Friday, November 30, 2012

Giving thanks for touring

Thanksgiving weekend is a big deal in the US. A time to be with families, and to give thanks for everything you have. We got back from our first trip back from the UK since moving, to find that it was only a couple of weeks away. After failing to get out of bed to do a permanent 200 randonnee the previous weekend, we started to work out what to do over the four day weekend. It seemed like the ideal opportunity to take out the new ExtraWheel trailer on Dobbin for a bit of touring. We originally planned to do a loop of the bay area, but a couple of days before, had a change of plan and decided to cut it a bit shorter. After a minor house maintenance problem we set out just gone 11am Thanksgiving Thursday, on quiet roads heading towards Joseph D Grant County Park. A mere 25 miles as the crow flies, but about 500m higher than our house. It lies about a third of the way up Mount Hamilton, a climb we had yet to try - we haven’t spent much time exploring the hills in the East Bay, as generally it means cycling through San Jose first whereas the Santa Cruz mountains and Los Altos hills are on our doorstep. Cycling through American suburbia we could smell roast turkey, roast potatoes, and all the other delights of the traditional Thanksgiving meal. It was a beautiful day though, and we were just glad to be out cycling in shorts and short sleeve tops in late November. We soon came to the base of the climb and started seeing some of the cyclists who had ridden the last of this year’s low key hill climbs descending back to the start. We soon settled into a rhythm, spinning very slowly up towards the campsite, towing trailer and camping kit as we climbed. The views across the south bay soon opened up beside us beneath the clear blue sky. For someone who used to hate climbing hills, it’s surprising how much I enjoy this sort of climb while touring. No time pressure, a wonderful view to enjoy, a peaceful road. Although the gate at the entrance to the park was unmanned, and the campground hosts seemed to have left for the season, we managed to find a ranger and buy a box of wood to be delivered to our site. We had a small walk out to Grant lake before the sun went down. There seems to be a number of nice trails in the park, to explore another time. The air was very cool out of the sun, and with the clear sky it was going to be a cold night. Well wrapped up in jumpers and hats, we sat and watched the fire while eating our unconventional Thanksgiving supper of pasta and sauce with crunchy vegetables (I didn't plan them that way, we just didn't want to wait any longer as it was cold and the stove was nearly out of gas). The only turkeys in sight were the wild ones roaming the park. Even though we were only a few miles from a huge conurbation, with the park in a dip over the first ridge line it was very quiet, and the stars were out in force with a gibbous moon.

Friday morning dawned cold and with a heavy dew. We had both woken up before dawn with eerie howling echoing around the valley - from coyotes I presume. Despite being close to San Jose, the park has an abundance of wildlife. On our way out of the park to continue our climb up Mount Hamilton we surprised a wild boar rooting by the side of the road. I’m not sure who was more shocked, it or us! After our enjoyable climb the day before we decided to change our original plan of heading back down to the valley and along to the base of Mount Diablo, and instead to climb over Mount Hamilton and see where we ended up. One of the best bits of touring is the ability to change plans and go wherever the road leads you. The day had yet to warm up, and view across the valley was very clear. After a couple hours of climb the road started to get busier, with a number of motorbikes passing us and also enjoying the open roads. At the top of the climb is the Lick Observatory are a number of telescopes belonging to the University of California. The view is pretty amazing. We hadn't researched this route at all, so weren't sure what to expect on the road down the other side. It turned out to be a pretty good decent, but relatively technical on a fully loaded tandem with trailer, although the trailer made very little impact on the handling of the bike. After about 14km, the road flattened out in a remote feeling valley. Even though there has been a fair amount of rain in the last few weeks in the bay area, the creeks and ponds were mostly dry here. After a while, the road turned north into another valley. We were surprised to find ourselves passing the end of Del Puerto Canyon road, and realised that we were now on the route of the permanent randonnee we hadn’t started the week before. I vaguely recalled that there were a couple of small climbs before we started the main descent into the Tri Valley, but they were a little larger than I recalled - the first was around 200m ascent. The main descent was shallow, but enabled us to keep up a good pace. We had realised that there was no way that we were going to make it up Mount Diablo that day, and decided to just head into Livermore and find a motel. The base of the valley was signalled with many vineyards and seemed to us to have a very French feel. With France in mind, our thoughts turned to food. Plates of thin bloody steak with hot crispy fries were appealing, but we were hungry enough to just go to a chinese takeaway close to the motel. They did a family deal, which was too much of a challenge for two hungry cyclists to refuse. It turned out to be too much even for us for one meal. Fortunately the motel room had a fridge and a microwave so the leftover chow mein, chilly beef, pepper chicken etc was eaten for breakfast.

