Ride Recap: Four Bears and a Happy Pig

After a several weeks of monotonously dreary weather we got a break this past weekend and were greeted by bright sunshine and daytime temperatures north of 68F, finally. Our May Gray had morphed into June Gloom only to vanish and be replaced by real spring weather. Here in the East Bay clouds and fog are a rarity but not this spring.

Unbeknownst to most of you Orinda is host to a myriad of short and steep inclines that make riding here challenging and never boring, and today we were doing the “best hits”: west Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Pig Farm, Reliez Valley, Happy Valley, and east Papa Bear all crammed into a mere 35-mile loop. I had forgotten one climb that is part of this route, shorter than the rest but no less steep: Deer Hill, a depressingly wide open ramp that unfortunately bears too close a resemblance to Hicks Road and Oakville Grade. It’s 14%. But it’s short! So let’s call it six and a half climbs.

Only Jeff P and Roger S joined Roger and me. I hadn’t seen Jeff in ages. Had he been riding? It turns out he had come to the East Bay and rode Morgan Territory last week—that’s a lot more climbing than I’ve been doing recently! Roger S had been getting ready for the Chico Wildflower, training deliberately. With that under his belt at the end of April he promptly ditched the bike and hadn’t set eye on it for over two weeks. Regardless he had more than enough leg power despite his absence from pedaling. Roger and I had recently completed a really enjoyable but unexpectedly challenging bike tour in Japan. Of course returning home after a two-week absence meant cycling had to take a back seat to everything else going on in our lives that had been on hold including our garden that was showing signs of neglect.

All these roads are yawn all-too-familiar to Roger and me since they are our regular hunting grounds. But Jeff was only slightly familiar with them and thus several were brand new experiences for him. Roger S had been on them all but it had been a while so some of them were hazy in recollection.

Leaving downtown Orinda the first incline was a few short miles ahead: Papa Bear. Typically we ride this in the other direction, from east to west and it comes at the tail end of the Three Bears loop. There are a couple of good reasons for not riding it in this direction: it’s a taller climb heading east because you start it at a lower elevation and it also happens to be quite a bit steeper, like about 10% in places. Despite being just the first climb (or perhaps because it was just the first of six hard climbs) we stayed together up the hill lamenting its difficulty. However on the other side Roger S blasted the descent and kept the momentum all the way over Mama Bear to the Alhambra Valley Road turn.

Conversely doing Mama Bear in this direction seems easier at least to me. The usual ride up Mama Bear is a long, steady slog up a 9% grade with the summit at the distant horizon, an always depressing sight. The way we rode it Mama Bear is broken up by two short climbs and descents, one of which may be the mysterious Baby Bear that no one seems to know the location of.

Turning onto Alhambra Valley Road it was starting to warm up and the cooling wind gone. The climb up Pig Farm—now called just Alhambra Valley—is another “save the best for last” climb with a ridiculous gradient just below the summit. Everybody used to call this hill Pig Farm because back in the day an infamously noxious pig farm was at the top whose stench was your summit reward. That sty is long gone—I can’t recall exactly when it closed—and replaced by a gentleman’s ranch. Another piece of vanished Bay Area cycling lore.

Roger S took off again on the descent and nearly got beaned by a car suddenly turning out into the road. Despite roaring at over 40 mph he managed to zip by and pass it without a scratch. The rest of us valuing our wellbeing and skin took it more slowly. Alhambra Valley Road has a Jekyl-Hyde personality: at times it’s a quiet and peaceful backcountry road and at other times it’s a cut-through race course for drivers looking escape the mess on Highways 680 and 24. For cyclists that means keeping an eye out for the impatient drivers and today seemed to be the day. When it’s quiet it’s a remarkable ride but today it was a typical road full of fast cars passing on narrow straits.

We turned off into Briones Regional Park to get some water and have a midride snack. The parking lot was full of mountain bikers, some just heading out and a bunch just back from their ride. A couple of bikers were enjoying post-ride cigarettes chatting away, reminding me of another Different Spokes ride in the distant past out of Orinda BART. Luis, Michael R, and former president-for-life Dennis pulled into the BART lot at the end of a hard club ride and went to their respective cars. All whipped out their smokes and lit up. I’ll always remember Luis for smiling while saying, “A cigarette after a hard ride is the best!”

After our break it was back to Alhambra Valley, which turns into Reliez Valley and slowly gets steeper and steeper. Roger S didn’t remember there was a climb up Reliez and was rudely surprised by the grade. By now I wouldn’t say we were baking but it was definitely the warmest weather we’d seen over here in several weeks and we were all sweating from the heat and the effort.

After a short descent we were back in civilization and just a brief reprieve before Deer Hill. This road is another commuter cut-through because it parallels 24, which is always jammed during the rush hour. Today it wasn’t bad traffic-wise but it’s an ungodly 14% and it looks it: a straight-up-the-hill climb. What followed after a brief sprint past the Lafayette BART station was Happy Valley Road, which really should be called Unhappy Valley because it too starts out slow and then gets steeper as you climb. The top is around 12-13%. By now we were all rather tired despite it being less than 30 miles. Near the top I stopped to catch a breath in the shade and Roger S joined me. We chatted away in order to delay continuing the climb. But eventually we did. The descent on the other side is hellish. It’s actually the better way to climb Happy Valley because the road is wretchedly potholed and uneven and that is less an issue when you’re going 5 mph. But descending it’s difficult to discern the incongruities when you can’t see in the shade and we were bounced left and right like pinballs.

What was left was Papa Bear the usual way. There’s nothing that needs to be said about it since you’ve probably done it yourself many times. Over the years Papa Bear has changed subtlely. The road quality is actually better these days than when I rode in the ’80s. Being county road it never gets much love but the pavement quality is pretty damn smooth for chipseal. And there aren’t any potholes! Which is good since you’ve got one of the fastest descents around. I used to hit 45 mph there when I was young and deluded. Roger S probably hit that this time but not I. I’ve never crashed on Papa Bear and want to continue that unblemished record!

