Monday, February 24, 2014

Riding The Big Island's Mana Road

On a recent trip to Hawaii I was able to take a little time out for a po'okela dirt road adventure, Hawaiian style. My friend Dave and I rented full squisher mountain bikes and rode Mana Road from the top near the Mauna Kea Visitor Center to the bottom near the town of Waimea.

Mana Road spirals about 4,000 feet down the slopes of Mauna Kea in a little over 45 miles. From those numbers, I expected the ride to include a lot of high speed downhill white-knuckle coasting. And it does, but surprisingly we lost very little elevation in the first half of the ride. For nearly 20 miles it was non-stop steep rollers.

The quality of the road varies from well-graded gravel that rides like pavement, to rocky, rugged washed-out jeep trail that was as challenging as any single track I've ridden. In the first few miles I mentioned to Dave that I thought it might be fun to ride Mana with a randonneur bike with 650b x 42mm tires, but by half-way through I was convinced that the full suspension 29er mountain bikes were a far better choice.

We were in the clouds for much of the trip, and at times the visibility was quite limited. As a result, we never saw the ocean or the top of Mauna Kea, but the immediate surroundings of lush forest with wild turkeys, nenes, pheasant and pigs were other-worldly. 

Not long after riding through some of the roughest sections of road, we encountered a road crew grating the road and laying down fresh gravel. We couldn't quite decide if they made the road better or worse. Smoother, yes...  but with fresh deep gravel in places it was tough going on the uphills.

Note the "670B" on the front. Is this the latest wheel size for serious gravel grinders?
In the last 10 miles we finally got our reward for all those ups and downs in the first half of the ride. We flew down mostly smooth-ish cinder covered roads with ear-to-ear grins. I half expected Tinky-Winky to pop out from behind one of the green grassy knolls.

Overall, I had a great time riding Mana Road, but it wasn't at all what I had expected. I went into the ride ready for a high-adrenaline downhill roller-coaster ride. There were some downhills that scratched my adrenaline itch, but it was the solitude and surreal scenery that left an impression. With the wide range of elevation, Mana Road passes through a variety of ecosystems that you'll miss if you never venture far from the resort beaches of Hawaii. I highly recommend a ride on Mana road the next time you're on the Big Island.

Logistics and other details: 
We rented our bikes from Bike Works in Kailua Kona. They had a good selection of well-maintained bikes and they took good care of us.

My wife, Sarah drove us up to the start and picked us up in Waimea after the ride. It would be a long slow grind to ride to the start from either Kailua Kona or Hilo. Making it a loop from Waimea might not be too bad if you're feeling more ambitious than we were.

The ride from end to end took us about 5 hours. That was at an easy pace with plenty of short rest stops.

The temperature at the start was mid-40s, and it slowly warmed until we got to Waimea where it was high-70s. Dress warmly at the start and make sure you have a place to put the layers as they start to come off.

There's no water to be had anywhere along the route.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

One Good Thing About Climate Change...

"Winter" riding hasn't been so bad lately.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Velo Orange Campagne Bag Five Years In

This here is what Grant Peterson refers to as "beausage:"

And these are what you call "holes:"

And this isn't a hole yet, but will be soon:

This Velo Orange Campagne front bag has served me well for five years. Through five Super Randonneur series, the Cascade 1200, the Goldengate 1000, half of Paris-Brest-Paris, a couple of Fleches, dozens of other brevets and permanents, and countless rides that didn't count for anything in the rando world, this bag has carried everything I needed to get through cold rainy nights and blistering days. On most rides, if it wasn't in this bag then I just didn't need it.

For a bag that costs less than $100 (at least that's what it was when I bought it five years ago, it's a little over that now), I'd say it's held up well. It probably hasn't held up as well as the fancier bags that cost two or three times as much, but... well, they cost two or three times as much.

It's been a good bag. Not great, but pretty darn good. To be great it would need something easier to deal with than the buckle enclosures that confound me when my hands are cold, or when I need a candy bar in the dark. And hardware that didn't rust would be nice too. It wouldn't hurt if the window on map pocket on top were bigger and while you're at it, waterproof would be a nice feature for the map pocket. But these are really fairly small nits. Overall, the bag did what I expected it to do and did it with a good attitude. It didn't even complain the many times I over-stuffed it with smelly wet clothes and sticky candy wrappers.

This bag is far from used up. I think I may get a new bag for my main brevet bike, but I'll continue to use this one on my commuter bike until the holes get too big and I start leaving trails of bike tools and Clif Bars. Even then, some hand-sewn-on patches should put things right for a few thousand more miles.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Braking Technique and Going "Over the Handlebars"

A couple of months ago Jan Heine posted an article on his blog about effective braking technique on a bicycle. In the post Jan talked about tests that Bicycle Quarterly had performed to learn some things about braking performance. The tests explored both the equipment (brakes, shoes and pads) and braking technique (front only vs. rear only vs. both), but in the blog post Jan talks about conclusions related specifically to braking technique.

