Convergence

This past weekend’s Jersey Ride was a real surprise gathering. Nancy and Ginny led the regular JR from Peet’s and had five compatriots—Maurizio, Stephen S., Roger S., Scott, and Mark. Roger and I decided to eyeball another East Bay Tiburon loop route with the intent of meeting the gang at Woodlands Market for lunch. We met up and had a great lunch together on the deck outside Woodlands. While we were there, semi-old-Spoker Jaime Guerrero showed up. I hadn’t seen Jaime since he came on a club ride I led back in 2014. Or was it at that party at a mutual friend’s house on Mines Road? I can’t recall exactly but Jaime had lapsed and moved onto other activities such as hiking. Jaime was sporting a Sun Microsystems jersey, which despite ithe company’s iconic and important historical role, has become just another forgotten tidbit of Silicon Valley debris about which only the elder technorati would sigh rhapsodically. We chatted just a tad because we were getting ready to leave. Then Eric showed up! He decided to catch the JR after a late start and showed up just as we had finished lunch. Nice surprises all around!

The East Bay Tib loop is a minor project we’ve been working on since last summer trying to find a suitable set of roads from Point Richmond across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and thence to Tiburon. This seems like a trivial undertaking but it’s actually rife with niggling problems. The first is that access to the bridge is not a given anymore. The non-car lane is in reality a limited time experiment although cyclists seem to think it’s a done decision. (It’s most definitely not.) There has been strong pushback from car drivers to take over that third lane for, well, them. In addition the drought has made the Marin Water District revive a plan to put a pipeline across the bridge to bring water to Marin, which heretofore has depended entirely on its reservoir storage system. Guess where that pipe was going to be placed? Right, in the non-car lane. That plan has gone silent and you can be sure there is fierce fighting and politicking taking place in back rooms. Who’s going to win that arm wrestling contest? Nobody knows yet. If Caltrans decides to roll back the bike lane, you can be sure there will be hue and cry from cyclists. But the real question is whether a brouhaha will make any difference. The end result is that an East Bay Tib loop may end up in the history books rather than on our ride calendar either due to a shutdown of the bike lane.

Despite the huge question mark over bridge access there is the issue of finding a good way to get from the west landing of the bridge to Paradise Drive and that’s what we’ve been exploring. The long way is to head to Bon Air and then the Corte Madera-Larkspur path. Shorter ways involve taking walkways on 101. Today we checked out the southbound 101 walkway and a cut-through. This walkway is marginally doable being narrow. However it’s much better than the one on northbound 101, which is so narrow that only one person can traverse it at a time. Heaven help you if you’re midway and encounter someone—a ped or a cyclist—heading the opposite direction. One of you has to back out. Back in the day this was rarely an issue because cycling was less popular. But now there is a ton of cycling traffic trying to get around Larkspur Landing.

We eventually got to Paradise without a hitch and had a lovely ride on such a sunny and windless day. We arrived at Woodlands a little after 11:30 AM and the SF group wasn’t to be seen. So we got our lunch and had a table outside all to ourselves. A little after noon they started to arrive apparently having been slowed down by Mark getting a flat. We had our lunch and had a good conversation with Maurizio and Stephen on managed healthcare, avoiding surgery, and how not every doctor got A’s in medical school. That of course led to a discussion of academic cheating in O-chem classes, the gateway class for medical students. Fascinating stuff. Nancy filled us in on her upcoming Montana cycling trip—I wish we were going!

Just as we were ready to depart Roger S. discovered he had a flat. Nonetheless off went the main group while a few of us gave him lots of practical advice and kibbitzing on changing the tube, like “you shoulda gone tubeless, dude” and “don’t pinch that tube with your tire lever!” With the tube replaced, off we went and Roger decided to take a look at Belvedere while the rest of us went to Mill Valley. At the bike path we bade adieu to the others as we were going up Camino Alto to the bridge. The bridge at Bon Air has been a hot mess for months with a slow reconstruction. The last time we were there it was closed with only a very narrow walking path open. This time the road was finally open to traffic as well as east side multi-use path, which is quite wide. We took the Corte Madera Creek path back to Larkspur Landing. Despite the sunny day, which should have drawn a big crowd, the path was lightly used. At 101 we noticed that the horrible northbound 101 pedestrian overpass was being widened! Hell must have frozen over or maybe it was federal Pandemic money because it has remained resolutely, inanely intact and dangerous for at least 40 years. So we checked it out. It’s decently wide and will be wider when they complete it and remove the storm fencing. In addition they’ve thoughtfullly included some pullouts to make passing even safer. This is a huge improvement; the old path was not just inconvenient but an accident waiting to happen. (I’m sure many have, which is likely why it’s being rebuilt.) We continued through the Cal Hill tunnel and took the frontage road to 580 back to the RSR bridge path. There is almost no shoulder and the traffic on it was moderate; apparently drivers use it as access to San Quentin.

Ultimately the East Bay Tib loop route is still a work in progress. The restoration of the northbound 101 ped overpass is a big help. But getting back to the bridge is either going to mean taking the frontage road, using the weird Sir Francis Drake Blvd. freeway entrance, or taking a mini-gravel adventure on the SF Bay Trail. The latter is a problem in wet weather or around a high tide since it immediately abuts Richardson Bay. Unfortunately there isn’t an obvious ‘best’ choice so far. But maybe there’s a pony in there!

Not Your Mother’s Dirt Ride

Times have changed. Or have they? Yesterday David and Eric led an off-road ride out of Half Moon Bay up Purisima Creek trail to Skyline and back. Purisima is an old logging road originally constructed when redwood cutting was all the rage in the Coast Range back in the 19th century. As such it’s a dirt road. The Santa Cruz mountains are full of them, some of which are still in use such as the Old Haul Road near Big Basin State Park. Purisima is now a ‘trail’ and is a not-too-well-known connector between Skyline near where Kings Mountain and Tunitas Creek join and Highway One. Cycling down is the preferred direction but David and Eric ventured heading up along with Duncan, David L., and Brian.

Once the habitat of a few road cyclists it has been used mostly by mountain bikers. But all-road and ‘gravel’ bikes have made riding on dirt fashionable again and you’ll notice there isn’t a mountain bike in the group. I certainly hope they’ll lead this ride again!

Here is David’s report:

“We had a great time today. The weather was cool and breezy but mostly sunny after the morning shower. The trails were great, not too crowded.  Neither were the roads (except for Hwy 1, natch). 

We saw Michaelangelo on his ALC training ride going the other way on 1.  Crazy coincidence since we were on 1 for all of two minutes. 

No incidents to report except that I got a pinch flat on the last 100 yards of the single track. Everyone but Brian (who had a dog waiting for him at home) patiently waited for me to perform a tube change on my rear wheel, which may be the most finicky rear wheel I’ve ever worked on. 

We had a windswept dinner outside a the Himalayan restaurant at the north end of town. 

We’ll do that ride again for sure.”

Sure beats riding with cars, doesn’t it?

Irresolute

‘Sup, bro?

