Sunday, December 31, 2006

2006 in reverse

Date: 30
Total mileage: 21.0
December mileage: 476.1
Yearly mileage: 5,547.5

This year I resolve to see more beauty.

What's your New Year's Resolution?

Friday, December 29, 2006

Becoming rusty

Date: Dec. 28 and 29
Total mileage: 57.0
December mileage: 455.1
Temperature upon departure: 38

I have to be honest. I'm struggling. Struggling with motivation. Struggling with a disparity of location ... when I lived in Homer, I didn't enjoy my job much, but at least I had a satisfying cycling hobby to fall back on. Now, I enjoy my job more, but ...

It's my weekend. I thought I'd take advantage of Geoff being away to put in some longer miles, but I do what I find tolerable. Yesterday, tolerable was about three hours. Today, with a daunting Wind Advisory extended to 9 p.m., I decided to head north. After about two miles I realized that there wasn't any point in pedaling - my gearing only goes so high, and the wind already was pushing me along at about 25 mph. That didn't bode well, but I decided it would be a great workout going home.

I had, simply, no idea what I was turning around to face. Hurricane-force blasts stole the breath right out of my throat, leaving me gasping for oxegen that seemed to have been sucked right out of the air. It was hard enough to breathe holding still - it was nearly impossible once I really started pedaling into the wind, holding my nose against the handlebars as sharp needles of rain pierced my scalp through the holes in my helmet. I have never experienced anything like that wind. The 11-mile trudge homeward grew to be more tolerable, but as I crossed the bridge, a crosswind gust hit so hard it slammed me, sideways, right into the guardrail. The guardrail ... the only narrow barrier that separated me from a 60-foot freefall into the churning channel. It scared me so completely that I got off the bike right there and walked the rest of the way home - the entire way, even after I had reached the relative safety of solid ground.

Only later did I find out that the weather service had advised people not to drive due to unpredictable gusts and sustained, gale-force wind. They recorded gusts as high as 109 mph in the area.

Before I returned home, I did spend some time riding on the beach. That helped save the what may have otherwise been a miserable ride (although I do have to admit that riding with that wind at my back was an absolute blast.) I started about a mile down the road and rode back through the sand with the wind wisking me forward. I wove through the shipwrecks and stopped to take some bike pictures in an effort capture the mood of the day:



I also have been use music to help internalize some of the more difficult rides, which helps ease the suffering. I compiled a short list of some of the albums that are cycling through my roatation right now. I call this list "Good albums for riding a bike in the cold rain:"

"Halloween, Alaska" by Alaska Halloween
I discovered this album by accident because Halloween and Alaska are two of my favorite things, but it really has a lush fusion of beautiful noise that lulls me into the contented motion of the moment.

"This is a Long Drive for Someone With Nothing to Think About" by Modest Mouse
This was the first Modest Mouse recording introduced to me, way back in 1997, by my "Straight Edge" high-school boyfriend with a soft side for basement emo music. (We called it emo back then. I'm not crazy about what the label's come to mean now) But it's still my favorite.

"The Meadowlands" by The Wrens
Also beautiful indie-pop that at times is unexpectedly catchy. Kinda like Radiohead but more accessible - which is a good thing on a bike, where music that is too intellectually stimulating can become grating.

"Slanted and Enchanted" by Pavement
I also came into Pavement in a pretty embarrassing way - by the song "Cut Your Hair" from the Brady Bunch Movie. But it's stayed with me for 10 years, so it must be worth something.

"Soviet Kitsch" by Regina Spektor
I had this song in my rotation for the longest time while I was training for the Soggy Bottom 100. It still carries a lot of the beautiful sadness I felt upon leaving Homer.

"Summer in Abandon" by Pinback
If you don't think melancholy hazy-day rock is also good mood music for cycling in the rain, this list really isn't for you.

"We Will Become Sillhouettes" by The Postal Service
I understand that The Postal Service is some kind of side-project for the singer in Death Cab For Cutie. It's a little more trip-hoppy than Death Cab, and has a lot more introspection.

"Tonight and Forever" by Sense Field
Just in case all of this indie folk puts you to sleep, I threw in one of my favorite power pop albums ever.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Happiness is frozen and dry

Date: Dec. 26 and 27
Total mileage: 43.0
December mileage: 398.1
Temperature upon departure: 26

Today, for the first time in the month of December, I had real, actual, nonfiltered sunlight in my eyes. For three beautiful miles around the north corner of Douglas Island, I actually had to squint as the unobstructed sun slid over the tips of the mountains. It was one of those famous partly sunny sinkholes that open up between the weeks and weeks of dripping gray. From these momentarily clear skies descends colder air ... refreezing the puddles, slush pots and soft snow. On days like today, I can go for a two-hour ride wearing a single layer on my legs and just two on my upper body and feel toasty warm. And I'm so excited about being dry, the pedaling doesn't even feel like work.

I finally sent in a check for the Susitna 100 this afternoon. I know I decided to do it a couple of weeks ago, but this is really the point of no return (which is why I put it off until the end of the month.) Now it's either go, or make a really big donation to the Flathorn Lake Brownies and Paella fund. I also mailed a check for Geoff. He's entering this year's 100-mile race. On foot. That's right. Running. 100. Miles.

I like that I can feel almost normal in the company of people crazier than I am. I'd call him absolutely nuts, but deep down I know that if I drop the exhorborant entry fee and airfare and vacation days and gear purchases on this thing, and I show up on Feb. 17 and the trail is covered in two feet of new snow, I might just ditch the bike and do the race anyway. I'm going to bring my snowshoes and backpack just in case.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

White Christmas

Date: Dec. 24
Mileage: 13.0
December mileage: 355.1
Temperature upon departure: 36

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday. I enjoyed two of the 24 Hours of "A Christmas Story" on TBS with friends, and ate two wonderful turkey dinners. When I say wonderful turkey dinners, I mean I pretty much just ate turkey and cranberry sauce (and some cocktail shrimp and cheesecake.) I don't mean to disparage my hosts' cooking, but I adore turkey and tend to think of potatoes and stuffing as lesser filler. And when there's tons of it available, I wait until the line has moved through and people are focused on their own food; then I protein-load with a big pile of white meat. I love the holidays.

