Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ride report: Mount Tam and Alpine Dam loop

I was fortunate to be able to join my significant other on a conference trip to San Francisco for a couple days of vacation. I've been to San Francisco on a couple of occasions, but I never got to do a bike ride. Well, this time was the time, and—spoiler alert: it was terrific! I had gotten route advice from SF locals on the iBOB listserv: A loop around Mt. Tamalpais was recommended by many, offering climbing, beautiful roads, and great views.

As I didn't bring my own bike, I rented an aluminum Cannondale CAAD 10 from Sports Basement in the Presidio. I didn't have a reservation, but at least on a weekday in fall that was no problem at all. The bike fit me reasonably well and was in very good condition.

The route begins with a crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge. I had been warned of the dangers of clueless tourists wobbling around on the ubiquitous rental bikes or on foot, waving around their selfie sticks, but it turned out not to be all that bad.

Bridge view of Downtown San Francisco

The bike route on the northern end of the bridge is signed yet not easy to find: You have to do a 170 degree turn onto a sidewalk and then walk your bike down a flight of stairs to pass underneath the bridge. A steep service road then leads down to sea level, providing beautiful vistas. Bike route 5 closely follows the coast line into Sausalito, a pretty, somewhat touristy town that apparently can get very busy on weekends. Continuing on a mix of on-street lanes and shared lanes, I reached the Mill Valley–Sausalito path. The rough chipseal on the path reminded me of that fact that I was on 25mm Continental Gatorskin tires instead of the supple 35–42mm tires I have gotten so used to... At a brand new path roundabout, apparently intended to slow down cyclists, I turned off the path and continued on residential streets.

When looking at the map to prepare my cue sheet, I had thought of this part of the ride as a potentially annoying section: Lots of turns not to miss and what on the map looked very much like cul-de-sac developments. Oh how I was wrong! On a winding one lane road I would climb through redwoods and wooden houses creatively nestled into the steep slopes, Together with the sun's light filtered through the trees, this made for an almost magical experience (unfortunately one that was impossible to capture with my phone camera).

Panoramic indeed
At the end of the first long climb, I turned onto Panoramic Highway, whose name certainly delivers: Vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific coast, Muir Woods National Monument—and of course Mount Tam make for great riding. The highway is winding and has no shoulders, but traffic wasn't too bad and people driving were well behaved. I had a quick refueling stop at a pull-out where years ago I had made a stop on a road trip with my parents. My legs, accustomed only to climbs that last no longer than maybe 15 minutes, were a little tired, but the gearing of my rental was sufficiently low to keep me going.
View from Pan Toll Road, Panoramic Highway below

Shortly after that, at the Pantoll Ranger Station, the route forks off on Pan Toll Road. Apologies for the overuse of superlatives, but the views were getting ever better. I was now high up enough to get glimpes of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the foggy ocean all at the same time!

The view that has it all

Climbing, climbing, climbing
At the next intersection I had to decide if I wanted to take the dead-end road to the eastern summit of Mt. Tam or just continue on the loop. I had plenty of daylight left and was feeling great—so on to the summit I rode. This involved a good bit of up and down, including a mean ramp just before the parking lot at the end of the road. I was happy to see functional water fountains at the parking lot and took a fifteen minute break at a picnic area with yet more great views. I didn't have a lock and therefore skipped the walk to the actual summit.

At the East Summit parking lot. The couple traveling in this 1970s "Winnie Wagon" later ran into me again and asked me for directions,

My laterally stiff yet vertically compliant stiff bike
Back at the fork, I now turned right, knowing that from here on the ride would be mostly downhill. My legs certainly appreciated that prospect. However, between lingering memories of my recent crash and, more importantly, the skinny, stiff, overinflated tires on a bumpy road, descending wasn't as much fun as it should be.

