A Dandy Rest Stop

Our Sunday club ride was going to head to Kyle, but when I arrived at the start, I found out there would be a small change.

“I have to pick up something from my office,” said Maggie, who works at the hospital in Kyle. “You don’t mind a little detour, do you?”

“Not at all,” I said, figuring that any variation from our usual routes would be a nice change.

Four of us B riders headed out toward Kyle (“The Second Largest City in Hays County,” according to its website) on a route that took us through Buda and out on a nice no-traffic rural road for a few miles. Then we hit the long, straight slog up Ranch Road 1626, with its endless two percent grade. Seems endless, anyway. It’s really about two miles, maybe a little more.

But this time we didn’t turn right at the stoplight and head for the gas station/convenience store where our ride normally turns around. Maggie led us off on 1626, which widens to four lanes with a nice shoulder at this point. The road makes a long slow curve toward I-35, passing through the “Town Center,” which is an ambitious name for a shopping mall that features a Target for an anchor store on one side of the road, and a large supermarket as the anchor on the other.

We crossed the Interstate, and headed for the hospital, dead ahead. Maggie took over the ride leader duties and we wheeled up to an unmarked side door of the main hospital building.

“Bring your bikes inside,” she said.

Our own private rest stop.

Our own private rest stop.

We carried them up a small hill to the door, which she unlocked, and we stashed the bikes at the base of a stairwell. Maggie unlocked another door, and we found ourselves in a dimly-lit hallway past the hospital’s executive offices.

“Here’s our rest stop,” Maggie said, as she motioned us toward a small kitchenette. “There’s ice in the fridge, water in the water cooler, and bathroom through there.”

After pedaling 23 miles on a very humid Texas summer day, the air conditioned coolness of the kitchenette was welcome. We stood around soaking it in while Maggie retrieved whatever it was that she needed from her office. I filled both water bottles with ice, and topped them up. It was also a treat to use the spotlessly clean bathroom facilities. Much better than the loo in most convenience stores.

In a few minutes, it was time to go, but none of us really wanted to leave, except perhaps for Maggie. Once we hit the road again, we opted not to retrace our route out here. Instead, we hopped on another country road that runs behind the hospital and leads north. In no time, we were passing through semi-rural communities of manufactured houses, on a road that was partially shaded. I had been here several years ago — once — and none of the others had ever ridden it. We all agreed that it was nice to see places we hadn’t seen before.

A gate to a small ranch on our return leg.

A gate to a small ranch on our return leg.

Back at Starbucks after the ride, we congratulated Maggie on the nice variation of the route. We also got her to agree to go to the hospital again some time — just so we could make use of our own secret — and private — rest stop.

Deer Flies and Fire Ants

If you ride for any length of time, you’re bound to have an encounter with bees. But sometimes, inhabitants of the insect world can be other types — and cause even more discomfort than a bee sting.

While pedaling beside a stormwater runoff basin during the week, I felt a sharp stinging sensation in my right arm — as though a red-hot needle had just pricked the surface of my skin. I couldn’t react right away, because the path took a turn into some woods and I needed to concentrate on my line. But shortly after, I looked down at my arm and saw a deer fly just sitting there. It hadn’t moved, but also didn’t seem to have done any more damage than the initial prick. Good thing about deer flies: They’re not very quick. I stopped the bike and smacked it. It squashed like a rotten tomato.

The bite did no harm. I had no swelling, no inflammation. Maybe I got lucky. The luck didn’t last long.

Saturday evening, I was installing a new garden hose on the side of the house. A few spots on my lawn are starting to brown out, and it was time to wet them down before the once-a-week sprinkling I give the entire lawn (We have an in-ground sprinkler system, but we’re allowed to water by hand whenever we want). I was in my usual Texas summer attire: shorts and old boat shoes with holes in the soles. Nothing unusual.

Until something did feel unusual. Not quite the same sensation as the deer fly bite, but I felt tiny things crawling over my feet and ankles. In the gathering dusk, I had trouble seeing exactly what they were, but I knew. Fire ants. I must have stepped on a hidden ant hill and set them to swarming.

I dropped the hose and dashed into the house. My wife ordered me into the shower to wash down my feet, while she found some hydrocortisone cream. I smeared that all over my feet when I got out of the shower, and found some Benadryl — the strongest antihistamine we have in the house. For the last hour before going to bed, I applied cold compresses to my feet.

Not a pretty sight. Doesn't feel great, either.

Not a pretty sight. Doesn’t feel great, either.

