Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful

(With apologies to both Florence and The Machine)

When the Tahoe weather forecast calls for "pretty much steady rain" over the holiday weekend, what do most coastal Californians do? They don't go there to mountain bike, I hoped. Living for awhile in Seattle got that attitude out of my system, perhaps just temporarily, I admit.
Motivated by a glowing review in the May issue of Bike magazine and the fact that a new OTE bike shop was about to open on Saturday, I really wanted to see what the trail system south of Nevada border had to offer.
The bike shop was buzzing with activity on Saturday morning, with people buzzed on free coffee, brand new bikes on display, grills getting fired up for an afternoon barbecue and shuttle vans ready. All that under overcast grey skies and drizzle that threatened to turn into steady rain.

I biked up the street to explore the trailhead and by the time I made it back to the shop, it was pouring rain and I was soaked. I spoke with the shop owner, Sam, who gave me detailed directions, described trails I was planning on riding and invited me to their opening party. I returned to Powerline trail and rode south towards connectors to some challenging trails at high elevation. I immediately noticed two things: trail signage and the build quality of the trail. I won't repeat here the praise Bike article gave to the area and it's trail builders, needless to say that if these trails impressed Scott Nicol, I was delighted.
 As I started the "unpleasant" climb on High Meadow fire road, the signs of altitude suffering came up instantly: difficulty to keep the heart rate at reasonable levels, sweating, dry mouth and not sucking enough air into lungs. When I reached the intersection with Star Lake trail at 7,800 ft, it looked like this: poor visibility and drizzle:

But the meadow was beautiful, even in this weather. Cold Creek trail started as a narrow ribbon of smooth, curvy singletrack, but soon I came upon an area that looked like someone has just unloaded a truck full of appliance-sized boulders. There was a rideable line somewhere, about 10 cm wide and the only line one could attempt if accompanied by a team of paramedics. Me being here alone, not seeing a soul during the last hour and ten miles from the nearest emergency room, I walked this section, but now I think it was probably safer to ride than to scramble down rock faces wearing clipless shoes.
The rain stopped and the top part of the descent was still very rocky and technical, but gradually the trail turned into smooth berms and followed the raging creek downhill. I returned back to the hotel after 15 miles of superb riding for lunch, as soon as the skies opened up and rivers of muddy water flowed down the street.
By the time I finished the last night's leftover pizza, it was sunny and warming up rapidly. My afternoon ride was across the state line and up Van Sickle trail.

This is a 5.8 mile trail that connects Van Sickle state park with the Tahoe Rim trail. It starts smooth and up over large round boulders, climbing through a burn area. Five minute ride and I was above the casinos and saw only a few bikers and hikers. The trail got progressively more technical, requiring a constant lifting of the front wheel over step-ups. Very tiresome at this altitude.

I continued the climb for about 4 miles to roughly 7,300 ft and then decided to return. There were black storm clouds rolling south over the Lake and I was getting ready tired. The descent required dropping the seat and going slow, in control, over the rocks. I practiced dropping the front wheel over consecutive steps, trying not to get distracted with the fantastic views all around me.

On Saturday, Marketa and I took advantage of North Tahoe mountain biking infrastructure. We shuttled with Flume Trail Bikes from Tunnel Creek Cafe at Incline village to Spooner Lake, this time sans bikes but ready for some trail running.

 We followed an uphill fire road for the first 4.5 miles, first being passed by many mountain bikers on this very popular trail segment, and by the time we reached Marlette lake, the crowds had spread out and we had all this beauty for ourselves. Even on a second day at altitude, we still did not feel acclimatized enough. The steep climb up Marlette was painful, but then we got rewarded by a great singletrack through the next section, where bikers must descend on a rutted fire road.

The Flume trail - what should I say? I rode it several times over the years, but running here was a new experience. There simply was more time to enjoy the scenery and the views of Lake Tahoe thousand feet below.
Towards the northern end of Flume Trail, views of Mt Rose opened up. The summit was covered with fresh snow and biking on the TRT from there will resume in June, unless there are more snow storms.

 The final three miles back down to the cafe were marked with more awesome views and the afternoon thunderstorms stayed far to the west.

