A few years ago when the gravel bike trend was starting to take off, one of my local Wise Veteran Riders sniffed "I can do all that stuff on my road bike."
Great. Maybe he can hop off the pavement on his road bike and hit some singletrack. But not all of us can plow through loose gravel on 25C tires pumped to 110 PSI without winding up on our heads.Â
I see his point, though. Many of us cyclists are too quick to buy new stuff when we can re-purpose old gear. Here’s how to figure out once and for all the Gravel Bike Versus Road Bike conundrum.
Your Road Bike is Really Old
My road bike was a 1999 Lemond Zurich. Beautiful Reynolds 853 tubes welded in the US. Smooth riding. Strong. Relatively light.
But I got my money’s worth out of it. So if you have 10 or more years on your road bike, maybe it’s time to treat yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that.Â
Your Road Bike Can’t Fit Bigger Tires
Age plays into the tire clearance question, as well. My Zurich had rim brakes, so that limited the size of tires I could jam in there. 28c, tops.Â
Most gravel bikes are rolling 32c and up. I trained on 40c tires from April to November before I popped on a set of 30s for El Tour de Tucson (where I broke my previous record by 30 minutes).
Enormous gravel tires will slow you down if you’re riding on the road most of the time. Don’t worry — ride ’em until they’re worn out, and replace them with skinnier gravel tires in the 30-32c range.
You Want Disc Brakes
I love the disc brakes on my mountain bike. And there are times on long descents when my old rim brakes felt more like I was melting the pads than actually slowing my roll.
Adding discs to a frame like my Zurich would’ve been possible, but not cost effective. I’d have to strip the components and paint, turn it over to a welder, repaint it and then rebuild.
You Want Stable Handling
For stability, there’s no question about gravel bike versus road bike. When I plow into softer or rockier ground, my Lynskey Urbano doesn’t twitch thanks to its relaxed cyclocross geometry. Lemond made road bikes with steep road-racing angles, and they never fared well on soft or loose surfaces.Â
Do some number-crunching over geometry. Wheelbase and standover will reveal quite a bit about how a bike will fit you if you can’t test ride.
Still Want to Convert Your Road Bike? Do This.
Go Tubeless: Tubeless tires are way better at shrugging off flats when use them with sealant. Pluck the thorn or other foreign object out, spin it and add more air. Done.
Get a Flared Drop Bar:A flared drop bar will make you way more comfortable. I was amazed at how much better I felt on long rides, even when I never left the pavement. In fact, I’d say most road riders should consider one.
Bigger Tires, Lower Pressure:Jam on the biggest tire you can, and take some pressure out of it. Drop 20 PSI from your usual pressure and see how it goes. Experiment a bit.
It’s easy to ignore a problem that you can’t see. People who live in the Phoenix area can’t deny the brown cloud that sometimes — too often — settles over the Valley. The culprit behind the brown cloud is also hard to deny: gas and diesel-powered vehicles "by a large margin," according to Scientific American.
So we can see the problem, but what can we do about it? It’s obvious. Get some of the gas and diesel vehicles off the road with electric vehicles taking their place. There are two big obstacles to getting more drivers into electric vehicles — the initial cost and figuring out where and how to charge them.
The first one is up to the auto makers. As they figure the technology out, prices will start to drop. They already have, actually. The Tesla Model Y will be unveiled tonight, and it will be the least-expensive electric SUV/CUV by a long shot. You can bet that more automakers will unveil EVs in this class.
The second issue — where to charge — is something Arizona’s elected officials can address. But they haven’t, likely because they’re not connecting the dots.
The Overlooked Electric Vehicle Charging Problem
Here’s the shocker about charging an electric vehicle: The costs vary wildly. Putting 25 miles of charge into my car can vary from being absolutely free all the way up to about $6 at one of the Blink charging stations that have sprouted like barnacles near city and state buildings. Can you imagine the price of gas fluctuating that wildly?
The state of Arizona has no regulations governing EV charging prices. That’s nice at the free end. But at the high end, it completely kills a major incentive for getting out of a gas/diesel vehicle and into an electric vehicle.
Arizona’s Electric Vehicle Charging Costs are a Mess
The ubiquitous Blink network charges members 4 cents per minute to charge. That’s $2.40 per hour, which usually gets me about 15 miles of charge. That costs more than the average price of gas per mile for my old Subaru — at the current $2.23 per gallon, I’d go about 25 miles in the Subaru. Considering that even a less-efficient electric vehicle like my Toyota RAV 4 EV gets the equivalent of 77 mpg, Blink makes it more expensive to operate a cleaner vehicle.
Charging at home is your cheapest option. You’ll need anEVSE (aka ev charger), a 110-volt adapter and possibly a 240-volt connection if you want to charge faster. But we still need options away from home, and they need to be priced consistently.
Why Arizona’s Electric Vehicle Charging Prices are All Over the Place
Arizona doesn’t have kilowatt-hour pricing like some states. That allows networks like Blink to set any price per minute that they like. For some reason, cities like Phoenix and Chandler along with educational institutions like Arizona State University have contracts with Blink, despite its high prices (and reputation for unreliable charging). In states with kilowatt-hour pricing,Blink prices still tower over the average cost per kilowatt hour; sure, Blink should be allowed to profit for their services.But in California, the average price per kilowatt hour is 15.2 cents, while Blink charges 49 cents per kWh. I wonder what the utilities who actually provide the power think of Blink’s markup.
In Arizona, the average kWh cost is 11.1 cents. Blink’s charging costs about 48 cents per kWh (based on a charging cost of $2.40 per hour, which gets you about 5 kWh of power). It’s clear that charging at a Blink station costs more gasoline, based on the average mpg of gas-powered cars. Another comparison:gas stations average about 5 cents per gallon in profit. That would be like Blink charging 53 cents per hour rather than $2.40 (based on my RAV 4’s 77 empg, 40 kWh battery, charging speed and kWh price for SRP). Put another way, if gas stations marked up at the same rate, your gallon of gas would cost $10.09 per gallon (based on $2.23 per gallon of gas).
Sidebar: Are EVs Cleaner?
EVs have their doubters -- people who ask "are EVs really cleaner?"
Some will even recite talking points about rare-earth minerals (which are not actually that rare) used in batteries, and the environmental cost of manufacturing the batteries. People who raise these issues would like to believe that gas-powered vehicles and their fuel are made from unicorn milk that somehow has no environmental damage.
I’d also add that areas like Phoenix particularly need EVs. If vehicle emissions are the main source of our air pollution, we must put more of them on the road (I also favor more mass transit options, but that’s a topic for another time).
Fix the EV Charging Problem, Fix the Brown Cloud
If Arizona’s elected officials want to clear up the air, they need to encourage more people to drive electric vehicles. That means preventing networks from gouging customers, especially since the networks don’t even produce the power.
The clear solution: Craft legislation that sets kilowatt-hour pricing, and caps it at a reasonable level. Put it on a level playing field with gas — which is also heavily subsidized, which will ignore for the moment — and electricity wins every.single.time. This will help put more EVs on the road, which will, in turn, fix the brown cloud.
Arizona could offer more incentives to buy electric vehicles. Cities could also do more to ensure that gas and diesel vehicles don’t block charging stations. But those are issues for another post. Fixing the pricing problem helps the consumer/driver without costing the state, cities or residents money.
My underwear drawer also has its fair share of bamboo socks – and other random brands of bamboo underwear (including a few pairs I picked up at a market in Hanoi, which have a fit that’s a bit more banana hammock than I’d prefer).
And now, Wama Underwear has emerged as another sustainable clothing brand. But instead of bamboo, this underwear maker focuses on hemp underwear. I am a huge fan of of hemp clothing: I’ve already abused hemp shirts from Onno and Satori. My go-to weekend pants are the unbelievable (and sadly discontinued) INI Cooperative Escargo pants.
Recently, Wama Underwear got in touch with me to send a few pairs of its boxer-briefs in for testing. They also threw in a cool little drawstring bag, which you can get free if you order a 10-pack of the briefs. The briefs are $24, but first-time shoppers will be prompted to get a 20 percent discount.
The price on the 10-pack is $200, and it’s not clear if the 20-percent deal applies to that price. They’re made from 53 percent hemp, with the remainder being organic cotton and Spandex.
They also come in versions for men and women.
Sustainable Clothing – Why Bother?
Before we go any further, let me tell you why I’m so nuts about sustainable clothing like hemp and bamboo. Both seem to get softer with time, and they are both awesome at resisting stink. This is doubly important if you travel and wind up wearing the same clothes for days at a time.
I once wore a hemp t-shirt for a course at the Aboriginal Living Skills School. Despite sweat, river water, hanging around a campfire and various other stuff, the shirt didn’t stink at all after the course (I gave it a sniff once I got back to civilization and had a shower).
They’re unbelievably comfortable and seem to resist all my attempts to make them stink while hiking, camping or traveling. Unfortunately, the U.S. government still prohibits commercial hemp growth for the moment – I suspect this is ultimately because the cotton industry and its lobbyists can’t handle the thought of any textile competing with its interests -- and I suspect the same people are behind the flat-out lies that equate hemp and marijuana (which is a subject for a different blogger to tackle). I wonder what the hemp farmers among our founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson would say about this.
Being able to source US-grown hemp would cut down on emissions from transit, which would help the sustainability cred of hemp. I can’t say I’m an expert in farming, but I wonder what rotating hemp in as a crop would do for the soil. I also am unclear on its water needs versus cotton or other textile-producing crops. But that would be an interesting bit of information.
Oh, Wama has an FAQ page that dives into questions about ethical sourcing and certifications.
Getting the Right Size
The president of Wama, Shakib Nassiri, gave me some fitting advice that I’ll pass along to you: The sizes seems to run a bit small. I’m 6’2 and about 185. He advised me to go a size larger than I normally would. So I ordered an XL instead of my usual L.
When the package from Wama Underwear arrived, I found that Shakib’s advice was spot-on. The fit was perfect.
My first impression of the Wama Underwear was that the fabric had more heft than any of my bamboo underwear. They had a heavier weight that made me wonder if they would feel hotter or stiffer.
Nope. Once I put them on, they seemed to disappear. The fit was supportive without being annoying. Wama Underwear makes a product that is the polar opposite of some underwear that seems to have that one spot that pokes or feels to loose or itches.
Granted, I’ve worn and washed each pair just twice. It will take a few months of long-term flogging to render a definitive judgement. They’ll need to perform through the hot Arizona months. From the first impressions, though, my bet is that I’ll still like the Wama Underwear as much as I do right now.
Right off the mark, they fit considerably better than the Wayi brand I mentioned earlier, which doesn’t seem like a good choice for anyone familiar with squats or deadlifts! None of my undies from that brand gets the waist/thigh ratio right.
Rendering a Verdict
I wouldn’t mind a few more colors, but I suspect that will come in time. Personally, I’d also ditch any green leaf iconography. Hemp already has the perception problem being linked to marijuana, so I’d recommend that sustainable clothing makers stay away from the leaf symbols.
But on pure merit, Wama Underwear has a sustainable clothing winner. It’s a product that proves that sustainability doesn’t mean sacrifice – it’s better than any of the non-sustainable products I own. At this point, I recommend picking up some Wama Underwear if you needs some boxer-briefs.
