An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
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Monday, July 11, 2016

Instinct taking over

This past Saturday I did a reconnaissance of the second-day course for the ride I’m hosting in two weeks – the Lucky Masochist’s Gravel Deuce.

This course takes us through two off-pavement sections that are part of active timber sales which are not on state land, so there is the possibility that they’d be rendered impassable by various factors. Even last year on the first rendition of this ride there was some question, as I hadn’t ridden the route since the previous year. Some washouts made things interesting, but other than requiring a dismount, it was all good.

It wasn’t until fairly late on Friday evening that I decided to do the recon ride on Saturday. With an eye on the weather forecast, I opted for the better day, at my wife’s gentle persuasion. And so my preparations were pushed into early Saturday morning. Grabbing food, navigation and repair gear, clothes, bike, wheels…

I made the drive to the Lucky Eagle Casino, departing from my house at an almost-early 7am, and with clear traffic arrived at the scene of the crime in just over an hour.

The shenanigans started as soon as I was preparing to ride.

Tire levers? Oh, those were in my locker at work along with my lighter arm warmers, left over from an urgent get-to-the-restroom loading of the bike on Thursday (I usually leave them in the car, but kept them in my jersey pocket to save a few precious seconds). Well, at least I could use a quick-release skewer if needed, and I’ve pulled these tires off without tools before.

At least that seemed to be the only thing missing. Until I turned on the Garmin to load up the day’s route. “Lucky Deuce Day” was listed, but only once. I knew that the unit I have truncated off the last digit of the course name, but I’d always had two on there, for each day’s course. I tapped the screen to bring up the course, and sure enough, it was the day-1 route.

Turns out that with one of the latest updates, that truncated character wasn’t even in the memory any more, so it now assumed that these were the same course and discarded one of them. What to do?

I looked at the hotel across the street, where I’d planned on doing a check-in to reserve the room for the ride weekend after today’s ride. Maybe they have a computer that I could use to download the day-2 route? I had the cord with me, so off I went to hopefully save the day.

Well, yes, they have a computer, but with security set up such that I couldn’t download Garmin Express to connect to my Edge Touring device. Stymied!

I had a flash – I’d also duplicated the routes on RidewithGPS. A quick load of that onto my phone, and there the route was… Saving grace! Or so I thought.

Until I got on the bike and went to turn on the navigation. “Not supported on your account.” What? I’ve used it in the past. I tried another function. “This function only supported on paid accounts.” Ah, so that was their thing – functions that had been part of the free offerings were now only available if you paid them for it.

So what to do?

In the true spirit of adventure riding, I put my phone back in my pocket, said “here goes nothing” (okay, that’s not really what I said, but this is a family-friendly blog), and started off on the day’s ride, hoping that memory and luck would guide me through.

I pushed out east and south, into the first climb that would take me to the gated gravel road of the initial off-pavement excursion. The first turn came sooner than I expected, but the distance to the forest road felt like it was expanding. Did I miss it? Or did it just not exist any more?

Finally I arrived at the turn-off, ducked under the gate, and journeyed into the wilds. It all looked familiar at first, but then opened up into a very large clear-cut. Nothing looked the same. What had been dense and fairly dark forest was now wide open stumps with scattered piles of slash. The roads all looked different as well. I hit the steep uphill that I hoped was right (it felt right, but with everything looking unfamiliar, I wasn’t sure), then took the middle fork of a tree-way intersection… It wasn’t until another mile later that I was assured I was on the right path.

Right about the time I hit a sharp rock with my front wheel, and heard that “hiss-ss-ss-ss-ss”. The tube change was uneventful, and the tire hadn’t sustained any damage, so I was on my way again quickly. The last half-mile of this section, after a good mile long descent, was a bit overgrown, long grass bent into the double-track making a fairly narrow path. Last year when I’d ridden this, the grass looked the same, but was soaked from the rain. Today, while the rain had been light, the grass was somewhat dry, so I didn’t get the soaking that the last time I came through here produced.

I was feeling like a navigation rock star, having made it through the first section with no wrong turns, in spite of how the landscape had changed.