On Monday, Marketa had to return to her client duties thus freeing me for more trail explorations. I drove to Oneidas Street and to a forest park, where multiple newly built trails converge in a hub of outdoors activity. You can read detailed ride descriptions on the TAMBA web site, I knew I did not have enough time and leg power to ride them all. The trails are accessed off Fountain Place Road, which was steep enough to keep me warm on this 4-mile climb on a foggy early morning.

As the pavement ended, I looked for Armstrong trail, but almost ran into a bear instead. I back tracked onto a trail while the animal observed me for a while and then went on eating grasses for breakfast. This encounter gave me such an adrenaline rush that I rode straight through a big No Trespassing sign and followed an abandoned fire road until I realized I was on the wrong side of a creek. After returning back, I found the narrow trail entrance at the exact spot previously occupied by the bear.
The Armstrong trail was pure bliss. Climbing was not too difficult, giving me enough time to study many technical sections and thinking about lines on the return.

The trail work was impeccable, smooth bermed singletrack alternating with rock outcroppings with just doable lines through them. The trail leads to Armstrong Pass at 8,750 ft, and all I really wanted to do was to ride and ride. My legs felt fresh and there was no more altitude sickness. But I knew I had very technical riding on the way down and needed some gas in the tank.
On the way down, I surprised myself by making it over some nasty piles of rocks and down steep chutes, but mostly just enjoying the trail flow. I then connected with Armstrong Connector trail, sandy, much more rocky trail with lots of exposure, boulder ramps and log rides. Here, I had couple of close calls, and tore my right glove by squeezing between boulders at speed (the 760mm handlebars are really great for counter-steering!).

The absolute climax of the ride was the Sidewinder Trail, a series of high-bermed switchbacks where the trail apparently folds on itself, making you dizzy if not looking far ahead. My Garmin track shows I "flew" through this biking Nirvana at 10-15 mph, all I remember is a blur of turns. The trail ended at the bottom with many more berms and table tops, giving those who did not have enough fun on upper sections another chance to fly.
After riding these 16 miles of trails built with love for those who love true mountain biking, I realized how lucky I was to experience it all. Equipped with some skills, modern bike technology and time to travel to these destinations, I feel like I have never before had such a great time riding. Now I just have to find another excuse to ride at SLT.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Finding flow

It seems that you cannot open a mountain biking magazine these days and not see some debate on whether flow trails are the end of the classical, technical, rocky and rooty (read New England) mountain biking and how these trails will make it easy for those non-fit, GoPro equipped crowds jam the trails. My first exposure to a flow trail was in 2011 during the BC bike race Squamish stage: the famous Half Nelson trail. I think it came as a surprise to most of the XC racers since I saw people riding it cautiously. I did, too. Few years ago, when riding at Squamish again, I was invited by a friendly local to follow him down Half Nelson. Wide bars, slammed seat, elbows wide and knees bowed, this guy flowed down the trail effortlessly, keeping his wheels in the air more often than touching the ground. Of course, he lost me on the second berm.

In the Bay Area, not one, but three new flow trails opened recently: one at Tamarancho - the Endor trail, one at East Bay's Crockett Hills and finally, a 4-mile long sculpted jewel at Demo. That's where I headed on Sunday, but thought it would be a good idea to climb 11 miles to Demo from Aptos as a warm-up. The Aptos Creek trail (above) flowed nicely and the surrounding redwoods were so calming. From the top, it is another couple of miles on the Ridge trail to the Flow trail. The flow trail has six segments and it was immediately obvious this was a professionally built trail. Names of sponsoring companies and bike shops hang on nice wooden signs from the trees. Once you point your front wheel down, you have no time to look around though. Now it was me with super wide bars, dropper seat post all the way down, on a 140mm carbon superbike! OK, I tried to keep my tires on  the dirt, but soon I found myself letting off the brakes and pumping the back sides of jumps. The fun seemed like it would never end and my legs, core muscles and forearms were getting tired. One run on this trail felt like 45 miles of trail riding! I was hoping for another loop or a ride down Braille trail, but after climbing out on Sulfur Springs and another couple of miles uphill on Ridge Trail, I was burnt. The 11 mile downhill back to Aptos was like a magic carpet ride.

