The Vacation Within the Vacation – No Compromises in Austria

After spending a couple of days in the beautiful town of Verona in northern Italy (where I unfortunately didn’t get to ride my bike), it was time to head north to Austria.  Following the wonderfully blood-pressure raising time that I had in Rome (not to mention all the harassment from the Pope) it felt good to be in more bucolic settings again. Still, I was excited to be heading to greener pastures on the other side of the Alps in Innsbruck.  Not that Verona was a bad place, quite the contrary – here’s 5 seconds exposure worth of digital data that sheds a little light on that subject (and also on the Castelvecchio Bridge over the Adige River).

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Leaving Verona by train, we rolled via the Brenner Pass to Austria.  Brenner may not be the most awe-inspiring alpine pass that you can travel by train but I couldn’t tear myself away from the window as the scenery slowly changed from vineyards to pasture, then from pasture to peaks as we climbed higher, then from peaks to introspection as we entered numerous tunnels in the higher terrain with my face staring back from the abyss of dark reflection in the window.  The reality of the approaching end of our vacation had begun to sink in.  Luckily the dark tunnels always came to an end.

Having in the past driven by car a few times over 3000 miles from one end of the US to the other and been confronted by the never-ending stripmall of homogenized chain store reality that is America, I find the continuum of culture in Europe fascinating.    As the scenery and terrain changed outside my window the language being spoken within the train slipped from primarily Italian to mostly German with each stop.  The towns we rolled through became perceptibly different, more “orderly” somehow.  Like using many of the same ingredients but in different proportions to make a completely different dish, everything slowly changed.

Just after the final stop in Italy, a man who had been sleeping in the seat adjacent to us was woken rudely by a couple that had just embarked.  It seemed they thought he was sitting in their assigned seat.   He pointed at his ticket, then at the confusing numbering system of the Italian train.  The seated man dug for his own ticket, then pointed at the number on it – an action that elicited a vigorous side to side shaking of the head and a loud “Nein!” from the new arrivals.  The German speaker stood with his arms on his hips, not a trace of a smile or understanding on his stern face.  The groggy man who had been wakened relinquished his seat and walked down the aisle, rubbing the sleep from his eyes as he searched for his proper seat.  The Italian woman seated across from us shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

At the top of the pass on the Italian/Austrian border the train stopped to switch locomotives (believe it or not, Austrian trains still run on a different electrical system than Italian ones).  The pass narrowed as we rolled down the Brenner Pass into Innsbruck and as we neared our stop we began to gather our gear together.  My bike suitcase had been buried by all the newer arrivals from the 8 stops the train had made so I had to dig a bit to get it free, and as I did one of the German speaking passengers (whose luggage was presumably piled on top of my bike) came to the end of the train and watched me like a hawk.  Once I had my bag I made my way to the end of the train and waited for our stop.

A French woman who was also getting off in Innsbruck and had been seated close enough to see the grumpy Austrians in action smiled as the train came to a stop and summed up the experience perfectly in English with just a hint of a British accent:

“They are an uncompromising people”.  We laughed with her as we left the train and stepped out into the impeccably clean train station that signaled the other end of the continuum from Italy.

As soon as we arrived I put my bike together as I wanted to spin the previous day’s relative inactivity out of my muscles.  After a brusque check-in process with a cordial but curt hostess, I gingerly walked down the narrow staircase into the lobby of the gasthof holding my bike out to the side, being careful not to rub it up against the decor.  Our room was on the 3rd floor in the newer addition to the 18th century structure. One of the workers ran after me.

“No! No! You mustn’t keep the bike in the room – the dirt…” he trailed off as he looked  disapprovingly at the Italian dust that clung to my bike. “You need to put your bike in the storage room!”

Feeling like an idiot I muttered one of my few German phrases “I’m sorry” and soon forgot about my faux pas as I headed out into the uncompromising beauty of the the Tyrolean Alps near Innsbruck.  The hills were alive with the sound of my spinning gears.

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My short ride revealed that this area of Austria is laced with dirt paths and walking trails (as is the entire country, or so I gather).  I was eager to head out again the next day as my short before dinner ride had whet my appetite, both for riding in the area and a good Austrian beer.  It felt good to switch from the fermented grapes of Italy back to my preferred hops.

The next morning I rode an uncompromisingly steep dirt route out of the town of Mutters up to a ski station outside of town.  It pays to get up early.

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Screaming back down on the descent I was almost collected by a farm tractor on a blind corner.  Luckily he compromised just enough by moving ever so slightly to the side to let me by and I lived to ride another day.  The Austrians were beginning to show their softer side. Soon thereafter my rear tire showed its softer side as it unceremoniously exploded.  The tube had melted from all the heat of braking on the steep roads.

