Sunday, October 24, 2010


A couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Chicago for the annual HR Technology Conference. To the unwashed, I'm sure that sounds like a niche within a niche, but the event gathers close to 3,000 professionals from around the world. And quite a few of them have become very good friends over the course of my career.

Rather than take the traditional conventioneer approach of late nights and foggy mornings, I elected this trip to get up early and go for a jog on the lakefront. It was the perfect time of year for it. Mostly clear skies, late sunrise, mild temperatures.

Somewhere up around Soldier Field, I took a wrong turn and wound up on top of a parking structure. I knew I was heading back toward the lake front, and started to "bushwhack" across the top of the lot, thinking (as I typically do) that my keen sense of internal direction would carry the day.

"I may have to hop a fence or plow through some bushes, but I know the lake is generally 'over there' so I'm good," I thought to myself.

And then I stopped.

As is so often the case, I was ready to persevere along my current course rather than turning back in order to go forward or (horrors!) ask for directions. This time I caught myself, fully aware that I was a) being foolish and b) had a schedule to keep.

As I reversed down the path already traveled, I spent some time thinking about a world where we are constantly in the presence of GPS, moving maps and products so epically named "Never Lost."

As a kid down in Southern California, my friend Matt and I would take the bus up to Malibu and find our way back behind the shopping center, into relative wildland along Malibu Creek. Sure, we weren't ever that far from homes or roads, but we were in places that rarely, if ever, saw the footprints of people. We were off the grid before there was one, and it is hard to imagine a parent today that would feel comfortable with their 10 or 11-year-old disappearing for an entire day at a time. But we did.

If the way forward required navigating underbrush or wading in knee-deep murk, we were undeterred. I can still taste that rich putrid smell of creek-bottom mud, the kind that permanently bonds to tube socks and probably inspired the inventor of the automatic washing machine.

But our reward was broad, calm freshwater pools and soft sand beaches filled with complete silence. We'd swim, catch crayfish and sunfish with our hands, and then sit out in the sunshine to dry out our clothes.

The crayfish were like little waterborne alligator lizards -- good sport to catch and release in the moment. They were incredibly quick, and good for a nasty pinch if you didn't grab them just right, which typically resulted in an explosive expletive from the pinch-ee and explosive laughter from the local audience. Matt liked to take the sunfish home, typically in a plastic bag as though he'd won them in a ping pong ball toss at the county fair. He had a substantial, by our standards, garage-sale aquarium in his room, where he managed to raise a few of the fish to the size of salad plates.

So, like I said, we'd dry ourselves in the sun, head back down the creek to the bus stop and head home. Those were summer weekends.

20 years later, a group of us were on a company-sponsored camping trip to the Western Sierra in an area called The Dardanelles near the Sonora Pass. A few of us elected to take a long hike along a loop trail -- I think it was supposed to be about 12 miles -- up to the nearby peaks. It was a beautiful summer, and we arrived up in a beautiful high-mountain meadow around mid-day. The wildflowers were head high and abundant, the air was clear and the sky delivered its multi-hued blue that comes with altitude.

On the far side of the meadow, where we'd hoped to find the continuation of our loop, there was only a marker for the trail over Sonora Pass. Knowing this couldn't possibly be the way back to the campground, we elected to take first one, and then another, and then another in a series of game trails through the treeline. A few of us (I think we were a group of 5 in all) were confident in our direction of travel, down into the valley cut by the stream that passed through the campground.

Within a couple of hours, we were scrambling over big granite boulders and scree fields, alternately descending through a series of small waterfalls. That may sound an odd choice, but the terrain was so steep and the surface so unstable -- it was made up of what I remember as tiny chips of granite -- that the gradual step-downs of the waterfalls and pools made it easier to traverse.

At one point, our Black Lab, Sierra, who was quite an experienced hiker in her own right, was cautiously making her way across the top of a five or six foot fall, with Beth's hand wrapped around her collar to keep her safe. And then Beth was yelling with the empty collar in her hand, as the dog unceremoniously landed feet-up in the pool below. For a moment, everyone stopped cold thinking that surely she'd be seriously injured.

At that point, one of the members of our party sat down. She was done. Scared, and ready to spend the night on the side of the mountain rather than continue down and risk getting hurt. Sierra, it turns out, was fine. The dog was clearly shaken, but uninjured. But it took about 20 minutes of talking to get the group back moving downhill. Up to that point, I'd been moving along under my own assumption that just by keeping on going we'd be aok. And it was startling to consider that we were really and truly lost.

We pressed on as the daylight waned, and finally reached the valley floor as the stars (and thankfully a little moonlight) erupted overhead. The dog took the lead as we found the trail again and made our way back to the campground, where we discovered that the search and rescue teams had been called and were waiting till dawn to come looking for us -- sure that we'd headed off over the Sonora pass.

For her part, Sierra went straight into the tent and went to sleep. The rest of us did what any 20-somethings would do. We drank beer and told stories around the campfire. And enjoyed our dinner.

Sometimes it is good to be lost.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Photos: Levi's GranFondo 2010

Levi's GranFondo II

The GranFondo 'Medio' loop is about 60 miles tracing from Santa Rosa to Occidental and down the Russian River to Duncan's Mill. From there it is a left turn onto the coast road for some spectacular views of the leviathan rocks over an almost Caribbean-blue Pacific Ocean. The sky was clear as we made the turn and the air carried the cool dank of seaweed soda-foam up the sheer cliffs from the water's edge to the roadside.

