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Hennessey Venom GT
Pinarello Dogma 2
Thing The First: The FLIZ
Thing The Second: The Kel-Tec KSG 12-Gauge Shotgun
- The Elliptigo has the aerodynamic precision of a dumpster (I almost compared it to the south end of a north-bound dump truck, but I guess there could be wind-cheating dump trucks somewhere in the world). The tiny wheels and inherent pedaling motion guarantee a workout in any conditions, but add a little headwind and you'll empathize with the Tour de France cyclists laboring up Alpe d'Huez.
- The bike is not well-suited for rough pavement, or unpaved trails. The aforementioned small wheels, high-pressure tires (100 psi), and stiff frame transmit every bump and hole to the rider. The bike feels solid for the most part, but it's not something you'd want to jump curbs with.
- I'd pay to see a circus act featuring someone skilled enough to ride an Elliptigo hands-free, because I don't think it can be done. The handling is plenty stable if you have a good grip on the bars, but "squirrelly" is an understated adjective for riding with one hand. The rake (or trail? I always get 'em confused) of the front fork combined with the exaggerated "pedaling" motion is such that you need to concentrate on what you're doing. Now, I'm sure this will be less of an issue with practice, but it's never going to disappear.
Not me. And not Midland.
- One important implication of the preceding observation is that a hydration pack is almost essential for rides long enough (or in hot enough weather) to require water. This assumes that you won't pull over for a drink...I've never seen anyone serious about exercising who's willing to do that. The act of extracting a water bottle from a cage with one hand, taking a drink, and returning it to the cage requires skill and balance that's beyond me, and I think I'm fairly competent in both areas. Plus, there's really no good place to mount a water bottle cage other than on the handlebar.
- I'm not sure whether I've dialed in the proper riding position; the user guide is so intent on warning you about all the ways you can die on the bike that it neglects to talk much about ergonomics. Although, really, there are only a couple of adjustments you can make: the position of the handlebars and their height. The latter is the more important of the two. I think the first time I went for a long ride, the handlebar height was too low and I experienced some back pain as a result. I raised the bars for the second ride and that helped.
- Did I mention that riding the Elliptigo provides a good workout? As in death-march-brutal-slog-cry-all-the-way-home good? Sure, you can coast (which turns out to be surprisingly uncomfortable until you find the sweet spot of body position relative to foot placement), but if you have only 30 minutes for a workout and you don't want to suffer through a boring indoor routine, this device will git 'er done. It stresses body parts that don't get much attention during regular cycling or running workouts, not to mention providing a powerful aerobic routine. [Disclosure: I've never been an aficionado of stationary elliptical trainers, so I didn't come to the Elliptigo with a relevant base of fitness. In other words, I have no muscle memory to help me; your mileage and/or pain threshold may vary.]
It does give one a deeper appreciation of what this guy is accomplishing:
- For what it's worth, I averaged about 13 mph for the two longer rides. Both were on fairly windy days, which is par for the course in our neck of the desert. I haven't mounted a computer on the bike, but the MapMyRide iPhone app does a great job of keeping track of the important stats.
The "Ride of Silence" will start at 7PM tonight, from the UTPB CEED Building at SH 191 & FM 1788. What do you think needs to be done to improve bicycle safety?
What is the upcharge for that option? Also, what is the lead time for building a Gulfstream with that option? We're planning to be in Colorado in mid-July and if the timing would work out, we could stop by and pick up the bike.
And, finally, what sort of deposit do you require?
Thanks for your help with these questions.
Watch for us on the road!
View more details regarding the Proposed Airpark Bike Path.
As you can imagine, lifting a 50 pound bike up and onto the carrier was quite a job. Fortunately, I was able to effectively supervise my wife as she did the job and I thought it worked quite well. OK, you got me...this was a two-person job, one of which I could never farm out to somebody else.
- I was reading the fifth chapter of Lamentations this morning (when's the last time you read the most depressing book of the Bible?) and a particular verse caught my attention. Now, keep in mind that Lamentations was written as just that...a book of mourning over the sad state of Israel, suffering God's judgment for the nation's willful sinfulness. Many, many bad things have happened to Israel, but verse four expresses dismay at one quite specific tragedy:
My, how things change. Or not.
- Today is the last time I have to give my father-in-law a daily injection of post-surgery blood thinner. I'm going to suggest that, given the level of shot-giving expertise I've developed, we celebrate the occasion by me doing it blindfolded. I'll let you know how that goes.
- We were discussing grapefruit at dinner last night (yes, our conversations represent the pinnacle of human intellectual endeavor) and everyone shared their family's peculiarities when it comes to eating that fruit. Some opted for salt; others, sugar. My family fell into the latter category, although I don't recall that we ate a lot of grapefruit when I was a child. But I remarked that we probably went the sugar route because Ruby Red grapefruit probably hadn't been invented at that time, and so the grapefruit we ate was overly tart. Well, I was wrong about that; according to Wikipedia, the Ruby Red was patented in 1929, and despite what you think, I'm not that old. But I do wonder whether any Ruby Reds ever found their way to Evans Grocery in Fort Stockton in the late '50s/early '60s.
