Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Test Ride 1: C&O Canal

Three things you should know about my commute. Number 1: It stinks. Number 2: There are a number of nice biking opportunities along my usual route home. Number 3: It stinks less when I take advantage of the cycling opportunities and allow rush hour traffic to abate before I attempt the crossing from Maryland to Virginia.

Last Tuesday I had an opening of time between work and a jazz jam I was attending in Tysons Corner - the perfect opportunity to take the new bike for its maiden ride. I took my usual rush hour route down Piney Meetinghouse Road, which takes me right by the park on the Maryland side of Great Falls. At the park I changed into my decidedly non-cyclist riding clothes: a regular t-shirt and a fleece sweatshirt on top paired with quick-dry adventure shorts borrowed from my kayaking wardrobe concealing my bike shorts. No adorable matching jerseys and socks for me, thank you very much, and no twee little cap. I did, of course, wear a helmet.

Sorry. Even in a post about cycling I can't resist a little rant about modern cycling culture and its attendant costume.

I uncovered the bike (ever the paranoid New Yorker, there's no way I would leave a high end bike in full view in the back of my car all day), hopped on and started with a lap around the parking lot to experiment with the pedals. I practiced clipping one foot in and out, then the other. I had figured on doing the main part of my ride not clipped in, but I quickly became comfortable with being clipped in. I need some more practice before I'd feel comfortable with it on city streets, but on an uncrowded trail I was fine. 

Over the canal and onto the towpath I went. What a rush! I'm used to either riding moderately fast on city streets and trails or blobbing along dirt trails at low speeds on my 29er mountain bike. The ability to ride road bike style on a dirt trail was something new and awesome. Riding a drop bar bike rather than a hybrid for the first time in twenty years felt good. Back in the early 90's I replaced my Miyata 312 12-speed with a Marin straight bar hybrid to better tow toddlers in the bike trailer. Given that my sons are now 21 and 19, I think I'm safely past the requirement to be able to tow a trailer and so it's back to something a little more roadie.
The evening was crisp and clear. The sun was slowly setting over the Potomac. The bluebells were in bloom. Beautiful. I rode from Great Falls to canal lock 22, about 12 miles round trip. I would have gone farther but I was time and daylight limited. I thought I was bombing along at a pretty good speed too, though another rider did blow by me at one point like I was standing still. GPS said I averaged less than 13 MPH. Gotta work on those cycling muscles.
The Gangster hits the C&O

The one unpleasant aspect of the whole ride was occasionally riding through cloud of little bugs: what in the UK they call "midgies". Gotta wear glasses next time. 

By the time I finished my ride, changed back into street clothes and made it to Tysons Corner I had no time to get dinner - an energy bar and a chocolate milk from the Exxon Quik Mart had to suffice. I did another quick change of clothes in the Great Falls parking lot and didn't even have time to take a look at myself in the mirror at a bathroom somewhere to make sure I looked presentable. I showed up at the jam just on time and played jazz for two hours, and it was only when I used the rest room at the end of the jam that I realized that I had a face full of splattered bugs. What the folks at the jam must have thought of me!
Alongside the river

The Gangster: Origin Story

I've been shopping for a bike and have been amazed and maybe a little horrified at how the categories and sub-categories of bikes have multiplied since the days when you had either a "three speed" or a "ten speed". Touring bikes. Relaxed touring bikes. Cyclocross. Gravel. Cargo. Fat tire. Racing. Mountain. Hybrid. Etc. Etc. Etc. You practically need a Linnean classification system for the damn things. 

With the help of expert advice from my friend Cyndi I identified the species I wanted to purchase as roadus gravellus, known colloquially as the "gravel" or "adventure" bike. Able to handle road riding almost like a touring bike, but also some rougher terrain like gravel roads and paths like the C&O canal trail. Very similar to roadus cyclocrossus, but with bigger tire clearance and a more touring friendly frame geometry. After doing some test riding I was about to pull the trigger on the purchase of a Raleigh Tamland when I mentioned my planned purchase to my friend Chris, who emphatically insisted that what I really needed was a touring bike - in fact, a particular carbon frame Trek. I was at that point in danger of descending into what in engineering we call "analysis paralysis" when Cyndi stepped in again, recommending that I not overthink the purchase and just buy something. Whatever I buy as a newbie is going to be different than what I figure out I really want once I get more experience, and I can always buy something else later as I grow in the sport. This is advice I certainly recognized since I'd given it myself many times in the kayaking world - and have lived by as well. I'm pretty sure Cyndi knew that this advice would resonate with me, since she knows how many kayaks I've owned over the years.