Come Tuesday, I looked forward to go and see the 3rd stage of the Tour of California in Livermore. This year, the peloton, including the awesome Peter Sagan, were to fly just past our backyard! I have stopped following professional road cycling and don't really care all that much, but I admit, watching on a TV screen the peloton filmed from a helicopter resembles a multi-cellular organism flowing down the road, constricting and stetching, accelerating and turning. I checked the route map, the time table and equipped with a camera and a cup of Starbucks coffee, camped on the shoulder. The road was closed, cops guarding the intersection and there were other cyclists as well as spectators sitting in lawn chairs, all excitedly expecting the circus. The projected time for 26mph (!) came and went, but then a helicopter came over the Sunol grade, descended to highway 84 and flew towards us. The race was coming! I quickly set my camera for fast multiple exposures and watched the road. I could see some cars and motorcycles in the distance....then, nothing! We all watched the road show moving about a mile away, then turning on Valecitos Road and disappearing.

This is where Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish were supposed to be! Oh well, let's hope for next year. I'm sure it will flow by fast.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Black Beauty Maiden Voyage

Last week, the missing part for my new bike finally arrived and the shop was able to complete the build. My friend Pavel had sent me a spy photo of my bike mid week, just to make me count days till Saturday.

 I arrived at Passion Trail Bikes  early for my fitting session. This was actually the very first time I was fitted professionally to a bike. Adjusting the cleats made a noticeable difference and few mm here and there immediately changed how I felt on the bike.

The bike was not yet completed - the parts that had to be adjusted based on the final fit needed work. Since I drove a long way from Pleasanton, I was prepared: a six pack of Pilsner Urquell did the job and I was promised it would be finished as a priority. I had couple of hours to kill in Belmont. Instead of sitting at Starbucks and surfing the web or writing a blog or some other useless activity, I decided to visit Crystal Springs Cross Country course, a place we used to live next to and a place where I ran many times. I ran here at 5AM in dense fog, in the afternoon at 80F, or more likely in the afternoon after work at 55F with the fog rolling in. One reason I love the Bay Area weather is no matter what temperature you are at, if you don't like it, just move a little bit in space. I never thought much about these trails, they were just convenient, but the real outdoors opens to the west of Canada Rd.

Walking the full three miles of the course, I realized how much my perception has changed since we moved. There were great views of the reservoirs and the ridge behind. Springtime adds colors and fresh looks to many places around here.

In one hour it took me to circumnavigate the three loops of the course, I experienced several sights that made me think I was in the backcountry, not on the edge of overpopulated and frantic urban area. First, I saw a kestrel hovering above the grassy slope, nothing so unusual, except the bird was completely white. I guess albino kestrels exist, they are just not seen too often. As I was admiring some baby head size mushrooms among the wildflowers,

I came on a sunny part of the trail just in time to meet this guy:

At least three feet long and pretty thick in the middle, the rattle up and clearly ready to put up a fight if disturbed. I stayed at a safe distance (I heard rattlesnakes can strike to about three times the distance of their body length, but how long was this one since it refused to make a straight line to be measured?).
Just as I was thinking how many runners this snake looked at from its hiding place, these trails being pretty busy sometimes, I got the call from the shop that the bike was ready for pick up.

After the ransom changed hands, the shop mechanic weighed the bike: 27.3 lbs on the official shop scale! That's about the same (perhaps a few ounces lighter) than my old Mojo 26. After that, I loaded the bike on the roof rack and drove to the trails while having an anxiety attack about not securing the bike to the rack properly. Do you guys also drive at freeway speeds with an open window and your hand on the fork attachment just to feel your bike is safe up there, or is it just me?
I chose the Sanborn county park trails in Saratoga, specifically the John Nicolas trail, since it is not very technical, but offers a long climb, followed by a long descent on a trail built purposely for mountain bikes. This trail was ideal to fine tune my position, suspension pressures, positions of levers on the handlebar etc. Shortly into the climb, I confirmed my previous impressions: the bike is very stable thanks to its long wheelbase, held the line very well and with every pedal stroke it almost wanted to surge forward from beneath me. The 30T chainring proved to be just about right even on few steeper pitches, but for really steep and technical terrain I would have to switch to 28T (have one).
After reaching Skyline, I continued north to the Indian rock formation, enjoying the narrow singletrack which I had for myself in the afternoon hour. On each short downhill section, the bike picked up so much speed - no doubt big wheels are faster than the 26".