I was doubtful whether I would make the Sunday club ride. That would be disappointing, because we already had some B riders lined up, and it would be nice to ride with other people instead of on my own.

The Benadryl did its job — I slept like the dead until my dogs woke me up around 5 a.m. The first thing I did was assess the damage. It looked pretty much as the picture shows. Some of the bites had already started to rise into small blisters. Those are the ones that dare you to scratch them. But if you do, all manner of bad stuff can happen. I set about getting ready for the ride.

When feet are enclosed in snug cycling shoes, the fire ant bites aren’t noticeable. We did a nice 45-mil ride to Kyle and back, and I was hardly bothered by the bites at all — except for one on the inside of my middle finger. That must have happened when I tried to flick off one of the ants. It just grabbed my finger instead. And it was right at the spot where my finger curls around the handlebar. I constantly had to adjust my grip on the ride, so as not to rub on the bite.

So, two good things out of this adventure: the deer fly bite had no consequences, and you can ride though a dozen or more fire ant bites without them bothering you.

I’ll be sure to let you know if I’m proved wrong on that score the next time I don’t take precautions when working in the yard.

 

Discovering New Routes

I’m in the middle of a two-week break before classes resume, and I’ve been getting out on the bike almost every day. Now, in my area, that could lead to a lot of repetition of routes. In fact, some cycling friends have complained about getting bored riding the same few routes over and over.

We’re somewhat constrained, geographically. There aren’t many roads to the west of us. To go south, we can take only one road. Going east or southeast is okay, although our route options are limited there, too…but we use those roads more often. A rugged creek valley blocks off our access to the north, and if we want to head for downtown or even farther north, we’re forced to ride about nine miles east, first. I envy riders who live in areas where they can ride to all points of the compass.

But as you know, I started riding my mountain bike this year, and I’m finding that if it’s variety you want, that’s the way to go. Every mountain bike ride I’ve taken over the past several weeks has involved places I haven’t seen before. And the fun thing is, they’re all within a few miles of my house.

You see, Austin is criss-crossed by all manner of trails. Most of them seem to have been created as hiking trails, but they’re easily accessible to mountain bikes, too.

Take what happened to me on a ride last week. I found a trail two blocks from my house that runs through an undeveloped buffer zone between two housing subdivisions. It’s not a long trail, maybe a half mile at most. I had been using it as an alternate route to get to a local park that offers several bike trails. Last week, coming home from that park, I noticed an offshoot from the trail between the subdivisions. Heeding Yogi Berra’s command — “When you reach a fork in the road, take it” — I turned. The new trail led up a gentle hillside into a larger greenbelt area. It apparently has been used by mountain bikers for some time, since in some spots it is wide, for singletrack. In other spots, it gets close to a rocky cliff over a dry creekbed. It’s got a lot of tight twists and turns, some small whoop-de-dos, and some minor rock gardens.

I took another turn, and eventualy found that this trail goes all the way to Escarpment Blvd. — the main north-south route in our neighborhood. But what I didn’t know was that the trail didn’t empty out onto Escarpment. It leads to a tunnel under the road, and to another trail system.

A day or two ago, I set out to find another trail a friend had mentioned in passing. This one was a little farther from the house, and it turned out to be a whole trail network. Again, I found a tunnel under a major highway, and a trail that goes farther east than I had expected. I didn’t have time to ride it then, but it will see me next week.

I’m not going to turn this into a mountain biking blog, but as I’ve said before, the MTB has provided a nice change of pace to my riding. If you’re in the same route doldrums as I was earlier this summer, grab that mountain bike that sits unused in a back corner of the garage and ride. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you discover.

The Death Ride

Our friend Don Blount treated us to his training rides f0r the Tour of California Alps Death Ride…and now, he’s got the story of the ride itself. Spoiler alert: He survived.

BlountOnBikingFor seven months I had been training for the Tour of the California Alps Death Ride. I have ridden more than 3,600 miles (5,794 kilometers) and climbed more than 117,000 feet. I have ridden a metric century, two double metric centuries, a century and a near century.

And when the ride came on July 12, I was as ready for a long, hard day in the saddle. At its most simplistic level, the Death Ride is a double metric century (200km) with 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) of climbing. But of course, that’s like calling a lion a large house cat.

The Death Ride’s route covers five mountain passes at altitude. Starting at about 5,800 feet (1,767m) elevation and climbing to near or more than 8,000 feet (2,438m) elevation five times was a challenge. It would have been easier to ride with a gag stuffed over my mouth and a clothes pin clipped over my nose.

Did I mention that this was hard?

