Sunday, July 29, 2012


At the finish line.

One of the secrets to finishing an ultra-distance bicycle race is to have a good crew in the support car. A natural place for a rider to look for such people is among his or her friends who ride bikes, because they’re likely to be supportive of such a crazy idea and, hopefully, will have some understanding of what’s required to reach the finish line.

But not necessarily.

Part of the reason I agreed to crew in the Fireweed 400 for the second ti
me this year is that I had a good partner who agreed months in advance to help get the job done.

And she doesn’t even own a bicycle, much less race one.

Two years ago, Sarah Alban was a magazine intern spending her first summer in Alaska. She made two mistakes: 1) seeming to be up for new adventures, and 2) having a supervisor who was desperate to find the second half of a two person crew.

I felt a little guilty about conning Sarah into the job, but every time I tried to recruit one of my bike-riding friends, they would start mumbling and develop a sudden need to stare at their shoes.

It could have been a violating some sort of workplace law regarding interns, but since I had hired her and hadn’t bother to look up any rules, I went for it. “How would you like to see some more of Alaska?” I asked. “Would you like to visit Valdez?”

Then I stared at my shoes and quietly mumbled, “… for a few minutes, in the dark, before turning around?”

She took the bait, and I was happy to just have a live person to fill the other seat and meet the race’s two-person-crew requirement. I didn’t know she’d throw herself into the job and work her ass off for my friend Leonard, a racer she had just met, expecting nothing in return but a long stretch of sleep-deprivation.

Four hundred miles later, we both had learned how hard, exhausting and gratifying it could be to do the behind-the-scenes work that helps a bike rider accomplish something most people could never do. And I had learned to not underestimate the tired young woman sitting next to me as we drove across the finish line at Sheep Mountain Lodge.

This year, Sarah flew 4,000 miles from the East Coast to do it all again. She made sandwiches, mixed energy drinks, took driving shifts, guzzled caffeine and graciously endured what other friends wouldn’t … 30 hours in a car with me.

And when it was all over, she pulled a bottle of rum from her backpack so we toast Leonard’s success.

I think the next time Leonard and I have time for a beer together, we should do a toast to Sarah. Because that poor girl is completely insane. And I’m pretty sure we’re both grateful for that.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A repair guide for the masses

When was the last time you bought a book that interacted with your iPhone?

Bicycle books hit the market all the time and, on occasion, I’m asked to review one on this blog. And some good ones come along, but m
any follow the same old formula. Someone rides across a country or around the world, and chronicles the “adventure.” Or someone writes a new guidebook or repair manual. A lot of them are perfectly good books, but few are fresh and fun.

The Bike-Owner’s Handbook is the first book I’ve seen in years that I would actually buy as a gift.

A woman with the great name of Ziggy Hanaor e-mailed me from London a couple of months ago to offer a copy of this new release from Cicada Books, but I wasn’t interested until I looked at Cicada’s website and became intrigued by the design and content.

This is a cool little 112-page book that will never replace Leonard Zinn’s comprehensive guides to road and mountain bike repair, but that’s OK, because it doesn’t have to. Some people don’t own a headset press or wheel-truing stand. They just want to know how to fix a flat tire, adjust a brake, or tighten a headset.

And they don’t necessarily want to wade through a bunch of technical lingo to get the information they need. Author Peter Drinkell eases into things with simple explanations and hand-drawn illustrations, with an occasional photo thrown in just for decoration.

Some people have simple questions, such as: What do you call this part of a wheel? What’s the difference between a Presta valve or a Schraeder? How do I take my freakin’ wheel off and put it back on? Can I look this stuff up in a book that doesn’t weigh as much as the Detroit Yellow Pages, or leave me scratching my head in confusion? And, better yet, could you print a bar code on some pages so I can scan it with my smartphone and be taken directly to videos that will show me how to do certain jobs?

Yeah. That’s what I said. This book directs you to videos you can watch on your phone while working on your bike. That’s a brilliant use of smartphone technology to make a printed product dramatically more useful. It also makes this book -- which sells for about 10 British pounds, or about 10 bucks at -- a better bargain.

This is exactly the kind of book I’d give to a new bike owner, or someone who has gotten tired of feeling helpless and is ready to start getting their hands dirty, but wants a simple guide that’s easy and fun to use.

