Thursday, April 26, 2012

Here goes nothing

Right now it's 38 degrees and clear in Idyllwild, California. I arrived in town this afternoon after visiting my sister in Huntington Beach. Less than two hours of driving through traffic-choked Orange County sprawl and into the mountains landed me in this awesome little mountain town at 6,000 feet, with wisps of new-fallen snow on the ridgeline just above our heads. By Saturday afternoon it's supposed to be close to 100 degrees in the low-lying desert just a few miles south.

I spent the evening with my friends Sharon and Michael, who flew all the way out here from Anchorage to escape Alaska breakup and soak up a little Cali sunshine. I'm splitting a hotel room with Eszter, the supa-fast mountain bike goddess who is gearing up to crush my Tour Divide record this summer. The Stagecoach is just another training ride for her. Interestingly, we spent most of the evening talking about Alaska.

I head into this ride with an open mind and a lot of food (really, I have a lot this time. I checked.) My hope is to put as many miles across the brutal desert tomorrow before the heat really returns, and then see how my body holds up for the following days. The race is starting a bit late because of tracking issues, around 10 a.m., which is fine with me. Now I have time for one more meal with Sharon and Michael. I was fretting about my perceived physical state earlier, but I've mostly let those fears fade into the background. This is bikepacking, after all. After the first day, it all hurts the same.

You can follow my progress on the Stagecoach 400 tracking page, http://trackleaders.com/stagecoach400. I'll probably be plodding up a mountain, or dripping sweat on the soft sand of a desert wash, lecturing my legs to stop hurting and singing catchy pop music to myself like AWOLNATION:

I say ya kill your heroes 
and fly, fly, baby don't cry. 
No need to worry cuz everybody will die. 
Every day we just go, go, baby don't go.
Don't you worry we love you more than you know.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fighting inertia

After another "but it's only for fun" mountain bike ride on Sunday that ended with dead legs and nap-time fatigue, I made the unprecedented (for me) decision to take the rest of the week off from exercising. I admit I'm beginning to feel nervous about the possible onset of mild burnout, because some of the symptoms feel similar to my post Tour Divide physical malaise: Molasses muscles, mild but persistent soreness in my quads, rapidly shifting energy levels, sugar cravings. Experts have a label for all of these symptoms — "overtraining."

While the reasoning makes sense, it's harder for me to accept the simple explanation. For starters, my activity volume, while relatively high, hasn't changed all that much in the past year. I don't train like most athletes, in peaks and valleys of hard effort and recovery. I stick to a mostly even plain of effort because it's what I enjoy most — having the ability to go out day after day for long efforts if I choose. Athletes call it "long slow distance," and usually scoff at those who practice it, because athleticism is generally perceived to be the pursuit of speed. But it's fine with me, because it's who I am. If I was a true vagabond I wouldn't be the athletic type who travels from race to race; I'd probably be the frumpy tourist pedaling a loaded bicycle around the world. A perceived ability to pedal — or hike — all day, every day, is an important part of my physical identity.

When I have a slump that disrupts this identity, I consider the physical explanations but also look for mental and emotional reasons as well. A few days ago I was discussing my physical concerns with Beat, and a few questions from him shifted the topic to my current creative frustrations. For the past year I have been trying to pursue the long, often difficult slog of writing as a (mostly) full-time profession. For every personal triumph there have been many dead ends. I have quite a few unfinished projects and ideas strung in threads across my computer screen. I'm currently focusing most of my time on two specific book projects, one that's nearing the final editing stages and one that I'm basically just beginning. This second project is one I'm excited about, but it's proving difficult in execution. I buzz with anticipation when I'm out for a ride, thinking about what I want to write. But when I actually sit down to write, I'm stifled by uncertainties about all these supposedly great ideas. I spend more time staring at blank Word pages, scrolling down to prevent myself from re-reading the same sentences over and over, and diverting my attention to banal tasks and Web surfing. Meanwhile other projects, which could at least add to the salmon wheel trickle of my income, sit unfinished.

I keep telling myself I'm going to develop a real routine, set goals, and get away from the Internet, and somehow that will make a difference. But I continue developing excuses as to why I can't cement a better routine — traveling to Nepal, spending much of the winter in Alaska, training for the White Mountains 100, preparing for the Stagecoach 400. The truth is I'm afraid to devote more energy to writing. My most successful days can be so mentally consuming, the failed days so frustrating, and I fear that the only thing I'll find on the other side is failure, or worse — indifference.

If you asked me right now if I honestly though I could make a living as a writer, my answer would be no. Content is abundant, most of it is free, and the economic climate is only going to make it more difficult for those who create content to generate income. My current income comes from the sales of my two books, a few small magazine contracts, and the occasional editing job that I pick up from the community of people who call themselves "indie authors." Based on these experiences and my past in the newspaper and magazine industry, I believe authorship of books is the best avenue for me, with the highest potential for both income generation and personal fulfillment. But I also recognize that to actually achieve financial independence through writing, I am either going to have to simply get lucky or write and market a whole lot of different books. When I'm struggling, as I am right now, I find myself browsing journalismjobs.com and wondering if the newspaper industry will take me back. Sadly, things are pretty sparse over there these days. Never mind the return to 60-hour workweeks, the giving up of adventure time, the death of dreams.

If you asked me right now what I want to make of my life, that answer would be simple. I want to tell stories. I want to tell my own stories, and I want to tell the stories of others — in other words, personal narrative and biographical writing. I enjoy interviewing people and writing profiles, and hope to do more of that in the future. Still, my most natural inclination is to write through the lens of my own experiences. In olden days I might have called myself a memoirist. My memory is my most influential intellectual asset, and written words one of my most fulfilling means of self expression. Another is movement — physically drawing my presence across the contours of the world. I recognize that these things are not always economically practical or even possible, but I am happiest when I am able to do both.

I wonder if creative inertia contributes to my physical inertia, and vice versa. A kind of vicious cycle. Which brings me back around to the Stagecoach 400. I'm nervous about this trip because of what feels like less-than-optimal physical fitness, but at the same time believe I'll likely extract a richer experience from this ride because of a penitent mindset (after all, I have only myself to blame if I am indeed "overtrained.") My plan is to (hopefully) manage my food and water better than I did during my last bike tour, enjoy the scenery, take breaks when I am tired, and just ride. I don't have a goal time. Four days and change would be hopeful. The race has a limit of five days, which is a bit tight in my opinion, based on what I know of the course. It's good, though. I believe a few good days of the raw existence necessitated by endurance bikepacking are just what I need right now — mull over some of my ideas, test the true status of my physical state, and fight the inertia.

The race starts Friday morning. I'm planning to write a more in-depth gear post before then, but one encouraging bit of news is new bags from Revelate Designs arrived just in time. I now finally have a new seat-post bag to replace the well-worn prototype that Eric made for me in 2007, a fitted frame bag and an awesome handlebar bag. The innovations Revelate has made in the past few years are impressive — better materials, waterproof adaptations, simplified straps, and an impressive amount of volume in small and stealthy spaces, so I can carry all my overnight gear and still "get rad" on singletrack. Eric (who wrote a fantastic race report after the White Mountains 100) went to a lot of trouble to send this stuff in time for Stagecoach, and I owe him a huge thanks.

At least the Moots is fully awesome and ready to eat up miles, even if I am not. 

