Get Over It

“Passing on your left!”

Confession: I’m done with cycling across the Golden Gate Bridge. It makes me both sad and disheartened that I say that. When I lived in San Francisco, I cycled across the bridge several times a week and I used to enjoy it immensely. The ambiance, the views, and the peace & quiet couldn’t be beat. Because of my unusual work hours I would take to the bridge at almost all hours of the day. On weekends I’d do the usual ride-to-somewhere-in-Marin usually in the morning and return in the afternoon; on weekdays I even regularly crossed the bridge at night since it was the time of day I could go for a ride.

After moving to the East Bay almost two decades ago I’ve crossed the Bridge maybe a dozen times and almost all of those trips have been Jersey Rides. On Jersey Rides the bridge is astonishingly busy—borderline congested—especially in the afternoon on the way back. In a way I wish it were even more congested because then no one would be able to speed along and everyone would be going the same speed, ie. slow. It’s gotten so busy that I say without exaggeration that it is a near constant stream of cyclists crossing wheel-to-wheel.

Having a lot of cyclists is not itself a problem. But how they behave in close quarters is. A significant proportion of the traffic is visitors on rental bikes. Many if not most are casual cyclists steering unfamiliar bikes. It’s not surprising that they might be a bit unsure. But when they start taking selfies while riding across the bridge in heavy traffic I get nervous. Although their judgment might be questionable, it’s the judgment of the impatient cyclists who furiously barge into the oncoming lane at speed in order to pass that I really question. Regardless of the type of cyclists we ride amidst, we have to trust their ability and judgment in unnaturally tight quarters. In that respect it’s no different than driving a car at speed on an undivided two-lane road with traffic. But you never know when someone will make that error in judgment or succumb to a lapse in attention.

Adding to the equation is the increased amount of ‘furniture’—large equipment such as sand blasters and tanks—anchored at several points midspan. In the distant past this equipment was moved around from location to location and there was a lot less of it; at times it mostly disappeared. But now these units seem to be permanently in situ. Some of it may be part of the suicide prevention net being constructed beneath the bridge deck. That project is now two years behind schedule and currently not expected to be completed until some time in 2023. However as with so many construction projects in the Bay Area the timeline is a moving target and just keeps getting pushed back repeatedly to the point that the completion date is a mere guess. The width of the west sidewalk is about ten feet and furniture takes up maybe three feet reducing the travel width to three and a half feet in each direction. When a passing cyclist tries to create a ‘third’ lane by passing into oncoming cyclists, there is barely two and a half feet for each cyclist—that’s just a bit more than the width of a regular road bike let alone a mountain bike. That’s even less width than around the pylons, which is five and a half feet or 2.75 feet for each direction. Whether the construction equipment will ever be removed is your guess and in the meantime we have to endure an even narrower pathway with restricted sightlines.

Something happened and it seemingly was for the better: the ride across the bridge just got a lot more popular. When I moved to San Francisco in 1982 the population was just under 700,000; in 2019 it was 880,000. In that period cycling went from a niche recreational activity to mainstream partly energized by the increased use of bicycles for commuting. That 180,000 additional people includes a lot more cyclists. The rental bike business has also taken off, certainly helped by bikesharing services such as Ford, Lyft, and Bay Wheels. One look at the oncoming bridge traffic and you’ll see innumerable BS (Blazing Saddles) and SB (Sports Basement) handlebar bags. It’s just another fabulous tourist spot being loved to death. Yes, the bridge is amazing and beautiful, and thanks to all those Instagram snapping cyclists we now have thousands more visitors who want to experience it too.

Traversing the bridge in the afternoon on a Jersey Ride I find increasingly nerve-wracking. The level of vigilance it takes can turn a fun ride into labor. All it takes is for one cyclist to bobble or weave in front for the adrenaline to surge. I try to be a considerate and considered bridge user by slowly down and patiently waiting until there is more than ample room to pass, if I pass at all, and in the afternoon especially I keep my distance from other cyclists and don’t draft in order to give myself plenty of braking room. Despite my caution—or perhaps because of my caution—more and more “Rapha freds” insist upon passing at the weirdest moments—what drugs are they on? Oh, testosterone. As a longtime City denizen I think it has all been part of the change that has swept the Bay Area: increased impatience. Are we New York yet? It’s just not relaxing to ride the bridge on weekends or other peak usage times.

So what of the Jersey Ride? Here’s our most popular and well attended ride and it crosses the Golden Gate Bridge. The morning crossing is more reasonable since the traffic is moderate to low at that time. But in the afternoon it’s transformed into a moving mosh pit of diverse cyclists many of them impatient. I’m not the only Spoker who feels unsafe and is fed up with the impacted conditions and the resulting crazy behavior. If you’re riding by yourself you can adjust by crossing the Bridge at a different time when the traffic is lower. But the Jersey Ride always returns after lunch in Tiburon and we end up crossing during peak usage. One adjustment we could make is to change the start time of the JR: start it later so it would return later in the afternoon around 5. But that would mean crossing it midday to go to Marin—peak period. In any case for some that’s too late to go for a Saturday ride, and for others—especially after a late Friday night out—it might be perfect! Another adjustment is to forego crossing the Bridge in the afternoon altogether: take a ferry back from Marin. The price of a ticket—from $7 to $14—might be worth it for the peace of mind assuming you can get a ticket (hint: reserve in advance). The drawback is not only the additional cost but also the timing of the ferry departure and how you feel about sharing a crowded ferry these days. A big plus is the even more scenic ride back on the Bay: gliding below the Bridge is not only beautiful but does wonders for your smugness.

