Sunday, September 29, 2013

End of Summer

Someone told me that summers at Pacific Northwest are the best kept secret. I have to agree: sunny and warm days, even too hot sometimes, nights cooler, no bugs, nature green, lakes warm for swimming and high country trails accessible for hard climbs rewarded with fantastic views.
Then it all disappears all of a sudden and the rains move in. Even an NPR guy said "It's time to put away your sunglasses for eight months". So I did. And I took the patio furniture off the deck and put it in the garage. Then followed the grill. And then I harvested tomatoes from the four plants that grew so wildly over the summer but these poor little things never got enough sun to ripen.

A three-day heavy rain storm that dumped 10 inches of water in the Cascades and changed our residential street into a raging stream on Saturday afternoon upon us, I sat at the computer whole day yesterday and most of today, working on my two other (unpaid) jobs, drinking one cup of coffee after another and spiraling into a gloomy mood. I even politely declined to join friends for a hike around the Discovery Park, but the truth is, my sinuses and allergies were going crazy today. Later in the afternoon, I decided to use the worst method to cheer myself up - shopping therapy. While researching some trail running shoes online, I found out that there was a running store couple of blocks away, which carried all kinds of interesting brands: Altra, Hoka One One etc. I read some reviews about the Altra Lone Peak zero drop shoe and how much cushioning it had. I really needed something better with more grip for the fall wet trails than my old Salomon Missions. So I went to the Seven Hills Running store, found it empty but a young store employee, an avid trail runner, was more than willing to talk gear and trails. To my disappointment, the Lone Peak are really minimalist shoes and I am too old to try if my feet remember how our ancestors used to run. My wife runs only in Hokas, she has probably four or five pairs of all models to rotate, but I have never really considered them for myself. One, my weekly mileage is pathetic, and two, I always thought these shoes have an advantage after 50km or more. But I tried the Stinson Trail model on, it fit like a glove, but there was a strange inward rolling feel, almost like there was no support for the big toe. Then I tried the Mafate 3 and they felt much more stable. I really wanted to wait for the Rapa Nui model which will arrive here in November (reviewed here), but in a spur of the moment bought the Mafates.

My first pair of Hokas!
 By the time I got home the rain subsided a bit, so I put them on and ran the ~ 9 mile loop around Magnolia and Discovery Park. It is about 6 miles on pavement and three miles of trails. The first thing I noticed was how the tread squirmed on the concrete. Like my Schwalbe Nobby Nics at 25 psi on tarmac! The second thing I noticed was the grip: no slippage up steep hill on a black slimy fungus laden concrete of our residential sidewalks. Even wet manhole covers felt safe. The third thing I noticed after about 3-4 miles: these shoes felt like any other shoe I ran in, just so much more comfortable. And finally on trails, these treads stuck to wet roots, decaying leaves covered wooden stairs and bridges and rocks like the proverbial shit to a shirt (OK, it is a Czech proverb).

I understand, these kickers are made for a much more abuse than I will ever be able to subject them to, but the comfort, traction, and hopefully some positive effects on my knee joints make them the best running shoes I ever owned. I suspect that when the Rapa Nuis arrive in two months, I will make another trip to Seven Hills.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Touring Setup

Last year, thanks to a long involuntary paid vacation, I could take two weeks off for a bike tour. John and I rode from San Diego east along the Mexican border then north over the peaks and valleys of the Sierras and finished 800 miles later at Mono Lake. Since then, austerity and sequestration rule the world, I get paid half of my previous salary and work lots more. Perhaps, that's how it should be for everybody and the whole world would be a better place? At least I contribute!
Oftentimes, I think about the vicious cycle of slaving long hours for some capitalist pigs just to make enough for rent, gas, food, utilities, medical bills and to keep all the junk we surround ourselves with running. How much money would I need to bike from place to place, carrying all my earthly possessions on the bike? I know, stuff breaks and sports equipment and bike parts are expensive. Yet I dream about stepping out of the door, hopping on a heavily loaded bike and perhaps four, five months later ringing a door bell at my mom's place. "Hi mom, just riding by and I thought I would stop by for a few days and do my laundry!"

The question is where to pack the minimum necessary items for a long bike trips in a way that would not collapse the bike and make it still rideable uphill? This problem has been addressed by thousands of people, there are setups  described on the Internet, and many companies make high quality bike touring gear. Here is a table comparing just a few of those products - basically Revelate Design bags vs. Thule universal bike rack and Ortlieb panniers:

Productweight [oz]weight [g]volume [liters]cost $
Tangle M92554.570
Pack n' Pedal Tour35990NA89
Rack frames15425NA18
Ortlieb Roller classic67190040150

A lightweight setup using Revelate Designs Tangle frame bag, a handlebar mounted Sweetroll and the Viscacha (larger of the two) seat bag would weight 935g, have volume of 32.5 liters and cost $295. Under a kilogram for all three bags is very light and I see why this is a choice of many long distance bikepackers as well as racers (Tour Divide, for example). Yet 32.5 liters of scape does not seem like enough for self-supported bike trips which would include camping.

Last year, touring the Sierra Cascades route on a road bike, I had the two Backroller panniers about 75% full and carried a Camelbak Hawg (about 13 liters). I did not carry a tent, sleeping bag or cooking stuff (stove and pot), but I did pack an emergency bivvy, which was the size of a hammock when packed. Since we stayed in hotels and motels, I did bring some off bike clothes, like long pants, T shirt and a puffy jacket.

