Friday, February 28, 2014

Excellent Adventure

Starting out over the Bethel multi-use bridge.
 This winter has really been a great one for a number of reason. First, it has been a real winter with cold and snow. Now, you can chose to be a hater and lock yourself up indoors waiting for spring or you can accept and embrace it. I have always been a winter person. I have countless fond memories as a child of playing outside in the cold dark Northern Vermont winters until it was time to go to bed.

You would judge the success of the evening by how many pairs of knitted mittens you went through. I can clearly recall times where the entire stash would be used up and frozen solid, left inside by the roaring wood or coal furnace that heated the house. There were few if any water repellant let alone waterproof fabrics in those days and what there were, we certainly didn't have, so once the mittens got wet from wallowing in the snow, they would freeze solid rendering the useless. Similar things would happen with the boots, inevitably filled with snow and the felt liners soaking wet. It occurs to me that this may have something to do with why my hands and feet are so problematic now.

Endless whoops.
Anyhow, the point is, winter with it's snow and cold never really impacted my love of the outdoors. It just meant the activity would change. Riding bicycles as a kid all spring summer and fall would turn to sledding, snowshoeing and skiing in the winter once the snow hit. I used to delight in taking full length alpine skis my grandfather found at the dump, hacking them off as short as possible and screwing some ancient bindings back on. Then I would hike up into the woods across the pasture behind the house and ski down. I also did some Nordic ski jumping in the Bill Koch League at the L.O.C. hill. Practices would be Wednesday night I think and competition Friday night, under the lights. That meant the rope tow, yet more terror on the mittens. Sledding was the staple draw though. Plastic toboggans were the staple and we would spend hours making runs and jumps and wearing the sleds literally through their bases.

Later in life it was all about Alpine skiing, being out there in well below zero mid winter conditions at Smugglers Notch when I was at UVM skiing in jeans and long-johns. Should have frozen to death. later still I got into cycling and as I became more involved, the quest to ride MTB through the winter kept me going when possible. For years we ran studded tires and rode the hard packed stuff on the regular MTBs, just to keep it going through the winter months. Fun for sure.

Sun beyond the squall.
At one point, when we were still into Alpine skiing, we got into snowmobiling very heavily. Cathy and I loved it and did huge rides spending literally all day on the machines. Our thing was the big epic rides so we would be on the trail by 8AM, often trailering the sleds over to Errol, NH. From there we would head to Pittsburg via some big loops, often going over to Oquossoc, ME as well. We would spend 8 to 10 hours on the trail and rack up 200 - 300 miles. That taught me something entirely new about being cold. It showed me a whole new level.

The most recent winter pass time besides cycling has been Nordic skiing. We had always been into classic but we we took up Nordic skate skiing five or so years back. It is much faster and IMHO, much more fun that classic XC. When the seasons have been good, we tend to do a bunch of skate skiing and had also been doing a bunch of classic XC traipsing through the woods. Fun stuff that we really don't do as much of as we should.

Why is it that I don't seem to have enough time in the dead of the gloomy New England winter to do everything outside that I'd like to you ask? Bikes, of course. It's an obsession. I'm an addict. No, really, I can stop anytime I want, just not today. Yea, this whole streak thing of riding every day, which is two months into the third year in a row, coupled with racing and trying to improve or at least stay even translates to spending way too much time riding bikes. I've also decided that riding indoors in dumb, so am attempting to ride outside every day. I tell myself that this is less a compulsion and more a celebration, of life and my health. Enjoy them while you can because you never know how long either will last. At least, that is what I tell myself.

Awesome trails.
This year of course, we got the fat bikes. Nothing special, just a pair of good quality affordable Charge Cooker Maxi. They have been a lifesaver this year in terms of riding, given the conditions. It is like when you were a kid and you couldn't wait to get outside and play bikes. Though much is the same, much is also fresh and new and exciting. Riding mostly in Maine and mostly at night means venturing out in the frigid cold darkness into remote and desolate area on the bike.