With our original touring plans in tatters, we set out for a gentle ride to Anthony Chabot regional park. Once more, we decided to avoid the worst of the holiday traffic and take the scenic route via San Ramon. Having not originally planned to stay at this campsite, we weren’t sure how to approach it. The vehicle park entrance was some way out of Castro Valley, and there were a number of bikes trails along the lake which also had access. While looking for one of these trails, a local out walking stopped to ask if we needed directions. It turned out that the park entrance was at the top of a climb, and the campsite was significantly higher than the lake. After a climb which seemed to go on for a lot longer the promised mile, and having been passed multiple times by the same motorbike who seemed to be enjoying racing up and down it, we reached the turnoff for the campground. We were surprised to find that the road kept to the ridgeline for a couple of miles before finally dropping down a couple hundred meters to the campsite. While it was much busier than the Joseph Grant campground, there was still plenty of space and we soon found a spot which wasn’t too exposed, and had a nice flat area for the tent. Many spaces seemed to be more suitable for RV’s, with not enough flat ground to make it good for tents. We had stopped in San Ramon to buy our supper - rib-eye steak, and a bottle of red wine. With the black beans and mashed potatoes we already had in our panniers, we were in for a feast. The campfire was soon burning in preparation for for a pair of steaks. For a cycle camping meal, it has to have been our most decadent, and highly enjoyable. As we were at a lower altitude and nearer the bay, it wasn’t too cold outside which meant we could watch the fire burn low. There were lights from a number of bay settlements visible from our picnic bench, and while there was some traffic noise. It was a good campground nonetheless.

Sunday morning was arrived with the shock sounds of rain: first time in the tour! Turned out just to be that a SF bay mist had creeped in overnight, and condensing on the trees was enough to send drops down onto our tent.
The day’s journey began with a steep dirt trail down to Lake Chabot shoreline. Again, the trailer worked excellently, following behind faithfully on the slippery mud and rock trail.
The rest of the morning consisted of winding through East bay suburbs of Hayward and Union City, before reaching the ponds before Dumbarton bridge. It felt somewhat bleak there, halfway out into the bay in the mist, but once across the bridge and heading into Palo Alto, we soon saw our first glimpses of the sun for the day, and by the time we reached the sign welcoming us home to Sunnyvale, waterproofs had fully given way to short sleeves and sunshades once more!
All in all, a wonderful tour and a great reminder of all we love about cycle touring.

East shoreline trail

Monday, October 8, 2012

Riding to Winters, and planning winter riding

Having enjoyed the Davis 200 three weeks ago, we realised that it was time to get back to regularly riding longer distances. A perusal of the RUSA calendar allowed us to pick the Winters 200 ride which is run by the San Francisco Randonneurs. So on Saturday morning, we once again found ourselves at dawn, in a dimly lit car park full of cycles and cyclists, preparing for a fun day out. We completed the SF Rando’s traditional raising of hands and pledging not to do anything stupid, and then just as we were mounting up to set-off Joth noticed one of the two other tandem teams looked familiar. It was JoAnn and Spencer Frink who we met on the SF Randonneur Brevet Populaire which we rode while visiting the area last year. There was no time for chatting however, as it was time to leave. No count down to the start, only a plea from the organiser (who was riding), not to set off until he was on his bike too.

