Inevitable lament

23 10 2011

It was bound to happen. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

This was the first week since the end of March that I haven’t ridden the bike at least once. The road riding season is most definitely over. From here on it I’ll be lucky to get out the odd Friday that happens to coincide with nice weather, dry roads and no pressing errands to run.

Otherwise, it’s five months of screwing up the resolve to venture out into the dark and cold of night for trail rides with lights.

During our week in California I found myself intensely jealous of cyclists’ ability there to ride year ’round. In beautiful surroundings.

The Lapierre doesn't look nearly as sexy on the bike rack as she does on the road.

I love our seasons. Each has its own special quality that brings variety to the year, to our daily routines.

I’ve never been inclined to doubt that, never really desired to live in a place that is warm and mostly sunny 12 months of the year. Until now.

Maybe it’s my advancing years. I love being bike fit. I love being on the bike for four or five hours, then rewarding myself with an ice cream or cake treat, guilt-free.

But despite my best intentions, it’s hard to maintain that through the cold, wet and dark winter months. The indoor trainer is mind-numbing, even when watching TV. I loathe the gym. Running with Katie up and down the boardwalk is fun, and it certainly helps my sense of well-being, but it’s just not the same as 100 km on the Lapierre.

Then again, just like our seemingly annual debate at road hockey whether the game should continue through the summer, having an off-season makes you appreciate the season even more. Maybe instead of lamenting my Week Without Cycling, I should look at it as a celebration of the season just passed, a season in which I rode 4,896.6 kms, more than 600 kms better than last year. And with at least a few rides likely to happen before the calendar flips to 2012, I should be able to surpass 5,000 kms. That’s a nice round number.

A single man

17 10 2011

Before Katie came alone, I was a bachelor for a long time. And I was pretty good at, if I do say so myself.

I kept my place tidy. I washed dishes; no dishwasher for me. I ate my vegetables. I did laundry.

Oh sure, there were vices. Like having a whole tub of Haagen-Dazs to myself. And eating hot dogs for lunch, or barbecued pork tenderloin for dinner. Sometimes I treated myself to takeout from Swiss Chalet.

Hot dogs and a kosher dill is a rare lunch treat.

Then Katie came along. She threw my life upside down (in a good way, of course). She banned me from doing laundry, an edict I still have trouble with. Apparently the colors and darks are supposed to be separated from whites. And everything should be washed in cold water. Who knew?

I now have to share my Haagen-Dazs. Although that’s probably better for me in the long run.

Katie wants nothing to do with hot dogs, despite my insistence that a simple dog with mustard, accompanied by a kosher dill pickle, is the lunch of the gods. She also doesn’t like pork; she says she doesn’t like the way it smells. And ever since we had a mediocre experience at a Swiss Chalet before going to a movie when we were dating, my shadow is no longer allowed to darken their doorway.

So when Katie spent this past weekend in San Francisco, running half of the Nike Women’s Marathon with some of her running friends, I was thrust back into my bachelorhood.

How did I celebrate cope? Carousing and drinking at the pub with my buddies? Endless afternoons of uninterrupted NFL football and packed evenings of NHL hockey on TV? Dancing girls?

No way.

I whooped it up bigtime. I did laundry! Although I did separate the colors and used cold water. I ate hot dogs for lunch, pork for dinner and Haagen-Dazs for desert! Although not every day. I got takeout from the Swiss Chalet! Only once, I swear!

Back to the debauched single life, doing laundry...

...barbecuing pork tenderloin...

...and indulging in Swiss Chalet takeout!

Katie’s back, just in the nick of time to save my waistline.

Rides to treasure

15 10 2011

Getting back to the regular routine after a fabulous vacation is always an arduous and agonizing process.

Going back to the old ride routes after an epic Gran Fondo like Levi Leipheimer’s in Santa Rosa is the cycling equivalent of lunchbag letdown. Although the crisp fall weather always gives rides this time of year a special quality.

Catching the tail end of a paceline.

