Monday, March 28, 2016

No. 6 is Electric

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 22, 2016

Three winter lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Holiday Fat Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2015

How (not) to become a dogmeat

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Bicycling with allergies

The reason why I will deviate from using my blog for describing my usual trip or ride experiences and venture into a topic that borders on biomedical (where my professional expertise is) and sports (where I am a complete amateur) is twofold: this year, I have read about my friend's onset of asthma on her blog and on one occasion witnessed her to suffer a sudden onset of asthma symptoms while on a mountain bike ride, and the other reason is a recent experiment with my own allergies, more on that later.
I should warn all potential readers that I will describe my own personal experiences that may or may not apply to others, so take this study with n=1 subjects as such. I will also connect certain phenomena based solely on my own experiences without making any attempts to imply causation, just suggest a correlation, but even that may be wrong.
OK, so with the disclaimer out of the way, I will give you a summary of my own allergies and asthma.
- No childhood history of allergies or asthma
- No family history of allergies or asthma
- Smoked cigarettes from age 15 to ~ 30
- Diagnosed with severe asthma at age 23 after multiple bronchitis infections while working under stress and long hours on my thesis in an academic lab severely contaminated with S. aureus and being a parent while finishing school
- Heavy inoculation of nasal airways and sinuses with S. aureus nasal polyps found a few years later
- Couple of polyp surgeries, couple of hospitalizations for asthma attacks
- One 911 call after turning blue at 3AM
- Taking various medication, nothing seemed to work
- A radical polyp surgery in 1996 and started to use a preventative steroid inhaler daily

So I would say, until then (about 1997-1998) my allergies and asthma were out of control. I should also say that until then, I did not do any aerobic sport activities, some recreational bicycling, regular gym workouts but zero running.

I started mountain biking more seriously around 1999-2000 and even ended up racing the Sports category in the New England series. Around 2004, on my friend's advice, I bought a road bike as a means of training for MTB and started to do longer rides, eventually metric centuries. In those years, my nasal polyps were so bad that I breathed through my mouth mostly and suffered hours of excruciating pain during each longer flight due to inability of Eustachian tubes (blocked by polyps) to equilibrate middle ear pressure. I also started to have some numbness and weird sensations along the left cheek where one branch of trigeminal nerve was.

After moving to California in 2007, I started to ride a lot more - of course, great weather year around and many new places to explore on both road and mountain bike. I also suffered a bad middle ear infection (never had those as a kid) and ended up with ear drum perforation which did not want to heal. After couple of years, one more botched polyp surgery, countless treatments with antibiotics and prednisone, my sinuses and left ear were horribly chronically inflamed and I lost more than 50% hearing in my left ear. Those were also years when I logged in about 3000 road miles and 1000 mountain bike miles a year. My road rides were almost all over three hours and 45 miles, more regularly like 80+ miles and 5-6 hours long. I did some multi-day MTB races (2008 MTB Himachal, 2010 Beskidy trophy, 2011 BC Bike Race) and was generally in great biking shape, especially weeks after completing another prednisone run.

In 2010, I underwent another radical polypectomy, this time in hands of an awesome Stanford ENT surgeon, who then put me on an experimental treatment using topical steroid in a saline nasal wash to reduce mucosal inflammation. This helped tremendously my sinuses, but the doctors were cautious about the "off-label" use of budesonide and advised against long term use. My left ear drum had the perforation so I had no pressure equilibration problems but also next to no hearing. At this time, I also started allergy shots (a desensitization therapy) upon recommendation of my allergist. My allergist said that in order to keep the polyps at bay and eventually heal my ear, I had to start with long-term control of my allergies. I should also note that even during my worst sinus and ear issues, I had no asthma attacks and did not use any emergency inhalers for years.

 After moving to Seattle in 2012, I tried to be more active on my bike, entered some local races but in the turmoil of that life phase, did not pay enough attention to medication. It took a long time to get new allergy shots (vaccines) ordered and I had to re-start the dose escalation by weekly shots. My left ear had a big hole in it and yellow puss oozing out more often than not. All that until I consulted an ENT doctor at UW Medicine who had some new results from clinical trials on the topical use of steroids in nasal rinses. It is almost always the doctors at big university research hospitals who have access to the newest treatments and are willing to experiment on you, if you are game. I was, and after going back on washing my nose with salt water infused with steroids, almost all my symptoms went away. Even my ear has healed eventually (this took another two years) and I now have a decent ability to equilibrate pressure. On a bike, I continued mountain biking on those fantastic WA trails, but sold my road bike and stopped riding for long hours and long distances.

