Thursday, November 30, 2006

The hardest ride I ever did

I have done my share of difficult bike rides.  I rode from coast to coast on a tandem bike.  I pioneered a route all the way around the Great Salt Lake [Go to page 12 here to read about it] I endured a sixty mile race on my mountain bike through the wilds of Alaska.  Twice I jiggled over one hundred miles of the rocky White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park, once in one day.  I lugged 60 lbs of camping gear over three mountain passes in three different states in one 120 mile day. One day I suffered through 211 miles from Seattle to Portland.    I hauled camping gear through a late spring blizzard over Utah’s Boulder Mountain and suffered a mild case of hypothermia as a reward.  I have battled stiff headwinds all the way across South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois.  I was at the 2006 24-hours of Moab. 

That’s not even a complete list, but as I look back on it, none of those rides really seem that difficult anymore.  None of them made me cry for mercy.  None of them made me want to get off, quit, or turn around.  None of them had sections too steep, too rocky, or too exhausting to ride. 

But there is one ride that did all of those things.  At only 44 miles, it is the shortest on my list of difficult rides, but it did take me through ten of earth’s climate zones.  It started as a beautiful ride through a tropical rain forest and ended in a barren wasteland devoid of vegetation.  I started at a quarter to seven on a spring morning in Hilo, Hawaii, elevation: zero.  At about five o’clock that evening I was at the top of the volcano Mauna Kea, elevation: 13,796 feet.  I was cold, tired, and hungry.  But mostly I was out of breath. 

Why would anyone do this to themselves while vacationing in Hawaii? 

I asked myself that as the rain forest gave way to lava fields at 6,000 feet.  I asked my self that again at 7,000 feet when the average grade increased to over ten percent.  And again as I stopped to catch my breath at the visitors center at 9,200 feet.  Incidentally, that is also where I stopped questioning my decision to bring my mountain bike with slick tires instead of my road bike.  I was happy to have a granny gear.  I would question the slick tires decision again later. 

I refueled with some hot soup and a Snickers bar at the visitors center and thought the last eight miles would go by quickly. The altitude must have already started to affect my reasoning because I still had almost 5,000 feet to climb, and five miles of that would be unpaved. 

Actually, to merely call the road unpaved is a tragic understatement.  The road surface is covered with two to three inches of loose volcanic cinders.  My tires were only 38 millimeters wide, which till then had always seemed extra wide on my touring bike.   Now they seemed like pizza slicers on my 29-inch wheel mountain bike.  They cut through the cinders like gooey mozzarella.  I tried to steer for the patches of washboard where I got a bit more traction, but usually steering meant losing any momentum I had.  I started choosing rocks at the side of the road as waypoints and promising myself that I would stop to catch my breath when I made it there.  At first I was picking rocks that were a quarter mile away, or around the next switchback.  Then my waypoints started getting closer together; 300 yards, 200 yards, then 50 feet apart.    Soon I was just happy to have my wheels rolling and didn’t care how far I could make it.  There was one stretch, probably about 400 yards long, that was too steep and too loose to ride.  I got off and walked. 

I wanted to quit. 

This must have been the sustained section of 17 percent grade I had read about.  It felt more like 25 percent to me, but my perception of road gradient was already skewed; slopes of only 3 percent that I had climbed earlier in the day had felt like descents compared to what I was climbing now. 

During one of my catch-my-breath breaks a woman from Dallas named Debbie (honest!) drove by.  She had passed me on the way up at about 7,000 feet and was on her way back down to Hilo.  She saw me doubled over, my chest heaving, and my face likely a shade of blue. 

First she made sure I wasn’t dying.  Then she started slathering on the praise.  “You’re incredible!”  “All the way from Hilo?!?” “You must be a professional” and so on.  She took pictures of me catching my breath, taking a drink, riding around a switchback and one of her and me together.  I felt like a superstar, and that was before she got out her video camera.  She wrote down my email address and promised to send me the photos. 

I never heard from her again. 