I went for a short ride before work yesterday. I didn't really enjoy it. To be honest, I haven't enjoyed biking much for a couple of weeks now. I usually look back on it fondly after the ride, when the blood is starting to return to my extremities, bringing with it that oh-so-satisfying rush of endorphins. But the conditions have made it so hard to motivate. Hard. So today, with Geoff in New York and no Santa visit to speak of, with slush streams falling from the sky and full day of work ahead of me, I gave myself something I really wanted for Christmas - I set up my bike trainer in the living room. I spent the better part of the morning pounding away at it and watching "The Devil Wears Prada." That movie is 100 minutes long. With the resistance set to 7, that's a decent workout. I had to spread newspapers underneath the bike to soak up all the sweat. It felt great. No regrets.

I don't really plan to keep this up. For starters, Blockbuster charges $4 per video. Plus, I need to acclimate myself to the cold and the pain - that's almost more important to preparing for the kind of races I do than being physically fit - and I thrive on the daily mini-adventures anyway. But, deep down, all I want to do is rage, rage against the dying of the light. And if the sun doesn't show up soon, I'm not sure what I might do.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Cyclist, frustrated

Date: Dec. 23
Mileage: 17.0
December mileage: 342.1
Temperature upon departure: 33

Today I went for a short ride. Words have not been invented to describe the unpleasantness of it.

Sleet is a word I might use, but it doesn't exactly do justice to the ice daggers that tore through the air, piercing exposed skin like millions of hot needles.

Windy is a word I might use, but it doesn't really describe the terror of leaning my bicycle 20 degrees this side of vertical as 55 mph crosswinds threatened to toss me off a 100-foot bridge without warning.

Slippery is a word I might use, but it in no way conveys the oil-slick sludge gushing down the pavement, giving my tires traction equal to that of an aluminum saucer and turning my single rear disc brake into an icy grip of death.

Wet is a word I might use, but it doesn't explain how, despite wearing the equivalent of a garbage bag suit, I still had to wring out my underwear after an 80-minute-long ride.

Cold is a word I might use, but the mild statistic of 33 degrees doesn't justify the searing pain my swollen-white feet endured to come back from the numb onset of frostbite.

And so I am left to wonder. Why do I keep on keeping on? These are not isolated weather incidents. These are the hard realities of my climate - more bewildering than even the -11-degree trail rides and -40-degree-wind-chill descents of last year. My plastic suit doesn't keep water out and I am going to have to find another option. As far as my feet go, I am ready to admit the neoprene booties, Vapor Barrier sock and wool sock combination won't work. I am moving right on to the N.E.O.S. overboots, covered by gators, covered by baggier waterproof pants if I can find some. But I feel a bit frustrated. I already dress like an astronaut just to do a daily-routine ride. My next, best option is to seek out an enclosed space. Like a car.

On the bright side, I received a great Christmas surprise today from Shawn Kielty, who also is learning to deal with the wet climes of San Francisco and incidentally is an amazing photographer. He sent me a great camera to upgrade my current digital. It's a Canon Power Shot S70. It also surprisingly came with a waterproof case: So I could take this camera deep sea diving if I wanted to; or, you know ... outside in Juneau.

I feel inspired by Shawn's generosity but I'm not sure where to take that inspiration. I guess I have an extra digital camera now, so maybe I can pay it forward, in a lesser sense of the idea. My camera is a Fuji FinePix 2650. I believe it's 2.1 megapixels. It probably retailed for $14.95 back when it was new in 1987 (just kidding! I received it as a Christmas gift in 2003.) But I'll say this about the FinePix: It has accompanied me across the shutter-choking sands of the San Rafael Swell, over the muddy waters of the Dirty Devil River, through the crushing cold of the Susitna valley in January and inside my waterlogged pocket over countless rain rides. This camera, I'm convinced, is hurricane proof. And it's taken nearly every single one of the pictures that have appeared on this blog.

And it's yours if you want it. I'll just mail to you, with a USB cable, (small) memory card, and even batteries. No shipping payment required. Just shoot me a comment with basic contact information, and maybe a short description of what kind of pictures you hope to take with this humble little piece of ... technology (just in case more than one person replies and I have to choose.) And either way, have a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

One way to make a short day long

Date: Dec. 21
Mileage: 60.0
December mileage: 325.1
Temperature upon departure: 32

Today at 3:22 p.m., the northern hemisphere titled as far away from the sun as it's going to get, officially kicking off the winter season. At that time, I was standing beneath a spray of lukewarm water in the shower, wondering how much counseling it would take to get this self abuse out of my system.

I made (mostly) good on my plan to spend the daylight hours of winter solstice riding. It took longer than planned to get Snaux bike up to snuff, but I was out the door by 9:30 a.m. There was about an inch of new snow and it was building fast. I had to wipe off my goggles every two minutes. It was as wet as precipitation can be and still qualify as white stuff - slippery, slow, and cleverly camouflaging the slew of slush puddles left over from yesterday. Snaux bike doesn't have fenders. I was soaked by 9:45.

From there, the blizzard continued for most of the morning. I rode to the end of North Douglas Island and back, coming within a half mile of my warm, dry house before rounding the corner to cross the bridge and head north again, this time on the mainland. Snaux bike was having shifting problems that I could not figure out how to remedy. I could only ride in the lower gears, but with three new inches of slushy snow to plow through, I considered this a hidden blessing.