Another idea is to change the Jersey Ride—gasp, heresy! Perhaps the JR could start as usual but change the destination to Fairfax for the lunch stop. Perry’s Deli is a popular spot but there’s also the Gestalt Haus and the Coffee Roastery. The ride out is about 24 miles and a return trip to Tiburon would make a total of 40 miles, or to the Sausalito ferry landing a total of 49.5 miles—these numbers are comparable to the standard Tib loop. Or, the JR could forego crossing the GGB altogether by heading to someplace south. The trick is to come up with a compelling destination with a route that is scenic and not filled with too steep hills. A ride to either Sharp Park or Linda Mar in Pacifica would be about 40 miles although we’d have to come up with a decent lunch stop. If we could come up with a southern route, we could alternate it with the Tiburon loop so that we could skip the Bridge occasionally, say every other month.

We’ve been lucky in having very few collisions on the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve been in one although no one was hurt and the bikes came out okay. At the end of a DSSF ride in Marin I was heading south on the west sidewalk by the Marin pylon when a person unsteadily piloting a mountain bike was heading north. She and I locked eyes and I could tell she was uncertain and scared. I slowed down and hit the brakes just before she weaved toward me. Unfortunately the rider behind me didn’t notice I was braking—partly because he was drinking his water bottle—and piled into me knocking me into the young woman and toppling her over the railing into the car lane. I and the fellow immediately behind her grabbed her and managed to pull her back. In retrospect I should have alerted the riders behind me when I sensed there was danger. But realistically they shouldn’t have been following so close behind me on the bridge. All it took was a set of minor bad decisions to set up an otherwise completely avoidable collision.

Regardless of the Jersey Ride we will continue to cross the Bridge at times of high usage. We can’t control the behavior of other cyclists. So remaining vigilant and keeping your guard up are critical for staying safe. First, keep your speed down. Most multi-use paths cap the speed at 15 mph. That’s probably not a bad idea for the bridge especially given how narrow it is. This is more important as you head downhill towards the towers or to the entrances where traffic is slowing and stopping, sometimes suddenly. The temptation is to go fast but you can’t see properly around the towers and the entrances are dangerous strictures. Second, keep your distance. Crossing the bridge is not the time to be pinned to the wheel in front of you. Gusts off the Pacific move bikes sideways unpredictably and the cyclist in front may abruptly brake or weave; you also can’t see well ahead of you when you’re right behind someone and can’t judge the behavior of the oncoming cyclists, the presence of furniture, or whether there is someone stopped against the railing or deciding to start riding again. Third, use your voice or a bell/horn to alert other cyclists—don’t be timid. That cyclist engaged in taking a selfie may not notice you or that they’re weaving, so get their attention. If it’s foggy, raining, or getting dark, use a light so that oncoming cyclists can see you; conversely, don’t expect others to use lights so be especially alert for ‘stealth’ cyclists. Fourth, signal your intentions: if you’re going to slow down or stop, let cyclists behind know by signalling. Fifth, don’t be a bro: it’s no big deal to cool your jets and slow down to accommodate other cyclists. Blasting around other cyclists or passing importunately—especially silently—is just being a dick. A punishment pass is a punishment pass whether it’s done by a car or another cyclist. Be cool, patient, and accommodating and you’ll get to the other side safely and maybe less frazzled.

A Different Tiburon Loop

This past Sunday seven of us tried out an experimental ride to Tiburon that started in the East Bay rather than San Francisco. Starting in Point Richmond at cozy Little Louie’s Cafe the route I was testing was to take us across to Marin via the Richmond-San Rafael (RSR) bridge. Such a route was not possible just a few years ago because it hadn’t previously been open to cyclists at all. With the debilitating increase in cyclists on the Golden Gate Bridge I was interested in exploring a different way to get to and enjoy the Tiburon loop especially since I live in the East Bay. Going to San Francisco to then ride across the GGB is literally ‘a bridge too far’ for me. Having an East Bay Tib loop might encourage our East Bay members to do the Jersey Ride if we can coordinate the meeting of the two groups at least to have lunch together at Woodlands Market in Tiburon and preferably to ride Paradise Drive together.

David Gaus came along much to my surprise and delight. David and I haven’t ridden together in a long time, probably not since the 2019 Pride Ride if not before. Joan came too on her mountain bike, which was going to be fine on this ride. David Pritikin, who is a ‘fellow traveler’, signed up—I hadn’t seen him since the 2019 Pride Ride; and two of his friends, Eric and Steve, decided to join the fun.

If you haven’t yet ridden across the RSR, you ought to do it at least once. This bridge at 5.5 miles in length is a lot longer than the Golden Gate, (1.7 miles) the Dumbarton (1.6 miles), the Carquinez (0.66 miles), and the Antioch (1.8 miles). The only longer bridge is the San Mateo at 7 miles but we can’t bike on it (yet/ever?). Unlike the others the RSR has two humps, which relieves the boredom I guess. Speaking of boredom, one thing that will drone on you is the relentless sound of a zillion automobile tires right next to you because the bike lane is just a repurposed car lane with a super-long K barrier between you and death. You get five and a half lovely miles to get used to that sound. On the other hand the view from the bridge is certainly different and can be enchanting. The first time I rode it I was struck by the placidity of Richardson Bay on the north side of the bridge. The last stretch of the bridge you’re almost at water level and the wetlands are gorgeous. Once you’re on the Marin side you take the 580 flyover on the shoulder that has been converted into a protected bikepath. The tricky part is finding a route around the Larkspur Ferry Terminal and the 101 freeway, which crosses Corte Madera Creek right there. The easiest way, which we were using, is to get on one of the walkways on the exit/entrance ramps. The east walk is barely wide enough for one person; if you encounter a cyclist or a wheelchair coming the opposite way, you’ll end up having to back out. The west walk is a bit better but it’s still rather narrow. We took the west sidewalk and then tried out a spiral pedestrian/cyclist overpass to get us back to the eastern side of the freeway on the frontage road. It was fine if a bit steep but Lord help you if another user is descending while you’re climbing! From there it was easy to get to Paradise Drive.