Mercifully, the final three miles to the summit are paved. I stopped to stash my hydration pack behind a rock and continued upward with newfound energy. I was so happy to have traction again that I almost forgot I was out of breath.   A couple of descending cars tooted their horns and cheered me on as I climbed the last three switchbacks.  But their enthusiasm couldn't sustain me and I again succumbed to the elevation.  By this time I was above 12,000 feet and my lungs wouldn’t let me forget it. 

The final rise to the summit was underwhelming.  The road makes a little loop around the summit servicing the telescopes and observatories up there.  A few tourists were parked at one end of the loop so I coasted—literally the first coasting I’d done all day—to the other end and took seat on the ground.  I looked down on a patch of snow with ski tracks through it.  A hiking trail led off toward the real summit, 300 yards away but only a couple feet higher than where I sat.  I didn’t have the energy or the desire to climb it.  I was getting cold and knew Mags had been waiting for me down at the visitors center for a long time.  The temperature felt somewhere in the forties so I put on my arm warmers before starting down.  I was on the summit for less than fifteen minutes, and I didn’t even get a photograph of myself there because I had chosen not to carry the extra weight of a camera. 

The paved section of the descent reminded me of some of my winter rides near my home in Utah.  I shivered all the way down to my stashed pack where I stopped to put on every piece of clothing I had.

The unpaved section of the descent was miserable.   The washboard surface made my shoulders and neck ache, while the steep sections burned up my brake pads.  At times I couldn’t control my speed because of my skidding tires. 

Mags took a photo of me when I arrived at the visitors center.  You can see the exhaustion my posture.  It begs the question again: Why would anyone do this to themselves while vacationing in Hawaii?  There is no single answer.  Part of it is the satisfaction I get from accomplishing something most people would never conceive of.  But there is more.  I feel the most free when I am on my bicycle.  I love how bicycles can take me to new places and new frames of mind.  I love how all it costs me to get there is a sweaty brow, two achy legs and sometimes a quart of Gatorade.  I love how the pain reminds me that I am alive.

That’s all I have to show for my effort that day.



Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dashing through the snow

Now that winter has arrived in SLC, I’ve been reminded of a
few things about winter bicycle commuting that recede from my memory every
spring like snow in the mountains.

First, this is the time of year that the skin over my knuckles starts to dry, chap, crack and eventually bleed.  It's my body's way of telling me that winter is here.  Every autumn I have a hard time admitting that summer is over and refuse to wear gloves on my morning commute.  My breaking point is when my fingers ache and take an hour to thaw out when I get to work.  Then I start wearing full fingered cycling gloves that provide absolutely no insulation. 

The snow on the road this week broke me down further and I got out my old ski gloves.  They’re fine except that both thumbs have holes in them.  I’ve taped them back together several times, but tape doesn’t insulate well.  But now only my thumbs ache as I thaw out in the mornings. 

Second, I’ve got a small dent in the rim of my back wheel that causes my brakes to pulsate like anti-lock brakes on dry roads.   Now when I pull the brake my rear wheel skids in the snow.  It may be time to introduce my rear wheel to my vice and a rubber mallet.   

Finally, I’ve got to find a different route for snowy days.  There is a ten block section of my commute with a narrow shoulder and a 45 mph speed limit.   I won’t ride on it in the snow.  Unfortunately, the only alternative is six blocks out of my way.  It cuts through a park and follows the river for half a mile.  It would be a nice everyday route if it wasn’t out of my way.  With the new route and all the snow on the road it took me 45 minutes to get to work today.  That’s twice as long as usual.   

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Duct tape or hair spray?

Mags took a digger last week.  It was kind of my fault. 

She was riding to the grocery store.   We have a bike dedicated exclusively to grocery shopping.  We affectionately call it The Grocery Bike.  It doesn’t deserve any more creativity than that.  It’s an old Gitane with a step-through frame, a rear view mirror, horn, lights and fenders.  It’s also got two huge wire baskets mounted on either side of the back wheel.  I paid more for the baskets than I did for the bike. 

We’ve had this bike for three or four years now, and the handgrips have always been loose.  I guess I had just gotten used to them, and the bike isn’t really suited for high speeds, tight turns and bumpy roads, so the loose grips had never caused me any problems.  I assumed Mags had gotten used to them too.   

