Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Little Backcountry Epic

I had a busy day at work on Friday and after nearly 10 hours in the lab, I had little energy to plan details of my Saturday mountain bike ride. I looked up the Evergreen Alliance Trail wiki which described several rides along Highway 410, on the northeastern side of Mt. Rainier, all marked as difficult backcountry epics. I printed some maps and directions, made sure my bike was in good shape, brought plenty of water and little more than usual food and hit the road. I started the ride from lower Skookum Flats trailhead and climbed a nice, wide and smooth fire road six miles to the top of Suntop.
I stared the climb ambitiously in the big ring (what do you call the larger chainring of a double setup? Anyways, my 38-tooth ring) but as soon as the Garmin squeaked and auto-paused, I shifted to the granny and tried to keep a pace of at least 3mph. The air was humid and 75 degrees felt like a hundred. Soon, I was dripping sweat, something I am not too prone to. I reached the summit lookout after 1hr 30 min and 6 miles, drenched in sweat.

This place, Suntop summit is supposed to be the best place to see the north face of Mt. Rainier, but the big hill was covered in puffy clouds, just the lower snow fields were visible. I took a technical singletrack downhill for about 0.5 mile, where the trail intersected the main road and continued along a ridge south. First, the trail climbed steeply straight upwards and the trail surface was really soft - tree needles, loam, moss. Here I found that the 6 mile climb just about obliterated my legs. I alternated pushing with riding, wondering how could I forget fitness among the things one should bring for a backcountry epic ride? I was really at a remote place, except one long distance runner, I did not meet a soul in hours (in fact, the runner was the only human being the whole stretch between Suntop and Ranger Creek).
 As the smooth trail followed the ridge, some nice views of the Palisades cliffs on the opposite side of the White River valley opened up. The top section of the ridge had several small snow fields and couple of creek crossings.

Involuntary bike wash
 The trail then turned downhill towards the river in many switchbacks, with some loose, rocky and steep sections. There was a bit of exposure here and there, but overall, the whole descend was fun, although I was on the brakes most of the time, not wanting to get over my head on an unknown trail. The lower section was quite overgrown and I received a good whipping by many branches. I recovered somewhat on the downhill, even though the narrow trail perched on a steep hillside required lots of concentration. Just north of the Ranger Creek air strip, I picked up the Skookum Flats trail.
This trail follows the river downriver so it should be an elevation loss. This trail is a prime example of why mountain biking here is so fantastic. First, you have the scenery, but riding here requires full concentration and good timing, not looking around. Twisty trail, steep ups and downs, roots, rocks, bridges.
 I am still learning the style of riding I observed two years ago during the BC bike race: off the saddle, steer from the hips, lean, lean even more, let the tire side knobs take care of traction, and most of all, NEVER shift into a granny. Maintain momentum or the trail will stop you.

I had to dismount many times and the trail did stop me abruptly by grabbing the front wheel, since my legs were really toast by now and I was digging deep to keep some pedaling cadence.

 Several times I thought how much easier it would be to roll over roots and rocks on 29 inch wheels, just to realize that my size XL Mojo 26-er was just about the largest bike I could sneak through the narrow turns. On straight sections (there were barely any) the large wheels would require less effort, but timing the bursts of power through cross-wise root sections and rock gardens was actually so engaging, I forgot how tired I was.

 Those 4.5 miles of Skookum Flats was some very best mountain biking I have ever done. As of couple of weeks ago, East Tiger Mountain was my favorite. Now, Skookum Flats takes the lead. This is a trail I will take all my friends to when they come to visit me here! I mean, riding in BC was superb, but WA is the best kept secret place to ride.
This ride was no epic, under 20 miles, but it had everything and took pretty much all my strength. Combining this ride with Palisades would double the distance and probably more than double the elevation. Next time. GPS track here.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Flying bikes and pedal powered planes

About two weeks ago, news about ingenious Czechs inventing a flying bicycle spread around the internet and couple of my friends have forwarded me links to the video of the maiden flight. I watched the video of the radio-controlled 180lb machine making a short flight inside a hall and since then, I haven't been able to stop thinking about flying and bicycles.