With limited opportunities to get out, now that the sun is set by 6:30 p.m., and Sunday’s are now dedicated to road hockey, every fall ride at this time of year is like a treasure. Even if you’re not really feeling it; the air is clean, the light soft, the colors vibrant. The familiar takes on a new hue.

The familiar scenery of beloved routes takes on a new quality in fall light.

When you clip into the pedals, you do it with a sense of urgency; you never know if this will be the last ride for a week or two or even a month. You ride, you smile, and you hope you’ll be able to do it again real soon.

Dazzling fall colors.

Walking the streets of San Fancisco

10 10 2011

Pop quiz: What do you do the day after riding a bike for 164.13 kilometres, including 8700 feet of climbing?

A. Sleep in

B. Eat a hearty breakfast, followed by copious quantities of ice cream

C. Lounge on the couch watching NFL football

D. Walk. A lot.


Of course, the answer is D. Can’t let those leg muscles seize up after all. But when you’re doing that walking around the beautiful city of San Francisco, it’s easy to ignore the aches and fatigue of the previous day’s big ride.

As our cottage was about an hour’s drive from the city, we got an early start on Sunday morning, made a pitstop at a scenic overlook at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. Already I was jealous of the cyclists grinding their way up the winding road in the sunshine.

The view from the Golden Gate bridge is sublime.

Our first stop in the city was Ghardelli Square, ground zero for Katie’s chocolate obsession, where we had lunch in the courtyard of the beautifully restored and repurposed chocolate factory, which is now home to boutiques, cafes, restaurants and a fancy wine bar.

Sunshine and a sandwich; fuel for our walk around San Francisco.

From there, armed with only the little freebie road map of the city that came with the rental vehicle, we set out on foot to explore some of the highlights I’d circled. Whenever we travel, Katie and I love to walk. It’s the absolute best way to explore new places at our own pace, with plenty of opportunity for discovery, surprises, and, of course, snacks. The first day of our first visit to Paris together we walked from our apartment in the Latin Quarter to Notre Dame, to the Hotel de Ville to the Tuleries, up the Champs Elysée to the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower, down along the Seine back to the Latin Quarter. In the Cinque Terre, we hiked to all five villages; it took us seven hours. In Barcelona we climbed Montjuic.

In San Francisco, our walk took us to Lombard Street’s famous steep block where eight switchbacks wind their way down the 27 degree incline. The residents of the stately old townhouse there must be incredibly patient and understanding of all the tourists walking up and down the steep sidewalk, or negotiating the twisting narrow road in their Escalades and BMW’s, let alone the throngs of Hop On Hop Off passengers standing in the middle of the road at the bottom of the incline to pose for photos.

The gardens of Lombard Street take the edge off the 31% incline.

Of course, we walked up one side of Lombard, then down the other.

Then it was up Grant Avenue, past Topless A Go Go, through busy, bustling Chinatown where the sidewalks teemed with shoppers, people lining up for dim sum, vendors and machines that would punch pennies into pancake-like souvenirs of the city.

The hustle, bustle and color of Chinatown.

Beyond the gates of Chinatown was shopping nirvana, upscale boutiques, designer shops and the flagship Banana Republic store. Needless to say, we spent some time there, and Katie spent some money.

The long walk down Market Street, through the financial district, was cold and kind of disappointing; most of the shops, cafés and restaurants were closed. Sure, financial districts are usually Monday-Friday destinations, but the wide sidewalks and sunny skies were bringing out lots of strollers on Sunday with nowhere to grab a bite or a beverage en route to the waterfront.

We did get distracted for a few moments by a movie shoot setting up with all kinds of armoured police vehicles and futuristic motorcycles, but as usually happens, things were moving very slowly, lots of grips walking around with serious rolls of gaffer tape, and no stars anywhere in sight. I haven’t yet been able to figure out what was shooting.

After the desolation and distraction, the Embarcadero was our salvation. The beautifully restored old ferry terminal houses an expansive galleria of cafés, sushi bars, wine shops and markets selling fancy chocolate, seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables and even “salted pig parts.” Outside the main entrance, chefs in crisp white jackets were busily erecting and stoking massive charcoal grills for some big charity feast to be held Sunday evening; alas, the $200 meal ticket was a little beyond our holiday budget.