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Embracing the slump

Leah climbs out of Rodeo Valley during our Wednesday evening ride in the Marin Headlands.
As soon as my bike tour ended, the tired returned. I can't say there was anything about the trip — besides the obvious energy deficit during the low-calorie day — that made me feel especially fatigued. But as soon as I stopped pedaling, recovery mode set in deep. My quads felt shredded in such a way that the remaining intact fibers were holding on by threads — in other words, sore and tight. I rested over the weekend and embarked on one run to try to work out the muscle soreness, but that just made my knees ache. There were renewed desires to take naps in the middle of bike rides. Despite concerns about the big effort looming at the end of the month, I couldn't feel too frustrated about my fatigue; I try not to let myself to succumb to frustration for conditions I know are self-inflicted. At the same time, the fatigue was frustrating because it didn't necessarily make sense. My "training volume" hasn't been much different than any other point during the winter, or fall for that matter. Perhaps it's the rapidly shifting weather, mourning the end of winter, entering the "off season." Either way, my fitness is only as good as the intriguing and fun things it lets me do, or the beautiful places it lets me visit. I am tapering with survival of the Stagecoach 400 in mind, but I still snuck a few fun hours outside amid the resting. I wouldn't let sub-optimal fitness stop me unless I thought it might literally stop me.

Fog moving in over San Francisco 
On Wednesday I went riding in Marin with Leah. We started in the city, rode through town, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and pedaled up and down, up and down, up and down the quiet hills of the Headlands. I love riding in this region because of the dynamic transitions between urban and trail riding, and also because the scenery never disappoints. We watched fog roll in from the Pacific and cloak the peaks, then descended into valleys saturated in rich evening light. The ride ended with deep dish pizza and discussions late into the evening about adventure possibilities in Northern California. There wasn't a second in the evening that I would trade for a rest day. Which is my problem, really. It's really just a matter of my own motivations and rewards. I'd rather be "out-of- shape active" than bored and fit.

Already rocking the biker tan
The next morning's planned mountain bike loop with friends came all too early, and sore quads compelled me to cut my own ride short. Then came another day of rest, followed by today, when the high temperature was forecast to top 90 degrees. Normally, temperatures like that combined with a better excuse to taper would prompt me to stay indoors. But I've been working on acclimating to heat in preparation for my ride across the desert in Southern California. Until today, this involved 35 minutes in the sauna, nearly every night. Although sedentary, the sauna acclimation seemed to be working. My paperback copy of "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running" had nearly disintegrated, and I was up to roasting myself in temperatures over 180 degrees (the safe temperature of cooked chicken) without almost passing out, unless I sat up too fast. It's been a wonderfully cool spring in the Bay Area, but today the outdoors finally cranked out enough heat to put my sauna training to the test.

Beat and I set out for a run on Black Mountain Trail, a steep and often sun-exposed route that climbs 2,900 feet in 10 miles round trip. The trail winds through a wind-protected canyon, where hot air just sits and stagnates like an outdoor sauna. I've only embarked on about five trail runs since March, but I keep receiving ominous weekly tweets from Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (only 19 more weeks!) and I figured it would be wise to starting putting my running muscles back in motion. But considering my lack of running, the sudden burst of heat and accumulated cycling fatigue, I started the run expecting to feel really bad the whole time.

The run actually went well. I was vaguely sick to my stomach, most likely from drinking too much water, but I figured out if I could coax myself to run just a little bit faster, I actually felt a bit of a breeze. Even though I haven't experienced any heat over 70 degrees outside the sauna since last year, I made it through without almost passing out. When we returned to the car it was 93 degrees in the shade. I'm willing to chalk that one up to successful sauna training. Also, I think the rest days — even when sandwiched between still-difficult efforts — are helping. I plan to take a few more before it's time to tackle 400 miles of sun-drenched Southern California. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

South Pole bike revisted

Helen Sketon on her Hanebrink ice bike. Courtesy BBC.
Earlier this week I randomly received an e-mail from Kane Fortune, the president of bicycle-maker Fortune Hanebrink, asking me if I wanted to revisit my conclusions about British television personality Helen Skelton's 500-mile multi-sport trip in Antarctica. I thought, yes, it would be good to follow through on this. Helen successfully completed her expedition to the South Pole on January 22. Her methods of travel included 329 miles (eight days) of kite skiing, 68 miles (three days) of skiing, and 103 miles (seven days) of biking on a custom Hanebrink ice bike.

I and other snow bike enthusiasts were critical of the media coverage of Helen's expedition, which perpetuated several unsubstantiated claims (such as the "longest bike ride on snow" and "first bike ride to the South Pole," which was not even one-fifth true given the start at an arbitrary point 500 miles from the pole.) Some snow bikers also questioned the practicality of that particular brand of bicycle, which I'll address soon. However, I was enthralled by the adventure of Helen's trip, and followed her progress with interest despite what I viewed as anemic coverage on the BBC blog. I also watched parts of a couple of episodes of her television show online, but I admit I don't have much patience for the standard filters of reality television. However, if Helen ever writes a book about her adventure, I'll be the first to buy it.

She was absolutely successful in what set out to do. But after the completion of her trip, I continued to question just how much Helen and her partner really "rode" their bikes. Their final tally was 103 miles over seven days, which is an average of 14 miles per riding day. On the anemic BBC blog, Helen dropped a few hints about the difficulties, calling the Hanebrinks "push bikes" and admitting their her partner, a champion kite skier, thought the bikes were "a little silly." On the first day of the expedition, they stopped after riding 15 miles and indicated they had put in a long day to make it that far. Most of the other bike days also were depicted as long and arduous. I understand that high winds that could slow a bike down to two miles an hour might slow a walker or skier down even more. But I think even the most avid snow bikers would question this level of progress ... if it's consistently harder and slower than walking, what's the point?

I'm among the few who have wondered how viable a bicycle might be for explorations in frozen, wild places such as Antarctica, the North Pole, Greenland and Baffin Island. Not merely out of personal interest, although I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't jump at any opportunity to travel through these endlessly intriguing corners of the world. One of my big motivators for finishing the past two Susitna 100 races on foot was to experiment with long-distance foot and snowshoe travel (For me personally, walking and running are a more enjoyable, versatile and even more efficient method of travel than skiing has proven to be, but if I ever receive a serious invitation to an Arctic ski expedition, you can bet I'm going to do everything I can to develop skiing technique.) But I digress. The big question still remains: Is it possible to ride a bicycle, entirely self-supported, from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole?

A decade ago, Dan Hanebrink developed what might be the first bicycle designed specifically for an Antarctic expedition, an "ice bike" built for Antarctic adventurer Doug Stoup. The ice bike was included among Time's "Best Inventions of 2003." Stoup supposedly rode the bicycle 200 miles of a 300-mile trip before he was shut down by high winds, and hasn't tried it again. There were reports that he had been preparing to take it to the South Pole, but little information about why Stoup hasn't yet attempted another bicycle expedition amid his continuing ski trips in Antarctica. In Internet chatter, the general assumption seems to be "because the bike didn't work the way he thought it would."

Again, I don't know many of the details, but the fact remains that no person yet has actually completed a full, self-supported ride from the Antarctic coast to the South Pole — which is the generally accepted explorer's standard to qualify as "the first bike ride to the South Pole." No one has taken a bike to the North Pole or any other major Arctic winter backcountry traverse for that matter, at least not publicly. There are some who have expressed interest and others who have publicly expressed interest and put a lot of time, effort, experience, and knowledge into such an expedition. While it goes without saying that securing funding for such a major undertaking is by far the biggest obstacle, the logistics of the bicycle itself also present an interesting puzzle.

After Fortune contacted me, he graciously answered a few questions about Helen's trip and the bike:

What feedback did you receive about the bicycles after Helen and her partner returned from Antarctica? Did they make any suggestions that you would incorporate into future designs?