At the bottom is a very short, steep, and annoying climb back to San Pablo Dam Road—is this Baby Bear? After grunting to the top we headed back to Orinda and got lunch at Petra Cafe. I was famished and ready for a recharge. For such a short ride—just 35 miles—it packed in 3,700 feet of climbing and much of it in double digits. Type 2 fun!

Ride Recap: Darth Veeder

The day before we were going to Mt. Veeder Gordon sent me some pictures of the road. I couldn’t believe it. They showed that Veeder was closed and the asphalt heaved up and crumpled up like arctic ice. Shit. For whatever reason Veeder had been omitted from Napa County’s road closure database hence escaping my notice. Gordon opined that despite the menacing ‘road closed’ signs it was easy to go around the barriers and walk through the mess. A quick message and reply from Stephanie indicated that she was still game. So onward!

The other potential disaster was the Bottlerock festival scheduled in downtown Napa for this weekend. The three-day wine and rock concert draws about 180,000 ravers. Prez David already gave his hard “no” to Veeder thinking that traffic and parking would inevitably be a nightmare. Where the rest of the Spokerati wasn’t clear—fled town for the weekend or also put off by the festival? Dunno.

The cognomen Darth Veeder was bequeathed by David some years ago. Presumably it was because the climb up Veeder is on ‘the dark side’. In any case it’s no walk in the park and like another well-trod ride, Pinehurst, features the delight of an increasing gradient as you ascend from the Redwood Road side. Redwood side? Yes Mt. Veeder Road is actually the north side of this climb and Redwood Road is the southern side but Spokers know it only as “Veeder”.

So it was just Roger, me, and Stephanie. Stephanie hadn’t done Veeder in quite a while so this was on her checklist for the year. Roger and I? Despite the sometimes haphazard road maintenance in Napa we like riding in the Napa Valley but even more in the hills around it.

We were using David’s route that begins at Buttercream Bakery in the north end of Napa. We didn’t allow enough time to go in before the ride and the place closes at 2 PM. So it looked like it was going to be another year without tasting their fares. Darn!

It takes just a little bit of time to get out of the city of Napa and on Redwood Road proper. This morning it was mostly devoid of traffic and the overcast just added to the atmosphere of climbing into the woods. Before long there was the dreaded “road closed” sign, which we of course ignored. Cars heading up of which there were very few had to be mostly residents. The climb gently steepens the further you proceed and parallels the placid and peaceful Redwood Creek right next to the road. I’m sure in winter the creek was a roaring mess but now it was back to its benign best—gurgling, placid, peaceful.

The positive side of road closures is that if a bike can get through one gets to enjoy the experience senza macchine. The closure sign seemed to have cut back on the traffic even though Redwood is hardly on the tourist radar. We climbed and were passed only by the very occasional car. There were several sections of road where the asphalt had completely eroded away leaving only the road base—how does that happen? I wouldn’t have been surprised by gravel and dirt, of which there was plentiful, but how the storms just peeled back the surface is strange. There were a couple of sections where half the roadway had collapsed down the slope forcing all traffic to use just one lane. Just past one we took a break to shed windbreakers and catch our breath. This was hard work! Then it was back to the business at hand, upward.

Finally at the top, where the vineyard with the fancy wrought iron gate sits, we got a real break before the ‘descent’. We still hadn’t run across the road closure and it was obvious now that we were going to confront it on the downhill side. Stephanie cheekily suggested that I take the lead; so I was left to “clear the minefield” since we had no idea of the road condition.

The descent from the top actually has several short uphill sections, some of which you can almost get over by momentum providing you’re going fast enough. The problem was I sure as hell wasn’t going to go hellbent when there might be gravel, washed out asphalt, or worse yet, no road! So each little treat just added to dulling the knife a little more. And then there it was, what we saw in Gordon’s photos: K-barriers and wavy, crumpled asphalt. And no, riding over it was just asking for a helicopter evac, so we dismounted and carefully plonked over the cascade of broken roadway. It wasn’t a difficult crossing but seeing it in person impressed upon me the damage winter storms inflicted on Bay Area roads—Redwood Road near Castro Valley, Old Stage Road, Calaveras, Palomares, Mines, Patterson, and now Veeder.

Once past the blockade we started swooping down through the trees before reaching the last stretch of the startlingly steep decline. We passed cyclists crawling up Veeder barely making any progress and one cyclist parked by the side of the road gasping. We had actually come up the “easy” way! The descent continued once we turned onto Dry Creek, the sort of traditional way to do this ride; the other option is to instead continue straight ahead and descend the 15% Oakville Grade. Dry Creek is much less formidable but today we had a headwind reeling from the south making progress effortful. It didn’t help that the county seems to have largely ignored doing any recent repaving on Dry Creek as it was pockmarked beyond despair with potholes and crevices of various sizes and gruesomely lumpy old asphalt that looked like it had been unceremoniously dumped on the road and then left to be flattened by whatever vehicle had the misfortune to smack into it. Of course the worst was left for last with a pothole obstacle course just before we turned into the valley proper.

David’s route heads north again to Yountville. You can either take Solano Street or the Vine Trail MUP; we learned that the road is, like everything else in the area, lumpy and cracked, whereas the trail is divinely smooth.

In Yountville we stopped at the budget lunch spot, Velo Deli aka Ranch Market for a sandwich and pasta salad. Yountville is littered with chic high-end dining spots including Bistro Jeanty next door, which always seems to be doing great business. We were so ahead of schedule that we got there well before lunch time and got the prime outdoor table under the gazebo. The sandwich counter was devoid of customers and it was a breeze to get our food and get out. Lunchtime chatter revolved around our recent cycling trip to Japan, the upcoming club picnic and pool party, and various goings-on in the club.