OK, so here is my first observation that links biking and allergies: with absolute regularity, the third day after my long road bike rides, my sinuses swelled, left Eustachian tube got "glued", middle ear infection followed and thanks to my ear drum perforation, effusion prevented any build up in the middle ear. This cycle repeated countless times for me to get convinced that there was a correlation. A correlation with what though? Aerobic activity on a bike? Bent down position on a road bike? Drinking sports drinks in large doses? Muscle and tissue inflammation due to hard efforts? Immune system suppression due to hard efforts? Multi-hour exposure and inhalation of airborne allergens? All of the above? The problem is that as a single study subject and without controlling for all the other variables, one person can never scientifically prove causation. Today, I do everything in my power to control allergies, I do not ride longer than 4 hours and only mountain bike and commute on bike, and I am trouble free.

Almost. Which brings me to the second part of my story: I told a friend recently that I have not been drinking any wine for more than 20 years since I was allergic to sulfites. A long time ago, I went to anaphylaxis after drinking couple of glasses of white wine, and also almost went anaphylactic during a hike in Death valley, after eating some dried fruit at a Las Vegas breakfast buffet. So for many years, I avoided wine, dried fruits and sauerkraut. This friend of mine is an engineer and scientist and he felt sorry for me. Next time we met, he brought me several articles about sulfite content in wine, and a nice bottle of dry red wine, 2007 vintage. One of the articles can be found here, but I was most surprised by the graph showing SO2 content in wine (in ppm) compared to other foods.

Look at the range - how I could get severe reaction from a food item with 3700 ppm of SO2 (dried fruit) as well as wine with less than 40ppm? That did not make any sense. My friend and I talked about this and it seemed like an interesting experiment for me to try. So one evening last week, I poured myself a small glass of that nice Rioja red and having my emergency inhaler and an epi-pen ready, I sipped the elixir. I waited for thirty minutes and nothing happened. No wheezing, no tightness of chest, no itching inside your wind tube or ears! So mid week, I repeated the experiment with the same result. Yay, wine! Welcome back to my life! On Sunday night, I finished what was left in the bottle and also had another two vintage reds ready to enjoy during long autumn evenings. That night, I woke in the middle of the night with a pretty bad asthma attack. It was not anaphylaxis, but severe enough to spoil my night and make me feel sick the next day, trembling after a steroid and beta-blocker overdose. So I guess the conclusion of this experiment is convincing enough: one out of three is enough for me when my health is considered. So I will be looking at (hopefully) next twenty years wine-free again, but I like beer better, anyways. Cheers!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Mendocino singletrack

This summer, I missed the organized fun in the deep Mendocino redwood forest, which I wrote about last year. I thought it would be even more fun to travel there with a group of friends and share the place with others. For this reason, I got really excited when two of my Czech (actually Bohemian-American) friends agreed to make a camping and riding trip to Mendo in October. We suffered an unexpected 33% attrition, but two Czechs is still better than one (and way better than none), so on October 9, Pavel and I drove north, after suffering the Friday evening San Francisco traffic. A dinner stop at Boonville, in the heart of Anderson Valley, made the drive bearable, but it also meant that we arrived at the Van Damme State park campground late at night. Here, to our dismay, we found the campsite full (half of the sites closed, many reserved), to the contrary of the information found on the park website. I guess, north of Petaluma, the Internet information is not valid. We pitched our tents at the hike and bike area and went to sleep after just one beer. I woke up at 3AM to the sound of large rain drops hitting the tent canopy. Large drops fell sparsely but soon it really rained and the drumming sound put me back to sleep. It was a wet morning but all stayed dry inside the tents.

After some failed negotiations with the park ranger, we had to relocate our camp to one of the regular spots that just freed up, so we were all set for the weekend. Equipped with a guide book and maps written by a couple of local riders, we drove eleven miles down to deep redwoods surrounding the Mendocino Woodlands camps. Yes, down, from a coast, where you think you would be at the sea level, the drive to the trails was mostly downhill on a fire road that got quite muddy overnight. Our first ride went through fantastic redwood groves along Marsh creek towards Camp 2. From the deep valley, the only ways out always point sharply upwards and our first big climb was a mix of singletrack and jeep road to a ridge trail.