With that in mind I decided to give a quick scan to Craigslist. Maybe the right first move for me would be to buy something used. And what to my wondering eyes should appear but an ad for a rather spectacular titanium frame bike which, while set up as a roadus cyclocrossus was (according to both the manufacturer and online reviews) also suitable for gravel exploring and even commuting. Being an older model it lacked disk brakes and didn't have quite the fat tire clearance of the newer gravel bikes, but it met my tire width needs (up to 38mm, for the record), was equipped with high end components all around, and as a used bike was in the same price range as the more pedestrian steel frame Raleigh I had been planning to buy. And it was right nearby in Merrifield. Have I mentioned the titanium frame? Suffice it to say, I bought it. What can I say? I'm a sucker for exotic materials. I like my wooden kayak not because it's the best boat out there (well, it's not bad), but because it's WOOD. Gorgeous, lovely wood. And now I have some gorgeous, lovely Ti.
Tires, old and new

After getting the bike home my first step was to do some work to convert it into the bike I wanted. Off came the knobby cyclocross tires, replaced with a pair of Clement Xplors, a 35mm width tire suited for road and trail. I wanted to make the riding position a little more relaxed, so I flipped the angled stem. This required replacing the front brake cable, since the existing cable didn't have enough play in it to support raising the handlebars. Replacing the brake cable meant replacing the handlebar tape - which I might have done anyway since who knows what kind of icky sweat was on the old tape. Surprisingly, the things I thought would be hard were easy and the easy things were hard. I got through two tire replacements without pinching any tubes - the tires seated right and hold air (I do not have a sterling history in this regard). The brake cable and stem inversion - easy. On the other hand, my handlebar tape job, which I thought would be an easy thing to do, looks sloppy and uneven. Even a little sloppy, the red tape looks sharp with The Gangster's silvery body. And the color is an homage to my first drop-bar bike, a red Motobecane Mirage purchased when I was a teenager.

Finally, there was the issue of pedals. Why are pedals a separate item these days?? I ordered a pair of Shimano pedals online, opting for the first time in my life to go with clip-in pedals. I did, however, select platform format pedals - flip 'em over and they work as regular old pedals which can be worn with regular old shoes. As I screwed them in I thought about the fact that my pedal spanner wrench is older most of the people who had been giving me bike advice, as I've had it since my first foray into the world of bicycles back in the 70's. It may actually be my dad's and so may be older than that. It is stamped "Made in England" - when was the last time this sort of tool was made in the West?

Putting on new pedals with my old wrench

With pedals attached The Gangster was ready to ride and I looked forward to getting it out for a test run.
Ready to Ride
Oh, where does the name come from? I don't usually name cars, or bikes, or boats. None of my kayaks has had a name. Valerie and the boys name our cars, but I only sometimes buy into those names. This bike, though, somehow needed a name. The bike is a Lynskey, which made think of Meyer Lansky. Back in the early days of organized crime there was a Jewish mafia as well as the better known Italian one and Meyer Lansky was the most famous of the Jewish gangsters (the character Hyman Roth in The Godfather is based on Lansky). And so the bike is The Gangster. Actually the bike is a Lynskey Cooper CX, which makes me happy because I like the name Cooper. It's the name of my alma mater (Cooper Union) and, because of that, one of my lizards. But since Cooper already has enough connotations in my life, I chose to play off the Lynskey brand name.


For those who care about the componentry details:
  • Lynskey Cooper CX frame (Titanium), vintage approximately 2010?
  • Full Ultegra drivetrain including front and rear derailleurs, 50/34t crank and 11-28t cassette
  • TRP Mini-V 8.4 brakes
  • Thomson stem and seatpost
  • Ritchey comp handlebar
  • Specialized Toupe Roubaix saddle
  • Mavic Kysrium Equipe wheelset
  • Shimano PD-A350 pedals

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Very Wet SK102

I have written about SK102 in past years and so I won't write a long post here. I'll just mention that this year's event was unusually cold and rainy. I remember last year perspiring on a warm and sunny Friday as I set up my tent. In contrast, this year I brought my down jacket along and made good use of it Friday night - the temps got down into the high 30's overnight! Actually, Friday afternoon was quite pleasant and I had a chance to go out and do some rolling practice; it remained pleasant for the Friday night paddle. It was later in the evening that the temperatures began to plummet. After the paddle folks hung out and socialized for a bit, but as the cold set in we all retreated to our tents. Not being an "early to bed" type, I stayed up and wrote a blog post on my iPad about a recent cycling adventure before I turned  in.