But the real fun started after turning around and eventually going down the switchbacks of John Nicolas trail. Just feathering the brakes and gradually allowing myself to hit the ramps at more and more speed- this bike really wanted to be in the air, despite the long chain stays, the front lofted easily and there was no nosedive tendency which I feared the most on all my previous bikes. I think this is also partly due to dropper seat post, I used the middle position for the downhill and tried the slammed down position for the final steepest fire road section. So at this point, my first impressions are very positive, I feel this bike has two personalities: an XC racer going uphill and a big rig when pointed down.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The slowest century

In the past, which now seems like a really distant past, I often enjoyed riding my road bike fast. Fast as on letting off the brakes on some of our winding, steep roads. Highway 9, 84, Page Mill Road (although I preferred to climb here), Kings Mountain Road, Panoramic Highway etc etc., there is no shortage of descents in the Bay Area where Strava downhill speed records are often contested. It not only seems foolish to me today, it seems downright dangerous (I'm getting old). When I remember riding down Tioga Pass on the last day of the 2012 Sierra Tour on my old aluminum Giant bike and seeing 54mph on the Garmin display, I shiver.
So, my desire to ride fast is gone, but I still like to believe that I could ride long distances if I wanted to. You know, slow, in a touring mode, on a bike equipped with racks and panniers and low gears. Since my new mountain bike is still undergoing the last stages of a custom build, I planned to ride on roads. Some of the most scenic backroads in the East Bay are along the Mt. Hamilton century course. When I suggested this ride to my biking buddies, everyone came back with some excuses except Jill, who decided that a 100 mile ride was the right way to recover after a 100 mile run. She joined me for this ride on her carbon S-Works road bike, while I rode my Ti hardtail in a test touring setup, identical to this one.
I am not going to describe the beauty of canyons along Mines Road,  Mt. Hamilton or Calaveras Road in the spring, since I did not take any photos. I was focused on pedaling, trying to maintain a decent speed on flats, ignore the pain in my legs and resisting the urge to stand up and push hard in order not to be left too far behind.
I was also testing couple of items on my bike to see if they would be suitable for longer, let's say three day touring. The rack and panniers were tried before, and again proved to be sturdy, stable and reliable, albeit on the heavy side. My new Serfas rechargeable tail light, very bright, with strip LED, did not last the whole day in a low intensity blinking mode, so it is not good for long or multiple days with limited charging options. I also installed a new Topeak iPhone case on the handlebars, with the intent of using my phone instead a paper map, thanks to the Gaia GPS app.

This is a sturdy, waterproof case which has pretty clever mounts for both the stem and the steerer tube cap. The iPhone 5 fits inside just perfect, with no wiggle. The screen is less sensitive to touch and does not work with full finger gloves - the iPhone screen does, although just barely.

I chose Gaia GPS after reading reviews online, mainly for its offline mode and the ability to download OSM maps of any part of the world for free, then saving the map areas in the phone memory for use outside of cellular signal. I think this feature will be very useful for touring in Europe, where I always turn cellular data off and use public WiFi. The question remained if the phone battery would last for a day just powering the screen, GPS and a compass. The screen shot above shows a gpx track of the route, found and downloaded from an online activity tracker, displayed on the previously saved offline map. I did not use Gaia for route tracking, I had my Garmin Edge 500 for that. I liked the continuous scroll of the map while riding, the only issue was after zooming in, the map orientation defaults back to static mode and you have to hit the small cross hairs symbol twice to orient it into the direction of moving and start scrolling.
I set the app into the OFFLINE mode, but noticed that my phone stayed connected to 4G or LTE signals whenever available, so obviously the cell antenna was not turned off. After close to nine hours of use, I got a low battery warning few miles from home, but this was exactly what I tried to avoid - depleting phone battery if you have just one device for navigation as well as communication is not acceptable on solo tours in remote areas. I will need to read the user manual more.