They’re comfortable, and they’re a little something you can do to show your support for sustainable options. And that could be the catalyst that prompts more companies to offer greener, cleaner products. All of this can add up.
DISCLAIMER: Wama Underwear sent me two free pairs of boxer briefs and a drawstring bag. As usual, free stuff doesn’t equal positive reviews. I won’t recommend anything that I wouldn’t buy myself. And I always buy items that I recommend.Â
Costa Rican craft beer just wasn’t a thing during my first visit nearly 15 years ago. That’s changed, with a wide variety of breweries stretching beyond the ubiquitous Imperial lager. But how good is Costa Rican craft beer?
Well, most of it is good enough to finish. But none of it is good enough to make Costa Rica a beer destination. For now, Curitiba, Brazil, retains its rank as my Latin American beer capitol. Of course, I was in a generous and festive mood during my visit. So I probably added Â¾ of a star to every Untappd review. And I found that stouts were the best of the Costa Rican craft beer I tried. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s take a step back to talk about the different brews and places where we enjoyed them.
I was particularly excited about Stiefel. It was close to our hotel, too. It’s more of a locals’ sort of place. Laid back with decent food (casados) and a good selection of Costa Rican beers. The beer list rotates. The staff is patient with those of us who are kind of crappy at speaking Spanish.
I was shocked to see that they had a mead on tap – not a hard-hitting Game of Thrones sort of offering, but a nice sparkling beverage that tasted more like a radler or shandy.
We had this one pegged as the pioneering local trying hard to be the Big Thing. First the good stuff: It’s such a cool building – a great place to hang out. The extensive craft beer menu set my expectations high.
But when they’re out of most of the selections that interested me the most, that’s kind of a letdown. The server didn’t seemed to know his stuff beer-wise (he didn’t realize that half pints were on the menu, tried to get me to order fruit beers after the IPAs I wanted were out).
On the other hand, the food was solid: bacon-wrapped, chorizo-stuffed dates for the wife and me, chicken fingers and fries for the little person. So go for the food and the atmosphere … and hope they sort their beer problems out before your visit.
This place killed â€˜em all like a Metallica album -- by far my favorite Costa Rican craft beer bar that we found in San Jose. The tap list is extensive and weighted heavily toward regional craft labels. It also encompasses a wide variety of styles from stout to mead. The tacos are also delicious, and they play a decent variety of music at a low enough volume to allow you to chat with your drinking companions.
And hey, there’s a place to grab ice cream next door. A perfect place for craft beer! They also have some foreign selections.
We also visited a place calledÂ Lupulus Beer Shop. We didn’t have anything special there. It has dark, relaxed environment that might go better with patrons that don’t have a squirmy 3-year-old with them.
OK, now onto a few of the specific beers. I’m not going to list them all – just the standouts. If you want to know more, you can also visit my Untappd profile.
A Sampling of Costa Rican Craft Beer
Puerto Viejo Stout (Costa Rica Beer Factory)
More on the bitter dark chocolate side, which I prefer. Heavy body to it for its percentage.
Talingo Stout (Casa Bruja Brewing Company)
Best Costa Rican stout I’ve had. Sweet and viscous.
Barba Peluda (Primate)
A solid stout with plenty of chocolate.
None of these will make me book a ticket back to San Jose for more Costa Rican craft beer. But it’s nice to know that it’s not all lightweight lagers now. Maybe next time, I’ll be able to get a hold of a nice hazy IPA. And maybe some of those awesome spices that grow in Costa Rica will find their way into the beers – I’m particularly thinking that cinnamon could be used to good effect.
My wife did a pretty awesome job selecting our hotels for the Costa Rica trip. Our final base in San Jose had its quirks – namely, allowing smokers to stink up the air in the courtyard of a nonsmoking hotel. But it had an awesome location that was close to theÂ Museo de los NiÃ±os. Anneka loves museums, so we knew this would be a great way to while away the hours. Of course, we hit up a coffee establishment to fortify ourselves beforehand.
Rather than tell you EVERY exhaustive detail about theÂ Museo de los NiÃ±os in San Jose, I’ll let these photos do most of the talking. I will say that the museum’s content was refreshingly frank – even delving into addiction and AIDS while also allowing anatomically correct mannequins. It was also super-cheap, as in less than $10 per person. Some of the exhibits were either well-worn or undergoing renovation, but it was still a great place to spend the morning and some of the afternoon. Oh, and it’s apparently built in an old prison that’s been remodeled. Super cool!
Just a word to the wise: The next post will be a roundup of the Costa Rican craft beer scene!
I love a good long flight. Put me in an economy class seat on a decent airline for 14 hours, and I’m perfectly happy to pass the hours watching movies and devouring books on my Kindle.
Notice the key phrase: a decent airline.
Decent airlines are scarce in the U.S., with an avalanche of nickel-and-diming paired with increasingly cramped airplanes. Then put that on a route that just long enough to be international, but not quite long enough for U.S. based airlines to consider bringing their A Game.
Our recent trip to Costa Rica really brings that into focus: We flew there on two of the three big U.S. legacy carriers – American Airlines and United Airlines. Both flights arrived safely and relatively on-time. At this point, that seems to be the only aim, with on-time more than negotiable.
So what exactly is the problem?
First of all, we live in Phoenix. That means that direct flights to Costa Rica are seasonal, and our flight wasn’t scheduled for the right season. We connected in Dallas via American Airlines. Connections always make things a bit tricky. Fortunately, nothing ran late.
But let’s talk a bit about the seats: The first flight was an Airbus A320, with the second let being a Boeing 737. Both had slimline seats that were absolutely jammed into the seat in front. I’d guess a 30-inch seat pitch. Fortunately, my wife and I had a 3-year-old passenger between us, so we were able to steal her legroom. The seats on the United planes – a 737 from San Jose and an A320 from Houston – were slightly better.
Then there’s the baggage fees. I’ve never flown on an international flight that charged for checked baggage. These "short international" flights seem to get treated like domestic flights, which is really odd to me.
Then there’s the cabin service. American Airlines came out way ahead of United by providing a cold sandwich on the flight from Dallas to San Jose. United had buy on board options on their menu. But apparently they’d sold out on the previous flight. We shrugged it off at the time: Houston has some great food options in the concourse, and we allowed just enough time to pick something up. But, no: An aircraft that was late to push back from our scheduled gate cost us at least 15 minutes. That piled on top of having to go through Immigration and re-check out baggage. We arrived at our gate seven minutes before pushback. And even though there was a grab-and-go restaurant right next to the gate, the gate agents waved us onto the plane as if we were the last ones who would board (we were actually far from it). Fortunately, a brewery near our house was still serving pizza once we got out of the airport (Thank you, McFate, for always being awesome!). Oh, and did I mention that United managed to leave my wife’s backpack in Houston?
As for the flight attendants, they varied from flight to flight. The first United crew seemed entirely disinterested in their self-loading cargo. The second was far better, with one flight attendant getting some water to our thirsty 3-year-old before the beverage service (we didn’t have a chance to fill bottles on the mad sprint through the terminal).
What’s to be done about this? My hope is that carriers like JetBlue or even foreign carriers start putting the screws to airlines like American and United. I’m perfectly happy to pay slightly more for airlines that don’t charge for checked luggage on international flights, that have good schedules and that offer decent, consistent service in the cabin (that last one is possible – I’ve seen it in airlines abroad).
It would be nice to see a U.S. airline say "air travel can be awesome, and we’re going to make it so."
It’s a long shot, which is why I always try to book international flights on foreign carriers (Asiana is amazing, with Qantas, SAS and Lufthansa also being pretty solid). Foreign flag carriers seem to realize that they’re often a visitor’s first impression of our country, or a resident’s welcome home. It would be awesome to see an US-based airline make it their mission to act accordingly. Flying can be fun, but our country’s legacy carriers seem determined to make it a drag.
You’ve probably heard that Costa Rica coffee is ridiculously good. That’s true to a certain extent: You can walk into just about any establishment, pour yourself a mug of brewed coffee that’s been sitting around for hours, and still not need to put any cream or sugar into it.
Espresso is another story, and espresso-based drinks are my bag. I judge establishments by their ability to make a cappuccino – and I like the new-fangled style that has latte-style microfoam and arrives in your hand at drinking temperature. This sort of thing is pretty rare in Costa Rica. Most of the caps I had were too hot, which made them bitter. Many of the baristas nailed the foam pretty well.
Anyway, let’s take a stroll through the places where I drank some coffee and espresso. (Note: I usually only drink coffee four days a week. But I seriously indulged myself for all 10 days of my trip.)
Cafe Milagro in Manuel Antonio
Cafe Milagro in Manuel Antonio and Quepos is well-known. It’s not just a coffeehouse, but a full-service restaurant that keeps going well past dark. It’s a great place to grab a fish sandwich.
They also serve a tasty brewed coffee, probably my favorite of the type that I drank in Costa Rica. Their cappuccinos are so-so.
The short craft beer – or cervezas artisenal – list, is a nice feature for visits later in the day. Not extensive, but still a good start.
Downtown Coffee Roasters, San Jose
Downtown Coffee Roasters is in a pedestrians-only section of San Jose. And it is by far the best place to get espresso. Their cappuccino is absolutely perfect – right temperature, foam and taste. They also do a fine nitro cold brew -- I actually drank both on the same day, and you can imagine the result of that much caffeine. But I regret nothing. Would do again, 12/10.
I know this is a shorter write-up than some of the others. But Downtown Coffee Roasters was my favorite, and there are only so many ways I can say that.
Doka Estate, Alajuela
I was a little skeptical of a coffee plantation tour. It sounded like boredom to me. But we wanted something to do that afternoon, so I went along with it. And I was proven wrong.
It was very cool to see the amount of care and energy that goes into a drink so many of us love. There’s also a good bit of innovation. Ray, our tour guide, was engaging and knowledgeable -- and he let us try some of the tasks. Hands-on activities are always good! I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I’ll say that it’s worth your time, even if you think you know coffee.
Speaking of which, the tour included samples of four different types of brewed coffee. And I plunked down an extra $3 for a shot of espresso. It was a good shot – nice crema, which is always a good indicator. The Doka plantation is too far away to drop in for a casual morning cup, but it was still a nice place to sample some drinks.
Cafe del Barista, San Jose (Aranjuez)
I had some high expectations from the vibe at Cafe fel Barista. I expected them to be as good as Central Coffee Roasters. They were not. They were a cut above Cafe Milagro, though. Be careful if your Spanish is rusty: They serve spiked coffee drinks, too, at all times of day. That’s how the wife wound up with her crazy concoction.
The cappuccino was pretty good, definitely more of a modern style with the latte-style foam. For me, it was a bit too hot and a bubbly. Still one of the better ones I had in Costa Rica, but not a match for Downtown Coffee Roasters.
The 2018 Tour de Tucson started to go pear-shaped for me about 20 minutes before the start.
As I walked my bike toward the start, I heard a "whiiiiiiiirrrrrr" sound from the front wheel. Disc brakes problem? I was sure of it, until I notice that the zip tie holding the brake cable to the fork had broken. My wife solved that problem by pulling out a roll of clear packing tape.