Ten of us clambered to the top of Mt. Diablo the day after Earth Day. David had opined to me that he wanted to go up Diablo, something he hadn’t done in several years because he had been dealing with an unremitting injury affecting his riding and which took forever to get an accurate diagnosis of and then recover from. And the Pandemic hit and he like many of us hid out and dedicated himself to allaying Covid anxiety by refining his kitchen skills and then consuming the savory delights thereof. Happy to be back on the bike pain-free he has been steadily increasing his mileage and aspirations. With the SLO Wildflower just around the corner he wanted to cap his recovery by going to the top. “So, do you want to co-lead?” “Um, okay,” I unenthusiastically replied.

I’d like to say I was dealing with an injury or some other malady but I wasn’t: I just wasn’t feeling it. But maybe having to do it would shake me from the spring doldrums or from dark thoughts about dealing with the indignities of becoming old like the hills.

We got lucky: the unseasonablly wet weather relented and we had a clear, sunny day with little wind and a mild 58 degree forecast to go up the mount. Everybody made the start on time except for Will, who missed the BART train by one minute. He texted David he’d go to Dublin BART on the next train instead and climb up South Gate to meet us at the junction. I asked Scott when was the last time he had gone up Diablo. He said it had been at least five years. I mentioned the last hundred yards is the worst part since it’s a narrow ramp with about a 13% grade. Don’t stop in the middle or you’ll have a hell of time restarting.

I led the group through my preferred route via the backwoods of suburban Walnut Creek to North Gate Road. Usually Different Spokes rides just go on Walnut, a dreary arterial, before starting the climb. But my route avoids most of the cars and plus we go through a hidden Eichler gem of a neighborhood to ooo-and-aah over midcentury architecture.

At North Gate everybody headed up at their own pace. Eric and Darryl took off and the rest of us slogged. Despite the beautiful conditions I still wasn’t feeling it and was instead thinking of how nice it would have been to stay home and work in the garden. Some days you have it and some you don’t. There weren’t many cyclists or cars heading up. But there were a few cyclists heading down, suggesting that the early birds had gotten the worm and were done for the day. At the junction Maurizio was looking forward to making himself familiar with the rangers. I had told him that the ranger station there is almost always empty because the rangers are out, um, ranging. When we got there we were promptly greeted by three different rangers. Alas, Maurizio was not impressed. Not butch enough? Maybe today will be the last time he goes up Diablo.

Apparently Eric didn’t stop at the junction and kept heading up. Darryl decided to continue since he was getting cold. To our surprise Will showed up! Spokers came in one after the other and atypically did not leave together but took off as if in a hurry. Was it their resolute nature? I waited for the last to leave as I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere. Will, Roger S, and I chatted on the way up. We saw Eric and Darryl heading down. Will was uncharacteristically having a difficult day and only later did I find out that he had a knee injury that was making climbing challenging.

We got to the ramp just before the summit. I saw Scott midway up weaving in the road. No cars or other cyclists above me, I had a clear shot so I went for it. I saw Scott put his foot down: game over. Scott walked up the rest of the way. Having taken it easy all the way up I had plenty of oomph left. The key to getting up the ramp is to stay on the gas all the way, and I made it up smoothly (but not easily) not even using my lowest gear. For the record I used the 21-tooth cog. Yes bitches, a 21!

Hey, the summit was actually great—little wind, still sunny, and a 360 degree view of the Bay Area. We could even see the snow-capped Sierras! For extra entertainment a parasailor was circling around the summit catching updraft after updraft as we watched in awe. After more schmoozing cum commiseration we headed back down. I don’t know who was “killing” it on the downhill since I decided to leave last, being such a chickenshit on descents these days. And I still wasn’t feeling it.

We ended up at the latest Spoker lunch spot in Danville, Sultan’s Kebab. Eric and Darryl were more than midway through their lunch plates while the rest of us piled in hungry. We lucked out again: no crowd despite being a Saturday and we took over the outdoor tables. I’m a sucker for their falafel plate while my husband got the lamb shawarma wrap. Their wraps are all huge like the gut bombs they are. Roger couldn’t finish it so I polished it off after sucking up my falafels.

With bellies full and appetites temporarily sated, it was just a stroll back to BART on Danville Blvd. Do I hear Umhunum calling?

Deflowered

(Chris Manning photo)

This past weekend we had a big club turnout for the SLO Wildflower. This came out of nowhere and snowballed into a de facto club getaway weekend. Previous interest in heading 200 miles south for a century has been meager and thin and certainly nothing like this year. Was it the Pandemic effect? Lack of travelling for two years? Who knows. In the end it was an unexpected hit with about twenty members plus their kin heading to Paso Robles for the weekend. The bike widows had beaches, wine tasting, and the Three Speckled Hens Antiques Fair to keep them enthralled while their earnest cycling better-halves had better things to do, like cycle a hundred, eighty, or fifty miles on some of the most scenic and pastoral rural roads in California.

Friday night we gathered at club member Adrienne’s house for a big ‘sort-of’ potluck dinner. I say ‘sort-of’ because Adrienne and Mike pretty much set the table with a huge array of delicious, home-cooked food including smoked ribs, pasta, corn on the cob, salad, soup, rolls, you name it. Our contributions paled for the most part although Roger’s peach pandowdy and vegan apricot pie, Paul’s lemon poppyseed cake, and Darryl’s brownies wowed the crowd as well. After stuffing ourselves silly we went to bed in order to get to the start at 7 am in Creston for a big club send-off.

At 7 am it was 36 degrees and although the sun was up it sure didn’t feel like it. Leg warmers, jackets, full gloves were needed but that didn’t deter the unprepared fashion-minded from strutting their bare gams. Creston was an excellent choice for a start location, population 92. In the middle of ranch and vineyard country it was devoid of crowds and cars other than the cycling event itself. Quiet and unmistakenly rural it bestowed a calm and peaceful balm on all of us.

I hadn’t ridden in the Paso area in 33 years and boy, was that a mistake. I also had never done the SLO Wildflower before. The 100- and 80-mile routes were both figure-eight shaped with a 50-mile southern loop being used for the 50-mile route as well. Everyone does it and returns to Creston, then the 80-mile and century riders continue on separate northern loops. The entirety of the routes was countryside with the lone exception of Shandon, population 1,295, on the century route and of course Creston, the start. In other words it was road cycling heaven.

I won’t bother you with a blow-by-blow of the ride. I will encourage you to make the trip south to ride in the Paso Robles area. The riding is very similar to riding in Gold Country (minus the very steep climbs) and not unlike riding in Provence with oak woodland, scrub brush, and vineyards and farms scattered amidst. It’s quiet, relatively undisturbed and makes cycling in the Bay Area “countryside” seem positively urban. No, you won’t find tiny, gem-like bakeries, restaurants, craft breweries, or even minimarts around Creston. In fact you won’t find any development at all. The pavement varies from excellent to absolutely degraded tarmac but it’s typically pretty smooth though you’d have the best time with wider road tires to smooth out the cracks and the potholes. There was nothing ridiculously steep nor long, just plenty of rolling countryside with reasonable hills everywhere.

By 3 pm it was 85 degrees. So the temperature range was huge. But because we went through Creston midride we were able to dump extra clothes in the cars and be on our way and be comfortably dressed the rest of the day. Most of the club did the century while Scott, David, Roger, and I did the 80-mile (which was actually 82.4 miles); Sheila and Alice rode the 50-mile route, which is the most scenic and hilly section.