As if to atone for the compassion of the farmer yielding with his tractor, the morning of my final ride in Europe arrived in a surly mood with spitting rain and fog. Unwilling to compromise, I went for the longest ride of the trip through some truly astounding scenery with the highlight being a wrong turn on one of the paths that lead me through a pasture and damn near into a barn where a farmer was milking his cows.  He yelled something after me in German, but I could’ve sworn he smiled when he did it.

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Riding through scenery like this followed by a hearty Austrian breakfast was a great way to finish the trip.  I guess the uncompromising Austrian attitude pays off in the long run as the country is impeccably clean and orderly with easy access to many natural wonders.  There is no trash beside the roads as is a huge problem in southern California.  One just needs to learn to compromise a bit in order to get along, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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As I finished up my final ride and packed up my muddy bike in the parking lot outside our gasthof,  the woman who had checked us in stepped outside to watch and ask questions about how it came apart to fit into the suitcase and where I had ridden the past few mornings.  Before she went back to work she cheerfully wished me a good trip back home then said:

“I’m glad we reached a compromise where you could keep your bike in the storage room.  You’re lucky to have seen part of our country by bike instead of car, you see so much!”

I couldn’t agree more.

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Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine

“All the children are insane, waiting for the summer rain…” – James Douglas Morrison

During the peak of the summer season intense solar heating chars the Southwestern USA like ants beneath the focused rays of a magnifying glass in the hands of a bored, sadistic child.  As surface temperatures increase, a trough of low pressure called a thermal low develops over the region resulting in a shift of wind patterns that sends moisture laden air flowing from Baja’s Gulf of California and the Eastern Pacific into these usually dry desert regions.  Most commonly called the monsoon, the phenomenon is also known by an alternate name: annoyingly hot and sticky weather to ride a bike in.

When the monsoonal flow kicks in, weird things happen in the dry deserts of the Southwest.  In southern California, moist air fills the desert basins to the rim until, provided with lift by the mountains of the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges, it billows skyward into the normally cloudless skies and produces thunderstorms of epic proportions that can be seen all the way from the coast. These storms often send torrents of water rushing down the washes and canyons obliterating everything in their path many miles from where the rain is actually falling.  The desert is not dry in summer.

While those distant thunderstorms rarely reach beyond the western foothills of the mountains, in the evening the sparks from their electrical frenzy light the eastern skies to the delight of anyone living along the coastal strip that can tear themselves away from the glowing screen of the television and watch.  With their thunder unheard they remain at arm’s reach like fireflies dancing across the 50 mile meadow that is the coastal plain.  The display can be mesmerizing.  I love this time of year.

Except for when I’ve got a ride planned for the mountains above Palm Desert and the monsoon is starting to kick in, then it’s just annoyingly hot and sticky weather that needs to be dealt with (not to mention the chance of getting struck by lightning). So when I left the trailhead at 7:30AM this past Sunday with the mercury already over 90 degrees I was not feeling the love for the monsoon, especially when I noticed that clouds were already starting to build off in the sweltering distance.

It would’ve been nice to have a little rain to keep the dust down, but as I rolled on down the trail the water droplets bided their time just beyond reach while jealously guarding their moisture in the heavens. To prime the pump I rained drops of sweat down upon the parched earth but it didn’t work: the clouds began to dissipate under the intense heat of the sun.  It was going to be a hot one.  Who am I kidding? It was already hot.

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I had met another rider at the trailhead, an odd occurrence for this place in the summer.  Most people avoid the desert this time of year but for some reason this guy was out riding.  Honestly, I’m not sure why I was riding since as much as I enjoy breaking the monotony of the summer with a thunderstorm, I hate the heat.  He asked which way I was headed, and when I told him my route he suggested an alternate path down a trail I’d never ridden.

“On your way back just head up here for a bit toward the horse camp, then turn right.  Follow the tire tracks – all paths lead to the tunnel. You can’t miss it”

As I thanked him he turned and rode off in the direction I was headed while repeating his last words.

“All paths lead to the tunnel.  You can’t miss it”

The day dragged on as I sipped from my Camelbak and rode beneath wide skies along the undulating scars of topography that previous storms have left upon the earth.  When my Camelbak emptied I switched to the piss warm bottles on my frame then popped some electrolyte pills as the temperature rose to at least 105 degrees.  Hot spots rose along the rim of each canyon like embers from a fire, driving the temperature even higher for short stretches.  The clouds had dissipated and the sun became a silent, unrelenting curse upon my lips.  Muttering under my breath about the monsoon, I turned to retreat back to the car and find the path the rider at the trailhead had suggested.

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At this elevation there is some scrub vegetation to provide shade to hide beneath but it’s not much.  Not being acclimated to the heat, after 4 hours in the sun I had wilted like lettuce beneath a heat lamp at one of those fast food restaurants where E. Coli has its own punchcard beside the timeclock.  Lizards scurried away just out of tire’s reach doing their reptilian thermo-regulation dance between the forces of hot and cold.  I flicked my tongue across my dry lips and wished for cold blood.  When I saw the tunnel up ahead I raced toward it as if it were an oasis in the desert… which it kinda was.