I made it to the Mendenhall Valley, where I did all of my riding on unplowed bike paths and a few completely snow-packed trails. This was the only time all day that I actually felt somewhat warm (I never froze, but I think a good term for my condition would be "groggily damp"). The hard work lulled me into thinking that I had my body temperature back up to normal, so I stopped long enough to choke down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and take the above picture. Bad idea. My hands went numb and did not respond well to the wet neoprene gloves. I had to ride two more miles of snow-covered trail with my fingers in a tight fist, steering with my wrists.

I wanted to stay out until 3:22 or at least the 3:07 sunset, but by 2:15 I was wet, cold and generally sick of Snaux bike's shifting shenanigans. So I spun out the last 10 miles at crazy high RPMs, and made it home just shy of 3.

I'm really not as grumpy about my ride as I sound (a little zapped, but not grumpy) Based on the places I went (I no longer have a working odometer but I know the mileage by heart) I think I still rode between 57 and 60 miles in 5.5 hours today (I'm going high because I deserve it.) That's really not too bad for the conditions - 10 mph on snowy roads was about the max I hit last year, and today I threw in a lot of trails. I really feel like I'm stronger this year. Plus, Snaux bike is actually lighter than my full-suspension mountain bike, and has better control. Now I just need to work on my snow riding.

But you know what the craziest thing is? After today's experience, I'll probably still continue riding.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

SAD ride

Date: Dec. 20
Mileage: 15.0
December mileage: 265.1
Temperature upon departure: 36

I’m beginning to think Geoff has just about had enough of Juneau. It’s strange, because we have so many things going for us here: Three times the annual rainfall of Seattle; more days of 40-mph-plus winds than Chicago; constant temperatures in the 30s from March to February. And no roads out! Clearly, he’s just not looking on the bright side.

That said, it has been a rough month - and isn’t looking to become any better. I haven’t seen the sun since Utah, going on three weeks now. The daylight has whittled itself down to about six hours - and even those hours are only marginally brighter than pitch black. The continuous precipitation has been mostly wet snow and sleet - some rain - and the wet weather creates conditions that make it impossible to keep all parts of the body warm while cycling. IMPOSSIBLE. I am especially having a hard time with my butt cheeks. (Which doesn’t make any sense since my backside is the best-insulated body part I have.) And so even I, who fears long exposure to direct sun the way some people fear frostbite, am beginning to feel a little SAD.

Thursday is winter solstice. I am hoping to do a long ride on the shortest day, but it will be interesting to see how much I can endure. I headed out today in sideways rain for a quick ride before work. I really only had about a 45-minute window to spare, but even that felt like it was going to be too long. The rain blew due north, so I decided to head into it going out and let it push me coming back. I took the road south.

Skirting the narrow strip of road that divides the channel and the mountains, I watched the disorienting dance of whitecaps as they swelled and exploded on shore. As I passed the sheer cliffs, I had to swerve to dodge giant blocks of transparent ice - the remnants of icefalls now gushing brown water. The manuevering was no small feat as sideways rain stung my eyes to the point of blindness. And just when I started to wonder if my 30 minutes of indentured service southward was up yet, a spotted the strangest glimmer of yellow light.

When the rain began to let up, I realized that I wasn’t hallucinating. Amid the liquid crush of gray in every direction was a tiny patch of clear sky. Streams of sunlight pierced the billowing clouds, casting spotlights on the churning water. I felt my legs surge with energy as I pedaled toward the clearing. I stopped looking at my watch and began to crane my neck at orange highlights on the trees, until I passed the sign that read “End of Road 1,000 Feet.” And there, drifting over a pile of dirt-crusted snow, was my own little sunspot.

And so I stopped, climbed over the berm, and stood there, quietly, watching the clearing crawl south and not paying attention to the fact that, 40 minutes into my ride, I was flirting with late arrival at work. It didn't matter. If the road kept going, I would have followed that sun spot all the way to Ketchikan.

Tomorrow, sunrise will happen 8:45 a.m. and sunset is planned for 3:07 p.m. I hope to stay out that entire time. Forecast calls for “70 percent chance of snow with accumulation of 2 to 3 inches, west winds 25 mph, high of 33.” Wish me luck. Seriously.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Get a life

Date: Dec. 18
Mileage: 25.0
December mileage: 250.1
Temperature upon departure: 35

Geoff chided me tonight for making snap judgments and prejudicial statements based on an unfair assessment in yesterday's "Nordic Nazi" post. I was just letting off steam and it is my blog, but I am sorry if I offended anybody. That said, I'm a little disappointed that no outraged skiers shot me an insult-laced comment or two.

The other night, we watched a hilarious documentary called "Spellbound," which follows the ups and downs of eight young spelling champions as they prepare for the National Spelling Bee. At one point, the filmmaker asks one of the 13-year-old prodigies if she has any hobbies besides spelling. She gazes at the camera thoughtfully and says, "Well, I like to ride roller-coasters." She stops and thinks a little more. "I'm a vegetarian and I like to drink coffee."

I thought more about this girl - I think her name is April - today while trying to motivate myself to put in more mileage on the bike. I'm a little disappointed with where I am - behind where I was this time last year - but a little daunted with the options I have to possibly do more. They include, but are not limited to: Riding after work (I leave work at 10 and sometimes 11 p.m.); waking up earlier; limiting the quality breakfast time; and cutting into my other hobbies.

And then the little voice in my head said, "Other hobbies? What other hobbies?"

"Well," I reasoned, "I'm learning to ski (not happily). Sometimes I go to my friends' house and play Guitar Hero. I'm a sushi addict and I like ... to ... drink ... coffee ..."

