Sunday, August 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Uncharted (Morgan) Territory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ordinary life

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

Palo Alto - Site where a vacuum tube triode was invented

HP Garage in Palo Alto

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

The Museum of computer history in Mountain View

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Balancing Act

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Touring Setup II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.