December 30, 2019

Turning Twenty

My last ride of 2019. Last ride before that third digit flips from one to two. It's a turning point whether you declare that the new decade starts two days from now, or a year and two days from now.

It had rained overnight, but I wanted to fit in one more ride this year. Be mindful of slick painted lines and slippery metal rails and grates and shards of glass that adhere to your tires ... The ride would make a mess of the bike, but I so look forward to indulging in a few winter round-trip bike commutes during this quiet time between holidays, when I can duck out of the office early enough to get home before dark.

One year, someone had adorned the bronze quail near the Mary Avenue bridge with handmade red scarves. This year, I found them pressed into service pulling Santa's sleigh.

I clocked more than 2,590 biking miles this year (more than last year), but did less climbing (some 103,000 feet).

But, what about the last ten years? Well. Let's add it up.

I don't track the short utility rides on my folding bike (generally 15 miles per week), but I did wear out its rear tire. On my full-sized bikes, I spent ...
  • in excess of 2,513 hours
  • pedaling more than 28,259 miles and
  • climbing over 1,493,389 feet
  • in a dozen different countries.
That's once around the earth (and then some). Akin to more than 51 ascents of Mt. Everest (but without being challenged by high altitude). And equivalent to spending over 104 days on a bicycle.

One pedal stroke at a time.

December 28, 2019

Me & Squirrel

A flash of gray fur, a rustling in the leaves next to the bike path. Catastrophe, miraculously, averted. It played out in less than the blink of an eye: the rascally rodent streaked across the path so close to my front wheel that the riders behind me thought it jumped through the spokes. (Luckily for the squirrel, and especially for me, it did not.)

I wasn't looking for squirrels. I wasn't thinking about squirrels. That was my mistake. Had I seen the creature nearby, I would have hissed loudly (that works!) and it would have turned tail to run away, fast.

I'd been off the bike for too long (a full month), recovering from my east coast cold. I didn't set the alarm last night; if I wake up early enough, I told myself, I will go for a ride. I thought it might be warmer than yesterday. [It was not.]

Thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit. (Less than two degrees Celsius.) That seemed like a good reason not to go for a bike ride, so of course ... I bundled up and went for a bike ride.

This ride leader's style might best be described as eclectic. She has a comprehensive understanding of back roads through San José neighborhoods, and without route sheets the group sticks together. To be honest, I'm not sure she necessarily has a route in mind when we set off.

I was surprised when she pulled over to stop at a seemingly random spot along the Coyote Creek Trail. On the opposite side of the creek, perched on a tree branch, was a bald eagle. I wasn't looking for bald eagles. [Our leader was.] I wasn't thinking about bald eagles. [Our leader knew to keep an eye out here, and now I do, too.]

It was a day for surprises. The next revelation was Malech Road. When we turned on Metcalf Road, I thought she was heading for the gate to Basking Ridge; but no, we turned ... right. I had no idea that road went anywhere. We regrouped at the top of the hill before heading down to Bailey for the return trip. [And away from the gunfire reverberating in the foothills.]

The last surprise, as I rode back home, was to be caught by another club member out for his own ride. He'd waited until the day warmed up before venturing out. [Smart, that.] We agreed that it was too cold for the club's hilly rides today; he had started up a challenging climb before thinking it through ... the descent ... would be so cold ... he turned back. And thus met me, along the way.

I managed 40 miles (with a mere) 695 feet of climbing. It felt good.

December 8, 2019

The Big Apple

The big apple took a bite out of me.

I'd traveled to the east coast to work with colleagues in the New York office, with a little extra time to indulge in some cultural treats. Plays! Concerts! Museums!

It seemed there was a big fuss over a little bit of weather, but apparently it was the first snowfall of the season.

Alas, after just three days a winter virus had thoroughly colonized my body. I lost my voice (which, in some minds, was a net positive). I kept working, because ... that's why I was there.

