Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Drinkin' the Kool-Aid

Ridin' my (temporarily mine, anyway) 29er on Trail 100 in Phoenix.
(Photo by Julie)

OK, I’m convinced. Pass me the Kool-Aid, and I’ll drink it.

For years, I’ve read the articles comparing the pros and cons of 29ers, and the results were always the same: Whether you should be on 26- or 29-inch mountain bike wheels depends on the terrain you ride, and your riding style. There’s no answer that fits everyone.

 But I’ve also watched multiple friends become 29er converts. The trend started, unfortunately, right after I bought my beloved Specialized Epic with 26ers. So I happily stuck with it until I decided to try something new on my recent trip to Arizona.

Instead of crating up my Epic and taking it along as I always have, I rented a 29er from Slippery Pig Bike Shop in Phoenix. Within a day or two, I decided it’s time to make the switch. I was rolling through deep, endo-inducing compressions with ease. And I was pedaling over piles of rocks that I would have struggled with on my current bike.

I was reminded of what my friend Julie wrote a couple of years ago after riding big wheels during a trip back east ...

It’s like cheating.

So I’m shopping for a new bike frame. I'd like another Epic, but Specialized isn’t making it easy by not offering the new Epic 29ers in frame-only options, and I want to build my new bike myself, with hand-picked components. Buying a new bike and stripping off half the parts to sell them on Ebay is a hassle I’d like to avoid. And I love the Epic’s Brain valve rear suspension, so buying another Epic is, well ... a no-brainer. Or it would be, if they didn’t try to force me to buy a complete bike.

Fortunately, I have the rest of a long winter to figure this shit out and get a new bike together, regardless of which brand and model it turns out to be.

The Kool-Aid is frozen right now anyway.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Desert Finger

The woman who started it all is still keeping the Fabulous Finger Gallery alive. Nice job, H.

After five fun days of riding through my old stompin' grounds of Arizona, I think I'll need a day or three to sort it all out before sharing the stories. Meanwhile, I'll just thank the crazies who made it fun and memorable:

Julie. One of my regular
riding partners for years, 
and wife of ...

 The equipment-bashing Bike Monkee.

Harter, a recovering Midwesterner
and all-around good guy ...
despite being a recovering Midwesterner.

Huber, who makes great blowfish faces
and damn fine meals.
Heather, who bruises more easily
(and more frequently) than any other human on Earth.

Thanks, Arizona.
See you next time.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Riding with Cholla

Once it attaches to you, it doesn't let go.

noun: any of several spiny treelike cacti belonging to the genus Opuntia, especially O. fulgida  of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, having knobby outgrowths and yellow spines.

Dave rode up to our group as we prepared to roll out of Dreamy Draw Recreation Area in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. He was riding alone and looking for partners, so he asked where we were headed and then said he’d ride along with us. Partnering up with strangers at at trailhead isn’t unusual, but I noticed that he didn’t ask if it was OK. He simply said said he’d tag along.

He was a middle-aged guy wearing body armor, and I’ve generally found body armor to be a bad sign. A lot of people seem to change when they put it on. And they don’t change for the better.

As the ride began, he asked where we were from, somewhat tactlessly questioned our route choice, and told us how we could have done it a “better” way. I did this ride regularly 20 years ago, and I didn’t really give a rat’s ass what he thought, but I tried to let it go.

As the miles passed, this hyperactive guy started wearing on my nerves. And I wasn’t the only one. During a brief stop, Heather informed me that the Bike Monkee had decided this guy’s nickname was “Cholla.” Monkee was naming him after the nasty “jumping cactus” that attaches itself to hapless victims and is difficult to remove.

A little while later, I tapped the brakes to give myself time to choose a line over a jagged section of exposed rock, and I heard Cholla’s wheels lock up close behind me. He obviously was following too closely, and was very close to slamming into me. Then he shot by on my right, a risky move on sketchy trail.

I was pissed. And I didn’t fly thousands of miles to be pissed off while riding with my friends. 

A short distance later, I stopped in a shady spot and told Jules and the Bike Monkee that I thought we should give Cholla the boot. That’s when I learned that he had buzzed Monkee with a risky move, too.

Cholla had ridden ahead, but quickly returned to find us. I told him we were going to let him ride on ahead without us.

 “Oh, you guys are doing great,” he replied.

So I explained that he wasn’t doing great, and that we weren’t going to ride with him anymore. It was time to leave, and we’d let him have a head start so we wouldn’t see him again.

It was the right move. The rest of the ride was relaxed and fun, and the usual dynamic of our group returned. I’ve long believed that the No. 1 rule to mountain biking (and life) is quite simple:

Life’s too short to ride with assholes.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Going downhill fast

I’m putting 2012 down as the Year of Intense Descents.

First, there was the fog-shrouded puckerfest on Thompson Pass during the Fireweed 400. In October came the Furnace Creek 508, another bit of ultra-distance craziness for which I somehow got talked into being Leonard’s crew chief. 

The 508 is one of the world’s toughest ultra-distance bike races because it has more than 35,000 feet of elevation gain, crosses 10 mountain passes, and runs through the Mojave Desert and Death Valley on its way from the start line north of Los Angeles to the finish line in Twentynine Palms, Calif. 

It’s 508 miles long, with a cutoff time of 48 hours. 

Leonard at Valley Wells, before shit got real.
The best thing I can say about ultras is that they give you focus. Real life mostly disappears as crew members become consumed with taking care of their rider and meeting critical needs like eating, finding gasoline and ice, or finding the necessary facilities when the racer or a crew member badly needs to drop a load.

