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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Hitting the Trails for First Time Mountain Bikers

Portions of this story first appeared online in Bike Fun in the Mountain View Voice on August 27, 2013.

When I bought my first adult bicycle back in 1994, I had a hard time deciding what to buy. A co-worker offered to sell me his old road bike, but I wanted to ride the gravel levee trails along the bay. I ended up going for comfort and bought an entry-level, fully rigid mountain bike that I rode around town and on the bay.

I had no intention of actually mountain biking until my friend Steph convinced me to ride some real dirt trails in the nearby hills. It was 10 miles of hard work and more climbing than I wanted, but I was hooked.

To me, mountain biking is a lot like hiking. You get out of the city and feel like you’re far away from it all, even when you’re only a few miles away. I’m always surprised how much wildlife there is so close to town, from deer to wild turkeys to coyotes to gopher snakes. If you’re lucky, you might spot a rattlesnake, bobcat or tarantula. I’ve seen all that and more, especially since I cover a lot more distance on a bike than on foot.

Dick & Gopher Snake

If you’ve only ridden on pavement before, there are some things you should know before hitting the dirt that will make your first ride a lot easier. Riding dirt isn’t hard if you make a few simple adjustments. And if you’re experienced at mountain biking and plan to take first timers out, reading the tips can help you remember all those skills you’ve learned that you now do by second nature.

First, on the trail there are a few new rules of the road. As a mountain biker you need to yield to hikers and horses, as well as uphill riders. In particular, be aware that you and your bike can make horses nervous because you look too much like predator. As you approach horses, slow down to crawl, call out “hello” as soon as you’re within voice range, and ask the horseback riders how to proceed. Sometimes they will want you to stop and let them pass, other times they’d rather pull off the trail and let you pass. It’s all about communication. The same advice works for hikers. Be polite, communicate with them and don’t buzz by.

As for your bike, any bike with knobby tires works and some people can rock the dirt on slick tires too. Having a fork with front suspension smooths out the trail, but isn’t necessary for the moderate trails I’ve listed below. To set up your bike before your first dirt ride, all you’ll probably need to do is pump up the tires and go. But not too much. Lower pressure in your tires gives better traction on loose dirt and gravel. I set mine at 35-40 psi, which is the far low end of what my tires recommend.

Skinny Knobby Tires

If your attitude about shifting gears is “set it and forget it” on the streets, you’ll need to review shifting. Most trails in our area have steep sections so you’ll want to use your gears. In particular, the wide gravel roads that may look easier than the narrow trails also tend to suddenly get steep. Unlike the narrow trails, they were built for farm trucks with engines, not people on foot or on bikes.

After that, it’s all about the ride. Here are some basic techniques that can help you feel more comfortable and stable riding dirt trails.

Ready position
The ready position is used when you’re rolling down a trail like my friend Cindy is in the photo below, or rolling over obstacles like ruts or roots. First, put your feet in the pedals level at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions in a wide stance, then lift your rear out of the saddle, bend your elbows wide and look straight ahead down the trail. The goal is to stay balanced as the bike moves underneath you, like an English-style equestrian, where your legs are shock absorbers and you move forward and back and side to side as needed to stay balanced. Put one or two fingers lightly over each brake lever, place your palms lightly on grips and you’re ready to go.

Long Ridge - Trailhead

Roots, rocks and ruts
You’ll need the ready position to roll over obstacles like ruts, roots and rocks. The other key is to brake as you approach the obstacle, then let go of the brakes and let your bike roll over the obstacle. For obstacles too big to roll over, look where you want to go to roll around it. Stare at that big rock and you’ll hit it for sure.

Climbing
Mountain biking gets its name because most trails are hilly, at least in our area. The good news is mountain bikes have lower gears than road bikes. Use them! Downshift to your small chainring (left hand shifter) before the hill and then use the gears in your cassette (right hand shifter) to find the right gear. On really steep hills, the tendency is either for your rear wheel to slide out or your front wheel to pop up. The trick to staying balanced is to stay in saddle, slide forward on the saddle and lower your chest toward the handlebars. And there’s no shame in walking up the hill if it’s too steep.

Descending
Descending starts with the ready position described above with your rear out of the saddle. As the trail gets steeper, move your body further back behind the saddle. Moving your body back means you can brake with both your front and rear brakes together without flying over the handlebars.

Arastradero - The Bowl

Tight turning
Tight turns in trails, also known as switchbacks, can be challenging and rewarding when you learn to ride them. The best line to take is to go wide before the turn, look down at the apex to turn sharply and as soon as your front wheel gets close to the apex, look far down the trail. And keep pedaling, especially as you exit the turn when the tendency is to coast. Don’t feel bad if you can’t make the turn. It takes practice and some are hard to clear for experienced riders.

