Sunday, January 25, 2009

Grand Ridge Trail

"I need tougher friends," I mutter as I review the feeble excuses and resounding silence that greets my latest "Hey let's go back country riding and maybe camping this Sunday/Monday" message. Noting that the forecast is for temps around freezing together with chance of snow, Christine points out that perhaps what I need is not tougher friends, but dumber friends. Perhaps she has a point.

I scale back my camping plans when Mark comes through suggesting we can go camping the following weekend, but still Sunday morning beckons. Looking for terrain that will let me work the lowest gear combination on my tringle-speed, I point my wheels out my back door and roll up into the hills.

I live at the base of the Cascade foothills, but it's been a few years since I've ridden a trail that is basically right in my backyard, the Grand Ridge Trail. There has been a lot of construction and home building on the Sammamish Plateau in the past few years so I really have no idea what I'll find on this ride. A few years ago I was riding with some friends on one of the high ridges and we stopped for a snack at a spot looking out onto the plateau. "Is that snow over there?" my buddy asked seeing the distant expanses of white. "Nope," I explained, "it's Tyvek. Those are all the condos under construction."

Today proves to be a different story. As I stop at the base of the steep climbing to move my chain onto the lowest gears, another rider pulls up. We both seem to be the kind of fellows who talk to strangers, so we get to talking. It turns out Ross West also lacks dumb friends and hasn't ridden the Grand Ridge Trail in a few years. So we ride and scramble up the steepest stuff together and puzzle over the same trail forks. It turns out that Ross and I have similar riding styles, going slow enough to look around. At one point Ross is leading and says "let me know if I'm going too slow." I assure him that I don't think that's possible and mention that some folks call me "The Mountain Turtle." Ross has to turn back a bit before noon but we exchange email addresses and make tentative plans for some future rides.

The map shows the trail ending at a dead end suspiciously close to the Issaquah-Fall City Road and the good trail conditions, combined with the circumstantial evidence of three riders coming the other way, gives me the hope to press through the swampy, rooty low section and up yet another ridge. Once again the map is not the terrain and the trail leads me to the road. I stop to engage a more road-appropriate gear and I'm home in time to have lunch with Christine and Eric.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Tringle-speed Bicycle

Back in November, Jill up in Alaska wrote:

I was able to get in plenty of bursts of hard effort today after I snapped the rear shifter cable on my mountain bike. I feel bad for my Karate Monkey; only seven months old, and she's already been through the war. But after riding most of the morning with three speeds (and really only using the middle ring), I have to say, I still don't understand the single-speed thing. It's not a matter of being able to push a high gear up steep hills - that I can do if I have to. But I prefer to have my rotations per minute stay the same no matter how fast I'm going. Single-speeders must have their legs spinning all sorts of different crazy speeds. And once your RPMs drop down to two or three, don't you start questioning the efficiency of your one gear?
As somebody whose put a fair number of single-speed miles under his wheels, I guess I'd respond to Jill by saying that crazy spinning is kind of the point. If you only train to turn one range of RPMs, you're only good at that range of RPMs. Kind of like if you only rode when it's 70 degrees and sunny, then you'd only be good at riding when it's 70 degrees and sunny. But what would you if it was below freezing and dark? But then again, who'd want to ride when it's below freezing and dark? Why would anybody do that? Would that be at all interesting? I don't know maybe some people like things to be a little tough.

Me, I like single-speed bikes. While I certainly enjoy fixed gear bikes and I've logged a lot of fixed gear miles, I do like coasting now and then and I like the dynamic of a single-speed, cranking it up a climb, tucking and coasting on a descent, spinning it as fast as I can go on the flats. But still, Jill does have a point. There are times when a bit more versatility would be good. Not necessarily a full-bore derailleur system or the precise clockworks of an internal hub. It's more that it would be handy to have one single-speed that's geared kind of high for pavement riding. And one bike that's geared somewhat lower for general mountain biking. And maybe a third bike that's geared really low, for when I'm hauling camping loads up steep grades or when the snow is deep. Yeah, not a bike that you shift exactly but three single-speeds. Three single-speeds in one bike.