I did enjoy New York City Ballet's Nutcracker, which I had never seen. Unlike San Francisco Ballet's version, the part of Marie was danced by one young girl throughout the performance. The theatre was unfamiliar to me, even though the first ballet I'd seen was in New York (more than 30 years ago).

Working from another office generally means the day stretches long as I follow much of my normal schedule with a now-shifted timezone. Most evenings I only had the energy to drag myself back to my hotel room, but I did manage to connect with one good friend for dinner.

I scaled back my dream of seeing two plays on Saturday, deciding that I had just about enough stamina for a matinee and a pilgrimage to Rockefeller Center.

Note to self: Check out the tree on a weeknight, not on the first Saturday after they've lit it up. Bodies were packed so tightly that you had no choice but to swim with the crowd, kind of like body-surfing an ocean wave.

Oklahoma! was my first choice, and the cast was good even though several key roles were not played by the primary cast members. [So, no, I did not get to see the Tony winner sing the part of Ado Annie.] The music is so stunningly beautiful that I fought back tears as soon as it began. I didn't find Ado Annie or the peddler convincing, but the other leads were: Cocky, conceited Curly; conflicted Laurie; and a truly menacing, sociopathic Jud. This production struck deeper for me, emotionally, than the sunny movie version.

Sunday's journey home would begin with a subway ride, to catch a train, then a monorail, to the airport. With completely random timing, I hurried down the steps when I saw a subway train still boarding. And ... what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a vintage historical train—something that they roll a few times during the holidays. I slipped into car 484, built in 1932 and restored to period glory (the year 1946), complete with advertisements of the time. A memorable finale for this visit!

November 24, 2019

Birthday Boy

What better way to celebrate a popular member's milestone birthday than to ride our bikes? [And so we did!]

Biking to the start constrained my viable contributions for the picnic lunch. I settled on veggies and hummus, food that wouldn't spoil while we were out riding (and, easy to transport).

I opted for the harder of two routes, up the east side of Hicks Road (and down the west side). I've long regarded that ascent as the “easier” of the two, but the steepest stretch was more than I wanted today (walking kept my heart pumping a-plenty).

The park had a lovely (and empty, this being late November) picnic area where we laid out our spread—there was no chance anyone would go away hungry! Candles were lit, and the birthday boy had no trouble blowing them out.

1,560 feet of climbing over 34 miles doesn't sound like much, but trust me ... it was.

November 23, 2019

The Big Bike Build

Turning Wheels for Kids is a local non-profit, 15 years strong. I have been a donor since it was founded. Writing a check is easy; this year I decided to do more—to donate my time, as well.

The charity is active year-round, but many hands are needed for the annual Big Bike Build leading into the holiday season. Our bike club has been deeply involved for many years, and volunteer slots are highly coveted (I got lucky!). Being “skilled labor” [it's all relative ...], we were tasked with assembling the “big” bikes: the bikes with derailleurs and rim or disc brakes.

We worked in pairs, and it was less daunting than I had expected: the bikes were mostly assembled. We needed to unpack them, attach the handlebars, install the pedals and saddles, add the wheels and reflectors, adjust the brakes (and sometimes the derailleurs), and pump up the tires. Then we'd hand off the bike to our quality control sub-team to check our work (and give us any needed feedback).

When we faced a problem we couldn't solve, we'd tap one of our real experts for help. One bike was almost done—just needed to pump up those tires!—when we discovered that its headset needed some major adjusting. Deemed a “Franken-bike,” it was intercepted and whisked away to the master mechanics.

The logistics were impressive: from the boxes carefully arranged by model down the center of the hall, to the aggressive clean-up crew that hauled the empties out to truck-sized containers for recycling.

How did we do? My buddy and I built five of the 53 (or more) that our club assembled. By the end of the day, an army of volunteers had completed some 2,330 bicycles. I will smile on Christmas morning, thinking of all those happy, soon-to-be healthier kids!

November 16, 2019

Scorched Earth

After two weeks of poor air quality, I was excited to get out on the bike. The fog, I knew, would burn off.