And the wildflowers? Unfortunately there weren’t many…alas, a drought year. Perhaps next year.

Special thanks to Adrienne and Mike for convivially hosting a hungry horde at their very special home and thanks to David Goldsmith for pulling the event together. Despite his protestations that he didn’t do much, he actually did a lot.

Mortification

Folsom Lake – the reality of our current drought

On Easter we decided to head up to Sacramento to do an old Different Spokes ride that is no longer fashionable, the American River Bike Trail (ARBT). Back in the day this was called the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail. The club first went up there courtesy of Derek Liecty and Richard Palmer on May 6, 1984. It was usually offered once a year in the spring or sometimes in the fall. No one in their right mind wanted to be on the American River in the summer as it would so hot one would faint from the heat and humidity. It got San Franciscans out of their comfort zone, ie. away from the Gay Ghetto and summer-long City fog and into the heartland of the Traditional Values Coalition and valley heat. It’s a beautiful paved trail that manages to avoid Sacto’s suburban sprawl and render the appearance that you’re out in the country (except when passing under the overpasses).

The ARBT starts in Discovery Park, which is just to the north of old town Sacramento, and continues for over 32 miles to Beals Point at Folsom Dam and then slightly beyond. The trail parallels the American River, wiggling along its banks amidst numerous river parks small and large. Even though you’re passing through several suburbs—Carmichael, Rancho Cordova, Fair Oaks, and Folsom—you rarely espy the urbanity as the planners have done an excellent job of preserving the river as is. The ARBT is technically a multi-use path but it’s unlike the ones we have in the Bay Area. The paved trail is primarily for cyclists and it has a painted divider for each direction, upriver and downriver. Although pedestrians can and do use the path, they are advised to use the dirt shoulder and walk facing cycling traffic. Skateboarding is banned. In comparison MUPs such as the Iron Horse or Contra Costa Canal Trail are free-for-all zones open to any user and there is no attempt to organize traffic nor limit users other than to the 15 MPH speed limit. Thus the ARBT is actually a great place to ride and better than the adjacent city streets since it has almost no stop signs and very few crossings.

Although it’s often described as ‘dead flat’ the ARBT is not exactly flat as a pancake. There are innumerable small ups and downs that are insidiously wearing. The only climb to speak of is the short ascent from the town of Folsom up to dam level. All in all it’s about 1,100 feet of gain over the length of the trail. As the day progresses the wind changes from usually downstream to what can sometimes be a steady upstream headwind as the Valley heats up and sucks air up the Delta. But there are so many places to stop to rest, get water, find a restroom, and relax on benches or lawns in shade or in sun that temporary relief is literally just at your feet. Although there are no food concessions on the trail itself, you can exit it at various points and search for the nearest fast food or other local restaurant in the suburbs themselves. At Beals Point there is a snack concession stand but its hours are mostly limited to summertime when the crowds throng the lakeshore. So for food it’s best to bring your own and you can enjoy a snack anywhere you like along the trail.

Roger and I last rode the ARBT in 2019 during the time when a long section of the trail at Lake Natoma—about 20 miles up the river—was closed due to a landslide and then a breeding pair of bald eagles established a nest there that had to be left undisturbed. We were forced to ride the south side of the river that year. It had been three years since we’ve ridden the trail and even longer for the closed section.

I was eagerly looking forward to revisiting the ARBT. Although I’ve suffered through some pretty hot versions, I’ve always enjoyed the mesmerizing roll along the river. This year it was slightly on the cool side and that made the entire day a comfortable jaunt. The trail is well used by Sacramento denizens as well as visitors from the Bay Area (e.g. I saw a rider with a Dublin Cyclery jersey). But the trail wasn’t crowded at all perhaps because there is plenty of room, 32 miles worth! Picnickers and daytrippers were out enjoying the sunny day and the smell of grilling meat wafted pleasantly along the trail.

The peculiar thing about the ARBT is that I’ve never been able to go very fast on it. Perhaps it’s because I’m just not ‘very fast’ period. Although I can roll on my local roads at over 17 MPH, I have a really hard time keeping that speed on the ARBT. And it wasn’t just this day—I’ve been doing about 15 MPH on it for years. And this time I felt like I was struggling almost the entire day. We were passed by other cyclists with some regularity. The trail is used not just by the hoi polloi but also by the local racers and faux racers. It is somewhat unsettling to see guys roll by at speed on time trial bikes; technically there is a 15 MPH limit but it’s for show only—laughable really—because of the inordinate number of cyclists rolling by at pace. Nonetheless except at a few critical junctures there is rarely a crowd on the trail.

Many of those passing us were on e-bikes and there were more e-bikes in use than I had ever seen before except perhaps at the Stanford E-Bike Expo. The assortment was really quite astounding—e-cargo bikes with kids, e-bikes with trailers, urban bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes—you name it, they all had batteries. At one point we were passed by a couple and I tried to catch them. 17 MPH…18 MPH…20 MPH…22 MPH and I was gasping. This went on for some time when I came to the realization that they probably had Class 3 e-bikes and unless I was willing to risk my heart exploding I wasn’t going to catch them. Off they flew into the distance. This happened several times: we’d get passed, I’d speed up, I couldn’t catch up or I’d just run out of gas/patience. In any case I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I really felt like the caboose!

At about the 20-mile point you pass the Nimbus fish hatchery. This facility is run by California Fish & Game and raises salmon and trout fingerlings to release into the American River due to the natural run being blocked by the Nimbus hydroelectic dam, which creates Lake Natoma just below Folsom. Here you have to cross the river and climb to the north side before dropping precipitously back to lake level to continue upstream. This section of the trail is beautiful as you glide by the lake and beaches, which are often full of users in warm weather.

Where the trail passes through Folsom is the beginning of the climb up to Beals Point. As we started to climb I could see a well-kitted cyclist suddenly appear behind us. Of course I sped up. Then I stood up and climbed for all I was worth (which wasn’t much). In a vain victory we dropped him on the climb, perhaps a mere hundred foot vertical gain. That nearly killed me. So I crawled into Beals Point for a good rest.

Usually we carry a lunch with us to eat at the lake. But this time we were set on going to Julian’s Patisserie, which is a couple of miles back down the trail on the outskirts of Folsom. It meant leaving the trail and getting on Folsom-Auburn Road, a wide four-lane arterial with shoulders. The transition from no cars to mo’ cars was unsettling! Peace and quiet were replaced by anxiety and the loud whine of many automobiles adjacent to a sadly perfunctory “bike lane”.

At Julian’s, which has outdoor seating, all the tables were taken and it was closing soon. So we ended up missing out on his pastries and ended up next door at Coffee Republic, which has lots of outdoor tables and hardly a crowd. The sandwiches were fine but nondescript, nothing to write home about.

Back on the trail we took it easier, or at least we tried to. Unfortunately the afternoon headwind had appeared so it was a bit of a slog anyway and it felt like we were merely crawling along. By now the Sunday crowds were in full force, parking lots were full at most of the parks we passed. And who wouldn’t want to be outside on such a pleasant day? Sunny but not hot, a light breeze, and plenty of foliage to assuage the senses.