Friday Night Paddle (Ron Tucker's photo)

 After a cold night Saturday morning was, of course, chilly. I assisted Ed Schiller in teaching rescues and towing. Ed is a professional instructor - a great instructor and a really nice guy. I learned a lot from his teaching. As is typical for the assistant, I demonstrated a lot of the rescues. I was wearing my dry suit and the water was warm, so it shouldn't have been a problem. However, something about the way I was wearing my watch was pushing against  the wrist gasket of my suit, which caused it to leak. By the time I finished the class I was soaked and really uncomfortable inside my suit. At lunch break I stripped out of my suit and dumped out probably a quart of water. Ick. It was at this point that I also discovered I had forgotten to bring the bag with my lunch food (fortunately I had plenty of other food) and I found out that Valerie was in a panic looking for me from home. My phone lost coverage half a mile off I95 on Friday (another reason I'm very dissatisfied with T-Mobile) and I hadn't contacted her - and from her perspective was missing in action.

That was a low point, but I solidered on. In the afternoon, freshly re-bundled up and back into my maybe-dry suit I assisted the same rescues and towing class with Jan Sheehan. Jan is a relatively new instructor and it was a contrast from teaching with Ed. Once again, it was my job to demonstrate various rescue techniques. After the morning's experience I was initially hesitant to get back into the water but the good news is that my wet suit worked (no wristwatch!) and I stayed dry. Realizing that I was staying dry I was happy to jump in and demonstrate whatever they wanted. We joined up with another section of the same class which had only a few students (a certain number of people opted out of getting wet because of the cool weather) and the instructor from that class did some demonstrating too. Jan never got into the water - but all our students did, and they did very well.

As we were finishing up the afternoon session it began to rain. And rain. And rain. So much rain that the the grills were dragged up the hill and evening BBQ was relocated to under the pop-up shelter "tent city". The bonfire and entertainment were cancelled. Not long after dinner I retreated to my tent. A movie on my iPad (first time I had ever watched a movie in a tent, which somehow seems wrong) and a glass of cognac to counter the cold and wet and all was right with the world. I was camped adjacent to Susan Green - close enough to talk tent to tent. While I was watching a movie, she was reading a book using the Kindle app on her phone. The guy in the next tent, also within earshot, piped up that he was reading on his tablet computer too. We've come a long way from the days when tent time meant reading damp paperbacks by the light of a dim, flickering flashlight.

Sunday morning the rain began to taper off. Activities went on as planned, but many of us began our exodus early. Waking up cold and damp just makes me want to head for the great indoors. I packed up in the mud, throwing all my stuff into the back of the car to be dried off at home. Needless to say, as I drove home the weather cleared and after a weekend outside in the cold and rain I arrived home to gorgeous, sunny weather - perfect for airing out my gear in the backyard :)

SK102 is always fun. This year, maybe a little less than usual due to the weather, but still fun.And look, someone gave me a shout-out: http://www.cpakayaker.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=8805#p31659

Saturday, April 11, 2015

5K & Cherry Blossom Paddle

I had a busy day on Saturday - running a race and then kayaking. At 8:30 AM I participated in the Fairlington 5K, our monthly 5K race. I told myself I was going to take it really easy since I knew I was going kayaking right afterward, but we were there with our friends Gail and Chris and I guess competitiveness got the better of me and I wound up pushing it a little bit. I wound up running the race in 29:30, which is actually my best time of our monthly 5K series. I still finished three minutes behind Chris :( Valerie turned in a personal best as well of 47:57. It wasn't that long ago that she had a goal of breaking an hour - I'm quite proud of the times she's turning in these days!

At the completion of the race I headed over to Columbia Island Marina, where I was leading a Cherry Blossom trip for Chesapeake Paddlers Association. The marina was quite busy. There were three groups launching around the same time: us, Deke's Meetup, and a canoe club from Harrisburg, PA. Another Meetup had headed out earlier and Rita's Sugarloaf group was out there too doing their own trip. I threw on my dry suit over my running clothes and got down to business organizing the group.

The main challenge of the day was wind. It was a beautiful, sunny day but the wind was blowing hard, with gusts over 25 MPH, kicking up some pretty good waves on the river - even some whitecaps. My group of nine headed directly across the river to the blossoms, bumping into Rita's group along the way. The blossoms were right at peak and were quite gorgeous. Because of the river conditions we didn't get to linger and take pictures for as long as we ordinarily would have. When we were done peeping at the blossoms we prepared to head upriver. Two of my group didn't want to paddle any further in the wind and so they headed straight back. The rest of us headed up the DC side to check out more blossoms. Most of us were quite comfortable in the conditions, but we had a couple of people we shepherded a little bit.

We paddled up the DC side to Roosevelt Island, crossed over and followed the Roosevelt Island shoreline around the top and down the channel, then ducked into the shelter of the Boundary Channel (fortunately it was high tide) for the final miles. A pretty, club classic trip.

