Sunday, July 24, 2016

What's new?

Well, not much. Just a normal July in the Bay Area. The fact that Fox media sponsored fascist is a candidate for the post of the American president does not really belong here. Something has also happened (not for the first time) on my blog page view counter:

My blog is read on average by 3-4 people a day. I wish I had 251 interested readers in Russia, but that's not the case. Hm, Russia - this can't be good...

Since the end of June, we have what I believe the first ghost bike in Pleasanton. A 72-year old cyclist was struck down at an intersection very close to our house. I cross this intersection on my every ride to work.

I hope this will finally get the city to fix this dangerous place for all cyclists.

What else: our long awaited and planned hike up Mt. Whitney on July 2 did not happen. We were ready in Lone Pine at 3:30AM just to learn that a small brush fire closed Whitney Portal area. That's OK, I'd rather hike another mountain than to find my car charred at the parking lot after coming back from the hike. There goes the lottery won once in 10 years. We attempted a hike to Mt. Langley, but did not have proper maps - which we did not think we needed for Whitney - and followed a trail that vanished at an interesting stone ashram.

Descending into sunrise
Two days of hiking and riding at Mammoth Lakes more than made it up for the disappointing event.

Otherwise, as I said, it is just another summer in the Bay Area. With that comes the weather, cold and foggy at places where the marine layer reaches, hot and dry everywhere else. A week ago, we rode from Castro Valley towards Chabot Space center and the fog did not break. We were miserably cold all the way up and it took a long time to bring our bikram yoga conditioned thermoregulation above shaking levels.

Another old piece of news is that after ten years living in the Bay Area, there are still so many new back roads and trails I have never cycled on. A perfect example was Pinehurst Rd., east of Redwood Regional Park. A redwood canyon with a post office and small school.

Today (sunny, 90F on the Peninsula, cool 100F in Pleasanton), I rode couple of new trails at Russian Ridge. Charquin trail is a perfect connector from the less used parking lot on Alpine Rd, and the extension of Ancient Oaks trail downhill to the parking lot was lots of fun, despite being made smooth enough to allow teenagers to hike it while looking at their phone screens.

I have also "discovered" Old Page Mill trail, which is marked on Google and topo maps as a through trail to Portola Redwoods SP, but ends abruptly at a deep ravine full of poison oak (as the MROSD maps indicate, eh the trail end, not the poison oak). It is a really nice unused trail that reminded me at places of Butano Ridge.

Hawk Ridge Trail
 And yes, it is the fire season in California. Big Sur is burning and the smoke and heat induced cumulus clouds could be seen across the Monterey Bay from trails at Russian Ridge.

On the consumerist side of things, two small upgrades to my riding gear once again proved that 1. it is good to buy yourself something nice once a while, and 2. quality gear is awesome. I upgraded my MTB shoes for a pair of hideously bright red Specialized MTB comps:

This shoe has recently been reviewed by the Bike magazine and I agree with the reviewer: the non slippery yet firm sole is fantastic, and I also love the Boa dial although I still turn it the wrong way every time I want to adjust it.

The second upgrade was a new pair of sunglasses. The nose pads of my Ryders glasses I got at the 2011 BCBR finally dissolved into a slimy goo, after six years of heavy use. You see, I never lose my sun glasses. Perhaps it is because I wear prescription glasses and if I lost those, I would not be able to find them without them. The new pair has photochromic orange lenses and anti-fog treatment, all for $100, free shipping and all!

And finally, I had extensive allergy skin testing done the other week. Guess what! ALL of the tests came out pretty much negative. Six years of desensitization treatments has finally paid off, as I was sure it would. I still get an occasional shortness of breath, but I don't use my emergency inhaler almost at all (few times a year, typically with respiratory infections), my Eustachian tubes still sometimes itch and stick after runs or bike rides, but that's about it. Considering that we live at a location where everyone becomes allergic to pollen after few years, it is remarkable. There is scientific evidence at the molecular level that the "bad immune cells" change upon allergy shots and I hope that immune repertoire sequencing will one day become the standard of care, instead of the archaic and subjective skin prick method.

Next two weekends, I am off for some Sierra riding with friends, so till next time, you three or four people who still bother to read this. Thanks!

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?