Thursday, July 25, 2013

Losing it

Monday night, what was otherwise a pretty good, though not outstanding road ride, turned into a total disappointment. Coming down the long, straight, crevasse-riddled upper section of Birch Road on Anchorage’s mid-Hillside, I heard something behind me.

Maybe a quarter-mile back was a white Ford F150, horn blaring.
Not the “Beep-beep. Hey, biker, I’m coming along so get out of my way.”
No, I’ve heard this one before. It’s the, “How dare you ride this road in my presence," and I’m going to let you know, and make you feel damned unwelcome son.
These characters aren’t all that common, but spend some time on a road bike, and you will encounter them.

This section of Birch Road sucks.
It has some pretty scary cracks, and a few holes. For much of it, the best line is actually tight to the yellow line, not tight to the fog line.
The good thing is that the road is low traffic, really straight, and I usually hit it downhill, so I’m cruising.

Perhaps the infuriating part to a selection of drivers though, is that it has a bike path next to it.
Among certain groups, this breeds the idea that there is no reason for bikes to be on the road.

The thing about the Birch Road bike path, is that it is even scarier than the road. The path sorely needs to be completely ripped up and repaved, as roots and long winters have left it in terrible shape.
Even if it was immaculate though, it’s the kind of bike path that makes me nervous. It’s set back from the road, so you’re out of sight and out of mind from drivers, yet it crosses dozens of driveways and side streets where the right-of-way is unclear.
Lastly, it’s also pretty well used by slower travelers.
Suffice to say, it's not the kind of place you want a road-biker going somewhere in the mid-30 MPH range.

So, the horn cuts out, and I scoot over to the side, and wait for the onslaught.
A second or two later, sure enough, the truck comes by, adorned with all the classic, energy drink, motor-head, etc. decals; passenger window open; and the shirtless, teen-aged to early-20-something kid screaming about using the sidewalk.

That’s where I messed up.

I almost never react to this kind of behavior, but something snapped.
It could have been the low blood sugar at the end of a good ride, it could have been that I had time to think about it, but I really think it was just the kid.
It was the fact that this punk and I probably have nothing in common, never will, and I knew it.

So I started firing back.

Up out of the saddle, I mashed the pedals and pulled up to his window before he could pull away, and started screaming my own lines right back.

I think it took him by surprise for a second, but in the end, it gave him what he wanted.
He hit the brakes, and the hollering continued.

Finally, he saw the light at the bottom of the hill was green and hit the gas.
Too late for him though, he spent too much time in our “discussion” and still caught the red.

Another car passed between us before I got to the light, and I found myself feeling suddenly relieved.
I hid behind it the car, while d-bag thumped the base in his truck, and probably re-adjusted his ball cap to make sure he still fit his stereotypical image preset.

I was happy not to have another screaming match, though simultaneously annoyed I didn’t have the courage to just ride up next to him (he was making a left, I was going straight).
But as the light turned green, and the kid went one way and I continued straight, I suddenly felt the adrenaline turn to disappointment.

All I did was give that kid one more reason to hate bikes, more than he clearly already does. If anything, he was just as likely to do this to someone else. Heck, I ride that road a ton, maybe he drives it a lot, it could be me, and he could be more brazen next time.

I actually had about 15 seconds to roll up next to him, and do something at that light, but what?

As I soft pedaled the rest of the way home, I found myself wishing I had been the better person by apologizing for yelling.

I almost never snap like this at drivers.
Most of the time I smile and wave like an idiot, hoping they think I misinterpreted their gestures and hollering as support. It’s the ultimate buzz kill I’d think, and at the very least wouldn’t satisfy future behavior of this type.

Why this kid was so concerned about my presence on the road is pretty ridiculous given the context of the situation though, and I think that got under my skin. Visibility was so good he had time to honk at me from way back, and if he was in any hurry, he sure got side tracked screwing with me.

It was just so obvious he hated bikers.

I know, in the short-term, rolling up to him and apologizing for snapping would have almost certainly yielded more yelling and screaming from him, but, at least I could have rode off feeling like I hadn't really given him anything.

