Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My RAW Bike Commute

I bike-commuted to meet my RAW team in Sunnyvale. I was crew chief for Joan Grant. I'll spoil the surprise (you know how much I hate suspense!) by telling you that we had a fantastic race, and that Joan now holds the womens' RAW record. And I'll leave the telling of that story up to her.

I had originally figured I'd just hop a ride with David and the Team Raven Lunatic van down to the Bay area – but then I realized that I was woefully short on adventures this year. Since I normally have Fridays off, I could ride down the coast to the Bay area. David offered to chauffeur my bike back home, so long as I left it at Jim's place. No problem.

I took off a little after first light on Friday. I felt oddly nervous and unsettled. Maybe it had just been too long, and I'd forgotten the lure of the open road. Or maybe I've got more to miss now. Or possibly some of each. Anyway, I managed to waste a good hour, sorting through stuff, petting Cog, and having that last cup of coffee.

And then – it was 6:45 and I really couldn't put it off any longer. And just like that, off I went...around the bay to Eureka, through town on the back roads, and onto Highway 101. I didn't have a map, or a plan, particularly. Heck – it's pretty obvious where San Fransisco is. Put the water over your right shoulder and keep plowing ahead and you're sure to run into it eventually.

I had packed just enough stuff to get me down there, since David and Bill would arrive shortly after I did. They were lugging all of my luggage for RAW (thanks, guys!). I had a change of clothes, warm gear for night, three good spare tubes, a spare tire, and a couple of tools. That's it, because that's all the room I had. Everything was wedged into my race bag, snug as a bug in a rug.

Southward. Fortuna. Rio Dell. Avenue of the Giants. Munching on waffles and Nutella, swigging water and (more) coffee. It was almost misty at first, then overcast. Somewhere in the southern reaches of Humboldt County, the sun started peeking out. And then I started seeing the signs - “Special Event Ahead: Redwood Run”. Wow – a footrace? On a Friday? Or...not. Turns out that the Redwood Run has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual sport of running. And I was noticing a lot of Harley Davidsons out on the road.

By the time I reached Piercy the sun was out in full force, and it was quite clear that the “Redwood Run” was actually a motorcycle rally. Fortunately for me, bikers like good food, too, and the store was well-stocked with sandwiches, cookies, and the like. The parking lot had spread out to a mini-fair, and I spent my “lunch” time peering at racks of t-shirts and stickers that would make a sailor blush, and hoping there was nothing too unusual about the brownie I'd just slammed down. Got into a few conversations with curious gawkers: “Hey, is that bike, like, COMFORTABLE?” “Where are you headed?” “Is that CARBON FIBER? COOL!!!” and the like.

And on I went. This was the point where I did NOT reapply sunscreen, leading to a particularly embarrassing case of knickertan. Leggett – considered hitting the drive-thru tree, but opted against, not knowing whether it's bicycle friendly. Plenty hilly from here to Laytonville, but with nice conditions and a bit of a tailwind it wasn't bothering me.

More rollers, then some flats, then before you know it I was sailing into Willits, just at dinnertime.
I stopped at Burrito Exquisito for a giant-ish chicken burrito. While I was there I called Bill (and Cog) to let them know how I was doing.

After Willits, life got more, well, interesting. I got my first flat tire between Willits and Ukiah. No problem – I've got three spare tubes. Onward...I start doing the math, trying to figure out when I can figure on making it to Santa Rosa, which is a major landmark on the way down for me. I'm feeling good and I'm flying along, and just at the point where I've got the math figured out and I'm happy with the result, BLAMMO! Another flat tire. Grrrr.

OK, not a problem, I've got three spare tubes, after all. So I replace the tube, getting it mainly inflated before I notice that the tire has a pretty big sidewall cut, and the tube is protruding, and...I made it. Got it deflated before detonation. This was a big deal because “three spare tubes” was starting to sound like “only three spare tubes???”. I hauled out the spare tire, and mounted it with the second tube.

And I'm back on the road. The sun is low in the sky, but I'm riding along, picking up speed, enjoying the last puffs of tailwind before it beds down for the night, and figuring out when I'll make it to Santa Rosa, based on the last flat tire and my current rate of speed and enthusiasm. Just when I think I've got it worked out, and I'm happy with the result....BLAMMO.

