Sunday, February 01, 2015


 It occurred to me this week that one of the reasons I'm so nervous about embarking on a solo fat bike tour in western Alaska is because I'm a bit of a weakling. Load a 30-pound bike with 40 pounds of gear, fuel, and food, and I couldn't lift it over my head if I tried. Now you'd think that wouldn't matter, but last year I had my ass handed to me plenty of times because I lacked the strength to do something crucial to forward motion, at least well. Dragging a sled across wet, spongy muskeg in Alaska. Carrying my bike up the "tiger line" of several mountains in South Africa. Simply hauling my sorry self up that steep climb to Coda in Italy (sure, it was the descent that did me in. But sloppy legs didn't help.) Anyway, this is a thing I'm fretting about — I'm not strong. If I had to push my loaded bike up a steep or soft trail with a foot or more of fresh snow, I might never make it.

 The realization came last weekend while riding a big loop around the northern peninsula with my friend Jan. It was the most beautiful day of the year so far, with summertime heat in January and no fog on the coast. Of course everybody in the San Francisco Bay Area was out on this day. This particular route happened to incorporate a lot of bike paths linking up popular trails. It was like playing an arcade game with all the dodging of walkers and strollers and dogs, and then we took a wrong turn on Sweeny Ridge and ended up on an illegal downhill trail. This one was characterized by loose dirt and 30-percent grades — the kind of trail that you just have to scream down if you're going to ride it at all; if you hit the brakes even lightly, you're going to go over the handlebars and die. We opted to walk down, slowly.

It was all in the interest of good adventure and exploring new trails. But by the time we started up a crowded Montara Mountain, I was tired of dodging people and admittedly grumpy. Jan made a valiant effort to clean all of the steep, loose-gravel pitches on that rutted fireroad (the middle section gains 900 feet in a mile.) I gave up early. A group of male hikers in their early 20s taunted me as I pushed uphill. "Why you walking? It's hard, huh? Is it too hard?"

"Nah," I growled. "It's just, eh. What's the point?"

What's the point? Trying to clean a steep climb is fun, and it's important training for strength. I've become too lazy about hard efforts, I recently realized. There was a once a time when I would ride a singlespeed up steep climbs until it felt like my abs might rip apart; now I step off my bike as soon as my legs start to feel the slightest lactic acid burn. Last year, when I was either preparing for or participating in three big multi-day efforts, I developed a tendency toward "Forever Pace" all of the time. I needed to save my energy and strength for the next day, and the next, and the next, for most of a year. I could never go all out. It's important to be conservative during a 21-day bike adventure, but this "save your legs" strategy is not so good for training.

 On Wednesday I had to take my car in for its 45,000-mile service. This is one of my favorite chores because the service department always take many hours, and it gives me a great excuse to ride away from San Jose and hit some dirt in Sierra Azul. I had in mind this 40-mile lollypop loop with two steep climbs, and I was reasonably confident that I could pound it out in four hours with a concentrated effort. Four hours is about all I had between my 1:45 p.m. appointment and 6 p.m. closing time, sorry but your car's stuck here overnight, so you're going to have to ride home along traffic-clogged Stevens Creek Boulevard in the dark.

So I had time and motivation. Even still, I lost heart during the Limekiln Trail climb that mountain bikers refer to as "Overgrown," especially after I started spinning out on dry leaves that kicked up clouds of dust. The trail-work guy in the front end loader warned me that they'd been pulling out massive patches of poison oak, and all I could think about was poison oak dust lodging in my lungs, which only recently finally healed from the Fat Pursuit.

I justified walking, but I did not feel good about it. By the time I hit the rolling traverse, my progress was behind schedule and I considered turning around. But no — no surrender. I could clean this thing. Even if some of the steeper pitches had me riding and 2.8 mph and I can walk at 2.5 — no, riding is still faster. I commenced mashing pedals. The next three miles were all hard breathing and occasional grunting, but I made it the rest of the way to the top of Sierra Azul without putting a foot down.

And even though the Woods Trail resembled one of those runaway truck ramps — 25-percent grades and shin-deep gravel — and even though descending it on a bike was like wrestling someone in tub of marbles, and even though there were still several rolling climbs that I had conveniently forgotten about ... I still made it back to the dealership by 5:38 p.m. Twenty-two minutes to spare. Victory.

