Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fire on the Mountain

I've been driving back and forth lately between Northern and Southern California. The fastest way to do this is via Interstate 5, which courses north from Los Angeles over the Grapevine pass (a.k.a. Tejon Pass), down into California's Central Valley.

Since Labor Day (September 4), a major wildfire has been raging through the Los Padres National Forest, to the west of this route. Firefighters at first were struggling to keep it from hopping the freeway to spread to the Angeles National Forest, on the east side of I-5. The fire was threatening to close I-5, which is a major economic artery as well as a transportation corridor.

So far not much damage done to buildings or people, and the fire has burned back away from the freeway now, but it has left a vast sweep of land looking like craters on the moon. As I've gone back and forth, the vistas of the active fire and firefighters have been dramatic.

Whenever we get a wildfire like this, it colors sunsets for weeks.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Long Time Gone

I've been riding in Northern California for the last week or so. I don't know every curve in these hills by heart, but I recognize the way they rise and fall the way you recognize a smile warming across the face of an old friend.

Took me a couple of outings to fully get over a cold I had and put my legs back under me, but yesterday the morning sun was warm and I had a fine time climbing up a gentle grade on the way out, coasting (mostly) back downhill on the way back. These are truly some of my favorite riding hills.

When the weather's fine, you can taste the dusty, dusky scent of the hills as you ride, dried grasses and eucalyptus and California live oak. A friend in college had an aunt who could make tea that tasted like the dry smell of summer hills.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Monday, September 11, 2006

Fighting Terror

Five years ago today, about 3,000 people died in a horrific couple of hours in New York City, Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania.

Every human death is a tragedy.

That same day, about 24,000 people around the world died of hunger. You don't die of hunger in a day, or in the time it takes a building to fall down. Starvation is a slow, unhappy death.

The next day, 24,000 more people died of hunger. And the next day. And the next day. Three-quarters of them were children under the age of five.

Every human death is a tragedy.

Their names are on no walls; they have no memorials. Country singers don't write patriotic ballads about them. The people who give their lives to try to help them aren't celebrated and decorated as national heroes. The Washington Post didn't have a big article on September 12, 2001, about the 24,000 lives lost the day before. Or on the 13th. Or on the 14th.

But every life saved is a victory. Twenty-five years ago, the number was 41,000 a day.

When will we say "never again"?

In 1999, 31 million Americans couldn't tell you where their next meal was coming from.

It's important to commemorate our losses; it's good to steel ourselves against our enemies and keep the unthinkable from happening again. Every human death is a tragedy.

We cannot unwrite the events of the past. But, going forward, we shape our world. The choices we make tell us--and the world--who we are.

On this day of U.S. remembrance and mourning, maybe there's a moment too to remember those who are still living, still suffering. We can't bring back those we have lost. But we can change lives going forward.

It's one way to consecrate the memory of the fallen.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Bunch of Ms in the Sky

Down to the marshes again today, and I really had my rear end handed to me by my ride, though it was shorter than last week's. Not sure why. I'll blame it on fighting a cold.

No bald eagles this week. These birds are, um, very long-nosed eagles.

They are endemic to the area, influenced by cross-breeding with the mascot of the local seat of higher edumacation.

Betcha didn't know I was an ornithologist. This is a bird. See?

This guy was the closest I came to an eagle. I don't know the name of it. I've actually seen lots of (different kinds of?) hawks circling over the bluffs I keep climbing, but I'm usually panting too hard to want to stop and squeeze off a few shots.

I've seen a lot of fabulous things from the seat of a bicycle, from deer lunching in the forest to missiles launching from Vandenberg. Sometimes I take a picture. Sometimes I think to myself, "If they want to see it, let them do the legwork too."

As with most grail quests and grunion runs, the reward isn't always in what you set out to find but in what you find when you get there. I didn't see any eagles today, but I had a terrific time standing in the warm sun on the edge of the very still Back Bay, enjoying everything else I did see, and enjoying the peace and tranquillity. After mooning around there for a while, I saddled up and headed back to the pell-mell of Pacific Coast Highway, but the respite had been golden.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

For the Birds

Not sure what these guys are called, but they sure look like they're celebrating something.

