Monday, December 30, 2013

Ten Best Rides of 2013

Since moving to Seattle in late 2012, my cycling life has changed dramatically. I sold my road bike and stopped riding those 50-80 mile road rides I used to do in California. I have put skinny tires on my 29er hardtail and use it for a work commute. My round trip work commute now is 8 miles, not 36. I have continued to go for longer exploratory rides which would mix streets, bike paths and dirt. I stopped counting and chasing miles. But most of all, I rediscovered true mountain biking here at the Pac NW. Looking back at 2013, it was actually an excellent year of mountain biking: a four-day trip on the Kokopelli trail in April with friends, long weekend of riding at Whistler in July, exploring the Cascades backcountry at the peak of summer, and finally being introduced to fat bikes, acquiring one, and riding it on both sand and snow.

So, here are my most enjoyable bike rides of 2013, in an almost chronological order:

1. Northwest Multisport trail duathlons in January and February.

2. Tolt MacDonald forest ride in March: a first glimpse at what mountain biking is really about here.

3. Kokopelli Trail Day 3 in April: this is a tough one. Day 4 on Kokopelli included the Porcupine rim and was the most technical day of the trip. Day 3 was a long one, with grueling fire road climbs and all kinds of weather, including ice and snow. A real test of endurance.

4. Joe Watt Canyon in May. My first ride on the "dry side" with a bunch of people who know the trails, build the trails, care about them and ride trails hard. A real deal.

5. Duthie Park. Particularly riding there through the Grand Ridge trails in Issaquah. I have done this ride several times in 2013 and always enjoyed it a lot. Duthie itself is the best example of how to promote mountain biking to the masses and teach us all how to become better riders.

6. Riding around Vashon Island. I hoped to do more rides around the Puget sound islands, Whidbey Island and the San Juans, but this one was lovely.

7. Skookum Flats Trail. Highway 410. A big day in big mountains but the final miles on Skookum flats beat it all. I swore this would be the trail to take visitors to to get a taste of what we ride in WA.

8. A River Runs Through It, Whistler, BC. While I was totally over my head on this ride, I think this ride should be among the mandatory rides everyone who calls themselves a mountain biker must do.

9. Moran State Park, Orcas Island in November. A ride with the best views ever and similarly spectacular long downhill on the best trails I have ever ridden.

10. Fat biking. After catching the fat bug from my friends Jill and Beat in California in October, I bought a Salsa Mukluk fat bike, named her Pepper and rode it on long sand beaches of the Olympic peninsula, roads, dirt trails and snow. Fat biking is not the most technical, fastest, or efficient riding but it is lots of fun.

There would be other rides that deserve a honorary notion: Tiger Mountain classic downhill, my first cyclo-cross race, backcountry epics such as Chickamin Creek and Keechelus Lake area, etc, etc.

Last, but definitely not least, there is this "blog ride". See, just before leaving for the Christmas break of skiing, snow biking and snow shoeing with Marketa, I have noticed that this blog had received 9,900 hits in its entire history. This of course is quite a pathetic number compared to some other popular biking blogs, but my intention never was to attract large numbers of readers. I thought "wouldn't it be cool if the view counter was over 10,000 by the end of the year?" And even though I haven't posted anything in weeks, it is 10,196 views and counting. Thanks to all who keep wasting their time by looking at these pages! Go out and ride!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Celebrating Global Fat Bike Day

Well, not exactly. The world-wide celebration of bikes with fat tires was apparently scheduled for Saturday, but due to household chores and other duties, I missed it. It was also very cold in Seattle and even colder in the mountains, so I hoped for the temperatures to rise a few degrees on Sunday.

I bought a Sno-Park permit online, and those eighty bucks bought me a heated rest room and a huge empty parking lot at Hyak, right next to the Snoqualmie ski resort. My plan was to see what the Iron Horse rail trail looked like and then possibly find out whether the Nordic ski trails in the area would be bikeable.

The (closed in winter) entrance to the Snoqualmie tunnel was just north of the parking lot, going south the trail followed the shores of Keechelus Lake. The surface snow was packed by service trucks, skiers and snow-shoers for a while and riding the fat bike on it was easy. Almost too easy, I thought, except when the packed tracks ended and a frozen powder with a thin crust on top started, all of a sudden if felt like riding on a flypaper.