The old ferry terminal at the Embarcadero.

An esplanade allowed us to continue our walk along much of San Francisco’s historic waterfront, past long wooden piers, and old warehouses being converted to new restaurants and high-end chocolate factories. Beyond, the late afternoon sun was turning Alcatraz island golden.

I had been hoping our tour would take us up to the Coit Tower, the art deco observation tower that overlooks the lower part of the city from the summit of Telegraph Hill, but our intended route had strayed a little, and the little map didn’t seem to show any streets that would take us there from the waterfront side. Plus my legs were starting to feel Saturday’s ride.

Katie was still keen, though. And when I spied what looked like a staircase, we were off, and up. Seems these were the famous Flibert Street Steps, all 800 or so of them, meandering up through lush gardens, flanked by old townhomes and an impressive art deco apartment block. Apparently the gardens that flank the stairs are also the home of the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill, feral parrots that were the subject of a documentary film in 2005; we didn’t see the birds, but we did hear some loud, unusual squawks.

There's plenty to see climbing the Filbert Street steps.

At the summit of Telegraph Hill, surrounded by a park and guarded by a statue of Christopher Columbus, the Coit Tower is a wonderfully understated piece of architecture. Only 210 feet tall, it’s not the tallest tower of the world’s great cities, but it certainly lives up to its original intent as a beautiful enhancement to San Francisco’s skyline. The interior of the ground floor rotunda is decorated by a series of murals depicting scenes of working San Francisco, and a tiny gift shop.

Christopher Columbus stands sentry at the base of Coit Tower.

Alas, we chose not to go to the top, because the stairs were closed.

Back to where we started, for our chocolate reward!

Fondo-mania; a Gran day out

7 10 2011

I think I’ve caught the Fondo bug.

As I teetered towards the finish line in Saturday’s Levi Leipheimer King Ridge Gran Fondo, the lactic acid burning my legs, I was content to end my riding season right there. By the time I’d retrieved my complimentary Fat Tire Ale, I was already discussing with Katie where we could travel for my next Fondo challenge.

The King Ridge Fondo experience was that good.

First off, the setting was magnificent, the cycling sublime. From its fast, congested start to its relieving finish, the challenges just kept coming; pack riding, gruelling climbs, technical descents, wide closed roads, narrow twisting lanes pocked with cow patties, canopies of dewey redwoods, exposed windswept ridges, the sea, the sky.

Levi's Gran Fondo offers a fearsome challenge in a beautiful setting.

Secondly, the organization was top-notch. Aside from the computer glitches that frustrated the first day of registration, everything from then on out went smoothly and efficiently. Out on the course, the marshals were plentiful, the police escorts cheerful and attentive, the volunteers helpful and encouraging. The rest stops came at just the right times, and were well-stocked with all kinds of great, tasty provisions from sweet to salty to substantive. Most stops also had mechanical assistance to execute minor repairs and adjustments to bikes.

Third, the celebrity cachet is a nice bonus. That Levi Leipheimer is all over his signature event is a given; it’s clear he has a great affection for his adopted community and vice-versa. But keeping an eye out for Hollywood stars like Patrick Dempsey, Ethan Suplee and Mark-Patrick Gosselar gave the ride a real California appeal; out on the road, we’re all just cyclists.

Levi is everywhere at his signature Gran Fondo!

Katie has her McDreamy moment!

Fourth, the post-race meal was awesome! Listen up Whistler Gran Fondo organizers; after slogging our way up and down for 100+ kilometres, we deserve a free beer and free grub! That’s what sponsors are there for! And the King Ridge sponsors didn’t skimp; Fat Tire Ale and delicious, authentic paella (amongst other choices, but the paella was clearly the overwhelming favourite) included with our registration fee!

The post-ride paealla hit the spot!


New fondos seem to be popping up on a weekly basis, as event organizers look to cash in on the boom in road cycling. Some of them are linked to pro cyclists present and past, some are just vague promises.