Then, as I rolled to the start, I got caught being a wise guy. There was a line of people waiting to go under a tape barricade to get to the start. "A-ha," I thought, "I’m on a gravel bike!" So I popped onto a landscaped parking lot island, went around them and grabbed a nice spot in the line. Great success, right? Well, I noticed the goat head thorns in my front tire, then in my back tire. I pulled them out and spun the affected parts of the wheel to the bottom until the tire sealant did its trick. Thank you, tubeless wheels and tires! (And yes, they held for the entire race).
Then I went to turn my wrist-mounted heart rate monitor on. And it refused to wake up. I thought I’d charged it, but you know how that goes. So I’d have to rely on the Force.
And We’re Off for the 2018 Tour de Tucson!
Things got way better from there. My mid-pack starting spot saved me much of the frustration of passing a bunch of people, and it gave me and a work friend a chance to tag onto some faster-moving groups.
The 2018 Tour de Tucson had a different starting place for 75-mile riders than in the past few years, and it was definitely more convenient than it’s been in years past (please keep it, but sort the road signage out so we know we’re allowed to drive to the staging area). It routed us past a bit of the AMARG airplane graveyard – which also hosts a 10k run in the fall that you shouldn’t miss.
Being sans heart rate monitor, I had to rely on how my legs felt. I was a bit distressed to feel that electricity-like jangle high in my quads. I’d hit the electrolytes hard all week. I made a mental note to keep an eye on that situation. Within 10 miles, though, it was gone. Last year, I rode a tiny bit conservatively because of the crampfest that my first Tour de Tucson had been in 2016. This year, I wanted to really open in up a bit. So I did, which involved working with other riders for as long as possible until one of us wanted to slow down or go faster.
New Bike Comes Up Aces
It was also my first race on a new bike – a Lynskey Urbano, which leans more toward the cyclocross side of the geometry spectrum. It’s longer than the LeMond Zurich I rode for nearly 20 years before, and it can accommodate some wide tires (I was on 30C tires after a summer training on 40Cs -- and the LeMond always had 25C). This made the Urbano super-stable on the fast descents. I was also riding with disc brakes and a flared handlebar, which made for great braking and a nice variety of hand positions. Part of the 2018 Tour de Tucson also goes through a wash (just like in years past). Rather than dismounting and walking, I rode the whole thing – Schwalbe S-One HT tires, for anyone looking for the right tire for their mostly-road-but-sometimes-gravel bike. Fast on the road, but still capable of getting you through some dirt with confidence. I’m also very enthusiastic about my November Bicycles wheelset.
After the gravel section is the short, steep climb where spectators love to gather. That would be a good test to see if that electrical pre-cramp leg tingle would come back. Nope, no sign of it. Strava would later tell me that I beat my best time handily, as it would for most segments of the ride.
I was worried about the wind. The ginormous used-car-lot American flags along the route were stretched taut on their poles. And it appeared to be headed opposite our direction for the final stretch of the ride up Silverbell Road – or Silverhell, as I like to call it – and along the I-10 freeway. Oddly enough, that meant the wind should’ve been at our backs as we headed north. But I couldn’t feel any benefit from the wind – I rode that part with a fast, experienced rider who seemed to know everyone on the course. Super-smooth bike handler, too. We’d been near each other off-and-on for the first 35 miles, and teamed up for about 15 miles. She finally latched onto a fast-moving group of dudes right around there.
Feeling too Groovy to Stop
I was also skipping aid stations. No need for a bathroom, and my two 20-oz bottles and little 16-ouncer filled with Nuun tablets and Trace Minerals magnesium tablets were doing the trick perfectly. It was also pretty cool out, so I wasn’t sweating up a storm. Every 45 minutes, I ate a fig bar. That and the electrolytes kept me sorted out.
I’d planned to refill water bottles at any stop around 40 miles, but I skipped it. I blew past the 50 miles stop. I stopped for the first time in the race at 61 miles to use the bathroom, fill bottles and get my EFS gel shot ready for use. By that time, I’d slayed the Silverbell dragon. Oddly enough, there wasn’t much wind. I grabbed onto a passing group as I left the aid station – they were some of the faster people in the 42-mile category, which made them pretty sprightly. I wasn’t able to stay with them, but I did team up with some guys who got bounced out of the group along with me. We all took turns at the front, but they couldn’t stick with me. Another guy on a Lynskey was a huge help for a few miles until he tagged onto a faster group. It was only about two miles to the finish at that point.
Those last few miles went well, and I sailed into the finish line about 35 minute faster than last year. I wasn’t really sure about how this year would go. I’m not sure why I rode that much faster, but I have some thoughts:
I’m 10 pounds lighter than I was last year. I’d ridden 500 miles more than I had by this point last year. Since August, I’ve done regular HIIT workouts at TruHit and switched up my routines a lot more. In August, I did plenty of squats at higher weights and lowers reps … and I experimented with the keto diet. I couldn’t stick with it … and I know I’m not being scientific here, but shaking my eating habits up temporarily did something.Â Â
My Lynskey Urbano versus my Lemond Zurich. The Lynskey’s tires, fork and brakes are heavier. I’m not sure if its titanium frame is that much lighter than the LeMond’s; it’s overbuilt like crazy. They both fit well, but those wider tires and its relaxed geometry allow me to let it hang out on the downhills more.
I trained solo a lot. In the summer heat, I was out there training for the 2018 Tour de Tucson. I spent a lot of time riding in the dirt and into the wind on those big 40C tires. I even did a 55-mile group ride with roadies on them, and was able to more than hang.
I started in mid-pack instead of working my way up from the back. This allowed me to team up with faster riders, and helped my first 10 miles go far faster. It’s a huge chore to churn through riders who are slower or – worse yet – not conversant in how to handle themselves in groups of rider (hint: slower traffic stays to the right).
Which of those factors made the biggest difference? I don’t know. Being lighter is, to a point, a good habit to keep up. I hope my Urbano will last as long as the Zurich. And I will definitely make it a point to get a good starting spot in the future.
I’ve said for years that there’s not enough international service at Sky Harbor in Phoenix. The city’s only intercontinental route in recent years was a British Airways flight to London. Then we had a nice sign of progress when Condor Airlines re-connected Phoenix to Germany.
And British Airways added three more flights to London each week. Then American Airlines announced it would start seasonal service to London in 2019. Oh, andÂ Condor increased its seasonal service! This is all good news, and less gloomy than I anticipated when US Airways merged with American Airlines; the proximity of the Los Angeles hub caused worries that Phoenix would be de-hubbed. Really, that’s a legitimate concern.
Still, international service at Sky Harbor is heading in the right direction. The increase in service brings up a few questions:
Fuel-efficient aircraft like the Boeing 787 were supposed to break the hub-and-spoke model. The Dreamliner can connect cities on "long, thin routes." That situation seems to fit Phoenix, but we don’t have any scheduled service from the 787 or its Airbus counterpart, the A350. Are we then stuck with the hub-and-spoke model?
Airline wonks insist that Phoenix needs more big businesses headquartered here to make links with major cities abroad worthwhile. That’s true; tourism just can’t make a route succeed on its own. How will that drive intercontinental service at Sky Harbor?
Is Phoenix Sky Harbor on the radar of upstarts like Norwegian Air Shuttle? I know they’ve ditched some of their routes to the U.S. lately, but those were 737 routes from Europe to the Northeastern U.S. And there might be more new airlines out there looking for a place to stick their foot in the door. Â
What about Asia? Clearly, Europe works for Phoenix Sky Harbor. I haven’t seen any breakdown about what drives that success: leisure or business. If it’s leisure, are Germany and England just in our leisure travelers’ comfort zone? Is there data that suggest Asia wouldn’t work? Some might say we’re too close to Los Angeles and San Francisco -- and maybe even San Diego and San Jose. But think of this: Weather delays in Arizona are rare, and many travelers would love to avoid LAX and SFO if they could. Those could be major selling points for international service at Sky Harbor. Just as a crazy idea, I’d lobby Vietnam Airlines hard. They’ll soon begin flights to the U.S., and I haven’t seen any final decisions on destinations in the U.S. What could we offer?Â
There’s a good amount of renovation happening at Sky Harbor. How much of it involves preparing the airport for future intercontinental flights? What’s the airport’s current capacity to connect with destinations abroad?
British Airways added three 747’s worth of flights to London. Then there’s American Airlines jumping into the route with a 777. Condor added flights. Something is working. I’d love to know what’s behind their decisions, and how that can result in more international service at Sky Harbor.
One challenge of being a traveling family is deciding what the littlest person in your family is ready to experience. With a nearly 4-year-old, we’re trying to figure out a few things: Is she ready for the huge crowds of Tokyo? Is she ready to deal with motor scooters zooming every which way – even on sidewalks and staircases – in South Korea? Is she old enough to be completely mesmerized by the aurora borealis?
That last one is particularly on my mind. I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights, and I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I honestly do think the little person is ready – but a few serious issues remain. First, will she be able to handle a frigid northern latitude night, which is part of seeing the aurora? And then there’s just getting there.
We live in metro Phoenix. Since I love long flights, my preference would be going back to Tromso, Norway (obviously not in summer, this time). But from here, that’s a minimum of two legs aloft, and more likely three. Traveling with a small person adds some complications with that many legs.
Swoop Airlines – Is it the Ticket North?
Right now, though, there’s a possibility of making it one leg. Swoop Airlines is flying from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport to Edmonton. And Edmonton is a solid jumping-off point to some areas with nice, dark skies that are perfect for seeing the aurora.
Swoop Airlines is owned by WestJet, which I flew a few years ago to Toronto. At the time, WestJet advertised itself as a low-cost carrier. While the fares were reasonably priced, the experience onboard was quite a bit nicer than legacy carriers. I’ve been looking for an excuse to give WestJet more business ever since.
Ultra Low Cost — But a Better Version?
Think of Swoop Airlines as the ultra-low-cost type of carrier. You pay for everything you want, and nothing you don’t. That puts it right in the same classification as carriers like Allegiant and Spirit, which I absolutely refuse to fly.
Swoop’s association with WestJet, though, makes me willing to take a shot at them. Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport increases our travel time to the airport from about 10 minutes to 30. On the other hand, it also changes the parking and security situation for the better.
I decided to get an idea of what a quick Northern Lights getaway on Swoop Airlines would take.
Swoop Airlines Pricing and Schedule
I priced two adults and our little flyer for a flight departing Dec. 22 and returning Dec. 26. Swoop Airlines only has two flights a week from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport to Edmonton, which limits possibilities. The base price of the tickets is $1,153 USD.
Unfortunately, we can’t go any further from there to get an exact fix on price with seat choice and extras included; the website wants to enter traveler information at that point. I did backtrack a bit to the front page of the site, where the FAQs reveal a few optional fees. The food and snack options are reasonably priced, as are the fees for picking seats.
The same itinerary on American Airlines is $1,800 for economy class seats. These days, you don’t get much on American Airlines. Economy class on American is pretty much an ultra-low-cost carrier dressed as a legacy carrier. American also flies a regional jet as opposed to the Boeing 737-800 that Swoop Airlines flies.