- Let's talk bicycles for a bit, shall we? Below is a photo of what is by far the coolest recumbent I've seen in a while. It's manufactured by an Argentinian company called Hi-Bent and while its website doesn't have an English language option, it's easy enough to determine that the bike has an aluminum frame, front and rear disc brakes, and a unique front mono-fork. Cannondale has for years spec'd its Lefty mono-fork on its high-end mountain bikes, but I can't recall seeing this on a recumbent.
The other thing that caught my eye is the unusual construction of the rear frame (go to the Gallery and scroll across to bring up the rear detail). It appears that there's no wheel dropouts; the rear axle skewer must be completely removed in order remove the wheel. This seems excessively complex and I don't understand the benefits, but it's certainly a different look.
- And, finally, while we're on the subject of bikes, how would you go about introducing a new model called "the Diablo"? If you're the German manufacturer Neil Pryde, the answer involves setting the bike on fire...and then riding it. Makes perfect sense.
Call me when they come out with a tandem version.
Link via Cool Material
This Random Thursday post is going to be a little different than most, because I'm going to freestyle it, sort of like Kid Rock on the CMT Awards last night. Which, by the way, I didn't see because Debbie was off partying at the country club and didn't remind me about it, but I have viewed a few clips via the CMT website. I know most of you country music purists think that pairing Kid Rock and Hank Williams, Jr. is blasphemy, but it's stuff like that that keeps the genre commercially viable and allows the more traditional musicians to keep earning a living. That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. (Whatever happened to Collin Raye, anyway?)
Race Across America (RAAM - Motto: "Where'd that "M" Come From?") started this week (or continues to start...the women started on Tuesday, the men started yesterday, and the team race begins on Saturday). In case you're not familiar with it, RAAM is a bicycle race across...well, you know. People claim that the Tour de France is the world's toughest bike race, but I disagree. RAAM racers ride further than TDF riders, and they do it in days, not weeks. There are no rest days, no drafting, and no team support for the solo riders. Even the teams ride relay-style. The course features a horrifying 100,000 feet of climbing.
A couple of the solo women are riding recumbents. Barbara Butois hopes to be the first French woman to complete the race, and Sandy Earl is an American.
In honor of RAAM, let's check out a couple of cycling-related resources. There's something about the bicycle that makes people want to customize or improve on its style. I think it's the inherent simplicity of the basic form, and the direct connection between rider and vehicle that stirs the imagination. Here are two articles that showcase some beautiful and/or bizarre permutations.
I particularly like the model with the square wheels (in the second article), and also the bicycling monorail concept in the first article. Here's the demo video of the latter:
Here are some potential candidates.
- The Charge Plug Grinder meets the criterion of simplicity, with a rear hub that when mounted one direction is a single speed fixed gear and when reversed provides a single speed freewheel. You can also quickly remove the rear brake and cables to clean up the lines even more. Still, it's not the most stylish choice.
- The Firmstrong Urban Delux is a monstrous limo of a bike with a retro steel spring fork. I'm guessing it weighs about 80 pounds, and probably handles like a rhinoceros. But it oozes beach-cruiser style.
- Trek's District Carbon is an enigma. It costs almost four grand, weighs less than 16 pounds, and has high tech race-worthy features out the wazoo, like a handmade carbon fiber frame and 16-spoke aero wheels. But it's a single speed and sports a belt drive. (There is a cheaper sibling, the District, for a third of the cost, but its shiny aluminum frame doesn't match up.) This bike screams "richer than thou hipster."
- Then there's the Nirve Cannibal, a bike that meets all the criteria. It's a mixture of high tech (front disk brake) and retro-nasty (3" rear tire, chopper-style chromed fork, and in-your-face graphics). Too bad it's currently out-of-stock.
- And, finally, for comparison purposes there's the tried-and-true Electra Townie. Most of Electra's bikes look pretty much the same, and they're really too mass-produced to be eye-catching...unless you live in a city like Midland, Texas. However, with a rear derailleur, the bike doesn't meet the simplicity criterion.
I'd love to have the Trek but $3500 is a steep price to pay just to make a statement that most people wouldn't understand anyway. The Cannibal might be a bit too radical, and I've already got one bike that's 10 feet long so the Delux is redundant. The Plug Grinder is too utilitarian in appearance, and the Townie is a cliché.
Maybe I'll just stick with my 20-year-old Red Shred after all.
This nine minute movie was taken in the Netherlands, where cyclists are first class citizens. The bikes are called "velomobiles" - essentially recumbent trikes with full shells. I imagine they're wonderful in cold weather, but I'd hate to think about pedaling one very far in 100° summer heat (of course, to be fair, I'm not particularly fond of pedaling anything in triple digit heat).
This does make me contemplate the idea of putting a video camera on my bike to document my usual cycling route.
