Category Archives: Backroads

Peak of the Month Club: Tourists on Mt Tamalpais

It’s July now, which in San Francisco means two things: hoards of tourists and rolling banks of fog. That is, shivering tourists spilling over from Fisherman’s Wharf across the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin to visit the quaint town of Sausalito, the tall trees of Muir Woods and mighty Pacific Coast at Stinson Beach.

If we had thought harder about it, we might have chosen another month to tackle Mt Tamalpais, but we were already behind in our Peak of the Month Challenge and Mt Tam is a popular destination climb. And as Bay Area suburbanites we are tourists too, albeit better prepared for the fog than visitors from back East or overseas.

In an attempt to get out ahead of said tourists, who have the natural advantage of jet lag, we drove up to the city and rolled out before 9am, the time that weather report said the fog would lift. It didn’t. The fog didn’t clear until as we dropped down into the town of Sausalito, but it stayed clear for our 10 mile climb up Mt Tam.

In contrast, the tourist traffic didn’t clear until we were near the top, making the ride more hectic than usual. Cars and shuttle buses filled with tourists bound for Muir Woods and Stinson Beach roared past, leaving scant space on the edge of the road for us. I worried that my friends doubted my route choice.

But we did meet a tourist that wasn’t whizzing by in a vehicle, a man from Copenhagen riding up the mountain on a time trial bike. He stopped to chat us up and expressed his appreciation for American women riding the backroads. “Not so many women on the road in Denmark,” he said. “It’s great!”

As the traffic petered out and our legs tired, the road kicked up for the final steep assault between the twin peaks of Mt Tamalpais. From the top, the view of San Francisco Bay below was much appreciated, even if it was obscured by a marshmallow blanket of fog. We had conquered our second peak, we were sitting in the warm sun, and we had cold drinks and junk food from the snack bar. A heavenly reward.

After that it was (almost) all downhill, which means some sweet twisty descending and less concern about car traffic since we were moving at their speed. Strong and buffeting winds on the Golden Gate Bridge made the final few miles back more intense than expected, but it didn’t spoil our excitement. We celebrated in the parking lot with the most important question: “Mission accomplished on Mt Tam. What’s next?”

What’s next on your challenge list for the summer? Are you on target or are vacations getting in the way?

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Posted by on July 11, 2012 in Backroads


Peak of the Month Club: The Devil in Mt Diablo

During his 1923 fund-raising tour, George Leigh Mallory was frequently asked what drove him to climb Mt Everest. His standard answer: “Because it’s there.”

The allure of climbing to new heights is not restricted to mountaineers, as I learned during one of our post-ride feasts. “I’ve never climbed Mt Diablo.” “I’ve never climbed Mt Tam.” “I’ve never climbed Mt Hamilton.” “I’ve never climbed any of them.” So marked the birth of the “Peak of the Month Club.” The goal: ascend all the major peaks in the Bay Area and a bit beyond. First on the list for April: Mt Diablo.

Rising over 3800 feet from its base smack dab in the middle of Contra Costa County, Mt Diablo is visible from almost everywhere in the Bay Area. That’s why in 1852 the US Coast and Geodetic Survey chose Mt Diablo as the base point for the north/south and east/west meridians used to establish land boundaries in most of Northern California and all of Nevada. Mt Diablo may not be the center of California, but it is of our maps.

Today it’s Diablo’s never-ending vistas that draws most people to drive up the narrow winding road to its peak. But for cyclists, it’s the hard work of climbing up 3200 feet in 11 miles with a brutal 16% grade for the last 150-yards that draws intrepid riders. For me, the view at the top is just a mid-ride treat. The long winding descent with expansive views the whole way down is my sweetest reward.

Why do we climb challenging peaks? Is it simply because they’re there? I think Mallory gave a better answer later: “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”

What adventures bring you sheer joy? What do you live for?

