Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Camping in January

Date: Jan. 29
Mileage: 6
January mileage: 761.8
Temperature upon departure: 7

I slipped out the door at 12:31 a.m. and pedaled beneath the orange glow of suburban street lamps. Blasts of hard wind amplified the already tiny temperature, but only the crackle of rubber on ice betrayed a bewildering quiet. I rode toward the black mass of mountains that would swallow me for the night. I was consumed with the loneliness and awe of the conditions I was simulating. I had to keep reminding myself I was only a few blocks from my house.

I couldn’t remember the climb up this hill ever being so laborious. I had severely overdressed and was paying for it in a shower of sweat. I thought about returning home to change my base layer, but remembered the full set of clothing in my frame bag and decided this sweat was a good test ... a simulation of a full day’s work. I took off my balaclava to steam off some of the heat. My helmet froze to my hair.

I pushed my bike through soft snow for two miles up the steep trail. The three-mile effort took nearly one and a half hours. When I trudged into an open meadow flat enough to call home, it was 2 a.m.

The stark face of Mount Juneau burned red above a glitter of city lights, now hundreds of feet below me. I pulled on my mittens and started unpacking my gear, methodically loosening straps and rolling out the sleeping pad. It was all happening much too slowly. Overheated as I was, I opted for the quick-and-dirty, bare-fingers camp set up. There would be time for warmth when I slept.

I slithered into my down cocoon and cuddled with my Camelbak bladder. It felt like an ice baby against my stomach, and I shivered a little as I gazed at the wash of stars overhead. Finally, I slid all the way in and shut the bivy, breathing heavy as I drifted to sleep.

I curled up as much as I could to rest my whole body on the sleeping pad, but parts kept finding their way onto the frigid bed of snow. After one hour, I woke up with a cold butt. The next, cold feet. Never cold enough to be a concern, but enough to rob me of any deep rest. I cherished every square inch of that pad and vowed to get a bigger one.

When daylight finally broke, my feet were approaching a concerning level of cold. I haphazardly set my Camelbak in the snow and began to pack up. Mittens were required this time, and I couldn’t move as fast as I wanted to. I felt frustrated because I had put my cold feet in my cold boots, and I really wanted to start walking to generate some heat. I decided not to bother compressing my sack and was grateful for the leeway of my front rack. I was on my way. I had learned a lot. I felt exhausted. I had spent less than nine hours in nighttime temperatures that would be relatively mild in central Alaska. And traveled six miles.

This multiday winter endurance racing thing is completely crazy. On the surface, it looks hard. Then you peel back its rigid veneer only to find an inner layer of hard. And even as you chip away at its core, you continue to find layer upon layer upon layer of hard. Every part is hard.

And I love it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Frozen hub

Date: Jan. 28
Mileage: 26
January mileage: 755.8
Hours: 2:30
Temperature upon departure: 0

Lows are predicted to reach 10 below 0 tonight. I am going to putter home from work around 11 p.m., pack up my Pugsley, putter up a nearby trail, and try to get some sleep.

But first I wanted to thank Dave Kingsbury and company for their kind contribution. I also want to thank others who have donated to my cause. I have received encouraging words and support from all over the world. It amazes me actually, because this is my fun, and my pain, but your help touches me more than I can really express. So thank you.

This recent cold snap has allowed me to test out some of my new gear in more Iditarod-like temperatures - clear, cold, windy and dry. So far my comfort level while moving in temperatures near zero (and windchills around -15) hasn't varied much from the system I use at 30 degrees. The only changes I've made are a heavier balaclava, an extra layer on top, vapor barrier socks and a vapor barrier vest. I'm not sure yet how I feel about the VB socks. I like the vest. It does a good job of directing most of the sweat moisture to my arms, where it can easily escape out slits in my coat. I think this vest may allow me to wear my shell in colder temperatures, which would be great because it blocks wind entirely. The strangest aspect of my "kit" is that I still feel most comfortable riding with my bare hands in the pogies. I wonder what the temperature would need to be before I feel compelled to wear gloves.

One aspect of cold that few would consider is a diminished ability to "hold it." It's such an annoying problem. One minute, I'll feel perfectly fine. Then, less than five minutes later, I'll be on the verge of a bathroom emergency, stumbling into the tree shelter of some empty suburban lot and hoping against hope that I can strip off all my layers in time.

Today I headed out the North Douglas Highway for a quick spin about a half hour after Geoff left on his daily 20-mile run (That's right. He's doing seven of those this week.) The roads were so icy that I opted for my "featherweight" full-suspension Gary Fisher Sugar, the bike that's spent his twilight years streaming through deep slush and muddy puddles. I can't expect its hubs to be in great condition, but I was a little discouraged when, about 10 miles in, the rear hub started to slip. Any time I stopped pedaling for even a few seconds, even just to coast, the freehub would freeze up and the pedals would cease to propel the bike forward. It took several seconds of frenzied spinning before the pawls engaged and I could keep riding. After this happened several times, I realized I didn't have the option to stop pedaling.

Then at mile 17, it hit ... the bladder pangs. "I can probably hold it for nine more miles," I thought. But only one mile passed before tears started to stream down my face. My whole body shuddered in anticipation of a great, building pressure. By the time red dots started flashing in my line of vision, I knew I was going to pee whether I stopped or not. I quickly decided to opt for the indignity of hitchhiking over the indignity of peeing my pants. I threw the bike in a snowbank and sprinted into the woods.

Sure enough, when I came back, the hub was frozen. I sat beside it with both wheels on the ground, spinning and spinning the pedals with my hand. Nothing happened. I tried lifting up the back wheel and spinning it some more. Nothing. Finally, I shifted down a few gears and spun with as much RPM as I could muster. The hub finally caught and the back wheel started moving. I catapulted myself onto the saddle on shot down the road, promising Sugar that he would go back to being a slush bike soon enough.

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."

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Hauling out the big rig

Date: Jan. 24
Mileage: 25.1
January mileage: 684.8
Hours: 2:15
Temperature upon departure: 23
Snowfall: 11.8" Friday and Saturday

I started taking deep, involuntarily louder breaths with every precarious step up the icy, narrow staircase. My knees begged to just buckle already and my biceps burned, but I couldn't stop now. I had nowhere to go. My palm seared against the top tube of my bicycle, and I tried to climb faster, but I was already feeling faint. I hadn't even planted my final foot on the top stair when I lobbed the ridiculously heavy bike at the porch, letting the rubber bounce a couple times as I caught my breath. I had just climbed two flights of stairs. It would be the hardest thing I had to do all day.