This stretch of Highway 1 climbs and descends with wide, sweeping bends that encourage the two-wheeled set to accelerate madly on the way down, tuck tight into the apex and hold as much speed as possible on the climb out. Big ring, all the way. And the road surface, unlike so many in California, is seamless and uniform. It's like the best amusement park roller coaster you've ever been on, but better. No rails.

One more rest stop at Portuguese Beach, and it was just a quick spin down to the left turn and Coleman Valley Road. I'll start by admitting that I had to put my foot down this year. Beth, after training for her half-marathon and a good deal more riding than I've done this year, went spinning right up to the top. This is by all accounts a killer of a hill with some parts into the double-digit incline percentages. The pros have done it in the Tour of California, and apparently they go up on the big ring. I was wishing for a triple because I didn't have enough power to keep things spinning while in the saddle. Standing up, the whole way. Without enough miles in the legs its just a challenge to keep out of the red zone. It is still an awesome feeling to crest and take a moment to look back at the view from the top. We live in a state with spectacular natural beauty, and it is all too easy to drive right on by and never notice it.

Somehow I'd managed to forget that there is still a good bit of climbing to do after Coleman to get back to Santa Rosa. The roads wind between active farmland and redwoods, and there is a beautiful old schoolhouse along the way as well so it is hard to avoid being enchanted by the environment. Through Occidental and over the last few ramps into Santa Rosa, where we turn right onto the local cycle path. Last year, this section was all packed gravel but it was paved for 2010 and FAST. Unfortunately a number of the "Grand" riders seemed to forget we weren't racing and went blazing through, almost obliterating a couple of riders who were out for a casual weekend ride in the other direction. Fortunately the outcome was only skids and hollers.

And with that, we were back into the Finley center where we enjoyed some free food, lemonade and got to say hi to Levi and Ben King (the newly minted U.S. Pro champion.).

As organized rides go, this one has about the best organization and engagement I've ever experienced. The people are all fabulous. The support from the city of Santa Rosa is more than you could possibly hope for, and the involvement of local riders and international pros makes it more than just a training target.

I can't wait till next year. Better get training.


And P.S. -- Thanks to the Flying Goat for the free coffee. Superb.

Levi's GranFondo 2010

Months of non-preparation.

Weeks of denial.

A couple of hours driving.

A twenty-year-old bike in need of a tuneup...

Last year was a terrific year for me as a weekend cyclist. 25 lbs. off the waist, 100+ miles a week, lots of climbing. By October, I had pair of centuries already in the legs and lots of motivation. We hit the first-ever Levi Leipheimer GranFondo in great shape. Ready. To. Go.

And it was a blast. That was 2009.

Now 2010 was a blast too, but it was a little different. This year somehow the weekend motivation to ride has been swamped by sloth, carpooling kids to athletics and work. Lots of work. And the mid-week rides that were a staple last year have never materialized. Embarrassing doesn't begin to explain it. Sure, I've had some weekend rides of note -- up the Del Valle grade a few times. A few 40s out and back on Calaveras road.

Arriving in Santa Rosa on Friday night, all sins were absolved. The pre-ride dinner at the Olive Garden (yep, we go in style, people) was a great laugh with our cycling groupetto from southern California. Interesting to think in the few years I've known some of these friends, we've spent many more hours on two wheels than off. As Helene aptly put it, "because we can." Or at least, because we could.

Cycling adventures are wonderful in part because packing is so simple. Gear for riding and a few bits of casual wear and you're all set. Ain't no fancy shindigs to worry about and most of the hotels or motels have a free breakfast. Oatmeal is a staple. So we sacked out at the Hampton Inn in Rhonert Park and within what seemed like moments the 5:45am wakeup call had us up and out to grab parking close to the start. With 6,000 participants this year, it was by far the largest group ride I've ever participated in.

At the start we had time to sip coffee and stay warm, get the bikes pulled together and tires topped off. About 30 minutes before the start I went to put on my shoes.

Where the heck are my shoes? Or my helmet for that matter.

Frantically pulling apart every nook and cranny of the well-packed Honda Pilot it soon became clear that neither shoes or helmet were with us in Santa Rosa. DOOM. So while the others went off to stage with the other riders, I was carefully adhering to the posted speed limit all the way down to the Hampton Inn, hoping I'd just left them by the door in my pre-dawn stupor.

Yep, there they were sitting neatly on the bed. Just as I'd left them. Almost insultingly perfect in their cheery placement.

As quickly as the overly "calm" elevator would carry me back down to the foyer I was out the door and back in the Honda, once again carefully proceeding in accordance with all California traffic laws on my way back to the start. It was now about 8:15, and while the ride had officially begun my group still had yet to start as they had positioned themselves in a rather humble position toward the back of the 6,000 carbonistas preparing their assault on King Ridge.

Using my internal compass as a guide...a tour guide for the back roads of Santa Rosa...I managed to get back to our parking spot, shoes on and rolling by about 8:30. Lucky for me, even with all the riders well up the road there were still a few onlookers on the sidewalk to give me a courtesy cheer with a lone cowbell as I went immediately into full Time Trial mode to try and catch on. Nothing better on a cool morning than taking the old cardio system right up to threshold. Thank goodness for the hotel's 'perk me up' dark blend and an ample helping of adrenaline.

13 minutes solo, almost to the second, till I made contact with the back of the pack and found Lynn and Beth. They were slowing down to wait for me, but I was full-bore, in-the-zone and blew right by. But we managed to connect up a little further down the road, say goodbye to Lynn as she was doing the shorter (but still challenging) Piccolo route, and head off in our little two-person paceline to try and catch the main group.

Little talking, just the rhythmic swish of the chain on the big ring and the occasional 'on your left' as we started passing folks.

Back on track...