Thursday, January 29, 2009

Slippery? I have my Redoubts, missy.

Redoubt Volcano, 4/21/90
Photo by R. Clucas

Everyone in Anchorage this week is stocking up on respirators and whatever else you’re supposed to buy before a volcano erupts, because those smart-ashes over at AVO are telling us Redoubt is about to blow. This could be sort of cool if it waits until the weather clears, because we can easily see this sucker from right here in town.

Of course, it could also be a major pain in the ass, because volcanic ash is not very nice to things like computers, cars and airplanes. So as news of the impending eruption started spreading across the nation, one of my brothers sent me an e-mail asking what volcanic ash does to bicycles.

From what I understand, it’s so abrasive that it pretty much eats any moving parts it gets into, but I figure a couple of drivetrain components are cheaper than a new Toyota engine, so as long as it doesn’t get too bad, why not keep riding if I have to go somewhere (providing I can keep it out of my eyes and lungs)?

But my wife’s co-workers who were here for the last ashfall in Anchorage have warned her that the ash is also slippery, so the hospital where they all work should expect to see more victims of falls.

Slippery? Really? The stuff is sort of like sand, isn’t it? The whole thing leaves me scratching my head.

What does one ride to an eruption? Studs, or Endomorphs?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wish list in an economic wasteland

I recently returned from vacation determined to never again travel without an easily transportable bike. I already own a hard-shell case, but it’s not always practical to schlep a huge bike box, and there’s always the threat of nasty airline baggage fees.

A folding bike seemed like a possible sanity-saving solution for quick trips, but the very idea brought an onslaught of criticism from two riding buddies who insisted that a folder would obligate me to commit acts rarely performed by a straight man who's not incarcerated.

That led me back to the more-expensive idea of a Surly Travelers Check with its ingenious S&S couplers. But like most everyone else, I’ve spent the past three months watching my already-laughable financial portfolio waste away like a bulemic bimbo with a nose full of blow.

On top of that, I have a bad habit of reading the news every day, which hasn’t exactly been a confidence builder lately. Dropping a thousand bucks on a frame that would then soak up more money in the form of tasty components just doesn’t seem prudent right now. It’s enough to make a guy want to kick the teeth out of all the sub-prime lenders and derivative-selling financial con artists who put us in this swirling toilet bowl of an economy.

It’s unreasonable to whine about delaying a bike purchase. Unlike some people, I still have a job, and the value of the bikes in my house could feed a Third World family for a few years.

Still, it’s no fun being a responsible adult and delaying gratification.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mush, mon!

These are bleak days for winter bikers in Anchorage. Sure, the weather has finally turned cold again, but we’re still stuck with rotten ice and a shortage of snow left by those damned Pineapple Express winds.

The commuting conditions are fast—unless you have a deep pool of meltwater between home and your office—but most of the trails are in rough shape, and will stay that way until we get some new snow. The whole mess has reduced local riders to arguing online. The local forum has a long-running thread about whether the design of Chain Reaction’s new 9:ZERO:7 borrows too liberally from Speedway’s Fatback, with the counter-argument being that it’s pretty hard to build a bike that doesn’t look like another bike.

Of course, that argument keeps being interrupted by debates over things like PBR—which some people consider fit for human consumption (OK, that’s really just Dutch)—online censorship and whether the whole thing is too gay to begin with. It’s enough to drive a person batshit crazy, if he wasn’t already there from too much time on a stationary trainer.

So it was a refreshing distraction this afternoon when I read about Newton Marshall, the Jamaican dog-sled racer who plans to race in the Yukon Quest and is sponsored by Jimmy Buffett.

As I read about Marshall, I thought how strange it seemed that a guy from a Caribbean island would come to Alaska to race dogs. “Dang,” I said to myself. “That’d be like taking a bike to ride … uh … well, in Alaska. In the winter. I guess.”

I mean, seriously, where else could you ride a bike—which most of the world views as summertime transportation—that would be as weird as here? Winter cyclists should totally understand this guy.

I don’t usually follow mushing. I know people who do it, and it’s a sport with a work-to-fun ratio that’s freakishly out of balance. But this year I’ll be cheering for the Jamaican because he seems like a funhog, and he's got to be one tough dude to have made it this far.