Walking the bike
In mountain biking everyone walks the bike sometimes. The easiest was to push your bike is to stand on left side of it so you can avoid bumping the chainring. Put both hands on the handlebars. If you’re walking the bike downhill, feather the rear brake (right hand) to control your speed. On super steep uphills, you can brake hard and use bike as a cane to help balance as you walk up.

Finally, as trite as it sounds, relax. If the trail feels too intense or you find yourself tensing your body or squeezing the hand grips tight, slow down and or stop for a bit. A stiff body makes everything harder. Take a breath, enjoy the scenery, walk it off if you need to and then roll again.

Arastradero - Fireroad

For those living on or visiting the San Francisco Peninsula, here are two of my favorite local parks with trails that are great for first-time mountain bikers.

Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto
Arastradero Preserve offers rolling grassy hills with wide gravel roads and narrower smooth dirt trails very close to town. The park is small, but with proper planning, you can ride a dozen or more miles without too much repeating, and you can reverse direction for a new experience. I’ve marked an easier first-timer’s loop on the map in pink, plus a bonus loop in purple. The blue loop is where my friends and I ride after work, which is a good time to visit since the park has very little shade. Here’s a map with my favorite easy loops marked.

Long Ridge Open Space Preserve on Skyline Boulevard
Long Ridge offers smooth and shady trails along Peter’s Creek and great views from the ridge along Skyline Boulevard. My favorite starting location is Grizzly Flat, which is 3.1 miles south of Page Mill Road or 3.3 miles north of Highway 9. Watch your odometer to find the trailhead at the unmarked roadside parking. Trail map.

Long Ride - Peters Creek Trail

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2013 in Dirt Trails

 

Bike Spotting: Real Men Ride Pink Road Bikes

I spotted the ice pink vintage road bike on Caltrain, obviously too large and too old to be designed for women. “Who owns the pink bike?” I asked the group behind me. “It’s mine,” said Dean.

Dean’s no girly man, nor is his 1987 Schwinn Prelude a girly bike, as you can see in his feat of strength outside the station. Dean’s lovely pink bike was built lightweight for racing speed, and with a 25″ frame, built for a rider well over six feet tall. That’s 63.5 cm for you folks too young to remember when road bikes were measured in inches. In 1987, Schwinn still made their bikes at their headquarters in Chicago, you see.

Real Men Ride Pink Bikes

Dean isn’t the only manly guy I know who rides a pink road bike. There’s Ron who has a 1991 Diamond Back Master TG bike in a far less demure shade of pink. I found many others, like this 1972 Sekine, this La France, this Miami Vice inspired Centurion and these two by Francesco Moser. Lovely, lovely, manly pink bikes.

1987 Schwinn Prelude 25"

Location: Caltrain Diridon Station, San Jose, California, USA.

 
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Posted by on August 28, 2013 in Bike Gallery, Bike Spotting

 

Epilogue: Five Things I Knew About Women & Bikes*

*But was afraid to write about without before I had data to back me up.

Writing this series was more emotionally difficult than I expected. In my “Looking Back, Moving Forward” post in January I wrote: “I’m not really sure the year will bring…I see myself speaking out more for women’s issues in cycling. I’ve written about it some and gotten into a few Twitter fights. But I’ve been biting my tongue a lot.”

I was biting my tongue because I knew that people would challenge my statements: “I’m a woman and I like repairing bikes” or “I’m a man and I prefer protected bike lanes too.” That’s why I needed the survey to prove that there are indeed demographic differences that may not fit your personal experience.

I also knew that criticizing the “faster, longer, harder” sport-driven emphasis of cycling would challenge people who are comfortable with cycling remaining an activity for an elite breed of rider. Real cyclists have the strength to climb 10% grades, the skill to clear rock gardens, the endurance to commute 15+ miles to work one way, and the courage to merge across high-speed traffic. Those who can’t are encouraged to learn some skills and try harder. Those who don’t want to are relegated to novice status, even if they’ve been riding for decades.

Because of this cultural bias, I felt compelled to show my credibility as a skilled rider and former racer when writing this series. It bothers me that I felt I had to do that to be taken seriously.

This series is complete, but I pledge to keep writing now and then about women and bicycling. I already have one partially written about everything a high-end mountain bike shop does to win women’s loyalty, and another about everything a race organizer did to alienate beginner racers. As I said, I’ve been biting my tongue.

What issues have you experienced as a woman in cycling? Did it affect how much, where or what type of riding you do? What changes would you like to see?

Arastradero Bowl

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2013 in Women & Bikes

 

Fashion Friday: Miguel Needs His Morning Coffee

When you ride Caltrain from San Francisco to San Jose every morning, and then ride your bike eight miles to your office it can be a grind. How does Miguel get through his long commute? A lot of coffee in the tall mug on his Schwinn Coffee, black clothing to hide any spills and a relaxing wake-up ride along the river trail.

