July 29, 2013

Staying Safe

Ambulances and police officers respond to rush hour freeway traffic collision.
Last week, a raucous debate erupted on a road biking mailing list. What started it? Some close call between a cyclist and a motor vehicle. Cyclists railed about bad drivers. Drivers ranted about rude cyclists. I considered weighing in, but my comments would only have been lost in the noise. Mostly, people wanted to vent.

It's a scary world out there. How can you stay safe? Two words:
Pay attention.
People can do stupid things.
It happens. Drivers run red lights. Cyclists run red lights. Watch out for the drivers, and do not be one of those cyclists.
People can make mistakes.
I have made mistakes. You have, too. The last time I hit the pavement, two people made mistakes. I saw a colleague confidently board a shuttle bus and I chose to glide past. But she had boarded the wrong bus. Without a glance, she stepped off backward and clipped me with her enormous purse. Bam! I should not have been riding there. She should have watched where she was going.
Do not depend on the kindness of strangers.
I was stopped at a stop sign this morning, waiting for a break in traffic to turn left from a residential street onto a busier road. A driver in a pickup truck stopped, yielding the right of way to me. Would he have done the same for a car? [No.] He had the right of way, no stop sign. I imagine that he thought he was being courteous. I stayed put and waved at him politely to continue on his way. Had I pedaled forward, I risked being run down by any of the vehicles behind him. Not only did those drivers have no clue why he stopped (Planning to turn? Mechanical breakdown?), they were probably annoyed and all-too-ready to accelerate and pass him.

If you anticipate that people might do stupid things and sometimes make mistakes, you will have a safer time on the road. And instead of feeling chronically irritated, you might enjoy some pleasant surprises. Like the time a driver made a sudden U-turn in front of me, then pulled to the side of the road and rolled down his window—to apologize.

If you do have (or witness) a close call, learn from it. Is there something you might have done differently, to be safer?

Some driver made a mistake, or did something stupid, on the freeway this morning [photo above]. Two lanes blocked, multiple ambulances and police cars, a big traffic jam.
Pay attention.

July 27, 2013

Toe the Line

Moon setting behind the summit of Mt. Umunhum
Climbing up Mt. Umunhum after biking to (and from) work on the preceding three days is not a recipe for success. I struggled. I was dripping wet. At times, I walked. I admired the alignment of the setting moon with the Doppler weather station, on opposite sides of the Cube.

The good news is that they have patched most of the potholes up there. No longer is it necessary to choose your line up the hill by hunting for connected ribbons of pavement. The bad news is that when you climb as slowly as I do, you are prey. I was buzzed repeatedly by an enormous loud insect that flew circles around me. It may have been just the decoy, though; at one point I looked down and found blood trickling down the outside of my left knee. The hill hurts so bad, I never felt the bite.

My bike leaning against a tree near the "white line of death"
You can only climb so far on this road. On the upper section, new signs have appeared. 1.2 miles to the preserve boundary. A third of a mile later: 0.9 miles to the preserve boundary. [They are nothing, if not precise.] Not that you could miss the boundary: there are multiple “No Trespassing” and stop signs.

And then there is the fabled “White Line of Death.” If you take a look at some satellite imagery, you will see that there is a second white line. It is the second white line that really marks the preserve boundary; beyond it, the road crosses private land on the way to the summit.

View across the valley from the highest legal access on Mt. Umunhum
The last time I made it up here, there was a grumpy guy in a pickup truck on the “No Trespassing” side of the signs. Today, I was alone. I dared to venture the extra few yards past the signs, stopping at the first white line. The view across the valley was lovely.

Hundreds of California Gulls on the Guadalupe ReservoirThe Bay Area is presently burdened with an overpopulation of California Gulls. On my return to suburbia, I witnessed the problem firsthand: hundreds of cacophonous gulls on the Guadalupe Reservoir (and its banks). With the landfill nearby, this must be a veritable paradise for these scavengers.

As for me, there was one more hill to climb in pursuit of sustenance: the club's annual ice cream social. One scoop of Rocky Road, one scoop of Cookies 'N Cream, and lots of toppings: Heath bar crunch, rainbow sprinkles, fresh strawberries and blueberries, a chewy brownie ...

Thirty-seven miles, some 3,615 feet of steep climbing. I earned it.

July 26, 2013

Catching Up

Sunlight highlights two tall trees among the shadows in Vasona Park
When the week began, I did not plan to bike to work four days out of five. After bypassing Monday's traffic meltdown, it made sense to do the same on Thursday and Friday. On those evenings, the roads near the office would be choked with cars heading for big concerts at a nearby venue. The forecast for Friday was particularly dire, with home games for both major league baseball teams (San Francisco and Oakland), another big concert at a venue closer to San Francisco, and protesters threatening to shut down mass transit. Not to mention the usual get-out-of-town weekend parade.

There were fewer cars on the road in the morning; not unusual for a summer Friday, but maybe some folks simply chose to avoid the predicted chaos. I did not commit to the group ride planned by some of my colleagues, unsure whether I really would get up early enough to rendezvous at 7 a.m.

