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Mount Diablo virgin (12/31/2010)

I didn't plan on riding to the top of Mount Diablo, and I certainly didn't plan on doing my first such ride on one of the coldest days of the year. But last night I noticed that Different Spokes San Francisco was running a ride today, and I decided to head up to Walnut Creek to see what would happen.

From our starting point at the BART station, the 3,849-foot summit looked quite challenging, and the mountain certainly did not disappoint. Honestly, though, the climb was not as challenging as I had feared. There was an easy bailout available just past the halfway point, but I felt confident (and/or foolish) enough to continue on to the top. My reasoning was that I'd never gotten so close to the summit before, so I had to at least try.

There were certainly difficult segments, especially when the road briefly cranked up to grades of well above 10%. But most of the way, the incline was a more reasonable 5% to 7%, a level at which I can comfortably spin in my lowest gear without having to pump and exert on each stroke. Diablo veterans know, however, that the final 0.1 mile before the summit is a nasty, nasty climb of more than 15%, and by then I was sufficiently worn out that I needed to take a break halfway up.

But then came the descent. I, of course, never descend too fast anyway, and I had to descend about 12 miles in freezing temperatures. How cold? The temperature sensor on the reporting station at the summit is apparently broken, but at 2,040 feet, today's highest temperature was apparently 40 degrees. Add in the wind from descending, and that's cold.

I had "winter" gloves and a face mask, and I was wearing long fleece pants over my long-legged cycling pants. I had a thick jersey, a vest, boots over my shoes, and a jacket. It was not enough. I made it down the first 4.5 miles to the ranger station, but by that point my fingers were frozen and numb and quite possibly on the verge of injury. I needed quite some time -- most of which was spent sitting on my hands and sticking them inside the fleece -- to get myself ready to continue. I decided to retrace my route on North Gate Road rather than go down South Gate Road as the route sheet said, mostly because I didn't want to have to deal with an unfamiliar road in the challenging conditions. Even then, I had to stop again partway down for another warming break. Fortunately, the temperature increased slightly with the lower altitude ... but today's official high in Concord was only 46 degrees.

Once out of the park, it was a mostly uneventful -- and slightly downhill -- final few miles back to the BART station and my car's heater. The other four riders (who had decided not to attempt the summit after a minor medical issue came up) had already left, so I didn't feel too bad about "cheating" and skipping the South Gate Road part of the ride.

With this ride, I finish the year at 7,091 miles of cycling, which is my most ever ... and a level that I'm not likely to match in 2011 or any other year. The time spent reaching this milestone was substantial, and I often cycled at the expense of other activities that could have improved my overall fitness -- and made climbs like today's less painful.

But I can now say, like countless "real" cyclists, that I've made it to the top of Mount Diablo. I'm just not feeling the need to do it again any time soon.

Death Valley test ride (12/23/2010)

I'm scheduled to ride the Death Valley Century in February. Having only done this route once, many years ago, I decided to test-ride the most rolling part of the route: the 35-mile round trip to Badwater, at elevation -282 feet -- the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere.

To my surprise, the route appeared to be just as challenging as when I did it back in 2004. Although the elevation stays in a tight range of between sea level and -282 feet through the entire distance, there are several hills of moderate grade and distance -- the floor of Death Valley is far from flat. I still found myself struggling up (and cautiously descending) the steeper hills.

And the lack of landmarks and intermediate waypoints made the miles seem to go by very slowly. After about 10 miles or so, the amazing scenery was starting to look all pretty much the same ... even though this day was unusual because of the heavy rains that recently had passed through the area, leaving several muddy spots on the road and many wet areas that normally are dry. Such admiration for nature was not at the forefront of my mind as I turned around just past Badwater and realized I had another 17 miles of the same old thing before I'd be back in Furnace Creek.

My return trip was brightened considerably when, out of nowhere, Adam mysteriously appeared behind me in a rental car. After agreeing to meet back at Furnace Creek, I felt determined to get there as quickly as possible, and the stats show it -- my average for the day was 14.4 mph, but that was more like 13 mph out and 16 mph back. And that's important, because even with my complaining about the terrain, that's significantly faster than when I did the route six years ago.

The ride helped build confidence that I can complete the century in February ... but I think I'll also be quite content to turn around prematurely and, perhaps, call it a metric if the day isn't just right for me. I got the sightseeing out of my system on this trip, so in February, it'll be just another big ride with hundreds of other cyclists ... but with just one stop sign in 100 miles, and not much else to mark the way.