The views in the mountains are well worth seeing.

The views in the mountains are well worth seeing.

This is how the day went:

I was up at 2:15 a.m. and departed the place where I was staying in Bear Valley, Calif. a little after 3 a.m. I had an hour-long drive and wanted to get started before sunrise. I arrived at Turtle Rock Park and was ready to go at about 4:36 a.m. except for one small detail. I could not find the necessary mounting bracket for my headlight. I searched for 20 minutes. By now, it was nearly 5 a.m. and sunrise was less than an hour away. But first light would occur in about 20 minutes. I put a small blinker light on my bars and set out.

I had ridden the first four climbs during a training ride a few weeks earlier and was so glad that I had done so. About halfway up the first climb, Monitor Pass, someone said “I think the top is up there.” Little did he know how much farther away it was. The first climb was easier than I had remembered and I hoped that would be a good sign for the day.

Riders mill at the Monitor Pass rest stop.

Riders mill at the Monitor Pass rest stop.

It took about 1 hour 40 minutes to ride 15 miles to the second rest stop. I had gained about 2,200 feet (671m) of elevation. My reward? My first sticker, a blue one. Stickers are put on your bib to show that you have completed a climb. In two places, they are actually given before the climb because they begin on the opposite side of a pass; you’re in a place where you have no choice but to climb out. This was the only sticker I remember noting the color as I received it.

The descent down Monitor was long and the climb out of this canyon was about nine miles with 3,000 feet (914m) of elevation gain. It would take me 98 minutes. What made it more difficult is that this type of ride, with some 3,000 riders, is akin to driving on the highway at rush hour. I would get into a nice climbing rhythm, end up behind someone even slower than me, look over my left shoulder for an opening, pull out and accelerate past the slower rider, then get back over to the right and try to regain that rhythm again. Plenty of people passed me as well, so I did not have the option of staying to the left.

A stop during the final descent to grab a photo of my bike there.

A stop during the final descent to grab a photo of my bike there.

There was some relief descending Monitor again and heading for Ebbetts Pass. Like the second climb of Monitor, Ebbetts is long but it also has steep sections and hairpin turns to navigate. By the time I reached the summit and received my third sticker I was talking to myself – sometimes aloud – to keep moving forward. I descended to Hermit Valley where I received my fourth sticker. I lingered a bit here, trying to recover, telling myself I had four of the five stickers, just one more to go.

The climb out at about 5½ miles (8.9km), was by far the shortest climb of the day. It is not a terribly difficult route when fresh. However, I was far from fresh, my stomach was rumbling and it was hot.

A few experienced riders had advised me to skip the lunch line because it could be long and time consuming, instead I had my lunch packed in a cooler in my car back at Turtle Rock Park, about 20 miles (32.2km) away.

By the time I reached my car I was beat. I have come to expect this feeling during these endurance rides. I think it is just my body’s reaction to the physical stress.

I tried to eat a chicken panini. It tasted so awful that I nearly gagged. I ate a boiled potato and a banana and drank about three-quarters of a liter of warm sparkling water. I sat there trying to gather myself. I thought seven months of training for this. Seven months of work and a number of people who I would have to go back and explain what happened if I had quit. My stubbornness would not allow me to do that. I thought that if my body broke down officials could drag me off the course but I was not going to quit. At least being dragged off would give me a better story to tell.

I headed off toward the climb to Carson Pass in hopes of getting that final sticker.

I was well ahead of the cut off times as long as I kept moving at a reasonable pace. I rode next to one rider wearing a 2013 Death Ride five-pass finisher jersey. I asked him how long the climb was and then went ahead of him. I came across another rider in a five-pass finisher jersey. He told me that we would be well-within the cutoff times. I then went ahead of him. I figured if I was ahead of those two then I was in good shape to finish.

At Pickett’s Junction, the final rest stop before the Carson summit, the most marvelous volunteer helped me. She brought me watermelon – which for some reason I wanted. She filled my water bottles with ice and most importantly informed me that the summit was 9½ miles (15.3km) away. The time passed ever so slowly. It seemed that the summit was 1,000 miles away. I just kept turning the pedals. Pedal circles, pedal squares, pedal parallelograms, octagons, whatever it took to get there.

And finally I did. It was an indescribable relief. It took me 10 hours 21 minutes of riding time to travel the 105 miles (169km). I got my fifth and final sticker. Volunteers scanned my bib number, I got an ice cream sandwich – I rarely eat ice cream but it is part of the tradition of making the fifth pass and signed the poster.

Having that last sticker put on my bib was the sweetest moment of the ride.

