Saturday, May 21, 2016

Best of the West

Everyone should do at least one road trip in the USA and visit as many National Parks as possible. These photos are from a recent road trip through California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. It was my fourth trip through the Southwestern United States and there is much more to see, there is so much beauty in the world. This trip took nine days and included about 2,500 miles driven. Many places would be great to explore as part of a bike tour. This particular itinerary included long crossings of vast empty landscapes, so it would be too much for one bike trip, but it inspired some ideas.

Sequoia NP
Sequoia NP
Somewhere around Lake Isabella
Death Valley NP
Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley NP
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley NP
Badwater, Death Valley NP
Indian rock art, Valley of Fire SP, Nevada
Bryce Canyon NP

Bryce Canyon NP

Zion NP, the top of the rock in the middle is Angels Landing

Zion Valley from Angels Landing

Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Indian reservation

Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Indian reservation

Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Indian reservation

Grand Canyon NP, South rim

Grand Canyon NP, South rim

Eastern Sierras, near Bishop, CA

Eastern Sierras, near Bishop, CA

Mono Lake, CA

Mono Lake, CA

Tufas, Mono Lake, CA

Lake Tahoe, CA

Monday, March 28, 2016

No. 6 is Electric

On March 25, Bikerumor has published a review of a new e-bike: Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Fattie. And the haters are out in droves, actually all pro- and anti- e-bike crowds calling each other names and worse. I am not too surprised to see the topic of full-suspension mountain e-bikes as so polarizing. Everything seems to pull people to the opposite poles of opinions these days.
My first experience with MTB e-bikes was in 2012 in Lago di Garda, Italy, where I saw riders climb up the mountains with electric assist and then ride technical downhill trails by gravity. Nobody seemed to think this was strange - I actually thought it was far more ecological than having diesel engine trucks shuttle riders up the mountain. Since 2012, I have adopted few more technology advances that today I consider a must for mountain bikes, heck, all bikes, fat bikes included: 1x11 drivetrain (now again "obsolete"), dropper seat posts, tires as wide as the frame allows etc. And the last bike with 26" wheels in our household is the Mukluk fattie. But I would not consider an e-bike as something I should try or own.

We now have six bikes in our garage. While this may seem a small number for some people I know, there are two extra bikes. Not my bikes - I am perfectly happy with my combination of an aluminum rigid fat bike, a Ti front suspension 29" hardtail, which equipped with 45mm slicks serves also as my commuter bike, road bike and a tourist (hopefully touring soon!) bike, and my uber-bike, the carbon Stumpy 29er FSR.
When it comes to Marketa's bikes, her two "old" bikes are a result of us searching for a perfect bike for her: the Giant OCR road bike that she liked to ride on quiet Connecticut country roads before she found the Bay Area roads too steep and dangerous (I agree), and her 29" mountain bike, that was good for riding dirt fire roads on the Peninsula, before she found the East Bay trails too steep and the bike too heavy (I agree again). Both bikes serve well for an occasional trip to the farmers' market or short rides, but after our bicycling vacation in South Bohemia last summer, we often talked about how nice it would be if we could ride longer rides together, perhaps even for overnight trips 50-60 miles long.

So we bought an e-bike. Raleigh Misceo, an aluminum street bike, equipped with a carbon fork, Bosch / Shimano STEPS drive, including an eight-speed Alfine internal hub and complete Di2 electronic shifting. Hydraulic disc brakes, sturdy wheels with 45mm Kenda Bitumen tires, this bike is nicely built and looks great, don't you think? I test rode the bike for a short spin and I loved the way you can control the level of electric assist. Selecting a level of assist and a proper gear is super easy and intuitive, as are the other multiple functions and information the bike computer displays.

