Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Triathlon Monkey Business

It’s about 25 miles from my office to my house, and just over 100 miles from there to Rancho Cordova, CA. On a Friday, if I leave work before 3pm, it can still take an hour to get home by car. Today, it took an hour and a half of agonizing crawl. I spent most of that time reflecting on how I can do the same ride in an hour and 40 minutes on my bike. At home, I threw my bike and kayak on the roof, an overnight bag in the back and then my wife and son piled into the car for what should have been a two-hour drive to Rancho Cordova, a nice little suburb of Sacramento. Almost four unbelievable hours later, we arrived with gnawing hunger, black spirits and an uneasy fear of missing the packet pick-up for Eppie’s Great Race.

Marketed as “The World’s Oldest Triathlon,” Eppie’s Great Race comprises a 5.82-mile run, 12.5-mile bike ride and 6.35-mile paddle (mostly kayaks) along the American River. We have competed as team for the past couple years with my wife doing the first leg, me the second and my son finishing up. The race was founded in 1974 by local businessman Eppaminondas “Eppie” Johnson to promote his restaurants. The event raises money for charity and apparently the larger-than-life Eppie would make a show of everything. Once, he dressed as a superhero. Another year he poured $50,000 in cash and coins on the dais in the Board of Supervisors chambers. When he died in 2013, one online mourner wrote, 
“Rest in Peace, Eppie. You were a sunflower in a garden of weeds. The world needs more sunflowers.”
We picked up our neon green event T-shirts, bib numbers and advertisements before they closed up for the day. Surprisingly, our finishers’ medals were already in the bag. Then off for dinner. Although I thought they closed years ago, we found a Chevy’s Mexican restaurant. News of their demise was highly exaggerated – there are still plenty of them, just not around our house anymore. Did you know that the first one was in Alameda, CA? Anyway, there’s nothing like Mexican food and a $10 margarita the night before a race!

CycloMonkey was once again tucked away with my bike helmet, shoes and so forth. At 6am, we are all bustling around the hotel room getting ready. I expect to start the bike leg of the race shortly after 9am, but we need to drop the kayak off first so my son can wait close to four hours. Logistics, ugh. If there’s one trait my family shares, it’s a mild compulsion for getting somewhere as soon as possible. After the kayak stop, my wife drops me, CycloMonkey and my bike off near Sacramento State University and then heads toward the runners’ starting line. I take a slight detour across the pedestrian bridge and eventually head over to the bikers’ corrals (I was never actually lost). I find my assignment for corral “C” – family team category – then I immediately start pedaling in the opposite direction to warm up with my monkey in my back jersey pocket. I return and see that I still have about an hour to wait. Two nice ladies are chatting so I ask if they’d take a photo of me and CycloMonkey. They tell me their story some other toy animal who got handed off to various friends and traipsed around Europe. They also explain that “Ride for Willie” on the backs of their shirts is for their soon-to-be-slaughtered cow. Grass-fed, organic, humanely-raised, but Willie was always intended to be what’s for dinner. This isn’t Stockton or Harrah’s Ranch, but it’s not too far either. CycloMonkey didn’t ask; I didn’t explain.

One more warm-up ride and I’m up to about 20 miles in preparation for my 12-mile race. I noticed on my warm-up that there’s a headwind. Given that my training regimen included a 10-day cruise to Alaska with an all-you-can eat buffet, this didn’t bode well for improving upon last year’s time. Now I’m watching the clock and well before I expect her, here comes my wife! Whee! Showtime. To set the stage, the bike route covers 12.5 miles of the two-lane, paved trail in River Walk Park which runs along the American River. It’s closed for the event this morning, so no on-coming bikers, hikers, strollers, roller bladers or pet walkers. The total elevation change is maybe 100 feet but no more than a few feet at a time. Where the trail crosses roads or other trails, there are police blocking the cross-traffic. Accordingly, there are a lot of competitive types on time-trial bikes with skin suits and aero helmets. All those people are long gone because their runners were blistering. Being a family event, there are also people in costumes, some with capes, a few with balloons. I’m not aero, but I’m planning on riding as hard as can. And I’ve got a monkey on my back.

