Friday, September 29, 2006

Riding the Gap

The Saratoga Gap trails sits high up in the mountains around Saratoga, CA. It's not too far from the highway, but to get to the trail head you drive through the quaint town and begin the long, windy drive up into the mountains. After 6 miles of slow, serpentine, California road you crest the peak and the trailhead is there on your right.

I woke up to my cell phone alarm this morning at 6:30; my regular bedside alarm is set for 9:30. Why change a good thing? I tried to snooze but Sparky was already up. He knows an early morning alarm means a bike ride and he was ready to go. He bounded up to my bed with his exuberant full-body wag and started licking my face as insurance that I wouldn't be falling back asleep.

Outside it was dark and cold. I threw on a hoodie, grabbed a Naked Juice and Odwalla Bar, and hit the road. I meant to leave at 7:00 and was running a bit late but luckily the early-morning the traffic was a sleepy as I was.

In an earlier post I talked about how Bay Area trails are "one big up and one big down" -- well Saratoga Gap is an exception to that. It also has some of the best views in the area and as I looked up at the hazy skies on my drive in, I worried that the scenery would be sub par today.

I made it to the trailhead just a few minutes late to find John there and ready to go, sessioning obstacles in the lot. A few minutes later my buddy Chris arrived. The last time he rode this trail, his rear wheel ate his derailleur on the first climb, snapping spokes like toothpicks and taking him off his bike for a couple weeks while it was fixed up. Would Lady Luck be on his side today? Erinne and I finish suiting up, I turn on my brand new GPS device, which finds almost a dozen satellites in a few seconds, and we're ready to go.

I'm riding my single speed, so Sparky and I take the lead. There's a short steep climb at the beginning of the trail that dumps you into sweet, flowy singletrack that runs through switchbacks, over rocks and roots, and into nice banked turns. It's one of my favorite sections of the ride. I let the bike take off under my weight and float through the first couple miles hammering the short climbs and flying through the descents.

There's an official speed limit on the trail of 15 mph and when I stop at an intersection to regroup, my GPS says I've reached a top speed of 26mph. It's tight, twisty singletrack that's popular with hikers too, so I keep a vigilant eye and ring my bell at blind corners. Most days I use the bell to antagonize friends on climbs, but it occasionally has a practical use as well. As it turns out, this morning we'll have the trail all to ourselves.

John and Erinne catch up with some bad news; Chris got a flat in the first mile and, without a spare tube, he decided to hike out. For him, Saratoga Gap will have to wait.

We ride on and, as we crest the highpoint of the ride, all my fears about the view are assuaged. Below us usually stretches rolling, grassy hills which meld into forested mountains and finally drop into the Pacific Ocean. Today there was no ocean but the sea of clouds blanketing the valley floor and coastline.

After the vista point, we pick up a little fireroad and link up some more single track. We dive back into the forest, and descend a couple hundred feet to our lowest point in the ride. Up on the fireroad it was sunny, dusty, and warm. Down here the thick smell of the forest floor fills your nostrils and the cold wet air envelops your body like a glove, a nice refreshing breath of literal cold air before the long switchback climb back out.

We hit the fireroad again and begin to retrace our ride, back to the vista point, and then descend the other side. What's my favorite section on the way in is always a challenge on the way out, a long drawn-out climb sprinkled with roots and rocks to finish. There's a couple making out at the trailhead, "on your right."

Back in the parking lot Sparky prostrates himself on the cool pavement and we look over the initial GPS data. The moving time is pretty good, although the 10 mile ride can usually be done in about an hour or less solo. Plus we spent about half an hour stopped for photos, but data looks nice and matching the pics (most taken at the bench waypoint) with Earth's rendering (KML) gives a fresh perspective on the trail.

GPS Enabled

I finally took the plunge and picked up a GPS device. I've wanted one for a while, always just a bit envious of Dave's sweet GPS tracks of every ride we do. The real kicker was a couple weekends ago; After a weekend backpacking trip in Big Sur one of the people in our group uploaded her GPS data to Google Earth and sent the KML file around to everyone.

