Alaska, Again.

I found a great deal a few months back.  We landed round trip tickets to the 49th State, Alaska, for under $450 a person.   That’s a steal of a deal, and after a short discussion, I gladly gobbled the tickets up and confirmed some plans for us with my sister and bruh-in-law.  This was my 5th trip to Alaska, and Katie’s 3rd.   She likes to remind the 12 year old boy I devolve into when I talk about traveling to Canada or Alaska, that we have already been there several times and maybe it is time to explore new places.  She is not wrong and I am grateful that she agrees to explore new parts of the my favorite regions over and over.

I am not sure what it is about the state of Alaska that excites me.  It could be its unique geographic boundaries that seem to barely contain it’s varying an dramatic terrain, all the splendor!  Maybe it’s the landed gentry, the fauna: wolves, bears, moose, elk, and buffalo; the great beasts of our natural world.  Perhaps, it’s one of the many volcanos looming in the distance, occasionally puffing out some steam, reminding you that your surroundings are primal, natural things that would humble you if they desired.  For me, part of it is surely the variety of Mountains, classic looking shark teeth, frothed with snow and ice, to lower round cupcake sized rocks, sentinels in the distance.  My eyes have been clear and wide from a good nights sleep, and blurred, bloodshot from the long travel it takes to arrive in there, regardless, the terrain never ceases to force a space between the two rows of my teeth, letting my lower jaw wag in the wind and force my heart quit and still.  It’s sounds dramatic, because it is.

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How many places do that to you?  I can’t think of many.  Granted, the scope of my global experience is fairly narrow.  When it does happen, it tends to be in the presence of the natural world.  My body doesn’t provide the same physical reaction when presented with the fairly good evidence that humanity can create civilized wonders.  They never seem as humbling, even in context.  Maybe that is unfair.  Art definitely humbles, and evokes a physical reaction.

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Photo taken from: https://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/gogh/gogh.vegetable-montmartre.jpg

Broadly speaking, Americans have a bad reputation for ethnocentrism and xenophobia.  It has been suggested that this is true because they lack exposure to cultures outside of their own country (shit, read: County, or Town in some cases) and they source information that reinforces their world views (I think we are all guilty here). But, in a somewhat shitty defense of the former – when exploring is concerned, North America is pretty spectacular, geographically vibrant (read: fucking RAD) and culturally diverse-ish. In open honesty, when considering vacation, I am not usually super charged to leave the continent.  I feel ashamed to say it out loud, but I would prefer to go back to Yellowstone or Alaska than go back to Italy.

I think that partly has to do with how I want to see these places and how my perspective on “seeing” a place has changed.  Just last year, a friend of mine and I were exploring the next county over from ours, and we found an abandoned western movie set.   Someone had filmed a western movie in Central Illinois.  Who knew?  How much do we really know or see of the geography we live in?  Check your google maps history.   I am still surprised at the frequency of my visits to the same places and how I always take the same route to get there.  I am most likely only experiencing a few of the same miles of my own town, over and over.  Maybe it’s just me, maybe not.

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I think how we consume and explore places and other travel destinations matters. A person bike-packing the Great Divide trail or backpacking the Appalachian trail experiences something completely distinct than that of the car tour of the smokies, or a visit to old faithful.  A slow, human powered digestion of a landscape versus the blitz view of a natural phenomenon.  I think the former is a more thoughtful approach to travel and exploring.  Maybe it’s just a difference in how people view the world they live in: something to visit or something to experience?  In the end, I think you need both, each has it’s own independent value.

Someone close to me recently pointed out that hobbies and traveling are a privilege.   To their credit,  it’s true, and I was most likely whining.  Travel and experience places how you want.  I should just shut up and relish that I can travel at all.  I should feel lucky to have the means and opportunity to do any of it…many don’t.

I digress.

We really enjoyed our trip.  In Anchorage, we rented fat bikes and explored the plethora of pedestrian trails groomed for fat biking and skiing.  Checked out the local pastry shops and every brewery we could find.  We ventured down to Homer, Alaska too!  While we were there we witnessed a raft of seals enjoying their dinner and a whale playing in the ocean.  Back in Anchorage, we were also able to attend a free presentation on the Baja Divide by Lael Wilcox and Nicholas  Carman (plus: free Tecate, Chips, Salsa and Guac).  If that wasn’t cool enough, we also got chat with them after.   So stoked from the family and outdoor time.

