Sunday, November 9, 2014

No Sympathy from the Devil's Mountain

Mt. Diablo is an omnipresent feature of the Tri Valley. It is quite nice to have a 3800 ft high mountain in the backyard. Daily light changes paint the double-headed monster in lovely colors, severe weather makes it look really scary, and an occasional marine layer that sneaks through the 580 corridor and gets stuck in the mountain's mid section makes it look like a fourteener.
I have been to the summit and some trails on Mt. Diablo on foot and on bike several times before, but did not know too many trails there. We went to explore and called it a trail run, knowing that the uphill sections will be a fast hike, if that.

Starting at the Junction, the Summit trail is a relentless climb. It goes up the western slope along the Summit road, meaning it is sunny and exposed. Luckily, today was a pleasant 73F, but this was a sweaty climb.

The viewtower stayed in sight most of the way, except the last few hundred yards of rocky trail above the paved section where the road cyclists weaver at speeds of 2-3 mph.

Few obligatory summit pictures, water refill and we continued east on the North Peak trail. This is one of the few bike legal singletracks on the mountain. Sliding down steep, narrow, rocky trail covered by ball bearing size rocks, with quite an exposure on the right, I started to doubt my idea of coming to ride here. Any other tail in this park would be much safer for mountain bikes.

On the "back side", we decided to loop north on Bald Ridge instead of continuing to the wide and smooth Prospector's gap trail. Bald Ridge was neither bald, nor really a ridge. This was a super narrow and rocky trail perched on a rocky wall just below the summit, overgrown with thick vegetation and going up and down over spines of rocky outcroppings all the time. Its last section before the Meridian Rd was actually very pretty, lava rocks and pines, kind of like in Hawaii.

We dropped way down to a dry creek bottom and started a long climb on fire road switchbacks. Here, our legs clearly let us know that there was enough climbing for the day. After a struggle, we reached the ridge not too far below the summit again and jogged down a gentle slope of Juniper trail.

The last leg down the Junction trail was an exercise in making tired legs slow down on a loose surface, eliciting some sharp pain in my right knee - this pain has been silent since MTB Himachal in 2008. Back at the car after 8.8 miles and over 2500 vertical feet, our supply of fruit and mineral water evaporated before we even managed to take our dusty shoes off. The Devil's mountain had no sympathy on us, and we continue to respect it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Still here

I realized that this blog has been in a hiatus for more than two months now. It's not a lack of ideas that kept me from writing into the blogosphere, in fact, I have mulled over post ideas on my runs or bike rides. Yes, I still ride my bikes and go running, pretty regularly. In addition, there is my regular upper body strengthening routine (actually, I should be working out now instead of typing...), Bikram yoga on weekend, and also work.
On the side, we also shopped for a house, bought a home, got out of our lease, moved, set up the new place etc etc etc. So now I understand what it means poring over avalanches of paperwork trying to understand what the heck did I actually sign and making trips to Home Depot instead of REI and bike shops.

Well, at least I have now what I have been wishing for all my past life - a bike shop corner in my own garage!

As the daylight got shorter and shorter over October, I tried to make my ~ 7 mile run up Pleasanton Ridge from the Moller Canyon area to see the sun getting down and viewing the hills all colored gold then pink (above). I also rode my "road" bike 29er with 45mm slicks around Pleasanton. The photo below was taken on Mendelhall Road on my way up from Del Valle - the road on the opposite slope is Mines Rd which goes all the way to Mt. Hamilton.

 There were also some really nice mountain bike rides, for instance riding with Beat and Liehann at Demo  etc. These rides, lot less frequent than in the past, somehow make me feel more excited about mountain biking and fill me with sense of happiness every time I ride.
Late October, I went to Czech Republic to give a talk at a conference and this trip has turned into an adventure in science and culture, as well as some long overdue bonding and catching up with my family. The conference highlight was a tour of my home town, including a visit at the Gregor Mendel museum, the most famous Moravian scientist (don't believe Wikipedia about him being Austrian!).

