Life Force of Mountain Biking: The Beginner

The view from your bike got you jaded? Talk to a beginner for a reality check.

Mountain biking got you burned out? Are the local trails getting dull? Look to beginners for your salvation in your favorite sport.

New mountain bikers remind the old hands of the way it’s supposed to be: silly fun, learning new stuff, discovering new places, meeting new people, making incremental progress.

I know plenty of way-fast riders, like all the characters I encounter in the Short Track at Papago races. And they’re all good people. But beginners like Tammy Smith do more than anyone to rekindle my mountain biking enthusiasm. They help me rediscover the sport and inspire me to ride more.

Tammy did a Q & A session with me on just after her first race – the MBAA McDowell Meltdown. It’s full of mountain biking wisdom for riders of all levels. Veterans will get a reminder of what’s so cool about the sport. Newcomers will get inspiration to try racing. People contemplating their first mountain bike purchase will discover that it’s not just a sport for energy drink-addled 20-somethings, nor exclusively for heart rate monitor-obsessed fitness fiends. They don’t train – they ride.

Tammy and riders like her also make the bicycle industry work economically. They throw down for their first bike and all the trimmings – helmets, hydration packs, gloves, shorts and the rest. They are why your 27-pound, 30-speed, five-inches-of-travel, dual-suspension bike works so much better than bikes for the same price did 10 years ago.

Mountain biking newbies, you are the marrow of this sport. Thanks for all you do to keep it fresh for the rest of us. Welcome!

Save Phoenix Views: Now Serving Spam

Don't worry, Phoenix citizens! Save Phoenix Views will protect your view of this magnificent, er ... nice, um ... somewhat adequate skyline! (Photo courtesy of

People in Phoenix, Arizona, now have another busybody political group inundating their email accounts with unwanted spam messages. I received my first message from on Jan. 20.

The group touts its mission to "protect views" and "pristine Phoenix neighborhoods." Its sworn enemy? Billboards. These slabs of advertising are apparently a threat to "unobstructed views of the skyline, mountains, sunrises and sunsets from your backyard." Yes, that world-renowned Phoenix skyline -- it’s the stuff of postcards and fine works of art. The group wants to ensure that such architectural wonders as the Chase Bank building aren’t hidden behind new billboards or electronic billboards.

I had never heard of this group of superheroes so intent on defending my way of life. I never signed up for its email newsletter. Since I also receive unsolicited emails from Phoenix City Council member Sal DiCiccio, I wondered if this is connected to his brand of small-time Phoenix politics. About a year ago, a group he backed also had me on its e-mail list. And wouldn’t you know, it only took 30 seconds of Google searching to discover a link between DiCiccio and Save Phoenix Views. Clearly, e-mail privacy is not one of his pet crusades. The best thing about my move to Scottsdale is that Sal DiCiccio is not on the Scottsdale City Council.

I’m embarrassed for the people behind Save Phoenix Views. Worries about billboards are the epitome of a "First World Problem." What’s really this group’s motivation? My bet is money. Someone stands to lose, so they’re organizing a "grassroots" campaign to stop the evil billboards (someone puh-leeze save us!). Anyone with an ounce of political knowledge will tell you: Behind every so-called grassroots neighborhood movement is money and hired PR guns dressing it up all folksy and down-home. I haven’t figured out the money trail yet, but it has to be there considering the efforts to the group has made and the money it has spent. It would be nice to see a full-time journalist with time and resources put Save Phoenix Views under the microscope (hint, hint – that’s my Bat Signal to The Arizona Republic).

The e-mail I received came to me "via" Naturally, I went to the URL -- and got a white screen with the words "Could not locate requested resource".  

This means someone is hiding. Typical dirty Phoenix politics. So far, 15,000 people have signed a petition to get the group’s wad of "Whereas", "Notwithstanding" and "Therefore" on the ballot. It’s been nearly a decade since I was a news reporter – but I remember a Maricopa County official who told me every item on the ballot costs upward of $200,000. Does Phoenix have that kind of money to spend on non-problems?

The group also wrings its hands about higher accident rates from drivers being distracted by electronic billboards. I’ll swallow that line of BS only if every single person who signed the petition will look me in the eye and say "That’s right, I’ve never used my cell phone or texted/e-mailed while I drive." I’d bet a year’s pay that phone use distracts far more drivers and causes far more accidents than electronic billboards do.