On Paradise Joan, Eric and I took off and barreled along at 20-22 mph, swooping through each inlet and racing up the inclines. We got to Tiburon in a trice and I was thoroughly worn out. We took a long lunch at Woodlands out on the deck and then headed back through Corte Madera skipping Camino Alto in favor of the lower bike path by 101. We then caught the Larkspur Path, which eventually got us back to the east walk of 101 over Corte Madera Creek.

When you return to the RSR on Sir Francis Drake Blvd you roll past San Quentin up a small hill where it becomes the entrance ramp to 580. The bike path coming from the RSR is on the opposite side and it looks like you should cross the road to take it. That’s a dangerous move: traffic is at high speed in both directions and you would have to judge the exact right moment to cross over to avoid being smashed. The actual route is to continue on the “bike path”, which is just the shoulder, and looks just like a shoulder. But there are a couple of small signs that tell you this is the way despite the debris and narrowness. You flow downhill onto 580 and immediately get off at the very last exit in Marin and then go under the freeway to catch the bridge. Unfortunately three of us were ahead and just presumed the others would take the “logical” route. But they didn’t see where we had gone and they predictably thought that getting on the freeway was wrong. So they crossed over. Roger was last and couldn’t warn them not to cross over. We all met up at the western landing of the RSR.

Crossing eastward you start at water level and you have to get over the two humps before landfall in Richmond. We had been fighting a west headwind all day and this was the only time it worked to our “advantage”. Since it was actually coming through the Golden Gate and hitting us sideways, it was more of a sidewind. But at least it wasn’t a head on! The RSR doesn’t get the dense, packed usage that the Golden Gate gets. There aren’t scads of rental bikes nor tourists taking selfies as they cross. It’s a functional bridge to get across the water and it’s lack of icon quality is exactly what makes it a perfect route for a Jersey Ride with little traffic and no danger except the errant trash tossed or blown onto the bike path.

When you descend on the path from the abutment to Point Richmond for some reason the builders put in a series of annoying lumps. If they were intended as speed bumps, they are unlike any I’ve ever seen being more of hobby-horse, washboard quality than true bumps that force you to slow down. But they can throw off your steering if you’re not attentive as happened to one cyclist just a few months after the bridge opened. He crashed and died.

At the bottom you have to cross the exit ramp from 580 and this is a time you should not blow through the light. Cars heading down have a real head of steam and have no time to react to an errant cyclist on the road. Be patient and push the walk button to cross. And even then keep a wide eye open to any cars that might miss the red light! Just a few blocks later we were back at Little Louie’s.

Although everybody had a good time on the ride, the routing was functional but not ideal. The intersection in San Rafael with 101 is a mess. The sidewalks are a sketchy way to get to Paradise and the only option is to head further west to Bon Air and catch the Larkspur Path. It would be safer but longer and you would have to repeat it coming back. The return by San Quentin is counterintuitive and requires some nerve to overcome the fear of using a freeway. We’ll try out a modified route next time. The total mileage was a little more than 36 miles, even shorter than the standard Jersey Ride at 47.

Pique-nique

The first real Different Spokes social event since the beginning of the Pandemic, the club picnic, happily took place yesterday. This year we went to Old Mill Park in Mill Valley, a first for us, after a couple of years in Golden Gate Park and China Camp before that. Old Mill Park is in the heart of Mill Valley just a couple of blocks from the “downtown” and we had a cozy site, Redwood Grove, nestled in a grove of redwood trees. (Duh!) We got our sunshine and no fog but not quite the warm temps that would have made it perfect. (“Whiner!”) For the 21 of us who attended, the grove was the perfect size providing a woodsy hideaway in the middle of snow white Marin. Twenty-one attended of which about a dozen biked the 14 miles from McLaren Lodge. That’s a 100% increase since our 2019 picnic!

And the winner is…

Amidst the panoply of delicious potluck dishes Benson Lu literally took the cake with his Japanese cheesecake slathered in raspberry and apricot jam. We know who puts effort into their cooking!

Of note: Will Bir is back on the bike after his brain surgery. That was one quick recovery! Roger Sayre showed up with his new, amazing blue Orbea superbike, upstaging Stephen’s orange Seven. Maurizio is back on the bike and is riding again—hope this one doesn’t get stolen! Old fart Janet Lourenzo, who lives just down the road from Old Mill Park (well, actually Corte Madera but that’s close enough) joined us and we finally got to chat. Also returning to the fold is Rico Nappa, whom I haven’t seen since the Ride Leader Appreciation Dinner back in, oh, 2018 or so. Good to see some Oldies But Goodies!

Swingin’ good time!

