Monday, July 29, 2013

Summer Ridin'

This summer, I cannot help myself but think often about how very different my life as a cyclist has become, compared to a year ago (and the six years before that). I have sold my road bike, my Sidis are getting probably moldy at the bottom of one plastic bin in the garage, my Garmin has became one of the less used digital devices, I don't track mileage, vertical feet and the latest carbon bikes.
Instead, I signed up for several mountain biking Meetups and every time I go mountain biking, it is at a different trail, with a different group of people. Yet, every time and get my ass whipped both by the terrain and by how skilled other riders are. Every time, I enjoy the ride tremendously, even if it is ten miles long and I had to drive fifty miles for it.
I put commuter slicks on my 29er hardtail and ride it happily at a leisurely pace four miles to work and back on a bike path. I put knobbies on a lightweight tubeless wheel set on the same bike and I can ride 25 miles of singletrack or 60 miles of gravel roads.
Sure, my weekly mileage has dropped so much compared to California summers, partly because of a hectic job, partly because I live in a big city now, and yes, also because my allergies are giving me hard time and sometimes I just feel like having no energy at all. The resulting weight gain is another matter, let's not go there.

But, strange as it may sound, I do not miss races, whole day suffer fest rides on the same dusty trails over and over. I do miss long back-road rides, simply because those trips are such a great way to explore the country.

Here are a few random places and rides I have done recently, with Marketa or others:

Lake Wenatchee and Chikamin Creek.
Fire road climb to some super sweet singletrack descent through beautiful pine forests. A little dusty on pumice laden trails, but the quality of trails as well as a swim in the lake post ride made up for that. With coffee and ice cream at Leavensworth, it was like being in Europe without the snotty Europeans ;-)

After work ride to Lake Washington for a swim.
Ten miles out, ten miles back home, on a paved bike path (Burke-Gilman), with views of Mt. Rainier and Seattle in the late afternoon light.

Olympic Discovery Trail, Adventure section.
The ODT follows the northern shore of the Olympic Peninsula for 120 miles on roads, streets and paved paths, but there are 25 miles of dirt trails in the middle of it. I started on a beach at Crescent Lake (this lake beats all the others so far) and rode on road to the trailhead.

After a few miles on logging roads and rocky fire roads, the trail turned into a singletrack and entered a nice forest. I found this sign particularly fitting: we don't allow horses on some trails because these trails are too fragile for iron horseshoes and four hoofs (unlike two soft rubber tires), yet I haven't met a single equestrian (or other human) on the trail.

There may be couple of riders on the trail on weekend days, yet the trail was perfectly maintained, with bermed turns, nicely constructed bridges, trimmed hedges on the sides. People here simply enjoy working on trails and it shows.

I did not get to ride the full 25 miles and back (my whole ride was 22miles), because there was the clear lake to swim at and a cold beer to have at a beachside resort, after another bike ride with Marketa along the lake shores.

Being the last car on a ferry back to Seattle (saving another hour of waiting in a line of cars) was just a perfect ending of the trip.

I guess the crux of this post is that I bike now for RECREATION (that's what Canadians at Whistler also call bombing down the A-line) and as a result, I feel much re-created at the end of our weekends, although often tired. It is a different kind of tiredness, no cramps, no dehydration, no lingering soreness, none of the "training" BS. I know that in the future, I will need to challenge myself again, perhaps by a long bike-packing trip or a double century, but for now, I'm just ridin' along and enjoyin' the summer while it lasts.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

British Columbia University of Mountain Biking: Part III - The Finals

On the third day at Whistler, I overslept. Two long days in the saddle, late sunsets and staying up late listening to The English Beat concert on the Olympic Plaza were enough. I rushed out of the door walking my Mojo and holding half eaten bagel in the other hand, just to find the Olympic Plaza, the venue of the final, 7th stage of the British Columbia Bike Race, full of people. Nervous racers frantically checking and re-checking their bikes and gear, organizers running back and forth, spectators and bystanders, all this transformed the plaza into a buzzing bee hive.