Having that last sticker put on my bib was the sweetest moment of the ride.

I ate, hydrated and felt good now. It would be a long but fun descent back to my vehicle. Overall, I had ridden 124.21 miles (200km) with 15,030 feet (4,581m) of climbing in 11 hours 19 minutes, 41 seconds, at altitude. It was by far the hardest ride I had ever done. You can view a map and elevation profile of the ride as well as my Garmin stats here.

The day after the ride I celebrated a very happy 53rd birthday.

I have been asked if I would do the ride again. I would and already have ideas of changes I would make to my training. But before I get to that I need to prepare for my first double century in October.

Can I get a one-handed zipper?

Finally, we’re getting a real Texas summer, with daytime temps getting into the 100s (38+C). Not that I was looking for that kind of heat, mind you. But the really hot stuff has held off much longer than usual, and I’m grateful.

Now that it’s here, though, we still find ourselves out riding. It doesn’t take long before I start heating up, and I’m looking for relief.

Besides cold water (which doesn’t stay cold long at 100 degrees), I like to pull down my jersey’s zipper to get some air down my front.

Running unzipped on a hot Texas day.

Running unzipped on a hot Texas day.

But there’s a problem with that. On most of my jerseys, I can’t simply grab the zipper pull and give it a yank. Nothing happens.

I tug the zipper pull out from the body, but that still doesn’t work.

A sample of my jerseys. Clockwise from top left: Champion Systems, Hincapie, Sugoi, Primal. I can pull the Hincapie zipper with one hand, because of the long pull tab.

A sample of my jerseys. Clockwise from top left: Champion Systems, Hincapie, Sugoi, Primal. Only the Hincapie unzips easily.

Sometimes, it’s a project to pull down the zipper with two hands — one on the zipper, and one on the collar, tugging in the opposite direction.

Of all my jerseys, only two can be unzipped with one hand while riding — my least expensive jersey, an old cheap Nashbar thing, and my most expensive jersey, by Hincapie. The Hincapie number has a nice cloth zipper pull extension that seems to make all the difference.

A close look at the run-of-the-mill zipper on my Nashbar jersey. But it's the smoothest sliding zipper of them all.

A close look at the run-of-the-mill zipper on my Nashbar jersey. But it’s the smoothest sliding zipper of them all. The zipper pull broke off a week ago, and I can still slide the thing up and down using one hand.

The pull tab on the Hincapie zipper. I wish there were holes on my other zipper pulls so I could thread some tabs on them, too.

The pull tab on the Hincapie zipper. I wish there were holes on my other zipper pulls so I could thread some tabs on them, too.

But most of my other jerseys’ pulls don’t have a hole where I can thread some kind of longer pull extension.

Yeah, it’s a first world problem. I’ll do my best to live with it.

A Beginner Mountain Bike Clinic

As you know, I’ve been thrashing around on my mountain bike a bit this year. Nothing fancy, but mostly finding some decent singletrack trails surprisingly close to home.

But it has become apparent to me that my lack of technique is preventing me from riding the way I’d like to. So when I saw a notice that the Austin Ridge Riders mountain bike club was hosting a beginner’s clinic before their Sunday morning ride, I signed up.

I’ve had good luck with clinics before. When I started road biking years ago, I attended one, and was very pleased with what I took away from it. I was hoping for similar results here.

The clinic was at Walnut Creek Park, one of Austin’s top mountain biking destinations. I hadn’t been there before, because it’s in far north Austin, and I live on the far southwest side of town. So, I was looking forward to getting out on the trails at the park.

It's still early, and riders are already signing in for the skills clinic.

It’s still early, and riders are already signing in for the skills clinic.

After signing in, and paying my membership dues for the Ridge Riders, I joined about eight others at a nearby outdoor basketball course for some quick drills.

The instructor had only an hour before the group ride began, so he drilled us on only a few skills. First, we practiced the “attack” position. On a flat basketball court, it was easy, although as we made pass after pass by the instructor, he called out little adjustments we needed to make. My back wasn’t flat enough.

Shameless pirating of a picture shamelessly copied from a book. But it's a good example of what we were striving for.

Shameless pirating of a picture someone shamelessly copied from a book. But it’s a good example of what we were striving for.

Then, we did some cornering drills which were essentially the same as turning a road bike. Lean, look ahead in the turn.

Finally, we jumped curbs, just to see how much travel we had built in with our arms bent about 90 degrees in the attack position. It does make rolling up over an abrupt obstacle like a curb an easy task.