So far, we have three rides together where I rode my road-ized hardtail and Marketa the Misceo. All three rides were around 30 miles. On all rides, we ride at 15-17 mph on flats, she beats me up every hill - I mean like takes off and disappears within a minute - and I get faster on downhills, mainly because I like to go fast, she is careful and the bike top speed is limited around 20 mph with the assist on. So far, 30 miles, including decent climbs, depletes about 50% of the battery, so 50-60 mile range seems realistic.

The bike has a low center of gravity, and its overall weight ~ 30lbs is not that bad. It rode well on unpaved aroyo paths and even some singletrack. Most of all, I get asked every weekend: "Where are we going for a ride today?" So I am planning longer routes now and even thinking about overnight camping trips to state parks that have walk / bike in sites and electric outlets, which is almost every park in CA. The battery charges fully in 3-4 hours, so it all seems doable.

So to me, the debate about e-bikes being motorized and such does not matter a bit. The technology is amazing, and I am certain that in few years there will be lots of e-bikes around, not just on streets but trails as well. There is enough space and trails in this country, even if they close the Wilderness to us MTBikers (and I think that would be bad). If Europeans can all fit into their limited space on all kinds of bikes that get people riding, why not us here?
And I do consider quite seriously getting into the queue for the Tesla Model 3 after this Thursday.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Three winter lessons

Growing up in central Eastern Europe, our outdoor activities strictly followed the seasons throughout the year. I learned how to ski young, before school age, and always loved downhill skiing. Spending two to three weeks on skis every winter was a norm, thanks to school skiing courses (parts of phys ed), and winter vacations. I never liked to watch sports on TV, but I could easily stay glued to the screen for hours when Ingemar Stenmark or Franz Klammer raced. Long winters could get tiresome and I loved summer biking and hiking trips equally much. So I sometimes dreamed about living in a country where one could swim in the sea or ocean one day and went skiing up to the mountains on the next day. Forty years later, I am so fortunate to live this dream in California, where this is possible.

Over the past three weekends, I made three trips to the snow and each time I used a different equipment for my snow play: downhill skis, a fat bike and XC skis. I thought about sharing some of my experiences and ideas about winter recreation.

Lesson 1:
This was just one of those regular one-day trips to Kirkwood, the closest big mountain to home. Thanks to regular storms during January, snow conditions were great, but the forecast promised a lengthy period of high pressure and sunny weather. So my buddy Martin and I hoped for some last good stashes of powder in the chutes and gullies of K-wood.

We found them on this sunny, but very windy Superbowl Sunday. We were among the first people on the chair at 9AM and thanks to the big game, it took us fifteen minutes to make a round, out of which 10 minutes was the lift ride up.  We skied non-stop and explored few areas that I never ventured into before. Skiing with a friend whose skills were above mine and conditions that were not "beach" but also not that severe, was tons of fun.

By 4 PM, almost alone on the hill, our legs burned but we squeezed in one last run. We must have done about twenty rounds and with 2000 ft vertical and 2 mile long runs, it was a productive day.
Not every day can be like this one, though, in the Sierras. Traffic, huge crowds and stratospheric lift ticket prices make me often think if this is worth it. From the top of chair at the Wall, you can see pristine backcountry terrain stretching for miles and miles. Not all of it is skiable or safe, but with the right equipment, avalanche training and a few friends, I could see myself leaving the resort bounds for out of bounds.

Lesson 2:
After a week of cold nights and warm days, the Sierra cement turns into concrete / slush, which is not fun to ski on. That's when I started to think about fat biking. The past several winters did not really offer too much for snow biking, but now there was snow at sno-parks and some highways, closed for the season were under many meters of snow. I chose to drive to Lake Alpine on Highway 4. This road is closed in winter, but I don't remember ever driving on it in summer either. It is sort off the beaten path, with highways 88 and 50 being the more traveled routes.