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But there’s no place to hide in the desert, not even from yourself, especially when you’re dehydrated and cowering in the shade of a creepy tunnel because you hate the heat and know at some point you need to move along, finish the ride and find a nice cold beverage to down in one huge gulp.  It’s enough to make a guy scream.

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Eventually I did leave the relative safety of the tunnel and slowly pedal back through the heat daze on some marvelous singletrack to the trailhead.  After all, this tunnel is just the sort of place people drown in during flash floods.  It’s feast or famine in the desert with a savage beauty whose wisdom only the dehydrated mind’s eye can truly see.

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The Vacation Within the Vacation – The Pope Says Ride

I didn’t give it much thought at the time, but it was kind of odd when my phone buzzed to signal an incoming text message as I dragged my bike suitcase behind me through the streets of Rome.  Having taken a high speed train south from Florence it had been a bit of a hassle to switch onto the city’s metro system while lugging my bike behind me like a mobster dragging a dead body, but that’s the way things work when you’re deadset on having a “vacation within a vacation”.  You also learn to ignore the stares of other riders as they alternate between giving you and your slightly oversize baggage the stinkeye on the crowded metro.

It was only a short walk from the metro station to our home for the next few days, but during that brief time I noticed that riding my bike on the streets of Rome might not be such a good idea.  The traffic (of which I had heard horror stories) was absolutely crazy.  Scooters, motorcycles, cars, buses and pedestrians circulated through the streets in an endless stream at time-lapse photography pace while I remained rooted in my own, much slower time-scale like a tree eyeing traffic flowing beneath its branches on a busy boulevard.  Entering the room, I stuffed the corpse of my dismembered bike into the corner of the room and briefly collapsed on the bed.  As my head hit the pillow I remembered my buzzing phone and fished it out of my pocket to see who had texted.

The odd thing was, my phone had not been turned on.  Turning it back on I stared at my bike in the corner while it booted up, thinking back to the traffic I had just seen and the negative impression of people that I had read online when researching places to bike in Rome.  Oh well, maybe when in Rome I should do as the locals do and stay off the streets?  My phone buzzed again to signal the arrival of a text.  Fumbling with it I went and opened up the text.

It was from country code 379.  What country is that and who the heck do I know from there?  That’s a new one.  I read the message aloud: “Make sure and ride your bike – Francis”.

Huh, what an odd message – and who is Francis?  I got up from the bed and looked out the window toward Vatican City.  Not in the mood for solving mysteries and eager to explore the city, I turned my phone off and headed out to experience the city with my wife and our friend.  I quickly forgot about my text spam from “Francis” and spent the next few days marching around Rome seeing the sights.

P1070581Rome is, of course, an ancient city.  I believe at some point in history they even commanded an empire of sorts.  Is it crowded? Heck yeah but the wealth of ruins, architecture, great food and art is mind boggling, and all of it dominated of course by the Vatican and the specter of the Catholic Church.  Maybe someday I’ll branch my blog out a little and discuss a little bit more about traveling and less about biking (assuming I’m fortunate to do more of it!), but until then here’s a little flavor of the city in a few photos.

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P1070423If you’ve been reading along about my little adventures you know I’m the kind of guy that likes to get away from it all.  So after a few days of playing tourist I was jonesing to get away from the tide of humanity that meets you at every step while checking out the world-renowned sights within the city.  While milling about with the rest of the mortals beneath Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling masterpiece, my phone buzzed again.  Not wanting to be accused of taking forbidden photos of the ceiling, I waited until I stepped outside to check the message.

You guessed it, Francis again.  It read “Nice, huh? Find your own beauty”

This message creeped me out a little.  Who is this guy and how does he know my every move?  Very odd.  I resolved to look over my shoulder next time before taking any Euros out of the ATM in case he was following me. After spending the rest of the day at the Vatican bumping into fellow tourists and straining my neck skyward in St Peter’s Cathedral (while holding tightly onto my valuables in case this Francis dude was stalking me), I returned to our room and collapsed onto the bed.  With the walls closing in on me, I glanced over at my bike and decided to ride the next morning.  3o minutes later the Ritchey was assembled and ready to roll.

At 5:30 AM the next morning I rolled out into the quiet streets near the Vatican under the watchful eye of the Pope.

IMAG0305Every Wednesday while the Pope is in town he gives an address at St Peter’s Square that is attended by throngs of faithful.  Luckily it also means that even though there are large lines of people waiting for the best seats to the address, this area is closed off from traffic first thing in the morning.  The sun rose over St Peter’s Cathedral and I took the opportunity to take a once in a lifetime, traffic-free shot from in front of the square.  Doing this on any other day will get you killed – Fiats have no conscience.