Just in case you’re wondering, Phoenix to Edmonton is about 3-and-a-half hours.
On the Ground
I figured a simple keyword search like "edmonton aurora" or "edmonton northern lights" would get me started. But no. It seems like every sort of business in Edmonton is called Northern Lights Whatever -- Northern Lights Properties, Northern Lights Festival, Northern Lights Cemetery, Northern Lights Racoon Removal (I’m only slightly exaggerating here). Most other results were the sort of tourism and chamber of commerce stuff I disdain.
I really didn’t find any recommendations for hotels our tours that made me say "a-ha!" But maybe I don’t need to: This terrific blog post from Robin on the Cantankerous Mule blog is proof that seeing the Northern Lights in Edmonton is pretty easy to do yourself. This is exactly why I prefer getting my information with bloggers who share their personal experiences rather than commercial websites or anything like tripadvisor or travelpod.
Chasing the Aurora
Be ready for weird hours, have your camera gear packed and get moving! Robin even included some nice photography tips that I will keep handy. Apparently, the Aurora Watch website is also a must. Edmonton isn’t a huge city at short of a million, so it should be easy to get to the darker outskirts according to what aurorawatch.ca recommends.
Aside from the aurora, I’d have to schedule around an Edmonton Oilers game. They were one of the teams I grew up watching during the rise of the Gretzky era. I consider Edmonton fans a serious bunch of hockey people, and it would be great to watch a game with that crowd. (And let me know if you have other ideas for what to do while visiting Edmonton in the winter.)
Is Swoop Airlines the Way to Go?
The price is more than competitive. I have high hopes for the onboard experience. The airport is further away for us, but might be a wash with security lines being shorter. It would be nice to have service more than two days a week. I am more than interested in trying Swoop, so we’ll see if I can fit it into the plans when the time comes!
In early May, I starting driving an electric vehicle. I took the keys (or more accurately, the key fob) to a 2014 Toyota RAV4 EV. No, it’s not a hybrid. It’s not a custom hack job. It’s one of 2,600-ish of them made as a joint venture between Toyota and Tesla, who supplied the Model S battery and motor. It really is the compact electric SUV the world needs – the Nissan LEAF, the Chevy Bolt and most other battery-electric vehicles are all too small. Great for single people, not so great for couples or families, especially those with hobbies or work that includes hauling any gear.
Driving an electric vehicle has taught me a few interesting things. Some are just little tidbits I noticed, while some are more important points for those considering an EV.
Driving an Electric Vehicle Can be a Lot Like Driving a Manual Transmission
My last car was a 5-speed Subaru Forester. I generally enjoy the manual transmission. And surprise! I can drive the RAV4 EV very much like a car with a manual. EVs can regenerate energy when they slow down – aka "regen." Each brand of EV seems to have its own approach to regen, but it generally works like this: You let off the gas, and you slow down without using the brake pedal. You slow down a lot faster than shifting into neutral -- all while putting a few watt-hours back into your battery. The RAV4 EV requires you to shift – using the console shifter – from D into B (see a few paragraphs below).
The 2018 Nissan LEAF has the most-aggressive regen I’ve experienced. Its e-Pedal can bring the car to a dead stop, where my RAV EV needs the friction brake to fully stop and stay still. I like the e-Pedal a bit better, but you wouldn’t believe the number of people who shout at the clouds about it every time Nissan posts about it on social media: "Are we really that lazy? Cars should have two pedals! It’s gonna cause accidents! Do we want people too stupid for two pedals driving?" Granted, Nissan’s posts completely miss the point of explaining the e-Pedal, and people seem way too eager to wallow in their misunderstanding of the benefits.
Regen is like downshifting a manual transmission. Let off the gas slightly in the corner, and it’s like dropping down a gear. Rather than using the clutch and stick to shift gears, I use the shift knob on the center console, with the occasional push of the "SPORT" button that boosts maximum speed and torque (awesome for merging). The knob moves the RAV4 EV between D (Drive), R (Reverse), N (Neutral) and B (regen braking). Within weeks, I reached the point where shifting is second nature. In stop-and-go traffic, I usually stay in B. The RAV4 EV won’t engage the cruise control in B, so you’ll want to be in D for long stretches without traffic.
I also do a lot of neutral coasting, which is great for squeezing even more range out of the battery.
Driving an Electric Vehicle doesn’t Require a Home Charging Station
First of all, I love online threads where people whinge about people driving an electric vehicle. One guy said "but I don’t wanna plug my car in at night!" Why, will you miss all those intellectually stimulating stops at the gas station? Yeah, who wouldn’t miss the smell of unleaded gas filling our nostrils?
OK, but back to the main point: Most cars come with a plug-in device called an EVSE, which allows you to charge from outlets – mostly from 240-volt outlets like the one on your clothes dryer. A 110-volt will give my RAV4 EV about 4 miles every hour, and a 240-volt could bump that as high as 25 per hour. Depending on where you live, you might have enough charging stations to delay getting one at home for while. I recommend checking plugshare.com since it includes a variety of networks – and even some friendly home EVSE owners who might let you get some juice.
Here in Arizona, we have enough charging infrastructure to meet the needs of the average person, who drives less than 40 miles a day. That’s well within range for anyone driving an electric vehicle. There are chargers near my office, my home, good local coffee shops and even a decent craft beer bar. I never go anywhere just to charge. I’m shopping, having a coffee, grabbing some dinner – every time I charge. I’ll eventually get a home charger, but I’m holding out for a Zappi, a cool charger from England, to make its way to the US. It’ll take power directly from my solar system.
Getting a 110-volt adapter from AC Works was a game changer. I started charging overnight at home (where I have a photovoltaic array). I started charging at work. This means I started spending even less on charging. Solar generation rates where I am are about 7 cents per kilowatt hour on average. It’s probably even less for charging overnight.
This week, Redline Electric installed a dedicated 240-volt line and outlet. This solves the problem of tripping a circuit breaker if we started pulling too much from the 110-volt circuit I’d previously used. And it’s also considerably faster. I’ll go from about 4 miles of charge per hour to around 12.
Charging Networks Matter – A Lot
Charging networks matter. Chargepoint is by far my favorite. You can start it up with a phone app, but that can be a hassle if you have a bad signal in a parking garage. I much prefer the little keyring cards. I also give serious props to Volta, which sells advertising space on its chargers to provide free charging.
On the other hand, no network is as bad as BLINK. Their stations are often broken or have illegible screens. Here in Arizona, they charge by time instead of energy use, and the resulting fees are on-par with gas prices -- which is far in excess of the cost per kilowatt-hour. Even worse, BLINK has somehow weaseled their way into many government buildings and snagged exclusivity contracts. I will only use them in an emergency.
One more fun thing to note: When you’re charging on a network, you can usually view how long you’ve been plugged in and how much juice you’ve gotten through a smartphone app.
You’ll Notice Others Driving an Electric Vehicle by Their Habits
Being accustomed to driving a manual transmission, I constantly scan the traffic around me. And I notice the cars all around me that start slowing down early before traffic lights. Sure enough, when they get close enough, I notice they are EVs (usually Teslas). They take advantage of the regen. The Tesla regen is less-aggressive – to the best of my knowledge – than the Nissan, so they were carefully watching the traffic flow to start breaking early. Don’t waste those electrons.
EVs also accelerate differently. Put your foot down on the accelerator, and you’ll feel like you’re on a Japanese bullet train. But it’s more than speed: The lurch you’re used to when a regular car shifts is completely absent.
The quickness of EV acceleration has also helped me catch a few traffic lights I normally wouldn’t make – and generally without going much above the speed limit. It accelerates that much better than a gas car.
Driving an Electric Vehicle is Like a Video Game
EVs are big on giving drivers data. Mine being four years old, it lags behind the current generation. But I know exactly how many kilowatt-hours I’m using, how much I’ve regenerated and all sorts of other stuff. When I shut my motor off, I get a summary of the trip broken into average speed, current cruising range, average kilowatt-hours used and a few things I can’t remember. There’s also a neat map that gives you a range estimate, either for one-way or round trip.
You’ll also find that you’ll use quite a few apps for driving an electric vehicle. You’ll use them for finding charging stations, though you’ll eventually memorize all your favorites. But you can also monitor your charging status, charge to cost (which is sometimes free) and a few other odds and ends.
After Driving an Electric Vehicle, the Internal Combustion Engine Sucks
I had to rent an SUV for an out-of-town work trip. I put about 250 miles on a Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. Just sitting it in, the interior felt cheap and overdesigned; there was this weird cage near the center console that I can’t even begin to explain. Then there was the ICE. Noisy, slow to accelerate. Every few miles, I kept looking for a warning light that the emergency brake was one. Nope. The engine is just that crappy compared to driving an electric vehicle.
Hyundai is working its way into the EV space with a few entries, and everyone is pretty excited about the Kona. I just hope Hyundai is better at EVs than they are at ICE cars, because the Santa Fe Sport absolutely sucked. Its interior is noticeably plasticy and low-grade, and that’s coming from a guy who rarely notices that sort of thing. The RAV4 EV isn’t luxurious, but the interior is miles ahead of the Hyundai Santa Fe.
The feel of driving an EV is addicting. I can’t imagine owning an ICE car again.
Need EV Advice? Find Drivers’ Forums
People who drive electric vehicles are pretty enthusiastic, especially online. If you’re considering a particular model, join a forum for it. Read the threads, post some questions. You’ll find a lot of support. The people at the MyRAV4ev.com forum have been amazing, and I’ve seen that other boards are just as active and helpful.
Final Word: EV Tech is Already Here
Most drivers don’t realize this, but EV tech is here. It’s feasible and real. You can drive 250 miles on a charge, charge to nearly 80 percent in a half hour and keep going (you need to stop every so often to use the bathroom anyway).
Now, the car industry needs to put it together for most people to start driving an electric vehicle. My RAV4 EV needs a successor: an affordable crossover/light SUV that can go 250 miles and then suck up some electrons through a CHADEMO port and keep going a few times. It would be best to have liquid-cooled batteries, especially if you live in a hot climate. When this happens (and it’s not far away), the internal combustion’s decline will be fast and brutal.
Are there any other new EV drivers out there? What would you add to the list? I suppose you veterans of driving an electric vehicle can also comment. Let’s hear it!
I’ve always wanted to climb Mt St Helens. The utter transformation after its early 80s eruption fascinates me, and provides a great reminder that the earth is still alive. But I’m not exactly good at the technical parts of scaling mountains, so I’m not sure if it’s in my skill set. Fortunately, I ran across Danny on Twitter. He’d just climbed Mount St. Helens, and he was pretty excited. I offered him a spot on WanderingJustin.com to share his story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!Â
Danny is a technician forÂ @Porsche, a wannabe outdoorsman and cyclist. He’s on Instagram, Strava and Snapchat asÂ @DannyOLee22.Â You should follow him.
