Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Tom's Visit

It took my former riding buddy and college teammate Tom 7 years to make it up to AK for a bike ride.
WANNA RIDE BIKES!?
OK, in fairness, Tom has been living and working in some of the country’s most scenic and spectacular National Parks though out those years.
Still, Tom and I went 6 whole years between our last ride on the east coast at Kingdom Trails a day or two before I left for the north, and our eventual re-union in SoCal last fall.
A few months later, Tom gave me a pretty awesome tour of Yellowstone National Park when I was visiting the area last January, and when I finally got him to commit to a visit to AK, I knew I had to pull out the stops for his visit.
Initially, I had thought a road trip to Whitehorse, followed by a short trip to the Kenai for some fishing, was in order. The road trip would provide a great view of the giant state, and I’ve yet to hear someone say something disparaging about the Yukon riding.
We did have some time limitations though, and despite this being an epic summer rarely wetted by rains, Tom of course picked the one week rain seemed sure to fall.
Multiple sources said the Whitehorse trails rode well in the rain, and I don’t doubt that, but driving 24 hours roundtrip to ride and camp in the rain just didn’t add up, especially considering how dry the trails where here.
I decided we would roll the dice and stay local, ride in the rain if we had to (we did), but at least have access to hot showers, an indoor hangout, and local knowledge of the weather patterns and trails (hey, we also did).
Aside from all this, I can’t help but feel boastful of the ScAk trails, and wanted Tom to see them, not some system a full day’s drive off.
Without question, that was the right call.
The first two days of Tom’s trip were gray and wet. We rode Hillside in the rain, and splashed through puddles in Kincaid during a couple hour lull in the precip the following day. The nice thing, is that as noted, the trails were so dry this year, they never got muddy, and dried instantly.
By day three, what had been a gloomy forecast began to change: the sun was coming out, and conditions were looking to be spectacular.
I wanted to take Tom up to the Valley and ride Keppler-Bradley and GPRA, but the storm system was lingering in the north, while gorgeous blue skies broke over Anchorage.
For the first time in days, Tom saw the Front Range, along with the snow-capped Tordrillos across the Inlet.
As it turned out, Anchorage was not secretly located near Fargo, as Tom had been beginning to suspect.
We rode Kincaid again, joined by Joe. As I expected, Tom loved the trails there, and didn't mind hitting them twice.



 
 
The next day Tom and I loaded up the Suby and headed south to base camp at Braun’s cabin and ride the Kenai.
The Chugach National Forest had just finished brushing out the Russian Lakes Trail the previous week, bringing this normally spring and fall only trail into the fold waaaaay early. I explained to Tom beforehand that this was a real bonus to have this ride on the table in mid-August, but I’m pretty sure he would have figured that out on his own as I freaked out about a dozen times on-trail.
We rode the Russian Loop, and as hoped, the well-drained trail was mud- and veg-free. When we passed where the trails runs along the river bank around mile 8, we could see hundreds of bright red sockeye swimming in the current below.
 
Heading over the outlet of Kenai Lake. Photo T.A.

Stopped for a snack on a beach on Kenai Lake.


Photo T.A.

Hanging out on the shore of Upper Russian Lake

Photo: T.A.

Upper Russian Lake Cabin



Blooming Fireweed in the avalanche meadows on the way out
  
The next day we headed toward Seward to do the Lost Lake Loop. Again, we had perfect blue bird skies and a gentle south wind to keep it cool.
As we finished up the 7-mile Primrose section of the Iditarod Trail, I asked Tom if he wanted to take the straightforward and easy route down the highway to re-connect with Lost Lake Trail, or go ride the Bear Lake section of Iditarod – explaining that the latter was hilly, loamy, not always flowy, and that a 2,000 foot climb still lay ahead.
Tom gave me a confused look.
I tried again: “Easy or hard?”
“Hard,” Tom said.
I was stoked. I know a lot of people pass up on this section, but that’s really their loss.
We stopped once on our way to Bear Lake to gobble up the abundant and fat blueberries that lined the trail, before making the surfy descent into Seward. The shore-side segment of the trail is super technical, and I knew Tom was probably going to want to session some of the features.
He agreed that this stretch is probably the closest thing in Alaska we have to the type of riding he and I did in college, at least, as far as the density of technical features.
As we neared the south end of the lake, we passed over the small inlet stream, and hung around a while to watch up and close as salmon battled each other for mates.
A little while later we were riding high into the alpine of the Lost Lake plateau.
Big shocker, but this did not disappoint. I think my favorite moment was when we reached the top of the plateau just before the lake comes into view. Tom took a ton of photos to the south toward Resurrection Bay.
I let him make a couple comments about how spectacular the view was, and how it couldn’t possibly get better, then we rolled 100 yards across the flat plateau until the lake and the bay were both in full view. I had to ask if he was sure about they view.
Post-ride fried halibut to-go, enjoyed down by the water was in order after descending Primrose.
 