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Posted by on May 6, 2012 in Backroads, Local History


100 Miles of Fortitude

When you ride 100 miles over rolling terrain there are bound to be ups and downs. At mile 12, in fog so cold you can’t feel your fingers, you wonder why you paid good money for this. At mile 65, with the sun bearing down, you wonder if there’s room in your jersey pockets for your jacket, arm warmers, knee warmers and headband. At mile 24, a peanut butter sandwich is an elixir from the gods. At mile 82, you swear you’ll never eat it again.

At mile 54, there are seven flats amongst 10 riders and you wonder if the group has enough spare tubes for the remaining 36 miles. Yet no one flats for the rest of the day. At mile 60 a rider struggles to hang in the pace line, then gets a second wind and flies up the last 1000 foot climb starting at mile 80. This is how our group of 10 hardy women rolled at the Solvang Century.

A century bicycle ride is like a cross-country trip condensed into a single day. Comedy and tragedy, pain and joy, and long stretches of sheer boredom, all begun and finished between sunrise and sunset. You don’t doubt that you’ll finish, but you know not to look too far ahead ’cause it’s a freaking long way and it won’t be all sunshine and tailwinds.

But when it is, it’s a amazing, beautiful experience. And when it’s over and you and your friends have achieved your goal, you really don’t even care that the clouds have rolled back in. We met the challenge of the Solvang Century and we emerged victorious.

How do you handle the ups and downs of life? What helps you keep calm and carry on?

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Posted by on March 13, 2012 in Backroads


A Craving to Traverse Mountains

Of the two old-fashioned ways to get a horse up a hill–the carrot and the stick–I prefer the carrot, especially when the carrot is a big sweet flaky pastry. For this week’s Solvang training, Rachel suggested riding over the hills to the beach town of Capitola. I jumped at the chance since Capitola is home to Gayle’s Bakery, the mother of all bakeries with an expansive case filled with every pastry imaginable, even King Cake for Mardi Gras.

But first we had to earn it. Katie and I started near her home in Los Gatos, climbing the hard-packed dirt on the Los Gatos Creek Trail (we cleaned the steep part!) to the Lexington Reservoir where we met the rest of the crew. From there it was a mild climb up Old Santa Cruz Highway, a roll along the ridge on Summit Road, and a fast descent down Soquel-San Jose Road to the bakery. Gayle’s Bakery delivered the sweet decadence as promised, then we took a slow cruise along the coast so our stomachs could recover before the long climb back.

What’s deceiving about a ride across the Santa Cruz Mountains is the expectation that you’ve done half the work when you reach the coast. In truth, the climb back is longer, often steeper and you’re doing it on tired legs. Our route back was Mountain Charlie Road, an old toll road built in the 1850s by Irish immigrant Charles McKiernan to connect San Jose to Santa Cruz. As a stage coach road, the grade is painfully steep in sections (13-18%), but flattens out between to let the horses rest. Or in our case, to let our legs rest.

Where some backroads are merely quiet and scenic, Mountain Charlie is a remote, well-shaded route that opens up to expansive views. If you look past the asphalt and mailboxes, it’s easy to imagine you’re back in the 1850s when Mountain Charlie built his redwood log cabin, cut the road to ship deer meat to the bustling port of Alviso, and was attacked by a grizzly protecting her cubs. He survived and lived to a ripe old age with a metal plate covering his damaged face. We don’t face such dangers today since the grizzly was killed off in this area. Now it’s just cars and I only remember passing one during the five mile climb.

Mountain Charlie wasn’t the only tough-guy Charlie in these mountains. One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst was a scrappy stage coach driver who traversed the San Jose-Santa Cruz route, plus many more in the California gold country. When shoeing a horse in Redwood City on his San Francisco-San Jose route, the horse kicked him in the face, costing him an eye. He eventually retired in Aptos and developed mouth cancer from a heavy chewing tobacco habit. It was only after he died that the truth was discovered–Charley was a woman.

What drives you to cross mountains? The reward at the end of the journey? Or the challenge of conquering the less-traveled path?