I was hoping to find my friend Martin, who has been finishing strong in all six previous stages and wish him good luck in the final stage. Have you ever tried to find somebody in a crowd of 500 bikers all wearing helmets and dressed up in colors? But I got lucky - I ran into Martin's wife and daughter who led me to Martin and had just time to take a pre-start picture and yell "Zlom vaz!" (Czech for Skol! although it literally means "break your neck" as if Martin needed to be reminded to ride at a breakneck speed). Few minutes later, the waves of racers poured out of the starting gate at really scary speed.

My plan was to ride the singletrack trails at the Lost Lake park before the front of the race would get there. Nothing energizes your tired legs like a knowledge that there is a pack of ultra-fast riders behind you. Peaches en Regalia, Dinah Moe Humm to Torture Never Stops, rocks and abrupt steep climbs on the Fountain of Love. At the intersection of Upper Panorama and Pinocchio's Furniture, a race marshal thought I had at least 20-30 more minutes to safely ride the race course. I did not feel safe at all on all the woodwork that Pinocchio's Furniture trail is, but I committed to staying on the bridges and rolled through. I got off the singletrack after Elephant Bridge and parked at the intersection with Gee I Like Your Pants just as a helicopter with camera crew approached and the first couple of fast guys emerged from the woods.

Watching a race like this surely got my adrenaline levels high, but I had to focus on what laid ahead. A short approach on the Valley trail put me on a tight but not overly scary singletrack called Cut Yer Bars, where I did just squeeze my old-fashioned 680mm narrow handlebars between the trees. A quick pause at the trail head for the (in)famous black diamond trail A River Runs Through It, just enough to drink some water, wipe my sweaty palms on the shorts then diving in thinking "what the heck". The change from valley streets and manicured bike paths full of casual tourists to the green hell of the forest and its trails, that would qualify for "almost impassable" anywhere else, was kind of a shock. The first section of the trail was rocky, technical to the point of last seconds saves, where you just think "Shit!" but have to handle the next obstacle, but rideable. Then came the swamps and bridges.

By now, I thought I would risk riding them, after all, these elevated plank walks are actually easier to roll over than a technical trail full of rocks and roots. If only my brain could be convinced...I tried to look far ahead but often could not see the end of it. This was frankly getting ridiculous. "A river runs through it and Jan hike a bikes through it" I mumbled to myself as I fought the battle between wanting to try and fearing an ugly crash.

After another trail head close to Alta Lake road, the trail became less extreme, or I should rather say offered less extreme ways around extremely difficult stunts. I pushed with all my strength over logs and roots and even experienced brief moments when I surprised myself: while my legs kept torquing the pedals in the large chainring, my body automatically leaned and balanced, my arms pulled up or pushed forward and my mind somehow managed to stay ahead of what was happening below my wheels.

This is not to say there were many situations that rudely interrupted these rare moments of flow. Front wheel stuck suddenly between rocks, fork bottomed, liver and other internal organs hitting my lungs. Or a nice approach to a feature where I could not see the back side of it followed by panicky nononono! unclip! look where your foot goes! damn this was close! how the hell do I get down from this thing! I'm exaggerating of course, I was just couple of feet off the ground, yet the brain cells amplified the danger signals.
But as most exams last just under an hour, fifty minutes later I could relax, take off my helmet, massage blisters on my palms and chew on an energy bar on the shore of the beautiful Alta Lake.

At the end, I managed to more or less ride the trail, stay unhurt, I did not break a rear derailleur off, did not snap a chain and actually enjoyed the ride despite its terrors. What degree did I earn? PhD? Now way, not even close to Masters, I would gladly accept a BS/BA from the most accredited biking institution in North America. Here is my unofficial diploma.