The thought just trailed off. And after laughing at the idea of poor studious April's non-hobbies just days ago, I realized that I understand perfectly what's it's like to singletrack through life. That maybe I'm even guilty of it. And I started to wonder if maybe I should be out there exploring all the options - reading books instead of Outside magazine on the elliptical trainer; writing thoughtful letters instead of bike-oriented blog posts; painting instead of pedaling; volunteering instead of working long hours to support my habit; learning to knit or speak Spanish or bellydance.

Or maybe I should just spend more time on the bike.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Nordic Nazi

RANT ADVISORY: Anyone who considers themselves an avid cross-country skier should probably just skip this post.

This morning, I agreed to go cross-country skiing with friends up at Eaglecrest, a (shudder) groomed loop near the downhill ski resort. I have probably been skiing too many times this week for my liking; I was grumpy and a little undercaffinated; and I took a nasty fall while walking across the parking lot, which left my knee swollen and bruised. In every way, I was not off to a good start.

After a long weekend of partying, my friends were somewhat grumpy themselves, and the general environment of parka-piercing winds and sticky snow put us all in a surly mood. So we stomped our way over the trail, collecting clumps of snow under our skis and trying to shake it loose. This created a lot of awkward downhill moments when one leg was sliding and the other was sticking. I was skiing in this one-legged position down the set tracks when I came around a corner and met an oncoming skier. Since I was the downhill skier, I did what I considered the polite thing - I veered off the tracks and did a faceplant in the powder.

And as I looked up through a face full of snow, I could see this guy grimacing down at me. He was clad in one of those yellow single-piece spandex suits that makes a person look like a walking condom, and he was practically wagging his finger at me. “You are going zee wrong way,” he said in a German accent that my friend mimics so well.

“Huh?” I said.

“You can not go zis way on zis trail, especially because you are accident-prone perzon,” he said. (Never mind that the trail is in no way marked one way or the other, there is no map indicating it is not a two-way trail, and we had already been passed by countless people going the same direction.) He continued to lecture me about arrows (There were no arrows) and learning to read signs (no signs either) and “accident-prone” even as he started moving back up the trail.

I used to run into Ski Snobs all the time in Homer. The seem to make up a larger-than-average percentage of the sport's population. I always want to open my mouth to respond to them, to say, “Don’t you realize that because of your rabid exclusiveness and hostility toward beginners, your culture is going to age and die out? That pretty soon there will be no one left to defile all of the best frontcountry trails with corduroy groomers and parallel tracks that serve only to funnel people ‘in zis direction.’ And when that day comes, we’ll no longer have to yield to your totalitarian toe-the-line regime. We will take to the trails with our snowskates, our fat bikes, our airboards and skiboards, our snowshoes, our Yak-Tracks, our skijoring dogs and horses. So what if we have to dodge the ruts and postholes? We are not that fragile. And we will not submit to going ‘zis way.’ We will go wherever we want to go, whichever way we want to go, however we want to travel!”

“Multi-use winter trail enthusiasts, unite!”

But I never actually say this. Usually I just say something witty along the lines of “Whatever, Dude.” Then I daydream about escaping to the backcountry ski trails, where I can eat up great singletrack with my snaux bike and smile at the snowshoers as they stomp by. Someday. Someday.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Get in mah belly

Date: Dec. 15 and 16
Total mileage: 35.1
December mileage: 225.1
Temperature upon departure: 26

I always read with great amusement other cyclists' accounts of mid-ride hunger attacks - knocking on a stranger's door to ask for crackers, pocketing Snickers bars at a gas station or fashioning a bicycle pump into a weapon and using it to hold up the nearest McDonalds. These stories have novelty for me because I don't suffer from this problem. If anything, I suffer from the exact opposite. I have mid-exercise food aversion. As long as my heart's pumping, the thought of digestion repulses me. Once, while sitting near the top of Kings Peak in Utah, Geoff actually force-fed me a cheese sandwich after I had spent the entire day refusing to eat breakfast, lunch or snacks. To be fair, we were huddled under a rock during a lightning storm, and I didn't think I was going to survive long enough to require energy for the hike down.

If a bike ride is long enough, I will (usually) force myself to eat. But if I'm planning on being out for two hours or less, I don't even bother bringing anything, knowing the only purpose it will serve is gooing up my pockets. Now that it's the dead of winter, when bottles freeze and camelbaks give me shoulder pain, I often don't even bother to bring water (I know, I know. Feel free to lecture.) But that's how I set out today.

Conditions were a little closer to awful than not. At 11 a.m., we were in the midst of an heavy snowstorm that had dumped about two inches of new snow so far. Where I rode, on the shoulder of a narrow highway, the plows had pushed chunky piles of snow that ranged in depth from 2 inches to 7 inches, changing often and without warning. Riding in loose, uneven snow is fairly unpredictable, and the proximity of traffic forces me to keep a straight line, which means I have to slow down when I'm not sure what's ahead. Add to that the icy blizzard and a fierce gusting-to-40-mph headwind that brought windchills, well, far enough down to create a solid ring of ice around my face mask ... and I have what Geoff calls "perfect conditions for training for the Susitna 100."

Anyhow, it was tough. Covering 24 miles in two hours - because I was riding on a road and expected to go at least that fast - took about all I had to give. Despite the aforementioned facial ring of ice, I was sweating buckets while riding into the wind and even tore open my coat and thin fleece layer, exposing the bare pink skin around my collarbone. I was really that hot. I was in deep focus, earning ever pedal stroke through the deep stretches of snow and occasionally correcting a wild fishtail. I hardly even noticed the miles go by.

