Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Gears disability"

"Sorry for your gears disability," Bill said as he pulled up on his bike in front of my office. "Would it be better if I only rode in one gear?"

I looked down at my newly singlespeed-converted Karate Monkey. "Well, it couldn't hurt," I said. "At least then there's a chance I'll keep up with you on the road."

Bill observed my cadence as we pedaled down the street, then shifted his gears to match mine - 32x20. "This is pretty low," he observed.

"Tell me about it," I said. "It's downright tedious on flat pavement." We spun and spun and spun, until we hit hills that suddenly seemed to throw the pedals backward. I stood and strained and grunted and sometimes I made it, but sometimes I didn't. The ride hadn't even started yet.

At the trailhead, I made a point to remark to the other Thursday Night riders that I was singlespeeding today - not because I've suddenly become one of those boorish one-gear sandbaggers (though I may have come off that way), but because I didn't have a clue what I was doing and needed to warn potential wheel-suckers in advance.

We started up the trail. I struggled to find my cadence amid a paceline of geared riders. Bill stayed up front, chugging away at the 32x20, although Bill is a much stronger rider than I am. I churned, then faltered, then churned again. The grade steepened. I stood up and wrestled with my handlebars like they were fighting back. I mashed the pedals until my abs burned. My abs! "This is a really good core workout," I said to the woman in front of me. She shifted into granny gear and suddenly I couldn't keep my own bike from tipping over. I set my foot down, and just like that I was walking. Other riders spun past and regarded me with quiet pity. It was a really easy hill.

I coasted the entire descent, except for when I forgot to coast and laid into my pedals until the egg-beater motion spun my legs out of control and spit my feet forward. After experiencing steep climbs and leg-throwing descents, I vowed to put clipless pedals on my singlespeed. I dislike clipless pedals and haven't used them for a year, but you basically can't get away with platforms when you only have one gear.

On the way home, Bill, Norman and I passed a speedometer. Bill and I frantically spun our tiny gear, legs pounding like overheated pistons, until we coaxed the radar to 25 mph. "Yeah, 25 mph!" I called out. I slowed my legs. That's when I realized that every muscle in my legs hurt, every single one, throbbing with an alien sensation that must arise when one's RPM rises above 200.

"What do you think of one gear?" I asked Bill as we ambled toward home.

"I like it," he said.

I smiled. "Me too."
Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Back to reality

This has been a strange process - trying to recover from last week. And I'm not talking about the 50-mile trek across Northern Utah, although there is some backlash there as well. But, no, Vegas and the way I felt there, and subsequently reacted while I was there, is still troubling me. By Thursday I was pressed against a hard edge of my personality. I was anxious, stressed, disconnected and really not myself. Now that I'm past it, and trying to pick up a few of the pieces, I'm still confused about why I reacted so badly. I think there is a lot to be said about sleeplessness and the mental turmoil that alone causes. But my experience there was somewhat enlightening - in showing me that I may not have as much control over my mental landscape as I'd like to believe.

Still, I am back, and I am fine, and hopefully not that much worse for the wear. A few of my co-workers think I went off the deep end with that 50-mile run, and that is perhaps a somewhat fair assessment. I came home Sunday and crashed hard. I was sick and non-functional on Monday. But after about 22 hours of sleep in 36 hours time, I felt almost completely normal. My friend Bill and I went out for a Tuesday night ride that we both intended to be "mellow." We ended up climbing 3,500 feet to a high ridge above town called University Beacon. We reached the top right at sunset. An steady 40 mph wind howled through the radio towers as we stood against the gale and talked for half an hour. It was one of those incredibly cathartic discussions where two people who don't know each other all that well realize they actually have a lot in common.

Then, suddenly it was dark. We rode a gravel road up, but Bill wanted to take the singletrack down. I switched on my meager headlight, having no idea what I was getting into, and launched in behind him. With a amber and orange sea of city lights spread out below us, I watched Bill's thin silhouette disappear over a horizon line like a roller coaster plunging into an abyss. Seconds later, my own wheel dipped into the headwall and plummeted toward city lights that were still thousands of feet below. I grabbed my brakes but it was too late. I was slipping, skidding down the steep gravel, wide-eyed and half-panicked as my locked-out wheels carried me toward certain doom. All I could see was the blurred sparkle of city lights. I felt like I was crash-landing a plane into Missoula. I braced for impact. The grade lessened and the wheels caught traction. I skidded to a stop. Bill was a few yards ahead, walking his bike. "Yeah, this trail kinda sucks at night," he said.

But it was a fun ride, and turned out to be fairly ambitious - nearly three hours of ride time, and for the most part I felt great despite everything last week. Today my friend Dave and I got together for a mellow hike. I wanted to test my progress on my right foot, which is still sore from running, but not to a level that I think I have plantar faciitis. Still, there is something weird with my arch. I can't quite pinpoint it. Bruise? Sore muscles or tendons? After about two miles it started to feel sore again, and then it began to tighten up. Luckily we kept the walk short. But it was a good reality check, because I was all set to start running again this weekend.

Instead, we came back early, where Dave set to fixing my Karate Monkey. I've wanted a singlespeed mountain bike for a while now, not even quite realizing that I had one all along - it just had too much crap stuck on it. Dave mentioned that singlespeed conversion is as easy as tearing all that crap off and adding a couple of rings. So we set to the project - or, I should say he set to the project. I stood there and tried to learn, I really tried. But teaching me bicycle mechanics is like trying to train a cat how to sit and stay. In theory, they should be smart enough, but in the end all they do is stare off into space and remain perpetually useless.