As has been becoming typical I developed a hamstring cramp and we had to stop. I downed some pickle juice—Pickle Power!—and rested a bit, then headed back even more slowly. I know that if I take it easy (or down a Coke, which alas I did not have) I can make it calm down. A few miles down the path I felt better and we were shortly back at Discovery Park. I can’t say I was beat but I was close to it—it was after all over 64 miles. And my average speed for the day? 15 MPH. Same as it ever was. At least I’m not getting slower quickly.

Into Socks. Are you?

Sock it to me!

Socks for sale
Appetizing young socks for sale
Socks that are fresh and still unspoiled
Socks that are only slightly soiled
Socks for sale
Who will buy?
Who would like to sample our supply?
Who’s prepared to pay the price
For a trip to paradise?
Socks for sale

—Cole Porter

Is your boudoir closet brimming with the latest sexy cycling kit? You know, your Different Spokes matchy-match club jersey and bibshorts and maybe our chic cap? But there’s something missing to make that outfit a perfect “10”—matching cycling socks!

Your wish has been granted and our 40th anniversary gift to ourselves is our new DSSF socks now available at the club store on our website. Want to be en vogue at the next Jersey Ride? You have to have this fine hosiery clad your little piggies! Just $15 plus shipping for the Spokerati, $20 plus shipping for the hoi polloi, er- non-members. Find them at the club website. If you are a member, log in first to get the member discount. Socks should ship sometime in June.

And remember: friends don’t let friends dress badly. Get your BFFs a pair too!

Fun With Road Tubeless: The Aftermath

No sealant on the floor yet…

When last seen I had managed to crawl back to the manse under my own power, having successfully inserted an inner tube into my catastrophically blown tubeless rear tire while by the side of the road. Not needing to summon a vehicle nor really needing to do anything else other than rid myself of all the slathered, dried sealant, I was sorely tempted to “oh-fuck-it-all” throw the bike in the corner of the shop and just keep riding my now lumpy, thumpy, heavy, and dumpy repaired wheel.

Nah, that’d be too easy!

The tire was old, so old that once I got home and inspected it more carefully that in addition to sporting a ridiculously large gash it also bore a couple of bare spots where I could see the tire casing. This baby was heading for the dumpster.

Ah, the hidden blessings of tubeless tires revealed. With a regular tire you just patch the tube, replace the tube, or replace both the tube and the tire. Yes, a flat is a nuisance when you’re out on the road/trail. But due consideration has to be given to what you’re actually ending up having to do as a trade off for smugly riding your tubeless tires through thorns and broken glass piles with nary a care. Yeah, you have fewer flats and that saves you time and hassle at the time. But as I’ve chronicled the last few years there is a learning curve associated with maintaining and caring for tubeless road tires. The bottom line: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Replacing a regular tire is no sweat: pull it and the tube off, check for something stuck in the casing, and put a new tube in, inflate carefully, then you’re good to go. Even if you’re slow and methodical (or just slow), it’s a task that takes less than ten minutes. If you’re patching a tube too, add five minutes. What I ended up doing to replace this old tire was a lot more protracted and arduous.

It took over a week to get the wheel back into working order.

At home when I deflated the inner tube and unseated a tire bead, lots of sealant came out. Some people save their old sealant and put it in the new tire. Despite my miserly, cheap bastard tendencies there was no way I was going to try to gather up all that mess to reuse. I swabbed up the floor, carefully tossed the tire into the waste basket, and then washed off the inner tube. One positive is that latex-based sealant washes off easily and cleanly with tap water—tube saved for another day. There was sealant all over the rim and dripping down the spokes although I had managed to keep the cassette and brake rotor mostly free of the muck. Wiping off the wheel with paper towels consumed a lot of them and took some time. Then I noticed more sealant on the rim. Where did that come from? I just wiped it off! It turns out there was sealant inside the rim cavity How did it get inside? Maybe from the sealant flowing down the spokes and into the spoke holes? That seemed unlikely.

But I didn’t give it a second thought; if there was a little more sealant, I’d wipe it off and that’d be it. But sealant kept reappearing. I spent a lot of time cleaning the rim well because I wanted to make sure there wasn’t any dried or soon-to-be-dried sealant to interfere with seating the tire bead. This meant carefully wiping the entire rim bed including under the bead hook, which is a tedious task.

A rim has to be sealed completely in order for tubeless tires to work. If your rim has spoke holes, then they need to be covered up to contain the sealant and the air. With a non-tubeless rim you use rim strips to keep the inner tube from being forced into the rim cavity by air pressure. You cannot use regular rim strips with tubeless tires because they’re not airtight. Instead you have to use special tubeless tape to cover all the spokes holes and you need to have the right width tape to match your rim width.

I ended up cleaning the rim at least three times because each time I thought it was ‘clean’, then more sealant would appear in the spoke holes. At that point I began to suspect the rim tape had been compromised, allowing sealant to enter the rim cavity. Rim strips for non-tubeless tires last a long time. I have some old wheels that probably have never had their rim strips replaced. Rim tape for tubeless wheelsets it seems is another matter; the recommended replacement schedule is unclear but apparently mounting and demounting tires does wear out tubeless tape (!). My tendency is to run stuff until there is an obvious failure and although I’d mounted and demounted the old tire several times, I never gave it a thought. Maybe now was the failure.

In order for rim tape to seal it has to adhere to the rim cavity ferociously. If not, say because there was dried sealant or schmutz on it, then the tape won’t adhere well and air (and sealant) will leak into the rim cavity. But I hadn’t had any problem with this tire/rim holding pressure before the flat. And, when I removed the old rim tape I did not see any obvious holes in the tape. So it’s a mystery as to how so much sealant ended up inside the rim. Just to be safe I decided to replace the tubeless tape because I did not want to set up the new tire only to discover post factum that the old tape was no good.

After wiping the rim several times yet again, I set the wheel upright to let the sealant drain out. The next day there was more sealant on the floor. I hung the wheel up. For the next four days I continued to see new sealant pooling around the spoke holes. By around the sixth day it was sufficiently dried up that I was trusting putting new tape on it. Ideally I would have wiped the entire rim down with acetone. But I didn’t have any and although very effective at removing residue it’s quite toxic. Instead I had rubbing alcohol so it would have to do.

That delay actually wasn’t a bad thing because I didn’t have any tubeless tape. I thought I did but a mad search revealed none. If I had, I would have slapped it on immediately and inadvertently left a lot of sealant inside the rim. I ordered a roll of Stan’s tape for $20 (enough for four wheels) and that took three days to arrive. That delay allowed me to let the wheel empty out and dry some more.

With everything now at hand and the rim clean(er) and dry(er) I was now ready to install the new tire. Confession: I’ve never put together a tubeless wheelset before. This wheel came to me already set up with sealant. So this would be my first time (cue “Like A Virgin”). A couple of YouTube videos later I was ready to do it myself.

One more obstacle though: I then noticed that on the rim bed was a tiny sticker that said the warranty would be voided if (1) one used pressure above 90 psi, or (2) one didn’t use 25mm HED tape. So I emailed HED asking if using Stan’s tape would void the warranty—seriously??—and got a surprisingly rapid response the next morning saying that Stan’s tape was fine. Whew.