Unlike the Davis brevet, there were a few nice lumps to warm up on in the first few km. Climbing out of Vallejo, we soon realised however, that we needed to stop. Firstly, I’d forgotten to pump up the tyres the day before and the front wheel was making that squelching noise on corners indicting it needed some air, and secondly, the front brakes were rubbing. A quick stop and pump and adjustment and we set off again, with most of the field ahead of us - something to chase. As we passed Lake Herman and onto Fairfield, we kept catching tantalising glimpses of riders ahead of us, which we finally caught at the traffic lights by the first control. A quick snack, and it was back on the bike on the road to Winters for lunch. It was mainly flat, a nice temperature, and we were both going well. It was fun! Tandem country.
The Winters control was in a car park where volunteers had produced huge tri-tip sandwiches, tasty hummus and olive rice crackers and delicious chocolate brownies. We were aware of the climb which we were approaching, so didn’t dare eat too much though! We had ridden the next stage as part of the Davis 200, and enjoyed seeing it again in slightly cooler weather. There was significantly less traffic than three weeks ago, and very few boats being towed. The next control was at the shop which had been closed on the Davis ride. We discovered that the owner had recently died, which provided a sad explanation. There was no need to resort to dodgy taps for water today however, as we were met by a volunteer who provided iced water.
The highlight of the next stage was the Wooden Valley Road. A great gradual descent through the wooded valley on a good road. It seemed no time at all before we rejoined the outbound route and made a quick stop at the market which was once again a control point. We were on the homeward stretch! Having chatted to JoAnn and Spencer at several controls, we actually got to ride with them for some of this stretch, which was nice. The traffic lights through Vallejo still didn’t like us on the return journey, causing us to stop at almost all of them. The rail tracks caused us more problems though, as we managed to jump the sync chain off of the chain rings as we bumped over one level crossing! to be honest, we had noted that the eccentric bottom bracket needed adjusting the previous weekend, but hadn’t done anything about it. Oops! We were soon back on board, and flying to the end where our computer rolled over to read 200.00km just as we reached the car park - no overdistance on this ride!
It felt great to finish a 200km ride and not feel completely destroyed by it. So good in fact, that it’s made us decide to go for another Randonneur Round The Year, or R12 as they call it on this side of the pond. In celebration of a new AUK points year (which now starts from October), we joined RUSA this morning and are now planning out our next few rides. Californian summer was extremely hot, but otherwise kind of like what we know summer to be. Californian winter maybe more unfamiliar to our expectations, but hopefully in a way that will work in favour of keeping out R12 hopes going through to spring.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Davis 200 -- Cycling through a furnace

Having not been on a brevet since April - and we failed to even get that one validated - we’d been thinking for a while it was time to give it another go. We’ve had a few niggly injuries, and so been slowly building up distances, cycling from our home over to the Pacific, and a fortnight ago taking a 3 day tour in the south bay mountains over Labor Day weekend.

So Friday night we packed up the car, with Katina on the roof, and headed to Davis, near Sacramento, to make an early start Saturday morning on the Davis 200.

A short ride from our Motel on the east side of the town got us to the start in plenty of time, despite Google Maps’ best efforts to lose us in the bike-paths of several parks along the way. The town is clearly very keen on cycling heritage, not only does the round town loop have the town’s penny farthing logo depicting the way, but many shops display it too, and even the MacDonalds holds a fullsize chrome Penny!

At the start we were warmly welcomed by Dan and Jonathan and several other of the club regulars. A quick cup of tea in Peet’s Tea & Coffee, and then it was time to go. (First ride I’ve done with full 1 minute, 30 second, 15 second countdown to the start time!)

The first 25km heading due west out of town is fairly flat, and as we were warmed up from the cycle to the start we got ourselves onto the back of a faster group that included another Tandem (a Habanero, not seen them before). As we approached the foothills of the first - and main - climb of the day, we ‘took our turn’ on the front and just then rounded into a small canyon with a blustering strong wind. Promptly our group speed plummeted from a steady 36km to a variable 28 as we battled with the wind and rollers. We dropped off as we turned past the Berryessa dam, and settled into a more relaxed tandem hillclimbing pace. We had a nice chat with Deb Banks who introduced herself and the club. Just over the top, we had a slow deflation from a thorn in the front tyre, so saw most of the rest of the riders come through as we tended to that. This doubled as a good opportunity to pack away arm warmers (the cool of morning most definitely now replaced by strong sun), and grab a snack (some “Sloth” flapjack).