All together, my equipment worked, I learned about its weaknesses and my tired legs spun the pedals all the way back to the starting point, for a total of 104.3 miles. During the whole ride, I felt really slow and wondered if it was the bike that was too heavy, or me not riding such a distance for almost two years. After uploading the Garmin data, I could compare my times on 100+ mile rides that I recorded in recent years:

As you see, this was my slowest ride in the 100-107 mile range and the third slowest average speed. With 8800 ft of climbing, this century is a tough ride and considering the time gap between my last years of being in shape and today, it is not too bad. If I can keep collecting data points for the graph showing correlation between my age and speed on century rides for the next ten or fifteen years, I won't mind proving that the correlation indeed exists.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Battle of Titans

I sold my Ibis Mojo 26-inch wheeled bike last week. I cried. Heck, would not you cry over losing a bike this pretty?

This is the bike that traveled the world with me: MTB Himachal in 2008, Beskydy Challenge in Poland in 2010, BC Bike Race in 2011, more riding in BC, unforgettable rides in Washington state, and eight years of fun on California trails.
But progress cannot be stopped and I simply believe that 29" is the right size of wheels for me. Big wheels are on my hardtail and the fat bike as well (26" fat rim + huge tire = 29+). So it was time to look for a new bike - a full suspension trail 29er. After hours spent poring over bike websites, forums, reviews, spec sheets etc., I narrowed the final contest to two models: Ibis Ripley XO1 build and Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Evo Carbon Expert. I admit, I started the whole selection and comparison process hugely biased towards the Ripley. I like modern, clean designs and the Ripley is a piece of art. The other bike's name is so long, you forget what you wanted to talk about when you actually say the whole thing.

Looking at geometry numbers, it was clear that I should compare Ripley XL against Stumpy L or XL - some numbers suggested large, others extra large. Clearly, the Stumpy is a much bigger bike. An opportunity presented itself in the form of Passion Trails bike shop demo event, they had both bikes available for test rides. Proximity of the bike shop to my old home turf at Water Dog was really nice, too, since I could ride the same loop on two bikes without thinking about navigation during the first test.

Test 1: Ibis Ripley
Setup: 2x10 XT drivetrain, Fox 34 140mm fork, Fox CTD shock, Ibis carbon 941 rims, Schwalbe Nobby Nic (F) and Racing Ralph (R), KS Lev dropper post. Note that Ibis does not sell Ripley with these components.
On the road ride from shop to trails, I immediately noticed two things: how light the bike felt and a very upright position. On the trails, I felt like sitting too high. My test loop started with some steep climbing and here I just could not believe how well the bike climbed. Unreal, no need to use the T setting on the shock, I left it fully open. The only disturbance on this climb was some creaking from the bearings (Ibis rep said they were on their 3rd design of bearing bolts and eccentrics to reduce creaking, but this DW design puts extreme load onto the bearings); as well as terrible noises coming from the seatpost head. On rocky downhills the bike felt good, but I had to concentrate on picking the right line. Series of tight downhill switchbacks were easily carved without much need for unclipping the inside pedal. The uphill corkscrew on Finch trail was almost too easy. Returning back on John Brooks, I hit a small ladder over a tree root, a feature I had ridden over countless times before. The bike front popped up over the lip and before I knew it, the front wheel landed on the side of trail and quickly washed out down the steep slope. Half endo and landing on face and all fours in a dense poison oak brush followed a millisecond later. Not a bad crash but totally surprising at an unexpected spot. And yes, I dropped the chain once.