For me, the real world completely disappeared at night. Soon after we met up in California, Leonard requested that I do all nighttime driving of the crew van. I’ve followed him down quite a few descents both on bikes and in cars, so I generally know what he’s about to do, and why he’s going to do it. 

Because I haven’t run over him yet, he seemed to feel reasonably confident that I could stay close and light up the pavement without turning him into a road biscuit.

But there’s a big difference between an autumn night in the 508 and a summer night in Alaska’s Fireweed 400. California gets really dark. And it stays that way for hours and hours. That makes for a very long shift of driving within a few feet of your racer’s wheel. But night is no piece of cake for the rest of the crew, either. Especially first-timers.

We were probably two-thirds of the way down a long mountain pass during the first overnight run when Randy, who was sitting in the passenger seat and had met me only 48 hours earlier, said the first words that had been spoken since we crossed the summit. I was keeping the van’s bumper about 12 feet from Leonard’s wheel, at speeds reaching 40 mph.

“You think you should back off a little bit?” Randy quietly asked.

“Nope,” I replied. “This is good.”

The van got quiet again, and stayed that way until the descent was over. 

Sometime about 24 hours later, I still hadn’t slept and was following Leonard as he dropped down a gentle, miles-long descent toward the last checkpoint town before the finish in Twentynine Palms. I slowly swerved from side to side in the highway lane, touching the shoulder on the right, then drifting left and putting the tires on the center line. 

I knew it must look strange, and the concentration required wasn’t as intense as the previous night, so I explained to Randy that I was trying to keep Leonard from riding into his own shadow, and trying to help him see the smoothest, safest line on a stretch of sketchy pavement. 

The race started at 6 a.m. Saturday. Sometime about 2 a.m. Monday, we rolled into the hotel parking lot that was the finish line. Once we got Leonard settled in his room, Randy and I shared one last surreal drive together: to an all-night drive-through selling big, shitty burritos.

They tasted incredibly good. They were like dessert after a main course of insanity.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Deliver us from evil

Southcentral Alaska has become the place where fun goes to die.

I love this state. But Jesus Fiddle-playing Christ on a Pogo Stick, this winter is turning into a big, soggy shit sandwich. At one point this weekend, the National Weather Service forecast for Anchorage include an avalanche warning, a freezing-rain advisory, a flood watch, and a strong-winds advisory. All at the same freakin’ time.

Bike riders, skiers, ice skaters and even kids with sleds have been trying to salvage this nearly snow-free season and, as usual, fat bikers have generally been the ones managing to have a good time. But that pretty much came to an end at the moment captured in today’s photo.

I joined Julie for a ride on Saturday. With some caution, we were able to enjoy some singletrack, and I had even mentioned a couple of times how I enjoy riding in light, freezing rain. (I shit you not. I actually do.)

Then the light drizzle turned into full-on, balls-out rain. And it was landing on icy trails. Jules and I watched conditions deteriorate by the minute. We resorted to walking our bikes up slight inclines because the trail was like grease. We could barely find enough traction to stand up.

And the weather has only gotten worse since then.

Some riders are turning to the dreaded indoor trainer. Some of us have resorted to drinking more beer and watching our bellies grow. 

Fortunately a tiny, tiny few of us are waiting for the freedom bird. That big, beautiful jet that will soon carry us to warm, sunny Arizona singletrack.

Bring it on. I'd rather take my chances with rattlesnakes and cactus needles.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

I reserve ... the right to swerve

Life's too short to color inside the lines.
For years, it has been fun to be an Alaskan out there on the fuzzy edge of a fringe sport. I mean, did any of us really expect fat bikes to catch on in a big way outside frozen places like Alaska and Minnesota?

But huge technological leaps have the masses wanting Fatbacks, Mukluks, Pugsleys and 9:ZERO:7 bikes. Alaska's shops are shipping their frames all over the freakin' place. If you walk into a shop and see a fat bike you like, you'd better buy it or it very well might be gone the next day.

But I was still surprised to learn that so many are people riding fat bikes, IMBA felt the need to come up with a list of "best practices." 

I know IMBA means well, but I'm not so sure I like this "legitimizing" of my beloved winter activity. And I definitely have some problems with rule No. 4: "You are able to safely control your bike and ride in a straight line."

When fresh snow and flask rides are outlawed, only outlaws will ride in fresh snow and carry flasks.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Keep it real

Professional road racing is a sport that should be taken out behind the barn and shot in the head. Liars, cheats and doping scandals have made it a sad, ugly joke.

The latest “big news” is that Lance Armstrong — one of the greatest athletes and biggest assholes to ever throw a leg over a bike — might overturn years of denials by admitting that he doped. He could even provide information that could help USADA with other investigations. 

Once upon a time, I marveled at the vision of “greats” like Marco Pantani and Armstrong as they flew up the classic climbs of Hautacam, Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez. I can’t even enjoy watching that old footage on YouTube anymore. It’s tainted.  Fuck 'em all.

I choose to admire the people who ride for the sheer joy and beauty of moving through the world on a bicycle. The people who spend weeks or months touring with loaded panniers. The people who ride 100 miles and then eat hamburgers and drink beer with their riding buddies. Even the amateurs who know they’ll never win a dime, but who enter races just to test themselves and share the experience with other riders. 

And, most of all, the mountain bikers who know it’s all about the brotherhood and sisterhood of a ride, and who would never pass by a stranger standing beside a disabled bike without asking if he has everything he needs. 

As long as those people are out there turning the pedals, dopers can never steal the real beauty of bicycling.