After the Quest, maybe he’ll stick around and try some fat-bike rides. Who knows? Maybe if we showed him how much fun he could have without shoveling dog shit all week, he’d decide to stick around and train for next year's Invitational.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Technical difficulties

Thanks to the incompetent boobs at ACS—who can't upgrade a DSL account without hosing it up for 24 hours—and the non-English-speaking residents of Bangalore who provide router tech "support" for Linksys, I was offline for more than 24 hours.

Bicycles & Icicles will return will my anger calms.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Finger Festival

The Fingers are back but, for the first time ever, today's post has two photos without bikes in them. Why? Well, for one thing, the weather in Anchorage sucks ass. Seriously. I actually miss the subzero cold of two weeks ago, when at least we had good riding surfaces. This mid-winter thaw has reduced everything to rotten snow and crummy ice.

I set up the trainer today for the first time all winter. The results weren't pretty. I've gotta start suckin' up some pain now, or I'll suck worse this summer than I did last year.

On the way to the Beer & Barleywine Festival on Friday night, Notorious H tried to downplay her role in starting the Flip-off phenomenon that is almost a year old now. But what'd she do when the camera came out? She led the charge, baby.

And from Colorado, where he's enjoying riding temps in the 50s and 60s while training for the Susitna 100, the one and only Grill Meister sends a shot of his wife and a friend during one of those walks people do outside when they don't have bikes handy. I think they call them "hikes." It's always good to hear from The Man. In a couple more weeks, I hope to be riding with him again while he's in town for the race.

Hopefully, winter will return before he does.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Slippery when wet

Rush hour on the C Street bike path, 5:25 p.m.
Traffic congestion is for suckers.

My office was still dark, and I was changing clothes when my phone rang Wednesday morning. Instead of saying “hello,” the caller simply opened the conversation with, “Did you ride your bike this morning?” It was a staff member calling in to report that she didn't know when she would get to work after a night of freezing rain had coated the Glenn Highway with a sheet of ice.

It was 32 degrees outside, and the rain was still coming down. All over town, cars were stuck and/or colliding with one another on the icy roads. Schools were closed. The university was shutting down. The city was suspending public bus service. A major local freight company was sending drivers home canceling all deliveries for the day.

A few minutes later, after I’d opened my door and window blinds, another woman arrived at work and poked her head in before going to her desk. “Did you ride your bike today?!” she asked.

Other riders were facing the same bewilderment among co-workers all over town. I started a “roll call” thread in the commuter forum at to ask who had ridden to work, and then watched the responses come in:

Amber—“I had to laugh at the people attempting to drive. I felt MUCH safer on my bike.”

Jordy—“I was glad I rode, traffic looked like hell. Everyone @ work was just shaking their heads.”

Ajofatbike—“I think I was going straighter and faster than most of the cars.”

BikeMonkee—“I felt much safer on the bike than trying to negotiate all the traffic hazards.”

What were drivers talking about when they arrived (many of them late) to work? Stress, sliding through intersections and how many cars they saw in the ditch.

And how “insane” bike riders must be.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Turn off, tune in, and drive

I read a news story a few days ago about how car manufacturers are planning to incorporate computers with Internet access into future car models. They say that today's consumer expects to be connected all the time.

I’m having a hard time feeling good about this. I’ve already dodged drivers who were eating breakfast burritos, applying makeup, and organizing the paperwork and other shit that was sitting on the empty passenger seat.

Pedaling around Anchorage in the dark this winter, I’ve noticed a lot more screens glowing on the dashboards of cars. Whatever they’re used for, one thing is for certain: Drivers have to look at them to use them. That means they aren’t watching out for bicyclists. Or kids on their way to school. Or anything else that could be flattened by their vehicle/entertainment center.

Like a lot of bike riders, I’ve sometimes wondered if the sound of a car horn will be the last thing I ever hear. The way things are going, if a car ever takes me out, I wonder if the driver will even notice in time to honk.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Walk on the wild side

A week into my singlespeed experiment, I was staring at the minimalist drivetrain on my Stumpjumper while removing my shoes a couple of days ago. How would I explain this behavior when confronted with the question my wife had already asked: “Why would you take the gears off your bike?”

I was partially motivated by the lure of increasing strength, and minimizing bike maintenance during the season of sloppy springtime commutes. But mainly, I felt like I should expand my horizons by sampling the singlespeed subculture. Mountain biking is the closest thing I have to a religion, and I’m interested in all of its various factions.

