Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Introduction to fatbiking

On my recent four day long "work weekend" in the Bay Area, I had a unique biking experience. My friends Jill and Beat not only agreed to go for a half day bike ride, but they also set me up with a loaner bike. Not just some bike, a Fatbike Fatback fat bike! Without really thinking about the best terrain for this type of bike, I suggested Wilder Ranch trails. I rode there several times and even blogged about it a few times here and here. Jill has already covered the ride in her blog including her stunning photos, so I won't repeat the ride description here. Needless to say, just after a year and half, I got pretty confused by the trails. Usually, I get anxious when I lose orientation in a known terrain, this time I did not mind, I would just happily ride the fat tire monster bike (surprisingly not of heavy and very agile bicycle) around for hours. The bike performed very well on somewhat technical rooty single track Enchanted Loop downhill and at the end of the ride, we even rode it on a surface it was intended for: on a sandy beach. I have not had this much fun on a bike in a long time!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dry Side

For about the second week in a row, if you looked at Seattle's weather forecast on your phone, you would see a column of seven suns. Sunny, sunny, sunny... well, not quite. We do have an unusual stretch of dry weather here, but the high pressure causes inversion and low clouds and fog shroud the city and low elevation areas until around 2PM when there may be a short sun break, then the fog rolls in again by 7PM. I guess that's how they create the Seattle weather statistics - don't believe any of it, weather in this town really, really sucks nine months of a year.
A Meetup call came late Friday night to ride trails on ridges around Lake Wenatchee and I happily set my alarm clock for 6AM and drove 2.5 hours to those trails, I liked them very much back in July. It became sunny just east of Skykomish, as soon as the road started to climb towards Steven's Pass. The fall colors were unbelievable all around, especially on the eastern slopes of the hills. As I drove downhill, the temperature dropped as well and stabilized at cool 34F at the meeting point at Midway Village. Shortly afterwards, the ride organizer as well as two more couples showed up for a crowd of six. From this outpost of civilization (in the winter they primarily serve as a fuel and food station for snowmobilers, apparently there are about 200 miles of snow mobile trails in the vicinity), we drove some more on zero traffic paved road, then a mile on a dirt road to the trailhead. Here, we loaded six bikes and six people in the smallest of the vehicles - a pickup truck- and shuttled 7 miles up a fire road for a singletrack descent. I was a bit bummed first since I like to climb, and sitting in a truck bed for 20 minutes was not the best warm up for the ride, but we had ambitious plans for the day. We did climb the upper part of the fire road, met three horse riders and hunters carrying rifles, and stopped for a friendly chat with each group. I guess that's what friendly trail sharing means, at least here in WA.

The singletrack was frozen solid and covered by multiple patches of snow and ice, which made the first part of the downhill interesting, since the trail here is steep, narrow and cut into a steep hillside. At each of the switchbacks, it feels like you could skip a few taking the straight line down. The Chikamin Creek trail soon entered the forest where tree roots crossed the trail every 10-20 meters making a series of 1 foot drops that were fun to launch off. This trail was not all downhill, there are numerous short punchy uphills as well as a good length of sustained granny gear climbing from the creek. The last section, which was so dusty in the summer (pumice) was absolutely great - no brake berms, sticky sandy soil and enough rocks and roots to keep it exciting.
Back at the cars, it took all of us just about an hour to solve the next logistic riddle: how to get those who wanted to ride Minnow trail to the top, how not to accumulate more cars on top of the hill than drivers who could drive them down and how to make sure all car keys were at identifiable locations once everybody descended the hill the second time. Isn't there an app for this? The second lap was just us boys and I had to push myself pretty hard to keep the other three riders in sight. Minnow ridge trail was even more roller-coaster-y than Chikamin, requiring quick changes in riding style - pump the moto dips on level sections, pedal hard downhill to get enough momentum, then shift all the way down for either granny gear suffering next 50 meters, or standing up mashing the big ring, if you had anything left in your legs. This trail was also a lot drier and smoother, testing our courage to lean the bikes into the turns until the tires started to break loose. Here is the track, including the second car shuttle up:

