Saturday, February 21, 2009

Stoked

Date: Feb. 19-20
Mileage: 41.2 and 16.5
February mileage: 556.5
Temperature: 32 and 34

There is little I can do to improve my fitness ahead of March 1 at this point. So I set out this weekend to simply do "fun" rides, thereby hopefully shoring up happy memories that I can look back at wistfully when things get rough in the race, as they inevitably will. "Oh yeah," I will tell myself. "Snowbiking used to be fun."

It may be the mild taper or the fact that six months or three years (depending on how you look at it) of training focus is narrowing toward something specific, concrete and real ... but I both physically and mentally felt better and stronger than I have in a long time. Everything came together at the right time - the warmth, the sunlight, the speed, the snow. It felt like a big smile from the universe, directed right at me. I decided to believe that's a good omen.

Yesterday morning, Pugsley and I motored out to the Valley at 18, 19 even 20 mph. I thought there was some kind of crazy wind at my back, but it was just calm and warm and partly sunny, same as it has been for more than a week. (How can it even be February? This is solid April weather.) I hoped to hit up a few trails but assumed they'd be mush in the heat. Strangely enough, a cold air mass hovered right over the Valley. Temperatures fell to 25 or so. My front derailleur, covered in road slush, froze solid. But the Lake Creek snowmobile trail was hard-packed and recently groomed. I dropped my tire pressure, churned up to Spaulding Meadow and coasted back down on a feather ... snow almost too soft to ride, but not quite. It feels like riding on a cloud. It's probably the closest bicycles come to powder skiing.

Today was even more strangely perfect. It was 34 degrees when I left the house, not a good snowbiking temperature. Low-lying clouds hugged the mountains and I rode toward the Dan Moller Trail because I only had three or so hours to spare, and the Dan Moller Trail is the most fun trail close to home. I approached the trail expecting what I should have expected - mush, slush and fog. What I found was a perfectly flat, very recently groomed snowmobile trail. Nobody had used it since it had last been groomed, and I mean nobody. There were a single set of footprints that turned around about a half mile up, and after that, it was a smooth, flat, well-packed trail ... everything ideal for uphill snowbiking.

I took my rear tire pressure down to about 4 or 5 psi and left the front around 8 ... because I seem to get better grip for climbing when the front tire is little more solid. I set to the riding, 4 or 5 mph, which is flying up this trail. It takes all the effort I have to give ... running a heart rate of 165+, gasping for air, stripped down to my base layer and still gushing sweat. In marginal conditions - soft snow or steep climbs - riding a bike a 5 mph can easily take four times more effort than walking a bike at 2.5 mph, which is why bike pushing is so regularly employed in most endurance snow bike races. Only the strongest of the strongmen can afford to expend that much extra effort without an equal speed payoff. But on a day like today, when I'm only planning to ride for three hours and rest as much as I want later, I can burn as hot and high as I feel like burning. I was red-zoning at 5 mph, and feeling awesome.

As I climbed higher, the fog began to clear. The trail pitched steeper, and I started the push. I assumed that any second, a snowmobile was going to come up and chew up my perfectly smooth, perfectly predictable trail, making for a fish-tailing rough ride down. Last Friday, at the exact same time of day, I saw at least two dozen snowmobiles blast up this trail. I told myself I should turn around right then and enjoy what downhill I could, but the sunlight beckoned me higher. The edges of the hard effort were starting to cut through. My GPS ticked off feet of elevation like seconds on a clock, but I didn't slow down. I felt like I had to beat the rolling fog, had to beat the approaching snowmobiles.

But neither came. The sky became clearer. I crested the ridge. It was Pugsley's first ascent. I congratulated him. I took a drink of ice-free water and walked along the ridge, watching wisps of intensely illuminated clouds swirl along the mountainside.

The contrast of dark and light was intriguing ... hard to capture with a camera. But, then again, it's different up there, heart still pounding and hair still dripping from the hard climb. You squint against an expanse of snow and see every shadow and color with a pulsating intensity. Cameras never capture that.

After that, there was nowhere to go but down. I kicked off the ridge and shot down the steep face of the Douglas Ski Bowl, digging in deep with my rear wheel but hardly losing speed. I dropped into the bowl and mashed the pedals to churn up a 100-foot knoll, the last hard climb. I slowed but didn't put my feet down as I took a lingering look over the canyon, draped in clouds but clearing, and launched into the final descent. The trail, unbelievably, almost in a Twilight Zone way, was still perfectly groomed. Not a single snowmobile had been up there in at least three hours, and possibly all day. For the first time ever, I was able to ride this trail without a single mogul or snowmobile ski track or soft spot or chewed-up edge. The risk was gone so I released the brakes and let gravity reign. I glanced down at my GPS, registering a max speed of 25, 27, 29 mph. On snow! With a rear tire at 4 psi!

I arrived at the bottom of the trail less than 20 minutes after I left the ridge, five miles and 2,300 feet of elevation behind me. I pulled into the empty parking lot practically drenched in ecstasy, almost in disbelief at what just happened, just like being 19 years old and carving my way to the bottom of a black diamond run on a snowboard for the first time. After I did it once it was never quite the same, but today was just like that. Remind me to send a donation to the groomer with the Juneau Snowmobile Club.

I used to have a next-door neighbor who, whenever I told him about something cool that happened, would say, "You're stoked."

Exactly. Stoked, fired up, and ready to leave scorch marks on the snow.