Fortune: As with Doug Stoup's 2003 trip to Antarctica, the bikes were very successful on Helen's recent trip. What this teaches us about future designs is that we must continue the mission that Dan Hanebrink began in 1991 and that is to build the best bike for riding in the snow and soft terrain. We must continue to build our chassis and wheels as strong and light as possible and to build relationships with various parts suppliers for the highest quality and most durable components in all conditions. Helen's riding partner was a world champion kite boarder. You can bet that if Dan or I (champion and competitive cyclists respectively) were on the trip, we would have spent much more time in the saddle and less on the board.

Did you design the bike in order to accomodate pulling a heavy sledge?

Fortune: Designed as a backcountry snow bike, it is invariably a utility bike as much as it is a recreation bike. The Hanebrink has been pulling trailers and sleds since its inception. Before Doug's trip to Antarctica, he spent many hours pulling a tire behind his Hanebrink in the sand at Redondo Beach. Doug required Helen to do some training of her own, pulling a sled behind the bike in San Diego sand dunes.

My understanding is Stoup did not reach his goal to ride to South Pole, and has not made another attempt. Has anyone else approached you about building a bicycle for another South Pole attempt?

Fortune: Doug Stoup had a successful trip riding the Hanebrink more than 200 miles in Antarctica. His goal was a 300 mile ride of the bike (not a trip to the South Pole). Because of severe katabatic winds, Doug was forced to spend five straight days in a his tent, sleeping with his legs straight and strong to keep the tent from collapsing. Doug has since been very busy with expeditions and he would love an opportunity to ride a Hanebrink to the South Pole. In 2013, a Japanese adventure cyclist plans on riding a Hanebrink to the South Pole. We are also coordinating with a Spanish adventure cyclist about a future trip on his return from a trip crossing Greenland.

What mechanical adaptations did you make for extreme cold? Were you able to test any of the mechanics in cold temperatures?

Fortune: As an avid cyclist living in the winter resort town of Big Bear Lake, Dan first developed the Hanebrink in 1991 to be ridden on snow (much of the bike's early attention came from clients in beach communities for its ability to ride in sand) With the San Bernardino National Forest as his backyard, Dan has been building, riding, and testing in all types of conditions for over twenty years. While his focus is now solely building Hanebrink All-Terrain bikes and Electric All-Terrain bikes, he has developed many bicycle and motorcycle products since inventing the "Ice Bike." The Ice Bike is built without plastic parts and uses a mechanical brake. When Doug made his trip, Dan Hanebrink was still making bicycle suspension forks which he retrofitted for Antarctic conditions. In building the bikes for Helen's trip, White Brothers Suspension in Colorado would keep the fork legs in meat lockers during the building process to test their performance in cold conditions (these were the only new component we had not yet tested in Antarctica).

A few of the days that Helen and her partner reported riding the bicycles, they logged less than twenty miles while reportedly cycling for eight to twelve hours. To an outsider, these bike speeds appeared to average less than two miles per hour much of the time. I wondered if you wanted to comment on this or correct any misperceptions. As someone who has done some long rides on snow trails, I know that "riding" at these speeds generally means pushing the bike — i.e. walking.

Fortune: If the misperception is that she walked and not rode: We have no reason not to believe Helen when she has told us that she rode. (Living in Los Angeles, we are cognizant of how "Hollywood" can manipulate a story) Depending on the external environment, some miles may have been ridden as slow as two miles per hour, and some much faster. Built for endurance over speed, our eight-inch-wide tires can not only traverse terrain that no other bike will can travel, it also balances comfortably when forced to pedal at idle speeds unlike any other bicycle.

Based on this last question, do you believe your bicycles or any bicycle for that matter can actually provide an advantage on the wild terrain of Antarctica over walking on snowshoes?

Fortune: There is a momentum gained when riding that is just not possible when snowshoeing; especially pulling a sled.

The snow bike industry is taking off right now, with a number of different "fat bike" offerings in North America. All of these bicycles' designs favor a style more similar to a traditional mountain bike. In lay-person's terms, could you explain a bit why you believe the features of your design are better for Antarctic riding? Also, do you think your bikes would perform well among traditional fat bikes in, say, an Iditarod Trail race across Alaska? Or are they specifically designed for the kind of conditions one might encounter in Antarctica, which from my understanding can be quite different from packed trails in North America?

Fortune: Every type of bike —road, mountain, bmx, etc. — is suited for a particular type of terrain. Hanebrink is the only bike that rides in all terrains: deep sand, snow, streets, steeps. The standard "fat bike" is a mix between a standard mountain bike and a Hanebrink All-Terrain bike. A standard "fat bike" will ride better in the snow than a standard mountain bike and a Hanebrink will ride better in softer terrains (snow and sand) than either a "fat bike" or a mountain bike. Riding successfully in soft terrain is a matter of tire floatation. The less pounds per square inch, exerted from the tires over the terrain, the more success you will have riding over the soft stuff. Our bikes at three pounds per square inch, fully loaded, have the lightest footprint of any wheeled vehicle in production. In the softest possible riding conditions, the air pressure in our tubeless tires is let out to 4 psi and when traveling on paved roads our tires are pumped to 18 psi. For any surface in between, the tire pressure can be adjusted accordingly. Fat bikes are designed for snow packed trails and have proven successful over many years in the Iditarod traveling on the frozen rivers and hard-packed snow. They are not designed for the deep backcountry snow that our bikes are designed for. There have been some years (at least one) where the bikes were walked more miles than ridden during the Iditarod because the snow was too deep. We would love to see a Hanebrink in competition during one of these years.

....

I appreciate Mr. Fortune taking the time to answer my questions. I realize winter backcountry expedition cycling is a highly esoteric subject, but if you have an opinion on the matter, please comment. Perhaps Mr. Fortune will check in and answer more questions as they come along.







Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Part three: Serendipity

Over the next three miles, I worked through my misery to reach a sort of numb acceptance. After my mind was wiped free of angst and cloaked in haze, I saw a crow picking at a bag of Doritos on the side of the road. Animal instinct prompted me to hit the brakes hard to scare the crow away, stop the bike, and reach out to grab the bag of chips. But human consciousness intervened. "Are you really going to eat discarded, rained-on, bird-pecked chips?" I smiled in spite of myself. Is it possible to so quickly fall from grace? The crinkled bag just rustled in the wind, taunting me, until I couldn't bear my own curiosity. I grabbed the bag and looked inside. It was empty, and the question remained unanswered.

I pedaled another half mile around two tight corners when I came to a straightaway, and ahead I could see a building. "Probably just someone's house," I thought. But as I came closer, I could see hints of a neon sign. And were those gas pumps? Those were definitely gas pumps. Oh joy! Oh joy! I started hyperventilating and had to compose myself. "Don't get your hopes up. It's nearly 8 p.m. The place could be closed. Don't get carried away."

The place was the Whale Watchers Cafe, which has a ranking of 1.5 out of 5 on TripAdvisor.com. Obviously I didn't care if the place had cockroaches or served only haggis, as long as the menu included food, it was the best restaurant ever. I parked my bike and rushed inside. There was only one other party in the dining room that appeared to be leaving. The server, a small Hispanic woman, looked up from behind the counter. "We're just about to close," she informed me. She must have sensed my crestfallen demeanor, and continued, "but would you like to see a menu?"

