Saturday, August 20, 2016

Don't Rush This

How about some trail 1A on a hot Saturday morning? Yes, more please.

Let's face it: mountain biking is inevitably going to involve some mountains. About half of those would require pedaling up the mountain, I would estimate, with rest of the time being spent going down them, or on the flats between. There are some lame ways to avoid the worst of the ups, sometimes, like shuttling or chair lifts, but sometimes I just have a literal mind, and feel that if I am mountain biking, I should ride up the mountain. Similar to my "ride to the ride" preference: if it's about biking, then bike there if feasible. Actually, bike there even if it's not about biking.

While my riding engine has positively adapted to riding the flatlands for some distance on a bicycle, it still gases out rather quickly when called to power a ride uphill. This is a combination of factors, which I'm working on, but improvements in this area are a slow (but steady) process. Carry speed on the downhill parts into the uphill sections. When there's a curve at the bottom, take the high side and slingshot and/or pump around it into the uphill. Pace. Relaxation. Breathing. Let the bike do as much of the work as it can, getting over and around stuff. Lock out the bouncy parts. I turned both the front fork and the rear shock to their firmest setting this morning to ascend, and it did make a positive difference. Don't stress about going uphill, this is fun. Don't rush it. Watch a lot of GMBN videos on how to do better.

Part of it is the heat, though. I'm still not really adjusted to mountain biking in it. I'm draining my hydration bladder on these 15 mile morning rides. Speaking of the hydration pack, I noticed that some of the newer packs have spine protection built in. This seems like a decent idea to me, so I bought a spine pad for a motorcycle jacket, cut it a little bit to fit, and stuffed it into the hydration pocket of my pack. It's tight in there with the nearly full bladder, but it works. I hope I never need it, but it adds a bit of support to the pack, and a bit of peace of mind. Every little bit helps.

When I paused to take the photo above, I also reminded myself not to rush it. To ride it, but in my own time, while enjoying this time and place. It went well. I walked a little. The trails go up the mountain, and so do I.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Remember to Breathe When Cycling, Ondine

Just when I had vowed off of cloud pictures forever...

Ondine's Curse is a rare condition where the autonomic function of breathing fails, and breathing becomes purely conscious. Sleeping, or otherwise just getting tired or forgetting to breathe, for those with this condition, also known as Central Hypoventilation Syndrome, causes obvious and serious complications. The tie-in with the Little Mermaid is interesting, but distracting to my topic. 

I don't have the curse, but in taking up a meditation technique known as breath counting, I have gained more focus on the autonomic function of breathing than I've ever had before. Yesterday, when a distracted man in a shiny Mercedes clearly failed to notice me in the intersection and started forward right at me until I yelled at him, my breath caught (paused) and my heart raced. This is a natural stress fight-or-flight reaction, or part of it, but was in that situation counterproductive to my goal of yelling my head off at him to gain his attention so that his son propped in prime viewing position in the car seat in the back didn't have to watch his distracted dad slaughter a cyclist with his two ton killing machine.

Also, while mountain biking, I've noticed that my breath also catches just when I need it not to, as I am looking ahead to a sketchy or steep section of trail. Smooth, even breathing, accompanied by smooth, even riding, is what I need just then, not a catch of breath and a dump of fear. But that's what often happens. 

I don't think I need Ondine to remind me to keep breathing. Rather, I think I need a counterforce to remind me to relax and breathe easy. Like clouds. Keep that pulse, and pulse ox, dead steady. This made me wonder: do others think about breathing while cycling?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Ear Plugs as Foam Tips for Earbuds Hack

First attempt to make some replacement foam tips for earbuds (or "in-ear headphones")

I searched around and tried different, affordable earbuds that I liked, and finally bought the SoundMAGIC E80 Reference Series. As  the reviews of them state, these have a different kind of sound, treble-heavy, which doesn't sit well with everyone, but seems to work well for my ears which have had high frequencies attenuated by age and loud music. 

But the stock plastic tips are totally useless--uncomfortable and stiff feeling, and poor sounding. These come with a sample of premium foam tips which totally transform the sound and the feeling. Unfortunately, these masterpieces of throwaway consumables cost about five bucks a pair, and very soon rip/tear/disintegrate, as shown in the photo above.

Reluctant to replace, living in denial that something that costs five bucks could fall apart so easily and quickly, I've worn these until the foam actually fell off. Then what? 

Make some! Supplies: foam earplugs, scissors, leather punch

Internet to the rescue! I found several suggestions to cut and punch foam earplugs as replacements. First, flatten them lengthwise, and cut to appropriate length. Using the originals as a reference, my first cut was approximately across the midsection. Allow them to expand, then flatten again the other way, to form a disk, and punch a hole through the disk. I used a leather punch on the 11/64" setting.

