Saturday, June 27, 2015

Inside out

Our biggest weakness is our greatest strength waiting to be told well.
                                                                             - A high school art teacher I never had

One theme of this blog is reuse. The old roads are more interesting and you still get there. The brain is plastic, so a person can reinvent themselves. With much help and encouragement, it's been possible to quilt things back together after a brain injury. It's not quite the same life I had before. In many ways it's better.

But right now, we turn away from stories of the road and toward a more practical topic: double-shorting. Because no matter what the journey, you need survival skills.

Anyone who has spent hours that turn into days on a saddle knows the padding in a bike short is a mixed blessing. The chamois that feels soft and plush at first against your skin, and that you paid big money for because face it, the rest of the short is less than a yard of black Lycra, can turn on you. 

With repetition (much), with moisture and maybe some salt, this best friend on a bike can become a fearsome enemy, an unsolvable problem, a source of constant pain. 

There's nothing complicated or secret or proprietary about double-shorting. Yet for some reason, it is rarely practiced among people who spend hours on end in the saddle. One reason might be that it's hard to explain. Every time I've tried to use words to describe it, the listener walks away confused. They give me the benefit of the doubt. But they don't understand how this simple technique works. And my enthusiasm might come off as slightly eccentric...

So today we will not only speak of double-shorting; we will show double-shorting. With photos!

There's no law of the universe saying a cyclist must wear one, and only one, pair of bike shorts at a time...

For two pairs of shorts to play well together, I find it helps if they're different brands, with different seam patterns and chamois designs. If one of them can be a little shorter in the leg than the other, you might avoid double elastic competing for space on your quad muscle. Which can feel like a tourniquet....

So, you've rummaged around in your shorts drawer and found 2 pair that are not the same. Now, slip on that first pair with the shorter leg, but inside out.

That's correct, inside out! Look, you can see the chammy!

Have you ever dreamed about going to school or work naked or in your pajamas and wandering around like that? Yes it looks funny but trust me, it will be OK. When we're done here no one will know.

This is an old pair of Bellwether shorts with a cheap chammy from back when "shorty" shorts were a thing. When Spinning and girl cyclists, for that matter, were new. The black material is tough but thin; that's another bonus.

These are Spinning shorts, commute shorts, second-string shorts. Great as part of a double outfit.

Now, are you ready? Time to become socially acceptable...

Over the first pair, pull on a Second Pair. Yes! This is the pair on the right in the big photo: righteous, high-quality, long-distance, gender-specific.

A short you would not hesitate to wear on a brevet or a tour. In fact, you have not own 6 pairs of these shorts, you love them so much. And you're afraid the manufacturer might stop making them. At which point you'd have to stop riding a bike.

For the curious, this is the Shebeest SSS short. The acronym stands for Shebeest Shorter Short. Despite the name, it has a slightly longer inseam than the first pair. The Lycra is thick and plush.

It also has the incredible Shebeest SheLastic chammy. Feeling oh-so-luxurious to start with and at some point after ~12 hours, turning to sandpaper scraping against your sensitive skin and parts.

Now you look totally normal! No one can tell you're wearing two pairs of shorts. And there's a whole compression thing going on for added goodness. It's like Spanx for Cyclists. No need to suck in the tummy - all done for you!

When you realize there's no chammy against your skin, none at all, just smooth Lycra you say to yourself:

This feels so good! Why didn't I think of this before?

So you can get on the bike and ride 600K or 1000K or 1200K, with only the normal intense weariness and sleep deprivation and some Lantiseptic applied at regular intervals. No chafed, raw, painful skin where you and the saddle meet. 


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

In search of a good time

Since early March I've been riding my heart out. Hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. Every spare moment. It has felt like a job. Not an easy job, and not one I really felt motivated to do.

Someone asked 'so why are you doing this'? Setting goals is the only way I can force myself to do the right thing: lots and lots of exercise.

People around me are riding a lot, too. Easy to get pulled in. It's a Paris-Brest-Paris year. Ride like mad or get left behind.