Can you spot the American icon in this picture?

My NASA super-enhancing Photoshop filter only delivers this much detail. It could be anything. In the sun, with my sunglasses on, I couldn't even be sure it was a bird, and not just a log with a funny shape. But it sure looked like a bird. Funny thing was, what it really looked like most, from a distance, was a log shaped (and colored) like it had a bald eagle sitting on it.

I don't remember ever seeing a bald eagle before, unless there was one at a zoo somewhere.

I pretty much shrugged and decided my eyes were playing tricks on me, but I took the picture anyhow.

Got home and looked it up online, and it turns out that bald eagles have been spotted in the Newport Back Bay for the past two years.

This is not a bald eagle. I'm no ornithologist, but I think it may be a blue heron.

Same picture, but blown out to show all his bird buddies in the reeds behind him.

Southern California gets a bad rap, sometimes deserved, for not caring about the environment. But there's a remarkable network of preserves and refuges and sanctuaries and parks integrated into the conurbation that sprawls from Malibu to Laguna, from Palos Verdes to Palm Springs. Perfect and pristine? No. I think you can see civilization from any corner of this marshland. But fertile? You bet!

A huge number of plant species grow here (this wetland is just one example of a local protected area), and if the number of birds are any indicator, I think there's a lot of life in the water and mud too. John Steinbeck's old pal Ed Ricketts kinda surprised the world of natural history with his monographs on the California and Baja California intertidal zones, pointing out that the area between salt and fresh, between wet and dry, between high tide and low tide harbored a far richer collection of life (and more interesting) than the land or the sea.

A pocket preserve like this, as well as being a sanctuary for wildlife, also puts it in the direct path of more human beings who might decide once in a while to go enjoy the real world for a while instead of watching it on TV. Yes, it's not perfect. But I'd rather see a kingfisher here than in a zoo.

As you ride along toward the end of a long day, especially when you're riding upwind, you find all kinds of reasons to stop. You need to adjust your pedals; you need to refill your water bottles (or just move them around); you need to take a picture; you need to write down your time at a waypoint instead of just remembering it until you hit a stoplight.

This is a "passive use" park in Newport Beach. No swingsets or teeter totters, and the vegetation is strictly local scrub, which in fact has been rehabilitated for the purpose of the park. (Lush, eh?) But it's got trails (along the route of the first road through the area, no less), and as you can see benches and a drinking fountain that runs hot for several seconds when you turn it on.

Lately I've been asked to take part in an advisory committee on a similar park in Long Beach, so I thought it was important to stop here and do some research.

While I was stopped, I also moved my water bottles around.


This hill is a lot steeper than it looks.

That "1 Mile" mark in the street is not what you want to see after huffing and puffing up a grueling grade. The joke is that it has nothing to do with cycling. I'm not sure what it marks, but it's not a mile from the top of the grade. The first time I rode this grade, a couple of days ago, I groaned when I saw the mark. I knew I was on a 2.5-mile leg, and I was sure I was closer to the end. Turned out I was.

I went back and rode the identical course yesterday, because I enjoyed it so much on Saturday. Like many rides, it was mostly easier the second time through. I checked some numbers before I went, and made a significant flub in calculating this grade. I measured the leg from end to end, and checked the elevation at both ends, using Google Earth. The leg clocked out at 2.6 miles, starting at 129 feet and ending at 637 feet for a 508-foot climb. 508 feet in 2.6 miles is a 3.7% grade (3.7 feet of climb per 100 horizontal feet). No problem, I thought: Palos Verdes Drive East is a ±4% grade for 2.5 miles, so this is actually easier.

Uhm, I forgot one thing, which I remembered yesterday as I rode: The peak of this grade comes before the end of the riding leg. So I'd measured the grade as longer than it actually is, and I'd taken an elevation point significantly lower than the peak.

After I got home, I checked again. Google Earth confirmed that the actual peak was 722 feet, not 637. And the climbing part, from Pacific Coast Highway to the crest, is only 1.77 miles. The math on that works out to a 6.3% grade. Ah. That's why my legs felt so tired.