Ride report: Early-Bird Ride #3 (12/19/2010)

Go, wet riders!

Making the call whether to ride this morning was admittedly difficult. And given how shockingly inaccurate the weather forecasts have been this season, perhaps I should have known that things wouldn't turn out as expected. But when I woke up this morning and checked the radar, it looked like we might have a few hours of no rain, and that might be enough to get in most or all of our scheduled ride.

So much for that plan.

The four brave riders who hit the streets of Mountain View this morning got treated to a surprisingly moderate to heavy rainfall almost immediately after we started riding. But we didn't let that stop us! We soldiered on, and the rain started to let up.

By the time we had completed 12 miles and returned to our starting point, the rain had stopped, and we were just left with a damp wind that had been slowly building throughout the morning. We all decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and we declared the ride complete and successful after just one of the three scheduled segments.

Indeed, the ride was successful. It reinforced the notion, even for me, that I can ride in the rain when I have to, and it's not the end of the world. It's good to have a reminder of this every once in a while because rain can happen during training rides ... and even on the event itself, as we found out on the infamous Day 6 of ALC8 in 2009 when the day's ride was canceled after hundreds of cyclists had made their rainy way 15 miles up the hill out of Lompoc. Today's weather wasn't as bad as on ALC8, but it was a good example of what can strike almost any time during training season.

We did all the right things about riding cautiously, avoiding holes and puddles, watching out for each other, and not riding on the oh-so-slippery pavement markings. And if you haven't done so already, be sure to give your bike a thorough cleaning (not at the high-pressure car wash, please!) and lubrication. Then have a good rest, because you earned it today.

This was my last official training ride of 2010, but I'll be back in January. I might offer the Dumbarton Bridge ride (originally scheduled for today) sometime in early January; watch the calendar for details.

All the best during this season, and thank you for being part of AIDS/LifeCycle.

Update: There was a magnitude 3.1 quake centered in Los Altos while we were riding. We had no idea.

Ride report: Early-Bird Ride #2 (12/12/2010)

Go, riders!

Wow, talk about an off-base weather forecast. The predicted sunny skies and 70 degrees actually ended up being chilly, drizzly fog and about 55 degrees. An hour after the end of the ride, as I write this, the sun is finally out and temperatures are on the way up, but that didn't do us much good this morning as our group of 30 intrepid cyclists set out for Stevens Canyon and the season's first ascent of Mount Eden.

When the roads get wet, flat tires often start happening, and today was no exception -- our group had at least four. When road junk gets wet, it sticks to your tires and sometimes works its way into them, either puncturing or pinching your tube. You can help reduce the chances of wetness-related flats by carefully rubbing the gloved palm of your hand against your tire as you spin it. (Be sure to use the gloved part of your hand!)

If you're not doing so already, you might also want to consider using flat-resistant tires. Fog, light drizzle, and wet roads are a common occurrence on the ride in June. The technology has improved considerably over the years, and there's now very little weight or stiffness penalty incurred by using them. And the time you save in changing flats can be very important on an event such as ALC where, although it's not timed, you have a time limit for each day of riding. I've used Specialized Armadillos in the past and now use Continental Gatorskins, and in five ALCs, I've never had a flat while on the ride. (Knock on wood.) That's more than 2,800 miles.

Physically, we crossed a significant threshold in today's ride. By riding for more than two hours, we went past the point at which most riders can exist only on stored energy while riding. It's very important that you properly and regularly eat and drink on rides, or else your ability to complete the ride will be compromised. Moreover, poor nutrition can affect not only your physical health but also your mood. Case in point: Today, I ate well during the first half of the ride, but then I went back to having just water during the second part of the ride. Between the left-turn signals that wouldn't trip for us, a couple of less-than-friendly drivers, and the ongoing chilly fog, my mood started to turn foul even though I was going generally downhill and that part of the ride wasn't all that challenging for me. Not until I got back to Mountain View, when I had some proper food, did I return to being my usual cheerful self.