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Which way to work…

My actual commute to work is pretty short.  I think I can get there in less than 10 minutes if I take the most direct, 1.5 mile route (one way), hit the single light, and sprint.  It offers traffic, a school zone, and a primo road with a wide shoulder.  Sometimes you can’t ask for more.  I don’t ask, but I look for alternatives.

I usually do not take that route.  It is boring, direct, even when racing traffic.  I take a longer, slower, route, that winds though the local hoods with myriad house styles, less traffic, more sunshine.  I think it adds a small hill too.  This alternate route also adds a mile on each end of the trip, and is worth every extra minute.  Who wants to be at work before they are awake and ready?  Spinning myself awake, aware.

Commuting doesn’t have to be boring; if time is not a concern, use your extra to explore.  After work one day, I found some run off ponds behind some apartment buildings and doctor’s offices.  There are paths that wind through the area made from woodchips, lite single track, and some gravel, but in some really essential connecting points to make the route work it is overgrown, full of broken glass, and trash.  This section would add a mile or so to my commute and let me have some fun between home and work.  I guess I should clean it up, someone else did all the work of building out the other parts and trails for fishing access.  Maybe they are there for bird watching?

 

 

 

 

Frame baggin’

I have been searching for ways to get my hands on a super sweet frame bag for my specialized AWOL from a number of companies (Porcelain Rocket, Roadrunner Bags, Rogue Panda, etc.).  On average, frame bags seem to cost about upwards of $170.   Once you have paid that money, it is not necessarily a guarantee that it will fit properly (unless you customer order), since most bike frames have variation to them even if the theme is similar (road geometry, MTB Geometry).   That is unless you are buying the Salsa Mukluk 3 bag direct from Salsa (same goes for Surly, and now Specialized).

My local bike shop is fantastic, but they don’t carry a size run of full frame bags from myriad bag providers and I am not sure it would be cost effective given bike packing isn’t exactly booming in Central Illinois.   It leaves me with a dilemma – how do I get my hands on a frame bag that fits without spending colossal amounts of duckets.

I started reading a bunch of blogs and researching the cost of fabrics and materials.  I decided I was going to make my own frame bag for my AWOL.

  • Is it easier to purchase a pre-made solution – Maybe
  • Is it more fun to DIY your way through a problem – Sometimes.

I happen to know a lady with as many sewing machines as I have bikes, who loves to teach and make things out of fabric.  I asked if she would teach me, and she happily agreed.  I created this model with a roll top design, avoiding the use of zippers, a known point of failure.

Here is how it looks so far:

It is made out of extra fabric my mom had in her sewing room (read bike room, but with fabric).  It reminds me of a 60’s beach umbrella in France…

Now that I have a template and semi-functioning model, I think I am going to order the proper fabric and other needed parts and create a more sturdy bag.

More Updates to follow….

A New Year and Resolutions

 

 

I was going to write an post on New Years Resolutions, and my mixed feelings about them in general.  I was going to talk about the absurdity of forcing big changes, arbitrary dates, over commitment, action, drive, the people we surround ourselves with, etc., etc.

But..

I don’t make resolutions and should not offer advice on them.  Preachiness is something to be avoided, and everyone’s motivation is different.

My favorite assessment of the whole thing is here.

Here is a shortish list of my overall plans for 2017 and give you a link to my favorite New Years resolution Blog Post:

  • Travel to visit family in Alaska and do fun stuff while I am there.
  • Plan trip to Iceland for 2018
    • Some friends of mine are going this year and I am excited to hear their recommendations and thoughts.
    • I was kindly gifted some books and a Map (MY FAVORITE) to help with the planning.
  • Get Married
  • Complete a 100 mile MTB race
  • Climb outdoors 3+ times
    • That’s how many times I made it out in 2016
  • Bike pack 3+ times
    • That’s how many times I made it out in 2016
  • Ride my Bike
  • CAT up for the HICX Series
  • Complete HICX Series
  • Get my Wheelies under control
  • Be Kind; Do things.