Great ride.
You come to rely more heavily on you equipment as it at times is the only thing between you and possibly freezing to death. Just last night I was doing a hard solo ride on trail that we had done once so far this year. It was well away from much of anything and though I started in the late afternoon light, it was now after dark. The temperature was about 12 degrees and I was working hard enough that I had soaked through from sweat. My outer jacket had frozen solid, encased in frost on the front and arms. Both of my feet were extremely cold despite a few sessions of running and pushing the bike to try and increase circulation and my hands were swampy and would go instantly if the fire went to go out. I thought to myself that if I crashed and got hurt such that I couldn't run or forbid, move, I'd probably have less that 1/2 hour before hypothermia set in.

Fear provides great motivation to keep working hard.

Working pretty hard and loving it.
Despite the dangers, which really were not that severe, I had an excellent ride. One of many this winter where the trails were great as was the scenery and it was simply a joy to be part of the world, outside, enjoying life and the crisp night air. Cathy has been with me for most of these night time fat bike adventures. We have had great fun together including another big ride just a couple days ago. I often find that the best rides and adventures are those where you are right on the edge, where there is potential for disaster. It is fun to bite off a little more than you can chew and then forcing yourself, challenging yourself, to deal with it. It may be borderline foolhardy in some cases but all things considered, not so much. Calculated risks frequently deliver some of the most savory rewards.

Last night was an awesome ride. It left me completely exhausted, barely able to sit and eat dinner. As hard as it was, it felt good to have done it. To have challenged myself and to have met that challenge. I smile now thinking about that and so many other rides this winter, just standing out in the middle of nowhere, looking up at the night sky marveling at the stars, being thankful for the moment and for the winter.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Four Years Old

Happy Birthday to the kittens, who are four years old today, as best we could tell at least. The shelter we adopted them from, the Waltham Cat Connection, didn't exactly get birth certificates when they found the family on the street, in a cardboard box. Yes, our babies came from the rough streets of the Watch City, not exactly the best of starts.

It is hard to believe that it will soon be four years since we anxiously met them and they immediately stole our hearts. We went to visit them at their foster home in Waltham. We had the chance to spend a little time with them alone and instantly knew that they were the ones. Yes, I suppose any kittens could have been the ones but I choose to think that these were special and that we were all meant to find our way to each other, somehow. Regardless of the how or why, our lives were changed forever and we are very, very grateful for their presence.

This marks the fourth year in a row that we celebrated their Birthday with party hats and cake from Concord Teacakes. Great tradition that we intend to continue, forever. The cake, vanilla on vanilla as chocolate is bad for the kittens, is of course primarily for us. However on this special occasion, we let them have a small piece each. Oh, and maybe a small taste of the frosting when we were trying to get them to set still for the celebratory pictures. No small task what with the party hats and all.

Great times are often made from simple little events, that we hold dear. Happy Birthday kittens and thank you for being such a big part of yet another great year.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Birthday Epic

Ready to head out for the ride.
It has become a sort of tradition with us that on our birthdays, or at least on my birthday and usually on Cathy's birthday as well, we do a big old bike ride. I know, big surprise and how exactly is that different from any other day you may ask? In reality, I guess that it isn't all that different.

However, this year we have the fat bikes and so we planned a big loop in the snow on them. All season I have been wanting to put together and complete some bigger, longer rides on the fat bikes. We have even done a few longer rides that covered some pretty good terrain. The only problem though, is that we are coming to realize the simple truth that fat bike miles are drastically different than miles tallied on most other bikes. It all makes sense really, huge squishy tires, a bike that weighs nearly twice as much as a normal bike. You are also riding on snow, which typically has much more rolling resistance than pavement or dirt. As best we can figure, fat bike miles are about 1.5x to MTB miles and a solid 2-2.5x to road miles. That means 10 miles on the fat bike is like 15 miles on the MTB or 20-25 on the road bike. That obviously changes with conditions but is probably pretty close. We based it mostly on a ride time/effort comparison between the three.

