Sunday, January 27, 2008

Experiment gone awry

Date: Jan. 25
Mileage: 55
January mileage: 739.8
Hours: 6:30
Temperature upon departure: 5

As soon as I finished writing my argument against the use of panniers in snow-bike racing yesterday, I realized that I hadn't even convinced myself. "What was so bad about the use of panniers on a snow bike?" I wondered. Instead of dreaming up imaginary situations, why not try them in real life? Then I came home from work to discover that Geoff had figured out how to attach my cheap, touring-bike rear rack on the front of the Pugsley (I had been complaining about expensive front racks for weeks, and he just up and improvised. That Geoff sure can be innovative.) Anyway, I suddenly had endless options for gear. So today I repacked my bike with
rear saddle bags and the sleeping bag strapped to the front rack. All of my stuff didn't even fill the saddle bags half way. In that, I saw one peril of panniers ... the option for too much stuff.

The weather forecast called for a high of 7 degrees and sustained winds of 25-35 mph with gusts up to 75 mph. That kind of wind promised windchill-simulated temperatures in the minus 20s. I was thrilled. I may be the only person that looks forward to an Arctic blast ... well, me and Doug. Doug, consequently, also inspired me to try out panniers.

Here is a side view of the set-up. It looks even more obnoxious than the first, doesn't it? It is. Riding conditions today were pretty awful across the board. We received a foot of new snow over the weekend that had been windblown everywhere. The spots scraped clean of snow were a solid sheet of glare ice, so slippery that I spun sideways more than once. What wasn't ice was covered in deep, sandy powder. I did a lot of walking just to commute out to the trails, and once I made it to the trails, I fluctuated between bouncy riding, teeth-clenching ice coasting, and walking. Every time I had to walk with the bike, I would continuously bump my panniers with the back of my leg. While riding on bumpy trails, they were jolted around a lot. I had to re-adjust them multiple times. I hadn't reinforced them beyond their stock attachments when I left this morning. That would come back to bite me, hard.

This is what passes for a bike path in the City and Borough of Juneau. After a long, slow morning, I was running late on my way home and trying to ride the through choppy snow across the straightaway. I was thrown around a bit before I finally threw in the towel. I could really feel the weather this morning ... the throat-searing wind and ice cream headaches. But at least I was warm, and working hard. And I was nearly home when my rear tire slid out on ice and I took a somewhat graceful, sideways fall into a snowbank. One of the panniers came off the rack and slid several feet down the road. The other pannier was nowhere to be seen. Nowhere. It was gone.

I launched into a panic and began riding back the way I came, on the wrong side of the road. I just couldn't believe I had lost one of my panniers. As I moved to the right side of the road and the backwards miles continued to tick away, I came to a discouraging acceptance about my situation. I had taken all of my extra Iditarod clothing, clothing that I had tested and become comfortable with, clothing that would cost at least a couple hundred dollars to replace - I had stuffed it into a stupid pannier, and I had lost it.

I backtracked all the way to the bike path, more than six miles from where I fell off my bike. I was already running an hour late for work. I stood at the edge of the path and considered giving up and turning around. Someone had obviously picked up my pack and was probably rifling through it right now, trying on my down coat and warming their fingers in my new mittens. But as I looked across the straightaway, I could see this dark lump about a quarter mile down the trail. It could have been anything. A log. A garbage bag. A dead cat. But somehow I knew, I just knew it was my bag. I threw my bike in the snow and began sprinting toward the lump - as much as a person can sprint in big snow boots through six-inch deep sand snow. I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you ache to run faster but just can't make your legs go. But I was ecstatic with the idea that after more than an hour, my pack could still be sitting in the middle of the trail. When I finally I stumbled up next to it, I felt this surge of relief. My pannier was sitting in plain sight, a spot that could be seen from more than a quarter mile away, and no one had touched it. Either no one went by during that entire stretch of frigid Sunday afternoon, or I am one lucky snowbiker. Except for the fact that I still had eight slow into-the-arctic-wind miles to ride home, the top of my Camelbak hose was frozen, I hadn't had anything to eat, and I was really late for work.

Geoff made sushi for dinner and we traded stories about our terrible days. "You're not going to go with panniers, are you?" he said.

"Well," I said and winced as Wasabi shot up my wind-burned nose. "Maybe next time I'll try them on front."