 

Friendship and Fat Biking…

I was introduced to fat bikes a few years ago when I participated in a local event, with my friend Colin: A Winter Fat Bike Relay Race in the snow.  I borrowed my friend Mike’s fat bike, and Colin and I teamed up to compete in the three lap race.

The race was for fun, put on by the local MTB club: CORBA. There was snow when the race started, but as the sun came out and stayed to party with us, the course, quite quickly, liquefied into grassy slop and mud.  Still, we raced on, wet and muddy, laughed and drank beer.

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After the race,  I cleaned the bike up (twice if I remember) and thanked Mike for lending me his Surly Pugsley.  It was a weighty blue beast, a touch small, but reliable in the corners.

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Just writing this reminds me of how fantastic the biking community here in Bloomington/Normal is and I am forever in debt to Mike and Colin (and the Local Bike Shop), for being fantastic friends, and introducing & inviting me to participate in these things…

Since then, I have been lazily eyeing a fat bike for purchase.  My relay race experience left me wanting more in terms of racing and fat biking, but time passed, and as money permitted, I chose  Mountain, Cross, and Gravel bikes and rides instead.    During this same time period, all new fat bike models have come out from every bike company and they are becoming increasingly lighter, faster, made from Carbon, and Ti, in a cascade of price ranges.  Any way I cut it, most of the time they were too expensive for me, and I didn’t want to spend a whole lot of money on a bike I was not going to race.

Colin got in contact with me about three weeks ago.   He mentioned that he had a Fat Bike, a Salsa Mukluk, that he was looking to part with after having purchased a different model, a Surly Ice Cream Truck, and was wondering if I would be interested.  I mentioned that I was interested, but would need some time to think about it.

He sent me this text message:

“In about 10 minutes I’m going to come by and put a fat bike in your backyard. That sounds inappropriate but it’s true.  Ride it this weekend and get rad.”

I did just that, and never looked back.

My first few rides were in a Elementary School playground with the dog.  I spent most of the time learning to wheelie, riding down stairs, and sprinting back and forth so the dog would chase me.

I raced the bike in the Fat Bike open at a local CX race, and had a great, but exhausting time.

I went on a Tuesday Nite Team ride with a few others on fat bikes and rode 16+ miles, with intermittent sprinting and ridiculousness.

On Christmas Eve, I rode 32 miles, and felt all the resistance of the large tires, and all the enjoyment of its ability to corner on suspect turf…

Yesterday, I rode it to the gym and back, in a head wind, learning the how important that high gear is.

What I found over the past three weeks:

  • Fat bikes will help you learn to wheelie
  • Fat bikes can move quickly
  • Fat Bikes can roll over just about anything
  • You will always have fun
  • You will rediscover your inner child
  • You can ride and have fun on any of the following surfaces:
    • Snow
    • Single track
    • Pavement
    • Grass
    • Mud

My final thoughts:

  • I think the fat bike is the perfect tool to bridges the gap between fun and training, road and all other trails.  Even my dog loves chasing it around.
  • A 4+ Inch tire gives you all the traction and comfort needed in all situations.
  • The Mukluk has all the bosses needed for bike packing…
  • Fat bikes are good for solo endeavors, but are better shared with friends.
  • Listen to your friends…buy a fat bike.

 

What a Quote:

“Now, in the purported wisdom of my eighth decade, I can dismiss our invincible destiny as a youthful fantasy,” he wrote. “But I also know that nothing else came along to fill the void it left behind.” Those words, the final sentence of the essay, mesh well with the final two of Roberts’s memoir: “In the human heart … there are nobler feelings than pride. And there are more important things in life than joy.” ~ David Roberts

http://www.outsideonline.com/2127886/david-roberts-rebelling-against-void

Reportage: Chequamegon 40

The Set Up:

At the end of last year I started a fitness program with some members of our local bike team. The goal was to improve fitness, strength, speed, and endurance during races. Many of the work out crew were specifically focused on mountain biking as a discipline. I had been talking about participating in a mountain race since I moved back to Normal, and I credit our local trail (for ripping off the derailleur on my then bike) for getting me involved with BCF and their race team.

I was really dedicated to the program, and enjoyed the twice weekly sessions, even if they were punishing and I had trouble walking the next day.