I don't want to sound like I'm plugging Earth just because they're our sponsor for the race... I work on Gmail and I have actually had very little change to play around with Earth. But I was absolutely amazed when I loaded up our hike data. Whenever you're biking, hiking, boarding, or whatever, you're pretty much living in 2D. Sure there's rocks, descents, climbs, and the occasional huck but you don't really have a perspective your overall progress. The GPS device helps a bit -- it can show you your altitude profile, your moving average, and your tracks... but go home and load it up into Earth and you have a birds eye view of everything. I could barely contain my excitement as I rotated, zoomed, and panned our tracks, watching them snake along the edge of mountains, drop into valleys, and finally come to rest at our campsite 10 miles into Big Sur National Park.

I was hooked. If a 10 mile hiking trail was this cool, our epic rides must be killer. I immediately started bugging Dave to upload his GPS tracks into Earth so I could see what the trails we ride look like at a scale larger than that of the next switchback. But, what it came down to, is that I needed my own GPS.

So, like the computer geek I am, I started doing online research. Dave has the Garmin Edge 305 which is made for biking. It's pretty sweet, tracks all the pertinent data like altitude, displace, average moving speed, etc., and even lets you race against yourself. The drawbacks are that there's no overall map and he occasionally loses signal deep into our ride as we sweep under thick forest canopies and down into valleys. After reading dozens of reviews, rants, and suggestions, besides the Edge, a lot of people recommended the Garmin eTrex Vista Cx which has the small size plus mapping capability but lacks the Edge's advanced SiRF chipset. I finally decided on the Garmin GPSMAP 60Csx. It has a nice big screen, mapping, the advanced SiRF chipset, and has gotten some great reviews by cyclists. The drawback over the edge is that it's a bit bulkier and with it's external antenna, you probably wouldn't want to mount it on your bars.

Garmin is offering a $50 rebate on most of their GPS devices, so now's a great time to get one. Plus, with a $20 upgrade to Google Earth Pro, you can import your data directly from any Garmin or Magellan GPS device. We'll have laptops running Earth at our booth, so swing by with your GPS device and we'll help you load up all your data so you can experience it for yourself.

I only wish I had a GPS years ago... there are so many places I've ridden that I may never see again.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Greek Stones

"Sisyphus"? My team colleague waxes on as Camus, while back here on planet earth, a bunch of us did a fun ride at Skeggs this morning. Just kidding Dylan... don't be sore at me; I am full of love for you... although it is a deeply flawed Sophoclean love full of great pathos. I was writing you a Hemingway-esque poem in my mind mid-ride, but it was lost when my front wheel washed out as I descended Leaf Trail.

This morning, we learned about the re-route of Giant Salamander at Skeggs. Previously, this trail was a fireroad grunt up seven steep sections that depleted you before you tackled the climb up Manzanita Trail. The fine crew at Mid-Pen have embarked on an admirable project to replace this unpleasant climb with some quality singletrack. Great stuff.

Dylan is especially quick on the climbs, while Birdsong and I suffered enough to know that Moab will bring much more suffering, like we will be pushing great stones uphill. Isn't there a Greek story about that?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Irrationally Exuberant

I’d like to think that Hemingway - were he alive and younger, perhaps less inclined to drink and womanize, and more focused on outdoor adventure sports - would have dearly approved of Sunday’s quasi-team ride at the Soquel Demo Forrest. Yes, indeed he would have approved of it (cigarette in mouth, drink in hand), and subsequently would have written about it tersely, as he did. But lest I confuse you, I’d like to clear up a misconception that I have perhaps already perpetuated with my idiomatic prose – we drink and womanize too. But I digress, for this journal entry, practically coerced out of me by my teammates, is meant to address strictly those matters pertaining to our preparations for the forthcoming 24-hour race we’ve entered. And physically and mentally ill prepared as we might be for this monumentally diabolic peregrination to the outstretches of humanity (Utah), where we’ve plans to cycle for a straight 24 hours, we’ve certainly spent a lot of time discussing our jersey design. And so despite alarming similarities between this race we’ve entered on our own volition, and to the mythical damnation of Sisyphus to a perpetuity of misery, at least we’ll look damn good and team-like.