One of the conclusions that seemed quite counter-intuitive to me is that on dry pavement, the front brake alone will stop a bike faster than both the front and rear brakes applied together. It’s easy to understand that under hard braking, the rider’s center of gravity shifts forward, significantly unweighting the rear wheel. As a result, the rear wheel has little traction and can’t help much with braking. But why would using the rear brake actually diminish braking performance? The article doesn't completely answer that question, but I get the impression that it has more to do with human psychology and physiology than with physics. That is, when we brake with just one lever, perhaps we’re better able to focus our effort on stopping the bike safely and quickly.

Jan was convincing enough in the article to get me to consciously shift my behavior from using both brakes most of the time to almost exclusively using the front brake. I still use the rear brake in certain situations, like when signaling with my left hand, braking on slipper surfaces or controlling my speed on a long descent, but otherwise I've been almost exclusively using the front brake lately.

Using the front brake alone is a bit unsettling at first for some who don’t have a lot of cycling experience. It’s easy to imagine braking too hard with the front brake and something like this happening:

But as Jan points out, it’s possible to brake quite hard with the front brake without going over the handlebars as long as you shift your weight backward and brace yourself firmly against the handlebars so that the deceleration doesn't force your weight forward.

Recently I did some real world testing of my own on this whole over-the-handlebars issue. My methods may have not been up to the same standards as BQ, but I think I came away a little smarter none-the-less.

I was coming home from work on the Burke Gilman trail, riding my single speed Trek 311 which lately has been set up with a fixed gear drivetrain. I'll admit I was going faster than I should have been as I approached an intersection between the trail and a road that generally sees very little traffic (actually, I was going about as fast as I could, trying to squeeze in some interval training on my commute home). At this particular intersection, it's very difficult to see a car coming until you're almost into the intersection. I was leaning forward, stretching my neck out trying to see around that corner a fraction of a second earlier so I wouldn't have to lose any momentum. Unfortunately what I saw just as I entered the intersection was a car on a perfect T-bone collision course with me. There was no time to thoughtfully reflect on the BQ brake tests or to consider which brake lever would stop me quickest. It was complete instinct and muscle memory that grabbed the front brake as hard as it could.

Okay, let's pause to review some of the facts we've learned so far:
  • I was going pretty fast. Definitely over 20 mph.
  • I was leaning forward on the bike, trying to "see around the corner." (yeah, like that's really going to help)
  • I was riding a fixed gear bike.
So here's a thing about fixed gear bikes. I've spent a fair amount of time riding fixed gear bikes, but I still occasionally "forget" that you can't stop pedaling on one. Generally when that happens it's a very momentary thing; the bike quickly reminds you with a strong "nudge" and you're back to pedaling, no harm, no foul. Of course that friendly nudge reminder tends to push you forward on the bike since as soon as you stop pedaling, the cranks want to take your whole body in a circular trip with them over the front of the bike.

Back to my story. So as you can imagine, the same instinct and muscle memory that caused me to grab the front brake with all my might also told my feet, "STOP PEDALING NOW!"

You can see where this is going, can't you?

In what seemed like a nanosecond I felt the back wheel of the bike lift up as I went somersaulting over the handlebars and landed on my head and right shoulder on the pavement directly in front of the car. All I remember about the impact is the deafening crunch of my helmet and body striking the pavement. There was none of the super cool time-freeze effect that Joseph Gordon Levitt's character experiences in Premium Rush. No weighing of options, no super slo-mo flight through the air. Just a loud crunch.

With my right clavicle in four pieces, four sprained fingers, and a number of other bumps, scrapes and bruises, I dragged myself and my bike out of the middle of the road and sat down next to the trail to take inventory. I knew immediately my collarbone was broken. I've broken a couple of bones before and there's a certain unmistakable feeling when your bones aren't all where they belong.

I never lost consciousness, but between being in shock and most likely having suffered a mild concussion, my memories of the first few minutes after the crash are fuzzy. I know the driver of the car got out and asked if I was okay, but I have no memory of whether they were male, female, young, old or what kind of car they were driving. I apparently convinced them I was okay, because they left me sitting by the trail trying to work out my next move. The next move of course was to call Sarah and ask sheepishly, "can you come get me and take me to a hospital?"

Okay, so what did I learn from this experience? I'm still trying to figure that out, but here are few things that come to mind:
  • Sometimes I can really be an idiot.
  • It takes about 12 weeks for a fractured clavicle to heal completely and during that time you get to see some really breathtaking bruises.
  • It's difficult to shift your weight back quickly on a fixed gear bike.
  • When your head hits the pavement, a helmet is a good thing to be wearing.
  • Leaning forward to peek into the intersection as you approach is not the same as slowing down.
  • Blowing through an intersection at high speed just because there "usually" aren't any cars there is a bad idea.
As far as braking technique, and going "over the handlebars," I'll continue to do most of my braking with my front brake. I have little doubt that it's possible to stop very quickly and safely on a bike using only the front brake, if you have time to prepare. Had I grabbed only the rear brake in the scenario described above, I would have barely slowed down as I skidded into the intersection directly into the path of the car. Luckily the car stopped in time, but if they hadn't, the rear brake would have been no help.

