Saturday, March 19, 2011

An overloaded fat bike in California

We acquired a bike rack for transport to the airport and picked up a hard-case bike box from Steve. Beat was standing next to the Fatback with an Allen wrench in hand, anxious to dismantle the bike and make sure we could in fact fit it in the box. I knew I could no longer procrastinate this one last chore — taking the fully loaded bike out for a test ride to make sure everything was comfortable and secure. I was not looking forward to riding this behemoth of a bike on the streets of Los Altos. There were just too many details that made me feel grotesquely conspicuous: the bloated wheels, the bulging handlebar bag, the pogies — pogies for crying out loud! I feared they were all going to laugh at me, all the Californians with their BMWs and bullet bikes and 15-pound Cervelos zipping up the pavement. But it had to be done, and unfortunately I waited for Saturday

Saturday — the day with fierce wind and sideways rain and temperatures in the mid-40s. The wind was forecast to gust up to 60 mph, and the snow line — snow line! — was reportedly down to 3,500 feet in the mountains on the east side of the Bay. I didn't have easy access to anywhere quite that high, but the day did promise to be nothing if not wet, so I figured if I was going to be a geek, I might as well be a geek. I put on my favorite plastic jacket and bulky rain pants, ear warmers, and wool socks, then packed enough gear in my bike for an Arctic expedition. I was pretty sure I was the geekiest geek in Silicon Valley — not a small feat.

I packed up my bike with all of the gear I planned to take in the White Mountains 100 — including my full winter bivy bundle — along with a quart of water and a small amount of food. We dangled the bike from a luggage scale, and it came in just a hair under 50 pounds. "Most people in California pay a lot of money to get their bikes under 15 pounds. We, on the other hand, pay a lot of money to get our bikes over 50 pounds," Beat said.

"Almost," I said. "Fifty pounds is actually not as bad as I thought it was going to be." And I figured since the Fatback fell in the measly sub-50-pound range, I might as well power the thing up to the top of Black Mountain. Because, hey, why not grind a 50-pound bike up a 2,700-foot climb in the cold rain? This was going to be fun! Before I left, Beat took a photo outside the apartment as we laughed about how ridiculously overloaded I was for a 20-mile ride in California in March. He asked me if I was sure I didn't need my mittens (which are slated to be carried in the pogies during the race, but weren't packed in there yet.) We both guffawed.

Pedaling a 50-pound bike up nearly 3,000 vertical feet is indeed hard work. Luckily, the weather was so unrelentingly awful that there wasn't anyone else out to laugh at me. Only one roadie-type passed me, and I mashed into the pedals in a vain effort to keep up with him. I managed to slow the expansion of the gap for about a half mile, but by then I feared that my heart would explode.

Back to the slow grind, for an hour or so. OK, it was likely significantly more than an hour. I climbed above the ridge's treeline, at about 2,300 feet, and rose the last few hundred feet in the full brunt of a brutally strong wind. It likely was gusting to 50 mph or more. The tailwind rushed me up the last steep pitches, but the occasional crosswind gust nearly knocked me off the bike.

At the top I set up my camera on a post and took a quick self-portrait. It actually took four tries because the camera kept blowing over. The one shot I got, blurry because the camera was teetering, shows me grimacing through a shallow smile as I tried to keep my 50-pound sail from blowing me over. I was soaked through and through. I was starting to feel chilled. Time to head down.

The force of the headwind prevented much coasting, even on the relatively steep pitch. I squinted against sharp daggers of rain and pedaled hard. Not more than a half mile from the peak, I heard a horrible grinding noise through the roar of the wind, and the rear wheel stopped cold. I jumped off the bike and pulled it to the ground to inspect the damage. One of the bungee cords on my rear rack had snapped loose and lodged itself in the rear derailleur. It wound around the cassette several times; the hooks were bent, the bungee material badly mangled, and it looked like the derailleur might be bent. Arrrgh!

I knelt there, on the open hillside, exposed to the full brunt of the wind and cold rain, trying to undo the horrible tangle. And of course, my fingers became slower and more useless the colder they got. I wished I had my mittens to warm them up for a minute, but I didn't because they were the one thing I left at home! I was carrying enough gear for a full winter expedition, and I didn't have the one thing I really needed. I pulled my down coat and fleece balaclava out of my frame bag, and put on a dry pair of socks that were stuffed in the rear stuff sack. I started to feel warmer, but I really wished I had those mittens.

By the time I finally freed the bungee from the cassette, I was mostly going on sight because I no longer had any feeling in the wooden stumps that had formerly been my fingers. I checked the shifting; everything seemed to still be in working order. I removed the one working bungee from the rear rack and pulled my spare straps around the stuff sack — good thing I brought those — and started coasting down the long, long, long cold hill.

At least I now know that I won't be using bungee cords in the race. And I will most definitely remember to bring my mittens, and handwarmers, too. Finally, we did manage to fit the entire Fatback in the tiny bike box, except for the tubes and tires. Beat is a packing genius:

All in all, a good day of testing.