Beyond the trips up the stairs, however, I am becoming more and more accustomed to Pugsley's recent, rapid weight gain. We had a pretty big snowstorm yesterday, and many of my neighbors were out shoveling their driveways. As I puttered by, more than one commented, "That is a big bike." Yes. Yes it is. Gear-laden Pugsley is the SUV of bikes. Obnoxiously obese and a fuel hog at that. But the traction on ice is amazing. I love the effortless downhill speed and the way I can just pulverise hardened blocks of snow into powder. As long as I avert my eyes from the odometer on the uphill climbs, I may be able to stay in denial about Pugsley's weight problem.

I have received some questions lately about why I have decided to go with the gear set-up that I have. The truth is, I may not go with this set-up at all. I am becoming more and more attached to the idea of some designer seatpost and burrito bags by Eric at Epic Designs. The problem is Eric is a one-man show, and a busy one at that, so I can't demand he drop everything for my petty last-minute whims. And the truth is, the stuff-sack set-up isn't terrible. I have the ability position the front sack with all of my clothing to be able to get in and out of it without having to even loosen the straps that lash it to the handlebars. It is not packed very full at all, and compressing it really isn't necessary. But there are still questions about my gear. Keep in mind that I'm a novice, and learning this as I go. But I'll try to answer to the best of my knowledge:

1. Why not go with panniers?
Good question! After all, I own four panniers. They each have handy little pockets to access things in a second. So why would I leave those at home so I can stuff everything in inaccessible compression sacks? Over the years, the use of panniers has become almost nonexistent in snow-bike racing. I can only imagine that enough people have had bad experiences with them to convince the community as a whole to abandon them. I have never actually tried to use them, but I can think of a couple of big disadvantages. One, panniers are not made to lock to the rack. They actually come off rather easily. This could become endlessly annoying in the event of soft, uneven snow where the bike tips over frequently. Imagine losing and having to readjust your bags every few minutes. That would definitely be worse than having to loosen a few frozen straps to get at gear. And two, panniers - especially front panniers - hang really low to the ground. Narrow snowmobile trails usually have tall berms, and scraping bags against both sides of the trail would be a nightmare. Even two simple rear bags may be a bad idea. Part of the reason is weight distribution:

2. Why put all that weight up front?
Snow bikers are fat. We wear a bunch of fat clothing, we ride fat bikes, we carry tons of excess weight in gear that one normally associate more with big-mountain climbers than bicycle racers. We weigh a ton. This weight problem runs counter to the very goal we are trying to achieve: Floating on top of snow. So our best option to weigh a ton and still maximize our ever-elusive floatation is to distribute our fat loads as equally as possible. Since we sit our fat butts on the back of the bike, it makes the most sense to carry as much of our fat gear on the front of the bike as we can. Many of the rigs owned by some of the faster racers look like they're about to tip over out front, but they have almost nothing on back.

3. So why not just get a front rack?
I'd like to, but it's not easy for me here in the land of one-local-bike-shop-that's-closed-for-much-of-the-winter. Everything I try and test has to be bought online, which often means no returns. Trying things I'm not sure about becomes costly. I'm still convinced that lashing my stuff sack to some kind of rack rather than my handlebars won't really achieve much besides having to undo straps from a rack, rather than handlebars. But I am still considering it.

4. So what will you do when it's 15 below and you want the down coat that's in the bottom of your stuff sack?
I'll just have to stop, undo a strap, pull clothing out of the sack and then stuff it back in. Honestly, if it's 15 below or lower, I may end up wearing just about everything I have in that sack anyway. The stuff that I want to be accessible all the time (like food and mittens) will be in easily accessible places like my frame bag and poggies. I'm really not too worried about the minor inconvenience of a stuff sack.

5. Why not use bungee cords?
Frozen straps can be worked loose. Bungee cords that are frozen in a stretched position, on the other hand, are useless.

6. Why not drag a sled?
I have never, never heard anything good about snow cyclists using sleds. And a few have tried. Rolling resistance is really bad on snow to begin with. Add some 4-inch tires, and it gets even worse. Add a sled, and I'm amazed the friction doesn't pull people backward. Sleds also have a habit of tipping over. Geoff thinks he may have devised the perfect sled this year, but during last year's Susitna 100, his sled tipped over at least a dozen times. If this happens while you're running, you'll notice it and correct the problem. If it happens on a bike, you may or may not notice for a while. Backtracking to retrieve lost gear does not sound like my idea of a fun adventure.

So there you go. Have any more questions? Just ask!

Friday, January 25, 2008

12 hours and a hard fall

Date: Jan. 24
Mileage: 109.5
January mileage: 659.7
Hours: 12:15
Temperature upon arrival: 21 (forgot to check what it was when I left.)
Precipitation: 0"

I think I am really starting to get this all-day-on-a-bike thing dialed in. I finish the ride, eat a good meal, and almost instantly begin to feel fresh and halfway recovered. I almost feel as though I spent the day at work, not riding my bike. Almost. Except for the issue of the road rash on my elbow, and the dent in my hip. Well, it's not a dent, really; it's more like a lopsided purple goose egg. Either way, it's sure to become a solid streak of soreness before tomorrow. These long rides just wouldn't be the same without small disasters.

I finally peeled myself away from my warm house at 8:15 a.m. and headed directly for the Mendenhall Valley trails. The snow is really set up solid right now ... footprints, ice-covered roots and all. It's a bumpy ride. I wanted to test out the loaded-down bike on some technical stuff. The set-up actually did really well. The big handlebar bag doesn't affect the handling at all. The sheer girth of the bike actually makes it pretty fun to pilot on singletrack - like driving a monster truck over smashed cars. At Dredge Lake, I also met the only person I spoke with all day long, a man named Harry who just happened to write a response to my "Romeo the Wolf" story on NPR. Small place, this city.

While the bike handled well, continuing forward movement was another story. I am thinking about renaming Pugsley "Fat Lard." I'm fairly certain, after adding a camelback to the mix, that together we topped 200 pounds today. I was a little afraid to take him out on the ice for fear we'd go crashing through. I spent most of the day fighting the bizarre gusts of north wind, which in open areas blew at a sustained 25 mph. Even on long flat straightaways like the lake, I found myself saying things like "Well, 9 mph isn't so bad." And then it was 8. And then 7. Despite (or maybe because of) my slowness, I felt strong all day.