Getting rolling.
Weather is also a factor. It is the winter after all and this winter, is shaping up to be legitimate.We have frequently seen temperatures in the teens and single digits and have had to adjust to riding in those temperatures. It can be a challenge on a bike or in any activity where you are working hard and generate a lot of body heat. Body heat is good in that it keeps you from dying of the cold but like anything, too much of it and you start to sweat. Sweat is the bane of attempting to stay warm for extended periods of time while out in the cold. I sweat when I get working hard, a lot. Once I am up to temperature I don't need a whole lot of clothing on my torso. I certainly can't have any wind-block material that does not allow the moisture to wick away, otherwise I become a swampy mess. Once you are wet, your time is limited.

Heading back from Gilead.
There is the upperbody and torso which it is actually pretty easy to deal with. I usually wear breathable thermal fabric for a long sleeve base layer, like a Craft or Pearl Izumi and then a thicker thermal mid layer, Pearl Izumi Select Thermal jersey being my go to choice, and will go with a wind vest and a wind jacket over the top. Once I warm up, the jacket comes off. If working hard steadily the vest will also, even with temperatures down into the teens. The legs are less an issue though I have paid more attention to the lower leg/ankle area recently. I'm also thinking that having warm legs contributes to warm feet so have been opting to slightly overdress on the lower zone. I've also found the head can be key also. A thin hat under the helmet provides a ton of heat and can be removed in order to provide a huge amount of cooling, especially if you have no hair on your head, like me. This is actually the first year that I have consistently ridden and even raced some with a hat on. I think it more indicative of the weather than my balding issue.

A little icy.
Those are all pretty easy issues to deal with. The harder parts are the extremities. Hands and feet are the challenge, at least for me. I have the same problems with my hands and keep that I have with the rest of my body; when I get too warm, I sweat, a lot. No different for hands and feet except that I seem to have two temperatures for them, either they are too cold or they are too hot (also known as comfortable). When they are comfortable, they swamp up and inevitably at some point down the road, they will freeze. This is simply due to the moisture.
It has really been a battle to try and stay warm this year. Every year it seems to get worse, which probably means that every year I keep doing more damage and making it worse. I've gone a bit to extremes though, at least with the hands. For really cold days, I've switched to big huge expedition style mittens. They are bulky and make it hard to control the bike but my hands stay warm. On warmer days I will use big, heavily insulated downhill ski gloves. Overkill maybe but cold hands stink. The feet have been a bigger challenge though. This is because of the clipless pedals of course and the metal cleat heat-sink mounted to the sole. I've talked about it before so won't again. This year we have taken our warmest winter specific MTB boots, Pear Izumi GTX winter and paired them with Pearl Izumi Elite Barrier insulated overboots. This provides good protection and insulation while doing a pretty good job at handling the perspiration. At night I am good for a few hours and in the day I have made it over five hours with this setup.

Great conditions.
Speaking of over five hours and this setup, I sort of transgressed away from the actual ride that was the topic of this post. My big old fashioned Birthday epic. I've wanted to do this big huge snowmobile trail loop in Maine/New Hampshire called the Evergreen Valley loop. We have done it a number of times on sleds. It is fairly remote and hits some good scenery in the White Mountain National Forest, eventually coming up the back side of Evans Notch. It is big and it is tough. I'm not exactly sure how long it is. At first I was thinking 50 miles but in looking closer, I think it is more like 75 miles. In good conditions it would probably take 9 hours pretty much non-stop. A little too much given the time we had so that one will have to wait for another day.

My second bet was a smaller loop, one that we had done at least the bulk of in the past. This loop headed North/West on snowmobile trail that skirts RT2 and the Eastern side of the Androscoggin River from Bethel to Gilead. Usually good trail with some good views of the river. Luckily a recon the night before showed the trail to be well traveled and packed. From Gilead we would cross the river and RT2 and take sled trail which follows RT2 back toward Bethel. This trail has had much recent improvement making it flatter but still has a couple of very steep climbs and descents. Once almost back to Bethel we would follow Flat Road onto the gas line and cross over RT35 at Songo Pond to Vernon Street and up into Greenwood the back way, coming out at Irish Neighborhood and then over Rabbit Road and back home. All of this was on snowmobile trail of course. A good loop, all on stuff that we had ridden before and all close to home, relatively.

