Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hope 96

The City of Hope was founded in 1896 along the south shore of Turnagain Arm as the jumping off point for gold prospectors looking for riches in the northeastern Kenai Peninsula. For a year or two, the city, and its neighbor, Sunrise, boasted the largest populations of any settlements in the Alaskan territory, before they began to fade. Now, 136 people call Hope home, and a few extra hundred drop down from Anchorage on summer weekends to bike, fish, and paddle.
"Hope 96" fit well for a ride I did last week.
Basically, the route was borne of a few circumstances. One, with Resurrection Pass being in really good shape, I had been meaning to ride it over and back. The problem was that I couldn't set up a water drop, and the Res over-and-back is tough to do without either leaving water at one end, bringing purification, or scooping from a stream and hoping for the best.  The Hope '96 conveniently sent me by water sources at Tern Lake Day Use Area and Quartz Creek Day Use area. In this particular instance, I only needed one refill at the latter, and with temps that scratched the low 80s in Cooper, I was spot on. I guess I could have carried less water and lightened my load climbing Res, but refilling a bladder is also tedious, so making one stop as opposed to two seemed good to me.
The other circumstance, was that a few days prior to this ride, I had re-ridden the CReD loop (LINK) and I learned that where I was connecting Quartz Creek and Bean Creek roads with a super sketchy section of the Sterling Highway, there was actually a trail next to the road most of the way (as in all but maybe 150 feet?) While the sketchy highway riding was short enough, the fact that it could be eliminated altogether really changed the big picture view. I rode CReD a few days prior to doing the Hope '96, so I was stoked to put it all together.
All in all, I would say this was a big win over doing the originally-planned-for Res over and back, and I would choose this first in most cases.

The Boy Scout troop has more than just a reading problem. Maybe try reasoning, or flip a page back in the booklet.

A view from the highway bypass section. Not only is it safer, but it has descent views.

Columbine in bloom.

Braun's cabin is hosting some unwanted visitors.

Running in Moose Pass on a rainy Saturday yielded additional fruits.

I skipped work to do the Hope '96 loop and didn't regret it one bit.

Seriously, not one bit. I needed this day.

Even when it's dusty dry, the Old Sterling Highway always has sizable puddles, and plenty of bear scat.

Crescent Lake outlet

Crescent Creek refuel

Slaughter Creek refuel

I blew a feed climbing back out of Swan Lake and suffered to Devils Pass Junction more than I should have.

The only time I sat down.

But all is well that ends with a burger and beer at the Seaview Bar, or something like that.
Elapsed time was ~9:45. My feeds were as efficient as they could be with a camel bak, and except for refilling the bladder, and short sit down at the Devils Pass Junction on the return due to a botched feed, I was on the pedals for the bulk of the day. I recovered from the latter incident well, and hit the descent back to Hope pretty hard.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

One Less Light

Every time I read or hear that a cyclist in Anchorage has been killed or seriously injured after a collision with a vehicle, I go through the same roller coaster.

I fear first it’s someone I know.

I’m angered secondly knowing that there’s a good chance the accident will receive little attention after the fact from the appropriate authorities or the legal system.

In every instance, I’ve been lucky to feel a brief moment of relief during this roller coaster, when I learned that the cyclist was not someone I knew; before I went back to feeling frustrated and angered.

This time, that wasn’t the case.

I can’t say I knew Jeff Dusenbury that well.

Except for racing, I only shared one actual ride with Jeff, but I wanted to say something about that ride, because I think it says a lot about him.
Ride Notes: 12/17/2013  
“Fantastic ride! Super cold, 10 to 15 below. Rode down to ballfields and met up with Cipi, Theo, and Dick. Randomly, Jeff rode through and joined us. Jeff and I were riding much faster so we took off. Stuck to the FNBP trails as they were the best packed in. Everything was great except brown bear, which was a little soft.”

The winter-edition of the Wednesday night group ride met up at the Abbott Ball Fields Trailhead on a Tuesday evening when temps were hanging out in the negative 10 to negative 15 range. It ended up being one of the coldest rides of the winter, but the woods were beautiful: every tree was coated heavily in feathery snow, and the trails were in excellent condition.

Given the temps, the ride got going rather hastily, as riders who had driven to the trail head poured out of their warm vehicles enmasse, and we all headed off into the night.

