Mortification

Folsom Lake – the reality of our current drought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into Socks. Are you? [Updated]

Sock it to me!

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

—Cole Porter

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

Your wish has been granted and our 40th anniversary gift to ourselves is our new DSSF socks now available at the club store on our website. Want to be en vogue at the next Jersey Ride? You have to have this fine hosiery clad your little piggies! Just $15 plus shipping for the Spokerati, $20 plus shipping for the hoi polloi, er- non-members. Find them at the club website. If you are a member, log in first to get the member discount. Socks should ship sometime in June. UPDATE 5/28: The socks are in!

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

Fun With Road Tubeless: The Aftermath

No sealant on the floor yet…

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

Nah, that’d be too easy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fun With Road Tubeless: When Dreams Come True

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: the aftermath.

Karoo 2 Setup and First Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powering Up

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

Setup Experience 

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

First Ride

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

After the First Ride

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

Second Ride 

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

After the Second Ride

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

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

Update (Apr 18, 2022)

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

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

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

Core Values

Same as it ever was!

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

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

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

A piece of heaven

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

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

Leaping lagomorph!

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

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

“I earned this!”

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

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

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

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

What’s Old Is New

Wall Eyed

Is there anything really new under the sun? When it comes to cycling, the answer is mostly no; it’s just old ideas given a new spin, peddling what was in fashion so long ago that the new kids on the block think it’s innovation. Wow, fluoro yellow jackets! Um, that was ‘hot’ or ‘dayglo’ yellow in the 1980s. “Gravel bikes”! Yep, they were called road bikes in the 70s, just ridden on dirt trails. Okay, so electronic shifting is kind of a ‘new’ idea, right? Yet it’s the cycling version of automobile paddle shifting…which was invented in 1912. Darn.

Last month the Davids led another training series ride, this time up the Marshall Wall. Actually it was David Go. and Mark because the other David had a scheduling conflict and had to bail. For some reason the Marshall Wall has become an iconic ride in some cycling quarters of the Bay Area. I don’t recall the first time I rode it but I know it was in the early days of the club shortly after I had moved to San Francisco. I have a vague memory of a club ride climbing up the Marshall with Dennis Westler, who later became club president, and probably along with other vintage Spokers such as Bruce Matasci and Abel Galvan both of whom later died of AIDS. I definitely recall doing it on the tandem with Dr. Bob several times in the late 80s/early 90s before he decamped to LA. In any case it’s semi-regularly offered by the club; at sister club GPC that ride also seems to be a near-monthly fixture of their ride calendar. The so-called “Wall” is just a hill like many other hills in the Bay Area so it’s an exaggeration. Probably what makes it mentally daunting is that at the foot of the hill you can see all the way to the top as well as everyone who is ahead of you, sort of like a mini-Mt. Hamilton. For real walls see Mt. Umunhum on the Peninsula or Mix Road, which inobtrusively lies to the west of Pleasants Valley Road in Solano (talk about heaven and hell!)

We started at the Marinwood Community Center, which has become the de facto start for rides in southern Marin and to Point Reyes. Back in the day—for reasons I don’t entirely understand—we started at the carpool parking area just off the Lucas Valley exit. Marinwood is better: there’s a bathroom and plenty of parking as well although I’m not sure the locals like having scads of out-of-towners gobbling up their parking. Starting early meant layering up for at least for some of us; others were gambling on the day warming up quickly and forswore warmers or comfy, cozy jackets. Lucas Valley has recently been repaved and the shoulders and hairpin improved. But car traffic on this Saturday morning was starting to appear. Growth is a bitch.

You get a few measly miles of warm up before the gradient rockets upward to Big Rock. It was chilly so I was looking forward to the climb to come. Nancy and I were chatting at the back and then we quickly became quiet except for the gasping. The subsequent descent to Nicasio is flanked by redwoods and soon you’re drowning in soothing shade. That calm was pierced all too often by the SUVs and motorcycles screaming past us. The group took a gabby little bathroom break in Nicasio before heading to the Cheese Factory. A little bump rises up between Nicasio and Hicks Road and is what David Go. calls the ‘Alpe du Fromage’. There a friendly driver said hello by leaning on his horn as he passed us at 40+ mph. He clearly wanted to get close and personal by brushing us as he brisked up the road. What a nice guy!

