Sunday, May 1, 2016

Stronger Climbers, Mini Coopers, and What We Didn't See

More about this later.

1 May 2015

I felt a little guilty about not going to the Princeton Free Wheeler's Spring Fling this year. When Tom pitched the idea of riding in the hills out of Bulls Island instead, I said yes right away. I started having second thoughts a few days later. Ed was on the fence, too. Then Jim suggested that as "future leaders" of the club, we ought to go. That did it. I replied, "I'm on the fucking board now," and told Tom I'd be there: "The Insane Bike Posse rides again!"

It had rained the night before, and rain was forecast for the next day. In between we'd have clouds most of the day, and the temperature wouldn't get out of the mid-fifties. I skirted the beginning of Lambertville's Shadfest traffic and got to Bulls Island after Tom and Jack H. Ed had told us he was coming. We waited around for ten or fifteen minutes until he pulled in.

"I drove past here three times," he said. "I knew where it was. I just couldn't find it."  He did his usual messing about, for which I am grateful, because I am no longer the one who is mocked for being the last to be ready. 

Jack H was on his brand-spanking-new carbon bike, the one he'd picked up, fully built, two weeks ago. It's the same manufacturer as his other two, but this time he outfitted it with disc brakes and a 32-tooth rear cog. The tight geometry and sloping top tube gave the appearance that he was riding a bike two sizes too small, but that's the style these days. The paint was a matte blue-gray, with bright yellow-green highlights reminiscent of the old Miss Piggy.

We headed for the bathrooms across the canal, and then to the footbridge over the river.  Ed had disappeared. "He probably went back to his car to get more clothes," I said. Meanwhile, I took pictures.

Tom was about to turn around to look for him when Ed's blinking front light emerged from the canal bridge. "I forgot to lock my car," he said. "This is the one that locks itself after thirty minutes. My keys were in my jacket on the front seat."

We turned up Fleecy Dale Road, which has been closed for years.  It still is, but now at least we can ride over the mud and gravel. This being a Tom ride, it didn't elicit any comment.

Coming towards us at high speed was group upon group of very serious-looking riders. They turned up Fretz Mill, which is steep enough to topple people who aren't prepared for the ascent. This was the course of the Fleche Buffoon, 75 miles and 6100 feet of climbing. I was glad that nobody my speed had suggested it, because if they had, I'd have had to have agreed to it.  (No, Ed, you are not my speed. You're faster.) From where I was, it looked like a race. Nobody who passed us was talking.

In Carversville, I had to shed my leggings. I watched a photographer dash around for pictures of the Buffoons zipping past.

As we crawled up Wismer Road, the same Buffoons I'd seen in Carversville popped out ahead of us at an intersection. They finished the hill as if it had been flat.

At the top of the hill, at an intersection, Ed disappeared again. Tom spotted him attempting to go inside the Point Pleasant fire house. Somebody outside stopped him. Tom rode over. Jack H and I had no idea what was going on.

Lined up at the intersection behind us, waiting for us to cross, were a dozen or so Mini Coopers.

On Hollow Horn, I doubled back to a rusty piece of farm equipment. Ed followed me. I wanted my camera to focus through the grass; it focused on the grass instead. I didn't think to switch to manual focus, because I never think to do that. I stood up, took another shot, and got back on Miss Piggy.

Every few miles, we'd come across the serious climbers, always in the opposite direction. The Mini Coopers passed us again. This time I paid attention to the license plates, should this become a recurring theme. "I'm not sure I'm awake," I said to Tom, "between the Minis and the Fleche."

The Buffoons and the Insane Bike Posse met again at the top of Bridgeton Hill Road. I was surprised they weren't climbing it. I stopped to get a picture or two. From behind I heard one of them say, "Good idea."

"I climb this all the time," I explained, "but I don't get much chance to look on the way down."

"It's beautiful."

"Watch yourself on the curve," I cautioned.

As I dismounted at the Homestead General Store, the flock of Mini Coopers drove past us again.
A few of the smarter Buffoons pulled off at Homestead. The ride wasn't supported, one of them told us, save for a single grab-and-go at the windmill in Alexandria. "Smart move," I said. "There's nothing up there."

I got a few more pictures while we waited for Ed, who finally admitted that he wasn't all there today.

For the first time ever, I rode my bike over the Milford bridge. Apparently we can do that if we ride in the road; we're vehicles, after all. "That felt weird," I said.