Well, she hadn’t.  The left grip slipped off on her way to the store.  She was still holding the grip in her hand when she landed.  It’s a good thing she wasn’t on her way from the store, otherwise she’d be crying over spilled milk.  Instead she’s crying about the softball-size shiner on her left leg where the end of the handlebar jabbed into her.  She’s a trooper though, and finished her shopping errand even thought she walked with a limp for three days afterward.



I'm not used to role reversals like this.  Usually I'm the one who gets injured and Mags has to take care of me.  This time she's the one limping around the house and I'm laughing at her.  Mags doesn't think it's very funny, but I have assured her that I have total sympathy for her right now.  It's not often I can say that, that I have total sympathy for someone, but in this case I know exactly how she feels. 

I may be laughing, but I am still a responsible husband.  I found the can of Aqua Net that the old lady who sold us our house had left for us, and sprayed the inside of both hand grips that evening.  When hairspray dries it holds like glue.  It’s a five second fix that I should have done three years ago. 

Only that it didn’t fix anything.  Today I was riding The Grocery Bike to get some soup.  I was making a left turn into the parking lot when the same thing happened to me.   I was lucky.  I didn’t go down and somehow I managed to get the grip back on the bar without missing a stroke.  A guy walking by saw the whole thing.  He held his thumb and forefinger close together and said “That was really close.  A little bit of duct tape ought to take care of that.” 

Has duct tape replaced hair spray as the handgrip adhesive of choice? and is this what I get for laughing at Mags' pain? 

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving is for cyclists

Thanksgiving is my new favorite holiday. Sure, you may think that the last thing obese America needs
is a holiday celebrating her gluttony, but Thanksgiving is the one holiday
corporate America hasn’t figured out how to commercialize. There just isn’t a good way to capitalize on a day that most Americans have
off from work and people gather with family and friends and [try to] enjoy each
others’ company.  I’ll concede that cranberry farmers are an

If it was possible to capitalize on Thanksgiving, we wouldn’t
see Christmas decorations in stores the day after Halloween. I like to take it one holiday at a time. By virtue of it being a family-oriented day
instead of a market-driven day, Thanksgiving is especially sweet for cyclists. Since most stores are closed, and most people
are home with family, the roads are virtually empty. Even busiest roads in the busiest cities are
eerily quiet. Cyclists are free to
cruise the streets without the fear, foul air and noise of traffic.

After working up an appetite on a Thanksgiving morning ride,
I can’t think of a better recovery meal than a traditional Thanksgiving
dinner.  Turkey is high in protein and sweet potatoes are high in carbohydrates and
antioxidants. And gravy tastes better than,
and has the same consistency as, any commercially available specialty recovery

So Pilgrim, enjoy the only holiday left to you and your
family, but be sure to take some time to get out there and ride.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

We rode across the country

My most memorable moment on a bicycle...

#1  How did we ever get here?

Ok, twelve weeks of riding could be considered a lot of memories, good and bad, but it’s impossible for me to distill it down any further.  The singular feeling of freedom as we puttered along was like nothing else I’ve every felt.  It was just Mags and me, on our own in Anytown, USA. Coshocton, Wanblee, Elwood, Machias, Baggs, Zelienople, Ringling, Niobrara, Conway.  We carried everything we needed in four saddle bags.  A modern-day Joad family, what we couldn’t fit in the saddle bags we left behind or dangled off the back.  Our needs were reduced to only the basics—a place to sleep, safe roads and lots of food.  Sometimes while we were napping under a tree at a city park, relaxing with a magazine in a small town library, or eating cheese and mustard sandwiches in the shade of a road sign I would look around and wonder aloud “Where are we and how on did we ever get here?”  Now I wonder how I can get back.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Hey, come back here!

My second greatest moment on a bike was one of my first…

#2  I stole my brother’s Webco.

All I can remember about my first bike is that it was a yellow Schwinn with training wheels.  Like my clothes, toys and everything else I owned at that age, the bike was a hand-me-down.  I think it belonged to both my brothers before me.   