I nodded vigorously, and grabbed the menu. My vision was blurring and I could barely read it but I managed to pick out chicken fajitas from the swirling overload of options. A plate cost $19.95. Crazy bargain! I pointed to the listing. "I want these," I said. "And a Coke. Do you sell candy bars or anything like that?"

The server indicated there was a small convenience store next door so I rushed over to restock my supplies. The experience was reminiscent of the Tour Divide, where I just wandered around the displays in a shocked daze, grabbing everything that struck my fancy: Two Clif Bars, two Babel cheese wheels, one small package Fig Newtons, one bag of Doritos (ha ha), one king-sized Twix Bar, and two giant vegan cookies. It was way more food than I was going to need until the next day, but I did not care. With Whale Watchers as my witness, I was not going to go hungry again.

Back at the cafe, the server brought me a steaming plate of peppers, onions, chicken, rice, and beans. I stared at it for a few seconds with rapt fascination before animal instinct took over, and then I tore into the pile of vegetables with barely civilized urgency. The warm food settled in my stomach and triggered all kind of intense pleasure sensors: Relief, satisfaction, bliss. My memory understood that this was a rather mediocre plate of $20 fajitas, but my present state made it the most awe-inspiring, gratifying meal I had consumed in a long time. There's that old adage that hunger is the best seasoning, but more than that, there's a deeply satisfying value in experiences like this. I certainly didn't set out to run low on food, or ride my way into a distressing hunger — but because I did, I experienced a rare, truly appreciative enjoyment of food, and an understanding of just how much the simple act of eating means to the experience of being alive. It's the same sensation that compels me to ride long hours or run long distances. By enduring a little bit of pain and suffering, I open myself up to the rapture on the other side.

The server came to clear away my scraped-clean plate. "You're on a bicycle?" she asked. I nodded. "And where are you going to right now?"

"I'm headed toward San Simeon," I said.

The server looked perplexed. "That's very far," she said. "It's too late to go there tonight."

"I have bicycle lights," I said. "And I have a tent (liar). I may just pedal for a while and camp. Anyway, I'll see what's available."

She bussed my table and when she returned with the check, she said, "You know, I have a motor home in my driveway where you could sleep. I live just a half mile up the road, back the way you came. There's no electricity and you would have to come inside the house to use my bathroom. But, you are a girl and you are alone. I think it would be all right for you to sleep in my motor home."

"Really?" I said, taken aback by this unexpected generosity. "If you didn't mind, well, it's supposed to rain tonight. I'd be really grateful. Of course I don't require electricity or water. Just a roof overhead would be so wonderful. Oh, thank you."

She gave me directions to her home, in a cluster of small houses behind a fire station that I had failed to notice in my excitement of seeing gas pumps. The small motor home was as much of an oasis as the cafe had been, and I was filled with gratitude for this kind server whose name I forgot to ask. Shortly after I laid out my sleeping bag on the upper bunk and ate a vegan cookie for desert (yup, still hungry), a streak of lightning shimmered through the plexiglass window and thunder shook the whole vehicle. The sky opened up and it rained and rained, not more than a half hour after I serendipitously found my way to shelter. It continued raining most of the rest of the night, and thunder woke me up at least a half dozen times. I didn't sleep well, but I'm not sure I could have been any happier.

I set my alarm for early the next morning because I knew no matter what, I was in for a long day. Everything was quiet in the server's house and I didn't want to wake her up, but I couldn't even find a pen to leave her a thank-you note. It was still raining and the temperature felt cold, probably in the low forties at sea level. This made me wonder if it was possibly snowing at the higher elevations where I had ridden the day before. Probably not, but I wonder. As it turned out, this was a major low pressure system that continued to wreak havoc during its sweep east across the United States.

I was almost unworkably groggy. I never sleep well in the midst of hard efforts, unless I drug myself the way I did in the Tour Divide. I was now working on three nights of minimal sleep, two hard days of biking, one on minimal nutrition, and it was before 8 a.m. (This is early for me. Don't judge me.) I could barely keep my eyes open on the bike, and yet I was so enamored with the ride. Highway 1 continued to wend along the steep coastal cliffs. Because of the rain and early hour, the pavement was entirely empty of traffic. I listened to the patter of rain, screams of sea birds, and gushing waterfalls around every corner. The air smelled of fresh greenery and salt, like a tasty salad, and every tight turn held the most breathtaking views of the ocean. The road climbed to 800 feet elevation and rolled high above the gray water before screaming back to near sea level, then climbing steeply again. "If I rode this last night, I would have been so grumpy," I thought with a grin. But this morning, I loved every climb and water-blasted descent. This morning ride on Highway 1 was another gift that server gave to me by letting me stay in her motor home. I wish I knew her name.

Besides feeling groggy that morning, I also continued to feel hungry. I couldn't shovel in food fast enough. This was more annoying than a pleasure, because it's difficult to eat while riding a bike, especially when it's raining. At one point I decided that if I was willing to eat bird-pecked Doritos, I could definitely eat soggy Doritos, and placed the open bag in my gas tank so I could munch as I pedaled. After a couple of hours, the rain began to dissipate and blue sky emerged once again. It was a beautiful day on the coast.

By the time I approached the town of Cayucos, I was fighting a raging headache. At first I wondered if something was off with my hydration or electrolytes. Then I remembered — except for that one Coke, I haven't had any caffeine in two days. Usually I consume a lot more than that. I decided to stop at a small coffee shop and order a huge mocha, which is the perfect recovery drink (chocolate milk with a kick.) Since it was already noon I decided to get a sandwich, too. Wow, a second meal in three days. This really was becoming a decadent bicycle tour.


After about seventy miles of happy Highway 1 riding, I crossed into Montana de Oro State Park, where I was hoping to ride some dirt again. I checked out a few singletrack trails and continued toward the route I'd laid out in Google Maps, based on recommendations the software made in its "bike" setting.

Until, that is, I came to this. A dead end. My paper maps didn't indicate that any of the bike-legal trails went through, and apparently bikes were not allowed on the only through-route around the park. Frustrated, I sat down at a picnic table to assess my options. My entire route was based on getting around this peninsula; I planned to stick close to the coast and not actually head inland until farther south. If I headed inland north of the park, like I was going to have to, I would have to ride through the busy Highway 101 corridor and all of its traffic, with only my paper maps to use for direction. I didn't expect Google Maps to be infallible but this was discouraging. I already thought I was looking at a 170-mile day to reach the Santa Barbara 100 start/finish, and this was definitely going to push me beyond that distance.

I was sitting at that picnic table, stewing over my options, when my cell phone rang. It was Beat, who told me that his race had been cancelled. Hail, rain, and higher-elevation snow of epic proportions fell on the course, causing widespread mud and flooding. Rangers were closing roads left and right, volunteers couldn't reach aid station spots, and also couldn't put up course markings. They started the race anyway despite the lack of markings. Beat and his friend Steve were running at the front with two other runners. Without any way to know whether they were on the right course, the group of four continued up a muddy trail for twelve miles until they were nearly out of food and water, with no aid stations or race markings in sight, and decided for safety reasons to turn around. As it turned out they did run for 25 miles off course, and by the time they returned, the race was cancelled and the organizer and most of the runners had left. It sounded like a real mess, but Beat was in good spirits and happy for the chance to run a scenic if muddy and cold 30 miles in the mountains. Now, he said, he was coming to pick me up.

"Perfect timing," I replied.

I backtracked out of the state park and rode a tailwind into San Luis Obispo to meet Beat at Highway 101. It was a lot of fun to mash the big gear at 25 miles per hour while dark storm clouds chased me in from the coast. I was finally recovering from the previous day's energy deficit, and feeling great. I ended with 85 miles for the day and 280 total for the trip, and 24,000 feet total climbing. All-in-all it was a fantastic, dynamic ride, and a great shakedown for the Stagecoach 400 (except, of course, for the complete lack of heat training.)