I almost made it; after a quick stop at the bank, I was about five minutes behind schedule. If I hustled, I thought, I could catch them.

A few miles later, I spotted them ahead at an intersection. Now we were separated by one (long cycle) traffic signal. Which route would they take through the neighborhood?

I swung onto our “secret passage” street; there they were, passing through the gate! When all three of them headed up the gratuitous hill, they were mine. They certainly did not expect to find me lurking at the other end.

Conversation always makes the trip seem faster, and we enjoyed ourselves in both directions: Everyone rode back together at the end of the day, including our group's modest birthday boy!

My tally for the week (commuting, volunteer work, errands): 3,945 feet of climbing and 159 miles by bicycle, 50 miles by car.

July 22, 2013

The Bike Advantage

Egret wading for dinner on the shore of Vasona Lake
The office was deserted when I rolled in this morning. Where were my colleagues? Did I overlook an important meeting on my calendar? [Not likely, first thing on a Monday morning.]

The reason would become clear later, after I was re-fueled, freshly showered, and back at my desk. There had been some sort of traffic meltdown. I overheard one story of exasperation after another. Something about an overturned dump truck, local roads clogged with cars and buses seeking alternate routes. Taking the shuttle would not have helped. Biking to work this morning might actually have been faster. Imagine that!

My commute was, thankfully, routine and uneventful. I listened to the birds and admired the flowers. I climbed a gratuitous hill. I clocked in (below the limit) at 28 mph on an electronic speed sign. Stopped at one intersection, I picked up a stray wood screw and tossed it off the road. [Some unknown motorist can thank me for the flat tire he didn't get.] Stopped at another intersection, I spied a nickel (and happily pocketed it). I was passed by a couple of speed racers who confuse the multi-use trail with a time-trial course.

I dawdled on my way home, taking a longer route through the park. My ride was bracketed by egrets: the first had been perched on a trailside railing along the creek near my office, and the last was hunting for a lakeside dinner.

One side of the park is bordered by the freeway. I realized that I was moving faster than the vehicles, which were barely visible through the trees. When I crossed above them, the southbound cars and trucks were stopped as far as my eyes could see.

I guess many people found their commutes bracketed by traffic meltdowns today. I prefer egrets.

July 20, 2013

The Endless Climb

Turkey Vultures roosting in a dead tree
I know what it's like to climb Montevina on a hot day, and I have not gone up in a while. The full route for today's club ride included a ridiculous amount of climbing; I had no intention of tackling the complete set of hills. I know myself well enough to head for Montevina first; otherwise, I would surely talk myself out of it.

It is hard to convey steepness in a photo. I stopped at one promising switchback and almost missed the main event: turkey vultures roosting in a dead tree. Being alive, I was of no interest to them; nor was I a threat. They completely ignored me.

A passing (of course) guy struck up a conversation. “Tough climb,” he said. “Yeah, but it was my choice,” I replied. He was inspired by Le Tour de France (which was nearly done). We all suffer.

VIew of Monterey Bay in the distance
I had forgotten how high the summit is—the day was clear enough for a distant view of Monterey Bay.

I was determined to do a second hill climb, Soda Springs. I knew that my legs would be done after that; it was an open question whether my legs would be done before I got to the top.

What makes Soda Springs such a grueling climb? Its steepness borders on painful, without really crossing that line; the grade is relentlessly constant. On the upper section, there are few scenic views or landmarks; just climb the narrow road, through the trees. Surely the end is around the next bend? [No.] Keep climbing.

Another passing guy, sporting a Lotto kit, kindly gave me some encouragement: “Tough climb,” he said. Dispirited by then, I sighed “I thought it was five miles, and it's not.” “Almost there,” he replied.

Surely the end is around the next bend? [No.] “Good job!” he shouted to me as he descended. It's a trick, I thought; this hill grows ever higher and the road grows ever longer just before I round each bend. Until, finally, the magic sign materializes: Road Ends 500 Feet.

Thirty-nine miles, 5,535 feet of climbing. Crazy. But it was my choice.

July 17, 2013

Just for Kicks

Way back in 1992, an ad on a local radio station caught my attention: a bike shop in a nearby town was having a sale. At the time, I was without a bicycle, having sold my Raleigh 10-speed to a friend. The Raleigh had carried me through grad school, to and from campus in a hilly urban environment (without a helmet, in those days). With my short legs, I barely cleared the top tube. After earning my degree and entering the workforce, I do not remember riding it again.

Trek 720 Multi-Track with trailside flowers
With its wider tires, a hybrid bicycle seemed much more practical. I studied the Trek catalog; the 720 Multi-Track became the object of my desire. There was even a “ladie's” diamond frame, with a sloping top tube. The bike's knobby tires let me take a short cut on a dirt trail to the local park.