[Video from David Hembrow's "A View from the Cycle Path" blog; link via The Recumbent Blog]
And if we can't actually ride outside, yet, we can at least read about riding. Better yet, we can read about epic riding, the kind that takes a special type of obsession (don't confuse it with craziness; well, OK, if you insist) to pull off. The kind that causes an apparently otherwise sane woman to decide to ride from sea to shining sea on a recumbent bicycle, and not just ride, but race. As in, ride as hard as you can for as long as you can or until your front tire dips into one or the other of the oceans that's opposite from where you started, whichever comes first.
"Oh, there's no one who would do that sort of thing," I can hear you thinking. (Not really. We respect your thoughts here at the Gazette and would never - hardly ever - appropriate them for our own uses.) But you probably haven't heard of Sandy Earl, of Eugene, Oregon (State Motto: "Noah Was A Wimp"), an employee of Bike Friday (they make the cutest little bikes that you can fold up and put in your Hummer's glove box) and Officially Obsessed Person of the Recumbent Persuasion. Sandy is in training for the Race Across America (Event Motto: "Lose Weight on 14,000 Calories a Day!"; Event Sub-Motto: "Fudging Our Acronym Since 1982") which will take place in June. Her goal is to become the first woman to ride RAAM on a recumbent bicycle, and she's blogging about her preparations.
You don't have to be a cyclist to enjoy her journal. She's a very entertaining writer, and is approaching her upcoming
RAAM has always been a event of mythic proportions for me. I've never ridden more than 106 miles in one day (106 agonizing, demoralizing, hallucination-engendering miles, but that's another story), and I'm frankly in awe of anyone for whom that distance is a before-lunch training jaunt. Plus, my preferred bicycle is a recumbent so I can relate to the position if not the exertion. Anyway, some amazing stories of courage and achievement come out of every edition of RAAM, and I'm guessing that Sandy's will be added to that history this year. Give her some love, won't you?
- We don't live far from Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico, but I've never seen the bats emerge from or return to the caves. I'll bet you haven't either, at least not like this:
The flight of the bats was filmed using an infrared camera which tracked their movements via their body heat. Amazing footage. I've watched it closely, and out of a half million bats (unaudited, I suspect, but still) I saw not a single collision. Drivers in Houston's rush hour traffic should be so skilled. (Via Wired)
- From the sublime to the, um, not so. Here's how Terminator should have ended. (Via Geeks are Sexy)
- Wonder if Bruce Schneier knows about this?
- Peace Frog is a Japanese motorcycle shop (manufacturer? customizer? hard to tell) which has assembled what appears to be a Royal Enfield with an Indian badge. Gotta love the minimalism; I'd ride one.
- Speaking of bicycles (well, sort of) here's a lush new (to me) online-only cycling publication called The Ride (big honkin' PDF). It's mostly a series of one page essays written mostly by people unfamiliar to me, although Greg LeMond does recollect The Time Trial (surely you don't have to ask).
- On a less light-hearted note, I continue to be disappointed, if not downright disgusted, by the names appearing on the petition to have Roman Polanski released. Wonder how many of them would be OK with their 13-year-old daughters being raped? Ah, don't answer that.
- Last, and probably least, here's a list of 50 large corporations whose PR departments dropped the ball, social-media-wise, and allowed their names to fall victim to cyber-squatters. It's interesting that Chevron's fall-back name, @chevron_justinh, makes it sound like they've assigned their Twitter campaign to an HR intern. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.
The only surprise about this is that the author is apparently surprised, writing: When it comes to sharing the road with cars, many people seem to assume that such accidents are usually the cyclist's fault -- a result of reckless or aggressive riding.
Really? Perhaps he runs with a cycling crowd with a heightened feeling of invincibility or an enhanced death wish, but pretty much every bicyclist I know hits the road with the fear that it and its motorized occupants will hit back. In addition, that 90% figure stated above is probably accurate with respect to the accidents leading to cyclist deaths in our area. Many of them occurred on flat straight roads with no visibility issues; the drivers just veered over and struck the cyclists from behind.
Findings like these are all the more reason why a safe passing law is needed in Texas, especially if accompanied by an education campaign.
An interesting footnote to the study is the finding that the third leading cause of cyclist accidents in the study was from drivers opening their car doors in the path of the bicyclists. I find this interesting because I don't personally know of a local bicyclist who has experienced this. I guess it's a function of cycling in a heavy urban area with lots of on-the-street parking. On the other hand, I suspect that at least a few of these "accidents" were actually caused by frustrated drivers stuck in gridlock who noticed cyclists moving through the line of cars.
- Now, about that cover... is a post from the author of the book by the same name, and it deals with how the quite striking cover of his book came to be. The photo shown on the front cover depicts a book that has been soaked in water and the pages arranged into a striking organic shape. This technique is the brainchild of Houston-based photographer Cara Barer, who is quick to point out that no valuable books are harmed in the making of her pictures.
I feel compelled to note that my wife has at times created this effect by nodding off in the bathtub with book in hand.
- And speaking of bending paper to your will, check out these amazing origami creations by Won Park. Given the value of the dollar lately, this is as good a use as any for a bill.
