Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The whys of racing

By Friday morning, racing a mountain bike around a dusty desert loop was about the farthest thing from my mind. The polished titanium Snoots, still speckled with red dirt, was propped against the nearby wall as I scoured the Internet for ideas. Is it possible to ride a bicycle on Baffin Island? I've long wondered if this land of wind-swept snow crusts, gravel bars and frozen fjords could potentially offer fat-bike friendly travel in the early spring. I'd envision granite cliffs higher and sheerer than any in Yosemite, towering over wide, white valleys, and dwarfing a solo bicycle tourist that was me in my dreams. Can fantasies like that come true? I Googled and pondered.

Then, without warning, it was time to pick Beat and Liehann up from the airport. Car packing, lunch, five-hour drive to Southwestern Utah, grocery buying, venue searching, race check-in, camp establishment, tossing open bags of food and bike parts around a Subaru Outback and calling this mess our "pit." We ate stale bagels with sliced cheese for dinner, and just like that it was time for sleep.

I laid awake in my sleeping bag for hours, thinking about Alaska. What explorations await up there? The Iditarod Trail, McGrath, maybe Nome, what else? I crawled out of the tent to crisp, near-freezing air and a sky splattered with stars, more stars than I had seen in many months. I gazed up at the Milky Way and wondered about the secret, untrammeled places of the world. Places with night skies so deep that they appear as a portal into outer space, places so inhospitable remote that they might was well be outer space. I looked around at the other pits of the race venue — elaborate canopies, trailers, RVs. The vast sky above the Virgin Rim had lulled me into dreams of distant exploration. But I was still locked in a pulse of civilization: A 25-hour mountain bike race, the temporary home of hundreds of riders and supporters, engaged in what one might consider the opposite of exploration — calculated lap racing.

Why do I race? This question has been on my mind lately, filling in the gaps in between thoughts about how to focus my career efforts and wonderings about future adventures. I questioned racing specifically because just two months ago I very much wanted to quit racing cold turkey, and even when I changed my mind about that, I could only muster passing enthusiasm for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow. It's a fun course that I (mostly) enjoy riding, and friends from Montana, Canada, and Colorado were going to be there — a fantastic reunion. But beyond that, what was I even doing here? I don't race to try to beat people, only because I gain such minimal pleasure from that (personality thing, perhaps, Type B through and through.) I enjoy improving on my own results, but I'd ridden 13 laps here two years in a row and wasn't sure I wanted to ride more than that, because more time on the course would mean less time visiting with friends who live thousands of miles away. Thirteen laps is still 169 miles of difficult dirt riding, with a hefty climb in the first five miles of each 13-mile lap, five miles of relatively happy rolling descents, and three mildly technical miles that I've taken to calling "The Slabs of Despair."

"I will ride easy," I thought, "and see what happens." I vowed to spend some time hanging out with Keith and Leslie, but the outside goal was 14 laps.

Beat and I started out riding together and largely stuck together for the entire race. He was riding a singlespeed and would ride away on the dusty climb, but then I'd catch him on the Jem Trail descent, often in the exact same spot. We made up our own hike-a-bike sections when the energy surges required to power over the Slabs of Despair became too much to muster, and joked about how much more we enjoyed the walking at this point. I lamented my relative lack of bike conditioning — a former iron butt that's gone soft and sore, and painful pins-and-needles sensations in my arm from death-gripping the handlebars. I started to become upset about the pain in my arms, only because my legs felt fine and my energy levels were good. I was climbing well and not even all that tired, especially since we started making 30-minute stops in Keith and Leslie's warm trailer once night fell. They cooked baked potatoes, coffee, and quesadillas, and we chatted about their road trip across the American West and all the miserable parts of the course that we hated while defending what a fun race Frog Hollow is — in other words, wasting clock time and soaking up lots of fun energy before we returned to our sad pit at the cold, dark, utterly disorganized Subaru.

Beat and Liehann were becoming more demotivated about the laps and I began to join in their sentiments. One more round; what's the point? At the same time, I was slipping into a happy endurance daze, daydreaming again about Alaska and Baffin Island, and giggling about nothing at all. But the dust in the air was becoming scratchy and bothersome, and my arms hurt a lot. Every hateful slab brought the sensation of being stabbed by dozens of needles. Beat and I talked about stopping after ten laps. Mountain bike racing just isn't Beat's thing and he couldn't muster the enthusiasm. I understood, and I was on board. Still, I quietly determined that 14 laps were still a mathematical possibility, and I wondered if the boys would be mad if I snuck out after the required ten were done.