The key is having that time to prepare. So, if I learned nothing else from this experience, hopefully I at least learned to pay attention and always be prepared to stop when approaching uncontrolled intersections. In other words don't act like I'm Joseph Gordon Levitt in Premium Rush because, duh... that's not real.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Big Event That Wasn't

Since I became serious about cycling back in 2008, I've built each cycling year around a Big Event that would be the main focus of my training and planning.
  • In 2008, my first year of getting serious about cycling, it was the Seattle to Portland double century. 
  • In 2009, it was spread across four separate rides as I dove into the randonneuring deep end and set out to ride my first Super Randonneur series. 
  • In 2010 the Cascade 1200 was the pinnacle of my season as I took the next step up the randonneuring ladder. 
  • In 2011, the granddaddy of grand randonnee's, Paris-Brest-Paris consumed me for months. 
  • And finally 2012's event was the San Francisco Randonneurs' Golden Gate 1000.
I love having a Big Event to plan and train for. I never have a problem with going for a long ride in the country with no particular purpose, but with a goal in mind my energy level rises and I feel as though the ride is not just another ride, but a leg in an epic journey. I can push myself harder and longer when I'm training for an event rather than just out burning calories.

This year I had a different kind of Big Event in mind. The idea started with a fat dog.

Our dog Lucy is a sweetheart but let's face it, she's too fat. I can't practically take her on rides with me, so last fall I started running with her to help her burn off some calories. I've never been much of a runner; it always seemed to me like a painful unpleasant task one did because one couldn't think of a more sensible way to exercise. But Lucy seemed to like it, so I was willing to make a sacrifice for my dog with the runaway BMI.

Somehow on those early morning runs through the park with Lucy, completely without warning, I became a runner. It snuck up on me. I found myself actually looking forward to going running, and wanting to do progressively longer runs. I'd catch myself researching running shoes online rather than cranksets and derailleurs.

One thing lead to another, and by the Spring of this year I was making plans for a 2013 Big Event that didn't have a darned thing to do with bicycles or randonneuring. A runner friend, John came up with the concept and I opened my wallet wide and bought in. The plan was to do a 17 mile trail run through the Enchantment Lakes, from the Colchuck Lake/Aasgard Pass end through to the Snow Lakes trail head. The date was loosely set for Labor Day weekend. 17 miles isn't marathon distance, but with about 4,400 ft of elevation gain and 6,500 ft of descent it would be a challenging enough run to easily qualify as my Big Event for the year.

As I started ramping up the running miles, I realized I had no choice but to ramp down my cycling. There are only so many hours in a day and it was hard to find the time, let alone the physical and mental energy for both running and cycling. So, once I had wrapped up a Super Randonneur series with the Seattle Randonneurs' Watery Olympic 600k in early June, I shifted gears from cycling to running.

Other than my daily commute to and from work I did very little cycling during July and August. I rode fewer miles in July and August combined than I had ridden in either May or June alone. But with my training for the Big Event keeping me busy and flooded with endorphins, I wasn't missing cycling much.

July and early August were filled with some fantastic and memorable trail runs of increasing difficulty, including a beautiful rolling 12 mile ramble on the Mt Rainier Wonderland trail from Longmire to Box Canyon and a grueling 16 mile loop from Mowich Lake through Spray Park and along the Carbon River.

But with that Mowich Lake loop I made a classic rookie runner mistake: Too much too soon. With a ton of crazy steep climbing and descending it was more than my inadequately trained half century-old knees could take. I developed an extremely sore right knee about 10 miles into the run and had to walk the last five miles. My knee continued to hurt enough that I thought I should stop running for a few days to let it recover. Problem is, it ended up taking a few weeks to recover instead of a few days.

On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, John and another friend ran the Big Event without me. They lucked into some ideal weather and had a fantastic time. I hadn't been able to do any running for a couple weeks at that point, and my knee was still too painful to even think about running around the block.

Summer seems to have ended early in the Pacific Northwest this year. The storms are rolling through like it's November and snow has already started falling high in the mountains. There'll be no Big Event for me this year.

The good news is that I'm finally back into running shape again, but starting slow, doing three and four mile runs close to home. Lucy is happy to see me running again and so am I. Luckily cycling doesn't seem to aggravate the knee problem at all, so I was able to get in some nice long rides in the last days of summer.

Running is in my blood now and I intend to keep it up as long as my body allows, but when it comes to the Big Events, I've discovered that my body is much happier being pushed to the limit on a bike than on foot.