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.

Island Paradox

My wife is a runner, yet all those years we have been married, she always owned a bike (or two, later on that). She likes to cycle, yet over the past seventeen years, I struggled to find a bike she would not have some reservations about. I take it as my failure to identify her bicycling needs. Here is a condensed history of Marketa and her bikes, as far back as we go together:

1996-1998: a steel touring bike, heavy

1999-2000: Schwinn Moab hardtail mountain bike. She rode it few times, but after almost landing in a Supply Pond in Branford, after an abrupt maneuver to avoid a root, the bike sat in garage, later sold.

2004-2006: Giant OCR2 road bike. She rode that bike a lot. Few weeks after she bought the bike, I signed her up for a road metric century on long Island (North Fork Century), which she completed in 98F heat and 99% humidity several hours before I finished the100 mile ride. Our second ride together was a 50 mile ride in the hills of Vermont, after my XC race. Then she took the bike on Connecticut back roads, but often came home bloody with road rash or dropped chain. Apparently, the bike was too twitchy and unstable for her.

2010-today: Specialized Myka 29er HT as a second bike. Marketa used it as a commuter bike for several years riding from Crestview in San Carlos downhill to NDNU and uphill home after classes. She liked the position and stability of the bike, but again said it was too heavy (and I agree, it is a shame that big bike companies equip women specific bikes with the cheap = heavy components). I have put a light wheelset and tires on the bike, next should be the fork and complete drivetrain, which is expensive. This bike still has a chance.

2006-today: mutations of the Giant OCR2. First mutation was a flat handlebar with proper brake levers and Shimano flat bar shifters. It helped a bit, but her position on the bike was still too aggressively low and uncomfortable.

Then comes July 2014. On the island of Kauai, which is our most visited vacation spot, Marketa rented a low end hybrid Marin bike shown below.

She rode it every day for 8 days from Hanalei to Ke'e Beach. It is 7 miles each way on pretty hilly road, with narrow blind curves and many one lane bridges. North shore of Kauai is rainy and the road was slick. Add terrible tourist car traffic and you have quite an undesirable bicycling scenario. But it solved one huge problem: car parking (those of you who have visited Haena in the last 5 or so years know what I'm talking about).
She called me on her second day of vacation exclaiming "This is the perfect bike! Buy me one just like this one." Marin Larkspur exists today in a more refined version, but I really wondered what made her like this particular bike. Wide handlebars with a nice sweep, comfortable WTB saddle, suspension seat post (!!!), wide tires...  When I joined her on the island, she returned the bike and we drove to other parts of the island.
Although the North Shore scenery is beautiful:



 ... one hour trip around Kauai to the Polihale Beach Park takes you to a different world. And it would be really hard to bike there, unless you had a fat bike.


So I had enough time to think about one more road bike mutation for my wife on our flight back home. The mutagens were: 25mm tires, short (70mm) stem and a wide riser handlebar (my old Ibis Mojo 680mm bar). When Marketa saw the bike, she commented that it was the "Harley" of bikes, yet agreed to test ride it to the farmer's market in Pleasanton on Saturday.


An African grass woven basket on the rack, she happily rode the bike there and home with a load of produce. I secretly think the bike has been bastardized (and I keep the old drop bar and Ultegra shifters in my bike spares box), but who am I to judge? The result speaks for itself.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

East Bay Furnace

People often say that the Bay Area has an amazing variety of micro-climates. While largely true, the summer weather patterns can be divided into two simple categories: sunny and warm or foggy and cold. Depending on where you are, the ratio of these two weathers changes, sometimes dramatically within a few miles.
We always liked South Bay, because it is mostly sunny, the ocean layer is kept away by the tall Skyline ridge, and if some clouds spill into the valley, sun will burn it off by 11AM. When we lived in San Carlos, just south of 92, and I worked in South San Francisco, I had to deal with the worst weather a bicyclist (or a runner) who works regular hours can imagine. Foggy and cold in the morning. I tried to go running at the Belmont XC course, but quickly got tired by the damp cold mornings with no visibility. Bike commuting to the South City was challenging, too: the sunny hours of the day were spent inside the building and as soon as the fog started to blow down the hill in San Bruno, I climbed up steep hill with freezing wind trying to flush me back down to the valley. At least, the ride was downwind along the Skyline.