Thanks go to Ginny Watson, Jeff Pekrul, and David Goldsmith for leading the ride up. And we have to thank David Goldsmith and Greg Mahusay for doing the scut work in organizing the picnic and taking care of the hundreds of loose ends to make it a seamless event. Special thanks go to Chris Mulanax, David Varela, and David Gaus for being the mules—whipped without mercy—who sagged everybody’s goodies up to the park and set up the picnic area. Since parking turned out to be tight at the park, they had to park inconveniently away and schlep all the gear, coolers, and food into the park! I hope it was a labor of love and that you were “rewarded” afterwards for your hard work.

Ride Recap: Monterey Bay Trail

East of Eden?

Two years ago the club staged a getaway weekend to Monterey to explore the hilly back roads between Monterey and Carmel Valley. Roger and I were eagerly looking forward to the trip when unfortunately we both crashed (separately) while mountain biking, he injuring his knee and I ending up with my first—and hopefully last—broken collarbone. Ah, a cycling rite of passage. We attended Mahvelous Monterey but couldn’t ride. This year as part of our post-vaccination “let’s-do-the-rides-we-couldn’t-do-last year” tour we decided to lead a club trip to the Monterey Bay area to do the exact opposite of our 2019 trip: a 53-mile flat jaunt down the Monterey Bay Trail through the “Pier 39” of Monterey, Cannery Row, and thence onto the famed 17-Mile Drive of Pebble Beach. Instead of hills we were going to stroll along the shoreline on an easy route with spectacular views of the bay. It had been a good decade since we had last done this route and to our surprise there were some changes, one excellent and the other not so much.

You never know what will whet the appetite of Spokers when it comes to riding. Monterey is sufficiently far away that the drive alone is a barrier to attending. That our two Santa Cruz members, James and George, showed up was not so much of a surprise since the ride is practically in their backyard. But Vanessa came down from Oakland and Tim and Carl drove down from the City, proving that a good enough ride will draw out the adventurous.

The ride starts in an unexpected location, Castroville, yet that is where the northern end of the Monterey Bay Trail ends. You have to know where it is because it is unmarked and literally off the beaten track. The first six miles of the trail are through ag fields and at this time of year the strawberry harvest was going full steam; we saw crew after crew harvesting and boxing fresh strawberries. There were also plenty of artichokes—no surprise since we were passing Pezzini Farms, home of the giant artichoke, and we also saw some gigantic cabbage plants. Passing the Dole processing plant there were scads of semis waiting to pick up or deliver their container trucks—busy! After the farms the trail continues through Marina, the old Fort Ord, and Seaside, but now you no longer have to hit the streets—you can continue on a separated trail. And, since there were almost no pedestrians, gliding along the Trail was both peaceful and safe! At Ford Ord Dunes State Park there is a new alternate trail that cuts through the dunes. The original path continues directly south parallel to the Cabrillo Highway and while functional it’s less scenic. The ‘new’ path seems to be an old military road repurposed into a multiple use trail with two wide marked lanes for bicycles and one for pedestrians. Here you roll up and down the dunes along decent asphalt. Despite being a Saturday there were almost no other users making for our own little private Idaho.

In Monterey the trail becomes very busy with beach users, tourists, and a ton of rental bikes. Although not as impacted as, say, the east sidewalk of the Golden Gate Bridge, one still needs to be attentive and keep it slow in order to avoid collisions. A bell also helps. Normally I’d avoid riding on a beach trail. But like the Embarcadero and Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco it’s just one of those things you have to experience at least once. Also, because of the beaches it’s the one place you’ll find open restrooms, of which we availed ourselves. You continue through Pacific Grove along the shoreline greeted by marvelous views of the bay, plenty of tide pools, surfers, and shore birds. You get a ringside seat to a strange mishmosh of housing: multimillion dollar decrepit tear-down shacks next to the latest faux Italian nouveau riche villas followed by minimalist modern trophy homes. The crowds thin out and disappear by the time you enter the 17 Mile Drive. Although cyclists are excused from the entrance fee that cars have to pay, it used to be that we had to sign a waiver at the entrance gate. That’s no longer required and we even got to bypass the gate altogether. There’s really not a lot of difference between Pacific Grove and Pebble Beach except for the housing: it gets a lot bigger and grander in Pebble Beach but you still have the same great views. Ah, the homes of the 0.1%!

Life’s a beach

The lunch stop was at the Pebble Beach Market, which makes pretty good sandwiches. There’s a pleasant au plein air dining area with the nicest, cleanest public restrooms I’ve seen outside of an airport first class lounge! Oh, and you can shop for expensive souvenirs and golf attire next door. The sandwiches were so large that most of us (but not I) either split them or ate just half. I was ravenous and inhaled the whole thing, a turkey chipotle sandwich. Although it was past midday the sun still hadn’t made an appearance but the high overcast had kept the temperature perfect for cycling.

The return diverged from the 17 Mile Drive and cut through the hills above the golf course. Here the homes resembled what you’d see in any upper middle class suburb like Carmel or Montecito but certainly not over-the-top extravagant (eg. no security gates). Instead of following the shoreline we cut through Asilomar and returned through the center of Pacific Grove in order to bypass some of the crowds along the trail. However the Monterey Presidio creates a gigantic pinch point blocking any easy way to continue to Seaside except the trail. The only other options are to take the busy highway or go clear around the west side of the Presidio. At the Aquarium James and George decided to risk the surface streets and highway while the rest of us braved the trail. The trail was even busier in the afternoon—even the e-bikes were slowing down!—and necessitated a couple of emergency pivots to avoid wayward dogs and children.