And so it did, just as I approached The Wall on Calaveras. (Which is not as daunting as it once was.) It was a glorious fall day, warm and sunny.

Along the way I'd chided a bunch of wild turkeys that were spilling out onto the road, into the path of an oncoming car. Despite their apparent cluelessness, however, I've never seen one as roadkill.

It seemed that there was more litter than usual on our beautiful twisting road above the reservoir; the usual bottles and cans, but also fast-food wrappers and many empty packs of cigarettes (Marlboro Lights, in particular). Why don't people keep their trash inside their vehicles?

I was surprised to pass a disposable lighter. (Disposable doesn't mean dispose of it wherever you please.) Only later did I wonder whether it had been tossed by the arsonist who set a bunch of fires there in late September.

Some of the rolling hills to the west of the reservoir were blackened; the road, and what remained of the golden grasses, had a pinkish tinge from the chemical retardant that had been dropped to contain the flames.

My ride buddy and I turned off to enjoy our snacks in the Sunol-Ohlone Regional Park. As in the past, the rangers were welcoming—offering us water and impressed that we'd taken the steep route from Milpitas.

Visiting the park entails more climbing (in, as well as out), but it's worth it. Another 29 miles and 2,675 feet of climbing for the year.

I regret not picking up that lighter to dispose of it properly.

October 31, 2019

Last Light

How many round-trip bike commutes could I squeeze in this week, the final week of daylight savings time? My work schedule would allow three.

The air quality, however, allowed two. See that orange haze in the distance? (Luckily I stopped for some photos on Thursday before heading home to greet the trick-or-treaters.)

Because, while the official forecast was unremarkable ... I woke up with a sore throat on Friday.

Maybe, maybe ... there can be a few more round trips before the year is over? (Just have to leave the office a bit on the, um, early side.)

October 28, 2019

Camp ... Home

I'll trade turkeys for traffic any day—they make for a much more interesting commute. Six of them were busy pecking something out of a suburban lawn. They were wary of this odd two-legged creature and her two-wheeled contraption, but they were more keen to keep eating.

My (thwarted) plan for the weekend had been to join some club members for a ride up the west side of San Francisco Bay, followed by a ride down the east side the next day. Commuting today was my consolation ride.

Is there a region immune from natural threats? Blizzards, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes ... For California, earthquakes come to mind; but we also have wildfires. It's fire season now, and with the Kincade fire raging north of our Saturday destination, I opted out. At first I was concerned about me: Why would I choose to ride toward, and into, the smoke? As the evacuation area expanded, I was more concerned about others: Why would I voluntarily leave my home and occupy a hotel room that could be used by any of the tens of thousands of evacuees?

When my electricity was cut off on Saturday night, I shouldn't have been surprised. Our embattled utility company had widely publicized that they planned to de-energize parts of their grid to avoid a repeat of the deadly fires they've been causing. While I wish their maintenance practices were such that they could safely operate their equipment, I accepted their decision. Better to inconvenience a million (?!) customers than to incinerate another town and kill people.

Their website had assured me that my place would not lose power, but I'd had my doubts. In fact, at the level of individual addresses, they don't actually know what's connected to what. [Quelle surprise.]

With the help of a flashlight, on Sunday I found my coolers and ventured out in search of ice to preserve what food I could. [Block ice, for the win! My grandmother would have been proud!] After breakfast, I think you'd agree that consuming most of my still-sealed container of now-soupy Phish Food was the obvious thing to do.

Biking to work on Monday was also the obvious thing to do (after that ice cream). “No electricity! No Wi-Fi!” a colleague exclaimed. [Shrug.] After dark, I caught up on some reading, the old-fashioned way. [Well, the paper was old-fashioned ... my light source was a USB-wired LED bulb connected to a power bank.]

Monday night, the lights flicked on—just minutes shy of 48 hours without power. I'm no camper, but I managed.