Nice scenery.
That is what Cathy and I set out at 9:15AM Friday to do. The weather was cool and windy but not extreme. We also had a nice sun that made it seem warmer than it actually was. Early on we found that conditions were good in that they were firm in most spots and there was little sled traffic that morning to chew the top surface of frozen granular. This made conditions very good, but not ideal. Ideal is freshly groomed and then a warm freeze cycle, making the trail like concrete, literally, smooth and ultra fast but not icy. Those conditions give a 10 or even 11mph average ride. These conditions, while the really good and the norm, yield an 8 - 9mph average ride. There is something demoralizing as a cyclist about doing sub 10mph average rides, especially when they are long ride. It does scary things with the math.

My hope was to make it to Gilead in an hour. I'm not smart and I can't do long math. We make it to Gilead in like a half hour on the road bikes. OK, maybe 35 minutes. It is 12 miles. We have never done a 12mph average fat bike ride. Why did I think we would start an epic at a record pace? Optimistic maybe. Needless to say, an hour and half and some really good trail culminating in some really steep grunt climbs that we couldn't quite make and we crossed the river and RT2 in Gilead.

Nice bridge crossing.
The next stretch was mostly new trail for us given the changes. The old trail was brutal with huge ups followed by huge downs. With the conditions I knew many of those climbs would be more than we could manage, meaning we had to push the bikes up over.  Luckily with the re-routes post RT2 expansion the trail actually followed just off RT2 for a good ways. We face a couple shorter steep climbs but they were manageable. Out behind the Federal land that the military uses as a training camp we started to get into the rollers and soon we stood facing the biggest challenge so far. The climb was not long, about 1/4 mile but it climbed 250' in that length. Trail conditions were good and solid affording good traction. For the most part it was doable, in the smallest gear spinning slow steady circles with your weight way back on the tail of the saddle to maintain traction. I got messed up once but managed to get moving again and make my way slowly over the top.

Expanses and backdrops.
We were rewarded with an awesome if a little scary downhill bringing us to some flatter sections trail. Still most of the conditions were good to very good and the going was steady. We were making pretty good time with an average speed of just about 9mph, putting this solidly on the better side of good conditions. Next up was the gas line which was barren and windswept but gave some neat views and perspectives and was hard and fast. Amazing how what seemed so short on a sled could feel so long on a bicycle. These straight, flat and fast sections with great visibility are the ones where on a sled you would peg it and be running literally 100mph. A few miles go by pretty quickly at that speed. At 11mph, not much. Still, good going and before long we were back in the woods and then down to RT35 at Songo Pond.

Nice trail.
At this point we were starting to wear a bit. We hit a couple of punchy little climbs and then some more really nice trail that brought us down and across Vernon Street. The biggest climb of the day was just ahead and I had to admit that I was getting tired. Conditions while good, were taxing. Constant, steady, high power was necessary to maintain forward momentum. I'd say that we were past endurance and into tempo on the power scale, much of the day. We had done this climb before this year and it hurt. In good conditions, it hurt a lot. In rough conditions, it hurt a lot mentally as well as physically. Just before we started the climb we had sled traffic go up the trail. This made for some loose granular on some steep sections of trail which translates to barely able to maintain traction. This was the longest, slowest slog of the day. It involved criss-crossing the trail looking for purchase, for a full mile. I'm pretty sure it took over 20 minutes to get to the top and when we did, we were just about done.

Almost home.
From there it was a long down slope followed by a fast steep downhill. There had been enough sled traffic by that point that the trail was loose and hard to manage, adding insult by having to pedal hard to go downhill. We finally made it out and Cathy opted for a small shortcut that avoided a short section of super steep ups and a longer gentle down. Again, hard going. We regrouped at Rabbit Road and made the slow trek the final few miles home, sore and exhausted.

Food and a hot shower and then we met up with friends at the Bethel Inn for happy hour followed by cake from our favorite bakery, Concord Teacakes (which I picked up myself and felt like a big loser asking them to write 'Happy Birthday Mike' on) and dinner at our place.

An excellent day and a wonderful Birthday. The best one ever, so far.