At the Cheese Factory several of us decamped to the tea room to do our business while the rest eyed the many Rapha bros who swirled by on their disc brake, carbonalicious beauties. Was it their chic two-wheeled fashion statements or the shape of their limber thighs that caught our eyes? Question: when everyone is clad in muted Rapha colors and sporting either a Dogma or a Tarmac, how does one stand out? Answer: you don’t because you’ve apishly followed the same trends.

Past the Cheese Factory we left most of the automobile traffic behind and it suddenly got really peaceful on Marshall-Petaluma Road. Pastures were still green despite the dearth of rain. But like a 45-year old supermodel they had that ‘faded beauty’ look that have you thinking, “Ah, still eye-catching but past the pull date”. After rolling on mile after mile of picture-perfect road it suddenly kicked upward and there we were at the foot of the Marshall Wall.

So what is this Marshall Wall and is it really a wall? It’s actually only about a mile and a half long clmbing about 500 vertical feet, which equates to about a 6% average grade. No big deal, right? Except the gradient isn’t constant and by my reckoning there is a 11-12% section in the middle that has you downshifting until you run out of gears. It also is completely exposed with no cover allowing you to see everyone who is ahead of you as well as the distant ridgetop. Being at the very back I had no idea what the guys at the front were doing. But I could tell that everybody else was inchworming their way up the Wall. There wasn’t anyone blitzing up the hill. It was bloody silent. “In space no one can hear you scream.”

And as with the recent Mt. Veeder Road ride I realized that my memory is disappointingly rose-colored. I had never understood why it was called a ‘wall’ before. But on this day it truly felt like I was rockclimbing rather than cycling. How could this be? Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that I was here? My husband concurred and said it really wasn’t that long ago we had ridden over it. Why did it seem so different than I recalled? Later that day I looked it up: we hadn’t ridden the Marshall Wall since 2015! Seven years older, seven years of fading strength. Like a 45-year old former supermodel. I think I’m past the pull date. As I age I get the lovely experience of riding the same old roads, but my memory and body are so decrepit that it’s like riding a brand ‘new’ road. And it’s always a harder one it seems.

The ascent is followed by a descent to sea level that is also about 6%. But for some reason it has always seemed steeper and faster. The narrowness of the road with its rollercoaster curves provides the illusion that it’s steep. Eons ago I was stoking a tandem on the Marin Century down this hill. The captain, Dr. Bob, who was and is absolutely fearless, had us going so fast I had to shut my eyes and tuck in, sure that we were either going to make it down in record time or die trying. Absolutely none of the other faux racers could hold our wheel as we fell like a rock from heaven. At the bottom Bob proudly announced that we had hit 59 MPH. In space no one can hear you scream.

Once we were on Highway One we all spread out. Nancy and I were again at the back chatting. Perhaps it was the miles but she inexplicably slowed down and I found myself alone. I slowed down to wait for her but she slowed down too and couldn’t or wouldn’t catch up. Not wanting to be in the wind alone, I then sped up to catch those up the road. The trick with riding this section of Highway One is that the road weaves in and out to follow the contours of the Tomales Bay inlets, each one of which is a short descent followed by a short climb as you leave the inlet. If you’re wise to this you can rocket the descents and use your momentum plus a little sprinting get up the following climb. I managed to catch one group on the descent and then use momentum and the draft to be sent flying up the hill. Of course, in order to do this you likely max out your heart rate. I was leapfrogging between the riders and making good time up the road. Well, I managed to do this twice and was within eyeshot of the front of our group when it all came to naught due to leg cramps from the effort. I ended up crawling into Point Reyes Station at a snail’s pace.

The lunch stop was Bovine Bakery, which has delicious pizza. The only change I noticed was that the Pandemic has forced it to do window service only. Otherwise everything seemed the same including the scads of cyclists and other daytrippers lounging in the adjacent yard making their way as quickly as possible to a food coma. More carbon, gravel bikes, and Rapha attire.