I headed out the road because the valley trails are only fun for so long. Snow conditions on the highway were hard and fast, but that infuriating north wind was not helping my cause. I was coasting down a long hill at Mile 38 Glacier Highway (mile 63 on my odometer) when an unexpected cross-wind gust caught me from the side and kicked the whole bike sideways. In my surprise, I over-steered toward the gust and planted my front wheel directly in a deep ice rut. An instant later, the rubber caught the edge of the rut and slammed me on the ice-covered road. It happened so quickly that I didn't even pull my arms out of my pogies. I just went down, hard. Hard enough that the impact swallowed up every last decibel of ambient noise until all I could hear was that quiet little voice of dread. It said, "There goes my hip."

Assuming bones are broken is always my first reaction to a big fall. It's strange, because I've never actually broken a bone. I guess I just assume that nothing unbroken could possibly hurt that much. I just laid there, right in the road, for quite a long time, seeing nothing but red and white sparkles and chanting "ice is hard ... ice is hard." The pain eventually subsided and I stumbled to my feet to inspect the damage to my bike (the truth is, whenever I take a big fall, I could care less what happens to my bike. I am in pain here.) I noticed the left pedal was dented in pretty severely (not like that matters. Tally one point for platform pedals.) But amazingly, my whole gear setup survived intact. The impact didn't even loosen a strap. (Tally one point for crashproof gearbags.) The red blinkie attached to my seat stays also broke off. I wouldn't learn this until it got dark.

This is the spot where I learned the red blinkie had broken off my frame. I have a spare, but it can only attach to my camelback, which meant I had to leave my camelback outside my coat, which of course meant my hose froze in about 30 minutes (I swear, I blow and blow the water out until my face turns blue.) My hip was really sore and this made me grumpy for most of two hours. I mean, this ride was hard enough before the throbbing hip. But as that pain wore off, I began to feel much better. The wind died down (of course, this just had to happen when it would have finally been a tailwind.) The stars came out. The night felt cool and calm. I had a baggie full of Triscuits - this black pepper flavored kind, which at home I find somewhat revolting but after double-digit hours on a bicycle, there's nothing better. Life was good.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Elections and a heavy bike

Well, I finally have the bike set up for my big ride tomorrow. I'm not going to camp out tomorrow night. I just wanted to strap all of my gear to my bike and see if it's even feasable and/or functional to navigate the beast. While this version is more reality-based than any of my previous set-ups, I still don't think I'm very close to the finished product. That truth became frustratingly clear as I grunted and wrestled with my handlebar straps just to create a few extra millimeters of clearence. There's no way I'll acheive that kind of leverage when it's 10 below. Especially considering those straps likely will be frozen to plywood consistency. Plus, all the straps are annoying. There's got to be a better way.

It won't matter for tomorrow, though. The weather will be relatively warm - high 20s - and all this gear will serve mainly as dead weight. I ended up packing clothing, bivy and sleeping pad in the handlebar bag; sleeping bag, pot and stove on the back rack; and food, fuel and batteries in the frame bag. (The big black flap out front is one of the pogies.) I thought the food part was going to be tricky. My cupboards have been stripped bare in anticipation of my upcoming move. I didn't even know what I could pack in place of food, but then this evening I seridipitously received a care package from Dick B. in St. Louis, who has been mailing Trader Joes treasures to help with my training. I pulled up out the calculator and added up the caloric value of all the contents in the box: 15,600. Sounds like three days worth of food to me! Into the frame bag they went. (Thanks, Dick!)

Usually, it's better not to know these things, but I just couldn't help myself. I dragged the bathroom scale outside, picked up my bike, and tentively climbed on. The damage: 65 pounds. And that's not including water, bike pump, first aid kit, GPS, and some other things I've probabaly forgotten. Ouch.

On a, ahem, "lighter" note, I found out via Fat Cyclist that my blog was nominated in the 2008 Bloggies in the "Best Sports Blog" category. The bad news, I found out, is that I'm competing directly with Mr. Fat Cyclist himself. I'm torn on this one. On one hand, it's an honor to be nominated (and to those who took the time, thank you.) I'd be lying if I didn't say I wanted to win. On the other hand, I look at the glossy, soulless sheen of a pro blog like Deadspin, and I think "I don't want to be the one to split the cyclist vote." I feel a little bit like John Edwards. Facing crushing defeats in state after state after state, he's cozied up closer to Obama in hopes that a little shine will rub off, maybe in the form of running-mate status or a spot in the Obama administration. If I throw my endorsement to the more popular candidate - Fat Cyclist - then at least I can be comfortable in my convictions: It's better for a bike blog to win than for a Republican to win. So go vote!

Wait a minute ... did I just compare myself to John Edwards? Sad.

At least I have a 12-hour ride with a 65-pound bike to look forward to tomorrow. Better than waiting to be soundly defeated in Florida.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Between clouds

Date: Jan. 22
Mileage: 28.4
January mileage: 550.2
Hours: 2:30
Temperature upon departure: 28
Precipitation: .01"

Laura from NPR put together a pretty cool audio slideshow in which I retell the story of Juneau's resident wolf. You can listen to it at this link: "A Wolf Named Romeo." It's been interesting to see a bit of national reaction to the story of Romeo. I hope it's clear that I'm rehashing a local legend, and not presenting a factual timeline. There's a lot that's unknown about Romeo, and I'm certainly not an expert on his origin or needs. But I do know the wolf has co-existed peacefully with the recreational users of the Mendenhall Lake area for a least two years, and nobody seems to be clamoring to upset that balance.

I was feeling quite a bit of fatigue this morning. It could be all the training hours I've put in this week, or it could be the fact that I've been sleeping less, and generally not very well. Geoff and I are moving to another apartment at the end of January. We're trying to put together our plan for transporting ourselves and our stuff to and from Anchorage and hopefully McGrath next month. I'm still working on gear and food plans, and I'm reminding myself to practice my tire changes and bike repairs, tweak some of my gear, play with my stove and study maps. Little stressers start to build. I have this list that shuffles through my head like an animated flip chart. Some days, it moves so fast I can't even decipher where it begins and ends. Training is a good release. Often, I think training is the easy part of preparing for this bike race. Actually, I know training is the easy part of preparing for this bike race.