I start out riding within myself, at 20mph – “on your left!” After half a mile, all systems are good; CycloMonkey seems secure, so up to 21mph – “on your left, thank you, ON YOUR LEFT!” Still good, the wind isn’t bad, maybe it’s a cross-wind here, 22mph – “on your left, you’re fine, sorry.” Yikes, people on mountain bikes three-wide! 23mph. Okay, that’s probably all I can do today but that’s ahead of last year if I can keep it up. People of all shapes and sizes, none too fast. I come up behind them so quickly that I can’t get a slingshot. AAAAAAHHHHH, on-coming cyclists! AAAHHH. Whew, survived, what on Earth are they doing? 26mph down a little dip in the road, 18mph back up …back to 23mph. Feels great. Oh, hi there Mr. Photographer …serious face, Blue Steel. Now I’m counting down the miles; aren’t we done yet? Uh oh, why aren’t we done? I’m fading. Keep going. Finished!
The valet takes my bike. I trot over to the bridge, hand the transponder to my son who takes off. Then I spend what seems like three days looking for my bike …red bike, green tag, number 170 – anybody seen it? I see this other lady looking for her bike; I see her over and over again. I make a mental note of her bib number. Finally, I find her bike. I see her again, “yours is over there.” Then I find mine and head back on surface streets to the kayak finishing point and also where the food is at the party. I get a couple of positive comments on CycleMonkey from passing motorists. Have I mentioned my navigational shortcomings? It’s not that I get lost or don’t know where I’m going. It’s that I sorta know where I’m going and figure I don’t need to review the details before taking off. So I get almost to where the bike leg started when I realize that’s not my destination. I text my wife, and show up at the party about 30 minutes late. CycloMonkey collapses in the shade. But I got to ride some extra miles!

I beat my previous best time and averaged about a half mile-per-hour faster. My wife’s latent stress fracture never materialized; she’s happy. The kayak didn’t capsize in the rapids; my son had a great time sailing his pirate’s flag. We earned the medals that we had already received. Near as I can tell, CycloMonkey had a good time. Any extra anxiety was unwarranted. My son wants to sell my kayak and buy himself a river/surf kayak – lighter, more maneuverable. Yes, there’s something wrong with the pronouns in that previous sentence. Credit for being clever; it never hurts to try.

Will there be a next time? You’ll have to keep reading.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Cruisin' Alaska with CycloMonkey, Part 2

Sunrise in Skagway, Alaska, comes at 4:00am in July. And the blackout shades in our cruise ship’s state room leak enough around the edges to confirm it. So “bright and early” is exaggerated.  And with a sunset round about 10:30 the night before, “O-dark-thirty” never really happens. And therefore a good night’s sleep never really happens either. But there’s CycloMonkey, looking at me like I’ve over-slept on Christmas morning. “The ship’s already docked. Can we go ride?”

Even though we had a great ride yesterday and covered 40 miles, there’s a new cycling adventure on tap today. We had signed up for one of the Princess Cruises’ excursions called “Summit to Sea,” a bicycle ride offered by the Sockeye Cycle Company (somehow related to Cycle Alaska, I believe). For this ride, I won’t need my shoes and pedals, I won’t bring my own helmet and I won’t even wear a proper cycling kit. This isn’t about exertion; it’s about coasting and taking in the sights.

Skagway is a borough (meaning “county”, not a city) in a narrow, glaciated valley on the northern-most fjord on the Inside Passage, 90 miles north of Juneau. According to Wikipedia, the name Skagway was derived from shԍagéi, a word the native Tlingit used for “rough seas in the Taiya Inlet.” The actual meaning translates to “beautiful woman” more or less. But there is a Tlingit legend about a mythical woman named Kanagu whose nickname is shԍagéi and is said to have transformed herself into stone in this area and then caused the strong winds to blow toward the neighboring town (today’s Haines, Alaska). That wind causes the rough seas which the locals referred to by her nickname.  Sadly, in the time it took you to read this story, you could have walked the 25 blocks from one end of town to the other.

Skagway became important because gold was found in 1896 in the Klondike in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Even though the gold fields were 500 miles away, this was a convenient port from which to start. The population swelled to 30,000 and a railroad was started to take prospectors up and over the White Pass. By 1899, the stream of gold-seekers had diminished and Skagway's economy began to collapse. By 1900, when the railroad was completed, the gold rush was nearly over. Today the year-round population is a little over 900 but each summer, with seasonal workers and cruise ships, it swells to over 6,000. Including my wife and me on this beautiful day.