And maybe it’s optimism, but at some point, that kid will chill out - be it in 10 minutes, when the energy drink fades, or 10 years - and if that little experience were to stick with him, and he gains anything toward becoming a man, he might realize how dumb he was in that moment, and regret it like I did.

Wednesday evening, temps were I the high-70s across Anchorage, and winds were laying down, so instead of riding  one of the usual loops after work, I headed out on the Seward Highway and rode about 70 miles round trip to Girdwood and back. Maybe half of the ride is on a bike path, well away from the cars, and the other half generally has a wide shoulder. Jerk count: 0

Friday, July 19, 2013

Fireweed 2013

The Fireweed400 is Alaska's biggest bike race (LINK). Held every July about the time fireweed the plant is in bloom, the event offers several different distances and categories, the most noteworthy, the 400-mile event. Four-hundred-mile riders start at Sheep Mountain Lodge, about a two hour drive northeast of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, and ride east to the Richardson Highway, where they turn south and go to Valdez, then turn around and do it again in reverse.
The most popular Fireweed event, however, is the 200-mile relay event. In this race, riders can group up in teams of 2, 3, or 4, and ride point-to-point from Sheep Mountain Lodge to Valdez.
Kellie (LINK) asked me about doing the Fireweed, and after some initial hesitancy on my part, I signed on.
One of my biggest concerns about this event, was that aside from the mileage, the rider covers a lot of climazones, including Thompson Pass and Valdez. The area, which is reknowed for getting buried by an average of 25+ feet of snow a year, gets just a little bit of rain too as one could imagine; and the flats on the Glenn and Richardson highways get swept with powerful headwinds. All this could make for a pretty unpleasant 200 miles in the wrong conditions.
Such was not the case this year.
The big drama, was that somehow we both managed to independently oversleep out alarms Saturday morning. Kellie had a pretty good excuse, having earned her pilots license the night before; me, I don't know, I guess I was still just tired from the road trip the week before.
We had planned to meet at 4:30 am. When I awoke a bit after 5:30, I realized I had set the alarm for 3:45 pm...ooops. I felt terrible, thinking Kellie must have been fuming, but was surprised when I looked at my phone and didn't see any missed calls or text messages.
Turns out, I woke her up.
Fortunately, there were multiple start waves, and while we missed the one we should have been in at 7, we were by no means the first people to miss their wave.  
Kellie started us off, leaving the start in the 8:15 wave, riding 27 miles to the first aid station, on what was probably the hilliest section of the course.
This was a rude wake up call for her as she had not had a lot of time on the bike in the past two weeks, but she did well.
I drove along, and we transferred. I hopped on for the next leg to Glenallen.
Since neither of us had competitive ambitions, we opted to have Kellie do two apx 25-mile legs and one 50, while I did two apx 50-mile legs, at my request. My thought was that I tend to do better after a while in the saddle, so less transition and sitting around in the car would be more comfortable, even though the pulls would be longer.
My first pull was a little over 40 miles long on mostly flat ground. The last 10 (to make 50) of it were closed to riding due to construction. I ripped the pull hard, crushing the 40-something miles in 2 hours, in what was easily the fastest 40-mile TT I have ever ridden. The headwind was ever so slight, and the whole time I wished for a true TT bike with taller gearing as I was riding near the top of mine at high revs.
Kellie took back over for a 23-mile pull out of Glenallen. She absolutely crushed this leg, and she was done faster than I'd hoped!
Then came my turn to suffer. I pulled 50 miles from here. The first 10 were a smash fest, but it was really hot and I began to cook.
As I struck mile 10 I felt my handlebars growing and realized I was dehydrating in the heat.
Just about then, I hit the headwind: it was so fierce, that even though the road in this sections goes gradually downhill, it didn't matter. It felt like someone had opened a spigot on my side and my power was pouring out.
Though heat stopped being an issue, I quickly began to feel a bonk coming. Apparently I didn't charge back up enough on the rest, and I powered down an energy bar.
Kellie was giving me bottle hand ups every 15 miles or so in this section since one of my cages busted, but I was relieved as it let me carry a bit less and meant my water was cold (we had an ice chest in the car).
I would have been OK to pull a bit further into Thomson Pass, but Kellie took back over after I hit my 50.
Kellie too struggled with the vicious headwind, taking on the remainder of the Pass. To make matters worse, as she crested the Pass, there was a thick fog. The good news, motorists were well aware of all the bikers on the road. In fact, in 200 miles, I did not see a single driver, part of the race or not, do anything unpleasant.
Anyway, I was feeling really bad at this point, as it seemed like Kellie was having to do a lot of the hardest pulls. I met her at the top, and she stopped to put on a jacket. She told me though, that she wanted to go the whole way to Valdez, and finish the race out (I had offered to pull that last 13/14 miles from the end of Keystone to town, expecting yet another headwind.
As she dropped over the edge of the pass though, she escaped the clouds, and ripped the descent, then tore through Keystone Canyon, which was freshly re-paved last summer, woo-hooing the whole way.
The last section to town was a bit of a grind for her, and with 2 miles to go to the finish, I sped ahead in the car, hopped on my bike, and rode back down the road to ride the last mile into the finish with her.
We were stoked. I can't say enough good things about this event. It was hard, sure, but extremely well run and I was really impressed. The weather is a real crapshoot, and had it been raining, I think we might have bailed, but in the conditions we had, it was worth every penny.
Kellie pulling over Tahetna Pass, maybe?

