August 30, 2014

Gimme a Lift

There are two sports in which I enjoy going down hills. One involves a lift that brings me to the top of the mountain. As I made my way to the summit of Morgan Territory Road, I dreamed of a rope tow.

We were looping counter-clockwise around Mount Diablo today, which entails a steeper ascent up the front side of Morgan Territory Road. In the full sun, it felt like my shorts were ablaze. It was just a little past 10:00 a.m. and the day would only get hotter. Our small group splintered early. I joined the faction that planned to climb the lower portion of Mount Diablo. That would be challenging enough.

Never a fan of cycling on Ygnacio Valley Road, I had mapped out a shortcut in advance. Heading into the center of downtown Clayton, I stumbled upon the town's Labor Day party, featuring a display of shiny classic cars. This Ford Fairlane Crown Victoria brought a smile to my face, staged with a drive-in intercom next to the driver's window and a burger-and-fries tray perched on the passenger's window. (The car dates back to the year I was born, and it's in much better shape.)

It turned out that the path in my plan headed sharply uphill. No problem, I thought, I have gears. It turned out to be steep enough that a few steps had been placed along the way. [Surprise!] A short hike brought me to the back fence of an elementary school, and the gate was open. Playgrounds have drinking fountains ... I gratefully topped off my water bottles.

The rest of the shortcut was a big win, following a wide suburban street and the deserted campus roads of Cal State East Bay in Concord to cut off most of the unpleasant climb on busy Ygnacio Valley Road. The shoulder may be wide, but the traffic moves faster than the posted limit—including the tractor-trailers. It is decidedly not fun.

Our counter-clockwise approach afforded some splendid views: first, moving slowly up the wide-open side of Morgan Territory Road and later coming around the back side of Mount Diablo. It also meant that our climbs were exposed to the baking sun, while our descents were shaded. [Note to self: embrace the clockwise route.]

The dry hills shimmered in the sun. Look at North Gate Road—doesn't that just beg to be climbed? Mercifully, there was a bit of a breeze. The higher I climbed, the stronger it became. Don't get me wrong: on a hot day, this climb is no picnic. The local high temperature yesterday was 93F. I made a deal with myself to pause once per mile in the nearest patch of shade to hydrate and get my heart rate down. The road is never steep, but in the heat the best recovery I could manage was 137 bpm.

There is a school near the end of Mount Diablo Scenic Boulevard. Evidently, there is also a soccer camp. And so it came to pass that a soccer ball flew across the road, from my left. A fluke, or a deliberate act? I heard only the laughter of boys—no warning, no cry of alarm, no apology. Had it hit my front wheel, I would have crashed. Had it hit my head, I would have crashed. It struck my upper arm with enough force that it hurt, then ricocheted high overhead and to the right. I continued on my way without so much as a glance in their direction. I just wanted to get out of there.

For the day, nearly 56 miles with 4,615 feet of climbing. Mandatory stop on drive home: one ice-cold smoothie. Peaches, mangoes, and strawberries—oh my!

August 23, 2014

Steady as She Goes

View of coastal fog bank from Bear Gulch Road West
Years ago, a friend of mine met her (then future) husband while climbing Old La Honda Road. Being the benchmark climb of the Bay Area, it's enormously popular. I was bracketed by two club members today when a familiar voice rang out: a colleague was sprinting up the hill. After he reached the top, he came back down to ride alongside me and chat. “Don't fall over,” I joked. For me, this was the most convenient way to reach a particular section of Skyline; I was not riding for a personal best, just hard enough to carry on a somewhat breathless conversation.

It looked like a party at the top—I've never seen so many cyclists there. Surely they didn't all pass me? I had admired one guy, in particular, who flew past me with grace and no apparent effort. My best time on this hill was a few seconds on the far side of 30 minutes, and thus it will ever be.

I wasn't planning to line up all the climbs west of Skyline between Highway 84 and Kings Mountain on successive cycling weekends, but that is how it turned out. I would tackle the most challenging climb today: Bear Gulch West. After dropping gently through the redwoods, the road pitches down more sharply through rolling, open fields. A fog bank lingered over the Pacific, but the sea was visible at one point.

The key thing to remember about this climb is to shift into your lowest gear before you roll to a stop at the end of the road. My memory served me well: when I saw the sign warning about the blind curve ahead, I shifted down, down, down. Moments later I had plunged from wide open space into the small redwood grove that shades the gate at the end of the road. Even in my lowest gear, I waited until my fellow riders had cleared the road before I started to turn the cranks. I think I can, I think I can ...

