Monday, September 26, 2016

Bike your park day

 Or two, actually. Days, not parks. I'm sure lots of cyclists were made aware of the special day - Saturday September 24 - by emails from Adventure Cycling Association. In celebration of public lands access, I have registered an overnight ride from Pleasanton to Saratoga-Sanborn County park. The ride was supposed to also be a test of Marketa's e-bike range, with each leg being close to 60 miles. She wisely decided to pass on a strenuous activity, four days before a complicated surgery. So I tried to campaign with all my friends who I knew owned a road or touring bike. Turned out, nobody thought that biking for most of a day, camping and riding again was their idea of fun weekend. So I campaigned some more, suggesting that perhaps they could ride to Sanborn and get picked up by families. This version was attractive to me, mainly because there was a chance of my friends' spouses bringing beer and real food. That too did not happen.

I am not new to multi day bicycle touring, but I have never carried all camping gear on my bike.  This time, I packed a bare minimum for two days with no danger of wet weather or low temperatures. This is California touring! A tent setup in the handlebar roll, tools, stove, pot and food in the frame bag, sleeping bag and a mat in one pannier and change of clothes in the other. I used my 3L Camelbak for water, camera and valet, and since I was planning to ride through some urban areas with less than stellar reputation, I also attached a ridiculously heavy cast iron Abus lock to the downtube. I did not dare to weigh the bike.
Alameda county is getting ready to fill the Calaveras reservoir with lots more water.
My route went from Pleasanton to Sunol and up Calaveras Road, a popular route with local cyclists, so the climb went well while chatting with fellow riders. Actually, I am always surprised how well a loaded bike rides - the forward momentum on flats or downhills is amazing and at this point, climbing felt easy, too. There was a nice breeze on the top of the climb and birds of prey were soaring on the ridges. The descent to Milpitas was fast and I really appreciated the power of XT brakes.

 After crossing some suburban areas of San Jose, I had no trouble locating the Guadelupe River bike path. My plan was to cross downtown San Jose on this multi-use trail. Whoever designed this trail probably never rode a bike. The signage is poor (just follow the fishes, but which ones?), and the trail has too many ramps and spurs. The worst is that the trail abruptly ends in these dead end cul-de-sacs without a warning. Every single one of these places were a homeless encampment. This was quite shocking for me to see: years ago, I traversed San Jose on one of my rides during the crisis years and I did not see nearly as many homeless people as now, in times of great economic boom of the Silicon Valley. Something is probably very wrong with this place.

 Bike path riding was slow and navigation turned out to be more difficult than on open roads, so I was very happy to eventually reach the quite scenic Los Gatos Creek trail, which goes straight to the town of cats along a nice creek with small dams and lakes. The trail turns to dirt just as you pass underneath the busy streets of Los Gatos, so I did not stop here and continued up to the Lexington Lake dam.
 The Lex water level is low but more importantly, there is no water source here and I was becoming tired, ran low on liquids and I knew there was a steep climb ahead. After riding around the reservoir and up to cross Highway 17, I was facing the wall of Black Road. This is where the weight of my rig finally sucked the last power out of my legs. With the Camelbak dry, I slogged up driven only by vision of a water faucet at the school about half way up. This had happened to me before - bonking on Black Road and filling my bottles at that school. This time, I was really afraid that California water saving measures would turn the faucets dry. When I reached the school building, water was on and I was saved. I drank about three bottles until water was squirting out of my ears and took more water with me. From here, it took some more granny gear grinding to the PG&E fire road that lead to Sanborn.

 At this point, I was too tired to enjoy the views of Ranch Lake and carefully descended a steep dirt road towards the park. My 35mm tires with 80 psi in them did a great job on dirt, but if the ride involved more fire roads, I would have chosen something wider or more knobby. However, I have put lots of miles to these Vittoria Randonneur Hyper tires since 2012 without a single puncture, that's why I left them on the bike.

 Accessing this public park was as easy as waving at the ranger booth and riding up to my reserved camp site under the canopy of tall redwoods. I arrived here around 4:30PM, after about 62 miles and over 5000 ft of climbing. I set up my tent, went for a hot shower, cooked my freeze dried Thai chicken with noodles. I haven't had any of this camping food in many years and I forgot how awful it tastes. Along my ride here, I passed probably few hundreds of expensive and Zagat rated restaurants, but no, this was a self supported trip, no sushi!