In the Church of Cycling, singlespeeders are the fundamentalists. You see, fundamentalism has been described as “strict maintenance of ancient of fundamental doctrines of any religion or ideology.” And what could be more ancient and fundamental than a bike with only one gear?

Most SS riders are devoted to the cause. They often hold their own races and festivals, separate from those of us in the multi-geared world. They proselytize. They are definitely a nonconformist sect. Heretics, if you will.

In the interest of solidarity and self-improvement, I have opted to dabble in their unorthodox practices. But I remain orthodox at heart.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Brains on ice

Wikipedia says it's known as brain freeze; shake ache; frigid face; a freezie; frozen-brain syndrome; and a cold-stimulus headache. The Mayo Clinic calls it a "headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus."

Most of us just call it an ice-cream headache. And those of us who ride in sub-zero weather know that it can hurt like a sonofabitch.

So far this week, I've ridden my new singlespeed conversion to work twice in morning temperatures in the neighborhood of -15F, give or take a couple of degrees, depending on whose thermometer you believe. In those temps, unless I remember to ride slowly at first, I tend to get about a third of a mile from my house before the front of my head feels like it's being crushed under a Chevy truck. For two or three minutes, I have to roll my head from side to side and blink my eyes while the throbbing pain makes me feel like I'm going to pass out and collapse into a snow bank.

Even if I do ride slowly, I still get a milder ice-cream headache for a minute or two. Once it passes, of course, the rest of the ride is generally enjoyable. But until then ... damn.

It's just one of the costs of riding in winter. And it could be worse, because there are things that hurt a lot more like ... oh, I don't know ... gunshot wounds, burns, gettin' kicked in the 'nads, that kind of stuff.

The staff at Mayo says that headaches caused by cold foods and drinks might be prevented if you "warm up cold foods in the front of your mouth before swallowing." Unfortunately, it's kind of hard to use that method with air when you're pedaling a bike.

I guess we just have to grin and bear it. And remind ourselves that when the temperature rises to 18 again, it's going to feel really, really good.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Medicinal purposes

Hobbit Land

One of the things I love about bike riders is that those of us who are addicted tend to understand each other—or at least a key part of each other—as soon as we meet. We share a craving that normal people can’t fathom.

My recent trip south was a non-biking family vacation. As much as I’d love to always see foreign countries at a slow, intimate pace from the saddle of a bike, my wife doesn’t share my fascination with pedaling for hours every day, so I spent two weeks moving around the north island of New Zealand behind a steering wheel. And that wasn’t such a bad thing; time off the bike can be good, now and then.

But I knew in advance that I’d need to ride at least a trail or two, so I made sure to have a jersey, shorts, shoes and pedals in my duffle bag. By the time we reached Wellington, I need either a two-wheel fix, or in-patient treatment for withdrawal symptoms.

I found the Bike Barn on Wakefield Street, and rented—or “hired,” as they say in those parts—a Kona Cinder Cone for the afternoon. I made a couple of comments about needing some ride time to get my personality back. As we were walking to the front counter, the shop guy said he understood, because he gets irritable if he can’t ride for a couple of days.

We talked that afternoon about how riding is a genuine mental and physical need that other people can’t comprehend. He told me that he shares a flat with five other people, and that it works because they’re all mountain bikers. When they reach a point where they’re getting on each others’ nerves, they grab the bikes and go for a group ride. After a couple of hours of laughing and crashing together, they all like each other again.

I stuffed a map in my pocket, clipped in and headed for the trails on Mount Victoria, right at the edge of downtown. There wasn’t a huge amount of terrain to ride on a rented hardtail, and not even a hint of the kind of wilderness I'm used to at home, but I reached the summit and enjoyed beautiful views of Wellington. I rode through an unusual forest with signs labeling spots where Lord of the Rings was filmed. I scratched up my leg on some brush, and listened to my tires rolling over dirt.

It felt good. And when I got back to my wife and daughter at the end of the day, I was a little easier to live with.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

I'm back ... sort of

When my plane landed tonight, the temperature in Anchorage was -8F. And from what I hear, that almost constitutes a heat wave when compared to recent days.

The winter bikes await, but how will my brain and body adjust to sub-arctic riding after more than two weeks in the southern hemisphere?

Faa'a, Tahiti

Downtown Auckland, New Zealand

Wellington, New Zealand