So I felt lucky to make a hard climb to Eaglecrest, despite some lead in my legs and a strong desire to crawl back into bed ... well, crawl back onto the Thermarest I have spread out on the carpet where the bed used to be. It sure beats packing stuff into boxes and hauling it off to the Salvation Army. And it sure beats researching plane tickets and wrenching around with the Pugsley. I felt guilty about choosing cycling over chores, so I pedaled as hard as my heavy muscles would allow, zoning in on my pain cave as my flip-chart thoughts dissolved into a soft mash. I spent some time playing on the frozen coastal mudflats before ascending the Eaglecrest road. Just like yesterday, I climbed out of a low-lying bank of clouds. Unlike yesterday, there were high-lying overcast clouds hovering above.

It seemed appropriate ... standing in the clear zone between two strands of clouds, unsure what my next step will be.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Happy Blue Monday

Date: Jan. 21
Mileage: 12.6
January mileage: 521.8
Hours: 2:45
Temperature upon departure: 27
Precipitation: 0"

A couple of years ago, I learned a psychologist had proclaimed the third Monday in January to be "The Most Depressing Day of the Year." (Yes, I also know it's Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But the psychologist is British and probably didn't mean to coincide the two.) I like to acknowledge the passage of "Blue Monday," if only because the day is usually anything but. I love mid-January. It's the time of year I'm pushing toward the peak of my training and riding an endorphin high that can't be crushed by even the heaviest office workload. Days are becoming noticeably longer. Winter has settled into its maximum splendor. Spring is on the horizon.

The weather forecast today called for "mostly sunny." So I was more than a little disappointed when I woke up to a thick bank of clouds hovering above the city. I suited up for the possibility of precipitation and set out with plans for a recovery-type ride on the road. But at the last minute, without even thinking much about exactly why I had changed my mind, I grabbed my Pugsley and hit the Dan Moller Trail instead.

I complained enough the other day about all the rain we received, but it left behind the most ideal trail conditions imaginable. The Moller gains ~500 feet of elevation per mile and has always been an uphill hike-a-bike, even in the best of conditions. But today, with packed snow condensed and frozen to gravel-road consistency, the trail had set up beyond the best of conditions. I was able to ride effortlessly - well, I was able to ride huffing and sweating and wrestling off extra layers and averaging about 4.5 mph. But I rode!

I didn't have to gain much elevation before I emerged from the low-lying clouds and realized that it was, in fact, a sunny, beautiful day. The trail took a steep turn up the canyon, and I relished in listening to the rolling crackle of rubber rather than the crunch-crunch of trudging feet. Even when the trail hit a grade that would have been only marginally climbable even on dirt, I continued to spin and spin furiously until the back wheel refused to inch forward. By the time I was finally, actually pushing, I was only one mile from the top of the ski bowl.

I pushed my bike until even pushing became impossible, and the only place left to go was the near-vertical face of the ridgeline. I layed the bike down and continued to climb up the mountain, kicking steps into the snowpack and hoping my gloved fingers worked as an adequate substitute for an ice axe. I clawed over the crest of the ridge and with one final push - a powdery pull-up - I met the first direct sunlight of the day.

Suddenly I was facing the backside of Douglas Island, looking out across Stephens Passage and Admiralty Island. Elevation was about 2,500 feet.

Sea-level was still shrouded in clouds. I stood at the cusp of treeline and open slopes of untouched powder. I longed to carve some curvy lines and decided that someday I would figure out how to carry a snowboard on my bike. Winter multisport-style.

Instead, I slid on my butt back to the bike and set into the screaming descent. Two hours up and a half hour back. I bounded over an unbroken stream of snowmobile moguls with my butt hovering inches over the back rack and tears streaming down my face in the cold wind. With no powder to kick us sideways, Pugsley and I picked up the kind of raw speed that narrows focus to each single moment, locked in silence without anticipation or fear. We rode the wave of blue shadows, snaking through trees and plummeting into the clouds - where it was still Monday, but different somehow.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

I don't really have to quit yet, do I?

Date: Jan. 20
Mileage: 63.8
January mileage: 509.2
Hours: 5:15
Temperature upon departure: 23
Precipitation: 0"

I veered onto Mendenhall Lake and looked at my watch again. 12:47 p.m. In a perfect world, I would be sitting at my office desk in 13 minutes. In my own skewed world, I didn't really need to be at work before 2, and that was more than an hour away. In the real world, I still had more than 15 miles to ride even if I turned around right there and went straight home, a shower to take, some lunch to eat ...

The studded tires clacked loudly on the ice; in the still air the sound echoed like a symphony of snare drums. I skidded to a scraping stop and looked back with pride at the deep gouges I had scratched into the surface - like skid marks off a muscle car. The traction definitely seemed satisfactory, and I was much more interested in circumnavigating the lake than racing the clock home. But still my watch ticked and still I stood there, undecided even as I acknowledged my first fatal scheduling decision had already been made hours ago, when I refused to stop pedaling north.

But what else can I do with an indefatigable bike day, day 4 of a big push no less, when it came time to go to work? I blame this cruel economy that forces me to sit at a desk to pay for my bikes, and ride my bikes to tolerate sitting at a desk. And I blame this cruel world where a flickering computer screen trumps even the most perfect techie winter singletrack: snow pumped full of rain and frozen to a petrified sheen. It looks so slippery that even the walkers stay away, but a full-suspension mountain bike with studded tires can hop and swerve and motor up hills with quiet determination. The real secret to perfection are thin flakes of hoarfrost sprinkled over the surface, offering unyeilding gritty traction that conjures the do-no-wrong sensation of slickrock in Moab ... if Moab slickrock was white, and cold, and in Alaska.

I broke away from the singletrack after only one run, because secretly my goal today was mileage. Hard to explain true motivations. But the open road was calling me out, taunting me with a blaze of sunlight and the promise of flight - as much as flight can be achieved on a full-suspension mountain bike with studded tires, in the cold, in Alaska.

And even as the ice called me back, my sense of duty called louder. I cut a wide U-turn on the ice and pedaled toward the road, legs still pumping fire and demanding something more ... a century, or singletrack loops, or the crunchy smooth surface of the lake. Anything but cramped beneath a desk, slowly going stiff as they brace for the down side of the week.

Last day of the five-hour push and 63 miles on a work day. I was going to cut back tomorrow, but do I have to?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Brand new camera

Date: Jan. 18 and 19
Mileage: 36.6 and 54.5
January mileage: 445.4
Hours: 3:00 (plus 3:00 at the gym) yesterday and 4:30 today
Temperature upon departure: 39 and 28
Precipitation: 1.61 inches!!! (All rain, all yesterday.)