I was pretty tired at this point and the lunch break only slightly alleviated my fatigue. Post lunch we had two southern legs, Silverado Trail and then Big Ranch. I could tell as we left that my legs were only one or two notches away from cramps and I needed to be careful to avoid ending up by the side of the road in convulsive spasms; that’s what happens when you don’t drink enough. We now had a constant headwind out of the south and I steadily went slower and slower. Roger eventually took the lead and let us draft him all the way back to Buttercream. Roger on his e-bike has no problem roasting at over 20 mph into a headwind.

Speaking of Buttercream, we finished our ride at 1:30, way earlier than last year, and the bakery was still open! We dashed in to peruse the sweets. Buttercream seems to be a popular place, probably helped by having a diner inside as well as the bakery counter. It was redolent of sugar wafting out of the bakery. There were too many kinds of cookies, donuts, and cupcakes to recount; we settled on carrot cake cupcakes to tide us over until we got home. Gawd, they were good and the perfect way to end an unexpected adventure over Veeder. Next time we do this ride I am definitely going to make it back to Buttercream again before it closes at 2 PM!

And the traffic? Easy peasy both ways. As we breezed south on 12 we couldn’t help noticing that the northbound lanes were packed to the gills and not going anywhere fast. Perfect timing!

All Things Must Pass

Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It’s not always going to be this grey

George Harrison

Yesterday in lieu of a ride we went to a celebration of life for Bob Powers. Who was Bob Powers? Probably no one else in Different Spokes has a clue. Bob and his wife Bonnie were the founders of Valley Spokesmen Cycling Club back in 1971. For the arithmetic impaired that was 52 years ago. This was in an era when being a cyclist was a sure indicator you were a dork, maybe a communist, and possibly immature or daft. So for this “power” couple to form a cycling club in the hinterlands of Dublin CA, which was at that time barely a dot on the map, was bold as can be (or possibly a scream for help).

We’re by no means involved members of Valley Spokesmen. When the club puts on the annual Tour of the Sacramento River Delta, we often joined that two-day ride, which by way was another Bonnie and Bob invention. The Cinderella Classic was another of their many creations, a century ride just for women and girls in order to encourage more female participation in our sport. We saw Bob annually every year at the Cinderella where we usually volunteered to help out with morning registration. Both the Powers were always there with Bob being the go-to guy for any emergencies or out-of-the-ordinary problems and Bonnie supervising registration. But Bob was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and passed away at age 86 just two weeks before this year’s Cinderella.

Bob and Bonnie were/are the strong roots of Valley Spokesmen even into their eighties. They have continued to pour immense energy into the club including the Cinderella Classic, which they invented. Every year they were key organizers and put in hours beyond compare. I learned at his memorial that in addition of forming the club and creating and organizing its signature events, the Cinderella and the Mount Diablo Challenge, they also were responsible for the Hekaton Century, which I used to do annually as well. Oldsters will recognize this as a great century that toured Contra Costa County but is no longer put on probably because Contra Costa is now so developed and many of the roads are busy thoroughfares now. What else? They also organized many of the club tours such as the ride to Paso Robles for the Great Western Bike Rally, two-week tours in various locations in the US and Canada including most recently in Kentucky.

Although Valley Spokesmen is eleven years older than Different Spokes and is a much bigger club than we, there are similarities between us. The early Spokers were also avid bike tourers and both clubs developed at a time when cycling was just starting to lose its weirdo halo. That Valley Spokesmen were lucky enough to have two such “Power”-houses to pour energy into it was a blessing.

Our club too has had members who took up the reins to create and re-create the club we have but no one has the longevity of the Powers. Although Derek and I are the only long term, extant members from the early ‘80s left, our interest and involvement in Different Spokes has waxed and waned over forty years. (Dr. Bob and Karry, also oldsters from the early ‘80s, recently rejoined after many years absence.) But like the Powers many of the oldsters, though gone now, had the same dream of a cycling club for their community.

The Valley Spokesmen is still a large and vibrant club. It has a racing team, still puts on several important cycling events every year, donates scads of money gathered from the Cinderella to local women’s organizations, and has an enthusiastic leadership team. But like Different Spokes it too is struggling with “succession”: ride leaders and and new rides continue to be difficult to cultivate. Does that sound familiar? And recently the leadership asked its members for volunteers to step up and help create a renewed club vision. Clearly they are thinking that continuing to do the same-old, same-old perhaps needs to be challenged.

Different Spokes is in a similar place. The current leadership needs to be refreshed badly for the club to remain vibrant and fresh. Roger, David, and I have been doing this for six-plus years now and whatever vision we had is likely turning stale; Jeff, Mark, Stephen, and Laura are more recent board members and I hope they stay on. Unfortunately Different Spokes has not had members as long lasting and visionary as the Powers have been for the Valley Spokesmen. Even so our small club is still capable of great things if we all put a little energy into the club.

Ride Recap: New Speedway Boogie, Take 2

You can’t overlook the lack, Jack
Of any other highway to ride
It’s got no signs or dividing lines
And very few rules to guide

—Robert Hunter

David asked me why this ride is called New Speedway Boogie and not “Patterson & Altamont Passes”, which is surely a more accurate and less cryptic name. Those familiar with my posts through the years may have noticed that they’re populated with idiosyncratic references to late Twentieth Century US culture. In this case it’s a tilt toward that infamous “hey, we wanna get some of that cool Woodstocky vibe too” Rolling Stones concert that took place in December 1969 at Altamont Speedway, which happens to be just off the route of this bike ride.