In Seaside we were able to get back on the Dunes section and it was clear sailing from then on. Except for the headwind, which was comparatively mild. Back at the cars we bade each other adieu none the worst for more than 52 miles.

Same As It Ever Was

The last time the club rode up Morgan Territory was after the road had been repaired from a destructive landslide caused by the winter storms of 2016. That was in November 2017 making the hiatus three and a half years. Unlike last time, which had a small group, it was just Roger and I this time. Actually we had gone up Morgan by ourselves in March 2018, so it really had been only three years since we had set pedal on it and we were wondering what we might encounter. I think it was Stephanie who had remarked to us recently that Morgan had been repaved. That comment had me reeling. What? You mean the execrable condition of the roadway had actually been repaired? That road hasn’t seen a paver since before I started riding there, which was back in the mid-80s. And I asked myself, “My God! What have they done?” So we were desperately looking forward to a smooth-like-butter climb up to Morgan Territory Preserve over what had been for decades a textbook example of neglect so odious that it warrants hall of fame status.

Continuing our Spring Fling of revisiting fave roads we couldn’t/didn’t do during the Pandemic, we were determined to ride Morgan even if the weather turned unfriendly. But it didn’t and we had a sunny Goldilocks day—not too cold, not too hot, just right! We did the Ygnacio Valley Road approach to Clayton. Reopening was clearly underway as the high speed traffic early on Sunday was, um, enlightening. We made it safely to Clayton where an open-air church service equipped with amps the Grateful Dead would be proud of was taking place right in the center of the small town. We did a quick pit stop at the community park and were disappointed that though the restrooms were open, the water fountains were still turned off—all the more necessary to conserve what water we did bring and pray that the fountain at the Preserve was open.

The march out Marsh Creek always requires vigilance: there is usually a multitide of impatient pickup trucks and SUVs dishing out punishment passes with disturbing regularity. But this morning it wasn’t so bad despite the complete lack of a shoulder. Once we were on Morgan Territory itself it became very quiet and peaceful. But now we had a light headwind that was to increase and pester us almost the rest of the day. As we started to climb it became apparent that there was nothing different about Morgan: the alligator cracking was extensive, often deep, and giving us a hell of a beating. The saving grace is that no one can go quickly up Morgan allowing one plenty of time to scan for a smoother path through the maze of cracks and to avoid the more egregious road potholes.

Then the two racer dudes passed us. I wasn’t having the greatest of days, being worn out from trying to eject the last few pounds of Covid corpulence in the past week. So when Roger silently decided he’d try to keep up, I of course gritted my teeth and flogged the dead horse even harder. In case you didn’t know, Morgan is actually a pretty long climb, about nine miles. Cracks be damned, we bounced along at “speed” hovering at and often over the red line. We managed to keep them within a couple hundred feet until about a mile from the top when I just had to slow down or risk the Cramps That Shall Not Be Named. I staggered into the Preserve parking lot and saw that said race dudes were just making their way to the picnic table, so not a bad effort for an old fart!

Boy, the Preserve couldn’t have come soon enough. Not only did I need a break but the fountain was working and I could refill my bottle. Roger had wisely packed a couple of PB&J sandwiches, which disappeared in a flash. At the top nary a cloud was in sight and the sky was just crystalline blue—a classic day for a ride. We took a long, leisurely break. When we did leave, my legs were protesting. But the killer—literally—descent was just ahead.

This descent is amazing because it feels like a roller coaster. It’s somewhat narrow—substandard width for two lanes—and swoops around bends with no sight line at all and then plummets repeatedly giving you that no-gravity feeling. To make it even more thrilling there is no shoulder, no barrier, and the hillside just drops off at a precipitous angle, meaning if you don’t make the turn then you’re going to be launched into a free fall. It’s just absolutely preposterous this descent. You cannot not brake unless you truly have steel cojones. One saving grace is that in all the years I’ve done this ride I don’t think I’ve encountered more than a couple of cyclists coming up the south side because it’s so steep and completely exposed to the sun. That’s important because cars insist on passing on blind curves and you don’t want to be blazing through one of the left-hand curves at the same time a car is coming up and passing a cyclist. So of course that day we encountered not one but two cyclists separately climbing up from the south! But we lucked out with almost no car traffic. Fear is mental after all.

At the bottom we turned west and the headwind felt punishing. Or maybe my legs were just fried. In any case at one point we were struggling along at 9 mph on the flat. I could tell that Ms. Cramps was going to pay me a visit shortly if I didn’t do something. So we stopped and I downed a small bottle of pickle juice before we proceeded at our slow pace. After about twenty minutes my legs calmed down and we raced down to Danville and then back to the start at Pleasant Hill BART. Check that one off. Dudes, that ride was majorly awesome!

Next stop: Palomares.

Mines Eye

This past Sunday was our foray up Mines Road just south of Livermore. Of course this road has been there since forever but it didn’t become a regular club ride until Stephanie Clarke started championing it around 2010. I recall in the early days of the club doing Mines Road once, maybe twice. But it wasn’t a popular ride attracting repeat business probably because it can be infernally hot for much of the year. Somehow David Gaus got hooked on it too and then this ride was led annually. For a certain segment of the club Mines Road became a thing, a must-do ride.