Lap ten came and I was in a daze again, thousands of miles away and lost in an expanse of sheer cliffs and snow. I was climbing slower than before, and Beat was long out of sight when the jeep road veered downward into a small drainage. My mind snapped back to reality just in time to see my front wheel land in a deep rut, but it was already too late. The bike jack-knifed and slapped me into the dirt, sending streaks of pain through my left shoulder and elbow, accompanied by the burning sensation of dirt tearing the surface layer of skin off my left leg. Amid the shock of impact I didn't even realize that I'd planted my right knee into a platform pedal until I was back on my bike and pedaling gingerly up the hill, and felt warm blood soak through my sock.

My left side was stiff and incredibly sore, blood was gushing out of what looked like a deep gash on the inside of my right knee, and I was demoralized by my stupid crash. I'm just so tired of nursing blunt force injuries. People give me all sorts of well-meaning advice about how I can improve my balance, increase my skills, become less of a hopeless klutz. But sometimes I wonder why we have to fight so hard against our own natures. I am daydreamy and my mind and body aren't always on the same wavelength. Grace and coordination are not talents of mine, but I do try to work on my skills, honestly. Still, I'm a crasher. I'll probably always be a crasher. This is becoming more problematic as I get older.

I effectively walked the last three miles of lap ten, because I wanted no more beatings from the Slabs of Despair. By the time I reached the timing tent, my right leg looked like something out of a cheap horror flick, so I went to the medical truck. The EMT who mopped me up probed the gash and said I would need stitches, but it was 3 a.m. and the nearest hospital was in St. George, 40 minutes away. When I elected to opt out of the E.R. trip, she warned me that pedaling would cause the wound to continually reopen and fill with dust, complicating the possibility of infection right next to my joint. Not worth the risk, no doubt. I was out. Lap ten. 130 miles. And I hadn't even figured out the reasoning behind all of it yet.

But it was fun. The 25 Hours of Frog Hollow is always fun, and I'm grateful that I had the chance spend that time with my friends and still get in a really long, mostly enjoyable ride. Now, three days later, I'm still more sore than I have been in a long while, including after the PTL. My elbow is still stiff and the range of motion seems low, but there's no swelling, so I'm not too worried about that. My sister, who is a nurse, helped assess my wound and it still appears to be free of infection; thanks to past crashes, I've become an expert on keeping a deep wound clean.

I concede that it's been a rough year of racing for me. Neither of my Alaska races went as well as I'd hoped, I had shin splints during my first 50-miler in May, the Bryce 100 was an altitude-induced sick march, I DNF'd the Laurel Highlands 70 one week later, then fell on my face at the San Lorenzo 50K and coped with a knee injury for the better part of six weeks. Then came the PTL, the race that wounded my spirit. With the exception of what will likely be a couple more training 50Ks next month, Frog Hollow was the last race of 2013. Not my lucky year.

But I have much to ponder in the coming weeks as 2014 plans begin to take shape. And in the meantime, I'll keep dreaming about adventure.
Friday, November 01, 2013


I don't have a lot of time for exposition, so I'll just get to the meat of my post. Beat purchased the most awesome expedition snow bike ever built, and today I took it for a test ride in Utah's San Rafael Swell.

Mike Curiak's purpose-built titanium Moots fat bike, nicknamed Snoots. Proven as a top shelf expedition bike when Mike rode it 1,000 miles completely unsupported to Nome in 2010, carrying 21 days worth of supplies. Why would Mike sell such a beautiful specimen? In his words: "I've owned this bike for a handful of years. Ridden it across parts of Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Utah, and Arizona. And yes, all the way across Alaska on the Iditarod several times. The original inspiration to build and own this bike was so that I could ride from Ross Island on the Antarctic coastline, following the Overland Traverse all the way up to the South Pole. I spent literal years of my life following this dream — getting the body, bike, mind, and all attendant parts ready. For many, many reasons, I have since decided to move onto other, more engaging projects."