Test 2: Specialized Stumpy (by now you know what bike I talk about)
Setup: 100% stock, 1x11 SRAM X1/X01 drivetrain, Rock Shox Pike 140mm fork, Fox CTD shock with autosag, Alu 29mm wide rims, Spec tires Butcher (F) and Slaughter (R), Spec Command post.
My first impression on pavement was that I was riding a chopper bike after seeing the front tire rolling what seemed like a long distance in front of me. Second impression was of remarkable acceleration after each pedal stroke. Then I realized that my position on this bike felt completely natural, that is I did not actually realize any change in position over what I was used to before. Temperature rose about 5 degrees by the time I hit the first climb compared to three hours ago, I had to sit on the nose of saddle, but remarkably, the bike powered up series of steep pitches with no tendencies for floppy front, no signs of rear tire slip. It just felt a bit harder than on the Ripley. Oh yes, another shocker: there were absolutely no sounds coming of this bike. No chain rattle, no creaks. Just thumping of tires and wind noise in my deaf ears. I approached the downhill switchbacks expecting the need for dabbing down and more body English, but as far as I could tell, my tires followed the exact path I took on the Ripley. Lowering the seat post to the middle position was difficult - the saddle always dropped all the way and only locked in the middle upon rising. No shifter on the left bar allowed for more fiddling with the dropper lever, which is designed really well. The twisty Finch uphill required a bit more room for the front wheel to arc around, by now I felt pretty tired, but made the climb without a problem, just wishing for more supportive saddle. On the downhills, the bike was an absolute blast and I went over the crash site ladder barely noticing it.

The rides by numbers:

Winner by the numbers: Ibis Ripley. I was 31 seconds of moving time faster on the Ripley. That would seem significant on a 5.5 mile loop that takes an hour to ride. This could translate to 3.5 minutes during a 7-hour bike race stage! Upon closer look, it surprised me how close all the numbers were on these two rides. That means I am a consistent rider and also there was no real difference between these two bikes judged by these results.

Here is the test loop:

Winner by the $$$: Stumpy hands down at $5900. Similarly equipped Ripley, although with carbon rims and a fancy cane Creek shock costs shocking $7300.

Final verdict: The Ripley represents Silicon Valley innovative thinking and artistic design of a small company, whereas the Stumpy is a product of refined engineering of an industry giant. I usually prefer to spend my hard earned bucks with a small guy who tries to make it, but in this case, the uncertainty about making friends with Ripley were just too much for me to accept. I plunked a deposit down on the Stumpy and I look forward to take my new bike through a test of relationship this summer. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Year's End Multisport

I realize that my blogging activity has dropped off significantly last year. I often thought about reasons for this Jan's B-log existence and the more I thought of it, the fewer reasons I could come up with. I am just a regular guy with a day job and a mortgage who enjoys the outdoors and rides bikes. My activities are no adventures and frankly I see no valid reason why anybody should waste time to read my notes.
In a recap, the 2014 has been a busy, sometimes stressful, but overall a very successful year for us. Marketa has graduated with a Master's degree from a US university (her second Master's), something nobody in our extended families has ever achieved. I found a new job that I enjoy tremendously, returned from the rainy Northwest to sunny California, bought a house and still found time to run and bike. Whatever few pockets of existential vacuum I had got filled with purpose, meaning and directions. I don't feel much need to share on the Internet, or seek external validation for what I do or think. I like to share photos with friends and family and I still log some longer runs and rides onto Garmin Connect, just for archival purposes. I guess there are some plans for months and years to come that could make an interesting blog post or few, but I am sure these will be few and far apart.
Yet the end of old year and transition to a new year and the time off is usually an opportunity for spending more time outside and the last two weeks were active ones, so here is a quick description.

Solstice Ride
On the day of Winter Solstice, Jill, Beat and Liehann planned a long ride through preserves of the South Bay:

Jill's planned route in Strava

This was an opportunity for me to try riding a 50+ mile ride after many months of much shorter rides, and in a wet, muddy weather, too. One third into the planned distance I cramped badly, decided to continue at a bailout option, almost passed out on the climb up Montevina and finished after sunset. Here is what my Garmin recorded:

Jan's Garmin track

Christmas Runs
On Christmas Eve, having the traditional Czech fish and potato salad dinner ready, we went for an afternoon run at Del Valle, enjoyed the dramatic lighting and freshly green hills, only to get completely soaked by a strong rain shower on return. This run's photo was picked by us as our "Pour Feliciter 2015" greeting after sifting through hundreds of 2014 photos.
Belated PF 2015

On Christmas Day, I wanted to show Marketa the new John Nicholas trail in Sanborn park. We started  at Saratoga Gap on a cold and very windy day. No matter how hard we tried to keep ourselves warm by efforts on this challenging trail, we had to cut the run short after 8 miles feeling hypothermic.