Who could, in good conscience, put such energy into such a trifling cause? A few suggestions for more important matters: Address the many empty buildings, the waste of water, the unsustainable building, the tax handouts to big businesses.

I also sent an e-mail to the group asking to know how I wound up on its distribution list. Let’s see if anyone responds.

On the Mountain Bike Trail – Random Photo

"Why didn't anyone tell me butt is so big?" (photo by Lorne Trezise FrozenMotionPhotos)

I never expected anyone to snap a photo of me on my mountain bike quite like this. Nobody told me that the white stripe on my (I thought) uber-cool Italian jersey made it look like I’m rolling in a filled-up pair of Huggies. Well, now I have to decide whether to wear that thing again!

Oh, well. I suppose it’s less jarring than taking my laps in a Borat-style slingshot thong.

Mountain Bike Race Recap – McDowell Meltdown 2012

An unidentified Cat 3 woman (#514) on the course at the McDowell Meltdown.

I hadn’t lined up for a mountain bike race since May; the summer heat, a trip to Asia, moving to a new house -- all conspired to keep me off the course, and off the mountain bike altogether at times.

But I can’t resist McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fountain Hills, Ariz. There is absolutely nothing that mountain bikers can’t love about its 60-plus miles of trails. Of course, the McDowell Meltdown (the first race in the 2012 Mountain Bike Association of Arizona series) only consists of the loops in the Competitive Track. Still great!

Here’s what’s on my mind about the McDowell Meltdown.

Racer Krista Gibson responds to cheers from her friends.

1. The organizers are exceptionally dedicated and nice. Running these races is a labor of love. Need proof? Brandee from Global Bikes posted on Facebook at 3:30 a.m. about how eager she was to get out there and put on a race (she’s also an MBAA board member). Another example: I signed up the day of the race, which didn’t entitle me to an event t-shirt. But one of the MBAA guys scrounged up some leftover t-shirts from the previous year for us johnny-come-lately schlubs. He didn’t have to. We didn’t expect him to. A really nice "late or not, thanks for being here" gesture.

How Did You Do?
If you want to find your race results, check these links:
Cross Country

2. Sign up online. You’ll save stress on yourself, plus a few bucks. And you’ll save some stress for the folks from La Roue d’Or – they have a lot on their hands with managing the registrations.

3. The Arizona mountain bike race scene has changed. My Adventure Bicycle Company boys had no presence. Back in the day, it would’ve been them, Rage Cycles and Landis as the standard bearers. These days, it’s Global, DNA Cycles (the McDowell Meltdown title sponsor), Sunday Cycles and a few others -- and Landis is still around. I didn’t see any familiar faces out there. But I met new people, and hope to run into them again at the next mountain bike race.

Racer Aimee Nay and friend relive the mountain bike race action.

4. The first-timer class is a really nice idea. Unfortunately, the women’s field continues to be small. In the late 90s, there were definitely more new mountain bike racers of both genders. I remember Beginner Class (now Cat 3) men’s 19-24 groups with more than 70 riders.

5. Speaking of the people in each field and the various categories -- I still see sandbagging (the fine art of riding a category – or two! – below your ability to get better race results) as a problem. The front of the Cat 3 pack is where it’s at its worst. Three quick thoughts: A. Abolish a championship title for Cat 3 racers – it’s a dis-incentive to move up to the proper category. B. No racers attached to teams should be in Cat 3. If you’re so plugged into the mountain bike scene that you roll with a team, you are too experienced for Cat 3. C. If you finish in the top 10 percent, you go up. I’d apply this to Cat 2, also. Getting people in the right categories will get more new riders to mountain bike races. Your race results should never take a backseat to integrity.

Overall? The McDowell Meltdown is one of my favorites, and I’m glad I went. MBAA puts on a fine mountain bike race, and you should give one of its events a try.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park – Random Photo

A quiet moment for an ape at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

There but for the grace of a few chromosomes go I.

In many ways, I don’t want to like places like the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

That’s because, genetically, not much separates me from being 0n the inside looking out. And sure, some wiseguys might say not much separates me hygienically.