Given the results I was seeing, and my love of mountain biking and CX, I made a lofty goal to race more mountain bike races in our local series to keep my stoke thru the summer and increase my fitness for the Fall CX season.  Plus, shredding on a MTB is fun!

In an effort to reach my goal and encourage more MTB racing, I signed up on New Years Day 2016 for Chequamegon, a 40 mile MTB race in Northern Wisconsin.  The race starts in downtown Hastings, and connects a series of fire roads, cross country ski trails, and single track to Cable, culminating in a massive downhill from the top of Telemark Mountain, at the Telemark Ski Lodge.   It is the largest mass start mountain bike race in North America.  It has been described as a mountain bike time trial.

I purchased a used hardtail from a teammate and then, stopped riding almost all together. I never quit lifting at the gym, but my riding dropped of significantly.  I was basically only bumming around town on my single speed and running some errands.

The suffering is real, and blissful.

Pre Race 

40 miles is potentially quite rough if you have never raced you mountain bike before, and especially if you have not been training, or riding your mountain bike.   Needless to say, between vacations to Canada and Alaska, and my lack of mountain bike training, I was not super stoked for how I was gonna feel or place when I raced.

I had already sunk costs in the bike (which is superb and rides like a dream) and in race fees.  I just had to suck it up and do it.  Experiences are everything, and I was not going to miss this one because I was lazy and unfocused.

On the van ride up with the team, I asked questions about what was a good time to finish in, what the course was like, what I should expect, etc.   Clearly, I was unprepared, but my team members (some of who I was just getting to know), were confident I would/could finish in under 3 hours.  I settled on targeting a finishing time of under 3 hours, and focusing on riding smooth and as clean as possible (no falls, mechanicals, or stops).

We arrived two days before the race and were able to pre ride part of the course during a break in the rain on Friday.  We rode a total of 10 miles, half of which were the last 5 miles of the race course.  This was crucial for morale on race day.  This was the longest ride I had been on with this bike in months.  I felt good.

Graffiti between Cable and Hasting’s that has apparently been there for more than a decade.  The lettering keeps getting bigger.

The Race

Here is a video of the staging area before the start of the race.

 

I was staged in the last gate, #7.  The start was chaos as people start fighting for the front to avoid people who would be bottle necks later in the race.  I brought a Camel back with 2 liters of Scratch and 6 gels tucked into my short elastic, and quickly tried to pass as many people as possible.   I rode well, all things considered, and ran a few sections that I was unable to ride due to volume of people backed up trying to crest the hills.  I had a few mechanical issues, but felt really good the for 90% of the race.

One thing missed out on was recovery and fitness. The dudes who have been riding their bike and racing hard all year finished in 2:15 minutes-ish.  A few of those same.folks left that night and raced twice at a CX race back home the next day!  That’s a new goal to arrive for and really impressive.

Highlights of my race or things I learned:

  • Riding my bike more often would have helped
  • I cramped a bit at mile 36, and did my best to stretch on my bike on some of the downhills, and flats in between sprints.  No matter how much water you bring, take all the hand ups at the nutrition stations.
  • There were pirates on one of the hills who offered up free rum!  I gladly took a free shot and kept pushing.  I didn’t regret it.
  • I could have pedaled harder.
  • I climbed really well
  • All the rain really added to the fun of the race!
  • 40 miles on a mountain bike is really tough
  • A Narrow wide chainring without a clutch derailleur is kind of silly and potentially cost me my sub 3 hour goal.
  • Chocolate Cliff gels are the worst of the flavors. They are a thicker consistency than other flavors, and extra hard to process with little to no water.
  • Mini Cans of Coca Cola would be nice to have mid race – Rocket Fuel.
  • Flow is everything, carry the momentum.
  • There is a point beyond some types of pain, and sometimes it is blissful.

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Final thoughts if you are visiting the area:

  • There is fly fishing and canoeing galore on the St Croix river.
  • Hastings, WI has a brew pub called the Angry Minnow and its beer selection is primo. The pork tacos are delicious.
  • I may have become intoxicated and said I would participate on a team at the 2017 24 hours of Old Pueblo…we’ll see….
  • Check out the American Berkie, also hosted in Hastings.  It is an international XC ski race.

 

Travel and Misadventure

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