This is a straight out-and-back ride, with only one control at the turn around point, unusual to us used to windy AUK routes sometimes with 4 controls per 200km. The way out is three parts: flat/mountain/flat, and the way back the same (but in reverse!). Once over the climbs, we then dropped down onto the Silverado Trail, in the northern part of the Napa valley heading up to Calistoga. This was a narrow and busy road by local standards, heavy with tourist and group minibuses visiting the hundreds of wineries along the way, but not too bad compared to an average UK B-road. We got to the turnaround point in high spirits, and bought lots of drinks and snacks in the store before discovering the “Taco Truck” parked around the back, so called by there to pick up a veggi Burrito and a couple beef tacos too.

After enjoying this birthday treat, and welcoming the final few riders in, we set off back the way we came. Navigating the bike paths back down the Silverado trail was a little more tricky this way -- while the tour buses had reduced (being lunch time) we were cycling against the flow of a fun run which also used the shoulder, so had to negotiate our way into the traffic and around runners at numerous points. I was happy to see the turning onto the state highway 128 to cut back across the mountains, as that is a quieter road.

While the roads then became a bit easier, it was now gone 2pm and the intense midday heat had turned the valley of the climb into the proverbial oven. We’ve done our share of cycling in hot weather, and considered ourselves relatively good at coping with the heat, but this was something else. I seemed to suffer in particular, first sweating profusely (as told by salt tide marks on my clothing) but later drying right out and not sweating at all. At that point, I also felt the strength just leave my legs. It was not just the heat, but the desert-dry nature of the heat, combined with dry-dry wind, that seemed to suck all the moisture from our bodies. We hauled ourselves through to the midway point (where we’d seen a shop and refreshments for the 100km riders’ on their turn-around stop) but were devastated to find it deserted, and the shops firmly closed. We hid out in the shade for 30mins, and tried a couple taps on the outsides of the buildings before finding one very disused one that surprisingly worked so filled up bottles and added plenty of Nuun electrolyte tablets.

20km more in the mountains, and then we’d be in the home-straights. After the final big descent, we spotted some public loos so stopped there. Once stopped though, I just had to find some shade so we hid out there for another 30+ mins! There was a pleasantly cool stream running by (the loos being for the benefit of picnickers and fishermen) so we went to visit that; Emma cooling her feet, and me washing my jersey and enjoying the ice-cold feel of it on my shoulders.

It was now 5pm and heat becoming more bearable so we pushed on for the final flat drag to the end. We split this up with one more stop in a roadside bar to get more water and some fizzy drinks (and enjoy sitting right under the air-conditioning until we started to shiver!) and then rolled back to the ArrivĂ©e at about 6.30pm. Without the extra shade-stops this would have been a 9 hour brevet - blistering by our standards, especially considering we’d not been riding so much this year, but 10h30 is still a pretty decent time given the 13h20 limit we thought. Yet, by local standards this is lets say on the slow side. We were last-but-one back, and the organizer had actually started to worry that maybe we had gotten lost or had some other mishap when so much time passed between the previous rider and us arriving back! A nice reminder that, unlike the UK where randonneuring grew as a branch off of the cycling touring tradition, over here it tend to be more closely aligned with cycle racing clubs: taking the place that cycle Sportives and to an extent “charity endurance races” have recently grown to fill in the UK. So we’ll either need to get faster (and moreover, learn how to deal with the dry heat), or just get ourselves used to coming home as lanterne rouge and being known as a couple event organizer worryers!