It was actually fun to play a tourist in the city I was born in and I really enjoyed the night on town in company of esteemed scientists and my former colleagues.

If you go to Brno, don't miss the St. Peter's Gothic church and the Old Town Hall with the famous Brno Dragon and the wheel - you will have to study the legends yourself.
I also got some (not enough) time with my family, received a copy of my mother's memoirs from the author herself (thanks mom!) and even saw my son and his girlfriend ripping some muddy trails on the way to Jelen's Ranch for a tasty plate of tenderloin.

From the Czech Republic, I swung over to Bavaria for a few days of work, but managed to go for one 10km trail run around an area called Osterseen, a system of lakes and marshes connected by waterways. Southern Germany had very rainy summer and torrential rains before my arrival have turned the trails into streams.

The Alps were close (about 45km to GaPa), but there was not enough time to travel south.

Instead, on my way to Munich airport, I stopped at the Buchheim Museum of Fantasy - a place filled with expressionist art from Die Brucke group. The building itself was a functionalist gem as well.

Fall in Europe is such a nice time, and as expected, it was picture pretty in Iffeldorf, a village that looked like it was just pasted into the landscape from a coffee table photo book. But it was real - even a photo amateur like me did not have a problem snapping a kitch picture.

Back at home, the time change made it no longer possible to catch a sunset at the Ridge, but I keep my bike light charged and commute to work regularly. Weekend mountain bike rides are fun and blowing fallen leaves in the yard seems like a small price to pay for all this fun. Lets see what there will be to blog in another two or three months.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Murphy Mack's Mendocino Mountain Bike Madness - aka The M5

I just got back from this event. I just somehow stumbled upon it online a few months ago, and others already wrote about previous editions and posted better photos. Everything that the Superpro Racing web page advertised was true. If you love mountain biking on really (I mean really) good trails, in redwoods, with a group of friendly people, then you should regret you were not there (about 120 of us were).

The Woodlands Camp is a special place on its own, deep in a ravine about 10 miles east of Mendocino town. The surrounding areas have been explored and trails built by a group of local enthusiasts, who, for some unclear reason, want to share their secret with the rest of us and gladly guided us on their trails.

What the organizer's web page does not tell you is that besides three days of intense, absolutely fantastic riding, you will meet interesting people, mountain bikers who, for a change, won't try to impress you by "dude, sick lines, dude" speak, or long descriptions of their past races, or bore you by some other sort of shallow "sports talk". There were many very skilled riders who went out for all day hammer fests, even on medium rides the level of skills was high, but this was not a race and the first rule of group rides was that you were responsible for the rider behind you at every trail intersection (it worked).

Well organized, well supplied by quality food and adult beverages, laid back and super friendly atmosphere. As a surprise, there was a wedding ceremony under the big trees on Saturday night, and the women to be married had to walk down an isle made of people holding their bikes upright. Dancing party, more talking to interesting characters, more beer...

I came back very tired, but with knowledge that the mountain biking spirit (bike sprite?) is well and alive here and that I will be counting days to the 2015 M5. Thanks Murphy!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Uncharted (Morgan) Territory

The hills surrounding Pleasanton are visible from pretty much any place in tow. Besides "The Ridge", the horizon is dominated by Mt. Diablo and Morgan Territory to the north and east. I have ridden around and up to Diablo summit in 2011, all on pavement. This time, I was interested whether there was a trail connection between the two parks. Neither of the official park maps showed a clear connection (Morgan being East Bay regional park and Diablo a state park). Some online sources suggested there was a way, and a detailed trail map of Mt. Diablo confirmed it.

Bay Area, 21st Century
Gravel bike paths took me easily out of Pleasanton and into Livermore, where I crossed I-580 and within a quarter mile, the scenery changed from suburban sprawl to deserted ranch land. The flat roads continued for a bit more, then after a turn onto Morgan territory Road the climb started.

Climbing to the radio tower on the horizon
The climb felt easy and I was really enjoying the scenery. As the road twisted around canyons and grassy hills, views of the valley down west were revealed.