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Posted by on February 19, 2012 in Backroads, Local History


Life and Stuff Gets in the Way

Last weekend marked the halfway point in our training for the Solvang Century. At this point we should be riding about 70 miles or five hours in the saddle. But sometimes life gets in the way. I wanted to help a friend prepare for her party on Saturday so I couldn’t join the big group on their long and soggy ride to Pescadero and back (I’m not so sorry I missed that one). I convinced Katie, Cindy S and Michelle to ride with me on Sunday instead.

Katie asked if we could route our ride through Campbell so she could check out an open house. While we were in Campbell we did a ride-by on two homes Cindy S was looking to buy. After toodling around town and a painfully slow trip down the Los Gatos Creek Trail, we rushed back across the valley with visions of burgers at the Woodside Bakery dancing in our heads.

In the bike lane on Saratoga-Sunnyvale Road I hit a golf ball sized rock and immediately flatted. My Dura-Ace tubeless rims didn’t make the job easy. Why was it so hard just to get the *@&^ tire off?

Kick-boxing Katie with her wide tire levers finally yanked them off while I wiped off the blood from scraping my knuckles on the spokes in my lame attempt. Strangely, getting the tire back on was much faster. But between a late start, the multi-home tour and the flat, we had lost valuable time and decided to reroute our burger stop from Woodside to Palo Alto. Rushing our meal to beat sunset wouldn’t have been fun.

At 48 miles and 1400 feet of climbing, we barely earned our burgers. Still, we got in some critical miles, learned a new route across the south valley, and most importantly, Katie and Cindy were able to ride more instead of cutting out early to drive around looking at houses. Next week we’ll go harder.

Have you ever combined a training ride with an important errand or chore? Were you able to meet both goals?

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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in Backroads


Flying Solo with Liberty

It’s Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to schmoopy coupledom, but today I want to recognize the value of time alone and doing your own thing. Even if you love spending time with your special someone or with a close-knit group of friends, there are times for flying solo. When you fly solo, you can be selfish. You can go wherever you want, at whatever pace you want with no compromises.

When I was working full time I rarely took the time to ride solo, but now I can carve out time in the middle of the day to hit the trails. So I grabbed Liberty, my original cyclocross bike and rode from home to Fremont Older preserve. I named her Liberty because she gives me the freedom to ride wherever I want–road, dirt, flat, hills–without compromise. She’s outfitted with low touring gears so I can climb the steepest fireroads and has knobby tires to grip the loose dirt. She gives me a powerful feeling, like I can go anywhere under my own power.

So up I went on the harsh climb from the Stevens Canyon side, stopping only to snap a couple of shots of the view of the valley. From there it was down the singletrack, oddly empty at midday, and then a fast ride across town to beat the fading light. Who needs to sit cross legged and meditate when you can ride alone for a few hours and come back with sore legs and a clear mind?

I have several friends who are now flying solo for more than a bike ride. It’s not something they planned, but it’s something they need to clear their minds, center themselves and be self-sufficient for a while. One of them is Patty, who is separated from her husband and is now living as the caretaker at a small winery two miles up a dirt road off that happens to be about 500 feet above the park where Liberty and I spent our day together.

Living on her own so far above it all, at a place that needs a lot of tender loving care, at a time when she needs tender loving care, Patty is learning to accept help from others. It’s not easy for someone who can navigate her bike through a rock garden, split wood with an axe and wield a chain saw with confidence. So I drove up the steep gravel road to spend time with her and prune some bushes (no chainsaw or axe for me). The goal: spiff up the chateau for her coming out party as a free and independent woman.

We hacked and hauled away the shrubs, other friends came to help clean inside and Patty did far more scrubbing, organizing and painting on her own. In a few short weeks the chateau was primed for a fabulous party for 40 or so friends. It was beautiful, magical night. Even when you’re flying solo, it’s good to be surrounded by people who care about you and support you as you travel your path.

How are you celebrating Valentine’s Day? Are you celebrating your love with someone special or celebrating your love for yourself this year?

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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Backroads, Dirt Trails


We Are Not Roadkill

I was a little nervous this morning when I pedaled to the Hall of Justice from the San Jose Caltrain station. The case of the People vs Schiro was finally going to trial nearly three years after a hit-and-run collision left Ashleigh Nelson bleeding and convulsing on the side of the road. I was nervous because I’d never been in a courtroom and didn’t know the protocol–who would have guessed that helmets aren’t allowed? But I was mostly nervous about how I would react to Ashleigh being cross-examined by Schiro’s attorney.