Installing tubeless tape is very much like installing regular rim strips although with tubeless tape you are advised to apply it tautly. HED also advises applying two layers of tape, which given the tape doesn’t seem reinforced, was a good idea to me. Apparently one wrap of tape weighs about 5-10 grams, so no big deal. I had to struggle a bit until I got my technique down, leading to applying, removing, then applying ad nauseum. Practice makes perfect or in my case, less imperfect. The goal is to have smooth tape covering all the spoke holes and without crinkles or irregularities where sealant and air might invade and then leak out. This stuff is stiffer than regular rim strips so by trial and error I learned that applying firm thumb pressure in the rim well while laying down the tape was important to getting it to adhere smoothly. And of course your aim has to be good, ie. pull the damn tape straight so that it doesn’t meander in the rim bed.

The next step was getting the new tire onto the rim. But before that I had to install a valve and screw it down with a retention nut but not so tightly that I wouldn’t be able to do unscrew it by hand if I got another catastrophic flat on the road. For a Boy Scout medal I then added a bead of sealant around the now seated valve to fill any gaps in the hole in case it wasn’t perfect and let it dry. Now for the tire: to my surprise it was very easy to mount and I got both beads on the rim lickety-split. But no matter how quickly I pumped I could not get it to inflate at all.

So out came the 80-lb. air compressor. Even though I don’t have a dedicated presta valve head on the compressor hose, the regular nozzle puts out so much air that it’s capable of blasting a tire on. In order to blow the maximum amount of air, I removed the presta valve core from the tubeles valve. The tire inflated quickly, the beads immediately snapping into place with unsettling cracking sounds so loud I thought the tire was going to blow off the rim. But it didn’t. Unfortunately I could hear the hissing of air escaping somewhere. I tried this several times and each time it would hold air only temporarily and each time the air seemed to be escaping at different locations around the rim.

Since I had never set up tubeless tires before, I did not realize that this is actually a common occurrence. Roger suggested I add sealant but I was hesitant to do so until I had a good seal because I didn’t want to have more sealant blowing every whichway around the rim I had just meticulously cleaned. But eventually that’s exactly what I did because I couldn’t get a seal despite removing the tire and resetting it a couple of times.

To add sealant you can either pour it in the tire and then put the bead back on the rim or you can inject it through the valve. I did the latter since it’s easy once the valve core is out and it’s less likely to make a mess. I put in roughly two ounces of sealant, which is overkill for road tires. Then I tried again with the compressor. The beads slammed into place right away and I could see sealant coming out at several locations around the rim on both sides.

Now I had to roll the tire around to get the entire interior of the cavity coated with sealant. If I was lucky the gaps along the rim/tire interface would be small enough that the sealant should plug them up. I did this for about 15 minutes, holding the wheel horizontally and rocking it around to get sealant on both beads. I then left it on one side, came back some time later and set it on the other side. By evening the tire still felt hard. I left it overnight and the tire was still hard. I now had a new tubeless tire installed and set up with sealant on my rear wheel after about a week.

This, I think, completes the demystification process of tubeless road tires for me. I lived through the worst case scenario of an unsealable gash while on the road and I was able to get an inner tube installed and got home. I have also set up a tubeless tire from scratch—actually even worse than scratch because I had to completely clean the filthy rim before I could proceed with an installation. Even if I had had a set of tire plugs with me, I do not think in retrospect that I could have gotten a very good seal, maybe enough to limp home on very low tire pressure but not enough to be a permanent repair (assuming the tire hadn’t already been worn down to the casing). The gash was big enough that I would have needed at least two plugs, maybe three to work.

The bottom line: tubeless or tubed—which is it from now on?
Whatever time I’d saved in not having to repair flats while on the road was long lost in the amount of time I spent dealing with this catastrophic failure. Admittedly it wasn’t that hard to get an inner tube installed. Will it be that ‘easy’ the next time? I don’t know and that uncertainty bothers me. Perhaps with this new tire it will be easy because it went on the rim for the first time without needing to use tire levers. But the clean up and repair afterwards was prolonged, irksome, and just shows how complicated a minor thing like a flat can become. It reminded me of when I used to ride on sewup tires. A good sewup has an unbeatable ride feel. They’re heaven until you get a flat. Yes, you can put on a spare sewup if you do flat and make it home. But the aftermath of a puncture is a major pain in the ass. You have to repair the sewup, which involves removing the sewup from the rim if you haven’t already—a major task with sewup glue, opening up the seam, patching, sewing the seam back up correctly, and then regluing it to the rim. The repairs are time consuming and tedious. When I found someone who would repair my sewups for a fee, I immediately dumped my pile of unrepaired tires on him. When he left the business I stopped riding on sewups. Tubeless tires bring almost as much labor and unnecessary irritation to the table.

There are times when not getting a flat on the road is a godsend—when it’s raining or incredibly hot or when you’re in a place you can’t stop such as a sketchy neighborhood or when there is no convenient place to do a repair. But you have to weigh that against the occasions when a puncture doesn’t seal or only partially seals, the clean up, and the maintenance that tubeless tires require with sealant. I was almost convinced tubeless really might be the best of all possible worlds. Until now. But then again one catastrophic failure in 8,000 miles ain’t too bad. That’s about one per year.

As for ride feel, it’s really a question of what you’re used to and whether you’re that much of a princess. Lots of folks ride on tire/tube combinations that feel to me like riding on wooden wagon wheels, eg. Specialized Armadillo tires with bargain basement butyl inner tubes, and they’re happy with them probably because they’re inexpensive, they don’t get many if any flats, and they require almost no time for maintenance. But if you’re a hothouse flower that moans at the slightest pavement incongruities you’d probably be willing to spend more time and money for wheels that cosset you like fine linens. In my opinion tubeless tires do not provide the princess experience. The best setup I’ve ridden this side of sewups is a traditional tubed tire such as a high-end Michelin or a Rene Herse coupled with a latex inner tube. Those combinations are light and have supple casings that come closest to a silk sewup tire. Unfortunately this means accepting the occasional flat tire while on the road. Tubeless tires mostly free you from that concern but in exchange the ride quality is not quite as good. It’s not bad, just not as good as what I had been used to. When it might rain or I’m going on a ride where there’s a lot of filth, I’ll take tubeless—no questions asked. I don’t want to be doing a roadside repair under those conditions. But in other situations I don’t see the need.

Keep in mind that all of this hassle and rigamarole mostly pertains only if you do your own maintenance and repairs. As our club president David said, “Well, don’t you have people who can do that for you?” Yes, you can always take it to a shop and have them deal with the aftermath. It’ll cost you maybe an hour total of shop time and you’ll have to wait for them to do your repair. It reminds me when Bing once told me that he always took his bike to the shop to fix the flats and he was using inner tubes! Of course he lived across the street from a shop. But if you want to do your own repairs, you may want to stay with inner tubes unless you’re willing to put up with what I just went through or you think you’re just luckier than I am.