One of the things about riding at night, is that it’s nearly impossible to recognize others. Bike lights are blindingly bright, and no one likes getting high-beamed, so an effort is usually made to keep the lights pointed down and away, leaving people no more than darkened silhouettes against the inky blackness. It often takes a moment to figure out who is who.

In this particular group ride, it’s also not always clear who will show up, and friends often invite friends.

I had noticed a rider who jetted across the lot and joined us just as we rolled out that I did not recognize, but whoever he was, he was chatting and riding along, eventually working his way to the front of the line, and pushing the pace.

I still didn’t know him or recognize him after several minutes, but he seemed very comfortable in the group, and I assumed he must be friends with someone else.

As usual for this group, the ability levels of the participants ranged, but with the temps reaching for the low-end of the thermometer, stop-and-go pacing was getting uncomfortable, and this rider and I kept pulling well ahead. At some point as we chatted, I asked which one of us misfits he knew, and what he said next will forever stick in my mind.

“I was just coming out to ride on my own, and figured it’s so cold I wouldn’t see anyone out here tonight. Then I saw all you guys and I was like ‘These guys are awesome. It’s freezing out and they are still riding. I’m going to ride with them!’”


Jeff was riding at a clip I really enjoyed.

After one last re-group, we decided to tell the others that we were going to break-off and ride at our own pace. That suited the others well, as they were ready to loop to the trail head anyway, so off we went.

Jeff and I alternated between hammer pace and conversation.

At one point he made a sly attack, keeping a wheel-length in front of me and edging up the pace bit by bit until chatting was impossible, then pouring it on just a bit harder. I was happy to oblige, and made a pass, but he clung to my wheel for another 5 minutes before we finally turned it back down.

Even in the dark, I could feel him smiling as we slowed and caught our breath, laughing.

It turned out we had quite a bit in common. I realized that I actually did know him, although mostly only through association from mountain bike racing.

He did lots of road biking in the summer and enjoyed many of the same rides from Anchorage to points north and south, he got down to the Kenai to do long rides on the trails there when he could, and in the winter, shared a love for both XC skiing and snow biking.

He was pumped for the up-coming Frosty Bottom, and he talked at length about how much he loved this race, and the strategies he’d learned to survive a fat bike event that shared more in common with road bike racing. He assured me I’d love it if I did it.

Jeff wasn't just into pushing the pedal though, he could handle a bike. We decided to ride back down Brown Bear Trail, which promised to still be soft and challenging.

I had only been riding a winter bike for about a month at this point, and I was still figuring out the finer points of maintaining traction in constantly changing snow conditions. Jeff was happy to offer up helpful advice.

When I managed to clear a slippery bridge, he was cheering, a bike length behind.

Eventually we headed back toward the trail head, and I had to split off toward my house.

I never got to know Jeff all that well, certainly not as well as I might have liked. I have no doubt that we would have shared a lot of great rides together though, but that was just the person that he was. At his memorial service, hundreds attended. Many seemed to share the same general feeling, whether they knew him as a cyclist, friend, business partner, or just off the street.

The day Jeff was killed, he was riding to the same trail head to meet friends, but sadly, Jeff’s bright light will never pierce through the cold dark night ever again.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Trance X: The Final Word

Last season was my 2009 Trance X’s final season. For the original review, click HERE.
The mountain bike world has changed quite a bit since this bike’s day, and yet, the Trance as a model is still available today, nearly 10 years after its initial release.
In 2009, my Trance X was at the forefront of some of the things we take for granted today: longer travel air suspension, 15mm quick release axels, and beefier head tubes.
At the same time, it has since been outsized and out geared, and while the Trance was built around a nimble and steep head tube, the industry has generally moved to slacken these angles in many cases.
In some ways, comparing the 2009 Trance X to what’s available now, is a bit unfair to the new generation of 650b and 29-inch Trances offered by Giant.
That being said, here are the bottom lines for me.