A long day out there would have ended very successfully at a local pizza and beer joint, if it wasn't for a wreck that closed Highway 2 between Steven's and Index, forcing me to take a long detour on the only other road across the mountains to I-90. About six hours out in the woods, two and half hours of intense riding and a total of 5.5 hrs behind a wheel. A real "endurance" day for me, but the bright yellow fall colors, misty mountains on the horizon and the sound of tires and suspension thumping down the trail keep coming back in my mind a day later.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Big Cats

As the autumn here at the Northwest deepens, I love traveling to the Bay Area, even though it is usually for more work and not much relaxation. Fall is generally enjoyed most by the SF dwellers for its clear days, though I feel best when the mercury is above 80F and thus prefer the South Bay.

Flying to and from San Jose is so easy, and the drive to Los Gatos and Marketa's mountain hideaway even better. I actually thought Los Gatos meant male cats (el gato vs la gata) but apparently the Spanish plural does not distinguish the feline sexes.

Last weekend weather was so nice and warm that we moved our work outside and managed to make a big progress on "theculminationofafour-yearworkthatyouwillallembraceandlove-mfTHESIS".

You have to love the technology that allows us to be connected to all our information sources even where the cables don't reach (notice the tiny mi-fi mobile WiFi hotspot device?). But both days, I longed for a bike ride, especially when looking towards the Demo Forest (the ridge behind the flower pots). Alas, no bike available, all four of our bikes were sadly hanging in our Seattle garage where  rain water leaked on them. A five mile run on Aldercroft Heights road was a poor substitute, although the 1 mile climb back surely pulled on my Achilles tendons. The heavily barb-wired gate of San Jose Water company land made us turn around, but also indicated a possible connection to unexplored areas via the Wrights Station fire road.

Back home, low clouds, grey skies, drizzle, falling leaves and chilly mornings were quite a contrast. More work, long days in the lab, long evenings at the computer. After spending a Saturday morning removing the soaked remnants of four huge tomato plants from the deck, I went to explore trails at Cougar Mountain, using this course map of a 10 mile running race:

Cougar Mt. is one of the three prominent hills surrounding Issaquah, sometimes called "The Issaquah Alps". I hope that whoever named them "Alps" meant that as an irony. These wooded hills contain networks of fantastic trails both for running and mountain biking, but the Alps they ain't.

Fall trail running is actually great, there is decay in the woods but at the same time it is as if the Nature would be saying "see you in the spring". Wet roots and rocks required more attention and colors were interesting.

I managed to slog around the course in 2:18 hrs, stopping frequently to check the map and signage. Ten miles was more than I ran in a while and my legs felt pretty mushy at the end, and I almost rolled my left ankle twice - got to be more careful with these 2 inch thick soles (Hoka). But the cushioning of these shoes is just great and this fact plus perhaps sleeping with compression sleeves made the old legs feel fresh come Sunday morning.

So Sunday was another "big cat" day: Tiger Mountain closes for mountain biking on October 15 and this was the last chance of the season. I guess "sunny" forecast in mid October means low clouds and fog until 1PM, then few sunny breaks and more low clouds rolling up the hillsides by 5PM. The ride starts with a decent fire road climb, but I felt great and pushed the pedals with energy to spare. At the summit I put a Goretex jacket on, dropped the seat post three inches (I really really need a 1x11 drivetrain which would free the left side of the handlebar for a dropper seat post lever!), and hit the trail. The top part is a superb pump track and I grinned like an idiot going a bit too fast. The middle part of the mountain happened to be in a thick fog, which made the riding a little risky with low visibility and fogged up glasses.

My idiotic grin disappeared from my face at the lower section after getting my chamois soaked through by riding in a stream of muddy water and numerous puddles. Many rock and root drops landed in puddles where you could not see how deep it was and what lurked underneath the surface. Riding wet roots and rocks downhill is a real mountain biking! The final part of this ride on a deep green XC trail was just as good. Bye Tiger, I love you!