Personally Mines never left a deep impression on me, at least one that was positive. Even today Mines strikes me as a perverse route: the uphill feels like a downhill and the downhill feels like an uphill. Why is that? Mines starts climbing steeply but a long middle section is a very gentle uphill that feels almost flat and on which you can roll with speed. The two subsequent uphills before you get to the Junction Cafe aren’t long or super-steep but they remind you, “Oh, I’m on a climb!” Then comes a descent to the Junction Cafe. Conversely the so-called “descent” starting at the Junction is a rather grating uphill: you’ve just finished lunch—maybe one of those burgers—and having to immediately start ascending feels like drudgery. After a short descent you do this all over again to the second summit. Then you hit the ‘flat’ that seems to go on forever. But even that’s work because the pièce de résistance is the afternoon headwind. I’ve never ridden Mines without a headwind on the downhill, which is a natural buzzkill—why am I working so hard to go downhill? Well, that downhill is nearly flat and the wind is usually ferocious enough to bring you to a complete standstill unless you apply some force to the pedals. The everpresent headwind is probably due to a primarily north/northwest wind blowing up Mines Road combined with valley heating which drives air upvalley. Regardless of the cause it’s nearly unavoidable. Eventually you do get to a real downhill—two sections actually—enough to overcome the headwind and finally get relief and enjoyment. But by this time you’re nearly at the bottom so it feels a little too wham-bam-thank-you-Sam. Uh, after that you don’t want a second date, do you?

Not to spoil the punchline but that formula held to a T on our ride. Other not-so-good stuff also took place such as leg cramps from too much climbing and not enough conditioning, and the fact that I was suffering from food poisoning due to the previous night’s dinner. But all was not lost. This ride turned out to be a revelatory experience. First, the weather was incredibly good. This late in the year Mines is usually already heating up. Any time after April is a gamble. But it was sunny with almost no clouds, no heat, and the predicted winds hadn’t picked up speed yet. Great for climbing! Second, since it was only Stephanie and Roger H and I we got a good opportunity to catch up on nearly a year’s worth of news due to the Pandemic. Stephanie’s endlessly cheerful (well, who couldn’t be on that beautiful custom Seven she gets to ride!) and unperturbable. She paced us up to the Junction and pushed me to try to stay with her. But she wasn’t going so fast that I had to go deep—I just had to step it up a bit more. I thought I couldn’t keep up but somehow I did. Well, until the leg cramps hit.

Third, we began the ride without much hope of seeing wildflowers. But just a few miles from the Junction there they were, not in profusion but present and beautiful in color. Alas, a drought year’s crop. Their backdrop was surprising: an incinerated horizon. The higher we went on Mines, the deeper we entered last summer’s SCU Lightning Complex fire zone. You can’t see its scars at all from Livermore, the hints of the conflagration only appearing much higher up. They increase slowly—a glimpse of charred trees and brush, blackened wood—then it’s bigger and bigger sections on the east side climbing up the hillside. As you get close to the Junction the burn zone is suddenly on the left and the right, the fire having jumped the road, then the landscape becomes denuded of live trees, only blackened trunks against the horizon. Ironically when you reach the CalFire station on the upper reaches, everything but the fire station and its housing was destroyed—it makes sense they’d save their own buildings if only so they could keep fighting fires.

The past few weeks have unintentionally turned out to be a tour of the Bay Area wildfires. Napa and the Franz Valley were hit by the Tubbs fire in 2017 and then the Glass fire last year; we saw burned landscapes on the east side of Silverado Trail, with a couple that hopped the road. On the Winters ride we witnessed the burn throughout Pleasants Valley Road caused by the LNU Lightning Complex fire. In each case I wasn’t prepared for what I saw, being taken aback by the extent of the destruction.

It’s a trope that wildfires and their sequelae are now the new normal in Northern California. The 1989 Oakland Hills fire, which we thought could never be equaled short of a nuclear firestorm was surpassed by the Tubbs up in Napa in 2017, and then that one was surpassed by the Camp fire near Chico in 2018. These are all locales that we enjoy cycling. How could we not be affected by their loss?

For now Mines is still there and the wildflowers are sure to return (as long as we get rain). But for the near future—certainly for the remainder of my life—we will be cycling in a changed landscape with a somber reminder that all that beauty is ephemeral and evanescent.

23 Skidoo

Over a week ago on the ride out to Winters I took my travel bike, which I hadn’t ridden since summer of 2019, the last time I did a bike tour. I did so because it has low gears, not that I would normally need them for this ride, but I’m in dire shape these days. I did a short shakedown ride with it a couple of days before going to Winters just to make sure it worked. It seemed fine but I did take note that it was shod with 23 mm width tires. (Since the front shifter failed on Sunday, obviously I did too cursory of an inspection.)

If you’re either new to cycling or a complete wheel geek, your reaction is either puzzlement—“You mean there’s a tire narrower than 28?”—or a combination of horror, disdain, and disbelief—“Dude, are you like friggin’ stupid or just old and outdated??” Perhaps a little of both, I’d say. Oldsters may recall that back in the day we were all riding 19 or 20 mm clincher tires. In fact when I got this bike in 2000 for an overseas bike trip, I got rid of the 25 mm tires that came with it and replaced them with 20 mm tires—yes, for touring albeit of the credit card variety. That admission certainly takes at least 20 points off my IQ—call me stupid but don’t call me ugly! We all used to think that if you wanted to go fast, you needed to go narrow and pump those suckers up to 110 lbs. of pressure. A friend and longtime road cyclist to this day still rides his skinny Vredestein tires pumped up to an unbelievable 130 lbs because that’s the max pressure on the sidewall. It never occurred to me that I’d need anything bigger and I wanted to go fast. (Yes, I admit I didn’t understand the meaning of ‘bike tour’.)