On Pittstown Road in Everittstown, we came across this tree, which looks like the tree that every five-year-old draws in kindergarten class.

Ed, meanwhile, was taken by the dilapidated barn across the street:

We passed Sky Manor airport. This was the first time I'd seen anything taking off or landing. We stood for a while to watch a takeoff, a landing, and a helicopter hovering close to the ground.


Landing and hovering:

This was the easy part of the ride, up on the ridge, after the hard rollers of Route 519. We wound our way back southwest, towards Federal Twist.

"Do you feel okay?" Jack H asked me on Milltown Road. I had to pee, but, other than that, I felt fine.


"Because we're on a Tom ride and nothing has happened. No closed roads, no rain."

"We're not finished yet," I reminded him.

As we got closer to Federal Twist, I told Tom, "I have to find a tree."

"It's only five miles to Bulls Island."

"I know," I said, and found a suitable spot at the corner of Milltown and Federal Twist. The guys rode ahead.  In front of me, Ed had been in the bushes too. Sensing the descent, he took off. By the time I reached the beginning of the hill, there was nobody in sight.

I reached 50 mph once on this hill, back during my first year with Kermit, or maybe it was before that even, with Bluestreak. I've never hit that speed since, and I'm totally okay with that.

Miss Piggy, the old one, never felt fast on descents. The new Piggy doesn't either. I've always been cautious. When I reached the steepest descent, I reached for the brakes.  I only let loose after Raven Rock Road, where the grade is less and I can see the bottom. Tom and Ed were there. Jack H must have gone ahead. He does that a lot. Bulls Island is only a quarter mile away anyhow. I checked my maximum speed. 41 mph. Fast enough for Miss Piggy.

"How does your bike feel going downhill?" Tom asked. He wondered if the new frame feels different from the old one.

"It's more stable, I think. But I don't feel fast. It doesn't feel right somehow. It's stiff. I can feel every bump in the road. If I were on one of my steel frames I'd feel more confident." He agreed.

We didn't see Jack H when we reached the parking lot. We figured he must have gone on to the bathrooms.

I'd already loaded Miss Piggy into the back of my car, and Tom had packed his Synapse, when a rider came up to me.

"Are you Laura?"

"Yeah," I said. I'm used to this. It's the braid and my reputation.

"Your friend had a crash on Federal Twist," he said. "He's on a Trek."

I shook my head. "None of us has a Trek," I said.

"His name is Jack. He's banged up. His bike is wrecked."

Oh, shit.

"I was last. I didn't see anybody."

Tom said, "White jersey?"


Tom jumped into his truck.

"I'll wait here."

"I didn't see anyone either," Ed said.  "He was ahead of me."

It was one of those frozen time eternities before I heard Tom's tires crunching on the gravel again.

Jack H stepped out. Gingerly.  His right cheekbone around his eye was purple. Blood dripped from his left leg. He hobbled towards his car. Tom lifted the frame from the bed of his truck. The right side of the handle bar dangled from its cables, the carbon shattered.

"I was going down the steep part," he said. "And the bike started shimmying. It got worse and worse. I hit the brakes but I couldn't control it."

"How did we not see you?"

"I went over the rocks. I was curled up in a ball." He hadn't lost consciousness; he was sure of that.

"I was last. How did I not see you? Or your bike?"

"We were focused on the road," Tom said. "We weren't looking for dead bodies."

"How did I not see you?"

"I didn't move for a few minutes. I couldn't breathe. That was the scariest part. Another biker found me. He's a doctor. He helped me roll over." Most of the force had been taken by his left shoulder, and his lower back was sore.

"Let's see your helmet," Tom said. It was smashed on the left front side.

He assured us that he was fine to drive home, and promised he'd go straight to the hospital.

"Bring the helmet," Tom said.

"My head feels fine."

"Doesn't matter," I said. "You could wind up with a headache later, a subdural hematoma, and it's all over. Have them check your head. Want me to follow you back?"


We all peered at his brand new bike, now lying in pieces on the floor of his van. "Looks like a warranty replacement," Jack H said.

In the early evening, I called Jack H to see how he was. "I'm still at the hospital," he said. He was waiting for bloodwork results before an MRI. "I showed them the helmet, and, thanks to you, they put me in a neck brace." He wasn't feeling any worse than before, just mildly annoyed that things were taking so long. Jack H and I agreed that if we never descend Federal Twist again, that'll be just fine by us.