Palos Verdes Drive East, by comparison, tops out at a little over 800 feet, but the climb starts at a higher point than Newport Coast Drive, so there's only about 500 feet of climbing from the foot of the hill. That's spread over 2.5 miles instead of 1.77. Each ride has its peculiar challenges. Alpe d'Huez, one of the most famous crotch-busters in the Tour de France, runs 8 miles at 8%, an uninterrupted climb of 3,690 feet (1125m). This year it probably broke Floyd Landis. He did well on the Alpe d'Huez, regaining the yellow jersey he'd "given away" some days before, but the next day his energy level broke down on the final climb of the day, and he lost several crucial minutes in the standings. What happened after that is still being litigated.

Take a look at the picture above, and you'll see there's not much cover from the sun on this hill either. Fun riding.

Actually, my legs would not have guessed this was a 6.3% grade. It's stiff climbing, but it doesn't feel that rough. I may go back and take a third look. Palos Verdes Drive East has lots of switchbacks, and the grade is not even, so you get harder spots and easier spots, and you can focus on what's right in front of you. Newport Coast Drive has long even stretches where you can look ahead, as in the picture above, and know that there's no break until at least the end of the current, very uniform, still punishing grade. Harder or easier mathematically, it's maybe more demoralizing in its way.

More numbers: Remember that sign from the other day that said I was 28 miles from Long Beach? That would make a 56-mile round trip by bike; I estimated my turnaround point was maybe 5 miles past that, giving me roughly a 65-mile riding day.

I took a longer look at it in Google Earth, and it looks as if my turnaround point is more like 3.5 miles past that sign, adding 7 miles to the round trip. While I was at it, I studied another extra loop I took on the ride, and found I'd added 9.5 miles to the journey. Those are the major diversions from the route, so a seat-of-the-pants estimate is that my riding route was 56 + 7 + 9.5 miles, or 72.5 miles.

When I rode the same route again yesterday, with somewhat less stopping for pictures, from door to door my time was 6.5 hours. That means that, including stops, I averaged a bit over 11 miles an hour.

Funny thing is, when I rode a 100-mile route last month at about 13 m.p.h., I went back and looked at the individual legs and found I was typically running more like 15-16 m.p.h. What killed the average was the hills. I imagine a similar arithmetic applies here: I'm significantly slower on hills, and in this case also on the upwind return leg. I was coming home into a fairly stiff west wind yesterday, and my point-to-point time was slower than it had been two days before.

Speed factors into route plans. If I know how long it will take me to cover a certain amount of ground, I know I have to leave before a certain time if I want to get back before sunset, or before the afternoon wind kicks up, or before the dry cleaner closes. If I don't leave soon enough, I have to cut miles from the route. The beautiful thing about a long, lazy holiday weekend is that I can put off almost anything until later and just enjoy the ride.

Another set of numbers to keep the home crowd amused: With me on the ride I carried about 880 calories of nourishment, in various forms. A conservative estimate for bike riding is that the rider burns 500 calories per hour. In 6.5 hours, then, I probably burned at least 3,250 calories. When I got home, I quickly downed 360 calories of a "recovery" mix, but that still leaves me at a 2,010-calorie deficit.

This is why riders joke about the pasta dinner at the end of the course. You start out the ride with a certain amount of calories in your blood sugar, which you go through, and a certain amount of additional energy available in your liver, which banks glycogen and adds it to the blood as you deplete what was there. Depending on the time of day, how much you've eaten, and how fast you're burning, you might count on your liver's "fuel tank" to keep your energy up for an hour or so of vigorous exercise. After that, you can either refill the tank with sports drinks that will hit the bloodstream quickly (sugar water, plus minerals you tend to lose in sweat) or you can, as a friend of mine put it, "start burning muscle." Actually, it's not that you burn your muscles; the body converts some fat too. But it takes a while to convert fat into energy, and you're burning energy at a higher rate. Your performance starts to drop and your energy flags noticeably.

In other words, after 6 hours on the road, you'll get home hungry.

For me, riding is not about weight loss; it's about fun and it's about cardiopulmonary fitness. But I'm not going to argue if I trim down some in the process. The typical calculation is that you'll lose a pound of body mass for every 3,500 calories burned and not replaced.