Having climbed triumphantly back to Skyline without a pause, my reward was a fabulous car-free descent of Kings Mountain. I passed another cyclist near the top, and he seemed dispirited that he couldn't catch me. Whenever he was within range, his noisy freehub made it seem like I was being chased down the hill by an angry bumblebee. Near the bottom, he blew through a stop sign and (thus) passed me. A bit farther down the road, he managed to drop his chain and (thus) I passed him. Karma?

I completed some 25 miles with 3,385 feet of climbing in less than 3 hours—averaging 0.4 mph faster than a comparable outing three weeks ago. Pleased with my pace, I am.

August 19, 2014

The Finder of Lost Things

NJ Transit rail car interior
All aboard for a trip back in time with New Jersey Transit, to the era of train travel in which a conductor rapidly punched an inscrutable pattern of holes in a little slip of paper and tucked it under a clip on the seatback in front of you. Not as creatively as the conductor on the Polar Express, but nearly as quaint.

On the last afternoon of a brief family visit, I stopped at the local supermarket. Being more sports-car-than-minivan-experienced, I am uneasy driving the family Odyssey around. I found a distant, comfortably uncrowded section of the lot and parked without incident. On the way out of the store, something caught my eye: a small leather card sleeve on the pavement.

Last spring, I was biking to work when I spotted an iPhone face down on the street. I passed it before circling back. If that were my iPhone, I would want someone like me to find it, I reasoned. I picked it up; if I couldn't figure out who the owner was, I expected that an Apple Store could sort it out. At the office, I pulled out the phone. “Swipe to unlock.” [Really, people?] I passed the phone to a colleague with more iPhone savvy; the phone book was nearly empty, but within moments he found the owner's corporate email account. [She didn't even know that she'd dropped the phone.] Her husband presented me with a basket of kiwi fruit when he retrieved the phone later that evening.

I picked up the card sleeve. It was stuffed with credit cards and a transit pass, with an out-of-state driver's license on top. I thought about returning to the store and handing it in to customer service; but the owner might be long gone, having no idea where he managed to drop it.

Years ago, I found a credit card on the sidewalk in my town. It was issued by a Canadian bank, and all I could imagine was a much-inconvenienced (and panicked) tourist. I called the toll-free number printed on the back of the card and tried (in vain) to convince the bank to contact their customer so I could happily return the card. They would do nothing but cancel it. Now when I find a card, I don't bother calling; I just shred it.

This leather sleeve was different—with a driver's license, I had an address. Maybe I could get in touch with the nice-looking guy who lost it and return it. What an enormous pain it would be to replace his license and all those credit cards. If this were my wallet, I would want someone like me to find it.

Back at my laptop, I set to work. In the worst case, I would carry it back to the Bay Area in the morning and mail it. [At this point, anyone else would turn to Facebook. But I am not a Facebook-y type, so I turned to Google.] The name looked uncommon, but wasn't. Within a few minutes, I discovered that this handsome fella was not just anyone; he was a lacrosse player, with his own Wikipedia entry. There was his date of birth for all to see; it matched the one on his driver's license. I foraged for email addresses on websites where someone would plausibly know him. The first message paid off within 30 minutes; he was much relieved and came by to retrieve the goods.

He shared the story: He and his wife had just bought a house in a neighboring town. With his toddler in tow, he had wheeled a cart full of groceries to the cash register ... and couldn't pay. We shared a laugh.

“There are good, honest people in the world!” he thanked me. Could he give me something? I waved him off.

“Pay it forward.”

August 9, 2014

Little Pink Lady

View of blue sky below the marine layer, above the dry rolling hills, from Lobitos Creek Road
Continuing with my theme of cool rides for hot summer days, we returned to Kings Mountain today to make a loop near the coast. As we descended into the marine layer on Tunitas Creek Road, I was oh-so-glad that I had brought my jacket for this ride. Long-fingered gloves would have helped. When would the Bike Hut come into view? The road seemed longer than ever.

Sunflowers and more next to The Bike Hut, Tunitas Creek Road
A couple of our riders were grateful for the hot coffee brewing inside. [Supported by donations, on the honor system.] As we continued to Lobitos Creek, droplets of fog condensed on my face. Winding our way over the coastal hills back toward Tunitas, the transition always startles me. One moment you're admiring a vast open space of rolling hills; the next moment you've crossed into the deep shade of the redwood canyon through which Tunitas Creek flows.

Ferns were abundant on the banks of the creek, but there was not much creek to see. A few puddles of water, here and there; that's all.