After six hours in the emergency room, he came home and emailed me and Tom. He'd been very lucky, the doctors told him; he'd only mildly fractured a lumbar vertebra. Whatever was going on in his shoulder would have to wait for his orthopedist visit. "See you next week on the ride. Maybe," he wrote.

Sure. I suggested a kiddie trailer hookup. "Sweet," he wrote. "I'll carry water bottles for all." We'll put the trailer on Ed's bike.

I'm still stuck on the part where none of us saw him lying in a ditch on the side of the road. I'm going to keep coming back to that for a long time.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Everywhere and Nowhere

Etra Lake

23 April 2016

Exercise addition for me dictates that riding with a chance of getting wet is better than staying home and doing nothing, or scrambling for a bike in a crowded Saturday morning spin class.

When Tom canceled his ride today, I had every intention of hitting the road. I perused the ride list and landed on Chris and Ron's Tri-County Cruise.  Ron said he was canceling.  Chris asked, "Are you willing to ride wet?"

"Always," I wrote back.

It was another sad Saturday for Freewheelers on Facebook, but not for me. I left the house under a slight drizzle at 8:45. A strong tailwind pushed me to Allentown. I got there early and took shelter under the eaves at Reed Recreation Park.

Chris didn't see me there at first; he went all the way to Gordon Road before doubling back. We were the only two to show up for the ride.

Bands of drizzle were passing through from the northeast. Chris headed that way, retracing my steps.

We went everywhere and nowhere, talking about everything and nothing. Politics. The Freewheel. Money. Land use. The gas mileage of short-haul trucks.

We didn't get wet.

We stopped at a tiny Wawa in East Windsor. We turned onto Route 33 for a quarter mile and stopped in at the Bicycle Rack, where I talked to the owner about my Colnago and Waterford. He attempted to impress us with what he thought was an old bike in for repair: a ten year old Coppi. Aluminum, though, with tube welds that looked like used chewing gum. Pah. Chris and I spent some time looking at chain rings, then headed towards Etra Park to use the bathrooms.

True to a Chris ride, we hopped onto the little bike path on the east side of the lake, followed it until it ended, then doubled back onto the road towards the park.

I checked the radar again. "We're in between bands," I said, and plotted a route that would get both of us closer to home at once.

We took the bike path past the lake towards Etra Road. We stopped to chat with a woman who was fishing off of the little bridge at the foot of the lake. "You meet the best people out here," she said. I looked out at the lake, glassy, a kayaker in the distance, and understood why fishing like this could be so peaceful. Still, I don't have that kind of patience. And I don't eat fish. We moved on.

By the time we got to Windsor Road, Chris had devised a plan to cut a hole in my dining room floor for a trap-door wine cellar, freeing up room for all of my bikes. He went left and I went right, both of us into a drizzle.

At Mercer County Park, I faced a headwind and blue sky. I had nearly 52 miles when I got home. Not bad for a rainy Saturday.

Here's the route, as close as I can remember. It's so Chris.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Hillsborough to Califon, and Rowlf is Good to Go

What the end of a ride looks like.

18 April 2016

The delay in this post has been brought to you by the May Freewheel. We now resume our regular programming.


I dragged Plain Jim, Jack H, Pete, and Chris from Hillsborough to Califon. The route begins near the Raritan's South Branch, has its halfway mark on the South Branch, and ends in the South Branch watershed, yet covers 57 miles without following the river for more than 2 miles at a time. This is possible because the river makes a large U through Hunterdon County. Between the arms of the U is a pile of hills. That's where we were headed.

Tom wanted to join us, but the rear wheel of his climbing bike had other ideas. His Synapse gets the Miss Piggy award for the day because, aside from normal cable stretch*, the new Miss Piggy has been rock solid for six months. Even the benign clunk in her bottom bracket is gone now that warmer weather has expanded the metal bits. 

We started off cold. It didn't take long for us to start peeling the layers. Chris, who had a handle bar pack, said he'd charge us a dollar per ounce per mile to carry our stuff. He didn't make any money on Saturday. We all had big pockets.

I didn't take any pictures until we got to Mill Road above Route 22. The black lumps are sleeping calves.