A van with a trailer-full of hybrid bikes was waiting at the bottom of the gangway. We signed waivers and filled out forms that asked how many times we’d ridden a bike in the last three years. My wife wrote none; I saw some other tourists write single-digit numbers. I started extrapolating my weekly rides to 150-odd weeks and decided to just write 1,000. (Checking today, I started using Strava in Feb., 2012, and it says I’ve logged 1132 rides.)  I introduced CycloMonkey to the guide and the other cyclists. Alas, no lifelong friends or future travel companions in this group.

The van took us up the mountain on the opposite side of the canyon from the White Pass and Yukon railway which slowly hauls tourists a bit farther than we were going. At a wide spot in the road near the 3,200-foot summit sign, the van let us out and we got fitted to our bikes. From that vantage point, we could see the Canadian border and British Columbia on the other side – we could have thrown a rock that far. My wife and I were tempted to bike down there just to cross into Canada – we had our passports with us – but the guide didn’t make that offer. There’s no border guard or passport check there. Instead, the Canadian customs building is a few miles further inland, and the U.S. customs building is a few miles downhill in the other direction – making this wide spot in the road some sort of international no-man’s land. Intriguing, eh? (1)

Our guide, Matthew Jillson, asked us to ride single-file and not pass each other. He took the lead in order to control the pace and asked me – since I was 1,000 times more experienced than the others – to bring up the rear. And with that and a single pedal stroke, we were coasting down the mountain (on the brakes already).

Along with CycloMonkey in my backpack and a few little things, I had my Garmin bike computer to capture the ride details. Over the 14 miles and 3,204 feet of descending, we actually had 108 feet of climbing – that’s it! The average speed was governed to about 12mph, but somewhere along the way Garmin says I clocked 32mph. I certainly don’t remember that. It also says we had a full hour of stationary time; i.e., resting from all the coasting. At the one and only climbing portion, we stopped before and after the climb. My wife asked if we could go back down and climb it again – apparently such enthusiasm for exercise is rare among the cruiser clientele.

We coasted, then stopped for pictures, then coasted some more and discussed geography, history and the transient lifestyle of seasonal workers with our guide. Jillson, as he’s known, is from Vermont but attended film school in L.A., lives in Seattle and is constantly roaming the world working in jobs like this. Apparently there’s some sort of 24-hour mountain bike ride on the summer solstice, when you can ride for 24 hours without needing headlights. And you can hike from Skagway to Haines in a day, take a half-hour boat ride there, or take the road for 350 miles round-trip. The latter takes you to Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon Territory and it sounded like the most appealing option! Skagway is a rare city in this part of Alaska that is actually connected to the lower 48 by paved roads.

The views were fantastic from the top and it was warm, clear day. Around every bend would be some new spectacular scenery. Little by little, we descended until the 25 little blocks of civilization came into view. But long before that, the towering cruise ships in the harbor dominated the landscape, er, seascape as it were. The cruise trade completely transforms this area from May to September. Jillson says that none of his friends use their cell phone or try to get on the internet when the ships are in port. Everything is satellite up here – no fiber optic cables over the mountains – and the cruisers consume so much bandwidth that data traffic slows to a crawl. First world problems. A bigger problem is getting groceries. The barge comes in on Tuesdays and stocks the local grocery. If you miss that day, or if one of the restaurants screws up their order, you might not get bread or milk that week.

Once we got back to town, I bought a Sockeye Cycle coffee mug and another jersey. Then we wandered around town and had lunch at the Skagway Brewing Co.  Skagway was a fascinating little place and my favorite port of the trip. In the afternoon, we tried our hand at glassblowing. But that’s another story and no place for a monkey.