Of course when you’re touring in another country you do occasionally get lost, and guess what? You end up unexpectedly on dirt and unpaved roads. A lot of swearing took place accompanied by the dire fear of flatting in the middle of nowhere. Despite being an unnaturally pessimistic sort, ie, “Shit always happens!”, I kept riding those 20 mm tires up until about 2010 when I switched over to what seemed like ridiculously wide 23 mm tires “just to be safe”.

Since that time my eyes have been opened a bit. I live in a city that a few years ago had one of the worst pavement indices in the Bay Area. The pavement index is a measure of how crappy or good your roads are. And Bay Area roads haven’t been getting any better to wit Sonoma county roads, which often seem to aspire to Planet of the Apes quality. So riding on 20 or 23 mm tires is just asking to have your teeth rattled, hands go numb (and other body parts as well), and become intimately familar with snake bite flats. I’ve since moved on to wide rims and wide tires and they’ve spoiled me. I’m getting older (some say the ‘getting’ part is self-flattery or denial) and since I’m no longer on intimate terms with my friend Speed—he’s moved on to younger fare since he’s a chicken hawk at heart—I’m getting to know my new BFF, Comfort.

That’s a long way of saying Sunday was painful riding county roads with narrow tires. I had enough travails fighting the wind and trying to stay upright that day and then I deliberately ride tires that are guaranteed to hurt. What was I thinking?

But here’s the irony: those wheels are still awesome. The next day I rode it in the East Bay to try to figure out what was going on with the wonky front shifter. Riding on smooth pavement those wheels really sing! They’re narrow and cut into the wind easily and they’re very light so they spin up like a top. Until you hit old, deformed asphalt. So despite having moved on to Big Butt tires, I still lust for anorectic, whippet-like hoops. But it’s getting harder and harder to find places where I can really enjoy them. Not only can wider tires be more comfortable but you can roll over a lot more incongruities in the road rather than have to roll around them.

Riding on 23 mm tires once again was hardly like Proust’s madeleine. It may have brought back fond memories of another time but any reverie was quickly dispatched by the beating my body was being subjected to.

Ride Recap: On a Winters Day

Smile! You’re getting a headwind for the next 23 miles.

Six of us did a popular loop ride encompassing Pleasants Valley Road, Putah Creek, and Cantelow in Solano and Yolo counties yesterday. Naturally it had to coincide with the first red flag warning of the year. This area was scorched by the LNU complex fire last summer and now we got a chance to tour the damage on a day with an eerie fire hazard reminder. The red flag ‘gift’ of the day was the potent offshore wind from the north, which nicely coincided with our direct north route to Winters! No good deed shall go unpunished.

A morning start to avoid the wind ended up being futile but it did provide a comfy mid-70s temp at the beginning; Roger Sayre had the right idea with a sleeveless jersey. Being puny, overweight, and out of shape meant that I was quickly into another character-building experience. The rest of the group disappeared into the northern horizon. My husband took pity on me and let me draft his wheel. Oh, and this was a 49-mile ride, a length I hadn’t seen since January 2020. The side winds were extra fun too and meant that getting a draft was, well, not getting a draft.

Pleasants Valley Road is now Unpleasants Valley Road. I knew the LNU fire went through this area but I did not understand how much of it was torched. The entire length of the road bore witness to the immolation. Flames must have hopscotched around because untouched farms, vineyards, and orchards were adjacent to burned out groves of trees and in one case, an entire orchard of incinerated trees. The tops of the hillsides were crowned in barren, burned trees. I’ve been doing this ride for 36 years and it has always been a pastoral wonderland. Until now. I doubt it will recover in my lifetime.

We regrouped at Putah Creek, which was bone dry, and turning out of the headwind felt like we were now flying on the road instead of crawling. For a lazy Sunday, Winters looked to be busy. Winters is/was a small ag town but it’s getting gentrified slowly and that means it’s no longer sleepy. When will the Apple Store show up? Of course we stopped at Steady Eddy’s—the cycling epicenter of Winters—for a sandwich break under their canopy. It was nice to see them survive the Pandemic and although less crowded than in prepandemic times it had a steady stream of customers including other cyclists. Clients were all dutifully and respectfully masked.

After lunch was our first leg southward—oh, and the wind was picking up as the day lengthened—so we were propelled with glee down Winters Road. We were doing 20 mph and hardly pedaling! That fun had to end when we turned west to roll through the approach hills to climb Cantelow. Off disappeared half the group, leaving Roger S and I to clamber as best we could with Roger H shepherding us. Unfortunately before Cantelow my ancient front shifter jammed and I couldn’t get out of the big ring. That was extra fun too! Two hills later I stopped and somehow got the chain onto the middle ring and was able to make it up Cantelow with its 14% bonus fun.

We caught up at the top then roared down the other side back to Pleasants Valley. With the wind at our back we had a really nice tailwind all the way back to the cars. Boy, that made up for the morning!

Sidenotes: Stephen had a retirement gift in hand—a gorgeous orange and blue Seven. Stephen, just don’t ride it up Skyline right now… Roger Sayre, who has ridden the same bike for decades, mentioned he was getting a new addition to his family as well, a baby Orbea. We wait eagerly for its birth. Will, who ‘burned’ up the road, is taking a break for a while due to upcoming surgery. We all wished him well. He’ll be back to punish us some more post haste!