- I'm a sucker for panoramic photography, because I can't figure out how to do it myself. Here's a great example, taken at Shoshone Point in the Grand Canyon National Park. If you have a fast internet connection and faster computer, click the "full screen" link to get the full vertigo-inducing effect.
- And, last but not least, I was happy to see that Texas Governor Rick Perry garnered Bicycling Magazine's "Wheelsucker of the Month" award for his veto of the Safe Passing bill at the end of the last legislative session. Perry claims to be a cyclist, and, indeed, recently injured himself during a ride, so you'd think he'd have more empathy. But he's a politician first and foremost, and thus can't be counted on to do the right thing. Anyway, BikeTexas, the state's cycling advocacy group, has an online petition urging passage of the bill (while simultaneously expressing displeasure at the veto). If you're a Texas cyclist, pedestrian, farm equipment operator, or "concerned motorist" (which should pretty much encompass all of us), please consider dropping by to sign the petition. It may not accomplish anything more than making me feel better, but this is, after all, all about me.
The more perceptive among you may also notice a large button on the right side of this page that links to the petition, in case you weren't able to read this far.
Link via Levi Leipheimer, who happens to be a pretty fair cyclist himself.
He's not the experts' odds-on favorite; his Astana teammate, Spaniard Alberto Contador, is favored along with last year's winner, Carlos Sastre. But Sastre at 34 is no spring chicken himself, and he doesn't have the team firepower that backs Contador. In fact, from the team perspective, Astana stands head and shoulders above the rest (despite questions as to whether the Kazakh team can meet its payroll). In addition to Armstrong and Contador, the team also has American Levi Leipheimer, who is podium-capable, if not an actual challenger for the yellow jersey.
It's never that simple, of course. Having too many powerful riders can be a problem as well as a blessing, especially if the talent comes with equally oversized egos. Team manager Johann Bruyneel will need to have superhuman diplomacy and nerves of steel to discern which of his stable is the rider most capable of overall victory, then somehow convince the rest of the team to buy into that premise. The Tour is unique in that regard: it's a team effort wrapped up in individual achievement...or vice versa. I never can decide. Why I do know is that at some point during the race, each teammate will be asked to sacrifice his own prospects of winning in order to help the Anointed One to victory. Most of us have never been asked to make that kind of professional sacrifice and so we can't imagine the psychological and emotional forces at play.
But back to Lance. I don't doubt that he's still got the competitive fire to do great things in the TDF. And despite his assertion that (1) he's a team player and (2) he's come out of retirement primarily to raise awareness for cancer research, he's still approaching the race like someone who intends to win it. He's spent the past week out on the actual course, riding the key stages as he does the tedious prep-work that sets elite riders apart from the peloton. It really comes down to whether his body will cooperate - and whether luck (or fate or God's blessing or whatever else that intangible force might be that makes your tires stick to the wet pavement when everyone else is going down, and keeps at bay the stomach bug that's decimating the rest of the pack, and stops that wobbly chain link from snapping until just over the finish line) is once again his friend.
Am I pulling for him? As a fellow Texan, I should say so. But not just because we share state citizenship. If the only reason you root for Lance to win the Tour de France one more time is the spirit embodied in this commercial, then that's plenty reason enough.
How significant is the Tour de France to its namesake country? On Bastille Day, that most French of all holidays, the only financial institution permitted to conduct business is the mobile bank that accompanies the bicycle race as it moves across Europe.
That's one of the many behind-the-scenes tidbits served by Martin Dugard in his chronicle of Lance Armstrong's quest for a record seventh Tour de France victory. Of course, there's little suspense, as we all know that Armstrong was successful, but Chasing Lance is about the journey, not the destination.
Dugard has authored a number of books about human achievement and adventure, and has written articles for magazines like Outside and Sports Illustrated. In Chasing Lance, he capitalizes on his securing of a coveted press pass to bring us an insider's look at the 2005 Tour de France, the race in which Lance Armstrong not only secured his place in the permanent lore of cycling but which was ostensibly his last competition as a profession racer.
Dugard has covered the Tour before, has followed Lance's career for years, and has a love for the sport and a deep appreciation for the challenges of riding in what is billed as the world's toughest competition. He also loves the country of France and has taken the time to study its history. (Don't be fooled by his name; while "Martin du Gard" is a French author who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1937, this Martin has not a drop of Gallic blood in his veins.)
He uses the descriptions of the historical significance of the towns through which the Tour traveled as context for the athletic drama being played out in the race itself. Each chapter is devoted to a stage of the race, with Dugard providing insight as to the individual and team strategies for attempting to master the difficult course. The Tour de France is replete with obscure traditions; it's also a masterpiece of modern logistical achievement as a veritable army travels more than 2,000 miles over the three week course of the race. Chasing Lance provides an entertaining education about the details of both aspects.