The Suby made a good support vehicle. While one of us was out riding, the other would drive up the road a ways, stop, wait for the rider to pass by and yell support or pass up food or water, then drive along a bit further.

Not long into her third pull, climbing Thompson.

Worthington Glacier.

A rider emerges from a murky fog.

My favorite shot of the day: KO flying down Thompson toward Valdez.

Bridal Veil Falls in Keystone Canyon.
Sunday we took it easy, but still managed to keep our legs stretched and flushed by taking a walk around Valdez, visiting KO's cabin site, and doing a light spin on Lake Louise Road.


Lake Louise Boat Launch was busy.

"Team Late Start"

Ending our recovery spin with Tok Thai, overlooking Tazlina Lake. Not bad.
Is it next weekend yet?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Haul Road Trucking (Summer Version)

Last week I made a summer version of the Haul Road trip I did back in late February (LINK) for work. The intent of this trip was to gather B-roll footage of summer driving conditions on the road for a training currently in development.
Aside from the obviously different season, on this trip, we flew from Anchorage to Fairbanks, picked up a company truck, and drove north, flying back to Anchorage from Deadhorse.
We flew into a smoky Fairbanks early Monday morning, and got on the road not long after landing. The itinerary for the trip took up to Pump 6 on day one; to Pump 4 on day 2; day 3 we stuck around the station to gather footage in Atigun Pass and on the facility; and on day 4, we made the final leg to the Deadhorse Airport.
Start of the Haul Road.

Truck traffic in the summer is less than in winter due to an often soft and muddy road, as evidenced by this rig completing its journey.

I found this rig near the entrance to the road. Guess it didn't make it.

Sucks to be a sign in this state.

The Fireweed was in full bloom south of Atigun Pass. Driving through the old burns it was very apparent how this plant got its name.

While walking a stretch of the right-of-way, I went to take a peek under a pipe support (VSM) when a robin flew out. I stuck my camera up above the VSM and snapped a photo, and low and behold, found this. I left after that.

A Yukon River Barge. I had no idea these things were so big.

I suspect this trucker had some choice words for the driver of the old van who decided to pull in front of him. Heading south-bound, the slippery, wooden-decked Yukon Bridge climbs the south bank of the Yukon at a 6-percent grade, so truckers ramp up speed on the approach, and certainly don't like when tourists in rickety vans pull in front of them...

On day 2 we went up and over Atigun Pass. The foothills approaching the Brooks Range are some of the most impressive mountains in the state.

Panoramic from the Pass.

"The Shelf"

On the north side of the Pass we found clearing skies with remnant clouds hunkered into the crevasses of the mountains.

Jorge takes a picture of a mud covered GoPro.

Day 3 was mostly spent in a thick fog near the Pass and at the pump station. Shooting for the training was productive, but it didn't leave much for the blog.
Dwarf fireweed.