Sheldon Brown pointed me to the answer and I read about it here:

Sheldon states:
Bruce Ingle, a fellow member of the Charles River Wheelmen, has gone me one better, and made a triple-fixed mountain bike. He used a Shimano cassette hub, which he immobilized by brazing the ratchet mechanism together. I am a bit nervous as to the long-term prospects for this hub, in particular the connection between the freehub body and the hub shell, but I think I will have to copy his setup. He's got:





I loved the idea of this but I figured I'd skip the brazing part and keep the ratcheting mechanism. As an homage to Mr. Ingle, I figured the logical name for such a machine would be a Tringle-speed. I wrote to Bruce asking for his advice on setting up such a machine. He wrote me back with good advice on selecting components and getting a good chainline. About the name he said simply, "I love it!"

Once again, the near infinite supply of parts that is Bike Works yielded all the components for this project. The design is simple: three chainrings up front, three cogs in the back. The cogs fit on a Shimano freehub body (in my case an old 7-speed freehub) with spacers filling in the empty spots. The cogs are positioned in such a way that the outermost cog is in a straight line to the outer chainring, the middle cog lines up with the middle chainring and the inner cog aligns with the inner chainring. And while the front-to-back ratio is different in each combinaton, the total number of front and back teeth remains the same,. Thus the chain length is the same for each combination and you have three basically perfect chainlines. Changing from one combination to another is not something you do while pedaling, but it only takes a minute to stop and change gears when the pavement ends or at the top of a mountain pass. All I need to do is loosen the quick-release, slide the wheel a bit forward in the dropouts, move the chain to the desired combo, slide the wheel back into position and tighten the quick-release.

This chart shows the gear combinations I have on my tringle-speed.

ChainringCogGear Inches

The 69.3 inch gear is for civilized conditions, while the 45.5 inch gear is for off-road and hilly stuff. The 31.2 inch gear should let me climb walls like Spiderman.

Now yeah, a derailleur set-up might be easier. So would a Harley-Davidson. That's not the point now, is it? Sometimes you want things to be a little tough. And fun. Really, really fun.

Stay tuned for some ride reports.

Keep 'em rolling,


Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Roads Less Traveled By

We'd been buried in snow a few weeks ago and then we got the warm rains. This weekend promised sun, but an inversion layer locked all the car exhaust and woodsmoke in the low places, so our plan is to go higher. This time we are Mark, Matt and myself. Other candidates for adventure are otherwise engaged. This will be a short trip, an afternoon to put some miles in our legs, some grit beneath our wheels.

Taylor Mountain Forest is always a bit of a mystery, never adequately mapped, a park in process, more primeval than polished, a public bit of green and grey with a mysterious center. Someone didn't sell their land and the park surrounds a very private compound. Signs give dire warnings and I tell the others of my theory that if we trespass, we'll be hunted for sport.

The park trails are closed, but we are not on trails, these are the roads. Roads less traveled by, now that trucks no longer switch-back up the mountain to bring the trees in pieces back to town.

The inversion layer has inverted things, we climb into something almost like summer. We hike where we cannot bike, carrying our machines when they cannot carry us.

We stop and eat beneath old trees and study how wind and water still shape this land. We follow maps and memory, both of which are imperfect, towards a vague notion. If we knew for certain we'd be home by dark, would that be an adventure?