Stinson Beach
Ridgecrest Road

Once again. the scenery provided ample compensation. First on an open ridge with views in all directions, then on a twisting road through tall trees. At the bottom of the descent, the route traverses Alpine Dam and then follows the shore of Alpine Lake. I was amazed how quiet it was down here, with hardly a car or person to be seen.

Alpine Lake, seen from the dam
All the climbing had taken its toll, and I had to sit down for a bit and eat the last of the three Clif Bars I had brought on the ride. Fortunately, after a steep but short uphill, it was all downhill again. Between tall redwoods and ferns, Bolinas-Fairfax Road wound downhill in twists and turns.

One of the switchbacks on Bolinas-Fairfax Road
As the road left the forest, I was greeted by the view of a big golf course, whose lush green color stood in marked contrast to the brown and yellow tones encountered earlier on the ride. Drought-shmought...
Indoor bike parking at Gestalt Haus
A final downhill led me right into the town center of Fairfax, where I made a much needed stop at Gestalt Haus. Gestalt Haus is very much a biker bar, but one catering to bikers of the non-motorized variety. You can roll your bike right in and hang it on a wall rack (which proved immensely convenient given that I didn't have a lock), and there were plenty of fellow cyclists enjoying beers and brats.
Enjoying a vegan sausage and a Ballast Point Sculpin
I later realized that the Marin Bike Museum and MTB Hall of Fame was only one block away from the Gestalt Haus, but I guess I wouldn't have had time to visit anyway. To get back to Sausalito, I followed well-signposted bike routes, which weren't particularly exciting but mostly pleasant to ride on. By the time I got back to the Golden Gate Bridge, the sun had started to slowly set, and fog started rolling into the bay. Just amazing, or in the words of the local cyclist who pulled up next to me to also take a picture: “This never gets old!&rdquot;

I returned the bike at the shop after almost exactly 100 kilometers (62 miles) and 1800 meters of climbing. 10/10, highly recommended!

Friday, September 18, 2015

Bike commuting 2014 in Madison: More stagnation

It's that time of the year again when the US Census releases the numbers of last year's American Community Survey (ACS), For bike advocates this is always an exciting event, as the ACS, despite its limitations, is one of the few available data sources about biking that allows us to look at long-term trends in cycling in the US.

As soon as I heard the data was out, I plugged the latest numbers into the spreadsheet I created for a post last year. It quickly became clear that the main news conveyed by those numbers is that there isn't really any news: Continuing the trend since approximately 2009, the percentage of people cycling to work in Madison has stagnated at around 5%. Compared to the US average and many other metro regions in the US, this percentage is high. Compared to the mode share in many European cities, though, there is a lot of room for improvement. Stagnation is not enough.

Seattle Bike Blog has some numbers for comparison:
Seattle (3.7 percent) is now in a bike commute race against Minneapolis (4.6) in the Mid-West, DC (3.9) on the East Coast, New Orleans (3.4) in the South, San Francisco (4.4) and Oakland (3.7) on the West Coast, and Tucson (3.5) in the Southwest.
And then of course is Portland, which despite all lamentations actually has increased its bike mode share to above seven percent for the first time.

As for explanations, my previous post and the comments are probably still accurate. Getting to somewhere around five percent, especially in a college town, is relatively easy. Beyond that, real investment in infrastructure and incentives/disincentives needs to happen. In Madison this has not happened. Changes that might entice people to bike to work have changed only incrementally. An improved intersection here, a widened bike lane there. But probably most Madisonians would agree that by and large there haven't been any major efforts that would make cycling a more appealing transportation option. No protected bike lanes, no rebuild of horrible intersections such as the one at Machinery Row, and many main streets in town remain without any bike infrastructure. Similarly, driving and parking continue to be cheap and convenient. At my workplace, for instance, construction has just begun on a massive expansion of a parking ramp, and in the hotly debated downtown redevelopment project of Judge Doyle Square, free or heavily subsidized parking seems to be a mostly unquestioned component of the plan.