Unless you’re an old Bay Area hippie like me or you recall the 1970 documentary film Gimme Shelter, which was about this concert, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. The Rolling Stones, whose image at that time was distinctly not countercultural flower power (despite His Satanic Majesties Request, one of their early abysmally poor albums) but more self-indulgent, excessive, lower chakra— oh wait, that is countercultural after all!—thought they could replicate Woodstock here on the West Coast when the “San Francisco sound”—Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, etc.—was climbing the charts and the Haight Ashbury was attracting youth from all over the country. They put on a free concert and 300,000 of their favorite strung out dealers, groupies, and fans showed up. They got more than they bargained for because the event was violent—multiple deaths including a stabbing by a Hells Angels who was doing stage security. It was ugly, like a very bad acid trip (and it probably was a bad trip for about half the participants). So endeth the illusions of a Woodstock nation. Ironically it got so violent that the Grateful Dead didn’t even get to play; or rather refused to play after Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane got KOed by a Hells Angel, and so they left the event. But the GD’s songwriter Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia bequeathed a gem of a song, New Speedway Boogie, which was about the disastrous event. The Altamont Speedway is still there although it’s been closed since 2008 and the meme that was Altamont has faded into insignificance.

Fifty-four years later here we are doing a bike ride. Whatever remnants of that era have long gone into the aether and almost everything surprisingly is as it was: a verdant, green set of rolling hills that turn dusky brown after the rains cease. Oh yeah, and the wind turbines and plentiful cows. Springtime is the best time to ride Altamont Pass, Patterson Pass, and Corral Hollow Roads because of the explosion of green grass. We lucked out with a most sunny and clear day. Roger and I were joined by Prez David and Stephanie. Jen also graced us with her presence at the start but she wasn’t up to going up Patterson and was doing a shorter ride. David and Stephanie were intent upon doing the Chico Wildflower and were in search of some training undone by our wet winter.

We headed out Tesla and turned on Cross Road to get to Patterson Pass. Hardly a car in sight but plenty of greenery to bless our eyes. Riding out Cross/Patterson is like a time warp: there was a time in the Bay Area when you could find pastoral roads this deserted much more easily; many of those areas are now dense suburbs. (I remember cycling through Cupertino when it was mainly orchards.) Cross Road is really quite gentle and eventually drops down Patterson Pass where the climbing gets more earnest. But even there it’s reasonable until the last kick to the pass, which is quite unreasonable! Stephanie as usual was intent on keeping a steady, brisk pace. We chatted and seemingly lollygagged until it got steeper (and quieter) and Stephanie just slowly moved ahead. At the pass we realized why we were having such an easy time: we had a west tailwind that was howling over the pass.

That tailwind also blew up down from the pass on one of the best descents in the Bay Area. With hardly any cars, great sightlines and only one blind corner it’s a delight. Oh, and it’s long so you get to enjoy it for quite a time. The only uglification along the descent was the PG&E substation, which sticks out like the eyesore it is in the middle of all that countryside.

We stopped at the outskirts of Tracy just across the California Aqueduct at the Valero station. Here the big trucks for Safeway, Costco, and Amazon roam the area due to their respective warehouses and logistics centers. The Valero is well stocked. I was originally going to get the fried chicken but got a sandwich instead so that I could share it with Roger. David had brought along some of his homemade dill pickles to share. There we stood next to the trash bin eating our early lunch. A steady stream of men were heading into the Jalos Taqueria next door. Hmm, we’ll have to check it out next time.

Then it was a slight backtrack onto the Aqueduct parkway, which is just a very wide frontage/service road adjacent to it. Other than a few fishermen and walkers the parkway is largely empty and a great escape from the trucks on the local roads. Unfortunately we were now heading north with that delightful tailwind now transformed into a gruesome sidewind forcing us to lean to the left to stay upright. Midway through you pass the old Altamont Speedway in the hills to the west of the Aqueduct but you can’t see it from there. After three and a half miles we were at Grant Line Road and returned to a brief automotive fray. Grant Line is one scary road with intense traffic that makes crossing over to the westbound lane feel like you’re in a real-life version of Frogger. Waiting for that short break to zip across rewards you with continued life and the joy of being passed by cars blitzing onto 580. That brief hell lasts less than a half-mile and we were on Altamont Pass Road, which is also deserted although less so than Patterson. Here Stephanie took off again along with Roger while David and I took it more slowly.

Altamont Pass Road is surrounded by grassland but interrupted by a couple of automotive repair businesses in the middle of nowhere and what look to be ranch houses that had seen better days. Oh yeah, and of course we now had a distinctly unfriendly headwind. But we all made it over the pass and left Altamont for Flynn Road and crossed over 580. It’s a short, easy ascent from there and a nice, long drop back to Livermore, suburbanity awaiting. Another fantastic ride in the Altamont hills done. Alas, by now those hills are probably shorn of green and turned to golden brown. We shall return next year!

The Price for All This Green

Temporarily liberated from the incessant rainfall we went out for a bike ride. The Three Bears is nearby but we hadn’t been out that way recently and not just because it’s been raining biblically. It’s a good, short loop out in open space, rare in the urban Bay Area and loved so much that it’s a standard ride for Different Spokes as well as for Grizzly Peak Cyclists. But after you’ve done it a few hundred times—kinda like the Tib loop—its beautiful sheen becomes dulled through familiarity. But we knew the enormous rains surely had made the green hills verdant and lush and so we looked forward to getting out there.

We were not mistaken. Despite being late to the party–usually by now the pasturelands have been nibbled down to the stubs and the lack of rains starting to turn the hillsides tan—it was positively viridian. Even though the cows had made short order of the lush grass, it was still brightly green in an Irish sort of way such was the power of munificent rains.