Last week, I received an e-mail from Stephanie at Olympus. She told me she had looked at my blog, enjoyed the cycling/photography concept, and just happened to have in mind the perfect camera for me: The Olympus Stylus 770 SW. She told me she would send me one, no strings attached ... I'm sure knowing that any blogger is going to brag publicly about free gear. But what she didn't know is that I already owned an older version of this exact camera, and had been abusing it quite heavily since April. Even after I told her so, she didn't withdraw her offer. "You'll like to new version," she told me. "This one is freezeproof."

Mendenhall Lake

The sparkling new silver camera came in the mail on Thursday. Today I took it on its first ride. Not a bad day for a first shoot, and not a bad little camera. I don't have an memory card yet, and the internal memory limited me to 11 pictures. I decided this was a good thing, because I was aiming for a long ride, and I wanted to keep moving. Instead, I spent way too much time during my ride self-editing my photos. Definitely an amazing, beautiful day.

Auke Bay, with enough steam to show that is really is somewhat cold out.

Juneau had its first sunlight in nine days, coming off a string of some of the crappiest weather January can conjure. I've had people tell me they'd prefer cold winter rain to subzero temperatures. I can't even fathom that. Subzero, rare as it is here, brings all that crisp dry air and clear skies. Dress for it right, and this kind of weather is both comfortable and exciting. Rain and temperatures in the 30s, on the other hand, can only mean one thing to me as a cyclist: That I'm going to be really wet, and really miserable, and I'm eventually going to be really cold no matter what I do.

Tee Harbor

Friday was one of those "put your head down and ride" kind of days. In continuously heavy rain, especially with the kind of flooding we get against the snowpack, it only takes about a half hour for my outer "waterproof" clothing barrier to be broken. After one hour, I'm soaked through and through. And that's the way I have to ride, in temperatures in the high 30s, a 15-20 mph wind and windchills hovering between 20 and 25, for as many hours as I can endure it. I can usually hold out about three hours without completely changing my clothing. But by the end of the ride, especially if I make a single stop or, as I did yesterday, slow for a while to talk to Geoff as he runs, I usually have to spend the last half hour of the ride racked with chills, hating every minute of my miserable existence. Maybe weeks of unbroken subzero temperatures would teach me differently, but until then, there is no weather I hate more than cold rain.

SPRING! (Not really, but it doesn't take much to coax a little green around here.)

But today! Today was exactly the shot I needed. Blazing sun and temps just cold enough to refreeze all the slop. I'm on day three of my current long training push ... exercising about five hours each in four consecutive days (a little short today, a little long yesterday.) Either way, it eats up a lot of time. Geoff is training at a similar level right now, and between us, we're putting in more than a full-time job's worth of hours in the selfish pursuit of fitness. We've had to make more and more concessions in the things we normally do just to clear up the time. One of the things we've given up is grocery shopping. I thought it was pretty funny when I was eating frozen ravioli two nights in a row and spooning peanut butter out of a jar for lunch. But I think we've both started to run a bit of a calorie deficit (go figure ... keeping food out of the house is a good way to go on a diet.) I stood on the scale at the gym yesterday and learned I weigh five pounds less than I did at this time last year. No necessarily a bad thing, but I was just beginning to think that a little extra pudge might even pay off during the Ultrasport. Because there's no way I'll avoid running a calorie deficit in that event, and it's not like I'll even notice a little extra junk in the trunk once I slog out there with 60 pounds of bike and gear. This is the excuse I've drummed up to hit the ice cream ... if only we had some.

Auke Lake with Mount McGinnis in the background.

But where was I? Oh yes, the Stylus 770 SW. I had great fun with it on this sunny, beautiful day. Miles and miles of rubbing up against Power Bars in my pocket has scratched my old Olympus's viewing screen to the point of abstraction. This camera's screen was crystal clear. I am excited to test out its "freezeproof" claims. I already know it's basically bombproof. In August, I inadvertently used my old camera to break a rather rocky fall off my mountain bike, landing directly on the hip pocket that held the camera. I put a gouge in the casing nearly a millimeter deep, but the camera didn't even flicker. The Stylus 770 SW is waterproof, too. It's definitely not a top-of-the-line, professional camera. But I think pro cameras really aren't practical for cyclists. Cyclists need something small, something simple, and something that can endure a 15-foot huck off a gnarly cliff and still take pictures at the bottom. If National Geographic ever comes knocking, I'll go buy something with a zoom lens.

This little point-and-shoot Stylus really is the perfect camera for me. I'm not just being a shill by saying that. I bought the same camera long before Olympus volunteered to sponsor my blog efforts. Does a comped camera make me a sponsored photographer? I guess this is my blog, so I say it does. Be sure to click on the Olympus logo in the sidebar. Yeah Olympus!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

I broke both my snowshoes

How, you might ask, does one go about breaking two individual snowshoes on the same day? By accidentally running them over with a car? No. By hucking off cliffs? Sounds fun, but no. By practicing my kickboxing with a Sitka spruce? No, it's really much more mundane than that. First, you take a pair of cheap collapsible snowshoes. Then you use them to break your own trail up a typically steep slope in Juneau, Alaska, through wet, deep, heavy, heavy snow (I mean, really, is there some kind of lead pollution in the precipitation that nobody knows about?) Fail to notice that the back end has come loose after two miles. Continue stomping around, breaking crucial plastic parts and filling up the tubes with lead-based snow. Act surprised when the back end finally snaps off. Try in vain to wedge it back on to the front. Repeat with other shoe.

I was hoping to put in a long day on my bike sometime this weekend, but the weather turned absolutely atrocious: Temperatures in the high 30s and heavy, heavy (lead-based) rain. This heavy rain has been going on for more than 24 hours, and has turned all of our snow-packed roads to precarious wet ice sheets and our trails to mush. The rain continued today. I could ride in this for sure, but I figure any more than four hours in this kind of weather only stands to teach me three things:

1.) How many changes of clothes I can pack in one drybag.
2.) How long I can endure moving mild hypothermia.
3.) How long I am willing to put up with absolute misery just to ride a bicycle.