Tandem: Davis 200 by tandemthing2 at Garmin Connect - Details

Monday, July 16, 2012

Back in the saddle at last

So, it's been a while. We've been a bit quiet since PBP as we've been:
  moving continent.
We are now settled in Sunnyvale, California.
We heard a week or two ago that our friends Peli and Woolly ( would be almost passing by our door, so we hatched a mad plan to spend a few days cycling with them. Initially it looked as though we would need to hire bikes as our shipment from the UK would not arrive in time. At the last minute, and with a little plan change by Peli and Woolly, we were able to cycle with them with our own bikes to Monterey.
So on last Saturday morning, and with some trepidation, we set off. We had thought that we would set off early to try and get most of the big climb of the day over before it got too hot, but there was no chance of us leaving while the Tour de France stage was still in progress. Seeing Chris Froome win was definitely worth it! While the first couple of miles are flat, when cycling west from our house, it doesn't take too long before you hit the Santa Cruz mountains. As the ACA pacific coast route runs to the west of the mountains, we needed to cross them. Somehow in the route planning process we had decided to not only cross at one of the highest points, but also take the steepest route to get there! Note: when climbing mountains (even mini ones), sometimes taking the 'short cut' isn't the best plan. As we planned on getting the bus back from Monterey, we couldn't take Dobbin but had to ride solos. I don't have a proper touring bike so was riding my light tourer (Nemo - the Thorn Brevet). As we only had one spare rack with us, we fitted that to Denise (Joth's bike, a Thorn Raven Sport), and I let him carry the 4 panniers. I only had a saddlebag, and so to balance the load up I also hitched up and pulled Woolly's extra wheel trailer for the trip. We've been thinking about buying a trailer for a while (ever since our trip in South America), and this one has been on the short list. Getting to try it out for real, albeit on a solo instead of a tandem, was a great plan.
Whilst climbing, it soon became clear that while I had the lightest load, I also had the highest granny gear. This did result in me walking for a bit :-( There is always one good bit about climbing though, and that's the descent. While descending is fun, I must admit that I'm not very good at it, so adding a trailer into the mix was going to be exciting. The extra wheel is great though, really, really great. I'd forgot I was towing it half the time. Joth rode behind me, and was impressed with the way it tracked the rear wheel. I think there'll be a trailer addition to the stable before too long!

The rest of the day was mostly downhill, and after an icecream and a shopping trip we made it to our campsite for the night, the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Which was full. Fortunately, we knew this was one of the state park campsites which have a hiker/biker area, and they will always find a spot for those people arriving under their own steam.
Day two was planned to be a short day, and so an early start was not called for. After a short decent into Santa Cruz, we inspected the pier and the board walk and ate the largest ("Texas") doughnuts we'd ever seen. Pootling along a little further bought us to that days supermarket, where we noticed that Woolly had broken another spoke or two. As they were both non-drive side they were replaced in short order by his well practiced hand, and we were on our way again. It was clear that we had hit the agricultural part of California, as we cycled through hundreds of acres of strawberry fields. I don't really like strawberries, but the strong sweet smell of them was really enticing. They definitely seemed to flourish in the climate here. The Sunset Beach campsite was also full, but had a great hiker/biker area next to a huge field of strawberries. Some members of the party needed to apply considerable will power not to go and raid it!

Day three started with an adventure. Both Joth and Woolly had found evidence that there was a trail down by the beach which enabled us to get back to the main road without back tracking. Unfortunately, while it looked like there used to be a way through, we weren't going to heave fully loaded touring bikes over a gate and along a very overgrown trail to find out! It was time to climb the hill back to the campsite, before climbing to get to the main road. There's nothing like a bit of an adventure to start the day, which is why we all like cycle touring! As we were heading straight for the bus in Monterey we had already transferred the trailer back to Woolly, so the poor chap had to pull all of his six panniers back up to the road, while all I had was a saddlebag. The rest of the journey was smooth going, and included some lovely quiet trails. We were definitively in farm land, as we passed many more strawberry, artichoke, salad and cabbage fields. There must of been other crops around, as the roads were full of billboards for farm shops offering things like 7 avocados for a dollar, or 7 heads of corns for a dollar. Yum! We still haven't worked out why we didn't stop to buy avocados. Joth and I have been known to eat avocado at all three meals in a day, especially when touring. So goodness knows why we didn't buy any! Monterey arrived in time for us to enjoy a late lunch before boarding our bus. We were boarding at it's departure point, and we thought the bus had space for three bikes, so initially we weren't too concerned that there was another touring cyclist waiting for the bus. As it turned out, there was only two bike spaces. As the bus was fairly quiet, the driver allowed me to take Nemo on board however. Phew! A successful end to a highly enjoyable trip. 

Thanks to Peli & Woolly for a wonderful trip!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Some photos from the Track World Cup Finals

Just upload some of the many photos we took today at the new London Velodrome.

A colleague was very kind in lending me his fancy DSLR camera, which made some great pictures, but I may have gone a bit trigger-happy using it!

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