The pacing of the book mirrors that of the 2005 version of the race. The early and middle stages are where the heart of the battle for the yellow jersey (the symbol of the overall race leader) are played out, and that's where Dugard concentrates his attention. The strategy for the latter stages is generally centered around not making any mistakes, and there's rarely much drama in terms of the placement of the top riders. But there are still as many subplots playing out as riders in the race, and Dugard provides a look at some of those that might otherwise be overlooked, including some attention to the lantern rouge (the reference to "red lantern" coming from the light that hung from the caboose of a train), the term applied to the rider in last place. In 2005, that distinction belonged to Spaniard Iker Flores, who found no humiliation in his placement. After all, 34 other riders had either dropped out or fallen so far behind as to be disqualified from continung the race.
Dugard is well enough connected to have gotten an interview or two with The Man himself, as well as getting to spend time with other personalities well known to those who follow the Tour de France. The strength of the book comes from his access to those stories and insights, and to the fact that he covered the race from beginning to end, giving him the ability to put into overall context the daily drama (and, yes, even boredom) that played out on the road (and after the day's stage).
In the end, his attempt to equate cosmic significance to Armstrong's achivements borders on hero worship, but that's not to take away from those achievements or the effect they've had on people around the world...and especially other cancer survivors. And I don't fault Dugard for his enthusiasm for Lance, someone who, if not exactly a close friend, does at least have his cell phone number and has called him for a chat. I suspect that for any cycling fan - or for a fan of human endurance and achievement - that's pretty heady stuff.
If you're a TdF fan, this is a must-have book. Even if you're new to the sport or the race, Dugard's clear non-technical descriptions of the action and his human-oriented anecdotes make for an interesting and fast read.
Oh, and in case you're wondering...according to Dugard, Lance told him that he will not be racing again. Lance's explanation of why that's so provides the perfect epilogue for the book.
As always, I want to thank the good folks at the Online Marketing department of the Time Warner Book Group for providing a review copy of this book.
[Editor's Note: The following post is the longest by far of any published on the Gazette. At 4,000 words, it violates the most basic tenet of blogging: keep it short and to the point. I apologize in advance for imposing this endless travelogue upon you. Perhaps the photos that accompany it will ease some of the burden. Nevertheless, forewarned is forearmed!]
As I mentioned earlier, MLB and I spent a long Easter weekend in Fredericksburg, in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. It's been our tradition for the past two decades to participate in the Easter Hill Country Tour, a bicycling event alternately sponsored by the bike clubs in Fort Worth, Lubbock, Houston and San Antonio. This year's event was organized by the Fort Worth club.
Unlike many similar events, the EHCT is a self-paced event that allows for a lot of individual creativity in scheduling and participation. Routes of various lengths and difficulty are mapped out in advance for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You can generally choose from mileage that varies from 25 to 75 miles, with a century (100 mile ride) each Saturday thrown in for good measure. The Sunday rides are shorter...25-40 miles. However, you can also make up your own routes; there is a seemingly infinite number of combinations of backroads around Fredericksburg and Kerrville, and the fun is often in trying to come up with new variations that still allow you to enjoy the periodic rest stops (complete with food and drink and -- most important! -- Porta-Potties) that are placed along the "official" routes.
After more than 1,500 miles of biking through this countryside, we're pretty comfortable doing our own thing. In fact, we don't enjoy riding with large groups of people that much anyway. For one thing, pacing is problematic, and there are some associated hazards (watch any Tour de France video to get an idea). We usually arrive early and ride on Thursday, before the Tour begins. We'll then generally ride one of the organized routes (or a variation thereof) on Friday and Saturday. Depending on how we feel, and the weather conditions, we may or may not ride on Sunday morning before returning home.
This year, we rode with the Tour only one day, on Friday. We rode alone on Thursday and Saturday, and the weather kept us off the bike on Sunday. We ended up with just over 125 miles of riding. More about that in a moment.
The EHCT is actually based in Kerrville, which is about 22 miles south of Fredericksburg (hereafter referred to as "Fburg"). But we stay in a bed and breakfast just outside of Fburg that's so wonderful that we're willing to tolerate the drive to Kerrville as needed. Fortunately, in most years the Tour has one day of routes that all begin and end in Fburg, so that's one less car trip we have to make.
[Note: Hereafter, the thumbnail images are linked to larger versions of the photos...some are much larger, in case you're on dial-up. You can also click on the first image below and begin a photo tour without all my boring narrative if you wish. But you'll have to backtrack in order to return here, as there are no links leading back to the Gazette.]
The B&B (which shall remain nameless in order to protect our ability to get future reservations...it does not suffer from a dearth of business! ;-) is a couple of miles out of town and has about a quarter mile of riverfront along the Pedernales (see photo at right). It's got its own nature trail, and we've spotted deer, armadillo, rabbits, fox, snakes and turtles while wandering through it. You can sit on the screened-in back porch and watch the deer wander past in the morning and evening, or relax in an outdoor hot tub with the same view. It's a one-family B&B, so we have the run of the place to ourselves; the proprietors live in a separate house 100 yards distant. The breakfasts are hand-delivered each morning by the owners, and range from German pancakes with peach syrup, to poached eggs with bacon, to fresh fruit and yogurt parfaits. Yep, we really rough it.