Update 9/19: Here's a chart of all modes for 2006-14:
Commute share 2006–2014. Data: American Community Survey

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Riverwest 24: One of a kind

Ten days ago I got a brief Facebook message from Kierstin, one of my wonderful Madison cycling friends: “Alright my friend. You are up. Laura just bailed from our RW24 team to train for the Ironman. You were planning on coming out--do you want to race/ride on our team???” I had heard many amazing things about Riverwest 24, that weird hybrid creature of alleycat, endurance bike race, block party, and nieghborhood improvement project, and therefore my plan had been to just ride down to Milwaukee and hang out with my racing/riding friends. In no way had I expected to actually be able to participate, as the sign-up process for the limited spots is long in advance and involves standing in lines for hours on end. And so I was immediately excited about the possibility of joining Kierstin's team.

Dan and Claudine in their garage
After getting the boss's OK to take off early on Friday—despite a impending grant deadline—I told Kierstin I was in. Because another team member and I were first-timers, we planned on getting to Riverwest early in order to familiarize ourselves with the 4.8 mile (7.7 km) course and the race rules. We arrived well in time for sign-up and the dinner prepared by the Riverwest Co-op. It is difficult to put into words the atmosphere that immediately surrounded us. The whole neighborhood seemed to vibrate with positive energy and most everyone I encountered had a smile on their face. The homebase for our two six-person teams was the garage of Dan and Claudine, long-time residents of Riverwest and Volkswagen/Westfalia van enthusiasts.

One of Dan and Claudine's VWs
I somehow hadn't realized how long the breaks between riding would be on a six-person team. We would usually do two laps plus a bonus checkpoint. Bonus checkpoints could be anything from having your portrait taken at sunrise, confessing your sins at a 2 AM "mass" with a "preacher" in a condemned church building, to playing party games with teenagers at a youth center. Laps would take between 15 and 20 minutes, but the bonus checkpoints were rather unpredictable, sometimes taking an hour between standing in line and actually doing them. I was last in the rotation, meaning that the first time I got to ride was four hours after the 7 PM start. I had a lot of pent up energy at that point and was happy to let it all out on the lap. After that it was back to hanging out, chatting, and drinking beers and espresso. I caught an hour or two of sleep and did my second set of laps around sunrise. The neighborhood never really quieted down during night, with people being out and about, bands playing on street corners—and of course the constant stream of cyclists on the streets.

I had a couple lows during the 24 hours, but nothing that another two laps of hard riding wouldn't fix. The final lap we all did together, before heading home to Madison to catch up on proper food, personal hygiene, and sleep. What a wonderful, unique adventure!

Tim, Dan, Kierstin

Sleepiness just before sunset

On top of the reservoir, waiting in line for a bonus checkpoint...

...where our portraits would be taken... front of the Milwaukee skyline

My increasingly disgusting bike hat and gloves, drying out after a sweaty lap

Team  mates Dan and Kierstin

Steve doing post-lap Stava analysis to optimize our strategy :-)

There was a constant come-and-go of friends and neighbors stopping by

The morning was really hot and humid. Everybody was glad when the wind turned and brought some cooler air from across the lake

Highly sophisticated sports nutrition formula to keep me going

24 hours of free espresso shots from Colectivo Coffee

Jacob's and my bike

Final group lap


Packed up and ready to go home

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Solstice Ride: The Joys and Troubles of Night Riding

In my earlier days, I very much enjoyed riding alone at night. [...] It would be hard to defend the touristic value of these night stages, or argue that a beautiful landscape benefits from being seen under the pale moonlight rather than in the morning or the evening sunlight. Yet there is no doubt that some aspects of nature are more amazing when illuminated by the moon rather than the sun. Vélocio in Le Cycliste
The latest issue of Bicycle Quarterly features the republication of a 1929 article about night riding by famous French randonneur Vélocio. Inspired by his writing and the beautiful summer we're having here in Wisconsin, I started planning for an all-night ride on the shortest night of the year (this time hopefully without hitting a skunk...). The plan was to head out around sunset and keep going all night until the solstice sun would rise again.