“We wanted to create a handbook that was accessible to people like me, basically,” Ziggy told me in an email after I asked what inspired this book. “I ride my bike to work, and it's my primary means of transport, but I am not a particularly technical person, and when things go wrong, I end up spending lots of money on things that I can sense are quite basic.

"Pete had the idea for the book, and when I looked into the competition, all the manuals we found were either way too technical or just really badly presented. Also, there's such a cool aesthetic to bikes generally and to the cycling community, and we wanted to reflect that in the overall packaging of the book.”

Newbies who use The Bike-Owner’s Handbook might get hooked on doing their own repairs, and eventually outgrow this guide, but I’d be willing to bet they’ll keep it on their shelves for sentimental reasons. They're going to appreciate the book that got them started.

The Bike-Owner’s Handbook is distributed by:

D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers Inc.
155 Sixth Avenue
New York NY 10013
T: 212-627-1999 x 209
F: 212-627-9484

and ...

Thames and Hudson
181A High Holborn
London WC1V 7QX
T: +44 (0)20 7845 5000
F: +44 (0)20 7845 5050

Saturday, July 21, 2012

That's gonna leave a mark

I’ve been riding mountain bikes for nearly 23 years. Like all mountain bikers, I’ve crashed more times than I can count. I’ve had at least two concussions, broken an elbow, punctured my right calf with gear teeth multiple times, pierced my chin with my teeth, and suffered blunt-force trauma that required surgery to repair my inner thigh.

But I’ve never shed a significant amount of blood until this week, when I took a fall on Speedway singletrack. It wasn’t a bad crash. Just a tumble to the left when I locked up on a knot of roots that sent me over an old fallen tree. A small branch had long ago broken off and left a sharp piece of wood that punctured the outside of my quad.

As soon as I sat up and started assessing the damage, I saw a small but steady stream of blood trickling out of my leg. I told Julie, my riding partner, that I was fine, other than a little blood. After I stood up and turned my leg toward her, Julie said, “That’s really bleeding.”

I looked down and saw rivulets of blood running down my calf, then Julie mentioned that we were probably going to need to stop the bleeding. That’s when we inventoried our first-aid supplies.

They consisted of inner tubes, pumps and multi-tools. Great first-aid supplies for a flat tire, but fairly useless for a leg, unless it happens to need a tourniquet.

There was nothing to do but continue riding. I figured that either the bleeding would stop, or I’d cut the ride short and head for home, several miles away. Fortunately, it stopped. I just had and ugly web of blood across the bottom half of one leg.

The pisser was that for two years, on long backcountry rides I’ve carried packages of wipes that contain a blood-clotting agent for small wounds. I got them as a free sample from the manufacturer, and thought it would be cool if one of my friends would cut something open and give us a chance to try those things. The dudes did not abide.

I finally get a bleeder, and where are the blood-clotting wipes?

At home, in my garage.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


Leonard pedals up Thompson Pass
just before midnight.

Of all the bizarre memories that come from crewing for a rider in the Fireweed 400 solo division, it was the fog in this year’s race that is going to haunt me the longest.

Any ultra-distance bike race contains moments of despair, humor, exhaustion, boredom and sometimes even a little excitement, but you hope danger will be kept to a minimum.

As we crept into the late evening hours Friday night, a photographer who was driving up and down the course warned me and crew partner Sarah that visibility was going to diminish as Leonard — the racer we were supporting — approached Worthington Glacier and began the climb up Thompson Pass. Daylight was fading, and the pass was covered in thick fog.

This was already going to be one of the worst parts of a very long race. Leonard was facing a hard climb, and from midnight to 5 a.m., race rules required us to keep him in our headlights as we drove directly behind him to shield him from traffic and help him see the road. Instead of regularly sprinting three or four miles ahead to set up for giving him food, supplements and fluids, we would have to drive slowly in dim light for at least five hours, trying to stay alert while pacing him at close range.

When we arrived near the base of the glacier, Leonard rode into fog and the visibility began dropping. Sarah and I decided to start pacing an hour early because if exhaustion or poor pavement conditions forced him off the shoulder and directly onto the highway, he would be invisible to fast-moving vehicles until they were within feet of his wheel.

Conditions already seemed bad. But shit was about to get real.