New Year at Tahoe
A week long trip to Tahoe, or more exactly Soda Springs area, with friends was supposed to be all relaxation and good times. It was all that, plus a few days of diverse snow activities. When we arrived at the cabin, temperature dropped to 12F (3F at night) and winds picked up, with strong gusts blowing swirls of fresh snow around Serene Lake. 

The lakes were frozen and provided a nice firm surface for some fat bike lessons and early morning loops. Downhill skiing at Sugar Bowl yielded icy pistes and wind drifted layer of sugar snow. It was a sunny day and the slopes were not packed, so we managed to ski non stop, but for the hideous amounts of money they demand for lift tickets, it was not much.

Cross-country skiing at Royal Gorge the next day at warmer temperatures  was much more enjoyable and resulted even in a small adventure when we tried to connect to trails through some ungroomed terrain and ended up falling into deep snow in unpassable terrain. It was a tough trip for adults and two young boys, sons of our friends, did a great job of finishing on very tired legs.

Soda Springs Road Fatbiking
I brought my fat bike along for this vacation, hoping to scout out some riding in the area. One possibility was to cross Serene Lake and continue onto Soda Springs road, which is a public road that eventually reaches Foresthill and goes all the way to Auburn, probably more that 70-80 miles out. My goal was much more modest - I just wanted to see if the road was rideable at all. I was advised by a skier that there was a settlement about six miles down into the valley and that I should definitely stick to trail to avoid some unpleasant encounters. The first mile of trail was well packed by snowshoers, except a terribly rutted spot where some teenagers buried their two trucks in deep snow. Beyond that, the trail switchbacked through some sunny open slopes and snow surface was fast.

The next two or three miles were in deep woods, shaded and cool and riding downhill was easy. I stopped few times and tested the snow for climbing up and it seemed to hold fine. There were two snowmobile tracks - one up and one down I assumed - and I hoped that the drive belt track would be firm enough for what would be an extended climb back up. I rode through some beautiful backcountry, crossed some streams and noticed that many trees around me were huge cedars, the trail was littered with cedar cones at some spots. At mile 6 I noticed "No trespassing" signs on trees around me, actually they read "Please, no trespassing" so I thought whoever lived here were nice people. Shortly after that, I saw log cabins and houses scattered around in the woods. No smoke rose from the stone chimneys and I could see no vehicles, but this was undoubtedly the Cedars Community. The forest opened up to a large meadow and as I got off the bike to cross some very icy section of the trail, I saw a wolf standing in the middle of a clearing, about 150 yards away, looking straight at me. As I frantically reached for the camera, the animal slowly turned around and walked away. Just as I randomly snapped the first shot without checking any camera settings, the wolf stopped for a moment, looked at me once more, then disappeared into the trees.


The same wolf after about 5x digital zoom
I ate my lunch standing and feeling uneasy, not about wild animals but rather because I knew there were some people around I could not see or hear. The trail was very icy towards a creek crossing, but then seemed to have good snow cover climbing up the opposite side of the valley. There was no guarantee of a snowmobile track, though, and I knew what took an hour down would be about twice as long coming back up. It was a slow and hard climb, as expected, but the snow held up nicely most of the way, so except few spots in hairpin turns, where the snowmobile had churned the snow up, it was all saddle time. The GPS track is here: http://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/664348470
The Cedars settlement is marked on Open Street maps, but Google maps ignore its existence. It was probably possible to ride a mile further to the North Fork of American River, but I think that beyond that it would be hard to continue if the snow was not packed.

Hike to Hole in the Ground and PCT
Our last day of vacation, we parked at Boreal Ridge ski area and hiked up the connector trail towards PCT. I wanted to see if this trail and the famous HTG would be good for snow biking. The fist section of what is a fire road in summer was packed down by many snowshoers, hikers and back country skiers. After an intersection with HTG, the trail pitched steeply up and while being still very solid surface, I suspect it would be beyond (at least mine) ability to pedal on a fat bike. The HTG trail itself had a deep snow cover and except some snow shoe footprints, it was untracked. It is a narrow singletrack through some very technical rocky terrain and I guess not at all bikeable.