On pavement again, I turned west and north, quickly arriving at the entrance to the second off-pavement sector.

The gravel was in good shape, with just the occasional blackberry vines encroaching into the roadway. As I ventured deeper into the woods, I scared up deer multiple times, and one owl. I passed several turn-offs, some of kept count in case I needed to turn back and re-route. Four miles in, a downed maple provided a challenge. How to cross through? I mentally tried two paths before arriving at the conclusion I’d have to break some (rather large) branches to make it. I like traipsing through the woods in silence, mimicking the natural fauna as much as possible. The snapping of the branches might as well have been a brass band announcing my presence in the solitude. But at least there’s a somewhat clear path through this obstacle now.

Back in the saddle, I pushed on, arriving at the last descent sooner than expected. More deer (with fawns this time) dashed off the road, just before the first of four wash-outs. It wasn’t until this point that I truly knew I was on the right path. Anyway, last year, there was a sign warning of the road being closed due to these wash-outs. That sign wasn’t there this time, and though I didn’t think they’d been repaired, I was hopeful that they at least weren’t worse. Turns out my hopes were right, and some quick dismounts got me through.

Up a last hill, and onto pavement again, I checked the time, and opted to drive out the last section to the Brooklyn Tavern (worth a post all on its own) rather than ride the 22 mile out-and-back, and rode back to the casino.

Thirty miles, two off-pavement with the potential to get lost several times, and no wrong turns. Memory, luck, and instincts got me through the ride safely.

That rock star feeling swelled.

But I renamed the routes and loaded them onto my Garmin as soon as I got home.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Calling AAA...

Whenever I'm on a ride and see a cyclist at the side of the road or trail, I ask if they need anything, if they're okay. The usual response is "I'm fine" or something to that effect. Cyclists can be an independent lot.

My wife and I had returned from a trip to Alaska (a subject for another time), and I had an extra day of vacation. She gave me a hall pass for a long ride.

I was about 2 hours into a 3+ hour ride, along a multi-use rail-trail conversion, when I saw three gentlemen on the side of the trail with an inverted bike. Like men do when confounded by things mechanical, they were circled around the bike, staring, with that "hmph" look. You know the look. Just lift the hood of any car and let the males gather, and observe -- it doesn't matter whether any of them know what's going on under there, they all get the same expression...

Anyway, I gave my usual "You folks okay?" greeting and got a response I'd never heard before -- "NO!"

Okay, to be completely honest, with an almost-three-year-old, that's probably the most-used word in the household. But this is the first time I've gotten that response in this setting.

I stopped and leaned my bike against the bench that was serving as their make-shift tool shelf, and walked around to see what I could do.

"I don't think we've got this right."

What I observed then was something that required some certain amount of talent to accomplish, and I wish I'd taken a picture. It was apparent that the bike in question had suffered a flat on the rear tire, and while they'd gotten the tube replaced appropriately, replacing that wheel into the frame and getting the chain threaded in the proper manner is what vexed them. They had, SOMEhow, managed to get the chain onto the cassette threaded BETWEEN the rear derailleur jockey wheels. WITH the quick release in place.

As I said, I wish I'd taken a picture.

Getting the wheel out was a bit of a chore. I had to remove the quick release and use some considerable force to get it out. After that point, it was an easy, if a bit messy, job of installing the wheel correctly. A spin of the cranks to make sure everything was moving freely, and it was road-worthy again.

One of them offered a handkerchief to wipe my hands of the excess of chain lube with which I'd coated my fingers, but I just wiped them on my shorts ("That's why they're made in black."). They thanked me profusely, to which I replied "No problem."

I grabbed my bike and rode on the rest of my route.

They were actually quite close to correct in threading in the wheel. Without pulling the rear derailleur out of the way when pushing the wheel into place, the logical place for that cog might just appear to be between the jockey wheels. How to physically accomplish that, though, is beyond me.

So check off one more thing from the list of "that's never happened".

I wonder how many other people passed these gentlemen before I stopped to help...