October 19, 2019

Tony Turkeys

Just as I was thinking that I might not capture a photo on today's short ride, I came upon a small rafter of wild turkeys.

I heard them before I saw them scrabbling under the trees. They were vocalizing, but their calls sounded more like hooting than gobbling.

I remember the first time I climbed the steeper side of Westridge, early in my cycling days. I wasn't sure I'd make it up the hill; I thought my heart might explode (and here I am, so ... it didn't). Portola Valley is a tony town, but the locals didn't chew us out today for daring to ride our bicycles on their public streets.

I waited for my biking buddy at the end of Alpine Road, watching others (on road as well as mountain bikes) continue onto the dirt section. “Have fun!” I said. They understand what lies ahead.

The strongest rider in our group tacked on a few wickedly steep climbs nearby, but most of us kept it short and simple: 16 miles and 1,515 feet of climbing for me.

October 12, 2019

Hamilton, the Mountain

That view means one thing ... I have made it to the top of Mt. Hamilton ... again!

Somehow, 2019 had mostly slipped by without undertaking my favorite climb. I decided to try something I haven't done in a long time: Pedal non-stop to the top. Just take photos at the top, I told myself.

Smoke from a distant fire added to the haze, but it was an otherwise perfect day. Expecting to see no flowers, this late in the dry season, I was surprised by yellow blooms. How have I not noticed these before? (In 2012, I climbed this mountain 10 times, missing only the months of March and December.)

This was the maiden voyage for my starry Lick Observatory jersey. I truly didn't need another bike jersey (don't ask), but how could I not add this one to my collection?

A staff member gave me a thumbs up as she pulled out of the parking lot. “You earned it!” she said. [Indeed.]

I offered a head start to the others in our group, in case any of them felt uncomfortable about having no one behind them. “It normally takes me about an hour and ten minutes,” I explained. One rider's eyes grew wide. “It takes me two hours!” she said.

In all, 39 miles with 4,855 feet of climbing. I summited in just a tad (less than two minutes) over three hours. Turns out I descended a bit faster than I expected (62 minutes), despite having to brake repeatedly behind an SUV—and a teenager on a skateboard (!) on the lower section. Those two pesky climbs on the way down hurt less today.

October 7, 2019

Infinite Loop

It's that fall-heat-wave time of year, and a Spare the Air Day had been declared—a fine day to bike to (and from) work.

I always see other cycling commuters, but we rarely chat (other than a friendly “good morning” or “on your left”).

This morning two of us were stopped at an intersection that has recently been reconfigured for cyclists, and I cannot figure out the city's intent. I struck up a conversation, and my fellow cyclist was just as mystified as I am.

Here is  the view from the southeast corner (where we were), facing in the direction we will travel (north). There is a dashed green bike lane for cyclists crossing from west to east; there is no bike lane  marked for cyclists heading north (there is a sharrow on the far side of the intersection, before the crosswalk).

But the oddest feature is the green square that has been painted in all four corners of this intersection, each with an arrow pointing left. It does not align with the bike lane, and if you needed to turn left, you would not make that turn from the far right edge of the right lane.

Here is the view from the southwest corner, captured on the way home after I crossed the intersection. Are they trying to tell us to turn left, directly into the path of straight-through traffic?

This is Cupertino, home to Apple; 1 Infinite Loop is not far away. If I followed these four boxes I would, in fact, circle the intersection forever. But this can't be some grand municipal joke ... can it?

The county is already setting up for the Fantasy of Lights; riding through a set of arches made for a triumphal celebration of my commute (38 miles and 920 feet of climbing). The end of daylight savings time will soon signal the end of my return commutes.

October 6, 2019

Seals and Sunshine

I could have returned home last night after the Aquarium party, but ... why? I would much rather wake up in Pacific Grove and spend another day on the shores of Monterey Bay.

Asilomar State Beach was a short stroll away; I'm not sure I've explored it, before.

