Monday, August 30, 2010

Give it a rest

Last week, The New York Times published a story about people depriving their brains of downtime by filling every spare moment with e-mails, phone calls and electronic games.

The story cited a University of Michigan study that found people learn better after a walk in nature than they do after walking through an urban environment. The Times story suggested a radical idea for a woman who was interviewed while multitasking with her iPod, iPhone and a a high-def TV as she exercised at the gym: Perhaps, the story suggested, her head would be clearer if she went for a run outside, without all the gadgets.

Downtime allows the brain to process experiences and turn them into long-term memories, according an assistant professor at the University of California, San Francisco. When your brain is constantly stimulated, the learning process is disrupted. He might has well have said, “mountain biking makes you smarter.”

What baffles me is why we still need to be told things that so obviously fit under the category of “No shit, Sherlock.” Why do we seem to forget that simply playing outside is more relaxing than staring at a screen?

It doesn’t matter if a person likes to ski, hike, run or—like you and me—take solace in the meditative benefits of singletrack. You’re better off if you unplug for a few hours and get out in the woods.

I think that’s one of the reasons I like to take it slow and enjoy the ride. Pedaling fast is fine, but half the fun of a mountain bike ride is swapping tales at the trailhead or during water breaks along way. What’s the rush? All the bullshit of daily life will still be waiting when the ride ends.

You can even hurry home and blog about it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Three on three

Cruising down the South Fork Rim Trail late Tuesday evening, Jules, the Bike Monkee and I were making a lot of noise while trying to avoid a bear encounter.

Still, I can’t say it came as a huge surprise to have one anyway. As bear turf goes, that’s a pretty busy neighborhood.

I rounded a corner and saw the Monkee pulling himself off the ground up at the next curve, then backing up slowly as he held his arms out, trying to look as large as possible.

“Bear?” I asked quickly as I stopped my bike.

“Yeah, “ he said, still looking around the corner. “Three.”

I pulled a canister of pepper spray from the bottle cage on my bike, and took a few steps toward him, which was enough to give me a view around the vegetation next to the bike he had ditched while avoiding a near-collision and the resulting bear charge. The view was a tad unnerving—a few feet from his bike stood a couple of one- or two-year-old cubs and the ass end of a brown bear sow that was starting to move her offspring into the woods. They crunched through the brush to our right for a couple of minutes as we considered how to retrieve Monkee’s bike and get the hell out of there.

That was the second time in about five weeks that I’ve been close enough to a grizzly to pull out the spray and take off the safety clip.

I often think that Alaska mountain bikers are relaxed enough to ride here only because we convince ourselves there isn’t a bear around the next corner.

But sometimes, there is.

And that’s when a can of Counter Assault is worth its weight in gold.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Going (mostly) car-free

Most parents dread the day a child turns 16 and gets a driver’s license. We fear for their safety, and shudder at the thought of car insurance premiums that double—or worse—overnight. For many families, a new driver in the house also means there will be an extra car in the driveway.

Not at my house.

My daughter recently started her junior year of high school as a licensed driver. Because her schedule includes a mix of online courses, a night class at a local college, and two classes at her local school, the only realistic option is for her to drive each day.

A few months ago, my wife started trolling craigslist for used vehicles, but buying another reliable car is outside my financial comfort zone at the moment. I’m among those American workers who managed to keep my job, but lost annual pay raises, my company’s 401(k) match, and a significant portion of my old salary. My pay stubs look about like they did when my daughter was 10.

Fortunately, I have a sturdy commuter bike with fenders for wet weather, and I own studded bike tires for icy days, and a fat bike for snowy ones. So, instead of paying interest on a used-car loan, I’m handing over the keys to my 4Runner each morning, and giving up the option of driving to work. And I’m kind of looking forward to doing this for the foreseeable future.

I’ve always told my kids that it’s easy to love bike commuting when you choose to do it. Pedaling into freezing rain is more tolerable if you know you didn’t have to. But there’s also something nice about cutting options and stepping to a higher level of commitment.

Besides, she leaves some cool mix CDs in the car stereo.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Drive to Work Day

This morning I faced my twice-yearly car commute from South Anchorage to Midtown during the morning “rush hour.” That’s another way of saying I had a dental appointment.

Traffic on the Seward Highway was lighter than usual—so light that I arrived a few minutes early and managed to read a few pages of a Vonnegut novel before going inside.