Tom and I have very different pre- and post-ride routines. For example, pre-ride, Tom likes to wheelie, bunny hop, and skid around the parking lot, while I like to chill, stretch, and prep. Post-ride, Tom likes to fall off his bike and hope the gods deliver him a giant pizza, while I like to wheelie, bunny hop, and skid around the parking lot...OK, well, maybe I did some of the latter just to get back at him. I was really glad to take this shot before setting off on LLL though.

Lots of blueberries

Lots.

Tom took a few attempts, but finally rode the bridge...no salmon were harmed.


Photo: T.A.

Favorite shot of the trip. Photo: T.A.
 
Friday dawned with high gray clouds, but the forecast only hinted at a slight chance of rain.
I had really hoped to do a Devils-Cooper shuttle, but could not arrange a shuttle, and doing the loop wasn’t too high on the list after five days of consecutive riding. The backup plan was to ride up Devils and through Res to the Hope overlook, maybe descend to East Creek if we had the legs, and then turn around.
The weather had other plans. Hypothermia rain started to fall right as we got to Devils Pass, and knowing the Hope overlook view would be pretty unspectacular, we decided to go hang out in the shelter of the Devils Pass Cabin for a while.
As it was, the rain really wasn’t falling too hard, and it didn’t take us long to descend out of the wind.
After 3 days of AK blue bird, Tom said he appreciated seeing a slight dose of reality in terms of what the weather could dish out.
The trail was great even wet though, Devils is already well drained to begin with, and given the dryness this year, didn’t even form any puddles.
 
video
No pics from a rainy day but Tom made this cool slow-mo video.
 
We headed to fish camp that evening to spend Saturday working the UR fishing event. The tournament went smoother than it ever has, and I appreciated Tom’s willingness to chip in and drive a shuttle. Tom got real familiar with my old commute to work (I mean, he’s fairly qualified at driving vans after all), all in return for a little fresh halibut and salmon. Good deal huh?
That evening, just before I was about to call it a night, walking through the dark between one of the out buildings and the lodge, I looked up to see the northern lights blazing across the sky. I ran in and got Tom up, and we hung out on the dock for an hour while they put on a hell of a show.
 
Double rainbows over camp. Photo: T.A.

No good shots of the northern lights, but Tom snapped this cool one of the boats waiting for their clients Saturday morning. Photo: T.A.
 
What a way to end a great trip.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Soggy Bottom 100: 2015

Short: It was hot, it was wet, it was slimey, it was cold, it was prefect tack, it was gorgeous bluebird; there seemed to be less riders than last year; I had the best support I could ask for from my mom; I had some weird on-trail issues; I ended up finishing 4 minutes slower than last year at 10:08 and change, but felt like I rode harder and was much happier with my equipment.

Thanks Mom!

