Thursday, March 30, 2006
March mileage: 366.9
Temperature upon departure: 34
On the iPod: "King's Crossing" ~ Elliot Smith
Squinting against radial gusts of wind, I waver a little at the intersection. Which way to go - left or right? One way is West Hill, the short way, the traffic-clogged highway spewing mud and melted snow. The other is East Hill, the long hill, the beast, the lung-searing climb that chews up my studs. The wind goes both directions. I go east.
The hill sets in fast, pulling hard at legs that sat unmoving, atrophied, dead weights for nearly eight hours prior. Wind grit builds up on my teeth and I clamp my mouth shut, squint downward, watch the odometer. 5.8 mph ... 5.9 ... I'm already sick of being out here. It's gray with little flecks of snow blowing around. And around and around. Wind hits from new directions. I tilt again. Studs grind into the pavement. I stand. 6.4 mph .... 6.7.
How high does your heart rate have to be to go to find that place where frustrating thoughts dissipate? I ask myself this question but don't really think about the alternative. 6.8 mph ... 7.0. I round another switchback. More wind. More snow. I think about April in the desert. I think about winter in Alaska. 7.2 mph ... 7.4.
Mouth wide open, I swallow bits of musty grit and road goo. I no longer have a choice. The tunnel closes in. First pavement. Then tires, patches of rubber tread, handlebars. Then only the odometer, encircled in blackness. 7.6 mph. 7.7 ... The iPod speaks to me in gasps and whimpers... 7.8 mph ... 7.9. Involuntary thoughts tear through. Thoughts that long for anything but the present, long for random times, times of after-school jobs and riding the banana seat Huffy to work, greeting the dead morning hours with the time-worn smells of yeast and bleach, of baking bagels at Einstein's with Sam.
Sam and I were equals in our dead-end job. We worked the 4 a.m. shift on Saturday mornings, baking bagels for the blurry-eyed people who no longer cared. We were brothers in arms, hiding in the walk-in refrigerator, eating frozen cookie dough, recounting our adventures in snowboarding and caving and sluffing school. We both went on to become cyclists. He became a racing roadie. I became a cycle tourist. I quit the bagel shop and went to college. He stayed and worked his way up to general manager. He made many thousands in savings. I made many camping trips to southern Utah. Now he manages a large hotel in Argentina. I pull in migrant worker wages at a small-town rag in rural Alaska.
The world seems black and white at 8 mph.
Tinted by choices.
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
March mileage: 344.3
Temperature upon departure: 37
If you could give up just one thing - just one - that would instantly improve your nutrition and diet, what would it be? Trans fat? Refined flour? Red meat?
You know what mine would be? Artificial coloring. That's right. Not because I believe this colorful little chemical has any negative effects in itself, but because Yellow No. 5 seems to grace all of my most secret, most shameful indulgences.
In most bad eating situations, I'm a rock. I can turn down chocolate without flinching. Pizza? No thanks - I had yogurt for lunch. Even the free morning donuts at work, which my coworkers would argue have a gravitational pull equal to that of the Sun, don't get me excited. My coworkers think I'm a health food hero, known even to turn my nose up at Girl Scout Cookies (which I love, by the way.)
But then I leave work. I go for a bike ride. I come home to a house filled with produce, look around my kitchen with wary eyes, and begin to chow down like a 3-year-old turned loose in a grocery store. Fruity Pebbles - I can stuff whole handfuls in my mouth without even losing any to the floor. Jelly - who needs bread when you have a spoon? Cheetos - they got rid of the trans fat, so why not?. Capri Suns - they're like a goo packet you can actually digest! And then there are Goldfish. Oh, Goldfish. When will artificial colors stop tempting me with the sugars and simple carbohydrates they hide?
Last year, when I was making a conscious effort to cut calories, I decided to give up high fructose corn syrup. It seemed like a good idea at the time, until I got addicted to diet soda and learned the hard way about too many cherries. Since then, I've let my diet slip a little (a lot), and I'm trying to think about ways I could start eating healthier again. It's so hard. I could give up chocolate, no sweat. Full-fat dairy would be a challenge, but doable. I'd probably cry if you went for the Lime-Flavored Tostitos, and then I'd get over it. But try to take away my Cranberry Crunch, and you better have a gun. I guess we all have our weaknesses.
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
March mileage: 327.2
Temperature upon departure: 41
I almost feel guilty for heading out today, but it had to be done. It was sunny, 40 degrees (thems T-shirt temps!), and I needed to vent stress buildup from a frustrating day at work. Something was going to have to give, and that something was my bum knee. So, with a noticeable gimp in my gait, I saddled up Roadie and headed out for more than an hour (Ok, Ok ... It was probably closer to two hours than one. I like to think I'm fast on Roadie, but I have to be reasonable.) It was a great ride - breathing hard into the stiff salt breeze, then riding its tailwind to tear-inducing speeds on the way back. And by the end of the ride, my knee was feeling light and limber (despite the fact it's still bleeding a little. I probably should have gotten the thing stiched.) How much will I pay for my ride tomorrow? Whatever stiffness returns, it was worth it.
As I rode along East End Road today, I thought of a blog post that CycleDog recently talked about. Hip Suburban White Guy wrote a hilarious post about bicycles versus cars. It's an age-old debate that no one will ever win, because no one on either side is likely to give - even a little. HSWG's view can be summed up in this colorful quote (edits mine): "But WHY (in the world) should I have to yield a road meant for cars to some (wonderful person) on a bicycle when there is a bicycle path damn near within arms reach of this inconsiderate (lovable rider)?"
HSWG's uninformed rant (he admitted to as much) attracted the venomous opposition of a cycle commuter in Minnesota, who contradicts HSWG's points with valid, logical counterpoints. However, Karl, the bicycle commuter, commits the ultimate debate faux pas by assuming that because HSWG rips on cyclists, drives an SUV and drinks beer, he must be a conservative - and calls him as much. If you read any more if HSWG's blog, you'll see that he's anything but.