I had heard details of the collision through my network of cyclists and through the local news media, including how her boyfriend Dave and the cycling community rallied to find Schiro’s car, how a woman who worked for Schiro was appalled by his behavior and helped with a sting operation, and how Schiro and his attorney had tried various creative strategies to keep the convicted drunk driver out of jail.

Still, I felt like I had walked into a suspense movie an hour late. Why was Schiro’s attorney asking Ashleigh what position she usually keeps her hands on the handlebars? Why was he pressing her to calculate the exact date a photo was taken? Ashleigh got emotional on the stand: “I can’t answer these questions. My brain doesn’t work the way it used to.” She teared up and the judge called a recess.

I needed the recess too. It was painful for me and I wasn’t on the stand. The sad fact of being the victim of a traumatic head injury is that you probably won’t remember much. That makes it really hard to defend yourself, much less help in the conviction of your assailant. And as a cyclist, I couldn’t help but put myself in her position. It could have happened to me. I’ve ridden that road many times before and I ride similar ones every week.

I would say it could have happened to my husband, except that it actually did. In 1972 my husband was riding with his girlfriend on Uvas Road, headed home to Gilroy from a camping trip. He remembers hearing the car’s screeching tires long before it careened past them. Further down the road, they saw the car was pulled over on the shoulder. As they passed, the middle-aged driver scolded Dick, “You were in the middle of the road. You scared my wife.” Dick responded with a flat “I was on the shoulder.” As he rode away, the man yelled, “You do that again and I’ll run you off the road!”

It was no idle threat. Minutes later, the man drove past Dick’s girlfriend and swerved onto the shoulder and hit Dick, breaking both bones in his lower left leg and sending him flying. Dick landed on his head and spent a month in the hospital for the massive head injury. He came close to losing his leg and losing his life.

His girlfriend gave a description of the car and the driver to the police. But without a license plate number, they had no interest in investigating. No case was opened, no one was interviewed, no one was detained, no one was tried, and no one was convicted. It probably didn’t help that Dick had long hair and muttonchop sideburns.

So it’s no surprise that I take road violence seriously, as do most cyclists. Schiro’s attorney accused the cycling community of being a “lynch mob”, but a lynch mob wouldn’t have waited three years for justice. We are tired of cyclists being run down and left to die on the side of the road with little success in getting killers convicted. Until the legal system can protect us without our help, we will stand up for our rights and will work to help victims get justice. We are not roadkill. We are people.

Have you been subjected to road violence on your bike? Have you been verbally threatened, had something thrown at you, or worse? How did you react?

One more thing: Do you find today’s Pearls Before Swine as inappropriate as I do?


Posted by on February 8, 2012 in Backroads, Issues & Infrastructure


Locked, Loaded and Lit on My Road Bike

Like barnacles on an ocean liner, a few practical little items are now stowing away on my road bike. I guess it was inevitable that riding for daily errands would affect my “sport” riding beyond riding to the start of a group ride. These little guys give me many of the conveniences on a proper city bike, like not having to rush home before twilight or being able to stop on the way home for a bite to eat or to pick up something at the store.

Fortunately, they’re small enough to fit in one hand. Or and more importantly, to fit in my small seat bag.

These little guys came in particularly handy last Saturday after our long 60+ mile training ride for the Solvang Century. The route was relatively flat, so we made the mistake of not really eating much. By the end we were ravenous. We shared a belated lunch at Cafe Vitale, which has a bike rack out front. I pulled out my micro-lock and enjoyed my well-earned meal without worrying about leaving Black Beauty hitched out front.

On the way home, I stopped to get a few items for dinner at the New Mountain View Market downtown and locked her up again. The market’s new owners are converting it from a strictly Chinese market to a broader American market without losing the Chinese products they’re known for. I grabbed a few items, stuffed them in my nylon musette bag and pedaled home before sunset. No need for my little bike lights this time.