So, I've been riding without motivation, and without much joy. Grim, grim, grim. Longing to read and blog and vacation and... all the stuff that's not compatible right now.

Then, this happened:

Eric Norris and Jack Holmgren and Ryan Thompson are enjoying the top of a kinda short but significant climb on Middle Road. It is a luxury to stop for a moment, and no one suggests we keep moving.

At the very northern edge of Marin County, south of Valley Ford, this is our scenic alternate. We declined a section of Highway 1 full of RVs and trucks hauling boats, opting for Middle Road instead. It's rare to have a choice on a brevet, but today is different in all kinds of ways.

The guys are giggling and clowning, savoring our little slice of heaven. A narrow, beautiful, country road. A perfect Sunday afternoon. One car in 45 minutes. Lots of cows.

They're joking about the spoon I carry for eating yogurt, which has taken a header out of my seat bag onto the pavement. Not too many cyclists carry spoons, I guess. It's a quirk. But as you might guess, they all have quirks too.

Eric can grin like Wallace of Wallace and Gromit. Jack is Mr. Conspicuity, neon Lycra everywhere. It's painful to look at. Ryan's normal but he rides with the likes of us.

So here it is, my first good ride experience since March. Despite the joking and camaraderie we rode it fast: 200K, self-supported, 9.5 hours. In the morning, a group of ~8 stayed more or less together against the wind. In Bodega Bay I hauled out a GF bun from my seat bag and Diekmann's General Store proceeded to cook a hamburger to put in it. The simple burger: excellent fuel.

After lunch the sun came out. Fortified, I then found myself with 3 riders who knew the way. They turned on Middle Road, and I, you know, followed. If not for the hill, all this goodness for free.

It happens to be the Summer Solstice.

As I said to Jim on our trip to Mercey Hot Springs, you just really need one good ride to be a believer again.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Close to the sky

Twenty miles on Panoche Road, 20 miles of a pattern. Climbing for a few miles followed by a discouraging descent. Jim calling out the elevation level from his Garmin, then silence while we both buckle down and push.

For that part I could hear Jim's breathing change and imagine his fatigue; both of us have been riding so much lately. Getting up early, doing long, hard things. It has a way of wearing you down.

This morning, in shady Stevens Canyon next to the creek, the conversation was all about how to manage the impossible. On Paris-Brest-Paris and other 1200Ks, the secret to enduring and having a good ride is getting sleep. Rest, paradoxically. It changes everything.

If you work at it, you might earn some rest on a brevet. Training hard now might mean another half-hour of sleep somewhere in France, by the side of a small road like this one. When you really need it. Your weariness suddenly lifted, and optimism in its place.

On Panoche Road, in a rocky canyon that could be a cousin of some areas of Route 66 in Arizona or maybe New Mexico, the conversation has definitely shifted toward things that are out of human control, and finite.

We've been lucky with the heat. Hollister was cooler than San Jose today, by 12 degrees. It could be scorching on this road, but we've been lucky. There's some cool and wildflowers, still. Rain would be welcome but we're not going to get any from that thundercloud. For the third time today we agree it's probably the last weekend for this ride until fall. Summer's not the time to be pushing your luck out here; it's just too hot for humans.

Jim's on his dad's bike, all repainted with those nice wide tires and fenders. A big handlebar bag in the rando style. Last week he lost the last uncle on his mother's side. There have been illnesses and family members and loss. It goes on like the sky out here. We can't stop it.

Jim says with a smile, let's just focus on here and now, this road, these miles. And that's how Panoche Pass becomes just what we need.

When the flag outside the fire station shows itself at 1 o'clock, it gets a holler. Less than a mile later, we're suddenly looking at a small green rectangle, calling out the summit. A bunch of hungry cows at Summit Ranch, one of them bellowing for food.

Eight miles of fast downhill that looks utterly flat. The earth is not symmetrical, and it has its tricks.
After the left turn, the last turn, the one that leads into Little Panoche Valley, there's actually another little pass. A bump.

It gives the best view of the day.

Mercey's plain, gravel driveway is easy to miss. Danny's there, as promised, with a smile and food and clean clothes and soap. We need all those things! The rehabilitation work begins...