This is where the cars versus cyclists debate always falls apart. HSWG assumes that we cyclists are skinny, snobby, spandex-clad geeks who are oblivious to the movements of the outside world. Karl contradicts this stereotype with more stereotypes about HSWG being overweight, boorish and selfish (these things may be true, but you can't garner as much from a single post.) The story is always the same from here - each party walks away feeling the other is ignorant for making blanket assumptions, and in the end, no one's point gets through. This isn't what starts wars, but it is what makes them endless.
Of course I side with Karl. Bicycles, for all purposes, are vehicles. They are Slow Moving Vehicles, like a tractor or an Amish buggy. As vehicles, they have as much legal access to all roads, save certain Interstates, as any gas-guzzling SUV. There's nothing HSWG can do about that. However, HSWG has every right to be annoyed by them. As long as he's not advocating the legalizing of target practice on cyclists, he's entitled to his point of view. I think about the things that really annoy me - like people who let their dogs run loose in their unfenced front yards. If I were as funny or as volatile as HSWG, I might post a rambling rant about the evils of loose dogs.
That doesn't necessarily make me a dog hater. I'd resent being called one. And I probably wouldn't listen as well to any points made after that name-calling. I might even lash back in defense.
HSWG ends his argument with this gem: "But when I come around a corner at the posted speed limit, don't expect me to swerve into an opposing lane of traffic or slam on my brakes and get rear-ended just to avoid adding yet another decorative adornment to my gas-guzzling SUV grill."
As I said, endless wars.
Can't we all just get along?
Yesterday's collision with the road made scrambled eggs of some important muscles - muscles I use to walk, to sit, to sleep. So every movement today has been slow, deliberate, ginger to the point of paranoia. That's impact. You never feel it until the next day. I've had some spectacular snowboarding spills. I've been in minor car accidents. But nothing quite delivers a full-body beating like kissing pavement.
And I thought Roadie was in need of a tuneup. Some have asked me why I call my "other" bike Roadie when it isn't a road bike in the classic sense of the name. It's an IBEX Corrida, about two years old - all stock components because - really - I'm not that big of a performance nut. I bought my first Corrida in 2002 for the sole purpose of bicycle touring. It seemed like an ideal setup - light but strong, flat handlebars for riding comfort over the long haul, triple chainring. Not a speed machine by any means. But I put more than 6,000 miles on my first one and by 2004 had the president of IBEX e-mailing me to ask if I wanted a new one in exchange for writing some ad copy for their site (which, incidently, remains on www.ibexbikes.com to this day ... along with the a picture of me on my first tour (upper right). The 2002 sold on eBay for nearly as much as I paid for it. The 2004 is still running on all its original stuff - including tires - despite the fact that I've put somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 miles on it. These bikes are tanks ... and light ones at that. I always highly recommend the Corrida to tourists and commuters. But that's enough of that. It even hurts to type. Time to go back to sulking in my stiffness.
Sunday, March 26, 2006
Date: March 26
March mileage: 301.2
Temperature upon departure: 38
Free Roadie: Can you imagine the frustration of sitting in a corner all winter long, watching the mountain bike go out day after day, knowing you'll only get a few spins when "Arrested Development" is on the TV. Then, one day, even that goes off the air. And you watch the snow piling up outside, thinking you may never, ever have relevance again. It's been a long winter for roadie. The snow may still be high. The chill still has its bite. But March is nearly over, so it seemed high time to drag roadie outside for a real ride.
Watching the tide: "It's like getting behind the wheel of a BMW after spending a winter driving a truck," Geoff said. Road bikes are so light and smooth. We were coasting ... flying ... effortless speed. It gave us a lot more time to look around. Taking in swift gulps of salt-flavored air, I had one of those "Oh, yeah, I live by the sea" moments. I often forget this fact, but it tickles my desert-dweller self every time I remember.
Ferry returns: And with it those people from faraway corners of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, who bring a satisfying sense of renewal, change, and new dreams of profiting off tourists. I've always wanted to set up a booth by a pier and draw grotesquely exaggerated charactures of celebrities.
New neighbors: There are some who are willing to brave these still below-freezing nights to stake a good spot on the Spit. As temperatures warm up, many will follow. They'll amass atop the tide-worn pebbles with their tents and folding chairs and Coleman stoves. Their's is a carefree civilization, a simple sort of life, a utopia. Non-Alaskans might call it a shanty town. I lived in this veritable tent city for a week one night - July 4, 2003. It's amazing I ever came back to Homer.
Line Outside the Theatre: Judging by the sheer numbers of actors roaming the streets, passing out fliers, and calling me on the phone - Homer often feels like a chunk of Hollywood broke off the mainland and floated north. They put on more community productions than the title character in "Waiting for Guffman." But I don't even think the Pier One Theatre is open yet. These eagles are really jumping the gun.
First Road Rash: While staring dreamily at another cluster of eagles gathered on the fishing hole ice floes, I broke the cardinal rule of roadie etiquette. That is, if you must insist on tailgating another cyclist (roadies get away with this by calling it "drafting"), do try not to hit them. I knew I had forgotten my manners as I heard that awful, split-second scrape indicating a direct hit. But all I could think about, as I slammed into bare, dry pavement at 15+ mph, is how wonderfully merciful snow can be, and what a bitter grudge the road can hold.
Sorry to end my photo essay with such a graphic picture. I tore up my knee, my hip, and my favorite pair of cycling pants. I dislodged a spoke, and I still had 10 miles and the 1,200-foot climb left to ride before I could limp home and try to pick the gravel out (gaaa-oowwwww). Roadie might be grateful for these signs of spring. I could probably use some more snow.
Saturday, March 25, 2006
March mileage: 247.2
Temperature upon departure: 34
On the iPod: "Waiting for Something" ~ Sense Field
This is Wilco van den Akker, and he's someone you've never heard of. Google his name, and all you'll see is references to a site called Sleepmonsters and a bunch of stuff supposedly in Dutch. But don't be fooled by his obscurity. This guy is one hardcore adventure racer.