Long Version
Lead Up:
This has been a great summer for putting in long rides on the Kenai weather wise, and I had the opportunity to do the RDJ (Link) in mid-June and the Hope 96 (LINK) in early July, along with the all my other favorite Kenai Classics. The two 90+ milers are great for mental conditioning and dialing in for the strain, but the 4-6 hour rides are probably more valuable fitness wise.
I didn’t ride with Adam or Chuck as much this year, less for lack of interest so much as scheduling. I did get a few rides in with Adam, and one thing I noticed he had started doing this season was feeding more frequently, around every 45 minutes, as opposed to every 60-90. I think this was new for him, but I noticed when I did the RDJ and Hope 96, I was persistently bumping against the wall after hour 6. I decided to move my first feed to 90 minutes in, as opposed to 120 minutes, and then do 45-minute ~100-150 cal feeds. I experimented with this on a few 4-6 hour rides prior to the SB100, and then locked it in on a Res over-and-back ride, and liked it. It was a little intense though, and I had trouble staying up with the feeds. I ended up setting my watch to go off every 45 minutes, as I otherwise risked missing feeds.
For someone who has long-prided himself on being able to run more like a diesel, with longer gaps between feeds, this was definitely a change, but I noticed the payout.
I did seriously consider switching from the SB100 to the PB84. It seemed more fun; I really didn’t have any particular designs on the full SB; and realistically, I could actually push myself a little harder instead of basically just riding. In talking with some trusted advisors, they advised to go for it.
I got cold feet about switching though, and when I asked Carlos, the event organizer, if I could switch, he gave me an incredulous look and asked: “Why?”
My reasoning seemed soft. As it is, it maybe didn’t matter, and it seems the PB option is going away anyhow.

Race Day:
The best part about the race this year was hands down having my mom up here. Delta and Alaska Air’s price wars have led to really cheap flights between west coast cities, and having visited AK a few times already, this seemed like a good reason for a visit and more fun than doing touristy stuff.
My mom transported my feed bags to the check points, held my bike at the checkpoints, and of course, provided ample cheering.
For a long and often lonely race, there sure are some dedicated fans and supporters. Carly, Gus, and Carly’s parents were great at the check points, helping both my mom and I; and Braun, Ryan, and all the others up at Devils Pass taking pics and cheering really makes for a huge mental boost. Among racers, there's a lot of camaraderie too.
The trail was greasier than last year thanks to several summer deluges during the week prior (of course it rained the week before). I ran an Ardent Race EXO in the back and an Ardent non-EXO in the front and was very happy with that combo. The A.R. does pretty good in the mud, but it’d be really silly to hobble a 5-inch trail bike with a skimpier front tire knowing corners were going to be greasy.
While the Yeti SB-95c has been a way better rig for Kenai riding than the Santa Cruz 5010, it’s still a big bike that will perform better heading down than up, and I didn’t want to have any question about how hard I could push.
As for the up, ya, the Yeti has proven to be better at those from ride number one. Especially helpful for this race was a pair of brand new ENVE XC29 wheels I found on sale…after a season on the Mavic CrossRocs, the bike felt almost flighty on the climbs. More on those wheels some other time.

A good steed. Photo: P.P.
The race went out, but the lead out was a little different than last year. The big paceline that chugged up to the trail head in 2014 was just a small pack consisting of ultimate race-winner Tim, along with Brian, Adam, Kevin, and I; I may be forgetting one other rider. We didn’t catch any relay riders on the road, but pretty much passed the bulk of them within the first ½ mile of trail.
Then, as we headed into what I call the mile 2 heartbreak hill, Adam, Brian, Kevin, and Tim started to pull away. Minutes later we were all bunched back up and hiding in the veg together near the top of the climb along with Will. Will had taken off in the relay race and came upon an adolescent moose who made numerous false charges at us, even in a big group. Eventually we had a dozen riders piled up, and the moose took the cue and headed off.
I hung with the 4 SB leaders + Will a bit longer, but as we began the next canyon climb, they again pulled ahead.
I felt like I was laying down a good pace for myself and was OK with that.
Megan yo-yo’d with me a bit on the climbs until East Creek.
Cresting Res Pass it was gorgeous and cool. I did notice a looming cumulus cloud to the south. The forecast was calling for a 20% chance of showers. Anywhere else that might be pretty good news, but my suspicion was that 20% pretty much meant 100% for the higher elevation. I swore when I saw it…I knew what was coming.

Tearing toward Cooper. Photo M.B.

Photo R.G.

I did have a persistent problem with my saddle positioning from East Creek until most of the way through the second leg to Devils. Basically, I was motoring hard, and was drawn farther forward on my saddle then I usually ride. I could have fixed this by moving the seat up or down a bit, or just getting out of the saddle a bit more, but of course, I didn’t. Stupid  move: It cost me a lot on the Coopers-Devils leg.