We ultimately figure which turn is the wrong one, and return to a world where the roads are clear but the air is hazy. Wheels roll smoothly on the pavement but we are already thinking of the next trip on roads less traveled by.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Ride of Your Life

My pal David Rowe just released his latest ebook, The Ride of Your Life. I can't even pretend give anything like an objective review of this book since David's a buddy, some of my friends are profiled in the book and I'm in there as well. I can tell you that the book is focused on the mental side of riding distance. David presents a lot of practical advice and includes some great interviews with riders. Lon Haldeman sums it up this way:

"The Ride of Your Life is an inspiring book that will get you up off the couch and want to ride your bike. So much of the difference between exceptional riders and wannabes is the mental attitude and enthusiasm to go out and set new goals. This book is filled with practical advice from real people who share their passion for long distance cycling. During the final miles of a long ride don’t wish for fitness; wish for motivation. The Ride of Your Life is the kick in the pants you need to raise your cycling results to a new level."

One of the things David managed to do in this book is get me to recount one of the tales I've never gotten around to writing up, the story of my Raid Californie-Oregon ride. As part of the marketing blitz for this book (David is way more entrepreneurial than I am!) David created a freebie, preview edition of the book that includes the introduction, chapter one, and the interview with me.

You can read the preview edition here:

The full book has a bunch more stuff including interviews with Greg Paley, Jill Homer, Del Sharffenberg, Kitty Goursolle, and John Spurgeon. You can order the full book here:

As I often say "keep 'em rolling." David has created a great blueprint to get you out the door and keep you rolling.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Tonight's Commute

Today never really warmed up and the snow begins gently, lightly and whitely about a half hour before the 5:00 PM time when Donald and I close up the bike shop. As I wait at the slow light at the turn from Ferdinand to Rainier Avenue, I see pavement already blanketed with a thin sheet of white. The cars are still mostly rushing, their drivers hoping to outrun the weather, but the flakes are gaining ground, gently piling patience onto all our paths.

I don't have the luxury of speed or an OPEC-fueled mirage of mastery to insulate me from this night. I have studded tires, layers of wool under nylon and a single, low fixed gear to get me home. I'm pretty sure it's all I need.

I turn off Rainier onto Alaska, a street that tonight looks like its namesake. In the slightly bluish beam of my headlight, the flakes plus my forward speed draw tracer beams more special than any Hollywood effect. One flake in five-thousand rotates just right and presents a perfect dazzling mirror. I remember Jack Eason's advice and look not at the light, but at the darkness.

Along the lake the snow seems undecided, the flakes are almost rain drops now. The road coating is silent beneath my wheels, as if a layer of white, whipped grease is soaking up every sound. But my carbide studded tires never slip, gradually passing on a confidence that conditions would not seem to warrant. But fixed-gear bikes are truthful beasts, they'll tell you the second you've lost your footing. Special Ed, the bike I'd build for nights like this, relays nothing but the Gospel according to Carbide. We're going home.

The climb up though Colman Park displays a dozens of perfect pictures, but with my camera layered deep inside my jacket, this night is too cold and dark for photography. Only living eyes can capture each shining facet of each switch-backed vista. I meet one driver on the Olmsted-designed road, I'm far to the right inching my way up as he's white-knuckling his way down. We probably both would prefer to have the road just to ourselves, but we each are going home.

After the park, and the crested view looking out over Lake Washington, I turn steeply down, slow pedal motions imparting caution from my legs to my wheels. I turn onto the bridge and roll eastward.

The temperature must be right at the freezing point and the wind is out of the south. This bridge floats on the water, with a low wall separating the bike path along it's northern edge from the lanes of oncoming automobile traffic. The side-loads from wind-shear prevent the construction of a taller wall and even on a clear night, the glare from westbound headlights is a challenge for eastbound cyclists. This is not a clear night and it's just a fraction of a degree warmer on the lake. The wind whips the sleet into needles. Under my helmet, I Yehuda my cap low on my brow, its brim forming a shield against glare and grim nature.