Riding around the resort and adjacent vacation homes meant frequent stopping and explaining to onlookers why the bike had such fat tires, but it also helped me to find the connection to the XC trail. The trail was basically a fire road (NF9070), first paved, covered with a sheet of pure ice - no problem for Pepper as long as I pedaled smoothly and stayed off the brakes. Then the snow got deeper and the road pitched abruptly upward. There were two truck tire tracks, and a ski track in the middle. I stayed in the trough, where the rolling resistance was minimal. I was surprised how well the climb went, soon I was out of the valley shadow and hit the sunny slope of the mountain.

It was only 1 PM, but the low angle of sun rays made it feel like a late afternoon. When I turned a bend, I came upon this fantastic wall of ice falls. Thanks to a couple of guys with trucks who went looking for Christmas trees, I am in the picture (another 10 minute lecture on what is the bike good for, funny my first snow ride and I am educating the Washingtonians on advantages of snow bike winter travels...).

More hard climbing efforts took me to the intersection with the PCT, but before that, I met a couple on cross-country skis. Of course, Pepper was the center of attention, but it turned out that Tim was a director of the Snoqualmie XC trail system and when he said "We have to make sure to add you guys in the system", I felt I just fulfilled my fat bike advocacy deed!

Above the PCT (I guess I must have been above 4000 ft), the going got much tougher. The truck ruts became knee deep in soft, powdery snow, and keeping my balance inside the track was difficult. Every time I caught a pedal on the side, my front tire would hit the snow bank as a reaction, causing me to come to a halt, followed by cursing while trying to get going again. Eventually, the truck tracks ended in deep powder. I tried another route, the same ending. So I consulted a map while downing some sweet calories and realized I was at higher elevation than the loop around Mt. Catherine should follow. I remembered Tim saying that the whole loop was a fire road like this. After some scouting, I found an overgrown trail with fresh ski tracks. The snow was deep here, but soon the trail dropped down in swoopy switchbacks. Riding and especially turning in deep snow was fun, the bike drifted and surfed, the front wheel pushed in turns. Some sections were wind blown crust where I left only a barely visible marks of tire knobs.
At the bottom of this downhill, I met Tim, his wife and their dog again, and they advised me to follow their tracks and find a way through a canyon, up a saddle over a ridge, where there would be the ski resort on the other side. I got all excited that after all, I would be able to complete the 15 km loop around the ski area. What I did not realize was that the ski tracks I followed on the way down must have been theirs and these guys were actually returning back to the ridge. What I did realize when the trail ended on a sharp edge of a rocky canyon (with a nice close view of a ridge behind which laid the desired destination), was that I would have to hike out of here. In deep snow, with the last sun rays of the day and the temperature dropping rapidly. Getting cold was actually the last of my worry on that hike, pushing a 30+ lbs bike up deep snow covered slope was surely a body heat producing activity.

Forty five minutes later, back at the PCT intersection, I bundled up for the descent and kicked the pedals. I have to say, downhill snow biking is a great fun, but one may actually freeze while having  fun. On skis, the steeper the slope gets, the more you have to work, and stay warm. What saved me probably from a likely frost bite (or at least a brain freeze) were lots of washboard brake bumps on the trail. Hitting these at speed on a fully rigid bike, with my arm and neck muscles rigid with cold, felt like my neck vertebrae were about to snap any moment.
The toughest part was to defrost myself back at the car, despite the heated wash room and a thermos full of chai with honey. I guess for my very first ride on snow, I took a bit more than I originally planned, but by stretching the goals, we learn the endurance, right? GPS track here.

During the 50 mile drive back home, I kept thinking about how new and exciting this whole fat biking thing is for me. I also realized that using an all-terrain and all-season bike brings additional risks. Mountain biking has, of course, an inherent risk of  mechanicals, crashes etc. and requires our ability to make it out of the woods. In summer though, there are many mountain bikers on trails and help may be available eventually. On my first couple of fat bike rides, I experienced two environments that despite its absolute beauty and excitement of being actually able to ride there, made me think of "what if". Riding on beaches means you should know the tide times. One would not want to get locked between the surf and the house high piles of logs and driftwood (here in WA and OR, too I guess), with no escape route.
On the snow, there is avalanche danger. It is very real here, people die every year in avalanches just outside of town. I am not really sure if it makes sense to carry any avalanche gear on snow bike rides, since there likely would not be anybody (with a beacon, probe and shovel) to witness the avalanche and start the rescue in time. An obvious solution to this is not riding alone, but apparently there are only 10,000 of us in the USA riding fat bikes! And I don't know anybody here who does.