(1) Did you like my Canadian “eh?” there?  That translates loosely to the British “innit” which was derived from “isn’t it?” and basically gets appended to almost any sentence as an audible endpoint. It’s not actually a question that requires an answer.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cruisin' Alaska with CycloMonkey, Part 1

When it’s summer in this part of California, you look for someplace to cool off. This summer, the family vacation plan is a cruise to Alaska. Having long since reached the point where our teenage son preferred his independence from the parental unit, we agreed he could bring a friend. And despite an askance look from my one and only, I brought along a friend, too: CycloMonkey.
Without a valid passport, CycloMonkey had to keep a low profile since we would be in international waters and spend one day in a Canadian port. As you frequent readers know, he’s comfortable around cycling gear so he stowed away with my helmet, shoes and other cycling gear. That forced him into the trunk of the limousine, through the x-ray at baggage check and up the service elevator to our state room on the Golden Princess. After that, it was a normal vacation – as if a floating hotel the size of a small city can be considered normal. Yes, CycloMonkey was more than a little concerned that a gust of wind might sweep him off the balcony and out to sea. And no, sea sickness is not a problem for someone with fluffed up cotton in his stomach. For him, a comfortable monotony set in with the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean sliding by at a pokey 25mph. After two and a half days, we pulled up to the docks in Alaska’s capital, Juneau, on the 4th of July.

Wikipedia says that Juneau has a population of around 33,000 people which is tiny even compared to most Bay Area suburbs. It really can’t get much bigger because there isn’t enough flat ground for people to live on; the mountains rise up almost immediately from the sea. This happens to also be southeast Alaska which means it is technically a temperate rain forest and it was quite warm while we were there. Immediately after disembarking and skirting the tacky touristy area, we walked over to the local bike shop, Cycle Alaska, where I had reserved a proper road bike for the afternoon. For a moment, it looked like several rounds of Alaskan Amber were in my future when I saw the “closed on July 4th” sign in the window. But only the storefront was closed, the rental portion was open for us tourists. Hoping for a 56cm carbon Cervelo RCA, I faced the reality of a 58cm aluminum Trek 1-Series. Either that or have my knees bump my elbows on a 52cm version, so okay. Surprisingly, it fit well enough and I even had to raise the seat a couple centimeters. The reach wasn’t too bad, it shifted well, standard cassette, brakes are good, tires fair.
The nice young lady who set up the bike seemed enamored with CycloMonkey. What’s not to like? She knew the route that I had planned, but then again there are only so many paved roads and they only go so far. Despite being on the continent, not an island, there are no roads to or from Juneau – it’s just too rugged. She said I’d be fine and not to worry if I returned after closing time, just call and she’ll come back. Cool, one less worry. I tucked CycloMonkey into the handlebar bag and headed over the bridge to Douglas Island while my wife walked downtown looking for the capitol building and Sarah Palin’s old place. No, you cannot see Russia from here. Within a brief few minutes I was away from civilization and looking for my sole left turn. Eaglecrest Ski Area is on Douglas Island and the entry road up the mountain serves as the local bike club’s time trial course in the summer months. No KOM for me and my monkey today but it was a good, refreshing climb.
CycloMonkey was oblivious to the mortal danger lurking behind any tree, but I was worried about bears. Oh sure, attacks are rare but I didn’t want to become a statistic. If the chances are one in a billion, I still don’t want to be the one. I had asked, and the advice was not to run (or ride downhill like a scared rabbit in my case) and not to yell which would be counter to my natural instinct. Instead, I’m supposed to stop and let them finish whatever they are doing (eating tourists?) and talk to them like they were a four-year-old child, “Hello nice Mr. Bear, how are you? I’m just out here riding my bicycle. I’m not dangerous.” Yeah, right. A four-year-old meat-eating monster, twice my height and four times as hungry with big fangs, bigger claws, bad breath and spraying drool as he roars “I’m hungry!” Okay, maybe those last bits are like some four-year-olds. Fortunately, despite the densely wooded wilderness there were no bear sightings today. I’m sure the relative heatwave (mid-70s) helped my cause. And Fish Creek didn’t look like it had many fish.
Ascending, the view was mostly trees and more trees and blue skies with fluffy white clouds. Very few cars. No cyclists. No other monkeys. I got my heartrate up; it was a good hill. I slid my arm warmers down. I started to do the math and try to recall how long this hill actually was. Another false flat? Finally, signs of a summit. At the parking lot for the ski lodge, we stopped and looked around a bit. There were some other tourists collecting around some rental mountain bikes. I recognized the tour guide from Cycle Alaska. They headed up the trails; I headed back down the paved road. Descending, the view offered some distant snow-capped mountains, hanging glaciers and glimpses of Gastineau Channel. I had plenty of time so we turned left at the main road in search of the pavement’s end. It’s really quite stunning wherever you look. Photos do not do it justice. The day was perfect. The calm waters were filled with boaters enjoying the holiday and enjoying the freakishly long day of sunshine (sunrise 4am, sunset 10:30pm). The 4th of July fireworks here are set off at midnight, the preceding night, because that’s about when it’s finally dark enough.