When I got home, I couldn't strip fast enough. I tore off clothing, leaving a trail of ice-caked layers on my way through the house. And standing in my bedroom wearing only a pair of socks, longjohns and a sports bra, I first noticed that I was wicked thirsty. So I went to the kitchen and started chugging warm water from the tap. And when that craving was abated, I started to feel something else - something that started deep in my head, a distant cry that fired over my synapses, rushed through my blood stream and emerged screaming from the depths of my stomach. It screamed "ice cream." And without even making a conscious decision to do so, I grabbed a half gallon of huckleberry swirl out of the freezer and began shoveling in large spoonfuls right from the carton. I did not even bother to mine the boring vanilla crap for the swirls of sweet, sweet huckleberry. No. I ate it all. I mean, I didn't eat the whole carton. Really. I promise.

But I did finally have a taste of what it's like to need a particular food so badly that the subconscious muffles out the rational voices and pushes a person toward instinctual gorging. I know it's not rational because after I finished inhaling about 500 empty calories of sugar and saturated fat, I felt intensely guilty. But not enough to skip lunch.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Ski by day, ride by Northern Lights

Date: Dec. 14
Mileage: 25.0
December mileage: 190.1
Temperature upon departure: 30

The afternoon is for skiing at Eagle Beach. The thick crust of old snow holds the sticks to the newly-dusted track, so all there is to do is stab, glide, stab glide, stab. The movement becomes a little tedious after three 2.5-mile loops around a state park, even as distant storms bleed splashes of black over the sky. Geoff seems to think otherwise, especially when he has finally found the perfect wax combination for his Rossignol classics. I ride some No-wax No-names, at about half the speed, and I consider it a triumph if I do not fall flat on my back (Atop a snowshoe-stomped ice patch, I was not so victorious today.)But we move and glide, taste the sweet rot of birch leaves that have somehow escaped the suffocation of snow, and I guess there are Zen moments in here somewhere, somewhere between the boredom and the terror.

We head home in the 2:30 p.m. twilight, and by 3:45 the sky is dark quilt of clouds patched with star-speckled squares of the night sky. I have hardly noticed how early it becomes dark because I work evenings. So the act of settling out for a night bike ride before rush hour traffic has even hit the streets is an unexpected thrill. My LED light illuminates the snow on the shoulder. In the flat light I have no concept of the ruts and ridges, and therefore no obstacles to dodge. I realize I am riding much faster and smoother than I have since the onset of winter. So I burn hard - and sweat hard, because I dressed for a crisp night chill even though 30 degrees is still 30 degrees no matter how dark it is. Quickly, I pedal beyond the subdivisions and the car lot, beyond the mailboxes and the trailer park, out to the old homesteads and cabins, the modified boats, the scattered Christmas lights blinking into the lonely wilderness - until civilization is behind be, and all that's ahead is the end of the road. And so I go there, and don't even notice the sky behind me clearing dramatically, until I turn around.

It is, simply, a moment of instant confusion and awe, the kind in which I'm off my bike and bounding through the knee-deep snow before I even take the time to process what I'm seeing. Across the channel, just beyond the moonlit mountains, I watch sharp streaks of white light slash deep, defined lines through the starry sky. And just to the north are the shimmering green waves that are so unmistakable and yet so elusive - the Aurora Borealis. I have lived in Alaska 15 months now, and never in this state - either by providence or bad luck - have I seen an Aurora so well-defined, even as this one sparkles and fades beyond a patchwork of clouds. And I don't know what to think about it, so I just stand there on the beach, up to my thighs in snow, while red blinky flashes unintentional holiday cheer - and everything becomes so breathlessly inadequate against the cold fusion tearing up the night sky.

And I don't know what to say, so I say "Thank you."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Caught tagging

Date: Dec. 12
Mileage: 18.0
December mileage: 165.1
Temperature upon departure: 34

I spend a lot of time blogging, but nearly as much as I'd like (And I realize that's as ridiculous as saying "I don't watch as much TV as I should.") So usually I miss out when people "tag" me. ("Tagging" happens when bloggers ply each other with requests for inane information in a joint effort to fill up the slower days). Since I had a fairly uneventful ride this morning, I'm going to indulge in my first "tag:" Six random and mildly interesting things you may not already know about me:

1. My favorite (solid) food is cold cereal. Any kind. It’s true.

2. I am a job hopper. Since 1995, I have worked as a piano tutor, a Wendy’s front line slave (we were sandwich artists before sandwich artists were cool), a grocery bagger, a bagel baker, a 1-hour photo processor, a retail lackey, a custom framer, a reporter, an editorial cartoonist, a graphic artist, a community news editor, a prepress operator, a copy editor, a freelance writer, a production editor, a Webmaster, an ad designer, and finally, my current job - the person the Juneau Empire conned into working weekends. Oh, and I’ve been unemployed a bunch of times in there, too.

3. With the exception of one ill-fated rental ride on the Slickrock Trail, I did not mountain bike (or ride a bicycle at all, for that matter) until Summer 2002.

4. I have walked on the Arctic Ocean. It was frozen at the time.

5. When I was a kid, I did not want to grow up to be a journalist. I wanted to be an engineer.

6. In June 1996, my friend and I were at a radio promo event when a strange guy wearing a spiked dog collar challenged us to race him and his "friends" on the Slick Track (you know, where you drive tiny cars around a tire-lined course.) The guy turned out to be the drummer for Everclear. The "friends" were the rest of the band. And I won.

And now, since I'm a sucker for comments, I'm just going to ask you. Tell me something interesting.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Snaux bike's first snow ride

Date: Dec. 9 and 10
Total mileage: 31.0
December mileage: 147.1
Temperature upon departure: 32

Just a few blocks from my house is the Dan Moller Trail, a high-traffic route that winds its way about 4 miles up to a backcountry cabin. It's a decent climb and the trail is washboarded by heavy snowmobile use (both not the most ideal conditions for a snow bike). But it is well-traveled and will probably be one of the most consistently rideable trails throughout the winter. And, like I said, it begins only a few blocks from my house. Perfect.