  • This bike is beefy and built to last. A bunch of riding buddies and I all bought this bike at the same time in 2008 and 2009. While the industry had dialed in efficient linkage systems, they were also finally building frames capable of withstanding more than a couple seasons of abuse.
    We didn’t know this, and almost all of us had resolved to simply get in the habit of replacing our frames after two seasons, given that was the norm up to that point on most XC and trail bike.
    Most of us didn’t have to, and these bikes lived much longer than any of us expected.
    Alaska’s shorter season and generally mild trails let mine live the longest of this generation. The only linkage issues I dealt with I would consider very standard: I changed out of the bushings in the shock. I think I did this procedure twice over 5 years. I never had to do any other linkage replacement.
  • Good things don’t change. While Giant, along with other bike manufactures, has had to adapt to the 650b and 29-inch wheel revolution, and sell to the burgeoning all mountain/enduro trend,  relatively few changes have been made to this bike since it was initially offered, almost 10 years ago. I understand that the geometry on the Trance 29r had to be modified.
    As it stands, Giant was caught off-guard by the wheel-size revolution, and seems to be unsure of where they are going to go. Their decision to essentially do away with 26-inch, has, and will continue to shape the bike industry in the years to come. Personally, I would steer away from a Trance 29, which may be easy enough as it seems they are moving away from that bike. The bump in wheel size effectively adds an inch of travel, while changing the overall ride. The 650b Trance will be a nice fit; if you want 29-inch wheels, the Anthem is a better pick.
  • I’d buy it again. I didn’t, I got a Santa Cruz Solo, but my decision was driven more by shop loyalty than anything else. The local Giant dealer here in town has a butt-kicking sales team, and I can’t say enough good things about them, but I had a few negative experiences with two of their wrenches, and have had overwhelmingly positive experiences with the competition.
    As for the offerings, Giant, like most bike manufactures, has latched on hard to the all mountain/enduro trend. The Trance has gone from being a king of trail bikes to the adapted chosen son of this movement in Giant's line up, and now comes kitted with more travel in the front, dropper posts, and the like. Meanwhile, the Anthem has been fitted to appeal to either the hardcore XC racer, or the entry-level rider. It’d be nice to see Giant offer either, or just one, of these rigs in quality trail build(s). With the improved ride quality found in 650b wheel size, I probably would not ride a Trance in Alaska anymore, and to get the bike I wanted, I probably would have purchased an Anthem frame, and built it from the ground up, even if it cost more in the end run. Outside Alaska, a Trance would still be a top pick. 
The Trance X, new, in the steamy forests on a late spring day in Vermont in 2009 at the end of a cross country road trip.
The Trance, rolling steadily into its 5th season on Russian Lakes Trail on a hot day in June 2013.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Resurrecting the Devil's Johnson Redux, and Other Great Rides

All season I’ve been antsy to knock out the RDJ. The window in late May/early June never fully closed, but the rain blew in around the eaves when the 6th month of the year turned out to be the 5th wettest on record.

A few times I considered giving the loop a go despite this, fearful that the Johnson leg would eventually become overgrown. The beautiful weather two weekends ago for the Kenai 250 made me especially envious, but Adam kept talking me out of it: “It’s long ride, let’s wait for it to be awesome,” he would say.

Those are words from the wise; Independence Day found conditions on this 90-mile loop to be just that, awesome.

There were three differences between the RDJ2013 (LINK) and RDJ2014.

Minor: We parked our cars at the Devils Pass TH and started the day with the 7-mile road ride from Devils Pass TH to the southern Johnson Pass TH, getting this short section over with first.

Moderate: We rode hard tails instead of full-sus rigs.

Major: I was joined by Adam, as opposed to going it solo last year, and did not have to chug through 9 hours mostly on my own.

Without doubt, these were all improvements.

I was a little worried that I’d regret being on the stiffer bike, partly for some of the lumpy sections on Johnson and later on Devils, and partly because I have not spent more than 2 hours and change on the hard tail on any single ride. Neither proved to be an issue. While the lack of rear suspension entails a bit more conservative riding in places, overall, the Scale rocketed up the south side of Johnson with enough speed to shave 20-some-odd minutes off the usual pace for Johnson end-to-end. The ultimate reason for choosing the hard tail though, was the 30-mile road section between the northern Johnson Pass TH and the northern Res Pass TH. For this, the rigs were especially appreciated.

All in all, the ride sped by some 45 minutes faster elapsed, and 15 faster in the saddle.

It went even faster in my mind. We had bomber trail conditions the whole way. I was expecting more vegetation on Johnson, but actually it turned out to be no greener than it was a week ago, and mud was a non-issue. The bikes needed nothing more than a wipe down at the end of the day.