Post lunch we left for the ‘standard’ (= easiest) route back, ie. no Platform Bridge for us, just head back Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. It didn’t seem like we were rushing back. But the earlier efforts had left me fatigued so I dangled at the back. Of course the cramps came back so I had to slow down. Normally I would then take the opportunity to enjoy the scenery but it was hard with my hamstrings itching to do a fandango every couple of minutes. A slow but steady crawl up Lucas Valley and I was feeling better. On the fast descent back to Marinwood Roger and I took it easy although the repaving and reformed hairpin surely makes it easier to hit approach velocity. Finally what a lunch break couldn’t resolve a little time and wisdom did and I was able to quicken the pace and made it up to the rest of the group just as they pulled into Marinwood.

Probably in a few years I’ll return. I’ll be older, more decrepit—is that possible?—and I’ll have forgetten how difficult the day had been. And then it will seem like a brand new, wretched climb. Unless by then I’m on an e-bike in which case it will be absolutely fabulous.

Road Recap: Mt. Veeder Road

This past weekend something happened that we haven’t experienced in a quite a while: we had two club rides on the same day. I’m not talking about a choice of two routes for the ‘same’ ride like we have for the Fall Social but two completely separate rides. What made it noteworthy was it was a road ride (Darth Veeder) and an offroad ride (Mt. Tam) as the days of regular mountain bike rides in the club pretty much dwindled out in the Aughts. The last time we had two rides on the same day was in November 2019 a few months before the Pandemic started. Back when we had an active mountain bike contingent, road and dirt rides on the same day hardly was a conflict because those two groups mostly did not overlap.

Like green shoots popping above the ground in spring it’s an indicator perhaps of things to come. That the club is recovering not just from the Pandemic and also is starting to grow again is borne out by our membership numbers. We currently have 113 members. That may seen low but it is much greater than just four years ago when we were in the low 60s. I’d like to say that we are growing despite the Pandemic but the truth may be that we are because of the Pandemic. Other local clubs such as Grizzly Peak Cyclists and Valley Spokesmen have seen their membership numbers trend upward these past two years. As we move out of the Pandemic perhaps we may contract as other amusements vie for members’ time and attention and we revert to ‘regular’ life again.

Although I would have liked to join David M’s ride on Mt. Tam, the other Davids’ ride, Darth Veeder, got unceremoniously rained out on Saturday and postponed to Sunday where it then conflicted with the Mt. Tam offering. I was eager to go back to Mt. Veeder Road in Napa since we hadn’t set pedal on it since 2013. Had it really been that long? On this opening day of spring seven of us showed up. It may have officially been spring but inland valleys of the Bay Area including Napa can still be crispy cold, and it was! The Davids started this ride at Buttercream Bakery in Napa. It must be a very popular locals’ place because there was a nonstop stream of people heading in for everything from breakfast to cakes and donuts; the parking lot was full. Unfortunately we did not have time to partake so it would have to be a post-ride snack.

The route is essentially one big climb, Mt. Veeder; one nice descent, Veeder/Dry Creek; and lots of flat miles in the valley to pad your ‘training’ (or ego). After some warm-up miles strolling through Napa we started up Redwood Road to Veeder. Thinking it was going to be warmer I was one layer short and shivered until we started to climb. Veeder Road is remarkable for a couple of reasons. It has a beautiful and postcard perfect creek, Redwood, immediately adjacent to the road to keep you company as you climb, and it’s one of Napa’s multitude of uncrowded county roads but to the west of the valley; the east side of the valley is where most of the prime cycling lies. Veeder ended up being more of a challenge than I had anticipated, being a combination of time dulling the memory of past suffering and the cruel hand of age cutting down one’s strength. My recollection was that Veeder wasn’t steep yet the 10-11% readings belied that. I was struggling to get to the top.