IMAG0304_1Heading down toward the Tiber River I planned to pick up a bikepath that runs along its edge then break out onto the city streets to meet the Appian Way and ride as far out of the city as I could in the time I had before breakfast.  All without getting killed in Roman traffic, I might add.  Even though it was early the roads were choked with traffic, as were my lungs with fumes from the scores of scooters whose pilotos revved their engines like it was a Formula 1 start at the turning of every light.  Rome is a race.

The Appian Way was one of the first and most strategic roads of the Republic.  The initial section was begun near Rome in 312 BC, and some sections of the original cobbles still remain.  Remember the saying “all roads lead to Rome”? Well this is what they were talking about.  It also works the other way as with a suddenness that shocked me, the city ended in a field of blood red poppies.  After a few days in the crowded city the openness of the scene was unnerving, as if the land itself were trying to swallow me whole.

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Trying not to think of what I knew lies beneath this pastoral landscape (many levels of catacombs in which early Christians were buried along with a few Popes), I rode onward. The road shot arrow straight across the centuries, its sides lined in ancient crumbling testament with the folly of the long-forgotten who sought to enshrine their earthly existence with stone and mortar.  The road, however, endures.

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I reached my turnaround time and headed back into the city, my road leading back to Rome once again.  Fighting through the scooter traffic and dodging maniacal Fiats (are there any other types?) I neared the pedestrian area of the Vatican.  A party was now in full force as energetic groups of faithful flowed into the city for the papal address.

It wasn’t really much of a ride for me any longer as I slowed to match the pace of old women in wheelchairs and those struggling with walkers.  But even though they might be fighting physical issues they all seemed determined so I went along happily with the flow.  Besides, I appreciate determination at any speed.  At the fringes of the throng, younger groups bounced along the cobbles dressed in their finery with the warmth of the morning sun lighting the broad smiles of their faces.  Hawkers sold papal memorabilia from stands and a festival atmosphere filled the narrow streets. I had heard this new Pope was popular but had no idea to what extent!  Being a lapsed Catholic, I struggled to recall his name…

I ran up the stairs to my room still energized from the ride, the scenery, the frenetic traffic and the excited throng I had ridden with along the way.   Sitting down on the edge of the bed I breathed a sigh of relief (mainly exhaust fumes) as my phone buzzed a few times then went silent.  It was one last text from my friend Francis.  It read: “I told you that you should ride!”

I never did find out who that guy was.

 

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Squirming on a Dunghill Calling to the Gods

I hate it when I want to write something but have no time to sit down and do it.  Instead I’ll resort to the lazy blogger’s trick and do a Photo Friday post, albeit with a lengthy quote from one of the original “adventure bloggers”, Jack London. I think the passage below fits this scene, a remarkable and dynamic sunset I witnessed while on a ride outside of Bishop, CA last weekend.  Although if you have the time, the three short chapters from his book “John Barleycorn” where he traces the history of his ranch and debates his grinning death skull are some of his best writing.  True, he’s writing of his own struggle with alcoholism, but he’s also confronting mortality.

Thus concludes this week’s literary session seen through the spokes of a wheel :)

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“Man refuses to accept his own passing. He will not pass. He will live again if he has to die to do it. He shuffles atoms and jets of light, remotest nebulae, drips of water, prick-points of sensation, slime-oozings and cosmic bulks, all mixed with pearls of faith, love of woman, imagined dignities, frightened surmises, and pompous arrogances, and of the stuff builds himself an immortality to startle the heavens and baffle the immensities. He squirms on his dunghill, and like a child lost in the dark among goblins, calls to the gods that he is their younger brother, a prisoner of the quick that is destined to be as free as they–monuments of egotism reared by the epiphenomena; dreams and the dust of dreams, that vanish when the dreamer vanishes and are no more when he is not.” –  Jack London

 

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Sundog Millionaire

As you can tell from my last post I was feeling rather optimistic at the chance of finding snow to ski on last week,  so after work on Friday I headed up to the Saddlebag Lake area off Tioga Pass for a little soul searching.  It’s almost like cheating skiing from this trailhead: drive up to 10,000 ft, hike about 3 miles and BAM – alpine splendor.

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The snow is kind of thin this year, but there’s still enough to slide around on for a few hours. With pikas yelling at me to stay off their territory (no doubt waving their tiny little arms as they did so) and mosquitos whispering sinister thoughts in my ears, up the Greenstone chute I headed.  Not before laying down in the mud like a dawg and snapping a few pics of course….

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I like the main Greenstone Chute.  It’s about 900-1000 vertical ft to the top and wide enough to have a forgiving runout should your skills be rusty, yet the top is plenty steep to make it interesting.  Just as I got into my climbing rhythm, the motion of an animal scurrying up the snow caught my eye.  Having watched the cheesy 80′s classic “Red Dawn” too many times in my life (as well as too many Nature specials I might add), my brain immediately screamed “wolverine!” at the low, scurrying beast climbing the corniced ridge above me.