But Dave did good work, and now KiM is set up the way Surly intended - well, except for the Reba fork. But I'm excited to try out singlespeeding. I already got cold and bored while spinning the simplified bike slowly home, and I imagine I'll be redlined and walking on most of the climbing during my trail ride tomorrow, so I'm well on my way!
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The life of Geo

Today I took what feels like my last step away from my status as an Alaskan. I registered my car in the great state of Montana and acquired new license plates. The process was so painless it was almost surreal. I walked into a completely empty DMV, where six smiling employees all waved me over at the same time. I handed the smiliest guy my title and a check for $68, and five minutes later I had new plates, good for the next year.

The car also hits another milestone this month, in that I've owned it for 10 years. In October 2000 I paid the car's first owner $5,100 in cash for a 1996 Geo Prism. It had 29,000 miles, manual transmission, a tape deck stereo, no air conditioning, no power steering and a sweet tomato-red exterior that screamed "take me home!" Since then, Geo has set wheel in 29 states and six Canadian provinces. It's been smashed by a sycamore tree in New Jersey and broken into six times. It's climbed rugged jeep roads in southern Utah and plowed through feet of snow on a high bluff above Homer, Alaska. It's made four full trips between the states and Alaska, three on the Al-Can and one on the Cassier Highway. It's been as far north as Fairbanks and as far south as the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas, as far west as Anchor Point, Alaska, and as far east as Bar Harbor, Maine. And in that entire time, I never had to put anything into it besides insurance, tires and brakes. In order to make the trip down to Montana, I had an Anchorage mechanic install a new clutch. I received a lot of crap from my friends for doing this. Geo has 186,000 miles on it now, an interior ravaged by years of hauling bicycles, a motor that gets grumpy in the cold, a blue book value of about $400, and a flaking, faded paint job that makes it look like one sick tomato. But it still gets 35 miles to the gallon, runs, and, well ... I can't help myself. I love this car. We've been through so much together.

Somewhere out there is a photo of Geo surrounded by police tape in a New Jersey campground, with a sycamore tree resting on top of a smashed roof. I eventually got that problem fixed, along with the body damage I caused when I side-swiped a parked car in March 2001, not to mention smashed windows from the break-ins. I don't know whatever became of the sycamore photo, but there at least a few images that remain of our good times together.

Geo and I after a backpacking trip in Sweat Canyon, Utah, sometime in early 2004. This was the go-to vehicle for an uncountable number of weekend trips to the desert. Geo has trawled a lot of rocky, sandy, rugged back-roads in its time. I even still have that hat.

Moving from Tooele, Utah, to Idaho Falls in October 2004, with the help of my (recently departed) grandpa, mom and dad. The bikes on top of the car are my Ibex Corrida and long-ago-sold Trek 6500 mountain bike. Also note the can of Pepsi on the hood.

Geo fresh upon arrival in Homer, Alaska, after I moved there from Idaho Falls in September 2005. All of my belongings where either wedged in the car or that canvas car-top carrier. The bicycles are my ever-present Ibex Corrida touring bike on the left, and my long-ago-sold Gary Fisher Sugar on the right.

We lived at 1,200 feet on a bluff above Homer, which is the coastal Alaska equivalent of living in a mountain town. Our house received upwards of 300 inches of snow that first winter, and Geo took it like a champ, plowing through the worst storms and gravel road ascents with nothing more than front-wheel drive and questionable studded tires.

There it is! Go, Geo, go!

In August 2006, I packed all of my worldly belongings into the car again and moved to Juneau. As an Alaskan, I received a lot of crap for not owning either a Subaru or a truck, but Geo and I made it work. It was especially good at hauling yard sale finds and hideous couches.

Geo spent three years not seeing much use in the city of Juneau, which is why its mileage is still comparatively low for all of the traveling it's done. In April 2009, I loaded it up again, this time with camping and biking gear for my summer on the Great Divide. This is the car outside Vancouver, British Columbia, during a road trip I'd rather have washed from my memory. My and my ex's Karate Monkeys are mounted to the roof rack. This is the last time they'd see each other.

In April 2010, it was time to pack up again and move out of Juneau (holy cow, was that just six months ago?) I mounted my summer car tires, Roadie and the Karate Monkey on the roof - a Beverly Hillbillies-esque junk show that also seemed to receive smiles from the friends in Juneau who were continuously pressing me to get rid of that car already (you know who you are, Brian.) This is Geo at the top of White Pass on the Klondike Highway: 3,200 feet of elevation gain in a mere 10 miles, on a narrow, icy road. I was so happy that it actually made it.

Then, in June 2010, it was time to make what was hopefully be Geo's last trip down the Al-Can, moving from Anchorage to Montana. This is Geo in front of the Columbia Icefield in Jasper National Park. I had four bikes along for the ride on this trip, with Pugsley and the Rocky Mountain Element stuffed in the back seat. Since I moved back to the "states," there have been a lot of trips to Utah and northern Montana. I'd like to say we're going to settle down someday, but who knows what the future holds?

My relationships, my bicycles, and my homes come and go, and through it all Geo remains. I think there's something to be said about unyielding loyalty, even in a car.