Monday, February 24, 2014

Risk Management

There may be a genetic predisposition to risk taking. A recent article in The New York Times describes results of a recent study, which unlike older twin-based genetic association studies, focused on athletes in British Columbia who like to ski or snowboard like daredevils. If you carry a rare variant of the DRD4 gene (don't worry, we don't call you "mutants" these days), you are probably racing the Iditarod Invitational right now. If you are like the rest of us, running trails and skiing just for pleasure, it may be comforting to know that there are professionals who do care about our safety when we are out there having healthy fun (as opposed to unhealthy suffering of the DRD4 carriers...).

Case in point No 1: on my Saturday afternoon run at Grand Ridge, I found the trail being blocked by yellow tape. When I looked up, I saw the reason for trail closure, the broken tip of a tree hanging just above the trail. Now, the trail was not just closed, there was a re-route, perfectly cut ribbon of new singletrack around the area, with newly exposed slick roots to make it more fun!

Case No 2: Sunday morning, Steven's Pass ski area summit parking lots filled up quickly, in expectation of another deep powder day. We were bused from satellite parking lots to the resort, while it snowed heavily. It continued snowing and by early afternoon, some areas on the back side of the mountain had thigh deep powder. These February storms are trying to make up for the lack of precipitation earlier this year. Just look at the snow depth chart at Steven's Pass web site:

With this much new snow comes avalanche risk which needs to be mitigated. This also includes avalanche control around the highway to the pass. Highway 2 closed for avy control on Sunday afternoon just when hundreds of skiers could not take another run down the mountain and were ready to leave. Sitting in a car on a gridlocked highways with snow piling up at the rate of 4"/hr was not much fun. But when the road opened after 4 hours, seeing the huge pile of snow that needed to be bulldozed from the road, I was glad somebody knows how to calculate risk. It is good for us, the "wild types" (this ironically means "normal" in genetics speak), since we are not extreme thrill seekers and thus often not too good at risk assessment. The take home message: don't fight your genetics, just choose the right environment.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


This blog is and will be about biking and other outdoor activities, as long as I can perform them and the Blogger exists. I try to avoid political posts, but when something really concerns me, I have to get it out and share, even if you don't care.
The other day, I have noticed that in my blog stats about audiences, Ukraine took a second place after the USA:

How is that possible? Don't you guys and gals in the Ukraine have a revolution to fight?  Although it would please me tremendously if there were twenty freedom fighters on the streets of Kiev or Lviv freezing their asses on the barricades, clutching their smart phones and reading Jan's B-log. That cannot be the case.
What is the case, is that while here at the bastion of the world democracy, we go about our daily jobs where we (mostly) help someone else pursue their dreams, and in our spare time, we bike, ski, run etc., which, although healthy, are completely selfish, from the Universe standpoint completely useless activities (we call this a work / life balance), the Ukrainian "rebels" are pursuing their dream now, not knowing what will happen in the future, they just must be damn sure that the current state of affairs in their country must be disrupted.

Radio Free Europe has this video on their web pages:

On the structure on the left (a scaffold? A statue?) you can see the Czech flag, just under the EU flag and to the right of the German flag (which is upside down I think). Of course, the Czech Republic is a EU member, but historically, western Ukraine, the Zakarpatia, used to belong to the pre-WWII Czechoslovakia. The Soviets took it as their war prize. Today, there is Slovakia between the Czech lands and the Zakarpatia, but speaking just for myself, I would not mind a bit if we all were one country again. The real reason for me is that I think there must be awesome mountain biking in Zakarpatia!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Fat Solution to Little Problems

The first little problem is that we have been getting hammered with snow, I mean not we city dwellers but the backyard mountains. It would not be such a problem if it wasn't for timing: President's Day weekend. Meaning getting up at 5AM, hitting the road at 6AM and facing the crowds. Little problem number two, actually, this one is huge: avalanche danger. With lots of new, wet snow over the old layer of surface hoar, the avalanche danger has become extreme and there have been fatalities. We are lucky to have the NWAC web site, I mean it is probably the most useful web based information I have ever came across. Just check out their YouTube video from couple of day ago:

OK, so no resort downhill skiing, no backcountry snowshoeing or fat biking. The solution: fat bike ride on a rail trail! And we have a long one close by - the 300 mile long John Wayne Pioneer trail. Arriving at the Hyak sno-park during heavy snow, no visibility and strong winds, I started to question even this "comfort ride" decision. By the time I got going, snow stopped and the freshly groomed trail looked like a highway.

It is about 7.8 miles between Hyak and Crystal Springs sno-parks. The snow was pretty sticky and the corduroy did not help rolling resistance - I think the ribbons of snow actually meshed perfectly with the tire tread, increasing contact area. Riding a straight trail at 6 mph is not that exciting, but I could see the ridges across I-90 corridor, which I climbed couple of weeks ago. I also had to respond to all exclamations and questions about how cool the fat bike was, and with the weekend traffic, this kept me busy.

I left the Iron Horse trail and took a dog sled trail, which was more fun, except I had to pay attention to numerous pieces of excrement, man's best friends left on trail. But the weather improved so I did not give a s...t.

Wedged between the Iron Horse trail and I-90 is an XC trail system called Erling Stordahl trails. Few skiers have just broken fresh tracks in over a foot deep snow. I did not think I could ride here without frequent walking and damaging the tracks, but I tried to ride the untracked snow on a side, and to my astonishment, this felt actually easier than riding the groomed trail!