But just like that, it was over, and we met the rest of the riders for the Sunday trip on Walnut Creek’s trails. The ride was divided into three groups: advanced, intermediate, and beginner. Each would travel the same basic route through the park, the main difference being the amount of distance traveled. The advanced group expected to get about 18 miles in, while the beginners were looking at eight to 10.

Some of the beginners had been on the ride before. One guy lived only a block from the park, and rides it frequently, but still classifies himself as a beginner. Yours truly is something less than a beginner.

I gotta say, these are some nice trails. But they’re also tricky. As I told the woman who was sweep for our group, “Every turn is new to me,” since I had never been here before. Some of the trails are notable for tight, twisty turns that keep speeds way down. It was pretty easy to smack into the trees that hugged the narrow path.

A "whoop-de-doo" on a narrow trail.

A “whoop-de-doo” on a narrow trail.

A rider has just cleared a small jump and is ready for the next turn.

A rider has just cleared a small jump and is ready for the next turn.

Other trails were rocky. Nothing I hadn’t seen before elsewhere; it’s just that these went on a lot longer. I forced myself to maintain the “attack” position as much as possible, and it saved my bacon a couple of times. If I hadn’t had my weight back, I could easily have endoed when a tight turn led into a quick drop.

But at one point, not even the attack position would have worked for me. We came to a steep drop of about 15 feet down a rocky trough. One by one, riders stopped, looked the situation over, then propelled themselves over the edge and own. One woman thought better of it, and walked her bike down the hill. I think I waited too long at the top, letting some others go on ahead of me, and by the time it was my turn, I had talked myself out of it. I walked, too.

By this time, the morning was heating up, and I was feeling the effects of forgetting my sunscreen. We stopped at a road crossing, and the ride leader explained some upcoming trails, but said we could get to the parking lot via a short uphill section. I opted for the latter. I was pooped. Climbing abrupt rises in a super low gear is done easily on a mountain bike, but it still takes a lot of effort, and I was panting for breath at the top of most of the hills.

When I checked Strava at the parking lot, I was astounded to see we had gone only 6.8 miles! They were the toughest 6.8 miles I’ve ever ridden.

A screen shot from Strava shows that we used most of the trails in the park.

A screen shot from Strava shows that we used most of the trails in the park.

Will I ride with this group again? Sure. Every Sunday, the club puts on a ride here. On Saturdays, they go to one of the many other spots around town. But because of the traveling distance for me, I doubt I’ll ever be a regular. And I’ll find places closer to home to work on my hesitancy about steep, rocky drops.

The Post-Ride Nap

napIt started a few years ago. I’d come home from a ride, especially one of our Sunday morning club events, shower, eat…and soon, I’d be on the bed, dead to the world.

My post-ride nap was a refreshing interlude.

Now, this from a guy who has never really napped in his life. I tend to sleep very little — maybe 5-6 hours overnight, and I can function just fine. If I ever did feel tired during the day and I made an effort to take a nap, it never worked. I just stared at the ceiling.

So when I started napping after longish bike rides, it came as a bit of a surprise to me. My wife joked that nothing would get done around the house until late in the afternoon, because I’d be conked anywhere from one to three hours. In fact, she found it a bit exasperating after awhile, because sometimes the lawn wouldn’t get mowed, or the edges wouldn’t get trimmed, or some other chore that I normally did on Sunday afternoons didn’t get done.

Of course, anyone who does nap at all is aware that you can overdo it. If I’m down for three hours in the middle of the day, I’m not one hundred percent afterwards. A little bit of drowsy clings to me. I walk through the rest of the day in a bit of a fog, and I’m not really alert until well into the evening.

But lately, my post-ride nap on Sundays has spread over all my ride days. I can do an easy 20-25 miler close to home, and I’m out. In fact, every time I ride, I can count on at least a short snooze.

Over the past two days, I sneaked in a short mountain bike ride after getting home from work. Just about an hour, on single track trails in the neighborhood. Not particularly hard work, although I know that I work twice as hard on my mountain bike as I do on my road bike. Our family routine has us watching the TV show “Jeopardy” from 4-5 p.m., then news, then some other syndicated fare. I don’t sleep through all of it, but now I’m sleeping through some of it — sitting upright in my chair in front of the TV. These naps last only 15 minutes or so, but I might get in two with some awake time in between.

Now, I look forward to my naps. Unless I’m down for a couple of hours, I wake up rested and refreshed. I know I wouldn’t be able to do that without the bike ride to prompt my body in that direction.

Do you nap sometimes, always, or never after rides?