We all made it to the summit for the fabulous view of Mt. Diablo to the south and Mt. St. Helena to the north although there had been a lot of gasping. Although the terrain had greened up nicely this rainy season, one couldn’t miss the denuded hillsides on the east side of the valley as well as the dead trees crowning the hilltops from the Glass Fire in 2020 and the Tubbs Fire in 2017. After a long respite at the summit we dropped down the other side and contrary to expectations the road surface wasn’t in terrible shape. We quickly turned onto Dry Creek and continued down and here the road got a bit ugly—bumpy, uneven, and coarse. We were passed by a steady stream of cyclists heading the opposite direction; they obviously knew that going up Dry Creek was going to be a lot less brutal than descending it!

Once back in the valley we rolled north along the Vine Trail to Yountville for lunch. The Napa Vine Trail runs between the northbound Solano Road and the train tracks. Although it’s not absolutely necessary—Solano is adequately wide and isn’t heavily trafficked—it’s a pleasant MUP. The last time we were on it in 2019 it had just opened and was empty; now it was used by locals as well as being a tourist attraction. In Yountville we got sandwiches at Velo Deli. Velo Deli is directly adjacent to Bistro Jeanty, which was heavenly cassoulet, and the brunch crowd was thick and raucous. Velo Deli wasn’t doing so bad either and we were lucky to score a couple of tables outside. For the most part people weren’t utlizing masks anymore, even the staff working in the deli market. Are we normal yet? Maybe BA.2 will have something to say…

After stuffing ourselves we rolled east to the Silverado Trail and got the perfect post-lunch present: a strong tailwind back to Napa! We eventually cut over to Big Ranch Road, which I had never been on before, to drop back to Buttercream Bakery. Alas, it had closed early for some reason. A post-ride donut or two with a steaming cup of coffee would have been the perfect end to ride in Napa. Next time!

Increasing Ride Diversity

At the board meeting in January we had the beginning of a discussion about the lack of shorter and slower rides in the current ride calendar. This wasn’t an abstract musing but a voicing of some of the board who liked to do exactly those kinds of rides. As the resident old fart board member I have a long view of the evolution of the club and the waxing and waning of periodic issues. I wrote a piece for the board about the history of this issue most of which is below. As I mentioned to the board, my summary wasn’t intended to be a downer or to throw water on the idea but for us to see that the issue is not an old one and recurs periodically because it doesn’t have an easy, permanent resolution.
The good news is that to begin to redress this shortcoming two of the board, David and Laura, will be leading a shortened version of the Jersey Ride on Saturday April 9. The regular JR will also take place and the shortened version of just 24 miles will start and end in Sausalito instead. Plus, we’ll have a sweep so you can’t get lost. If the regular JR has been too long or too strenuous for you, here’s a chance to meet fellow club members and have lunch together at Woodlands Market in Tiburon and you won’t arrive home afterwards exhausted or exasperated!
Coincidentally David M. and his husband will be leading a short, 16-mile, after-work ride this Friday through Golden Gate Park and down the Great Highway with the option for tacos afterwards.
Check out both detailed ride listings on the club website if you’re interested.

“Why Can’t We Have Slower and Shorter Rides??”