It wasn’t easy for a noob. Looking back, I’m grateful that a layer of fog prevented us from seeing the peak on the way to Marble Mountain Sno-Park from Portland. A clear view of the task at hand mighta been the straw that broke the camel’s back of my nerves. The way I see it, I had the least amount of confidence among the three of us that I could make it all the way to the top; it was 2 miles longer and 4,000 ft taller than anything I had done in my life. I was nervous, and in my mind I was outta shape. Had any cog been out of place, I don’t know if I could have made it to the top.
I had always been a geology nerd. Having moved to the northwest from CA in 2016, I quickly became fascinated in the architecture and activity of the Cascade Range. Shortly after I met Keaton in 2017 and learned we had similar outdoorsy interests, we agreed that someday we would summit Mount St. Helens. Our perspectives of the mountain were lopsided, but together we had a well-rounded interest in the volcano. What I didn’t know was that Keaton meant business, so it was determined we were doing the summit in the spring!
We learned that unless we were hiking in the winter, we’d need a permit to hike anywhere above 4,800 ft on the mountain. When the permits first went on sale Feb 1, 2018, we weren’t able to obtain ours as the website experienced a 300% increase in demand from the year prior, and subsequently crashed. Permits went on sale again on Feb 28th, and we’d learned that the new permit distributor supposedly had the bandwidth to handle more traffic. At 9am on the 28th, Keaton and I were sitting by our computers, trigger happy to obtain our permits.
The website crashed, again … persistence paid off however and after about 20 minutes of screen refreshing we obtained 4 permits to cross the 4,800 ft mark of Mount St. Helens — on the weekend of the 38th anniversary of the eruption (May 18th, 1980).
In the months that led up to our late spring trip to the mountain, I really did nothing physically to prepare myself for the hike. Like-- nothing. I had never hiked in snow, didn’t have any of the equipment that I needed, and my bicycle was still on winter vacation so I wasn’t even riding to maintain my conditioning.
I guess you could say I was unprepared.
Preparing forÂ Mount St. Helens
In the weeks leading up to our hike, many desperate hours were spent researching the internet to familiarize myself with hiking up a snowy mountain, glissading down it, and what to expect. All things considered, I don’t think I spent a lot of money on equipment, and Youtube taught me how to self-arrest (more about that later). Micro spikes and trekking poles were sourced from a sketchy dude on Craigslist, hiking pants and boots came from the Columbia employee store at a FAT discount (work perks!), I had all my camping equipment already, boom. Lastly, I needed an "ice axe". I had only ever heard of that term while watching adventure shows on weekend tv. I think hearing me speak of ice axes and crampons gave my girlfriend anxiety, but anyway--
Our date with the mountain was scheduled for Sunday, May 20th, and Keaton, Nate and I decided to camp out the night before. We literally could not find a 4th person to summit the mountain with us, IKR? We arrived at Marble Mountain Sno-Park midday Saturday in low clouds and fog. The park is situated in the foothills of the mountain amongst densely wooded forest.
We were surprised to find that, at 2,500 ft or so, spotty patches of snow were still on the ground. I don’t know what that’s called-- it isn’t at all the powdery stuff as you might imagine, but it isn’t a sheet of ice either. If you’re like me and have minimal snow experience, it’s what happens when snow partially thaws, then refreezes, over and over and over again. It’s a sort of snow with an icy crust. It’s a slick, unstable hazard… and not fun at all to trek in. Anyway, we set up our tents and enjoyed an evening of laughs, food and alcohol.
The next morning we got up at 4am. It was still dark but light was beginning to make its way through the trees. More light was coming from the headlamps of hikers who were already making their way through the campsite and up the mountain. Feeling like we were already behind, we broke down our campsite while Nate made breakfast. I changed into my game day uniform that I had put so much thought into, but didn’t execute nearly as well as I wanted. It consisted of a long-sleeve base layer with a t-shirt up top, textile hiking pants, long cotton socks and my brand-new hiking boots. A cap and sunglasses were critical. I started with a light jacket as well but that quickly came off and was stuffed into the backpack.
Gear for TacklingÂ Mount St. Helens
While on the subject of the backpack, mine was an old Dimarini adult softball backpack that I dug out of the garage and used last-minute because couldn’t justify budgeting for a nice day bag. In it were my micro-spikes, a handful of Clif bars, lots of water, sunscreen, and gloves. My trekking poles and ice axe were fitted to the exterior.
And Back to the Action
We started out at 5:30am from the Swift Trail and hiked through dimly lit forest and patchy snow to connect with the Worm Flows trail about a mile and a half in. The Worm Flows trail would be our highway to the summit. I believe the trail got its name from the winding canyons that were cut from lava flows having some representation of a worm. At least that was the conclusion the three of us came up with while conversing on the trail. An hour in, I was already having a hard time. My new boots had given me immediate blisters and my heels were in pain. My confidence was equally bruised. Keaton had packed a first aid kit and miraculously had some tape available to wrap my heels. After repairing myself, my socks, boots, and spikes were refitted and we were off again. The pain never went away but it was all I could do. If I hadn’t mentioned it yet ima mention it again …
I had no confidence!
Not at the beginning, not after wrapping my heels, not after reaching the timberline, and not while getting passed by groups of snowboarders carrying more weight than me. I mean, it wasn’t until I couldn’t see any trees whatsoever that I figured I was in it for the long haul and the weight of my negativity subsided. Amongst few allies I did have was my determination to be able to say that I got to the top, and to see the sight of things like Spirit Lake and the rest of the Cascade mountains that I previously had only seen in Instagram pictures. At this point I developed a pace. I was making visible progress. We must have stopped 35 times for air, water or food on the way up. This was the only way I was going to succeed. Every time we resumed our trek, the blisters on my heels reminded me how discontent they were.
Natural markers, like rocks breaking through the melting snow atop ridges, made for checkpoints and rest stops for the 100 hikers who were allowed to purchase permits for the day. During our breaks we were able to turn around and really get an idea of how much progress we were making. It was a huge help because I had slowed to a snail’s pace and really didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. Also, the fog seemed to follow us up the mountain. Like a pulse, it was advancing and receding throughout the morning, but the receding fog made for the perfect excuse to stop and take in the view of the forest below (or catch my breath). The crusty snow was the single most discouraging obstacle on the way up. I couldn’t tell you if I would have rather been hiking up sand… but might as well have. For every few steps I made forward, one step broke the crust of the snow and left me knee deep in it. It took even more energy to lift my leg outa the snow and take the next step forward. My legs were yelling at me to end their misery. Thankfully there were steps pressed into the snow from not only the hikers in front of me but hikers from days, or weeks prior. It was hard to tell the age of the imprints.
As we got closer to the summit of the mountain, glissade chutes became visible. These are pathways cut into the snow that allow for hikers to slide down instead of walking. I was really excited to partake in more of that. Also, we noticed people were beginning to snowboard around us. This gave us the impression that we were nearing the summit--.
In Sight of theÂ Mount St. Helens Summit
We reached a ridge that exposed the true summit, another 1,000 ft or so up. The pace was such that it didn’t really discourage me. I mean I was already exhausted; taking breaks to rest on my trekking poles and catch my breath, but also to rest my screaming legs. In a sort of trance from the repetition of rest steps and squinty eyes from the brightness of the snow, I knew we were closing in on the top because of the updraft of clouds that were visible from the crest of the crater. We were approaching the steepest part of the climb. It had to have been like a 40 – 45 degree gradient. I recalled recently reading another hiker’s experience and remembered his logic: something like "10 steps, then rest." Until this point I hadn’t understood how 10 steps could justify a break, until I was stopping every 20 steps, then 10 steps, then 5 steps.
Remember, every few of those steps ended in sinking snow. Ugh, it was hard. I couldn’t really tell if the exhaustion I was experiencing was due to the thinning air, or the incline, or both…
But, within 40 minutes or so of tackling the gradient, we cleared the hardest part and the summit was visible! We knew because we could see a group of 25 or so hikers hanging out at the top. It was closing in on noon and by now Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams were also visible. Bringing up the caboose of our 3-man party, I gave it all I could to push to the summit. Keaton and Nate stopped about 20 steps or so from the top to wait for me, then the 3 of us muscled to the crater together and were greeted by another couple of hikers once we reached the roughly 8300 ft summit.
We had done it, finally! After days of prep and months of hype, numerous Youtube videos and countless Google searches, we had finally made it to the summit of Mt. St, Helens. And she rewarded us greatly. By now the fog had burned off, exposing a beautiful sunny sky and picturesque views of the Cascade volcanoes, including Mt. Ranier, a clear view of Spirit Lake, and an actively steaming vent in the center of a ginormous crater spanning nearly my entire peripheral eyesight! It was huge! It was beautiful! And it was everything I expected it to be.
ClimbÂ Mount St. Helens, Then Lunch and IPA
We reached the summit 7 hours after our departure time of 5:30am, just in time for lunch. My girlfriend had made sandwiches for us. Keaton and Nate had literally hyped the sandwiches up so much that I was afraid they were going to be disappointed — they weren’t. Keaton and I paired our bologna sandwiches with a locally-sourced Widmer upheaval IPA that each of us had packed into our backpack. Felt as though it was appropriate, also made for a cool photo. I tell you, a cold beer never tasted so good. We stood and watched as others made it to the summit, including a 64-year-old gentlemen who had never summited St. Helens before. (I wasn’t surprised to hear that he made it an hour faster than I did--) Also, a dog! A freakin dog accompanied a couple to the summit! It was an Australian Shepherd or something like that. We later saw the dog glissading with its owner down the mountain, pure awesome. Speaking of glissading, after about 40 minutes of sight seeing and catching our breath, it was time to make our way back to the car--
I didn’t expect the descent to be as exciting as it was going to be…
We followed a couple of dudes with what seemed were Russian accents to a glissade chute. This was it! I was equally nervous as I was excited to slide down the mountain. I didn’t know what to expect and had never practiced any of it. We were to glissade (slide on our asses) down the mountain as far as we could go. It saves hours and energy, although it isn’t exactly a free ride. Glissading does require some effort and patience. Lastly, I was supposed to use my ice axe to slow myself down and stop. Remember that whole "Self Arrest" thing? The Russian dudes started and our group followed behind. The first few chutes were rather uneventful. I enjoyed my slide down at least 2,000 ft of snow, occasionally pushing myself to gain momentum then transitioning to another chute when it was necessary. What the 3 of us were worried about was that we were subject to following the path of the chute without really knowing if we were following the trail to the bottom, or where we were really going at all--
Our worries (or mine) were confirmed as we reached the end of a glissade chute and couldn’t find any more, or the trail. By this time we had reached the intermittent fog layer, which didn’t help anything. We did know that we were west of the trail, so the 3 of us and the two Russian dudes made our way across untouched snow back toward the trail.