Jorge sporting is bug-ninja suit.

I snagged this and the below photo from Alyeska Corporate Com. The state as a whole has had a banner year for mosquitoes, and the Interior and North Slope have a reputation as it is. I can attest, these photos are pretty accurate. I've never seen the bugs so bad.

This handful of mosquitoes was scooped from the intake of a pickup, which shut down while it was idling after the intake was that bad.
Day 4 we had clear weather for our drive across the flat and barren Slope to Deadhorse. We were hoping to see some wildlife but they must have all fled for the coast to get away from the bugs.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Resurrecting the Devil's Johnson

(NOTE: this ride occurred June 29)
The concept for R the D’s J loop, a 90-mile link-up of Resurrection, Devils, and Johnson pass trails was Adam’s. We have long discussed and ridden different connectors that link-up sections of Kenai Epics, but this one is particularly special.

Johnson’s season typically lasts for 2-3 weeks from mid June to early July thanks to copious amounts of persistent snow quickly succeeded by dense cow parsnip growth on the trail’s north end.

Meanwhile, Devils Pass and Res are usually ridable in their lower sections from early June on, but their ~2,500+-foot passes are rarely free of snow until late June, at best.

To link these trails up without having to ride through 6-foot tall vegetation on Johnson or hike-a-bike over snow fields in Devils or Res passes requires a certain bit of luck and a weather anomaly.

We got it this year.

One of the hottest Junes on record has melted out the passes, but the lack of rain has kept the trails dry and the plants parched and unable to kick into photosynthetic overdrive.

Unfortunately, Adam could not join me for this long day as he was on diaper detail for the weekend; and it turns out his fall last week may have resulted in a broken bone in his hand.

I was bummed for him, and for myself, in not having company. I rode the loop “solo,” in quotes because, of course, it was not like I didn’t see anyone.

The loop warranted counter-clockwise routing, so that the two segments of pavement would be ridden “downhill,” in quotes as this is the Kenai, downhills feature plenty of uphill. Overall though, I knew I wanted to coast the roads as much as possible and get them out of the way.

This left me with two questions: full-suspension or hard tail; and where to start?

I opted for the former on rig choice, even though I knew the latter would be especially nice on the road sections and the long climb up the north side of Res. I was less concerned about my legs' endurance than the many other little muscles needed to ride, and having a rig that would forgive me for taking bad lines instead of bucking me into the tundra was a feature I have found to be invaluable on other long rides.

For a start point, I initially thought I would launch from the north Johnson TH, and begin the day with the 28-mile road ride to Hope, the idea being: “Eat your mushy peas first.”

I’m glad I instead opted to start and end this ride from Dave and Sharon’s (for sale) cabin. Hitting Johnson Pass north-bound in the AM while I was fresh let me ride this more technical and sometimes rough trail cleanly. I think starting it at mile 70 of the ride instead of mile 2 might have yielded a different experience.

Comparatively, starting my day with a long road ride on a mountain bike not made to be ridden in one position for a long time could have caused me to lock up. Instead, I hit the road section very well warmed up, though I still had to stretch out on the bike every 5 minutes or so.

I was also worried about how my mental state would influence my decision-making if I rode by the cabin for a water refill 2/3 the way through. I knew finding an excuse to pull the bail lever and quit would be easy. The reverse logic was that if I had a major mechanical, I would not have had an easy way out.

A small side benefit of starting from the cabin was not having to drive anywhere on Saturday as I came down Friday evening.

I pushed off from the cabin’s deck a few minutes after 9. Temps were in the low 60s and the humidity felt thick. Low-slung clouds clung to the tops of all the peaks, and a few hinted dark blue like they might let out a little drizzle.  Everything from the parked cars, the vegetation, to my glasses sported a layer of moisture.

I started the ride by humming south down the Seward Highway a few miles, the 2.25 Maxxis CrossMarks singing their tune on a mostly empty road.

The south Johnson Pass Trail head was deserted of hikers or bikers, though a trail crew was laying out their tools across the lot in preparation for a day’s labor. I stopped next to the sign in, logged my name, and with a loud slam, shut the wooden box shut.