Thursday, June 2, 2016

New bike day

It's always fun taking a new frame out for its maiden voyage.

All the time designing the frame, cutting the tubes, brazing them together, finishing the joints to nice-and-smooth, painting... Then the parts build-up. And it's finally ready to get dirty.

As much as I trust my own skill in frame building, there's always a little trepidation, especially taking a new build into the rough stuff. But it quickly fades with each bump, loft and jump, and then it's fully game-on time.

Today was that day for my unsuspended single-speed mountain bike.

Most of the parts came off my old Specialized Hardrock frame, save the headset and seatpost. 

This bike's main use is for my lunchtime rides around my work site, with acres and acres of woods laced with gravel service roads and a slowly-increasing network of twisty dirt singletrack. There aren't any big hills, so a large range of gears just isn't needed.

The front geometry is long and slack, with a rather short back end. This keeps the front wheel light for lofting even when I'm out of the saddle. Handling is different than most -- at very slow speeds the front wheel wants to tip into corners, but at most trail speeds that makes the handling feel intuitive, almost like the bike is reading my mind. The short rear keeps power transfer efficient and snappy. The single speed drive train, without idlers, is silent. I like that in an off-road bike.

So a good hour-and-a-half on familiar trails was a great first test. And a sign of many happy hours to come.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Elbe Multi-Strada Loop Ride, v. 3 - The 2016 edition.

I'd been watching the weather forecast all week, hoping that the ever-increasing chance of rain on ride day would somehow diminish as the day approached. It vacillated a couple times, but then settled in at about 60% -- a sure thing in these parts.

Sure enough, Sunday morning arrived to the sound of drips off my roof. It was going to be a wet one.

The first edition of this ride, two years ago, was in similarly rainy conditions. I'd put that ride on the first weekend in May, after realizing that February wasn't the best idea -- a pre-drive had me barely able to turn my car around a good mile and near 700 ft in elevation short of the summit due to snow. I thought that going later into May would increase the chances of better weather after that very wet ride. And so the mid-May date for last year and this.

The odds have NOT been in our favor.

But cyclists can be hardy souls. Maybe foolhardy is a better term. Or prone to self-abuse.

I arrived at the start a little later than I would have liked, but with just enough time to make a couple pre-ride announcements and get everyone signed on the waiver and with a cue sheets in hand. We rolled out just a few minutes after the designated 9:00am start.

We were nine-strong going north on the Mountain Highway along Alder Lake, including five returnees from last year. This was the warm-up where road spray got us to the point of "it just doesn't matter any more" (you can only get so wet, you know). A short climb on the south side of Pack Forest on Hwy 7 led to the drop-in through La Grande and to the forest entrance. We picked up a road rider along the highway who stayed with the lead group through to the last climb. I stayed back to make sure everyone made the turn into Pack Forest, then proceeded in at my pace.

Pack Forest is owned by the University of Washington, and is used by a few of the departments for classes, including some that require residence for a quarter at a time. Marking the course has always been a struggle, as I couldn't use any kind of directions that couldn't be packed out. Not even temporary marking paint or chalk was allowed. So in the past I'd used paper plates stapled to stakes with painted-on arrows. Having to go in the day before to place them, then hope that the resident students left them alone long enough for the ride to go through, then going in to ride those hills again after the event to take the signs out (the result of which has been signs that had been moved, kicked over, or thrown into the woods), as well as questions about use permits and insurance, led me to just forgo marking the course this year. We really are just a group of cyclists touring around Pack Forest, and this isn't a paid event. In any case, the road up to Kirkland Pass was uneventful, and again I stayed back to make sure everyone got the correct turn there. But some newly laid gravel led me to embarrassingly take two wrong turns on the way to the actual summit.

Fortunately my Garmin was quick to point out my error, and I and a ride-mate were back on track with minimal added mileage. After hitting the top, the road tilts quickly downward, with varying degrees of mud and rock. This is where the flat tires started last year. Once back on the main track, though, the road smooths considerably, and speeds can safely increase.