It was great to see the Whistler/Kelowna organizers at the King Ridge event, no doubt  taking notes to improve their own fondos, perhaps share some of their own tips with Levi’s people. One might be to add live music to the post-fondo festival; a Q&A with Patrick Dempsey and Levi just isn’t that festive.

But as these events grow in popularity and frequency, we have to be wary not to kill the goose responsible for this golden egg.

Fondos aren’t cheap. And a well-run once isn’t cheap to organize and put on. But as long as cyclists support them and organizers give us value with a good experience, they’ll help the sport grow. But it just takes one bad fondo to leave a sour taste.

This year’s King Ridge Fondo was only its third, but it’s already a veteran in the Fondo game in North America.

In BC, fondos have gone from zero to four in two years, with at least one more in the works for next year. Roadies may be a desirable demographic, but we’re definitely not suckers for quick-buck artists. And the more fondos grow in popularity, the more likely an inexperienced promoter will jump into the fray, looking to make a few bucks buck lacking the chops to give cyclists a good return for their registration fee: after all, we don’t have to pay $160-200 to be able to ride a 100-160km route with a stop along the way for lunch.

As for next year’s fondo challenge? Registration for the lottery to get into the Maritona dies Dolomiti, the queen of all the fondus, opens next week; I’m thinking about it.

King of the Ridge II: The Occidental Tourist

4 10 2011

The sense of foreboding at the Schoolhouse Beach rest stop was palpable. The King Ridge veterans knew what was coming next and their dread filled the salty air. They looked towards the brown hills rising from the road and filled their pockets with as much Gu as they could hold.

The descent of Meyers Grade to the Pacific from King Ridge had been breathtaking. In a good way, not like the lung-sucking ascent that had gotten us there. Emerging from the clouds and rain through a canopy of trees, the ocean stretched out before us. A twisting series of switchbacks would get us there. Condors circled on the air currents above, no doubt waiting for someone to wash out and become their lunch.

The early slopes of Meyers Grade

It was a roller coaster thrill ride on 23mm tires, leaning through the turns, trying not to hit the brakes too much to diminish the experience. Tiny colored dots lined the grade far below like Weebles on a conveyor.

It’s only when we hit the bottom, past the waystation of Jenner, that the wind became apparent, a constant whistling past the ears, a formidable elastic slowing you on the rolling highway 1.

At Schoolhouse Beach, some riders were giving up, waiting for a lift from the SAG wagon, or calling their own personal pit crew to retrieve them, their pleading voices on the edge of desperation.

A sign at Schoolhouse Beach states the obvious.

I salted up with nuts and pretzels to ease the nausea that had been dogging me for about 10 kms. I fueled up with watermelon and strawberries.

On the internet, the Fondo vets called Coleman Valley Road “the wall.”

It rose almost immediately. And kept on rising. The Garmin peeped its protest, going into pause mode when it thought I was no longer moving. Some riders weaved their own personal switchbacks back and forth across the road just to stay upright. Some gave up and climbed off their bikes, maybe to stretch cramped legs, maybe to concede defeat. The condors seemed to circle closer. I longed for a familiar, smiling face.

Last year, when I rode the Whistler Fondo, Katie volunteered at the feed station just beyond Squamish, where the climbing really started to get grueling. Her encouragement got me to the finish line.

My motivation!

This time, I’d only see her smile at the finish line. I had to get there. On the bike.

The water station at the Ocean Song summit provided a brief respite. For one rider, lying on a cot wrapped in a foil blanket, resignation and relief etched on his face, it was the end of the line.

A wet twisting descent, another brief ascent and we were into the home stretch, back through the redwoods at Occidental, and the vineyards outside Santa Rosa. But Levi had one more cruel trick to pull from his jersey pockets, a 7 km stretch of bike path that was pure mental anguish. Oh sure, the pavement was flat and fast, but without the distraction of passing traffic, all that was left to think about was the pain. In my legs. In my back. In my feet.

My spirits lifted when I heard cheering just on the other side of a stand of trees; the finish line had to be near. But no, it was just a soccer game.