Most kids get their training wheels taken off when their parents decide it’s time, and more likely, when dad gets around to it.  It didn’t work that way for me.  One day my brother just decided for them.  He put me on his Webco BMX bike and held me up.  Knowing him, he probably took his hand away and let me ride on my own long before I ever realized I was doing it.  Our dad was there, sitting on the tailgate of our car; he obviously didn’t disapprove.   

Surely I fell, scraped my knee, screamed bloody murder, cried, sucked it up and tried again.  But I don’t remember any of that.  I only remember the one that counts.  This is how it happened. 

My brother let go of the bike again, only this time I didn’t fall.  I wobbled back and forth but I eventually found my balance.  “He’s doing it” he yelled.  I looked back to see that my brother had indeed let go of the bike.  I saw that he and my father were smiling at me.   I realized that I was really riding a two-wheeler.  The freedom of cycling surged through my little body and I pedaled down the street.   I didn’t ever want to stop. 

My brother must have known because he hollered back at me “hey, come back here.”  He didn’t want me stealing his bike.  He should have known better, but it was too late.  I started riding his bike all the time.  He must have complained to our parents because a few days later they bought me a shiny new black and gold Huffy. 

The obsession had begun. 

Thursday, November 16, 2006

We've got company Josh

My third greatest cycling moment is another race story about my reputation.  Only this time it wasn't the kind of reputation I could be proud of.

#3 The day I was a sandbagger

I did my first cyclocross race a year ago.  Since it was my first ‘cross race ever, I signed up in the C group.  That’s the group for beginners and first time racers.  That’s where the race website said I belonged, and who was I to argue with that?  This race also happened to be the state championship. 

I felt strong right from the start.  I followed two guys on mountain bikes for most of race.  I was taking my five year old ‘cross bike on her maiden ‘cross voyage.  It took a lap or two before I felt comfortable on my skinny tires in the dirt. 

By the fourth lap the three of us had developed a pretty big gap in front of rest of the group.  They were a little faster than me on their mountain bikes through the single track, but I could always reel them back in on the straight-aways. 

On the final lap I was only a couple of seconds behind them as we raced through the last long straight section.   Without thinking much about it—it wasn’t a conscience decision—I made a move to the left.   When I passed the first guy and moved into second place he hollered “We’ve got company, Josh!” 

That took away my element of surprise, so Josh and I jockeyed for a good line into the next section of single track.  The first turn was to the left, so I had the inside edge.  Then I put just enough distance between us that I beat him to the best line for the right turn into the singeltrack. 

I didn’t feel either of them on my wheel again.  I had a few good mounts and dismounts and somehow won the race by a few seconds.  I was the best beginner in the state.  Whoopdie doo.

Later that night I got a call from Racer.  He owns the shop that sponsors our team.  He said someone had called him and complained that I shouldn’t have been racing in the C group.  I guess he also mentioned that I had won too many mountain bike races the previous summer and was tired of my sandbagging.  Racer said the guy sounded pretty mad.

Whoever it was (I have my suspicions) may have had a point; I definitely didn't belong in the C group, but I just don’t understand why he was so worked up about losing to me in that group.  If he’s good enough to be contending for overall points in the beginner series, he’s probably good enough to move up to the B group. 

That's what I did.  My prime suspect has too, and I smoked him again last weekend. 

Hey, is that Chad Harris?

I've heard from a few of you about your finest moments on a bike.  Great stories, all of them.  It's not too late for the rest of you to contribute.  Now without further ado, here is number four on my list of top cycling memories...

#4  When I  found out I had a reputation

Apparently I’ve been making a name for myself at the local mountain bike races. 

I found that out last summer during the Porcupine Hill Climb, a road race to the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon.  I was working with the lead group of five or six riders in the Citizens Class.  We were about eight miles into the fourteen mile race.  I was sitting in third position and remember there were a few more guys trying to hang onto my wheel. 

About that time I heard one of the riders behind me say “Hey, is that Chad Harris?” 