On Saturday, Beat sweetly switched out the tires on our expedition fat bike to a set of old Larrys, so I can ride it around town without wearing down the new and expensive studded Dillinger 5s that he sweetly got me for my icy coast expedition. Riding Snoots on pavement and dirt is difficult and slow, but I plan to stick to it in February. "Seriously, don't let me ride Sworxy," I said to Beat. Sworxy is our awesome Specialized S-Works Roubaix carbon road bike. It pedals itself up hills. It has made me weak.

We planned to ride the Steven's Creek Canyon loop, and I was plodding up the hill. By the time I reached the gate on Montebello road, Beat said, "I've been waiting here for a while." I looked at my watch. "Yeah, I'm sure you have because it's been an hour and twenty minutes. I don't think it's ever taken me that long to get here." Personal worst. Thanks, Snoots.

We looped around the Bella Vista Trail and started down the canyon, where Beat stopped at the Indian Creek intersection. "Should we go this way instead?" he asked, pointing up the hill with a sly smile. Let's see, descend fun canyon trail, or climb up a steep fireroad back to the top of Black Mountain?

"Let's do it!" I said. "I might have to walk most of it. But I should try to ride the whole thing. Don't hold me to it, but I'm going to try."

Indian Creek is tough not because it climbs 1,000 feet of loose gravel in 1.5 miles, but because it does so on a series of gut-bustingly steep pitches broken by tiny descents rather than a nice, even grade. It's tough to ride clean on a light mountain bike with aggressive tires, let alone an expedition fat bike with snow tires. But it had to be done. The success of my Alaska coast expedition was at stake.

I followed closely behind Beat, grinding the pedals. A few times the rear tire started spinning in place, and my heart skipped a few beats. "No dabs, no dabs, don't stall" I chanted in my head. A few solid pedal mashes helped me break free, and I continued up the hill, saturated in rich afternoon light as I breathed fire.

About three-quarters of the way up, I ended up on the wrong side of a deep rut. There was no way around, and I didn't believe there was any way to ride over that rut and clear it. This was the end. My leg muscles were already spinning on fumes. But I had to at least try. I stood out of the saddle just long enough to jump-start the surge, and mashed as hard as I could. I weakly hoisted the front wheel over the rut and spun furiously to propel the rear wheel out of the narrow hole. Astonishingly, I made it, and rode the soaring sense of satisfaction to a seemingly effortless climb to the top. No dabs Indian Creek! Victory!

"See, you can do it when you try," Beat said. I hope so, because I only have six more weeks to train. 


  1. You mat be many things but a weakling you ain't.
    There's an app available called FitStar. All body weight stuff you can do at home, pick your own duration, body area and intensity. I hate the gym because it's breeding ground for sickness, but I find this works great for me as a cyclist.
    Secondly, if your story is accurate, you eat s#%+ during these events. You seriously need to calculate the amount of hydration, and carbs and protein you need, per pound of body weight, too see you through an event. Check out Ensure, which you can find in any pharmacy, for starters.
    You've got guts, but I takes more than guts to do these things you want to do. But you're pretty smart and the other guy is no idiot either.
    Proper Prior Planning Prevnts Potentially Piss Poor Performance
    No go get it!

  2. Hahahaha! You make me laugh. You are the most intense exercise machine I *know*. You are WAY too hard on yourself. That being said, weight training, like Z-man says above, is the way to go. I hate it, but I make myself do it, and it has really helped me in ways I hadn't imagined, even backpacking.

  3. Thanks Jill for credit and very nice scenic pictures (except my butt!). I think physical strength is 10% and 90% is will. You have both. Just don't start protein shakes and dumb-bells! I found 3x20 reps with rubber bands and low weights (up to 5lbs) PLUS bikram yoga once a week makes me feel twenty years younger. I wish I started yoga in my 30-ies.

  4. Six weeks is plenty of time to engage full beast mode. I, for one, can't wait to hear about this adventure. You are basically awesome.

  5. "Dragging a sled across wet, spongy muskeg in Alaska. Carrying my bike up the "tiger line" of several mountains in South Africa. Simply hauling my sorry self up that steep climb to Coda in Italy"

    This strikes me as funny for some reason. The toils of being a world travelling adventurer :p

    1. I only write about my own experiences here. I'm not trying to compare myself to the women in Nepal who haul bales of hay the size of small sedans, or the Zulu women who can carry gallons of water on their heads without using their hands for balance. :)


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