We went up Rockaway Road, past our favorite house. I was hoping for a grand display of spring bulbs, but spring was starting late in Tewksbury. All that was there were daffodils. I didn't stop this time.

I've been on Rockaway during the early spring months before. Usually, though, it's high summer or early fall. I'd never noticed the farmhouse through the trees by the little bridge where Rockaway Road ends in Mountainville:

There are several evil hills one can choose to get from Mountainville to Califon. Seeing as it was only April, I chose one of the easier routes: Cokesbury-Califon Road to Mountain Grove to Hoffman's Crossing. If I'd had my bitch on, I'd have led the guys up Philhower instead. You're welcome, Slugs.

After a long stop at the general store -- it was crowded and Jim found himself waiting for 15 minutes, but we won't hold it against them -- we had a long slog out of the valley to the top of Guinea Hollow Road. From there to the bottom of Rockaway was the better part of six miles downhill.

I stopped on Guinea Hollow to talk to a grazing cat who was sharing a field with a pair of donkeys.

The Rockaway Creek on Guinea Hollow Road:

The old mill at the bottom of Rockaway Road:

Although we'd all done some climbing already this season, we've had a few weeks of bad weekend weather between then and now. Ten miles from the end, my legs were finished. I reminded myself that this exhaustion was a good thing, and then I got my second wind in time for the final few flat miles.


Gearhead nerd alert! You've been warned.

Sean pulled up at 2:00 on Purple Haze, and I rolled out on Rowlf for a 30-mile recovery ride. Rowlf hadn't needed a new stem after all. Michael had looked it over and given me the all-clear on Friday.

I confused myself on the Campy levers within a quarter mile of my house. We were on the slow, shallow ascent of Bear Tavern Road when I finally hit on the mnemonic for shifting with Campy: Go big or go home. As in, the big lever gives me the big rings and the thumb thingy drops the chain down again. I'm now certain to screw up shifting on all my bikes. This is what happens after almost 16 years with Shimano. I'm sure Sean got a kick out of my running commentary as I fumbled through the gears. 

The feel of the Colnago Saronni Master with the wheels built to Michael's specifications is a surprisingly stiff and quick ride for such a heavy steel bike. I wouldn't take Rowlf into the Sourlands, given that I have four better choices, all with MTB gearing. Nonetheless, Sean led us up Route 518 to Hopewell from Harbourton, and then out of the valley on Carter Road. Now that I look at the route, there was more than a little climbing involved.

For long, shallow slogs, Rowlf is pretty good. With 11 cogs between 11 and 28 teeth, I'm able to shift to match my cadence in a way that I can't when I have to jump from 11 to 34 in 9 steps.  I did the ride with tired legs and no caffeine. Maybe this will be my recovery machine. 

(* I know, Jim. The cables don't stretch; the housing settles. "Stretch" scans better. When it comes down to writing or wrenching, I know which one I'm better at.)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hill Slugs Ad Hoc, Saturday, April 16

14 April 2016

Let's go to Califon.

Meet for a 9:00 a.m. start at Woodfield Park, at the Marshall Road entrance at the intersection with Amwell Road, in Hillsborough.

The route is 57 miles. If I can do it, you can do it.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Typical Tom Ride

Ridge Road near Vincentown, NJ

10 April 2016

Spring has decided to crawl back into bed, bending my daffodils, confusing my tulips, and pissing off ride leaders who'd rather not be watching snow fall this time of year.

Jack H appeared for Tom's postponed ride.  That's one sure sign of spring.  The other sign is when Chris shaves off his winter beard. He wasn't with us today, so I can't say for sure that it's truly spring.

Anyway, Tom led me, Jack H, and Jim into the Pinelands today. We had headwinds no matter which direction we faced. What we didn't have, which we usually do when Tom and I get south of Fort Dix, is rain.

As we turned onto Burrs Mill, the guys debated whether or not they're old. Jim insisted that, at their age, he and Jack qualify. Jack refused such categorization.  He and Jim chased each other for the rest of the ride the way my cats chase each other through the house.

Once upon a time, I think I knew what these flowers are called. I think they're mustard flowers, and if not exactly mustard, then mustard-adjacent.

After a rest stop at the only Wawa left in central NJ that hasn't been renovated, we headed towards Arney's Mount. Tom's plan was to take Birmingham Road. As we turned onto it, the road closing signs began.