And then “Oh man, we’ve got Chad Harris in our group”

I had no idea who he was so I wondered how he knew me.  I shuddered at the implications of this new-found reputation. 

I was now a marked man. I knew the others would now be watching me, trying to cover my moves.   I felt odd about this role reversal.  Usually I am the hungry but quiet shark in the water, watching the fast guys, looking for my chance to strike.  Just then I saw a few people sitting at a table at the top of a steep rise in the road.  They had a cooler with them.  I was hurting and wanted it to be the finish line.  I decided it was the finish line.  I stood up.  I threw it down.  I gave it everything I had. 

I was the first rider to reach the final neutral water station.  Four miles to go. 

I blew up.  My legs were wet noodles.  I tried to go back to my pace when I was with the lead group, hoping to hold them off.  I couldn’t do it.   They caught me anyway. 

Now there were three of us.  They could have dropped me right then but they didn’t. They were hurting from trying to cover my foolish move.  They let me sit on their wheel.  We still had three miles to go.  My legs recovered and I was ready for the real final sprint.  I won that one too. 

Afterward I talked with Tim, the one who had recognized me during the race.  He knew me from the Intermountain Cup mountain bike races.  I told him that it felt good to win, but I wasn’t sure if I liked the reputation that comes with it. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

What is your greatest cycling memory?

Lately I’ve been reminiscing over some of my finest moments on a bike.  I’ve had a pile of good times, but there are a few memories that always rise to the top, some because they were turning points in my life, others because they’re funny. 

Over the next five days I’ll be counting down my top five cycling memories.  I’m interested to know what you think, but I’m more interested about your greatest moment on a bike.  Please tell me about it in the comments section below.

#5 When my brother taught me how to ride on the handlebars

One day in my early teens I was sitting around the house when my brother came inside with the smirk he always has when he’s up to something.  He said he had something to show me and asked me to follow him outside.

His bike was on the front lawn.  He picked it up and swung his leg over it, only he did it backwards, so he was facing the seat instead of the handlebar.  Then he sat on the handlebar and, with a push, started pedaling.  His smirk changed to a horsey smile as he rode backwards on his bike, sitting on the handlebar and trying to steer. 

I ran for my bike.  He had to teach me how. 

He held my seat while I tried to balance on the handlebar.  He stopped me when I was headed for the bushes.  He taught me how to steer and which hand to use to pull the back brake.  He let me learn that pulling the front brake leads to disaster.  Within minutes he had me riding backwards on my own. 

Within the hour we were racing around the yard.  Within a day we were racing around the block.

We’ve been doing it for years now.  It’s almost second nature.  I do it whenever I need a laugh, whether from myself or from whomever I’m with.  Here’s a picture of my brother and me doing it on Kokopelli’s trail two months ago.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Nice Wheels...

I saw this guy on my commute the other day.  100_1176

He's doing his part to reduce the demand for foreign oil.  Look close at this second picture.  100_1177

He's also doing his part to increase the demand for Natty Light.  God bless the USA!

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

An Open Letter to LaVar Christensen

Yesterday Utahns went to the polls and kept congressional hopeful LaVar Christensen from getting the chance he’d been dreaming of—serving in congress for Utah’s Second District.  He was soundly beaten, but his failed campaign did more service to Utah than he could have ever done in Congress.

Dear LaVar,

I want to thank you personally for your efforts to represent Utah in the U.S. Congress.  Undoubtedly you are disappointed with yesterday’s election results, and will be spending the next few days moping, throwing darts at photos of Jim Matheson, thinking of derogatory names that rhyme with Pelosi, and preparing for Armageddon. But don’t despair.  In an effort to cheer you up, I would like to point out how your failed campaign has served Utah.

LaVar, your efforts to not just blur, but completely eliminate the line between church and state have kept Utah’s population in check.  Utah has an ideal climate and the terrain to match.  Utah has superb mountain bike trails, fly fishing streams aplenty, and millions of acres of untouched wilderness, not to mention a robust economy and a low cost of living.  Thanks to your actions, millions of people who enjoy mountain biking, fly fishing, exploring the wilderness and earning a living wage have not moved to Utah.  Some won’t even visit.  They want nothing to do with a state ruled by you and your ilk that legislate morality, cite scripture in political debates, and would still vote Republican if the Democrats nominated Jesus. 