And Sisyphean as this whole thing might be, I must confess that I am quite looking forward to my first lap under the moonlight - headlamp strapped in and cold desert wind in my face. I suspect that I might rethink a lot of things about my life after having completed several laps as such. And truth-be-told, I, asymptotically approached these same feelings Sunday driving back from the trail, music blaring, during what I fondly refer to as the ‘post-ride meta’ period. This was after our proverbially epic sojourn through the hearts and minds of the Soquel Demo Forrest; and indeed after a ride like that, one can’t help but rethink, in a pseudo-metaphysical fundamentalist sort of way, their current needs as they relate the importance of material wealth and its direct impact on ones general well-being. And the conclusion my dear readership? The conclusion that I so elaborately and enigmatically concluded? That given the option of 5 hours straight on nothing other than euphoric single track, I realize that mostly nothing else in life matters. Nothing, least of all material wealth. So what am I left with, you may ask, aside from my minimalist temperament? I’m left with the notion of eschewing all that is material; in favor of concentration on my next ride and hucking that next drop-off or plank-ramp.

And yes, I might agree with you as you ask how in the world might I even consider calling myself a minimalist, eschewing superficialities, when I ride a many thousand-dollar mountain bike, play my iPod full of obscure indie music for pre-ride enthusiasm, and like my lattes half-caff with soy milk (before every ride, indeed); and I might agree with you, and question this myself, as my definition of minimalist and minimalism quite certainly spits in the face of the cabin-dwelling loner living in the woods with only his axe and bare knuckles. But lest you forget, my overly pedantic readership, that we are by and far the Tyler Durden generation, and despite our obsession with the Ikea catalog and its cleverly shaped coffee tables, we’ve all our own set of priorities; and that as evidenced by the fact that up until very recently I slept on a mattress on the floor of an empty bedroom, it is clear that I’ve prioritized in favor of epic days trail blazing on my bike through the bay area’s finest.

And yes, I realize it was a very expensive Tempurepedic mattress on the floor. Minimalism at all costs.

Eating Dirt

So what exactly do I know about racing a mountain bike? Very little. I've been riding for some 13 years, both on road or off, but have usually steered clear of the prospect of riding so hard I cough up a lung.

I guess that makes me a hedonist. All I usually care about on a mountain bike is zipping around, over or off of obstacles. And sometimes, I even negotiate such obstacles successfully enough that I don't dump myself on my head. I post pictures of these occasions on as many websites as possible. Gullible people are impressed.

But I do know that I like to try new experiences, especially on my bike. This is one of the reasons I own and buy so many bikes. Big, cushy downhill bikes. Fast carbon road bikes. Dirt jumping bikes. Another reason is that I break bikes. A lot. In fact, I am renown in the local bike shop for the rare and complete destruction I wreak upon my rigs. "How in the world did you break that?" I believe I have may have singlehandedly paid off the mortgage of the local bike shop owner. We joke that he should offer me frequent breaker miles.

All of this makes me sound like a fool. Rest assured, I am. But I make up for this by doing a lot of trailwork and trail advocacy. I am president of my local mountain bike club and a state rep for IMBA. You can learn more about my illustrious efforts here.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Simple Life

I like things simple. Grape Nuts. Scotch on the rocks. The White Stripes. Once things start to get complicated, anything can go wrong. In the year 2005, the most popular candy was still plain M&Ms. Know why? It's because people don't like complications. Who needs to risk an allergic reaction to peanuts? Who wants to spend a hard-earned buck on a candy bar that's just mediocre? Not me. M&Ms are a sure thing.

That's why I like single speeds. No derailleurs. No complicated linkage. No surprises.

I used to only own a single speed; a Gary Fisher Montare slowly converted over the years as parts broke and bent and corroded under the strain of too much mud and too many miles. First went the big ring, then the small one. I used to ride for the University of Maryland and I raced with that set up for a while, coming to find that I didn't really miss those extra teeth all that much.