Finally, we ran out of pavement and turned around. The sights were just as amazing in the other direction. CycloMonkey was speechless. Rather than give in to my normal predisposition for arriving early, we headed back up Fish Creek Road toward Eaglecrest again. Oh, what was I thinking? I’m on vacation; this is no time for suffering up a 10% grade for the fun of it. Perhaps if I had that Cervelo, but no. However, two things were interesting on this second climb to the first false-flat: another cyclist that I was able to catch up to (ego boost), and a unicyclist coming down the hill (this is Alaska, it’s different up here). Alas, no photo-evidence of either – just trust me.
Back down the hill, around the island, over the bridge and back to Cycle Alaska where Laura (or was it Briana?) was working at her laptop in the ever-midday sun by the garage door. They aren’t paying me to say this, but I recommend Cycle Alaska if you’re ever up this way. I took my pedals back, showed her these CycloMonkey photos and then walked the half-mile back toward the docks. With CycloMonkey safely tucked in my backpack, my wife and I headed to the famous Red Dog Saloon and its sawdust floor for a very enjoyable Alaskan Amber.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Take Your Monkey to Work Day

For as long as he’s been out from under the passenger seat of my car, CycloMonkey has been begging to go for bike rides. It doesn’t matter where or when. We’ve ventured out a little farther each time. And this morning I had planned to let him join me on the commute ride to work.

My backpack has four little elastic loops and I though perhaps CycloMonkey could hold on to each one and ride backwards, spread eagle, and talk to my drafting partners. So at 5:45am, we tried out the backpack. Nope, doesn’t work. The loops were too small.  “Sorry buddy, not today. Back on the hook for you.” And I put him back on my bike rack in the garage.

He didn’t complain. He just stared at me. “Oh, stop it.” I couldn’t put him in my jersey pocket because the backpack would cover his head. That’s no way to go. “No, sorry, you can’t go today.” Stare. Silence. More staring. “Okay, you can ride in my backpack and you can stick your head out.”

As with most days commuting, I met up with my buddies at 6:00am at the appointed location, waited the requisite two minutes for stragglers then rolled out in formation. The first third of the ride is mostly flat, as suburbia slips away and we pick up a little bit of speed. With six of us, we each get one pull up front and a couple of us get two turns before we start the climb up Calaveras. At that point, I’m fatigued and use the climb to recover while a couple of the stronger riders carry a quicker pace up the hill only to wait there for me and the rest. CycloMonkey stays quiet through it all, not engaging much with the others and quietly wondering about mountain lion attacks. Mountain lions are quite unlike the lions he’s familiar with but equally deadly – especially if you are zipped up in a bite-sized backpack.
We stop somewhere along “the rollers” (the middle third) since this is CycloMonkey’s first glimpse of Calaveras Reservoir. Then it’s up to me to catch up to the peloton who seem to have put the hammer down. They wait patiently at the top of the wall then we tuck and zoom down the hill at speeds exceeding 40mph. For a tiny monkey facing backwards, it’s both terrifying and exhilarating. Until it’s not. At the bottom of the hill we encounter civilization again. Stoplights, traffic, construction, noise, more traffic, more stoplights, until we reach the two-story, concrete tilt-up with faux tiles and pointless stucko columns that I call my office. Milpitas, Silicon Valley, USA.

For eight hours, CycloMonkey literally hangs out in my office – dangling off the top pull of my four-drawer filing cabinet. Compelling hours for me; mind-numbing for a monkey. Then finally it’s time to commute home. It’s a different crew of riders heading home and the reverse path of the morning ride. Much like his home continent, it’s hot. Instead of zooming downhill at 40mph, we climb with the sun beating on my backpack and practically no breeze. My temperature gage on the Garmin clicks away like the odometer: 95, 96, 97 …103, 104, 105 degrees. Yes, that’s hot. No bother, as long as we’re riding.

Then we descend and power through the last third of the ride in a simulated time trial. CycloMonkey has no idea what a time trial is, nor why we don't stop and explore. But he also doesn't know about being late for dinner. He's a stuffed animal, after all. Let's not forget that.

And finally we are back home.