California really is a cool place to ride a bike.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Part two: Hunger Games

There's no obstacle in biking that I fear more than mud. Snow? Fun! Rocks? Challenging. Wind? Meh. Bears? They run away. Massive landslides that take out half the mountainside? I'm sure there's a way we can walk around this. But mud? Mud chokes the drivetrain and cements tires to the frame until the whole bike is seized up, ten pounds heavier, and dangling from your shoulders as you trudge through the sticky mess, at least until it rips your shoes off and you're fully stopped in your mud-caked socks, wondering how much longer this will last. Five miles? Ten? Forty? You never really know. Mud is exactly what I was thinking about as I lay awake in my wet sleeping bag in the morning, waiting for the deluge to shatter the roof of the shower building.

If I had to put a quantity on how much precipitation fell on Arroyo Seco overnight, I would say "more than an inch" — and this is based on years of experience in Southeast Alaska. That's enough moisture to turn any clay-based road into peanut butter for more than a day, whether it keeps raining or not. That knowledge alone would have been enough to turn me around. Still, even though there's plenty of clay throughout central California, I had no knowledge of the specific sediments of the Arroyo Seco trail. Maybe it was sand — which rain can actually improve.

I thought I should at least check it out, although I wasn't terribly excited about setting out for the morning in a downpour just to discover a half mile up the trail that forward progress was impossible. I languished in my sleeping bag until 9 a.m., when the rain began to taper off, and noticed streaks of light through the window that almost looked like sunbeams. I rode all the way out there specifically for this trail, so I had to try. I packed up my gear and ate my last Nature's Bakery Blueberry Fig Bar for breakfast, mostly because it was the most healthy thing I had with me. Another 220 calories gone. Eight hundred remained: One package pretzel M&Ms, one package of Cheddar Cheese Pretzel Combos, and one king-sized Twix Bar.

The Arroyo Seco/Indians trail is a twenty-mile section of old jeep road that is closed to vehicles, and has been for years. As such, parts of it have reverted back to singletrack, and land- and rockslides have added some technical features. I'm not sure how widely used this trail is. It is fairly close to several population centers, but I didn't see a soul out there on this cool and wet Thursday morning. I got the sense of being deep in the backcountry, far displaced from the hum of civilization.

Encountered this bobcat after the gate. He was bolder than most and didn't want to move. I think he even hissed at me.
Beyond the closed gate, I saw a rusted old sign that read "Impassable in wet weather." Never a happy sign. Still, at the entrance, the road was just sandy enough to keep the clay from building up too thickly on the tires. It was soft, though. My tires dug trenches a half-inch to an inch deep, and even full effort on flat sections only netted about five miles per hour. I knew once I started climbing, I'd be pushing.

The clouds began to clear and sun was shining on the road, actual sun. I could tell it would be short-lived, as more dark clouds were already creeping in from the west. But I clung to the hope that the road would dry out a bit. The previous day's 125 miles weighed on my legs as I pedaled against the fierce resistance of the mud. I started walking when even my best effort became inadequate. At this rate, it was going to take me six hours just to cover this twenty-mile section, with only 800 calories and already nearly-depleted glycogen stores as fuel. I had already assessed my bailout options on the other side of the trail — which was more remote than this side. It involved as many as thirty-five miles of pedaling back to the Highway 101 corridor — arguably longer than just continuing on my route through the mountains toward Highway 1. Still, I was committed to seeing the Arroyo Seco trail through, unless of course I encountered real peanut butter mud. There's a lot I'm willing to suffer through during a simple bike tour, but peanut butter mud is not one of them.

Even though the late morning was still cool, about fifty degrees, the bike-push/pedal-mash was hard work, and I started dumping sweat. After three miles I developed a strong craving for salt, so I cracked into my Combos first. I placed a single pretzel in my mouth and sucked on it the way I used to when I was a child, trying to prolong the life of my treat. It dissolved into a trickle of happiness and disappeared down my throat.

And maybe I devoured all the rest of my Combos in the next two miles because, well, I was climbing, and I needed the energy. I could start fasting once I hit the descent.

The coastal mountains of Monterey County are gorgeous — steep, fairly tall (upwards of 4,000 and 5,000 feet) and coated in greenery even on their steepest aspects. They reminded me of the spine of mountains on Oahu Island in Hawaii. I was thrilled to be riding there even if I was a bit low on food. The weather was improving, the day was cool and beautiful, the soft trail was really not all that bad, and I was riding my bicycle in the mountains. Really, what could be better?

The trail climbed to about 3,000 feet to steep cut into the mountainside. It rolled just below the ridge for several miles and the descended into the Indians drainage, where a series of short ascents and descents continued beneath impressive sandstone formations. It was like transitioning from Hawaii to Utah in the space of a few miles. Despite a few short sections of real peanut butter mud, it was a very cool trail. I'm sure it's more popular than the lack of tracks and trail maintenance would indicate — but if not, I wonder why.

Still, it did take me nearly five hours to cover twenty miles, and when I arrived at Santa Lucia Memorial Park, I was still in the heart of the mountains, in the middle of nowhere ... and I was hungry. When I have food, it is easy for me to downplay its importance. Our bodies are so adaptable, and it's biologically possible to operate just fine in a feast-or-famine cycle. We can survive for weeks on just the energy stored in our fat and muscle. Even bonking during a hard effort is manageable; it just involves the unpalatable necessity of slowing down. The psychology of hunger, however, is much more difficult to reconcile. My plan with my limited food was to ration the calories to a hundred per hour, just enough sugar to keep the fat-burning furnace cranking. I figured I'd feel low on energy, but I didn't count on how anxious, paranoid, and despondent I would feel at times throughout the day. Even though rationally I knew my situation was perfectly safe and survivable, hunger induced a kind of involuntary panic in my subconscious.

The trail dumped me out in the Fort Hunter-Liggett Military Reservation, a highly regulated region that all but assured I was going to continue to feel alone on a deserted island. After the previous night's storm, water was running high everywhere, and there were several stream crossings that ran over the road. This creek gushed over a concrete slab, which I deemed rideable before actually stopping to scout the situation. The concrete must be permanently under water, because the slab was covered in a thick film of slime that instantly washed out my tires. I fell over in the knee-deep water, briefly dunking my head and soaking my entire body. Even though I could feel the force of the steam pushing me toward the deeper pour-over, my first thought was, "Save the bike!" Although the stream wasn't deep, it was flowing fast and there was potential for the bike to be forced downstream through a rock garden. I lunged out of the water and grabbed the rear wheel just before the bike washed away. I managed to stand up and hoist the bike on my shoulder, but the slime-slicked bottom made the rest of the crossing extremely tenuous.

I turned to face the wind and pedal toward mountains, trying to savor the last of my Pretzel M&M's that I was eating for "lunch." At one point I was descending at about eighteen miles per hour when I dropped a single M&M on the road by accident. Panic! I actually stopped my bike, turned around, and scanned the road until I found it. This whole process probably took five minutes, and netted me one Pretzel M&M, which are filled with mostly air and have about ten calories each. It was worth it.