But that intense green came at a cost. Having the earth so saturated meant that things were going to slip and slide. As we rolled south on San Pablo Dam Road by the turn to Wildcat Canyon we saw the K-barriers and signs that it was closed due to a landslide taking out the road. Date to reopening: unknown. Heading north a little further along San Pablo Dam Road we were surprised to see a 40 MPH speed limit sign. 40 MPH? It’s used to be 50. Then came a 25 MPH sign and a double line of hazard bollards. Then we saw why: the entire width of SPDR had buckled into an ugly and dangerous whoop-de-whoop as if the earth under the road had dissolved and the roadway was a taffy coating sinking into the gap.

On Castro Ranch Road we encountered more of the same. The road had buckled creating de facto speed bumps; on the descent to Alhambra Valley Road the roadway edge was destabilized leaving a set of wavy undulations. We moved to the left into the roadway.

Turning onto Alhambra Valley Road the road quality improved partly because a huge section had been rebuilt after the winter of 2016-17, the last time we had a torrential rains and it was closed for months. But the unmistakable signs were there: in several places the shoulder had collapsed into Pinole Creek right up or just into the road. The good news is that all this rain seems to have kept people from dumping their old furniture and construction debris on the roadside so that the beautiful pasturelands actually still looked pastoral rather than like Tobacco Road.

Bear Creek Road was in much better shape than either Castro Ranch, Alhambra Valley, or even San Pablo Dam Road, seemingly unaffected by our winter other than having slightly more debris in the shoulder. Water was of course streaming over the road in multiple locations. But that was about it all the way up Mama Bear and Papa Bear and back to San Pablo Dam Road. Fortunately no other slides or slips had occurred and if the soils can just dry out some more we may avoid further damage and destruction this spring.

Despite having received more rain this year than the winter of 2016-17, road destruction in the Bay Area seems less gargantuan. If you recall five years ago Pinole Creek completely washed away the bridge connecting Castro Ranch Road to Alhambra Valley Road, Moraga Creek slid and took out the bridge from Moraga to Pinehurst, Morgan Territory had a humungous landslide due to waterlogged soils, and Redwood Road slipped away. All of the repairs took a very long time to be finished; in the case of the Canyon bridge it took three years! And that is just a short list of the roads closed that winter. This year we’ve had a slate of well-loved roads closed by rain damage—La Honda Road, west Old La Honda, Mines Road, Stage Road over on coastside, China Grade, Palomares, Patterson Pass Road, and many others. But some of them are already reopened at least partially and I doubt any of them will take more than a year to be rebuilt. We can all wish for wet winters and green springs but sometimes it’s too much of a good thing. That said I love looking at a verdescent Mt. Diablo!


Just in time for Easter and Passover the club finally held a ride on April Fools Day. The last club ride was February 19. After that the heavens opened up—again—and we started looking for Noah’s ark! Every single club ride in March was cancelled although not all of them because of rain. But we finally had a clear weekend and not only was it free of rain but it was also brilliantly sunny making for a belated spring day.

It was a simple, easy jaunt from Orinda to Moraga and then down to Danville for lunch. The good weather brought out a lot of folks ambulating and strutting so the six of us had plenty of company on the Lafayette-Moraga Regional and the Iron Horse trails. Everybody was in a good mood! Alas, not many Easter bonnets were seen but perhaps they’re saving them up for next weekend! (You do have your Easter bonnet ready, don’t you?)

In Danville we rolled by Domenico’s–I was very much looking forward to their salads–but the outdoor tables in the sunshine were packed with folks finally able to enjoy the good weather and a delicious lunch. So we strolled over to Sultan’s Kebab instead and had the entire outdoor patio to ourselves. Much conversation later we remounted and rolled back to Orinda the quick way through Lafayette.

We are all very much looking forward to more days like today!

Can You Ever Be Too Thin?

Way below spec! Should have been replaced a long time ago.

Well yes, when it comes to disc brake rotors. Everybody is disco-ing these days and lord help you if you try to find a new bike that has ye olde rim brakes. So whether you’re like Alvin Toffler and embrace these “new” technologic marvels being marketed like Cabbage Patch dolls or you’re firmly in the Luddite camp clutching your spoon brakes in a death grip, disc brakes for road bikes are here to stay like it or not.

I’ve carped about road disc brakes previously mainly focusing on the increased time, cost, and attention they need compared to rim brakes. I mentioned before that disc rotors wear out amazingly fast, way more quickly than an aluminum rim does (like an order of magnitude faster!). Doing your own bike repair and maintenance is a dying habit these days and it’s certainly not encouraged by the increasing complexity of equipment so much so that taking your bike to a shop for just about everything has become standard practice. But if you do your own bike maintenance, ignoring your disc brake rotors—which is unfortunately all too easy—is a bad mistake. Rotors wear down; for me they last about a year. When worn down they don’t always make odd noises or behave strangely—there just isn’t an obvious warning that you need to replace them. If you regularly take your bike to a shop, they’ll catch that because checking brake pads and rotors is standard practice and long before it becomes a problem they’ll tell you to replace the rotor.

Here’s what happens when you just don’t bother to check your rotors: Roger and I went for a ride and he commented to me that his rear brake felt like it wasn’t working—it wasn’t stopping the bike and he was relying almost entirely on the front brake. I didn’t think much of it—probably the brake pads had worn down yet again. We go through disc brake pads like candy. We have to change them about twice a year (note: on each bike!) In contrast changing rim brake pads is such an infrequent chore that I don’t even keep spare pads around. Maybe I have to change pads once every ten years or so. The other thought that occured to me was perhaps Roger’s bike had air in the rear brake hydraulic line, which can cause spongy and ineffective braking. I took a quick look at the rotor and it seemed fine and the lever feel seemed fine too yet the brake wasn’t doing its job. Hmm.