Good grief! Three flats in not much more than an hour. I put my third spare tube in (“only three spare tubes???”) and think, weakly, that I should really patch one of the injured tubes now, before it gets dark. “But what are the chances of a FOURTH flat?” I ask myself, and so I forge ahead, into the twilight, enjoying the sunset and speeding right along, figuring out when I'll make it to Santa Rosa, based on the current position, location, speed, and enthusiasm....

By this time, you're probably wondering why I let my mind wander down the Santa Rosa path yet again, since it seems like every time I got to that point in my mental ramblings, I got a flat tire. Well, it wouldn't be such a great story if not for the fact that, yes, indeed, I got my fourth flat tire just as the light changed from dim to dark. Now I had to patch a tube, and I was distrustful of the porosity of the replacement tire, which had let in two pretty minor pieces of road shrapnel. I decided to patch the slit tire, which was otherwise brand new, rather than to trust the spare.

It is difficult to find small holes in black inner tubes in the dark. And my creeping presbyopia doesn't help one bit. Fortunately, I've got a very good light that I can use to illuminate the work area. Unfortunately, as I reached for the light to move it to a more useful position, the mount broke in my hand. I guess I'm lucky that it broke while I was stationary... but now I'd have to figure something out for a front light.

The only tube that I could see well enough to patch was the one that had punctured with the sidewall cut. At least I had that going for me – the hole was big enough to find relatively easily. Hopefully the patch would hold!

About this time I realized that my taillight was functioning on something resembling the “glowworm” setting, so I changed it out for my spare. The spare turned on for 10 seconds, sputtered, and died.

Final tally: It's well after dark. I'm on Hwy 101. I have a LED leg bracelet rigged as a temporary headlight, and a taillight that is barely visible. I'm riding a patched tire and tube, and am carrying three spare tubes that have holes that are too small to visualize in the dark. And I've changed four tires (make that five, if you count the one that I did twice before discovering the bulge in the tire). I'm covered in grease and grime.

Fortunately it's only eight more miles to Cloverdale. I'm creeping along, really missing my light, certain that at any moment the tire bogeyman will rear his ugly head yet again. But by some small miracle, I made it without incident.

At that hour (sometime after 10PM) there's not much action in Cloverdale. I pulled into the first minimart that presented itself: a rather seedy place that doubles as a liquor store and appears to be where the local 18-year-olds go to celebrate their 21st birthdays. I picked up batteries for the taillight, a hotdog and coffee for myself, and started McGuyvering. With most of the parts from the light mount, plus an armband for an iPod, plus some electrical tape scavenged from elsewhere on the bike, I could put the light back into service – as a helmet-mounted light. Only downside is that the battery cord is short, so that I need to wear the battery pack on my helmet as well. Heavy, but that's what it's going to take. I inspect the tire. So far, so good. The patch is holding. And I'm well-lit, which is a good thing.

Off I go, back into the night. Before you know it, my thoughts were wandering, back to my current speed, figuring how long it was going to take to get to...STOP. RIGHT. THERE.

In a perfect world, I would have spoken those words to myself, to ward off the brain waves that attract flats like my strawberry plants attract slugs. Since this is NOT a perfect world, the “STOP. RIGHT. THERE.” that I heard had come from the speaker of a California State Patrol car.

The officer was not amused by my presence on the 101, particularly at that hour. He started asking me questions:

Officer: “Have you seen any OTHER bicycles out here, miss?” (“Miss? Really???)
ME: “No, sir, I haven't.”
Officer: “Well, don't you think that it's STRANGE that you're the only bicycle rider out here?”
ME: (can't help but think that this is a trick question...) “No, sir, not really; I'm pretty used to being the only bicyclist out some times.”
Officer: “Well, you're not supposed to be riding on the freeway. Didn't you see signs to that effect on the freeway onramp?”
ME: “Sir, I got onto the 101 in Eureka. There's no onramp.”
Officer: “Eureka? When was that?”
ME: “This morning, sir, at approximately 7:15”.
Officer: (pausing for dramatic effect): “What are you drinking in your waterbottles? Have you had anything to drink?”
ME: “It's Diet Coke, sir”.
Officer: “That's really interesting, Miss, because when I do cardio, I can't drink soda at all. Are you SURE that's Diet Coke?”
ME: “Yes, sir. If you're like most police officers, you do CrossFit for your cardio, and I'd never be able to drink soda for that, either. I'm not drinking alcohol; you can't do that and operate a bike safely.”
Officer: “Where are you headed?”
ME: “Sunnyvale, sir. I'm meeting a team of racers that's going to ride from Oceanside to Durango”.
Officer: (shooting me The Look) “The one in Colorado?”
ME: “Durango is in Colorado, sir; Oceanside is in California.”
Officer: (same Look, squared) “I'll need to see your drivers' license.”....