You have fought this onslaught of wickedness by writing a paper supporting The Sutherland Institute while serving in Utah’s House of Representatives.  You humiliated us by proposing legislation that would groom young women into “wives, homemakers and mothers” and encouraging couples to have “a full quiver of children.”  Utah needs a crackpot like you, LaVar, to embarrass us nationally every year or two.  Otherwise we might get discovered and our reputation as uptight, morally superior, squeaky clean, industrious worker bees might be revealed for the misconception that it is. 

So you see LaVar, your campaign wasn’t a failure at all.  You have done more for Utah in one short campaign than you could have done in two years in congress.  On behalf of all Utahns who enjoy it the way it is, I thank you. 

Sunday, November 5, 2006

UTA screws two more cyclists

In its ongoing effort to accommodate bike riders, the Utah Transit Authority has given two more cyclists reasons to leave their bikes at home and drive their cars. 

I was on my way to class the other day on a filled-to-capacity express bus from Salt Lake to Ogden.  This was one of the newer buses that is equipped with a second bike rack built into what would be the luggage bay if it were a charter bus. 

This second bike rack is accessed from the curb-side of the bus, back near the rear wheels.  To use it, the cyclist lifts the hatch to the luggage rack, and then pulls the rack out like a large drawer.  Of course she has to do this with one hand because she’s holding her bike up with her other hand.  This drawer holds two bikes lying on their sides, one on top of the other.  There is a sheet of tightly pulled plastic that supposedly keeps the upper bike from bouncing on the lower bike when the bus is moving. 

On this particular day I was lucky enough to get a space in the regular bike rack at the front of the bus, and even luckier to get a seat near the window facing the curb—usually I have to stand up for the whole ride—where I could see the whole fiasco unfold. 

A cyclist had drawn out the rear bike rack and was about to load his bike when the bus pulled forward.  There was a low commotion from the passengers on the bus as we saw what was happening.  Fortunately, the cyclist got out of the way, but there was a bus-stop sign that didn’t.  The bike rack plowed right into the sign-post and bent the post and the rack. 

Realizing what he had done, the driver backed up and announced that he either didn’t know there was a cyclist using the rear rack, or that he didn’t know he even had a rear rack.  I couldn’t quite understand him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the latter because I once tried to use the rear rack and the driver didn’t know he even had it.  I showed it to him and pointed out that it was locked.  He said he didn’t have a key and that I’d just have to wait for the next bus.  Thanks again UTA.

Meanwhile, back on the bus, I watched another express bus to Ogden pass us while we sat there.  I decided to get my bike and ride the bus route backwards to find another express bus that wasn’t as full.  I found one about ten minutes later, but the front bike rack was full.  This was also one of the newer buses with a rear bike rack, but not wanting to have the same thing happen to me, I told the driver what I was doing before I pulled out the drawer.  He gave me a puzzled look.  Here was another UTA driver that didn’t know his bus was equipped to accommodate bike riders. 

He got out and together we learned how to load a bike back there.  It was my first time too. 

We passed the first bus on our way out of town.  It was still sitting there, the driver, the cyclist and a police officer trying to sort out the blame.  I’m pretty sure the cyclist was wishing he’d just driven his car that day. 

The sad part of the whole mess is that John Inglish, the SUV-driving chief of UTA, (his contract includes $37,000 every four years for a new vehicle) is going to see this as another reason to believe bikes don’t belong on public transit.

Apparently his memo got through faster than the one to bus drivers about the new bike racks:

The very next morning Mags and I were trying to get on TRAX.  A third cyclist was getting on too so I, wanting to obey the rule about only two bikes at each end of the car, let him and Mags get on while I ran down to the next car.  I pushed the button to open the door but nothing happened.  I pushed it again—still nothing.   I ran to the door at the other end of the car and pushed that button.  That door wouldn’t open either.  I pushed again but the train had already started pulling away.  This is how UTA accommodates bike riders.