It looks like there should be caravans of camels on this picture, instead, I saw lots of cows, horses, three donkeys and an ostrich. I arrived at the park staging area thinking how easy the hill was. Here, while refilling water supplies and fixing a dragging rear rotor, I spoke with a road cyclist and racer, Vojtek, originally from Poland. He noticed my Beskidy Challenge jersey, and it turned out he used to be involved in that race and even worked as the course photographer.

 Here, the first paved section of the ride ended and I hit the dirt roads. These were smoothly graded fire road highways, with surprisingly good amount of tree cover for shade.

There were lots of absurdly steep short pitches, several fantastic descents and the views of double-headed Devil's mountain changed depending on the view angle.
 I came to an intersection where I could have continued along the high ridge, or drop steeply down towards Sulfur Spring trail. Despite my legs were turning into two columns made of mashed potatoes, I chose the downhill, knowing well that I would have to get back up, actually higher, on the slopes of Mt. Diablo.

Sulfur creek was dry as a bone and except a mud bog with lots of hoof prints and an empty structure, there was not much here at the canyon bottom, other than a steep road up. I climbed around a knoll where the views opened up briefly before dropping down again towards Old Finley Road.

Navigation was really easy, as every intersection was marked with a post and trail names. I guess Old Finley fire road runs along the boundary between the two parks, I took Oyster Point trail, which is on Mt. Diablo park land, and appears to be one of the few bike legal singletracks in the park. As such, it did not add much to the park trail quality reputation. It was steep and very rutted, forcing me off the bike often. I was spent by now and thought that a fire road would have been a better choice. Further up, the incline lessened somewhat and the trail surface improved and I was able to ride with something resembling a rhythm. As I climbed, the surrounding nature changed from grass, oaks and chaparral to sandstone formations and pines.

From where the singletrack ended, I had another 1.5 miles of climbing on a sandy fire road to the park road. The Diablo summit with its stone lookout tower seemed really close, but the idea of another 1500 or so vertical feet seemed really bad at this point.

The descent on South Gate road was a welcome change for my tired legs and I cruised down the hill thinking that the tough part was behind me. All downhill from here! Wrong, there were some more climbs on Blackhawk and the manicured developments around were not pleasing to look at. I thought how designed neighborhoods look like prisons to me, despite the luxury homes and expensive cars on the road. But there was an advantage to being back in civilization: a cold bottle of Gatorade at a gas station.
The final 7 or so miles on the Iron Horse trail could be described as the final push home while running on empty, except I got to talk to a fellow cyclist who used to work in Czech republic, ran a Prague marathon and cycled around the country. Chatting made the last miles go by quickly, and cold Pilsner never tasted better at the finish.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ordinary life

Since moving to Pleasanton earlier this year, our life has taken on a new rhythm. I would almost say it is a routine now. This new routine does not include long miles in the saddle, thousands of elevation feet, and all day outings. It is not boring by any means, just the priorities got reshuffled. There is my new job and it is really my first priority. I feel there is a future in my projects and I like the company. And we also have fun on the job. A week ago, I have put together a modified itinerary, based on Steve Blanks' Hacker's Guide, to tour places around the Silicon Valley that played important roles in the semiconductor industry. At the times when DNA analysis is moving from optics to electronic detection devices, I thought this trip would benefit my mol bio team.

Palo Alto - Site where a vacuum tube triode was invented

HP Garage in Palo Alto

San Antonio Road in Los Altos, this sign in front of a defunct produce store marks where Shockley Semiconductors once was, a company that fathered all today's chip makers

The Museum of computer history in Mountain View

A recumbent bicycle loaded with computers and electronics. Why?
Although I run and ride less then in the years past, I do get outside and there are also new activities that take a good chunk of my time during the week. We go to Bikram yoga classes twice a week, that's three hours a week of sweating and trying our best to nail all 26 asanas. I do my upper body workout sessions, going through all my exercises takes over an hour and I try for 2-3 sessions a week. My morning or afternoon short runs around the Rec Center park are just a maintenance exercise, but help me deal with the steep trails around here. Once a while I venture into an unknown territory. On one of these exploratory runs, I ran through some hills where gold mines used to be, and a small amount of poaching lead to discovering a connector between XYZ trails and the Pleasanton Ridge trail.