The locals were out, and some tourists, too. On the way back to my hotel, I eavesdropped on a conversation. A guy with a very long lens had captured a photo of a butterfly. Was it a Monarch? I peered at his display and confirmed that it was. He wasn't the first person I met who was feeling disappointed not to find them fluttering everywhere, but it will be a few more weeks before they migrate north from Mexico.

It's not the season for the magic carpet to bloom, either, but there were some stragglers.

Harbor seals were hauled out and sunning themselves on rocks close to the shore, occasionally lifting their heads to survey their human onlookers.

It was a spectacular fall day, and I made the most of it—on foot. (It's not always about the bike.)

October 5, 2019

Reynolds, Rapidly

Why is Reynolds such a tough climb? It's a steady grade for 1.3 miles. A steady 9.8% grade, that's why.

But ... but ... that's a picture of Monterey Bay! [Yes, it is.]

I had time only for a short ride today, because I had other plans. Some of my riding companions tried to entice me to climb a few more hills, but I stayed the course: 15 miles, 1,735 feet of climbing was all. [Enough, really.]

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is celebrating its 35th year, and tonight there was a party for members. Julie Packard shared institutional insights, from skeptics who doubted that an aquarium primarily focused on one ecosystem (the Bay) could endure, to becoming a model for aquariums around the world. For those of us who don't go diving, the Aquarium has opened up a world of wonderment. I remember visiting for the first time in 1988, and after I moved to the Bay Area I eagerly joined as a member.

I spent some time observing one pelagic red crab chase others around. Some scurried out of harm's way when they noticed the aggressor was on the move, and I noticed at least one possible “victim” (missing a claw).

Without the crowds, member nights are ideal for exploring corners I usually avoid, like the Splash Zone. There, in an unassuming tank, I found a fish that blew my mind: the leaping blenny. A fish out of water, wriggling from rock to rock, breathing air?!

The jellyfish, always mesmerizing, were as photogenic as ever. And best observed from the dry side of the glass!

September 28, 2019

The Good Part

On the upper part of the climb, a cyclist from our group greeted me as he passed. “Good morning,” I replied. “You're supposed to say: What's good about it?!” he laughed.

The good part was that I had, again, conquered Old Calaveras Road. It was windy and chillier than I expected, and the cold dry air was searing my lungs. It's a brutal beginning (15% grade) to that climb, before it tapers into being just another challenging hill. A hill that I have evidently skipped for the past four years. [Common sense? Nah.]

Late September cast a painterly light on the landscape. We skirted the edge of the lake and watched the paragliders sailing above the hills.

We continued over to Felter Road, where a confused motorist asked me for help. They were looking for the Boccardo Loop Trail, and their navigation system had led them astray. I assured them that there were no trailheads or parking areas behind me, and recommended that they turn back to the parking area at the summit of Sierra. [Which, as it turned out, was the right answer.]

I regretted not bringing a jacket today. I had two options for returning to the start: the long, sweeping descent of Felter and Calaveras that I love, or the short plunge down Sierra. With regrets, I chose the latter—for a whopping 19 miles and 2,525 feet of climbing. My legs were done.

September 22, 2019

Viva Calle San Jose

The best line of the day came from a dad who asked “If I give you a kid, can I have a bell?”

Our sign announced “Bike Bells (for kids),” so that was a fair question.

Viva Calle San Jose is an event run by the parks and recreation department periodically. They close city streets and get families to explore their neighborhoods (on bikes, scooters, skates, or simply on foot). It was quite the scene!

We were there to spread good will (and hopefully entice some new members to join our club). Our formula was simple: A free bell (sporting the club's logo) for every kid who wanted us to install one on their bike.

One member contributed his helmet-fitting expertise, improving the safety of many children (and adults). It's amazing the number of cyclists—even very experienced cyclists—who are riding around with ill-fitting, poorly-adjusted helmets: tilted back, loose straps, too small ... we see it all.

This is the first time I'd participated, and it was a joy to see the kids' faces light up over those bells! The more the parents cautioned their little ones about how much they could ring those bells, the more gleefully I would encourage them to test those bells after I'd installed them.