Later, soaking in the weird slippery water from underground that smells of sulfur and salt, the water you can't really drink but it heals whatever ails you anyway, I fall asleep under the stars.

Betrayal for Mercey

In Paicines, the market/taqueria/liquor store is trying hard to be hip enough to make fun of how small it really is. It's the center of the universe, or at least this junction, where we turn onto Panoche Road.

It's also mile 91. After a seriously tough morning, Jim wants to sit down here and have a break. Me too. The ride from Gilroy was exposed and busy. I'm after several things: quiet, cold liquid, cool shade. Basic things.
We sit outside the store with a big bottle of cold Gatorade and a big bag of Fritos and a big bag of ice for the Camelbak. My feet stop expanding against the bike shoes and compressing the nerves. Really, the only thing missing is quiet. 

Traffic streams past on the highway between Hollister and Pinnacles. Loud motorcycles and trucks, in constant motion. It's high season for road trips.

We unfold the map on the picnic table and look at the last stretch of road. The last 30-odd miles of the day. It's the Krebs bicycle map, which shows things cyclists are interested in. Like hills and water and places to eat.

Jim's pretty sure I didn't tell him about a pass between us and Panoche. I'm pretty sure I did. Anyway, there is one. We're both surprised at how high - nearly 2200'. Jim's altimeter says we're at 500 here in Paicines. So that's something...

According to the expression on his face, more than that is needed. I say look, it's one carat, one carat, one carat. Not a huge deal. There will be a fire station, then the pass. Mercey Hot Springs is off the edge of the map. Mr. Krebs knew we'd be heading there so he was kind enough to note the total mileage from Paicines: 36.5. Jim nearly falls off the splintery picnic bench.

Immediately I feel bad for leading him here, with the promise of a hot springs. It probably sounded like a mini-vacation, what was in the email. There definitely was a line encouraging him to bring his ukelele. Also something about books (plural) for me to read. These long hard rides just eat the flesh off our days. It will be dinner time before we get there.

The truth is, I don't remember much about this part from the first time I was here. Things look a lot different when you're comfortable. It was earlier in the year, earlier in the day, way less wear and tear on the legs.

And the dirt, the dirt this morning was tough, slow going. Our legs are covered in dust. Well, to be accurate there are layers: sunscreen, sweat, dust.

Two years have brought something else: work stress. Was that a different human being, who actually rode for fun?

Nothing can be done about it now. To get this project started again, I say "It's a real 200K". That's ~127 miles with no "almost" in front of it. The implication is, there will be suffering. There will be pride and bragging rights, too.

It's a truce. With full Camelbaks we head off in silence toward that huge, beautiful thunder cloud, waiting.

Making up time

Jim makes us detour into downtown Gilroy. The lunch place I picked out on the far fringe of town closed at 1, and it's currently 1:45.

We are "behind schedule". That's what happens when you descend at 7.7 miles per hour to avoid wiping out in loose sand that's just a little too deep. And dodge rocks that are slightly too big and too many to roll over.

On Route 66, bring at least 32s. Jim's bike has good, wide tires; the Waterford has 25s. Great in a rainstorm or on a packed dirt fire road like Montebello. Back there on Summit they weren't up to the task. I could see Jim's tracks winding ahead of me and could not follow them. Had to pick my own slow, uncertain path.

When there was pavement again, finally, there was relief and we both let out a little holler. Then, proceeded to make up time on the descents. On Mt. Madonna Road, suddenly forested, shady, still damp under the trees. Stunningly beautiful.

And on Hecker Pass, of which I have a vague primitive fear. Narrow, no shoulder most of the way down. Today we luck out: construction is our ally. Two stoplights slow the cars down and batch them together. This helps us keep it together until lunch.

Which is somewhere.

Jim and I have known each other a long time. We can really get on each other's nerves. For example, I'm feeling kind of peeved, dodging the Harleys and cars and people walking around on Monterey Street. It's a real main drag, crowded and noisy and hot. He jokes about there being a slight chance of us finding a place here that serves Mexican food.