This morning, Wilco won the 1,110-mile Iditarod Invitational march to Nome in something just shy of 27 days. He's one of only two people who attempted to finish the race past the 350-mile mark, after nearly two dozen dropped out. He's spent nearly a month hiking through this godforsaken Alaska wilderness, watching dogsledder after dogsledder go by - and seeing few other signs of civilization. When he finally arrived in Nome, at 12:04 this morning, the only people there to greet him were two local police officers - who were probably more concerned about the motivations of this punch-drunk, frozen stranger stumbling into town in the middle of the night than they were interested in greeting the man who quietly won the "other" race to Nome.
I continue to be amazed just how little attention this race receives, even locally, when this has got to be one of the toughest - if not the toughest ultramarathon in the world. In the modern world, we like our races bigger, badder, faster, longer. We like to watch athletes push the extreme until there's nowhere to go but over the edge. These guys have reached the edge. It really doesn't get a whole lot harder. So why the disinterest? A local columnist made a good point about it recently:
"And we, who sleep in warm beds almost every night, think the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a spectacular challenge," Craig Medred wrote in the Anchorage Daily News. "That would make the Invitational a truly unbelievable event. Maybe that's why it gets so little attention."
So I just wanted to give a shout out to Wilco, even though he's a runner in a race I wanted to see go to the cyclists. But all the cyclists quit. And Wilco didn't. That's saying something.
Speaking of laboring in obscurity, I also want to encourage anyone who has a soft spot in their heart for acoustic punk rock to check out Hamell on Trial. I interviewed this guy today and he's hilarious. Imagine what would happen if the Dead Milkmen sold their bitchin Camero and tried to raise a toddler (a child who happens to feel righteous indignation against the current administration) - and you have Mr. Hamell. His show should be hours of fun.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
March mileage: 215.9
Temperature upon departure: 33
It's light enough to ride now until 8 p.m. 8 p.m.! The sunlight has turned everything into a slushy, soggy mess. Since I usually ride in the evenings, I get the worst of it. Today I felt up to a short ride, but had a hard time coaxing myself outside because:
1. I still have a cough.
2. The trails were too soft.
3. The roads were a mess.
4. My new fenders haven't arrived in the mail yet.
But I still went out. Coasting downhill was a bit like being sandblasted with wet chunks of mud ("The goggles! They do nothing!"). Riding uphill I learned that snow is in fact not the slowest surface for two wheels. That distinction belongs to a dirt road that is still frozen up to the top inch or so, leaving only the thinnest layer of mud to soak up massive quantities of melted snow.
I think I'm going to try to ride more in the morning, when everything is still nicely iced up. That, or I'll incorporate a plastic garbage bag into my cycling attire. Yes, Tim was right. There is no spring joy for the cyclist in Alaska, save its choppy but inevitable march into summer.
But what of summer? I hear the annual daylight explosion inevitably sends sun-starved Alaskans into a manic pursuit of recreation that leaves them exhausted by fall. Just today, I was looking at the sunrise/sunset calendar and realizing that come June, I could work an eight-hour day, clock out at 5 p.m., ride a leisurely century, throw a halibut barbecue, bake a blueberry pie and still have enough daylight for a game of Baci Ball before bed. What good can come of that?
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
The sick is starting to loosen its grip, but it still has me grounded just as the weather took a turn for the warm (hit 40 degrees for the first time since ... December!). Three days off the saddle may be the longest I've gone without a ride since ... December. Sugar looks so dejected right now - tires deflated to 20 psi, the front wheel still detached after being carted home from Caribou Lake, and coated with the trail grime of the ages because I haven't mustered up enough respect to drag him out on top of my feet-deep snowpack with a garden hose. At least he's not wired to the life support of a magnetic trainer like Roadie is (which I haven't ridden any actual distance since ... December.)
Today was a day full of monotonous tasks and the inevitable zoning out that these tasks cause. Do you ever experience this? One minute I'll be copying and pasting articles into html, washing the dishes or - heaven forbid - driving. Then, suddenly I'll find myself slipping into a lucid daydream. These daydreams are always anchored in very real but rarely extraordinary moments buried deep in my memory - swimming across the glass waters of an Eastern Texas lake, or pedaling a rolling plateau beside the San Rafael Swell. These wisps of past moments float through so convincingly that I get entirely caught up in reliving - to the point where falling back into reality is more than a little disconcerting (and often followed by the realization that I just held the space key down for several column inches.)
Maybe this means I'm crazy. I don't know. I do know that it probably means data entry is not the job for me. But I must say, I really enjoy these boredom-inspired visits back to places long buried in the illusion of the past. Today I revisited this sunrise, the distant glow that stripped away an unending night, and it felt as warm and as welcoming this morning as it did when it was more than just a photograph, an involuntary firing of synapses and a distant sigh.
Tuesday, March 21, 2006
And it's annoying because every year I manage to skirt through cold and flu season without so much as a sniffle, only to pick up some utterly derailing - and often undiagnosable - bout of gunk at the end of March. This seems to happen to a lot of people, who mostly blame the change of seasons as a culprit for the massive failure of otherwise iron-clad immune systems. I used to accept this theory as fact, but now I have my suspicions. Last year, I lived in Idaho, where late March means night temperatures still drop below freezing. Now I live in Alaska, where late March means I still have five feet of snow piled up in my front yard. It's hard to believe that any part of my physiology could be fooled into thinking the seasons are changing, let alone be affected enough by it to give up the good fight.
I may never know the cause of my illness. But I do know that I feel crappy, and that's just annoying.
The only bright spot today may be that - regardless of any actual semblence of spring I may be experiencing - the Vernal Equinox has passed. Which means (to my friends in the lower 48), that we have surpassed 12 hours of direct sun and are now gaining daylight at a much faster clip than you. You are now officially on the darker side of the planet. So ... cough cough ... there.