Fun With Road Tubeless: When Dreams Come True

On Good Friday, also the first day over Passover, my dream came true or rather my nightmare came true. The Damoclean sword of tubeless road tires is the catastrophic puncture. Well, the string finally broke. Until then I was beginning to believe tubeless road tires were fulfiling their promise…

Pictures are worth a thousand words. Unfortunately I didn’t stop to take any during this ordeal because, um, my mind was on other matters. So you’re getting the thousands of words instead.

Roger and I were heading to Bollinger Canyon for a nice, long ride up a beautiful, relatively untouched canyon to enjoy a bag lunch at Las Trampas Regional Park. As we were rolling on Danville Boulevard I suddenly heard the loud “psss-psss-psss” hiss of a puncture. I thought it must have been Roger’s wheel because I was on tubeless tires. It couldn’t be me, right? Wrong, it was my rear tire. Tubeless punctures rarely make any noise at all and often you are unaware that anything has punctured your tire because the sealant acts so quickly. Once I realized it was me I knew it was very bad juju. And it was.

Sealant was dripping profusely from my wheel onto the pavement leaving a small puddle and I could see bubbles on the tire casing where the air was leaking out. My tire was very soft. Shit. Despite the look of things I was praying the sealant would do its magic. I spun the wheel so the puncture was at the bottom and sealant could pool readily to clog the hole and we waited a couple of minutes. Then I borrowed Roger’s pump—because it’s a much better pump than my ridiculous minipump—and gently tried to inflate the tire. But it wouldn’t hold air and when I pumped I could see more bubbles. This puncture was clearly too large to be sealed by Orange Seal.

My ride was done it seemed. I carry a spare tube and a pump knowing it is theoretically possible to put a tube in a tubeless setup, inflate it, and keep going. But based on my experience with these Schwalbe Pro One tires I was leery of trying a roadside repair. In the past I could barely get the tire on and off the rim even with tire levers at home let alone by the side of the road. I had visions of me a mucky mess covered in sealant, screaming multisyllabic profanities, and hurling broken tire levers into the street. So essentially my repair kit has been more magical fetish than practical.

We agreed Roger would go home to get the car and I would wait to be retrieved. After he left I came to the realization that since I had over an hour I might as well try to get the tube in. The worst that could happen is that I would fail and everything would be covered in sealant, he’d show up with the car eventually and we’d cart this mess back home where I could deal with it properly. Plus I wanted to see if I could actually do it, sort of an experiment of one. The worst that could happen is that I’d have a LOT of cleaning to do later and get another lesson in frustration. So I took a deep breath, thought happy thoughts, and dove in.

My thinking was that the tire is well-used (= frickin’ old—more than six years) and hence stretched out as much as it could. So perhaps I’d be able to get the bead off and back on the rim. When it was new this was nearly impossible.

I was actually somewhat prepared for this eventuality. I had nitrile gloves and several sheets of paper towel to protect myself and mop up the inevitable mess. Fortunately I still had fenders on the bike despite our dry winter and that prevented a fountain of sealant from merrily spraying every whichway—on the bike, on my clothes and into Roger’s face. However the one thing I did not have and that might have spared me this agony was a tire plug that I could have tried to jam them into the tire casing to assist a seal. Suddenly that $60 Dynaplug kit I had rolled my eyes at wasn’t looking so frivolous.

I was able to get the left bead off the rim but only after releasing both beads in order to get them into the wheel well to create enough slack to lift a part of the bead over the rim. Releasing the beads from the rim hooks means having to get them back in later, which is not easy. If you don’t get them back in, you end up with an un-round wheel and a thump-thump-thump ride home. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to release the right side bead because that would surely result in sealant everywhere. And it did. I could see the tire was full of sealant, not too surprising because I had topped it off with a copious quantity about three months ago in a Boy Scout moment—no good deed goes unpunished. “Release the kraken!”

If you’re not familiar with tubeless tires, you may be unaware that you have to remove the tire valve so that you can insert the valve stem of the inner tube into the rim. However if one screws the retention nut too hard during installation, one may not be able to get it off without a wrench. But this time I lucked out and I was able to remove it. More dripping ensued during all this.

I popped the spare in and then the fun began: trying to get the tire bead back on the rim. It was almost Herculean. The tire bead actually was more compliant now that it was hella old. Yay! But any stretching was negated by the slippery film of sealant on my gloved hands, the rim, and the tire. Boo! Trying to grip the bead was like trying to catch an eel with your bare hands. After a few futile attempts I ripped the gloves off into order to get a better grip, utlized best practices in creating more slack, and tried again. Fail. So I resorted to the neutron bomb of tire repair: using a lever to get that last bit of bead on. This time I succeeded but I wasn’t sure if I had also pinched the tube and punctured it. Prayer ensued. 250 slogging pumps later with my feeble minipump I had a mostly inflated tubeless tire with a tube in it! About a half-hour had passed.

I cleaned myself and the wheel with fragments of paper towel and packed up everything strewn on the ground. I called Roger and told him I was going to ride home and I would call him for a car pick up only if my temporary fix failed later down the road. As I rode away there was the thump-thump-thump of the wheel—part of the bead hadn’t seated properly. But long story long, I got home in one piece not smelling like a rose but like Orange Seal.

Next: the aftermath.

Karoo 2 Setup and First Experience

I’ve been doing some retail therapy the last couple of months, and right at the top of my list was replacing my six year old Garmin Edge 520. 

That GPS was OK in its day, but time has passed it by. The map screens were always atrocious – useless, really – they couldn’t be seen in many riding conditions. Using a route while riding drained the battery in something like four hours. If you research it, you will learn that most Garmins have problems with excessive battery drain when riding with a route. And, loading routes onto the GPS was quite the little adventure. 

But still, the old GPS did its job reasonably well – when it was newer. Then, about a year ago, the GPS’  Bluetooth decided it no longer wanted to connect to my phone, so uploading rides meant connecting the GPS to a computer using a cable. Routing started getting flaky – it would tell me I was off course when I wasn’t off course, and it had trouble recognizing I was on course after restarting a ride after stopping for a while. (Which is how I ended up leading a group of riders the wrong way out of Yountville on this year’s Darth Veeder ride, and why I was asking people “now, how do you go?” as we were pulling out of Castro Valley BART on the Palomares ride.)

Then, there are the never-ending annoyances of Garmin Connect and connect.garmin.com, software that feels like it was developed 15 years ago and never got significant updates. And, there’s Garmin’s strategy of dealing with customers who have problems – “what, your GPS doesn’t work? So sorry. We’ll be glad to sell you a newer model at a discount. (But we’ll never fix yours, it’s out of warranty.)” 

I decided I was tired of thinking that Garmin was the only way to go (since that’s the brand I started with), and tired of being locked into buying Garmin devices as the only path forward once my Garmin device stopped operating as it should.

I did some research and decided I wanted to give the Hammerhead Karoo 2 a try.

I’m not going to shill for the Karoo 2, but I will say that its huge, bright screen was what seduced me. I’m getting older, and, well, the eyes are going. Wait, what, I’m going to be able to see maps on my GPS again? Wow. What a concept.

The sections that follow are my experiences as I was upgrading from my low-end, six year old device to one that’s brand spanking new and higher end. So I can’t be too hard on Garmin here. But Garmin’s had close to a monopoly on the cycling GPS market for years (OK, I see you, Wahoo). It does feel good (so far) to get out from under Mama Garmin’s thumb.