We arrived mid-afternoon on Wednesday, following a drive of unsurpassed beauty. The wildflowers began appearing just south of Midland, and for the next 300 miles we were treated to a visual feast that only occurs in those infrequent years where copious spring rains combine with an early final freeze to bring out the best in the landscape.
What we viewed is essentially the legacy of one woman, Lady Bird Johnson, whose tireless campaign to beautify America beginning in the 60s still pays dividends to highway travelers across the nation. Texas has perhaps benefited the most, as one might expect given the Johnsons' roots in the Hill Country. The Texas Department of Transportation has an ongoing wildflower seeding program, and maintains a website providing up-to-the-minute reports on flower and foliage status across the state, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a native plant education and research facility located in Austin. Thanks to efforts from these organizations, one can view bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush and many other native wildflowers in a literal non-stop parade for hundreds of miles through Texas. (However, some believe that events -- natural and otherwise -- are conspiring against the continuation of this legacy.)
In any event, our drive to Fburg was wonderful. I insist on taking a route that most Midlanders eschew: I head south to Rankin, then on to Iraan, meeting up with I-10 just west of Sheffield. It's a slightly less direct route, and it puts us on the interstate for most of the trip. However, I really enjoy the drive from Rankin to Iraan because of the vastness of the scenery, and I'm always interested to see how the condition of the landscape compares with previous years. The windfarms atop the mesas west and north of Iraan are also pretty spectacular in their own right. The juxtaposition of the old energy sources (the 75+ year old Yates oil field, active but declining, provides Iraan with its raison d'Ítre) against the new (the hundreds of shining white wind turbines generating electricity 24/7/365 give area ranchers a new and badly needed source of revenue) is fascinating to consider.
We unloaded the bike and I got it ride-worthy while MLB unpacked and Abbye attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to make friends with the farm cat. Abbye is the epitome of eternal optimism. She's convinced that the cat will eventually become her best bud, given enough time and effort. The cat remains skeptical.
The weather forecast called for a cold front to move in on Saturday, with possible thunderstorms. We decided to do our long ride on Friday, and the wisdom of that decision was later confirmed. Before that, on Thursday, we headed out on our own to ride some of our favorite roads as a warm-up. We cycled through some densely wooded areas (see photo at left; as I was taking this photo, we were rocked by a blast from a nearby granite quarry...so much for a pastoral setting!) where we've spotted deer and wild turkey in the past. We didn't see any wildlife this trip as our midday arrival was not the best time to catch the critters out and about.
We broke out of the woods and into some cultivated pastureland, occupied by the obligatory herd of longhorn cattle (photo at right). We then headed back to town, making a side trip to the local bike shop to replace MLB's "hydration system" (water bottles are so old school). Total mileage for the day: about 30.
One thing we discovered was the coolness of MLB's Garmin Forerunner, which is a GPS you can wear like a sportswatch. I had bought it as a Christmas gift, thinking she'd primarily use it during her snow shoe outings and hikes, but we discovered that the altimeter and grade computation feature were perfect for cycling through the hills. There's something reassuring about knowing that the reason we're moving only four miles per hour up a hill is due to the fact that it's a 12% grade. I mean, we always knew that hill was steep, but now we knew how steep. (It was also interesting to learn that Midland's elevation is actually higher than Fburg's, and by a thousand feet, no less.)
My parents came into town that evening, completing another tradition where they join us for the weekend. In the past, they've pulled a camper and stayed at the beautiful Lady Bird Johnson (she's everywhere!) city park, but I think their camping days are now behind them. They stayed instead at a new hotel built on the grounds of the local airfield, and named, appropriately, The Hangar Hotel. It's very nice, and recommended if you can't get our B&B (which, of course, you can't). Dinner that night was German cuisine (Rind Roulade with pan fried potatos and sauerkraut for me) at Friedhelm's Bavarian Inn. One can't spend a weekend at Fburg without eating German food.
We were in a quandary concerning our Friday ride. If the weather report was to be believed, it was likely that we wouldn't be able to ride on Saturday afternoon, so we'd need to keep that day's route short. That seemed to call for a longer ride than usual on Friday. We had four choices of routes for Friday; the longest was about 75 miles and we knew we weren't adequately prepared for that (we'd been able to ride only about 150 miles this year thanks to bad weather and other schedule disruptions). The next longest ride was 62 miles (a metric century...100 kilometers), and that was probably at the outer edge of our capabilities. However, the shorter routes covered territory we'd ridden on Thursday and just didn't look that interesting.
The bad thing about the 62-miler is that it included what's known locally as the Willow City Loop. This loop is one of the most beautiful, treacherous and difficult courses in the area. It's beautiful because it has the most dense concentration of wildflowers -- primarily bluebonnets -- to be found in the area. It's treacherous because it has a number of blind curves and steep drops which are often made worse by sand on the road from recent rains (and, yes, it had rained recently). In fact, we'd had a bad experience on this route a few years back, when we were still riding our upright tandem. Coming down one of those steep hills, we hit a cattle guard and flatted both tires simultaneously. Fortunately, I was able to maintain control while we came to a shaky stop. We had to be trucked off the course, the first (and only) time that's happened to us. We had not only punctured both tubes but also ruined a tire, making an on-course repair impossible.