Sunday, March 19, 2006
Date: March 19
March mileage: 200.5
Temperature upon departure: 26
At the end of the first of many long, empty straightaways that traverse the frozen bog to Caribou Lake, I accidentally swerved off the trail and spun around just in time to see Geoff throw his bike - quite literally - down on the snow and begin walking toward me. It was four miles and a little over an hour into our ride, and he had "had it." "This is ridiculous," he said. "I'm putting in five times the effort of walking to go walking speed."
He makes a good point. Plenty of new snow and warming temps made for soft, punchy riding - on the precipice of rideable, but in my opinion - not too fargone yet. Still, there could be no laboring under any delusion today that cycling was the most efficient form of travel for the conditions. As Geoff pointed out, there's walking. There's skiing. Heck, one of those low-riding "big wheel" tricycles would probably fare better. His point was inarguable. We turned around.
As we rode back, he noticed that his bike had sliced much deeper trenches in the trail than mine. It didn't seem possible. We both ride the practically the same model of bike (Gary Fisher Sugar.) We both have the exact same tire setup. We were both running our pressure at 20 psi. We even weigh close to the same (he has 10 pounds on me.) But I tried out his bike, and sure enough, it was like riding a hot knife across a stick of butter. Every pedal stroke was literally a hard mash to get out of a hole.
Given all things equal, we couldn't figure out the discrepancy. It wasn't until about a mile later that he said - "You know, you're riding really low."
See, I have a rear shock with a slow leak. I filled it up right before my Susitna race, but not since. It's leaked down to almost no pressure - slowly enough that I didn't notice. But now when I ride, the shock is bottomed out, which pushes the entire frame down so the majority of my weight hovers over the space between the pedals. Geoff, on the other hand, has a fully functioning rear shock, which leaves most of his weight is on his rear tire - hence the knifing. Who knew?
We let most of the air out of his shock, but by then had already made new plans to go on a snowshoe hike closer to home - which we did, though I think that took more wind out of me than the two hours of sweating-as-hard-as-I-could-just-to-break-5 mph riding. Maybe it's because that 8-mile ride was all I really had in me today.
Every time I go trail riding, I learn something new about the ways in which gear really does make or break a cyclist on snow.
Geoff said, "You know what's the worst thing about snow biking? No matter how much effort I put in, I still go the same pace. Pretty soon I'm killing myself just to keep going 4 mph."
Then he said, "That's probably why you like it so much."
March mileage: 192.5
Temperature upon departure: 9 (morning temp)
On the iPod: "Sunshine Highway" ~ Dropkick Murphys
For some reason Blogger isn't letting me upload my photos, so I'm reposting an old November favorite. That's OK, because all the pictures I took during yesterday's commute are muddled by nasty grayness and funk that has settled in for the weekend (you know the type - flurries, 50 mph wind gusts, whiteouts of blowing snow). That - and staying out late on St. Patrick's Day - kept me lazy and grounded for most of today.
So I made a "First Winter in Alaska" screensaver. I never realized I how many pictures I have. It's obnoxious, really, considering my extremely amateurish photography equipment and the fact that nearly every snapshot was taken in the small radius of my hometown. But the screensaver was entertaining - especially when I added music. And more than anything on this blog, people seem to like my pictures (more a statement of where I live than any photographic skill of my own.) So I had this crazy idea.
I'd like to work toward upcoming ultrabike events, including (but not limited to) the possibilities of Fireweed 200, 24 hours of Kincaid, Soggy Bottom 100, the 2007 Susitna 100 and (the more outside chance of) a future Iditarod Invitational. Since I did the 2006 Susitna 100 on the wings of blogging friends, I'm taking another swing at it.
My new "Help Jill realize her ultrabiking dreams" proposal includes an offer of exclusive Alaska wildlife and winter imagery, captured in a rotating screensaver and a slideshow set to music. Both include more than 200 frosty images - some which have appeared on this blog, some which are new and unpublished - packaged in instantly downloadable .exe files that should work on any PC. I'll mail out a CD to anyone who might like to donate a few bucks (at least enough to cover postage) to my new crazy bike ventures ... just make sure to indicate the address you want it sent to.
As always, I ride miles for dollars, so there's always the promise of future cycling misadventures.
And if you're turned off by my shameless solicitation, just ignore this post. This photo/bike/frostbite blog will always be free.
Thursday, March 16, 2006
March mileage: 173.9
Temperature upon departure: 13
On the iPod: "Landed" ~ Ben Folds
I left work today wearing a kind of hybrid setup I use for commuting - jeans and long johns, cotton T-shirt, two fleece layers and my waterproof shell. The temperature in town was probably in the high teens. It was 5:15 p.m. I started up the long East Hill climb and overheated almost immediately. It wasn't just extra sweat - it was a serious concern for me. Enough so that I stopped at the first turnout I saw, stripped down to only my T-shirt and shell, removed my outer mittens, ripped off my balaclava and continued up the hill.
I was feeling good at the top, so I continued east to the summit of Skyline and hit the snowmobile trails. I tried some less-traveled trails today, so I was working hard - doing a lot of postholing, occasionally falling over, just like old times. Pretty soon it was 6:30, with the sun drifting low on the horizon. The entire hill fell into shadow. I sweated my way to the main trail and began to pedal downhill.
The snow was set up even nicer today than yesterday, and pretty soon I was flying - bouncing off hardened drifts, knifing through softer snow with crafty maneuvering, coasting over patches of glare ice. I noticed my unmittened hands were starting to hurt a little, but I didn't think much of it. I'd put my mittens on when I got to the bottom of the hill.
About five minutes later, I stopped at the reservoir and moved to take off my pack, but my entire body was stiff and reluctant to turn. That's when I realized that I was cold. Not just cold. Really cold. Probably colder than I've been yet this winter. Shivers were starting to set in. I pulled my mittens and fleece layers out of my pack and hurried to put them on. But the numbness already had its icy grip around me.