I’m three rides in now, and so far, very pleased with my new toy. Here are my impressions setting the new GPS up and riding with it the first couple of times.

Powering Up

  • Wow, the packaging is so nice. Did I buy an Apple something or a Google something, ‘cause this feels like it. Yeah, I’m superficial. Nothing like opening up a pretty box.
  • Nice. This thing has a USB-C interface, just like my computer, my laptop, my phone, and everything else I have that’s less than 5 years old.
  • But, oops. They’re protecting the interface with a stupid little black plastic plug? I wonder how long it’s going to be before that gets lost.
  • OK, I started it. Why does this GPS take so damn long to power up? It’s taking as long as the Garmin does. Bleah.
  • Huh? This is an Android device? Wait – I  already know how to use Android! Less of a learning curve!
  • It’s got a touch screen. Yay! Nice upgrade! (I could have had one if I had bought a more expensive Garmin than the 520, so I’m not blaming the lack of a touch screen on Garmin – more on my buying a less expensive Garmin model.)
  • Oh. My. God. That screen. High resolution. Brilliant display. It’s almost as good as my MacBook Pro – at least in these indoor light conditions.

Setup Experience 

  • There’s support.hammerhead.io and dashboard.hammerhead.io? Why do I need two accounts, and two sets of login credentials. Weird. Not like.
  • I’m making my way through Karoo’s setup instructions on-line, and they’re pretty good. I’m well-positioned to assess that – I write this kind of stuff for a living.
  • Wow, soooo easy to connect my Hammerhead account with Strava and RideWithGPS.com. 
  • Now I’m loading a route, in advance of doing my first ride. All I have to do is go to routes on dashboard.hammerhead.io, click Add, and then supply the URL from RideWithGPS? No “download the route, connect the GPS to my laptop, drag the route to the NewFiles folder” dance? C’mon, Hammerhead, you’re making this too easy.
  • I paired the GPS with my phone. Straightforward and easy.
  • And unlike the Edge 520, maybe Bluetooth is actually going to work on this thing.
  • I also downloaded the Karoo 2 app, but I’m not sure why. The Internet told me to, and it seemed like a good idea.
  • Uh, oh, hardware problem. The Karoo 2 comes with an attachment that you can put on the GPS that makes it compatible with Garmin mounts, but the mount has to be far enough away from your handlebars so that the GPS will fit on your bike. Mine didn’t. So I was either going to have to get a new Garmin-compatible mount or use the Hammerhead mount. I opted to take the Garmin mount off the bike and replace it with the Hammerhead mount. Took me all of 5 minutes, and y’know, I’m klutzy with that kind of stuff. 

First Ride

  • Holy crap. I can actually make out what’s on the screen. In bright sunlight, in shade, and everything in between. With or without my sunglasses.
  • The screen resolution is AMAZING.
  • I don’t even mind dark mode on this thing. I’m not a fan of dark mode for everyday work, but it works well with this GPS.
  • Routing worked flawlessly. No “off course” warnings when I wasn’t off course. And it started up right away, no delay at all.
  • Needless to say, I forgot to click start, to tell the GPS to start capturing ride data. It’s a tradition when I get a new GPS, and I forget to do it even when I’m well-acquainted with my GPS.
  • Holy crap again. I can actually see the maps. Maps are useful on this GPS? What a concept.
  • I can see how much battery power I have left. Nice. And I even know where to go look for it, because it’s Android and I know how to use Android. It’s in the upper part of the screen, just like on my cell phone.
  • The climb feature is REALLY cool. The screen shows me how many climbs I have to go on my route, and once I’m on a climb, it tells me how much longer the climb will be, and what the grades ahead are going to be. Sure could have used this on Morgan Territory Road the other day, when I was swearing at the grades and wondering how much more of that damn climb I was going to have to suffer through.
  • So, no more “let’s see, Mt. Diablo is about a 3,600 foot climb, and Camino Alto (which I’ve done a million billion times) is about 300 feet, therefore, the climb ahead is going to be 12 Camino Altos. OK, David, you can do 12 Camino Altos if you pace yourself…down to ten Camino Altos, you can do it…halfway there, so only 5 Camino Altos to go…one more Camino Alto, you can do one Camino Alto…” Yeah, that’s me. 
  • Uh, oh. Cadence and power are not registering. I must have done something wrong when I set up the device. Back to the drawing board on those. 
  • Hey, this thing uploaded my ride to Strava, just like my Garmin used to do before Bluetooth crapped out. And I can even change the ride title right on the GPS to something other than Morning Ride? Sweet.
  • My three hour ride’s done, and I still have 75% power, even though I had routing on the entire way. Nice. That’s the kind of battery life I was hoping for in up a new GPS.

After the First Ride

  • What!? This thing uploaded my ride to RideWithGPS, too? But I only use RideWithGPS for creating routes. Guess it’s OK. I don’t want to take the trouble to figure out how to suppress the uploads.
  • Goodbye Garmin Connect, you piece of crap. So nice to delete you from my phone and my computers.
  • OK, I am able to clean the screen on this thing. I hope that lasts. Seemed like I could never get the Garmin screen clean, I think it had a small amount of moisture in it or something.
  • Apparently I need to set up a ride profile so that I can see cadence and power data, so I set one up. It wasn’t trivially easy. But with the touch screen, it was way easier than doing it was on the Garmin once, (Serves me right for buying the lower-end Garmin.) I got the hang of it. 
  • Multiple ride profiles (different sets of screens) are a nice concept. I don’t know that I’ll ever use any other profiles other than the main one I set up, though.

Second Ride 

  • Oh, dang, the touch screen doesn’t work with long-fingered gloves. Oh, wait, yes it does, I just have to press a little harder.
  • My ride profile was not well set up. The information I’m getting about turns and climbs ahead are covering up other data fields. I’m going to need to redo my ride profile. 

After the Second Ride

  • Revised my ride profile after my first ride. Way easier to work with the second time around. 

So there you have it. Two rides in and so far, I’m pretty happy with the new gear. If you’d like to see it in operation, join me on a ride sometime, and I’ll be glad to show it to you.

Update (Apr 18, 2022)

I just discovered a major problem with the Karoo 2, which is that it needs a WiFi connection to upload rides. That means that even though I’ve established a Bluetooth connection from the device to my phone, rides don’t upload. That’s a downgrade from almost every Garmin, including my low-end 520.

You can either wait till you get home, when the Karoo 2 will connect to your WiFi and the ride will automatically upload, or you can start a hotspot on your phone. Neither is a great option. I’m going to try the hotspot after my next ride, but I’m not real happy after finding this out.

There have been many complaints about this on Hammerhead’s support forum, but so far, the Karoo 2 hasn’t been updated to provide this capability.

Core Values

Same as it ever was!

On Sunday we had our irregularly offered Apple Blossom ride out of Sebastopol. This year it is part of the Forty & Fab ride series, justifiably so since not only is it an early club ride that had faded from collective memory due to membership attitrion—there aren’t many oldsters still in the club—but because the riding experience and scenery are topnotch. This year it was just three of us, Roger S and me and my husband Roger H. Perhaps it was the ominous weather forecast and lack of sunshine that drove you all away. But to our astonishment (not!) the forecast proved to be completely wrong: we had bright sunshine and perfect temperature for climbing the west Sonoma bergs.

