Monday, July 21, 2014

Balancing Act

For the past two month, I have worked hard on gaining back the range of motion, on decreasing neuropathic symptoms through my right shoulder and arm - it is really weird what kind of sensations can a ruffled radial nerve cause- and also getting back some arm strength. It is not easy but two months of pretty intense physical therapy three times a week do show results. Lately, I have been thinking about what else to do, besides diligently practicing upper body exercises at home, to achieve a better balance and physical harmony.  The fact that my sports have been skiing (for 48 years now), biking (14 years) and running (6 years) has surely resulted in more strength in legs than arms.

After finding that there was a popular Bikram yoga studio in Pleasanton, we gave it a try last Saturday. Doing various poses in a heated room did not seem like such a big deal. Honestly, it was not too "difficult" by itself. Sure, the heat starts to be annoying after about 30 minutes, after an hour, you drip like a broken faucet and stand on a mat plus towel soaked with your own sweat, but the positions are not overly physically demanding. What did surprise me though was how much trouble I had keeping balance. Let's say standing on one leg and trying do move your arms and upper body into the right places was tricky: my legs were shaking and I had to jump from place to place in order not to roll down, while everybody around me seemed perfectly balanced in awkward positions, looking totally natural. We survived the 90 minute workout and actually felt awesome for the rest of the day. The heat allows for joints, tendons and muscles to stretch, otherwise not achievable at colder temperatures.

I rode at Skeggs on Sunday and here again, I felt great. Downhill singletracks were pure fun and I took at them aggressively, pumping the berms and jumping (some) water bars. I took some of the early fire road climbs cautiously, but after completing the "standard loop", I rode Blue Blossom and did not feel tired at all. Exiting onto Gordon Mill, I again made my usual mistake and went left (downhill) instead of right, a mistake for which one pays with a long and steep climb. I actually enjoyed the climbing!

Lots of things have changed at Skeggs: there is a new parking lot and staging area on Skyline close to Bear Gulch Road, a new section of Sienna Morena trail, some rutted sections have been smoothed out a bit to make them safer.
The Resolution trail has not been gentrified (thanks MROSD!) and is technical enough to keep one concentrated. After I rode the most technical part of Resolution, I saw two hikers coming up the singletrack. I hit the brakes well in advance to safely stop at least 30 feet above them, to give them enough room to walk by. For whatever unfathomable reason, I stopped on the canyon side of the trail. I unclipped my right shoe, put my foot down and was about to unclip the left, when the bike leaned just so ever slightly towards the canyon. I quickly unclipped the left shoe and put my foot down, just to find there was nothing underneath my shoe. The bike swung to the left but I really thought I was going to balance it. "It would be really stupid to fall down that canyon" I thought in that millisecond. The next thing I knew and saw in a very slow motion was the front end of my bike plunge down, followed by poor old myself, head first, landing on my hands, bike flipping over my heels. All this time thinking: "This simply cannot be happening". Yet there I was, tangled in branches and my bike. My first thought was "So here you go, this is the stupidest crash ever, the neck will go out and this was your last bike ride". The hikers checked if I was OK, then tried to help me pull my bike over the edge back onto the trail. With all my strength, I was able to lift the bike so that the man could grab the front tire and pull the bike up. It took me several more tries to somehow hang onto thin bush branches and dig my toes into the loose canyon wall to get up.

The rest of my ride was still fun, I even could not resist repeating a downhill section of Methuselah, even though it added another mile or so of climbing back to the car. The correlation between positive effects of Bikram yoga on riding performance, or losing balance and crashing cannot be proven by this single experiment. I need more yoga classes and more bike rides.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Touring Setup II

I posted on this blog a while ago speculating about some bike setups for touring and bikepacking. Since then, I got even more convinced (and also accepted the fact) that high intensity road riding may be over for me. Mainly for health-related reasons, but I frankly also lost any appetite to do "training" road rides, just to log in miles and feet of elevation. I dream about slow, long bicycle trips to interesting places. Obviously, if one wants to ride for several or many days on a loaded bike, one should better be in a decent shape. I hope to get there by riding slow. My 29er titanium hardtail bike seems ideal for this type of bike tourism. It has a comfortable geometry, it is very stable at speed, has great disc brakes and a 3x9 gearing. I have two wheel sets for this bike - one with knobby tubeless tires and one with 45mm Vittoria Randonneur slicks.

I have finally got to installing the Thule Pack n' Pedal universal rack on this bike. I have to say, this rack was one of the most easy and thought through add-ons I have ever purchased. Assembling the rack was a 5 minute affair and after a little fiddling with position on the seat stays to clear the brake hose, securing the rack by four ratcheting straps was equally easy.

 This would be my work commute setup. Although I often wear a backpack, the rack is there if I'd need to put a brief case or computer case on it or stop for some groceries or such on my way home. I keep the knobbies for after work trail riding. The rack could possibly stay, or not, since removal includes four clicks with a special strap release key.