The sound of the beginning of a ride.

In the woods, Friday’s misty rains left most the overgrowth droopy and wet, though the actual trail surface ranged from damp to dry.

The start of the ride gave me a sensation of deja vous to the summer of 2004, when I spent many weekends doing long solo rides stitching together segments of trails in the Green Mountains. The mileage was less than, but the hours were about the same, the weather: New England summer gray and muggy; and I usually saw few people. Even though I knew the trails then, the closed, gray world, ever present threat of rain, and pressing need to keep going, often left me feeling vulnerable, I don’t know why.

In the forests beside Upper Trail Lake, continually getting slapped in the face by wet alders, my visibility and ability to project sound were limited. Here, large animals roam, and that sense of vulnerability was still there.

The wet veg doesn’t just limit my visibility, it slathers my bike and legs in water like a brush car wash. In this wash though, the bike won’t get cleaner, and my shoes fill with water as it runs down my legs.

It’s not a great way to start a day in the saddle, and the lack of a breeze and high humidity causes sweat to pour down my face.

I count the climbs and descent to Johnson Creek crossing, and then begin the sustained climb to tree line.

Emerging from the woods, I find that the trail is getting drier, and the temp cooling off.

I power on toward the pass, but catch glimpses of thick clumps of lupine blooming in the gravel islands of the stream next to the trail.

These lucky plants, who have habituated a fickle landmass, have scored this year. If they make it to seed, they will have flourished in what has otherwise been a dim summer for most wildflowers.

In the lakes, the grayling are rising furiously to gobble up some unknown hatch. The dimples on the water would suggest a light rain might be falling, but its just the hungry fish.

Up and over the Pass, no stopping, I start to build a little bit of speed in the smooth sections.

The wet veg is still soaking my rotors though. Johnson is a mixture of fast, smooth trail, broken by technical features; read: build up speed, hit the brakes, rinse, repeat. My braking power is reduced as a result, and on some of the longer downhill runs I start lightly feather the levers to keep the rotors dry and reactive without scrubbing speed.

Almost ¾ the way through the trail I still havn’t seen another person, on foot or bike, and I start to wonder if maybe the clouds are keeping people away.

Maybe a mile later I come across my the first group of south-bound riders.

Suddenly, I hit what feels like a good deal of traffic headed in the other direction.

I try to start making noise, but I’m being a classic jerk, and nearly collide with at least one rider. He had the right of way, but my mentality is fixed on my long journey and an interest in going fast. Some of today’s miles will go slowly whether I like it or not, so I want the fast ones to go by quickly. I know, it’s me, me, me.

I hit the two patches of snow. They’re steep on one side, but so hard packed, that after kicking toe-hold steps up to their bumpy surface, I can ride atop them.

I have to stop though. I find a 1-square-foot patch of earth sitting right side up atop the snow with the a small alpine flow in bloom.


These slides were huge. Good-sized ricks are intermixed with the snow. The destruction is awesome, but I can’t help but admire that somehow, this tiny little patch of the mountain was ripped down, dragged, beaten, and buried, only to emerge and flower, hardly worse for the wear, but a few 1,000 feet lower than it was 6 months ago.

The enviro-dork in me still finds a lot of magic here.
I hit the north trail head, stop at the register, and sign out: “Pass through 12:00,” I write.

Sharon and Dave know my route. Normally one does not sign out of a trail register they did not sign into, but this way I figure, should something happen, at least there is a breadcrumb trail marking my progress and where I last was.

“Slam!” The register box shuts and I rip through the parking lot, down the road, and out onto the paved trail that parallels the highway.

With a gradual downhill, I can cruise at about 15 MPH, and hit 20 in a few places, but only a couple miles from the TH, I wheel off to the Granite Creek Campground to refill my Camelbak bladder at the water pump.

The mosquitoes are vicious, and rip me apart as I try to repack my bag. I manage to get my pizza sandwich out before I get pedaling again, eating half of it as I ride back out. The bugs are making it easy to be efficient.

The bike path to Hope Junction has been swept clean of gravel since I was here a month ago on my road bike, not that it matters on fat tires.