Empty gas tank: Never a happy sight. 
As I began another 3,000-foot climb into the mountains, I turned to the Twix Bar. My plan was to eat one half of a bar, about fifty calories, every time the bonky dizziness set in. The problem with this strategy is the dizzy feeling would return again after just another mile, so eventually I had to put a time limit on my half-Twix-bars: One per hour. The road just climbed and climbed. I came to the trail where I planned to turn off the main road and take a shortcut to the Coast Ridge Road. But when I got there, all I could see was a fall-line cut straight up the side of the mountain. It looked vertical from my perspective, and must have gained 2,000 feet in less than two miles. "Well, that's impossible," I thought. Maybe if I was fresh, I could push a bike up that. Maybe. I took out my paper maps, plotted the long way around, and continued spinning through my bonky haze.

I finished the Twix Bar before I arrived at the top of the climb. Maybe if I had more experience with rationing food I would be better at it, but I had officially depleted everything with no knowledge of where I'd be able to get more food. This in itself was a harsh psychological blow. I had already decided I was going to have to cut the Coast Ridge Road out of my route, as I no longer had the energy or desire to push through the bonk anymore. But I still didn't know what Highway 1 would bring. I pulled out my paper maps and saw exactly one name listed between where I was and San Simeon — Plaskett. Whether it was a town or not, I had no idea. I convinced myself it was a town, because if not, that meant there was nothing for more than forty miles from where I stood.

 The dream of Plaskett took hold, and I convinced myself of authentic Mexican Food restaurants, of roadside coffee stands, of spacious gas stations with a wide selection of gummy snacks and Babybel cheese wheels. There was so much happiness in these dreams and I was a fool to indulge in them, but they gave me a burst of energy just the same. I pedaled more forcefully toward a thick bank of fog, and the wonders that surely awaited me on the coast.

The descent was fast and fun, and so cold that I was able to forget about my empty stomach and focus for a while on my numb toes instead. With the exception of neglecting to bring a tent, I actually brought a smart assortment of gear for this trip. I always had dry clothing for camp, and I rarely felt cold or too wet while riding even during the heavier rain and hailstorms. But I fell in the stream while wearing my vapor barrier socks, so my feet were still soaked.

Near Big Sur, Highway 1 cuts into steep cliffs and traverses drainages on elaborate bridges. In other words, there's little actual usable land in the region. After five miles on the highway, I could tell my chances of seeing much in the way of commercial property were slim. The occasional vehicle passed and I thought if I had a pen, I would make a sign that read "Hungry: Will Pay For Food" and stick it on my backpack. But I did not, so I stopped thinking about it.

I approached Plaskett at 6:30 p.m., which was a lot later than I expected to reach that point. Originally my plan had me passing through Plaskett in the early afternoon and pushing all the way to Morro Bay that night. I was still fifty miles short of that target; my day's tally was seventy miles and I already felt thoroughly cooked — probably in my own juices from forcing my body to burn muscle and fat. I passed a campground, which seemed like a good sign, then rounded a tight corner through an outcropping of trees to arrive at ... nothing. Just steep cliffs and a thin ribbon of pavement as far as I could see. Plaskett was a Forest Service campground, and nothing more.

Looking back, this scene is humorous to me; it already makes me laugh. But at the time, it was an all-encompassing moment of hopelessness. I had to take a few deep gulps to quell the panicked sobbing that threatened to erupt from my throat. My maps didn't indicate any other towns until San Simeon, which was still 25 miles away. I had no reason to believe I would see any businesses before that town, and no hope of reaching it before late that night. I could see dark clouds over the ocean, indicating the approach of another big storm, so I knew I would have to push for San Simeon that night just to seek some kind of shelter. But I understood it was going to be a hard ride, probably cold and wet, I was going to feel awful, and didn't even know what I'd find when I got there. I hoped I could make it before I hit a really bad bonk, the kind of "falling asleep on my bike" bonk that I worried might happen. I knew I had no one to blame but myself so I didn't feel anger, just sadness. Surprisingly deep sadness, given that it certainly wasn't the end of the world.

I pedaled back to the campground to collect water for the late-evening push. I watched happy campers barbecuing hamburgers, eating chips, drinking wine, smiling and laughing. I lingered for a few minutes, watching them, wondering if I could collect the wherewithal to sacrifice my dignity and ask one of them to give or sell me some food. But I couldn't do it. I just couldn't. Even through my sadness, for whatever reasons, I didn't want to resort to that. I gulped down the bile, accepted my fate, and pedaled toward the sunset.


Saturday, April 14, 2012

Not a Disney California adventure

Part One: Cruising

In the realm of outdoor experiences, there is something deeply satisfying about making my own route and then following it. It's as though, by taking an orange felt-tip marker and drawing squiggly lines on photocopied maps, I'm actually outlining these distant mountains, these lonely highways, these rugged trails. My bicycle is a sort of paintbrush, pressed into the blank canvas of the unknown to make these visualizations a reality. There's art in discovery. More than miles, elevation, and other tangible statistics, this creative process leaves me with a sense of accomplishment — even when riddled with mistakes. Actually, it's satisfying because it was riddled with mistakes. I took some chances and colored outside some lines, and the finished product was beautiful.

My ambitious plan: pedal from Los Altos to the start/finish of the Santa Barbara 100 in three days, alone, having no experience with any region south of Los Altos, and with little more to go on than a vague blog post by people I do not know, and the computer-generated recommendations of Google Maps. Bridging several leaps of faith and one terrible weather forecast, I drew out a route of approximately 350 miles with unknown climbing, unknown services, unknown trail conditions, unknown road conditions ... many unknowns. I finished my tour with 280 miles, 24,000 feet of climbing, 27 hours of moving time, a lot of wet gear, really sore quads, and a big smile. As it turned out, Beat's hundred-mile race was cancelled due to hail, rain, and unworkable mud on the course ... all things I encountered during my tour. He picked me up Friday afternoon in San Luis Obispo, about a hundred miles short of my goal. But I couldn't be happier with how it turned out. I was mentally prepared to ride through the night to make it to Santa Barbara before the race finish, but I'm glad I didn't have to.

I set out Wednesday morning in light rain showers and a buzz of excitement. It's been too long since I embarked on a bike tour, with everything I needed (or at least I over-optimistically hoped it was everything I needed) stuffed into a few bike bags and a backpack. I followed the GPS track I created toward Los Gatos and up into the mountains. Google Maps made a few interesting recommendations for skirting around the busy corridor of Highway 17, including muddy singletrack and nonexistent trails around Lexington Reservoir. At one point I was shouldering my bike, clawing through the mud up a nearly vertical slope, and I hadn't even left the Bay Area yet.

I put a lot of faith in Google's software in order to stay off of main roads, and I was sometimes rewarded with a quiet path through the forest. So much green.

The weather on the first day was mostly pleasant — cool with rain showers, and the occasional deluge. I was pedaling along Summit Road when the sky unleashed a shock-and-awe hailstorm. I think I even missed the worst of the storm, but it was frightening nonetheless — complete white-out, couldn't keep my eyes open, had to pull off the road, put my arms over my neck, and hope a car didn't hit me.

 Although exposed to the worst of the weather, the Summit ridge also afforded great views of the Santa Cruz Mountains. I couldn't believe I was still less than 25 miles from home. Because I usually either ride west or north of my home on most of my regular bike routes, every part of this tour was new to me, and full of great discoveries.

Highland Road — a ripping descent and not a single car.

 I had been throttling the brake levers when I rounded a tight corner and saw this rock. I found its advice to be sound on both a philosophical and literal level.