I had three more miles to ride home, most of it climbing, and I thought I'd recover pretty quickly. My body did warm up enough to return my reflexes to normal, but the shivering became more pronounced, more violent, and pretty soon my jaw was chattering involuntarily. My head was swimming, probably because I was really rushing through the last big climb. But the lactic acid and lung burn didn't matter much to me at the time. I needed to get inside, and I needed to fast.
By the time I got home I was starting to feel a little better - probably thanks to the sprinting, but I was still immersed in the kind of chill that feels like it will never go away. I shook my hands and jumped up and down for a while to bring the blood circulation back the the extremities it had long since given up on. Have you ever experienced that itchy, painful sensation that comes of warming up frozen fingers? Have you ever experienced that in your entire body?
And all I could think was - wow - I really should know better than this by now. I should have put my layers back on the moment I crested East Hill. And I should wear my normal winter clothes, and just bring a change of clothes to wear at work rather than combining the two. But this it what comes of letting your guard down. I have to remember that even though the sun is riding high, and even though the date's on the downhill side of March, the winter is still very much alive, and the cold is still very real.
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
March mileage: 153.4
Temperature upon departure: 19
On the iPod: "Cry Freedom" ~ Dave Matthews
The trails are finally setting up again enough to be rideable. It's not warmth that's causing this, but sunlight, so there's still plenty of powder. The skiers have monopolized almost all of the established trails near my house, so I still have to keep my distance. But I'm starting to learn that there's just about nowhere in Alaska a snowmobile won't go. And I'm right behind them, knifing over the glistening trails and dreaming of a time - not too far away now - when massive snow dumps will no longer be a concern. What snowpack we have will melt slowly in the increasing glare of daylight sun, then settle and harden during the freeze of night. Do you know what that means? The wilderness I call home will soon be blanketed - blanketed! - by rideable snow. Hardpacked, glistening, absolutely boundless snow. No trails needed. I'm so excited. And here these Alaskans are telling me that April is the worst month of the year for outdoor fun. How could that even be true?
I have a laptop on the verge of meltdown, so I spent the better part of the evening moving files onto another computer. This laptop is so old that I have to use floppies to complete the task. Remember floppies? They have enough storage to hold about one fifth of a Green Day mp3? Yeah. It was a tiresome task. But while cleaning out my old floppies to make room for new files, I discovered the Word Perfect remnants of my long-lost novel.
That's right. I, too, am among the 98 percent of Americans who have one of those things stashed away. What it actually is - for the most part - is a remnant of my post-college state of confusion, otherwise known as the year 2000. I worked part-time in a frame shop. I studied for the LSAT. I dabbled in short fiction.
I guess I shouldn't say short. I ran the ancient document through a word processor and discovered it's actually more than 65,000 words. Wow. No wonder I didn't get better LSAT scores. (Then again, how long would this blog be if I measured it in words? I guess I'll always find ways to waste time.) But that's my point. There's a fair amount of time in my "book," a respectable number of words, and it's all just rotting away on a disk so beyond obsolete it might as well by papyrus. Seems a shame - letting all that go to waste. I was just thinking about compiling the thing, pdf-ing it eBook-style and posting it online. What do you think? Could there possibly be any interest? ...
(If so, maybe I'll post a plot breakdown as soon as I can read some of it and jog my memory. But - here's the disclaimer - I wrote it in my pre-cycling days, so there's probably not much two-wheeled adventure anywhere in the text. Oh well.)
Monday, March 13, 2006
"... See, cyclists are a lot like dogs. No, not because they eat protein snacks and bark at cars. To most, a cyclist is a cyclist - but that doesn't stop the proliferation of a startling variety of breeds.
First there are commuters. Commuters are the Labrador retrievers of the pack. Throw them a good bicycle route, and they'll keep coming back. They love a good game of "catch"- that is, sprinting to catch green lights. They're highly sociable, largely domesticated and don't mind being leashed to the same roads day after day.
Then there are the recreational riders, the toy poodles. They're mostly out for show. They often have the best bikes on the block, as shiny as the day they were purchased - and often as unused. They coast gingerly along smooth payment, chrome sparkling in the sunlight, all while smiling dreamily to grab the attention of passers by.
In contrast, there are the extreme mountain bikers, the huskies, pulling their powerful bodies over terrain that nature never intended them to cross. Their bikes show the marks of a life fully lived, coated in mud and marred by deep scars. They live on the cusp of tame and wild, fully prepared for the roughest conditions. They work well in groups but their minds are fiercely independent, and they're never fully content when they come down from the mountain.
Recreational mountain bikers are golden retrievers. Like their husky brothers, they love going on long rides in the mountains, jumping in the mud and summoning their maximum energy level whenever they go out. However, they're also just as happy to curl up on the couch when the weather forecast calls for rain.
There are club riders, the Shetland sheepdogs, who are happiest in herds. They're always nipping at the heels of other riders to keep a good drafting speed as they move in formation along the road. Separation from the herd is a mark of shame.
Road racers, on the other hand, break out of the pack when it really matters. Like greyhounds, they move in graceful unity until the time comes to rush forward in a stunning burst of speed. Their sleek, lycra-clad bodies were built for speed and speed alone. They can be a delicate breed, prone to freezing in the winter and unable to carry the weight of life's necessities on their ultra-light bikes.
That's where cycle tourists are different. Tourists are the St. Bernards trailing behind the pack - big, bulky, slow, but built to last, built to withstand the rain and snow and ice and wind that gets in the way during the long haul. Tourists are well adept to carrying large loads on their bikes, pulling them when necessary, moving at a steady speed until they reach their final destination, whether it's 5 or 5,000 miles away ..."
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Date: March 12
March mileage: 138.2
Temperature upon departure: 29
On the iPod: "When I Grow Up" ~ Garbage
This morning, Geoff decided - rather randomly - that he wanted to race the Kachemak Ski Marathon. The race started at 11 a.m. He got up, got ready, and got to the race start just in time to enter the 25K.