It’s funny how on long rides, you can cover so much ground, both geographically speaking, but also mentally, and yet, in the end, if can feel so singularly blended into one short experience. I can pick out a number of moments, defined in seconds: cleaning a steep pitch, rolling the wheels through a technical feature, shared moments of conversation, shared moments of silence, stretches where the bike had wings, stretches were the bike felt like a brick, passing other riders, passing hikers swarmed in bugs, and so on. One moment stands out more than any other though: the beginning of the 200-foot climb back up to the cars at Devils Pass TH from the Quartz Creek bridge. All I could feel was pure elation.

Ride stats, taken much later.
I thought the RDJ would take it out of me a lot more than it actually did. The legs were by no means lively on Saturday, but I had a really nice ride doing the Lost Lake Loop, sans the eastern section of Iditarod, with Sharon, Jolie, and Michael. The upper section of Lost Lake and Primrose was nearly dusty, and with some cool clouds and mist, I was relieved to be out of the heat.

Braun on a bridge.

Seward local. I can't wait until I'm old and grouchy. for now I'll just have to settle for halfway.

Clouds lifting on the plateau.

Jolie and Sharon are all smiles as the get ready to ride "some gnarly roots."
Sunday, despite a depressing weather forecast, the skies actually cracked blue in Cooper after a very short morning shower, and Jill and I set up a shuttle, and rode Cooper to Devils Pass TH. Jill wanted to get a closer look at this section as she will be riding this leg as part of a team in the Soggy Bottom in a month. The morning showers had failed to do anything to the trail, and we had perfect conditions.

Idyllic Kenai.

Swan Lake

Dangerous Alaska Critters

Is it next weekend yet?

In the meantime, mid-week road rides are pretty sweet. July means after work rides to Girdwood and back. Glass flat in the arm in the evening is hard to beat.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

I Can't Get Enough Johnson...

Pass. Johnson Pass.
I can't get enough Johnson Pass.
When the glaciers receded off of the Northern Kenai Peninsula at the end of the last glacial epoch, they revealed a number of valleys that would, millennia later, offer irresistible routes through the rugged mountains.

Paths that were likely first colonized by wildlife, and later borrowed by the native inhabitants; eventually, Europeans arrived in search of mineral wealth and needed a way to transport their supplies and machines. These narrow winding paths were sometimes improved to handle their steed and wagons.

Johnson Pass, a 1400+ foot summit that divides the south flowing Johnson Creek, and the north-flowing Bench Creek, served as an all-season route between the seaport town of Seward and Hope mining district.

Why, in the century that followed the stampede, the engineers of the modern Seward highway dodged sharply away from the mouth of Bench Creek, I don’t know, but the route was relegated back to trail status.

I guess I can only be so thankful.

The Johnson Pass over-and-back has been a favorite this spring.

It always is, but this year, it was by far the favored child: 5 separate rides, 4 times over and back and one south side out and back; and though the herbaceous vegetation that buries this trail is soon to overtake it, I sense I will see it at least one more time.

It was hard to resist in 2014. Some years this trail never really comes in. In 2012, I never rode it end to end once. Deep snows of the 100-year winter followed by a massive spring shed cycle and ample melt water, left the northern section of the trail buried in a blanket of white and green.

This year though, it was perfection.

Brushing from end-to-end, ditching, and other drainage work, made this trail go from good, to all time.

There’s something about this trail that just satiates everything I love about riding here.

It’s long enough, but not too long.

It’s technical, one of the more technical trails of the Kenai, but it also has plenty of sections where the bikes can get wings.

It’s never boring, there’s always a challenge around the corner.

You might see a ton of people, or you might be alone; I never know what to expect.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

I sometimes wish the Forest Service would contract with a professional to take a quad through the trail in early July to push down the herbaceous veg, and extend its season, but than I wonder, if I could ride this trail all summer, would it still be a favorite.

Behold: the fierce wildlife of the Alaska backcountry. This baby porcupine, also known as a porcupet, was camouflaged on the shadowy trail. I considered picking him up and moving him away from the trail, but I wasn't 100% sure he was quill-less.

Also, wildlife, a song bird flew between my legs on a descent, dropping a bird bomb on the way.

While Johnson Pass trail has treated me well, Adam, Phil, and I rode the Lost Lake Loop on Saturday.

Crystal clear at the plateau.