 Sunday morning, I got up, cooked my second bag of freeze dried food (Oatmeal with apples and quinoa, also half star for taste), packed everything and hit the road. My second day route was planned to be lot easier. After crossing a few hills between Highway 9 and Steven's Creek park, I was in the Valley and thus on flat grounds. I went down my memory lane on the Steven's Creek bike path, busy with lots of people walking at some event.

This bike bridge used to be my daily bike commute to Perlegen Sciences
 At the Shoreline park in Mountain View, the familiar views of the Googleplex on one side and the NASA grounds on the other opened up.
It seems that the space shuttle hangar is getting dismantled.
 I stayed on bike paths through the Shoreline area and rode through the Bay coastal marches all the way to the western end of Dumbarton Bridge, right next to Facebook headquarters.

This is where they make the stuff millions of people stare at daily...

 I took this picture right before getting on the bridge. Dumbarton Bridge has a bike lane all the way to Fremont.
 On the East Bay side, I went to explore trails in the Coyote Hills preserve. I have never been here before, I guess since my previous bike trips across the bridge were on skinny tires and here I rode on dirt roads. The fire road hugged the shoreline and offered interesting views of the Bay, the Peninsula, San Francisco and Oakland. I climbed a steep grassy knoll where I had lunch consisting of two Clif bars - a tasty change after the rehydrated food.

It was fun to sit there on the bench, watching egrets, herons and pelicans and basking in the warm sun. But I had some more ground to cover. The next section took me on Alameda Creek bike path. This part of the ride would be almost boring, if it was not for two police SUVs with lights flashing right in the middle of a long bike path section. Turns out, the cops were talking to a group of homeless people, who managed to cover a large area around the trail with trash, broken furniture, tarps, tents, parts of bicycles, whole bicycles and who knows what else. The cops seemed to be really nice to the homeless folks, but I noticed fear and shame in the eyes of the campers. Again thinking that these people should probably be in counseling or mental health institutions and not living like this.
The last stretch of my return trip went through the scenic Niles Canyon, but traffic was busy, much more than I ever remember it being here on weekends. Then came Sunol and Pleasanton, I rode on Main Street under the Pleasanton sign before leisurely pedaling the last mile home.

The first Pilsner Urquell beer from the fridge evaporated with a hissing sound when it hit my insides, only the second one started to replenish the essential electrolytes and carbs. So were my friends right not to do these rides? On one hand, I really enjoyed seeing all the diverse environments of the Bay Area from the seat of a bicycle, on the other hand, I think that long(-ish) distance bike touring should be compensated by sleeping in hotels and using your credit card to buy good quality food. Camping is fun, cycling is super fun, but both together may be just too much fun for me. A European version of bike touring is what I look forward one day.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Wrapping-up summer

As the plane takes off from Lihu’e and leaves the paradise deep below, I think it is a time to wrap up this summer. For most people in this country summer ends when kids go back to school and the backyard grills get covered after Labor Day barbecues. For number of years now, we have been spending our Labor Day weekends on Kauai, where the Kauai marathon (and half marathon) has been happening on Sunday before Labor Day. Marketa has been coming back regularly to run those 26.2 brutal miles. Brutal because of the heat, humidity, and the steep, hilly course. No wonder there are typically only fewer than couple of hundred people running the full compared to twenty five hundred half marathon runners.  This year, I signed up for the half about a week before our departure for Kauai and then we watched one hurricane come dangerously close to the islands with another one right behind and scheduled to brush the state on race Sunday. Something must be happening with the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans, hurricanes are a new phenomenon for us (not for the islands over a longer time span). Running in early morning hours can be very nice here, with clouds, rain showers and cooler temperatures as a result of the daily trade wind driven weather pattern, but hurricanes tend to suck in warm and super-saturated air from the south, making one suffer from the start. Kauai marathon starts tend to have a special mood – torches burning, prayers to gods in native language accompanied by conch blowing and a drone hovering above the crowd. Hula dancers and especially the Taiko drummers along the course complete the scenery, which alone would be worth doing the run – sunrise above the green mountains, bucolic farmlands, views of the distant ocean as well as the last half mile along the surf of Poipu shores.