Fast forward to regionals at the UVA home course. It's been raining all day and the team's been cooped up in a couple dingy motel rooms. The wall paper probably hasn't been changed since the 70s, the carpet is the same hard, matted stuff you'd find in an office building, and the room is so sparsely decorated that we feel no remorse dragging our dirty, wet steeds in for a little work the night before. We set up a gypsy-town bike shop and true wheels, lube chains, and give derailleurs some much needed attention. I can never get the adjustment screws just right, and end up tensioning the cable instead.

The next day it's still raining and we're wondering if we'll even get to race at all. We get to the van and the tire's flat. Someone whips out a floor pump and we take turns. The rain starts to pick up. 30psi; Good enough. We'll have to stop twice more on the way to the race and inflate the tire again.

Part of me, the weak side, wishes it will be called off, so I can avoid the hours of riding over slippery roots and rocks, the burn of lactic acid accumulated with every pump of my legs, and the dirty water kicked into my eyes, mouth, and nose through every tight switchback. The other part of me, the competitor, wants to get out there and give it everything I have; hammering the climbs until my chest feels like it's going to explode, and railing the descents, systematically picking off every racer in front of me.

The race was on.

I'll leave the details of the race to the imagination. If you've ever ridden East Coast terrain during a thunderstorm where the trail turns into a churning, muddy river and every root and fallen log becomes slick as ice, you know what it was like. It was one of the longest 6 hours of my life filled with cramps, exhaustion, rain that chilled me to the bone, and lots and lots of mud. By the time I finished, my brake pads had been worn down to bare metal and of the 8 gears I had left, I could use about 3 of them.

And I wasn't the only one. The finish line is usually a happy place, but I'll never forget the sight as racers came in, jumping off their bikes and throwing them over their heads into the mud in frustration. Any other day the bike was their pride and joy; a shiny, finely-tuned steed. That day it was their liability; a mud-clogged wreck of a machine responsible for everything that could have gone wrong and did.

That was the last day I rode with gears for a very long time. Instead of fixing my derailleur, I stripped it off, pulling the shifter pod and cables with it. I picked up a Surly 1x1 hub and built up a nice single speed wheel. I was lucky; even with the vertical dropouts I didn't need a tensioner. At 32x16, it all worked out perfectly.

The bike became a lot simpler, and a lot more elegant, without all the cables, shifters, and derailleurs; a series of lines and circles. Riding too, became simpler and more enjoyable. Instead of constantly worrying about being in the right gear, single speeding allows you the luxury to take it all in. Riding becomes more about keeping momentum, reading the trail, and enjoying the form rather than a constant struggle against mechanics. It's liberating.

I rode single for a long time. The rest of my time in Maryland. When I worked in New York. On my biking trips to Fruita, Moab, and all around the East Coast. I even took a winter and built up a brand new On-One Inbred from scratch. Winters in California are different. They're not really winters at all. Out East all you can do during the winter is snowboard, drink beer, and kill time on cold winter nights when it gets dark even before you leave work. I spent a lot of that time searching eBay and online stores for the best deals on all the perfect parts for my new ride. Simple things; Bomber air fork? Check. V Brakes? Crank Brothers pedals? Check. By spring it was finally ready and I hit the trails with all the fervor and excitement as I did the first time on my newly converted Montare.

Later that year I accepted a position with Google and relocated to the Bay Area. Just as the winters are different, so is the riding. Out East trails have a lot of flow, there's a lot of ups and a lot of downs. Here it's one big up and one big down (and, maybe another up). I rode it single for a while and finally decided it was about time to venture back into the land of full suspension. (I owned a Klein Mantra for a few months back in the day -- it went on eBay almost as quickly as it came). It wasn't the long, grinding ups that bothered me... but I wanted to really hit those downs hard. They were hard-earned and with the brake pump from the Vs, I just couldn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to. So I picked up my 575.

Getting back into gears was a lot harder than I expected, and I almost gave up on the bike after the first ride. Even today, I'm slower on my Yeti than I am on the On-One.

The Yeti just got back from the shop a couple days ago. During our last ride the front brake started to lose pressure so I figured it needed to be bled. I don't understand hydraulic brakes. I mean, I understand them in principle but not in practice. Why they work fine one day and not the next is a mystery to me. I figured I must have knocked the cable against a tree which let a little air leak in. And that's all you need -- a little. But who knows, there are dozens of ways hydraulic brakes can fail.