Why would Beat purchase such a bike? In his words: "Because I think ahead. It's logical to pick up this bike to me. It works on all levels. I doubt you could get a bike this purpose-built made in the next five years, maybe ever (other than a one-off), and even if we wanted to have one custom-made, it would take us years to learn how it should be made. I think carbon frames will overrun the space with their inherent advantage in design flexibility and ease of production — but with that, expedition readiness can only decrease. Look at how few true innovations have happened in bike tech over the last 20 years — even in the main categories. A few people still fiddle with real innovation (two-wheel drive for example, which I could maybe see some very specific use for, but which is supposedly horribly unreliable) but that's it. And moreover, obviously this is the ONLY actually proven design that exists — because no one's come even close to the unsupported Nome trip."

Mike told me he couldn't argue with Beat's logic. Even so, for the past few weeks that Beat and I have been discussing this opportunity, I considered trying to dissuade him. Why would I choose to pass up such a bike? Because while Beat can appreciate the functionality and uniqueness of such a bike, and, ahem, afford it ... the job of actually riding the bike falls squarely on me. Oh sure, Beat will flirt with the notion of a long winter bike expedition. But in the end he will probably always stick to what he knows and loves — foot travel. I'm the one who soothes myself to sleep at night by fantasizing about riding bikes in Greenland and Baffin Island and, yes, across Alaska. But the prospect actually bringing these dreams to fruition is intimidating and scary, and owning an expedition fat bike can only nudge them closer to reality. Having possession of the Snoots is a great privilege. And you know what they say about privilege and responsibility.

I made a meager effort to talk Beat out of making this purchase. "It's way more bike than you and I need," I said. "What already have a fat bike that almost never gets ridden. Because we live in California."

"For now," Beat fired back. "But I'm thinking ahead. This bike probably won't still be available when we move to Alaska eventually."

Indeed. Possibilities are pretty endless. They could be a year or more down the road, but Snoots will be there when we decide to make those leaps.

Mike discouraged shipping this bike, so he and I made a plan to rendezvous in Utah, since I was planning to be here with my car for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow, and Mike lives relatively close by in Grand Junction, Colorado. We met up in the town of Green River. Mike gave me a quick rundown of the Snoots' special features and set me free with this incredible bike. It was a beautiful day — 55 degrees and sunny, too beautiful not to ride. Just 11 miles west of Green River off I-70 is a narrow vein of the San Rafael Swell called Black Dragon Canyon. I steered clear of the canyon's faint jeep road to test-drive the Snoots in the places where it would shine most — the loose sand and boulders of the wash.

It was enlightening to ride this bike on terrain that it is really good at — sand — as well as terrain that I am not so good at — rocks. I was surprised how responsive this bike is — twisty maneuvers were no problem for the Snoots. Fat bikes have this way of making me feel invincible, and I found myself "sessioning" a few boulders that I normally wouldn't go near. It was no issue to lift the wheel onto ledges. "Note to self; front end looks heavy, isn't that heavy." But then I hit a flash-flood washout, a gorge about six feet deep with no way around, and struggled mightily to lift the bike over my head. The whole bike was sort of heavy. "Note to self: Not a big deal. You have difficulty lifting the carbon roadies over your head, too. Try lifting some weights once in a while." All-in-all, it's actually a super fun desert bike, too.

I rode about ten miles up the canyon, until I had climbed 2,000 feet and ended on top of a bench, riding a boring flat jeep road. Normally I love riding jeep roads, but this suddenly smooth and well-drained road just felt beneath the Snoots, somehow. It was time to turn around anyway. I had so much fun with the descent. At one point I launched off a small ledge (also unlike me) and touched down on the slickrock slab below with a dramatic bouncy bounce in both tires, which I had inflated to 10 or 11 psi. "Oops, maybe I shouldn't be riding this bike like this," I thought. But in the next breath, "Nah, Snoots can handle it. Snoots will break me before I break Snoots." Either way, I probably shouldn't be riding an expedition/touring fat bike like a dually with five inches of travel, lest I do break myself.

I so love the San Rafael Swell. Between the ages of 18 and 19 I transitioned from a teenager who spent every weekend going to movies, seeking out obscure live music shows, and frequenting terrible dance clubs — to a young adult who spent nearly every free weekend camping with friends in the San Rafael Swell. This is the region where I cemented my appreciation of the outdoors and fell in love with the desert. Every time I visit the San Rafael Swell, I'm whisked back to the happiest moments of that time in my life.