As Leonard crested Thompson Pass about midnight, visibility dropped to only a few feet as he steered into the descent. When we were close enough to see him, he was signaling that he wanted us closer for more light, but we were already dangerously close. If we dropped back as little as two or three feet, we would completely lose sight of the tiny red light on the back of his bike.

Sarah was driving and struggling to find a position behind Leonard that would allow us to see him without getting so close that we might hit his wheel. Each time he opened a slight gap and disappeared, I would be urgently nagging the ever-patient Sarah to “Move up! Move up! Move up!” until we could again see a red dot in the fog. We could only hope that he wouldn’t tap his brakes as she closed the gap.

We were intensely focused on maintaining some sort of visual contact with Leonard, so there was little time or mental capacity for consciously considering the risk of running over him, but we both knew it was a possibility. Meanwhile, as if we needed an extra dose of anxiety, the amber lights of a large semi came appeared in our mirrors.

Despite all the complaints cyclists have about impatient motorists on the road, I will be forever grateful that within a minute or two, the truck driver appeared to figure out what was happening in front of him and he backed off until we descended far enough to reach better conditions. He could have made our situation drastically more dangerous, but he gave us the space we needed to continue our mostly blind chase down the mountain. 

Hours later, on the way back toward Glenallen, Leonard was stopped for a food break when he asked if we had taken any good photos of the descent. He was baffled when I replied that no, there weren't any pictures.

“We were a little busy trying not to kill you,” I told him.

“Really?” he asked. “Was it that bad?”

All we could do was say, “Yes, it was,” then get him rolling, throw everything back in the car, and head up the road to our next stop. I was consciously trying to forget the pass. Sarah and I still had work to do, and Leonard had a lot of pedal strokes between him and the finish line.

The sun came out on Saturday morning, and with every mile we put behind us, I was happy to be farther away from darkness and fog.

Just before 6 that evening, after an amazing ride, Leonard finished his third straight Fireweed 400. It took 29 hours, 56 minutes and 10 seconds.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Another year of crewing/racing in the
Fireweed 400 solo division is in the bag.

I'll be writing about it when my fine motor skills
come back enough for me to type.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Devil's playground

The last couple of summers haven't involved enough weekends of trashing bikes, drinking around campfires and sleeping until hunger forces me out of a sleeping bag. I made an effort to correct that this weekend. And damn, it felt good.

Like most people, I've been postponing big rides on the Kenai Peninsula this summer because of the epic winter we just had, and the snow that's still melting out in the high country. That wasn't a bad call.

We must have pushed across eight or 10 snowfields up around Devil's Pass on Saturday. At this rate, I'm not sure all the snow will be gone before this year's Soggy Bottom about a month from now. If I were a Soggy rider, I'd be hoping for a really warm July. Actually, if I were crazy enough to be a Soggy rider, I have no idea what I'd be thinking, because I don't understand those people's minds.

I already have my hands full trying to understand the people I drink with around campfires.

It's a full-time job.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Rover's revenge

Maybe people have become too afraid of the bears, or distracted by new trails across town at Kincaid Park. Whatever the reason, Rover's Run is going back to the weeds and furry animals.

Some bad — even tragic — bear encounters in recent years led to closures and a shady reputation for what used to be one of Anchorage's most heavily used trails. Despite decades of heavy use with no major problems, Rover's Run became a bad neighborhood. Almost overnight, nobody wanted wanted to use it during summer when hungry bears are active and the adjacent creek is loaded with salmon.

Maybe it's for the best. Rover's had been overused. It was getting wide, and the mud holes seemed to get a little deeper each year. Now vegetation is creeping in from the sides and narrowing the trail. And on a nice day recently, there was nary a tire track to be found. Riding it was fun, partially because I had it to myself, and partially because it's starting to feel like a natural singletrack again.

As it narrows, mountain bikers might begin to rediscover it. But if they want to wait another year or two, that's OK with me.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Racing ... to finish my beer

Congratulations to all the racers who survived
this weekend's 24-hour race at Kincaid Park
by dodging moose and enduring Saturday's heat.

Especially the crazy solo riders,
like my man Tony here.

And congratulations to everyone who had the good sense
to drink beer and watch from the sidelines, like I did.

Laziness rocks.