So I drop the bike off at the shop and get a call later that day saying that the caliber assembly is cracked and needs to be replaced. It was probably a little rock, but they can't be sure. See the crack in the photo above? How about in this one? All you need is a little rock, a little crack, a little air, and there goes your ride, your race, or your helmet. It's all too complicated. You'll never lose your V brakes from a little rock.

The caliper assembly was going to take, at the earliest, 3 weeks to ship from Avid. Lucky Dave had an almost complete Juicy 7 laying around -- sans piston, a part which probably broke from some little rock and was going to take weeks to ship. Weeks he didn't want to wait for his only bike.

I'm torn with regards to which bike to bring to the race. Do I take the Yeti for comfort and practicality or the On-One for speed and simplicity? It's a tough call. I'm leaning towards keeping it simple, but I have a few weeks to change my mind.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

pick apart the day

I looked around my room trying to figure out why there was music playing. My ipod had somehow chosen 'Daylight' by Aesop Rock to rouse me. While a poignant theme, daylight it was not; it was in fact a completely dark and uncivilized 530am out there. My pondering the lack of daylight was interrupted suddenly by the Nokia vibrating angrily on my bed side table while screaming out its increasingly louder alien theme song. "That must be Dylan calling me as promised." It's moments like these that I wonder "What did I agree to and why?" I usually pace in circles around my room for a few minutes trying to gather thoughts and equipment before I remember the answer: riding bikes because we have some of the best terrain on the planet.

My phone rings on my trek across town to pick up Dylan breaking the calm that I had on loan from the pre-dawn San Fran streets. It's Dylan, he's letting on about how he's not gonna make the ride -that he's gonna have to bail. He's a funny guy, I know he's joking but a small part of me is getting ready to restrain the other even smaller part that would reach through the phone to smack him upside the head if he's not -he is. After a quick rally in front of Noah's Bagels, we throw his recently shined up Blur on the roof and make for the highway -time to call Cohen to reassure him that the city kids are en route and that we didn't oversleep.

Dylan and I arrived in the parking lot a whole 15 minutes before we agreed to meet up with Cohen. This is a good thing because I'm slow. Dylan made good on this time with a display of balance and grace while I futzed around with my elaborate ankle brace.

While killing time, I decide to share with Dylan how crazy it was that 'Daylight' was the first track of my day, but he would have none of it. He kept saying something about how the production was really good, '...but when Aesop comes in, it just sucks...' I try to reason with him, but we were clearly at an impasse:

Luckily Cohen arrives just in time to get us back on track with Sparky who's also rarin to hit the trails. Having all decided to go with long sleeves to counter the brisk morning air, we eagerly set out for California's finest singletrack, the whole reason for early rise, for hauling gear from house to car, and the mad dash for the trails -the main event. This excitement always hits me the moment my mallets engage, my wheels and frame becomes an appendage; I get all hopped up on goofballs and bounce up and down on my suspension while rolling to the trailhead.

Once inside the El Corte de Madera grounds, Cohen let Sparky off the leash and we burned a mile or two of fire road keeping a moderate pace. Dylan led the way down the first stretch of glorious singletrack, the infamous Resolution Trail. For the next 20-30 minutes we continued our descent into the bowels of Skeggs over rocks and roots, under low hanging branches, catching air off the occasional whoops. The little sun that had risen fades behind trees the lower we go making it harder to distinguish the morning from what could otherwise be mistaken for evening. The air was pungent with the smell of dead leaves and moss; I'm sure of this because I'd started to suck more of it. I swear the trails must be growing denser; my GPS kept protesting with little beeps to warn me that it couldn't hold a signal. Our ride data bears no resemblance to other days.