In comparison, the Thule Pack n' Pedal rack with frames and two Ortlieb panniers weigh more than three times as much at 3,315 grams while providing only 7.5 L more space. Cost would be comparable at ~ $260, but I already have the panniers so subtract $160. The rack is rated for high loads (55lbs) and both the rack and panniers are completely waterproof and non-wettable (I know Revelate bags are waterproof, too but the fabric must get wet on the outside in a rain). The big disadvantage is that all the weight is on the rear wheel using this setup. Adding a frame bag or a handlebar harness would distribute the weight better, but add even more weight.

Verdict: bags for minimalist touring on trails around Lake Tahoe, rack and panniers for long road trips through the Pacific Northwest. Two water bottles and a credit card for bike touring in Europe.

 I almost forgot: the ultimate touring setup is, of course, the GDR winning, spacious, lightweight and aerodynamic "fin" and "fairing" designed, manufactured and trail and road tested by John Nobile.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

On Wheel Size, Again

About a year ago, I posted results of an amateur experiment that nevertheless showed that, as expected, the overall wheel size and its contact with ground depends largely on what size tire you mount to a rim.
Today's ride at Tolt McDonald tree farm made me think about wheels, or horses for courses, so to speak.

As you see from the map above, there are lots and lots of tight trails at Tolt McDonald. I rode here as my first mountain bike ride in Washington in the winter when trails were muddy and roots and rocks slick.Those conditions were just a hair above my comfort level. Today it was bone dry and I could hit the turns at speed. Each hairpin turn had a tree at its apex (and everywhere around) and the roots of that "apex" tree of course cross the trail. The trick is to lean the bike into the turn and use the roots as a natural bank. If you slow down and hit the root in the middle, your front wheel will likely slip - there is nothing worse than loosing your front wheel in a turn. If you take the turn too wide, you hit the tree.

Today, I was having too much fun on these trails and I practiced a perfect line through each turn while staying on top of tall gear. Yet quite a few times, I had to wrestle the bike (Ibis Mojo 26-er size XL) to "fit" into the tight space. If I rode a 29-er here, I would be hopeless. Yes, it would roll better and I could perhaps lean the bike more due to the larger tire contact and traction, but a wheelbase is a wheelbase and some law of physics says bikes don't shrink much at 8mph.

No other bike color would do here
Don't get me wrong, I love riding my (and other) 29ers. In April, the RM 970 was fantastic on wide open Utah trails and excelled on rocks of Porcupine rim. Last week during the cyclocross race, I could pass much faster guys by taking the inside of grassy turns on my 29er. I guess not because my wheels with big 2.2 tires would be more nimble (actually, a road 700cc rim with a 23c tire is basically a 26-er), but because the tire side knobs had lots of grip. I can also convert my 29er to a commuter or touring bike by using 35c slick tire (more on touring setups in a next blog post).
So again, do I have a need for a 27.5" wheeled bike? I personally think not, even if I had just one bike, 27.5" would be a compromise. For Washington and BC singletrack, I take 26. For everything else, there is a 29er (and a Master Card, of course).

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Oh MFG! Cross!

After a week of monsoon rains and heavy thunderstorms, the weather gods finally smiled at us on Saturday. As is usually the case, the woods east of Seattle were soaked with moisture and low clouds hang over the Issaquah Alps in the morning. This weather makes the trails slick for biking and the air saturated with humidity makes me drip sweat like a leaky faucet.
I went for a trail run on the Tiger Mountain Trail, first climbing 2000 feet over 3 miles, then some ups and downs for another three miles or so and then steep downhill. When I came upon intersection of trails on my final leg where I could have chosen either 1.1 miles or 2.6 miles to where I parked, I chose the longer route. My "bad" knee did not thank me for this choice on the last few hundreds of meters of the Pipeline trail.
During this run, I got three phone calls: the first one from my wife whose car broke down in California; the second one from an Oregon area code, was from a Czech family who have just arrived in Seattle with three boys and a dog. They went hiking around the lake and tried to get in touch. I happened to just finished my run in the same area, so after weeks of emails, we met for the first time face to face.

Slideshow using bad phone pictures of the most beautiful trails I have ever been on is here.

The third call came when I drove home. My boss and a friend invited me to a season MFG cyclocross opening race on Sunday. How do you refuse that? I got up early and rode at easy pace about 18 miles to the venue. I expected a low key, grass roots event, but the park was packed with people in colorful kits (they looked suspiciously like roadies to me) and hundreds of high end cross bikes were all over.

I wanted to register for a Cat 4 Masters race, but that race was just starting, so I signed up for beginners. I really did not feel like trying Cat 3. I felt somewhat bad about it since in XC mountain biking, you do a beginners race just once if you never raced before. At the start line, I was surrounded by fit looking people on world championship worthy carbon machines (Ridley, Redline...). The first lap speed was insane. My 29-er with 2.25 Specialized Captain tires did awesome well on off camber grassy switchbacks, where I could take tight inside lines and actually passed a few people that way. On paved straightaways, everybody accelerated and just zoomed past me. Until the next technical section. There was also a mud pit, I guess as mandatory as barriers, where I had no problem ploughing through the deep mud, but my wheels wrapped in what felt like 15 pounds of thick mud made the next section especially grueling.

Forty minutes of intense workout, I gave it all I had but most of the other "beginners" pulled ahead of me. I was not redlined for 40 minutes, heck, I can go full out for about 3-4 minutes max. The key was to maintain the highest effort I could for the whole race. My legs felt definitely mushy after the trail run a day before, but I was able to scramble some mental energy for the last lap sprint to the finish.

By the time my friends finished their crowded Cat 3 race, it was sunny and hot. Iced Americano and a Yeah! cookie (both delicious) helped me to get ready for those slooooow 18 miles back home. GPS track here. The actual cyclocross laps are the head on the long snake of the ride track.