Marketa ran strong this year, despite (unavoidable in this weather) blisters and increasingly problematic feet, causing her lot of pain past mile fifteen. I tried to match my 2010 time and gave it my best effort, hoping that my lack of training would not catch up with me too soon. I finished about a minute faster than in 2010 (at 1:57:09) but I almost blacked out in the finish area. I could not imagine running another 13.1 miles and I absolutely admire Marketa’s strength and mental drive to finish her 4th TKM. I know it meant a lot to her before her scheduled foot surgeries.

We succeeded to rest on a beach for a day after the run and not get our blisters infected – salt water and sand are the worst enemies of blisters, no matter what people say about healing powers of ocean water. The next day, we drove to the top of Waimea canyon, where at 5,150 ft of elevation, natural environments exist so different from the costal areas below. We hiked few miles out towards Mount Wai’ale’ale, the wettest spot on Earth on a “trail” that turned into a slowly decomposing wooden board walk with ladders and steps (often missing few stairs here and there). The trail leads to an overlook, a place closest to Ha’ena from any paved road on this side of Kauai. We did not reach that spot, since we somehow forgot that the best fast hiking speed on trails here is about 1 mile per hour, less on the Kalalau trail (forget trail running). We were lucky it did not rain, but it was likely the views down the 4,000 feet high cliffs would be obscured by low clouds anyways.

Amazing what passes for a trail on Kauai...

On my last day of vacation, we were lucky again to meet John, the North Shore Bike Doktor, who rented us two of his perfectly maintained hard-tails. As we were filling out the paperwork, we chatted about his last year trip to ride in Idaho, loss of trails due to the Wilderness act and heard his complains about the constant rains preventing him and his tribe of Kauai mountain bikers to ride their local trails since January (!). He told us about some crazy hikes he was planning, so I guess the guys here keep the adventures going. We use our mountain bikes to ride out seven miles on the narrow, winding and hilly road to Ke’e, trying not to get ran off the road by both tourists (who don’t know they are going too fast for such a road) and locals (who know well but few of them care). Bicycle transport allowed us to stop at three nicest beaches of Haena (Ke’e, Haena SP and Lumahai) without any parking issues, swim, eat tropical fruit and travel AC-free. The 14-mile round trip felt little bit like a workout, but I could hardly imagine a better way of spending a day on Kauai. I envy Marketa who will practice this island lifestyle for another six days.

The summer of 2016 was excellent for me, and I would also hope for Marketa, in terms of cycling. We rode together at Mammoth Lakes in July and thanks to her e-bike range, explored roads above Oakland, Santa Cruz mountains and elsewhere.  I go for a trail run once or twice a week, but I almost never think of specific distances or keeping any records of my runs. Running in Pleasanton can be hard due to steep hills and high temperatures, but my runs are times when I tend to let thoughts and ideas sort of flow through my head and decompress.
Mountain biking, on the other hand, is an activity that I tend to plan, with goals of visiting specific trails new to me, trails I haven’t ridden in a while, alpine trails in the High Sierras, or rides with friends I enjoy riding with. In that respect, this summer was fantastic: an impromptu trip to Seattle in June with Pavel, whom I could finally show some of my past favorite routes outside of Seattle as well as to see the new trails on Tiger Mountain.

Two consecutive weekends at the Sierras, one at South Lake Tahoe where the punishingly hard rides at altitude become tests of my physical abilities as well as a test of our riding group companionship. I promised to stop using the term “gradual climb” at times when everyone in the group had to dig deep, we learned that a hard ride becomes easier after a dip in a cold lake, we saw one of our friends ride his single speed rigid bike faster than any of us fully-suspended guys, and had good times sharing pizza and beers.

The second trip was camping at the Sierra Buttes which happened to coincide with the annual famous Downieville Downhill race. We saw some nice enduro racing action, shared gourmet breakfasts at the campsite (from now on I will bring peaches on all camping trips) and rode the superb Mills Creek trail to the top of an 8,000 feet  mountain. A casual conversation during a ride stop about a “modern” style of riding had Grant and me praise Pavel at the bottom of a long downhill, for having us taught how to improve our skills.

So the American summer may be officially over, but there is no reason for the rides (and runs) to stop – the trails will stay dusty until the winter rains begin, when they will turn into hero dirt, our legs and lungs are at the best shape of the season, the temperatures will drop a little bit, lakes will stay warm for another month, and the California endless summer will continue. Maybe, I will even consider taking the cover off our backyard grill to make cedar plank salmon again…

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