Next, I added pannier frames. These are made of a sturdy plastic and their function is to keep a full pannier from tilting away in turns, as well as protecting the spokes and gears. Again, the frame installation was a breeze: 2 screws and a snap-on attachment.

My Ortlieb Classic panniers attached as if the rack was made for them, the lower hook of the panniers engaged on the plastic frame. In the picture above, the pannier sits quite high on the rack, but there is also a second aluminum bar for lower position. This leaves the rack deck free for more load, like a rolled up mat. I think something light, in order not to put all weight on the rear wheel.

I was afraid that the short chain stays of the 29er would make front-aft pannier positioning difficult (Thule sells aluminum bar extensions for this case), but there was an ample clearance for my touring shoe.

I have to say, I actually like the way this rack looks on the bike. I think that the bike still preserves an off-road look. With an addition of a frame bag for better weight distribution, the bike would be ready for some longer trips. I have to catch up with my fitness.

In the photo above, I just happened to wear several pieces of gear that have become my favorites. Firstly, it is the Patagonia Black Hole backpack, this bag is fantastic, roomy, waterproof, and was tested in real world conditions during my winter bike commuting in Seattle. I also like the Specialized touring shoes, added to my gear as a result of leaving home for a weekend of riding in San Juans without my MTB shoes. The Giro Aspect helmet is a more recent purchase, just to remind myself that I do not consider myself a roadie anymore. Plus it fits perfect and the soft straps, leather lining and a bill make it a luxury item. The Club Ride New West jersey looks great (another piece of gear in my growing anti-lycra collection), it is very well made, but after the first test, I am not convinced about the wicking properties of their fabric.
All I need now is a map, a free day to ride and a faith that my legs won't let me down.

Island Paradox

My wife is a runner, yet all those years we have been married, she always owned a bike (or two, later on that). She likes to cycle, yet over the past seventeen years, I struggled to find a bike she would not have some reservations about. I take it as my failure to identify her bicycling needs. Here is a condensed history of Marketa and her bikes, as far back as we go together:

1996-1998: a steel touring bike, heavy

1999-2000: Schwinn Moab hardtail mountain bike. She rode it few times, but after almost landing in a Supply Pond in Branford, after an abrupt maneuver to avoid a root, the bike sat in garage, later sold.

2004-2006: Giant OCR2 road bike. She rode that bike a lot. Few weeks after she bought the bike, I signed her up for a road metric century on long Island (North Fork Century), which she completed in 98F heat and 99% humidity several hours before I finished the100 mile ride. Our second ride together was a 50 mile ride in the hills of Vermont, after my XC race. Then she took the bike on Connecticut back roads, but often came home bloody with road rash or dropped chain. Apparently, the bike was too twitchy and unstable for her.

2010-today: Specialized Myka 29er HT as a second bike. Marketa used it as a commuter bike for several years riding from Crestview in San Carlos downhill to NDNU and uphill home after classes. She liked the position and stability of the bike, but again said it was too heavy (and I agree, it is a shame that big bike companies equip women specific bikes with the cheap = heavy components). I have put a light wheelset and tires on the bike, next should be the fork and complete drivetrain, which is expensive. This bike still has a chance.

2006-today: mutations of the Giant OCR2. First mutation was a flat handlebar with proper brake levers and Shimano flat bar shifters. It helped a bit, but her position on the bike was still too aggressively low and uncomfortable.

Then comes July 2014. On the island of Kauai, which is our most visited vacation spot, Marketa rented a low end hybrid Marin bike shown below.

She rode it every day for 8 days from Hanalei to Ke'e Beach. It is 7 miles each way on pretty hilly road, with narrow blind curves and many one lane bridges. North shore of Kauai is rainy and the road was slick. Add terrible tourist car traffic and you have quite an undesirable bicycling scenario. But it solved one huge problem: car parking (those of you who have visited Haena in the last 5 or so years know what I'm talking about).
She called me on her second day of vacation exclaiming "This is the perfect bike! Buy me one just like this one." Marin Larkspur exists today in a more refined version, but I really wondered what made her like this particular bike. Wide handlebars with a nice sweep, comfortable WTB saddle, suspension seat post (!!!), wide tires...  When I joined her on the island, she returned the bike and we drove to other parts of the island.
Although the North Shore scenery is beautiful:

 ... one hour trip around Kauai to the Polihale Beach Park takes you to a different world. And it would be really hard to bike there, unless you had a fat bike.

So I had enough time to think about one more road bike mutation for my wife on our flight back home. The mutagens were: 25mm tires, short (70mm) stem and a wide riser handlebar (my old Ibis Mojo 680mm bar). When Marketa saw the bike, she commented that it was the "Harley" of bikes, yet agreed to test ride it to the farmer's market in Pleasanton on Saturday.

An African grass woven basket on the rack, she happily rode the bike there and home with a load of produce. I secretly think the bike has been bastardized (and I keep the old drop bar and Ultegra shifters in my bike spares box), but who am I to judge? The result speaks for itself.