I used to fly gliders for almost 20 years (and hang-gliders for a few years) before switching 100% to bicycling, so I understand the human desire to fly instead of moving slowly in the dust of the Earth's surface, or at least pedaling a bike and go fast who knows where. So from that standpoint, a flying bicycle sounds like a great idea. Invented by the darn Czechs... but wait a sec, haven't people flown by pedal power before? Plus, this Czech "invention" is not pedal powered, it flies on batteries and electric motors!
So let's remind ourselves about who flew by pedal power first: Bryan Allen pedaling the Gossamer Condor (constructed by Paul McCready) on August 23rd, 1977, thus winning the Kremer prize.
Two years later, June 12, 1979 Gossamer Albatross completed a successful crossing of the English Channel to win the second Kremer prize:

Of course, these flying machines could hardly be called flying bikes, they were high-tech ultralight aircraft. Let's go back to the Czech flying bike: it is called Jan Tleskac. This is a name from popular books and comics by Jaroslav Foglar. His most famous books were a trilogy about a group of boys, who called themselves Rychle Sipy (Rapid Arrows). You would have to read the books forty years ago to immerse yourself into the drama of Rychle Sipy's search for a mysterious puzzle (Jezek v kleci) which had plans for a flying bicycle hidden inside, while running into all kinds of trouble with a very secretive society of Vonts, who had lived secluded in Stinadla (an ominously sounding part of town). The flying bike plans once belonged to an apprentice named Jan Tleskac, who was the first (although fictitious) person to invent a flying bike. He also designed the puzzle as a safe place for his plans, it was extremely difficult to get the hedgehog out of its cage. Jan Tleskac knew to be afraid, his boss was after his IP, eventually killed him, but was not able to solve the puzzle in time, since the Vonts were closing in. In a chase inside Stinadla catacombs, the puzzle was lost for a long time, until Rychle Sipy got a hold of it.

I recall the passage from the book, when Jan Tleskac goes for a test ride / flight at night, after many failed attempts to fly his bike. I may be incorrect after 40 years, but the crux of the story was that he attached wings, gearing and a propeller to his regular commuter bike, rode his bike as fast as he could on a road, to the point where the wings got enough lift for the bike to start losing tire traction, then he switched gears from wheels to the propeller shaft and flew! I guess that smart engineers have calculated the power needed for something like that and it is most likely not possible, but you might have noticed that Gossamer Albatross took off from a downward sloping rail, that got the aircraft moving while at the same time, the pilot generated enough propeller thrust by pedaling. I like this concept a lot more than a bike frame attached to four rotors. It could as well be a couch, not a bike. If I let my non-engineering imagination wander, I could see a bike like Jan Tleskac's, but instead of large wings, my flying bike would be a gyro (gyrocopter, an aircraft with a rotating wing), so the airlift would be created by forward motion of the bike, first by riding on the ground, then by switching to a propeller.

I better hurry up to a patent office or Kickstarter, since there is already this:

Monday, June 24, 2013

Summer Solstice

We have had a fantastic June here in Seattle. Lush green vegetation all around, blue skies, puffy clouds (in California, I almost forgot how pretty cumulus clouds are, something I used to appreciate a lot as a former glider pilot) and long daylight hours. I have biked trails that challenged me, made me scared and sore all over, as well as excited after finishing a ride (talking about East Tiger Mountain) and met some people via Meetup groups. The first day of summer promised to be a perfect sunny day, but it turned out that people I know either went downhilling at Steven's Pass (not quite my cup of tea) or were planning on actively participating in the Fremont Solstice ride (Warning! these Google images are not exactly workplace compatible, at least not here in the USA).
On Friday night, I kept staring at my list of backcountry epic rides, but frankly felt a little unsure if I wanted to venture to the unforgiving WA wilderness by myself. So I planned a safer alternative: a long gravel exploratory ride. I wanted to check out unpaved trails that connect to the long distance Iron Horse rail trail, which I thought could be a destination of a good overnight bike camping trip.
The route was actually pretty trivial, easy to figure out from online materials, here is the track:

The end of Preston-Snoqualmie trail had a vista point with a mostly obstructed view of Snoqualmie falls.

 The more interesting part of this section was finding a singletrack connector (Whitaker Trail) to Snoqualmie Ridge. It was a rain forest-y, loamy, soggy, steep trail that took a lot of energy to climb. At one moment, I saw a black furry animal leave the trail and disappear in the ferns. After the next bend, a woman runner and her dog got scared, she said she thought I was a bear (!). No, I said, that would be a little further down the trail.
I connected with the Snoqualmie Valley Trail at this tunnel (Tokul Tunnel), but instead going south towards the Iron Horse aka John Wayne Pioneer Trail, I turned north.