The leg from Cooper-Devils pretty much sucked for everyone this year I think.
For whatever reason, the climb out of Coopers really hurts me. I’m not sure if it’s the jog through the parking lot that fires some muscles or what, but my legs felt terrible.
The ominous cloud I’d seen from the Pass materialized into a classic, Alaska, blue-sky shower that got the trail wet but not muddy as I crested the climb out of Coopers and entered the Juneau Creek Valley, but it ended soon enough.
Up the god-awful climb above Swan Lake, the temps were much cooler at least, but I could see rain showers guarding the entranceway to Devils Pass. I guess I was grateful I beat any showers through the rock gardens on Res, but as I neared the junction with Devils, I hit the cold rain.
The trail was lined with endless puddles, and the temps felt like they were in the low 50s. Like everyone else, I started to get cold.
The splash fest continued, and as I rode through a brush car wash in the soaking vegetation and slid through slimy rocks on upper Devils, I resolved: I was going to quit at the bottom of Devils.
This was stupid, something wasn’t right with my body, I was cold and wet, and this section would suck even more trying to climb.
Somehow, thinking this made it better.

My favorite pic from the race. Great shot by Braun, with Charger encouraging me to shut up and pedal harder. If it looks like I'm smiling, trust me, I'm not. I was so pissed. Photo M.B.
Deep down, I knew I’d be ticked off if I didn’t finish, that the weather would be just fine for the last leg, and that even if it did continue to rain, most of the north side of Res Pass is sheltered under a canopy.
Sure enough, maybe halfway down Devils, there was a noticeable thermal layer, and the temps suddenly felt almost muggy; the annoying sensation I’d been feeling since East Creek had gone away; and as I was about to duck into the woods at the base of Devils, I threw a glance back up the Pass, and saw blue skies and parting clouds.

As it turned out, the third leg felt like my best. The rain had brought the temps down, but all the evidence of the rain was gone, and even though the climb up Devils didn’t actually go by any faster than usual, it felt like a breeze.
My feed strategy had been working great all day. I never dipped, but the warning light came on near the top of Devils.  By the time I hit Res Pass, it was all systems go, and I felt ready to open it up.
I ripped into the descent, and passed Jessie fixing a flat near East Creek. She yelled that she was good to go with a spare tube so I powered by knowing she’d catch up, and I might have a partner to the finish with!
I entered this perfect zone the whole way to Hope.
I’ve ridden the north side of Res a bit more than usual this year, and it felt like a sub-conscious part of my body was more in sync with the trail than I was.
It was sort of like, I’d wake up from an exhausting sleep, look down thinking I was going to find myself powering too hard in a soft suspension mode, only to find all was exactly as it should be, and then roll back over into sleep; I’d hit one of the creek climbs, and for whatever reason, could just remember if it was long enough that I’d have to down shift and sit-and-spin to get out, or could stay in a taller gear and power climb.
Bliss came to a swift, though momentary end, when I managed to do something I’ve done a few times this season: with a leg kicked down to stretch, I had a pedal strike at about 25MPH.
The result: the bike is rocketed into an endo, my offending foot blasted out of the pedal, and I end up crumpled on the bars, typically going down within a fraction of a second.
In this case though, I ended up crumpled on the bars and riding a front manual for an incredibly long time…like long enough to have some time to really think about what was going on. There wasn’t anything else to do besides wait for the inevitable.
Eventually I clipped a spruce branch, and that completed the endo, throwing me into some moss. I was pretty lucky.
The bike and I were both OK, so I started riding again, and quickly got back into the rhythm I’d been in.
Jessie caught up a few minutes later, but whenever we hit the next climb, she had the legs to overtake me, and I eventually lost sight.
Unfortunately for her, she blew another flat around mile 5, and I gave her my tube.

Compared to last year where I was starting to feel the burn in the third leg, this year, I had some juice, and I’d emphasize that it was just “some.” It may have been the feed strategy paying out, or just a slightly stronger year. Not sure.
In the end, it wasn’t enough to make up for all the pit stops and discomfort in Legs 1 and  2, and I still finished a tad slower than 2014.

Rehashing with Kevin. Photo P.P.