Miguel Portrait

About Fashion Friday: Inspired by a 2011 Bike to Work Day challenge sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, this series highlights the broad range of “dress for the destination” bicycling fashions.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2013 in Cycle Fashions

 

Part 5: Five Things I Knew About Women & Bikes*

*But was afraid to write about without before I had data to back me up. This is the final post of the series.

Two weeks ago the League of American Bicyclists released their Women on a Roll research report on women and bicycling. The report breaks down results into five key areas: comfort, convenience, consumer products, confidence and community. Here’s my take on community based on my personal experience.

What I knew about COMMUNITY: Women get more out of bicycling when they ride with friends.

Solvang Century Success

Some Statistics from the Women on a Roll report:

  • 42% of American women say “people to bike with” would encourage them to ride more.
  • 12,500 females participated (39%) in New York City’s Five Borough Bike Tour, America’s largest cycling event, in 2012.
  • 38% of participants in 2012 multi-day bike tours hosted by Adventure Cycling, the nation’s largest bike touring group, were women.
  • Women were more likely than men to be inspired by another person’s example (18% vs 11%)

My Personal Experience: Every major advancement in intensity or skill in bicycling I’ve made is a direct result from riding with friends, mostly women. Peer pressure is an amazing thing. It started when my girlfriends and I challenged ourselves to ride 33 rolling miles in the Tour de Peninsula on my first adult bicycle, a fully rigid hardtail mountain bike. The route had some short steep hills that we weren’t so sure we could clear without walking, but we did it. We celebrated with brunch at the end and all agreed we could have ridden more.

Six years later my friend Deanna convinced me to do my first triathlon, the challenging Wildflower Olympic distance that starts with a steep 400 ft climb in the first mile of the bike course. Within a year of mountain biking with Velo Girls I was dragged into the 24 Hours of Adrenalin mountain bike relay and then cyclocross racing. Pretty impressive considering I’m not that competitive, as you can see in this rare racing footage.

I’m not the only woman who’s succumbed to peer pressure. It took some convincing to get Katie to do the 12 Hours of Humboldt relay with us. She was relatively new to mountain biking but she rocked the singletrack and we came home uncontested winners in our category. The lesson: you can’t win if you don’t show up.

12 Hours of Humboldt

I’m not saying that riding with men can’t inspire women to go farther or ride harder, but it’s a lot easier for women to say to themselves: “it’s easy for them, they’re stronger, more experienced, more daring” or whatever. But when you see someone you consider your peer conquer a challenge it says “if she can do it, then I can.”

That’s why I’ve always gravitated towards women’s group rides and have spent many years organizing them and cultivating women to ride with. The issue I had with riding with mixed gender groups is that the majority of participants were men so they set the pace at an overall speed that was significantly faster than the average woman’s speed. It’s no fun to get dropped from the group or ride at max effort while others are coasting along.

Plus, when I struggled there was too much unhelpful “encouragement:” “C’mon, you can ride that section. Just lift your front wheel over the root” “The hill’s not that steep/long/technical. Just spin up and you’ll be fine.” The way a woman encourages is often different, and it’s certainly received differently by most women. And guys tend to talk about different topics. I don’t want to hear about which tires grip best for 20 miles.

For some of our women’s rides we’d invite the guys to join, but the guys knew that we were selecting the route and setting the pace and the tone of the ride. It’s totally different when women make up 50% of the group and we’re the ones planning it vs being 10% of the group with the fastest and/or most skilled guys planning the ride.

Hitting the Trail

The Impact: Women who only ride with men often think they’re slow or unskilled when they’re average to above average for a women of their fitness level and experience. Here’s a typical reaction from a reader:

“I also get a bit frustrated that I’m weaker than some men when I *know* that I bike more and try harder than they do. I’m car free, so I bike everywhere year round. And I still get to feel like I’m holding them back, and it SUCKS. Even when they’re being super nice about it.”

Feelings of frustration do not bode well for long-term success. Without peers to ride with, women are more likely to drop out of the sport, which makes it even harder to reach critical mass of women riders. And that only adds to other barriers like having few comfortable places to ride, having trouble finding gear that suits them, not getting the professional skills training they want, and not having a bike shop staff that serves their needs.

The value of community isn’t limited to sport riders. In some ways, it’s more important for commuters and errand riders who for logistical reasons are far more likely to ride alone. So they don’t get the information sharing, the moral support and the friendship that comes from riding with a group.

Is riding with a group important to you? If so, how does it enhance your bicycling experience? If not, why not?

Tea Table

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2013 in Issues & Infrastructure, Women & Bikes

 

Bike Commute Diaries: Once in a Blue Moon

Sometimes the right tool for the job is my car. We’re moving offices and my new window cube won’t have wall space for framed art. While I’ve carried some crazy things on my bike, large frames with glass is not on the list.