There was plenty of snow at the trail head, and the warm day ahead was likely the cause of the sno-park full and rows of trucks with snowmobiles stretched along the road. I have only good experiences with riding snowmobile tracks and with snowmobilers from WA, but I was a bit nervous here. I attached my red blinkie to the seat post, checked the snow (still firm at 9:30AM) adjusted tire pressure and hit the trail. On a packed trail, going slightly downhill, on a beautiful sunny morning at 7200 ft elevation, I felt the fat biking zen, as described recently by Rebecca Rusch here (some of the best description of fat biking I read so far).

By mid morning, the hard work started. Warm air, sweat, snow turning soft, and yes, it was uphill - my destination was Ebbetts Pass at 8,736 ft. I looked at all the terrain surrounding the highway - not a ski track in sight! If this was the Cascades, I'm sure the hills around me would be criss-crossed by multiple skin tracks and turns. Roughly half way through the ride, the road descended steeply into Hermit Valley. This was a fun downhill thanks to still firm snow surface in the shade, but the climb from the river up the pass was grueling. The views were stunning, there was nobody around me (a few snowmobiles passed me in the same direction I was riding but none came back).

I could ride most of the climb, but as I felt my legs getting weaker, I worried about the return leg - the climb out of Hermit Valley to Lake Alpine was going to be lot steeper and I expected afternoon temperatures to turn the snow into slush. Fat biking is hard, so on the last mile to the pass, I just stared at my front tire, trying to stay upright and concentrate on every crank turn. Not fun.

When I finally reached the place where Major Ebbett thought about the transcontinental railroad, I was spent. I ate my lunch in a weird state of fogginess (too many pseudoephedrine decongestants for my middle ear?) but I looked forward to the descent. The snow did of course turn super slushy by now and despite letting lots of air out the tires, traction proved to be tricky at speeds above 10mph. Navigating the snowmobile ruts, the front wheel pushing into turns and sliding, avoiding brakes, it was like learning to ride a bike again. And at 10mph! As I expected, the climb out of the valley was done by pushing the fat beast up, at least 80% of the distance.  My frustration and diminishing energy levels were somewhat compensated by my encounters with the snowmobile folks. One older woman driver mouthed what I interpreted as "You are a brave soul!" but in the roar of her engine, it could as well be "You are an a...oul!". Another guy stopped and chatted with me for a while (I loved how he screamed at me, being deafened by his engine noise, so I did not have to explain it was me who is deaf!) and concluded by saying "Its great to see you out here". Lots of people greeted me and one young guy yelled "You are a beast my friend!"  Yes, back at the car, I really felt like a beast,  gutted, skinned, skewered and well done.
So is fat biking "fun"? Yes and no. It is certainly a means of enjoying biking in the winter, but it can be really frustrating, if you know how much more fun would the same trail be in summer on a 29" FS trail bike, or if you are a skier and know how efficient moving on skis is. Fat bikes are highly specialized equipment for few enthusiasts and the ongoing evolution of even fatter tires and crazy frame geometries (unsuitable to riding these bikes on dirt) just illustrates how even the most dedicated fat bikers haven't found an ideal solution yet.

Lesson 3:
Since I have upgraded my Mac OS to Yosemite, the winter El Capitan wallpaper kept reminding me that we haven't been to this park in a winter yet. Continuing warm weather made a downhill ski trip less and less desirable, but I like cross-country skiing and a trip from the Badger Pass ski area to Glacier Point seemed like a pleasant way to spend a weekend day.

Glacier Point road is a groomed XC trail in the winter, and many people use it to access huts and winter camping sites on the Yosemite Valley rim, for overnight stays. We thought since XC skiing is "lots" faster than running, we could make the 22 mile round trip in about four hours, to return the rental equipment by the time the shop closed. It was very warm, snow was soft and the trail was far from flat, so this skiing turned into a highly aerobic exercise.

The last couple of miles to Glacier Point, the road drops steeply down and winds through the woods before the views open up.