Upshots this year:
Better feed strategy:
Eating 100-150 cals every 45 minutes and using a timer on my watch to keep me on track since they come up fast. Common sense is key here too: having intimate knowledge of the trail helps. I typically waited, or pre-empted a feed to take advantage of short climbs where my pace would already be lowered, and I could gobble down a few shot blocks or a waffle without any penalty.
I stuck with Cliff Shot Bloks as my primary feed (half pack per feed=100 cals), along with basically one Honey Stinger waffle per leg (~150 cal). At the check points, while I refilled my camelback bladder, I gnawed down a Clif Mojo bar. I tried to eat the latter on the trail last year, and was annoyed by how much time, energy, and water they used. I still like them as a feed source, in part because I eat them regularly on rides; they have a satiating quality; and are neutralizing to all the sugar I’m dumping into my gut.
I’ve become leary of much else besides sugar, carbs, and electrolytes in these rides, but in 10 hours, at some point, my gut needs something a little bit more solid to work with too.

More water:
I upped to 1.5L of water per leg this year. In general, it was cooler, so it wasn’t as big a factor as last year, but I’d rather come into a check point with a few extra sips then run up a deficit as was the case last year. I kept the check point water bottle: It was nice for washing down my check point snack, but I can’t kill that much water and it most often got dumped into the bladder too.

Bike rinse water:
At each check point I had a jug of water to pour over the drive train. I was glad for it in Cooper Landing. The rain through the Devils Pass section meant the bike didn’t have any gunky mud in the gears there.

Chain lube:
I hit the chain at both check points, copiously. Doing this ride without it is a dumb idea.

Ding-ding bell:
I don’t know what to call it, an ice-cream bell, basically, a small, handle-bar mounted bell that delivers a piercing ring. Racers are required to use a bear bell, or jingle bell, but these don’t carry their sound more than a 20-30 feet down a vegetation-lined trail, and hardly make any noise when climbing. Last year I was really frustrated climbing out of Cooper Landing, as I felt that I couldn’t make enough noise (oxygen debt) to warn descending riders, and that the latter weren’t making enough noise on their own to give me time to react.
I think vocals are the best warning system, and that the noise-making onus should still be on the downhill rider. The handlebar bell was great though. It required no additional effort on my part, I just rang it regularly as I climbed, and hit it a few times in succession as I approached blind corners or if I heard oncoming riders. They're tiny too, probably weighing less than 20 grams, and cost $11. I gave mine to my neighbor’s kid after the race, but will surely use one next year.

Future thoughts:
The one thing I think I’ll do next year is use a different backpack for each leg (or at least swap one out. Filling the camelback isn’t that long, but it’s still time consuming. It’d be a lot nicer to roll in, empty my pockets of wrappers and reload them with the next leg’s food, swap packs, and go.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

New Wilderness, Meet the Old Wilderness; Part 2

Part 1 (LINK)
July Fourth weekend, it’s Anchorage’s favorite weekend to load up all their toys into a vehicle coupled to a trailer, neither of which may pass a basic mechanical inspection, and hard-charge it down the Seward Highway, making 8-car passes on inside corners, until eventually, someone blows it and shuts down traffic.
Don't break your bike, and don't break your riding buddies!
Is it any wonder why I always hope for rain or an excuse to stay in town this weekend?
Solitude is a hard-to-come-by commodity anywhere on the Peninsula this weekend, but that’s not always the point.
My wishes for rain or clouds denied: brilliant blue skies dominate, and I can’t resist either, so I take off on the Lost Lake Loop.
Damnit. Why can't it rain (kidding).
 