We weren't far from the band, and our ringing bells added some musicality to the performance. It was a warm day; I drank a lot of water, and basically I was just standing around. I can't imagine what it was like inside those fleecy shark costumes. [Why sharks? Well, we were positioned right outside the “Shark Tank,” the arena where the San Jose Sharks play hockey.]

I biked to and from our booth, but didn't have enough time this morning to bike the event route. The real workout was not the 21 flat miles (320 feet of climbing), but all those deep knee bends. Little kids have little bikes ... little bikes have little handlebars ... little handlebars that are low to the ground.

And even though I didn't follow the event route, I did discover something new, a charming Italian restaurant in a mostly industrial neighborhood. The patio was so inviting!

And if you haven't adjusted your helmet in a while, I'll bet that your straps are loose (at a minimum). We're not there to help you, so here are some guidelines to follow.

September 14, 2019

The Bernal Burn

It's a short but healthy climb up Bernal Road, with some rewarding views on a day as clear as today.

Mt. Hamilton and the Diablo Range to the east,

Mt. Umunhum, Loma Prieta, and the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west.

After that little jaunt, we dropped back down and continued past the Chesbro Reservoir on the way to our turnaround point in Morgan Hill. The water levels are low now, but there is still water.

We came upon an unexpected herd of goats along the Coyote Creek Trail, corralled by a temporary electric fence. I wondered where they might find some water, as we were all baking in the sun.

The goats were a surprise, though we have seen them here in the past. The turkeys were not a surprise, and somewhat panicked when we pulled up.

We were in it for the distance today, covering 42 miles and climbing 1,315 feet.

September 12, 2019

Hamilton, the Musical

When Hamilton: An American Musical first appeared on the scene, I was puzzled by the buzz. Friends were eager to travel across the country to see it, tickets were all-but-impossible to find and the prices were astronomical.

Years later, tickets are still difficult to find and they're still pricey. I got lucky and was able to buy a pair, so I invited my chief culture-and-biking buddy to join me.

Traffic being what it is (in a word: awful), I suggested that we spend the day in San Francisco. I recommended the California Academy of Sciences, and she was game. I had only visited once before, at night, so I was eager to check out the green roof. [Yes, that's a view atop the building in the photo above.]

Some school-age denizens made a beeline for the “shakey house” and we followed their lead. It's set up like the dining room of a vintage Victorian, but with serious grab bars. The first simulation was the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta quake (1989); the second was the 7.9 San Francisco quake (1906). [Hint: you need those grab bars.] The simulation of the 1906 quake ran longer, but soberingly shook us for only about one third of the duration of the actual event. [And that was plenty.]

I was particularly impressed by an enormous specimen of silicon dioxide (quartz), weighing in at 1,350 pounds.

The museum is located right in Golden Gate Park, which we thought we might also explore—but the museum had so much to offer, we stayed until the closing bell.

Bordering the green in front of the museum is a monument to Francis Scott Key, commissioned by James Lick (familiar to us Lick Observatory fans). There seemed to be no particular connection to San Francisco, though this area is known as the Music Concourse.

It was a hot autumn day, and the fountains looked particularly refreshing. [We stayed dry.]

The musical was playing at the Orpheum Theatre, and I made the mistake of leading us down Golden Gate Avenue and Hyde Street, through drug-dealing-central of the Tenderloin. [I won't make that mistake again.]

As for the show, well ... I enjoyed the character portrayals and absorbed the outlines of Hamilton's life and impressive role in the founding of our country. The music, for me, was entirely forgettable. [Give me Lerner & Loewe, or Rodgers & Hammerstein, or even Andrew Lloyd Webber.] It didn't help that it was over-amplified and the lyrics often unintelligible to my ears. Surtitles would have been a welcome addition. The piece (and performance) I remember most was King George III's; in my opinion, he stole the show.

But what do I know. See for yourself.