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Seeing as there are probably only a handful of wolverines in the entire state of California, my scurrying beast turned out to be a coyote.  I guess I had blocked his escape route and he was forced to run up the cornice to the open plateau on the other side of the ridge that forms the basin below Mount Conness.  Admiring his dogged determination and pace along the suncupped snow, I watched this lone soul fade into the distance.  Seemed a strange place for a dog up here in the rocks and snow, although I’m sure the alert little pikas are yasty enough morsels for a hungry coyote.

About halfway up the slope my own hunger began to burn like the outline of my sunglasses into my face (never forget your sunscreen when you’re grabbing solstice turns). I yearn for moments like these. It’s easy to get lazy and sit back on the couch while watching the world pass you by, especially as the years add up and the mountains you used to climb with ease become a little harder.  But being out climbing mountains with your skis on your back is one of the most life-affirming experiences you can have, even if the snow is thin and your sea-level lungs are burning from the altitude.  Oftentimes people ask me why I like to earn my turns and in reply I fumble for the right words to explain the motivation.  For the most part I’ve given up trying to explain it as most people just don’t get it.

From now on I’m just gonna carry this photo of my grinning soul ascending the heights and show it to them.  Look at this! This is why! It makes my soul feel light.  And if you asked that coyote I’m sure he’d say the say thing.  Why do you think they call to each other across the valley?

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Along the ridgeline the joyous souls of man and beast danced in wispy clouds and followed the path the coyote had taken.  With the circle now complete, a sundog illuminated the way (which in my blindness I cut off from the edges of the only picture!) For the remainder of the afternoon I was the richest man on the planet, a true Sundog Millionaire.

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Turns All Year

“The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little” – Mark Twain

A few years back I decided that I wanted to ski all year long.  Living near San Diego this might seem like a really stupid wish (no, water skiing doesn’t count), but fortunately the Sierra Nevada is not really that far away if you don’t mind racking up the miles on your car.  Of course the real question is “if you live in San Diego County, why do you want to ski all year long?” Shouldn’t I be out surfing and scarfing down post-wave fish tacos with my brahs?  Hmmm maybe I should move away from the palm trees and move closer to the mountains.

Regardless of the philosophical questions, thanks to a few good snow years (and some lift-served turns during the winter) I was able to get a nice string going for a while.  It took a little bit of effort but I was able to link together 15 consecutive months of skiing.  Of course I only dipped my toe into the snowmelt – I know there are numerous people that have been skiing year round for many, many years (lucky bastards).  But for me that was a pretty good string and I have some good memories from my quest.  That’s all I ask for from life: good memories and the prospect of creating more.

Sure if I was forced to rank it some of the skiing really sucked.  But on the other hand some it was incredible. During my string I hiked, biked and even boated to ski.  The journey was sublime.  Suncups sprouted like fields of Matterhorns in my dreams as I plotted my path to snow all summer long.

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I’m not the world’s greatest skier so my lines may not be outrageous, but linking your first turns in August on a chute with a fall line that pushes you toward the rocks makes you feel like Glen Plake in The Blizzard of Ahhhh’s. Yes, I’m that old.

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See that distant patch of snow in the wake of the Saddlebag Lake’s Water Taxi? That’s one of your best bets to get September turns in California.  Yes, September is the worst month as the snowpack is at its minimum and if you don’t time it correctly whatever’s left in the chutes is more like ice climbing.

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The good news is that by the end of October there’s snow in them thar hills, and the approaches get even longer when they shut down the passes (that’s Tioga Pass in the background).  Yes, it’s good news because now you get to ride your fat bike 15 miles before you hike for turns.

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All that effort is worthwhile, of course.  Winter may come later to the mountains during this time of global warming, but at least it still comes.

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Even along the Angeles Crest Highway outside of Los Angeles you can find turns in midwinter once you poke your head out of the fog.  Well, most winters you can.  Last year during our Winter of Discontent the local mountains were dry as a bone.  As the motto at Mt Waterman states: “Praying for snow for 40 years”.  Time to find a god that listens.

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In a good year even in May San Gorgonio can fill the need like catching raindrops on your tongue in the driest of deserts (an apt metaphor for sure as one can see the desert from the peak).  Sure, you have to hike a ways to get to it, but that only keeps the crowds at bay.

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The way I see it, there are 2 types of people in this world: pessimists and optimists.  Southern Californian skiers are optimists.  Being optimists, they pack their gear into their cars giddy with the hope of getting a few potentially crappy turns on rotten, suncupped snow in over the weekend.  They drive for hours, then bike or hike far into the hills in search of a patch of snow to call their own.  They link a few turns then head back home and dream of miracles while checking the latest weather forecast.  While mountain biking through the bottomless moondust that covers their trails during what may be the worst drought in 500 years they dream of the next El Nino .  They remember the good times with smiles on their faces, not because they dwell in the past but because facing the future with a smile is the only way forward.