I dropped him off and took my car down to the end of the race, then went for a bike ride from there. The gravel roads were pretty sloppy today, and I'm still recovering from something or other (I don't exactly know what. I'm just not in my best physical form.) So the ride was a bit of a slog. It's strange because I felt great during a snowshoe hike yesterday - felt like sprinting to the top of the ridge because the hiking was so effortless. Maybe I'm just experiencing a touch of bike burnout.
Geoff was already back when I got home. He said he struggled to keep his balance and took a couple of big spills, but otherwise had a great race. He was one of the few - if not the only racer - skiing all-out old-school classic style (because there were no classic/skate divisions, and because it was in fact a race, it obviously made more sense for everyone to skate.) Geoff doesn't own skate skis. And he only recently learned how to ski at all - so skating was out of the question. Despite that fact, he still finished fairly high in the 25K - possibly even in the top 5 (disclaimer - there was also a 40K that most of the top skiers raced, and several finished before he did).
Still, I'm proud. Geoff and I both started skiing this season. But if I had entered the same race, I would still (now seven hours after the start) probably be lying at the bottom of some hill with a face full of snow and pole tip stuck in leg, so far in the back that there would be no racers and no checkpoint volunteers left to hear my cries.
At least I can ski vicariously through Geoff. And go for bike rides in half-frozen-solid slush piles. Ah, March.
Saturday, March 11, 2006
March mileage: 110.4
Temperature upon departure: 18
On the iPod: "Third Planet" by Modest Mouse
Today I learned that by riding the most direct route, it takes me 17 minutes to bicycle commute to work. It's a 15-minute drive - 6 miles on winding roads, and you can't really leadfoot it much faster. So that's good news - I can never use being late to work as an exuse not to ride. Going home, of course, is another story. I haven't taken a direct route home yet, but I'm not looking forward to actually timing myself on that climb. The goal, I guess, is to get much faster at it. Right now I'm still happy if I can keep my speed above 5 mph on the 2.5-mile stretch that makes up most of the elevation gain. That's spinning in low gears on a full-suspension mountain bike, and I can't stand at all because the road surface is still too icy (I'd just spin out, sort of like a rear-wheel-drive truck with no sandbags in the back. My butt is the sandbag). So I'm thinking my time will improve significantly in the coming weeks (or months, given this current weather pattern) Wow. Look at me. I'm using my blog to justify for my own sake again.
The truth is, the climb today took a lot out of me - I was already tired from fighting headwinds during my sea-level ride, I was feeling a bit demoralized by how fatigued I was, and the lactic acid buildup was causing my stomach to ache (does that ever happen to anyone else? Or is it all in my head?) I guess that will just happen from time to time. Some days, you're just going to be a bit off. That was me today. I barely made it home in time to catch the arrival of our friends, down to visit from frigid Palmer. This weekend - more skiing.
Friday, March 10, 2006
March mileage: 79.2
Temperature upon departure: 17
On the iPod: "Mormon Rap" by early-90s BYU students
One of my resolutions for spring is to bicycle commute more often. Some people have asked me why I didn't commute more during the winter - after all, I wasted a lot of energy driving to and from work and then riding 10 to 40 miles afterward. Three words - I was scared.
Many people live in cities and have the luxury of choosing from a number of side roads to spin down on their way to town. I have but two choices, and they both involve:
* Dropping from my house, at 1,200 feet elevation, to near-sea level in 2.5 miles on
* a narrow, winding road with blind corners and steep drop-offs, riding alongside
* heavy rush-hour traffic, because everyone who lives on the Ridge has to take the same road out which
* just happens to relatively poorly maintained in the winter, meaning months on end of either glare ice/packed snow; soft, punchy sand/snow mix; or outright slush - all of which make general handling, control and braking distance less than ideal, especially on grades ranging from 7 to 11 percent.
Of course, I head down these roads all the time to go on joy rides. But winter commuting on East or West Hill means that I'd have to make both the cheek-rattling drop and the labored climb in the dark, on roads where street lights don't exist, with rush hour traffic whipping around every corner. Honestly, I'm all for going car-free. But that just seems suicidal, really.
Of course, now that it's light between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m., and now that there's a glimmer of hope that the roads will one day be dry again, I really don't have any more excuses. So my plan is to up my bicycle-to-car commuting ratio as the spring goes on, hopefully increasing to nearly every day by summertime.
But, as far as going entirely car free, you tell me ... how much would a gallon of milk be worth to you if getting it meant 10 round-trip miles with a 1,200-foot climb every time you ran out of something? On second thought, I bet I'd lose a lot of weight that way. Not because of the extra riding, but because I'd probably give up milk.
Go pedal power.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
Curling chewed up all the daylight hours, so I put my iPod to good use on the trainer this evening. I only had an hour before it became just insanely late, so I put in an effort worthy of my Spin days ... cranked up the resistance, wheezed until my lungs hurt, sweat out about a half gallon of fluid (today, mostly Diet Coke). No apologies. But I plan to get outside on my bike tomorrow. Maybe I'll even do the terrifying commute to work. After all, it's light in the morning now. Given that I spent the last three months turning myself into a hardcore, cold-weather, fear-no-hills cyclist, I have no more excuses.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006
The Iditarod dogsled race is going strong. It's immensely popular up here, so it gets a lot of ink. Consequently, I've found myself following the mushers' progress, grazing through statistics and reading about people in a sport I never thought I'd be interested in. But, when I think about it, these long-distance mushers embody a lot of the characteristics I admire most in people.
You know what they say - you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't always pick your heroes. Because when it comes down to it, you're going to look up to the people who have mastered qualities you'd like to see in yourself, who have skills or status that to you is just a distant potential. But that's just it - potential. Those who want to be fast look up to Lance Armstrong. Those who want to be immensely successful look up to Bill Gates.