To compound that unnerving experience, we came to a halt just a few yards from a low water crossing where a short time before we arrived a cyclist had hit some sand and taken a nasty fall...nasty enough, in fact, to be awaiting the arrival of an ambulance. That served to intensified our shakiness from our near miss, as we saw how bad it could have been.
The treachery of the course is made worse during this time of the year by the non-stop vehicular traffic of flower-gawkers. People come from miles around to view the wildflowers, and, of course, their minds and eyes are not necessarily on the cyclists with whom they are presumably sharing the road.
I mentioned that the route is also difficult. Most of the terrain is gently rolling, but at the end there's a long and steep climb out of the canyon that completely destroys whatever goodwill has accrued from the beauty of the first part. And, to set the proper context, it should be noted that the end of the Willow City Loop comes with almost 30 miles left in the overall route, so you can't leave it all on that climb.
So, MLB wasn't crazy about the idea of re-visiting the route but she let me make the call and I decided we should go for it. The first part of the ride was uneventful, covering some of the same roads we traveled the day before, but in the opposite direction... a minor physical change that makes a world of perceptive difference. The weather was perfect... cool, mostly cloudless and nearly windless. The only disruption to our enjoyment was the long line in front of the Porta-John at the first rest stop. This was poor planning on someone's part; there should be at least two of those units at the first stop of the morning, for what should be obvious reasons.
If you look at the larger photo linked to the thumbnail above, you'll see the usual brightly colored, Lycra'd-up cycling crowd. MLB and I are drab dweebs compared to these folk: no Lycra, baggy shorts, cotton t-shirts...decidedly lo-tech apparel, in keeping with the usual recumbent rider's reputation as the geek of the cycling world. OTOH, you'll never overhear us complaining about aching shoulders, necks, backsides or hands, thanks to our relaxed riding positions, and we get to see the world around us as we ride, rather than staring at our front wheel or the pavement six feet ahead. Yeah, we're slower than the rest, but we like to think that we get superior sensory input, overall. (Although I sometimes wonder when we're still out on the course an hour after the others have loaded their bikes and headed for the hot tub!).
We pedaled onward, and at the end of a long downhill, we came to the start of the Willow City Loop. There were no surprises. The flowers were just as beautiful as advertised. At times we rode past such thick patches of bluebonnets that the air was heavily perfumed with their scent. The following photos are just a sampling of the scenery, and fail miserably in doing justice to reality.
Bluebonnets are, of course, the state flower of Texas, despite some early attempts to assign that honor to the cotton boll, of all things. There are actually five species of bluebonnet, all of which are designated as "State Flowers." Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal to dig up a bluebonnet (although there are often right-of-way restrictions on any such activity along public roadways).
The photo at right is one that really fails to convey the amazing display of wildflowers. The field in the background appears to the casual eye to be a nice pond or small lake, the blue water contrasting nicely with the surrounding green vegetation. Of course, in reality, this is a large stand of wildflowers...a literal "sea" of bluebonnets.
Most of the trees along this route are live oaks and mesquite. If there are any willows along this route, I missed 'em. (Willow City is actually a tiny hamlet -- the proverbial wide spot in the road -- at the beginning of the route; I'm sure it's overrun with willows.) Mesquites are the Rodney Dangerfields of the tree world, but I find them to be amazing and beautiful when allowed to assume something other than shrublike proportions.
In the photo at right, MLB consents to be a part of the tableau. Actually, that was a role we played throughout this part of the ride. The other side of the road was lined with people taking photos of the flowers, and more often than not their cameras swung around to us as we came upon them. After all, bluebonnets are a common sight, but how often do you see a tandem recumbent? And, at that point early in the ride, we were still somewhat photogenic, at least compared to the mewling, quivering, debilitated creatures we would soon become.
In this photo you can see rows of white flowers that formed a natural backdrop for the bluebonnets. MLB thought they were a mallow of some sort; she's much more knowledgeable than me about such things. They looked like weeds to me, but that's the general nature of most wildflowers anyway.
We rode deeper into the Loop and the terrain got more challenging. Through the pedals, I could feel MLB tensing up as we swooped into the draws and around the aforementioned blind curves, and I kept a close rein on our speed to reassure her. At one point we were passed by three young women who were obviously serious about their riding -- and their lycra. A couple of minutes later, we dove into a particularly nasty-looking curve and spotted some sand at the bottom. I braked well in advance and we eased through it, to find that one of the women who had just passed us wasn't quite as observant. She was stretched out across the road, bike on top of her and a nasty bruise already appearing along the entire length of one leg. Her partners were turning around and coming back to check on her. We asked if she needed help and she waved us on. It was a reminder of the consequences of inattention and/or bravado.