I used to ignore the East Bay somewhat (except for road rides to Mt. Hamilton or Mt. Diablo), I never paid much attention to the weather patterns there. Being in Pleasanton now for close to 6 weeks, I realized that even here, there can be a strong daily pattern: The Pleasanton ridge is a barrier to the fog, keeping the town of Pleasanton sunny, but pleasantly cool overnight. The I-580 gap lets lots of fog in and San Ramon and Mt. Diablo are often under a thick marine layer. When this pattern is strong, it is comfortable in town while the ridge is very windy and cold. This was the case for a trail run two weeks ago, when the cold wind forced us to wear headbands and vests.


But in many protected valleys, it was hot, combined with the very steep terrain, it was difficult to stay cool.
 Last Thursday, I rode after work up Pleasanton ridge, starting on the Foothill Rd and climbing up the Golden Eagle Rd to the Augustin Bernal Park. Once on the ridgeline trail, there was a nice breeze. As I progressed north, the breeze became a howling cold wind. Even the sheep seemed cold, despite their thick wool coats. By the time I reached the northern end of the North Ridge Trail, I was quite cold. Jumping three gates and trespassing on some private land kept my adrenaline high enough not to notice (I was trying to find a connector to trails at the Preserve).


Saturday forecast called for increasing temperatures, reaching 97 on Sunday and 99 by Monday, meaning the onshore flow was weakening. I picked the cooler of the two weekend day for a run at the Sunol Regional Wilderness.  This is a beautiful park, with quite diverse areas. The canyon is shaded by trees, and there is even a rocky gorge aptly named Little Yosemite.


 I don't know how little water flows in the Yosemite Falls this summer, but Little Yosemite had little of it. There were some kids splashing in a pool upstream, and enough water to pour on my head and back to cool of.


A 1.7 mile steep climb on Cerro Este was next. First I tried jogging, then fast walking but soon, I was walking and slowly. The grade was super steep and surface loose. This trail is open to bikes but I did not see any. No wonder, I think it would be very difficult to maintain traction uphill or downhill, even on a 29er. Trails like this could be perhaps ridden on a fat bike, if one had the strength to pedal the 35 lb beast up 20% grades. 

 After reaching a high point on Cerro Este, where a trail splits and continues towards the Ohlone Wilderness and eventually to Del Valle Lake, I ran along the ridge with some interesting rock formations.

 The final leg downhill along the Indian Joe Creek was lovely - next time I have to try this loop clockwise.
Feeling quite wiped out and dehydrated after Saturday slog, Sunday was supposed to be a recovery day. I guess I feel well enough these days as to chose an active recovery method. I went to explore Pleasanton neighborhoods and bike paths. By the time I left the house, it was 97F and no wind.
We have crushed gravel paths along the irrigation canals here, one of them, Arroyo Mocho right behind our house. This one connects to the Centennial Trail and Arroyo Del Valle. Close to downtown, the Pleasanton town bike path even becomes a rocky singletrack with few switchbacks!

When the bike path ended, I continued on Vineyard Avenue towards Livermore, along some vast vineyards and quite a few opulent wineries. Right after crossing 84, I picked up Arroyo Del Valle regional trail again, which goes through some interesting old ranch lands and eventually spits you out right across the huge Wente Winery. Just 0.2 mile up the road is a trailhead and parking lot for northern access to the Del Valle park. The fire road on photo below looks quite benign, but it steep, I swear. I was hot, tired, my corneas and nasal mucosa seared by the dry air. My computer showed 15 miles and it was another 5.8 miles to the nearest shore of Del Valle lake, so I turned around.

 After 30 hot, dusty miles, I did not regret not going for a swim in Del Valle lake, since our pool is nice, and has the advantage of a freezing cold Pilsner being just 2 minutes away.