Checking out turtles in the Boundary Channel

Monday, April 6, 2015

Shenandoah Matzo

It was one of those perfect spring days. Warm, sunny, and super-enticing after a cold, awful winter . Th kind of day when you just have to blow off your responsibilities and head for the hills.

I drove out to Shenandoah National Park early Monday morning. Stopped at the ranger station and paid my fifteen dollars (fifteen dollars!). Made a joke with the ranger, "OK, I'll pay you the $15 but in return you have to not tell anyone that I'm here today instead of at work." The woman sits by herself in a booth all day. You'd think she'd at least crack a smile when a visitor attempted to make conversation, even in the form of a lame joke.

Nope. Shtum. Anyway ...

I cruised down Skyline Drive to mile 19, passing along the way a large number of cyclists, many of whom appeared to be part of a group (they all had the same triangular rear reflector and all looked to be senior citizens). Since I'm in the proces of shopping for a bike myself I kept a lid on my usual feelings towards cyclists and ran not a single one of them off the road.

Little Hogback View

My goal was to do the Sugarloaf hike. This loop hike starts at the Keyser Run Fire Road parking area. I still feel bad about last year when I sold V on a hike by telling her that fire roads are easy hiking, and then we wound hiking on what turned out to be the world's most vertical, difficult to hike fire road. Keyser Run is more of a typical fire road: broad and fairly flat. From Keyser Run you continue onto Pole Bridge Trail, then Sugarloaf Trail. These are pretty areas with some significant elevation gain. According to the park brochure this is a 4.6 mile hike with a 1,029 ft. elevation gain. My GPS actually measured over 5 miles, but I did a little exploring here and there. I have to admit, there were moments on the Sugarloaf Trail when I was getting tired from the climb and wondered a little bit about why I was out there doing this. Then, however, I crossed Skyline Drive and hung a right onto the Appalachian Trail where I was immediately presented with the first of several great vistas (at Hogback and Little Hogback). I sat myself down on a rock and took a snack break, enjoying the view. It being Passover, I pulled out my Ziploc(TM) of matzo. "I wonder if I'm the only one in Shenandoah National Park eating matzo", I thought. I figured I probably was. I turned out to be wrong. Matzo, some nuts, turkey jerky, and water. Delicious.

Matzo break on the Appalachian Trail
 The AT meanders along, somewhat paralleling Skyline Drive but not sticking to the ridge line, so there were lots of switchbacks. Eventually I wound up intersecting with the Drive at the Little Hogback Overlook, where I paused again and took in the view. There I drank a little can of coffee we had gotten from the local Asian supermarket. Kind of like a Starbucks Doubleshot, but made in Thailand. And very caffeinated! From there it was a short hop back to my starting point. Thanks to my Thai canned coffee, I was indeed hopping, skipping and jumping down this last part of the trail.

I took the drive back out of the park slowly, stopping at a few of the overlooks to enjoy the view. I was blissing out on being outdoors in the sunshine and didn't want it to end. I took a picture of a dad and daughter visiting from Arizona. I admired the monadnocks. I cruised along, still not running any cyclists off the road.

At the top of the park I stopped at the Dickey Ridge Visitor's Center where, in a fit of responsibility, I pulled out some paperwork I had to read for work. I sat on a park bench and enjoyed the view and the setting while I read a top level requirements document for a new piece of software. While I was sitting there a family - parents, two school age kids - spread out a blanket not far from me and began to set up a picnic. The parents were speaking Russian to the kids; the kids were answering in English. Out came salmon, cheese, fruit - and matzo! On my way out as I walked past them I pulled my own little baggie of matzo out of my backpack and wished them a Happy Pesach.

I stopped at Spelunker's Burgers in Front Royal on the way back and got a milkshake - a rare indulgence for me, but I felt justified by nature of my hike and the deprivations of Passover.

Then it was back out of the hills and home.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

On the Water At Last

It's been a bad winter for paddling: bitterly cold weather which froze not only small and mid-size rivers like the Potomac but even the Chesapeake Bay - a rarity. I wound up not paddling (except in the pool) for January, February and most of March - almost three months of no paddling. That's the longest I've gone without hitting the water in years.

On 3/22 Tom and I finally made it out. Arriving at Columbia Island, we bumped into Peter F. Peter recently had back surgery and so will be off the water for a while. I think he was just stir crazy from the winter (as are we all) and went out for a drive to hang out by the water. The three of us chatted for a while and then Tom and I suited up and launched. We creaked our way up the Boundary Channel and the river to Three Sisters. The boat ramp had been surprisingly busy, but we had the river pretty much to ourselves. 

An uneventful outing, except for the fact that it was the first of the year.