These kinds of thoughts bring me to another web found information: the Global Fat Bike Summit takes place January 24-25 in Ogden, UT.

I found the web site very useful, especially the slide presentations are quite educational. There is also a list of areas allowing fat bikes on winter trails, with description of issues and future plans. And there will also be a race in Ogden! Perhaps, just maybe, if the stars align right, Pepper and I could show up there. Who knows what will happen in 2014, but fat biking will be a part of it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Turkey Trot to the Airport

A bright, sunny, unseasonably warm Sunday just begged us to get out. Late fall or early winter days in the Bay Area can be like this: a perfect visibility (except the smog filled Silicon Valley), fog free coast and no tourist traffic. While the Bay side hills are all brown and dry, waiting for the winter rains to erupt in a short lived coat of green grass, the ocean slopes of Santa Cruz mountains with the remaining redwood groves have enough moisture and shade. I really wanted to show Marketa my "secret" spot high on the Butano ridge - a defunct airstrip. I rode my bike there many times but we never visited the place together.

We started from the still unattended and definitely under-visited Butano State park, just south of Pescadero. I had a loop run in mind, but the park map showed no exact mileage and Marketa's Garmin was probably buried somewhere at the bottom of a drawer containing running gear (she cares about miles ran about as much as I do, these days). A singletrack trail (Six Bridges) took us to Olmo fire road and the climb began.

We took paralleling single track trails where possible, but eventually had to scramble up Olmo road, which had some super steep eroded sections, many false summits, several downhills where we lost those painfully gained vertical feet.

Teh fire road follows the spine of a ridge across the Butano Ridge road, on the other side of Little Butano Creek  valley. Both of these fire roads go through rapidly changing micro environments - from redwood groves to sandy exposed spots with pine trees and views of the ocean below.  Olmo road tees onto Butano Fire road and from there, it was a short, almost flat stretch to the runway.

The airstrip is abandoned and unmaintained, with deep ruts and bushes growing on it, so landing any aircraft here would be more than risky. Yet every time I was here, I imagined landing a glider or an ultra light plane here (it has been a long while since I last piloted any of these, but imagination is a perfect flight simulator). The airstrip is on top of a ridge, surrounded by tall trees on three sides and a deep canyon on the south approach side. It is also short. So I play my mental flight simulator while walking around the runway looking for a shaded place to have a break: I'm coming in from the north, just skimming the tall trees, checking out the landing zone on my downwind leg. Then a sharp left turn and I have to push down to the canyon on my base leg, making the edge of the strip visible over the left wing all of a sudden way higher than my altitude. The final approach turn is scary, this is like turning inside a crater. Lots of speed in the turn makes it safe. On the final approach, I slowly lose speed by pulling up to copy the terrain beneath, just to basically stall my plane the moment there is the concave runway under the landing gear. The final approach must be flown with excess speed, since landing uphill will diminish the airspeed very rapidly. But too much speed and I may end up in the bushes at the far end. My palm is all sweaty on the controls but I nail it and come to a full stop just where the trail crosses the airstrip.

Back on two feet, there is more sandy fire road ahead of us, this time all downhill.  At first chance, we abandon the fire road for a single track (Jackson Flats) and it turns out to be the most beautiful trail of the whole run.