None of these are very fun lessons to sign up for, so I rationalized putting off the long ride at least a day, if not until next week. (I could, after all, just put in three longish days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.) Snowshoeing, on the other hand, sounded much more appealing today. Snowshoeing also stood to offer some valuable lessons:

1.) How my new GPS maps work.
2.) How much of a chance I stand in navigating myself now that I have GPS maps.
3.) How well my high-end endurance is holding up, because I have yet to find a more strenuous activity (that doesn't involve the highly unappealing act of running) than uphill snowshoeing.

So I set out up the Auke Nu trail knowing I could cut out at Spaulding Meadow and navigate myself somewhere else. I was hoping to connect with the Montana Creek trail or something similar. It's not a far distance on screen, but it was a pretty ambitious idea given the conditions. The trail was only broken to the John Muir cabin turnoff, a grand distance of about 0.8 miles. After that, I was sloshing through a foot or more of new, unbroken snow that had been condensed and softened by the rain. About two miles in, I found myself pausing every 50 steps or so to catch my breath. I felt like I was hiking at high elevation.

My right snowshoe finally broke while I was wandering above Spaulding Meadow at an elevation of about 1,500 feet. It took me 15 yards to notice, mainly because I was often sinking up to my knees in the snow, even with snowshoes on. I tried to continue, but it quickly became apparent that the half-snowshoe setup was really throwing off my balance. The other one broke off shortly after I turned around. I kept my half-showshoes on all the way down the mountain, but my heels sunk in so deep that it continued to feel like I was walking uphill.

The hike rounded out to about three and a half hours. It was shorter than planned, so I spent another two hours at the gym. I finished reading "Freakonomics." I did come home with a few other valuable lessons, too.

1.) GPS is pretty good at overall tracking, but despite its claims, it doesn't seem to make satellite connections when there is heavy tree cover ... at least, it doesn't at my slow rate of speed. My odometer listed my total moving time as 1 hour 25 minutes and my stopped time as more than 2 hours. I took my fair share of breathers, but I can guarantee I wasn't stopped for 2 hours. It also listed my final mileage as 3.5. I would estimate, based on the maps alone, definitely more than 7. The total elevation gain, 1,900 feet, seemed much more accurate.
2.) My new boots are really comfortable for hiking, but because they're about three sizes too large, I have to wear at least three pairs of socks to avoid weird rubbing. This will probably be ideal when it's minus 20 out, but it feels uncomfortably similar to walking on hot sand when it's 35.
3.) Never pin expedition hopes on a pair of no-name snowshoes purchased for $20 on eBay.

Oh well. At least I got 2 years out of them.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Slow snow

Date: Jan. 15
Mileage: 25.1
January mileage: 355.3
Hours: 3:00
Temperature upon departure: 32
Precipitation: .48"/3.5" snow

Holy cow, I had a tough ride today. It wouldn't appear that way on paper. I rode to the end of the North Douglas Highway and back.

That’s right. A 25-mile road ride with a mere 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The ride I know by heart. The ride I’ve done in as little as 1:20 on several occasions, mostly windless days in July. The ride I could barely recognize today through windblasted daggers of icicle snow as I bumped and bounced over a heavily plowed-in shoulder. The ride that kicked me endlessly sideways with wind gusts that stopped me in my tracks and constant effort that left me wheezing up the smallest of hills. And when I sat down to lunch after three hours of tough riding, I really believed I earned it.

I brought my GPS to play with the new electronic map I just received in the mail. I had a ton of fun watching the contour lines roll beside my virtual dot. I rattled off my stats as Geoff was leaving for work. “Wow, my top speed was 20.6 mph!” I told him. And then, “Wow, my average speed was 8.3 mph.”

Geoff just frowned. “That’s like running speed,” he said.

And just like that, three hours of tough riding were quantified. I felt deflated, and little bit cheated.

There’s a few truths in snowbiking that I think most would find frustrating: The truth that you will never be fairly reimbursed for your efforts, and you will never ride the same "trail" twice. I find that aspect of snowbiking intriguing, but I think that much uncertainty turns some people off. How could I be happy with 8.3 mph? On pavement? (Well, if a deep and slippery slurry strewn with hidden blocks of ice counts as pavement) Especially when I know I got so much more worked over and pedaled so much harder than I ever did during any and every time I averaged 19 mph along the same route? In a society that values speed as an absolute measure of quality, I, the snow biker, have truly failed.

And yet here I am, happy. Go figure.

On a gear-related note: When I posted about my food ideas, I received some good suggestions. So I thought I’d run this plan by the InterWeb and hope for similarly good advice. Basically, it’s a lot of clothing in a big handlebar bag. I ran through my list of potential Ultrasport clothing and packed all but my most basic layer in a random stuff sack. Then I lashed it to the handlebars and rode with it today. I was surprised to discover that all that extra bulk up front didn’t seem to affect the bike’s handling at all. There was plenty of clearance everywhere (brake area is a little tight once the pogies are on, but still perfectly workable.) Plus, that particular stuff sack was packed pretty loosely. I envision even more capacity in a compression sack, and weight doesn’t seem to be an issue (I'm not sure how much this bag weighs. Maybe six pounds?). I’m interested to hear others’ thoughts, whether or not it’s a bad idea to put that much stuff on the handlebars. Most people use front racks. I don’t think I need one, and I’d rather not buy one, but I don’t want a simple handlebar bag to become a fatal decision, either.

If you’re curious, here’s a list of the stuff I had in the handlebar bag: Down coat, heavyweight fleece pullover, base-layer polypro tights, base-layer polypro shirt, lightweight polyester longjohns, heavyweight polyester pants, liner socks, 2 pair Smartwool socks, heavy wool socks, extra liner gloves, lightweight polyester balaclava, heavyweight fleece balaclava, fleece hat, neoprene face mask, earband, underwear, big mittens.