If I were in a hurry to slash pounds, I could take a ride like I did yesterday and deliberately not replenish my energy stores right away--force my body to convert what it's already carrying around. The downside of this (besides hunger and crankiness) is that it tends to leave me feeling sluggish and low-energy for the next 20 hours or so as my body very slowly rebalances my blood sugar. (I may not be quite precise on the biochemistry here, but you get the idea.) The effects are sometimes subtle, but over time you notice the difference in the way you behave. The next day, for example, you certainly wouldn't take another 70-mile ride. Your body would still be bouncing back. The muscle strength and speed would be there for a quick sprint, but the reserves that fuel long-distance stamina would be depleted. You'd have no "legs."

If nothing else were going on in the world, I could sit and do crossword puzzles until my energy returned, but on most days in my life it's a better idea to keep the vim and vigor (and mental energy) at full throttle. So I look at exercise as a weight-neutral proposition, not a weight-loss proposition. And if I lose a pound or two along the way, I don't complain.

So after my recovery drink, I'm still quite happy to sit down to about 1,000 calories of pasta and salad, and I know I won't be feeling as wiped out the next day.

And in fact, after a decent stretch of getting out regularly for some fresh air, I generally find my baseline energy level is higher from day to day.

There are plenty of other peripheral benefits, but the main idea is to have some fun.

Later on, when I'm not on my way to work, I'll post pictures from yesterday's ride. I'm not 100% sure, but I think I saw a bald eagle. Watch for updates.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

No Chain

In between listening to Bob Dylan's lush new album, I've managed to get out and turn the crank once or twice.

Today was a gorgeous day to go riding. Temperature perfect, and (at least at first) light winds, strictly in the same direction I was going. Best part: Look how deserted the beach is at 11:30 a.m. That means I don't have to keep braking to dodge two-year-olds whose parents aren't paying enough attention. Also guys who had a beer too many at the beach barbecue.

Striking to see in Long Beach harbor the history and the current phase of the shipping industry in a single frame.

Nationwide testing is supposed to improve reading ability across the board. No, she's not on a bike.

Huntington Beach was having a pirate convention. That place has gotten way more commercialized than the rest of the beach towns along the route.

I started out on this ride last weekend, until I got as far as West Newport and my rear derailleur cable crapped out. Six years of shifting gears wore it through. Could have kept on keeping on, using strictly the front set of sprockets--which would make the bike a three-speed--but I decided to head for home base instead of sticking my neck out further.

It felt really good to be out on the road again after nearly a full week's rest. Pro cyclists have an expression when a ride goes really well; they say it was like riding with no chain. In other words, you felt like your legs were going around with no resistance, and you just flew down the road, up the hills, around the corners.

This is south of Newport, riding toward Laguna Beach, around Crystal Cove. Beautiful road. As the guy who was pushing the pedals, I have to urge you to note that the road dips nearly down to the sea, then climbs back uphill again. This happened more than once. On the way down, with the wind behind me, I wasn't complaining. Yet. No chain, provisionally.

This is on the way back. Let's argue that it's about five miles from the southern point on my ride, so I rode about 65 miles. I didn't stick strictly to the route this sign refers to, and I didn't measure my exact mileage. I was having too much fun, on a three-day weekend with nothing else I had to rush home and get done.

(Actually, I wasn't even going to ride this far, but when I got to the turning point, the bike was rolling along so beautifully, I decided to add the extra 15-mile loop. Never ask yourself what it'll feel like on the way back.)

For those who know the area, I'd like to point out that in this picture I am looking down at the tops of the buildings at Fashion Island.

If you don't know the area, let's just say I climbed 35,000 feet to the tops of the cumulus clouds and got breathtaking views from there.

Newport Back Bay. I was taking a picture of the dredge they're using to keep the muck from piling up too far, and I caught a bird as a bonus. Beautiful nature preserve, and fine, mostly flat riding.

I got to a certain point and decided the wind was whipping a little too strongly in my face, so I pulled off the road and used the opportunity to rest and replenish my electrolytes with a beer or three, plus maybe a shot. This was part of a carefully calibrated strategy to avoid the roads just until the wind had died down enough to let me continue.

My legs complained much less all the rest of the way home.