As for pessimists, you’re on your own for a definition of those people.  I’m a skier that lives in Southern California. I don’t know a damn thing about them.

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The Vacation Within the Vacation – Florence, Italy

How do you start a “vacation within a vacation”? Stumbling around the room of your B&B in the dark at 5AM trying to bolt your bike together while trying not to wake your wife or get grease on any of the furnishings in the room, that’s how. I know this because that is exactly what I was doing my first morning in Italy while in a complete, jetlagged daze.  My wife and I had just arrived the night before around 8PM, checked in, found our friend’s apartment (luckily only a ten minute walk) where we had a late dinner and wine (of course!) after 14 hrs cooped up in various planes.  And now after 4 hours of fitful sleep I was fiddling around in the dark playing bike mechanic. Nothing like hitting the ground running the first morning of a relaxing vacation.

I never said that trying to fit a daily bike ride into what is decidedly NOT a cycling vacation is easy, but it can be done.  Of course the first thing you need (if you don’t want to rent wherever you go) is a bike you can travel with without paying exorbitant airline fees.  A few years ago I picked up a Ritchey Breakaway Cross for just these sorts of trips.  To date I’ve never paid a “bike” fee while flying with this bike, and I’ve always had fun bolting it together that first morning of the trip – or so I tell myself.  It’s worth it to me once I get out on the road and start riding, especially this time when the ride coincided with a gorgeous sunrise on the Arno Rover as I hit the slippery Italian pavement following a gpx track downloaded beforehand.

Consider yourself warned about following routes downloaded off the internet: you’d be surprised at how many of them go the wrong way up narrow one-way streets.  Or maybe since this is Italy they just do things differently?  Almost becoming a Fiat’s hood ornament seems very Italian.

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I’ve had a little bit of a checkered past with this bike as this is my third frame.  The first 2 cracked at the head tube after a couple of seasons (I also race cross in the fall with it) but Ritchey has always replaced it promptly.  To be fair, at 6’3″ 220 lbs and riding a 60cm frame I’m probably at the upper limit of this design – especially for a bike I ride quite frequently.  Regardless, their customer service has always been excellent.

The build on the beast is straightforward: SRAM Rival with a few Force components mainly.  A compact 50-34 crankset up front with a 32 for the large cog out back allows me to ride road or dirt when combined with some meatier tires, and that 32 tooth cog got quite the workout in Italy!  It turns out that the Old World tends to be much steeper than the New World I’m accustomed to riding.  Or maybe we’re just fatter in the New World?

Since I knew I’d be riding some dirt roads on this trip I chose to lever some Clement XPLOR USH 35’s tires onto HED Belgium 32 spokers laced to Ultegra hubs. The wheels are bulletproof and last well when packed up and subjected to baggage handling gorillas, just as you’d expect from a product named “Belgium”.  The tires roll well on pavement yet grip on dirt trails, especially when you possess mad skills like I do (just seeing if anyone is reading this sentence and cares to debate my cloke of internet invincibility – we’re all heroes on the internet right?).

One thing that is not up for debate is the beauty of Florence and the surrounding area. From one side of the valley to the other, the scenery is astounding.  As a bike geek, the fact that Florence has hosted the Giro d’Italia and the World Championships adds to the allure of the place.  For an Italian city, Florence also seemed to be the home of many cycling enthusiasts whom I encountered out on the roads, something I (of course) find appealing.  It’s gorgeous, and each ride that I managed to squeeze in reinforced that fact as I examined the area from different angles.

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As my introduction to cycling in Italy it was the perfect city.  The traffic in the city, while slightly crazy, did not approach the madness of a place like Rome (more on that in the next post).  Once out of the city and onto the narrow back roads leading up into the hills the wisdom of a vacation within a vacation and lugging a bike around Europe crystallized in the light of the rising Tuscan sun.  It burned (along with my legs) on the 30% climbs on the way to the town of Fisole…

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On the other side of the valley on my way to Impruneta, the cats of the Church of San Michele a Monteripaldi paused for a moment in silent agreement before scampering away.  Coming across a church built in the 1100′s out here in the quiet countryside made me feel somewhat young again.

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A few miles of the famed Strada Bianche “White Roads” of Tuscany showed their appeal as they rolled through the olive groves, the silence of the morning punctuated by the grinding of their stones beneath my tires as pheasant, deer and hare scurried away into the undergrowth upon my approach.  A pleasant “buongiorno” from an elderly man out for his morning walk cemented my street cred with the locals.  Tourists don’t spend their mornings riding their bikes up incredibly steep roads, right?  Well most of them don’t, but maybe they should.

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For a moment the fog of jetlag within my brain lifted and revealed the truth: there’s never enough time to do the things we truly enjoy in life and seeing the world on a bike is nothing short of perfect.  The pace is not too fast, yet not too slow.  While the “vacation” portion of our visit to Florence can only be described in superlatives (great food, great culture, great wine, great company), the “vacation within” was much too short indeed.  Some day, somehow, some way I need to return to Tuscany and venture off into those distant hills for a few days on my bike.  The riding I was able to squeeze in while visiting this area only hinted at the possibilities for exploration.