He had his partner run my drivers' license, and after a long minute he returned. And then he said the strangest thing of all:

Officer: “Well, miss, I guess that other than the bicycle thing, you're pretty normal, so I'm going to let you off with a warning. But you have to leave the freeway immediately.”

Wow. I've been called a lot of things. But...normal??? If I pass for normal in this guy's world, he must lead a pretty interesting life. But if it gets me off without a ticket, that's great. He literally frog-marched me down the next offramp and into Geyserville. Between the flashers and the headlights, I almost felt like I was ultraracing. If only I could ride my bike...Once I was safely in Geyserville, he cut me loose.

I didn't mind riding side roads the rest of the way. It was slower going since I had to think more about where I was going. But I didn't get any more flats, so getting off the highway may have been a good thing. I got through Santa Rosa in the wee hours, and made it to Petaluma sometime around 4AM. I found a 24-hour breakfast place – Henny Penny's, which is just across the street from the Denny's (say that three times fast!).

I had the bacon and eggs breakfast – very slowly – and a quantity of coffee. I sent a text message to Bill to let him know I'd made it to the Bay area, figuring he was not likely awake yet. Turns out I was wrong – he'd volunteered to take some neighbors to the bus station – so we talked briefly. I was able to milk breakfast until it was fully light, and I could better assess my options.

Next time, I think I'll take...a bicycle map. As it was, I ended up doing the full scenic tour of Marin County on Saturday morning. It was a lovely day for a bike ride, so that wasn't such a bad thing, but I was frustrated that I was not getting substantially closer to my goal.

Around 10 AM I admitted defeat. I had made it to San Rafael and I felt like it would be unwise to keep trying to find the Golden Gate Bridge, so I decided to take the ferry. With about an hour to kill before the next ferry launch, I spotted a farmers' market nearby and checked that out. Three peaches later, I was feeling pretty chipper.

I settled in for the ferry ride. And then we got spit out onto the Embarcadero. I had gone from the solitude of biking, solo, from Arcata, to the hustle and bustle of the big city, just like that. And the Giants were playing, so it was doubly busy. Between the road haze, and the sleep deprivation, and the crowds, I was feeling a little overwhelmed.

And then the naked bike riders came through. A gaggle of naked guys and one brave, equally naked, girl. They were headed in the opposite direction, slowly, nakedly, confusingly. I seldom hallucinate, and when I do, it's never anything fun or interesting, so I'm sure it was real.

Three hundred miles, thirty thousand baseball fans and thirty naked bike riders was enough; I was ready to throw in the towel. I made one feeble attempt to not get lost in downtown SF, but ended up at the corner of four different roads, and none of them were where I belonged... Again, admitting defeat, I ended up taking the train to Mountain View, where Joan picked me up. From there, I was swept into the singleminded busy-ness of RAW: travel, packing, planning, execution, exhaustion, exhilaration.

This time of year always finds me a theme song. This year, the first song I hit on my ipod when I got home was just amazingly, deeply, psychically “right”. Here it is....enjoy. And – don't forget to sunscreen!


The Apache Relay – American Nomad
I see the sun, I see the stars again
I feel the air, I hear the scream of the wind

I'd ask everyone I know just where I am
But I don’t care.

I want to be lost find myself and start again
Tear up the map cause I don't need directions
I want to be free, I need some time to clear my head
If I can

but Ohh my darling,
The road has split
but I will follow,
It's who
I am

I write my thoughts, I write `em down on a page
They can't be yours, (but) we'll find a ground to relate
Sayyyyeddd cause I wanna talk
I wanna run
I wanna change
If it's not too late


  1. What an incredible story! I can't believe that cop....or maybe I can. I do love your responses though! Glad you made it safely!

  2. Not that I don't enjoy a long ride, and totally applaud your determination, but it's stories like yours that make me glad that I have a Montague folding bike. I do all the regular riding I would normally do, but 4 flats later, or once it starts to get dark, etc. it's a lot easier for me to pursue other methods of transportation with the bike.

  3. @LBJ - Maybe I'm missing something here? This ride was about challenge and adventure. I took my bike as far as I wanted to, and then I had no problem taking public transport (ferry and train) the rest of the way, with my bike. I own a folding bike but rarely find a need to ride it.