From the ridge, we started descending to the Big Tree, where we had to stop for few photos before continuing down the singletrack.

 After Big Tree, the trail becomes a narrow track cut into a very steep slope, so steep, that any obstacle on the hill side forces you (if you have the new norm 760mm or wider handlebars) to the ravine edge of the trail. Good bike leaning and balance practice for sure.
This first loop took us back to where we parked and we continued on the camp road to Manly Gulch trail. I remembered Manly Gulch to be a grueling climb, so we had lunch first, which really paid off especially towards the top portion of this climb. But it was so nice! Technical singletrack, all rideable uphill and very tempting to ride down as well. But our planned route took us west onto Rd 408 close to area called Jiro's Playground. The goal for the day was to ride series of single track trails with names such as Gas Tank - Gas Cap - Fury II and Boiler, some of the best trails in the area. But first we had to find our way through an area marked on the map as "Total Confusion". If you look at a detailed map of the area, you will see why: there are at least three paved or gravel roads all named "Little Lake Rd", and many single track trails parallel these roads and cross them in unexpected angles. We tried to look at our map held upside down, turned 90 degrees left or right, but every decision to go LEFT or RIGHT seemed equally probable. Finally, with the aid of phone OSM maps (cleverly downloaded for offline use by yours truly), we found ourselves on the correct trails. But until then, we rode tons of very fun twisty, rooty and loamy trails while being quite lost and not minding a bit.
Pavel in awe. Boiler Trail
These trails along Rd 720 were the gems of the area. Steep, technical, then flowy with many short uphills and retrogrades to keep the fun factor high. 
We finished our day soaking wet (it continued to drizzle for most of the day in the woods), but after a hot (!) shower in the camp, we were ready to explore the north coast and the North Coast Brewery.

Cabrillo lighthouse sunset.

 On a bright and sunny Sunday morning, we started our ride along the left bank of Big River, on a flat fire road with excellent views of the river and marshes. It was a good warm-up before the trail pitched steeply up and climbed to an area called Dry Dock. Here, we rode some of the trails along Rd 720 but in opposite direction than on Saturday, while trying new options. This way we found Gas Tank Trail (clearly marked by an old car gas tank), climbed up some corkscrew-like trail not believing we could have ridden it down the day before and again got a little lost in deep fern canyons.
We exited the green jungle and rode on Rd 408 for a short stretch to connect to Ames Lodge trail, a single track that passed through at least three completely different micro environments: starting under redwoods on trail deeply carpeted with tree needles, then coasting on sandy trail through a Pygmy forest and finally a fast downhill through rocky and mossy lush greenery towards the river.

After the ride, we lied down on a fine sand beach at the mouth of Big River, ate leftover pizzas and drank what remaining beers we had. At this point, I really did not feel like getting behind a wheel and driving 200 miles home. What would happen if we just stayed and camped and rode our bikes forever? To make the finale of our trip more interesting, we drove down the coast on highway 1 to Jenner, me enjoying the sharp turns of the road and Pavel enjoying the views.

Sonoma coast near Russian River. There is a completely naked guy running on the beach.
 Ah, California! How nice it was riding with a friend, on superb trails, without the crowds. Looking back at a trip like this will enable me to survive the daily insanity for few more months.

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Punisher

A week ago, in the allergist office, the doctor took the stethoscope out of her ears and said: "You are wheezing. Double up on your inhalers for the next three weeks." For some reason, the fall season transition is always the time I feel my allergies worsen. But after many years of living with it, my threshold for self diagnosis has lowered and it took a medical exam to reveal some sub-clinical inflammation and pulmonary obstruction. The long story short: got too busy at work, called for refills on Friday and got an automated message that my meds will be ready for pickup on Tuesday. So I left for South Lake Tahoe on Friday afternoon hypomedicated, but very much looking forward to ride trails that should be in prime shape after Thursday rains. The forecast called for another front bringing rain into the area on Sunday.