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sustainability

I started mountain biking when I was 38 years old. Mountain biking was really the first aerobically challenging sport I have ever done. After a few years of recreational rides with friends in Connecticut, I met John who really made me take biking more seriously. I started road riding for fitness and discovered that road bike trips were the perfect way to get to know the area where we lived. Biking also led to running, again mainly to improve my aerobic fitness. I have never trained systematically or followed any structured training plan. By just riding longer, moving to California where the hills are big and climbs long, I just somehow ended up in decent shape. Multi day bike races, 100+ mile hilly bike rides and whole day dirt / road excursions filled my weekends and vacations. It all seemed very easy and natural to do. The in-between-jobs period in 2012 helped me to be able to ride with John for 6 out of 8 days over brutal hills of Southern California on a loaded bike. I lost him after a mechanical, but I was toast anyways.
Over the years, I also met quite a few guys about my age who always said "I used to ride centuries..." or "When I raced bikes..." I thought, why would anybody talk about the past? Just hop on your bike and ride!
During these "peak years", it never occurred to me to worry about injuries. I crashed a few times, had some overuse issues (tendonitis) and of course, lots of cramps, soreness and fatigue. What I also did not think about is how my inherited body composition and biomechanics, plus sports that really mostly work out your legs, may affect the rest of the body. As a kid, I was always a chubby boy, hated soccer and all sports that involved running. I also had weak arms and equally hated push ups and rope climbing. High school and college years were spent mainly in beer pubs, smoking. Next ten years of asthma did not encouraged me to use my lungs much in activities that actually require it. Despite getting fit in my forties, I think that some genetic factors (predisposition to spine problems, arthritis, bone loss) combined with neglecting my upper body strength eventually led to the recent episode of herniated cervical discs and damage of nerve roots that inervate the right shoulder and arm. I could speculate whether my active 40-ies had delayed what was inevitable or whether the muscle imbalance accelerated what could have happened ten years later. It really does not matter. The lesson I learned is that one has to pay attention to one's overall wellness.

My physical therapy continues to restore some strength in the affected limb, the neuropathic pain is gone. I realized how pathetically weak my arms are, not just the "big" muscles, even the rotator cuffs which are 100% endurance muscles. Exercising the arms, shoulders and back muscles will be a routine from now on.
I ran a 7-mile trail run and a 6-mile street jog recently. The past weekend, I hit my favorite trails along the Skyline ridge on my Mojo. The Mojo (despite its miniature, today almost comically looking 26" wheels) equipped with a 70mm Thomson stem and 740mm wide Ibis carbon bars is now a switchback slayer. It also climbs lot better with none of the front wheel wandering on steep inclines. Next came a shorter stem on the 29er (it already had the super wide bars).

So what's next? I have plans for a touring setup on the 29er as well as the fatty (if snow ever returns to California). I probably won't be able to ride a road bike with low drop bars due to the neck spine strain, but that's perfectly OK. Long road trips can be done on a touring bike. Whatever type of biking I do, it will have to be a part of a sustainable, holistic (I really dislike that word) and happiness inducing self-care.
It is also the time to pass the baton to the younger generation - I am extremely proud of my son Jiri, who not only chose a bike as a graduation gift, but also rides it often and seems to be falling for the sport. All this despite me taking him on rocky trails in CT, where he endoed and knocked the wind out of him, made him push a mountain bike up steep trails on Mount Desert Island in a 95 degree heat and even tried to explain that riding up Haleakala is the best way of spending a day on Maui.

Is bike color choice genetic too?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Small Victories


The reason why I haven't posted anything here in almost a month is that I really did not want to whine online about my condition. I did enough real whining. Those three weeks since April 28 were filled with reasons to whine: besides the constant neuropathic pain, there were pain medications that did not work, multiple medical tests and procedures accompanied with steep hospital bills, lack of sleep, simply a pure misery. There were positives, too: a chiropractor recommended Swedish made inflatable cervical traction device (which would make Austin Powers proud) worked and brought temporary relief, and eventually the epidural injections worked.
Some nerve path through my shoulder and right arm lost the ability to transfer information, so even after the pain went from 11 to 3 on the scale of 1-10, things like lifting a cup or spoon with soup, moving a mouse etc. all of a sudden were not quite possible. Every hour of physical therapy made me a ball of twitching nerves, covered with ice packs. The best was when I put a lid on a cup of coffee in the morning at work with my bad hand (or so I thought) and splashed myself with coffee chin to waist just before an important meeting! Nerve impingement also results in muscle atrophy, so my right arm looks like a stick covered in wrinkled skin (remember Fat Bastard after he lost weight?), whereas my belly fat layers thickened (who knew that sweets help to deal with pain?).

