Saturday, March 29, 2008

The push

Date: March 28 and 29
Mileage: 12 and 30.1
March mileage: 593.2
Temperature: 42 and 35

Spring has taken over Juneau with a vengeance. The roads are dry (and dusty). The sea-level snow has all but retreated. People are having big bonfires on the beach even as temperatures drop into the 20s. March in Alaska means it's still cool, but the 7:30 p.m. sunset and the day's slow creep into the 40s leaves no doubt: 'Tis a beautiful season.

The best part about this time of year is there is still good snowbiking to be had, if you are willing to work for it. And by work, I mean walk. And by walk, I mean climb. And by climb, I mean lean hard against the bike as you slip and grind and grunt your way up 1,800 vertical feet of slush in a little more than two miles. The effort will leave you red-faced and stumbling through your light-headed hallucinations of swirling stars. But rub a little of that corn snow in your eyes, place your wheel on top of a hardpack trail atop the high mountain meadow, and just roll. I can promise you'll start to feel a whole lot better, quickly.

Spring can actually be the ideal time for snowbiking if the conditions are just right. Day thaws and night freezes polish the snowpack to a crusty sheen. Hit up a snowfield early in the morning and you often don't even need to stick to the trail - just ride the crust (half the fun is the nervous anticipation of when your front wheel is finally going to break through.) But I woke up late Friday and wavered a bit on the walk up, so by the time I made it to Spaulding Meadow early in the afternoon, the 40-degree sunshine had done its damage. But there was still much slushy fun to be had on the rolling snowmobile tracks, running my tires at ~6 psi. And thanks to the bare dirt patches that pepper the snowmobile access trail, I had the place all to myself.

Saturday brought a different kind of bike hike - much less dignity and much less fun. After pulling my Roadie out of the basement earlier this month, I admittedly did little (no) spring maintenance. The roads are still littered in winter debris, and I'm pretty much at a flat-a-day average, but until today, they've all been on the front wheel. But as I rolled past Mile 11 Douglas Highway, I felt that familiar bobbing in the back. When I went to remove the wheel, I discovered it no longer had its quick-release skewer. It had a regular skewer that Geoff uses to ride the bike on the trainer during the winter. And I just stood there, picturing my Allen wrench, safely stowed away in my Pugsley, some 13 miles distant. (doh!)

So I began the walk, reasoning that it was a nice day and I was bound to see another cyclist go by. If I didn't, plan B was to walk to my friend Holly's house, some four miles distant, and borrow the tool from her. I moved to the left side of the road and glanced away from passing traffic. I have strong personal convictions about hitchhiking - I'm not going to do it unless I'm gravely injured or gravely late for work. If a motorist stops to offer unsolicited help, great. But I'm not going to ask for something I don't need.

But after two miles, my feet were killing me and it was becoming apparent that I was going to walk the full four miles. I started jogging, but the awkward cleats on my clipless shoes made a horrible clacking noise. I pictured them being ground to dust in the gravel. I halfway hoped this was happening. I keep the clipless pedals on my bike because ... I don't know ... maybe because I'm lazy. But there's much I don't like about them, and right at the top is walking . (Seriously, what use does a forgetful tourist like myself have for tiny, uninsulated shoes that lock me to my bicycle and serve no other practical purpose?)

I was less than a quarter mile from Holly's house when two cyclists went by. I asked the woman if she had an Allen wrench, and she was kind enough to let me borrow her bike tool. I wrenched the wheel off in a second and waved them back on their way. Then I fixed my flat, tightened the skewer with my half-frozen fingers, and shot down the road. It occurred to me that my rear wheel may pop off at any second. But it felt so good to not be walking that I really laid into the pedals. I probably hit a personal speed record over that stretch, but I'll never know because to odometer screen froze and went black while I was playing around by an icy waterfall. (Seriously, that Roadie is such a wimp.)

Anyhow, if I haven't had enough bike pushing already, I think I'm going to try to wake up early to hit some Douglas Island crust tomorrow. I made my first-ever video while I was snowbiking Spaulding Meadow on Friday. I must have turned the camera on some strange setting because it's cast in purple. And because I shot it by holding the camera against my handlebar as I pedaled along the trail, it's more than a little Blair Witch Project-esque. I really wanted to shoot the downhill stretch (oh yes, I did ride down, often using my right foot as a brake/ski.) But after five seconds, a dropping of the camera, a too-late grab for the brake and a fishtailing crash, I realized that wasn't going to happen. But I have a link to a flat stretch here: I call it "A Minute of Snowbiking in Juneau, Most Likely Uninteresting to Everyone But Me."


Spaulding Meadow from Jill Homer on Vimeo.