This is the shot I came here for: Half Dome, Nevada Falls, Yosemite Falls.
At the turn point, I ate my lunch standing in a hurry, counting the time I needed to get back in time. As I climbed back up towards the Taft trail, sharp heel pain reminded me that the rental boots were indeed half size too small, the blisters burst and the remaining eight or so miles were going to be fun. I thought that I would make up for lost time (taking pictures) on the downhill, but the slushy snow was slow and my speed was low. I was going too "fast" for efficient strides and kicks, but too slow to win the race with the clock. At the sign that signaled 2.8 miles to Badger Pass, I had 15 minutes left. I felt defeated and tired and for the rest of the trip, I stared into the groomed track ahead of my ski tips, thinking how tired I was. The rental shop stayed open late and its friendly staff made me feel less bad. Still, 22 miles took 4.5 hours of hard work, so XC skiing on this day was slower than running, except that I never ran or could run 22 miles.

This was a great XC ski trip, don't get me wrong. I like the whole body workout on XC skis and wish to learn the skating style better to be able to ski longer distances. Groomed winter trails in Yosemite are a fantastic way to see the park in its winter coat and get to places so crowded in summer months almost alone.

And on the way home, I even got my "Apple" shot.

In conclusion, which of the sports did I like the most? And I left out snow shoeing, which in my opinion is great in fresh deep untracked snow (so is skiing), otherwise why bother. It's all good, but the lure of alpine touring (AT) skiing is growing stronger. Want to join me next winter?

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Holiday Fat Camp

Just before the Holidays, series of wet and cold storms brought 4 feet of snow in the Sierras over four days. Even our East Bay Mt. Diablo has received some snow and ice coating at the summit. On Christmas Day, we hiked from Juniper Point on the Diablo Summit Road which was closed to cars, to the tower. We chose the easy road instead of steep trails since Marketa was nursing a badly swollen knee, a running injury.

Winter is the best time to explore Mt. Diablo, since the poison oak is still dormant and temperatures are low. This Christmas, it was “very” cold, by California standards, around freezing in the morning and low 40-ies for highs. On St. Stephen’s Day, I took the fat Mukluk for an exploratory ride on the Diablo southwestern slopes. I followed the MountainBikeDude’s 12 mile route starting at Macedo Ranch. Couple of dry and windy days turned the first 0.3 miles of cow-stomped mud into a petrified rodeo track, but as soon as I entered the system of fire roads, the surface varied from rocky to loose. My choice of bike for this ride was the result of both anticipation of some very steep and loose trails (Burma Road) and preparation for some snow biking at Tahoe. After crossing the North Gate Rd., Burma Road did not disappoint: it is so steep to make the Sierra Azul Dog Meat trail look flat. I attacked the hill with resolve but no fat tire traction could help here, and the only way up was to fight for foot holds, push the bike up two feet, squeeze the brakes, pull myself up on the handlebars, repeat.

Besides the ridiculously steep trails, this ride had some really nice views of the mountain, and it used both single track trails on this side of the hill (Mother’s trail and Diablo Ranch trail), the other being the 3 mile Oyster Point trail between the Blackhawk Ridge and Morgan territory. Especially the Diablo Ranch trail was sweet, despite being just 1.1 mile long. Another curious sight along this ride was a water tank at the Mosses Rock Spring, filled with clean water to the brim and teaming with koji fish.

On Monday, we set out for North Lake Tahoe, where spending five days around New Year has become a tradition for us and our friends’ family. We drove there equipped with fat skis and my fat bike, in anticipation of a week of sunny weather ahead, good conditions on the slopes and the potentially some rideable trails.

We skied at Northstar, Sugar Bowl and Squaw and despite the shockingly high lift ticket prices and unavoidable traffic jams at resort access roads, we enjoyed great skiing and surprisingly little lift lines. The weather stayed cold the whole week, single digits overnight and high twenties during days. On Thursday, I parted from our group of skiers and went out for a fat bike ride, along a gps track that I downloaded from Gaia (I found only two recent fat bike rides at North Tahoe, both by the same rider, dating to November, when there was just a foot or so of first snow. Now, with 120 more inches, I was not sure which trails would be tracked and which would be completely unrecognizable under several feet of deep fluffy snow. This was also the coldest day of the week, with -11C in the morning.