Me - I'd like to be strong. And not necessarily strong in the raw, athletic sense that defines those who stand at the top of their game, because that's just not me. My envied strength lies more in mental toughness, and the hard, mind-over-body decisions that people make when they want something badly enough. I think that's why I've become drawn to ultra-events, and why I usually find myself rooting for people who may not necessarily be the leaders - and who may never be the leaders. It's in these people that I see pieces of myself.
I'm not a natural athlete. I'm actually somewhat of a klutz, "built to spill" as they say, and my athletic gifts lie somewhere on the talent level of Madonna's acting skills. I'm so pale-skinned I'm practically allergic to the sun; I'm also painfully allergic to grass pollen and mosquitos - basically, I'm allergic to going outside when it's nice out. When I was born, I'm fairly certain my genes had me all mapped out to be a librarian or a book editor, but I developed an unflagging sense of adventure that I just can't shake. That single quality has taken my weak, uncoordinated body to places I never imagined I'd see, given me skills I never dreamed I'd have, and yet still I want more. Still I want to be stronger, tougher, more able to master a body that was never designed to conquer mountains or cross continents. And so I ride, and admire those who do the same.
So now the Iditarod dogsled race is on. Yesterday the rugged mushers and their puppy teams flew over the terrain I slogged through during the Susitna 100. Today the leaders crossed Rainy Pass, fast on their way to McGrath - and nipping at the heels of the last forlorn racers of the Invitational. The carnage of this year's human-powered Iditarod is almost complete, with the only a few racers fighting through the last 50-mile stretch (only one guy, so far, is going on to Nome.) Those who are still out there are pushing 10 days. Think, for a minute, what you did with the past 10 days. Went to a couple of movies? Put in 60 hours at the office? Shopped for bicycle parts? Even if you didn't do much, adding up 10 days of tasks seems like a lot, doesn't it? Now imagine that you spent those 10 days squinting into the endless white of the Alaska tundra, facing the brutal wind, blowing snow and a blazing sun without heat, or a frigid night without light. And all you're doing, day into endless night, is placing one foot in front of the other, again and again and again.
Adam wrote: "It was a whiteout at some points with cold like I have never felt before. Exposed skin felt like it was being touched by a flame. The foam liner on my goggles froze to my face and my face mask froze to my cheek, leaving some minor frostbite marks. It was a nasty dark pass crossing. There was no trail until noon (12 hours after I left) when the bison hunters passed me by Pass Creek. So I spent a good part of the night route finding. Despite all this, I had a good time on the pass."
I've never even met Adam, but damn. I have a new hero.
Sunday, March 05, 2006
March mileage: 55.8
Temperature upon departure: 29
Listened to: "The Kids Aren't All Right" ~ The Offspring
Well, I finally broke down and bought an iPod. It's actually out of character for me to purchase a shiny, trendy little gadget (I may be the only person who grew up in the 90s and drives a car with a tape deck.) But I think it was the Susitna race that finally convinced me it wouldn't be a bad idea to own a decent MP3 player. Normally, I prefer to ride free, without the noisebox crowding out all the ambient sounds. But with Breakup approaching (that's these Alaska types term for Spring), I realized that I may soon want to start packing on road mileage. And since I live at the very southern end of a peninsula, there's pretty much only one direction I can go for any distance. I realized that the Sterling Highway northbound may start to get very boring if I don't blast a little Yellowcard now and again.
There was nothing really notable about today's ride, except for being outsmarted by a dog. I often ride out to Ohlson Mountain, which is 13.5 miles from my house. There's a mean dog at mile 13 that chases me every time, up a hill, and nips at my ankles as I try to outrun him. I always end up weaving and spinning out on the ice, nearly losing control until I can finally crest the hill and fly the last half mile to the end of the road. Then I have to turn back and face him again. Today, as always, he chased me on the incoming stretch. His teeth got so close to my leg that I was certain I was going to lose a chunk of my calf, so I kicked out and he backed off. As soon as I hit the turnaround, I pulled my waterbottle out of my coat and popped the top off, then began pedaling hard back up the hill. I was filled with road rage and I wanted to face that dog head on. The thought of soaking that snarly little snout with every precious ounce of water I had made me positively gleeful. Within another minute I was back in his territory, viciously clutching my weapon and scanning the road when I locked eyes with the brute. He was just sitting on top of a snow bank, panting, like the harmless mutt he pretends to be. And he just watched me go by - just sat there, having no idea how close he came to a rude awakening. Or ... did he?
Today was also different in that I sat through most of the How-Great-Are-We Awards for the first time in, well, ever. I love movies, but I've never cared enough about the Academy Awards to bother watching them (after all, that's what newspapers are for). Still, there's something about a big windy blizzard outside, homemade pizza, and John Stewart on the only station that comes in semi-clear that can really make sitting though all the self congratulations worth it. Go George Clooney!
After he spent the morning surfing the Web for info on pricey ski equipment and reading about "Cross-Country Skiing 101" from some library book, we went out for a backyard expedition. He went on his backcountry skis. I snowshoed. I gave myself blisters trying to keep up, but the rest of my bruise-free limbs let out a collective sigh of relief. We went out for a long trek, following Bridge Creek downcanyon over an impressive network of trails broken by other skiers. Everywhere we traveled, all I could think was, "Man, a little colder weather would turn this into some great single track." Or, "I bet with low tire pressure I could ride these snowmobile tracks right now." It was like scouting, not hiking. And I was discovering a whole new backyard playground I never knew about.
Maybe I'll go out tomorrow. But the truth is, trail conditions are still all too perfect for skiing. Which means soft snow, deep drifts and painful glares from the Sunday skiers. I could fight the mid-30s thaw in town. Or ... I could go skiing.
Saturday, March 04, 2006
March mileage: 28.7
Temperature upon departure: 31
Tough ride today, for a town ride. It included:
1.) three miles of ice bolderfield
3.) 5.0-magnitude earthquake (OK. That actually happened while I was still at work.)