Snow conditions today were about crappy as they get. All of the rain that fell last week is still seeping through the rotten snow, which is too warm to refreeze. So the trail is covered with grayish mush the consistency of a Slurpee, stirred up by snowmobile tracks. Riding on this stuff is sort of like a race against quicksand, where steering consists solely of trying to keep the front tire ahead of the fishtailing back tire. Where you end up - that's up to the snow.

And, needless to say, my snow riding is a little rusty. I headed up the icy roads in the morning with my tires at 20 psi, and quickly deflated them to about 10 or 11 psi at the trail. (At this pressure, almost all of the tire's 2.2 inches of rubber flatten against the trail. That's nearly the width of a cross-country ski.) The ride up consisted mostly of pedaling short stretches, losing control of the bike, bailing out, and walking short stretches. I found some success in trying to line the snowmobile ski tracks, but they were harder to stick to than a wet wooden plank - and veering off the ski tracks nearly always sent me into the thigh-deep drifts just off the trail.

I was tentative about the ride at first, but once I realized that falling in the soft snow doesn't hurt, I found myself riding much better - losing control less often and successfully staying afloat on much longer stretches of trail. The ride down was wild. Snaux bike swerved erratically over waves of rolling bumps. But, unafraid of the inevitable bailout, I tucked in and worked on shimmying the handlebars to straighten my line without overcorrecting. Sometimes the bike just shot off the trail and I went for a swim. But, overall, I felt like I had an encouraging amount of control given the snow conditions and my summer-long hiatus from riding on any deep snow-packed trail. Some of this might be early-season overconfidence. But some might be in the performance of this new bike. I'm pretty excited about it.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Susitna Dreams II

Date: Dec. 8
Total mileage: 21.1
December mileage: 116.1
Temperature upon departure: 39

Geoff and I rode out to the local bike shop to collect the finishing touches (for now) for the Snaux bike ... three silver spacers for the fork. With the headset mounted, I took it out for its maiden voyage up and down the slush-covered street in front of my house. It shifted really smooth, and it had great control through the slush piles despite its 2.2" tires pumped up to 35 or 40 psi .(It may just be all in my head, but I really think the extra surface area of those Snowcat rims will make a world of difference. And even if it is in my head, who cares? I'm steering better, ain't I?)
Plus, the bike is really comfortable. It's hard to describe. And I admittedly didn't ride it very far. But it felt like a beach cruiser ... just kick back, relax and enjoy the ride. If this early assessment holds true, it's a pleasant surprise. That's exactly what I want in Snaux bike ... I want it to be my long-haul trucker, my 18-wheeler, my motorhome. I want to be able to sleep on this thing. (multiday endurance, here I come!).

A few people have asked why I put gears on it rather than building it up as a singlespeed, and comfort is the main reason why. Snaux bike doesn't need much gearing in the snow (there are only so many ways one can ride 6 mph). But I'm sure I'll appreciate it greatly if I ever decide to load him up with 50 pounds of gear and ride across backcountry Canada. Or the Great Divide. (Or the Bering Strait ... eh, Shawn?) Who knows? It could happen. I'm full of dreams today.

I pretty much just slid comfortably into the realization today ... call it acceptance, if you will ... that I'm going to attempt the 2007 Susitna 100. Maybe that acceptance came over sushi diner last night, while I was commiserating with my friend about the outrageous price of a plane ticket to Anchorage. Maybe that acceptance came while I was limping Sugar across an unplowed section of bike trail this afternoon, gleefully fishtailing through anything I didn't flat-out walk. Or maybe that acceptance came when Geoff reminded me ... again ... that we could easily go beach camping in Hawaii for a week for what it's going to cost us to do the race. I don't know when it happened. But somehow the reality settled in. It's not like I really have choice.

After all, how will I ever be ready for the 2008 Iditarod Invitational if I don't get a good dry run in first? After that, it's only one (giant) step to the 2009 Great Divide Race.

There are certain paths of life that draw us in, like magnets - forces that drag us beyond free will into the murky landscape of predestination. Sometimes the pull is so strong that resistance eats away at core of one's self, until all of the drive has been sucked out and only a shell remains.

I don't know that I really believe that - but how else do I explain to my baffled friends and family why I feel compelled to take a winter vacation to a place where snow, wind, distance, fatigue and subzero cold could promise nothing more than a heaping plate of suffering?

How else could I explain why opting for the Hawaii vacation - and spending an entire winter looking forward to white sands and a pina colada - would make me absolutely nuts by February?
How else could I explain why I am so excited to no longer have any good excuse for not going out for a ride for the next three months?

I can't. And so I blame destiny.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Rain ride, noon to dusk

Date: Dec. 7
Total mileage: 40.0
December mileage: 95.0
Temperature upon departure: 37

I left my house a little after noon today and rode until it was dark enough to necessitate the use of red blinky. That isn't as long as you'd think. It's well shy of 3 p.m. these days.

Of course, I didn't see the sun actually set because it rained, continuously, over the entire ride. This picture that I posted today is an old picture. There was no semblance of sunset or sunrise today, and those beautiful piles of snow are quickly becoming a memory amid the sagging snowmen and smoke-colored slush streaming down the streets. The clouds hung low enough that thick fog enveloped the tips of even the shallowest hills. And I tried everything - and I mean everything I have in my clothing arsenal, shy of a plastic garbage bag - to stay dry, and I still got soaked. First I felt the rain dripping down my waterproof pants. It cascaded over the gators I had cinched as tight as they'd go. Then it began to pool on my neoprene booties, where icy water slowly but surely soaked through to my shoes, and then my wool socks, and then my liner socks, then right to the curled pink prunes that were once my toes. When I came home, I had to wring out my long johns and fleece liner just to go in the house. My "water resistant" coat is still dripping.