The first part of my ride followed a single track through a Par course, then started to go steeply up along a nicely packed fire road, eventually turning into a narrower snowmobile track. All rideable until the track ended just north of Tahoe Rim trail, circling around a big tent, apparently a place where snowmobile tours from Brockway Summit stop for lunch. Turning back, I did not recall seeing TRT crossing the track, so I used the Gaia app to locate the intersection. I found a ribbon marking the TRT exactly where shown on my map, but could not make out the trail at all. To the right and left there was nothing but glimmering mounds of snow.

I figured it would be less than 500 meters to a place where TRT came close paralleling a fire road, which I hoped could be tracked, but of course, I did not know. Pushing the fat bike in knee and sometimes thigh deep powder was fun, but the fact that I was not on any trail made me a little nervous. I knew that I could back track any time, since on this bluebird day there was no danger of not finding a way back. Sooner than I thought I saw a perfectly groomed corduroy track, with no signs of snowmobile use. This trail lead to Road 109 on which I continued towards Sawmill Lake, but grooming ended right at the Northstar resort boundary. Here, I continued climbing on a wide, snowmobile packed Carnelian Bay Avenue west towards Watson lake. This stretch of trail had some snowmobile traffic, but these were organized tours and the drivers were very polite and slowed down to a crawl when passing me. The climb was steep enough to keep me sweating while inhaling the frosty air, until I reached a sunny lunch stop where, I stripped down all my wet layers and put my dry puffy down jacket on.

 Drinking hot sweet tea from my thermos, I thought about how complicated snow biking is, even in this “tourist” version. Between finding the right tire pressure and keeping the extremities warm without getting soaked is not an easy task. I am not very experienced at this, I hate getting really cold and I also think that I need to keep my head and ears warm to prevent sinus and ear issues. As the day progressed, the winter sun rays did not provide much warmth and by the time I reached Watson Lake via some fairy tale like forest, I felt the temperature starting to plummet.

 The lake was all covered in snow and there was not a soul around, except one abandoned snow machine. The descent back was a classic fat bike “downhill”: fat tires causing just enough resistance not having to use the brakes almost at all while keeping speed in the fun range while drifting through turns. But without effort-generated body heat, I was cold as an icicle when I got back to the unnamed corduroy track. It took the rest of my hot tea to make me shiver less and to soften a Clif bar to make it chewable. Here, I decided to continue along the luxuriously groomed trail, but the perfect surface did not last too long. Soon, it turned into a single snowmobile track that was not firm enough to fully ride and after the driver took a short left and must have fallen into a deep ravine, which I did not dare to hike down, the surface was virgin snow. The forest road was clearly visible though as a clearing through the woods and it pointed in the general direction of the Lake, so I decided to push through and see if it would get me closer to home. Snow was especially deep here, I sank often was deep and had to use the bike as a flotation device.

Just as the last sun rays shone over the hill and I started to lose hope, I came across a single skin track on the left. I followed this only sign of any human activity in no less deep snow steeply downhill, but now filled with hope that the skier must have started somewhere near civilization. It is funny how being in the “backcountry” made me feel vulnerable, although in fact I was probably less than three miles from the Lake shore at this point. Instead of finding  frozen skier’s body, the track spitted me out on a groomed trail close to the exercise loop where I started more than five hours earlier.

On the last day of our vacation, we skied at Alpine Meadows, where off-piste terrain is abundant and steep. While it looked like every square inch of the slopes was skied out, it was still possible to find good stashes of powder among trees. The highlight of the day was a hike up to “Keyhole”, a narrow passage through rocks to a steep bowl filled with knee deep fluff. Despite my legs being quite fried from the bike ride, I skied till the lifts close at 4PM. In the evening, we tried to avoid the vacationers’ traffic by having a nice Thai dinner in Truckee, but still ended up on the road for 4.5 hours.