Monday, July 15, 2013

British Columbia University of Mountain Biking: Part II, Advanced Courses

Waking up at 6AM in the Whistler Village and walking my bike to Starbucks for coffee and bagel was an interesting experience. By 7:30AM, the sun had been up for several hours, the sunshine was already pretty intense, yet the Village walk, bursting with crowds last night, was completely deserted. I used the paved Valley trail for access to cross-country trails on the valley side opposite to Blackburn and Whistler mountains and the famous bike park, hoping to ride as far north on the Rainbow-Sproatt Flank trail, then turn south and ride as far south as possible.
The first part of the ride was a brutally steep climb straight up the hillside on a fire road. My legs ached, and this again reminded me of what it feels like to get going in the mornings of multi-day bike stage races or tours. I was barely moving at 2.5-3 mph, the Garmin reminding me of the snail's pace by beeping and going into an auto-pause mode every few minutes. The reward was a view of the valley below and the mountains.

When the fireroad ended and turned to a forest track, a sign warned about some ongoing trail maintenance. Good, I thought, the trail is being fixed, this will be an easy traverse along the valley side. Unfortunately, while the main trail bed was fixed after the trail was probably mostly washed away by snow melt (this must have taken an enormous amount of work), countless streams of water flowing down the hillside eroded deep trenched across the trail every couple of hundred yards or so. Making these water bars rideable will probably take constructing about five hundred bridges, something the Canadians are so good at that it will undoubtedly happen soon.

For now, it was on and off the bike, steep hike a bike sections, then dead fall, then roots where even hiking became very hard. On top of that, I was becoming a juicy lunch for myriads of black mosquitoes, the size of dragonflies, or so it seemed. Getting seriously lightheaded from the blood loss and progressively more dispirited by dragging the bike up rooty steps, I gave up after a mile or so.

I turned around and enjoyed descending on the technical trail, hopping over some of the streams, walking a few sections. What took me 45 minutes to go up was a 10 minute downhill ride. Back at the gate, I pointed my bike southward, hoping for better trail conditions. Another brutal climb, this one with ankle deep loose soil of freshly constructed trail, meaning another lovely hike-a-bike. I reached a ridge completely soaked, with dozens of overlapping bites on my arms, but I found such a great lunch spot on some rocky outcroppings overlooking the valley below, that my mood improved at once.

From here, the trail was getting better and better, narrowed to a rocky singletrack among pines and cedars and gradually descended in switchbacks. I crossed several spurs dropping straight down on my left and marked with black diamonds, first Cheap Thrills, then Industrial Disease.

The trail eventually ended at the Function Junction trail head and crossing, where I picked up a trail called Train Wreck. My rough map of the valley trail system ended here and so did maps on the information booth. By now, I was so happy to be riding a flowing single track trail after the morning torture that I did not hesitate and hit the trail. The riding became immediately Tech 7 on a 1-10 scale and the trail crossed train tracks a few times. I asked a trail runner if the trail was worth further efforts and she assured me that it would become a lot of fun, but advised to be careful at the railroad crossings since a train was coming "in about ten minutes or so". As I popped out of the woods at another rail crossing, I looked at my watch and thought, hm, perhaps I have couple of more minutes. As I looked for trail markers (see the orange arrow spray painted on the side of the rail?), whoosh, a giant train pulled by three or four engines, went by.

Avoiding a train wreck this time, I kept fighting the roots and rocks along a beautiful glacial water river.
Eventually, the trail entered deep woods and here was the train. I mean the train wreck - I could see about four or five train cars, all rusted and in various stages of being reclaimed by the nature, scattered through the dense forest. When I looked closer, I could see wooden ladders and bridges and skinnies, but these features did not quite connect the wrecked boxcars, leaving at least 10m (30ft) gaps in between.

To some, this must be a great playground, to me it was just an interesting trail decoration and I was glad to have reached the end of the singletrack after another mile or so. I crossed the river and connected with the Sea to Sky trail. This trail was smooth and made of packed fine gravel, yet it climbed and descended in a real mountain bike style. I guess this is the trail that you ride when you retire at Whistler and hang your full face helmet and downhill bike in the garage. It was still a good workout and by the time I crossed the Olympic Village area, which looked like a ghost town after the athletes had long left, I was running out of steam.