When we got home to the shop, I was able to pull the wheel out of the frame and inspect the brakes more carefully. The pads were actually okay. But a closer look at the rotor showed that it was quite worn. I couldn’t see it out on the road because I was looking at the edge of the rotor, which was still thick because his brake pads were wearing a track below the outside edge thus leaving it intact. I measured the thickness of the rotor and it was just 0.76 mm—half the recommended mininum thickness! In retrospect we were lucky the rotor hadn’t just cracked and split altogether being so thin. Good thing we weren’t going down Diablo!

A brand new Shimano rotor is 1.8 mm thick.

Every brand of disc brake rotors—Campagnolo, SRAM, Shimano, Tektro, etc. has a minimum thickness; when your rotors get this thin, they want you to replace them. Shimano for example recommends that its rotors be replaced when worn down to 1.50 mm. Brand new they are 1.80 mm thick, so you can see that there isn’t a lot that has to be worn down before they need to be tossed. This isn’t like eyeballing your rim brake pads or even your aluminum rims—you can barely see the difference between new and worn rotors. So to be prudent you need to invest about $20 in a vernier caliper which you can accurately measure the thickness of the rotor. You can buy analog or digital calipers but the digital ones don’t cost a lot more and they’re a lot easier to read. You should get in the habit measuring your rotors’ thickness every couple of months. When a Shimano rotor is down to 1.50 mm, replace it. (SRAM recommends no thinner than 1.55; Campagnolo says no thinner than 1.65 mm.)

A typical worn rotor; 1.36 mm is still below the recommended 1.50 mm for replacing.

Most rotors today use the Centerlock standard that Shimano invented for attaching rotors: the rotor is splined and fits directly onto the hub and held in place by a lockring. You’ll need a lockring tool to remove and install the rotor. The other, older standard is six-bolt rotors; for these you’ll need either a hex key or Torx T25 wrench depending on the kind of screws they use. Keep in mind that when you install the new rotor you’ll need to torque down the lockring or screws to the specified torque. Lockrings are 40-50 Nm and screws are usually 4 Nm. 40-50 Nm is a lot of force, so if you don’t have a torque wrench, tighten it as much as you can because you don’t want the lockring to come loose when you’re riding. If you have rotor bolts, you can buy a preset torque wrench with replaceable bits set at 5 Nm, which is close enough.

One thing to keep in mind when you’re measuring the thickness of your disc rotors: make sure you’re measuring the actual thickness rather than the outside or inside edge of a worn track on the rotor. Measuring the edges will give you an incorrect read of the rotor’s actual thickness. So place the caliper tips directly in the worn track as shown in the photos.


No pain, no gain.

So far this has been a year unlike any other. Similar to the winter of 2016-17 when we also had a series of atmospheric rivers plow through northern California, this year our drought prayers were answered with double-fold irony: we’ve had so much rain that only the hardy go out to ride and when they do they’re confronted with washed out roads, downed trees blocking roads, and lots of mud and pools of water whose depth is uncertain. San Francisco to date has had over 29 inches of rain when the average year nets just 19 by now; SF averages less than 23 inches for an entire year. In Contra Costa we’ve received well over 47 inches to date when usually we get about 35. If we receive more than 50 inches by June 30, I would not be surprised given how prolific this rainy season has been. By the way, although Seattle and Portland have reputations for being rainy cities, but did you know that the annual average rainfall for Seattle is 37.5 inches? Portland is just 36 inches. And this year both have gotten just 40 inches to date. This has been a wet year!

That few of us are venturing out for rides is not news especially since our rains have been mostly constant and steady. In previous winters the rain wasn’t a serious deterrent for me and even this January despite my intentions to use Fulgaz and ride in the comfort of my living room, I just had to get outside and I rode 23 days rain or shine. I was expecting that I would continue.

But then life intervened and I couldn’t ride because of other responsibilities. Usually when I’m under stress going out for a ride has been a welcome relief and reinvigorating for handling life’s other travails. But not this time. And with the rains whatever incentive I had to get out just vanished in a puff. So almost a month went by and I did hardly a lick of a ride and whatever strength and stamina I had eked out became a faint dream. At my age it’s important to keep moving because every recession in fitness is just another ratchet downward no matter how hard I try to resist and come back.

Last week Roger and I finally went out for a (re-)inaugural bike ride, just a “stroll” down and up the local MUP. It was 25 miles and we rode it at a leisurely pace. No problem. That night Paul pinged me and asked if we’d like to go for a ride the next day. He too had been unable to ride, and since Saturday was to be a dry day with the rains returning on Sunday it was going to be the only day to get out. Both Roger and I felt alright (= not sore or tired) so we delightfully agreed to meet him. My left brain was telling me it was probably a mistake; my right brain was telling me how nice it would be to go for a Different Spokes-ish ride. Paul is a relatively new member who also lives in the East Bay, so it would be a good chance for us to get to know him a bit better. He’s also in our cohort, ie. as old as the friggin’ hills.

Paul was going to take BART to Orinda but he surprised us by riding over Wildcat instead. I thought, “Hmm, that would be more than I would be able to do if I were just starting to ride again”. We took him on a ride that we do often, which is out to the back part of Walnut Creek on lightly travelled suburban roads to some “hidden” hills in Danville and Alamo and then back to Orinda. It’s about 35 miles and although it has hills, they are short and not too steep. It’s a ride that we normally would consider a ‘light’ ride but with enough hilliness that you can make it as hard or as easy as you want. If we did it at an easy pace, it should be no problem.

Paul had never ridden out that way even with Grizzly Peak Cyclists, his other club. He was a bit lost in the morass of suburbia even though it is far more varied than the cookie cutter homes in Daly City, for example. Admittedly we were taking a lot of “roads less travelled” with lots of turns and cuts through cul-de-sacs that make the route confusing the first time. We had a nice time and I was surprised at how calm my legs felt despite having ridden the day before and after a month of inactivity.