I guess it's just been a while since I've had to deal with this much rain. And of course I fiercely miss the crispy cold. But it really wasn't a bad ride. In fact, I enjoyed it. Squinting against the continuous spash of rain only further obscured the gray-washed landscape. I was in my own little world out beyond the traffic flow, absent-mindedly spinning to the South Austin Jug Band and rubber-necking the moaning torrents of imprisoned creeks struggling to break free from their half-frozen shells. The slush piles provided plenty of quick, snap-back-to-reality action.

And - most importantly - I stayed warm. Despite that fact that it was 37 out, and raining, with windchill, and I had been completely soaked for the better part of two hours. I think this is proof of just how well my body is adjusting to the cold. I couldn't have stayed out in weather like that for more than an hour this past August without breaking into pre-hypothermic shivers, even though it was generally in the 50s and I rarely got soaked through. But now, in December - with basically the same clothes on, no less - I feel fine. Isn't it strange how bodies adjust like that? A few weeks in the 10s and 20s, and suddenly that wet 37 is downright balmy.

I have heard this before but I'm really starting to believe it's true - if you want to be comfortable riding in cold conditions, you just have to do it. It will hurt the first couple of times, no matter how carefully you dress. But soon, you'll figure out which layers work best in which conditions, and dressing will become second nature. And then, and even more wonderful thing will happen: Those cold temperatures will start to feel completely normal.

How else could those people in Interior Alaska and the Yukon do it? I've always wondered that. -30 degrees? Everyday? Now I'm starting to understand.

It's all about acclimatization.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Almost done

Date: Dec. 5
Total mileage: 23.0
December mileage: 55.0
Temperature upon departure: 36

I am ... or more accurately, Geoff is ... putting the finishing touches on “Juno’s one and only snaux bike” (Carlos’ words, not mine. I think the ‘snaux’ spelling of snow is a dig on the faux way it imitates better bikes such as the FatBike, and the term ‘one and only’ is a dig on the warm and rainy region of Alaska in which I live.) All it needs now is a headset, which is on its way from Singapore. It also has a few things I intend to replace: the fork, because it can’t support disc brakes as it is now (and V-brakes won’t clear the snowcat rims) and the tires, which are currently my 2.2” summer MTB tires, but which I intend to replace with 2.75” mega downhill tires. The new tires will barely (if at all) fit the frame - but if they do, they will be oh-so-floatatious.

I have not ridden the bike yet, but I feel very optimistic about its future. Geoff built it while I was in Utah. While I acknowledge that this only serves to further handicap my bike-repair disability, I do admit that I’m somewhat relieved to be riding something that doesn’t have the scars of my workmanship. We designed it to be an all-purpose bike. It will serve me well in the snow, but will also double as a good Juneau mud’n ride (especially with year-round studs, which grip like ice picks to wet roots and wooden planks). It also will be a great gravel-road and trail touring bike and a sturdy commuter, especially after I outfit it with a rear rack. This overweight snaux bike could very well put my Sugar out of business.

We had to zip-tie the cables to the frame in order to run full housing (full housing prevents cable failure due to ice buildup). The parts are mostly bargain basement mountain bike parts from eBay, flown in from around the country. The stem took an inexplicable side trip from Louisiana to Indonesia and just arrived (three weeks late) on Monday. Take that and the headset from Singapore, and my snow bike is better traveled than I am.

Speaking of traveling, I just learned about the Trans Iowa race. How perfect is that ... Iowa is one of the few states I have never been to (along with Florida, Hawaii, Michigan, Wisconsin, and probably a couple others.) I imagine all of the cool cats from the Lower 48 will be there, and I'd love to go. Another $700 race, maybe? That sure doesn't leave much left for the 24 Hours of Light. Good thing I didn't blow all of my rent money on bike parts (Thankyou, Shimano LX).

I can't wait to get out and ride my snow bike. It's 40 degrees out now, and .75" of rain fell today. Looks promising.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Rain delay

Date: Dec. 4
Total mileage: 22.0
November mileage: 22.0
Temperature upon departure: 34

Today a warm front settled in, bringing with it the snowpack-decimating rain that drips like acid from an electric blue-gray sky.

It was a sad state for a ride, but I still felt happy to get out. It was a shower of slush and enough ingested road salt to replace any electrolyte drink, but my legs felt strong and my lungs were happy to be back in the humid, sea-level atmosphere again.

I took the above picture yesterday while Geoff and I were skiing along the campground trails. I am getting better on skis. I don't really hate skiing. In fact, it is kind of fun in a simultaneously relaxing and frustrating way. And I stopped to visit my first Juneau home, camp site No. 5:

And as bad as those first two weeks were, I have to say, I'm lucky I moved to Juneau in August and not December.

I am giving myself until Friday to make a definite and binding decision on the Susitna 100. There are a lot of people who can't imagine spending $700 for a race, but I'm not exactly spending all that money on a race. I'm spending it on an experience, much in the way some people buy time on cruises or helicopter ski tours. There are definitely sillier things I could spend that much money on. An LCD TV comes to mind.

Carl Hutch (a race veteran himself) suggested I take it a step further at enter the Iditarod Invitational. This 350-mile winter race is a big dream of mine. There are some ways in which I eat, sleep and dream the ghost trail to McGrath ... but ... it may be a little more than I can bear ... this year. Who knows? I have been known to take bigger, crazier leaps of faith. But there's still a part of me that hasn't quite conquered the Susitna 100.

Tim answered my question best when I pondered what Pete - inarguably the best endurance rider in Alaska - might do if faced with a similar choice:

"Pete would jump on the ferry to Haines, then ride his bike all the way to the start. And he'd still kick everybody's ass. Pete's a mutant."