Gilroy is an old, old town that was a little too eager to abandon its roots to the automobile. Most people know its car dealerships and fast food joints and gas stations and sprawling outlet mall along 101. There's a downtown?

It's a mystery, then, what draws me to the bowling alley. Its little cafe is open: Scotty's. Serving "American, Mexican, Asian, and Hawaiian food". Exactly the sort of place I'm leery of. If Jim had picked it, there would be mutiny. We lean our bikes in the little waiting area. The place is cozy and full of locals. He makes a beeline for a booth.

Both of us go for breakfast. It seems safe and comfort food goes down fast. Jim, two eggs over easy and sausage and hash browns. Me, Huevos Mexicanos (no cheese), hash browns. Iced tea. While they make the food we each hit the restroom (through the lounge) to freshen up. Our waitress was nice to us, even though I smell bad. That's the kind of place it is.

I swear, there's something about these big diner plates in the waitress' arms, landing on a clean formica table in a booth... That part is slow motion, but the eating is not. Everything is fresh-tasting, hot, delicious.

Jim's literally the fastest eater I've ever known. Fastest Fork in the West. On a bike ride, it's an unfair advantage.

At this point he says "If only I had an English muffin or something to clean my plate..." And looks deliberately around the room at the other patrons.

I roll my eyes and hand over a corn tortilla.

Something new

Jim says "I hope that's not our road, the one that goes straight up behind the gate."

It's the middle of a hot little climb from Summit Store up to the ridge. The actual ridge! The road we're looking for is dirt. There may or may not be a sign.

The usual route is paved, more or less, winding gently down along the fault past the Forest of Nisene Marks and the epicenter of the last major earthquake in the Bay Area, toward Watsonville and Monterey. That road has carried me many times southward, with full panniers and plenty of optimism...

It took me away to Route 66, but today the project is something different. Something new.

If we can just find it, the dirt road will keep us up high and away from cars. It will mysteriously lead somewhere behind Mt. Umunhum (elevation 3486), Loma Prieta (3806), and eventually over Mount Madonna (1897). It will connect with a paved road down to Gilroy at the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley. It goes through; that's definitely part of the appeal.

Residents of these hills drive with some urgency. When you think about what's out here - an old radar tower, the Store, a few wineries, Christmas tree farms, churches - it's hard to understand. Propane tanks and propane trucks. A whole lot of residential solar.

What you don't see are fault lines and old railroad tunnels, pot grows and meth labs. It may be close to Los Gatos, close enough to commute. This is not suburbia.

And until recently this part of Summit was private, aggressively private. Residents would come out and chase after cyclists who dared trespass, with attitude and guns. Sometimes, dogs. The rough welcome and rough terrain got the desired result: it discouraged exploration.

Then word came, via newspaper stories and the Internet and other cyclists: now it could be done. No guns anymore, no dogs. No chasing crazies looking for a fight. That was a few years ago. What happened? What changed?

There was a fire. A crisis. It was not small and it happened right around this time of year. Lots of heroic types who built themselves something and protected it then quickly saw it destroyed. Suddenly letting outsiders in was no longer a threat. Overnight it turned into necessity, a good thing.

They even put up a sign so we might know what road this is, and where to go next. It looks relatively new. Mt. Bache Road End. Loma Prieta this way. We hang a right and follow blindly.

Excellent cell service...from the tower over there.
As the pavement ends and turns to packed dirt, the views stretch out for 50 miles all around. The Pacific, Monterey Bay, the hulking ridge of Big Sur. The valley and Diablo Range. Mt. Hamilton and south of there, the epic badlands of Henry Coe State Park.

Both Jim and I are wearing Route 66 jerseys. There is route-finding, an old road to be discovered (by us), and dirt. There is heat, too, enough to stop under an oak tree and reach for electrolytes. Very fitting.

It's uncomfortable to be dripping with sweat, noticing the scars of the fire all around, and for another reason, too.

We're doing that rare thing; exploring something new close to home. Feeling a little lost and  uncertain. It's good to have to figure things out, though. It's a challenge and as we know, challenge is good for the brain.