Strangely, I watch a road biker pass me, riding on the shoulder of the highway.

Even though the shoulders of the Seward in this section are generally wide, I appreciate the distance from the cars and trucks zooming by at 70, and can’t imagine why someone else wouldn’t

As I head down Hope Highway, I notice two other road bikers standing at the junction, and maybe I would have forgotten them, but about halfway from the junction and my turn-off, they pass me, though fairly slowly.

After a couple second pause, I decided to up my pace a tad and suck their wheels.

I ride behind them for maybe 30 seconds to see if they change their pace, and when they don’t, I ask if they mind if I ride in their draft.

They give me funny look, but say something to the effect of OK.

I can’t blame them. Here’s this guy, riding alone on the road on a full suspension mountain bike with big knobby tires, fenders, and a Camelbak pack. I’m a little out of place to say the least.

I better redeem myself, so I ask them where they started today, and they say Anchorage.

“Wow! That’s awesome!,” I respond.

“What about you?” They ask.

“Moose Pass…”

The conversation ensues, and they are equally impressed on my route, though I assure them that riding Anchorage to Hope to Anchorage in a day easily tops my plans.

They are mountain bikers too, but they are putting in one last long ride before riding the Fireweed in two weeks. We chat the rest of the way to the turn off to Resurrection Road, and the miles fly by as I enjoy a slightly ticked up pace at reduced physical effort.

I can’t remember their names, but it’s a reminder of the camaraderie one can find in perfect strangers where the common bond is two wheels.

On the flat, straight stretch parallel to the Hope runway I finish off the rest of my pizza, and roll into the Res Pass lot a few minutes later.

There’s a few people mulling around, but I don’t have time to linger. I sign in at the register: “Pass through, 2:00 PM.”


It’s taken two hours to ride the 28 miles from Johnson’s north TH to here, with a stop for water and the unplanned scenic trip around the Granite Creek campground looking for the water (Note: when the road splits into a loop, go left.)

I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about the north side of Res Pass.

It’s 7 miles-ish to the Resurrection Creek crossing. The riding up to that point is pretty smooth, and even flowy in a few sections.

After that, it’s physical and mental pain and suffering.

The flat, straight, rooty sections with no views blow, and the short descents to the numerous creek crossing might be fun, if I didn’t know I would have to climb steeply out of each one.

I’m draining more and more.

I finally hit East Creek, an hour and half since I started Res. I don’t want to stop, but I know I need to eat, and could use a few minutes out of the saddle. I mow down a Clif Builder bar and pace back and forth across the bridge.

The walking is actually nice for my lower back and hip flexors, and after a few minutes I feel refreshed.

Here we go, the last major climb of the day.

I sweat heavily. I’m running on a flat speed. There’s no aux power at this point. If I need extra juice to get over a steep pitch, I have to get out of the saddle.

At some point, a bee flies into my face, and momentarily becomes trapped between my glasses frame and brow.

I shake my head wildly, yelling, but afraid to swat.

I caught a bee once in the same spot on a road ride. That one stung. For some reason, this one flew away without doing so.

The rush of adrenaline is nice, and for some reason, now all I can think about is the scene from Tommy Boy where Chris Farley and David Spade employ the bee technique to avoid a ticket.

Crazy person laughing by himself on a bike, but it keeps me chugging away until I start to get out of tree line.

The steady breeze and temps in the high 50s have made riding pleasant again, and it helps to have the bulk of the climbing out of the way.

The trail up here is as good as reported: hard packed like concrete.

I’m about to ride right by the marker at the pass, when randomly, my front fender pops off.

Strange coincidence, but I take it as a sign, pull out a camera and a multi-tool, and snap a few pics of the gray world before fixing the fender and riding on.

When I hit the Devils Pass Trail junction its tempting to carry on down Res, but I hang a left and descend.

I’m hammering the downhills hard today.

I don’t know if it’s a good idea, but it feels great.

At Devils Lake, one large patch of snow covers the trail.

From here on out, there are only a few very small patches left over from drifts, and its easy to ride through them with a little speed.

The descent starts, and I open up the suspension and begin to let gravity take over, and take me home.