Glissading DownÂ Mount St. Helens
The fog had become thicker as we approached a ridge accompanied by a relatively deep canyon. One of the Russians spotted a glissade chute — and did I mention these two dudes were crazy. Like the kind of people that would probably describe themselves as "extreme". He took one look at the glissade chute with no visible course and quite literally jumped right in as if cannonballing into a pool. He let out a loud "whooo" as he disappeared right in front of me. His buddy turned to look at me, chanted, and followed suit. I watched as he disappeared, then a few seconds later I spotted a small black dot traveling at breakneck speed off in the distance. It was that moment I realized the distance and depth of the canyon, and what I had in front of me to deal with. Had I had any other option I might have taken it but this seemed to be the only way down. I don’t like roller coasters, I didn’t like what I just witnessed, but I did have my axe in hand and hell, I had come this far right? I took my seat on the chute and I was off. I IMMEDIATELY picked up a lot of speed as I seemingly free fell down the chute. It was so steep, it all happened so fast I remembered what I had seen online and dug my axe into the soft snow, desperately trying to slow down. Unsuccessful, I dug the axe deeper, until the snow ripped the axe out of my hands. What I didnt remember to do was secure the axe to my wrist with a tether.
I was helpless. Using split-second emergency decision making, I assessed the danger of trying to use my hands and feet to slow down, then determined it was what I was going to do. I dug my hands into the snow on both sides of me, only to displace snow into the air in a rooster tail fashion. I bounced off hard bumps of snow and the compression of each bump on my body made my chest hurt. About 500 ft later I finally slowed to a stop. Russian 1 and 2 cheered as I came to a stop but I wasn’t happy. My chest was aching and I lost my axe. I wasn’t about to make any attempt to retrieve it-- I couldn’t even locate the chute looking back. Nate slid to a stop behind me and miraculously was able to retrieve my white water bottle that I didn’t even know I lost. I couldn’t believe that he spotted it, and grabbed it amongst the snow. I spotted Keaton sliding down and yelled to him to grab my axe! His only contact with the axe however was with the blade against his arm, and he reached the bottom of the chute bleeding. I apologized for his injury but I think his adrenaline was in such a state that he didn’t care. He was too excited about what he had just experienced.
We mingled at the bottom of the ridge for a while until I overheard Keaton and Nate asking about a noise coming from the chute. "What’s that sound?" I heard from Keaton. I knew exactly what it was though. It was the sound of sliding snow and ice. We had created an avalanche on our way down the glissade chute.
I couldn’t tell the size or distance of the small avalanche because of the dense fog. The sound it was producing was such that I wasn’t about to hang around and find out either. I proclaimed to the group that we needed to go! We moved eastward for about another 20 minutes before we found a park ranger, and the trail. Although distancing ourselves from the sliding snow, the sound didn’t seem to be getting any quieter. It didn’t matter though. We had escaped potential danger and were now far enough down the mountain that the rocky ridges we used to hike up the mountain were in abundance. I feel as though the park ranger, who was as useful at the time as a trail marker, had chosen his location on the mountain to post up knowing he would encounter people like us who had lost their way. He assured us that we had found the Worm Flows Trail, and just like that we were back on track. I don’t know how we got separated from the Russians but it was ok. I really just wanted to be off the mountain. We, tiresome, descended for what seemed like an eternity down the mountain, through intermittent snow and boulders,
through the rocks and dirt, all the way to the timberline. I was disappointed to see that after all the progress I felt like we made, we had only reached the 4,800 ft marker. The sky had cleared up for good at this point, it was warm, and I was too tired to take off my base layer.
Four hours after we started the first glissade chute at the summit of Mt. St. Helens, we returned to our vehicles at Marble Mountain Sno-park amidst warm sunny skies and beautiful lush forest. We were beat up, cut up, wet, tired, but also happy, accomplished and proud. Keaton and I celebrated with IPAs, and his favorite: gin and tonic. We changed out of our busted clothes and after a few minutes of reflecting, we were on out way out. I said my goodbyes to the mountain in my head as I connected to the local service road. It took us about half an hour or so to get out of the mountains and onto I5 South toward Portland. As soon as I had the opportunity, I glanced back at the mountain from the highway; this time I could see it clearly, standing out like a sore thumb amongst the greenery of southern Washington. I couldn’t believe that I had done it. I had left my mark on the mountain, as well as my axe. My axe left its mark on Keaton, and the three had a pretty cool story to tell.
The hike could have not been possible without the information provided from the following websites:
This week, I found out that one of the places in the world that I want to visit most is no longer accessible. Back in 2017, operations at the Naica Mine ceased. That allowed water to re-flood the absolutely incredible Cave of the Crystals.
At one point, hikers were able to walk among the hornitos and lava flows in the crater. And then -- boom. It’s still an impressive crater. But with 60-percent grades into it, going into it probably isn’t an option. Notice also how the greenery around the summit is completely gone.
Hey, I started this with the Cave of the Crystals and then jabbered about Ol Doinyo Lengai! Sorry about that. I just happen to love the idea of that place. But the Cave of the Crystals ain’t half-bad, either, with its 40-foot-long crystals nearly 1,000 feet underground. And then there’s the 136-degree, 90+ percent humidity to deal with. Ouch!
People entering the cave had to wear special cooling suits. As far as I can tell, it wasn’t possible for just anyone to gain access. It was a working mine – and a thousand feet underground, like I mentioned. That’s a shame. This would be an amazing, one-of-a-kind experience.
I’ve found conflicting info about whether the shallower Cave of Swords, with its 6-foot-long profusion of crystals, is open for visiting non-scientists. This blogger claims to have been in it, though I’m skeptical (the writing is also vague – if I get in there, I promise that I will do a far better job). There also seems to be very little content devoted to the Cave of Swords minus the bigger Cave of the Crystals.
At this point, I’m just hoping like hell that Thrihnukagigur doesn’t suddenly become un-extinct and blow the Inside the Volcano tour off the map. That would just about make me retire from traveling, I swear.
OL DOINYO LENGAI UPDATE (compliments of my Facebook friend, Ellen)
“Ol Doinyo Lengai has been active for millions of years, it will reform – there are other cool,active volcanos you can walk right up to the edge of, see stuff in the Danikal Depression in Ethiopia for one. But in my opinion Ol Doinyo Lengai is THE most important volcano in the world.
Why? I’ll try to keep this short: it is a carbonic volcano, with very very deep ‘roots’ so when it blows, as it has been pretty much constantly for millions of years, it spews lots and lots of carbon into the air. That carbon floats on the prevailing wind right down to the plains betweeen Ngorongoro and the Serengeti. This feeds the grass there into ‘super grass’ very nutritious and this is why millions of zebra and wildebeest return there every spring to have their babies at that sight so they get a head start in life by eating that super grass. Further, the wildebeest migration is a very likely candidate as to why humans evolved the way we did – with big brains and walking upright.
The whole idea that humans were great hunters is a bit off, we were mostly likely excellent scavengers who occasionally had a lucky hunt. Early humans evolved in the rift valley/Serengeti area and started following the migration to pick off the weak and scavenge kills from predators. You can see this in the footprints perfectly preserved at Olduvai gorge, a site that sits just miles from the fields of ‘super grass’. So, basically, without Ol Doinyo Lengai we might not be who we are today.”
November Bicycles solved a big problem for me: trying to pick gravel bike wheels. Nobody seems to agree on what gravel bikes (or their wheels) really are. The genre/category spans everything from touring to 200-mile offroad races, with a few stops like "road plus" in the middle.
I didn’t want wheels that were made for something else. I wanted to buy with complete confidence on that point. When I ran across the blog for November Bicycles, I knew I had the right people.
I don’t even remember what that first post was about because I took an immediate deep dive into their blog content and products. I was amazed at the detail and thought they put into the most microscopic minutia of building wheels.
The Current State of Bicycle Wheelbuilding
This is important because machine-built, pre-made wheels are the norm. And some of them work extremely well, like my original Stan’s Arch mountain bike wheels and my Ultegra WH-6800 road wheels. Good pre-built wheels have made wheelbuilding a declining-though-not-lost art. Go to a local shop, and not all of them will have someone ready to lace up a custom set of wheels.
They’re more likely to push you toward pre-built wheels. Or they might have someone good, but -- a retail bike shop is (to me) not the place to build a quality wheelset. A stream of customers and other demands can turn a build into a stop-start process.
November Bicycles seemed like people who just might listen to what I’m going to do, make recommendations and then assemble them in the manner of Shaolin monks turned bike nerds. I emailed them to introduce myself and my needs:
6’2, 200-ish pounds, likes beer
mostly does weight training
building build a road bike that can do canal paths and gravel, but is still speedy on the road
Dave from November Bicycles soon replied with a friendly email. He gave me options, asked insightful questions and made some recommendations. He didn’t just recommend, though: He told me the “why” behind his suggestions.
In the end, November Bicycles built me a wheelset based on Bitex hubs and Belgian HED+ rims with Wheelsmith spokes and brass nipples. They arrived neatly packed.
After opening the box, I installed a set of 38-c Vittoria Terreno tires. Even without sealant, the tires and rims seated immediately to each other. They showed barely any air leakage as I waited for the rest of my parts to arrive. They didn’t PING with the authority I’m used to, but they’ve seated perfectly. I’ve since deflated them, put in sealant and re-inflated.
First Ride and Final Thoughts
I’ve also had my first ride, which was an exercise in happy riding. Is it the November Bicycles wheels? They’re definitely part of the whole, and I get the impression that their true worth will reveal themselves over time. That’s often the way quality components born of quality labor work. They just keep doing what they do without complaint or undue fuss.
As for the experience of being a November Bicycles customer? I’m largely a local-vore and try really hard to keep my business in Arizona. Most of the new parts on my bike are locally sourced. But the November Bicycles blog showed a depth of thought in the wheelbuilding craft that I don’t see from my locals – at least not publicly.
The way November Bicycles shared their knowledge convinced me that I wanted them to build my wheels. That’s the way to get my money. Good advertising amuses me. But as much as I love The Most-Interesting Man in the World, I would only drink Dos Equis if I was dying of thirst. Blog posts that show me knowledge and absolute enthusiasm for what you do are the most-effective way to market to me. November Bicycles nailed this.
Consequently, I wound up with a wheelset that is exactly made for me and what I want to do on my gravel bike.
This past weekend, I test-drove a 2018 Nissan LEAF SV. I’ll tell you that it was straight-up an extremely cool driving experience. It’s dead-quiet and accelerates like a little beast. It turns well, and that ePedal feature is incredibly slick; seriously, it took me about three tries to get used to it, and then I was hooked.
So am I gonna buy one?
No. And here’s why.
Tight Quarters, Low Clearance
I drive a 2006 Subaru Forester with a 5-speed manual transmission. And I drive it like the rally car in disguise that it is. Even though it only does short trips these days while my wife’s 2017 Forester gets the long hauls, I take it into dirt regularly. I completely disregard rough roads and trails without a thought. The Subaru is a formidable vehicle to replace, with decent space, a tight turning radius and absolute braking and turning confidence.
The 2018 Nissan LEAF will do my commuting just fine. Better than fine! But when it’s time to load up a mountain bike and hit the trails? I don’t see being a happy camper. Ground clearance is a huge issue here. It’s hard to come from nearly 9 inches of clearance down to less than 6. That’s going to be a factor in installing a hitch mount for my Kuat NV bike rack.
And then there’s the backseat. The 2006 Forester doesn’t have a roomy backseat. And the LEAF is no better here. When my 3-year-old daughter falls asleep back there (which happens often), it will be a chore to extricate her without bonking her on the head. And the low-slung LEAF will force me to hunch down into an even-more awkward position to handle this routine chore.