Before long we reach the stream at what I've always considered the bottom of Skeggs -I've been told I'm wrong. No matter though for now it was time to pay off the elevation debt that we had been so recklessly accruing for the past half hour spending altitude like water, time to get lost in whatever might be on our respective minds, time to raise the seat and drop the fork, time to get your crayons and your pencils. If this were Burger King I'd have had it my way, but alas it was time to climb. I only cast in a negative light what all mountain dirt riders must come to respect and hopefully for their sake, cherish because on this day, it is the last I'll see of my bro's on the trail. Dylan felt the need for a head start and Cohen, well, Cohen's our token single-speeder -need I say more? I was riding the back of the pack so I affectionately referred to myself as 'the sweeper' for the rest of the ride.

The climb out of our loop at Skeggs is broken into 3 sections in my mind. The first, a series of brutally steep, but not very technical double track sections has a special spot where we almost lost Peter. The second is a stretch of fire road connecting the first and third sections that most have agreed to be unpleasant. The third section is Manzanita, a glorious rocky, rooted, rutted singletrack stretch ripe with sessionable spots to keep the mind sharp while the chest pounds out the beat of your favorite swedish death metal song. I spent my all on the first section, specifically a series of rolls that I've heard referred to as the '7 Sisters', '7 Witches', or '7 Bitches'... I cant be sure, but after cleaning the last roll I'm convinced it's the last of the 3. There was not much left in my tank for the rest of the ride. I don't think I left my granny gear until reaching dry pavement all the while the phrase repeated in my head "next time I'll have my mojo back.."

...Oh yeah, Cohen and Dylan were waiting in the parking lot for me.

Friday, September 15, 2006


We finalized our jersey design this week and it's pretty sweet. Props to one of our designers Greg for lending us a hand (although I did draw that little alien guy myself... that's about as artistic as I get).

Want to get your hands on one? We'll have an extra jersey or two at the event for a lucky and, hopefully, equally sized individual. Whether we'll be giving it out via raffle or some other means is yet to be decided.

And if you don't win, I'll be bringing an extra of my own along for trade :-)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Live Bloggin It

I just got finished setting up the unofficial 24 Hours of Moab Blog. The plan is: get everyone who's coming to the race to sign up and blog, blog, blog. Ride reports are cool, photos are cool, and whatever other stuff you feel like posting probably pretty cool too.

Here's a little deja vu if you've already read my post over there... and if you haven't, enjoy;

"Races are pretty transient things. They come and go. Some riders podium, some riders pinch flat, and most probably go out and drink a few beers after the race. There's really nothing that survives from year to year other than chainring scars and some long lost posts on mtbr. The 24 Hours of Moab Blog is an attempt to change all that, with hundreds of riders posting before, during, and after the event. Candid photos, grueling laps on rigid single speeds, way too many Cliff Bars, lessons learned -- it'll all be there for posterity.

If you're riding or just gonna be there hanging out, sign up for a Blogger account, email so we can hook you up, and post your heart out!

Tell us about yourself, your team, your booth, your training, and your bike. Set up Blogger on the Go and post from your cellphone while you're out riding or doing some team bonding over a pint (or pitcher).

We'll have a digicam, some laptops and, hopefully, an internet connection at the Google Earth booth and you'll be able to log in and post any time during the race. Tell your friends, and your mom, to keep an eye on the blog. She'll be so proud!"


Hey everyone, and welcome to the 24 Hours of Moab race blog! We're team Google Earthlings -- five Googlers who love mountain biking and will be headed out to 24 Hours of Moab October 14th and 15th.

We're not pro riders. In fact, none of us have ever competed in a 24 hours race before so we don't expect to win... but we do expect to have a good time. We put up this blog so we can tell everyone about our team and what we'll be doing at the race.

So far we still have a lot of planning left but one thing we do know for sure is that we're going to have a Google Earth booth and some free schwag to give out. We'll be bringing along some laptops with Google Earth so riders can play around and see what their home trails look like from space. We'll load up some flyovers of the 24 hours course and our team will be riding with GPS devices to keep track of our laps in real time. Other riders are welcome to swing by the tent any time to upload their race data as well. If all goes according to plan, we'll have internet access and be able to show everyone at home what's happening as it happens!

Until then, you can download Google Earth for free and check it out yourself. And Granny Gear even has even provided a course map KMZ!

Stay tuned for more...