Just as I said on numerous occasions after having a delicious glass of wine while in Italy: I want more.  More time in Tuscany, more time to travel, more time to discover all the beautiful places in the world.

“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets” – Arthur Miller

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Up next: Riding the Appian Way from Rome

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Doughboy’s Not Dead…

He’s just gone to a better place.

I haven’t updated the blog in a while as I’m a little sleep deprived from trying to pack a vacation within a vacation for the past couple of weeks.  What’s a “vacation within a vacation” you ask? Well the vacation part is traveling to Italy and Austria with your wife (who does not ride) – awesome enough on its own merits as Europe offers enough interesting culture and delicious food to eat that you can make a living just writing about it – ask Rick Steeves.  The “vacation within the vacation” part is trying to pack as many bike rides as humanly possible into the hours before sunrise and breakfast along with continuing to do all the other touristy stuff until late into the night.  If you can burn the candle at both ends it’s the best of all vacation scenarios.  But coupled with the inevitable jetlag and tiring nature of trying to pack as much as possible into the little bit of time you’re alloted to travel, inevitably you find yourself back at work in a dream-like state wondering “who is that person typing out emails and acting all corporate again?” Which is exactly where I find myself today.

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Sitting back at work cooped up in the little cage of my own making draws the distinction between where I am and where I’d like to be as crisp and clear as a mountain stream in the hallucinations of a man dying of thirst.  Unless you’re a workaholic who is totally wrapped up in your work, that person who shows up at work every morning is in some respect nothing but a shadow within the dream of yourself.  To some it might even be a nightmare within a dream.  I prefer the shadowy, sleep-deprived figure of myself that took this photo somewhere in the dream that is Austria.  I won’t do a great philosopher the disservice of paraphrasing his words to include some pithy bike reference, but I think Chuang Chou summed it up well:

“Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Chou. Soon I awaked, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man. Between a man and a butterfly there is necessarily a distinction. The transition is called the transformation of material things”

Look for a few entries from this trip in the next few days plus some tips from me on having your own “vacation within a vacation” by traveling with your bike.  It’s worth the hassle!

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Satori in San Diego

“It is better to travel well than to arrive” – Gautama Buddha

I sat in my chair as the conference call droned on like a transoceanic flight, the kind of flight where 5 hours in you’ve had just about enough of the blubber and bad breath from the 300 lb guy seated next to you invading your personal space and you start to consider whether free-falling 35000 ft of air between you and the surface of a watery grave is a better option.  Sheesh, only 15 minutes into the call and I was off on a mental tangent like a Malaysian airliner headed toward the pole of inaccessibility.  Trapped in the shadowless lighting of a fluorescent hell of an office with no foreseeable chance of escape, I searched for something to get my mind off the task at hand.

My eyes darted around the cage of the room much like the wandering topic of the conference call itself – neither one of us had much focus.  Not finding anything interesting to look at other than the bored faces of my co-workers (hmm, Bob ought to get that mole on his cheek looked at, it looks weird), all control over my destiny now lay squarely in the hands of whatever jackass was babbling endlessly on the other end of the line in a vain attempt at making himself sound impressive for his boss. Exhaling a sigh of relief I seized upon the reflection of a palm tree I could just barely make out through the gunslit of a distant window as it swayed in the breeze of the parking lot.  Imagining myself swaying in the breeze while leaning up against its trunk I made my escape, if only for a minute.

Anyone that’s ever worked in an office and been stuck in a conference room with a few other doomed souls knows exactly what I’m talking about.  No one likes these sorts of situations (except for the few twisted souls that seize upon opportunities like the captive audience of a conference call to pump up their low self-esteem by picking on every little detail I suppose), but it pays the bills.  Or maybe some people are just so dulled by the routine of life that they really don’t care as they march onward through endless days like the one I was having.  The weary foot soldiers shuffle toward their deaths hastened by heart disease and stress spurred onward only by the rantings of their psychopathic leaders.  Or maybe if I think like this I’m just not cut out for this corporate world?

Whatever the root cause, 15 minutes into the conference call I had determined it to be total bullshit and had checked out almost completely.  I followed the reflection of the palm gently swaying in the afternoon breeze.  For all I knew it could’ve been the reflection of a screensaver on someone’s computer, but at least it transported me away from the drone of the middle manager on the other end back to a day 3 weeks earlier.  It had been my last week of unemployment.  My freedom (and impending poverty) was lifting like a soothing morning fog being burned from the valley by the scorching light of dawn on the hottest day of summer, the double-edged sword of having to rely on the sun for our existence.  Not to mention having to work for a living.