I peer into the ape habitat at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and marvel. And I feel … almost a voyeur. What’s on your mind, my nearly human friend? What’s it like for you to look out and see us watching you every day?

There’s nothing like seeing an ape. And few of us will ever see one in the wild, or so close. That makes a visit to a place like the San Diego Zoo Safari Park a real opportunity to get some understanding of the world. As cool as it is to see an ape or a big cat or a rare species of bird, there’s also something slightly disquieting about a zoo. Especially with an ape – there’s an echo of humanity in every facial expression and gesture.

It’s hard to think of  the San Diego Zoo Safari Park  as a zoo, really. It’s not like the zoos of the old days, all huge metal cages that look like a maximum-security prison. And you could argue that many of the animals have better lives here.

But something about this ape – its slumped posture and blank face – makes me wonder if it would agree.

Craft Beer Overview of Seoul, Jeju and Tokyo

craft beer
Beer lovers bond at the Ant ‘n’ Bee in Tokyo.

Asian beers don’t have a good name among American craft beer fans. From the watery sourness of Kirin lager to the fermented foot-funk of Hotachino Nest, craft beer lovers just don’t find what we want from Asia. But what happens when you travel to South Korea and Japan? Are there some gems waiting for the international beer traveler? Yes, count on it. But expect a few stinkers, too.

Here are a few craft beer places I found in South Korea and Japan. Be warned: Most allow indoor smoking. Some will find that a great throwback to the old days, while others will find it a great incentive to get in, get out and get to a shower and a laundry room.

craft beer
The Ty Harbor Brewery in Tokyo scored big for atmosphere.

TY Harbor Brewery (Tokyo)

Here’s a slice of American craft beer culture. David the Frenchman arranged our trip to TY Harbor Brewery. It’s a big airy space with a modern comfort food menu and suds that taste like they were brewed in Colorado. You can order sizes from small glasses to pitchers. The small glasses are great for trying the different flavors without feeling too full. I favor the imperial stout, but the IPA is also great. I’d like to see a bit more adventure rather than lagers and lighter ales – and with New Zealand on the right side of the International Date Line, TY Harbor Brewery should try some recipes with single-origin hops. As for food, I really liked the pork carnitas quesadilla.

Ant ‘n’ Bee (Tokyo)

craft beer
The beer list at the Ant ‘n’ Bee

Barge past the Ropongi District mayhem and find the staircase into the Ant ‘n’ Bee. Order some of the finest French fries you’ll ever taste – they’ll go well with any of the Japanese-brewed craft beer on tap. The staff is enthusiastic, clearly real beer lovers. One waitress had just returned from a visit to the Great American Beer Festival. Part of the fun was talking about the awesome American craft beer she discovered.

We sampled a cask-conditioned stout, an IPA, a strong ale and a harvest brew. The names? I took a photo of the menu to help remember these Japanese beers. The picture came out crappy, so I can barely read anything. Whether you like beer heavy on the hops or the malt, you’ll find what you want.

Modern Time Brewery (Jeju, South Korea)

We searched Jeju for more than an hour searching for Modern Time. What do we get out of it? A pallid, flaccid, weak, hefewiezenish brew with barely any hops … like Perrier filtered through a dirty jock strap.

Even my worst batch of homebrew packed more flavor (even the flavors of rotten lobster and burned electronics are better than nothing). This beer was good for making you burp, and for making beer lovers’ taste buds cry out in terror. You’ll find people online who praise Modern Time. Don’t ask me why.

UPDATE: Modern Time’s original owner chimed in – he hasn’t been brewer there since 2009 and he has a new craft beer venture called Boris Brewery. Check it out … and thank you, Boris, for the info!

Craftworks Tap House (Seoul, South Korea)

The expats behind Craftworks have made a tap house in the American craft beer mold. With it’s made-to-order craft beer and even bangers and mash on the menu, it’s a refuge beer lovers who needs a break from Korean food – all the banchan and bi bim bap. You’ll notice the brews don’t pack the wallop of American craft beer, though (aside from the Moon Bear IPA and its high dose of hops). Still, the Geumgang Mountain Dark Ale was flavorful. Overall, I’d like to see a bit more heft from its selection.

I also scored some nice souvenirs there – a t-shirt and mug bearing the Geumgang Mountain Dark Ale logo.