On a cool Saturday morning, I started my ride from the beach in SLT and climbed on Van Sickle trail, over the Nevada state line towards Heavenly ski resort. My plan was to complete the 30 plus mile ride, sometimes called the Punisher (there is also the Uber-Punisher, double the distance), which follows the Tahoe Rim Trail over some high passes and descends from Armstrong Pass back to the lake. Van Sickle is vane sick climb, littered with countless rock step ups, that require lots of oomph to lift the front wheel over. Here I had just enough oomph to do one or two of these steps, then walked the next three, thinking that my heart was about to escape my chest cavity through the esophagus. As I gained altitude, my sickness was getting worse, so as I crossed multiple ski runs, I took the smooth but steep service road to the top. Back on the TRT, the trail cut into several canyons while being perched on a steep slope with quite an exposure.

Skirting the eastern slopes of Monument Peak, views towards Nevada opened up, but as I approached the split with Monument Pass trail at about 8,600 ft, the technical nature of the trail and the lack of oxygen in my blood forced me off the bike. I got to the trail junction, just mere 10 miles into the ride exhausted and dizzy. It took me almost two hours to get here and I knew I should get going but needed some rest and sugar.
I could see the high point of my ride from here - Freel Peak (the bald mountain on the horizon in the photo above) and this perspective just added to my feeling of biting just too much to chew. The trail continued to climb gently but it took lots of effort to keep going, partly also due to loose decomposed granite trail surface.

But it was so beautiful up here! Cool breeze with occasional strong wind gusts, signalling weather change, excellent visibility and total solitude. My plan was to reach Star Lake and decide if to take a shortcut back down on Cold Creek trail. I rode this trail back in May and knew how technical that downhill was. I secretly hoped to have enough energy left for the Armstrong trail down.

Compared to how many people I saw until here, Star Lake was a crowded beach resort. I saw about five bikers here and spoke to couple of women who assured me that the next five miles to Freel Pass was a great trail not to be missed. So after another bar, a short hike a bike that (again) spiked my heart rate to some triple digit number, I continued south and up towards a saddle below Freel Peak.

I crossed the saddle at 9,800 ft and did not linger around here. The wind was howling. I just saw a rider ahead of me to put his body armor on and then I dropped the seat and picked up speed. In my oxygen depleted brain, it took a while to register that I was actually on quite a technical downhill. I somehow expected the trail to continue climbing towards Armstrong Pass, which is actually at 8,700 ft. The top part of this downhill followed the barren landscape in large switchbacks, often over boulders and with shifting coarse sand under the tires, requiring lots of attention. I rode this section in half dazed state, which was probably good, since I was loose and not afraid. Funny, when I think back, I completely assumed it was safe to ride all drops at speed, letting the bike to handle the rough stuff. Or perhaps it was all my imagination and I actually rode slow while being dumbed down?

One way or another, I "woke up" when my wheels hit the loamy dirt and rock of the perfect Armstrong trail. To ride here without enjoying every millisecond of it would be a waste of time. This trail flows, jumps, has few scary spots requiring commitment but mostly it is enormous fun. The next section was Armstrong Connector trail, here the riding got really technical, with more than a few spots where a trail "feature" suddenly appeared forcing me to stop and convince myself to walk back and ride it, or scramble and slide down rock faces covered in that coarse grained granite sand on foot. I finished the 10 mile descent on Corral and Sidewinder trails, getting dizzy again on Sidewinder, not from altitude but from the fact that this trail literally folds upon itself and looking ahead means seeing three switchbacks down the hill, unless they happen to be hiding behind tall berms. Sorry, no pictures from this part of the ride: go on YouTube and understand why stopping for pictures was not an option.

I reached the valley still high on adrenaline, called Marketa to be about an hour late and rode back to where I started on the last, eight mile long trail connectors. At this point, I was out of water, out of glycogen and out of any residual strength in my legs. There was still climbing to be done and I stood up and pushed the pedals, thinking that this was it, I was never ever going to finish this ride on these park like trails. A mile from the hotel room, food, water and warm shower, I hit 42 mph coming down Ski Run Blvd, just before stopping at an intersection with Lake Tahoe Boulevard, with continuous stream of traffic. A mile of street between the trail head and the main road divided the two worlds. This ride was a nicely punishing way to close the riding season at Tahoe.