4.) random, balance-threatening blasts of sidewind off the Bay
5.) more traffic than usual (The Salty Dawg Saloon opened for the season today. I don't understand the big deal, as this is the first time it has actually been open since I moved here, but the number of vehicles parked in the vicinity of that little shack made me wonder if the Academy Awards moved north.)
7.) slush trail
8.) nearly endo-ing after plowing into a deep snow drift at 15 mph (I just assumed it was fairly solid. But ... it wasn't.)
10.) arriving home looking like I took a swim in a coal-mining tailings pond.
There were also a large number of state trooper vehicles lurking around. It was a grim reminder of tragedy, which, even without the air of sensationalism, violence and questionable judgment, always hits a small town hard.
And as a resident of a small town, it hits me hard. I know these cops. They stop into my office. They joke with the reporters. The wheel their kids around Safeway. To imagine them locked in the crossfire ... arms outstretched ... guns drawn ... high school choir students gathering at the airport window ... the wide-eyed gaze of the toddler in the passenger's seat ...
It takes observers to a level that's far away from the Channel 5 top story or some overblown episode of CSI. It's not loud or fast or filled with fire. It's quiet - eerily quiet - in the aftermath, and beneath the silence are answers no one will ever find.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
I didn't think the long winter would get to me, but something about the recent explosion of daylight, compounded by the calendar's turnover to March, has got me looking at the cold and snow with a confused melancholy of sorts. Where I come from - the land of salt and sand - early March is the time of year when temperatures start climbing into the 60s. The grass looks green again. Songbirds start tiptoeing their way back. Where I live now - the land of snow and Susitna - near-zero is still a harsh reality. Grass is buried under six feet of white stuff that continues to accumulate. Birds are trying to break into the house. I've lived in Alaska nearly six months now, and I have yet to see a different season.
It's a rough transition. As much effort as I've made to jump full-tilt into southcentral Alaska's winter, it's still tough to acclimate. At least I don't live in Barrow. You know what they say about Barrow -
There are two seasons in Barrow. Winter, and July 14.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Now, having admitted that embarrassing fact for all of the bicycle-blogging world to see, I also have to admit that I have become absolutely captivated by the Iditarod Trail Invitational. With nothing more to watch than spare, often long-delayed reports on racers' current placement on the trail, I have been caught up in a whirlwind of imagination about their trail conditions, method of movement, weather, and just what exactly they might be thinking about as they gaze across endless dunes of windswept snow over the treeless tundra.
The three leaders in the race took nearly 40 hours to pedal/walk/trudge the 90 miles between Rohn and Nikolai. They're pushing five days now to make it the McGrath, a very respectable time in which to finish the race. Five days. 350 miles. Those TdF guys do 350 miles in, what, like three hours?
But I can't help but feel awestruck respect for the racers struggling toward McGrath. Here they are, in their physical prime, clawing through blowing snow and temperatures plummeting to negative-double-digits with 15 mph headwinds. They're living on power bars, jerky, disgusting trail food, the occasional hamburger at a checkpoint. They're relying on human-powered transportation in one of the few places left in this overpopulated world where you can travel 100 miles between a human settlement of any kind. They're doing it all as fast as they can, as hard as they can, and all for this blurry-eyed, sleep-deprived slump over the finish line. Then they can return to their homes in Anchorage, London and South Africa, read their name in the massive scrunch of small gray type in the Anchorage Daily News, and tell their friends that they completed the "world's longest winter ultra race" - which, of course, none of their friends will have ever heard of.
This isn't the Tour de France. It's not even the Iditarod dogsled race. There aren't any television cameras, news reports or big payouts at the end. Whatever these racers do out there, they're doing entirely for themselves. You gotta respect that.
February mileage: 433.3
Temperature upon departure: 10
A friend of mine is back in town after an extended trip home to Venezuela. She told us that the phrase her family uses to describe Alaska literally translates to "go to the end of the world, then take a left." (of course, it sounds much more alluring in Spanish.)
Today was a ride of subtle annoyances and short attention span. It was frosty out with a sharp, sustained wind (another friend informed me that the wind-chill factor was "minus 17, at least.") Lo these past few months, I've gotten pretty good at looking at the thermometer and knowing exactly what to wear, so I never felt chilled. But today conditions were just perfect for "cold headaches." You know, the kind you get when you suck down a Slurpee too fast? Yeah. You can get those cycling, too - especially if you're heading up a steep hill, right into the wind, and you start breathing too hard.
I rode an all-too-familiar route and completely zoned out. I probably wasn't pushing myself very hard at all, because I started thinking about writing projects from years ago that I'm curious to dredge up, and suddenly I was wheeling into my driveway. Have you ever done that in your car? Arrived at a destination only to realize you have no memory of the journey? Yeah, you can do that cycling, too.
My "camelbak injury" is still really bothering me, and I'm starting to wonder if it's something else (sustained muscle soreness in my lower left shoulder). As it is, I haven't carried a camelbak and therefore haven't had any water to drink on rides since the Susitna. But, what can you do? I've gone to see doctors about these strange injuries before. The best they've ever done is prescribe painkillers, so I guess I'll keep eating Ibuprofens.
I'm still watching the Iditarod Trail Invitational. Based on some of the checkpoint times these bikers are posting, I can see a lot of similarities to the Susitna 100 - conditions started out pretty good, (much colder, but good) so the leaders got through pretty fast. They're pushing on now to the last third of the 350-mile race. The bikers who were left behind, though, seem to be bogged down in conditions that quickly went to hell. One biker took nearly 36 hours just to clear 40 miles between the second and third checkpoints (and at last post was only 130 miles into an 1,100-mile slog.) Ug. It seems like racers are dropping out left and right, and I can only imagine what it must be like out there right now. But that's my problem. I can imagine. So I watch with fascinated empathy - and this dark (masochistic) side of myself even feels envy.