The Verdict on Asian Craft Beer

So there’s your overview of craft beer in Seoul, Jeju and Tokyo. I’m a little surprised that chefs haven’t figured out that beers with lots of hops link up nicely with spicy dishes from Korea. Japanese breweries are quite a bit more adventurous, with spiced, herbed and even fruity recipes. Overall, I give the Ant ‘n’ Bee the best rating for variety, with TY Harbor Brewery a strong second. Let me know if there’s something I missed. It’ll give me an excuse to go back!

Inside South Korean Spa Culture

A daytime view of the inside of Spa Land at Centum City in Busan. (Courtesy of Saunasinkorea,

In some countries, spas are a rare indulgence. In Korean culture, though, they’re essential to the social scene.

And there’s plenty of variety. Some South Korean spas – or jim jil bang – are tranquil and soothing, like Spa Land at Centum City in Busan (the architecture there is also stunning). Other spas are a displaced section of a Las Vegas casino that’s collided with a World Wrestling Entertainment-style road show. You’ll find common themes and etiquette expectations no matter where you wind up, though. Something else cool: It’s easy to find cheap spa breaks, as low as $15 U.S., to lounge around for a few hours.

Let’s run through what a South Korean spa is like:

The Entry

There’s typically a front desk area. You’ll pay your fee and get a key, some slippers and a robe/pullover sort of thing. If you’re with a person of the opposite gender, this is where you head to separate locker rooms. Keep that key with you at all times: You also use it to buy food and drink. It tallies your purchases electronically, and you settle up at the end. It beats toting your wallet around with you, too. Yes, Korean culture can be pretty hi-tech!

Another nice view of the interior of Spa Land. (Courtesy of

The Locker Rooms

This is where a lot of Americans might have trouble – the nudity here is pretty explicit … typical for Korean culture, but some travelers might find it odd. First you shower, then head (still naked) into the steam room, the hot tubs and the saunas. Westerners like me might also scratch their heads over some of the local showering customs: Apparently, a lot of Koreans prefer to shower seated. That explains the low shower heads in the hotels!

The Common Area

Done with the saunas? Put on the spa garb the front desk people issued during check-in. Meet your opposite-gender friend(s), and hit the many relaxing rooms. Like what?

There are several rooms common to South Korean spas, each of which have a different flavor and purpose. This post sums up the characteristics of the jim jil bang pretty nicely. One of the most interesting rooms was pyramid shaped, which I associate more with Egyptian culture than Korean culture.

Final Thoughts

Do your homework when choosing a South Korean spa. Some frown upon children, while others welcome them. Korean culture can be pretty sedate, but sometimes it embraces the noise. The adults-only establishments, though, will be quieter. Whichever you prefer, there’s something for everyone. But know what you’re getting into.

Random Photo Fun – This is Air Travel!

This kid gets it.

Air travel sucks, and you know it. There’s the bad service. Nickle-and-diming passengers for every item of checked luggage, every in-flight beverage. The Transportation Security Administration and its fear-mongering brand of crazy. The dry cabin air. The delays. The cancelled flights. The airport traffic. The corpulent passenger whose bulk spills into your seat. It’s blaring TVs in the concourses, lost luggage, overpriced water, taking your shoes off to get through security. Laptops out of the bag, everything out of your pockets!

This is air travel.

Now, look at the photo. You can only see a nose, one eye, a bit of a mouth … and a glow, a manifestation of wonder. This kid holds no grudge about being herded like cattle or being treated like a potential terrorist. The swirl of air travel-related angst you experience? It never reaches him. It only reaches the older, “smarter” people. He looks down on the earth. The houses shrink. The cars are tiny. And look at the mountains from here! He ate breakfast in a desert, but lunch will be by the seaside. And he’ll get to do it again when he goes home, probably the only good thing about the end of a vacation.

This is air travel!

Random Travel Photo – Getting Ahead in Life

This is the first time I've ever seen a head at an electronic parts store. Not sure what you're supposed to do with this. Any ideas, anyone?

My fellow traveler, blog mentor and good friend Stacy told me “Japan is the ‘Land of WTF?’.” Korea also has a high WTF factor. But I saw nothing quite this weird there. Unless you count motorcycles riding the wrong way down sidewalks this weird.