It is assured, the name-sake trail in this 34-mile ride will be an absolute zoo.
As I climb from Seward, a hiker tells me: “We need to limit the number of bikers on this trail.”
“I could say the same thing about hikers,” registers in my mind, but oxygen debt and a limited ability to maintain the moral high-ground inhibits a response…mostly oxygen debt though.
I wonder why it is that she tells ME this, I’m slowly climbing by.
I can’t help but empathize with her a bit though.
I’m legitimately nervous that I will get nailed by a descending rider on some rent-wreck junker of a bike
 
(Edit: this almost happens a few weeks later when a rider comes careening down the canyon section just below tree line on a mid-90s vintage hardtail replete with rim brakes and an 80mm elastomer fork. Unable to stop before hitting me, I duck into the adjacent hillside, and the rider ended performing a complete cartwheel off the cliff side. He was lucky the vegetation that arrested his fall didn’t impale or twist him up too bad. No helmet on the joker either).
I feel like I’m making more noise than some of the descending riders, and that whole “uphill has right of way” rule seems lost in the blooming cow parsnip.
The funny thing is, I’m more nervous on this climb than I was an hour or two ago when I started to head down the mossy section of the Iditarod Trail that leads from the Seward Highway in Divide to Bear Lake.
 
I passed a surprisingly large group of hikers very near the start of the section – surprising because I hardly ever see people on this trail – and they warn: “There’s bears at the lake!”
I ask “what lake?”
I get confused stares in response.
This is really helpful, as there aren’t many lakes in this segment of trail, nor bears for that matter: I mean, there is Troop Lake about a mile or so in – which is presumably where these people are headed, but I will skirt; and there is of course, the very “beary” Bear Lake, 7 miles down the trail in Seward, where I’m headed; and then there are maybe 3-4 other bodies of water I’d probably describe as ponds between these two bodies of liquid, but maybe they’re lakes with bears too?
The thing is, I sometimes joke, this section of trail was actually cut by the Feds for the bears. As noted, I almost never see people on it. Fat and plump blueberries grow abundantly here, and blue/purble bear scat litters the trail from mid-July through August. Closer to Seward, Bear Lake, which I don’t think got its name because of its oblique shape, is the end run for thousands of returning Bear Creek salmon with nowhere to go and nothing to do but die and present their protein-rich bodies to those who might wish to feast upon them.
Bear Lake salmon.
 
All the while, the dense, old-growth forest makes this a lovely corridor to pass between Resurrection Bay and the Snow River drainage, if you’re into hanging out in deep, dark, quiet forests – kinda like bears are into.
So yes, this is really helpful beta: there could be some bears, by the lake.
I’ve been thinking lately, we actually need a sign at the narrow isthmus between mainland AK and the Kenai Peninsula that says: “Caution: Bears ahead at lake.”
What? It wouldn’t be wrong.
Neither were the hikers though.
What lake?!
 
Guess what I find at Bear Lake? Yup. Momma and her 3 millennial cubs out for a stroll.
These cubs are all just about as big as momma, and after the instant fear has washed away, I think, in retrospect, those cubs need to move out already.
Maybe they’re still perfecting their artisanal fish carcass sculpting?
It could have been a bad situation though. The section of trail along the steep east shore of Bear Lake is tough: technical, lots of blind corners, dark, and ledgy.
I even had the thought, moments before I interrupted this bear family’s outing: “What if I dropped into one of these blind descents, or came around one of these ledgy corners, and came face to face with a browny?”
If I had any time to react at all, my only exit option would be to leap away from the steep hillside into the thickets of devils club and alder below, hoping the bear deferred to better judgment and didn’t follow suit.
I’m lucky I spot them down one of the few stretches of trail with a good sight line, maybe 50 feet. Even still, mom huffs, and she hesitates before turning tail. The three cubs struggle to turn around on the narrow trail to flee, clumsily bumping into eachother.
Had it been a closer encounter, they might have realized they had good odds for a beat down.
Admittedly, I was shocked.
Smiles on the Iditarod trail.
 
I’m used to seeing a lot of bear sign on this trail, especially later in the summer when the blueberries are ripe and the shores of Bear Lake wreak with the stench of rotten salmon.
The blueberries were still white though, and the fish had yet to make a strong showing at the lake, or, at least start dying by the hundreds.
More, it was 1 in the afternoon on a bright sunny day.
Not really when I expect to find a family of bears out and about.
If you slit a tubeless tire and happen to have a tire boot, don't waste your time with the sticky adhesive, it won't work with all the sealant in the tire...I got a lot of practice this summer.
 
I guess that’s just it though: In the new wilderness, and the old wilderness, it’s never clear what the dangers will be, it’s just how different the dangers actually are in each, even if the two can exist in the exact same place.