On the way back my legs very quickly became tired and I slowed down. A lot. My leg muscles felt completely exhausted, as if I had ridden a century yet it less than 30 miles—at an easy pace no less! Riding two days in a row—never a problem in the past—this time was turning out to be massive overload. Just a couple of miles from home both my legs locked up, spasming uncontrollably. I pulled to curb but I couldn’t even dismount. I had waved Roger and Paul to go ahead to the coffee shop just before I cramped up. All I could do was stand there and not move. After five minutes my muscles had not calmed down. No matter which way I attempted to move, muscles would lock up like a vise. Eventually I stumbled onto the grass and sat down trying to find a position to stop the cramping. After minutes of agony I called Roger and asked him to come get me.

On a long ride I would have brought a small bottle of pickle juice in case of cramps. (You didn’t know pickle juice can help with cramps?). But this was a short ride so I hadn’t. I also had consumed all my water. Roger and Paul arrived and tried to help me. But the cramps were unrelenting and exquisitely painful. Roger went home to get the van because there was no way I could cycle up the hill to the house. Paul, who suffers from dehydation on rides, had some electrolyte pills. I gobbled three of them and more water. After about 15 minutes of struggling I was eventually able to stand and walk very slowly to a cul-de-sac where Roger could pick me up. Paul was very helpful in escorting me in case I fell victim to cramping again. But I didn’t. Roger arrived, we said our farewells—next time we’ll get coffee after a ride, Paul!—and headed home.

I never expected that starting cycling again would bring about such suffering. Each time I have to take an extended break from cycling or exercise, I feel like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill only to see it roll back down. In this case it was like Sisyphus pushing a rock uphill and then getting leg cramps!

Fun With Tubeless Tires: Left High & Dry

When all else fails…

A week or so ago I went for a ride in the rain. I didn’t care that it was raining: I wanted to go for a ride and Fulgaz wasn’t going to do it for me. I took the bike with the tubeless tires this time because in the two previous outings I didn’t and guess what? I got flats. In the rain. Do you know how irritating it is to change a tube when it’s raining hard? Oh, and good luck finding the cause of your flat before putting in a fresh tube to get home. When your hands are cold and everything is soaked and covered in dirt, it’s harder to feel for that piece of glass, wire, or flint stuck in your tire. For one of the flats I ended up calling for a rescue to get home since I flatted the spare as well when I didn’t find the cause of the flat and just stuffed the new tube in. (Long story: I actually did find a wire and a piece of glass stuck in the tire and removed them. But it was a yet another glass shard that caused the flat!)

This was no epic ride, just a short jaunt out the local bike path and back. No problem, right? Nope. After the turnaround and while standing going up a slight incline, the rear wheel felt a bit bouncy. But I discounted it since I couldn’t have a puncture because I had tubeless tires! A couple miles later it was obvious I had punctured because the tire was very low. I was able to pull out of the rain under a gas station canopy to try to pump up the deflating tire. There was no use in trying to find the source of the problem because I had fenders that prevented me from inspecting the tire carefully, for what was obviously a slow leak, and anyway everything was filthy and wet. Would I even be able to see the offender? I doubt it. My minipump has a gauge and it said I had about 10-15 lbs. pressure. So a hundred pumps on my minipump and a prayer later the tire still wasn’t hard but good enough for me to get further down the road where I suspected I’d have to stop and add more air. Fortunately one of the local churches down the road had installed a self-standing bike repair station with a floor pump. I pulled in and used it to get the tire up to 60 lbs. I was able to get home without another stop, which was a good thing because it was raining hard.

Per routine I dumped the bike in the shop to be dealt with later. The next day I was able to give it a proper inspection and I found the puncture: it was a sharp, tetrahedral-shaped flint. Being about 3 mm. in size the rock was easy to spot. Interestingly there was no sealant around the intruder. Immediately after popping the sharp stone out, the tire deflated with a rapid hiss. No sealant spewed out. A probe inserted into the valve stem came out dry. Well, that answers that: even though I had topped off the tire about three or four months ago, all the sealant had dried up.

How could the sealant, Orange Seal Endurance, have dried up so quickly? This tire was relatively new and unlike its predecessor it has always lost air through time. This is likely due to a very slight difference in the rim-tire bead interface. There is variation in tire production and all it takes is a minute difference in thickness, uniformity, or diameter and the tire bead may not seat perfectly against the rim. Another possible reason is that despite having cleaned the rim carefully before setting up the new tire I may have missed a bit of old, dried sealant that would have created a gap. That slight difference is enough to leak air slowly. Even though I always had to pump this one up before a ride, it was no more hassle than with latex inner tubes or sewup tires so I didn’t give it too much thought. And the prospect of demounting the tire and cleaning everything over again was too daunting even for someone as anal as I.

Apparently over time the less than ideal seal had allowed the sealant to evaporate more quickly, something that hadn’t occurred to me.

There is a preventative solution, a solution that I knew about but didn’t apply when I set up the tire because I hadn’t confronted this problem before and it thus seemed completely superfluous. After filling the tire with sealant I should have sloshed it around thoroughly so that the sealant flowed around both tire beads. This involves tipping and rolling the wheel every which way to make sure the sealant is distributed throughout the interior of the tire. Then it would seal any tiny gaps at the rim-tire bead interface. Here’s a link to one way to do this.