Results of first try? Excellent on first listen. Using earplugs has the benefit of adding noise reduction. The sound is rich and deep. I would say the ear plug tips are in the same league as the five dollar tips that wear out fast.

Observations: the expensive ones have a tube inside them, and a hole slightly larger than the leather punch will make. I was worried about both of those when I compared my version to them, but any difference is not immediately obvious. I may try to make the hole larger than 11/64" next time, just to experiment. Also, as one of the Internet sources suggested, it may help to make the new tips short, just long enough to isolate the earbud stem from hitting the ear canal. As it is with the ones I made, they are longer than that. Next set will be shorter, to see how that works. It may turn out to be a balance between noise isolation, sound quality, and comfort. Also, I can't say that the rounded end has any other purpose than to look functional, like that's what it should look like. In practice, the square ends seem to go in just as easy, and sound the same to me. Finally, my ear canals are probably narrower than average, and these earplug tips fit them snugly and comfortably. I'm very pleased with the results.

This is not really a bike-related post. I don't suggest you ride with these as they are quite isolating. But this seemed like a simple and great hack, so I just wanted to share it.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

At One With Cactus

Stop and Consider the Cactus

Some days, I just want no problems on the ride. Zero incidents. A minimum of mishaps. A total lack of bruises, scraps, cuts, blood, or mayhem. Today was a day like that. I hesitate to call it a rehab ride, because instantly I start singing that I don't want to go to rehab no no no, but it would not be totally inappropriate to think of the goal as just pedaling down the trail without eating the trail facewards.

This goal dictates certain procedures and a way of approaching the ride with caution, and slightly slower speed, than a plain old fun ride. In that spirit, I opted to try out my new kneepads, to get a feel for them. Would they restrict? Would they pinch? Would they overheat? Would they bind?

New joint shields

Kneepads are nice. That's my initial impression. About three months ago, I experienced a bizarre crash on my road bike when I hit some unexpected gravel and just went straight down to the pavement, onto my right knee. The kneecap is an amazing piece of bone shield, I will give it that, and it protected the soft bits while taking quite a beating itself. Then, a couple weeks ago, on my "let's see about getting back into mountain biking ride" up at Desert Vista, my front tire caught a cholla ball and flipped it up straight into my right knee. It felt like a bee sting, and was the gift that kept on giving when I reached down without looking to flick the bee away. Dang. Thanks, cholla ball. 

Both those made me think about kneepads, and after today's try out ride, I think I will keep using them. Maybe not on the road bike, ironically, but definitely on gravelly rocky sketchy mountain bike rides. My knees were happy today. I think it also relates to the feeling on today's ride that I felt pretty good overall for my age and life experience, where most of the parts seemed to work mostly well, and so maybe helping to keep the knees in general working order in case of trail mishap or mayhem seems to make sense. That hard shield gave me a little more confidence.

Slightly different entry route

In other related news, when looking at the map on the new-to-me Trailforks app, I noticed an entrance to Dreamy Draw called "Myrtle Tunnel" that connected with the "Rush Hour" trail that parallels the 51 freeway. I kicked off the trail portion of the ride that way, remembering the tunnel-like experience of riding through the vegetation on the happy side of the freeway noise wall from rides in the dim misty past. This entrance enabled more time on the trail, less on the streets, always welcome.

Pause bench

This spot always seems to draw me to pause and open my senses to the desert around. It comes just before the rocky downhill to Tatum, and often feels like the right place to stop a bit, take stock, breathe, listen, watch, smell. Watch a lizard skitter by. Listen for quail. Inhale the perfume of the desert. Quick check of the bike. Remember to drink water. Wave at the equestrians. Consider the cactus. Alien, spikey things, could I ever be at one with one?

Only pause a few quiet moments, though. The morning heat increases relentlessly, and the fun run down to Tatum calls. Get on, think it through, maintain the focus on zero mayhem. OK, perhaps just a little mayhem, heading downhill, to wake up those muscle memories, to revive those neural paths. After all, rehab has a start date and an end date. There's a time to go slow, and a time to let her rip. Cautiously. With knee pads.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dragons After Rains

Trail 100, east end, start/stop

In the midst of our August rains, the desert changes, comes to life**. It's the best of both worlds: plentiful if brief water, blazing sunshine, warm nights. After a strong rain, the trails are kind of a mess, not just sandy and muddy, but also washed over with rocks of all shapes and sizes, from ball bearing gravel to flip up and hit you in the shins tire pucks. But, also, Saturday morning, the desert seemed full of dragonflies*.