The photo above shows that I was making a track as deep as the ski track on the left and despite being wet, the snow was fluffy and compacted really easily. I really enjoyed riding in deep snow, until the trail pitched up. That's when it become clear how much work this was going to be. I tried my best, but at a steep climb, I pushed. Turned out, the skiers walked here, too. On top of the climb, under power lines, was a large group of skiers hesitating to start descending. No wonder, the trail plunged down at a scary angle here. Advantage: fat bike. I glided down with no problem, just feathering the brakes since the natural wheel resistance in deep snow worked as a landing parachute on a jet fighter.

We are all happily sharing the trail
Completing the XC loop took a lot of my strength, so I was glad to be back on a groomer. A skier mentioned that "they just groomed the trail all the way to the Meany Lodge". A lodge? A mental image of an alpine restaurant started to float in my mental vision, complete with a sun deck, espressos, Austrian pastries and red - blue - white umbrellas with Cinzano printed on them. So I gathered my remaining resolve and rode up towards the lodge. The olfactory hallucinations of fresh coffee and warm struedel pulled me up a bitching climb, I guess 500 vertical feet in about 0.8 miles. I strated to suspect something when I crossed rail road tracks among signs saying "Private RR Crossing!" and sure enough, I was soon surrounded by No trespassing and Private Road signs. But since the trail was groomed, I did not give up. At the end of the trail, there was a lodge, allright.

The place belongs to the Seattle Mountaineers, who also have their private ski hill above the lodge. People here were really nice and let me refill my Camelbak at a basement bathroom. A Clif bar and fresh mountain water had to do. The downhill from here was super fun, but back on the Iron Horse trail, with about 8 miles to go on a very slight uphill grade, I realized how toast I was. I spun the pedals and tried to avoid looking at the GPS not to get demoralized by the rate of progress. Saddle numbness and aching wrists started to feel like I was on the last leg of an 80-mile road ride. But everything ends at some point and so did my 22+ mile ride. On the last four or so miles of this ride, I admitted to myself that I was in no shape to race the JayP's Backyard Fat Pursuit on March 1. And my respect to those crazy men and women who attempt the Iditarod Trail Invitational race with fully loaded fat bikes in those anti-human Alaskan conditions. So I guess, on March 1, I will sit on a sofa and root for the two crazy Czechs, Jan Kopka and Pavel Richtr, who will be racing this year.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Winter upgrades

I could write another post about another fat bike ride up a snowy steep mountain and how much I enjoyed the suffering of slowly pedaling the fat beast with its almost empty tires while soaking in the beautiful views and scenery around me. I could describe how I scouted out some trails, got lost a little bit, saw a horrible snowmobile accident, had too much fun during the descent when drifting in switchbacks close to the trail edge...

Instead, I decided to report on couple of component upgrades on my other two mountain bikes. Sorry Pepper, but you are still too young to be eligible for a major makeover.

Here is the first one: after years of riding the Motobecane 29er with the narrow stock Ritchey handlebar (although augmented by the awesome Ergon grips and bar ends), I realized the handlebar world had evolved to widths over 700mm while I was riding and paying no attention to these trends. A titanium bike deserves a Ti handlebar, of course, and the Carver Ti PryBar, 730mm wide and with its 11 degree sweep (the same bend as Salsa handlebar on the Mukluk) was a clear choice, especially at $99.95.

The new handlebar in comparison to the original Ritchey chest pincher.
You can see the super comfortable bend in this picture. The wider handlebar also allowed me to position the shifters and brakes in a more ergonomic position. Formula K-24 brakes are notoriously known for not playing nice with Shimano XTR shifters, but after some fiddling, I got all levers where I wanted them to be. While I was in a wrenching mood, I also adjusted air pressures in both positive and negative chambers of the Reba fork. I then took the hardtail to Grand Ridge and Duthie trails, while the Mojo was in a shop. I tend to think about riding at Grand Ridge as an easy ride (after a long run, when pressed for time etc.) but in fact, this three hour 15+ mile ride got good climbs and combined with a loop around Duthie, one is in for a decent workout. On downhill sections, I noticed how smoothly the bike rode. I praised myself for getting the fork pressures just right (dual air Reba is not a set it and forget it fork), but then I realized that it could also be the damping characteristic of titanium?! And the wide bars definitely improved steering accuracy in a big way. I love this bike more than ever.

While I am on the topic of suspension, here is upgrade number two: X-Fusion Velvet RLT 140 fork replaced the Fox Float 32 on the Mojo. I have never been entirely happy with the Fox fork. While I liked its small bump compliance and its progressive stroke, the fork has never achieved anywhere near its full travel (more like 110mm). I had the fork rebuilt a few times and used lower pressure to get more travel, but this just resulted in a "loose headset" feel on technical trails. So I thought if the X-fusion was good enough for Brian Lopes, it must be good for me.

 Another upgrade is the 15mm thru axle, which was fully compatible with my American Classic hub (with an adapter). And the white color matched the white AC rims perfectly! Actually, Ibis has just announced cheaper component builds for all their mountain bikes using X-Fusion forks and shocks.

Lockout lever on the right, travel reduction (140 to 110 mm) knob on the left, both dials high quality aluminum. Rebound control at the bottom of the right leg, air valve on the bottom left. I have not ridden the bike with the new fork yet, but bouncing tests around the garage and some curb drops seem to indicate a very smooth and linear feel across the full (!) travel range. There is a little bit of initial stickiness but this could be either a "platform" or seals than need breaking in. Real trail tests will show more, and there is a bit of a long term reliability concern, mainly due to the brand not being too common yet and the lack of data. This may be OK, as the Mojo will be entering its 8th season, which I was told for a carbon bike is like a 20 year old dog. And I thought carbon was forever!