Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Return to the Holy Land

This post title refers to my recent trip to Seattle for a weekend of mountain biking. So nothing close to biblical proportions. And it is a bit ironic, since during the time I lived in Seattle between 2012-2014, I felt like an exile, for the most part.
I admit, I still have a sort of love-hate relationship with the city itself. When visiting Seattle on nice, sunny days, I love the place. When it's dark and rainy, I think of it as the ultimate hell. There has been one cure for the hateful emotions, and it is the area trails. So when a friend of mine suggested we spend the weekend biking after his business trip, I did not hesitate and booked my plane tickets. I have been also following trail building activities of the Evergreen Mountain Biking Alliance since I left, and I knew that many miles of new trails have been built.
Equipped with decent quality rental 29-ers, we headed east on I-90 to Issaquah. The plan was to warm up on Grand Ridge, do a loop around Duthie and perhaps explore one more trail system in the afternoon.
The trails were damp after some recent rain, but the weather promised to improve steadily over the weekend. After some final bike adjustments, we started climbing and soon we were surrounded by ferns, cedars and whatever else that makes these woods so green.

The nontechnical Grand Ridge trail is still lots of fun. It is not very easy, there is good amount of vertical change, but it allows one to work on perfecting the turns, try just a bit more speed into the next switchback, or simply let the bike do its job while enjoying the scenery around.

We soon reached the Duthie park and started our XC loop. This trail meanders around the center of the park, with a practice area and a rain shelter. Countless downhill and freeride tracks intersect the XC trail. At few points, the XC trail is routed underneath wooden ramps and other MTB "furniture".
We stopped at the practice area and tried to ride narrow (but low) logs, with variable success. Well, we just do not have the practice like some of the local kids do.
Pavel was the one trying some of the features, but then, he is lots younger than me. On one particularly slippery platform, he tried to use his front disc as an axe and chopped off a good chunk of the bridge while his front wheel skidded off the track. The wood won and the disc rotor was a taco.

We spent a good amount of time using tire levers, wood sticks and our legs to kick the rotor back to some planar shape, but it would still not clear the fork leg. Then we discovered a bike repair stand and a toolbox in the shelter, thanks to the Evergreen saints! So we managed to straighten the rotor well enough to make the front wheel rideable and rode back. Grand ridge has one strange anomaly: it feels like lots of climbing in either direction of this out and back ride. When we got back to our car, it was later in the afternoon and we needed to get a new rotor. We visited  few of the reputable bike shops in Issaquah, but neither of them stocked a centerlock rotor. It was finally the REI store that saved us, despite our dumb (but successful) attempt to buy a wrong size rotor, then exchange it for the correct one and even had it mounted. By the time the wheel was fixed, it was 6PM, we were hungry and thirsty, so the local brew pub was the day's final destination.

On a beautiful sunny Sunday morning, we drove to Tiger Mountain for a dose of some more serious fun. Since I last rode here, not one but six new trails have been built here! The grueling fire road climb to the summit has been replaced by the Master Link trail, a climber's delight, with perfect grade and lots of switchbacks and nice bridges.

The last half mile on the fire road was made bearable by lots of ripe salmonberries lining both sides of the trail. I knew that there would be good views of Mt. Rainier from the top, but I was not quite prepared for the big hill slowly coming to view as we crested the last meters of the climb.

The big hill never fails to amaze me
Our descent first used the "old" E Tiger Summit and Preston Railroad trails, challenging enough to keep us alert, but not so technical as not to let off the brakes often. The trail is built for speed but the faster you go, the more workout it is. My memory of many rutted, root infested sections was replaced with a reality of flowing contours and manageable drops. Many slick rock gardens were still there, but it were perhaps the 29" wheels or the result of skilled trail builders, that made me feel in the groove.
The following two sections (Silent Swamp and Joyride) were true XC trails, with steep climbs and tight drops through switchbacks, reminding me of East Coast trails. The last two miles on NW Timber Trail were supposed to be a relaxing ride, but my tired body and legs protested against any serious efforts.
The day got quite warm by now, and our lunch break in the shadow of trees made me feel like taking a nap. Instead, we rode couple of miles out on West Side fire road to take a technical Iverson Trail singletrack back. Here is where my last molecules of mojo evaporated and I ended up walking some technical bits.
The bikes had to be returned by 4PM, which gave me an opportunity to show Pavel some of my favorite Seattle spots. We admired the Ballard Locks and salmon ladder for a while, then drove across Magnolia to Discovery Park to enjoy another view of Mt Rainier and ended up at Pikes Place Market.

We found a hidden pizza place at the Post Alley and stuffed ourselves with thin crust pies, while recapping the rides.

I think that when I told my friend Pavel a while ago that trails in Washington are the best in the world, he took it for a hyperbole. I think I remember him saying that these two days were his best rides ever. It does not really matter, we were not attempting to rank Seattle area trails against other places we rode. These trails are awesome, more importantly, these trails are therapeutic. Here, you can ride ten miles or fifty, the intense feelings of flow, fun and happiness are almost guaranteed. At least, it is how it used to work for me and it still does.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Best of the West

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

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

Bryce Canyon NP

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

Zion Valley from Angels Landing

Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Indian reservation

Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Indian reservation

Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Indian reservation

Grand Canyon NP, South rim

Grand Canyon NP, South rim

Eastern Sierras, near Bishop, CA

Eastern Sierras, near Bishop, CA

Mono Lake, CA

Mono Lake, CA

Tufas, Mono Lake, CA

Lake Tahoe, CA

Monday, March 28, 2016

No. 6 is Electric

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 22, 2016

Three winter lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Holiday Fat Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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