One native story holds that what we now call Mercer Island actually rests on the back of a giant turtle and that one night the turtle will submerge. Tonight is not that night, but the turtle is blanketed in white. I skirt the island's northern edge, thankful once again that geography gives me refuge from the worst of the winds. Hemingway understood that "It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle." I would add that you need not have a coasting bike to appreciate this truth and via the exercise of a daily commute, done in a wide range of conditions, one's appreciation of geographic and meteorologic factors become the most ingrained of knowledge.

The east channel bridge is the last clean shot the wind gets at me tonight and crossing over into Bellevue I know that the vast bulk of Cougar Mountain will keep the wind on different roads than my wheels. The rest of the ride is a little higher and a degree or so cooler. The snowflakes are large and white and hexagonal again.

I climb through Factoria and up the suburban northern streets of Cougar Mountain to Newport Way. Newport is a long, gentle downhill into Issaquah my morning warm-up and my evening reward. Tonight it is especially rewarding, on the whitened road I catch a rare glimpse of another traveler, a coyote running off in search of something.

I'm home now, Christine's concern melting into a smile as she sees me roll in the door. Snow has settled everywhere, not just inches on the street but a good half-inch on my helmet and my jacket. A big hug, warm food, warm clothes, and a warm drink all displace the damp cold that had been testing every chink in my mostly weather-proof armor.

It's good to ride and it's good to be home.

Keep 'em rolling,


Thursday, January 01, 2009

Three Hour Tour

By choice or chance or most likely a combination of both, most of my friends are bike people, people who are happiest when they are awheel or tinkering with what Christopher Morley correctly identified as the "vehicle of novelists and poets." Our devices capture mathematics in metal, casting abstract ratios in solid cogs and chains. Hard roads yield to soft rubber and the resiliency of captured air. Our legs don't pound, they spin. We need not walk or crawl, for we roll with a strength so smooth it seems like flying. Our simple machines, machines that cannot even stand alone without us, come to life when we balance on saddles and dance on pedals and reward us by taking us farther, faster, than we could ever go alone.

I get to ride such a machine three hours each day going back and forth to work. Friends, even some of my bike friends, don't quite get why I choose to live 18.5 miles from where I work and ride my bike back and forth. "Wouldn't it be easier to live closer?" they ask. "Or drive?"

Well, some of this is circumstance. When Christine and I first moved to Issaquah, I worked in Issaquah. My commute was about a mile and I often walked. The kids settled into school and we settled into this lovely little community at the foothills of the Washington Cascades. Over time, I got other jobs, jobs in the big city of Seattle and found I could bike there. I found I liked biking there. I found I loved biking there.

It's not about ease, it's about love but when you do what you love, it's easy.

Yes, it is easier rolling out the door on a sunny day in July than in a rainy night in November but the miles build and what begins as a choice becomes a habit and your habits become your character. I'm that character who rides everywhere.

I've learned a few things along the way. I've learned wool gloves stay warm even when they are wet. I've learned that a cycle cap keeps rain off my glasses. I know where eagles perch on Mercer Island and which patches of road ice up first. I know many of the shades of red and gold that the sunlight shows as it glints over the Cascade and Olympic mountains and I know every day will show me something new. I've changed flat tires under starlight and heard frogs singing in the moonlight.

I get three hours each day to think, to sing (badly) to myself, and write little essays in my head. I get to sweat and work up an appetite or take things easy depending on my mood. Some days I charge up the hills, some days I just survive them. But the ride is always a reward.

My daily three hour tour puts a bit of muscle on my legs and gives me a basis to launch out on longer trips. Riding Paris-Brest-Paris or the Great Divide, I measure not just in miles or kilometers but in memories of commutes, of tiny tours that add up to great distances. How many commutes does it take to reach to Brest and back, or from Montana to Antelope Wells? I know that big journeys are just small steps repeated and strung together.

People work for the weekend or slave for some retirement where they dream of doing what they want. I want to ride my bicycle and I get to do it three hours per day. As Bob Dylan said, "I can't help it if I'm lucky."

Keep 'em rolling,