Some history and background: This discussion has ebbed and waned since the very beginning of the club and it reemerges every now and then. I recall that in the 1980s that it was common for riders of varying ability levels showing up for club rides almost regardless of the listed pace. You can probably understand why this was happening at the time: there weren’t a lot of rides and there was a real thirst to ride with other actual LGBT people! It almost didn’t matter what the listed pace was because your fellow queers wanted to meet cyclists just like them. I think a second reason was that initially there was no ride code (distance/terrain/pace) to provide guidance. However even after the ride code was developed, this issue persisted and I think some of it could be put on the murky nature of ride codes, eg. what is a “moderate” pace versus a “leisurely” one?
So what happened? Occasionally faster riders took off and/or slower riders got left behind. In those days we had no GPS—we barely had cyclometers—and if the ride leader didn’t give out a map or cue sheet, then you had to follow him/her unless you already knew the route. But often ride leaders gave out paper maps. (Photocopied AAA maps with yellow highlighting were popular!) The result was just what you expected: sometimes the fast group was never seen again except maybe at a regroup point and the slower riders might disappear because the ride was too fast or hard or because they just didn’t know the route. There were repeated admonitions in the club newsletter, The Chain Letter, that rides needed to be rated accurately and that ride leaders lead it at the pace that they had listed. Faster riders were advised not to “hijack” the rides (ie. inadvertently cause the group to go faster than the listed pace) and to slower riders not to attend rides whose pace was harder then they could realistically maintain. Because those admonitions were repeated often it was apparent that it was occuring all too often (I mean, it went on for years!)
This caused a fair amount of low level tension because slower riders showing up on faster rides posed a conundrum for ride leaders. If they slowed the ride down for them, the other fast riders would get upset or just take off anyway (unless the leader hadn’t given out maps). If the ride didn’t slow down to accommodate the slower riders, then they were basically blown off and often never came back because “Different Spokes is all fast riders”/“Different Spokes isn’t very friendly/too competitive”. Occasionally a ride leader might speak to the slow riders at a regroup point and recommend that they try a slower paced/less hilly ride the next time. I doubt many of them ever returned partly because although we had more easy rides back then, it still was much less than other kinds of rides. Resentment ensued. Bottom line: it was a no-win situation because someone often ended up being dissatisfied with how the ride went.
Another dynamic was at play as well: as the club quickly grew, its composition changed as well. The early Spokers were heavily into bicycle touring. But within two years we had an influx of “serious” recreational cyclists, ie. those that did local centuries, wanted to “train”, and liked to chase each other up and down hills to exhaustion. As the club grew into a club composed of more avid cyclists, touring cyclists as well as casual cyclists—to whom we were also reaching out—diminished.
So that’s pretty much what we still are today, a club of avid recreational road cyclists. Except for an extended foray into dirt riding in the late 80s and through the 90s, the club has remained the same, weighted towards moderate and hard rides.

Previous attempts to broaden: Although there have been ride leaders who like slower and flatter routes, there have been far fewer than those who like more challenging rides. And even some of the slower leaders liked to do long and hilly routes such as the Davis Double and Mt. Hamilton, eg. Sharon Lum. The major standout is Aaron Berman-Almendares. For several years in the early Aughts he led a short after-work ride in SF almost every week. It was popular among a certain segment of the club. But it’s interesting to note that after he retired from ride leading absolutely no one else stepped up fill that gap and lead that kind of ride. Whether that was due to Aaron’s personality, the lackluster leadership interest on the part of his followers, or some other reason is not clear.
Occasionally sporadic attempts to lead easier rides were done by other ride leaders. They mainly were rides in Golden Gate Park and they had just as sporadic turn out, ie. not many. The problem is that ride leaders who usually lead more challenging rides don’t want to lead easier rides regularly, which is completely understandable because people who lead rides lead the kind of rides they want to do. This is a fun club, not a job.
There was a more regular and systematic attempt to reach out to this population. My husband and I led a Social Ride series from July 2015 to December 2018. These rides were almost all A-pace rides (there were a few B-pace) varying in length from about 25 to 40 miles; most were flattish but some were hilly such as the Three Bears and the Sawyer Camp Trail. They were led in various locations around the Bay Area—Peninsula, East Bay, South Bay, and North Bay. We also tried to start them at BART stations when possible to make them accessible to those who didn’t drive to the start. These rides were not quite monthly—more like 7 or 8 times per year at least. Our goal was to encourage cyclists who were slower. They could be aging up and slowing down, newer cyclists, coming back from injury, whatever. It was not explicitly intended to reach out to casual cyclists and the length of the rides almost certainly discouraged that type of person to join the rides—it was about pace, not distance (although our Social rides were shorter than what we usually do ourselves).
What was the result of this initiative? Ridership varied from maybe ten-ish to just we two; the usual number was around four to six altogether, and genderwise it was mostly male. There were a few regular riders (by ‘regular’ I mean showed up on more than two rides). Generally it was new people often but they usually did not come back. There were a few Spokers who joined our rides when sick or needing a recovery ride. No one else out of this group ever got inspired to lead a ride. However there were a few people who ended up joining the club because of the Social rides.
Roger and I ended the Social rides not only because there wasn’t any internal energy to that process (ie. others weren’t stepping up) but also because we generally prefer faster and harder rides. In that respect our effort was a real outlier because we did it for a three-and-a-half year period, which I think shows how difficult it is to reach out to this population at least with the format we used.
The most recent effort to reach out to slower cyclists was the Different Spokes MeetUp group. The 2019 board decided to start a MeetUp group to try to reach out to a wider population of cyclists. This experiment lasted about six months. Ginny Watson headed up that effort. We cross-listed existing rides to the MeetUp calendar and Ginny in particular led some SF rides—called Mellow Rides—that were casual and slower (around Lake Merced). The turnout was very light—maybe two or three other cyclists at most although two of them did join the club. What we learned about using MeetUp was that it’s an extremely easy way to reach out to a lot of people but that those people were likely to be casual cyclists (eg. rode a few times a year) or just liked signing up for events (and then never showing up).