After climbing here from the valley below, I am now on the "legal" side of the fence

Rewarding views of SF and Bay Bridge from the Ridge
Pleasanton Ridge trail system is well marked
Seven miles of trail exploration and I now have a nice loop mapped where the chances of meeting another person are slim.

Couple of weeks ago, I have joined a Meetup group for a Tuesday night ride around Lake Chabot, the ride leaves every Tuesday from Endless Cycles in Castro Valley and besides brisk pace and nice views of sunset, it has pizza and beer at the bike shop for post ride socializing.

I keep thinking about longer bike trips, rides and events and also spam a group of unfortunates, who at one point shared their emails with me, with ride suggestions, yet there are also bike rides that despite not being long or strenuous make me happy. Every Saturday, we put panniers on our bikes, ride to the farmer's market and then pedal home with the bags full of the best fruit and veggies in the world.

Living close to downtown, I can even grab the fat bike and show off on the Main Street! I feel like the Fat Pepper deserves to be taken off the rack once in a while and the ice cream is a great motivation for a 2 mile ride.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Balancing Act

For the past two month, I have worked hard on gaining back the range of motion, on decreasing neuropathic symptoms through my right shoulder and arm - it is really weird what kind of sensations can a ruffled radial nerve cause- and also getting back some arm strength. It is not easy but two months of pretty intense physical therapy three times a week do show results. Lately, I have been thinking about what else to do, besides diligently practicing upper body exercises at home, to achieve a better balance and physical harmony.  The fact that my sports have been skiing (for 48 years now), biking (14 years) and running (6 years) has surely resulted in more strength in legs than arms.

After finding that there was a popular Bikram yoga studio in Pleasanton, we gave it a try last Saturday. Doing various poses in a heated room did not seem like such a big deal. Honestly, it was not too "difficult" by itself. Sure, the heat starts to be annoying after about 30 minutes, after an hour, you drip like a broken faucet and stand on a mat plus towel soaked with your own sweat, but the positions are not overly physically demanding. What did surprise me though was how much trouble I had keeping balance. Let's say standing on one leg and trying do move your arms and upper body into the right places was tricky: my legs were shaking and I had to jump from place to place in order not to roll down, while everybody around me seemed perfectly balanced in awkward positions, looking totally natural. We survived the 90 minute workout and actually felt awesome for the rest of the day. The heat allows for joints, tendons and muscles to stretch, otherwise not achievable at colder temperatures.

I rode at Skeggs on Sunday and here again, I felt great. Downhill singletracks were pure fun and I took at them aggressively, pumping the berms and jumping (some) water bars. I took some of the early fire road climbs cautiously, but after completing the "standard loop", I rode Blue Blossom and did not feel tired at all. Exiting onto Gordon Mill, I again made my usual mistake and went left (downhill) instead of right, a mistake for which one pays with a long and steep climb. I actually enjoyed the climbing!

Lots of things have changed at Skeggs: there is a new parking lot and staging area on Skyline close to Bear Gulch Road, a new section of Sienna Morena trail, some rutted sections have been smoothed out a bit to make them safer.
The Resolution trail has not been gentrified (thanks MROSD!) and is technical enough to keep one concentrated. After I rode the most technical part of Resolution, I saw two hikers coming up the singletrack. I hit the brakes well in advance to safely stop at least 30 feet above them, to give them enough room to walk by. For whatever unfathomable reason, I stopped on the canyon side of the trail. I unclipped my right shoe, put my foot down and was about to unclip the left, when the bike leaned just so ever slightly towards the canyon. I quickly unclipped the left shoe and put my foot down, just to find there was nothing underneath my shoe. The bike swung to the left but I really thought I was going to balance it. "It would be really stupid to fall down that canyon" I thought in that millisecond. The next thing I knew and saw in a very slow motion was the front end of my bike plunge down, followed by poor old myself, head first, landing on my hands, bike flipping over my heels. All this time thinking: "This simply cannot be happening". Yet there I was, tangled in branches and my bike. My first thought was "So here you go, this is the stupidest crash ever, the neck will go out and this was your last bike ride". The hikers checked if I was OK, then tried to help me pull my bike over the edge back onto the trail. With all my strength, I was able to lift the bike so that the man could grab the front tire and pull the bike up. It took me several more tries to somehow hang onto thin bush branches and dig my toes into the loose canyon wall to get up.