The whole thing reminded me of how smoothly automobile traffic can flow when fewer cars are on the road. And it inspired a daydream of a wonderful alternative to Bike to Work Day, Critical Mass rides and other forms of pro-bicycle activism:

Wouldn’t it be nice if so many people rode bikes to work that we’d have to choose one day a year when we would all drive just to clog the roads and remind society of how ugly the world would be without bike commuters?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Gettin' the job done

I’ve long believed that wet weather is just part of living in Alaska, and that whining about it is for the weak. Therefore, dear reader, you are hereby on notice that nothing in this post is to be misconstrued as whining, but Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, this is getting ridiculous.

When consecutive days of rain hit the 28-day mark, we broke a record that had stood for 59 years.

And that was last Saturday. It’s still raining.

If it weren’t for my weather-tortured commuter bike and it’s full-coverage fenders, I’d be batshit crazy by now. The trails are a muddy mess, and road biking isn’t all that attractive in rainy weather, but you can always get out for some kind of ride if you have a bike that’s equipped for slop.

Here’s to the townie, the commuter, the Frankenbike, the beater, the whatever-you-want-to-call-it bike that suffers the shit and never lets you down.

You can have a garage full of all the high-zoot carbon and titanium rides you want. None of them are more respectable than the grungy workhorse that gets you to work in the kind of weather that tends to keep the expensive toys inside.

Fancy bikes are a ton of fun, but in times like these, it’s the old, reliable ones that keep us sane.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Saving Sarah

Sarah has spent this summer as an intern in the office where I work. She has also spent it as a bike commuter, riding from downtown to South Anchorage every day on an old Trek mountain bike that wasn’t getting much action in my garage.

After feeling her strength build all summer as she racked up miles, she sampled a little trail in my neighborhood, then wanted more. So, some friends and I took her up Powerline Valley last night. I saw it as a fun way to show her another little piece of Alaska while baiting her into the cult.

She splashed through a bit of water, smiled a lot, and pronounced the downhill section “warped,” but a seriously good time. I even overheard her telling Maura that she was starting to like mountain biking more than running.

I love getting people into mountain biking, but it’s especially rewarding to convert runners.

The way I see it, saving a person from running is like saving a person from the church.

Could there be any higher calling than that?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Soggy Fingers

Last weekend's Soggy Bottom inspired
some fine efforts for the Bicycles & Icicles
Fabulous Finger Gallery:

Strong work by Mark Davis, who was among
the elite group of finishers in an event
in which two-thirds of the solo riders
had to scratch.

And here's a classic from Sean Grady.
It's always fun when someone finds a way
to put a new spin one of these shots.
And yes, that's me walking toward him
when both of us were on the trail
shooting pictures near the
Cooper Landing checkpoint.

Well played, gentlemen.

Sunday, August 08, 2010


This one will be talked about for years. The 2010 edition of the Soggy Bottom 100 tortured a record number of riders with off-the-chart terrible conditions. After a glance at the list of finishers in Hope, I estimated the drop-out rate at 50 percent. Someone told me they thought it was higher.

No one can be blamed for abandoning this beast. People came in covered with mud after multiple crashes on slimy trail. By the time they reached Devil's Pass trailhead, some were in the early stages of hypothermia. Those who cracked included some of the toughest riders in Southcentral Alaska.

Here's to the toughest and fastest in each solo division: Peter and Darcy.

Darcy Davis, first female finisher, riding
out of the first checkpoint at Cooper Landing.

Peter Butt, first male finisher,
savors the finish line in Hope.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Sog Slog

Call it epic. Call it a bucket of suckage.
Either way, you'll probably be right.

Whatever you call it, this weekend's Soggy Bottom
is looking like a tough one. Rain has been falling
on 109 miles of trail for days now.

Bottoms will be soggy.

Good luck to all the racers.
Chill the beer and let the sufferin' commence!

Monday, August 02, 2010


Leonard gets skinny on Speedway.

I've always been a summer guy. I have friends who prefer winter biking to summer biking and, though I get their point, I still like warm days, long hours of sunlight, and the feel of dirt under my tires.

But there are moments when I miss snow. Like when I knock a little dust off my Pugsley by taking it out for a summertime ride.

Or when I ride Speedway singletrack when it's dry.

Those roots will open a can of whupass on a guy. They did it to me on Sunday. There's nothin' like a nasty knot of roots to make you appreciate the smoothing effects of a few inches of snow.

For now, I'll cling to summer as long as I can. And when the snow flies this fall, I'll cheer myself up by remembering how it's burying those wheel-grabbing buggers.