"It's not closed," Tom said, as we rode on and on. Then we rounded a curve.


"There's that beam over there," Tom suggested.

"Oh, hell no," I declared.

I took some pictures of the Rancocas Creek while Tom consulted his GPS.

"There's a bike path," he said. It would keep us off of Route 530, which would be a good thing.

The trail looked like an old rail bed. For about a mile, we rode in hard-packed sand.

Yep, old rail bed.

Too bad Snakehead wasn't with us. He'd have loved the sand.

Too bad I don't have the Hill Slugs Waders Club punch cards anymore either. Today would have earned us two punches: one for the bridge and one for the sand.  We'll put it on Tom's tab.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Rowlf (Details)


9 April 2016

"Ride it to work tomorrow," Michael commanded as I wheeled Rowlf from the back of his shop. He'd done more than re-route the cables.

To the top tube cable guide, he added a zip-tie. This will keep the cable from sliding forward, which is good, because if it slides forward it pulls on the rear brake.

He didn't like how the cables were rubbing against the bottom, despite the brazed-on cable guides, so he slid the cables through Teflon tubes:

He decided that the bar tape would look best finished off in white. The front brake cable now sits safely between the shifter cables.

And, of course, the bloody Campy logo is now precisely where purists need it to be:

I had every intention of taking Beaker to work. It wasn't until I was putting my shoes on that I changed my mind.

I grabbed a couple of lights and the bell from Beaker, put them on Rowlf in a hurry, and set out.

Something didn't feel quite right. Was I too far forward? I felt scrunched and stretched at the same time. The curve of the bars put my hands in a strange position, the way they used to be before I rebuilt Gonzo.

I was pushing against a headwind in 32 degrees, wearing a full backpack. That certainly wasn't helping.

Along a flat stretch in the trees near the Stony Brook bridge, I experimented with hand positions. My hands wanted to be on the top of the bars. The reach to the grips was too far down.  That would be an easy fix. I could tilt the bars up in a matter of minutes. Our lab is a breeding ground for Allen wrenches.

My speed had suffered along with my position. When I got to the lab, I tilted the bars about 15 degrees up from where they'd been.

As soon as I started for home, I knew my position was much better. The wind had shifted; I wouldn't get a push home. Instead, I pushed.

Much better, but much worse. Now I could reach the grips, but I was far too bent over to keep my herniated L5-S1 in place. While Rowlf and I were tearing it up, I could feel my back being torn up too.  Rowlf, the Colnago Saronni Master, was my master. You shall fit me.

If I can't ride Rowlf for 7 miles, I can't ride Rowlf at all.  I wheeled Rowlf next to Beaker for comparison. I left a message with Michael as I did a round of PT on the floor:  "The bar needs to come up a couple of centimeters," I said. "Is it OK to do this?"  I had no idea how much stem was left inside the steer tube.

Once again, it was Jim to the rescue. Over email he described in detail just how much to loosen the stem screw when raising and then positioning the bar. It would be a quick and easy fix.

Wednesday morning, after taking Jack to the train station, I set about raising the stem. The first thing I did was confuse myself. The distance from the floor to the top of the bar was identical for Beaker and Rowlf. How could this be?

What about the grips?  That's where my hands usually are. Aha!

It's that damned curve in Rowlf's bar, and the dip in the grips, that's doing me in.

Loosen, raise, tighten, compare, adjust, tighten, measure, repeat. Good enough.

Much better!  I felt like myself again! No, Rowlf, I don't fit you. You fit me.  Off we went, with a tailwind, at a speed that matched what Beaker and I had been achieving on tailwind days.  We got home well too.

Rowlf is by far the heaviest of my road bikes, heavier than Gonzo fully loaded with lights and battery even. Yet, on flat roads, Rowlf feels lighter than Gonzo and Miss Piggy.  That's Italian craftsmanship for you.

Thursday was rainy. Michael called me back. As I walked from my car to the lab, we talked about Rowlf. "I had the bar up as far as it should go," he told me. "There's a line. It's hard to see."

"I didn't see it," I said, "But I wasn't looking for it."

As it was now, Rowlf was safe. Ish.

Michael already had  a new stem picked out. "We'll make it whole," he promised.

When I got home, I searched for the line. Sumbitch. I'd gone over by all of three millimeters. Three millimeters too far, Jim agreed.

On Friday, I took Beaker to work. Perfection.