The paved Valley Trail came to my rescue and I cruised all the way up to my Village condo, a shower, wiener schnitzel and a beer (actually two, Euro size 0.5 liter). A long day at a class, for sure. For the course transcript, look here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

British Columbia University of Mountain Biking. Part I: The Entrance Exam

The type of riding I do here in Seattle has changed from previous seasons in California. I have sold my road bike and don't do those 5-7 hour hammerfest rides with lots of elevation feet. I ride a 29er hardtail with slicks on work commutes and paved or gravel paths. What I have been focusing on is mountain biking and exploring the amazing variety of trails. Thus, my riding volume in hours and miles dropped a lot (I don't actually keep track anymore), yet it has been more than compensated by the enjoyment of scenery and the challenge of a technical singletrack.
So the possibility of using the long July 4th weekend for a trip to Whistler to watch my friend Martin go through the finish chute of Stage 7 of the BCBR, and ride some of the best world's singletrack (as they say) along the way was a strong lure.
Equipped with some newly gained confidence about my improving technical skills and being aware of my lacking endurance, strength and lung capacity, my first stop was Squamish, BC. I entered the vast trail system at Alice Lake Provincial Park, and started climbing on a fire road, hoping to follow more or less the Test of Metal race course. Short way into the climb, I came upon BCBR course ribbons and realized that the race course has been set up a day before Stage 6!

Wow, I thought, this will solve any of my navigation problems and let me recall the race memories from two years ago. It was an early afternoon on a warm, sunny, breezy day and I felt something like an adrenalin surge as soon as I started following the course markings. Fire roads soon turned into a singletrack, I rode through a sketchy section remembering my nasty crash here in 2011. Before I knew it, I was at the top of Half Nelson, being offered a ride with some skilled locals. I followed one of them, Chris, through the first few berms of the jump course Half Nelson is, immediately realizing how poor my skills were compared to these guys. Seatpost slammed down, I really tried hard to carve the berms and not to touch my brakes much, but on a trail like this one, you either get lots of air or brake and ride the ramps slow. At the trail bottom, I thanked for the offer to be shown more trails, using the opportunity to ride the race course as my excuse. I don't have any pictures from this trail and if you rode it, you'd understand why - stopping to get your camera ready kills the flow.

Next came another relaxing fire road section, with nice views of the mountains, but Pseudo Tsuga singletrack left no time to look around.

The descent on these switchbacks was fun, the trail smooth and I was riding fast. My speed dropped shortly after crossing the Ring Creek on a loose steep climb and even more once I hit the black diamond Powerhouse Plunge trail.

 Here, I started to remember how the Squamish course fools you by being fun in the first part, then becoming brutally difficult just as your legs get tired. How is one supposed to ride over a mine field of baby head rocks, covered in moss, roots cris-crossing the trail in all directions, while your front wheel is constantly being grabbed by mean forest spirits and the turns are too tight?

What followed next is (again) just a blur in my memory, but the intense feeling of suffering comes back easily. The trails at Mt. Crumpit were tough. Some of the trail names, like S&M, Three Virgins and Seven Stitches, would seem to remind one of college years, but on the Graduate I felt like a freshman.

Finally, a smooth trail under the bluffs brought some relief to my neck, hands and legs. Passing the tent city at the Brennan rec centre made me almost nostalgic about not racing the BCBR this year. There was no time for emotions though, I was way down south from Alice Lake, where I parked my car. I used a bike path through the valley, climbed up Garibaldi heights using just some gas fumes from my tank and pushed the granny up Jack's trail back to the lake.

I interpreted the fact that I completed the 27 mile course in three and half hours as being accepted to the University. Hungry, beat up and sore, I loaded the Mojo onto the roof rack and drove to Whistler, to continue my education.