With this repair I mistakenly thought that all I had to do is add sealant and the hole would vanish, voila! But after adding sealant and pumping the tire, air and sealant spewed endlessly until the tire was almost flat again. A second try had the same ending. I had a hard time believing this was happening: this hole was barely 3-4 mm. long and Orange Seal should have closed it off. But it wouldn’t. So out came the tubeless repair kit. This was the same Genuine Innovations kit I used the last time. And I had the same frustrating experience as before: I just couldn’t get the damn tire plug to go into the hole. By the way, most tubeless repair kits have the same shaped plug tool: it looks like a very tiny two-prong spear. The idea is that the tire plug can somehow be placed between the prongs so that it’s held in place when you jam the thing into the rubber tire and then it releases it. However I’ve never been able to get the plug to fit the prongs. No way José. This is why Dynaplug has become such a hit: there is no prong. Instead the tire plug is capped with a metal spear point that you just mount in the stick tool like an arrowhead and then plung into the hole. When you withdraw the tool, the plug releases easily since it’s not held by any prongs. Besides being ridiculously expensive, Dynaplug has another problem: those metal tips are sharp, deliberately in order to go easily into your puncture. But if you end up having a flat that won’t seal and can’t be replaced with a tire plug, you either put in a spare tube or call for a rescue pickup. But that metal tip now lives in your tire and can puncture any tube that is ever inserted in the future. Basically when you switch to Dynaplugs you can’t go back to tubes without pulling out every one of the plugs first. So I don’t use Dynaplugs.

Sharper than a serpent’s tooth…

As before I ended up just holding the plug against the puncture and jamming it in with a tiny flathead screwdriver and then pumped it up. No leak. And this time I put in so much sealant that for the first time ever I could hear it slosh around as I spun the tire. Oh, and after swirling the wheel every which way for some time, I did notice sealant bubbling out at the rim and eventually sealing. After sitting overnight the tire held air.

By the way, while inspecting this tire after fixing the flat I saw what I thought was a speck of dried sealant on the tread. But it wasn’t: it was the base of a tiny thorn. I popped it out, sealant bubbled out, and it sealed. So although this cautionary tale might seem like I’m yet again kvetching about tubeless road tires, you have to remember that the value of all things is relative: what do you have to endure with the alternatives? In this case I flatted in the rain but it could have been worse: I would have replaced a flatted tube with a spare after finding the flint but then punctured again with the thorn. At least with tubeless I made it home.

If your tubeless road tires regularly lose air, you may inadvertently be drying out your tire sealant at an accelerated rate. So after topping off your tire with abundant sealant, make sure you do the Jan Heine wave to distribute that sealant completely in the tire to seal any tiny gaps and holes.

Ride Recap: Resolution Ride

A bit delayed but the Resolution Ride, the club’s annual start-the-year-off-right jaunt to the top of Mt. Diablo, finally happened today. Although it wasn’t raining on New Year’s Day and we could have had a fabulous ride, the state park was closed because of mudslides, road collapses, and sundry debris imperiling the roadways. So the ride was postponed a month since this was the first weekend that Stephen, the ride leader, would be available. It’s just as well because the rains went on for three more weeks.

Of course the rains would have to return for our second stab at this ride as well! The forecast was looking ominous all week but it looked like the rain wouldn’t hit until Saturday night. With some trepidation the four of us—Stephen, Paul, Roger H, and I—left Pleasant Hill BART up North Gate Road. One benefit of this postponed ride would be that New Year’s is always a moshpit on Diablo with hordes of cyclists, hikers, and car drivers trying to make their way up to Rock Springs, Juniper, and the summit. Today it was quiet—hardly any traffic—making for a really pleasant and undisturbed ascent. Diablo is greening up nicely, the cows were out, and the overcast skies made it a placid scene torn right out of the Swiss playbook (well, minus the Alps!)

On the way up we noticed the damage from the earlier storms: a couple of sections of road that had been cleared of mud, one new major road slip reducing the road to one lane, and a couple more sections of road that have nasty cracking through the pavement and some settling.

The plan was to make a decision at the junction whether to continue up or not because showers were increasingly likely to hit after 1 PM. We were at the junction by 11 AM and it was looking no different than when we had left, ie. midlevel overcast skies with nary a hint of rain. But Roger never wanted to go higher and I had had my fill by the junction—I could have gone to the top but it would have pushed the lever from “I’m having a really chill time riding” into “fuck, I’m busting a gut now”, and anyway I like riding with my husband. And as I mentioned to Paul and Stephen I’m becoming more a porch dog with every day.

So Roger and I cruised down South Gate to Danville but we skipped the ritual lunch stop and went directly back to BART whereas Stephen and Paul were determined—more like consigned—to getting to the top. There is something to be said about commitment, a milestone, and enduring.

Roger and I had an uneventful ride back except for encountering the hundreds and hundreds of South Asians streaming north on the Iron Horse Trail. It turns out tomorrow is Thaipusam, a major Hindu festival day, and this was the ritual pilgrimage done the day before. It was like Woodstock for Hindus. Just as we pulled into Pleasant Hill BART it started to rain. We sure were glad to be off the bike now, lucky us! The rain waxed and waned until we got home at which point the sky actually opened up and dumped just as we got into the garage. Lucky us again!

As for Paul and Stephen? I presume they made it to the top. But Stephen texted me later that they got soaked and were chilled to the bone by the descent. Paul’s report:
“As Stephen mentioned in his text, we had the kind of descent no one wishes for… particularly Mt. Diablo in the cold rain… When we got to the top, it was misting/raining, but we figured it might still be dry below the Junction.  No way – rain all the way down, a scary descent (my non-disc brakes aren’t wonderful), and then a bit more rain as we made our way to a dry and warm Starbucks near the PH Bart station – thank goodness for those great Starbucks employees, who plied us with coffee and hot liquids, to warm our core (which in my case was cold to the bone, along with our soaked clothes and bikes).  But a good ride nonetheless, and a chance to talk to Stephen, who is a great riding companion …  Glad you guys didn’t get wet. Look forward to the next adventure, perhaps not as daring, though.  Thanks!”

Now that’s a proper Resolution Ride!