Its Batteries, Though
Add this to lingering concerns about the passive thermal management on the batteries and a lease rate that’s way higher than comparably priced vehicles, and I’ve gotta say "no." I am supremely unhappy about this because I believe electric vehicles need to happen right now. I honestly do not want to buy another vehicle with an internal combustion engine (especially after sucking down so much exhaust in the recent Tour de Mesa – we really need to do everything possible to limit ICE vehicle emissions).
I’m really not sold on the idea of a hybrid. Part of the appeal with EVs is not having to change oil and worry about stuff like belts and hoses. I don’t like the Chevy Bolt EV, especially since it doesn’t have adaptive cruise control. The Kia Soul EV is intriguing, but also sits way too low to the ground. The only possibility that fits what my Forester can do? Finding a used Toyota RAV 4 EV. Of course, that means going to California to buy one. And then how do I get it back? There are a few stretches on the I-10 where the RAV 4 EV just doesn’t have the legs to make it from charger to charger.
Bah. The year 2020 can’t come soon enough. That VW electric minibus concept makes me swoon pretty hard. But I really don’t want to keep using gas for another two years.
My Nissan Dealer Experience
When I was digging around for availability, I made the mistake of entering my info into one of those "Truecar" sort of sites. Good grief. Take it from me – don’t do that.
Within seconds of hitting "enter," you can expect a blizzard of emails, texts and phone calls. Expect them 2-3 times a day on all channels until you tell them "sorry, the car you’re offering can’t do the job for me." I feel sorry for any women who date these characters because they are straight-up stalkers. And it was all stupid stuff like "let’s schedule a test drive!" or "when can you come in?" (Dudes. This isn’t surgery. I’m not scheduling it. And I’m not driving 80 minutes round trip for a test drive I can do 7 minutes from my house.)
Oddly enough, the dealer where I did my test drive must not be part of that website’s network. They never called. When I asked for a test drive, a salesperson got in the car with me. They didn’t ask for my license nor take any contact info from me. That was straight-up shocking after the autoblitzkrieg of the other dealers.
Nissan really needs to address this. Dealers are the first line to moving their product – and only one dealer made a good impression. They focused more on letting me figure out the vehicle and less time trying to extract information from me.
There’s also a huge product knowledge problem. I have spent a lot of time tracking down information abut the 2018 Nissan LEAF. I’ve looked for everything, from the number of USB ports to the cruise-control options. I used these two somewhat obscure aspects of the LEAF to test the salespeople out. Here’s how they fared:
As we were in the car, I mentioned to the salesperson that I was surprised that a battery-powered 2018 vehicle has only one USB port. He acted surprised, looked in the console where they’re located and said “the SL might have more.” (SPOILER: It doesn’t.)
I asked a different salesperson, who is lauded as the dealership’s EV guru, about the tiers for cruise control. My homework beforehand tells me there are three tiers: A standard dumb cruise control (on the S model), Intelligent Cruise Control (Available on the SV) and ProPilot Assist (available on the SV and SL). The sales dude insisted that Intelligent Cruise Control is only available with ProPilot Assist; this is incorrect, as proven by the Nissan-produced video below.Â Is Nissan that bad at educating its sales force, or is this a deliberate attempt to get people to stump up more money for ProPilot Assist? (Adaptive cruise control is awesome, so there are probably people who will pay for it.)
I’m Really Bummed to Say No to the 2018 Nissan LEAF
It just isn’t enough car for my situation. If you’re single or kid-free, have a look. It’s super-cool to drive. It will keep you away from the gas pump. It’s quiet, it’s clean, it’s straight-up suited for city driving.
But I recommend leasing to address that battery situation – and to also free you up when more advanced EVs start rolling out. Watch for better range and more-effective thermal management.
A few weekends ago, I rode the 2018 Tour de Mesa. It was my first of the Perimeter Cycling events held in the Valley after doing El Tour de Tucson for the past few years. The Mesa version was a 60-mile loop that had a bit of everything – flat sections, screaming downhills, grinding climbs, roads completely devoid of cars and sections where riders had to suck some serious exhaust. In short, a perfectly legit and enjoyable road ride made better with good support, good traffic control and a good finish line festival.
I’m not one of those guys at the front of the pack. The 2016 Tour de Scottsdale was my first road event in a very long time thanks to a near-miss some years ago. I’ve worked my way back into road bike events with the simple goal of trying to get a little better with each one. That’s been going well, with my average speed in each race rising.
With that out of the way, here’s my 2018 Tour de Mesa review.
Registration and Check-In
Online registration is what it is. It’s hugely convenient next to the old days of race registration. So that was all fine.
Packet pick-up was also pretty decent. There was a small exhibition going on. The first person who saw me was very enthusiastic – a bit too much so. Her recitation of “go here do this than that in this order” was more hand-holding than I need and was ultimately more confusing than anything else. I’ve checked in for many races, and it’s not rocket surgery. Ever.
The goodie bag was full of stuff that got recycled after a cursory glance. The bag it came in was by far my favorite item. Quality re-usable grocery bags are awesome! I didn’t take a Tour de Mesa t-shirt because they’re just as ugly as I expect from Perimeter event t-shirts. They put most Christmas sweaters to shame.
Getting the Ride Started
I showed up at the starting line for the 2018 Tour de Mesa confident in my preparation. Strava has been a huge help in tracking my mileage and effort. I’ve figured out what electrolytes I need. I’ve tuned my eating habits on the bike (no more gels – just fig bars). My ritual starting a week before the ride ensures that I’m hydrated, well-rested and topped off with electrolytes. I was probably a little too confident: I spent time yacking with other riders instead of making a visit to the portable toilets – that would cost me later.
When the group rolled out for its start, I had the novel experience of not being stuck in narrow streets behind riders who were all over the place. The wide streets allowed passing room, and I was able to find a comfortable pace within moments. I didn’t experience the frustration of being confined behind anyone. Sure, there were a few people out there who deserved a "hey, get to the right unless you’re passing" yell. But I contained myself.
Out of the City – 2018 Tour de Mesa
Once we turned on to Country Club/Beeline Highway, little groups started to form. Some were spontaneous, others were clearly friends who were used to each other. For a random guy like me who trains alone, this presents some opportunity to be social while also enjoying the benefits of drafting. But try as I might, I really couldn’t find a group in my Goldilocks Zone. Some were just a touch too slow, some a touch too fast. As the climbs steepened, I passed many of the groups who’d zipped by me in the flatter parts.
Beeline presented a nice place to get into a groove. Which I could’ve gotten into better if I’d made a visit to the john. But no. Within 30 minutes of the race start, all I could think about was a toilet. The second rest stop (I completely missed the first) came just short of 20 miles in, and I went running for the john. That little visit cost me about 2 minutes. The work I’d put in on the climb got undone. Ultimately, I’d see the same people over and over again: I’d pass them on a climb, then they’d band together in a downhill or flat section and pass my lonely ass. And they’d be going just a bit too fast for me – maybe because they were drafting off of each other, or I’d put it too much energy on the climbs.
Great Scenery, A Few Problems
I should mention here that the scenery after the third rest stop was spectacular. The mountains in this area area a treat for the eyes, and I wished I’d thought to put a camera on my bike. Next year, I definitely will. The speeds also picked up in the downhills. One guy on a low-slung handcycle that looked like a street luge zipped right by me at ludicrous speed. I really enjoyed seeing that!
I made my first refueling (as opposed to the "defueling" of the last one) at Aid Station 4. There, one of the friendly volunteers helped me wrangle my spare canisters of EFS drink mix into my bottles. I was in and out very quickly, and that proved to be the only filling stop I needed (I started with two full-sized insulated bottles and a smaller bottle, all filled with EFS).
I also had a few strange problems starting to pop up: My butt was absolutely killing me by about 40 miles in, which is extremely unusual. This is not something that happens to me at all. I’ll have to solve that mystery. Also weird: My left hip flexor didn’t seem happy at all. Fortunately, I know of some ways to deal with that.
The middle of the Tour de Mesa is kind of the crux of the thing: In my head, I had my sights set on two stiff climbs. As we were grinding up what I thought was the first of them, a couple of guys were like "just one more hard effort and we’re home free!" Somehow, the first of the climbs didn’t even register as a big deal. OK. I can deal with that. Five minutes later, we were descending back into Mesa.
Back into the Concrete Jungle
Our route along University took us into a section that didn’t have a bike lane. Fortunately, the local police agencies (including DPS) had that all under control. A few drivers had moments of confusion, but the situation was well in-hand. Everyone seemed to feel safe and able to concentrate on the last miles of the ride. (Except for some people on the Facebook page. There was some carping about the section without the bike lane, which I can understand.)
We had a wind coming in from the southeast, which gave a little boost of speed as we approached downtown Mesa. About a half mile from the finish, I accelerated and passed a few riders without getting overtaken myself. My right calf didn’t respond well to the hard effort, but I can’t complain about a slight, fleeting cramp in the finishing chute of a race. Not at all.
I also learned that medals were based on your finishing time, and my finish was good enough to snag me a gold. I think that’s kind of a nice setup, and I think more races should consider having different medals. It’s something to shoot for when you know you don’t have a chance at winning.
There were a few food truck available for refueling – and some company was giving out samples of hard kombucha (that went down pretty well!). Another nice touch: There were activities for kids. Had I known, I might’ve recommended that my wife bring our little person down to enjoy the fun.
I’ll definitely do this race again and look forward to it. Good course and an overall good vibe.
Random Thoughts: 2018 Tour de Mesa
STUFF I ATE/DRANK DURING THE RIDE: A fig bar every 45 minutes, one bottle of EFS per hour. DID NOT USE: Hammer Gel that I carry just in case, vial of pickle juice.
LESSON LEARNED: I might need to team up with other people to take my times up a notch, especially in El Tour de Tucson
RANDOM OBSERVATIONS: Strava tells me my heart rate was a bit higher for this ride than for my previous road rides. This tells me I’m able to work a bit harder without worrying about cramping. That’s huge, and means I have a bit more performance to extract from myself.
After being my bike since 1999, my Lemond Zurich took its final ride with me this past weekend during the 2018 Tour de Mesa. It deserves a tribute.
Here’s a little story about it that epitomizes what that bike was all about.
I was riding in the Taylor House Century in Flagstaff. Sarah (my wife, for newer readers) and I were both on our Lemonds, and a third Lemond rider joined up with us. We had a nice little group going, but I noticed a nearby rider right from the start and I knew he was trouble. I don’t know if it was the socks pulled all the way up his ankles, the neon windbreaker or his 1970s pornstache, but that guy was full of bad vibes.
Sure enough, we encountered him on the roughest patch of Route 66. It was a pot-holed mess, and this guy had no idea how to handle his bike. He was about 50 feet ahead and slightly to our left, and he was just all over the place. My sixth sense told me to back us off a little bit, so I signaled the group that we were gonna slow down. Right then, Pornstache slammed his rear wheel so hard into the trailing edge of a pothole that his tube blew out explosively – as in so hard I could see vapor escape the tire. He tried to turn and head to the side of the road, failing to realize that’s a really bad idea with no pressure in your tire. As I knew it would, his rear wheel slid out from under him.