I was loving my new bike from the beginning, and the love affair only increased as the miles passed. Highland Road was technically paved, but not the kind of road I would want to rip down on a skinny-tire carbon bike. This is the main advantage of having a go-anywhere bike for touring. The Moots is fully capable as a mountain bike, but an easily overlooked advantage is how comfortable it is over long distances, over any terrain. Speed is such a coveted value in cycling these days that even touring bikes come equipped with 23c tires. But when I'm planning to spend nine or more hours each day on a saddle, for days on end, I think I would choose the comfort and flexibility of the Moots every time. Not only do I have capability to dart off the road onto the nearest piece of muddy singletrack whenever I so desire, I can feel fully comfortable on pavement. I could go on for paragraphs extolling the virtues of using a soft-tail mountain bike for all touring purposes, but I admit it's simply a personal preference. I love ending a long day with little more than tired legs — butt, back and arms felt great. The Moots fits me like a glove.

 After descending Eureka Canyon, I entered the rolling farmland beside Monterey Bay.  Pedaling through the communities of Freedom and Watsonville, I could see the more intriguing side of California farming culture — such as businesses whose signage was only in Spanish, and workers sitting on the side of the road eating their lunch. I also had to contend with a fierce headwind blowing from the south. Grinding away on flat pavement at full throttle, my GPS was only registering speeds of eight or nine miles per hour. At one point I texted Beat to let him know why I wasn't making better progress. I braced for a late night into my planned stopping point for the night, the Arroyo Seco campground.

 Luckily, once I turned inland toward the Salinas River Valley, the powerful wind diminished to a stiff breeze, bringing the temperature down with it. I settled into a meditative rhythm, listening to music and observing the small details of the valley: orange poppies swaying in the breeze, patterns in the cultivated fields, purple light on the eastern hills, a haunted house. A crowded freeway cuts through the valley less than two miles to the east, but I would have never suspected it — quarantined as I was on a quiet farming road on the other side of the river. Rural bliss.

I purposely routed my course around the city of Salinas, and planned to get dinner in a town called East Garrison. When I rolled through and there was nothing there, I simply shrugged it off. "I have enough trail food to get me through mid-day tomorrow," I thought, having not given a whole lot of thought to exactly what food I was carrying with me or where my next food supply was actually going to come from. I thought I was carrying something in the range of 4,000 calories of high-calorie-density (i.e. junk) food. However, this was taking into account three king-size candy bars that I thought were in my pack, but which I actually accidentally left at home. I wouldn't discover this until I actually laid out all my food later that night, only to discover I was many miles from anywhere and 1,500 calories short.

I arrived at the campground just after 9 p.m., with 125 miles for the day. The campground was partially closed and the bathroom building was locked, which was discouraging because I had planned on using it as an emergency shelter option. I made a bad judgement call by setting out on this tour with only a bivy bag for shelter, even given forecasts that all but assured me I didn't stand a chance of dodging wet weather. Still, after the morning rain and hail, the storm cleared up in the afternoon. I could see stars splattered across the entire sky. I laid out my sleeping gear and assessed my dinner options, which is when I discovered the missing candy bars. I counted my calories and realized I only had a little more than 1,200 total — for all of that night, the next morning, and an unknown portion of the next day into a rugged, difficult, and remote section of my route. Panic.

I pulled out my paper maps to assess my bailout options. The closest community was Greenville, twenty miles away. I knew I couldn't manage forty miles of backtracking and still make my schedule by any stretch — it was already too ambitious as it was. If things went well for me the next day, I believed I would reach Highway 1 by mid-day and probably find some source of food along the highway. Using all kinds of creative justifications, I convinced myself 1,200 calories was probably enough. This delusion was harder to manage after I finished my sad dinner of two fig bars (220 calories) and still felt ravenously hungry. And yet, I still held on to this hope that I could make do.

I curled up in my bivy sack just as the wind started to blow with much more intensity. The temperature was probably in the mid-40s, and the windchill was just enough that I could feel a bite through my 40-degree sleeping bag. I snoozed for an hour or two before soft sprinkling woke me up, and managed to doze off for another couple of hours before I woke up to the feeling of cold water dripping through my hat, directly into my ear canal. At this point, rain was coming down hard. I managed to sleep through it long enough that water had soaked through my bivy sack, and also leaked in through the zipper, forming a large puddle around my head. Panic.

I wrestled out of the sleeping bag and dragged the whole damp mess over to the awning of the restroom. I tried all the doors another time and found the shower room was actually wedged open just a bit, and the deadbolt wasn't entirely set. I pulled with desperate force until I yanked the door free, opening the way to warm and dry shelter. Elation!

I rolled my bike inside and rearranged my wet gear on the floor. It was so clammy and cold that I couldn't fall back to sleep after that. I just shivered softly and listened the deluge outside, which occasionally strengthened into what sounded like marble-sized hail pounding the roof with a deafening clatter. I was glad to have shelter; if it hadn't been for a loose deadbolt, I would have had no choice but to escape to Greenville in the middle of the night. Despite my relief, I couldn't help but lay awake, nervously wondering what tomorrow would bring.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Inspired to ride

 I'd be lying if I said I had an easy weekend of mountain biking. I set out Saturday for a four-hour ride and became so tired midway through that I actually laid down beneath a tree to take a nap. A cold ridge-top breeze woke me up less than five minutes later, but the power nap really did give me a nice boost. The back half of the ride was more peppy.

On Sunday morning, I woke up so groggy that I felt like I was under water, but I'd already made plans to ride with a new friend, Jan. I'd already bailed on Jan once before, so I made myself rally to Windy Hill in the late morning. We motored up to Skyline Ridge on a lung-searingly steep fire road while being baked by the April sun (literally. I always have that one spring ride where I forget sunscreen and come home the color of a cherry tomato. Then I slather multiple layers of SPF 50 on myself for the rest of the year, and my skin never attains any real hint of color.) We kept a mellow pace but our ride was five hours long. Still, I did feel better after this longer ride than I have in a while. As a woman, I often can't tell whether my slumps are mostly hormonal, or if they're rooted in a deeper physical problem. I've decided to blame the former, because adventure is calling with a siren song I can't ignore.

Ever since the Moots came into my life, I've been struck by a strong desire to set out on bike-splorations, at a level I haven't experienced in a couple of years. I've got a big one coming at the end of the month, the Stagecoach 400. I wanted to do a shakedown ride with my new bike anyway, and I thought — why not counter that hot ride across the Southern California desert with a cool, wet tour along the Central California coast? I've lived in California for a year and yet I've seen so little of this state. Inspired by the recent Condor Ride, I mapped out a route that rolls through the Santa Cruz Mountains, snakes along a series of dirt roads that the Condors scouted, cuts down Highway 1 beside the coastal cliffs, wends around Morro Bay and through Montana de Oro State Park, then cuts southeast toward the Santa Barbara Mountains where Beat is racing the Santa Barbara 100 on Friday. The route is about 350 miles and probably somewhere between 60 and 80 miles of dirt  — and likely a lot of climbing. I'm planning to leave Wednesday morning and hopefully finish late Friday evening, or perhaps early Saturday. It's ambitious and the weather is likely going to be cold, wet and difficult — but I can't seem to talk myself out of it. I figure I can at least set out on Wednesday and see how day one goes. If I feel strongly like I need a nap after two hours of riding, I can always cut my tour short and ride back home via Santa Cruz. But if day one goes well, why not go for broke?