I crossed the finish line so fast, Katie couldn't keep me in focus!

Then, we were under a bridge, around a tight hairpin that I overshot a bit into the grass, and under the big inflatable finish arch. Just on the other side was Katie’s beaming face, cheering, trying to take a photo. Heaven!

• My Garmin time, which doesn’t include the time I spent in the rest/feed zones, for the 164.13 km distance was 7:07:55, for an average speed of  23 kmh

• My unofficial Fondo time, which doesn’t eliminate the time spent at the stops, was 8:13:55, placing me 1918 of 4500 riders registered for the Gran Fondo. In my age category, I placed 310th of about 600 riders 45-49 years old. Literally middle of the pack. But it seems that second half was my undoing, as I was 944th overall when I reached the lunch stop at Ritchey Ranch, and 161st in my age division.

As for Patrick Dempsey; I was dismayed to see him already showered and relaxed up on the stage in the post-ride festival as I slogged to the beer line. I had passed him early on, so how could he be finished already???? Well, it turns out he only did the 100km Medio.

King of the Ridge: A tale of epicness told in two parts

3 10 2011

This is my best day on the bike ever.”

What the heck did Katie get me into????”

I am rocking this climb.”

It would be so easy to just pull off and wait for the SAG wagon.”

“Look at that view.”

I am freakin’ freezing.”

Ahhhh, it’s all downhill from here!”

When will this bike trail ever end?????”

Those were just some of the rollercoaster thoughts bobbing through my brain as my legs churned me through 164.13 kilometers and 2420 meters of climbing in Saturday’s Levi Leipheimer King Ridge Gran Fondo.

To say it was an epic weekend would be an understatement.

When I had casually mentioned to Katie one day sometime after I’d completed last year’s Whistler Gran Fondo that Levi’s Gran Fondo in Santa Rosa was supposed to be one of the premier rides of its kind in North America, I never thought I’d be saddling up for it inside the year. But her special knack for knowing her way to my heart, and her gifts with the Facebook and Twitter, got me signed up for the Big Ride despite all sorts of computer and server glitches that hectic day in January when the organizers opened registration. Apparently it’s such a renowned ride, the 4500 spots for the Gran Fondo so coveted, cyclists from far and wide overload the registration process the moment it begins.

My number plate for Levi's Gran Fondo.

Now I know why.

I survived Levi Leipheimers King Ridge Gran Fondo 2011. But it wasn’t easy. In fact, it was probably my most difficult, arduous ride ever. And the very best.

When Katie presented me with her beautifully crafted homemade Fondo package for my birthday last January, to depict her intention to sign me up, I suggested the 100 km Medio might be more my style. Certainly within my capabilities. No way, she insisted, go Gran or go home.

I’m glad she held strong.

For any roadie accustomed to riding the long kilometers in relative solitude, peril at every turn or intersection, hostile cars and trucks only inches off your shoulder, being herded into a start corral with more than 7,000 like-minded cyclists is an emotional and awe-inspiring moment. It was like that on Georgia Street last year before the first Whistler Fondo, and again on Saturday, right in front of the Finley Community and Recreation Center in Santa Rosa.

I had staged myself perhaps a tad optimistically, at the 6.5 hour marker, but there was a nice gap behind the hardcore hammerers and the more casual cyclists way back. And I was in good earshot of the PA speakers for all the pre-Fondo ceremonies.

Surrounded by cyclists in the staging area.

As the 8 a.m. start time drew nearer, the gap filled out, cyclists’ helmets stretched in front and behind me for as far as I could see. Some guy nearby decided this was the right time to install a new tube in his tire.

David Towle, the “voice” of the Tour of California bike race nattered on, then Patrick Dempsey took the mic but we could barely make out his speech, then Levi himself who gave us all encouragement.

A rank of Kodo drummers pounding a rhythmic beat set us off. It took about 15 minutes before the rolling domino reached me and I could clip into both pedals, off on my gran fondo adventure of a lifetime.