As we descend deeper into the canyon and the afternoon sun descends towards the ocean, it gets colder, but who is to complain about 60 degree "cold"? After crossing the creek and a short stretch of pavement, we are back where we started three (?) hours before. I guess we did not count either the time or the miles, but rather enjoyed the day out and those post run tangelos and grapes grown and kindly provided by a friend. For more information on Butano park trails look here.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Island Hopping: Anacortes and Orcas

A high pressure area has been affecting our weather for the last week or so: sunny but cold. Cold enough to reach sub-freezing temperatures in Seattle (!) and twenties on the "east side". When several ride invites for trails east of the city landed in my in-box, I considered it but then remembered what one veteran mountain biker said on one of early spring rides: as the snow melts, we move to the alpine terrain, when the rains and cold come in the fall, we descend to the shore and the islands. Makes sense, the body of water maintains a temperate climate year around. I have been planning on riding couple of areas in the San Juans and this weekend happened to be free of office work so I traveled.
The town of Anacortes is on Fidalgo Island, but you can drive there. The ever useful evergreen Wiki site gives all details about the Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL), including detailed trail map links. There are three general areas that can be connected into one epic ride. I asked about the trails in a local bike shop and was told "some are somewhat technical." I started at Cranberry Lake and no kidding, the first trail I hit was indeed technical. Lots of transverse roots and rocks, including large granite slabs and rocky step ups and drop offs. These trails were much more Campbell River than Issaquah.

I rode in a clover leaf pattern around the lake, either climbing with my chest on the handlebars or descending with my ass hanging over the rear tire. After getting a blister on my palm, I headed south and connected with the Heart Lake area.

I followed increasingly technical and steep single track along Heart Lake Road, until my legs just gave out. This happen to be on a moss covered rocky outcropping, a great place for lunch.

I did not even attempt to continue further towards Whistle Lake, just look at the trail map, it is dizzying. On the way back, I tried to take other trails for variety and stumbled upon trails 109 and 129. These trails were real gems. Back at the lake,  my Garmin showed measly 13.5 miles and 2:05 hrs. Now, I know I rode for about 4 hours and with the exception for perhaps 20 minute lunch break, I rode non-stop. My legs felt like after 20 miles. I have a suspicion that after the latest firmware update, my little GPS is cheating on me!

Bigfoot's mushroom garden
I decided to stay in town and found a decent place to stay, right off the main street. Since the temperature was around 40F the whole day, it took me about 30 minutes in hot shower to gain enough energy to venture out and find a place to eat. At the Rock Fish brewery, they not only have good beer (for USA) but their 3-piece fish and chips is like three whole fish! Two beers and those three fish and I barely made it back to the hotel.

Next morning, I was the first car in a ferry line to Orcas, just before sunrise. From the Orcas Island ferry terminal, it took just 25 minutes to reach Moran State park. My plan was to follow this description of a ride to the summit of Mt. Constitution, the highest point of San Juan islands. The ride starts with a brutal climb. No warm-up. The first switchback threw me off bike. Then I climbed some more, then I hiked 50 meters and rode 50 meters. Then hiked some more.

At some altitude, I have crossed the zero isotherm and trail surface became frozen, with ice slabs filling spaces between rocks and frozen mud mixed with large ice crystals. The upper part of the climb was less steep and I was also out of the deep woods, riding in a pine forest with bald, rocky and sunny spots.  As I finally reached the view tower, after about 2 hours of climbing, my GPS read 33 minutes!

Damned be the technology, the view was worth it! I bathed in the morning sun and enjoyed the far far views - Canadian Rockies, Mt. Baker, the whole archipelago, Olympic range, even the tip of Mt. Rainier above the horizon.

Descending back to the saddle on the icy trail was more enjoyable than climbing it, but then, after Cold Springs, a real treat of the day awaited. Flowy, soft ribbon of single track, just steep down to make it interesting and not overheating the brakes, with occasional short climbs.

Who's got better late November singletrack? CT, CA? Revelstoke, BC?
I swung by twin lakes (almost identical twins) and continued along Mountain Lake towards Cascade Falls. A short hike to the waterfalls for an obligatory picture:

The overall downhill part of the ride was peppered with short, punchy climbs, where lofting the front wheel over thick roots and rocks was becoming progressively more tiresome. The final stretch of trail along the Cascade Lake was the last drop, but I drank it all.

A late afternoon ferry ride back to mainland, after drinking lots of coffee and eating one of each of the pastries on display at the ferry village.