I wish I were a mutant. But I'm not. I'm just a 27-year-old masochist with a desk job, a brand new snow bike, and a strange taste in vacations. Maybe I can offset the cost of said vacation by designing and selling T-shirts. I already have the sketch in mind. I drew it while killing time near a giant dead polar bear at the Anchorage airport. It could work. Stranger things have happened.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Should I do it?

I was crunching some numbers today when I stumbled across a page on the Susitna 100 Web site that I have never seen before, the 2006 Photo Gallery, and discovered what I believe is the only picture taken of me during the entire Feb. 18 race (thanks to Mike Schoder). The number I was crunching was the approximate cost for me to do the upcoming race, on Feb. 17, 2007. Money is the excuse I've been using for my indecisiveness, but the truth is I've been hedging on this far too long.

It's already Dec. 3. And so I must decide.

"It would be cool," I'd say to Geoff. "But would it be $700 cool? Or $800 cool?"

But secretly, I'd be thinking to myself: "Would it be buy a new sleeping bag and bivy sack cool? Take three or four days off of work cool? Fly out to Anchorage in the middle of February cool? Spend the next three months forcing myself on increasingly lengthy, sleet-drenched, Taku-wind-blasted bicycle rides cool? Plod through the sleep deprived physical delirium of 24 hours with a bicycle just to see the sun rise over the Susitna Valley once more cool?"

But then I look at this picture from last year, and I already know the answer.

There's still the problem with committing to it, however. What becomes easy to do in my mind becomes harder to do when I'm staring at the Alaska Air flight reservation Web site. So I have to weigh the pros and cons.

Pros:
- This year, I'll have a snow bike (which will probably be ready to ride by the middle of this month.) It's not a fatbike, persay, not a Pugsley, but is decidedly more snow-worthy than my skinny Sugar.

- This year, I'll have experience. Although that could instill a false sense of security, I at least won't walk into the frozen valley facing a complete unknown.

- This year, I'll have most of my gear upfront. It won't be like last December, when I started out the season riding in 10-degree weather while wearing four pairs of cotton gym socks.

- This year, I'll have more competitive drive. I've always been accustomed to coming in last, but the 24 Hours of Kincaid gave me a taste of the fresh air at the front of the pack, and I want more.

Cons:
- I live in Juneau this year, not Homer, which means an exponentially higher cost of travel to get to the Big Lake area.

- I live in Juneau this year, not Homer, which means training in conditions that are likely leaps and bounds away from those on the race course: Deep, wet snow; warmer air; and the possibility of driving rain (all of these conditions would have served me well when I was training for last year's race, but what are the chances it will be warm and rainy two years in a row?)

- I live in Juneau this year, not Homer, which means shipping my bike via USPS more than a week before the race. And who trusts USPS?

- Last year, I was training mainly to give myself something to do over the long Alaska winter. This year, I actually know what I need to do to get ready for such a race. And it scares the #$@! out of me.

So I look at the logistics and I ask myself: What would Pete Basinger do? What would Mike Curiak do?

What would you do?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Made it back. Mostly.

Date: Nov. 30
Total mileage: 28.0
November mileage: 279.9
Temperature upon departure: 18

(Today's photo is a picture of Spaulding Meadow as captured by Geoff on Thanksgiving Day. Of all the things I actually remembered to bring back from Utah, my camera was not one of them.)

I was sitting in an immobile plane at the Ketchikan airport, staring at the blizzard-obscured city across the channel and wondering just when my move to Southeastern Alaska went wrong.

Maybe it was the lady from Kenai who sat in the seat in front of me, jabbering joyfully about her epic flight from Anchorage to Seattle to Ketchikan, all in a so-far foiled effort to make it to Juneau. "I just know we're going to end up back in Anchorage," she laughed. "I hope you know people there because this airline (Alaska Air) knows better than to give people hotel comps."

Maybe it was my sinus infection and the unbearable pressure that only seemed to increase in intensity as we sat at sea level - a sensation of deep sea diving combined with menthol-laced strawberry cough drops and an iPod blasting Built to Spill. I just wanted my ears to pop. And I wanted to drown out the displaced cheerfulness of the Kenai traveler.

Maybe it was the laps that I speed-walked around a Seattle airport terminal in an effort to get some exercise during the long day of traveling. The fifth time I passed my departure gate, a woman asked me if I was lost. "I'm just walking," I said. "Flight delayed?" she asked. I just shrugged. "Can you believe this weather?" she asked. I shrugged again and looked toward the window. It looked like it was snowing.

Maybe it was the way that, in between blinding pressure headaches, I couldn't help but look back wistfully to the final few days of my Utah vacation - time spent commuting around the frozen city on a tiny mountain bike and communing with old friends who have no concept of weather slavery. They were all warm in their beds. I was on the wrong side of the nonexistent "Bridge to Nowhere."

Maybe it was the gnawing anxiety as the captain-of-few-words announced that he would "try for a Juneau landing," and took off after more than an hour of waiting. I have heard that descending into the wall of mountains that line Juneau can be terrifying, but could only imagine what that must be like as we bumped and bounced through the featureless static of driving snow.

Maybe it was the way in which every passenger erupted into a chorus of cheers before the plane even touched down, and continued clapping as it careened across a runway covered in two inches of snow, so unified in their appreciation that I couldn't help but laugh in spite of my wide-eyed terror.

Maybe it was just my need to grump because coming home from vacation is all about grumping - especially when it's December, and the sunset's now at 3 p.m., and the forecast calls for 10 days of warm sleet. I should have felt grateful to have slipped through the window of the storm. But somehow I just couldn't seem to find the method to this madness ... the happy medium in this land of extremes.