Like ‘Post Gay’, Are We Post COVID?

Loving it to death!

Today Roger and I went to the Napa Valley to take in one of our favorite local valleys, Franz. This is something we have done very rarely since the onset of the Pandemic: driving someplace else in order to ride. If we’ve even gone out at all—let alone to ride our bikes—we’ve stuck closely to home. I realize that this is the opposite of what you read about online; there writers recount their epic two-wheeled adventures that take them far afield from home as if to say, “The Pandemic? We don’t need to stinkin’ Pandemic!” But for most of us the idea of taking off in the middle of the worst scourge of our lives to parts unknown sounds like a story with an inevitable bad ending. Plus local county health orders as well as California State guidance has been to stay at home. Have we been too literal? Perhaps.

What I’ll say about the ride itself, which happened on a luxuriantly warm and sunny day in the beautiful Napa Valley and hills, is that it’s still there in all its glory for you to enjoy as best you can. Napa Valley is pleasantly flat, which is to say that it’s not really flat at all but actually gently rolling, and the hills on either side provide plenty of routes to escape most of the wine traffic that trolls Silverado Trail and Highway 29/128 and to explore the nether regions. North of Calistoga the traffic diminishes and as soon as you turn off to head to Franz Valley it disappears completely. The trade off is the road quality drops at least two notches since it’s typical Sonoma county asphalt, ie. badly cracked, uneven, and full of pothole patches that have been filled three times over. Just make sure you have some cushy tires! Riding in Franz Valley is like stepping back in time: quiet, uncrowded, still.

Our ride was eye-opening—not for the bucolic scenery but for the near-recovery Napa has made after a couple of years of apocalyptic wildfires and the Pandemic. The entire valley was bustling again and tourists and day trippers were pouring into Calistoga and St. Helena. I’m sure the wineries and restaurants are delighted. But it was a shocking sight for someone who has been hibernating for over a year. Even cycle touring is back: we ran into a Trek Travel tour group—about 20 (!) cyclists—who were cycling Franz Valley in the opposite direction. Traffic was near bumper-to-bumper in the morning when we drove up and worse when we left, which was at 1 pm, hardly the time when the hordes are returning home. In fact we got out of Dodge early precisely because we couldn’t deal with the endless stream of cars and crowds in St. Helena and we still had to endure a fitful return. Instead of heading to Gott’s for some delicious grub we quickly dashed into the Azteca Market, where we had parked, and got burritos (which, by the way, were delicious!) and ate them in the car before heading home apace.

As we passed the local wineries and restaurants, parking lots and outdoor dining areas were packed. There was a long line out the Oakville Grocery. The scene at both Mustards and Brix looked like one gigantic party.

Well, the Pandemic has to end sometime and maybe that time is now. People are still wearing masks and socially distancing. But the Stay-At-Home has gone by the wayside and people are partying like it’s 2019.

My advice to those of you thinking of riding in Napa: go there on a weekday when it’s quieter and probably a bit safer.

Mind Over Matter

I’m the Den Daddy and I’m going to kick your ass!

Yesterday we were returning from our “Tour of East Bay gated communities”—that’s from the outside of the security perimeters, not the inside!—when with whom do we unexpectedly cross paths but the Den Daddy. Despite being almost 89 years old Derek is a prolific cyclist and ever peripatetic world traveler (at least until the Pandemic started). For those of you who are too new to Different Spokes to know about whom I speak, I refer you to this blog post.

Running across a friend while riding is nothing to speak of (unless maybe that friend is Madonna/Obama/yo mama). But in this case it truly was remarkable. Undeterred by the threat of the coronavirus Derek had been riding up a storm last spring and summer when some of us, ahem, were instead hiding out. His local cycling adventures came to an abrupt halt when he crashed his bike in the Point Richmond tunnel and broke his hip or pelvis, I forget which. At 87 that can be a devastating injury leading to general incapacitance, disability, and an inevitable decline. Those who know Derek felt that this bump in the road would not keep him off the bike for too long. After all this is a guy who has survived a few bouts with the Big C and once had a horrific mountain bike crash requiring a helicopter evacuation. However after surgery and recuperation physical therapy has proved to be a tough row to hoe. You just don’t bounce back that quickly from injury and forced indolence when your years pile up (as I can personally attest). Getting on the bike with a stiff hip is a big challenge and building up muscle and aerobic strength when you’ve been off the bike and inactive for several months is only for the strong-willed and those with lots of testosterone. For the first time Derek thought about giving up cycling and retreating completely to his other love, very fast cars.

Confronting the decision to stop cycling can hardly be rational even when your body is giving you a grueling time. In Derek’s case it wouldn’t have been a bad call to move on to other less hazardous endeavors given his many interests. Although there is something to be said about dying with your boots on, cf. Joe Shami, I don’t consider it a more noble way to go than say, keeling over on BART from a fatal heart attack.

Just two weeks ago Derek told me he was doubtful he’d be riding again. Then a few days ago I received an email from him with a movie attached—there he was getting off and on his bike and pedaling around his cul-de-sac. Derek’s comment: “Did a couple of miles and it was tough going.” So now running into him cycling a few miles away from his gated community, Rossmoor, was a pleasant surprise. Clearly he’s had moments of doubt but he persevered with his PT program and got to the point where he could go for a real spin albeit a bit shorter than his previous rides. The clincher was when he quizzed us on our bike lights and wanted to know where to get them—I don’t think this is a man giving up cycling!