 I crossed the Tokul trestle and kept pushing a big gear on a flat, hard packed gravel trail in the northbound direction.
 The scenery changed from deep woods to horse farms and eventually to fields. From this horse ranch ahead, the ride has become a real gravel grinder. The headwind picked up, the trail was straight as a ruler and the sun baked me enough to drip sweat from my arms to the gloves.

 I finished the ride by getting lost first in very manicured yet anonymous developments of Redmond, then on the last half mile in a maze of bicycle paths around the Marymoor Park.
It would be a long trip to ride from home to the Iron Horse trail and see at least a part of it, I estimate it at two 100-mile days, one out, one back.

Then of course, the rain came back and the first Sunday of summer was wet.  Marketa, recovering from a nasty fall on one of her runs, suggested a "short hike". Since West Tiger is off limits to mountain bikes, I thought it may be worth exploring on foot.

 We hiked up Tiger Mountain trail, sweating in the humid warm drizzly weather, but feasting on tasty salmonberries. It got lot colder at the Tiger 2 summit and rained even more at Tiger 3.

 From here, we really wanted to be off this hill fast, so instead of taking the maintained Railroad grade trail, we plunged straight down on the Cableline "trail", ignoring the warning signs about rough and unmaintained terrain.
This trail was really steep, eroded, slippery, with 2 foot drop offs. It is really hard to make a steep trail look scary in pictures. We saw a few really hardcore people running the trail up, which must be some of the hardest three miles uphill around here, but at least they did not have to fear endoing down the slope.
One day, soon, I will try to run these trails. The list of challenges just keeps growing.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Vashon Island Ride

A 2012 New York Times article compared the ferry to Vashon Island to a time machine. I can imagine that the somewhat isolated island community has preserved old ways of life, so I was curious to bike around the place and see for myself. Others have written ride descriptions before, I have particularly liked the posts on Ken't Bike Blog.
Since I could take bike paths pretty much all the way to the Fauntleroy Ferry, biking was the sole mode of transportation and this was a car free ride. Riding long(-ish) road rides from my apartment is  something I haven't quite figured out yet here. There seems to be water, city or freeways all around. As I pedaled along the Seattle waterfront at 7:30AM, I only saw confused looking tourists who were trying to find their cruise ships. A mile long line of taxicabs in front of the Aquarium would take care of them. A long stretch along the Alki Beach was almost deserted, too, except few early joggers. I barely managed to buy the $6 ferry ticket and was let onto the ferry as a last one, together with another cyclist.  Fifteen or so minutes later, we have presumably traveled back in time.

It was a pretty good climb from the sea level to the island's spine, and my lungs and sinuses, still recovering from a recent viral infection, responded with convulsions and overproduction of mucus. I felt totally out of shape, but as I rode quiet roads south along the western side (counter clockwise), I was able to start noticing some interesting things along the road. 
First, a huge ant hill! I haven't see one in so long, yet these busy colonies used to be a common sight when I was a kid and hiked the Czech woods. Next thing that caught my eye as I pedaled along were bushes with yellow and red berries. I though it was too early for raspberries or blackberries to be ripe, but I stopped to check them out. These were salmonberries (as I found out later at home online). First, I was not sure if they were edible, thought that most compound berries were, plus these tasted so good, that I could not stop picking them. I left my bike on the side of the road in deep grass and just went along the bushes in search of more and more berries, till I realized I should go back and find my bike.
This was a second thing that reminded me so strongly of my young years back in Central Europe: you have to earn your berries, since there surely will be stinging nettles next to them. Yes, Vashon nettles were 10 feet tall and stung quite a bit.

 I rode all the way to the south-most tip of the island, to a Point Defiance ferry dock, had a quick snack and climbed north and along the eastern side of Vashon, towards Burton peninsula. A viewpoint along the way offered a good view of another ant hill to the east.

 After Tramp Harbor, I remembered to look for the famous red bike in a tree, sure it was there, but compared to older pictures on the internet, missing a handlebar.

Vashon town center was very busy with a farmers' market, Father's Day celebrations, traffic jam etc., no yesteryear nostalgia there. Just north of town center, I followed farm roads towards the coast, to get off the main island highway and enjoy some more downhills and climbs. Unknowingly, I missed the Betty Macdonald farm. I knew she had moved to Vashon after the chicken farm fiasco, but had no idea about the farm's location. Betty Macdonald is also kind of associated with my youth - she was very popular in Czech Republic in the eighties, I guess since she was one of the few American authors allowed to be translated and published, and she was also a favorite author of my mother, who insisted I read all her favorite feminist books (I prefered sci-fi).
I rolled onto a ferry back to Seattle in early afternoon and really enjoyed the views of our volcanoes both right (Rainier) and left (Baker) from the upper deck.