The Apple Blossom is in reality a set of rides done in the early days of the club that all took you from Sebastopol to Occidental and back. They differed in length and plied slightly different rural roads but all the routes were clockwise heading south of Sebastopol and then west while gradually working their way to Occidental. The traditional lunch stop was the Union Hotel in Occidental; for some reason we never ate at Negri’s across the street perhaps because there was no outside dining nor other conveniently safe place to leave our bikes. El Mariachi, Howard’s Station, and Hazel did not exist back then. The other reason probably was due to Mike Reedy, who did not originate the Apple Blossom—it was MJ—but he loved this ride and was responsible for creating one of the routes by shortening the original. (Mike was, uh, heavy and didn’t take kindly to steep hills.) Mike was Italian-American and loved Italian-American cooking, and his choice was always the Union Hotel. When the Apple Blossom was revived for the 30th anniversary, of course I followed tradition and set lunch there. However last year we broke tradition and ate at El Mariachi and discovered that their burritos were excellent. I was actually looking forward to going there again but I got outvoted in favor of the Union Hotel and that turned out to be an excellent decision. But I’m jumping ahead…

Because we knew it was going to be a very cozy group this club ride had a very casual atmosphere. We actually did end up leaving at the scheduled time of 10 AM but that was more by happenstance since I had told Roger S that I wasn’t going to be a martinet about it. Of course it wouldn’t be a Different Spokes ride if something predictably unpredictable happened and that was my ancient Garmin 800, which has been nearly bombproof in over ten years of dependable use, locked up a mere one block from the start necessitating a stop—going uphill, natch—and the revival of some long dormant brain cells on how one reboots a Garmin 800. That done we continued without a hitch for the rest of the day.

A piece of heaven

Riding in west Sonoma is both heavenly and infernal. On a good day like we were having the scenery is an oh-so-good massage for your eyes, ears, and nose. It was sunny, cool but not cold, and clear air made everything shine in brilliant colors and detail. But the road quality varied from “are we dirt yet?” to reasonably smooth tarmac with a distinct emphasis on the former. Because we’re the trendsetters that we are, all of us were on tires of 30mm width or more and that helped to ease the shock of the innumerable potholes, patches, rubble, and other road incongruities that pepper Sonoma country roads like a case of bad acne on a teenager’s face. And it didn’t take long before we were merrily bouncing our way south on the narrow road euphemistically named Pleasant Hill, dodging pavement heaves and sadistically poor asphalt patches whilst playing tag with the cars who all seemed in a hurry, obviously late for church!

After turning off Pleasant Hill the traffic almost disappeared except on Roblar, which is a cut-through from Highway 116 to Valley Ford. This was rural Sonoma, faux farm houses soon giving way to the real thing along with orchards, vineyards, and pastures. Time has not been kind to the Gravenstein apple. Whether its popularity has diminished due to the newer variants such as the Gala, Pink Lady, or Honeycrisp or just because apples in general are less profitable to grow, Gravensteins are vanishing quickly from Sonoma, which used to be their production epicenter. In fact there is still an annual Gravenstein Festival in Sebastopol. We passed a few abandoned orchards, trees hoary from the lack of pruning and overgrown with tall weeds. Places that used to be acre after acre of apple trees are now growing wine grapes no doubt because every bottle of wine made in California can be sold at a nice profit. The switch may be good for the farmers but it’s made it difficult to find Gravensteins in markets. Thirty years ago Gravensteins regularly showed up in Safeway, Co-op, and other NorCal chains. Now, outside of Sonoma you’re lucky to find them at all. Roger S stopped to take a picture of some apple blossoms in an abandoned orchard thinking that we’d likely not see anymore. Fortunately that turned out not to be true.

Leaping lagomorph!

We stopped and dawdled when and wherever we wanted and there was plenty to dawdle over. The views from the tops of the hillocks we surmounted were just pastoral in the best sense of the word—green pastures and hills seemingly undiminished by the drought, Holsteins lounging in the fields munching away. As we tooled along we kept running across metal art placed in front of farms, fanciful rabbits, octupi, centipedes, and tin men! There were also plentiful wildflowers including California poppies whose color just ‘pops’ against the green grasses.

West Sonoma may be farm land but it is not the least flat. Instead it’s rolling hills and depending on which road you take you’ll either confront something reasonable like an 8% grade or something less reasonable like a 12% grade. Today it wasn’t so bad with the worst being less than 10%. Even so it felt more like rockclimbing than climbing. Tempering these climbs were the numerous photo ops and vista breaks we were taking. But the climbing eventually took its toll on my legs and I was getting hungry. Just outside of Occidental we passed by Ratzlaff Farms, one of the few remaining commercial Gravenstein orchards left. It took us nearly three hours to ride from Sebastopol to Occidental, which is just 23 miles away!

“I earned this!”

We dined at the Union Hotel in their outdoor courtyard beneath their blossoming Judas tree or Eastern redbud. We weren’t sure which was correct but those were the two guesses that Plantnet gave us. Incidentally that was another great find of the day: Roger S used the app Plantnet on his phone to identify the many plants we were curious about as we rolled along. No need to have a degree in botany and know how to key out plants—just use the app! Although the Union Hotel constructed a monstrous parklet in front for Pandemic dining, the courtyard has a more cordial atmosphere and today it wasn’t crowded at all. We grabbed a table and looked over their menu. Alas, the Pandemic has led them to drastically reduce their tasty menu down to a mere handful of choices, better I suppose for the kitchen so that they don’t need to prep so much for a small or unpredictable number of meals. We decided to split a pizza and Roger S selected the Garlic Gold, which has a creamy garlic instead of tomato sauce as well as mozzarella, sausage, caramelized onions, and sautéed mushrooms. None of us had ever had their pizza before and it was a revelation. Although predictably American—no wood fired oven here!—it was marvelous with the caramelized onions lending an interesting sweet flavor to such savory toppings. We couldn’t finish the whole thing even though it was only about 12 inches. (Where have I heard that before?)

We spent nearly an hour and a half over lunch. It was a very Italian pranzo: cycle somewhere really chill, sit down and have a proper meal, chat, linger, and finally roust oneself back on the bike for the completion of the ride. The ride back was ten miles and most of it downhill, so delaying our departure wasn’t to avoid a scarf ’n barf session—it was just ‘lunch’, the type which you rarely see on a Different Spokes ride.

Back in the saddle we had but three or four tiny hills to surmount on the generally downhill rush back to Sebastopol. More beautiful rural countryside, more sculpture, few cars. Just outside of town we ran into a large apple orchard in bloom. Nice. And adjacent to it was another abandoned orchard. Sigh. The run into town goes almost immediately from farm land to residential neighborhood. Now that’s a green line!

We were back at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, our start, and it was 3 PM—five hours to cover 33 miles. That was a bike ride to relish: good food, good company, and occasionally good road. It’s still spring up in Sebastopol so if you’re hankering for your country road fix, this is the place to go. If and when you go the apple blossoms may have vanished. But you’ll still be able to enjoy this little piece of cycling heaven.