Another interesting tidbit: I don’t use chamois. I basically haven’t for more than two years. I still own a couple pairs of ancient bike shorts that are technically padded, but the weather only allows me to wear those maybe 10 or 15 times a year. The rest of the time, I just wear whatever I want. I like the versatility. And I’ve never had any issues with the nether region. I have been thinking about a chamois for the Ultrasport, if only because the event is so, so long. But I’m almost more inclined to just stick with the stuff I know works for me. A chamois on a well-calloused butt may only cause misery.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Pushing

Date: Jan. 14
Mileage: 17.8
January mileage: 330.2
Hours: 3:15
Temperature upon departure: 27
Precipitation: .02"/.75" snow

The more movement grinds to a halt, the more time seems to speed by. I slumped over my handlebars and drew a deep breath, again. I wrestled with my right foot until I freed it from the shin-deep snow, again. I planted my foot a few inches down the slope, where it promptly disappeared into the drift, again. I inhaled another big breath and did the same with my left foot. My bike sat upright in the snow with no need for my support. I yanked on the handlebars, but it refused to budge. My calves burned and glutes throbbed as beads of sweat formed on my face in defiance of nonmovement. Even the bike's odometer mocked me, still registering 0.0 mph after more than 50 yards. "Well," I thought. "This is definitely worse than the trail." I waded over to the single soft snowmobile track I had used to trudge up, and now down, the mountain over my seven-mile slog. I looked at my camera display. Two hours had passed. All time and no distance. I was exhausted. I wondered how long it would take to push a bike 350 miles. And I wondered how long I would be able to endure the pushing. In the space where 50 yards is an epic, 350 miles is an eternity.

But it's good exercise, just the same.

A couple more photos from today:

Finally freed from the thick coat of fresh snow on the Dan Moller trail, I worked on my fat bike steering skillz in the Sandy Beach slaloms.

It's fun to come home to my cat, Cady. Cady's lifestyle offers a good balance to mine. She's lazy, pudgy, and fights with every cat she meets. But she's always there to remind me that the best things in life are free. (Or, in the case of a camp chair, nearly free.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Meal planning

Date: Jan. 13
Mileage: 25.8
January mileage: 312.4
Hours: 2:00
Temperature upon departure: 30
Precipitation: .22"/4" snow

I had a great short ride today. I felt the strongest I have since my left knee started acting up in late December. My actual moving time seemed exceptionally short (the ride took two hours, but I stopped for a while in two different spots.) I hope to put in my longest single ride yet this weekend if the weather cooperates. I won't ride for 12 hours in 35-degree rain. There's just no reason to suffer that much in the name of "training."

I have been spending a fair amount of my off time trying to decide exactly what I'll have in my "kit" during the Ultrasport. In some aspects, I still have quite a bit of testing to complete before I really get my gear dialed in. I have a list and an pretty concrete idea of the clothing I want to bring, but I'm still not completely sure if it's enough. Or too much? My testing isn't likely to yield enough confidence in the end result to shave much off my current list. But I feel like the ideas I have now are a good balance of "too much" for most conditions and "just right" for extreme conditions. As long as it all fits on my bike, I'll be happy.

Something I've been a little less sure of is meal planning. How does one prepare all the food they're going to carry in a endurance event that will consume an unknown number of days? For my food planning, I'm taking a page from the mountaineering book: Hope for five days. Pack for seven. Ration if it takes nine. That I will be on a well-traveled trail that crosses several winter lodges and a couple of towns will minimize the danger of starvation, so I'd like to keep food on the light side. But that still doesn't answer the question of how much to take.

What to take, though, for me is an easier question. As much as I'd love to just carry a bunch of light-weight fatty products like butter, there's no way I can ingest, let alone digest that kind of food. My experience has taught me in heavily active situations, I operate great for extended periods of time on simple carbohydrates, can tolerate protein and unsaturated fat in well-distributed doses, and can't deal in the slightest with saturated fats and really greasy stuff. This reality seems to hold true even after more than a day. My only multiday experience is cycling the Golden Circle in August. I went for three days eating a diet that was almost entirely nut/fruit trail mix, fruit snacks and Clif Bars. I never really became tired of that stuff. In fact, the opposite happened. Knowing I had the ability to process my food and keep going was a huge comfort, and I relished in eating it. The experience that finally convinced me that a repetitive, simple carbohydrate diet is best for me happened as I rolled through Whitehorse during a really hot part of the afternoon after logging more than 250 miles in a little more than 24 hours. I pedaled by a McDonalds and several other fast food restaurants. The smells wafting from the buildings were beyond nauseating in my condition. But I continued to crave my crappy walnuts and cranberries. I also had a similarly sickening experience with French fries after the 24 Hours of Kincaid.

So I have some good ideas for foods I know I can and will eat, that pack fairly small and are either edible frozen, or thaw fairly easily. I'm still at a loss of how much to bring. I figure I can balance the fats and carbohydrates to log about 2,200 calories to a pound of food. I don't think it's likely I'll be able to eat much more than 4,500 calories in a day, but I'll probably pack and ship as much as 6,000 for each day, and maybe even a little extra emergency food. There will be some trail food, but my Whitehorse McDonalds experience has me a little concerned about how appetizing it will seem. If I don't need to head back out on the trail right away, I can always force the "free" calories down. But getting sick is always a concern.

Here's a list of the foods I have been thinking about, and their caloric value per ounce. You can gag or marvel in my refined palette. Either way, this is the stuff I'm comfortable with, and I'm not likely to change it too much.

Clif/Power Bars: 250 calories, 2.4 oz
Pop Tarts: 400 calories, 3.6 oz
Walnuts: 183 calories per ounce
Almonds: 169 calories per ounce
Pecans: 196 calories per ounce
Soy nuts: 128 calories per ounce
Sunflower seeds: 165 calories per ounce
Craisens: 92 calories per ounce
Dried cherries: 100 calories per ounce
Dried pineapple: 92 calories per ounce
Chocolate: 152 calories per ounce
Turkey jerky: 100 calories per ounce
13” tortilla: 330 calories
Fruit snacks: 123 calories per ounce
Peanut butter: 167 calories per ounce
Fruit leather: 90 calories per ounce
Tuna package: 40 calories per ounce
Wheat Thins: 137 calories per ounce

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pugsley presence

Date: Jan. 11
Mileage: 48.8
January mileage: 286.6
Hours: 5:00
Temperature upon departure: 26
Precipitation: .58"

When I first attached enough parts to my Pugsley to enable its mobility beyond my back yard, I thought for sure the sight of my obese clown bike would garner a lot of attention. I thought people would be stopping me on the streets ("Excuse me, but I think your bike's wheels are about to explode ...") Surprisingly, the early reactions to Pugsley were few and far between (and most of them involved some variation of "does that thing have studs?") I became comfortable with the idea that Pugsley did not in fact look all that strange to the indiscriminate eye, and relished in my cycling anonymity.