So where does that leave us today? Cycling participation like other activities consists of a pyramid of people. The base is very big and broad and the peak is very small. One would think that reaching out to the base, ie. casual or slower cyclists who like shorter rides, would be a good way to increase the membership of the club as well as diversify. After the MeetUp experiment the board more or less came to the consensus that reaching out to casual cyclists was not going to work. Why? Because less avid cyclists are less avid precisely because they’re less interested in cycling compared to other life activities and that included prioritizing putting energy into Different Spokes. So their interest in stepping up and taking on leadership roles is also very low. Conversely, already avid cyclists will likely want to put energy into Different Spokes if they like what they experience, which is (a) rides they like to do, and (b) they start making good friends in the club, which they are more likely to do if they’re hanging with people who share the same interests namely, doing the same kinds of rides. If you want to start attracting more casual cyclists, then likely the best way to do that is to have people and activities that that kind of cyclist likes, namely slower rides and other people who like doing slower rides.
So, how can that happen? I think it takes committed slower/casual cyclists who want to make that happen stepping up and leading slower, shorter rides. In other words we need slow/shorter ride evangelists! If our ride calendar doesn’t have regular slower and shorter rides, then bringing this type of cyclist into the club isn’t going to work because we will have nothing to offer them on an ongoing basis. Those who prefer slower and shorter rides need to post them and draw out both members and non-members who enjoy those rides. Asking the existing ride leader cohort to take on that responsibility is, in my opinion, a non-starter because their interest in leading rides that they wouldn’t normally do is very low. And as we all know life in the Bay Area is very time-pressured so most cyclists are going to want to commit their precious free time to the rides they want to do. That said, there have been and may still be members who like to do both kinds of rides or at least whose riding ability and interest straddles that divide. But the problem is that this hypothetical creature doesn’t exist in the current ride leader cohort.
For clubs and voluntary activity-based organizations the rule of thumb is that your leadership will come from 10 to 15% of your members. If you have a hundred members, then you can expect that ten to fifteen members will be the actively contributing to the running of the club. We are already at that point as we have about 17 ride leaders and officers and we have about 113 members. So unless some of the existing cohort want to focus on leading shorter, easier rides, we’ll have to find a way to bring in new ride leaders. Keep in mind that if you want a sweep for a ride, then you need at least two ride leaders per ride, doubling your need for ride leaders.
The other thing that might help grow a cohort of members who like slower and easier rides it to offer this type of ride on a regular basis as we do with the Jersey Ride. If it’s on the calendar at regular intervals, then slow/easy riders will know that they can do the ride next month/week if they miss the most current one. But someone has to step up to lead those rides.