Some combination of days of rain, the season, the right weather, brought them out this morning, flocks of them, exuberant, diving, hovering in front of me in the low rising sunlight, urgent with activity to accomplish their purposes this time around their wheel of life. We have them here, but normally I only notice them hanging around man-made ponds, or golf courses. This morning, though, Dreamy Draw was full of them. My wife hiked a totally different section from where I rode my bike, and she also remarked on them.

The sketchy trails made me walk and work the bike more than I like. Mainly up sections that seem steeper when they are painted with slippery gravel. That's a bit disheartening, but the dragonflies cheered me along my noob hike-a-bike nervousness. On the positive side, I went faster downhill than last time, used a lot less brake, felt some more whispers of something like flow and rhythm that I remember distantly from when I used to hit the trails twice a week.

Ride tech notes: rear shock seems set up just right. Front fork did not quite go through all the travel, so I will let some air out next ride. Odd squeaking noise from the front seemed to be the disc brake. I do have a theory about odd squeaking sounds and new mountain bikes, though: it's the bike telling you that it needs to be bounced around a rocky trail for a few hours. Nothing shuts up an odd squeaky sound like a few rocky miles. One way or another.

One of my Phoenix places. At least briefly, I don't think fire danger was actually high today.

I paused a few minutes at the east end of Trail 100 in the little parking area and grass patch there. So many places in Phoenix get torn up and developed with new stuff that it's difficult to find consistency and familiarity sometimes. But this little parking lot and small patch of grass at the east end of Trail 100 is one of those touchstone places that holds importance for me, sort of like a geographical cache of good memories.

As I sat on the grass, I watched the dragonflies dance in the sunlight. On a new bike in an old spot, some years later on myself, but with a thread of rootedness and knowing that place. The way that after rains the air is cleaner, the desert more fragrant, the plants more lush, the ground itself more active and rich with moisture. The cicadas singing their August songs in the eucalyptus trees grounded in things my heart knows and my mind feels. Some soreness in my wrists earned from the morning ride. But I don't loiter or linger, no lollygagging here, because the ride home from here is fun, too, and like the dragons after rains, I have some more to do this time around the wheel.

*I could not find an official collective noun for dragonflies. Searching the interwebs, I did locate this excellent suggestion by Velvet Snoutingdingle: a valkyr of dragonflies. However, given that I've named this bike Shimmer, I feel most amenable to the suggestion of "a shimmer of dragonflies."
 **According to World Wildlife Federation, our bi-seasonal rainfall pattern results in the most diverse vegetation of all the deserts in the world. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Doll and the Tempest

Someone designed this, made this, sold this, bought this, discarded this: minds at work, and play

Near the end of the work day on Tuesday, the sky grew dark, lightning flashed, and thunder rolled. A coworker glanced outside, and told me that she hoped I had rain gear for the ride home. I laughed, and said yeah, it's August in Phoenix, I think I'll wear skin. 

I hit the street and the sprinkles grew into a steady rain. When I hit the canal path, the drops were heavier, but not remarkable. As the wind picked up, I started shouting to God, to the universe, to the four winds, is that all you got? This isn't even really rain, doesn't count, these pitiful drops, couldn't you do better?

Then the tempest came. A purple eye on the radar map. Winds in my face, clouds opened up the faucets, streets filling fast with running water. The visor on my helmet really helps keep the rain out of my eyes, but if was falling fast and furious and obscuring my sight. Yeah, now that's more like it. One afternoon it's 110°F and kind of oppressive to ride in the shimmering heat, like this:

It was 110° another day, I was kind of stuck in traffic momentarily, and the shimmering heat caught my attention

Then the next afternoon, I'm daring the weather to rain, really rain, and it comes through, and just nails the city with a deluge. I've seen more intense rain at commute time, but I think today was the most water I've ever seen in all the streets, the whole way. It was deep enough that drivers were concerned about drowning me in their wakes. The nice woman in the pickup who slowed next to me, rolled down her window, and yelled through the gale to ask if I needed a ride was sweet. But no, this is kind of my favorite thing, a drenching, refreshing, hard rain in August in Phoenix.

That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again. -from The Tempest

Commuting by bicycle in a hard, driving rain is a good workout. My old steel mountain bike with skinny tires and fenders plowed the waters effectively, and my water-resistant cotton duck Carradice Bike Bureau pannier did its job admirably.