Here are the details on my micro-sized gear:

Locked The lock is a Terrier Roller Mini from OnGuard. To urban dwellers, it’s laughably insecure. But in the ‘burbs it provides the coffee shop level of security that works for short stops.

Loaded My musette bag is one of many freebies I got from cycling events. It’s just two pieces of nylon stitched together with a cotton twill strap and a velcro closure, but it works great. The closest ones I’ve seen for sale are from Jandd, Realcyclist and Banjo Brothers.

Lit Aren’t these the cutest little lights? They’re Amuse lights from Infini. I like the way they blend into Black Beauty’s frame when they’re turned off, but flash or glow brilliantly when they’re turned on. Sweet and safe.

What are the practical little items you have tucked away in your road bike’s seat bag? Is there a story behind how they ended up there?

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Posted by on February 6, 2012 in Backroads, Gear Talk


Tour of Abandoned Alviso

Have you ever been strangely attracted to a place for no apparent reason? Somewhere that feels like home even though you’ve never been there before, except perhaps in a previous life? For Dick, that place is Alviso, a community that rises out of the mudflats at the bottom of San Francisco Bay.

Between its mobile home parks and abandoned buildings, Alviso doesn’t look like much today. But in the 1800s its port was the hub for the Santa Clara Valley, with steamboats bringing passengers and goods on daily trips from San Francisco. Alviso was first home to a mill that produced up to 300 barrels of flour a day, then a fruit cannery after the valley filled with orchards. During the depression, what was once the US’s 3rd largest cannery closed, the salt pond operations expanded, the port silted up and the town’s regional economic role declined.

What’s left of Alviso is ordinary–even ugly–to most people, but intriguing to my husband, who rides out to Alviso almost every week. I recently joined him and brought along a new camera to see if I could capture the charm of Alviso, Silicon Valley’s most neglected historic town.

Is there a place that is special to you in a way that is hard to explain, even to people who know you well?

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Posted by on January 27, 2012 in Backroads, Local History


Defender of the Fender for Road Bikes

A great wind arose, dark clouds rolled in and the rain came down. Our two month drought ended overnight with over two inches of rain. The skiers and snow boarders rejoiced, while the road cyclists pondered: ride outside or spin indoors? When you need a solid 3-4 hours of riding for your training plan, the choice is easy.

Even though the storm wasn’t quite finished, our Solvang Century training group hit the soggy litter-strewn roads for our third weekly training ride. Fortunately, we were equipped with critical, often underrated, wet weather gear: fenders. I strapped fenders on my bike before I left home, brought a spare pair for Jill, and convinced Cindy and Katie to make last minute purchases at The Bicycle Outfitter before we shoved off.

When the roads are wet, fenders keep your butt from sitting in a soggy chamois and your back from sporting an embarrassing mud stripe. They also keep your riding partners’ faces from being spattered like a Jackson Pollack painting. No one likes riding a teammate’s wheel when it’s spewing a rooster tail of road grime.

When we made our first bathroom stop, we could already see the gunk inside of our fenders–gunk that would have been all over our backsides and faces.

These days there are fenders available to fit performance road bikes that go on and off in seconds. So you don’t have to look like a bike commuter 24/7. Mine are RaceBlades from SKS, but Planet Bike makes SpeedEZ fenders that are similar. Both use nifty rubber bands that conform to the shape of your fork or seat stays and most importantly STAY PUT, even after bouncing through potholes hidden underneath the puddles.

We lucked out and only got a few sprinkles on the ride. Even more lucky was that no one flatted, which was surprising given the amount of leaves and branches littering the road. Because of the sloppy conditions, we altered our route to avoid the hills and spare ourselves a slippery, potentially dangerous descent. Still, we got in 52 miles on rolling terrain, and our butts stayed drier and our faces cleaner thanks to our fenders.

What’s your strategy when the rain comes? Stay inside or brave the elements, perhaps with special gear?

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Posted by on January 23, 2012 in Backroads, Gear Talk

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