4, 2013

Sky View

Even if this were not my fourth consecutive day on the bike, I doubt that I could have powered my way up the steep pitches of Skyview Terrace. Most of the riders in our small group had not visited this hill before. Before we made the first turn, we stopped to confer with the ride leader: “Are you sure this is the right way around the loop?”

Then we plummeted toward the nadir. The road dropped 440 feet in 6/10th of a mile.

Good thing we were taking the “easier” way. [Egads!]

Momentum carried me up the first pitch. Not bad, I thought ... until the next pitch loomed above me. Time to use my feet in a different way. (I walked.) Two-tenths of a mile at an average gradient of 14.5%. The pace of the riders ahead of me was barely faster. The terrain relented to about 6% before kicking back up; I dismounted again after a taste of 14.2% and walked another 2/10 of a mile. Steep is not my forté. There was margin in my heart rate, but the muscles in my legs were done, done, done.

This was a social ride, and one of our riders regaled us with stories of her role in a legendary Death Ride stunt. The Rolling Bones, a large group of Hewlett Packard employees, included a guy who would pilot a tandem with a full-sized skeleton for a stoker. When the engineers rigged Ms. Bones with a walkie-talkie, she provided the voice. Trailing at a respectful distance, she would wait for some serious rider to pull alongside the tandem. “Mmm, nice legs!” she'd coo. Ms. Bones retired in 2004, after joining the ranks of the five-pass finishers.

And yes, I am slower than a team of guys hauling a skeleton on a heavy tandem—I pedaled for 12 hours, 55 minutes to finish the ride in 2009.

For the week, about 202 miles with 8,650 feet of climbing. Riding my way back into shape.

May 3, 2013

See the Other Side

A common question from non-cyclists at the office is “What route do you take?” One colleague could only imagine taking the freeway [which, as a rule, is forbidden—not to mention, dangerous].

If they insist on more detail than “lots of quiet streets,” their attention will stray before I am halfway through the route: I make 27 turns on the way to work. Curiously, the most direct route to the office can be an 18.9 mile drive on the freeway, or an 18.9 mile bike ride on surface streets and a creekside trail.

How do you find a bike route that will get you to work? A reasonable start is to take advantage of the “bicycle” option on Google Maps.

How do you find the best bike route? Explore! [On your bike.] Over time, I have optimized my route along several dimensions: More direct. Less travel on busy roadways. Fewer stop signs and traffic signals. More shade.

Late on this hot afternoon, the freeway sound wall cast a cool shadow. Smell the flowers.

May 2, 2013

Bling Your Bike at Work Day

Our Bike to Work Day is a week away, and my workplace gets an early start on the festivities. Today there would be a free “Learn how to fix your own bike” clinic at work, plus a station with a colorful array of doodads and raw materials for decorating your bike.

At a previous company, an enthusiastic colleague had collected a handful of garage-sale castoffs to transport us from building to building; my sentimental favorite had a frame covered with something that resembled blue Astroturf. [But I digress.]

I thought I would take advantage of the clinic to learn how to put a new chain on my road bike. Which meant I needed to ride that bike to work. [Or load it on the shuttle. But why would I do that?] Which meant that I needed to do a little extra planning, to avoid carrying a change of clothes in a sweaty backpack.

One mile from home, I discovered that I could not shift my front dérailleur. The chain was on the big ring and it would not budge. There were hills ahead.

Should I turn back and switch bikes? I would be late for my first meeting, and I would not learn how to replace my chain.

Should I turn back and head for the shuttle stop? I would miss out on a nice morning bike ride.

Should I tough it out?

I climbed the hills. I shared a quiet residential street with a coyote. Around mile 7.8, the dérailleur spontaneously shifted down to the middle ring. Biking home entails more climbing—no bus for me today!

At the clinic, they set me up with a visiting “expert.” When he told me I didn't need a new chain because I am lightweight, I sensed this exercise would not go well. Then he mounted my bike on the stand with the drivetrain facing the support post.

Upon learning that we could not shift the front dérailleur, he proclaimed the superiority of friction shifters [pointing to his bike]. Not only did he give up on brifters, he ditched his carbon fiber frame as well. [Behold, the Retro-Grouch!]

His next observation was that my wheels need more spokes. I was ready. “I am lightweight. I don't need a lot of spokes.”

Finally, we tackled the task at hand. He looped the new chain onto the bike and prepared to connect the ends. “Shouldn't we make sure it's the right length?” I asked. [That much, I know.]

A colleague wandered over and finished my lesson in bicycle chain replacement. The Retro-Grouch made himself scarce.

At the end of the day, I made it home before the bike shop closed. My front dérailleur needed a new cable—it was bent, causing too much resistance inside the guide. They admired the yellow flower adorning my seat bag. Did you say “Bling Your Bike at Work Day?” Yes, I did.

May 1, 2013

Green Means Go

The Anything Goes Commute Challenge may be finished, but this bicycle commuter rolls on. I am determined to bike to work more regularly: once per week, at least.

I have followed a heated debate on a cycling forum recently, in which runners and cyclists square off about whether it is appropriate for runners to use a bicycle lane. I learned that the California vehicle code states:
No pedestrian shall proceed along a bicycle path or lane where there is an adjacent adequate pedestrian facility.
Pedestrians, by the way, are elsewhere defined to include people on skates, skateboards, scooters, wheelchairs ... specifically, anyone not riding a bicycle.

This morning I had ample room to swing out into the traffic lane to avoid a woman walking toward me in the bicycle lane ... right next to a perfectly good sidewalk.

A few miles down the road, as I prepared to make a right turn in a quiet residential neighborhood, I was so focused on a large construction vehicle approaching from the left that I was startled to find a guy jogging around the corner toward me, next to the curb. There was no bicycle lane, but there was a perfectly good sidewalk.

Not 10 feet later, a woman stopped her SUV in the middle of the roadway. A mountain biker on a dirt trail was waiting patiently to cross the road; the driver had the right of way and should not have yielded. This is how accidents happen.

There was something amazing about my commute this morning, and it had nothing to do with sloppy drivers or pedestrians. [Those are routine hazards.]

My entire 18.6-mile trip was interrupted by exactly one red traffic signal. [This will likely never happen again.]

By looking ahead, I can moderate my speed to roll up to an intersection just as the light turns green, or sprint to avoid losing a green. In some places, I can choose to shift my left turn strategically, turning onto a side street to avoid waiting for the upcoming light to cycle through to next green arrow. This morning, with lucky timing and these techniques, the lights were as green as the park I enjoyed on my way back home.