I've been feeling down, doobie do down down, lately. The odd doll torso in the street, and the shouting at the rain and the drenching tempest ride, cheered me some. This is indicative, I think, of the need for even more time on the bike. Or bikes. I'm hatching plans for more early morning mountain bike rides on Shimmer, my new full suspension bike. I'm also planning some uphill (or up-mountain? Shall we debate if Camelback really qualifies as a mountain?) diversion rides on my commute home to try to improve my hill-climbing abilities, which suck badly, for mountain bike riding purposes, since it seems that riding up steep places is more or less inevitable in that mode. The more surreal scenes in my bike lane, the more fresh air, the more drenching rain storms I get to feel on my skin in August, the more rocky trails I blast down at potentially unsafe speeds, the better for getting rid of the down doobie do down down feelings. At least I hope so.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Be Open: Mountain Bike Edition

First ride on my Giant Anthem SX

"Be open" is a decent mantra attributable to many different sages. After I bought a new mountain bike, I geeked out a little bit on the Bikerumor Suspension Setup guide which is packed full of useful info. One tidbit I gleaned from it is to run my new three setting shock and fork in "open" mode, which is something I had been wondering about. 

So many settings and adjustments, how should I get them all dialed in for optimal riding pleasure? Since setup is done in open mode, so the suspension guide advises, ride in open mode for best results. OK, I followed that advice to go for a spin on all this new-to-me tech: Fox full suspension, 27.5 wheels, disc brakes, aluminum frame, tubeless tires, 2x10 gearing, dropper post, 120mm fork, tapered head tube, thru-axles, something something super stiff bottom bracket. So how did it all work out?

The Green Machine needs a name. ADDENDUM: the green machine is now called "Shimmer".

It seemed like I got the suspension setup pretty close to good for this ride. For future reference, on this particular bike, for trail riding, I am going to shoot for "as soft as possible without bottoming out too much" as my guideline. I wasn't too far off from that for this test ride, and it was fantastic. The bike asked me to do things I could never do on my older and much-beloved front suspension Bontrager mountain bike. That bike is fun to ride, but the evidence from this morning's ride is that mountain biking technology has indeed moved along in the 18 years since I bought that bike with its 80mm "long travel" Judy XC front fork. 

As a side note, I put Mountain Speed Springs into that fork from the beginning, kept it serviced, and never had any issues with it. I kept it clean and packed with Slick Honey and fresh oil, and it served me well. However, a 2016 120mm Fox Float fork kicks its butt all every which way. An actual rear shock beats the crap out of a Cane Creek suspension seat post. With so many years since I mountain biked often gone by, I was fairly tentative on this tryout ride, but I could see where this is going, as the muscle memory started to revive, while new skills enabled by the new capabilities of this machine opened before me.

Trail 100, hello my old friend

I ran the tires with 30 psi which seemed just about right. When possible, I like to ride to the ride, which I did this morning, and I didn't want the tires too soft for the street. Tubeless is supposed to enable lower psi, but for a first ride, this seemed like a decent compromise pressure. I put the rear shock at the middle setting for the streets and that seemed about right. Trail 100 is not very technical or challenging, anyway, just a nice stretch of singletrack to practice on, within riding distance of my house. I did pick up a goathead thorn which hammered into the tire within about the first 15 feet of trail, which the sealant in the tubeless tire handled with no issues at all. It would have flatted a tire with a tube for sure.

What else? I played with the dropper post just because it's there, but I can't say there's any reason for it on the west-to-east stretch of Trail 100 I rode this morning. A dropper really needs both more aggressive riding technique than I currently possess, as well as a longer and gnarlier downhill than this trail has. We'll see about that sometime soon, I expect.

Anything else? I guess I liked the 27.5 wheels, although I can't say they are life-changing or vastly different from 26" wheels. Probably a little bit. Like 6% or so. The combination of all that new-to-me tech, however, did make a big difference, I'll say that. Easier uphill. Better downhill. More control when swoopy. Less fatigue through rocky sections. So much better traction because the wheels are more stuck to the ground by the suspension, even these slightly less knobby Schwalbe tires. I slid or spun almost not at all. Disc brakes with great modulation or control, barely need the front brake at all. All true. 

I wanted to take a nice, safe, yet varied ride to try out the new bike, and this stretch of Trail 100 plus the streets to get there was excellent for that. I really wanted to keep riding longer, but also didn't want to push myself too far the first time out. Save some for next time. Be open. I will be, and look forward to more mountain biking as the summer winds down here (ok there are at least two more months of heat to go), at places like Desert Vista trail, the McDowells, South Mountain, and farther afield. So many great trails in this area, so little time. But a good bike not only conquers rocks and trails, it calibrates time with delight and new challenges. I can't wait.

PS: It's called "Dreamy Draw" because there were once mercury mines in the area, so the story goes that the name comes from the effect of mercury vapors on the mind.