But slowly, things started to improve. I walked to work and home (even a few minutes behind the wheel brought the symptoms back), then I rode the fat bike to work (1.6 miles each way!) - although carrying a backpack even for 15 minutes turned out to be an ordeal. On May 30, I rode to work not to miss the bike to work month, at least symbolically. Then I ran 2.5 miles on steep hills in 95F weather - no extra pain caused by running! Yesterday, I took a 3 mile detour along the Arroyo Mocho path on the way to work and almost forgot about the whole painful deal.
It will probably take a few more months, but I am getting the bikes ready for longer rides. I am very lucky to live in a place with endless summer.




Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Pain Cave


The last thing I want to do on this blog is to complain about personal health issues. However, my recent painful episode, its origins and my experience with the medical system may be of some use to some (especially older) readers who want to keep pursuing an active lifestyle until the hearse pulls up.
Here is a quick synopsis of what I think was the underlying cause:
- January fall on an ice sheet, flat on my back, while getting ready for a snowshoe trip at Paradise, WA
- No pain or other symptoms for couple of weeks
- Two following months, stiffness in the neck, unable to look over my shoulder while bike commuting
- Skiing, dropping 5-10 feet through gates into chutes and bowls, jumping moguls, landing in deep powder, fast descending on a snow bike - all causing dull pain in the neck
- Ignoring all these warning signs
- April - flying on business, sitting on a plane with a strong pain in the right arm
- From that point, the pain in neck, shoulder, arm does not go away, gets stronger, to point 11 on scale of 10

There are two kinds of pain, the first "normal" pain is when we cut, bruise, burn ourselves. The second, nerve pain is the pain we experience during a root canal or tooth drilling without enough anesthesia. It is also a pain caused by pinched nerves in the vertebrae. It is dull, radiating, sends electric-like jolts through the paths of the nerve, tingles occasionally, but most importantly, never, ever goes away. After a few days, it drives you crazy, keeps you awake at night, does not let you concentrate on anything.

OK, so what does one do in such a painful situation? Here is again a quick summary of my actions and encounters with the standards of medical care as well as the non-traditional approaches. First, I tried to make appointments with a GP and an orthopedist, being new to the area, this was going to take several days (a week or so). Second, I ran to a physiotherapy place across the street from my work. These guys gladly took care of me, after three sessions I gained a lot of mobility in my neck, but the pain did not go away a bit. Some of the exercises seemed to help temporarily, but still no sleep.
Then - the real MDs: Dr. 1 prescribes pain medication which makes the pain go away for 30 minutes and a neck X-ray which shows no problem with the bones (besides a slight age related wear of the vertebrae). Dr. 2 says the pain medication was wrong, prescribes a super strong NSAID (the one which can kill you by stomach bleeding), a painkiller that is used to treat epilepsy and an MRI. The painkiller causes me to lose coordination, so I move like a drunk, but it knocks me out for 2 hours at night, so I sleep a little. After 2 of these pills, no chance of driving a car for at least a day. A week goes by.
Dr. 3, a chiropractic with a doctoral degree: immediately identifies a C7-T1 dislocated vertebra, agrees with Drs 1 and 2 on a possibly herniated C5 disc and gets to work. Gentle adjustments, no work around the T1 until she sees the MRI, massage, hot / cold, ultrasound. For the rest of the day and most of the following night I am pain free and the hope of running and biking again returns.

I am sure all this will resolve soon and I will be able to function again. But this experience results in two realizations: first, who knew that the fifties will be so miserable after the best physical condition of my life during my 40-ies? Who the hell wrote this program? Second: from now on, I will listen to my body and be gentle(r) to it. Yoga and chiropractic will likely be part of the routine. After all, I still want to ride 100 miles when I'm 75.