Those truncated GPS tracks are here and here, more pictures here.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sol Duc Fat Ride

In this post, I am catching up on the last weekend's ride at the Olympics. After testing my new fat bike on 15 miles of beach and spending a nice evening with my Czech friends at the Kalaloch Lodge cabins, I planned a ride around Lake Crescent and up along the Sol Duc river.
This summer, we spent a weekend on the Olympic Peninsula and I managed a ride on the Olympic Discovery trail, mentioned in this blog post. The ODT continues along the shores of Lake Crescent as the Spruce Railroad trail. We ventured on this trail during our summer trip, thinking it was a rail trail that Marketa would enjoy riding, but found the trail to be a rooty singletrack. So that's where I started last Sunday.

The singletrack dropped steeply to the lake level on the first half mile and continued over rocky outcroppings along the water.
Is this where the railroad tracks used to go?

And they call this a "rail trail" in WA!
The bike rode the terrain well, I pumped the tires up to a ridiculous pressure of 15 psi since I knew most of the ride would be on pavement, but the fat wheels rolled over smaller obstacles like a 29er (which the wheel circumference is close to) and bounced a bit off bigger rocks. Landing the rigid fork on some step downs left my wrists wishing for more cushy handlebar grips (which I got by now, red ESI silicone chunky grips). But soon I was on a straight, flat rail cycle-strada, pushing the big bike through a layer of colored leaves, surrounded by cedars and the rain forest.

After about five miles or so the rail trail ended at highway 101. I crossed the highway and continued up on Sol Duc road, alongside a river of the same name. Or perhaps it was called Soleduck river, as the welcome sign said? The road climbed towards the hot springs resort (closed) for 10 miles and then two additional miles got me to the trail head at the end of pavement. I arrived there quite wet, since I dressed for wet weather in layers of various water-proof membranes. It did not rain, but the air was saturated and it was damp 45F. I left Pepper locked up at the trail head kiosk and hiked at a fast pace to the waterfalls.

The falls did not disappoint, the river was flowing despite unusually dry fall we have been having here. I hoped to see some Coho salmon, which is supposed to go upriver during late October and early November, but I guess salmon were on a different schedule. Back at my bike, I zipped up all jacket vents, pulled the hood over my helmet, cinched all cords and tightened all velcros, for the 12 mile descent.

The rainforest will never ever fail to amaze me.
The way back was uneventful, I let lots of air out of the tires for the last section of the trail, which made for nicely soft ride. Back at the car, I looked at my watch and realized I was out there for about six hours. I did not stop much and thanks to the stability of the fat bike, could eat my bars while riding. My GPS was dead, since I forgot to turn it off the day before after having so much fun on sand and logs. At home, I let Google maps to show me the route, turns out it was about 46 mile bike ride and couple of miles of hiking.

Google cycling map would not let me draw the route on a rail trail (green trail in the middle)
I was tired at the end of the day and had a long trip home, but I don't think I was more tired than I would have been riding my 29er hardtail. The fat wheels roll very nicely once up at speed and the rigid frame is efficient. What the bike is not good at is abrupt changes in momentum over steep ups and downs, but these bikes were not intended to substitute full suspension mountain bikes, of course. I look forward to bring Pepper to packed snow trails this winter. It will be a perfect plan B for non-powder days!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Introducing Pepper

Let me introduce my new friend: her name is Pepper, she is very young (being a 2014 model), red, hot, and seriously...fat.

I picked her up last Friday and we spent a fantastic weekend together at the Olympic Peninsula. We have known each other only for a week now, but I am sure we will get together really well, since she has an adventurous spirit but she is mild-mannered, stable and friendly.

There is one problem, though: my wife has not met Pepper yet. In fact, she does not even know that we are together. For a week now, I have been scheming various excuses, none will work. I have to man up and tell Marketa that I needed a friend. And that does not change anything between my wife and me. She will understand. I hope I can tell her before she reads this blog, which she does not do too often.

In the best American tradition, Pepper is of a mixed ethnicity: Salsa is Afro-Cuban, Mukluk is Inuit and she was born in Taiwan.

At "speed"

I am sure Pepper will feel right at home here in Seattle. We have miles and miles of fine sand and pebble beaches, hundreds of miles of groomed XC ski trails and snowmobile trails, as well as rail trails and forest roads within 100 miles outside of Seattle, and the largest XC trail system in North America in the Methow Valley, where they officially allow fatties like her to roam freely. This is a beginning of a beautiful friendship, as Grga Pitic would say.