And he was headed straight for me, sliding along the ground toward my front wheel. My first thought was that Sarah would get taken out if I crashed. So I had to get around him.
I took us to the right toward the space that Pornstache didn’t yet occupy. I refused to look at him, even when I could hear the spokes of my front wheel chopping at his windbreaker. I braced for the feeling of sliding along pot-holed, cheesegrater pavement.
But I never fell. Sarah and our third Lemond rider sailed right through. No problem.
I’d never been that scared on a bike before. I was riding to save not just my own skin, but Sarah’s.
I probably could’ve done this on any half-decent road bike. Probably. But my miles leading up to that gave me a ton of confidence in that bike. And that near-miss made it seem even more unflappable and capable. Really, I am that bike’s only limitation.
Well, that and time. Today, road bikes are a little different. They have cool mountain bike-inspired stuff like disc brakes, through-axles and frame clearance that allows bigger tires (which allow us to venture off the pavement – great for shortcuts and getting away from cars).
My hope is to find a new home for the frame and fork, plus a few of the other bits. The drivetrain will go straight onto my new ride. I know there is someone out there who’d like a classy US-made steel frame.
I’m excited by the thought of riding a capable, modern bike that can do a little bit more than my 1999 Lemond Zurich. But it will always be a special bike to me. It was dependable, elegant and confident in its domain. I hope its next owner appreciates it as much as I did.
Just in case you’re wondering, my Lemond Zurich went out on a high. My time won’t compare well to the top finishers, but it was my fastest 60 miles ever. I’ll have a full race report of the 2018 Tour de Mesa soon – be sure to watch for it!
Whenever I travel, I’m on the lookout for craft beer that I can’t find at home. Often, I want to take some home with me. That was the case when I visited Curitiba, Brazil. I found a thriving, varied craft beer scene that was a welcome surprise (and seriously, Curitiba is now one of my favorite cities). The question is, how can you fly with craft beer without turning the inside of your luggage into a sticky mess? I have one tried-and-true method, a second iffier method and now a third new system that I look forward to testing.
The Sock and Shoe "Fly with Craft Beer" Method
I found some great bottles at Clube do Malte in Curitiba. My method for getting them home safely was to slip each bottle into a sock, wrap it up in a plastic bag and then stick one bottle each in a shoe. Being a fairly low-maintenance guy who doesn’t bring a lot of clothes when he travels -- well, that limited the number of bottles I could bring.
Both those bottles in the shoes survived the flights from Curitiba to Sao Paolo to Houston to Phoenix.
The "T-Shirt and Pray" Way to Fly with Craft Beer
I had two more bottles to bring home from Curitiba. Those, I wrapped in t-shirts and plastic bags. I used rubber bands to secure all the goods and hoped for the best. I was worried the whole time about these two bottles, but they also made it.
I’ve used this scheme more than a few times, and it’s always worked. But it’s not exactly good for piece of mind. And you only need a bottle to get crushed once to make your day suck. I’m convinced that I’m running on borrowed time using the t-shirt method. My wife has a perfect record for flying with craft beer, and I suspect this – or something like it – is the way she does it. Still, it’s the dicey way to fly with craft beer.
A "Capri Sun" Pouch to Fly with Craft Beer
Some clever characters formed a company called BeerPouch, and then begat a work of art called the Flexi-Growler. And just like I said a sentence ago, it’s a Capri Sun package for beer. But stronger, thicker and bigger so that you may fly with craft beer without a second thought. This is perfect in the age of taprooms that are willing to fill growlers.
And that stack a lot flatter than glass bottles, and can’t get squashed like a can or a crowler.
I’m ordinarily not this effusive about a product I haven’t yet tried, but this just makes sense. It also appeals to my interest in sustainability – according to the BeerPouch website:
Pouches of this nature are well known to require a fraction of the carbon footprint than found in a comparable sized bottle or can. The BeerPouch uses far less energy to manufacture, fill, ship, and store beverages than virtually any comparable package.
Speaking of the BeerPouch website, let’s not judge the product by the website. Because that website is terrible in literally every way that’s possible for a website to be terrible. May they soon sell so many Flexi-Pouches that they can afford a web designer who knows SEO, UX, design and all that other good stuff.
The best news for me is that they’re working on smaller versions: Sixty-four ounces is a bit much for my wife and me. But taking home a few different 32-ouncers from a vacation is exactly the ticket for us.
So, what’s your solution when you have to fly with craft beer?
It’s been nearly a month since Hawaiian Airlines announced its switch from the Airbus A330-900 to the Boeing 787-9. This was great news, but I was also too caught up in writing about gravel bikes to put much effort into a post here. The Hawaiian Airlines 787 will now get its due. Airline geeks will debate the merits of these two aircraft ad nauseum in some of the most opaque language. Fine. That’s what they do.
From a passenger experience side, this is good news. As a Phoenix resident, I think of Hawaiian Airlines as my secret airline. If I want to go anywhere on the Pacific Rim, they’re a strong choice that allows me to avoid Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. I flew Hawaiian Airlines to and from New Zealand with my wife and then-2-year-old daughter.
The 767s flying between Phoenix and Honolulu range from fairly updated inside to, well, let’s just call it long in the tooth.
The A330s flying between Auckland and Honolulu absolutely suck for tall people. I had to remove everything from the seat pockets to prevent my knees from touching the seat in front of me.
I’ve flown in 787s from San Jose, Calif., to Tokyo and from Shanghai to LAX in a variety of configurations. Even the United Airlines 787 was comfortable. Some travelers squawk about that one because United Airlines configured it with 9 seats – three rows of three seats each. Even being 6’2 and 200 pounds, I was comfortable. The cabin was also quiet, and the seats had all the latest amenities (hello, USB ports!).
I know Hawaiian Airlines intended to replace the 767s serving Phoenix with the A330; I hope that means Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport will get its first 787 service from Hawaiian. Most airlines will tell you that fleet commonality is a good thing, so it’s possible older A330s in the fleet get phased out in favor of the 787. I haven’t found any confirmation that Sky Harbor will be served by the Hawaiian Airlines 787, but it fits the situation well. They didn’t respond to a tweet asking about it.
This is could be great news for people who want to travel to the Pacific Rim while avoiding LAX, SFO and other busy, crowded airports. If it plays out the way I expect, Hawaiian Airlines and Sky Harbor should talk this up. I’m not sure what’s behind the hesitation. Phoenix Sky Harbor lags in intercontinental service for a city its size; that’s a combination of proximity to other intercontinental hubs and an economy that isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. But weather rarely cancels flights here. Savvy travelers could easily latch onto the Hawaiian Airlines 787 flights as a way to travel the Pacific without a stop at busier, more chaotic airports. I hope that Hawaiian Airlines doesn’t do something silly and replace the 767 with a single-aisle A321, which it has done for certain routes. I guess we’ll find out.
After riding the same road bike since 1999, I’ve decided to replace it. Just a few years ago, I had it — a Lemond Zurich — repainted. And then I put an Ultegra 6800 group on it. I just rode it and loved it in the 70-mile Tour de Tucson.Â
But gravel bikes have turned my head. Or audax, adventure, gran fondo, road-plus, or alt-road (ick) bikes -- whatever name you call it, it pretty much means more relaxed geometry, clearance for bigger tires, disc brakes and through-axles. Anyway, I’ll keep calling it a gravel bike, even though I’ll ride it on the road a good 80 percent of the time.
Here’s the deal: Drivers are making more and more nervous. They get away relatively scot-free with killing and injuring cyclists. Add to that an improving but still below-par local bike infrastructure -- and a multitude of unpaved canal routes, and you have a perfect place to take advantage of the "go anywhere" capabilities of a gravel bike.
Also, this whole gravel-riding thing just looks fun. They can go off-road and cover ground faster than mountain bikes. They’re in their element on unpaved forest roads, which opens up possibilities to see things and go places that are new to us. So yeah, I’m in.
Gravel Bikes: Build or Buy?
I considered buying a whole bike – I wanted steel or titanium. I love my titanium Domahidy mountain bike, and obviously the ride quality and longevity of my Lemond are strong arguments for steel. I saw quite a few bikes that I saw – The Milwaukee Mettle is wonderful; the All-City Cycles Space Horse likewise; and Fairdale’s new Rockitship looks terrific. This is just to name a few solid possibilities.
I am not a big fan of the big guys like Trek, Specialized or Giant – not because their bikes are inferior, because they do what they do extremely well. I just crave a certain mojo from my bikes that the bigger brands don’t deliver.
I put myself into “scan” mode for a few months. If I found a great deal on a complete bike, I’d do it.
Ultimately, I found a good frame and chose to repurpose the compatible parts on my Lemond; they’re are all relatively new and extremely solid. And I could focus on the filling bits according to my own personal vision.
Few Standards, Many Options for Gravel Bikes
Now, gravel bikes are still a bit of a Wild West. Some have two chainrings, while some roll mountain bike-style with one. Some are for touring/bikepacking and need all sorts of additional places to carry stuff. There’s definitely a learning curve in learning what to look for. That’s why I’m collecting my thoughts as I start this process, and I will share with you whatever I learn.
This post will link out to future posts covering some of the major details. By way of background, I used to work at a well-respected local bike shop. I’ve built and maintained my own bikes since the 90s. I leave hydraulic disc brake and suspension maintenance to others, but handle everything else myself. I’m not quite a cheapskate, but I love a good value.
Right now, all I have in my possession is a frame. After a lot of looking at geometry and asking a lot of questions, I landed on the Lynskey Urbano. Now, I was a little bit skeptical because it’s designated as a commuting bike on the Lynskey website. But I spent some time emailing a Lynskey sales rep, and I compared its geometry with my Lemond and with other eligible frames. The geometry is only a bit more relaxed than the Lemond, and its wheelbase is only a smidge longer. Some bikes seemed like limousines! It also has a threaded BB shell, which I prefer.
Just eyeballing the Lynskey, it appears very nicely made – good welds, beefy stays, nicely shaped tubes. It’s set up for flat-mount disc brakes and 12mm through axles, and can accommodate electronic shifting.
OK, that’s about it for now! Coming in future episodes – these will all have links when the posts go live, so you can use this post as your central Gravel Bikes hub:
Picking a fork – and why I am convinced that carbon forks are great, but they’re also a giant rip-off. I know this will be controversial. I’m willing for someone to prove me wrong when I make the case. Sometimes I don’t know what I don’t know.
Tires are almost as difficult to choose as wheels. What width? What pressure? What tread? Argh!
A few thoughts about what impacted my choices beyond specs and prices, from the advice of knowledgeable friends to how companies handle themselves on social media networks.
Putting it all together and riding. I’m planning to go with 31c Vittoria tires to start. My big question is whether the do-anything, go-anywhere wheels and tires make my performance take a big knock. I’m determined to do better at the 2018 Tour de Tucson, and I’m curious to see what impact riding a gravelly, road-plus bike makes on my times as I train.
Special thanks to Craig Swetel from the Facebook group Riding AZ Gravel. Not only did he let me help myself to most of the photos in this post, he also is spreading the word about gravel-riding fun.Â
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