For some reason, that all changed recently. Suddenly, I've become this crazy bike lady that people recognize and feel compelled to question. If I ride out to the lake on a semi-nice day, I almost have to put on an extra base layer so I can stay warm during all the time I'm stopped, talking to people about my bike. Fat bikes are common in Anchorage, but not so much in Juneau. Slednecks like to give me incredulous looks. Hikers seem most concerned with the weight behind Pugsley's obvious girth. Nordic skiers, especially on the lake, usually ask the omnipresent stud question (which sometimes I feel compelled to answer with "I don't know. Do those skis have studs?") Skate skiers like to chase me, ambling as I am at 10 mph, but I still can usually stay ahead.

The only meetings where silence largely remains are the rare occasions in which I pass or am passed by other cyclists. Most are commuters, many on their own Frankenbike creations, and I think they in general respect the notion that if it has two wheels and moves forward, there's no reason to question its credentials. But even that changed yesteday.

I was returning from my second long ride of the weekend (well, five hours. I was satisfied), when a bicycle commuter merged onto the bike lane in front of me. Conditions were similar to the day before: a sheet of glare ice left over from earlier rain, covered in an inch or so of stirred-up snow. He had these skinny, skinny tires that appeared from the faint glare of my headlight to have studs, but it was hard to know for sure. We split off the bike lane near Fred Meyer and I forged ahead on the road shoulder. It was in even worse shape than the bike path, with churned up, sandy snow strewn in uneven piles. About a half mile later, he passed me again.

"Nice bike," he said. "What's the deal with those tires?"

"They're good in snow," I answered.

"Huh," he said. He didn't sound convinced. "Looks a little too big."

"Yeah. They're big."

"Are the tires studded?"

"No."

He shook his head. "That's not very safe."

I just raised my eyebrows. Not safe? Said the guy on the 1-inch roadie tires as he tried to plow through uneven sandy snow. Now, I know those skinny tires are better at slicing down to the pavement. But what happens that one time that they don't? Sounds like a wash-out waiting to happen if you ask me.

"It's mainly for trail riding," I said. "But the wide tires don't do too bad on ice."

"Well," he said, "you should think about getting some studded tires if you're going to ride on the road."

With that he started to pass me, and I let him go. I didn't really want to chase him after putting 14 hours of riding/pushing on my legs that weekend, and justified the decision by telling myself I didn't stand a chance against skinny tires on the stupid road, anyway. And with that, our snow bike argument ended like so many Polaris/Yamaha discussions do: Each of us convinced of our vehicle's superiority.

I spent several miles yesterday pedaling alongside Geoff as he ran with his 30-pound sled. He has a pretty good post up about the sled's inner workings. I'm pretty sure Geoff has put more time and effort into building his sled than we did with my Pugsley. It's funny that he, as a winter runner, has to deal with nearly as much equipment as I do as a winter cyclist.

Also yesterday, I caught another glimpse of Romeo the wolf. He was making advances on a golden retriever that seemed downright terrified of him, and cowered behind its two skiing owners as they gawked at the big black interloper. The wolf didn't seem to want to have anything to do with the people, so he kept a good distance. But he did make several friendly-seeming gestures: bowing down in the snow with his tail up in the air, and rolling on his side. Still the dog cowered, and eventually Romeo slinked away to the shelter of the moraine. I couldn't help but feel my heart fall at Romeo's rejection by the golden retriever. It really does seem that Romeo is just a lonely wolf. That he's become half-domesticated in his search for a family is the true tragedy.

Friday, January 11, 2008

So much beauty it'll make you cry

Date: Jan. 10
Mileage: 65.4
January mileage: 238.2
Hours: 8:45
Temperature upon departure: 22
Precipitation: 0"

Disclaimer: There are a particularly gratuitous number of pictures in this post. It may make the post seem obnoxiously large. You have been warned.

I didn't have many goals for today's ride. I wanted to spend at least eight hours outside, slowly as I am trying to ween my knee back into long rides. I wanted to spend most of the day riding trails and check out some new trails. But I have to admit, I wasn't that particularly excited about it the prospect of an all-day bike ride.

My mood kicked into manic mode at the first sight of blue sky after breakfast. There's no way to overemphasize this: There's really nothing like a (partly) sunny day in Juneau. We all spend so much time slogging through downpours that even I sometimes catching myself wondering why anyone would take a job here, buy a house here, commit themselves to living here for any amount of time. But then the sun comes out, and every lingering speck of S.A.D. disintegrates. We have great selective short-term amnesia, we Juneauites.

I knew, looking across the Douglas Island bridge first thing this morning, that the day was going to be beautiful.

Even the commute was nice.

Temps were in the low-20s ... preferable to the soggy mid-30s by any Juneauite's standards, and absolutely ideal in my mind.

The Mendenhall Glacier was looking very azure this morning.

The Mendenhall Lake was covered in a little more than an inch of fresh snow resting atop glare ice. A great day for speed. Not a great day to make figure 8s.

As I crossed the lake in the light mist, I heard this low, loud howl. "It couldn't be," I thought, but I made a U-turn toward the sound anyway.

Sure enough, I caught a glimpse of the black wolf called "Romeo" as he loped along the shoreline. The story behind Romeo, by local legend, is one of a lone and lonely wolf who was somehow separated from his pack (another story has his entire pack killed by wildlife officials.) So now he lives on the outskirts of suburban Juneau, looking for dogs to be friends with (another story has him looking for dogs to eat.) Either way, he is regularly sighted near the lake, but he still takes my breath away every time.

I soon made my way over to the north end of the valley. This is what I imagine the pre-Alaska Range Iditarod landscape looks like.

Pushing my bike up the Lake Creek trail was completely exhausting. Most of it was a steep sheet of glare ice covered in a very meager layer of snowmobile-chewed snow. One would imagine that, when training for a bike race, it would make the most sense to ride one's bike. But I've found that my most valuable training comes in taking my bike for long, steep walks. I'm never working harder than I am at 1.5 mph.

I sweat a bucket and a half while slogging up there. But when I reached the wide-open trails of Spaulding Meadow, I knew the ice climb was worth it.

Totally worth it.

Totally, totally worth it.

Back to the lake by sunset, making a few more loops on the ice before hopping over to the nicely foot-packed trails of Dredge Lake. I had hardly noticed the day had slipped away.

And just like that, it was nearly 4 p.m. Even though I absolutely had to be home by six, I had a hard time peeling myself away from the trail. I felt completely strong. My knees felt completely strong. I wasn't even hungry. It was like I hadn't ridden a single minute the entire day.

I can't believe I let myself count these rides as "training."