I've been so inspired that much of the last two evenings were dedicated to preparing for a multiday ride. I created my Google map route and uploaded it via .gpx conversion to my Garmin, so I even have a GPS track of my intended route. I retrofitted my bikepacking bags to work with the Moots. It took some cramming to get the custom Fatback frame bag into Moots' tiny triangle, and that 2007 prototype seatpost bag has now been through a few wars and back. Beat sewed a new bottom into the bag because the tires rubbed holes in the material during the Tour Divide. The straps are worn and it doesn't hold a pretty shape any more, but it still supports an overstuffed configuration of clothing, tubes, bivy sack, and a sleeping bag. The bags' creator, Eric, expressed embarrassment at its state when he saw me using it in the White Mountains 100. I am planning to order new bags from Revelate Designs soon, but for now these will work. I loaded the bike with sleeping gear, extra clothing, a lot of rain gear, repair kit, med kit and 4,000 calories. Even fully loaded for touring (with exception of the hydration pack) it weighs in at a svelte 37 pounds. I can't wait to hit a few back-to-back centuries with this bike! Oh wait, did I just write that?

I don't really know what to expect, and I can assure you I'm not doing this for training. Actually, I think it's a bad idea for training, but too intriguing from an adventure standpoint to resist. I spent much of this past winter pretending I was still a resident of Alaska. Now I'm finally going to see some of this big, beautiful state in which I reside.


Update, mainly for my mother: I'm carrying the SPOT on my tour this weekend. View my shared tracking page here.


Saturday, April 07, 2012

Getting to know you

Somewhere along the way, my mind inevitably promises my body more rest, but how could I not take this bike out for rides? Its rhythm is intoxicating — the soothing purr of the freewheel, the smooth ratcheting of the shifters, the crackle of new tires on gravel. It's a well-tuned machine with an imperfect engine; the biomechanics are still off somehow. Two-hour rides feel more like four, but I still managed to crank out 75 miles in three days with my new Moots, oh, and 8,600 feet of climbing. Not because I needed to, but, well, because I needed to.

Sort of like meeting someone new, and staying up all night talking on the phone even though you have to work early in the morning. Yeah, it's like that.

Today we set out to find the secret road out of town. Several highways thread down the mountains and valleys south of here. But I wanted to find a road no one knew about, that even Google Maps called questionable in its existence, but if it did exist, would release me near Bear Creek Redwoods and open the way for adventure south. Beat is racing in Santa Barbara next weekend, and I thought instead of joining him for the drive, I could meet him there with the Moots. Not that I believe it's prudent or wise to put in a 350+ mile fast tour at this point in time — yet it beckons all the same. Maybe it's just the hypnotic chant of the spinning parts on the perfect machine: "You want to ride to Santa Barbara. You want to ride to Santa Barbara."

We turned onto the super secret road, which, like most secondary roads around here, cut straight up the mountain on a fifteen percent grade. I learned that the Moots' granny gear is a notch higher than my Element, which I decided is a good thing because it will give my lazy legs the boost they need out of this slump. A cold wind whistled down the canyon and chilled my sweat-soaked forehead, lactic acid filled my quads, and still I needed to pedal harder to maintain forward motion. I hit one dead end and, undeterred, tried another fork. A mile later, another dead end, and a trail with a sign prohibiting bicycles. One more try ended in a closed gate and ominous "Beware of Dogs" no-trespassing signs. Alas, the super secret road was, as it probably should be, a dead end.

"There are still plenty of scenic routes out of town," I thought, even as my legs gave off a vibe of sad puppy dog eyes and a subtle wimper. "Oh, don't feel so reluctant, it's not that hard," I tried to reason. "Why do we even worry about overtraining? What's the point of training for adventure if it means missing a great adventure? Every night in the Tour Divide, we were so much more pathetic than this, and every day we got up and did the same thing all over again. In the end, was it really that bad? In the end, wasn't it worth it?"

The legs seemed unmoved by my speech. "Is that you talking, or the bike?" The Moots just purred serenely, revealing nothing. 

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Introducing ...

... The newest member of the family, the Moots MootoX YBB! It's a 29" titanium soft-tail whose purpose in this world is to be ridden lots and lots, preferably for days on end, and yet be so comfortable and light that it's almost like it's not even there — like riding on a cloud, or running blindingly fast without pain. The MootoX is my dream bike, but I never deserved it. I still don't, and yet, here it is, thanks to Beat and a little discussion we had a few months ago.

Jill: "I want to ride the Stagecoach 400 and do more bikepacking trips this summer, but the Element isn't really the right bike for long overnight rides. I think I'm going to have to put gears back on the Karate Monkey."

Beat: (Who has adopted the Karate Monkey and showered her with singlespeed love.): "No, don't do that. You need a new bike."

I do think I have too many bikes. I'm starting to catch up to my friend Sierra in sheer bicycle proliferation. And yet the prospect of a high-quality titanium 29er to ride and ride to my heart's content was too tempting to resist. The Moots has been two months in the making. I was enamored with the idea of a soft tail (the YBB stands for "Why Be Beat" — beat meaning "sore.") But we had to special order it because they don't make this frame in a small 16" size, so they custom-designed a women's specific frame of sorts. Moots is a small company based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and their attention to detail is stunning. I expect that even if I dish out the worst of my own custom brand of Jill abuse, this frame will last a long time.

I took the Moots on its maiden voyage, a two-hour ride on Black Mountain, this evening. It's amazing how easily a new bike can scrub away symptoms of burnout. I rode my fixed-gear commuter to Google in the afternoon, and that entire ride was an unpalatable ball of blah. But the spin up Black Mountain was exceedingly enjoyable, with the rich evening light saturating the hillsides, and the Moots disappearing beneath feathery strokes. The frame has a similar geometry to my Karate Monkey, and the guys at Palo Alto Bicycles took all of my measurements to build it specifically for me. Needless to say, I've never had a bike that fit me so well. My Rocky Mountain Element and I have always had a good working relationship, but I admit I haven't been able to connect with that bike on the same level. It's tough to explain, but I feel like I can tell when bike can just become an extension of my own body, and I can ride it for hours without feeling pressure or impact from the bike. The Karate Monkey has this quality to some degree. I believe the Moots will be even better.

Here's a few photos of the components. They're all just snapshots captured quickly during my test rides. I feel like I could shoot more artful photos of the bike if I tried, but for now these will have to do:

The wheels were built by Mike C. at lacemine29.com. Most endurance riders know this is the only way to go with 29" wheels, and I'm excited to see how a good set of light wheels can improve my riding in long-distance events. The drivetrain is 2x10 with Shimano XT crank and rear derailleur. I went with Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes, mainly because I can fix them myself in the middle of nowhere. I've enjoyed using lighter hydraulic brakes on my Element, but I become exceedingly frustrated whenever they develop issues. I'd rather just have something I can adjust and replace myself. Most of the parts were chosen with this in mind — durability and simplicity. The blue platform pedals are one of the fun blue accents. I just prefer platform pedals for distance riding — the main reason is comfort — and it's unlikely anyone is ever going to talk me out of them. Believe me, many have tried.

The fork is a Reba RLT. I have a good track record with Rebas so I'm staying the course.

This is the concession made in the custom design for a small-person frame (harrumph. I'm 5'7") It maintains lower standover height while allowing enough room for the 1.125" suspension mechanism. I had worried it might come out looking strange, but it actually looks cool — and I also love the built- in "handle," which will be great for carrying the bike through the many bike-carrying situations I am sure to encounter.

The rear suspension — cushy without being bouncy. Perfect for my favorite type of riding.

More blue accents on the cables.

Beat said I should take a picture of the brake levers because they're so awesomely space-age. Avid speed dial ultimate — adjustable and smooth. Luxurious. The grips are Ergon Enduro — a longtime favorite.

I foresee a bright future of adventures for Moots and me.