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.