20130821-114350.jpg

About the Bike Commute Diaries: Launched in May 2012 for National Bike Month, this series explores the unexpected and surprising things I’ve learned about bicycling for transportation.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2013 in Commute Diaries

 

Part 4: Five Things I Knew About Women & Bikes*

*But was afraid to write about without before I had data to back me up. This is part four of the series.

Two weeks ago the League of American Bicyclists released their Women on a Roll research report on women and bicycling. The report breaks down results into five key areas: comfort, convenience, consumer products, confidence and community. Here’s my take on confidence based on my personal experience.

What I knew about CONFIDENCE: Women LOVE taking skills classes, both on and off the bike.

Dirt Series Liebrecht San Jose 2009

Some Statistics from the Women on a Roll report:

  • 58% of women vs 81% of men said they are “very confident” riding a bicycle.
  • 26% of American women say learning more about bicycling skills would encourage them to ride more.
  • In a survey of six cities, 29% of women vs 83% of men said they could fix a flat tire and only 3% of women (vs. 34% of men) said they could fix any problem.

My Personal Experience: Before I got into bicycling, I was a ballroom and salsa dancer with a four-night-a-week dance habit. I think I was making up for lost time for the ballet, tap and jazz dance lessons I didn’t have as a little girl. When your parents have five daughters, dance lessons don’t easily fit into the budget.

What I learned from ballroom dance is that to do it well you need to start with good instruction, you need to practice regularly, you need to push beyond yourself beyond your comfort zone occasionally, and you’re never to skilled for classes. Oh, and if it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.

All that applies to the bicycling as well. When I got my first adult bike at 30 years old, my friends taught me the basics: downshift before you need to, keep a high cadence and spin up the climbs, look through the corners on twisty descents and get your butt out of the saddle on loose dirt downhills. That got me through a lot.

As I got more into the sport I turned to clinics in cyclocross, road racing, and mountain bike skills. The first time I did a cyclocross remount I was so excited snuck out of class to call Dick, and I burst into happy tears after successfully riding over my first log at the Dirt Series. I took their mountain bike clinics three years in a row, and mastered the teeter-totter my friend Yvonne is tackling in the photo above. There’s always more to learn and having pros assist can have your confidence growing by leaps and bounds.

Beginner Girl Riders Crop

But the thing about learning skills, especially for women and girls, is that people have to do it when they’re ready for it. A few years ago I had the pleasure of assisting the NorCal High School Cycling League at their winter mountain bike training camp. I was assigned a group of girls with the least experience. By the end of the skills session Coach Julie had inspired them to trust their bikes and their balance to ride over a 6″ high rock.

But on the trail ride they struggled on the gnarly wet singletrack and we could tell we were losing them. So we rerouted them on an adventure exploring Tamarancho’s “forbidden” fire roads and the smiles returned, thank goodness. No matter what potential and enthusiasm these girls might have had when they signed up, they were unlikely to keep mountain biking (much less race) if they didn’t have fun on their first trail rides.

Bike skills don’t stop with bike handling. Learning to change a tire is a rite of passage to earn your cyclist badge. The unwritten rule among road racers is that you should be able to fix your own flat in less than 10 minutes. Take longer and you’ll have some ‘splaining to do. Then there’s fixing a dropped chain, adjusting a derailleur, repairing a broken chain and more. So many things a cyclist is expected to know.

Changing Road Tire 2

The Impact: Not everyone who loves riding bikes loves working on them. In particular, I’ve found that most women learn the minimum to get by and let the pro mechanics handle the rest. Why shouldn’t they? Most drivers don’t change flat tires, they call for roadside assistance. But bicycling isn’t mainstream like driving, and people who aren’t interested in working on bikes often don’t feel like real cyclists. And that’s a lot of women.

The silliest part of that is that flats (the most common mechanical problem) aren’t even that common with wider city and mountain bike tires. I’ve only had one flat in three years of daily commuting and I was able to get home easily on light rail. Replacing a flat on a rear wheel with a Nexus hub isn’t so easy.

In contrast, my road bike tires are delicate flowers that go flat as soon as the pavement gets wet. Shards of glass or wires from steel-belted car tires stick to the them and work their way through the tread. Lightweight tires may be faster, but they’re not so durable. At least they’re relatively easy to change.

The lesson with regard to women’s preference for formal instruction is simple: offer skills classes and women will come, even experienced riders. Especially if the class is targeted for women and led by female instructors. Why are women only classes particularly enticing? The answer will come in the next post in this series.

How did you learn skills on the bike? Formal instruction or from friends only? What about repairing your bike? Is it something you enjoy or would you rather have someone else take care of it?

Cyclocross Skills

Top photo courtesy of Dirt Series mountain bike camps. San Jose 2009, Liebrecht.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2013 in Issues & Infrastructure, Women & Bikes

 
 
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