In June, a positive mood is as important as proper physical conditioning. When you get in a bad mood while riding, you're more likely to do stupid things. This can affect not only you but other riders around you -- by either taking them into your bad mood, or (even worse) by doing something that puts other riders in danger. While riding, pay attention to your frame of mind. If it turns sour, check to see whether you're eating properly for you. And if you should go into a really bad mood -- yelling at another rider, for instance -- stop where you are, take yourself off the route, and eat, drink, rest, and/or meditate until your mental state is again safe for riding. In June, support crews are trained to spot riders whose heads have gone into bad places, and they can remove you from the ride if you become a danger to yourself or other riders. Don't let that happen.

What's next? Weather permitting, I'm running a 41-mile ride across the Dumbarton Bridge next Sunday. But the forecast currently isn't looking all that great, with a somewhat big storm in the cards for next weekend. If we get lucky and have a heavy-rain-free window on Sunday, we'll ride of course. But I'll be checking our route carefully because there are two places that often go underwater in heavy rains: the bicycle approach to the Dumbarton Bridge, and the semi-abandoned bike path along the north side of Highway 237. If either or both of these routes are inaccessible, I'll need to modify our route, and it's possible that we might not be able to cross the bridge after all. But if the route does change, it'll be to one of approximately the same distance and flatness. You can read more about the route and sign up here.

That's my last scheduled training ride of 2010. Looking ahead into January, two sets of rides start up.

Beginning Saturday, January 15, the Distance Training rides are for intermediate and advanced cyclists. We'll start at 40 miles and build to 125 miles by mid-May. Beginning with the third ride in this set, the average pace will increase to 12-15 mph, so they're probably not the best rides for beginners. Find out more about these rides here.

And every Sunday beginning January 30, Cat-2 (10-12 mph) rides of similar distance and difficulty will be offered in at least three locations around the Bay Area: San Francisco, Orinda, and Sunnyvale. These rides begin at around 20 miles and build to around 100 miles by May. Even if you ride faster or longer, these rides are an excellent supplement to your program. Details about these rides will start appearing soon in the official ALC calendar.

Thank you for being part of AIDS/LifeCycle.

Lighting test revisited: I'll go off the board, Jack

Back in July, I conducted a barely scientific lighting test with several bicycle-specific headlights of recent and not-so-recent vintage. You might remember the $60 Cateye HL-EL530, the best of the LED bunch:

We have a new winner. And as silly as this sounds, the winner is Smith & Wesson. Really. Have a look at this:

And get this: My total cost was only $19.99, including shipping. Here's the puppy, the "Smith & Wesson 3-Watt Cree LED Head Lamp."

Yes, it's a headlamp. But that adjustable head strap wraps nicely and securely around a handlebar to provide a snug fit on a bicycle as well. And as the picture shows, it's miles above bicycle-specific LED headlights that don't require special batteries. (This was a requirement for me because nighttime randonneuring called for long run times without recharging. Spare AA or AAA batteries are easy to carry, and they're almost always available at nearly any convenience store.) It's also considerably smaller and lighter, another bonus.

I haven't tried a full-nighttime ride yet, but I did have it out after sunset tonight, and it clearly was superior to the lights I'd tried previously ... and at about one-third the cost.

Ride report: Early-Bird Ride #1 (12/5/2010)

Go, riders!

Today we learned that a 70% chance of rain does not always mean a washout. Our intrepid group of 15 riders (plus awesome support from Dennis) braved only a couple of scattered raindrops on our 22-mile ride from Mountain View to Cupertino and back, the first official Mountain View training ride of the ALC10 season. The skies sure looked ominous at times, but we got lucky and dodged the rain.

Although the ride was officially a Cat-2 (10-12 mph pace), the threat of rain served as a fantastic motivator, bumping everyone's speed up a couple of notches and getting everyone back to Mountain View in less than two hours. Good thing, too -- just 20 minutes after the end of the ride, a heavy shower drenched downtown!

Everyone on today's ride was a veteran ALCer, so you already know the drill about the new season, getting (back) up to speed, proper nutrition, and stretching. If you've been off the bike for a few months, don't overextend yourself early in the season. And get back in the habit of eating properly before, during, and after your rides.

Our next scheduled ride is next Sunday, when we'll take a 32-mile trip up and over Mount Eden into Saratoga. Details and RSVP are here. The Distance Training rides begin Saturday, January 15, with a 40-mile ride to and around Woodside. Go here to learn more about what's planned for this season's Distance Training rides.

Welcome to our new season, and thank you for being part of AIDS/LifeCycle.