Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Camping in January

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I love it.

Frozen hub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sure enough, when I came back, the hub was frozen. I sat beside it with both wheels on the ground, spinning and spinning the pedals with my hand. Nothing happened. I tried lifting up the back wheel and spinning it some more. Nothing. Finally, I shifted down a few gears and spun with as much RPM as I could muster. The hub finally caught and the back wheel started moving. I catapulted myself onto the saddle on shot down the road, promising Sugar that he would go back to being a slush bike soon enough.
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Experiment gone awry

Date: Jan. 25
Mileage: 55
January mileage: 739.8
Hours: 6:30
Temperature upon departure: 5

As soon as I finished writing my argument against the use of panniers in snow-bike racing yesterday, I realized that I hadn't even convinced myself. "What was so bad about the use of panniers on a snow bike?" I wondered. Instead of dreaming up imaginary situations, why not try them in real life? Then I came home from work to discover that Geoff had figured out how to attach my cheap, touring-bike rear rack on the front of the Pugsley (I had been complaining about expensive front racks for weeks, and he just up and improvised. That Geoff sure can be innovative.) Anyway, I suddenly had endless options for gear. So today I repacked my bike with
rear saddle bags and the sleeping bag strapped to the front rack. All of my stuff didn't even fill the saddle bags half way. In that, I saw one peril of panniers ... the option for too much stuff.

The weather forecast called for a high of 7 degrees and sustained winds of 25-35 mph with gusts up to 75 mph. That kind of wind promised windchill-simulated temperatures in the minus 20s. I was thrilled. I may be the only person that looks forward to an Arctic blast ... well, me and Doug. Doug, consequently, also inspired me to try out panniers.

Here is a side view of the set-up. It looks even more obnoxious than the first, doesn't it? It is. Riding conditions today were pretty awful across the board. We received a foot of new snow over the weekend that had been windblown everywhere. The spots scraped clean of snow were a solid sheet of glare ice, so slippery that I spun sideways more than once. What wasn't ice was covered in deep, sandy powder. I did a lot of walking just to commute out to the trails, and once I made it to the trails, I fluctuated between bouncy riding, teeth-clenching ice coasting, and walking. Every time I had to walk with the bike, I would continuously bump my panniers with the back of my leg. While riding on bumpy trails, they were jolted around a lot. I had to re-adjust them multiple times. I hadn't reinforced them beyond their stock attachments when I left this morning. That would come back to bite me, hard.

This is what passes for a bike path in the City and Borough of Juneau. After a long, slow morning, I was running late on my way home and trying to ride the through choppy snow across the straightaway. I was thrown around a bit before I finally threw in the towel. I could really feel the weather this morning ... the throat-searing wind and ice cream headaches. But at least I was warm, and working hard. And I was nearly home when my rear tire slid out on ice and I took a somewhat graceful, sideways fall into a snowbank. One of the panniers came off the rack and slid several feet down the road. The other pannier was nowhere to be seen. Nowhere. It was gone.

I launched into a panic and began riding back the way I came, on the wrong side of the road. I just couldn't believe I had lost one of my panniers. As I moved to the right side of the road and the backwards miles continued to tick away, I came to a discouraging acceptance about my situation. I had taken all of my extra Iditarod clothing, clothing that I had tested and become comfortable with, clothing that would cost at least a couple hundred dollars to replace - I had stuffed it into a stupid pannier, and I had lost it.

I backtracked all the way to the bike path, more than six miles from where I fell off my bike. I was already running an hour late for work. I stood at the edge of the path and considered giving up and turning around. Someone had obviously picked up my pack and was probably rifling through it right now, trying on my down coat and warming their fingers in my new mittens. But as I looked across the straightaway, I could see this dark lump about a quarter mile down the trail. It could have been anything. A log. A garbage bag. A dead cat. But somehow I knew, I just knew it was my bag. I threw my bike in the snow and began sprinting toward the lump - as much as a person can sprint in big snow boots through six-inch deep sand snow. I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you ache to run faster but just can't make your legs go. But I was ecstatic with the idea that after more than an hour, my pack could still be sitting in the middle of the trail. When I finally I stumbled up next to it, I felt this surge of relief. My pannier was sitting in plain sight, a spot that could be seen from more than a quarter mile away, and no one had touched it. Either no one went by during that entire stretch of frigid Sunday afternoon, or I am one lucky snowbiker. Except for the fact that I still had eight slow into-the-arctic-wind miles to ride home, the top of my Camelbak hose was frozen, I hadn't had anything to eat, and I was really late for work.

Geoff made sushi for dinner and we traded stories about our terrible days. "You're not going to go with panniers, are you?" he said.

"Well," I said and winced as Wasabi shot up my wind-burned nose. "Maybe next time I'll try them on front."