On we went, passing an endless stream of cars and motorcycles making the Loop in the opposite direction. That was a blessing...the bicycle route ran the opposite of that of most of the motor-driven vehicles, which greatly minimizes the chances of unfortunate encounters. But it still took some of the luster from the beauty of the surroundings.
It finally came time to climb out of the valley, and we could see clearly what lay ahead. I stopped to take a couple of pictures (and to try to summon some extra energy), then we made our slow way up the hill.
It might be edifying to understand what it's like to climb a really steep hill on a bicycle. Unless you have the legs and anaerobic threshold of Lance Armstrong, your climbing success will be directly proportional to your gearing. If you can gear down low enough to spin up the hill, even at very low speeds, you can likely climb any hill of reasonable gradient and length. Of course, the definition of "reasonable" will vary.
This applies to all bicycles, recumbent or upright. However, the advantage the latter holds over the former is that the rider can, as needed, stand up on the pedals and bring the whole body's weight to bear for additional power. This advantage can be significant.
The only glaring weakness of the recumbent riding position comes to the fore in these climbing situations. We have no choice but to use our legs and only our legs to spin up the hill. Standing up on the pedals is not an option. This particular hill was long...perhaps a half mile...and steep; the grade was 11-12% for much of the climb. We were undertrained, sweating profusely in the midday sun, and had the incredible pleasure of being passed at low speeds by a long string of Harleys going our direction. At one point, we were struggling to maintain four mph. It was torture...for me, anyway. Did I mention that MLB was just chattering away on the back of the back, describing the flowers on the side of the road and the view of the canyon below?
Without belaboring the point, let me just say that this was the closest I've come in over 15 years to hollering calfrope and getting off and walking the hill. We've ridden up Vail Pass from Vail, and that wasn't as painful as this climb. But, we made it, even as my legs started flirting with cramps.
The rest of the ride was almost anti-climactic, a blurred series of steep ups and downs that eventually led back to town. We ended the day with 67 miles, thanks to the fact that we were staying a couple of miles from the official starting point and elected to bicycle in rather than load the bike on the car and drive in. In hindsight, given our lack of training mileage coupled with the difficulty of the route, it was a very foolish thing for us to attempt. We perservered, however, and emerged exhausted but somehow gratified by the experience.
Dinner that night was at Pasta Bella, a competent little Italian restaurant just off the main drag in Fburg. I had a very good Veal Parmigiana (although, frankly, I'd have eaten boiled shoe leather by that time and enjoyed it), followed by homemade strawberry, peach and pecan ice cream at the Fredericksburg Bakery.
We awoke to heavily clouded skies on Saturday morning, and the weather forecast seemed confident in the mid-afternoon arrival of the cold front and rain. We elected to skip the rides originating in Kerrville, and set off on our own route, hoping to get in a couple of hours before the weather intruded.
I'll forego the excrutiating detail of the Saturday ride. It was much less demanding than the day before, and we covered some roads we'd never before seen, which is always fun. However, one downside of doing that kind of exploring is that you sometimes find yourself confronted with uncomfortable decisions about which way to turn, and during this ride we ended up traveling down a very busy State Highway 87 with no shoulder for about five miles before finding the bailout road that I knew existed...somewhere. "I'm sure it's just over this next hill...and around this next curve..."
In the meantime, the clouds got heavier and the winds calmer, and we couldn't help feeling that this was a sign of impending change. We came upon the water crossing shown in the photo at right and took that as a sign to turn around and head home, which we did, and without incident.
About an hour after getting back home, following 25 miles of riding, the calm came to an abrupt end as the front blew in, with gusty winds out of the north. An hour after that, the skies opened up and it rained...and rained...and rained. Other than an occasional lull while the front regrouped, it rained until we left for home mid-morning on Sunday. We had guessed right, and beat the weather. We hoped that no one got caught miles from home in the middle of the Kerrville rides when the front hit. Been there, done that, and it's no fun.
As soon as we finished our Saturday ride, I trekked down the nature trail a ways to get a photo of the tree shown at right. This gnarly oak tree is probably 100 years old, and I've always intended to take a picture and try to do something artsy with it. One variation of my Photoshopping is shown here (warning: the big image is really big). I tried to capture some of the inherently spooky quality of the tree with its moss-laden branches and Blair Witch Project-starkness.
Dinner that night was forgettable...a decent but not compelling chicken-fry at the Plateau Cafe. I would have preferred to drive to Kerrville to eat, but the weather had everyone skittish and we elected to stick close to home. Another bowl of that wonderful ice cream made up for the less-than-stellar meal.
Sunday morning came in wet and cold, and we loaded up in a steady drizzle. We ran in and out of rain all the way to Sheffield, with occasional sprinkles during the last 100 miles. We were out of bluebonnet country, but even the normally drab landscape just south of Midland was still yielding surprises. I'll leave you with this field of yellow flowers, set out for no apparent purpose other than to enthrall passers-by, in the middle of nowhere 40 miles south of home. I don't know the species of the flower, but we'll take all of it we can get every spring, since it means that God has again blessed our parched land with some life-giving rain.