The connector trail eventually reaches the PCT at Castle Pass at 7880 ft and a short hike above the intersection resulted in some very nice views.

One possibility here could be riding a snowmobile trail shown on the map below, but it seemed fairly steep at the bottom and it is an out and back trail.

So since my fat bike days in Seattle, this was my first foray into the Sierras on a snow bike. Soda Springs trail is very beautiful and under the right conditions, it could lead to a longer (or much longer) ride, although it goes through some very remote areas with few possibilities of reaching roads if needed. Donner summit is hopeless for fat biking, except the power line trail between Sugar Bowl ski resort and Royal Gorge. Royal Gorge XC has few loops open to fat bikes, but all of those were closed at this time, and riding here requires a $27 trail pass. There may be some more trails between Tahoe City and Truckee, but I think that local knowledge would be essential for having fun on a fat bike around Tahoe. Let's hope that there will be more snow and chances to explore the vast area during the winter of 2015.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Back to Mendocino, This Time on Foot

Since my August trip to mountain bike the very awesome trails around Mendocino, I have really wanted to show Marketa some of the easy trails in the area. There are enough beginner's trails for at least three days of riding just south and north of town, as well as some sand for fat biking, and that was our plan until a few days before the departure. A weather forecast called for couple of strong systems moving through Northern California over the Thanksgiving Holidays. Knowing how bad these rain storms could be on the coast (drove through one in December 2012 on our way to Seattle), we decided to leave the bikes at home and packed trail running gear instead.

As we drove through the Anderson Valley where the vineyards shone bright yellow and red, illuminated by the low autumn sun, we recalled how in the past years, we would leave the turkey in the oven to its own slow protein denaturation process and go for a run or bike ride. This year, we decided to leave all things "Thanksgiving" behind and have a vacation.

While the Anderson Valley is most visited by wine connoisseurs, we found Henry Woods redwoods and the adjacent apple farm to satisfy our needs: an hour walk, three bags of apples and couple of bottles of fresh apple juice.
After we checked into our cabin on the coast in Little River, we started our two day feast of seafood at a great place called Wild Fish.  Oysters, local catch, Hush Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, North Coast brewery beer, much better than wrestling with the bird at home!
Next morning, the promised rain arrived but we were prepared and went for a trail run at the Van Damme state park. A flat trail (open to bikes, too) first followed the river through a fern canyon, then crossed the river and pitched steeply up and climbed to a plateau where the Pygmy forest area is.

If you go east from the rugged coast, through the redwood groves and up these step-wise plateaus, you will go essentially through a staircase of ecosystems, ending with blooming rhododendrons. As we turned around and entered a singletrack looping back to the canyon, the rain almost stopped and we enjoyed the narrow, loamy and rooty trail.

In the late afternoon, we went to check out Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. A place of an old landfill, the ocean has rounded broken glass into sparkly pebbles. I expected the whole beach to be made of glass, so the occasional layer of glass in the sand was bit of a disappointment.

Apparently the ruby red glass is very rare - some 50-ies car tail lights, I guess.

The pile of Dungeness crab and fish and chips accompanied again with local wine and a sampler of six North Coast brews did not disappoint. Run beautiful trails, eat great seafood, drink beer, sleep at the sounds of crashing waves - I liked this vacation agenda.
Saturday morning looked almost sunny, of course until we left the car at the trail head at the Russian Gulch state park. This being the day of our drive home, we thought that fast hiking would be enough of an activity. Again, the trail heads east from the beach through another fern canyon (seems that each eastward pointing trail here is named Fern Canyon Trail) until it split into a loop around a waterfall.

On the last leg of this six mile hike, the rain intensified into a downpour and my reasoning that it was "just two miles" to go and not worth to pull out my waterproof pants from the backpack, left me soaked through from waist down, despite making a fast pace. My jeans being my only non-running pants, I brought that Mendo rain water with me all the way to drought suffering Pleasanton. When did that last happen to me in California?

Cabrillo Light Station, Russian Gulch State Park