The first 25 kilometers or so through Santa Rosa and the surrounding vineyards were flat and fast, the huge throng of cyclists still tightly packed onto the mostly closed roads. The morning air was cool, but the cracks in the clouds promised warming sunshine. I was amazed at the number of cyclists who had to pull off to change flat tires; the road surface wasn’t that bad, were they just incompetent at installing their tubes?

Bah, this ain't so tough, rolling past the vineyards outside Santa Rosa.

I blew past the first rest stop in Occidental; my legs were feeling good, my bottles still mostly untouched, no need to disrupt my momentum.

Heading up the Bohemian Highway, under a dark canopy of tall redwood trees, I hooked up with a group headed by a team of three or four guys with the same club jersey. We weren’t very well organized, but the pull helped conserve some energy.

It was along that stretch I passed Patrick Dempsey, who was chatting with a course marshall as he rode. I soft-pedaled for a bit to try to get a photo to add to Katie’s collection, but he never caught up; I’m just too fast for him I guess.

The next rest/fuel station, at Monte Rio, was where the Gran and Medio routes split, the fork of no return. The sign at the entrance warned: Next rest station 10 hilly miles. I pulled in for snacks, fig bars, a banana, salty nuts and chips, fresh water for my bidons.

It was pretty quick after that I learned the California definition of “hilly” is up.

For the next 40 kms we pretty much climbed to the pinnacle and geographical namesake of the King Ridge Gran Fondo. Some of the ascents were gradual, many were sharp and twisting. The pack thinned. Conversations amongst cyclists were minimal; usually the only sound I heard was my own breathing, and the occasional clatter of someone’s missed shift.

The road turns up through the redwood forests.

Somewhere after the rest stop at Cazadero, the trees gave way to rolling brown scrubland, some of it cultivated with vineyards, some of it wild, some of it left to roaming herds of huge black cattle. The clouds and mist descended, then lifted, opening spectacular views across the hills. It started to rain.

As we approach King Ridge, the trees get smaller but not the ascents.

There's cows in them thar hills!

The climbing continued, up one ramp, around a corner then up another grade. Ugh. More than a few times I looked down at my rear wheel hoping another gear would magically appear.

Oh where oh where have all my gears gone?

The vistas across the rolling hills are a rich reward.

At the King Ridge rest stop, I stocked up on more fruit and salty snacks to prepare for the slippery descent and then climb to the lunch stop at Ritchey Ranch.

The rain, fallen leaves and occasional washouts made for some white-knuckle descending, a lot of feathering of the brakes to avoid sliding out on the twisty turns. I saw a few riders overcook, veering wide through turns, water bottles chattering out of their cages onto the roadway. Near the bottom, marshalls were riding up towards us, warning us to slow right down, there had been a nasty crash.

The narrow valley bottoms out at a creek bed which the road traverses on a narrow steel bridge. Halfway across that bridge a rider was down, being attended to with oxygen and foil blankets. We were asked to walk across, which we all did somberly. Seeing scenes like that is a sobering reminder to ride safely above all else. Apparently that was the first of two crashes at the bridge during the day.

Of course, what goes down, must go back up again, so the road climbed through the trees to the lunch stop, somewhere on a ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Not that we could see it; the mist was now rain, we were in the clouds and it was freezing cold.

Curse you Weather Channel forecasters, this ain't "partly" cloudy...

A lot of riders in only their shorts and bike jersies were cursing the Weather Channel for its forecast of partly sunny and mild conditions. Some of them took shelter in foil blankets in the First Aid tent. But as so often afflicts us in Vancouver, that “marine layer” can be fickle, turning a nice forecast into cool dank misery. I was glad I opted for my knickers and four layers of Underarmor and jersies, plus my wind gilette.

The food at the stop was excellent, cold meat and vegetarian sandwiches, as assortment of fresh fruit like strawberries, orange slices, bananas, cantalope, watermelon, salty snacks like pretzels, chips and nuts, energy bars and gels, even soft drinks. The hospitality and encouragement of the volunteers was as warm as the air was frigid. They even reminded us to turn our computers back on as we left for second half of the Fondo’s route.

Next, Part II: Why Patrick Dempsey beat me, but not really