Although I had clearly begun to  multi-task at work (daydreaming is a valuable career skill), that morning 3 weeks ago I was single-minded in my pursuit of a dream.  Though the weather was looking a bit iffy (a late winter storm was blowing in off the Pacific) I was headed out on my trusty Salsa Fargo for a loop around San Diego county that would roughly trace the Stagecoach 400 bikepacking route.  Not being a fast biker and wanting to travel in tourist mode instead of a race mode, I had hoped to bag at least the high points of the course as it wound through coastal suburban San Diego, up into the mountains, across the desert then back to downtown San Diego over the mountains again.  From there I planned on catching a train back to North County, weather permitting of course as snow was forecasted for some of the higher elevations of the route.

Transfixed upon the swaying reflection of the palm outside my gloomy conference call, I recalled how there were palm trees swaying in the breeze the day I took off on my ride too. I’d wanted to do this ride for what seems like forever and this was my last chance to get it done, so I started at the water’s edge for a ceremonial tire dip into the Pacific at the Oceanside pier then headed south.

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Soon I was cruising on pavement through Carlsbad accompanied by formations of pelicans flying parallel to the cliff’s edge like pterodactyls in a child’s dream.  The espresso bars sprinkled liberally alongside the road sweetened the morning air with the aroma of coffee like the sweet salt spray being driven on the wind before the oncoming storm, the clink of glasses and cups from the cafes echoing off the never-ending line of commuters in their cars headed off to work, yoga class or the closest surfing spot.  Some commutes are better than others I guess.

P1060906 Once I reached Penasquitos Canyon, I turned inland and headed East following the faint trails that have not been obliterated by the “progress” of humankind.  I’ve read how mountain lions still use these corridors to disperse and travel long distances in their never ending search for new territory in a world of shrinking habitat brought on by human encroachment, but the only tracks I saw were human.  Their footsteps dotted the trails beneath their transportation corridors like tracks on the veins of junkies shuffling forward toward their next fix.

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Reaching the San Pasqual Valley the world began to open up as strawberry fields forevered into the clear afternoon.  Meanwhile poppies popped and daisies danced along the trail in a wild bacchanal of Springtime color.  The little bit of rain we’d had a few weeks ago had done its job and the valley had flowered despite one of the driest summers on record.  The march of seasons rolled on into the valley.

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The wind had picked up considerably as I left the valley and began to climb toward the mountains which guard the desert.  Since it provided the invisible hand of a tailwind I welcomed it as I climbed until I remembered that tomorrow I would need to turn back into that gale.  The forecast had called for winds of 70mph plus over the ridges and my enthusiasm began to wane as I thought of crossing the desert floor into the teeth of it as I headed West toward San Diego.

I hadn’t thought much of it while riding the last 100 miles or so through suburbia and the heat of the valley, but as the climbing began in earnest I thought of the snow that was expected to accumulate.  I’d had a great day on the bike so far, did I really want to subject myself to a death march the next two days?  I thought of my options as I pedaled slowly.  This was the moment of truth, the prickly fingers of thorns embedded in the sea of truth.

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Meanwhile back in the office, the conference call had begun to wind down.  I shifted in my chair and counted down the minutes, much as I had back in Escondido while waiting for my wife to come pick me up.  I had chosen to cut the ride short instead of fighting all that wind and snow (which did come, just as forecasted).  Too bad I can’t choose to avoid all of the hot air of meetings in the office whenever I choose.

So instead of shivering in the snow and wind while sleeping that night in my bivy sack beneath a stormy sky, I laid in bed staring at a placid ceiling wondering if I had made the right choice.  Would I ever get the chance to ride this loop again?  When are conditions ever truly perfect?  I trailed off into sleep to the meditative sound of our cat softly purring Ommm while contentedly curled up in the crook of my legs.  The wisdom of a sleeping cat knows no bounds.

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The conference call ended and I immediately bolted down the hallway for the door like a Red Bull sponsored lemming in search of the nearest cliff upon which to leap off and make an “extreme sports” name for himself.  No offense to my co-workers, but I needed to get away from them and feel the warmth of sun on my face.  Pushing the door open so forcefully that it banged against the wall as it flew open, the blinding flash of the light of day slapped me across the face.

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Photo Friday – The Winter That Wasn’t

“To be alive at all is to have scars” – John Steinbeck, The Winter of our Discontent

I know, I know – many parts of the US had a winter to remember this year, but here in California it was a complete and total bust.  However, I have heard that an El Nino is brewing for next winter (which usually means big storms and lots of snow for California) so I’m hopeful that I will get at least one more big winter to close out my time in the state of boom and bust. Here’s hoping for more scenes like this in the Sierra Nevada next year!  Not just for the fat biking fun, but also for the backcountry skiing.  Maybe I’ll even resurrect my “Turns all Year” quest to ski in every month which I completed a few years ago.  You gotta have dreams to get you through the dry spells, right?

Goodbye Winter of 2013-4, we hardly knew ya.

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