 Alki beach was a zoo on Saturday afternoon, with the bike path clogged with people, pedicabs, roller skaters and other damn cyclists.

Seattle waterfront was my home stretch, for total (including the ferry nautical miles) of 81 very, very enjoyable miles. Nothing beats feeling like a kid again, especially on a bike.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Return of Freund Canyon (Rückkehr der Freund Schlucht)

.. was the name of last Sunday's Cascades Mountain Bikers Meetup. For me, first time there. Following on my previous post, Sunday morning found me in the worst allergized state ever. Equipped with steroid inhalers and an Epi-pen, I decided to drive almost three hours to Leavenworth, WA to join a group who knew the trails. The drive over the Cascades is always interesting. Overcast in Seattle, drizzle and then a dense fog and 40 degrees F at Stevens Pass, then popping out of the weather on the sunny side into a warm sunshine, green meadows, raging rivers and waterfalls, the drive did not seem that long.
Freund Canyon is a one-way loop consisting of an almost 5 mile climb on a superbly smooth singletrack, followed by 3.5 miles of downhill on bermed, twisty, narrow trail with water bars and other kind of jumps. Throw in three wet creek crossings and you have a perfect MTB track.

The elevation gain is just under 2000 feet and there are some views along the way up that make the long drive worth (almost leaven-worth!).

The downhill part requires a lowered saddle, aggressive leaning into turns, jumping the small jumps and pumping the big ones to avoid catching too much air. Twenty minute of this much body English beat me up more that the hour long climb. Of course I was the last one down the hill, but I was game to do it all noch einmal.

 Since I left my car in town, I could loosen up my neck and arms by leisurely pedaling three miles into Leavenworth. This town is interesting (you can google it), I found it both hilarious, as sort of an American joke about all things Bavarian, and nice. For instance, I bought couple of loaves of perfect European bread and pastries so good they would beat the Bavarian originals.

And the best thing about this village is: there are no Germans! (Aufrichtige Entschuldigungen zu unseren europäischen Nachbarn).

And with Green Day blasting "Auf Achse" through the car stereo, I was on the way home after a long day. All allergy symptoms gone, my legs felt fresh and my head clear. GPS track here.

Man versus Nature

If you expected a dramatic account of some crazy bike ride or ascent of one of our glacier covered volcanoes, don't even bother to read further. This post is about natural forces within ourselves, namely the biology of our (read my) immune system. Unless one suffers one of the terrible autoimmune disease, we don't even know we have an immune system. Only when this complicated biological machinery goes out of balance, we feel it. Enter seasonal allergies. A year ago, I was probably in the best shape of my life, after eight days of intense bike touring, even a tough 8-hour mountain bike race felt just like a long ride.
This spring, my poor lymphocytes went into an overdrive. Allergy sufferers know the symptoms, but after couple of weeks of stuffed sinuses, inflamed middle ear, intense headaches, chills etc etc, I felt downright drained of all energy to run or bike. With all the cytokines, histamine, IgE and other (normally useful and necessary) molecules at high levels, running (slogging) 5 miles last week resulted in cramps at night and overall sickly feeling. Waking up feeling feverish, with my face swollen, itchy eyes and pulsating sinus pressure, we decided to ride around the neighborhood and check out the Magnolia Farmers Market.
First, we rode along the Elliot Bay on a bike path that leads to the Olympic sculpture park and the Aquarium.

On the way back, we rode past anchored cruise ships, wondering who in their right mind would ever set a foot on such a monstrosity, especially during a few days of precious vacation.

Our neighborhood market was kind of small, but we did find some fresh veggies we were looking for, as well as a nice surprise: a Czech bakery stand.

A slice of raspberry strudel was delicious, but the business was suffering due to a nearby parked truck selling crepes. Now, if you did not know, we Czechs make the best "palacinky" in the world. Unlike the dry French version, we fry them in a pan in oil or butter - which makes them fluffy, moist, yet very thin. Unfortunately, our minority here cannot pull off a massive marketing campaign for Bohemian Crepes to change the stereotype...
At the end of the day, I felt like my battle with my own biology was till an uphill one, but the day as a whole was surely a win.