 I developeded a few tentative routing options and tried to recruit fellow riders. Unfortunately, the few people potentially interested had other commitments that night, and so I was going to be on my own. I decided on a long but not ridiculous route: Head west on the Military Ridge State Trail to Dodgeville, then riding towards the Wisconsin River, follow the river east, and then return to Madison—all in all about 250 kilometers. This seemed like a good opportunity for another test ride of my newly acquired SOMA Grand Randonneur (there will be a dedicated post on this) and so I quickly installed the also new B&M IQ Cyo Premium headlight and swapped the dynamo front wheel from my Gunnar to turn it into an night ride-appropriate vehicle.
The sun has set

I got back from work a little after five, loaded up my front basket with supplies, had a nice pasta dinner, and by 8 o'clock I was ready to go. The fading sun provided beautiful light and I was zooming along at a decent pace, enjoying the cush of my 42mm-wide Compass tires.

I love riding this stretch of the Military Ridge in the evening light
Just after Verona I noticed that my front light bracket had started coming loose. A quick fix, but as soon as I stopped a squadron of mosquitoes immediately went on the attack. It was probably quite the sight to see me simultaneously trying to fix my light while minimizing the number of bug bites. Not much after this incident, I noticed that the right side of my saddle caused some discomfort. The saddle is a B17 Imperial that I just recently brought back to life with a new frame. I think what happened was that after a long ride in the rain last weekend, the saddle must have sagged enough to put pressure on parts of my behind where there shouldn't be any.
Blurry moon sliver over Mount Horeb

The last remainder of daylight was gone now, and soon the thin sliver of moon disappeared beneath the horizon too. I arrived in Dodgeville at 11:15. From here on I would be no longer on the bike trail but country roads. Lo and behold, I straight missed the first two turns, giving me pause: I was in unknown territory, relying only on the tiny screen of my GPSr for navigation. Suddenly that no longer seemed like such a great idea, and my saddle issues certainly didn't help. I assessed my options: Across the street, the glowing sign of a Super-8 motel tried to lure me in. I wasn't all that tired, though, and so I figured I might as well just turn around and take the same route back. The saddle discomfort I could deal with and navigation wouldn't be an issue on the bike trail. So around I turned, now with a slight headwind.

This time around, I didn't miss the turn-off to Blue Mounds State Park and climbed my way up to the plateau on top. There were a couple campers and barricades, presumably in preparation for the Horribly Hilly Hundreds taking place on Saturday. At 2:30 am, everybody was asleep (including the mosquitoes), though, and so I could enjoy a sandwich and a wonderful view of the starry sky. Continuing on the path would mean that I would miss out on a lot of the views of the skies and so I decided to continue on roads from Mount Horeb on. At least here I would be in familiar territory, and it was late enough to not have to worry much about people driving home after bars closing.

Strange animal sightings in the dark...

 Leaving the path also meant more hills, and while my mind was quite awake still, my body showed some signs of tiring. Nonetheless, riding on these back roads was much nicer than being on the path.

State Capitol, very early in the day

In the distance I could see the glow of Madison, gradually supplemented with the first bits of light of the new day. I arrived back home a little before 5 am, exhausted but not excessively tired. The theory that as long as you keep going your mind can stay awake for a long time does seem indeed work for me too.

Bike counter on the SW Commuter Path
All in all it was a great experience, quite different from riding during the day. One of the things I enjoy about cycling is just looking at and experiencing the landscape. At night, this experience is very different: Visually it is very much reduced; but at the same time this enhances your other senses to some extent. If I were to a ride like this again, I would pick a route that's easier to navigate, maybe choose a night with more moonlight, and make a better effort of recruiting fellow riders.