One may argue that this California version of snow sports is hardly worth it: four days of skiing (which equals to $1100 in lift tickets for two people) and one 16 mile fat bike ride per year, with all the crowds and traffic? Yet to me, the weather, the scenery and the vast skiable areas together with the fact that the grass is already green where we live and no need to shovel snow from my driveway, more than makes up for the inconveniences. I think we have a good snowy winter ahead and one has to pay to play.

Monday, December 14, 2015

How (not) to become a dogmeat

I wrote a post about trying to ride close to Mt. Umunhum in 2012. That time, I did not get very close and since then, I mostly forgot about this area, somehow Sierra Azul area did not excite me as a place to go mountain biking, since it is all fire roads and brutally steep on top of that. We have abundance of that in East Bay, thank you.
I have been planning a fat bike trip to the areas covered in snow, but this weekend turned out to be still very active snow storm in the Sierras (4 ft in 4 days!!!) so I chose Sierra Azul as a quick drying substitute to test my fat biking fitness, or as I was keenly aware, the lack thereof.
When exchanging emails with Jill on Friday, she alerted me to the fact that a section of trail here has been long subject to an unofficial "no-dab dogmeat" competition. I had no intention to participate but I was curious how steep the trail really was. I climbed from the Lexington reservoir on Limekiln trail, which I like because it is shaded and with a bit of imagination could be called a rocky one-and-half track. At the intersection with Priest Rock trail, there is a little plateau and a sign that says Kennedy trail 1.5 mi. This is where the storied dogmeat apparently begins. After the first steep section, I not only dabbed but had to take a few minutes break. After the second steep section, the break was longer. The third (insanely) steep section, I pushed the bike up while a rider coming down laughed aloud. I thought I could not rest long enough after this part to ride the last, short section to the high point. But I somehow did (ride it).

On the elevation chart above, Dogmeat is between miles 2.5 and 4. What I learned on this climb is that for me, there are these factors that will likely never allow me to score on this hill:
1. Cardio fitness: who likes hill repeats? But I'm thinking about riding at Mt. Diablo more often next year
2. Dumb leg strength: see point 1
3. Balance and steering at low speed: fat bike geometry with its short chain stays and raked out fork is terrible for hills this steep
4. Tire traction: I had plenty of that, no excuse. After recent rains, the surface was dry but all loose stuff was washed away. But there were deep ruts (see point 3). Fat tires with 8 psi = zero spin out. The flip side is the 40 lbs fat bike.
5. Weather: better try this on a 45F day, not in the summer.

Silicon Valley and storm approaching from north
Past Mt. El Sombroso, I found Woods Trail which I never rode on before. It looked quite interesting with one exception: it was downhill. The trail direction seemed to point closer to Mt. Umunhum and I decided to ride downhill for a while to explore. I did not have a paper map and Gaia showed too many trails around Mt. Umunhum to sort out, so I cruised down enjoying carving turns at high speed without the danger of washing out, until I came to senses and realized that in order to get back, I would have to climb out of this valley.
At this point, I was as close to "the box" as I ever got but also too far below. I recalled the internet stories about marijuana growers, ATF raids, "extreme conservationists" guarding the mountain and shooting at unwelcome visitors. The slopes of the mountain are one remote place for sure and some deep ravines looked like it could hide lots of activities worth "extreme conservation." Mid Pen is planning on opening the summit to the public next year though, after lots of environmental cleanup.

The climb back was not too bad until the steep part close to the ridge, where I got severe cramps in both legs. Walking usually helps me, but despite gels, electrolyte drink and walking, the progress was slow.

After very slowly rolling over the ridge, I started the descend on Limekiln trail, which has grades manageable for descending and finished the ride on the technical section of the trail going faster than I should, for a total of 20 miles and 4,898 ft vertical. Back at the reservoir, I was a complete dogmeat, luckily, there were no dogs around.