The rest of my ride was still fun, I even could not resist repeating a downhill section of Methuselah, even though it added another mile or so of climbing back to the car. The correlation between positive effects of Bikram yoga on riding performance, or losing balance and crashing cannot be proven by this single experiment. I need more yoga classes and more bike rides.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Touring Setup II

I posted on this blog a while ago speculating about some bike setups for touring and bikepacking. Since then, I got even more convinced (and also accepted the fact) that high intensity road riding may be over for me. Mainly for health-related reasons, but I frankly also lost any appetite to do "training" road rides, just to log in miles and feet of elevation. I dream about slow, long bicycle trips to interesting places. Obviously, if one wants to ride for several or many days on a loaded bike, one should better be in a decent shape. I hope to get there by riding slow. My 29er titanium hardtail bike seems ideal for this type of bike tourism. It has a comfortable geometry, it is very stable at speed, has great disc brakes and a 3x9 gearing. I have two wheel sets for this bike - one with knobby tubeless tires and one with 45mm Vittoria Randonneur slicks.

I have finally got to installing the Thule Pack n' Pedal universal rack on this bike. I have to say, this rack was one of the most easy and thought through add-ons I have ever purchased. Assembling the rack was a 5 minute affair and after a little fiddling with position on the seat stays to clear the brake hose, securing the rack by four ratcheting straps was equally easy.

 This would be my work commute setup. Although I often wear a backpack, the rack is there if I'd need to put a brief case or computer case on it or stop for some groceries or such on my way home. I keep the knobbies for after work trail riding. The rack could possibly stay, or not, since removal includes four clicks with a special strap release key.

Next, I added pannier frames. These are made of a sturdy plastic and their function is to keep a full pannier from tilting away in turns, as well as protecting the spokes and gears. Again, the frame installation was a breeze: 2 screws and a snap-on attachment.

My Ortlieb Classic panniers attached as if the rack was made for them, the lower hook of the panniers engaged on the plastic frame. In the picture above, the pannier sits quite high on the rack, but there is also a second aluminum bar for lower position. This leaves the rack deck free for more load, like a rolled up mat. I think something light, in order not to put all weight on the rear wheel.

I was afraid that the short chain stays of the 29er would make front-aft pannier positioning difficult (Thule sells aluminum bar extensions for this case), but there was an ample clearance for my touring shoe.

I have to say, I actually like the way this rack looks on the bike. I think that the bike still preserves an off-road look. With an addition of a frame bag for better weight distribution, the bike would be ready for some longer trips. I have to catch up with my fitness.

In the photo above, I just happened to wear several pieces of gear that have become my favorites. Firstly, it is the Patagonia Black Hole backpack, this bag is fantastic, roomy, waterproof, and was tested in real world conditions during my winter bike commuting in Seattle. I also like the Specialized touring shoes, added to my gear as a result of leaving home for a weekend of riding in San Juans without my MTB shoes. The Giro Aspect helmet is a more recent purchase, just to remind myself that I do not consider myself a roadie anymore. Plus it fits perfect and the soft straps, leather lining and a bill make it a luxury item. The Club Ride New West jersey looks great (another piece of gear in my growing anti-lycra collection), it is very well made, but after the first test, I am not convinced about the wicking properties of their fabric.
All I need now is a map, a free day to ride and a faith that my legs won't let me down.