I'd given the option to take the new Bud Blancher Trail into Eatonville rather than exiting Pack Forest at the northwest corner and taking the 3-mile stretch of no-shoulder road into town. I opted for the road, while the lead five took the trail.

Into Eatonville, I arrived at the Mill Valley Shell for snacks, and a water cooler that I'd placed there on my drive to the start. After some waiting, I realized that the lead folks must have continued on with the rest of the course and not made the food stop. The riders behind me came in, and soon I was starting to get chilled and needed to get riding again to warm up. One other rider was in the same situation, and so we stayed together getting the shivers calmed, having a nice conversation along the Alder Cutoff Road and Scott Turner Road before we hit the gravel again and we parted.

This enters into a 16 mile stretch of gravel road that includes some ridiculously steep sections both up and down. With a 34/32 low gear, it's barely enough on the worst section, and just like the last two years, the uphills leading to that leg-and-lung test deceived me into thinking I was already on it before I had actually arrived. But one can only go so slow before the snail-like cadence forces a get-off, and I was determined to make it without dabbing (which pretty well means walking, as getting re-started on this pitch is near impossible). I passed the two riders who had opted for mountain bikes (and were fairly comfortably spinning along) on this steepest uphill, and continued on in my lowest gear. It was long after that grind before I could drop out of that easiest gear -- my legs just said no.

But that isn't the top. Though the continued climb is mercifully less vertical, there's still a good mile to go before the highest point of the ride at 2900 ft, but once over that point there is a long downhill that changes the ride from a test of legs to a test of brakes and nerve. And some luck with the washboard.

A few hairpins down the steeper parts, past a roadside shooting gallery, and the road flattens out for a comfortable cruise on smoother surfaces for a few miles. This leads into one last slightly uphill section before the turn-off at the ORV area, and a fast downhill towards the exit off gravel and the final drop-in to Ashford. By that time we're ready for smooth pavement, and the final seven mile stretch along the Mountain Highway back to Elbe. My legs felt like concrete at this point, but I maintained the speed all the way to the end. That last half mile to the car was all about thinking of dry socks and the burgers at the Elbe Bar and Grill.

The trash talking started in earnest then, fueled by burgers a brews. Have I mentioned that the burgers are the Elbe Bar and Grill are legendary? Not your everyday one-napkin affair. No, these are full-on two- or three-wipers, with awesome fries on the side. Don't think about it, just do it.

Michael Pruitt of Machete Squad was quick to point out that his team had now taken the top two spots both last year and this year, even though it's not a race. His put was that I had no control what happened once we started out, and if people wanted to "race", then it was a race! All in good fun.

With only one flat this year, I wondered what it is about bad weather that produces fewer flat tires.

But apparently I need to provide some form of a podium for next year.

And maybe we'll have some sunshine.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The walls are closing in on me

And it only took a week.

'Tis growing season, after all.

So for those that have been following along, I've been surreptitiously cutting some single track trails on the company property around my work site over the last 6 months. The site services folks have been kind enough to lay fresh crushed rock on all the service roads, rendering them both more difficult to ride and dumbing them down almost to the point of "what's the point". By laying this fresh crushed rock at the beginning of the rainiest part of the year, everything in the mix that would normally pack down and bind it all together was washed away, so now it's just a 3" deep moving surface of dig-in. Don't turn too sharply!

ANYwho... The new trails are the new, better playground, lacing their way through the woods that are only sparsely cut by the service roads. I figured that once spring rolled around I'd need to do a little maintenance.

Following the wettest months on record with a nice sunny week, during which I did road rides or was otherwise disposed during my workday and couldn't ride, nature did a little push-back.

It's amazing just how much happened in one week. Scotch Broom not only in full bloom, but in many cases a good foot plus closed into what was open space. MY TRAIL! I swear I could actually SEE them growing as I rode past, each lap getting narrower and narrower...

So instead of cutting new trail, I'm going to need to spend a couple days widening the existing trails. Again.

But I will win.

And considering that all these trails were cut in the last 6 months, giving a few extra days to keep them open is a small price to pay.