It would be many more years before I became seriously interested in cycling. I added a rack, and a bag ... and quickly found that I could not keep up with the group on club rides. I visited a local bike shop and nearly tossed a bike over my head when I tugged it off the rack—no wonder those people on carbon fiber bikes were so fast! Their bikes weigh nothing—compared with my “Cro-moly” (steel) frame. [Well, that, and they were in better shape than I was.]

Twenty-one years later, that steel bike gets more action than I ever dreamed it would: it is the workhorse of my commute (40 miles, round-trip). I traded the original knobby tires for slightly narrower slicks, flat pedals for SPDs, added some lighting options, replaced the saddle. But it is not a finicky machine; consequently, it has not gotten a lot of (mechanical) love.

I really should do something about those shrieking brake pads, I thought. And then I would forget, until the next ride. I should find some time to take the bike for service. And then I would forget.

The Bike Doctor! [Duh.] The Bike Doctor is a mobile mechanic; he will come to you, or better yet—to a workplace near you (in the Bay Area). I marked my calendar for his next visit and booked my bike on his schedule.

I wrote out a list of things that needed attention. He read my list, smiled at me indulgently, and tossed it in the trash. “Don't worry, I know what your bike needs better than you do.” [This was true.]

Fresh (quiet) brake pads. A new red rear blinkie, at my request, securely mounted to the rack. The silly plastic ring between the cogset and the spokes? Gone! [It was cracked, he noted.] Tuned up. “Your rear dérailleur hanger was bent, I straightened it,” he said. “Have you crashed the bike?” [No.] “It must have been dropped at some point,” he said. [I racked my brain and came up empty.]

Inspired by Ladyfleur, we added a kickstand. The bike posed proudly with some trailside flowers on the way home. And speaking of home, the bike stood tall in the middle of the driveway—no need to balance it precariously against a tree while unloading it.

The driveway ... now I remember ... the day I was so proud to have completed a long ride on the local trail, clipped into my new SPD pedals, without toppling over. They were campus pedals (flat platform on one side, SPD socket on the other). When I left the trail for the road home, I was careful to unclip (lest I unceremoniously topple over at a traffic light). Not being the most coordinated person, it was taking some time for me to master that clip-in/clip-out business.

That day, I coasted into my driveway, came to a complete stop and ... just like Arte Johnson, toppled over. That is how my dérailleur hanger came to be bent.

The Bike Doctor knows all.

July 6, 2013


A steep drop on Mountain Charlie Road
If you love your dog, I implore you: put a tag on your pet's collar—stamped with your phone number.

Somewhere above Holy City, a German Shepherd materialized. We were climbing; she was faster. Luckily, she was not aggressive. She seemed to want to play with us, running alongside our bikes and stopping to pick up a stick as a hint.

I have been meaning to tuck some rope into my saddle bag ... The dog had a collar, but there were no jingling tags. She stopped following—perhaps she knew her territory? The best I could do was to report a lost German Shepherd when I found a county worker in his truck at the Summit Store.

Old Santa Cruz Highway parallels Highway 17, with fog capping the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains
The other key item missing from my kit today was a vest. The Santa Cruz Mountains were draped in fog, and we were heading for the coast. I should always carry a vest in my bag of cycling gear. I know this. The redwoods rained on us near the summit, but it was not as cold as I feared.

What a merry band of riders we were! Plenty of conversation, plenty of lingering at each re-group, and plenty of patience when we found our lunch stop overwhelmed with an at-capacity crowd.

For one of the riders in our group, three of the four hills we tackled were terra incognita. The best, of course, comes last: the soul-crushing ascent of Mountain Charlie Road. That photo at the top was taken looking back at a section I had just climbed. No, that is not a dead-end road—it drops off that steeply. Fifty-one miles, with some 4,615 feet of climbing (same route we traced in 2009).

pep with three CalFire firemen
Whose idea was it to climb Mountain Charlie today?

[Oh, wait, it was my idea.]

But look at who was waiting for me at the top! Three fine, friendly firemen!

You chose the wrong ride today, Miss C.

July 4, 2013

Fryin' on the Fourth

I needed to burn off those pancakes, heat wave or no. After joining more than 150 fellow club members for our annual July 4th carb-fest, my ride buddy and I headed for Stevens Creek Canyon.

Flowering bush in Stevens Canyon
It is a modest climb, but not as cool as I had hoped. In the winter months, the sun is too low to penetrate the canyon. By noon on a summer's day, sunshine is abundant.

We did the sensible thing after reaching the gate: we retreated! Even though it would have been shorter to return via Redwood Gulch or Mt. Eden, we would have melted on either of those climbs. With a flat route, we could manage enough speed to generate some evaporative cooling. And, we were drenched.

Not to mention the opportunity to stop for a cold smoothie along the way. [It's all about the food, this cycling thing.]

There was no reason to hurry home, as the day (and my house) would only get hotter (98F). I claimed my piece of shade under a redwood tree and enjoyed the last 30 minutes of the San Jose Wind Symphony's Independence Day program.