A related issue: pace inflation. This is a topic I wrote about some years ago. This is an issue, which I called ‘pace inflation’, that impacts ride diversity: specifically, when ride leaders post a ‘B’ ride and then proceed to lead it at a C or D pace. This happens not because ride leaders are cruel but because the B-pace category has morphed into the catch-all pace. If you read the description of a B ride it is supposed to be moderate as opposed to leisurely, brisk, or strenuous. The problem is that one person’s moderate pace is another person’s strenuous pace. If you ride at your self-designated ‘moderate’ pace, well, then it should be a B-pace ride, right? Not exactly. If you look at our website and the description of pace you will see that moderate is equivalent to a moving average of 10-12 mph, ie. at the end of your ride, your average moving speed should have been between 10 and 12 mph. But few pay attention to this and I bet almost no ride leader has actually investigated what their average moving speed typically is. The second factor is that the B-pace ride is the most listed category in our rides and also happens to enjoy overall the most turnout. So if you want a good turnout, you list your ride as a B. Even if you end up averaging 14 mph. Finally, riders who come on a “B” ride and can keep up and enjoy it, then come to think they’re riding at a B pace—even if it’s 17 mph—and go on to replicate this if they lead a ride.
In my experience it’s rare that a club ride has been done at a pace under the listed pace, ie. slower than advertised, unless something really peculiar has happened (eg. a major mechanical problem).
If we do list slower and easier rides, there should be a concerted effort to make sure that the rides are done as advertised or they will inadvertently end up repeating this phenomenon and driving away the very population it is trying to attract and ending up with low participation.

Dirt Ride Recap: Over The Hills

David Millard, the ride leader for the Feb. 27 Marin Headlands ride, submitted the following ride recap. Enjoy!

Seven of us met at Duboce Park Cafe for the first DSSF dirt ride of 2022. It was warm and sunny—thank goodness!—and the ride through the city was enjoyable as we dropped off pavement whenever we had the chance. In the Presidio Roger led us by the mansion of the Commanding General of the Ninth Coast Artillery District (I looked it up). So much lawn!! Joan peeled off in the Presidio to have a more mellow ride. The rest of us did a quick pedal over the bridge, took off some layers, and began the charge up Hawk Hill, some of us charging faster than others. At the roundabout and the beginning of Coastal trail, several of us aired down our tires for better handling on the dirt roads to come.

The descent down Coastal was as breathtaking as ever. It’s always a struggle to pay attention to the trail with such amazing views. We were stopping pretty frequently to make sure everyone got the turns since there are no street signs and Google maps isn’t perfect in the Headlands. But we loosened up a bit climbing up the Bobcat trail and descending down Marincello to the Tennesee Valley parking lot. When we regrouped we were short one rider. Michaelangelo had pressed on up Old Springs trail and thanks to the wonders of cellular technology we raised him and found out he’d gone ahead.

Old Springs trail is the only single track on this route. We couldn’t enjoy a crazy descent but huffing and puffing up the trail, dodging ruts, and climbing steps is its own form of fun (I guess, maybe?). Regardless the views are great, there were wildflowers, and the old spring is still burbling in spite of the drought.

We caught Michaelangelo (more precisely, he waited for us) at the junction of Old Springs and Miwok and we set off down towards Rodeo Valley. Miwok can be a handful. The grade and the loose stuff on hard pack don’t leave much margin for error. Unfortunately Duncan got a bit crossed up midway down and took a spill. Fortunately he’s tough. He dusted himself off, slapped a couple of bandages on his off-road rash and kept on going to our snack stop at Rodeo Beach.

Rodeo Beach is the only place in the southern headlands (that I know of, at least) where there is fresh water. We took advantage of that and the shelter provided by the little bluffs right by the beach to consume our snacks, supplemented with foraged greenery courtesy of Eric, and to watch the breakers and happy dogs cavorting.

Moderately rested we made reasonably quick work of our return up the valley and Coastal trail. At the roundabout we took a final group picture before each of us headed back to the city (or our car) at our own pace.

Now travel-tour-brochure-style, here’s what people are saying about our ride:
Duncan: “I really enjoyed riding with everyone! It was such friendly group and I had a lot of fun exploring a bunch of dirt trails that were new to me on a gorgeous day.”
Eric: “Beautiful scenery, a good mix of challenging and comfortable terrain, and the bonus of sampling sour oxalis at the beach. Looking forward to the next ride.”
Michaelangelo: “Beautiful ride! We had gorgeous views of canyons and the ocean the whole day. I’m not a very experienced gravel rider, but the trails were well groomed [ed. Except for that nasty rutted section of Miwok.] and were a good match for my bike and skill level.”
Me: “I had a great day, and I’m grateful to everyone who came out and helped make it so much fun!”

—David Millard