In 33 miles, we climbed a respectable 4,300 feet. We began and finished our ride in the town of Woodside, which is renowned for being more accommodating to equestrians than cyclists. Much to the dismay of the residents, their town is a gateway to fantastic cycling routes in three directions.

One block before the end of our ride, we pass in front of a local market to stop at a busy intersection. Uncharacteristically, there were no vehicles ahead of us. I watched as a young girl on a shiny pink bike with streamers tried to start up, wobbled, toppled, and righted herself. A worried glance in my mirror assured me that she would be safe; uncharacteristically, there no vehicles behind us, either.

As I rolled to a stop at the intersection, two adults with bicycles appeared. It was not clear whether they planned to walk or ride their bikes across the street; the safest thing for me to do was simply to wait.

When they started shouting at the little girl with the pink bike (their daughter, evidently), my heart sank. “Hurry up! Get out of the road!” Her parents were completely unaware that she was struggling. My ride buddy wryly observed that their parenting license should be revoked. I deeply regretted not stopping to help the child. This intersection, with its four-way stop normally clogged with impatient drivers, is no place for a tentative youngster on a bicycle.

August 6, 2014

Wild Kingdom by the Bay

It started out like any other summer lunchtime. My colleagues had commandeered a nice set of tables in the shade.

I'm not really a tie-dye sort of person, but this week I thought I would try to drum up some action for the bi-monthly blood drive on campus. Each day I have sported a different Grateful Life Tour t-shirt—an annual gift from the Stanford Blood Center for mid-summer blood donors. Monday was blue, Tuesday green, today was orange.

Starlings know a good gig when they find one, and a bunch have taken up residence. A female hunting for some fallout caught my eye. A dried-out fragment of a redwood branch was stuck to her left foot, maybe tangled with some string. Her right foot was missing altogether. She hopped around awkwardly, and a few of us wished we could do something to free her left foot, but didn't think we could safely nab her.

The story gets better.

She hopped closer and closer to our table, and then we saw her eye on the prize: A praying mantis. Not just any praying mantis, but a white praying mantis. When she got close enough to peck at it, it reared up and spread its wings, Transformer-like. (Whoa.) The startled bird backed off. After nearly being crushed by an ill-placed footfall, the mantis headed for our table and perched on an engineer's jeans. We dispatched him to the grassy area, which encouraged the creature to move on. (Apparently they are white after they molt.)

It gets better still.

That's when a large bug buzzed my way: A HUGE green beetle, which seemed very interested in my bright orange shirt. I held still; it landed on my hand and proceeded to inspect my arm as it slowly crawled toward my elbow. It was a handsome creature, green with black legs. I'd say it was a June bug, but I don't think there are June bugs in California. [I believe it was a Figeater beetle.]

The story gets even better.

A couple of guys at the far end of the table were completely unnerved. They were ten feet away and ready to bolt. “I can't believe you're letting it walk on you!” It's not a stinging insect, it's not going to bite, I replied. “And most snakes aren't poisonous, either!” they exclaimed. The beetle lost interest in my arm and hovered near my shirt again. When it buzzed into my face, I swatted it away.

I was, after all, just trying to eat my lunch. Burger, not beetle.

August 2, 2014

Down There

With more warm weather in the forecast, I hatched a plan to seek more shady redwoods. Meeting some shady people is often part of that bargain.

Round sign with the insignia of the Native Sons of the Golden West.
Climbing up Native Sons, a woman heading down in a large pickup stopped next to me. “Did you come from down there?” she asked. Which, on the face of it, is a patently stupid question. I gave her a friendly “yes” and continued on my way.

“Down there” is a gate at the end of the public road. The gate happened to be open today, but we respect private property. I should have replied “We came down from the top and made a u-turn at the gate,” which might have allayed her suspicion that we had somehow trespassed “down there” on our way to Skyline. Or maybe not, since none of us are Native Sons of the Golden West.

It is easy to forget that, to a hefty person driving a beefy pickup truck, it is inconceivable that anyone would deliberately ride a bicycle downhill on a dead-end road just to turn around and ride back up. Today we did that not once, but twice: first on Native Sons, then on Star Hill. Having first climbed Kings Mountain, we climbed some 3,500 feet on our little 25-mile excursion.

Redwood stump and young redwood trees on Native Sons Road.
These narrow back roads might leave you wondering why they exist, until you pass the decaying stumps of huge redwoods. It is a good guess that these were once logging roads; most of the towering trees are second-growth, but a few are large enough to suggest they were spared (back in the day).

The descents were—dare I say—cold. And that was oh-so-refreshing.