Icing on the cake — the petroglyphs at the mouth of the canyon. I'm super excited about the Snoots, but first thing's first. Headed down to Frog Town on Friday. 
Monday, October 28, 2013

Exploring Santa Cruz

Beat and I enjoyed a quiet weekend, working on a few projects and being lazy tapering for Frog Hollow. My friend Jan was in town for the weekend, and was interested in venturing out for a mellow ride on Saturday. Jan moved to Seattle recently and has been enduring autumn in the Pacific Northwest, so he was stoked about clear sky and temperatures in the 70s. He told us about the horrors of bike commuting in the cold rain, and I was quick to commiserate. "I lived in Juneau for five years. They get three times the annual precipitation of Seattle." Jan related his trials and I joined in with back-in-my-day war stories about showing up at the office covered face to foot in road grit and rigid, refrozen sheets of ice, which is what happens when it's 32.1 degrees and you ride a bike through three inches of slush, even with fenders. I'd have to stand outside the building until I peeled off the top two drenched layers, shivering with full-on convulsions as my extremities went numb, and, Sonny, you don't know the true indignity of bike commuting until you've commuted through a winter in Juneau. 

But it's true that weather toughness is like muscle mass — it steadily gets softer and weaker the longer one lives in a friendly climate. Now I'm Californian through and through, and I don't even blink when it's 70 and sunny in late October. Yawn. 

2008 Jill would not be amused.  

But it's refreshing to view one's routines through the lens of someone who sees more rareness in opportunities. Jan wanted to ride in Santa Cruz, which is one of those places that is so close and yet feels so far away. I admit my first reaction was, "Ugh, traffic." But there wasn't any; it's less than an hour of driving, to visit a place with incredible diversity in terrain and landscapes. In just one twenty-mile ride, we climbed desert-like sand slopes, rode through a lonely eucalyptus grove stranded in a grassy plain, dropped into loamy, root-choked singletrack winding through a dense redwood forest, and skirted coastal cliffs.

Descending into the coastal fog after riding the trails and fireroads of Wilder Ranch.

Pelicans. Lots of pelicans.

More seabirds on an envy-inducing perch.

Whenever a taller friend comes to visit, we usually lend them our 18-inch Fatback, because it's our largest bike. This was Jan's first time on a fat bike and he had that giddy "monster truckin" grin on his face for much of the ride. The fat bike market is exploding right now, with exponentially more choices in frames, forks, wheels, rims and tires than there were just three years ago when Beat purchased the Fatback. This trend is also pushing fat bike design away from its snow-and-sand origins, and more into the all-terrain market, with bikes featuring tighter geometry, carbon frames, knobbier tires, suspension forks, sometimes even rear suspension. These developments annoy some "old-timer" fat bike enthusiasts, because the industry already offered bikes better suited for trail riding, called mountain bikes. I also agree that fat bikes really shine on soft and loose surfaces, and prefer my mountain bike for dirt. But I can't deny that riding a fat bike is simply fun — smile-inducing fun — whether it's on snow or dirt or pavement. Jan agreed. We managed to get Fatty off trail for a fun diversion of beach riding in a cove below the cliffs. I would try to ride sand more often if there were more accessible, longer stretches of beach in the area. But every strip of nearby coastline that I've noticed is either closed to the public, closed to bikes, or blocked by cliffs.

Skimming along the cliffs was my favorite part of the ride. Beat was on his singlespeed and spun out at a relaxed pace. A stiff tailwind helped scoot us along, so I just leaned back and coasted with my camera out.

So many pelicans! Thanks for getting us out for new explorations in our back yard, Jan.

Beat has been hard at work on gear for his upcoming walk to Nome. Now that he knows exactly what he wants, he's been designing, building, and sewing a lot of it himself. He started from scratch on this year's sled (version 6.0), built from a sheet of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene. The lightweight sled is five feet long, with a built-in shield silnylon cover that doubles as a bivy sack. The front flap allows venting while keeping out snow, and there's a plastic dome at the head to keep fabric away from Beat's face when he's sleeping. The rear section rolls back into the sled with a VX21 fabric flap. I crawled inside and it was cozy in there, like a warm cocoon rather than the suffocating coffins that closed-up bivy sacks usually mimic. Innovative stuff.

There are more pictures of Beat's Nome sled at this link. There are probably only a couple dozen people in the world who'd appreciate a good, lightweight, sleep-in pulk, but who knows? Maybe this stuff will go the way of the fat bike someday.